2014 at the Movies: The Best, the Worst, and Everything Else - PART 4
Our whopping multi-part series on the movies of 2014 continues! After going through some the likely Oscar contenders in the last post, Jason Chen and I launch (pun intended) into a discussion of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, take a trek through Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and muse about a few general trends we noticed this year.
Shifting back to blockbusters for a moment; how did you feel about Interstellar? I loved it (though that's not saying much, since we both know how we split on movie scores). I was surprised by how polarizing it was for audiences. Then again, ever since The Dark Knight Rises, it seems like fanboys are obsessed with nitpicking Christopher Nolan's movies.
Okay, before we get into Interstellar, we have to get one thing straight – The Dark Knight Rises is easily Christopher Nolan’s worst film. The pacing is poor, the script is uneven and the dynamic between Batman/Bane/Talia just never really materializes into anything of real substance. I don’t really agree that fanboys have been nitpicking Rises. If anything, I thought Rises really thrived because of the hype from its devoted fanbase when it was merely an above-average movie that only delivered in a few spots.
But on to Interstellar… I really liked it. It plays into almost every single space movie cliché, including the astronaut who values research over life itself (Anne Hathaway’s character), the lonely astronaut whose brain wires come loose and can no longer think rationally (highlight for spoiler: Matt Damon), the deceptive mission leader (Michael Caine) and the unforeseen errors in space-time calculation (this time it’s gravitational time dilation) that throws Plans A, B and C into the gutter.
But it was so well done. Now, I never cry in movies, but this one really tugged at the heartstrings. The one thing that sort of made me cringe was the whole idea that “love” is the one cross-dimensional (or cross-wormhole?) factor that conquers all. Basically, that the one emotion that cannot be scientifically quantified is the key to the future survival of the human species, and the solution to getting the space stations off the Earth. On one hand it was hokey, but in less experienced and sensitive hands it would’ve killed the entire movie.
You’re a big sci-fi guy – TARS and CASE best space robots ever? I think so!
Good catch on how Interstellar responds to all the space movie clichés - I didn't think about it in those terms. I did pick up on Nolan's influences (2001 being one of the more obvious, but Apollo 13 and even Duncan Jones' Moon may have had some effect).
I recently watched Interstellar for a second time, and it was just as good - in fact, by knowing the answers to the top-level mysteries, I was able to take a closer look at the other components of the movie. Even the parts I wasn't sure about the first time seemed stronger, like the Dr. Mann episode (I remember being so involved in that exchange during my first viewing that I wasn't sure whether I hated Mann or hated the scene).
Hathaway's "love is cross-dimensional" scene also improves - to me, it reads like an attempt by a scientist (who aren't always the most poetic people) to explain how love works, so there's a reason it sounds awkward. I think we've both interviewed scientists for news stories before, and it can be hard to get natural sound bites out of them when they're talking about theoretical things.
Oh man, when Dr. Mann started doing his monologue, I was ready to jump out my seat and yell at Cooper to start running. Whenever someone starts a monologue, you know something’s gonna happen. It’s the oldest Hollywood trick in the book. And the subsequent fight scene was pretty hilarious too. It was like watching two guys wrestle in sumo suits.
Nolan said in a few press conferences that it was a pretty personal movie because he has kids of his own, so I get the impetus to use love as the ‘X’ factor. I didn’t mind it, to be honest, because as much as this movie was about space and science, it really needed to ground itself in human emotions. So, in that sense, I get why Nolan had to do it. I’m just happy that he didn’t have to stretch out that scene and have some sort of philosophical debate about how insignificantly small and irrelevant humans are.
And I agree 100 per cent on TARS and CASE. They have some the best lines in the movie. My favourite is when the astronauts are bedding down for hypersleep on the way to Mars, and Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is trying to gossip quietly with TARS, who says, "WHY ARE YOU WHISPERING!? They can't hear us!". It's a great example of how the robots in the movie aren't just funny observers of the main action; they challenge the human characters and actually have a big role to play in the resolution of the story.
Not only did TARS and CASE have some of the best lines, the design was outstanding. When Cooper asked TARS (or was it CASE?) to rescue Brand, I kept thinking, “how’s this Lego brick-looking thing going to accomplish that?” But when it showed off all its segmented pieces and then morphed into something like a giant spider I was completely blown away.
Having gone through Interstellar, it seems appropriate to talk a little bit about the final Hobbit film, The Battle of the Five Armies. When it comes to this trilogy, I've always had mixed feelings. I'm enough of a die-hard Tolkien fan that it's hard for me to leave the theatre disappointed, but I still know that the Hobbit movies have never quite captured the scope or the character development of the Lord of the Rings films. Which is odd, because based on how frequently Peter Jackson references his earlier trilogy (modelling characters after ones in Rings, for example), you'd think The Hobbit would be able to deliver a similar experience.
I can't wait until some fans start posting their own edits of the movies. It would be so cool if someone could offer up the trim, exciting version of the story that we know exists in there somewhere.
The best part about The Battle of the Five Armies was the battle, so at least they delivered on that promise. I like this one the most in the trilogy but the entire thing could've easily been a two-part movie. The battle itself was fun to watch, since it had been building up to that moment in the previous two films. Though I did have a little trouble telling apart the orcs and the dwarves, since both sides were wearing grey armour.
The critical response to the trilogy is fairly consistent: they’re well-made, but bloated.The extraneous material in The Battle of the Five Armies is everywhere, but I really noticed it in the dialogue scenes. Some of the sequences with Thranduil (Lee Pace) actually felt poorly rehearsed, especially when he's talking to Legolas and Tauriel. And we saw/heard basically nothing from most of the dwarves, which is a shame when the movie focuses so much time on that cowardly assistant character Alfrid (Ryan Gage).
God bless Evangeline Lilly, but that extraneous material with Tauriel was horrendous. That love triangle made no sense and it was awfully distracting.
I was expecting Alfrid to either have a change of heart or get killed, but his story is abandoned midway through and he kind of disappears with his bosom full of gold. Talk about anticlimactic and an afterthought, a character that serves no true purpose than to give some old lady a few lines and make Bard more heroic. I didn't like those scenes at all. Maybe they wanted a Grima Wormtongue in the film and figured Alfrid could be it, but again, why?
And I may have missed it, but we never saw what happened to the Arkenstone, did we? It was arguably the biggest plot device in the story and like Alfrid, it was abandoned. I thought some of the good scenes in the LOTR trilogy were the ceremonial scenes (Theodred's funeral, Faramir almost burning at the pyre and even Aragorn's crowning) so I'm kind of shocked we didn't get a lengthy sending away for Thorin (Richard Armitage).
The fact that Alfrid's story didn't end in some sort of satisfying death surprised me, but you're right, it's not the only thread that gets dropped. The Arkenstone should have been seen on Thorin's chest as he was buried, in exactly the kind of ceremonial sequence you described. It would have done a lot to give the movie a more sweeping, grand feel as it wrapped up.
I'm glad you brought up the similarity between Alfrid and Wormtongue. It's one of many examples of Jackson "quoting" the earlier trilogy. The two characters are unnervingly similar, though Alfrid is used more for comic relief. I wonder whether it was intentional or accidental on Jackson's part - did he want to say something about how certain types of people exist in every age? Or was he having a hard time coming up with new ideas?
Then again, I wonder whether Jackson was trying to make a point by leaving the threads unresolved - almost like he was returning to Bilbo-focused story after the huge battle, and suggesting that if Bilbo is leaving for the Shire, the rest of the characters don't matter as much.
There were other differences from the book, but Legolas' scenes in particular felt unnecessary (was Orlando Bloom hurting for paycheques?), and props to Viggo Mortensen for refusing to do this movie, since neither Aragorn nor Legolas appear in the book.
And the part with Legolas losing Tauriel's love to Kili and going on a secret mission to find Strider? What lame ties to the LOTR trilogy (Legolas already knows Strider's real name in Fellowship and never makes a big deal of it, or that he had been searching for him for 60 years). And now it just makes me think that Legolas' original dislike of Gimli is rooted in his sexual frustration over Tauriel and losing to a dwarf just made it 100x worse. His killing move - stabbing sharp objects at the top of an enemy's head - also returned (or began?) and was reminiscent of the time he took down the Mumakil in LOTR.
Did you watch it with the high frame rate? Again, normally, it feels like what's happening on the screen takes place in a different world and a different plane, but with the high frame rate it really looks like the dwarves were really physically close, but the downside is that it starts looking fake. I liken it to watching a stage play where the makeup is obvious and the background is clearly green screen. I still much prefer practical effects and wish all the orcs and goblins weren't CGI.
I did see Battle of the Five Armies in high frame rate, as I've done with the previous two. The “live theatre” look is always cool for a while (maybe for 30 minutes or so) but I stopped noticing it by the time the titular battle began.
After 3 movies in the format, I'm still not sold on HFR. First of all, I've never felt that I need to be more "immersed" in a movie, and so HFR is still just a gimmick for me. And if I want a live theatre experience, I'll go see a play! It doesn't look like many other filmmakers are chomping at the bit to shoot in the format, so I don't know what will become of it. I'll reserve final judgement until James Cameron's Avatar sequels are released in HFR, though. The first Avatar was pretty amazing in regular 3D, and it may be that Cameron's universe is the only one suited to extra dimensions.
Yeah, technically I think James Cameron is up there. But not many people can pull off big epic movies like Jackson.
I agree that HFR likely won't take hold. I didn't find it particularly impressive either.
But, hey, finally the entire thing's done and Peter Jackson can move on to bigger and better things.
When we look at the whole Hobbit trilogy, I'm left feeling grateful it was made, but wishing its development had been less rocky. If the film had been financed earlier, maybe we would have gotten the trim, spooky two-film Guillermo Del Toro adaptation that had us so fired up back in the day.
I also would've liked to see Del Toro's version. Can I also just say that in the books Bilbo also wasn't conscious for the whole battle? I didn't know that until a buddy of mine told me and it reminded me of my gripe with Saving Private Ryan with the old man being Matt Damon.
Setting aside specific movies for a moment, I wanted to touch on a trend I've noticed this year: the intensifying culture of nitpicking movies, either in list-icle blog posts or YouTube videos - like "17 Reasons That Movie You Love is Actually Terrible". Maybe it's because I spend too much time online consuming the work of wannabe critics, but it seems like every time a major tentpole release comes out, we see a flurry of content aiming to debunk needlessly specific parts of a movie.
One of the teams leading the charge is CinemaSins on YouTube, who I'll admit can be really funny, but they're only encouraging people to obsess over logical gaps and editing quirks, rather than react to a movie as a whole. Sure, when we look at a micro level at a movie, there's lots that doesn't make sense. The point of watching movies isn't to slow-mo or pause on frames and feel smart about picking out problems, it's to consider how it all comes together to provoke ideas and feelings. Have you picked up on this at all?
I’ve been a big fan of CinemaSins for a long time (did you know he’s a huge sports fan too?). Yeah, sometimes I find it annoying he nitpicks, but that’s his schtick. It wouldn’t be so entertaining without him going after every single minute detail and having the sin counter be a bizarrely high number. But he does make some good points quite often.
But CinemaSins is the extreme. On the other hand, we get some real cursory movie reviews that really don’t amount to anything, ones that seem shallow and don’t have a whole lot of thought put into them. But this was bound to happen in an age in which everyone has a soapbox and megaphone. You take the good with the bad, I guess.
I also think if you really sat down with CinemaSins, though, he’s a very intelligent movie reviewer. You can see it clearly in his ‘Conversations With Myself’ videos. I don’t think he encourages people to obsess like he does, but I do think it’s natural for people to nitpick about the tiny things. I’m also going to guess that his type of “film review” is a sarcastic jab at uber-serious guys like Ebert or Roeper. I nitpick ALL the time, but I’d like to think that I can still take in the movie as a whole.
Fair enough – maybe CinemaSins isn’t the best example, since he’s pretty transparent about his videos being satirical, rather than being an official review that people should use to determine whether they see a film or not. It just worries me that moviegoers may eventually be trained to only look at movies in the granular way that these bloggers do.
How about the coming awards race? You mentioned earlier being jealous that you missed TIFF, but one thing about the festival this year was there didn't seem to be any solid Oscar frontrunners emerging there like they usually do. Last year, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave were the talk of the town, and then of course they went on to sweep the awards several months later. This year, it feels like the contenders are more equally distributed.
I’m not so much jealous of the big premieres I missed out on, but TIFF really is the event. There’s a certain amount of energy and hype around it. TIFF has really evolved into a red carpet show, whereas in my mind, film festivals have always been about showcasing local, independent, low-budget films, movies that aren’t widely released for whatever reason. I still like the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) for this particular reason. The thing with TIFF, though, is that you can have all this access to interviews and small release films that you can’t really get at VIFF, which is a much smaller festival.
You know how indifferent I really am to the Oscars, but I think it’s clear which movies have already stood out and which actors have already emerged in the Best Actor race. Interstellar will certainly clean up for technical awards, and my short list for Best Actor would be Eddie Redmayne, Michael Keaton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Steve Carell, and Joaquin Phoenix. I’m also hoping for Channing Tatum, because he was really good in Foxcatcher.
I know 2014 isn't over yet, but doesn't the 2015 lineup already seem much stronger than 2014's? 2014 needed a lot of dark horse hits like Guardians and Nightcrawler to give it that big summer blockbuster and one critically-acclaimed hit, because otherwise, I found everything either disappointed me or I was indifferent about. Maybe I'm just not giving 2014 enough credit, though. I mean, even in a bad year I still end up going to around 20 movies.
I dunno - maybe it's because I was wrapped up in TIFF, and I've seen a lot of stuff in theatres this year (I figure 40 so far), but I'm very impressed with the offerings. I watched a lot of indies that helped break up the studio releases (Boyhood, Frank, The Guest, Life Itself). When you decide on the overall quality of the year, do you weigh indies equally with studio stuff? Or do you focus more on the latter? And do you have a recent year that was one of the better performers?
I try to hold indie films and blockbusters to the same standard, but it's really hard. I mean, which was the better film, Guardians of the Galaxy or Nightcrawler? In 2011, I liked The Descendants as much as I liked Fast Five. We are dealing with different genres, with summer blockbusters usually being of the action-adventure variety. But I guess the one universal rule I use is if the movie delivers on what is promised and if it offers more.
Fast Five was great because it promised over-the-top action and it delivered by offering really over-the-top action with some brilliant sequences. The Descendants had Clooney at his dramatic-comedic best and then threw in a really good big debut from Shailene Woodley. Films like The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 are enjoyable, deliver in spots, but ultimately become fairly forgettable. I generally try to see if there were any movies that really blew my socks off, making me "ooh and ahh" rather than "oh, that was pretty good."
I was just thinking about this the other day, and I think 2011 was a particularly strong year. A lot of the films that year exceeded my expectations and it had a good mix of blockbusters and indies. I think 2014 has been one of the weaker ones, with 2012 and 2013 falling somewhere in between.
Time for a quick scheduling note: As we come to the end of part 4, we’ll be breaking off our conversation for a couple of weeks, and picking it up again in early January.
This is partly due to the Christmas/New Year’s break, but also to give Jason and I a chance to catch the final crop of movies that will be released in the last two weeks of December, including titles like Mr. Turner, American Sniper, A Most Violent Year, and Selma. Check back again soon for the final part of our year-in-review conversation, and if you liked what you’ve seen so far, share it with your friends and followers!