With the start of the blockbuster summer movie season, the first new film I saw was Amazing Spider-Man 2 directed by Marc Webb. When Spider-Man (2002, Sam Raimi) came out, I had already been familiar with the character from being an avid comic book fan. I enjoyed the film and it's sequel Spider-Man 2 (2004, Sam Raimi), but when I revisted the films as I grew older I did find them to be somewhat cliche and typical in their stories and structures. I questioned if this was just a side effect of growing up and trying to reflect on films that were popular when I was younger. Then again I do have to remember that Sam Raimi directing Spider-Man was akin to having Bryan Singer direct X-Men or Christopher Nolan direct Batman or Joss Whedon direct The Avengers. At least the first three were helping to set a precedent and style for the superhero/comic book movie market explosion that would occur throughout the 2000s and into today. I suppose in other words, I take their quality for granted. That being said, without a doubt, I hated Spider-Man 3. It was too messy a film to say the least. One that tried to say a lot and not very well. I only can remember it as the movie that Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) had to solve his problems by dancing while fighting as many special effects as he could.
Amazing Spider-Man (2012, Marc Webb) showed some promise, but I did ultimately have some issues with it. Peter Parker was no longer a bullied kid, but he stuck up for others in his civillian identity, he enjoyed skate boarding, and wasn't as socially awkward as one expected. He was no longer the nerd that could finally be accepted by being himself, a showman, when he was saving the world. Not only that, but the villain was a giant visual effect. I was enjoying scenes where Rhys Ifans was playing Curt Connors as opposed to a giant lizard walking around. Plus, web swinging lost the awe captured in Sam Raimi's film and instead felt like a giant videogame.
Amazing Spider-Man 2 sadly continues all that I disliked about the first film and leads to me viewing the second installment as a continuation towards a bad direction. The villian, Max Dillon a.k.a Electro (Jamie Foxx), is also just a pure visual spectacle with weak motivation. Foxx feels like he's in a slapstick comedy and just look at the scene where he talks about Spider-Man baking him a birthday cake. Hee says corny lines throughout ("Time to light the candles", "Call me... Electro") and he isn't all that dissimilar from Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. The other villains are played by other great actors like Dane DeHaan who sadly seems too laid back to play a villainous Harry Osborn and Paul Giamatti with a hammy russian accent who for some reason stops terrorizing the city of Manhattan in the final scene to allow Spider-Man to rescue a little boy even though he was content with killing cops (and why the hell did that woman have her kid at a bank robbery shootout?). The film has a great cast (Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone included), but I have a problem with films that try to ground the characters in a world and reality that we should recognize and then subvert that with corniness and ludricous character development as if picking which moments should be tragically serious and which should be part of a fun popcorn adventure without caring whether or not to transition properly from one moment to the next.
Ranking of the Spider-Man movies...
1. Spider-Man 2
3. Amazing Spider-Man
4. Amazing Spider-Man 2
5. Spider-Man 3
Ranking of Marc Webb's movies...
1. 500 Days of Summer
2. Amazing Spider-Man
3. Amazing Spider-Man 2
The second major action film of the summer was a welcome surprise, frankly because it wasn't much of a sci-fi action film, but more of a sci-fi drama. Gareth Edwards (who directed 2010's Monsters) delivers a Godzilla film with few missteps despite some weak character development. The film has an eerie feeling of realism. What if a giant pre-historic lizard monster that is taller then most buildings decided to climb out of the Pacific ocean. What the fuck would we as a society do? How would we react? This feels like if Spielberg emerged for the first time in the 21st century era of filmmaking and decided to combine Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws. We have a monster that is unstoppable with government organizations attempting to solve the problem by deconstrucing conspiracy theories and forceful military combat.
Aaron Johnson is somewhat dull as a soldier named Ford Brody and just about every plot involving his wife played by Elizabeth Olsen feels only to be included for the semblance of presenting a rounded and realistic character without ever going beyond that. Bryan Cranston is excellent as Ford's father Joe who exemplifies many of the themes that this film wishes to express to its audience. The rest of the cast also isn't too shaby- Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, and the Juliette Binoche. That is something I do enjoy about blockbusters these days, the star power they attract through the realism and grittiness of the stories that are being updated or brought to life. It adds such a great level of credence to the premise. We see these characters reacting to Godzilla and the other monsters' destruction and much of the cinematography from Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers, Anna Karenina) is from lower P.O.V. shots. Alexandre Desplat, similar to selecting McGarvey, is another mature choice who combines a variety of styles to lead to some fantastic musically inclinded climactic moments in various scenes (is he the closest we have today to John Williams if not in style but in his ability to blend in with whatever film genre he wishes to bestow his talents on... I mean his resume just gets better and better).
Taking the viewpoint of characters trying to survive the potential end of the world in a summer blockbuster (where we don't even glimpse a full view of the monster until what feels like the halfway point and even then its only for a bit) is a risky and artistic decision that I think works in this film's favor. Despite a lack of unique characters, it's certainly my early favorite film of the summer movie season.
Ranking of Gareth Edwards' movies...
Since I already talked about my familiarity with the Spider-Man films, let me do the same for easily one of the most unique corners of the Marvel Comics universe. I actually saw the first X-Men film (directed by Bryan Singer and released in 2000) before I was familiar with the characters, but by the time X-Men 2 (2003, Bryan Singer) came out, I had read a great many of their adventures in trade paperbacks collecting the individual issues. Come to think of it, I view the first two X-Men films like I viewed the first two Spider-Man films. I liked them when they came out, was slightly disillusioned with them later, but now I sort of realize their place in this sub-genre's history. I didn't hate X-Men 3 (2006, Brett Ratner) as much as I did the third Spidey installment, but X3 still felt like a weaker version of the first two films and just not as coherent in presentation and character. Many scenes felt like the director and screenwriters were just trying to present as many shocking and franchise-altering moments as they could without caring about the emotional reaction this should've generated in the other characters so that they could continue to sustain themselves into other adventures.
The first solo-character spinoff, Wolverine (2009, Gavin Hood), was horrendoulsy constructed and was just a hodge-podge of the character's comic book history that never amounts to much of a decent narrative. X-Men: First Class (2011, Matthew Vaughn) was easily the best film of the franchise, finally combining great acting, story, and spectacle and was the first X-Men film that I found genuinely moving and emotionally involving. The Wolverine (2013, James Mangold) was also a step in the right direction by focusing more on the character of James "Logan" Howlett (Hugh Jackman) and being sure to include as much drama and mystery that Jackman could play off of while still being a very entertaining genre film.
Bryan Singer has now returned to the franchise with X-Men: Days of Future Past. He has chosen to combine the cast of Vaughn's film with the casts of his films (although to be fair, the previous trilogy's actors certainly have lesser screentime). He focuses on many of the themes and relationships that Vaughn introduced, but still goes back to the main idea behind the X-Men's first appearance in Stan Lee's work in the 60s. They are no different than any minority group who are only persecuted for being different. It's a brilliant metaphor in many ways and so many great comic book writers have found unique and ever-changing ways to exemply this. The acting (especially by Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman, Evan Peters, and Peter Dinklage) is superb and almost seems like it needs little direction allowing Singer to introduce some set pieces that touch on my issue with most superhero and action films. You have to include them as part of genre expectations, but less and less do I find them to be as interesting or as purposeful as just witnessing the characters interact.
A great X-Men film, but even with the great performances, the characters' arcs might feel expected and predictable. Still, an incredibly enjoyable experience despite some narrative flaws (how is Professor X alive in his own body again? doesn't a new timeline as endearing as it might seem sort of feel neglectful to five previous movies?).
Ranking of the X-Men movies...
1. X-Men: First Class
2. The Wolverine
3. X-Men: Days of Future Past
4. X-Men 2
6. X-Men 3
Ranking of Bryan Singer's movies...
1. The Usual Suspects
2. Apt Pupil
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past
5. X-Men 2
7. Public Access
8. Superman Returns
9. Jack the Giant Slayer
*I also watched The Normal Heart. Very good new TV movie directed by Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story) about the early days of the American AIDS crisis in the homosexual community. Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, and Joe Mantello all have incredibly moving scenes. A great drama that might feel emotionally distant at times by combining political ramblings and personal and romantic relationships... although when those moments work (see Joe Mantello's monologue scene), the film is quite touching.
*I've been doing a mini sci-fi movie marathon based on movies I haven't seen (or at least not seen in a while) on Netflix. I watched Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise), and The Brother from Another Planet (1984, John Sayles). All three had some great commentary and are great examples of different styles of filmmaking. I also re-visited Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J. Schaffner) and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer). Apes is along the lines of the others I just mentioned while Trek II feels like a reboot of the energy for the franchise that was lost in Wise's 1979 film. In a sense, Meyer's work comes across as a surprisingly tightly constructed sci-fi thriller.
Rankings for 2014...
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
3. The Normal Heart
5. X-Men: Days of Future Past
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
7. Amazing Spider-Man 2
Figured I'd take some time off from responding to (not really reviewing) movies I had seen. It felt tedious in that I was overworking my thoughts about any given aspect of what I had viewed. So I'd rather tackle them as groups as I had done toward the end of last year. For the first four months of 2014, I saw a few films from directors (Anderson, Aronofsky, Von Trier) I greatly admire and another based on the comic books that I read while growing up.
Although not my favorite of Wes Anderson's films, The Grand Budapest Hotel continues Anderson's streak of great works. That is often how I can pick my favorite directors where no matter what material they attempt to tackle, I still walk away with a sense of appreciation. I can argue which of their own works is stronger, but when I hold them up against many other directors working today, a decent Wes Anderson film is equivalent to many others' career bests. An attraction here is the large scale and cast of this picture. Easily it includes many of Anderson's recurring players while welcoming new faces to his usual ensemble such as Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori with the film set during the outset of WWII in a fictional European country. The art direction and cinematography matches Anderson's usual vision of deceptively simple but elegantly constructed scenarios. To me, the film seems to be about a longing for one's past and how so much energy was put into the hotel's beauty and eventually it becomes a run-of-the-mill vacation spot in the future. This can be a larger statement about our culture, but Anderson isn't preachy about the matter as the film takes up a "life goes on" sort of approach to its subject matter.
Another great director to have a film released in the first quarter of the year is Darren Aronofsky with Noah. The film did receieve some criticism that I find slightly ridiculous to the point where I ask "is it me?" Noah's ark is somewhat of a fable to me. Yes it's in the bible, but like many of the early chapters in the Old Testament from what I remember from C.C.D. they had to do with teaching lessons. In this case, man became so sinful that the creator, God, decided to flood the Earth. Many of the criticisms can be quickly refuted (in particular Jon Stewart responded to FOX News by finding the actual bible verses that they claimed were made up for the film). Still, I find it odd how often some of the most spiritual films are actually turned away by many. See Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ for a prime example. As far as Noah goes, some may be worried if this is a watered-down Aronofsky vision. It is a PG-13 film and it does match the biblical genre with pop-culturally savy visual effects, but it still has an emotional arc to it with an incredible cast led by Russell Crowe that carries the film to its intense ending (a trademark of Aronofsky's works).
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is based off the comic book storyline by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting. When I began reading comics, Brubaker's relaunch of the series with his Captain America #1 was the first single issue of a Cap title I had picked up. His 8-year run (probably got close to 100 issues) read more in the genre of espionage tales than superhero fare. The film wisely takes that direction and it is full of an A-list cast that is expected of many blockbusters today (I mean, Robert Redford is an superhero movie, we've reached that point). It certainly is one of the better Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Its blend of action, character, and story is right behind The Avengers and Iron Man, but alas it is still meant to be mass-consumed piece of popcorn entertainment so expect an emphasis on action and of course there will be chaos and mass-destruction as the film cherry picks whether to focus on the loss of civillian life and property or not. That being said, the film is somewhat politically subversive (or on the nose depending who you ask) dealing with protection of privacy and drone warfare.
If anyone is curious as it comes to Wes Anderson and Darren Aronofsky, my ranking of their films would be (keeping in mind that I like them all to varying degrees)...
1. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
4. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
5. Rushmore (1998)
6. Bottle Rocket (1996)
7. The Darjeeling Limited (2007)
8. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
1. Requiem for a Dream (2000)
2. Black Swan (2010)
3. The Wrestler (2008)
4. Noah (2014)
5. The Fountain (2006)
6. Pi (1998)
I did also end up seeing Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac (both volumes) and maybe I'll save that for a longer post. I am a huge fan of Von Trier's work, but with many of his films I'd never say "I liked them" or "they were enjoyable". He is provocative filmmaker whose work stimulates often not in an inviting manner. Nymphomaniac is well acted and emotional, but despite the title, it is far from titilating. The sexual encounters are often depressing, intense, disturbing, and grimy. The film is a character study, but is sure to shock many. Similarly to Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist, and Melancholia- this is a hard film to digest right away. It's good, no doubt about it, but I'd hesitate that it should only be viewed by those that wish to appreciate Von Trier or experience an unique cinematic style.
I also got caught up on a few films from 2013. Of the recent batch of catch-ups, Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion with Tom Cruise stood out. Cruise gives a very strong performance and the visual effects and cinematography are so sleek and envisioned with a grand sense of design. The story can feel somewhat convoluted and overbearing, but there's no denying the intensity that Cruise brings with his performance.
Sadly, I didn't enjoy many of the others films. Really quick...
-Jack the Giant Slayer- Found to be childish. Could barely get through its simple and poorly filmed sequences.
-Now You See Me- Has a very strong cast, but it is a light caper film. Doesn't really go above and beyond base expectations that one might form considering the talent involved in front of the camera.
-Taken 2- Never held the first in that high regards, but this sequel is far too rushed and over-saturated with outrageously constructed action.
-The Hangover Part III- It's not as bad as I expected, but the huge problem with this film- it actually isn't funny. The jokes barely register a laugh and make you wonder if they are meant to be even be jokes and therefore the pacing just feels off.
Two films I wanted to see, but decided against would be The Monuments Men and Transcendence. Both sounded interesting and I was hoping they'd be great accomplishments in their respective genres, but I heard from word-of-mouth and admittedly decided to listen to and read some reviews and the negative response that both projects got led me to decide to wait for the films to be On Demand or on Netflix instead of warranting a trip to the theater.
Maybe I'll post some thoughts on television next. Disregard any spelling errors in my efforts to be less formal.
No pictures, but I'm falling behind and want to do a revamp of sorts before staring for 2014 (feeling too lazy to check for spelling errors so let me just get this out of my system)...
Jackass: Bad Grandpa- Jackass meets Borat. If you like their style of humor then you are going to love this. Possibly the best comedy of the year right alongside The World's End, This Is the End, or Monsters University.
Out of the Furnace- What a shame because with a cast like this, Scott Cooper's (Crazy Heart) second feature misuses its time and forces us to accept much of the characters at face value with perhaps only the lead played by Bale being worthy of any interest.
The Place Beyond the Pines- Second film from Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) that tells such a beautifully sprawling story about fathers, sons, second chances, and legacy. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Coooper are at their best.
American Hustle- Another great film from the re-invented David O. Russell. Well acted, well crafted, moving, and a lot of fun.
Anchorman 2- I actually liked it. Similarly to films like Taken or The Hangover, I don't hold the original in the highest of esteem. The first film was funny and so is this. I enjoyed the parody of the 24 hour news cycle and Will Ferrell is an improv king when it comes to making up the most ridiculous of Ron Burgandy one-liners.
The Wolf of Wall Street- An unintentional party movie from one of America's greatest directors. Scorsese and DiCaprio re-team on a film that shows us the excess of life for men that are the white collar criminals to the blue collar ones from Goodfellas. The ending comes as a shocking indictment and with DiCaprio's work, Jordan Belafort is easily one the most memorable characters in a Scorsese film.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug- Similar to my criticism of An Unexpected Journey, the only bad things that you could say about Peter Jackson's return to Middle-Earth is that it doesn't necessarily feel new, but like I've pointed out- that isn't much of a criticism because of how much fun these movies are. This dark chapter also features terrific work from actor Richard Armitage.
Inside Llewyn Davis- Another perfect Coen brothers film. Great cast, gorgeous cinematography, incredible music, and another Coen-esque story where the point might be that there is no point and life has some good and some bad, but there's always a journey to it.
Saving Mr. Banks- Surprisingly dark, this incredibly well-acted film (possibly my favorite Emma Thompson perfornace) that examines the making of Walt Disney's Mary Poppins will surprise one with how complex and emotional it can get.
August: Osage County- I'd be lying if like with All Is Lost, I didn't stress how much I loved this movie more then some of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture. The play is already perfect so if you get a perfect cast, you have one of the best family dramas in recent memory. The singular performances aren't as good as that as the ensemble functioning together in those dinner scenes.
Her- Spike Jonze's romance is touching with a great performance from the great Joaquin Phoenix. It has a simple message despite all of the complex surroundings and scenarios that the story presents and that is an incredibly endearing sentiment on the filmmaker's part.
Nebraska- Alexander Payne's latest is funny and heartfelt just like all of his other movies. Dern, Squibb, Forte, and Odenkirk are one of the most memorably funny and realistic screen-families I've seen in recent memory.
Oblivion- Sci-fi actioneer starring Tom Cruise that is well acted and has incredible production values, but the story is a cobbling together of previously explored ground from other films and is at times slightly convoluted for its own good.
You can count on a hand the lines of or number of sequences that feature dialogue. The film opens with a voice-over stating "I'm sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't. All is lost." Later the main character, who is credited at the end as Our Man (Robert Redford), says into his radio receiever "This is the Virginia Jean with an S.O.S. call, over" a few times as he struggles to repair his boat that crashed into a shipping container carrying shoes that must've fell off a larger boat. Then he lets out a powerful scream of "FUCK" when he is on a liferaft after having left his treasured boat behind. Then he screams "help!" as a container ship that is practically on auto-pilot just wanders quite literally right past him on the raft. He screams "help" some more at the end, but that's about it.
All Is Lost isn't exactly just a minimalist film for the sake of minimalism. It certainly features the spectacle one sees in Gravity and has a plot that could easily be similar to that of such thrillers as Saw, Buried, Frozen, Paranormal Activity, ATM, and numerous other low-budget horror films. It's almost more along the lines of a play where the action can take place in a single setting (The Sunset Limited, Glengarry Glen Ross), but in this case that setting is the abyss of an ocean. All Is Lost has minimalist elements, but it certainly feels more existential than anything else. It is ultimately about a man being sucked into a void that he has fallen into by himself. What do we know of him? He has a family which means he has a connection to something and therefore a reason to survive. He writes a note to them during an incredibly haunting scene that if the viewer takes a moment to think, they'll realize that the note chronoligcally matches up with the voice over based on a title-card's stated time that is presented as a subtitle toward the beginning of the film. The movie it turns out for his natch visual effects and craftsmanship to really be about survival when one's strongest enemy is his own loneliness. It's a character piece no matter which way one tries to decipher it.
This is the second film from J.C. Chandor (Margin Call). With this as his second feature he has already shown that he is a visionary talent of great depth and understanding of story and character and has exemplified such under qutie versatile circumstances. The film is beautifully shot by Frank G. DeMarco, has a great sound design and mix, and is well edited. The score by Alexander Ebert tells a story of its own just with the music in and of itself. Coupled with the images and during a film where the music moves between booming and atmospheric without any notice, it becomes a great tool to help further express what Robert Redford is already nailing with just a look.
Redford's expressiveness is interesting. It isn't like say Javier Bardem's in Biutiful where you can feel the pain just off his face alone. Redford is ragged, more intensive, and carries himself in just a specific manner that even his stoicism shines through in such a surprising and revelatory nature. It feels like the Sundance Kid has reinvented his no-nonsense persona into something much more modern and equal parts hopefull and downtrodden. We understand our man's methodology as he moves from patching a hole to navigating for his survival. This obviously all must've come from a well-thought out script by Chandor and this film's story alone sets it apart from many films I've seen. The best thing about All Is Lost is that it functions on so many levels and one of those asks for such a strong personal connection that it only feels natural for the material to make with its audience.
Catching Fire is a sequel that is as good as its predecessor. Although this time directed by Francis Lawrence instead of Gary Ross, the only telling difference of a change in style is the camerawork. Gone is the hectic hand-held running-through-the-jungle-and-not-getting-a-glimpse-of-what-is-around-them cinematography and in its place is a more streamlined look that most blockbusters seem to share. Not that there was anything wrong with the first film's visual style (I didn't find it as disorienting as others), but with the scope of the story getting bigger it seems we are now being treated to wide frames full of layers of action instead of jarring close-ups.
Story-wise, Catching Fire is a typical middle chapter. The story moves forward and as someone who is only vaguely familiar with the books, I'm quite impressed at the number of moving pieces that the narrative features. Ultimately, the plot remains with its lead character, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Not to say the other actors (in particular Josh Hutcherson's great understated performance as Peeta) feel underused, but the film follows Katniss and every so often we are treated to the interior workings of the other characters she comes across. Lawrence carries her part with a sense of haunted responsibility that Katniss feels towards her people and she's proven with her past couple of roles that she can carry a movie as naturally as any other popular lead performer that graces widely released films.
Actors whose performances from the first film I enjoyed have returned such as Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson while new characters played by actors such as the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, and Sam Claflin emerge and as a newer fan of this material, I'm incredibly impressed with what quirks the actors show off in their roles.
Still, it feels (like some lesser middle chapters of sagas) that the film is holding back because the eventual finale is coming. Katniss and Peeta's burgeoning relationship is put on hold for the sake of this year's new Hunger Games competition and even in the other supporting parts, there feels as if no new dimensions are added to the lives of these characters. Although I'm impressed by the narrative's scope, nothing all that shocking happens with the end result of the plot feeling sustained. I'm fascinated by how this series is exploring our pop-culture anxieties (reality television, feminism, etc.), but this film feels a little too much like a placeholder. At least it's a highly entertaining one.