WAITSEL'S BEST MOVIES OF 2014
Grab your popcorn and drink and let's talk.
by Waitsel Smith
I used to struggle with how to rate a film. Do I love it or merely like it? Is it a good film and maybe I just don't like it because of the lead actor? Am I just having a bad day or is it really a bad film? You can over-think it and movie watching should be about feeling.
Then I came up with this system, which takes some of the subjectivity out of it:
5 Stars means I would own it.
4 Stars means I would see it multiple times.
3 Stars means I would see it once but no more.
2 Stars means I wouldn't see it the first time, and if I did, I'm sorry I did.
1 Star means it's trash and the filmmakers need their heads examined.
Occasionally, I'll see a film that I think is a masterpiece, and I'll give it 6 Stars, even though I call it a "5-Star Masterpiece." Those are films that I believe are significant enough to move the movie industry in a new and positive direction, and which will be remembered by film historians as "classics," or at least should be.
This year, there weren't any masterpieces, but there were some very good films - not great, but very good: dramas about soldiers, comedies about chefs, super hero action flicks, the usual offering of sci-fi thrillers and some very unlikely little films that are worth remembering. See if you agree with my picks and my ratings.
So, without further ado, roll the films.
Best Drama - American Sniper
5 Stars - Best Drama of 2014 - starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner; directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Jason Hall, based on the book by Chris Kyle
Review coming soon. Meanwhile, enjoy these facts:
American Sniper is based on U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle's autobiography, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. According to director Clint Eastwood, "Chris Kyle tells his story with the same courage and grit he displayed in life and on the battlefield. American Sniper is a compelling read."
Kyle is credited with the most career sniper kills in U.S. military history, made from 1999 to 2009 during his four tours of duty in Iraq - 160 kills. His fellow American warriors called him "the Legend." His enemies called him "the Devil."
Kyle was awarded two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal and two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals. He was honorably discharged in 2009.
Following his discharge, Chris Kyle worked with soldiers returning from active duty to help them deal with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). In 2013, he and a buddy, Chad Littlefield, were driving an ex-Marine named Eddie Ray Routh to a rifle range in Glen Rose, Texas as part of a therapeutic outing. On the way, Chris texted Chad, "This guy is straight-up nuts." Later, at the range, Routh shot both men. He's murder trial is currently underway. Chris was 38 years old and Chad was 36. This episode in Chris Kyle's life is not covered in the movie.
Kyle's book and the movie based on it chronicle the strains of war on their family, as well as on Chris. The movie is up for Best Picture at the 2015 Academy Awards. Bradley Cooper is also up for a Best Actor Award. Other nominations include Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Most memorable lines:
Wayne Kyle: There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn't exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep, they wouldn't know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep.
Then you've got predators, who use violence to prey on the weak. They're the wolves.
And then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression, an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog.
Best Thriller - Edge Of Tomorrow
4 Stars - Best Thriller of 2014 - starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton; directed by Doug Liman (Bourne Identity)
Tom Cruise never ages. I can't believe he's still doing action films and still doing most of his own stunts. He's amazing.
This one doesn't disappoint. The main premise is a bit bizarre: Army officer Cage (Cruise) has picked up a "virus" from some aliens called "Mimics" that are destroying Earth. It causes its "host" to relive the same series of events until he is killed; after which he is "reborn" to go through the same thing again - thus the tagline, " Live, Die, Repeat." The repetition gets somewhat redundant, though it is in no way boring because each time he lives longer and gets farther, as he "learns" how to survive, with the help of another officer named Rita (Emily Blunt), who is a living legend among her fellow soldiers.
The film is intense, with a lot of violence. But it does have a redeeming story line and, surprisingly, a subtle love story.
Most memorable lines:
Rita Vrataski: We should just reset.
Rita Vrataski: Come find me when you wake up!
Best Action-Adventure - Guardians Of The Galaxy
5 Stars - Best Action-Adventure of 2014 - starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper; directed by James Gunn; written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
This is one campy film, and a long-overdue spoof on comic book heroes. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is just an overgrown kid that has a loose relationship with a band of space pirates, but is really just out for himself. He meets the rest of the "Guardians" in prison: Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Groot (voice by Vin Diesel) and Rocket (voice by Bradley Cooper). Gamora provides the romantic interest, Drax the comic relief; Groot is a wonderful tree-like character, and Rocket, believe it or not, is a raccoon. The Guardians not only have to battle the evil Ronan (Lee Pace), who is trying to take over the universe; but they also have to put up with the pirates, led by Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), who wants revenge for being double-crossed by Quill; and the planet Xandar and their Nova Corps, who wants to arrest them. This is nothing but pure, unabashed fun. One of the best things is the seventies music that forms the soundtrack. Quill is obsessed with the music of his parents, which forms a whole nother layer of humor.
Most memorable lines:
Groot: I am Groot.
Peter Quill: Well that's just as fascinating as the first 89 times. What is wrong with Giving Tree here?
Rocket Raccoon: Well he don't know talkin' good like me and you, so his vocabulistics is limited to "I" and "am" and "Groot," exclusively in that order.
Peter Quill: Well I tell you what, that's gonna wear real thin, real fast, bud.
Drax the Destroyer: I can barely see.
[Groot releases glowing spores from his body to light up the way ahead]
Drax the Destroyer: Where did you learn to do that?
Peter Quill: I'm pretty sure the answer is: "I am Groot".
Gamora: I am going to die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy.
Rhomann Dey: Peter Jason Quill. He's also known as Star-Lord.
Nova Corps Officer: Who calls him that?
Rhomann Dey: Himself, mostly. Wanted mostly on charges of minor assault, public intoxication and fraud...
[Quill winds up his finger and flips the bird at the screen which reads: OBSCENE GESTURE ALERT]
Peter Quill: Oh, I'm sorry. I don't know how this machine works...
Best Comedy - Chef
5 Stars - Best Comedy of 2014 - starring Jon Favreau, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo; written and directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man)
This is one of the real surprises of the year. Written and directed by Jon Favreau - who produced, directed and acted in the Iron Man movies - this is his love letter to cooking. Obviously Favreau is a master chef; so he has combined at least two of his loves - food and movies, and possibly hot Latin music - into a small masterpiece that not only has great acting and very funny moments, but also a very touching story about rebuilding one's life and relationships after hitting rock bottom. For Carl Casper, that means going from being a master chef celebrated by food critics for his creativity, to getting in a name-calling contest with a food critic on Twitter, to being fired by his restaurant's owner (Dustin Hoffman), to buying a food truck from his ex-wife's second ex-husband (Robert Downey, Jr.) and hitting the road. Casper is on an odyssey, as he refurbishes the truck and drives it from Miami back to LA., accompanied by his ten-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), and his best friend, Martin (John Leguizamo). Over the course of their journey, Casper begins rebuilding his career, his relationship with his son, his life and even his marriage.
There are a lot of great father-son moments, wonderful food and, as I said, very hot Latin music in this film. It's not to be missed. The one negative: some strong language; but it is mostly "guy talk," and shouldn't be too offensive to anyone.
Most memorable line:
Carl Casper (talking to his son): I may not do everything great in my life, but I'm good at this. I manage to touch people's lives with what I do and I want to share this with you.
[This is a poor representation of the great dialogue in this film. I'll have more later.]
Rated R for strong language.
Best Romance - The Fault In Our Stars
4 Stars - Best Romance of 2014 - starring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff; directed by Josh Boone; written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the book by John Green
This is a very touching, funny film. You wouldn't think the story of two teenage cancer victims falling in love would be anything but sad, but this movie is a joyous celebration of life and love. Hazel (Shailene Woodley) starts out depressed by the diagnosis of cancer; but then she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort) in a support group. He is walking optimism, as well as funny and kind. Through his encouragement, Hazel begins seeing that life is not so bleak and, as a matter of fact, quite wonderful. Together, they find something that is better than the diagnosis of a long life: true love, no matter how brief.
There are some wonderful contrasts, especially between their brief, happy love and the long, bitter life of a writer they both thought they admired: Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). They take a trip to Amsterdam to meet him; but he turns out not to be what they thought. I think it's in discovering the poverty of his soul that they realize the richness of their own, and how lucky they are to have each other. Their luck is not in their stars, but in each other.
Most memorable lines:
Hazel Grace Lancaster: Hello. My name is Hazel Grace Lancaster. And Augustus Waters was the star-crossed love of my life. Ours is an epic love story and I probably won't be able to get more than a sentence out without disappearing into a puddle of tears. Like all real love stories, ours will die with us, as it should. You know, I'd kind of hoped that he'd be the one eulogizing me, because there is really no one else... Yeah, no, um... I'm not gonna talk about our love story, 'cause I can't. So instead I'm gonna talk about math. I'm not a mathematician, but I do know this: There are infinite numbers between zero and one. There's point one, point one two, point one one two, and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger set of infinite numbers between zero and two or between zero and a million. Some infinities are simply bigger than other infinities. A writer that we used to like taught us that. You know, I want more numbers than I'm likely to get, and God, do I want more days for Augustus Waters than what he got. But Gus, my love, I can not tell you how thankful I am, for our little infinity. You gave me a forever, within the numbered days. And for that I am... I am eternally grateful. I love you so much.
Augustus Waters: I love you too.
Hazel Grace Lancaster: Is it really 1 A.M.?
Augustus Waters: Is it? Yeah, yes, it is. [laugh] I should probably go to sleep. [Exhale] Okay.
Hazel Grace Lancaster: Okay.
Augustus Waters: Okay.
Hazel Grace Lancaster: Okay.
Augustus Waters: Perhaps, 'okay' will be our 'always.'
Hazel Grace Lancaster: Okay.
Augustus Waters: [voice over, from his eulogy to Hazel] Mr. Van Houten. I'm a good person, but a shitty writer. You're a shitty person, but a good writer. I think we'd make a good team. I don't wanna ask you for any favors, but if you have the time - and from what I saw you had plenty - please fix this for me: It's a eulogy for Hazel. She asked me to write one, and I'm trying, but I just... I could use a little flair. See, the thing is... we all wanna be remembered. But Hazel's different. Hazel knows the truth. She didn't want a million admirers, she just wanted one. And she got it. Maybe she wasn't loved widely, but she was loved deeply. And isn't that more than most of us get? When Hazel was sick, I knew I was dying, but I didn't wanna say so. She was in the ICU when I snuck in for ten minutes and I just sat with her before I got caught. Her eyes were closed, her skin pale, but her hands were still her hands, still warm, and her nails were painted this dark blue black color, and... I just held them. And I willed myself to imagine a world without us and what a worthless world that would be. She's so beautiful. You don't get tired of looking at her. You never worry if she's smarter than you, 'cause you know she is. She's funny without ever being mean. I love her. God, I love her, I'm so lucky to love her, Van Houten. You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world, but you do have a say in who hurts you. And I like my choices. I hope she likes hers. Okay, Hazel Grace?
Hazel Grace Lancaster: Okay.
Most Inspirational Film - Million Dollar Arm
4 Stars - Most Inspirational Film of 2014 - starring Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin; directed by Craig Gillespie; written by Thomas McCarthy
What's refreshing about this film is that it's about baseball, but it's set in India. Unlike Draft Day, which is about the money side of sports - with which many fans have become fed up - this is about the pure love of the game. But it doesn't start out that way. As in Jerry McGuire, a sports agent, JB (Jon Hamm), is washed up; so he's looking for a way to relaunch his career. He comes up with a crazy idea: to look for new baseball talent in India, among young cricket players. He makes the trip, he sets up some competitions, and he finds his players. But he's distracted by other opportunities back home; so he doesn't give himself fully to developing the young players. When the other opportunities dry up, he's forced to deal with the only opportunity he has left: these young Indian recruits that know nothing about American baseball. The process changes him and his young proteges. This is based on a true story.
Best Christian Film - Unbroken
4 Stars - Best Christian Film of 2014 - starring Jack O'Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, Domhnall Gleeson; direction by Angelina Jolie; written by Joel and Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand
Review coming soon. Meanwhile, enjoy these facts:
This is Angelina Jolie's first major motion picture as a director. It's based on the very successful biography by one of the finest historians of our time, Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit). The screenplay is by two of the film industry's most creative writers, Joel and Ethan Coen. Just these facts alone make this film interesting. But when you add to these who it is about - Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, who survived a plane crash in the Pacific, 47 days adrift in a raft and two years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during WW2 - this becomes an event. What isn't included in the film, but is in the book, is Zamperini's conversion to Christianity, which is the most important part of his story. Here is Janet Chismar's account of that event on the Billy Graham Library web site:
When 94-year-old Louis Zamperini opened his mailbox a few months ago, he found a letter he will always treasure.
"Dear Louis," wrote Billy Graham, "My associate read me parts of the new book about you yesterday. What a life you have lived. What a description you have in the book of your conversion to Christ in 1949, and the great part that [your wife] Cynthia played in it, which I was aware of, but not in such detail. I had tears in my eyes and praise in my heart for what God has done through you."
Mr. Graham's letter is one of thousands that have poured into Zamperini's mailbox since the release of the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Unbroken. The story about Zamperini's remarkable journey from Olympic runner to World War II hero has been hailed by TIME magazine as the best nonfiction book of the year.
And Billy Graham isn't just a consumer of Unbroken, he plays a pivotal role in the book.
As his letter said, the year was 1949. The city: Los Angeles. Louis Zamperini was adrift and struggling with alcoholism and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following savage abuse as a prisoner of war in Japan. Cynthia was ready to saddle him with divorce papers.
It was around this time that neighbors convinced the young woman to listen to the bold evangelist preaching in a big tent outside downtown Los Angeles. Cynthia accepted Christ that night, and she told her husband that because of her conversion, she wouldn't file for divorce. She asked Louis if he would accompany her to the Crusade. After a week of arguing, she finally persuaded him to go.
"I was resentful," he says. "I'd always been poisoned against such tent meetings since I was a youngster."
Hillenbrand paints a vivid picture of what happened when Zamperini actually walked into the Billy Graham Crusade, including portions of the sermon he heard, which concluded with a clear presentation of the Gospel. That chapter in the book is an answer to prayer.
"Unbroken is Laura's book," says Zamperini, "so all I could do was pray that she would somehow have the Gospel in it. Then she called me and told me she had talked to Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows. She wanted to include the sermon I heard, and they sent it to her."
He describes how the two joined forces to share the story of Unbroken. When Hillenbrand was researching her book about the thoroughbred racehorse Seabiscuit, she found an interesting quote from a 1938 Los Angeles Times article. A reporter had called Zamperini's coach and said, "Louie hasn't lost a mile race in four years. If he loses this year, who do you think will beat him?" Zamperini's coach answered, "Seabiscuit."
The newspaper writer loved that quote—and so did Hillenbrand. She proceeded to call Zamperini and said she wanted to write a book about his life. "I told her I had just finished my own book, Devil at My Heels, and that I had milked the story dry."
Hillenbrand recognized that Zamperini's story was worth waiting for. "We became close friends, and after about a year, she asked again. She said this: 'I must do it.'"
Zamperini is thankful for Hillenbrand's persistence and thoroughness. He describes her as an amazing researcher. "She has such depth in her writing, and she confirms every single thing. The woman is historically accurate on every word. She won't print a word unless she has confirmation."
The book is really a history book, says Zamperini. "I get calls from World War II veterans, and they say, 'I have just finished Unbroken. Finally someone has written the truth about the war in the Pacific.'"
Hillenbrand's graphic descriptions elicited difficult memories for Zamperini. "I found myself back in prison camp when I was reading the book, and had to stop and look away to be sure I was still here. I almost had a nightmare."
Zamperini did have nightmares in prison and nightmares at home until he received Christ at the Billy Graham Crusade. "That night when I got home from the Crusade, it was unbelievable. I didn't have a nightmare, and I haven't had one since," he says.
One critic of the book found that hard to swallow. "I can't understand how someone with severe PTSD could get over it in one night," he wrote.
"The fellow obviously doesn't know his Bible," Zamperini says with a laugh. "When you accept Christ, you become a new creation. Old things are gone."
While secular audiences are eating up Hillenbrand's captivating descriptions of Zamperini's track career, World War II experience and the horrifying prisoner of war account, Christians are finding fresh inspiration in the pages of Unbroken.
"I get so many letters from Christians," says Zamperini, "and some of them are having a tough time. I write back and share Scripture with them."
He describes a letter he received recently from a man who had been fired from his job. "This man was a Christian and forgave everyone else in his life, but he had a hard time forgiving the boss who fired him. He hated the man. But then he read in Unbroken how I forgave the POW prison guard." Now this man has not only forgiven his boss, he is praying for him.
"Unbroken has had a tremendous influence, and it has turned into a God-given opportunity to share the Gospel," Zamperini adds. "The book has yielded an unbelievable ministry."
Most memorable lines:
Older Pete: A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.
Best Family Film - The Giver
4 Stars - Best Family Film of 2014 - starring Brenton Thwaites, Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep; directed by Phillip Noyce; writers Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, based on the book by Lois Lowry
In a post-apocalyptic world that has supposedly solved the problem of war by removing all differences between people, an old man called The Giver (Jeff Bridges), who has been given the responsibility of remember the history of civilization, takes a protege named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites). When the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) realizes that The Giver has something more in mind than just passing down his knowledge to a younger man, she decides to destroy both him and Jonas. But Jonas, too, has his own plans.
This is a visually and philosophically interesting film, with a good story that someone of almost any age will appreciate. What I like most about it is the mentoring relationship between The Giver and Jonas. Jeff Bridges makes a great crusty old man, as he did in True Grit. This film contains some wonderful metaphors for young people. It's not a great film but it is a good one for teenagers and up.
Most memorable lines:
Jonas: ...It was like a memory, but Fiona was there.
The Giver: It was a dream.
Jonas: A what?
The Giver: A dream. A combination of reality, imagination, emotions and what you ate for dinner.
Jonas: Emotion was so strong... And it was the wedding! Rounded all laughing, dancing... Elders with young groom with the bride, there was something there. But different from what we have. The... We do not have that now.
The Giver: What do you mean?
Jonas: I'm talking about how you feel for someone else. And mind can not explain and can not make you stop. What is it?
The Giver: Love.
Best Kid's Movie - How To Train Your Dragon 2
4 Stars - Best Kid's Movie of 2014 - starring Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler; written and directed by Dean DeBlois, based on the book series by Cressida Cowell
I'm not a big fan of this franchise, or of DreamWorks Animation. Their characters are goof-looking with goofy names - Hiccup?! - with occasional raunchy jokes creeping into the script. But, for the most part, this is very entertaining and will hold the attention of any kid, young or old. I'm surprised that Pixar didn't come out with a film this year, and that Disney could only come up with Big Hero 6. It takes their absence, or near absence, for DreamWorks Animation to stand out.
Most memorable lines:
Hiccup: [narrating] This is Berk. The best kept secret this side of, well, anywhere. Granted, it may not look like much, but this wet heap of rock packs more than a few surprises. Life here is amazing, just not for the faint of heart. You see, where most folks enjoy hobbies like whittling or needlepoint, we Berkians prefer a little something we like to call... DRAGON RACING!
Best Documentary - America: Imagine the World Without Her
4 Stars - Best Documentary of 2014 - starring Dinesh D'Souza, Barack Obama, Josh Bonzie; written and directed by Dinesh D'Souza, John Sullivan
The sad thing about this movie is that, if you're a conservative, you will like or love it; if you're a liberal, you'll hate it. That is how divided our country is right now. I consider myself a moderate, and I did like this movie. I thought it was very thought-provoking. Also revealing is the gigantic gulf between critics and audiences. On Rotten Tomatoes, only 8% of critics liked the film, compared to a whopping 85% of audiences who liked it. Again, this just shows how divided our nation is, and how liberal most film critics today are.
First, it deals with the supposed "reasons" that Americans should feel shame about our nation's past and why revisionists feel the need to rewrite our history. I thought the filmmakers did a great job dealing with those. Second, it talks about the proponents of these "shame theories," such as Saul Alinsky; and the present-day politicians that have bought into them, such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. That section is also good. I'm not sure what other critics were expecting or wanting but I think a documentary has a right to be whatever it wants to be, just as a feature film has a right to be whatever it wants to be. You may not like the arguments presented or how they're supported; but neither does a prosecuter in a trial in which the defendant gets off.
Before D'Souza made this film, he made the documentary, 2016: Obama's America. It, too, is almost equally divided between conservatives liking it and liberals hating it; though, on Rotten Tomatoes, critics didn't pan it nearly as much (26% liked it), and audiences didn't support it as much (73% liked it). I suppose this is the fate of any political film: the filmmakers end up preaching to the choir and get very few converts from the other side. I also suppose Christian filmmakers experience the same thing. Still, I would think the fact that D'Souza is an immigrant of Indian decent would give him more objectivity and weight with both critics and audiences; but in a world as insane as ours, maybe not.
2nd Best Drama - Jersey Boys
4 Stars - Drama - starring John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Mike Doyle; directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, based on their stage play
A second film by director Clint Eastwood in the same year? The Academy will find it hard to ignore that. I would say that's almost a guaranteed Oscar for his other film, American Sniper.
I used to be a fan of the Four Seasons. After watching this film, I'm not so much. Knowing the details of the dysfunctionality of recording artists leaves me with little desire to listen to their music. I would have to say that's true of most musicians. The best favor filmmakers could do for the rest of us is not to make movies about musicians.
That being said, there are moments in this film that are interesting and entertaining. I like the way the actors speak to the camera from time to time. I also like the story behind where the group's name came from - a bowling alley - and where the ideas for some of their songs came from. For example, while watching an old movie on TV, the female character gets slapped by her boyfriend. One of the Seasons says, "Watch this. She'll cry." But Bob Crewe, the group's manager, dismisses it and says, "Big girls don't cry;" and a new song is born.
I didn't think John Lloyd Young, who plays Frankie Valli, looked or sounded enough like the real Valli to be the star of the film. Even in his own right, he just wasn't star material. So I was bored with him and his character. Some of the other actors and their characters were better. But, again, their dysfunctionality and inability to rise above their problems left me disappointed. There seemed to be no redemption for them; so, there seems to be little redemption for this film.
Most memorable lines:
Bob Gaudio: [about Bob Crewe] I remember thinking there was something off with this guy. This was 1959, people thought Liberace was just theatrical.
Frankie Valli: They ask you "what was the high point?" Hall of Fame, selling all those records, pulling Sherry out of the hat, it was all great. But four guys under a street lamp, when it was all still ahead of us, the first time we made that sound, our sound. When everything dropped away and all there was was the music. That was the best.
Frankie Valli: Like that bunny on TV with the battery, I just keep going and going and going. Chasing the music. Trying to get home.
3rd Best Drama - Boyhood
3 Stars - Drama - starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke; written and directed by Richard Linklater
The life of a young man, Mason, from age 5 to age 18.
I have some real problems with this film.
First, the art direction is confusing. It's pretty much impossible to pinpoint when this story is supposed to take place. Is it the 70s? The clothes, house and other details at the beginning of the movie would make one think so. But wait: there are toys from the 1980s. So is it the 80s? No, wait: there's a Mac computer at school. Unless you knew that this film was shot over a 12-year period, and that it ends in the present, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with the time period. What I think the director did was cheat. I think he filled the beginning of the film with 70s stuff, eliminating it gradually over the course of the movie, so that the progression of time would be telescoped. Styles don't change that much over 12 years. So, to give the impression of time passing, he actually compressed 50 years of style into 12 years. That's cheating, in my book, and confusing for those who enjoy the style elements of film.
But this is typical of the director, Richard Linklater. He's into gimmicks: like movies that take place within a 24-hour period, or relationships that pick up after nine-year intervals, as he did with Before Midnight, Before Sunset and Before Sunrise, all of which star Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Shooting a film or a series of films over a decade or more using the same actors does not make the film(s) significant. François Truffaut already did this back in the 50s and 60s - with classic results - with the character Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Over the course of twenty years and five films, beginning with The 400 Blows, Truffaut follows the escapades of Antoine. The first film was a classic, as I said. But each subsequent film became less and less interesting. I think it was the actor Léaud. As an adolescent, he was very interesting to watch. As he grew, he became less so.
The same could be said of Linklater's character Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. He starts out interesting; but, as he grows, he becomes less so. As a matter of fact, except for Ethan Hawke, I would say that this is a very unattractive, uninteresting cast. Why he cast them is beyond me. And, as written, none of the characters, except Hawke's, elicits any empathy at all. They're all unlikable, in my book.
As a matter of fact, except for the cinematography, which is good not great, this was a pretty unlikable film for me. There are some good father-child talks between Dad (Ethan Hawke) and his two kids, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, Richard's daughter). But throughout the film, moral ambiguity prevails. Mason has both negative and positive influences in his life, but we don't see any consequences from the negative or benefits from the positive. For example, we don't see any negative consequences from Mason's use of drugs. Conversely, we don't see any positive benefits from his exposure to the message of Christ; which, by the way, is one of the best I've ever seen presented in a film. We don't even see any direct benefits from all the talks his dad has with him, as far as his making decisions based on those talks. We just see him at the end of the film, magically, in the best place he's ever been in; but still using drugs, still sleeping with whomever, still receiving no consequences for his decisions. The question we're left with is: will he end up like his mom, disillusioned and unhappy? Or will he end up like his dad, happy and in a good place? We THINK he'll end up like his dad. But how's he going to get there? Again, magically?
Like Truffaut, Linklater is trying to give us a slice of life, without commenting on that life. That may have worked for Truffaut during the French New Wave and the morally ambiguous 60s; but today, people expect a filmmaker to take a stand and to say something. Linklater has said nothing. So, why should anyone listen?
Most memorable lines:
Dad: [Mason Jr. bowls a gutterball] Alright, don't worry about it.
Mason: I wish I could use the bumpers...
Dad: You don't want the bumpers, life doesn't give you bumpers.
Mason: Dad, there's no real magic in the world, right?
Dad: What do you mean?
Mason: You know, like elves and stuff. People just made that up.
Dad: Oh, I don't know. I mean, what makes you think that elves are any more magical than something like a whale? Yoy know what I mean? What if I told you a story about how underneath the ocean, there was this giant sea mammal that used sonar and sang songs and it was so big that its heart was the size of a car and you could crawl through the arteries? I mean, you'd think that was pretty magical, right?
3rd Best Thriller - Divergent (2nd Best is coming soon)
3 Stars - Thriller - starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet; direction by Neil Burger (The Illusionist); written by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor, based on the novel by Veronica Roth
This film is similar to The Giver in that we're presented with a post-apocalyptic world in which all differences between people have been wiped out and they've been "reprogrammed" to fit into one of five factions based on their personalities - kind of a Myers-Briggs society. If someone doesn't fit into one of the five groups, they are labelled "Divergent" and cast out of society. Tris (Shailene Woodley) discovers that she is Divergent, and tries to hide that fact from those who are training her to become a Dauntless, or peace-keeper, which is the most active and exciting faction to belong to - especially after she finds out that the Divergents have been tagged for genocide.
This film has a lot of problems, not the least of which are the cumbersome names of the five factions. Also, one wonders where all the older people are - most everyone in the film is in their teens or twenties. So the basic concepts are flawed, even for a sci-fi thriller. Nevertheless, it's entertaining.
Most memorable lines:
Tori: You're different. You don't fit into a category. They can't control you. They call it Divergent. You can't let them find out about you.
Jeanine Matthews: The system removes the threat of anyone exercising their independent will. Divergents threaten that system. It won't be safe until they're removed.
Four: Fear does something strange to people like Al. But not you. Fear doesn't shut you down, it wakes you up.
2nd Best Action-Adventure - Captain America: Winter Soldier
4 Stars - Action-Adventure - starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson; directed by Anthony and Joe Russo; based on the comic books created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby
Captain America is one of my favorite super heroes, so naturally I like this second installment in the series. I think Chris Evans makes the perfect Steve Rogers / Captain America, and Scarlett Johansson makes the perfect Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow. Samuel L. Jackson is not bad either as Nick Fury. It's actually somewhat amazing how well the members of Marvel's Avengers team were cast, and how well that cast has maintained their characters throughout the various movies that have been spun off from that franchise. The owners must be raking it in.
As with most heroes, eventually they find themselves being attacked from within, rather than from without. So it is with this installment. H.Y.D.R.A., the Nazi-like organization from the first Captain America movie, has taken over S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization that Nick Fury heads up. One of Rogers' comrades from the first movie has been turned into a powerful mutant warrior called Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), similar to Captain America, except that he's been programmed as an assassin. At the same time, an armada of helicarriers, designed by S.H.I.E.L.D. to protect earth from extraterrestrial attack, is being readied for deployment; but not for the purpose they were intended. H.Y.D.R.A. has also taken over that. Add to this the fact that Rogers has been labelled a renegade and doesn't know whom he can trust, including Nick Fury, and you have Captain America with his hands full. Luckily, he still has Black Widow on his side, plus an unexpected friend named Falcon (Anthony Mackie).
Most memorable lines:
Steve Rogers: You know me.
The Winter Soldier: No, I don't!
Steve Rogers: Bucky. you've known me your entire life. Your name is James Buchanan Barnes...
The Winter Soldier: SHUT UP!
Steve Rogers: I'm not gonna fight you. You're my friend.
[drops his shield]
The Winter Soldier: [Lunges at Steve and repeatedly pummels him] You're my mission! YOU ARE MY MISSION!
Steve Rogers: [bruised and bloodied just as the Winter Soldier is about to deliver a final blow] Then finish it. 'Cause I'm with you 'til the end of the line.
Natasha Romanoff: Kiss me.
Steve Rogers: What?
Natasha Romanoff: Public displays of affection make people very uncomfortable.
Steve Rogers: Yes, they do.
[Natasha grabs and kisses Rogers, causing a passing Rumlow to look away uncomfortably]
Natasha Romanoff: [uncomfortable herself] You still uncomfortable?
Steve Rogers: [even more uncomfortable] That's not exactly the word I would use.
Sam Wilson: Hey, Cap, how do we know the good guys from the bad guys?
Steve Rogers: If they're shooting at you, they're bad.
3rd Best Action-Adventure - The Amazing Spiderman 2
3 Stars - Action-Adventure - starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx; directed by Marc Webb; based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
I never understood why this series came about. The original series by Sam Raimi and starring Toby Maguire was almost perfect. It was funny, cartoony, campy, with some great cameos by actors like Bruce Campbell - everything a comic book adaptation should be. This new series by Marc Webb, starring Andrew Garfield, is dark, originally not funny, too serious, etc. The only thing this second film adds to that mix is that it does have some funny moments; but I still don't think the director gets what Spiderman is about. His casting of Andrew Garfield as Spiderman especially perplexes me. He just seems "wrong."
Nevertheless, this second film in this new series is entertaining - way more than the first. So it's worth a look.
4th Best Action-Adventure - Fury
3 Stars - Action-Adventure - starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman; written and directed by David Ayer
I found almost nothing to like in the first half of this film: the characters are all unlikable psychos, the violence is overdone, the handling of death is callous, common decencies are nonexistent. I don't believe that is the way most soldiers were back in WW2. I think Band Of Brothers and other books and films on the war show us they were not. Those are sensibilities that we today have brought to the table. Thankfully, this attitude lightens a bit in the second half of the movie.
Still, this is a very professionally made film, with the highest production values and acting. I just wish there was more to redeem it than the final, defining courage that the tank crew shows. I also wish there were moments throughout the film where bits and pieces of humanity shown through all the mud and death, but there is not. This is an anti-war film, plain and simple.
Most memorable lines:
Boyd 'Bible' Swan: Here's a Bible verse I think about sometimes. Manytimes. It goes, "And I heard the voice of Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send and who will go for Us?' And... I said, 'Here am I, send me!'"
Norman Ellison: [Mumbling] Send me.
Wardaddy: Book of Isaiah, chapter six.
Medic #2: [to a dazed Norman] Hey, you're a hero, buddy. You know that?
2nd Best Comedy - The Hundred-Foot Journey
4 Stars - Comedy - starring Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal; directed by Lasse Hallström; written by Steven Knight, based on the book by Richard C. Morais
After Chef, who would have thought there would be another, almost equally delicious comedy about food, but here it is. After hoodlums burn their restaurant to the ground over a political dispute, an Indian family moves to France and reopens their restaurant right across the road from one of the most successful haute cuisine establishments in the region. It's run by the persnickety owner, Madame Mallory, played perfectly by Helen Mirren. When she tries to sabotage their success, the father (Om Puri) declares war, and the two establishments fight it out. But one of Madame Mallory's sous chefs, Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon) takes a liking to one of the Indian family's sons, Hassan (Manish Dayal), and begins teaching him some of the secrets of becoming a chef. Eventually, Madame Mallory discovers that he has real talent, and invites him to make the hundred-foot journey across the road to her restaurant, where he will learn to become a great chef. This, of course, has consequences with his family and with Marguerite.
This is a wonderful story, full of the atmosphere of France and India and the magic of cooking from both countries, and played by an international cast of attractive, talented actors.
3rd Best Comedy - The Grand Budapest Hotel
4 Stars - Comedy - starring Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum; written and directed by Wes Anderson, inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig
This film had soooooooo much potential. It could have ended up as a classic, because, visually, it is stunning. But writer-director Wes Anderson decided to go for both cute and raunchy gags, not to mention foul language, especially the "f" word; thus eliminated the chance of this being suitable for adolescent audiences, which it otherwise would have been perfect for. And even though the filmmakers were sticklers about the visuals, they were lazy about the accents of the characters, the most disconcerting of which are the Europeans being played by Americans. It's almost jarring when Jeff Goldblum first speaks. For a film that is otherwise meticulous about detail, it's too bad Anderson didn't think that little detail was important.
Then there's the problem of empathy: who really cares what happens to the protagonist, Gustav H, played so well by Ralph Fiennes? We're interested, of course; but we don't really care because, frankly, he's something of a fey twit. He's only somewhat endearing because he seems to care about other people. But in reality, he's a concierge and that's what he's supposed to do. He really only cares about himself, and possibly his lobby boy, Zero (played by Tony Revolori as a boy and F. Murray Abraham as an adult), and that is probably why this film left me flat. Even though it's a highly stylized black comedy, which means it is supposed to be somewhat cynical; that shouldn't rule out the need for well-developed characters. On the other hand, there is a plethora of interesting characters, all of which are as flat as playing cards, which, along with the cinematography, makes this movie seem very much like a video game. Spotting famous actors in cameo roles is also something of a game that proves almost as entertaining as the movie itself.
Most memorable lines:
M. Gustave: [to Mme. Celine's corpse] You're looking so well, darling, you really are... they've done a marvelous job. I don't know what sort of cream they've put on you down at the morgue, but... I want some.
M. Gustave: I'm not angry with Serge; you can't blame someone for their basic lack of moral fiber. He's a frightened little yellow-bellied coward. It's not his fault, is it?
Zero: I don't know, it depends.
M. Gustave: Well, you can say that about most anything, "it depends". Of course it depends.
Zero: Of course it depends, of course it depends.
M. Gustave: Yes, I suppose you're right; of course it depends. However, that doesn't mean I'm not going to throttle the little swamp rat.
X-Men: Days Of Future Past - I don't see why so many people liked this film, because it really doesn't add much to the franchise; and with action taking place in both the present and the past, the story is a bit confusing. Seeing Magneto as a good guy is also unsettling. 3 Stars. PG-13.
Lego Movie - Amazing animation, but the story itself is somewhat shallow - as it probably should be for children - and the characters leave something to be desired - as might be expected. The best part of the film is when humans enter the picture. That is a neat surprise. 3 Stars. PG-13
God Is NOT Dead - This film tries too hard to prove a point - never a good idea for anything but a documentary. The only actor that stands out in any way is Kevin Sorbo, who plays the atheist college professor. Everyone else is either amateurish or wasted (e.g., Dean Cain). 3 Stars. PG.
Monuments Men - Great cast but predictable story and weak script. George Clooney stars in and directs. 3 Stars. PG-13.
Draft Day - Kevin Costner was once good box office, but not anymore. Just the fact that he was starring in this film should have told me something. Unless you really care what the insides of various pro football clubhouses look like, you won't find much to hang your hat on entertainment-wise. 3 Stars. PG-13
Please note: I couldn't see everything that looked like it might be good last year. I purposely missed Noah, Exodus and Son Of God because I figured they would botch the Biblical stories, even though I hoped against hope that they wouldn't. But word has it, they did. I missed Heaven Is For Real because I don't believe near-death experiences of heaven are real. I think they're just very vivid dreams. I haven't seen Selma yet, and I'm not sure I want to. I have been wanting a biographical film about "Martin Luther King, Jr." for a long time, but I want one that does not have a political agenda, which I believe this one does. I also haven't seen Interstellar, The Hobbit: There And Back Again, Whiplash, Foxcatcher or The Good Lie yet, any one of which may turn out to be beneficial. When I do, and if they are, I'll add them in.
What to Look Forward to in 2015
Kingsman: The Secret Service - Opens February (USA) - Looks good.
The Perfect Wave - Opens ? (USA) - Stars Scott Eastwood, son of Clint Eastwood. - Christian coming of age movie based on true story.
Cinderella - Opens March 13 (USA) - Walt Disney's live-action retelling of famous fairy tale, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Stars Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Lily James, Richard Madden, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera, Stellan Skarsgård, Nonso Anozie, Derek Jacobi.
I Am Michael - Opens April 4 (USA) - Stars James Franco, Zachary Quinto, Emma Roberts and Charlie Carver. A gay activist denounces homosexuality and becomes a Christian pastor. True story.
Beyond The Mask - Opens April 6 (USA) - Christian family movie. "Double-crossed and on the run, an assassin for the British East India Company seeks to redeem his past by thwarting a plot against a young nation's hope for freedom."
The Longest Ride - Opens April 10 (USA) - Based on the Nicholas Sparks' novel, and starring Scott Eastwood, it follows two sets of lovers in intertwining stories.
The Moon And The Sun - Opens April 10 (USA) - Mermaid film from Sean McNamara, director of Soul Surfer.
The Water Diviner - Opens April 24 (USA) - Stars Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Isabel Lucas, Jacqueline McKenzie. An Australian man travels to Turkey after the Battle of Gallipoli to try and locate his three missing sons. This is Russell Crowe's directorial debut.
Far From The Madding Crowd - Opens May 1 (USA) - Remake of one of my favorite movies from the 60s, based on Thomas Hardy's fourth novel. PG-13
The Avengers: Age Of Ultron - Opens May 1 (USA) - Marvel's The Avengers 2. Same super hero excitement.
Mad Max: Fury Road - Opens May 15 (USA) - First Mad Max in three decades, and without Mel Gibson. I dunno.
Disney's Tomorrowland - Opens May 22 (USA) - Tagline: Imagine a world where nothing is impossible. Stars George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Judy Greer, Kathryn Hahn, Britt Robertson.
Disney / Pixar's Inside Out - Opens June 19 (USA) - Tagline: Meet the little voices inside your head.
Minions - Opens July 10 (USA) - Animation comedy
Ant-Man - Opens July 17 (USA) - Marvel Comic's latest super hero. Small but powerful. Stars Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Hayley Atwell, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña
Pan - Opens July 24 - Retelling of Peter Pan, starring Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, Rooney Mara, Garett Hedlund
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. - Opens August 14 (USA) - Tagline: A higher class of hero. Stars Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant
"Untitled" - Opens October 16 (USA) - Cold war movie involving Steven Spielberg, the Coen Brothers and Tom Hanks.
Spectre - Opens November 6 (USA) - Latest James Bond 007, starring Daniel Craig
In the Heart of the Sea - Opens December 11 - From director Ron Howard. Stars Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Holland, Jordi Mollà. Rated PG-13
Mission: Impossible 5 - Opens December 25 - (USA) - Tom Cruise
Superman vs Batman - Opens ? (USA) -
Peanuts - Opens ? (USA) -
Macbeth - Opens ? (USA) -
She's Funny That Way - Opens ? (USA) - Peter Bogdanovich - screwball comedy
Princess Cut - Opens ? (USA) - Christian film from Director Paul Munger of Watchman Pictures
What's missing in movies today that movies in the past possessed in spades is charm, which is one of the qualities that endears an audience to a film and gives it longevity. Special effects have mowed down all other qualities in film, and it's time to get back to what made films in the past great. Only an empty-headed, technology-crazed society would think that special effects are enough. Charm is a quality that both characters and story need if a film is to become a classic and survive from generation to generation. It is a quality that a society needs if it is to survive. Charm is the quality that marks all Pixar pictures. What better endorsement do you need than that?
Another quality that is missing from most films today is grace. Fortunately, it does appear occasionally, as it did this year in Chef and The Hundred-Foot Journey. When a film has grace, audiences love it and realize there is something different about that film. It's a quality that you can't get enough of, and it makes you want what the characters in the film have. It's God's fingerprint on a film.
Another missing quality is discretion, which is the better part of valor. Directors today want to show everything. They don't leave anything to the imagination. That is not good artistry, nor is it good humanity. A woman in clothes is sexier than one that's naked because it creates mystery and makes one wonder. Once she's exposed, the mystery's gone and so is the wonder. By showing everything, directors today are raising an ante that future directors cannot possibly meet. There will eventually be a point at which a director will not be able to show any more nudity, any more violence, any more realism. At that point, movies will degenerate into something more perverse, or disintegrate entirely. It's time to get back to discretion in film, and life.
Do you realize that while the Motion Picture Production Code was in effect, which was from 1934 to 1968, the greatest films that have ever been made - the films we today call "classics" - were produced? 1939, the year when the Code was at its height, has been called the greatest year of cinema. More classic films were produced that year than in any year since. Today, there is no Code. Producers can make anything they like, and they are churning out the trash as fast as they can... and people are buying it.
There's something to be said for discipline. Having restraint makes one more creative. If you can do anything, you will, and it will be the same old anything that everyone else is doing. I'd like to see us get back to a Production Code in this country. I think it would give us better films. But it will take the American public demanding it of our government. It was the threat of government intervention that got the Motion Picture Association of America to come up with the Code the first time. It can happen again if we make it happen.
Waitsel Smith, February 25, 2014
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