Archive for March, 2015

2014 in Film: A Redundant, Ranty (Apparently Alliterative) Round-Up

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by drayfish

Lego Movie eyes

Okay, so I’m obviously not the biggest fan of the Oscars.

In a previous post I slagged the entire history of the award, mouthed off about their tragicomic irrelevance, and petulantly whined that a faceless mass of self-proclaimed cinephiles had different opinions to me about what makes a great film – all while somehow restraining myself from mentioning that ‘Dick Poop’ gaffe.* And now that their kitschy lavish spectacle has once again bloomed and withered back into its eleven month irrelevancy, having dragged the otherwise unassailable award show host Neil Patrick Harris down with it, how could I possibly follow up such a mature and objective discussion?

Why, by indulging every bit of my crippling narcissism and going off on a shamelessly subjective rant about the films of the past twelve months that I thought were great, of course. …And apparently by also throwing in a few more petty digs at a completely unnecessary, largely ridiculous award ceremony that has no impact on anything at all.

So… maturity.

Because to my surprise, I thought 2014 was a pretty great year for cinema. And that was particularly true in the realm of ‘popular’ films – the ones the Academy usually ignores as being too far down the ‘shallow end’ of the cinematic pool, only throwing them the occasional patronising special effects or sound design award.** In truth, many of 2014’s major releases were more experimental and daring than the turgid dramas – usually historical, or vaguely sepia-toned character pieces with stilted dialogue – at which the Oscars usually swoon.

Sure, 2014 had the usual slew of laughable, lamentable turkeys…

Saving Christmas

IMAGE: Kicking you in the face …for Jesus (Camfam Studios)

Like some kind of reverse-Christmas miracle, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas was even more cheap and smug than whatever you are conjuring up in your head right now. Playing as an exercise in glib sophistry, Cameron plays the role of that condescending relative you have to be polite to at the holidays who wants to tell you – for an eternal hour and a half – why he knows what’s wrong with society. The result is a Powerpoint presentation about how the shameless commercialisation and mass-marketed kitsch of the season is actually a blessing, and ultimately feels like you’re watching him press Santa and Jesus’ faces together, demanding they kiss.

Men, Women and Children too turned out a feature length sermon – this time about the death of humanity in an age of social media. But rather than actually say anything revealing it played more as the Reefer Madness of facebook and was every bit as tedious, supercilious and ham-fisted as that asinine YouTube poem all your friends insisted you watch last year. You know the one. About how, because you were looking at a smart phone screen that one time, you missed the love of your life, and will now never have a moment of true joy and die alone, unloved, and filled with regret.

So click ‘Like’ and share, guys!

There were Michael Bay’s two attempts to destroy all that is good in the human soul: Transformers 4: Age of Shameless Pandering to the American and Chinese Military and Teenage Mutant Roided-Out-Sex-Pest Turtles. Both of which are literally less enjoyable than watching a five year old smash toys together and go ‘Kerplowsh!” for five hours. At least the five year old is using some imagination.

The-Amazing-Spider-Man-2

IMAGE: ‘I love you, so emotionally crippling you is cool, right?’ The Amazing Spiderman 2 (Sony)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is probably best avoided until you’re recovering from some kind of head injury that requires being heavily medicated and bombarded with pretty colours. With zero story coherency, camp and maudlin histrionics colliding randomly, and acting performances that induce tonal whiplash, Peter Parker appears less a conflicted hero and more a self-involved jag weed who spends the majority of the film either stalking or negging his grieving girlfriend. Incomprehensibly, the film is such a mess it makes whatever was going on with emo-Peter in Spiderman 3 look profound.

(And apparently I’m not the only one who would now probably take Jazz-hands Macquire Spiderman over Garfield’s tweaked out hipster wall-crawler, because less than a year after its release Sony has already announced they are rebooting the franchise and handing over partial custody to Marvel.***)

Meanwhile A Million Ways To Die In The West was Seth MacFarlane.

All of him.

There can be no more damning praise than that.****

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IMAGE: Ironic Comedy (place inverted commas around whatever you want); A Million Ways To Die In The West (Universal)

But despite these predictable bellyflops, overall the year’s output was a surprising blast. Franchises that had seemed to be drifting into self-satisfied bloat came back lean and slick and audacious. Sequels proved to be far better than they had any reason to be. And fresh intellectual properties emerged with a confident strut.

In the Marvel universe, although its television spin-off Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. had a bland start that seemed to be a warning sign of narrative fatigue, its cinematic siblings seemed reinvigorated, eager to expand and explore something new (even if, to get needlessly picky, they are still sticking with the three act rising climax MacGuffin-heavy narrative spine).

Guardians of the Galaxy made the superhero and sci-fi genres fun again, front-loaded with emotion and character, but driven by comedy and building to epic stakes. It reminded audiences what it was like to go to the cinema and lose yourself in a grand, wildly imaginative adventure, running to catch up with charismatic almost-heroes, rather than getting pummelled by the pretentious mire of a super snuff film like the previous year’s asinine Man of Steel.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-zoe-saldana-chris-pratt

IMAGE: Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel)

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier injected as much paranoid social commentary as it did ‘splosions and dynamic action. Suddenly the interrogation of what a symbol like the Cap’n even means anymore in a world of drones and NSA spying, wasn’t just some thematic wrapping paper, but a vital part of the mythos. It was so pointed that it even shook up the status quo of its own metanarrative, tearing down the entire S.H.I.E.L.D. agency, the catch-all clandestine service that has so far played as the connective tissue for this universe (something that may prove to be ultimately perfunctory, but that had great resonance here in a tale about a soldier questioning authority).

Also on the plus column for The Winter Soldier? Giving Scarlett Johansen’s Black Widow more screen time is never a bad idea. (Seriously, where is her stand-alone movie? After stealing every scene in The Avengers and effortlessly transcending the Captain’s buddy foil role to become the best thing in his film, it’s getting silly now.)

X-Men: Days of Future Past used a prequel-sequel time-travel conceit to soft-reboot the series, playing with any and all of the best elements of the previous films – berserk Wolverine; steely Fassbender; rich (if sometimes a little muddled) social justice metaphors laced with explosions – and gleefully obliterating anything Brett Ratner touched from the canon. It was the cinematic definition of having your cake and eating it too: it had comic book fan service out the yang, got to indulge the anything-goes abandon of alternate realities, and was so rich with talent that it had four of the most astonishing actors currently working tag-teaming two roles. And yet, throughout it all, the film somehow never felt as convoluted or indulgent as it had every reason to be, somehow seamlessly threading multiple time frames, juggling a bevy of returning mutant characters and introducing several others, and flirting with real-world history and its own established lore. The fact that it found a legitimate way to hit the do-over button while keeping whatever worked from the previous films turned a contractually mandated gimmick into something inspired.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes proved that the reboot/prequel of a few years ago wasn’t a fluke, legitimising the series as a speculative fiction alternate universe in which CGI primates presented some of the most complicated, nuanced acting of the year …only to inevitably have it ignored entirely by the Academy Awards yet again. Oh well, maybe they’ll get a patronising clip reel during the ceremony or something. No? Not even that? Well, they can dream. (Note: they are not allowed to dream.)

How To Train Your Dragon 2

IMAGE: How To Train Your Dragon 2 (Dreamworks)

How To Train Your Dragon 2 showed that sequels to animated films need not just spin their wheels and retread the same tired formulas. It went bigger, and darker, and deeper, and offered a more focussed and moving experience than its predecessor. Considering that the first film was a delightful surprise (a burst of originality and sincerity from Dreamworks, a studio that seemed to have settled into a complacent groove churning out increasingly superfluous Shrek sequels), the second was just straight up astonishing. There were revelations, real stakes, and it refused to talk to its audience like they were malleable idiots to be blasted with toy commercials and Burger King promos. In the end of the first film, the protagonist and his dragon are scarred, but that makes them stronger; by the end of the second they have both been deeply emotionally traumatised, but it makes them know the value of loss, the power of forgiveness, and the ephemeral, precious nature of peace. As far as children’s entertainment goes, it made the Smurf and Chipmunk movies look like they were drawn with crayon on garbage.

In the comedy world, 22 Jump Street likewise had no right to be so good. However, considering that the first film (an adaptation of a cheesy, late-eighties television show that was an unmistakable product of its time) somehow managed to outstrip every expectation, that the sequel was great was less a shock than it was a testament to the entire creative team that brought both films into being. And that final credit sequence of endless faked-up sequels was sublime. I would watch every one of them. You’re telling me we need five Twilight films in this world, and yet the Moonraker-style 2121 Jump Street remains only a punch line? No thank you, reality.

And to my great surprise, I actually enjoyed the first part of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay quite a bit. Yes, it was undeniably a cheap cash-grab of the studio to segment it into two parts. Yes, when you parse out the details of the story very little actually happens. Yes it’s annoying that Katniss is so weirdly hung up on one dude when a nation of people are being slaughtered. And yes, the military seems to have spent all their money on green screen technology and not training their people to be able to spot glaringly obvious doublecrosses. But despite that – sometimes because of it – I thought it was an enormous step up from its predecessors, finally throwing into relief what the series has been primarily about: propaganda.

Hunger Games logo

IMAGE: The Hunger Games Logo (Lionsgate)

In the previous films the groundwork was already laid – there was the oversimplified division of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ that tapped into a slightly on-the-nose post-Occupy Wall Street mentality; television (reality television in particular) was a manipulative opiate for the masses – but in this third film, all those disparate themes of fashion, celebrity, and the cultivation and falsehood of fame, coalesced into a single critique of merchandised ideologies. The promised ‘revolution’ was itself another layer of propaganda designed to exploit their Mockingjay – now more a symbol than a person – as a catalyst for change. And the way that the film actually integrated its own advertising, even employing the font and logos of the film’s own marketing into the ‘news’ reels used to bolster Katniss’ rise to notoriety, was ingenious. A sprawling metatextal franchise exploring the building and exploitation of hype, with Jennifer Lawrence who (as one of the celebrities whose phone was hacked and personal photographs leaked online) had her real world life impacted by a sickening invasion of privacy, convincingly playing the role of a woman trying to hold on to her identity amidst the dehumanising machinations of a relentless, exploitative publicity campaign.

Peter Bloom, a lecturer at the Open University, took a rather less flattering view of the film, but his argument struck me as a little unfair. He criticises the way in which the movies (and presumably the books before them, I’ve not read them) use the narrative expediency of personifying an ideology in the-evil-tyrant-who-must-be-overthrown, saying that this is too simple a good-versus-evil conceit; but he seems to have missed the fairly overt way in which the film presents the rebellion’s actions as being similarly manipulative for their own ends. What I actually like about this third film is that it makes it clear no one is really the ‘good’ guy, and no one is above using manipulation and rhetoric to achieve their ends.

Maleficent, too, had an intriguing conceit. Much like Wicked before it (from which, frankly, it clearly drew a great deal of inspiration), it was designed to reappropriate and realign the back story of a familiar fairytale, Disney’s own version of Sleeping Beauty, redeeming the ‘evil’ villainess by exploring the motivations that led her to appear monstrous. Although the result was a flawed movie (it didn’t seem sure of exactly who it’s central character was meant to be, and try explaining that ripped off wings rape metaphor to whatever kids you took along to the cinema), Angelina Jolie was game, and the premise – exploring some moral complexity abstracted from a cartoon whose strength, arguably, was its oversimplified contrast of virtue and malevolence – is well worth playing out further. Maleficent may not have been an entirely successful experiment, but it was good to see Disney doing something more interesting than the parade of live-action animation remakes they have announced for the foreseeable future: from Cinderella, to Beauty and the Beast, to The Jungle Book to …Tim Burton’s Dumbo?! Why?! Why have you forsaken us Mufasa?!

Edge-of-Tomorrow

IMAGE: War of the Worlds – I mean, Oblivion – I mean, Edge of Tomorrow (Warner Bros.)

In the world of new and original concepts, despite what was apparently a less than stellar performance in cinemas (although, with international box office, still profitable), I thought Edge of Tomorrow was fantastic. I may, at some point, write about it further, but for a film that was essentially Groundhog Day meets Aliens, it was a wonderfully fresh take on some familiar tropes. Funny, frenetic and imaginative, the film is based on a book, but actually feels more like the perfect adaptation of some videogame that never existed – with respawning, rage quits, and grinding to level up all essential parts of the narrative. After several less than stellar projects (what the hell was Knight and Day?!) it also managed to remind me why Tom Cruise has been a movie star for so long. His pivot from facile, preening weasel to stoic, embittered hard ass was one of his best, and most self-aware performances to date.

The Lego Movie, a film that had all of the warning signs of being a crass, two-hour commercial for the overpriced (yeah, I said it) exponentially expanding licensing universe of Lego, instead became an earnest, heartfelt ode to unbridled creativity, and the beauty of madcap, unfettered play. Like its eponymous toy bricks, it stuck together the framework of a narrative from disparate pieces – a classic heroic journey, a Matrix alt-reality riff, an anti-utopian totalitarian regime, a convoluted heist, a diabolical villain, a soothsayer, a frantic chase, a band of misfits – shook it up, stuffed it with hilarity, and then, when it was already the most imaginative film of the year, transcended itself with its third act jump to the real world – using tiny yellow dolls with claw hands to flirt with metaphysical questions of predestination and free will.

warner-bros-lego-film

IMAGE: The Lego Film Movie Picture (Warner Bros.)

It was a film about nostalgia and the promise of the new; it was for all ages and yet felt profoundly intimate; it was absurd and yet deeply heartfelt; a celebration and rejection of commercialism all at once; about play as a space for self-expression, communication, and experimentation.

…So obviously the Academy Awards didn’t even bother nominating it.

Because shut up, that’s why.

Speaking of the Academy Awards embarrassing themselves, at least they managed to throw some love at more experimental cinema for once, with Birdman (although not my favourite Arty, weird and idiosyncratic film of the year) proving an uncharacteristically respectable winner. Thinking it through, it wasn’t exactly a surprise (the Academy liked the story about the aging, supercilious actor who is afraid of encroaching technologies and despairs at the entertainments of the youth? …shocker) but at least it actually did have something to say, contained some career-best performances from actors willing to play on their own public personas, and had an energy all its own.

Personally, I was more impressed with The Grand Budapest Hotel – perhaps Wes Anderson’s most Wes Anderson of movies. A tribute to his obsession with boxes – both his eye for the formal precision and quirky vintage of dioramas, and the breadth and history of the cinematic frame itself – The Grand Budapest Hotel was a layer cake of tales within tales, oral history and facade, and the charming, quirky, inscrutable con man at the centre of any narrative Art form. It may not be my personal favourite of his films (I suspect nothing will manage to shift Rushmore from its lauded place in my heart), but I think it might well be the one that makes the clearest, and most elegant statement about his work. Aesthetically whimsical and yet emotionally tumultuous, fascinated both by an impossible nostalgia, and the poised, charming exteriors that barely conceal depths of dysfunction and self-delusion, it is all about the creative process; a filmic essay on Romanticism, and the malleability of truth in our efforts to transcend time. So of course, I adored it.

Grand Buhapest Hotel

IMAGE: Boxes. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Fox Searchlight)

And so, to the actors…

For me, acting MVPs of the year would have to be Chris Pratt and Scarlett Johansonn.

With The Lego Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, his continued work on Parks and Rec., and just about the most charming run of publicity interviews ever, Pratt has become a delight to follow on screen. And with rumours of a forthcoming Indiana Jones casting and his role in the imminent Jurassic World, where he appears to have pet raptors (pet raptors!), his streak will hopefully continue …as long as none of these raptors learn how to talk.

Meanwhile, for the second year running – after last year’s double header of Her and Under The Skin, in which she mined unexpected depths from a computer artificial intelligence and an extraterrestrial sex-predator – Johansonn did it again. As already mentioned, her Black Widow was the best thing in Captain America’s movie, and against all logic she managed to give Luc Besson’s completely bonkers Lucy a legitimacy it frankly didn’t deserve.

Like a number of Besson’s other films (I’m looking at you, Fifth Element), Lucy took a sumptuous, visually stunning romp, and bogged it down in a bunch of incoherent (and yet somehow still utterly pretentious) pseudo-science and glib philosophical rhetoric; and yet Johansson, at the centre of the crazy-storm, managed to imbue the character of Lucy with an emotional range and nuance that (fittingly) transcended the idiocy of the plot she was trapped within. From the terrified woman dragged into a seedy underworld of drug trafficking, to the unstoppable ubermensch, her mind aflame with a torrent of infinite knowledge and cosmological expansion, she seemed to be acting in a different film, one not subject to the silly cartoon logic Besson frequently substitutes for character and plot.

Lucy

IMAGE: Lucy (Universal)

And that final obnoxious declaration before the credits roll:

‘Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.’

Urgh. I sure do. Because a billion years is too short a time to waste on any more Luc Besson films. At least until he bothers writing a second draft on his scripts.

But my pick of the year? The film that I personally felt outshone all of this other goodness?

Well I haven’t mentioned it yet, and it’s already proving itself the darling of every other critic and award ceremony (aside from the Academy Awards, natch), so it’s not that hard to guess…

Drum roll please…

Actually, you know what? Why not wait and reveal it in my next post?

It’ll be great. A narcissistic, myopic spectacle of self-congratulations that’s all preamble and no payoff. An announcement that’s predictable, tired, and of little to no relevance to anyone.

Just like the Oscars.

Bam.

So see you then!

…It’s Boyhood.

It’s Boyhood, guys. I loved Boyhood.

I mean, of course I did.

boyhood-2014-01

IMAGE: The Best. (IFC Films)

* Oh, and just in case you thought maybe the Oscars voters couldn’t look worse, along comes a series of anonymous interviews with the Academy voters to remind you that people who secret themselves away in a private club with labyrinthine exclusivist rules in order to award themselves chintzy plaudits can sometimes be deplorable, superficial, inward-looking racists that proudly celebrate mediocrity. So that’s nice.

** I mean, if Roger Deakins’s sumptuous cinematography on Skyfall wasn’t enough to pull a statuette, why even pretend that a ‘popular’ film has a chance in future?

*** Give me Donald Glover as Miles Morales! Also, give me Donald Glover in Community again! And more Marshall Lee in Adventure Time! …Basically Donald Glover is the secret sauce for all good things.

****…I mean seriously, humanity. You saw him host the Oscars. You’ve seen him in interviews. You’ve had over a decade of being pummelled by the cumulative onslaught of Family Guys and Cleveland Shows and American Dads. What did you think was going to happen? Oh look: a Back to the Future reference. Yep. That’s a thing I watched once. Now back to ‘How funny is racism?’ and the jokes that go on too long about how jokes often go on to long. Hmmmmthat’sgoodsatire.

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