FILM VIEW 2014

1 Mar

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The Interview Sook

The Never-ending Press Junket   

With Seth Rogen and James Franco the tusks at the head of this heavily debated project, the floppy ears slapstick nature we’ve grown accustomed to by Rogen and his creative bud Evan Goldberg, a heaving trunk violent conclusion that symptomatic of cliché writing that defines mainstream releases and a curly tail cutesy performance by Diana Bang as Sook, the elephant in the room when it comes to media this past year is  The Interview. Sony pulling the highly anticipated film from it’s Christmas release because of a terrorist threat supposedly by the North Korean government in response to the fact the trailer makes lite of killing that country’s leader sent shockwaves through the entertainment community. Because the Asian market is vital to studio interests and in 2014  we get all our information on the interweb, the hack of the studios execs emails exposing embarrassing and off-color remarks about stars gave a little insight into the wheeling and dealing inside the studio system and resulted in higher-ups being let go. The fallout from the cyber terrorism had president Obama weigh in on the poorly reviewed, funny in spots Rogen and Franco run of the mill yuck-fest that finally got a limited release and was available for streaming. The back and forth on freedom of expression has the film on course to become synonymous with that issue the way 2 Live Crew was with Parental Advisory warnings on CD jewel cases before iTunes in days of yore. Aside from that controversy the years releases like an iPhone roll out wasn’t anything special; Marvel spearheaded the summer blockbusters as Guardians of the Galaxy exceeded expectations doing boffo box office, along with franchise pap, rote romcoms and animated stuffs for the entire family which accounted for the bulk of the year’s receipts. Franchiseitos was infectious worldwide and that international revenue kept the studios afloat; The Hobbit finally closed out the JRR Tolkien sagas giving birth to first installment YM fare Divergent, while The Hunger Games in a first of a two-part trilogy conclusion a la Twilight’s wrap-up milking it for all it’s worth. Another mindless Transformers noisefest racked up a billion worldwide so Michael Bay can satisfy his invoice with the devil. Tent pole release How To Train Your Dragon 2 scored big again and fanboy comic book stuff X Men, Spidey and Capt. along with the second chapter of the Planet of the Apes franchise made for seven of the top 10 grossing films of the year.

Heavy hitters Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher and the anointed Wes Anderson came out swinging  this year and their efforts yielded interesting results. These top shelf directors collectively gave us eye-catching scenes, intense performances and trademark visuals to satisfy cinephiles and audiences alike. One can expect nothing less from this caliber of storyteller. Each fell short of the fences this at bat, though they added interesting entries to their respective filmography.

That being said the prestige offerings at the end of the year  varied, awards and acclaim split critics where there is a consensus as scribes march lockstep when it comes to those things. Some mention of the historical facts in one film in particular garnered backlash and speculation that could have cost the picture coveted nominations. There were a number of movies based on real life events and the accuracy of several were brought into question. I don’t understand what all the brouhaha is all about when just two years ago a major release about Lincoln passing the amendment to end slavery had no Frederick Douglass in it’s cast, at least LBJ is featured in Selma. The British invasion on the acting front defined the nominees this awards season; Eddie, Benedict, Ralph, Tim for the guys, Rosamond, Mia and Felicity ditto when it comes to nods for the ladies. While Sienna is an American wife to Bradley in American Sniper and Mark in Foxcatcher, two of the most highly regarded films this year. With David in Selma the Brits were well represented. And my fav Emily opposite Tom in Doug Liman’s engaging sci-fi romp Edge of Tomorrow. Films up for the big prize by the Academy this time around aren’t bad but certainly not good enough for consideration for film of the year. Each motion picture problematic in their own right, even with things that can be taken away obvious craftsmanship is evident, still none are defining works that advance cinema’s esthetic. Of the eight pictures nominated I question the distinction afforded half the field (not naming any names). I thought when the number of nominees were increased to include works that rightfully deserved the recognition that was fair. In the same vain if there are only three or four worthy, just nominate those few, it only makes sense. To keep praising one note films may be good for business to have that blurb in adverts but it is deceiving to the viewing public. A superb cast do not a film make, just my two cents.

 

1. A Most Violent Year

Three films to date for writer director JC Chandor and it’s clear that  he prefers for his stories to exist in as real a setting possible. With him there is no hyperbole to the work, no melodrama per say, tension is not expressed with the requisite “gunplay” or action set pieces. The dramatic turns driving the plot consist of heightened narratives and verbal confrontations that inflict as much pain as any bullet. Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks and all the players are to be commended for their fine performances. This corruption power play yarn set in the eighties is a joy for anyone who grew up  on the films of Bob Rafelson and Sidney Lumet like I have. Isaac’s star continues to rise, I dare say he channels Pacino in The Godfather Part II as his character makes alliances and works with his attorney played by Brooks to keep needed parties in the fold. Chastain done up like Michelle Pfeiffer circa Scarface does a spot on pistol toting Lady Macbeth. Much of what is up on the screen has been done before but to Chandor’s credit the execution is flawless. And to the comments of not enough action or the payoff being weak, then check out the latest Keanu Reeves flick that racks up an idiotic body count, this is a movie for grownups.

2. Birdman

Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman bristles and pops like an anti 8 1/2 by Fellini with the froth intensity of  Cassavetes inspired performances by all concerned. The frantic goings on backstage of The Saint James Theater captured by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki of the cast is reminiscent of a naval crew aboard a submarine. Keaton’s character Riggan can’t seem to distance himself from Birdman the character from the superhero franchise he walked away from and whose voice is constantly in his head. We watch his life implode as he starts to slowly unravel in the midst of the chaos surrounding the previews of his Raymond Carver adaptation he is directing and starring in. The My Favorite Year premise of the movie star cast out from Hollywood seeking redemption on the Broadway stage is a highwire act in one take that induces a euphoria for the viewer. You will delight in Riggan being stymied by Ed Norton’s New York actor unpredictable behavior as they literally duke it out over their creative differences.  Michael Keaton gets the comeback award for an actor in a lead role hands down. He puts it all on the line like a man who has nothing to lose and in doing so all are treated to a career defining performance worthy of everyone involved in the film.

3. The Double

Surreal and satirical, I find it hilarious watching Jesse Eisenberg tormented by his doppelgänger in this story of a nebbish who’s new co-worker, the charmer in the next cubicle is physically his exact double. I commend Eisenberg for being able to realize each individual character so convincingly.  We watch love-struck Simon James resist being taken over by his charismatic, manipulative other self James Simon, in the balance his livelihood at this retro world corporation and Mia Wasikowska the girl they both desire. The ambivalent co-worker Noah Taylor, Wallace Shawn as the demanding boss and the great James Fox round out the cast in this Gilliamesque comic film. Director Richard Ayoade’s odd, stylized offering is a triumph.

4. American Sniper

Chris Kyle is the deadliest sniper in US history. Bradley Cooper fully embodies this four tour Iraq vet nicknamed “Legend” directed by Clint Eastwood. You can see how hard Cooper prepared for  this role by his uncanny resemblance to  Chris Kyle. Entrusted with keeping soldiers alive as they patrol he must make numerous  choices in the midst of harrowing danger. All this comes at a cost as it weighs on his conscience and deeply affects his relationship with his wife. I dare say that Mr. Eastwood gets better with age, Sniper is right up there with his best work. For my money this completes the modern war trilogy along with Black Hawk Down and Zero Dark Thirty where war is not easily defined as simply the US combating all the evil out in the world. The glory of battle has a cost.

5. Selma

Ava DuVernay bristling, highly acclaimed picture recalls the Birmingham march and the tribulation by participants and organizers of SNCC and MLK’s people to implore president Johnson to push forward voting rights in that state. The fact that this is the first theatrical release that features Martin Luther King is telling. I delighted in how David Oyelowo convincingly embodied King in mannerisms and speech pattern.  DuVernay shows us King as strategist, diplomat and motivator, politically savvy in staging a march that would elicit compassion and support for their cause. The pious sloganeering minister he is not. The events depicted when marchers attempt to cross Edmund Pettus bridge is harrowing and brutal. Jim Clark’s police force sanctioned  by Governor George Wallace were not tolerant of that sort of behavior in Alabama. The back and forth between Lyndon Johnson played by an excellent Tom Wilkinson with Wallace (Tim Roth) then with King makes for some rousing scenes that comment on society still to this day. Exposition via FBI surveillance is an  excellent narrative device and a way of revealing King’s faults and human side.

Chuck Jones and Bugs

What’s Up Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones at Museum of Moving Images

Chuck Jones is known by millions young and old, the director and artist who passed away in 2002 made some of the most beloved cartoons of all time. He brought us Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and created a host of other characters, including Pepé Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner and many more. Jones drew from fine arts to popular culture in a career spanning three decades he directed over three hundred animated films and was given an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

For anyone who grew up on Jones work this exhibition is a delight; 23 features, original sketches and drawings, storyboards, production backgrounds, animation cells, and a myriad of photographs showing Jones and his collaborators at work creating some of the greatest cartoons ever made. The films include all the Warner Bros. classics as well as the holiday staple Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

6. Inherent Vice

PT Anderson’s latest is right in my wheelhouse; literary, visual, snappy dialogue and a kick ass cast led by failed MC Joaquin Phoenix who since rising from the ashes as his name suggests post doc\spoof\what-the-heck project he’s done some of his best work. Private Dick stoner Larry “Doc” Sportello is taken for a helluva ride when his Ex ol lady Shasta shows up one day asking for help.  The film goes out of its way to show how these characters post sixties come to grips with their lives. There is a lot of wacky things going on in California including kidnapping, brainwashing and blackmail, all having to do with Doc’s case somehow. The back and forth between Bigfoot (Josh Brolin); the clean-cut LA cop who is crooked as that famous street in San Francisco and Doc is downright hilarious. Pynchon realised by Anderson telling a Raymond Chandler noir in an Altman way is a delight.

7. Under The Skin

Scarlett fell to earth and ended up in Glasgow in a black wig driving around in a van picking up horny Scotts in Brian Glazer’s sci-fi, suspense film. Not of this world, luring the male of the species back to her place for god knows what alien experiments with her motorcycle accomplice. The story requires she give the most minimalist performance finding herself seduced by these humans the way Bowie was in Nicolas Roeg’s classic The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Last Days In Viet Nam

This eyewitness account  on the fall of Saigon is jarring when you take into account all the lives that were at stake while the policymakers quibble. The footage of the pull out and the accounts of the scramble to smuggle people out on the remaining helicopters and boats is harrowing. It is not lost on me that this excellent documentary is brought to us by Rory Kennedy.

8. Top Five

Chris Rock has been plagued with the same affliction every edgy stand up from Pryor to Murphy to Wayans and Tucker that graduate to the big screen have. How to translate what drives their stage persona to a PG audience. Until this film I can safely say there has never been a good movie by Rock. Third time’s a charm as a writer, director and star for him. A day in the life of the comedian Andre Allen (known for the character Hammy The Bear). During an interview with a NYTimes reporter played by love interest Rosario Dawson he is forced to confront himself at a point in his career where he’s trying to transition to dramatic roles. His Andre Allen is an amalgamation of every black comic not Cosby. Rock has enlisted a who’s who of comedy (Kevin Hart, Jay Pharaoh, Cedric The Entertainer, JB Smooth, Tracy Morgan, etc.) for a series of downright funny cameos. To have Seinfeld, Whoopi and Sandler in a scene that’s not forced is worth the ticket alone.

 

Flying Lotus Never Catch Me featuring Kendrick Lamar

Director Hiro Murai

The track taken from the album You’re Dead! is a rhythmic jazz fusion bed of sound that Kendrick  lays down his rhyme on. This meditation on death seems to be a celebration of life. The performance by the children here truly inspiring in the context.

   

9. Gone Girl, Interstellar

This is a David Fincher film; he knows how to set the creepiness at 10 while the story unfolds. Spoiler alert! There will be uncomfortable, moody, stylish stuff going down. Rosamund Pike giving a performance of Betty Davis proportions, Affleck’s leading man good looks in a Hitchcock universe pegs him as the chief suspect in a thriller that provides breakneck twists and turns. WTF moments that annoy many simply amuse me.

You sit up and take notice whenever Chris Nolan releases a motion picture; it is mandatory viewing. Nolan is a provocateur with millions of dollars and the finest craftsmen and performers at his disposal, engaging the viewer on a level few can achieve or even attempt. He is that dude. Matthew McConaughey does not take a victory lap after his phenomenal run of critically acclaimed films and television work culminating with Dallas Buyers Club, committing to this character when things seem implausible. This Earth on its last legs, only shot to save all mankind, we’re relying on you kid story is dense with scientific jargon and heart.

10. Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal has amassed a string of terrific performances in some disturbing films over the last few years. All the trappings of a movie star; The Day After Tomorrow and Prince of Persia (the later so horrendous it may have put him off purely commercial work altogether) he has opted to keep challenging himself as an actor in such films as Brother’s, Source Code, Prisoners, End of Watch and Enemies. As producer along with director Dan Gilroy (of the Gilroy clan: Writer, Director Tony and Editor John Gilroy) they have fashioned an edgy suspenseful story around the cutthroat world of photojournalism in Los Angeles. The predatory nature of the enterprise is creepy enough and once Jake’s Louis Bloom takes it upon himself to get involved in the stories he’s covering to make his footage leadoff caliber stories his actions prove to be criminal and comical in the most macabre way imaginable.

Actor – Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Actress – Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
Supporting Actor – Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Breakthrough Performance: Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood), Andre Benjamin (Jimi: All By My Side)

Director – JC Chandor (A Most Violent Year)
Original Screenplay – Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo
Adapted Screenplay – Jason Hall (American Sniper)
Director of Photography – Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Selma)
Visual Effects – Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer (Xmen: Days of Future Past)
Soundtrack – Hans Zimmer (Interstellar)

Artisans: Jennifer Kent (The Babadook [W, D], Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler [W, D]), Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel[A], The Invisible Woman[A, D])

Artistic Merit:  The Rover, Boyhood, Belle, The Invisible Woman, Nymphomaniac 1 & 2, No Man’s Land, Dear White People, Enemy, Maps To The Stars, The Babadook, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Guilty Pleasure: The Raid 2, Edge of Tomorrow

A Later Assessment: The Theory of Everything, Mister Turner, We Are The Best, Citizen Four, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Ida I look forward to seeing at a later date. These films were not screened  for the posting of this piece, for no particular reason other than the fact “I can’t see every movie.”

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