2014 at the Movies: The Best, the Worst, and Everything Else - PART 2
Jason Chen and I are back with the second installment of our 2014 year-in-review conversation! After sparring over The Lego Movie and the films of Wes Anderson, now we dive into some more releases from the first few months of the year, including the Captain America sequel, George Clooney’s most recent directorial effort, and the first half of the summer movie season (The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Godzilla).
I am a little shocked that you had The Winter Soldier, The Monuments Men and Jack Ryan on your ‘dislike’ list. What gives? I thought you would’ve liked the spy film elements in Winter Soldier, and Jack Ryan is right up your alley as an espionage film. The Monuments Men wasn’t terrible, but it was really flat.
Something about Winter Soldier just didn't click with me. Maybe it's because I can't relate to Captain America, but I did have three big problems with the rest of the movie.
First was the government surveillance angle. They were obviously trying to link back to the real-world use of drones and the NSA scandal, but the film's version was too superficial for me. Second was Nick Fury's "death" - yet another manipulative "supposed death and resurrection" scene that gets more tiresome every time superhero movies lean on it. Third (and probably the worst offender of the bunch) was the reveal of Hydra guiding global events, and being responsible for things like the JFK assassination and other historical tragedies. Not only is it a tired trope, it undermines everything the movie tries to do in the first act to make us think the government in the film is doing wrong.
Winter Soldier was a really uneven film. I appreciate that they tried to cross it over into the spy genre but it became a mish-mash of weird ideas. Nick Fury's comeback wasn't surprising. I don't know if you read comics or not, but Marvel has this tendency to retcon all of its character deaths and bring them back to life in one way or another. It's actually one of their signature moves now. And really, with a whole slate of Marvel films coming out, how can you kill off Fury?
I find Toby Jones a little creepy to begin with, so I actually liked the part about how his character’s mind had lived on within the machines. It showed a little continuity with the first Captain America. It was well done. How Cap and Black Widow survived the subsequent missile attack, however, is a huge mystery.
Even as a history major I kind of like it when films play around with history, or at least make references to it. Maybe it's just the conspiracy theorist in me, but I like fresh ideas and fresh takes on global events. Batman Begins did the same thing when Ra’s Al Ghul said the League of Shadows had infiltrated every level of Gotham, and I didn't have any problems with that.
I think it certainly grounds the film with a little more realism by referencing events that are well-known to the public. It’s like in Men in Black – these aliens and otherworldly characters are all around else, they’re just in disguise. It gives me the tingles knowing that somewhere out there, Mystique from X-Men (the Jennifer Lawrence or Rebecca Romijn versions – I’m not picky) is alive and waiting for me.
As for Jack Ryan? Despite some good work from the cast (even Keira Knightley!) and strong first and second acts, the movie dissolved into clichés in the last thirty minutes. We had terrorists hiding in plain sight, a bomb plot in downtown NYC with seconds left on the timer, etc. Maybe it's just a case of the filmmakers working through a by-the-book origin story before expanding into something more fresh in a sequel, but it doesn't look like the box office revenues are going to give them that opportunity.
To your question about The Monuments Men: I really, really wanted it to be good. That cast, plus Clooney directing, had lots of potential. But you're right, big stretches of the film fell flat. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban didn't have any chemistry in their scenes, which was a shame. Other bits were awkwardly staged, like when Clooney's character is giving an inspirational speech to his team over the radio, despite the fact that he's sitting only a few feet away from them. And when a movie with so much potential squanders it in such lazy ways, I tend to rate it a lot lower.
We haven’t talked about sci-fi yet – anything jump out at you from that genre?
I really, really liked Edge of Tomorrow. Not only is it a fantastic Tom Cruise vehicle, doesn't the character fit him perfectly? He's got the charisma and bleached toothy grin to be the perfect PR man. I was really fascinated by the premise and it was really fun to learn that Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the Japanese author of the source novel All You Need is Kill, was inspired by video games and having to start the same levels over and over again after dying.
Doug Liman's excellent editing really made it feel really fresh. But I don't think it was marketed very well, and the tagline "Live. Die. Repeat." is just lame. I mean, it gets to the point, but Edge of Tomorrow sounds so much more badass, and at no part of the film did they ever reference what the hell that phrase means. Classic Hollywood bigwigs being spectacularly out of touch with their audience.
Edge of Tomorrow was one of my biggest surprises this year. It had lots of great stuff going in (cool concept, Doug Liman directing, Emily freakin’ Blunt), but I was totally unsure of how it would come together. They rose above a lot of the potential pitfalls, and I'm kind of sad that more people didn't see it (at least here in North America, since I think the foreign box office did well).
There’s also the weird strategy they took with the Blu-ray and the digital downloads. The physical package has “Live. Die. Repeat.” in huge text over most of the box art, and Edge of Tomorrow is just a tiny line at the bottom. On iTunes, they went even further, and listed the movie as Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow. I'm curious whether it will net them any extra cash, and whether we'll see other productions renamed when they don't do well in theatres.
Since Edge of Tomorrow was a June release, let’s take a look at the rest of the summer movie season for a bit.
To start with: a lot of ink was spilled back in May about the terribleness of the Amazing Spider-Man sequel. I know we traded a few tweets back and forth when we saw it, but as I hinted in my original review, I actually liked it a lot more than almost everyone else. Maybe it's just because I like Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, but I thought their onscreen chemistry was enough to raise the film up from a 2-star film to a 2.5 or 3-star one (I ultimately gave it a 3).
At the time it came out, we were still waiting for Guardians, and I was feeling the weight of the bloated superhero genre weighing on me. That's why, when Garfield and Stone shared their scenes together, it felt considerably more genuine than so many other films, and I was willing to ignore the overstuffed plot. In terms of the rest of the year, though, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has really faded into the background. Unless Sony Pictures does a Hail Mary pass and revives the franchise with whatever follow-up film they end up making, we won't be talking about Spider-Man for a while.
Actually, funny enough, it looks like I liked The Amazing Spider-Man 2 more than you! I gave it 3.5 out of 5 stars on Letterboxd. Honestly, I could live with it being a 3, but I loved how the Gwen Stacy death scene was done, minus the DeHaan’s lame Green Goblin. In the comics, Gwen’s death was so tragic, and I thought Marc Webb did a wonderful job of making it feel like her death was crushing.
Part of what made Gwen’s death so tragic was because Emma Stone put in such a charming performance, though I’ll have to disagree with on the on-screen chemistry – I know Garfield and Stone are a couple in real life, but their back-and-forth seemed so stilted, cheesy and unrealistic. It’s as if they were putting on a fake relationship for the movie when, in reality, I’m sure their chemistry feels much more genuine. But you’re right, as far as superhero couple chemistry goes, it’s pretty good, though I think my recent favourite may be Batman-Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.
Overall, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a decent film. It’s much better than the first, although it still feels really, really clunky. I don't really like their new interpretation of Electro and how poorly-developed Max Dillon is, but this kind of criticism isn't new to the franchise known for an awesome and eclectic rogue gallery. They're just too busy focusing on the Sinister Six sequels.
I just read an interesting tidbit recently from James Horner, who scored the first Amazing Spider-Man but refused to do the second. He basically confirmed what we all suspected about the production process on the second film: Sony Pictures was pressuring Marc Webb to fold more and more action into the piece, when all Webb wanted to do was focus on refining character and plot. They apparently forced the same direction on Sam Raimi in 2007's Spider Man 3, so is it any surprise we were left with an Amazing Spider-Man 2 that felt oddly similar to Raimi's last outing? It's a classic example of that "directing by committee" process the studios are so fond of.
And though it's not super-helpful to speculate about the corporate planning at Sony, I get the sense that they're feeling under Marvel's gun of late. They have the Spider-Man rights, and they want to develop the property into a cinematic universe of its own, if their Sinister Six plans are any indication. So they're rushing to build that world, pack it full of action, villains and mythology, but forgetting that Marvel took 4 or 5 films to slowly stitch together their universe. If Sony were willing to slow down and simplify, they could get a bigger payoff later on.
Ohhh, I love it when directors and the film crew take a stand against those corporate bigwigs who chase the buck and think rushed, shitty movies are a good long-term investment. The Sinister Six really has potential but there's just too much going on. You've totally hit it on the head, too - Sony and Fox are feeling the big squeeze from Marvel and trying to play catch-up in the superhero game. Look no further than the pissing contest that was had with the Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch characters from X-Men. Now, I'm glad that we'll be able to see Elizabeth Olsen (swoon) in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the Maximoff siblings should totally be part of the X-Men universe! But I digress...
The thing about this studio obsession with cinematic universes is that it doesn't really work with the current model of moviemaking. Right now, the studios all own the rights to weird groupings of characters, and it leads to confusing duplication and awkward workarounds. In a perfect world, DC would be exclusively Warner Bros. and Marvel would be at Disney. As for Dark Horse, I'm happy to let their characters get adapted by whoever has the cash - I want me a Hellboy 3, dammit!
I'm really curious whether the studios can make the cinematic universe idea work in other contexts, as well. Apparently that Luke Evans Dracula Untold film is supposed to be the first in sweeping series that will fold together all the old-school Universal monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman, etc.) into an Avengers-esque team. If it succeeds, any series might be fair game. Just look at Bourne - they're planning to re-vitalize the Matt Damon character, keep Jeremy Renner's character in his own movies, and then have them meet up! I feel like this Planet of the Apes clip is appropriate here.
Can I just say how much Jeremy Renner likes sloppy seconds? First, he's going to take over the Mission: Impossible series. Then, he's tabbed to take over the Bourne series. With Chris Evans leaving Captain America soon, I wouldn't be surprised if Renner steps in briefly as the Cap, since no one seems to know the name of the guy who played Bucky in Winter Soldier. Sorry, dude.
That Universal horror characters team follows The Avengers, Justice League, Guardians of the Galaxy and now Suicide Squad. Super-teams are just the flavour of the week.
If the summer season opened in a lacklustre way with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, I thought it finally got into motion with Godzilla. I liked the slow reveal of the big guy - it helped erase any bad taste in my mouth left over from the 1998 attempt. I even liked some of the human characters. I'll agree that several of actors weren't well used (Ken Watanabe and Elizabeth Olsen certainly), but I appreciated how the film tried to use the limited scenes with the monsters to hint at the way a monster attack might actually go down: how often would people really get a glimpse of the creatures, if the areas around them are choked with people trying to escape?
The new Godzilla is also a notable release because it's apparently encouraged Toho studios in Japan to kickstart their original Godzilla series (with plans to release a new film in 2016, 12 years after the last one), plus the sequel to Gareth Edwards' film, coming in 2018. Seems like Guillermo del Toro had it right last year with Pacific Rim: people are really down for big monsters on big screens.
I’m sure there’s a more concrete rule to this, but I feel like in any movie there needs to be some sort of payoff scene in the first half hour of the movie. I understand why Edwards wanted to tease Godzilla, but I agree with CinemaSins that the teasing just became too much. We missed out on at least two epic monster fights, and I think Edwards simply waits too long for the grand reveal. It might’ve worked if the human elements of the plot were a lot more engaging, but that clearly wasn’t the case.
But the one thing that really, really bugged me was how they had to show the newsreel at the end hinting that Godzilla was the “Savior of the City.” God, that bugged me. All along, in interviews and pressers, Gareth Edwards and the rest of the cast (specifically David Strathairn) stressed that Godzilla was a force of nature. Forces of nature are immoral, dammit! They just happen! They don’t mean to “save” anyone – Godzilla was just trying to kick some MUTO ass and saving San Francisco was an unintended consequence.
The topic about the humans in Godzilla is kind of intriguing to me. On one hand, we want to see giant monsters beating on other giant monsters, but on the other, we don't want to feel like the humans (arguably the people we'd identify with) are just like ants for the creatures to stomp on. I wasn't disinterested by Aaron Taylor-Johnson's character Ford or his family, but they definitely weren't super memorable. My question is, to what degree should human characters in a monster movie just be passive observers, the ones staring in disbelief as a nuclear dinosaur the size of a mountain tussles with a three-headed dragon? At what point would textured character development become silly, given the genre of the film?
I will agree that Edwards was coddling the audience a bit by making the "savior" angle so obvious. It's almost always better to leave it up to the audience to judge that sort of thing by themselves. Not to mention that I doubt a news channel would rush to choose heroes and villains when the more pressing issues would be: 1) Turns out we live alongside giant f***ing monsters now?!! 2) San Francisco, Las Vegas and Honolulu are all in ruins!
I think it's important to have a human element in monster movies but they focus shouldn't be on the humans. It's the same mistake with the 1998 version with Matthew Broderick's stupid love story subplot with his reporter girlfriend (and Jean Reno with his all-Francophone SWAT team) taking center stage. These monsters should have personalities and characters, but more often than not they're relegated to set pieces and plot devices. I mean, even in real life, if you were faced with a 50-foot tall Godzilla, what can you really do as humans?
That Aaron Taylor-Johnson probably put in the worst performance of his life probably had something to do with it, and many have pointed out that the human element is completely lost once Bryan Cranston's character dies. I get that they want to make these monster films super serious, but Pacific Rim was far more successful by taking a more light-hearted approach. In that film, the robots and monsters take center stage. It felt like Edwards was trying to make Godzilla a thriller and it just didn't quite work. Did you find it hard to put a finger on Godzilla? I know you liked it, but did you walk out thinking "whoa, that was awesome!" or was it more like "hey, that was pretty good" and then later grew on you once it stewed in your head for a little longer?
I get the sense that the Aaron Taylor-Johnson character was conceived just to give us a vantage point for the action, and so his development stalled as a result. The filmmakers felt they needed someone who could conceivably be on the front lines of the attack - if Cranston's character had lived, he'd conceivably be hanging out with Ken Watanabe and Sally Field back in some bunker - not in any kind of immediate peril.
If I remember correctly, I steadily built into a "whoa, that was awesome" reaction - the payoff was Godzilla breathing atomic fire down the MUTO's throat. I had some critiques in my mind at a few points leading up to that scene, and they still stand, but I still left the theatre liking the film a lot, right away.
That does it for this part of our conversation – in the next post, we continue our breakdown of the summer cinematic offerings, including Guardians of the Galaxy and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and then move into a few of the award contenders from this fall, like Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler and Birdman! As always, join the discussion in the comments section, and if you like this series, share it with your friends and followers!