2014 at the Movies: The Best, the Worst, and Everything Else - PART 3
Every year, the summer blockbuster season delivers one action-packed tentpole film after another, and 2014 was no exception. In this latest installment of our year-in-review series, Jason Chen and I take on more of the summer’s notable releases, including Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Then we jump into a few of the buzzed-about awards contenders from this fall: Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler and Birdman. Read on for our conversation, and let us know what 2014 movies you loved and hated in the comments!
How about the rest of the summer season? I ended up seeing Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes twice each in theatres. I loved Guardians far more than I expected, but it's rightfully earned a place in my top 10 of the year (though don't ask me to actually put that in order from #1 to #10). The soundtrack alone is golden, and I still find myself rocking out to it every so often. I wonder, though, how successful Marvel will be at replicating the unique vibe of the film in any of its (many) future releases.
Guardians of the Galaxy was hands-down the best blockbuster of the summer. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes came close, and it was surprisingly good, but I thought Guardians had the right amount of fun and seriousness. Screw all the people who criticized it for being bloated – I loved every minute of it and a fantastic soundtrack never hurt anybody.
I did point out in my initial review of Guardians that the plot was pretty thorny, and that it borrowed a lot from other films. But the one thing that helped the movie overcome that (aside from the soundtrack) was how the writers would set up a crazy sci-fi concept or a narrative cliché, and then riff on it by flagging it for the audience. One of the best examples of that was Star Lord's speech before the big battle. He goes all Braveheart rallying the team, and then when everyone's standing up, Rocket says "Great. Now we're all standing up in a circle. Like a bunch of jackasses." Moments like that (when they jive with the film's sense of humour) are key to rising above heavy plotting.
I can see why the plot for Guardians would draw so much criticism, but as you said, it deflects it pretty well by poking fun at itself. One that I liked was when Star Lord started a dance-off against Lee Pace's character. Chris Pratt plays a similar character in Parks and Recreation, only in the show he's more bloated and less heroic. The other thing with Guardians is that I feel like it has a lot of rewatchability, which gets big bonus points. I'm wondering what they're going to do with a sequel though - there's tons of potential and the characters are wonderful (especially Groot) but I don't want it to fall into a trap of "one space adventure after the next."
With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, meanwhile, Twentieth Century Fox has actually set a milestone: the first sequel in the franchise to eclipse its predecessor. I mean, the subterranean human mutants who worship a nuclear bomb in 1970’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes are funny and all, but Dawn was intelligent without being preachy, and had some really stylish cinematography that I didn't expect (most notably, the long POV take from the tank turret). Also, Matt Reeves gets some soundtrack points for choosing "The Weight" by The Band as the first song that the humans hear after turning the power on after 10+ years. Gotta love some post-apocalyptic Levon Helm vocals.
I didn’t quite pay attention to, or really remember, the soundtrack from Apes, but it was a truly enjoyable film. It was clichéd and all, but something about having such basic squabbles about civilization (as viewed through the eyes of a species that’s really coming into its own) felt really fresh. It’ll be interesting to see where Fox takes this franchise. It was hinted at the end of the movie that a massive all-out war between humans and apes was coming, but I loathe the idea of having the third installment being just bigger and louder. They’ve crafted these characters so carefully that it’d truly be a waste to have them become cannon fodder.
The future of the Apes franchise is definitely something I'll be monitoring over the next few years. Around the time I watched Dawn, I re-watched the 1968 original a couple of times, and its sequel, Beneath, to get a better sense of whole series. The first one still holds up! But you're right, the creative team on Dawn has hinted they want the next one to be about all-out war, and that might lead to problems.
I think one of the crucial things about the series is following one character who's stranded amongst the other race (either humans or apes). So in this third movie, we could follow an ape soldier caught behind enemy (human) lines, and see how his/her opinion of the other race changes. It can't just be a series of battles between the two sides - that'll get old real quick.
Shifting gears into the more award-friendly movies now: Foxcatcher. The only Bennett Miller film I'd seen before this was Moneyball, so I found it interesting that he'd choose another sports story - could he become the go-to guy for weird stories set on the fringes of that world? I had major respect all the way through for the three core performers, and the whole work was totally chilling, but I left the theatre feeling like parts of it could have been a bit tighter.
I almost wanted John du Pont (Steve Carell) to transform into more of an outright villain, with some sort of truly erratic behaviour. Then again, maybe the lack of that was intentional; the film is mostly from the viewpoint of Mark (Channing Tatum), and it would make sense that he only sees a certain part of Du Pont's life. I think I'd like to go back in a couple years' time and take a closer look at how Miller selects which information to include.
I did see that you only gave Foxcatcher 3.5 stars and I was on the verge of tears. Why, Robert, whyyyyy can you not see the brilliance of Bennett Miller? But okay, yes, I totally agree with you that this movie should’ve been a lot tighter. Too many long takes, too many incoherent sequences, most of them involving Steve Carell. I appreciate that Du Pont was schizophrenic, but Carell made it look like Du Pont was just a very lonely billionaire who didn’t quite know how to make friends (not unlike Michael Scott in The Office), but maybe that was his goal.
Didn't you feel the scene where he snorts cocaine in the helicopter seem out of place and downright bewildering? And the scene where he tries to wrestle members of his wrestling team seemed more awkwardly endearing than psychotic and dangerous. The paranoia that waded in and out of the film was certainly more a making of Miller's direction than Carell's performance, I think.
I’m not sure Miller intended sports to be his niche, but he does tend to focus on characters a lot in his films, which I appreciate and I think really is his forte. His cinematography is amazing and it adds a lot of depth to his characters, but he pared down a very analytical book in Moneyball into the Brad Pitt show and really fleshed out Channing Tatum’s character in Foxcatcher. But you really have to watch Capote – it’s his best film by far. It’s chilling, it doesn’t feel like a long movie when it really is, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is worth the price of admission alone. It’s brilliant.
Maybe I was too harsh on Foxcatcher with my Letterboxd score. I might amend it to four stars at some point, but it only goes to show the flaws in affixing a numerical value to a film's quality (somewhere up there, Roger Ebert is nodding in agreement). And now that you mention it, when I think about how Steve Carell filled out Michael Scott's character as a lonely misfit over the run of The Office, casting him as Du Pont makes a lot more sense. That wrestling celebration scene in the trophy room is very reminiscent of the jokes that Michael always took too far in The Office, in a misguided attempt to connect with his employees.
And I'm with you on that helicopter cocaine scene. It played out to the point that it started to feel like it belonged more on the blooper reel. Then again, it does show a sunnier side of Du Pont that we don't see elsewhere in the film - surely he couldn't have maintained all those business connections if he was always acting like a mumbling, repressed weirdo.
I definitely get the sense that Miller is chasing characters and story first, and setting second. But it's funny how he's almost putting other sports movie directors to shame, without ever trying to make a "sports movie".
He does seem drawn to real-world stories, and so to indulge in a bit of Canadian content for a moment, wouldn't it be cool to see him tackle the downfall of Jian Ghomeshi in a future film? It'd probably be a number of years from now, once the whole thing has played out in full, but seeing him apply a Foxcatcher-style lens to that story would be very gratifying.
When the Ghomeshi scandal (can we call it that now?) broke, I remember suggesting to my buddy that the subsequent tell-all book and biopic deal should be titled 50 Shades of Ghomeshi. Sadly, some internet article already stole that title, but screw it; I would've ran with it. Ghomeshi's gonna make a great episode for one of those "Where are they now?" shows. Regardless, I'm just happy I don't have to see his smug face on TV again.
But truth be told, there are many other subjects who would provide much better movie material. I'm sure Putin will have a biopic or two of him when his reign is over. He is, by far, one of the most interesting politicians.
I think my dream of "Bennett Miller adapting a Canadian-set story" isn't Ghomeshi-exclusive. I'd simply be excited for any director of his calibre to tackle any local story I'd followed closely. But as long as we're throwing together some "inspired by a true story" ideas, how about some dream casting? Viggo Mortensen as Putin, maybe?
Viggo Mortensen would make an excellent Russian. Of all the movies I've thrown out there and recommended you see, if you haven't seen it, do yourself a favour and watch Eastern Promises. Mortensen is incredible. I read later that he had disappeared into his Russian mob role so completely that when he walked around the streets in Europe people actually were terrified of him and thought he was a real Bratva. The ending leaves you hanging a little but it's still a brilliant (and very violent) movie. Think Drive.
I'm curious to know what you thought of Nightcrawler when it comes to its "critique" of the media. Some people saw the movie more as a response to the American dream and ruthless capitalism, but I was kind of struck by what it says about how the news is reported.
Of course, that's because I did a journalism degree and we had conversations about that kind of thing in school, so maybe the movie doesn't work that way for everybody. The movie wasn't a home run, though: after that great car chase, I felt it only tacks on the police investigation of Lou and the revelation of his company expanding. I really wanted one last twist that built on all the energy from the climax.
I loved Nightcrawler's critique of the media. It's certainly extreme, but I don't think highly of television news. The station Lou freelances for is a bottom-feeder station, so I understand their motivation to push the boundaries of what they broadcast on air. I know it's a clichéd comparison, but didn't the whole house invasion segment feel like something from Fox or CNN? Especially with Rene Russo’s character telling the anchors to liven up the commentary using specific words?
I didn't enjoy the car chases so much as Jake Gyllenhaal's performance itself (he's really one of my favourites). As for the part about ruthless capitalism...I'm inclined to say yes, though I admittedly didn't think of it that way when I first saw it. I was still reeling (in a good way) from Gyllenhaal's jarring performance and its depiction of TV news.
I do believe that what we see on TV, particularly news, and the social structures we bind ourselves in, share some sort of symbiotic relationship. Was Lou motivated by a pathological need to make something of himself and feel important? Definitely, and that's obvious with his decision to buy the red Dodge Challenger. And did the news push him towards committing immoral and unethical acts? Yes, because he was told flat-out that graphic violence sells. In that sense, yeah, the movie is about the morals and values that fall by the wayside when we strive for money, fame and status, but Lou is clearly a sociopath to begin with, so he's obviously not a representation of your average dude.
I liked the ending, actually, with how Lou had eliminated his competition and began growing his company. You can tell those doe-eyed and idealistic kids are in the job of their lives (literally). I'm kind of giddy thinking of the way Lou will manage to kill them off. Muahahahaha. Too few films have the bad guys coming out on top.
The unfortunate thing about Nightcrawler is that it appeals mostly to people who are plugged into media, and who object to the style of TV news, but who can't really change anything about it. Unlike a huge blockbuster or a popular documentary (I'm thinking of Blackfish and the effect it's had on orcas in captivity) Nightcrawler probably won't be able to influence a demand for more responsible TV news.
Putting all that aside, however, I'd really like to see Gyllenhaal get nominated in the Best Actor race. His is one of the few cases of an actor doing the whole "losing weight for a role" routine who really deserves to win.
I think Nightcrawler is just too small-time to make any sort of impact. It didn’t have a lot of marketing or hype leading up to it (that was the most unfortunate thing in my mind) and Gyllenhaal isn’t a blockbuster A-list guy. He tried, but he’s no Tom Cruise, Christian Bale or even Colin Farrell.
I’m not sure if the film was ever trying to change anything in the media, either since it seemed more like a movie about a sociopath than a film that had a deeper political agenda. It seems like most people know that TV news is junk, or at least the people I know, anyway. Gyllenhaal just tends to gravitate towards these dark, moody roles, like in Prisoners or Zodiac. I’m banking on him winning an Oscar before Leo DiCaprio. He’s fantastic. He disappears into roles better than anybody not named Daniel Day-Lewis. I mean, look at his transformation already as a boxer in Southpaw. Unreal.
Still on the topic of potential Oscar contenders, I also wanted to talk a little bit about Birdman. Like you predicted, I found it really easy to get into the film, because I've done a lot of work on student/community theatre productions, and the backstage setting of the movie was very familiar to me. It was a treat to see a filmmaker like Iñárritu dive so deeply into a new style of shooting/editing, when I don't think he's tried something like that before. I think I mentioned on Twitter that I also loved the score - that solo drummer was yet another unique touch that really kept the thing moving forward.
Birdman was great on a lot of levels, some of which I probably still don’t and won’t ever understand. You can probably break it down better, but I’m positive there’s some sort of multi-layered psychoanalysis going on with the levitation, the theatre critic at the bar, Birdman himself, the drum solo, Emma Stone’s drug recovery and the weird title card at the beginning.
I really latched on to the camerawork because we both know how difficult it is to accomplish that, and it was the easiest thing to pick out. Have you seen 21 Grams (with a brilliant Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro) or the vastly overrated Babel? Iñárritu is known to hold these extra-long shots but he took it to a whole new level with Birdman. And c’mon, a shout out to Michael Keaton for being both hilarious and serious at the same time, much like his old Batman performances.
I did see Babel for the first time before watching Birdman (I'm pretty sure it was put up on Canadian Netflix to coincide with Birdman's release). I remember people feeling like Babel was overrated when it came out, but I wonder how much of that had to do specifically with the multi-narrative structure, which about half of audiences seem to instinctively hate.
In any case, Birdman really feels like a career high point for Iñárritu: he's pushed himself on a technical and storytelling front, and added in a lot of the humour that was missing from something like Babel. There's also some thematic development, too: in 21 Grams and Babel, he's trying to say that all these separate stories and people are connected, but a lot of viewers feel like the connections are too convenient. In Birdman, characters aren't linked by seemingly random circumstances; they're brought together by the prowling camera that follows Keaton. It's one of the reasons I think the film is so effective.
I love multi-narrative structures and that’s a big reason why I like Tarantino films. But maybe I disliked Babel ‘cause it was just far too depressing and negative.
That does it for this part of our conversation – in the next post, we move to a couple of the big blockbuster releases from the end of the year: Interstellar and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. After that, we muse a bit about some trends we've noticed at the cinema and in the film buff community throughout the year. As always, join the discussion in the comments section, and if you like this series, share it with your friends and followers!