Thursday, January 29, 2015

2014 Year in Review Part 3 - The Best Movies of 2014

Well Space Monkeys, it is now time to finally close the door on 2014.  Time for me to finally put out the Best Movies of 2014 list.  It was an interesting roller coaster of a year, lots of ups, just as many downs.  I wound up going to E3, I got to go to the New York Film Festival.  Blog posts hit a higher standard of quality than ever before.  But there have been post droughts, I spend the last year trying to find my voice and my purpose in life.  And unfortunately I am no closer.  So best thing to do is ignore my problems and focus on other people's problems.  Thus the magic of movies.

Every year I make one of these lists, and every year I have striven to make the list diverse and interesting.  However, most of the time the Top 10 or Top 15 or whatever number I come up with is essentially just the only great movies I saw all year.  If you read those lists, you read every single great movie I could think of.  2014 was different.  This year I saw more great movies than ever before.  This not only could have been a Top 20, it could have been a Top 30.  But in order to remain true to myself, I had to keep things limited.  There is a wealth of amazing movies in the world, too many for me to see, and far too many to fit on any arbitrary list.

Now as always, this is my list.  My opinions solely.  Therefore you may disagree.  The final ranking as to what made it on the list was what I felt was quality and genius for any reason.  Ultimately then I did not take into account certain other factors.  Like I did not do a count as to how many movies starred White males, how many took into account racial issues, and whatever other business people get mad about.  I did notice that four out of my fifteen films are animated, and you can read whatever immaturity you want into that.  Really all I care about is story, and quality of cinema.  If I am perpetuating cycles of inequality by liking a certain type of movie, I honestly do not care.  When there are movies this good, the world at large might as well not even matter.

Honorable Mentions:

"Jodorowsky's Dune"
"Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier"
"The Babadook"

The list after page break:

2014 Year in Review Part 2 - Unfinished Business and Accolades

Look, I know nobody cares about 2014 anymore. It has already faded away into myth and memory. But I didn't get a chance to talk about the year in depth, so we're doing it now.  This episode is two things 1) a quick review of six films that I never got a chance to review, and 2) my accolades for Best Performances, Best Trends, Most Entertaining Bad Movie, etc.  With a little bit of talk of the Oscar Race too.

Movies discussed in this episode, with their directors, are:

1. Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller
2. Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier
3. The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum
4. Enemy, Denis Villeneuve
5. The Normal Heart, Ryan Murphy
6. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Midnight, Ana Lily Amirpour

Accolades after page break:

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

American Sniper - The Fake Baby Movie Is Not Very Interesting

The worst reaction for a critic to have to a movie is "meh", when there just is not all that much to say about a movie.  My goal here is to get exciting and energized, making great analysis.  I should have some kind of strong reaction here or there, good or bad, and then prove my points with a series of convincing rhetorical, humorous asides, and brilliant insights.  Instead I feel nothing.  I'm numb I'm not sure if I even saw a movie or took novocaine/

"American Sniper" is a horrifically okay movie.  That is exactly what I have come to expect from gunslinger movie star turned director, Clint Eastwood in the latter stage of his career.  Crushing amounts of apathy is his primary style even since stopped making cowboy films.  Eastwood has spent this century making high-concept personal dramas.  Or to put it more cynically, sniffing around for Oscar Gold by making dull period pieces or "actor movies".  Take the dreary Award-stompers "Mystic River" or "Million Dollar Baby", or the actively miserable "J. Edgar".  The last movie that Eastwood has made that actually had a sense of personality about it was "Gran Torino".  Frankly Eastwood in his last decade of work does not even feel like a passionate director anymore.  His work is by the numbers Oscarbiat:  solid premise, strong central lead playing a fantastic character - do you really need to put in any more work?

Which leads me to wonder.  How am I supposed to get invested in this movie when it does not feel very invested in itself?  "American Sniper" is not really a movie about anything.  It is a drama based on the life of real-life sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a veteran of the Iraq War who became the deadliest sniper in American history.  Kyle is a plain old American patriot - loyal to his brothers in arms, fearless, and apparently beyond all issues of politics.  Eastwood attempts to create in "American Sniper" a classical hero tale, after a career of deconstructing that very concept in films like "High Plains Drifter" and "Unforgiven".  No wonder it feels so hollow.  "American Sniper" is the first attempt at an apolitical movie on the Iraq War, simply about men on the ground and their families.  Eastwood winds up making a movie without greater context, and unfortunately, without much other than a single very good Bradley Cooper performance.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Into the Woods - Not the Disney Movie You Were Expecting

Disney probably should have thought twice before adapting "Into the Woods".  This is a company that has built it's entire reputation on family-friendly adaptations of fairy tales.  When you think Disney, you think of loopy cursive font, beautiful pure princesses, and happy simple endings.  "Into the Woods" is a deconstruction of all of those things.  Stephen Sondheim essentially wrote an anti-Disney musical.  True Love does not exist, endings are never simple, Prince Charming is a prick, and the Wicked Witch is the voice of reason.  This is a dark show.  What on Earth is it doing being rated PG and being sold as family-friendly entertainment?

On the surface one can see what Disney was thinking:  "musical, fairy tales, princesses, this is our genre!"  The plot of "Into the Woods" is what happens if somebody takes a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales, puts it in a blender, then tapes the book back together, mixing the stories up into random order.  Then a depressed nicotine-addicted misanthrope finishes the story with a bizarre coda.  Since blockbusters based on fairy tales are inexplicably popular among studios lately, one can describe "Into the Woods" as a crossover of "Red Riding Hood", "Jack the Giant Slayer", "Tangled", and Disney's own upcoming "Cinderella" in one giant movie.  I can almost feel the heat coming off a studio exec's genitals as they imagine the profits.  That being said, either the Disney corporation is run by true lovers of American theater or none of them have ever actually seen "Into the Woods", because they really should know better.

Because it is bitter and dark, I happen to be a fan of "Into the Woods" (full disclosure, after all).  Soundheim wrote a difficult, complex musical, full of well-developed characters and ambiguous morals.  It is not the usual kind of Broadway fair that gets adapted into films:  either song and dance fun like director Rob Marshall's earlier "Chicago" or romantic period pieces like "Les Miserables".  Live-action musicals in the 20th century are always a gamble.  None more so than a morally ambiguous show breaking the rules of childhood fantasy to create a nightmare out of bedtime stories.  "Into the Woods"'s metafictional disturbing moments moments are toned down weakening the tone of the film.   Yet despite sacrifices, Marshall creates a quality love letter to Sondheim.

Friday, January 23, 2015

2014 Year in Review Part 1 - The Worst Movies of 2014

New Freelancin'!  Two more will be coming up over the weekend, as I begin my grand epic trilogy of 2014 Posts.  Yes, it is nearly February, yes I am late.  Whatever agony my shame of missing deadlines might be can hardly compare to the agony of the films below:

Here is the list, for those too dull to listen to the video:

10. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - Peter Jackson
9. Transcendence - Wally Pfister
8. America: the Movie - Dinesh D'souza
7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Jonathan Liebesman
6. Jauja - Lisandro Alonso
5. Pompeii - Paul W. S. Anderson
4. Altus Shrugged Part III: Why is John Galt? - J. James Manera (some random dude)
3. God's Not Dead - Harold Cronk
2. Vampire Academy - Mark Waters
1. Left Behind - Some Asshole

So there. I saw a lot of really bad movies last year for your entertainment. And I have no regrets (other than Jauja, nobody ever heard of it and it still sucked). Hope you enjoy me suffering to what may be even worse films in 2015! Thanks for a great year, Space Monkeys.

2014 Accolades are coming next, followed by the big one - Best Movies of 2015.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Selma - A Great Film an Imperfect World Deserves

We do not often speak of people this way, but there are American Saints.  These are figures so beloved, so important to our history, that they become semi-divine.  They are legends beyond reproach, not real people with petty terrestrial concerns.  According to my count, there are six such icons.  Four are Presidents:  Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan.  But one stands alone, a man who never took elected office, but still has his own individual Saint Day in January.  That man is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the greatest figure of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s.

As for the sixth American Saint?  Elvis Presley.  But he's not in this movie.

One cannot envy the task that "Selma" has given itself:  to make a human portrait of Martin Luther King.  Biopics are typically beloved fair of Oscarbait, but they are always tricky movies to make.  Few lives add up in total to a single dramatic formula that fits a two hour movie.  The worst-structured biopics end up meandering and often boring.  For example:  the otherwise brilliant "Mr. Turner".  These problems are multiplied infinitely when your figure is an  irreproachable member of the modern Pantheon, more sacred than most actual divinities in this country*.  "Selma"'s solution is as brilliant as it is simple:  do not be a biopic.  Focus on a single moment in time and make your figures merely actors in a grand historic play.

"Selma" borrows much of it's structure from "Lincoln" - be a drama about a single battle in your hero's life, not a drama about his entire life.  This film is only about the 1964 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.  King orchestrated protestors to strike at the very bastion of White supremacy, forcing the US government to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  "Selma" goes somewhat further than "Lincoln".  It is not a story about one civil rights leader, but a tale about the entire movement, with MLK merely being the appointed star.  King (David Oyelowo), fresh with a Noble Peace Prize, uses the Selma march to convince a relunctant President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to side with him against Southern tyranny.  "Selma" manages to juggle reverence with drama, building a tight, intense, and emotional movie giving a clear, modern picture into one of the most difficult chapters of American history.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Dear White People - We're Still Here, America

PSA: This review has been written by a White American male.  I am a creature with the highest level of privilege in the entire world.  Feel free to ignore my opinion and anything I say involving race relations.

2014 was not exactly a great year for White-Black relations in America.  People who called the election of Barack Obama following a relatively quiet decade at the start of the 21st century 'the end to racism' are so clearly wrong.  It was not that racism went away or that racial divides suddenly healed because one man got one job, it was just that other issues took center stage.  The honest racists or dishonest manipulative race-baiting politicians of this country had plenty on their plate what with Jihadist Terrorism and the immigration debate.  I do not think anybody actually believed racial divisions were over, they just wanted to stop thinking about the issue.

The End of Racism is not so much a moment of true harmony and equality, just a moment when those in power can say "There, Black people, haven't we given you enough now? Can you finally be quiet?  Can we stop talking about this race issue?"  Well, as riots in Furguson and protests in New York tell us, race is not over.  It will never really be over.

"Dear White People" is a movie I really wish was much better than it is.  The title evokes a wake-up call to every White person who nicely decided that they had done enough in their lives when it came to Black culture, or ones who never cared at all to try.  "Dear White People - we still exist, we still have problems, and just because you don't wear a white bedsheet or vote Republican, you are not innocent.  And no, crying home alone while watching your Redbox rental of "12 Years a Slave" is not enough."  It is the story of four Black youths living in the fictional Ivy League school, Winchester University, taking stock of their racial identity and difficulties of growing up.  "Dear White People" has a great deal of important things to say, but unfortunately needs just a bit stronger structure, more biting humor, to actually get people to listen.  It has a sharp edge, but this blade just cannot cut deep enough.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Whiplash - Sadist Bebop

A mentor can be the best person in your life, or the worst.  If they're the latter, you're in for some very bad years.  This is the pedagogy of pain.  Even now I'm sure you can remember that one teacher, coach, or Bar Mitzvah-prepping rabbi who truly infuriated you like nobody else ever can again.  They pushed you more than was fair, beat you down, and seemed to enjoy it, the sick-os.  There is a method to this tough love, and maybe the cruel mentor is actually brilliant teacher who pushes out of love.  You can thrive, coming out stronger than ever thanks to being pushed beyond your limits.  Hell, you might even come to thank them for their punishment.  Then again, they could be pushing just for the sake of pushing.  Pushing to knock you down and indulge in your tears of failure.

"Whiplash" dances enigmatically across the motives of a cruel mentor.  It is the story of an ambitious young music student, Andrew (Miles Teller), who falls right into the hands of the most brutal conductor in New York City - probably also the world.  That man is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a name that rings with fear and respect across the halls of the fictional Shaffer Conservatory.  Andrew sees Fletcher as his ticket to stardom, the one figure he needs to convince of his greatness who can then convince the world.  He wants so badly to be noticed, even if in the worst ways, that he seems wicked taskmaster as the best guide to greatness.  However, Fletcher's own reasons for thrashing Andrew's body and soul may not be quite so benevolent.  In a film about really only two characters and a drumset, "Whiplash" creates a stirring and thrilling collision of two characters in a very warped non-sexual courtship.

If you thought Amazing Amy from "Gone Girl" was the most manipulative character of 2014, then obviously you have not yet seen "Whiplash".  J.K. Simmons steps into this movie completely bald, lanky but with clear muscle tone.  He can bark and scream and belittle like the best of R.L. Ermey's "Full Metal Jacket" monologues.  If you're gay, he'll torture you for sleeping with men.  If you're Irish, he'll torture you for having red hair.  Hilarious stuff to watch, probably not very nice to be the victim of.  His tight elderly skin stretches and warps as Fletcher warps between human and demon, breaking his students into dust.  However, it is not the screaming you need to watch out for.  It's the moment he's not screaming, the moment he tries to be your pal.  That's when he finds the weapons to truly smash you into nothing.  Give me him a little trust, just a hint of your psychology, and he'll betray you to stab right where it hurts most.  It is a tremendous character at the heart of a great movie, well deserving of it's Best Picture nomination today*.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Gambler - How Cool is Too Cool?

Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is cool.  He dresses cool, he acts cool, he wears cool sunglasses, he sits under the sun in a sissy umbrella cool, he asks dating advice from random Mexican ladies on parkbenches cool.  As a professor he makes nihilistic arrogant speeches to his literature class, dashing their dreams and their foolishness to even try.  He dumps incredible fortunes for the empty thrill of it cool.  And even after proving himself to be a paramount asshole, Bennett remains chill.  So cool in fact, he freezes into a dangerous Wahlberg iceberg, threatening to smash his movie into the brink.  "The Gambler" is so enthralled with how cool its star can be, it actually forgets to explore the character.

Somewhere within "The Gamber"'s DNA is a sleazy 1970s-style antihero flick about a man who has everything, looks cool while having everything, and then meaninglessly tears it out down just for the Hell of it.  Those pieces lie in the original James Toback film from 1974 starring James Caan*.  Marky Mark's character begins the film marching into an underground gambling den, blowing several hundred thousand dollars on a ridiculous bet on blackjack.  Then he borrows another forty thousand dollars and blows it just as quickly.  Bennett's demeanor obviously shows he is too cool for the entire world - too relaxed to care that he has entrapped himself into monstrous debts with ruthless crime lords that he could never hope to pay off, and too calm to care what happens to him.  One starts to wonder:  is there anything beneath the chill?  Are there eyes underneath the sunglasses capable of weeping?  Is there really a person below that messy "Boogie Nights" haircut?  Or is it all just a very fashionable prop?

"The Gambler" is a movie with style.  It's well-shot, it's fantastically acted, and importantly, it carries it's story with an original wit and energy.  There are wonderful performances across the board from a selection of fantastic actors, relishing their moment to play viscous mobsters and give grand Shakespearean speeches.  Director Rupert Wyatt sets a strange darkly humorous tone to the entire affair.  From the use of entirely diegetic musical score (many in-jokes are made about the source of songs being car radios or choir practices) to brilliant use of montage and color, "The Gambler" feels like a movie with it's own identity and refined tastes.   It is all rather compelling on the surface.  What we have here is a near-triumph of style over substance, but still ultimately not dramatic or human enough to be a truly great film.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Tale of Princess Kaguya - Sublime Beyond Words

Studio Ghibli in "The Tale of Princess Kaguya" takes a new direction in both story and animation style and adapts a traditional Japanese folktale.  Disney movies have been inspired by fairy tales for generations now, adding cute animals and happy endings to what were actually often very dark stories.  "The Little Mermaid"'s title character in the original Hans Christian Andersen tale dies alone and ignored by her dashing Prince.  In the Disney version Ariel has a happy wedding under a rainbow, with a reprise of 'Part of Your World'.  Studio Ghibli does not hide from the ending of it's source material, 'The Bamboo-Cutter's Tale'.  It uses the tragedy of the ending of its source material to take a particularly Ghibli statement.

The director of "The Tale of Princess Kaguya" is Isao Takahata, one of the two great directors in the Ghibli house.  This will probably be Takahata's final film, considering he has not directed since 1999's "My Neighbor's the Yamadas".  Seventy-nine year old directors do not have many more projects left in them that take eight years to be completed, such as "Princess Kaguya".  Takahata previously directed the classic "Grave of the Fireflies", a movie about two war orphans starving to death in the ruins of Hiroshima.  The question is:  how could a movie about a magical princess from the Moon be just as depressing, if not more so?

The art style of "Kaguya-hime" is based on traditional Japanese painting, kakemono scrolls.  There is a very exact use of delicate lines, never quite covering every object they represent.  Most eyes of characters are a single brushstroke, unless they are the Princess herself, who gets fuller anime eyes.  Watercolor-esque colors are used for most of the film, besides more energetic scenes which appear to be made from more abstract black and white charcoal.  (These are the very same aims and techniques of the video game, "Okami";s art-style.)  Much like the paintings of Ghibli's inspiration, "Princess Kaguya" is deceptively simple:  there is a sophisticated use of negative space between many of the objects in landscapes, giving the film a unique look.  Much as it's artwork, "Princess Kaguya" itself is far more than it seems.  On the surface it is just a fairy tale, but it is in fact a highly complex story of growing up, the dissatisfaction of human life, and the beauty of our human suffering.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

January 2015 Look Ahead

BH is back.  Posts are now flowing at a nice almost-schedule pace.  I think it is time to resurrect an old series, the "Look Ahead" posts.  I guess bringing this thing back is more or less my 2015 New Years resolution.  Links to the trailers are provided if some reason you mistrust my snap judgment.

Unfortunately the first month of every year is January.  January is the shithole season of the film calendar, when the leftovers of the explosive month of December and high-minded Oscarbait choke out Hollywood's usual garbage.  Movies that get released in this month do so only because there is virtually no serious competition.  This means that you are paying money to watch things that are just barely above "straight-to-Redbox" fair.  We will just have to hold each other through this dark period and hope for the best, while knowing that everything is going to suck.

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (January 2nd) - It is the height of the London blitz in WWII, so small easily-scared children must be evacuated to a haunted house in the middle of a godforsaken swamp.  The original "the Woman in Black" was an average horror film starring Daniel Radcliff of whose existence I completely forgot.  I guess some people remembered it because it is getting a sequel.
--Chances to be Good:  0%.  It's a January horror release.  I'm a realist about these things.