Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Movies Revisited

When you only go to the theater 15 times in a year, writing a top 10 list seems like a waste of everyone's time. With that in mind, I prefer a yearly wrap-up ranking every new movie I saw from the absolute worst to the absolute best experience.

Re-read that last part - it's significant. These aren't necessary ranked from worst to best, but rather on how much I enjoyed them (or was moved or impressed, in some cases). It is subjective by design.

As always, I'm only considering geek films, which is pretty easy, since that represents the vast majority of what I watch (well, that and Christmas movies, but most of those are old, anyway). Beyond that... I'm getting a little fuzzy in how I define what I consider. In general, I only look at movies that received a wide theatrical release at some point in the past year. But... well... I may have had to bend that rule a bit this time.

At any rate, here's the list:

16. Amazing Spider-Man 2
This one was disappointing, though it certainly delivered a few cool elements. Electro's design looked good, and I'm glad they were willing to use a power set that differentiates him from every other villain we've seen in Spider-Man movies. Likewise there were some genuinely funny scenes. But for every minute that worked, there were two that didn't: between some baffling character choices and obnoxious plot directions, the movie left me more bored than entertained. Ultimately, though, the movie's success or failure needs to be measured against how well it tells its central story, and that - more than anything else - is where it falls short. The movie doesn't even seem to realize what that story is, and as a result it meanders between subplots before covering the death of Gwen Stacey as something of an afterthought. If it had managed to do Gwen's story justice, I'd have been willing to forgive the rest. But in failing that test, the movie fails as a whole.

15. Snowpiercer
I watched this just a few days ago on Netflix. It's one of the few times you'll hear me admit that the conceit of listing these in terms of personal preference hurts a film. If I were basing this on quality, it would be a minimum of three spots higher, probably more. However, I found myself agreeing with the Weinsteins on this one. If you're unfamiliar with the controversy, there was a massive fight over whether the movie should be cut for US audiences which resulted in it being delayed and the scale of the eventual release severely reduced (so much for that "wide US release" requirement). I hate siding with the producers, but it felt too long to me. The main points it was making weren't exactly subtle: I'm not sure we needed that much time to get them across. That said, it was brilliantly shot and constructed. But, in the end, I respect it more than I like it.

14. Maleficent
My feelings about this movie remain genuinely conflicted. Its largest issue hinges on its core contradiction: this is at once a complete re-imagining, yet it goes to great pains to retain its connections to the Disney classic. Watching it as a fan of Disney animation requires a great deal of cognitive dissonance. But I found it worth the effort. For all this movie's many faults, the central character is interesting, the visuals are cool, and the script contains some worthwhile observations about its source material.

13. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
It feels wrong dumping this so far from the top, but what can I say? Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy started strong, but the last two movies finally became what non-geeks claimed the other four were: inflated and drawn out. The Tauriel love story was painful to the end, and the supposedly-central friendship between Bilbo and Thorin, while cleverly mirroring the Sam/Frodo relationship, just didn't click right. It was fun and exciting, but in the end it felt like a pale imitation of Tolkien.

12. X-Men: Days of Future Past
This one's hard to rate. It feels more like a bridge than a movie: its entire purpose is to cut ties with past mistakes and establish a new series. This is actually something of a double-edged sword: while I'm glad to be rid of X-Men 3 and Origins: Wolverine, it's also means the events of X-Men 2 and last summer's The Wolverine are gone. I feel like the value of Days of Future Past is largely dependent on what comes next. Viewed as a stand-alone film, there's a lot of noise but not a great deal of content. The Quicksilver "Time in a Bottle" sequence was fantastic, and the future sequences were cool. The rest was solid, but not really memorable. I loved a lot about this movie, but I feel like the X-Men franchise has been fifteen years of build-up without much payoff. I'm ready for something big and exciting, and I'm hoping Age of Apocalypse delivers that.

11. The Lego Movie
This was, perhaps, a little overrated when it came out, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a great film. The movie was extremely clever and well-constructed, though the most important piece didn't fit together quite right. The real-world sequence was over-the-top and cheesy, when it needed to be heartfelt and believable. It was one bad judgement call in a film of inspired ideas. Fortunately, it didn't cause the film to crumble, but it left it seeming a bit tilted and uneven. Setting that aside, the movie was a lot of fun.

10. Godzilla
Okay. This placement is generous. If this were a true "best of", there's no way I could justify putting this so close to the top. The main character was trite, and the director's commitment to holding back the monster was unfortunate. In interviews, he's strongly implied that the audience wouldn't have been satisfied with scene after scene of monsters fighting: he's sorely mistaken. But despite these setbacks, the monster attacks and battles were amazing, the designs felt authentic to the source material, and Godzilla's character was spot-on. Sure, the soldier was boring, but I'd rather watch a Godzilla movie where the humans are dull and the monsters are awesome than the reverse.

9. Big Hero 6
This was a really good movie. The key scene, where Hiro's anger gets the best of him, is stunning and tragic, and the resolution to that sequence is just as good. The movie almost placed higher, but it's held back by its own constraints. This movie clearly wants to be The Avengers for kids, but it doesn't have the time or inclination to build up the other members of the team. Superhero teams need balance - that's a big part of why the Avengers worked. As a result, Big Hero 6 winds up delivering a story about a super-genius, his robot, and their four sidekicks. It's not a bad story, but it could have been something much better. If they'd been willing to drop a few of the minor characters and increase GoGo's part substantially, I think it could have had a shot at #1 on this list.

8. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance )
Easily the most bizarre movie up here, Birdman was also the hardest to place. I rank these according to preference rather than quality to sidestep issues with objectivity. But how the hell do I rank a brilliantly constructed movie that I can't decide how much I like? As I shift the film around in my head, my opinion oscillates from near the top of the list to a few rungs from the bottom. Considering the movie was trying to get into its audience's heads, that's certainly not a bad sign. It was absolutely engrossing and more fun than you'd expect from something this strange. Hell, I can't even commit to whether it's a work of brilliance or just weird for the sake of weird. My gut tells me this is the place for it, but I can easily imagine looking back and regretting not placing it at the absolute top. A lot of it will come down to how well it ages, and I can't even begin to speculate on that yet.

7. Dark Dungeons
As a rule, I don't include movies that lack a theatrical run. The resources low-budget filmmakers have at their disposal are far less substantial than those controlled by major studios, and the finished product is an entirely different type of work. All that said, I can't imagine a list of 2014 genre films that omits Dark Dungeons: this one's important. It's also a hell of a lot of fun. The cast is amazing: it's difficult to imagine a better representation of the characters from the tract. They deliver Chick's lines while walking a thin line between sincerity and campy humor, and the result is spectacular. JR Ralls's script follows the plot and spirit of the source material in a similar fashion. One gets the impression that, in addition to wringing every ounce of unintentional humor out of Chick's story, he also kind of loves it. The movie feels like a celebration of the tract that's at once ironic and sincere at the same time. It's absolutely the right approach for this project, and the final result is one of the most fun things I've seen in a long time. Until the ending shot, which is - rightly so - a little haunting.

6. Into the Woods
I've been mulling over where to put this on the list, and it hasn't been an easy choice. Into the Woods is really just a solid adaptation of an amazing musical. It got the casting right and managed to not screw anything up, but that's not a major accomplishment. But I'm not rating whether the director did a good job or not (though I actually think he did); I'm basing this on how much I liked the movie. And, even though it was largely because I really like the musical, I really liked this movie. I don't think anyone believes this is the best adaptation possible, and it's certainly unfortunate this was produced by a corporation with a financial interest in maintaining a simplistic narrative around princess stories. But that doesn't change the fact that the jokes still worked, the drama carried (most of) the weight it was supposed to, and the story made it through (mostly) unchanged. I had a great experience watching this.

5. Her
I'm counting this as 2014, even though it was technically released in 2013. The wide release didn't happen until after the new year, and I didn't see it until February, so it's going on the list. It was a cool movie, all things considered, though it was a bit slow in parts. Still, the tone was nothing sort of fascinating, and the movie explored vaster and more cerebral aspects of science fiction than film generally dares to touch. The love story was certainly the central plot, at least on the surface, but it's the emergent consciousness angle and theological implications that make it truly intriguing.

4. Edge of Tomorrow
I find it fascinating that Tom Cruise has become a liability in marketing movies. While he still has a few fans, the number of people who will avoid his movies seems to be far greater. It's not hard to understand why: his presence implies a film - particularly SF - will be poorly written and directed. But nothing could be farther from the truth this time: Edge of Tomorrow was one of the coolest, funniest action movies released this year. It's far better than Looper, and I'd even rate it higher than Inception. Fortunately, it'll hold up well on smaller screens, regardless of what they're calling it, so those of you who skipped it in the theater can still check it out.

3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
When I heard that the director from Rise of the Planet of the Apes wasn't coming back for the sequel, I wasn't happy. Wyatt managed to reboot a franchise the world was ready to leave behind in such a way to make it feel relevant and interesting: I didn't trust Reeves to fill his shoes. But after seeing Dawn, I can't imagine anyone seriously contending that the first film is the best in the series. This is a huge step forward in a franchise that was already exceeding all expectations. More than that, this was one had some serious weight to it. A disturbing and haunting look at clashing cultures and at moral complication, it honors the reach of the genre in ways few science fiction movies even attempt. And, once again, the motion-captured actors - Serkis in particular, but he's hardly alone here - offer performances that may be overlooked by their peers for the foreseeable future, but will likely represent the most influential style of acting for our generation. And don't even try to tell me that's hyperbolic: in fifty years, Serkis's work will be studied by film students to a greater degree than any other living actor.

2 and 1: TIE! Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy
I wouldn't normally do this. I generally consider it essential that these kinds of lists pick favorites - that's kind of the point, after all. But in this case, I'm making an exception. The reason is a bit complicated, though.

These two fantastic movies are so different, it's virtually impossible to compare them. That's not why I'm calling this a tie, but it's connected. If these movies lived in a vacuum, I wouldn't have put them this high. Actually, if it weren't for the existence of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, I think I'd have given the #1 spot to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

What these movies did that made them deserve this place was to not just occupy completely different sectors of the same shared Universe, but to dramatically expand that Universe in different directions. I don't just mean in terms of plot or setting: these two films introduced entirely new tones and genres to the Marvel Universe. They expanded the possibilities for where these movies could go.

Watching that happen twice in the same year exceeded any other experience I had in the theater this year. With that in mind, I can't see any other option but to name both Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy as the best geek movie of 2014.

This list isn't 100% complete, of course. Actually, I think it's closer to 75% complete, because - by my count - there were five major geek films released in 2014 I never got around to seeing (more if you count horror, but I don't really cover those here).

Of the five films I skipped, two are pretty universally disliked: Transformers: Age of Extinction and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I'm sure I'll get around to them eventually, but I don't anticipate regretting their exclusion. Likewise, while the reactions were a little more mixed, most people seemed ambivalent on Lucy (if not outright hostile). Unless I'm forgetting something, the only geek movies I didn't catch that were well received were How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mockingjay, Part 1. I wasn't particularly impressed with the first Dragon, but maybe the sequel will have more of an impact. I actually loved Catching Fire (it might have given The Wolverine a run for its money in the best of 2013 if I'd seen it earlier), but this one received more tepid reviews.

Overall, there were a lot of great films released in 2014, though we still haven't gotten something on the magnitude of The Avengers. I suspect the dwindling box-office returns are a symptom of that; the movie going public seems to want something truly big and exciting again. We should get that next year between Avengers 2 and Star Wars VII: here's hoping those meet expectations.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Movie Review: Into the Woods

If you've ever seen a performance (or even a recorded performance) of Into the Woods, your takeaway from this adaptation is likely going to hinge on your expectations. If you're looking for this to add anything of substance to the play, you're probably going to walk away disappointed. Likewise, you're not going to be happy if you're looking for a definitive adaptation. This is neither a perfect version nor a new version of Sondheim's musical.

However, they managed to make this without butchering the play, which is a hell of a lot more than anyone associated with Burton's Sweeney Todd can claim. In most cases, simply not screwing something up may sound like a low bar, but Sondheim's work seems to be extremely difficult to transition to film. In that respect, I think this should be considered a success.

It helps that, when you don't manage to do anything more than make a movie out of Sondheim, you're still left with Sondheim. The script, lyrics, and music are phenomenal, but this is old news. They just managed to get a cast together who could handle the material.

Again, a hell of lot more than I can say for Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd.

This isn't to say the director didn't successfully capture the tone of the story: for the most part, I think he did. But don't expect this to enhance the tone with movie magic: the effects are there - and they're solid - but Marshall doesn't pull off the kind of intensity he got from Chicago. To be fair, I don't think anyone could have.

Into the Woods was written around limitations in presenting special effects and visual marvels. These were always integral to the plot, but they couldn't very pull off modern computer effects in the 80's. Or, you know, on stage in front of a live audience.

As a result, Marshall was stuck having to put these things on film, but wasn't given a story which allowed him to explore them. He would either have had to deviate from the play and create subplots where these were central or stick with the play and have the effects come off as somewhat secondary. He went with the latter, and he deserves praise for the decision.

There are, of course, a handful of alterations made to this in order to adapt it for film. The majority of these were minor tweaks: changes to a song to reflect a new point of view, alterations to a scene to make it work, and shifts to play down sexual innuendo (I certainly can't fault them for this, given the age of Red Riding Hood). But there were a few more controversial transformations.

I won't rehash them here, but there were a couple minor characters pulled for obvious reasons and at least one death removed, almost certainly to placate Disney's marketing department. These alterations were certainly unwelcome, but they didn't do any real damage to the story as a whole.

Ultimately, my largest complaint was with the violence, which felt extremely timid. I certainly didn't need an R rating, but the death scenes were all toned down to the degree you weren't even sure they were killing a character. Until they were confirmed several scenes later, I actually thought Disney might have vetoed the two most devastating losses, just like they (presumably) nixed the death of one of their princesses. I think the movie could certainly have used a bit more teeth.

That said, it hit enough of the right notes to stand out as a solid adaptation. I wish a different production company had been behind this, but I was still happy with what Marshall and Disney managed to produce. It had to be a hard - and thankless - play to adapt, but the final product does the job.

I had a great time watching this in the theater, and think it stands out as a solid adaptation. Go in with that expectation, and there's a good chance you'll have a similar experience.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Movie Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

If you believe in the multiversal interpretation of quantum mechanics, it's difficult to imagine there isn't an alternate world where this movie's title is Batman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) where Michael Keaton simply plays a fictionalized version of himself. Same goes for Edward Norton, who could easily be playing a character with his name and background. Both actors are phenomenal, as is the rest of the cast.

The movie feels like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation thrown into a blender alongside some experimental theater and a bottle of gin. The final result is quite good, and - despite feeling a lot like a Charlie Kaufman piece - still surprisingly fresh. It's probably the gin, to be honest.

The majority of the movie is designed to feel like a single take. Of course, we all know it isn't, so this turns into a game of "spot the cut", which does keep you at arm's length from the narrative, but that was probably intentional. The movie doesn't break the fourth wall, but it certainly puts some cracks in it. It seems to want you aware that it's a movie, and - I suspect - it wants you to be thinking about who's in the cast and why. The three most significant characters are played by actors who were formerly in superhero movies, after all, with two being recast and the third killed off earlier this year.

The movie's point is a little harder to pin down. It almost seems to be satirizing the New York theater scene, blockbuster superhero movies, actors, and critics simultaneously. The movie is surprisingly ruthless in this regard: none of the main characters are what I'd describe as particularly likable, though you absolutely want to see more of them. Still, it's not clear how seriously these critiques were intended. I left the theater entirely unsure whether the director loves or hates his industry and colleagues.

Theater plays a much larger part of the movie's story line than I'd expected: really, the Bird/Batman aspect is background to the production of a fake play based on a real short story (hence the Adaptation angle). The movie often lives on the line between the show and backstage and explores the relationship between truth and fiction.

That's all fine and good - one viewer's pretentious is another's profound, and Birdman earns both labels. It's a bizarre and surreal film, a quirky dark comedy that's unsettling and hilarious. It's worth your time if you're looking for something to see. For a twisted existential piece, it's a lot of fun.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

When I reviewed Desolation of Smaug last year, I mentioned it felt more like it a prequel to Pirates of the Caribbean than Lord of the Rings. For better or worse, The Battle of the Five Armies continues this trend. It was more or less what I expected from a movie drawn from a small handful of chapters from a book that wasn't all that long to begin with.

To fill the time, Jackson expanded the battle sequences and played out the various subplots invented for this adaptation. Once again, Orlando Bloom spends a great deal of time on screen, though the real star here is the liberally applied make-up trying to create the illusion he's still in his twenties.

Likewise, Tauriel is given quite a lot of time. Unfortunately, they weren't as generous with her dialogue: Evangeline Lilly is saddled with the absolute worst lines used in any of Jackson's six Middle Earth films. Why does it hurt so much?

Ultimately, they could have excised Tauriel, Legolas, Bolg, and all the subplots revolving around them without losing anything of importance. If these movies were really about Bilbo and Thorin's friendship, why are we spending so much time on a completely unrelated and uninteresting story? It's particularly unfortunate given the fact that early opposition to Lilly's inclusion was inspired by sexism. I'd have loved to see Jackson and company humiliate those critics, but instead they almost look prescient.

Speaking of invented characters the movie would have been better without: Alfrid, Laketown's master's self-serving lackey, is given an oddly inflated role in this movie, more or less playing the character Kevin J. O'Connor portrayed in the Mummy. The comedy felt forced, mean-spirited, and even bordered on homophobic at one point. Plus, we never really got a resolution for his character. I don't know if there's a deleted scene showcasing his grisly end or if Jackson envisions him as Wormtogue's ancestor or something.

I suspect we'll see fan-edits of the series cutting these characters or at least reducing their roles. It doesn't seem like it would be that hard to edit them out: they barely interacted with the plot or main story line.

The movie certainly wasn't all bad, though. The White Council got a great scene where Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel finally got their due. If anything, that sequence felt a little short.

In addition, the fights were fun to watch, even if it often feels like we've seen them before. There's a pulpy energy to them that forgives at least some of the narrative missteps and inflated nature. For all my complaints, you'll note I'm comparing the last two Hobbit movies to Pirates of the Caribbean and not the Star Wars prequels: Jackson absolutely deserves credit for defaulting to a messy comedy/action tone that salvages the experience.

Still, it's unfortunate that we didn't get the trilogy we were hoping for. Looking back, it's hard not to wonder if Guillermo del Toro's movies might have avoided the pitfalls Jackson fell in.