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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

10 Dec

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

When Marvel Studios brought us its Marvel Cinematic Universe, movie audiences found themselves looking forward to a new continuing chapter in…well, whatever adapted-from-comics saga it would throw at them. It began with a promise made in the first “Iron Man” movie that an “Avengers” movie would actually happen, and it released movie upon movie upon movie to assure us it would come, from “The Incredible Hulk” to “Iron Man 2” to “Thor” to “Captain America: The First Avenger.” And when “The Avengers” finally hit, it gave them a hell of a good time and exactly what they wanted to see—superheroes working together and a load of action scenes for them to partake in. Then, after seeing the origin stories of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and Hulk, audiences were curious to see where they were going to go next before the next Avengers movie. With Iron Man, they had “Iron Man 3.” With Thor, they had “Thor: The Dark World.” Both were decent movies, but there needed to be something more. A lone-superhero sequel that truly upped the ante in terms of action, thrills, story, and even comedy and drama; and not just filler to catch up with the heroes. (I may like “Iron Man 3” and “Thor: The Dark World” fine, but when I really think about it, it is sort of “filler” before the next Avengers movie.)

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is that movie.

“Captain America: The First Avenger” was a fun origin story for whom people say is the bland Boy Scout of the Avengers. Adapting the comic-book hero for a movie was a difficult task, but thankfully the movie was fun. However, you have to wonder: how do you make something complex out of a patriotic do-gooder? Well, with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” sibling directors Joe & Anthony Russo and writers Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely have found a way.

Steve Rogers, aka Captain America (played again by Chris Evans), is adjusting to life in the modern world, after awakening from decades of suspended animation. Not only does he have a list of pop culture to catch up on (for a treat, pause the DVD/Blu-Ray to see what else is on the list), but many of the people he knew are gone and his old girlfriend is now an ailing elderly woman. But that’s not all. His old-school ideals must make way for subtler threats and difficult moral complexities—nothing is as simple as he was brought up to believe. Things get even more difficult when it seems SHIELD is slowly being taken over by HYDRA, an enemy organization. Before Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) falls victim to a HYDRA attack brought on by the ominous Winter Soldier, he instructs Captain America to trust no one. So Cap, along with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansen), go rogue as they find answers as to who exactly is behind this. They partake in battle after battle as they discover some harsh truths about the people they know/meet as well as the identity of the Winter Soldier himself.

What elevates this exciting action-thriller to more compelling levels is its dramatic aspect, mostly centered around the character of Steve Rogers. The struggles he faces as a person are heartbreaking, as he tries to get used to living in this world he’s not too familiar with—a world in which his old friends are either gone or fading. The scene in which he visits his old girlfriend, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), is particularly affecting. And as a hero, he has more to deal with, such as being hunted by the people he works for, facing newer threats with political agendas alien to him, and even the upsetting idea that he’s not doing as much good for the world as he wants to. All of this helps make the character of Captain America more interesting and complicated than we would’ve expected. I appreciate what went into his development in this movie. And when it becomes revealed who the Winter Soldier is, it only makes it more difficult and gripping.

But whatever. People weren’t there for its psychological issues; they were there for the action. And “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” doesn’t disappoint. They’re perfectly executed, fast-moving, and exciting. That’s really all I can say about it, except that because the film takes time out to establish the environment and develop the relationships of the characters, we care about what’s at stake here. It doesn’t feel like a typical superhero movie; there’s more than meets the eye with it.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is one of the best movies the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to offer. It knows how to tell the story, it knows what to focus on, and it knows what to deliver when the time calls for it. There’s more to the film that I already explained in the review, so if you want to find out what I mean by that, I recommend you check the movie out and see what else it has to deliver.

The Babadook (2014)

31 Oct

 

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

From looking at the trailer and the cover art, you would think “The Babadook” is a monster movie/creature feature. But, to be fair to the marketing team behind the film, “The Babadook” is a hard film to sell to the general public. This is first and foremost a psychological thriller in which the monster (the “Babadook” of the title, named Mister Babadook) may or may not be real. That doesn’t even matter when you consider what the film is really about. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

“The Babadook” is Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut that tackles two very human (and very dangerous) emotions: depression and loneliness. Its central focus is single mother named Amelia (Essie Davis in an excellent performance) who lost her husband shortly before she gave birth to her son. Six years later, her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is more than a handful; actually, you could say he’s a pure terror. He won’t stay out of trouble, he plays with weapons, he throws temper tantrums, he says he sees monsters, and he tends to hurt people, intentional or not. Even Amelia can’t seem to stand him, even though she won’t admit it to herself or to her sister, who hates him (even before Samuel causes her daughter to fall from a treehouse and hurt herself). Both Amelia and Samuel are dealing with their loss.

One night, Samuel requests Amelia to read him a seemingly children-oriented book called “Mister Babadook.” It’s about a tall dark figure that will visit you and haunt you if you left him into your life. That’s when things start to get a little freaky…

“The Babadook” is one of the scariest films I’ve seen in the past few years, and its effective horror aspects had very little to do with the Babadook itself as a physical presence and more to do with Amelia’s mental state. Much of the torment Amelia faces with her son is psychological, and what she’s feeling ranges from depression to anger. She feels alone, not being able to connect with her son, and as horrible as it is to admit to herself, she sees him as the cause of her mental illness, which she felt ever since she lost her husband the day Samuel was born. And Samuel sometimes annoys her to the point where she lashes out irrationally at him. These two need to find some way to connect with each other, or they’re in for a dreadful life together out of which they can never escape.

I stated above that this isn’t a monster movie. You barely even see the Babadook at all in this movie, but you can feel this thing’s presence looming over these people. It is kept in shadow and it’s a frightening presence, but more importantly, it represents the monster within Amelia trying to get out and extinguish her son, whom she sees as the source of her mental struggles. I know that sounds pretentious when described like that, but the way it is handled in this movie, as well as the way Kent executes the material, is exceptional in addition to horrifying. This movie got under my skin. And it did that without having to resort to many of the tropes mainstream audiences are used to with horror movies these days—there are no loud jump scares, there’s no CGI monster, and there’s no easy way out in the scriptwriting/storytelling. And it means something. The monster represents more than many other horror-movie monsters in recent memory.

“The Babadook” is a very effective representation of what grief and mental illness can do to a person as well as an unsettling horror movie. If you go to this movie and fully expect a monster movie, you’re not going to get what you want and you’ll be disappointed. But if you look deeper under the surface of what is already a disturbing psychological thriller, you might find something better than what you were expecting in the first place. This is a masterful, smart thriller that scared me, kept me on edge, and left me glad that it explored more real horrors than most filmmakers (and even audiences, for that matter) wouldn’t have bothered to try.

V/H/S/2 (2013) – V/H/S: Viral (2014)

27 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As someone who enjoyed the found-footage horror anthology “V/H/S” as more-or-less a “guilty pleasure,” I was curious to see what could be done as a follow-up. Would “V/H/S” be a worthy horror franchise or would it wear out quickly after a desperate cash-grab attempt?

“V/H/S/2” (or “S-V/H/S,” as it was originally called) is about on par with “V/H/S” in that it’s uneven yet enjoyable for the best parts (just enough for me to recommend). There is one big difference, however—“V/H/S/2” has a middle segment that is creepier, more outrageous, and more fun than any of the other segments in either of the two “V/H/S” films. It itself is a terrific horror film worthy of a recommendation.

Once again, the wraparound story for the anthology involves people sneaking into a house and watching unsettling VHS tapes. While I thought the previous film’s connective tissue had some chilling subtle moments, I felt it was weak overall with a lack of clever resolution. But with this one (directed by Simon Barrett), I surprisingly found myself more involved in what was happening, as once again, little things change here and there that had me edgy—the surprise was I thought the twist was actually unique and well-done. My only problem with it is after the characters watch the segments in between. The things they see don’t seem to faze them very much; they just seem to shrug it off and continue to the next one each time.

The first segment (“Phase 1 Clinical Trials,” directed by Adam Wingard) is shown through a man’s ocular implant with a camera. The doctors warn him that the implant is experimental (hence the camera, to see how things go at first). Shortly after he gets it, he starts seeing visions of people who shouldn’t be there. It’s an unsettling, effectively done chiller with an ending that made me look away.

The second segment (“A Ride in the Park,” directed by Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale) is shown mostly from the POV of a Go-Pro attached to a bicyclist’s helmet. The bicyclist is attacked by a zombie and soon becomes one himself. He turns others into zombies and they set off in search for fresh meat. This is a neat twist on the zombie-movie, with enough visceral gore to appease genre fans.

The third segment is the aforementioned best: “Safe Haven,” directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans. The narrative here is more intricate than any of the previous segments, and it definitely works as its own short horror film. It involves a news crew getting the scoop on a cult run by an Indonesian deportee (played chillingly by Epy Kusnandar) who promises immortality to his followers. I could tell where this was going as soon as I knew a cult was involved, and it seemed to lead to where I thought it would. But after that, there was still about 15 minutes left to go…and man, I was way off! Would you believe me if I said Kool-Aid was the least of the worries here? This segment has a ton of surprises, neatly horrific developments, and unforgettable additional elements that make it worth recommending for all genre fans, if they can take it.

Unfortunately, after that, we get to the weakest segment in the series: “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” from Jason Eisener (best-known for “Hobo With a Shotgun”). With a goofy fun-sounding title like that, I expected much more than what I got. Maybe it was because nothing could top “Safe Haven,” but I just wasn’t interested in this part at all. It’s fairly straightforward—teens have a sleepover, aliens invade, they try to get away, they get abducted, the end. Oh, and there’s a camera attached to a dog. It might be enjoyable for some, and it may not be fair comparing it to “Safe Haven” after all, but I expected a better end portion than this.

I recommend the film overall, but it really comes down to “Safe Haven.” It’s worth seeing just for its own insanely entertaining bit of craziness.

But then we take a step down in quality and quantity; the ultimate end of a promising horror franchise; the final nail in the coffin…

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V/H/S: Viral

Smith’s Verdict: *

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“V/H/S: Viral” is not merely bad—it’s obnoxious. With the previous films, you could tell they were labors of love from indie filmmakers having fun with this style of “hyper-realistic” horror. But with this, you can tell it’s a feeble cash-grab attempt. I don’t feel any passion put into this at all, and everyone else seemed to agree with me, as no future “V/H/S” films were planned since this film’s release.

I think what this film is trying to say is that we’re all obsessed with viral videos and many members of our generation are looking to capture the next best online hit. I think (but I’m not sure, as the motivations are muddled at best) that was the intention of the wraparound story to present that message. But the result is so confused and baffling that it’s hard to find the sense in it. Even the ending, which should spell out what it means, left me scratching my head. But on the plus side, it made me feel better to know it was over and I didn’t have to think about it anymore.

From what I could gather, it’s about teens trying to make their own viral videos and weird things happen that endanger their lives…and that’s all I got.

There’s no structure of people finding VHS tapes and watching horrific shorts. It’s just a bunch of random shorts thrown in between this strange supposed-wraparound.

(Just to state up front—I won’t list any names of the directors of these segments. I like to think I’m doing them a favor.)

The first random short is “Dante the Great,” which is about a magician who obtains a mystical cloak that truly is magic and gives him unbelievable power, which goes to his head. His assistant has to confront him and fight him one-on-one and somehow gain the upper hand against his real magic. This actually would be a neat idea and the effects are decent, but its execution is all over the place. Sometimes, it’s shown as a documentary. But then there’s hidden camera footage that no one could have gotten. There’s cheating in “found-footage,” and then there’s this.

The second segment is “Parallel Monsters” is a little better. It has an intriguing concept of a guy unlocking a portal to another dimension and switching places with his counterpart, only to find that it’s not what he expected at all. What he finds is creepy enough and it leads to some effective imagery. But unfortunately, it ends on a disappointing note.

After the passable “Parallel Monsters,” we are then cursed with the most detestable part of the film: “Bonestorm,” about a bunch of loud, rude, crude, vulgar, obnoxious, detestable skateboarders who go to Mexico and fight off a bunch of cult members looking for a sacrifice (I think; it was hard to tell exactly what was happening). This is what got me over the edge, as I facepalmed myself and wondered if it was even worth sitting through the rest of this thing. But I faced it head-on, as painful as it was. “Bonestorm” was such an aggressively bad short. Its shot choices are repetitive and with no style put into it, making it painful to look at—even skateboard videos and video games have more style than this thing.

Even the message of the film makes no sense! I just realized that even though there’s this stupid wraparound story that’s supposed to talk about young people and their obsession with “going viral,” neither of these three segments have ANYTHING to do with that in the slightest! They’re just random shorts trying to recapture that spirit of the previous films and failing miserably. No thought went into this at all. “V/H/S: Viral” is a lazy, badly-done conclusion of a “trilogy” made by people who I would guess didn’t care for what it was going to be as much as how quickly they could turn it in. I hated this movie.

Left Behind (2014)

15 Aug

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Smith’s Verdict: 1/2*

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The End is near.

That’s what I had to remind myself every few minutes as I was watching this film—“The end [of the movie] is near, the end [of the movie] is near…”

You would think that a disaster movie in which the priceless enigma known as Nicolas Cage (who can either be a very gripping actor or a wacky presence that brings most bad movies up a notch) desperately tries to find his family while also trying to land an airplane when the world is in shambles would at least be entertaining in a so-bad-it’s-good sort of way. But this re-adaptation of the popular “Left Behind” Christian book series is so lifeless and boring that it makes the original 2000 adaptation (starring Kirk Cameron) look like “Casablanca.” And unfortunately, Cage doesn’t help—he seems half-asleep throughout the entire movie, when all that could be done to raise this movie to entertaining levels is a trademark Cage freak-out performance.

It shocks me that this remake was directed by the director of the previous version, Vic Armstrong. It’s almost as if he was wondering how he could possibly make it even worse than before. Give the original film some credit—the political intrigue presented in the dawn-of-the-Antichrist story gave some indication that there was some effort to make it thought-provoking. This remake is just throwing “Airport”-type clichés in with fundamentalist Christian theologies repeated over and over to make sure we get the point.

And I’m not kidding—much of this movie consists of spelling out the evangelical Christian message that the Rapture is coming, the End is near, etc. and so on. It’s like the makers of this film want to remind us who made this piece of uninspired propaganda.

Oh, and there are a few car crashes, a prop plane crash, and a big explosion thrown in just to try and wake up the small audience outside its target demographic.

Oh right, the story. Well, Nicolas Cage is a pilot named Ray Steele, who is called into work on his birthday, just as his adult daughter, Chloe (Cassi Thomson), arrives in town. Chloe believes her father is having an affair with a flight attendant, Hattie (Nicky Whelan), and tries to reconnect with her newly religious mother (Lea Thompson), but differing beliefs (and ignored warnings from mother to unaffiliated daughter) cause more friction between the two. The Rapture occurs while Cage’s plane is in mid-air and Chloe is taking her little brother to the mall. The brother is gone (in fact, all the children are gone all over), many passengers on the plane are gone, much of the townspeople have vanished as well, and it becomes clear to many that these disappearances have happened all over the world. Cage’s co-pilot has gone as well. With help from investigative journalist Buck Williams (Chad Michael Murray, who I’ll give credit to for trying to make something out of a nothing role), Cage tries to land the plane safely before the remaining, scared passengers go even crazier with paranoia.

“Left Behind” feels so proud of its portrayal of the first stage of the End (first is the Rapture, next is the Tribulation, and on and on until finally, Judgment Day) that it ends on a blatant cliffhanger. How blatant? Well, it ends with this exchange—“Looks like the end of the world.” “No. I’m afraid this is just the beginning.” I don’t think so. I sat through this thing, I don’t intend on sitting through it again, and I definitely don’t intend on seeing this story continue any further.

And to think this thing came out the same year as “Joe,” the film that reminded us how good of an actor Cage can be.

The Wind Rises (2014)

24 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Visionary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki has claimed that “The Wind Rises” is his final film. It’s not the first time he’s made that statement, but this film truly is his last one, it’s a great one to end his extraordinary career with. It showcases the best of his abilities—it’s visually stunning, tells a good story, is beautiful in its own way, and is a truly terrific film. What else should I expect from the man who gave us such animated classics as “Spirited Away,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and “Castle in the Sky,” among others?

Miyazaki wanted to try something different for his swansong, so he apparently decided to add his usual touches to a biography, loosely based on the life of aviation engineer Jiro Horikoshi who came up with the design of the Japanese Zero fighters, which were used in World War II. From that description alone, you may be thinking this is not a good thing. But the character has no political agenda—he dreams of creating something truly unique and innovative just like his idols. He wants nothing to do with war; he just wants to create.

The film doesn’t have a political agenda either—it’s merely a fable about dreams, creativity, and passion. Though the film doesn’t necessarily ignore the controversies involved, they’re not the central focus. Instead, the central focus is breaking new ground with technology and bringing something incredible to life.

“The Wind Rises” begins in post-WWI days, with Jiro as a teenager (voiced by Zach Callison) who would love to fly but his poor eyesight discourages him. (Even in his dreams, he ends up crashing a plane he’s piloting—a definite bad sign, as flying is one of the most common traits of dreams.) But he is truly fascinated by aircraft and reads up on an Italian aviator (Stanley Tucci), who often visits Jiro in his dreams, and learns that he never actually flies the planes he invents. This inspires Jiro to craft his own designs. As time goes by, Jiro (now voiced as an adult by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) follows his dream by helping to create one plane after another.

One of the best things about “The Wind Rises” is the way it explores the creative process. It takes us into Jiro’s imagination; his dreams and fantasies, in which he mostly converses with his heroes. The film also shows us how little things inspire him—shooting stars, debris being whisked off by the wind, and even something as small as the curve on a fish bone in his lunch inspire his ultimate design. There are realistic dialogue-based scenes in which Jiro talks about his inventions with fellow engineers and others, but for the most part, what we need to know about his passion for creating is told through his dreams and fantasies, which are beautifully realized and, being a Miyazaki film, visually amazing.

And speaking of “visually amazing,” I can’t neglect to talk about the best-animated sequence in the film, which is the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. It’s intense, impactful, and well-drawn, and the aftermath of the earthquake is effectively handled, presenting a dread that would of course come from such a disaster.

In addition to showing Jiro’s work, “The Wind Rises” is also a sweet romance, as Jiro meets Nahoko Satomi (Emily Blunt) years after he assisted her when she was injured in the earthquake. You could say destiny, the wind (which, if you notice, whooshes them toward each other), or both brought them together after they lost track of each other, but they become reacquainted, spend much time together, and eventually get married. But unfortunately, due to her tuberculosis, their relationship is doomed.

The film doesn’t lose sight of the characters, and given its visual inventiveness, that’s no small feat. We enjoy these characters, especially Jiro, whose likeability equals his passion, who we root for when he inventions fail and he constantly has to try again, and who we feel sorry for when people take what he sees as wonderful and original and use it for dangerous, horrible purposes. His goal was never to create a war machine—it was to develop something that no one else had before, even if, in the end, it resulted in the deaths of many, many people. It leads to a haunting, bittersweet ending in which Jiro takes in what his invention has done in the wrong hands—writing about it would decrease the film’s impact and meaning, so I’ll leave you to interpret for yourself what it means.

Disney made a wise choice in having Touchstone present “The Wind Rises” for North American distribution and the MPAA, who I usually mock, I have to give credit for rating it PG-13. It may be animated, but that doesn’t mean it’s suitable for children. The film is very much adult (that is to say, “mature”) in its storytelling and historical content, and I also think the earthquake sequence would be too intense for younger children to take. Miyazaki went out of his way to tell a great story, regardless of his target audience, which really should be those looking for visionary ingenuity. The result is one of the best animated films in recent years. Would this be the end of Miyazaki’s long career? We shall see, but this is a pretty impressive film to go out on—one of his absolute best.

The Guest (2014)

21 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As “The Guest” begins, David arrives unexpectedly on the doorstep of the Peterson family. He announces himself as a friend of the parents’ eldest son. They served together in combat. The son had been killed in combat. This stranger is polite, possesses good manners, speaks softly, and tells the grieving family that he’s here to look out for them. They let him in. He earns their trust. They welcome him into their home to stay for a while.

All of this happens within 24 hours, and it may sound hurried and a little too trusting. But if you encountered this guy, played brilliantly by Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” fame, you’d immediately trust him too or at least want to get to know him. He’s so confident, calm, and quietly funny; he’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind sharing a drink with at a bar. It’s to Stevens’ credit that he’s able to deliver that balance of “trusting” and “dangerous.” (And I also give him props for not leaving a trace of his British accent, as he sports a Kentucky accent in this movie.) I say this because once you have gotten to spend more time with him, you can tell there’s something a little off about him. Nowhere is that clearer than when you first see him alone in a room, as his assuring grin turns into a terrifying glare.

There has to be someone in the movie who notices this too, right? Well, the parents (Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser) are so grief-stricken, they’ll easily accept a friend of their late son as friendly. The teenage son, Luke (Brendan Meyer), idolizes him after he protects him from some bullies. That leaves the teenage daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe), to become suspicious. (Though, at first, she fights her own suspicions, as one would before things are all too noticeable.) She gets a clue that he’s not who he says he is and follows that lead to figure out his true story.

“The Guest” can be seen as a predictable thriller-horror flick, as you know David’s nature is secretly violent and his true colors will show by the end of the middle act, and you also know which characters are most likely going to die. But surprisingly, there are a lot of things about it that make it entertaining, thrilling, and memorable, so that it’s not your typical slasher flick. One is Dan Stevens, who’s just great here as a strong blend of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider and the Terminator; he has the compelling screen presence that goes beyond playing the perfect British gentleman on “Downton Abbey.” He’s charming in some scenes, badass in others, and sometimes even both. Another is the direction of Adam Wingard and the screenplay by Simon Barrett (both Wingard and Barrett previously collaborated on the horror send-up, “You’re Next,” a couple years ago). The whole film serves as somewhat of a genre tribute, having fun with callbacks to action flicks, horror films, and political thrillers, and also because it has a sense of humor. But at the same time, it’s not self-indulging or even referencing other films blatantly—it has its own identity; some scenes, I could see as moving the film toward cult-movie status. The filmmakers are clearly having fun with this film, especially in the final half. After building up the tension and introducing the characters with a steady pace, all hell breaks loose as they’re thrust into a fun lengthy climax of violent mayhem. Military police are involved, bullets fly, the body count rises, there’s a bloody encounter at a restaurant, and best of all, there’s a climactic chase in a Halloween funhouse maze.

It also helps that the characters are developed in a convincing way. When Anna and Luke are in danger, I fear for their lives because I got to know them and care for them. Both Maika Monroe and Brendan Meyer deliver great work here.

Overall, “The Guest” is a lot of fun. Even when I can find things to dislike about the film, I find they strangely work in its favor. Sometimes it’s silly, sometimes it’s scary, and mostly it’s flat-out entertaining.

2014 Review

22 Jan

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2014 Review

By Tanner Smith

It’s that time of year! The time I feel like a true critic. The time to recap the films I saw this year. So let’s start off this wonderful time of the year with…my Least Favorite Films of 2014.

For starters, the runners-up (the films I can only give mixed reviews to)—(Divergent, Little Accidents, Magic in the Moonlight, The Monuments Men, Non-Stop and…Interstellar; I’m sorry, but the film just didn’t work for me very well)

5. Devil’s Knot—Probably the most redundant film of the year, a fictional narrative based on the West Memphis 3 trials. We’ve already had many great, hard-hitting, harrowing documentaries (the Paradise Lost trilogy and West of Memphis) covering this subject of three young men given unfair trials in the face of an angry public who cried out for blood after a grisly murder. This film doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t seen or heard before in a more compelling documentary.
4. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones—I had a little bit of hope for this current “Paranormal Activity” sequel, as its surreal terror was moved to a more interesting location (the ghetto rather than suburbia). But my hopes were dashed when I saw where it story was going. It’s one thing if it’s repetitive of the earlier films’ formulas; it’s another if the story has enough material to make you laugh rather than quiver. This “scary” film has: a Simon game that can communicate with spirits; gangsters going up against witches; and even time-travel.
3. That Awkward Moment—A dumb romantic comedy mainly from the perspective of the guys, but unfortunately, no matter what viewpoint it’s from, the film still doesn’t escape the typical romcom clichés I’m tired of seeing. And seriously, why would Zac Efron’s character wear that embarrassing costume to a party he knows his girlfriend’s family and friends are attending?
2. Life After Beth—A definite disappointment for me because I’ve always found Aubrey Plaza to be very funny and appealing. But as a zombified “angry girlfriend,” she is just flat-out irritating in this would-be comedy about a lonely guy (Dane Dehaan) getting another chance at his lost love. Despite the reliable cast (which also includes John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, and Anna Kendrick) and an engaging premise, the film is a mess. There are too many scenes of people either saying and doing things that hardly make sense, its attempts at broad comedy just result in awkwardness and everyone being loud and annoying, and even when it looks like there’s going to be a bright spot (supplied by Anna Kendrick who’s usually always lovable), and the script needed a lot of work as it clearly doesn’t know where to go and where to stay. I hope Joe Dante’s upcoming film with a similar premise (entitled “Burying the Ex”) is much better.

And my Least Favorite Film of 2014 is…

1. Men, Women & Children—Just thinking about this film makes me cringe. It’s well-intentioned about how society relies so much on social media but it’s handled all wrong in a heavy-handed way. Great acting from talent such as Adam Sandler, Rosemarie Dewitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, among others, can’t save this film from its laughable script and poor attempt at social commentary. It’s lame, tedious, pretentious, and about as effective and informative about society as “Reefer Madness!” Yeah I said it. I hate this film, and the sooner this cast and their director (Jason Reitman) can move on from it, the better.

SPECIAL CATEGORIES:
I Liked It, You Didn’t: Horrible Bosses 2, A Night in Old Mexico
You Liked It, I Didn’t: Interstellar
Film I Didn’t Expect to Enjoy But Did: About Last Night, The Purge: Anarchy
Could’ve Been Better: Non-Stop
Best Musical Moment: Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s dance to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” from The Skeleton Twins
Funniest Scene: Groot’s smile from Guardians of the Galaxy (with Channing Tatum’s joyous reaction from 22 Jump Street and the chain-link fence gag from Horrible Bosses 2 as honorable mentions)
Most Overstuffed Story: The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Creepiest Moment: The moment of truth in Oculus
Most Memorable Song: “Everything is Awesome” from Lego Movie
Best Performance of the Year: J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
Haven’t Seen Yet But Would Like To: Big Hero 6, Citizenfour, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Foxcatcher, Fury, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Inherent Vice, A Most Wanted Man, A Most Violent Year, St. Vincent, Top Five, Unbroken, and Wild

Special Mention #1: Mark Thiedeman’s Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls. This tender 40-minute coming-of-age comedy-drama is quite honestly one of my personal favorite films of this or any year, which is why it’s unfortunate that it only has one previous screening (so far), this past summer’s Little Rock Film Festival (where it received the award for Best Arkansas Film). Here’s hoping for more to come in 2015, because more people need to see it! I just can’t recommend this film enough.

Special Mention #2: Taylor Feltner’s Man Shot Dead is a terrific documentary I also noticed at the LRFF (it also screened recently at the Indie Memphis Film Festival). I really hope it moves on to even more screenings in 2015 because, again, this is a film more people need to see!

Five Terrific LRFF-Selected Short Films (in alphabetical order): Tara Sheffer’s 13 Pieces of the Universe, David Bogard’s A Matter of Honor, Caleb Fanning’s Origin, Bruce Hutchinson’s Sidearoadia, John Hockaday’s Stuck

But wait! Shouldn’t I list my favorite films of the year already?

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): 22 Jump Street, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Joe, Lego Movie, To Kill a Man, X-Men: Days of Future Past

Oh, and I liked these as well: About Last Night, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Before I Disappear, Big Eyes, The Book of Life, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Fault in Our Stars, Godzilla, The Heart Machine, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Muppets Most Wanted, Neighbors, A Night in Old Mexico, Oculus, The Sacrament, The Signal, The Skeleton Twins

Okay, enough stalling. There are my Top 10 Favorite Films of 2014.

10. Locke—Not the most exciting concept (a man goes on a long drive alone in the dark, making decisions through cellphone calls that will ruin his life) but nonetheless brought to life with much dramatic tension put into its writing and a top-notch performance by Tom Hardy, leading an effective one-man show.

9. American Sniper—In my opinion, it’s Clint Eastwood’s best film in a long while and Bradley Cooper’s best work. I can’t say enough about how good Cooper is or how riveting the war-action sequences are in this film. What’s a true relief about this film is that, like the more subtle war films, it doesn’t have an interest in politics; it makes every scene personal and lets you decide for yourself what you’re supposed to feel. A gripping picture.

8. Nightcrawler—A compelling, disturbingly effective character study and a well-made, tense thriller, as well as a fitting satire on news media. Great leading performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy—This Marvel-superhero film was definitely one of the most fun times I’ve had at the movies this year. It’s action-packed, it has solid characterization, it’s full of heart, and arguably more important, it has a sense of humor. Instead of going for an epic story, it’s more in the spirit of “why not” with its giddiness. This may just be our generation’s “Ghostbusters,” and that’s a compliment indeed.

6. Whiplash—This was a riveting, intense film about striving for greatness, being pushed too far to achieve it, and the conflict of hardly knowing when to draw the line. The film is less of a sports formula drama and more of a tense thriller. J.K. Simmons, as a tough jazz instructor, gives the performance of a lifetime.

5. The Imitation Game—All in one, this film is an intriguing film about a previously unsung hero, a WWII tale told not with fighting strategy (nor does it even take place on the front) but with intellectual thought, and an unnerving portrait of how ignorance based on a person’s offbeat personality/behavior can blind the fact that that person’s activities saved millions of lives. Great screenplay and a top-notch performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing.

4. Birdman—A truly fantastic film that takes us behind the scenes of a difficult Broadway production and through the mindset of a hard-working, washed-up actor looking for redemption. Remarkable cinematography, excellent acting, and an environment that sucks you in—a film that definitely deserves to be checked out.

3. Rich Hill—I’ve seen films try and truly capture what it’s like growing up in the South, but this documentary shows the real deal in a hard but sensitive journey into the lives of three teenage boys who live in Rich Hill, Missouri. The result is one of the finest films of this or any year.

2. Life Itself—It was fascinating to find out all the things I didn’t know about one of my late heroes, film critic Roger Ebert, through this documentary based on his memoirs. It gives us a talking-head approach with interviews from people from his life before giving us a fly-on-the-wall perspective to see just how much Roger suffered during the final months and years of his life; sometimes it was hard to watch. The commentary near the end, by Roger’s wife Chaz, is one of the most heartbreaking I’ve heard in any documentary. Four stars for the story of Roger Ebert.

And my favorite film of 2014 is…

1. Boyhood—This is like the ultimate slice-of-life picture: presenting little moments in the arc of a boy growing into a man. I’m aware of its history and that it took a few days a year for 12 years to get that genuine chronological feel, but I would never label “Boyhood” as a gimmick film. It’s a moving, intimate epic about coming of age. There were times when I felt like I knew this kid or even was this kid. It spoke to me, touched me deeply, and is the absolute best film I’ve seen all year.