The Guy’s Guide to Movies, 2014/15 Holiday Ed.

Hey, it’s James. My wife Lisa is a movie critic who lets me tag along to screenings when I behave, and a few years ago I began writing my own reviews for friends and collegues. Below, my picks for the best of 2014, published this past December…

Top Picks
Interstellar
Stellar indeed, this is some dense story-telling, requiring leaps of quantum faith, but once accomplished, it’s a geek’s playland of possibilities, reminiscent of 2001 but more exciting and challenging to hold onto. The storyline is strident, the character arcs overcooked, but the tech and high concept is remarkable and the imagery stunning. Will either leave you cold or wanting to see it again for another shot at catching more of its intense and cranial nuance.

Gone Girl
Rosemund Pike, Ben Affleck and director David Fincher team up to produce this year’s cleverest mystery drama, about a marriage that’s suddenly wrecked with the disappearance of a wife, then a husband’s credibility wrecked with a conflicted alibi that wreaks havoc on the town they live in.

Women flocked to this film, but the male perspective is just as engaging as it focuses on a modern couple projecting an unreal façade onto one another. The snappy dialog’s further enhanced with the addition Trent Reznor’s electronic underscore, its enigmatic and often dissonant motifs enhancing and amplifying the escalation in subtly eerie hues.

Theory of Everything
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking, who quickly discovers love, a mesmerizing scientific thread and alarming cracks in his body’s ability to move one leg after the other. What happens next is all about the art of movie making, in this case an experience that blossoms even as its protagonist crumbles. Characters relate ever more meaningfully and lovingly. Work of discovery becomes work of greatness, even as the circumstances deteriorate to seemingly absurd proportions.

That’s because this is a movie of spirit, love and triumph, all presented in such a graceful and appealing manner, I found myself transported by its spacey weightlessness. The performances are artful, the story line riviting, the journey triumphant in a manner that is as touching as it is unique. A great date movie, this one, gentlemen – trust me. And one uniquely appealing to the likes of a Metal Man.

 

 

Birdman
C’mon, you say. Show me something new, relevant, different. Something worth the hundred bucks I’m gonna drop on tix, popcorn and the sitter. Fair enuf, meet this year’s superhero: Birdman, smack in the crosshairs of his super mid-life crisis.

Michael Keaton plays a billion dollar box office has-been who’s hung his star on a pair of prop shop bird wings, then retreated into a major career funk in search of something a little more meaningful. His solution is to sink every dollar he’s got left into the production of a film-noir-style live Broadway play that’s about to open in spite of his river of debt, broken relationships and terrifying self-doubt. ‘Sounds a little cheesy, depressing? It ain’t.

What we get is nothing less than an astonishing portrait of a tortured but inspired artist dealing with real and up-to-the-minute personal and business challenges, couched in the story of a play within a movie, and if that sounds a little convoluted the brilliance of this piece is how winningly it thrashes around in its mad search for answers.

If you’ve read my reviews before, you know I’m loathe to reveal anything that touches on a spoiler and all the more so here, because this is one of those very rare releases that somehow sifts through the maddening process of Being a Man in this present day — how we’re forced to deal with a cocktail of fearful choices, deadly obstacles, menacing risk and the everyday overwhelm that comes from living a full and vibrant life.

Brilliantly written, shot, edited and acted, it’s not only a testament to the amazing performances, but to the very art of filmmaking and its indomitable reinvention. So don’t let the title or the key art dissuade you. This one’s the Most Metal Film of the Year (and bound for a slew of Oscars). See it and be enriched.


 

And the rest (alphabetized)…

   American Sniper
Bradley Cooper bulks up to play an All-American type in this year’s most American film. Directed by Clint Eastwood, he plays a patriot who enlists and becomes a Navy Seal sharpshooter, then brings his skills – and his patriotism — to the Iraq war.

Expertly crafted and emotionally involving, its ethical questions challenge our sense of morality with high emotion. Another realistic depiction of modern warfare with all its perplexing fallout and based on a true story, it resonates with familiarity and pathos.

   Big Eyes
Tim Burton, Christopher Waltz and Amy Adams get lost in those iconic big eye’d paintings of the 1960’s – the tacky ones of kids with giant eyes that so many people found so compelling. Right up there with velvet Elvises and dogs playing poker, it was a phenom that swept the world and made the artist rich – or did it?

Waltz is the miscast central figure and no amount of his unreal prancing saves this dysfunctional true story from running off the track. Written by no less than the Cohen brothers – everybody misses once in a while — Burton must’ve signed on after a trip to the dispensary – it’s a single concept pipedream that can’t be saved.

   Black or White              
Kevin Costner plays a white guy who develops a drinking problem mourning the untimely loss of his wife and daughter and is left with the care of his half-black grand-daughter, whose in-laws sue for custody.

The grand-daughter is impossibly cute, the black family is impossibly stereotyped and the white guy is left to deliver half of the mawkish dialog the re-written-to-death screenplay dictates, all the while choosing to do the right… oh, what’s the use. Embarrassing from start to finish.

   Boyhood
Unique in its production arc, Boyhood took 12 years to shoot. Starring Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, it’s the story of a young boy’s journey from pup through adolescence to young adulthood. And no, those aren’t cleverly matched actors, picking up the timeline as it progresses, it’s the same kid, literally growing up before our eyes.

There’s a certain fascination in watching Ellar Coultrane, the sweet young kid, ride straight past puberty and into finding his way in this low-key epic about a lower-middle class family struggling to maintain its dignity and sanity as it weathers one difficult social challenge after another. Sincere, compassionate and best-intentioned, it’s a long film, maybe better suited for multi-night viewing at home, but captivating in the special effect of its natural aging.

Cake
Jennifer Aniston plays a modern, middle-aged woman burdened with debilitating chronic pain and a caustic sense of sarcastic humor. Finding herself at a crossroads, she begins to obsess over the details of another tormented woman’s suicide as she looks for answers to her own predicament.

Fortunately, there are skilled hands at work in this production. The story is contemporary and Aniston, who turns in a fine performance with the help of whichever lover is momentarily convenient, pulls the thing off.

Mr. Turner
Ugly, rumpled, snorting, careening Timothy Spall brings a chorttling character study to the role of famous British painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) in this enjoyable period bio, set in 19th century England replete with period-perfect settings reflecting the paintings he produced. You know Turner’s work, righ? The great… English… artist of the time? Hmmm, well, fame aside, he did his best for God and Queen and the characterization is amusing and quite entertaining, once you settle into the concept of understanding whatever portion of the heavily Olde-English acceted dialog you can discern. I got about 70% and felt damn proud.

Spall redefines scowlling, mixed with  warmth, talent, grief and what might be best described here as a whole new take on availaing oneself of primitive sexual coitus when and where the notion springs. It’s an entertaining slice for the BBC Masterpiece set.

Whiplash
JK Simmons plays a college jazz band teacher to a group of gifted musicians, relentlessly driving them to muster up their best. In the process, he humiliates, browbeats, exhausts and criminally assaults one young man after another, all in the guise of supporting their transition to adult professionalism. The game is to bet on who’ll survive and focuses on a determined young drummer, whose talent and wherewithal is tested to the limit.

My own degree is in music and I was appalled. On the one hand, this teach’ is an exacting taskmaster, able to discern the accuracy of a performance in a split second and at times, coax a better one out of his terrified charges. On the other, it’s absurd to watch a sadistic bully literally destroy a student’s aspirations, unchallenged by higher authority. The level of cruelty results in a film that’s more criminal than entertaining, excepting the fantasy of sending in a street fighter for a few teachable moments with this jerk. Inspirational? The one satisfying wink from the director depicts him gigging on the piano in a jazz club, turning in his own criminally shallow and utterly mundane performance.

Foxcatcher
Steve Carell embodies the bizarre 1987 story of John DuPont, purportedly the richest hermit in America, whose obsession with grown men grabbing at each other leads him to building a world class wrestling facility on his property and wooing America’s best athletes into training there so he can watch.

Trouble is, neither he nor his protégé, Olympic Gold Medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum, have any discernible social or communication skills and both quickly find themselves out of their depth in a slow motion character study. Relentless, devolving into an uneasy puddle via minimal dialog and nothing beyond the next headlock to grab ahold of, there’s nothing to do but wait for something, anything, to happen.

  Inherent Vice
Boomers, here’s this year’s acid flashback. Brought to you by stoner author Thomas Pynchon, it’s true to his utterly spaced out, laconic, whispery glass-eyed writing style and a droll delight, especially if you were there in the 70’s in real time.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a seriously spaced private eye to James Brolin’s corrupt and befuddled LAPD detective in this alt flashback to a purely LA culture that seems too absurd to have ever existed, yet true-to-life for those with the history and enough brain cells left to jog. The lines are murmured, the bizarre orchestral elevator music score mixed so low it seems locked in another room, the cast of characters wonderfully strung out, the sex so simply offered, the bubble so utterly insular. Bring brownies.

   The Interview
A respected but clueless CEO greenlights a goofy Xmas comedy that triggers the most devastating cyber attack in business history, destroying both her and her company, and knocking the wind out of corporate America at large. But that’s the movie that’ll no doubt hit the cineplexes around Xmas 2016

Here, Seth Rogan and James Franco‘s oh-so-innocent assassination romp (and yes, all those Sony emails about softening the death sequence still result in Un’s face getting graphically melted off) is a mix of silly and clever laughs, a benign cuss-fest that is very amusing at times, as long as you don’t give a corporate rat’s ass about the potential collateral damage that could ensue.

C’mon, we’re just massively dissing the world’s most psychotic dictator – it’s all in fun! Now relegated to Pirate Bay cult classic and destined for endless speculation and doctoral dissertations, it’s a must-see – strictly for professional reasons, of course.

   Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch is everywhere, arguably the hottest international rising star of the year and he must’ve been drawn into this role like a fly on English jam. Here, he plays the real-life mathematician, cryptanalyst and war hero Alan Turing, who arguably invented the first task-specific working computer, tackling the decoding of the Nazi’s Enigma machine, used for sending all their secret dispatches during World War 2.

It’s a daunting task for another quirky misfit of a genius but a gripping true story that helped the allies win the war. Filled with math, science and logic conundrums, it’s a fine thinking man’s entertainment.

   Into the Woods
Stephen Sondheim’s underrated musical comes to life in skilled hands. The story intermingles the best of half a dozen fairy tales while the likes of Johnny Depp and Meryl Streep turn in thoroughly pitch-corrected vocals in dense musical arrangements that are a testament to Sondheim’s genius.

Contrary to the trailers, this is indeed a musical, but if that’s a genre you enjoy, you won’t be disappointed. It’s long, amusing and the story line keeps ending then reviving itself, but the remarkable songwriting seems timeless and is so narrative and forwarding, you may be glad it tops two hours.

   St. Vincent
Bill Murray is a weary old codger who drinks too much, pays a Russian Hooker to be his girlfriend and doesn’t take shit from anybody. Enter Melissa McCarthy and her 10-yr old son, the new next door neighbors and before you can say hangover, Murray’s been impressed into the babysitter ranks.

The ensuing buddy film is a little unwieldy, but finds its footing and becomes amusing and endearing. You gotta love the trailer shot of Murray in an 8-dollar beach lounger, drinking vodka in his barren front yard while the kid power-mows the dirt.

 Top Five
Chris Rock does a Spike Lee/Woody Allen mashup, walking the streets of New York locked in introspective conversation with the fetching Rosario Dawson.

Depicting a successful low-brow comedian trying to pull off a career break out of the stereotype he created for himself, it’s an entertaining mix of smart dialog, lots of warm laughs and funny cameo appearances. An ipad-size picture, there’s a reasonable balance of earnest and silly. Wait for cable.

   Unbroken
Angelina Jolie directs an old-fashioned and interestingly timed dissertation based on the true story of an Olympic athlete turned air force captain who draws an unlucky hand, first crashing into the ocean and then falling into the hands of the Japanese during World War II.

The historically accurate depiction of prison camp torture provides some startling balance against the current CIA revelations in the news, but it’s a relentless march, more seminary school polemic than entertainment and perhaps worse, opening old cross-cultural wounds. What’s the point?

   Wild
Resse Witherspoon plays a young woman who loses the mother she adored to cancer, then sinks into a deep cycle of self-loathing and abuse, recovering in time to realize she has to break out and choosing to do it with a hike along the Pacific Coast Trail, basically a 900 mile walk to renewal. If she can survive it.

A female version of The Walk, which had similar themes, it’s actually quite affecting. This is a journey to exorcise a host of demons and Witherspoon delivers an unabashed look deep into the life of a tortured soul. Based on a true story, its contemporary themes and challenges resonate with a strong emotional pull.

***

// James