2014 Movie Mini-Reviews

Pride

I really could’ve kept watching these characters (who are based on real people) for several more hours, which is one of my favorite experiences to have watching a movie. It doesn’t hurt that the leader of L.G.S.M. (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) is distractingly attractive, but each character has a very distinct personality and their own “things going on” outside of the big picture labor/rights movement.

This film doesn’t just side-step cliches, it’s shockingly life-affirming and reassuring considering it’s about a small group of people struggling against impossibly large forces.

(A-Rank)

How to Train Your Dragon 2

This film tackles the problem of “sequelitis” by simply charging at it head-on. It gives us a different problem that can’t be solved the same way, but one which further explores and expands upon the themes the first film was interested in.

At the center of this film is Hiccup’s destiny. He wants to be an explorer and a peacemaker (which ends up receiving an unexpected champion in the form of the sudden reappearance of his mother and the possible path she lays out before him), while his father wants him to succeed him as chief. In true unorthodox Hiccup fashion, he instead ends up finding a way to marry the two destinies.

I was a bit concerned going into the film because I heard it described as “Hiccup encountering a problem his peacemaking shtick can’t solve.” Which sounds like a sequel squandering the amazing work the first film did on a really great, uncommon theme. Instead, I found quite the opposite to be true. In fact, because the film shows Hiccup failing as a peacemaker and reaching his lowest point, it actually explores the theme of his desire to be a peacemaker more explicitly than the first film. And ultimately, his desire for peace is actually reaffirmed by the actions he takes to recover from this low point.

My biggest complaint about the film was they really need to give Astrid more to do. Her “arc” in the film was basically, “Look how good Astrid is at sports! By the way, did we mention that she’s Hiccup’s girlfriend? Do you have jealousy boners yet, male audience members?” We get it.

The film was beautifully built around some highly emotionally-charged scenes. The reunion of Valka and Stoick was pretty much perfect. Stoick stares at her in reverent shock and starts approaching slowly while she backs away, hastily and with an air of increasing desperation explaining her absence, only to be embraced fiercely by Stoick, whose body language does not change once during the entire scene. Then there’s the unquestioned emotional crescendo of the film, Toothless overpowering the Alpha while Hiccup explains trust and loyalty to Drago. The film earns both scenes (especially the second one… yikes), and they’re two of the most emotionally potent scenes you’ll see all year.

(A-Rank)

Edge of Tomorrow

The Pacific Rim comparisons (summer scifi blockbuster that underperformed because it didn’t have a “2” or “Returns” or whatever after the title) are inevitable, and somewhat justified. This might actually be a somewhat better film on the whole, although they’re both quite good. And really, the best reason to compare this to Pacific Rim is that they both harken back to when movies were identifiable by the formula of, “Oh, yeah! It’s the one where [actor] [distinctive feature].”

Here, Tom Cruise stars in Groundhog Day by way of Halo (with a side of Saving Private Ryan). Yeah, that’ll work. Cruise and Blunt were fantastic as the leads, and Bill Paxton did a fantastic job as a drill sergeant caricature, where his characteristic earnestness came in handy.

And hey, if you want to see a great scifi/action movie, but can’t get over your understandable distaste for Cruise, look at it this way: you get to see Cruise get killed over and over!

(A-Rank)

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

The most obvious source of newness comes in the form of Penny, a character who actually drives quite a bit of the conflict of the film and, after starting out as an antagonist, eventually turns Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s duo into a trio. But while she is the most obvious change, she is hardly the only one. The film is taking a simple, somewhat silly series of cartoon shorts and fleshing them out. This necessitates making its characters characters, and showing them learning and growing and facing challenges in ways the original never intended.

Much of the pleasure here derives from the character of Mr. Peabody. I love characters who “sound” smart in traditional ways, and his voice echoes the overt intellectualism of, say, Doc Brown from Back to the Future or Beast from the X-Men franchise. But in establishing his relationship with Sherman explicitly as an adoptive parent/child relationship, the film allows some warmth to be married to that intellectualism.

I love all the action and chase scenes in this film. They always have a carefree feeling to them because Mr. Peabody always has them well in hand, but that doesn’t detract from their excitement in the slightest. And really, that’s a microcosm of the film’s most identifiable strength: it’s just joyful to watch. Its lighthearted, adventurous tone is guaranteed to make just about anyone smile.

(B-Rank)

Divergent

So, I heard about this film called Divergent that’s based on an uber-popular young adult dystopian book series. This genre is the subject of, depending upon whom you ask, beyond-considerable amounts of enthusiasm or scorn. Divergent in particular has performed horribly with critics. So imagine my chagrin when the theater apparently put the wrong film on the reel and I saw a perfectly competent flick with plenty of entertaining moments and a great female lead.

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the ideas in this film’s world are fairly easy to pick apart. When the opening voiceover calmly stated, “Our founders […] divided us into five groups, factions, to keep the peace,” I had to stifle a laugh. (And please don’t tell me it’s explained better in the book; I’m reviewing the film, not the book it’s based on.) The thing is, the world that’s built on top of these somewhat silly ideas is actually pretty fantastic. Yes, I can pick the idea itself apart to death (and probably will at some point), but the film does a great job of making it a rich, interesting world. Again, I know basically every critic has argued the opposite–that the world (and film) are incredibly bland and boring, but I’m just not seeing it.

(B-Rank)

Non-Stop

Liam Neeson isn’t hijacking this review. He’s trying to save it!

This was actually a much more intelligent film than I was expecting. If you look at it kind of sideways, it’s basically an Agatha Christie-style locked room mystery. And like an Agatha Christie story, the characters in that locked room are consistently defying your expectations as the film develops.

(B-Rank)

Robocop (2014)

In baseball, there’s a statistical concept known as “value over replacement player.” Essentially, the idea is to tell you how much a given player contributes compared to hypothetical “freely available talent.” In essence, if you took any of the competent but unremarkable unsigned free agents out there and stuck them in a uniform and put them at third base, how much better would your actual starting third baseman be.

This is all about being “cool” without taking any real risks. The attempts at political satire have absolutely no bite to them. As much as I enjoyed the sequences of Samuel L. Jackson as a Bill O’Reilly type, this was all surface-level stuff. We see U.S. forces in Iran… for some reason. And we find that there’s sharply divided public opinion about the use of robots as law enforcement on U.S. soil, while they’re used with impunity elsewhere. (… hmmm.) The thing is, the film doesn’t really take any risks with this idea. It just kind of waves it in front of you and yells, “I’m being topical!” without actually delivering any sort of message on the subject. And I’m not saying it should be heavy-handed, but the original Robocop managed to not be coy about its message (rich people are willing to let poor people die to get what they want, also corporations should maybe probably not be allowed to own cities) without being heavy-handed. Really, when you get right down to it, the offensive thing about this film is it tries so hard to be inoffensive at the expense of its quality both as a remake and a film in its own right.

(C-Rank)

Pompeii

The ending (the two lovers wanting to spend their last moments on earth looking at each other for comfort) would’ve actually been a serious tearjerker if the filmmakers had remembered to make us care about either one of them. The vast majority of the film just cuts back and forth between the two leads’ (separate) lives with the occasional cut to the rumbling volcano as if to promise, “Don’t worry, there’s a volcano later.”

The thing is, in an (ultimately, I argue, misguided) attempt to make the two leads more “interesting” (or, more likely, to make the part of the movie before the volcano explodes easier to load up with filler), it makes one (Kit Harrington) a gladiator and the other (Emily Browning) the daughter of a… governor? Whatever the Roman word for “in charge of Pompeii” is. And I guess I understand why that’s a pretty okay idea, except the film’s structure leads to our two volcano-crossed lovers spending barely any time together before disaster strikes. The film’s third act is predicated on the idea that these two are hopelessly in love with each other, except they’ve forgotten to include the part where that… happens. If the film’s ending hinges on their romance, shouldn’t there be some… you know… romance? They meet, and quickly bond over… the necessity of mercy-killing horses. (It’s exactly as awkward as it sounds.) But that’s okay, in their only other conversation before the volcano blows up, Kit Harrington’s character declares that he wants to commit genocide against the Romans for slaughtering his village, which is okay with Browning because a Roman Senator is being super rapey toward her.

No, really. That’s it. Those are the only two actual conversations the two characters have, and the sum total of the time they spend together before the volcano erupts and Harrington’s character is desperate to save Browning’s. And then we’re supposed to buy these two as epic lovers while they’re running away with a volcano together, only Harrington has spent his entire time on screen being Russell Crowe in Gladiator (seriously, he even has the plot device black friend who’s a more experienced gladiator and comforts him with his mysticism), and Browning has spent her entire time on screen being… someone’s daughter.

Honestly, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s aforementioned kinda-racist buddy character and Jessica Lucas as Browning’s servant both seem like they could’ve been much more interesting characters than either leading character given a bit more screen time, and both were killed off in incredibly contrived ways (especially Lucas) to make room for a more photogenic finish of our two lovers riding a horse to try to outrun a volcano.

… okay, I’ll admit the film had one pretty huge strength. The damn volcano. I have no idea how accurate this portrayal was of what we know of Pompeii’s destruction, and the film doesn’t really beg me to do that kind of research. But from a pure visual standpoint… I mean, is there a way we could’ve just had the entire movie be the sequence of Pompeii being destroyed by a volcano? Or at least found a more interesting way to pass the time before that happened?

(C-Rank)

300: Rise of an Empire

The critical consensus on this film is so uncontroversial it might as well be incorporated into its official synopsis. It’s a dull, forgettable exercise in action porn that celebrates really gross concepts like unwavering devotion to the state and the primacy of masculinity in the arenas of war and sexual assault. So, you know, a pretty normal day at the office for a film adaptation of something Frank Miller wrote.

And then there’s Eva Green’s jaw-dropping star turn in one of the greatest villain performances in years. She absolutely owns the screen–and everyone around her–every time she’s on camera. Whatever you’ve heard about her performance, believe it. It’s not an exaggeration. And it makes this film worth seeing literally by itself.

It’s just too bad it’s so boring and rapey.

(C-Rank)

Transformers: Age of Extinction

Michael Bay perfected the art of making unbelievably gross statements about gender and race in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and of making nonstop action scenes genuinely boring in Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Here, he actually combines the two. His only female character a prop in a game of tug of war between her and her father (it’s somehow even worse than it sounds), and while the action scenes aren’t quite as hard to sit through as Dark of the Moon‘s, I think we can all agree that’s a fairly low bar to clear.

(D-Rank)

Need for Speed

This film has good stretches and bad stretches, but lacked coherence and engagement as a whole. If your film doesn’t seem to care about its characters, why should I? And most damning of all, the racing scenes were frequently boring. They lack fluency in how racing (or car chase) scene usually work, with the escalating tension and reversals and little moments of drama that keep the audience invested. Which I guess isn’t a huge deal, because it’s not like racing scenes were supposed to be the main draw of this film or anything. (Oh, wait.)

(D-Rank)

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Alright, so we’re here today to talk about the sequel to the film adaptation of some Frank Miller phallocentric juvenile violence porn that was made watchable only by virtue of Eva Green’s performance.

No, wait, I’m sorry: I accidentally grabbed my notes on 300: Rise of an Empire. We’re actually here to talk about Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, the sequel to the film adaptation of some Frank Miller phallocentric juvenile violence porn that even Eva Green couldn’t save. You can probably see why I confused the two.

(D-Rank)

I, Frankenstein

The story? Just your classic story of Frankenstein’s monster caught up in a secret war between holy gargoyles and demons. The reason you’re confused right now is you have no idea how to make that boring. Let me help: try to make an Underworld clone without Kate Beckinsale. Make sure the tone is brooding and never changes. Move from boring fight scene to boring exposition then back to boring fight scenes. Over. And over. And over. It’s one of the most painful exercises in wheel spinning that’s ever graced the screen.

(D-Rank)

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Okay. Who broke up with Seth MacFarlane?

Seriously, I can’t remember the last time it was more obvious that someone was making a film for the express purpose of releasing some emotional bile on an unsuspecting audience. It must be nice to have the kind of clout to work through your breakup issues by making a movie where you get to tell the “character” who’s clearly a cipher for your ex to fuck off and make out with Charlize Theron in front of her, right? And it’s all so mean-spirited and full of spite. It’s really just depressing.

And that’s just the core of the movie. The thing is also eyes-deep in MacFarlane’s usual brand of casual misogyny and “ironic” racism. And on top of that it’s also just aggressively unfunny. There’s maybe enough material here for an episode of Family Guy. And that’s stretched out over the course of an entire film that keeps telling you the same joke over and over even though it wasn’t even that funny the first time.

(D-Rank)

The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box

This is one of the most unrelentingly boring films you will ever see. What makes it even more mystifying is this is an adventure film. Called The Adventurer. How can you aim for adventure and end up with something this joyless and inert? And it’s not like there’s anything here to make up for the lack of excitement. (“Come for the lack of relatable characters, stay for the child slavery!”)

(D-Rank)

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