Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Zack Clopton's 2014 Film Retrospective

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you're associating with…


Standing at the ass end of 2014, we critics of popular culture and cultural identity are besieged by temptation to attempt to sum up an entire year of events in as few, pithy words as possible. I used to try to do this. Now, the culture moves too quickly, too instantly, for any paragraph to accurately capture twelve months of tragedy, scandals, and world events. 2014 will doubtlessly go down in history as a year defined by racial conflict, protest, and upheaval, all of it dually deserved. I can’t joke about this. I can’t even joke about GamerGate. You know what I can joke about, what I can speak about with knowledge and understanding? Movies. It’s what we’re all here for anyway.

I’m never satisfied with my output. In 2014, Film Thoughts published more reviews and posts then any other year before. I completed eight Director Report Cards, a number I haven’t met since the blog’s first year of existence. The Halloween Horror-Fest went by with a rocket’s pace and I somehow kept up. I met my goal of 24 episodes of the Bangers n’ Mash Show, my fake podcast Youtube talk show thing. Better yet, the show has continued to grow, finding more listeners and fans and people who leave feedback, all of which I am eternally, truthfully, thankful for. My biggest personal achievement was that I finished and published a book, something I’ve been wanting to do my entire life. All of this is good news. Yet I’m not pleased. I wanted to do more, to complete more. Oh well.

Something else I do every year is make a short list of those entertainers who have died in the previous year. I considered not doing this as well, as it’s horribly sad and probably summed up on better, more appropriate places on the internet. Yet I have to because it’s how I pay tribute to their incredible lives. Robin Williams’ shocking passing is surely the one that touched the most people, especially people my age whose lives were so defined by his films and comedy. With the death of Carla Laemmle, the last bridge to the golden age of Universal Horror, a period of film that means so much to me, is severed. We lost cinematic icons like Lauren Bacall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, James Garner, Shirley Temple, Sid Caesar, Bob Hoskins, and Eli Wallach. We lost cult icons like Joan Rivers, Harold Ramis, Casey Kasem, Dick Smith, Christine Cavanaugh, Edward Herrmann, Menaham Golan, Richard Kiel, Marilyn Burns, Billie Whitelaw, and the Ultimate Warrior. And at the bottom of my list is Mickey Rooney, a man whose impending death I have joked about many times over the years. Now that Mickey truly is dead, I just feel sort of sad and bitter that I ever kidded about loosing a cinematic legend. Let’s have a moment of silence for all of them.

Good and depressed now? Fine. Let’s perks everyone up by discussing the Year in Cinema. Of all the years I’ve been doing these retrospectives, 2014 is destined to be one of my favorites. Just scroll down and look at my top 20 and see how many incredible films are listed there. It was a year of indie breakthroughs, important auteurs doing important work, and summer blockbusters that aspired to great art. As complete as this list is, I still didn’t see everything I wanted to, like “Whiplash,” the divisive “Birdman,” or “Inherent Vice.” Limited releases and deadlines will get you every time.

Without further delay, I present THE LIST, a comprehensive collection of mini-reviews detailing each new release I saw in the last twelve months. I saw 89 in total, tying with 2010 for my highest number yet. Let’s collect some memories together.


1. The Babadook
Director Jennifer Kent has a perfect grasp on tone and execution. She starts with creeping dread and continues on to full-blown terror. The fully committed performances and excellent production design cements the deal. After 90 minutes of total fright, the movie builds towards a cathartic ending, revealing itself as a touching parable about coping with trauma.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy
James Gunn has made a talking raccoon and a tree man two of the year’s most beloved characters. Despite their oddness, the characters are imbued with lovable neurosis. This, along with a hysterical sense of humor and highly quotable dialogue, roots the epic sci-fi story in a common humanity. Gunn made an awesome blockbuster without sacrificing his indie weirdness.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Exquisitely designed with rocket-sled pacing, Wes Anderson’s latest masterpiece features a brilliantly comedic performance from Ralph Fiennes, a surprising amount of action, plenty of hilarity, emotional and touching story detours, and a nesting doll framing device that turns the film into a meditation on the nature of storytelling.

4. Life Itself
A momentous achievement, a great film to sum up a great film lover’s life. Archival clips, interviews, and Ebert’s own words contrast with his sad, final days as a sick man. The film’s devastating climax is Chaz, Ebert’s beloved wife, tearfully discussing her husband’s final hours. Yet this is a celebration of Ebert’s great life too, a touching, beautifully realize tribute.

5. Interstellar
Nolan’s sci-fi epic is packed full of big ideas but grounded in plausible science. The images are vast and unforgettable. The worm hole or fifth dimensional finale are unlike anything ever put to film before. The execution is thrilling. The cast is compelling, right down to the awesome robots. Its greatest achievement is that the far-out plot is rooted in understandable, honest emotion.

6. Godzilla
Most importantly, the movie gets Godzilla right. He’s a destructive force of nature that saves the world, not necessarily humanity. The design is great and he’s treated with a sense of awe rarely seen in modern films. The other monsters are impressive too, the movie is beautifully shot, and features plenty of exciting action. Yes, the human characters are a bit dry but I still loved this.

7. The Guest
Adam Wingard’s follow-up to “You’re Next” starts out as dark comedy before exploding into full-blown action, with some sci-fi/horror thrown in. Dan Stevens gives a star-making performance as the titular psychopath. The plot reveals itself nicely. The electronic soundtrack is amazing. And the end is set in a Halloween haunted attraction? Holy shit, this movie is awesome.

8. Snowpiercer
Despite being a sci-fi allegory for class struggle, the latest from Jong-ho Bong doesn’t waste any time getting to the action, both frantic and balletic. The production design is amazing, creating a fully-formed world. A fantastic ensemble cast, including a dramatic Tilda Swinton and a hyper Allison Pill, gives the story its humanity, creating a well-rounded, thrilling and thoughtful film.

9. The Double
In equal measures hilarious and sad, director Ayoade brings out dark humor in the film’s Kafka-esque setting. The story is awash in neurotic impulses and real-world despairs, building to an ending that is up-lifting but doesn’t cheat. Eisenberg’s dual performance is impressive and he is ably supported by a great cast.

10. Blue Ruin
Revenge is a tangled path and that’s never been clearer then here. Deconstructing the vigilante film, the killer is a soft-spoken normal guy. Special attention is paid to the aftermath of violence, a quiet humor coming through. Violence begets more violence, until everybody’s dead. Brilliantly acted and directed, this takes “blood for blood” to its uneasy conclusion.

11. Cold in July
Pulp at its finest, the twisty plot heads down a number of unexpected paths. What starts out as an ice cold thriller eventually transforms into a captivating mystery, a bro-tastic dark comedy, and an incredibly gritty, violent action-crime film. The perfect electronic score, chilly direction from Jim Mickle, and an ideal supporting turn from Don Johnson solidifies this as a great modern noir.


12. The Dirties
Unflinching look at high school bullying. The movie-obsessed main character might be hard to stomach but his fandom characterizes the entire movie, especially the ultra-meta found footage device. Strong acting and an emotional gut-punch of an ending help disguise that this is actually a very familiar story. I related to far more of this then I’m proud to admit.

13. Big Hero 6
A joyously fun comic book yarn. Baymax is the film’s breakout character but the entire cast is quite lovable. The action sequences are dynamic. The visuals, especially near the end, are spectacular. The story eventually reveals itself as a touching metaphor about surviving grief. It’s also really funny, with plenty of quotable, memorable lines. Disney’s winning streak continues.

14. Nymphomaniac: Volume I
The narration has a hypnotizing effect on the viewer. The frank dialogue and explicit sex contrasts with the elegant music and emotional rawness, making this far funnier then expected. The unrelated fishing tangents are hilarious. Highlights include Uma Thurman’s gloriously bitchy cameo, a devastating meditation on loosing a parent, and the music-based montage finale.

15. Noah
Reconfigures the Bible story into an apocalyptic tale about the wages of faith. Noah becomes a morally ambiguous anti-hero, a nihilist who has to regain his trust of humanity. The direction is frequently amazing, such as the awe-inspiring “creation of the universe” sequence. Aronofsky’s Biblical revisionism will offend some but the changes make the universal tale resonate more.

16. Nymphomaniac: Volume II
Though not as absorbing as the first half, “Nymphomaniac” remains captivating, just as funny, guileless and fascinating. Highlights include comparisons of trees, the involving lengthy S&M sequence, Lars von Trier goofing on his own “Antichrist,” Charlotte Gainsberg’s fearless acting, emotional catharsis, and an ending engineered to create debates.

17. The Raid 2
A bigger storyline bloats up the plot and doubles the runtime. The gang war plot is not always coherent. But who cares when every action scene is a brutal masterpiece? Which bone-crunching sequence do you prefer? The prison riot? Machete Man’s rampage? Hammer Girl on the train? The amazing car chase? Rama’s climatic beat down express? There’s plenty to choose from.

18. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Unusually quiet for a summer blockbuster. Much of the dialogue is subtitled sign language and the film concerns characters and their relationships. When the violence does explode, it’s visceral and sudden. The film continues the “Planet of the Apes” tradition of fantastic world-building. Serkis and Toby Kebbell give fully committed performances. The effects are mostly seamless.

19. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Rooting the story in real world paranoia lends this more weight then it otherwise would have had. The script is surprisingly risky, breaking the rules of the Marvel universe. Chris Evans gets Cap 100% right, a man lost in a world were his morality seems old-fashioned. Functioning fantastically as both a thriller and an action film, this is easily a highlight of Phase Two.

20. Lucy
Despite starting with the 10% fallacy, that is merely the MacGuffin to launch into some weird sci-fi. This functions fine as an action flick, including a great car chase and some fun shoot-outs. As a sci-fi flick, this becomes a surprisingly, massively entertaining abstract head trip in the last half-hour. A very controlled ScarJo and a wickedly villainous Choi Min-Sik are the cherry on top.

21. Willow Creek
Considering how overexposed both found footage and Bigfoot movies are, it’s a surprise that this is quite good. A long sequence, depended solely on sound design, generates some real tension while the final scene is genuinely shocking. I like how ambiguous this is about its subject matter. Who would’ve thought that Bobcat Goldthwait could’ve made a good horror movie?

22. Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead
Successfully expands upon the original. There’s more Nazi zombies, more gore, and it’s way more hilarious. The American zombie squad characters are great, very funny addition. The story heads into all sorts of unexpected directions via a magical arm transplant and, yes, an army of Soviet zombies. The only flaw is the local police subplot that never goes anywhere.


23. Only Lovers Left Alive
Mostly about two pretty great actors playing off of each other. The vampire plotline is merely a device to create properly world-weary characters. The film is more concerned with two people with very different approaches to life and how they interact and love each other. Swinton and Hiddleston are mesmerizing, the soundtrack is excellent, and Jim Jermursch’s direction is lyrical.

24. The Lego Movie
Far smarter then expected, the script satirizes the “chosen one” story-arc and police state concerns. The jokes are rapid-fire, helped along by an incredible cast and a keen sense of the absurd. The animation maintains the charm of stop-motion while utilizing the freedom CGI allows. As far as toy-based, February kid’s flick goes, this certainly is awesome.

25. How to Train Your Dragon 2
Successfully expands upon the first film, with more dragons and a bigger world. Hiccup’s Mom is a worthy addition to the cast. The stakes are much higher and the battle scenes are impressive. A kaiju-sized dragon provides some wonder and thrills. The darker tone seems to counteract the fact that, at the heart of things, this is still a goofy kids’ flick about the power of friendship.

26. Enemy
Brooding, entirely psychological thriller with an almost oppressive paranoid tone. The story, of a man confronting his doppelganger, is rooted in disturbing questions of identity, self and fidelity. The unexplained giant spider symbolism adds an extra-layer of creepiness. Jack Gyllenhaal successfully creates two characters, one of which is very twitchy and nervous. Great score too.

27. Grand Piano
Utterly preposterous thriller sold by very stylish direction, fun performances and an excellent score. The use of colors and cut-aways are fantastic. Elijah Wood and Cusack have fun doing their respective “nervous” and “psychopath” acts. The ending goes on a little long but this is still very entertaining thriller as long as you can go along with its absurd plot twists.

28. Tusk
At times, the absurd premise is played straight. Like Michael Parks’ sincere performance or the horrifying walrus-modification. Other times, it acknowledges the ridiculousness. Like Johnny Depp’s baffling performance or the climatic walrus duel. The script is also about an asshole regaining his humanity. It might be Smith’s most polished film and is certainly his oddest.

29. Cheap Thrills
Potent, darkly hilarious satire that brings the one-percent’s abuse of the middle-class down to visceral, literal earth. An especially game cast, most notably Pat Healy and David Koechner, keep the story grounded, even as it spirals off in a more outrageous direction. The ending is a bit blunt.

30. 13 Sins
Pitch-black dark comedy that slowly involves into a decent thriller. The put-upon protagonist is likable and watching him break his moral code is fun. There’s enough gore to satisfy this horror fan. The ending packs a decent shock, even if it could have been better. The subplot exploring the Game was extraneous. This, coincidentally, makes a good double feature with “Cheap Thrills.”

31. Edge of Tomorrow
Clever sci-fi blockbuster. There’s far more humor then expected and a bit of pathos too. The mobile armor and squirmy aliens create dynamic and exciting action scenes. By taking the role of a coward, Tom Cruise creates his most humanistic role in decades. The final act is dark and routine which is a bummer since the preceding film is far better then it had any right to be.

32. Wolf Creek 2
Greg McLean understands sequel escalation. Essentially a distillation of slasher films, sadistic killer Mick morphs into a villain protagonist, cracking pithy one-liners while slaughtering victims in increasingly elaborate fashions. The film switches heroes several times, accordingly. When a victim distracts Mick with dirty limericks, it seems this sequel is actively mocking the original.

33. Night Moves
After the shapeless “Meek’s Cutoff,” Kelly Reinhart rediscovers pacing. Though this is still deliberately paced, it goes toward building a quiet, extended sense of unease, making for a potent thriller. The tension in the second half, after the dam explosion, becomes almost unbearable. Elle Fanning’s performance is one of her best yet. The ending is frustrating inconclusive though.

34. A Fantastic Fear of Everything
Freaky British comedy that makes good use of Simon Pegg’s manic charm. Pegg’s stream-of-consciousness rants actually power the whole film. Most of it is set inside a Laundromat, of all places. The madcap humor produces decent chuckles, the surreal segues into animation are appreciated, and the shift into serial killer horror/comedy is genuinely unexpected.

35. The Town That Dreaded Sundown
More even then the original film. The murder scenes are incredibly intense and viscerally gory. The direction is stylish. The meta elements are clever but I wish the movie did a little more with it. Turning the story into a whodunit seriously misses the point though. The reveal of the killer is easily the weakest aspect of an overall fairly decent horror film.

36. Tracks
After a first half-hour overly dependent on voice-over narration, this evolves into the moody, quiet character study it was meant to be. Mia gives a typically excellent performance, saying so much despite usually being silent. A gritty sense of hopelessness sets in over the stretched-out story, which makes the hopeful ending earned. I wasn’t a big fan of the shoehorned in romance.

37. Premature
“Groundhog Day” reimagined as a teen sex comedy. While vulgar, the movie has likable characters and extends its premise to delightfully deviant places. The ribald dialogue is hilarious, mostly thanks to Craig Roberts’ brilliant performance as the perverted best friend. The quasi-racist Iranian characters are the only distasteful thing about this otherwise amusing high school comedy.

38. Open Windows
2014: The year of Elijah Wood starring in ridiculous thrillers. The twisty script keeps you guessing while the not-quite-found-footage visual gimmick is done well. The premise becomes increasingly unbelievable as it goes on, until it’s absolutely nuts by the end. You just have to go with it. The cast is decent, save for Sasha Grey who is terrible.

39. The Unknown Known
Errol Morris asks reasonable questions and Donald Rumsfield, more often then not, gives obfuscating, confusing, double-speak-and-mixed-metaphor filled answers. Thus, the film becomes about a deceptive and contentious historical figure rewriting events to suit his needs. Not Morris’ deepest reaching film but fascinating as a look into Rumsfield’s twisted logic.

40. Life After Beth
As an irrelevant take on the zombie apocalypse, this is frequently amusing, especially the talkative zombies’ obsessions with soft jazz and attics. As a zom-rom-com and metaphor for the end of a relationship, it’s less successful and hampered by a lack of focus. The actors are committed though, which contributes laughs and makes up for some of the broader moments.

41. Starry Eyes
Alexandre Esso’s brave acting centers this not-exactly-subtle horror metaphor for how Hollywood chews up and spits out fresh young talent. The film maintains a tone of disquieting creepiness throughout. The disgusting body horror segue midway through doesn’t truly work and the ending goes too far. I did like the murder-heavy last third though.

42. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Visually spectacular, the film looks like a painting or a woodcutting brought to life. The last film from Isao Takahada is a charming, quietly funny fairy tale about raising children, destined to leave their parents behind. The flying sequence and the moon-set finale are the highlights. The film is too long and the lengthy scenes devoted to the princess’ suitors are extraneous.

43. Boyhood
Without the 14 years gimmick, I think this would have been less well received. The performances are admittedly impressive, especially Ethan Hawke as the coolest dad ever. However, there’s no real plot, its way too long, Linklater overdoes the pop culture signifiers, I could have done without the line-up of drunken stepdads, and the last ten minutes hammer home the film’s point.

44. The Sacrament
If the director’s intention was to create a disturbing, on-the-ground recreation of the Jonestown Massacre, he succeeded. The final third is horrifying in a very serious way. However, I wonder what Ti West’s plan was beyond that. Life in the cult, and a slow reveal of the abuse of power, should have been explored more. A well-made film but not one I’d ever want to rewatch.

45. 300: Rise of an Empire
As in the original, the highly stylized action and operatic violence is exhilarating before growing tiring. This sequel is slightly better paced and does attempt to address the problematic politics of the original, slightly. Mostly, it’s about Eva Green owning all of her co-stars so hard, especially the hunk-of-meat leading man. A movie all about her character would have been captivating.

46. Dinosaur 13
Engrossing documentary about the ownership issues of Sue, the world’s most complete T-rex fossil. The film’s drama mostly comes from the messy place where science, profit, and government bureaucracy meet. The court case drama is a bit tedious and the film is most engrossing when allowing the paleontologists to detail their love for the dinosaur.

47. Automata
Once the action shifts to the desert, focusing on the robots’ attempt to build their own society, this becomes a decent action-thriller with aspiration towards thought-provoking sci-fi. It certainly makes up for the relatively unimaginative first half. Antonio Banderas makes a decent lead though the cast around him is more uneven.

48. Hercules
Campy cross between sword and sandal flick, a superhero movie, a deconstruction of myths, and an ensemble war movie. The Rock gives one of his most nuanced performances yet and the supporting cast is full of prime character actors. The action is silly but entertaining and the plot is routine but reliable. The CGI could have been better and some moments are a bit self-serious.

49. The Box Trolls
Odds are good that this is the most grotesque kids flick you’ll ever see. The villain swells up, the title monsters collect trash, and the female lead is a budding vore fetishest. The eccentric qualities sometimes work, like with the confused henchmen. Sometimes it doesn’t, like with the rickety ending. Laika still creates a fantastic on-screen universe but this is their weakest effort yet.

50. The Expendables 3
Too much time is spent on recruiting the New-pendables and their first mission. Because the cast has grown so large, established characters get less screen-time. The movie won me back with a bonkers action-and-reference-packed last act. Dancing Banderas, an eccentric Snipes, a monolouging Mad Mel, and even a dirt-bike riding Kellen Lutz are great additions to the team.

51. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Finally and at last, it’s over. Smaug is killed off far too quickly. Thorin’s greed quickly dissolves into melodrama. All the subplots we don’t care about from the previous movies are resolved. While some of the action swings into silliness, most of it is diverting stuff. The cast remains strong. The story refocuses on Bilbo and the movie only has four endings.

52. WolfCop
Unlike most indie mash-ups with outrageous premises, this one delivers. The WolfCop is fueled by liquor, quips cheesy one-liners, blows up a meth lab, fires a Tommy gun, and has a slow-motion sex scene. The laid-back first quarter actually prepares you for the wackiness to come. I found most of the dialogue genuinely hilarious. The ending’s a bit low-key but, eh, I liked it.

53. Before I Disappear
“Curfew” was a great short. This feature-length expansion maintains all the great moments, like the bowling alley dance scene. However, beefing up the runtime creates a number of unnecessary subplots. The film’s symbolism is frequently too pointed. Shawn Christensen and Fatima Ptacek remain fantastic and the film still looks great.

54. Not Safe for Work
Affable thriller and quasi-slasher featuring some decently constructed tension and an amusingly charismatic killer. At only 70 minutes, the movie has no problem putting its decent premise to good use. The cast is likable enough too, providing some humor here and there. Only a lame last minute twist and non-ending damage this entertaining, light weight snack.


55. Under the Skin
Visually spellbinding mindbender? Deconstruction of the male gaze? Needlessly ponderous arthouse remake of “Species?” Scarlett Johannson’s second best role as an inhuman character this year? All of the above. Though artfully constructed and occasionally lyrical, the film mistakes “underwritten” for “meaningful.” I really liked the scene with the deformed man.

56. X-Men: Days of Future Past
As a conclusion to the original “X-Men” series, this proves satisfying. The future scenes are gritty and exciting. As a sequel to “First Class,” it disappoints. Wolverine is forced into the story, the script is jumbled, and other characters are simplified. Still, the mutant power filled action scenes are very well done and I liked the retcon-heavy happy ending.

57. V/H/S: Viral
The “V/H/S” series grows increasingly rough. The framing device abandons the VHS gimmick, is incoherent, and ends obnoxiously. The magician story is cheesy with overdone effects. Nacho Vigalando’s segment is nicely perverse. The final segment features some fun gore and uses the camera creatively. The result is not entirely satisfying. It might be time to put this series to bed.

58. Horns
The latest from Alexandre Aja starts out strong. Daniel Radcliffe gives a soul-barring performance, there’s plenty of twisted dark comedy, and the murder-mystery plot takes some appropriately devilish detours. However, a flashback heavy structure cripples the pacing. An absurd last act, which features a CGI-assisted fight scene, ends this one on a major sour note.

59. Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1
An unfiltered glance into Lloyd Kaufman’s brain. High-lights include show-tune singing cretins, the inability to remove Kevin the Duck, a weirdly sincere lesbian romance, exploding nerds, acidic breast milk, and unprovoked dog murder. The Troma-ness is at maximum levels, so it’s endlessly grotesque and crude, incredibly bizarre, barely coherent, and sometimes inspired.

60. Walk of Shame
Elizabeth Banks is talented. The cast is packed full of likable performers, doing their best to charm the audience. This counts for a lot since the screenplay for “Walk of Shame” is fairly dire. The ridiculous escalation of events calls too much attention to themselves and jokes are frequently repeated. A little more audacity, or less lazy gags, would have made this far funnier.

61. The Purge: Anarchy
Expands on the original while sacrificing focus. There are a handful of exciting moments, like the flamethrower-aided tunnel chase or the government death squads. However, the characters mostly wander from set piece to set piece, the story never finding a rhythm. This is likely to be best remembered as a vehicle for up-and-coming action hero Frank Grillo, who is capably badass.

62. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Sally Field work great together, each getting amazing moments to themselves. The action perfectly recreates how Spidey moves on the page. However, by shoving the Green Goblin in at the end, it winds up rushing an important, emotional story. There’s so much build-up here that the whole movie feels like one long first act.

63. Raze
If you want to see beautiful women fight to the death in brutal ways, this flick is for you. As a vehicle for Zoe Bell’s strengths, as both a fighter and an actress, this is fairly successful. However, the rest of the cast is weak. Mostly thanks to the bone-crunching violence, I was with this one up until the unnecessarily downbeat ending.

64. The ABCs of Death 2
Slightly more consistent then the first go-around with more fun and less up-its-own-ass weirdness and pretensions. There are some fantastic shorts here, like “S,” “M,” “R,” or “Q.” However, there are still many annoying, needlessly vulgar, or just plain pointless segments, like “G,” “L,” “N,” or the excretal “P.” There’s still too wide a variance of quality here for a healthy recommendation.

65. Dracula Untold
Turning Dracula into a misunderstood victim is a problem that hampers the whole film. The conditions they impose on Drac are fairly silly but his outrageous superpowers are a lot of fun. Like when he’s killing a whole army or making a bat-fist. However, the rest of the movie is as generic as possible, with its slick editing, shaky action, bland actors, and route origin story.

66. Killer Legends
Connecting the killer clown legend to James Holmes and the crime scene photos are tasteless. The documentarians are too eager to put themselves on-screen. Some insight is given to the poisoned candy and babysitter legends. Unlike their previous film, this one doesn’t connect unrelated threads too much. Yet an urban legend documentary should have been much more.

67. What If
Fancies itself as an improvement over the usual rom-com formula when it actually plays most of the clichés straight. Yes, Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan’s chemistry goes a long way and the dialogue is frequently hilarious. Yet the supporting characters are caricatures, the production design is needlessly twee, and the super-happy ending is in no way earned.

68. A Field in England
Don’t do mushrooms, kids, especially if you live in 18th century England. The film is almost plotless, the characters aren’t very distinct, and the actors are lost amidst the craziness. The film’s real value lies in its wacked-out images, many of which are haunting, lyrical, and longingly strange. Ben Wheatley stumbles a bit with this one but remains promising as a filmmaker.

69. Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie
Considering this was made completely independently, the movie does some impressive things. The film survives off James Rolfe’s limitless charm and a decent supply of jokes. But it’s too long, the pacing falters, and none of the new characters are endearing. The in-jokes will make fans cheer and that’s ultimately who this (somewhat self-congratulatory) labor of love is for.

70. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
A ludicrous final segment, which features Ghost Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba trying to act like a badass, and absurd action, drags down the whole movie. The other stories are a little better, though the visuals are not as fresh and it’s just as overheated and sexist as the first film. If nothing else, this way-late sequel supplies solid parts for Powers Booth and a pitch-perfect Eva Green.

71. Lucky Bastard
“Porn shot gone horribly wrong” premise differentiates this from the found footage lot. The actors are solid and the execution is grim. However, the anti-porn message is fairly immature. The plot starts running out of ideas halfway through, throwing scenarios around until it’s time to end things. I admire the filmmakers’ moxie but I’m not sure this one was worth the investment.


72. The Rover
Not a lot happens in this Australian-made, post-apocalyptic thriller. Guy Pierce is suitably intense in the lead but Robert Pattinson is insufferable as the Faulker-esque manchild he befriends. While the production design is handsome, the plot is simplistic bordering on monotonous and the minimalistic musical score quickly grates.

73. Blood Glacier
Mediocre monster movie mostly notable for its reliance on practical effects over CGI. There’s a certain trashy fun to be had here, with its rubber monsters, cheesy dubbing, and shallow characters making bad decisions. However, that fun is not enough to sustain the whole film. This one peaks half-way through. You’re likely to forget most of it by the next day.

74. The Muppets Most Wanted
By removing Kermit from most of the story, it neuters the movie’s emotional heart. Constantine isn’t that amusing and centering an entire film around him was a mistake. The laughs are there but badly hampered by lame jokes about the French. Even the music isn’t as good, relying heavily on catchy but forgettable hooks. It’s not the worst Muppet movie but far from the best.

75. All Cheerleaders Die
Lucky McKee let me down. The tone pinballs between goofy comedy, high school satire, and serious horror. There are too many characters and few are properly developed. Some bizarre moments are amusing while others were thrown in for the hell of it. The lead actress is a bore but some of the supporting parts are decent. The end promises a sequel I am not looking forward too.

76. Very Good Girls
Covers ground other, better films have before. Elisabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning are talented but underserved by their thin characters. The girls talk energetically but never feel like real people. The script mines obvious drama from them making dumb decisions. The movie spins into an especially contrived, melodramatic direction near the end. The soundtrack is good.

77. RoboCop
Director Jose Padilha has some interesting ideas. He understands that “RoboCop” is a satire and a character study in addition to being an action film. However, a void of a leading man, a routine plot that unfolds in the least interesting way possible, wonky CGI, and a last act descent into boring conspiracies makes for yet another mediocre remake. Michael Keaton has fun.

78. Almost Human
Alien abduction-themed slasher is mostly worth it for some gory kills and a few inspired gross-out images. Even with a cast this small, there’s still not enough time to develop every one properly over the brief runtime. The shaky-cam direction is tired but there’s one or two decent moment of drawn out tension.

79. Space Station 76
Less a parody of seventies sci-fi then a not-that-funny satire of ‘70s social foibles set in outer space. Most of the humor comes from Marisa Coughlan’s insecure, overly medicated mother and reoccurring visits to a robot psychologist. The production design is great and, aside from a typically wooden Liv Taylor, the cast is game. But this collapses into dour psycho-drama before the end.

80. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Has a decent grasp on the Turtles’ personality, which goes a long towards mitigating the horde of other problems. Like the needlessly rejiggered origin. Or the unsettling designs. Or the shaky-enough-to-be-incoherent direction. Or the bland visual sense. Or an uninspired Megan Fox performance. I guess what I’m saying is, this movie has a lot of problems.

81. Stage Fright
The perfect slasher-musical has yet to be made. None of the songs are particularly memorable. Giving the killer a metal scream is clever on paper but obnoxious in execution. Every time the slasher scenes build up some momentum, the movie cuts away. The mystery is obvious and the humor falls flat. Only a hammy Meat Loaf and some cute girls stand out.

82. Stonehearst Asylum
Derivative attempt to resurrect the Victorian costume drama psychological thriller. The cast, full of recognizable faces, play exaggerated caricatures. The various twist and turns of the story are easy to spot. The biggest issue is a mood that can’t decide between breezy and comedic or grim and brooding, which the far-too-lighthearted score and super-happy ending empathizes.


83. Knights of Badassdom
Until the director’s cut of this long-shelved nerd-friendly would-be cult classic emerges, we’ll never know if it could have been better. There are few laughs, the characters are broad and simplistic, the overqualified actors seem embarrassed, and the whole film comes off as very cheap and reductive. Joe Lynch’s next movie probably will be better.

84. Annabelle
Annabelle, the creepiest thing about “The Conjuring,” plays only a small role in her own movie. Most of this is devoted to dreary studio horror clichés: Deafening sound designs, jumps scares, overdone effects, and dumb things done to prolong the plot. Many of the scare sequences are unrelated to the overarching plot. The ending is hella’ anticlimactic too.

85. The Big Ask
Being a Gillian Jacobs and Melanie Lynskey fan, I watched this strictly for them. The premise is too thin, so the script throws in cameos from Ned Beatty, a cactus-man and a verbally abused dog. The second half features characters coming to melodramatic, easily avoided assumptions. There are few laughs and little reason for the audience to care.

86. Mr. Jones
Centering a found footage thriller on an outsider artist isn’t a terrible idea. However, this falls into the pitfalls of the genre. The leads aren’t captivating and make increasingly stupid decisions. The movie does not earn the nightmare-like scares it aspires too. The insipid, unending last act is torturous. Turns out, spooky looking scarecrows aren’t enough to build a movie around.

87. Patrick
Begins as a series of jump scares delivered with a jackhammer’s frequency and a sledgehammer’s subtly. Eventually devolves into overly elaborate attack scenes and shitty CGI. The script is overheated and the film leans hard on Pino Donaggio’s verging-on-self-parody score. This is a shame since the cast is talented. It’s all so overheated that I wonder if it was meant to be funny.

88. Kite
Adaptation of a controversial anime that sucks out everything interesting about the source material. The setting is grimy, the actors are bored or bland, the directorial style is overdone, the story is tedious, and the obnoxious dub-step music desperately wants to be the Chemical Brother’s “Hanna” score. Even the excessively gory action is self-serious and boring.


89. Leprechaun Origins
Ever wonder what a gritty reboot of the perennially goofy Leprechaun series would look like? Pretty people wander into a horror set-up boldly derivative of better films. Spam-in-a-van victims, shaky-cam direction, a generic monster design, lazy gore, overused visual gimmicks, and everything else about this is utterly uninspired. Where’s Warwick Davis when you need him?


So that was 2014, a pretty great year for film. Last time I had a list that long, I broke the post in half. This year, I didn't much see the point. These retrospectives are always insanely long anyway. Might as well cram it all in at once.

Return to Film Thoughts tomorrow for my annual Film Preview of my most anticipated new releases of 2015. Until then, have a safe New Years and, as always, thanks so much for reading. See all of you again soon.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 56: Christmas Vacation 2014

2014 is nearly over. As I try to cram in as many new releases as possible within the next two days, there's still one more thing to do before December is over: Post the last Bangers n' Mash episode of 2014! Like last year's post-Christmas episode, JD and I don't really discuss any one specific thing. We talk about some Christmas-y things, before moving on to Batman, frustrations with Netflix, superhero movies, and the new releases were excited about for next year.

Mostly though, we do our best to thank our listeners and followers. 2014 was the year the podcast grew the most, with the Facebook group gaining steam and a few active listeners giving us feedback. Seriously, I can't thank you guys enough. For the first time in its nearly three year existence, the Bangers n' Mash Show felt like a worthy endeavor. Thank you a million times over.

As for Film Thoughts, as I mentioned above, I'm busy putting the finishing touches on this year's Film Retrospective, which will go up on the 31st, as always. The Film Preview, giving a more in-depth look at what I'm interested in 2015 including my top ten most anticipated films, will go on the first day of next year. Merry belated Christmas, happy New Year, be safe and prosperous, and let's look forward to many more years like this one!

Monday, December 22, 2014

Bangers n' Mash 55: Lord of the Rings

Usually on the Bangers n' Mash Show, I'm the one who jibber-jabbers endlessly about shit. On this latest episode, the tables have turned. JD happens to be passionate about the "Lord of the Rings" universe and, with the release of the final "Hobbit" film, we felt the need to devote an episode to it. That's why I re-reviewed all of them. Anyway, it turned out alright.

Mostly, I want to talk about the end-of-the-year plans here at Film Thoughts. I was hoping to sneak in a few festive holiday related reviews like I did last year. However, November was busy, the Todd Solondz Report Card didn't go up until last week, and here I am, preparing to leave for family vacation tonight, with no Christmas-viewing plans. It's disappointing but there's not I can do about that. If I review any Christmas movies this year, it won't be until after the Christmas is over. Save an additional Bangers n' Mash episode, it's far more likely that you won't hear from me again until my year end retrospective goes up on the 31st. Everyone's probably busy hanging out with their family and shit anyway. One of these days, I'm going to do December right and have a month-long celebration similar to what I do in October. This year, that isn't happening. Sorry about that. But enjoy the podcast, travel safely if you're traveling, and have a December full of cheer.

Director Report Card: Peter Jackson (2014)

14. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Once again, December has rolled around. With it arrives another movie based in the world of Middle-Earth. However, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is different then the roughly six thousand hobbit movies to proceed it in one very important way: It’s the last one. Despite being a touchstone for a fairly large nerd subculture, Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” films have been met with increasing ambivalence by the people who are supposed to love them the most. Even the film’s trailers, packaged with a Twitter hashtag that says “One last one!,” seems more relieved that it’s over then excited to go on another adventure. It doesn’t matter if “The Battle of the Five Armies” is any good or not. We, and by “we” I mean nerds and dorks, are obligated to see it. Is there any chance that the concluding chapter of the over-extended “Hobbit” trilogy will be better then the first two parts?

Picking up where the cliffhanger ending of “The Desolation of Smaug” left us, “The Battle of the Five Armies” begins with the mighty dragon Smaug burning Lake-town to the ground. (Water?) That film’s other cliffhanger, Gandolf’s investigation of an awaking necromancer, earns a hasty resolution too. However, these storylines only make up a small portion of the film. Instead, the third “Hobbit” adventure focuses on the band of 13 dwarves and their hobbit pal Bilbo finally reclaiming their gold. Thorin, the leader of the group, is consumed by greed. This becomes a problem when the elves of Mirkwood and the men of Lake-town arrive, seeking a portion of the treasure. The opposing forces nearly come to blows before a fourth army, evil orcs with plans to wipe out all the goodness on Middle-earth, arrives, uniting the heroes. A late appearance by a flock of eagles provides the fifth army of the title.

The most compelling part of the previous “Hobbit” epic was the dragon Smaug. The dragon was a singular presence, a visual wonder, and the properly gripping villain the floundering films desperately needed. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one bothered by the last part ending just as it was getting really exciting, just as Smaug descended on the cities of man. Considering how overlong each “Hobbit” film is, you’d expect the movie to focus plenty on Smaug and the destruction he causes. Instead, the dragon is dead in the first fifteen minutes. He swoops overhead, burning the village down, creating chaos. Bard retrieves the black arrow and takes aim at the fire drake’s weak spot. Smaug receives an arrow in the crack in his armor and spectacularly falls to his death. Benedict Cumberbatch’s portentous vocals only get a single line or two. The effects are impressive, the sequence is exciting, and the dragon remains a threatening character. Yet “The Battle of Five Armies” cuts off its most exhilarating storyline.

Most of “The Battle of Five Armies” is focused on the aftermath of Smaug’s demise. The dwarves have regained their gold and reclaimed their kingdom under the mountain. However, there’s still two hours of movie left. Jackson devotes the lengthy middle portion of the third “Hobbit” to setting up the titular conflict. The men of Lake-town, shakily led by the newly instated Bard the Bowman, would like a little gold for rebuilding their town and think they’re owed it, since they slayed the dragon in the first place. An army of elves, lead by the arrogant Thranduil, arrive as well, seeking a collection of diamonds the dwarves took from them decades ago. There are long scenes of characters debating a truce and arguing their demands. The men of Lake-town approach gingerly, not wanting a war after a dragon just scorched their home. The elves are more demanding, seeking their jewels and refusing to take no for an answer. Considering the battle is what the movie is named after, the film devoting so much time to its set-up makes sense. Yet I wonder if these moments could have been better paced or less laborious.

The reason war nearly happens is that Thorin Oakenshield is not willing to loose a penny of his newly-earned mounds of gold. This is the most problematic aspect of the film. Thorin’s greed is unreasonable and the text recognizes this. He is overcome with “dragon sickness,” an overwhelming desire to horde his treasure. How this tendency is passed along from Smaug to the dwarf is only loosely explained, an inheritance of the location. It’s a contrived plot development, one designed to ramp up tension before the inevitable war. The dragon sickness turns Thorin into  a massive asshole too. He snipes at his fellow dwarves. He accuse Bilbo of stealing the Arkenstone, the movie’s big fat plot device. (Of course, he’s right about that.) This subplot wastes Richard Armatage’s acting ability, sticking him in “blustery” mode. It also allows the film to stumble into melodrama. The worst example of this is when Thorin, gone mad with greed, stumbles onto the castle’s floor of gold. He is haunted by a shadow of Smaug and whispering voices before the floor attempts to swallow him up. Gee, almost as if his greed is consuming him! Real subtle, Peter.

The only good thing about “The Battle of the Five Armies’” middling second act is that it refocuses the story on Bilbo. The hobbit, otherwise known as the main character of the trilogy, was a little overlooked in the last film among the barrels, elf love triangle, and wizards. Bilbo is given a juicy role in the concluding chapter. Thorin’s paranoia is justifiable, as Bilbo really did swipe the Arkenstone. However, he holds onto it not out of greed but because he fears possessing it will only make Thorin crazier. Instead, he uses the stone as a bartering chip, in hopes that it will help prevent war between the three armies. This ends up not working, as Thorin’s greed is irrepressible. The subplot is mostly another example of the movie spinning its wheels before the action starts. However, it does pay off in one notable scene. Bilbo shuffles an item in his hand, causing the dwarf king to jump down his throat, suspecting him of theft. Instead, Bilbo is holding an acorn he picked up two movies ago and the two discuss a happier memory. It is a rare emotional moment in a film full of bigger events and allows Armatage’s and Martin Freeman’s charms to shine through.

All of this makes it sound like I don’t enjoy the action elements of “The Hobbit” films. All of Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth movies are action flicks. “The Battle of the Five Armies” features plenty of diverting action and even a few balletic or clever moments. As the orcs march on the Lonely Mountain, the elven and dwarf army put their differences aside. The dwarves slam their shields down on the ground, creating a wall of protective iron. Just as the monsters are about to attack, the elfs leap over the shields, swords out and ready to attack. The orc army is accompanied by a number of burly trolls. One of my favorite gags has a troll, head equipped with a battering ram, slamming himself into the castle wall, making a large hole. Immediately afterwards, he passes out or drops over dead, which is a funny moment of physical comedy. Thranduil, a fairly useless character up to this point, gets a few stand-out moments. He rides around on a giant battle-elk, which is certainly a unique steed. At one point, after knocking a crap load of enemies off a bridge, he picks up six orcs with the elk’s antlers, decapitating each with one sword stroke. The movie also introduces Billy Connolly as a dwarf warrior who rides on a furry pig, which is a moment whose appeal needs no further explanation. While the action sequences in the last two “Hobbit” joints felt overly dependent on CGI gymnastics, this one brings a sense of fun and reality back to the battles.

Except when it doesn’t. One of the many subplot the film is juggling involves Bard the Bowman. After Smaug dies, the dragon’s corpse crushes Stephen Fry’s leader of Lake-town. Fry’s sniveling sidekick, Alfrid, is inexplicably pushed to the forefront several times. He sucks up to Bard, trying to get in the new leader’s good graces. While the battle is raging around him, Alfrid smuggles gold by dressing as a woman. One review refereed to the character as the most annoying comic relief character in a big budget genre film since Jar Jar Binks. It’s not quite that bad, especially since Alfrid is only in a few scenes, but the character’s appearance at all is baffling. Bard’s subplot is probably the least involving of all the film. He has a wife and son to defend, even though his kid seems capable enough with a sword. At one point, Bard rides a rickety cart down the mountainside, leaping into a malformed troll, sword drawn. That’s an example of some of the film’s shakier CGI. Some times the battle scene actually seems to waste its potential. A pair of giant death-worms burrow out of the ground before disappearing totally from the conflict. Beorn the Were-Bear makes a big entrance, leaping off the back of an eagle, transforming in mid-drop, and taking out some orcs. He too vanishes immediately after that. Out of all the stuff added to these movies, you’d think werebears and death worms would be the stuff worth keeping.

Aside from the giant friggin’ dragon, another plot point was left dangling last time. Last we saw Gandolf, he was trapped inside a cage, hanging off the cliffs of Dol Guldur. The wizard snakes his way out of that bucket of syrup fairly quickly. Arriving to help are three other familiar faces. “Battle of the Five Armies” brings back Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, Hugo Weaving’s Elrond, and Christopher Lee’s Sarumon. It’s nice to see three of the most talented faces in the series one more time. Let’s face it, half the reason these movies got made was to revisit fan favorites. Weaving and Lee, or more accurately Lee’s stunt double, even get an action scene. The two fight off a group of ghostly knights summoned by Middle-earth’s big bad. All of that stuff is fine. Fun even. What baffles about this scene is its conclusion. Before the trio can make its escape, the mountainside explodes revealing, once again, Sauron’s Ominous Eyeball of Doom. This forces Galadriel to go Super Sayian. Her skin glows green, her voice deepens, and she magiks Sauron back to the netherworld. It’s a laughably silly moment and brings down an otherwise fun sequence.

The biggest plot tumor weighing down the previous “Hobbit” flick was the love triangle between Killi the dwarf, Tauriel the invented elf love interest, and returning hero Legolas. That story arc, thankfully, gets a blunt resolution this time. After Killi and Tauriel share a few romantic moments together, the love birds are separated until the final battle. There, the love triangle is clipped rather dramatically. The resolution isn’t even that important, the movie brushing the remnants of the plot line away before the conclusion. Though Evangeline Lily remains lovely, and Tauriel has a decent action beat or two, her entire storyline remains the most disposable in “The Hobbit” series.

Slightly more compelling is Legolas’ half of that subplot. Tauriel isn’t much more then his sidekick and the two go on an unnecessary journey to check out some giant bats or somethin'. The film builds up Legolas’ dad as a character and star-on-the-rise Lee Pace is given more to do. The seemingly cold elves come to an understanding, Legolas learning a little about his dead mom, father and son learning more about each other. Mostly, Legolas’ screen time is preoccupied with ass-kicking. He grabs hold of one of the aforementioned giant bats. He snipes orcs from a watch tower. Most notably, he has to face-off with Bolg, the archenemy this trilogy decided Legolas had to have. This is when the action scenes leap from amusing to overdone. Legolas and Bolg face off on a stone tower wedged between two cliffs. As they fight, the stone crumbles around them. After banishing the bad guy, the fight scene reaches its absurd pitch. Legolas, in slow motion, runs up the stones as they collapse, just barely escaping death. Sure, I like Orlando Bloom too and the warrior elf continues to be an ideal fit for his charisma. But, once again, the movie overdoes its attempt to make him appear superheroic.

In the “The Hobbit’s” mutation from a simple fairy tale to an epic action-adventure blockbuster, Thorin received an archenemy too. The rivalry between Thorin Oakenshield and Azog the Defiler comes to a head here. The two battle atop a frozen water fall, which certainly makes for a memorable visual. Though the fight starts out interesting enough, especially once you factor in the bad guy’s awesome sword arm, eventually it overheats too. Azog gets the bright idea to swing a large stone around on the ice. Predictably, this causes the ice to crack, which the hero turns against the villain. However, instead of finishing Azog off when he had the chance, Thorin allows the orc prince to make a dramatic escape from the ice. The two scuffle a little more before blades met flesh. Not to spoil too much but “The Battle of the Five Armies” is faithful to the book’s ending and handles the resolution decently.

Unlike “Return of the King,” “Battle of the Five Armies” doesn’t have six endings. It merely has four. The dwarves bury their fallen comrades and Bilbo heads back home. He has a conversation with Gandolf that drips with foreshadowing. While cute, it’s little more then an acknowledgement of this trilogy’s more popular predecessors. The film retrieves a smidge of its humanity and humor in its final minutes, as Bilbo gets an unexpected, and unwelcomed, surprise upon returning to the Shire. Peter Jackson doesn’t belabor the point and wraps up “The Hobbit” series decently enough. Though plagued with problems, you can’t complain about the ending.

And that’s the last we’ll see of Middle-earth, at least until the Tolkien estate mellows out. This is probably for the best, says I. Is anyone but the most passionate of Middle-earth devotees anticipating Peter Jackson’s ten-part, thirty hour adaptation of “The Silmarillion?” Maybe the director can return to quieter territory next and produce something hopefully better then “The Lovely Bones.” As for “The Hobbit” prequel trilogy, it is plagued with problems. The cast is excellent, including the fantastica Martin Freeman and many of the returning faces. Middle-earth remains an impressive visual creation. Smaug was easily the high-light of the whole ordeal. The third part might even be the best of the trilogy, as it has the least filler and the most diverting action. Out of the three overlong films, there’s easily enough material for one pretty good three-hour epic. (And some enterprising fans saw fit to create just that.) Taken at their theatrical lengths, there’s so much about the films that are frustrating or tiresome. Now that it’s over, I’m mostly just glad it’s over. [Grade: B-]

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (2011)

7. Dark Horse

Todd Solondz has said in interviews that each of his movies make less then the one before it. Considering his movies couldn’t be less commercial if they were in Esperanto, that’s not exactly a surprising fact. You’d think that would make it impossible for him to bankroll new features, yet somehow indie-dom’s infinitely tragic-comic filmmaker keeps popping out a new movie every few years. “Dark Horse” received the director’s best reviews in a while. Much to Solondz’ surprise and delight, the film features no rape, child molestation, or actively transgressive themes. But don’t think that means “Dark Horse” isn’t a depressing, emotional experience.

The main character of the film is Abe, a middle-age toy collector who never quite figured out this “maturity” thing. Aside from his interest in collecting relics of his own youth, he still lives with mom and dad. He works in his dad’s office building where he puts the minimum amount of effort, and sometimes not even that, into the job. Abe seems to be stuck at the emotion age of 13. He squabbles with his dad. His mom hugs, kisses, and comforts him on a daily basis. He resents his far more successful, professional younger brother. While inside Abe is aware of his sad state of affairs, he puts on an optimistic face, boldly misrepresenting his talent, appearance, and abilities. It’s that misplaced confidence that finds him in an awkward relationship with a sad woman named Miranda. The relationship forces Abe to directly address his arrested development which sends him spiraling into a crisis.

After the good-but-dour “Palindromes” and the similarly-dour-but-less-good “Life During Wartime,” “Dark Horse” feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s the first Solondz feature in a while to active go for comedy. “Dark Horse” was actually written as a deconstruction of a popular genre of comedy. In the years since “The 40 Year Old Virgin” and other Judd Apatow produced films, many R-rated comedies have found popular success with stories about man-child protagonists, adult men who act like petulant kids. These stories usually find the man-child redeem by the end, coming into belated maturity, usually with the help of a woman significantly more attractive then him. In “Dark Horse,” the man-child’s wacky outer appearance hides a tender, wounded heart. He lives with his parents, who resent him, and he lacks the required group of frat boy friends. For that matter, Abe doesn’t seem to have any friends. The woman he pursues is as depressed and as emotionally dysfunctional as him. The quest towards maturity wrecks Abe even more. And there’s no happy ending. “Dark Horse” is a strong reaction to the defining cliché of our current wave of comedy.

Abe is not your usual, cuddly movie man-child. As you’d expect from Solondz, the film never backs away from the character’s negative qualities. He is lazy, searching for vintage, overpriced toys on eBay when he’s supposed to be working. He takes a perfectly fine action figure back to the store, hoping for a refund. When the patronizing clerk refuses to give him store credit, Abe has a temper-tantrum. He comes into work late and heads to an important meeting in fat-man shorts and t-shirts with juvenile messages on them. Shirts of that fashion seem to be Abe’s primary uniform. He even refuses professional help, refusing to visit a shrink or take medication. He dropped out of college and has no interest in going back. Abe is almost totally without redeeming qualities, which is only exacerbated by his relentlessly showy personality. His only saving grace are the rare moments when Abe drops the bullshit, revealing that he’s a sad, damaged little kid inside. Jordan Gelber, a character actor with few roles of note before this, gives a fearless performance. Gelber embraces Abe’s obnoxious qualities but never lets go of his inner humanity, transforming a simpering man-child into a tragic anti-hero.

Solondz’ tendency to revisit characters is evident in “Dark Horse’s” bizarre love story. While at a wedding of an obscure family member, Abe briefly runs into Miranda. Though the film doesn’t indicate it in any way, Miranda is actually Vi from “Storytelling,” Selma Blair reprising the part. The two meet so fleetingly that Miranda has no recognition of Abe the next day. He still manages to talk her into a date. On that first date – sitting in Miranda’s backyard, drinking Diet Coke – Abe proposes. After some consideration, Miranda accepts. This is despite the two having nothing in common. Miranda is clearly put off by Abe’s toy collection, his pushiness, his behavior and his disinterest in moving out of his parents’ house. She doesn’t call herself Vi anymore but Miranda hasn’t changed too much. She is constantly Skyping with her ex-boyfriend Mahmoud, who acts as her personal life couch. She’s clearly still in love with him too, as the only time the morose Miranda perks up is when Mahmoud is around. When talking, Miranda drops references to literary and psychological ideals completely beyond Abe. The only reason she said “yes” is because the former Vi has given up on writing and wants to settle. After he proposes, she asks Abe if he’s being “ironic,” if his proposal was an act of performance art. This reveals Miranda’s inner Vi, a self-hating, wounded hipster. Vi is still looking for people to validate her, still on the search for an identity of her own. Selma Blair’s performance is raw and deeply sad.

Abe’s toy collecting is vital to understanding his character and his relationship with Miranda. In the last act of the film, in a delirious daydream, Abe returns to Toys R’ Us. He confronts the same annoyingly upbeat cashier. Instead of attempting to return a “Lord of the Rings” figure, he instead asks for a refund for a fiancée. This is why Abe doggedly pursued Miranda. He has no serious interest in a relationship. He has no intention to improve himself. When Miranda or his dad attempt to push him into maturity, he freaks out. Instead, Abe only sees Miranda as another addition to his collection. He assumes that getting married will make him a grown-up, not that growing up leads to marriage. What other movies play for comedy, “Dark Horse” plays for tragedy. (For the record, the toys I recognize in Abe’s collection are vintage “Thundercats,” NECA’s “Gremlins” toys, Playmates’ “Simpson” line, and yet more “Lord of the Rings” stuff. My God, I’m a dork.)

Despite its sad qualities, “Dark Horse” is the funniest film of Todd Solondz’ career. Abe’s behavior is off-putting and awkward enough that it produces laughs in the audience. In the opening scene, Abe wantonly hits on Miranda. She is completely oblivious to his advances, adding to the humor. When he shows up at her house, her Mom looks at him with bafflement. Abe makes boasts he can, in no way, back up. One of the subtlest, biggest laughs in the film arrives when the two are hanging out in her backyard. Abe finishes another made-up boasts, crumbles a Coke can, and tosses it towards the trashcan. Off-screen, we hear the can tumble to the ground. The jokes are strictly of the awkward, cringe-filled variety. These are the types of laughs Solondz has always traded it in and “Dark Horse” is a great example of it.

Another source of humor is Abe’s odd relationship with his parents. Abe is a grown-ass man but he maintains an antagonistic relationship with dad. After attempting to fire him, Abe throws a childish fit, slamming a trashcan down in anger. At home, the two meet in the hallway. Instead of moving around each other, father and son stare each other down. Mom, meanwhile, coddles Abe. She finds him in his bed, kissing his forehead and giving him hugs. This is despite the fact that he treats mom no better then his dad. The two play Backgammon and, when Mom starts to win, Abe storms off. Weirdly, the parents don’t seem any happier on their own. The only real interaction we see between Abe’s mom and dad are the two sitting on the couch, in silence, watching an obnoxious TV sitcom. These laughs are tougher and, personally, hit a little close to home. Christopher Walken’s face has never seemed more sunken before, the actor playing up his age and quiet strength. It’s one of Walken’s best performance in quite some time. Mia Farrow exudes warmth and motherly love, even though her son is tough to love.

The oddest thing about “Dark Horse” is its element of fantasy. The film is frequently interrupted by vivid flights of fancy. Characters in the film appear to Abe, bringing a voice to his inner doubts and fears. While waiting for his first date with Miranda, he imagines Marie, the secretary from work, coming to his car. She brings him finished paperwork while also telling him he’s wasting his time. Marie is a frequent target of Abe’s fantasies. She picks him up in a supped up sports car. She takes him back to her home, a modern-seeming mansion. She acts like a porn-y cougar, cynical and slinky, sipping fancy liquor and attempting to seduce him. Of course, this is in stark contrast to Marie’s actual reserved, mousy personality. These sequences aren’t real. Instead, this is what the childish Abe thinks adulthood looks like, like something out a cheesy eighties movie. As Abe’s world falls apart, his fantasies become more confrontational. He imagines his mom and older brother in the back of his cartoonish, canary yellow Hummer. They tear down Abe’s life, confirming his fears that he’s the “failure” of the family. In his final fantasy, Mahmoud appears as the Toys R’ Us manager, treating Abe to the psychiatric reading he’s most afraid of. To a first time viewer, “Dark Horse’s” blending of reality and fantasy can be tricky. You’re are left uncertain about which events are real. However, a second viewing allows a watcher to decipher events more clearly.

I should talk more clearly about Marie. Marie clearly takes pity on Abe. She helps him with his paperwork when he refuses to do it. She talks his father down when he’s preparing to fire him. They go out to lunch together, the older woman listening to Abe’s childish rants. Because of this, Abe imagines Marie as a potential romantic partner. That’s the only way Abe can imagine any woman that isn’t his mom. Yet a closer reading suggests she sees Abe as what he is: A sad, grown-up little kid. In one of Abe’s lurid fantasies, Marie mentions that she lives alone and that both her children are dead from mutual suicides. If we can assume this is true, it explains why Marie would feel sorry for Abe. She is sad and wounded too and desperate for love herself. The final moments of “Dark Horse” steps into Marie’s fantasy world. We see her home as it actually is, a modest suburban house. Inside a room, posters for Broadway plays hanging on the wall, she quietly dances with Abe. The camera cuts away to her at work, starring off into the middle distance, bored and sad. This is her fantasy, something simple and quint but honest and true. If “Dark Horse” was the kind of movie that received Academy Award nominations, Donna Murphy would have been nominated for Best Supporting Actress. It’s a quietly wounding performance.

Which brings us to “Dark Horse’s” devastatingly sad ending. Everything bad that can happen to Abe befalls him, including a car wreck, a coma, and a rare sexually transmitted disease. Even on his death bed, his skin yellow from a failing liver, he is ignorant to his weaknesses. He thinks Miranda might still love him. He realizes Marie had feelings but is clueless of their actual meaning. As Abe is dying, his dad assures him he can keep his job. Earlier in the film, Abe mentioned his affinity for dates, and how he felt certain dates have special meaning. On his tombstone, his father printed the wrong date. When his brother points this out, his dad waves the concern away, saying it “doesn’t matter.” Even in death, Abe is a loser. Yet the people gathered around his grave makes it clear that someone did care for him. There was a tiny sliver of hope for him, if only he had been honest enough with himself to see it.

Another happy return to Solondz’ career is his ironic use of sickeningly sweet pop music. “Dark Horse” is primarily scored to happy, day-glo bubblegum pop. Abe cruises around in his car, another meaningless ditty on the radio. They have titles like “A Night Like This,” “Who You Wanna Be,” “Now Is the Time,” and so on. But a closer listen to the lyrics shows the music reflects the film’s themes. As Abe heads towards his first date with Vi, a number talking about a bright future plays. After a disastrous meeting with the girl, a song about trying a second time plays. Solondz says the songs were inspired by the music they played on “American Idol” when someone looses, which is a fitting comparison, especially since Abe dreamed of being on the show at one point. Like Abe, the songs seem happy and perfect but hide an inner sadness. When the film crash-cuts to Abe walking in a rainstorm through the toy store parking lot, a sappy pop ballad on the soundtrack, the audience laughs. But it’s a sad, knowing sort of laughter.

“Dark Horse” is a return to form for Solondz. Like his best films, it’s quietly funny and heart-breakingly sad. The director creates another character that the audience would hate if their flaws weren’t so achingly human. Like the director’s best films, “Dark Horse” invites chuckles and consideration, leaving a lasting effect on the viewer. The effect, powered by the phenomenal cast, is simultaneously sad and funny. It would appear that Todd has rediscovered his mojo. His neurotic, odd, funny, depressed mojo. [Grade: A-]

Despite the director's insistence that every new film might be his last, the last decade has been very productive for Todd Solondz. He has a new film in pre-production right now, heading for a possible 2015 release. Entitled "Wiener-Dog," the film is another sequels of sorts to "Welcome to the Dollhouse." Despite killing her off in "Palindromes," the film will feature Dawn Wiener again. This time, indie wunderkind actress Greta Gerwig will step into Heather Matarazzo's iconic role. The plot revolves around a cute dachshund bringing joy and happiness into several characters' lives. Which, uh, does not sound like a Todd Solondz film. I suspect that plot description is deceptively sweet. Whenever that film rolls around, I eager anticipate it. Most of Solondz' films, as difficult as they can be, impress and beguile me. He's a true American original, that's for sure.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (2009)

6. Life During Wartime

With “Palindromes,” Todd Solondz revisited the characters of “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” in a round about sort of way. For his next film, the director would continue this referential tone. “Life During Wartime,” originally known as “Forgiveness,” is a direct sequel to “Happiness,” probably Solondz’ second most popular film. A sequel to such a film is an interesting propositions. What would the dysfunctional cast of “Happiness’ be doing a decade later? Yet Todd would put his own stamp on the entire concept of sequels. “Life During Wartime,” presumably not named after the Talking Heads song, receive slightly better reviews then “Palindromes,” won a few awards, and was the first of Solondz’ films to be accepted into the prestigious Criterion Collection. This is an enthusiasm for the film that I can not share. The movie finds the director in a very odd mood.

Roughly a decade after the events of “Happiness,” we pick back up with the three Jordan sisters. Joy continues to be unlucky in love and optimism has started to fail after years of life trampling on her. She has since married Allen, the troubled obscene phone caller from “Happiness,” but the marriage is collapsing. Joy is quite literally haunted by her relationship failures of the past. Helen has retreated from the family, living in California as an award winning television writer. Trish, meanwhile, has joined her mom in Florida. She has met a man named Harvey and is impressed by his normalcy, rushing into marriage with him. Trish’s youngest son, Timmy, is old enough now that he’s beginning to have questions about his absent father. When he discovers that his father is a convicted pedophile, and has recently been released from prison, Timmy begins to have some troubling questions about life and whether it’s possible to forgive and forget.

Even though “Life During Wartime” is a sequel to “Happiness” and features most of the main characters, it features none of the same actors. This does not appear to be a financial choice, an issue of not being to get the same actors back, but rather a creative decision. As in “Palindrome,” Solondz is switching characters’ ethnicity and appearance around to affect audiences’ perspective of them. Allen was originally played by Caucasian, overweight, and schmuck-ish Philip Seymour Hoffman in. In “Life During Wartime,” the same character is played by Michael K. Williams who is - if you hadn't noticed - black, tall, lean, and intimidating. Yet Solondz did not seem content to simply revisit his “Happiness” cast. “Life During Wartime” also brings back a few character from “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” It might go unnoticed at first. Trish’s new suitor is named Harvey but, we soon discovered, has the last name Wiener. As in Dawn Wiener. Harvey’s oldest son is Mark, seeming to imply that this is, indeed, Dawn’s dad. Yet they act completely different, making me wonder if they’re even meant to be the same characters. Either this whole practice is some sort of meta commentary on how the viewer interrupts fictional characters or Solondz just likes using the same names.

The Jordan family has undergo some changes in the years since “Happiness” but, in other ways, remain the same. The film’s opening mirrors that of “Happiness,” with Joy at dinner with a man. He gifts her a gold ashtray that is embossed with her name. Joy continues to assume the best of people, finding work as a councilor for rehabilitating convicts. This seems to explain why she’s married the troubled Allen. In the opening minutes, we see that Joy has forgiven Allen of countless trespasses. He has a history of drug abuse and petty crime. As the scene continues, we discover that Allen has not quit his habit of making obscene phone calls. Years of continued abuse from the world has worn down Joy’s optimism. She’s a shell of her former self. Instead of strumming her guitar and singing about happiness, she writes a song about whether it’s possible to forgive those who hurt us. Squeaky-voiced Shirley Henderson has stepped in for Jane Adams and, appropriately, seems far more frail in the part.

“Life During Wartime” is also about the past coming back to haunt us in unexpected ways. An interesting choice Solondz made was to bring back the character of Andy. Played by Jon Lovitz in “Happiness,” Andy killed himself after his final, disastrous date with Joy. Despite being dead for years, he returns as a vision or a ghost. The most lyrical sequence in the film has Joy wandering out of her sister’s home in the middle of the night, walking across town in her nightgown. She eventually comes to an all-night T.G.I. Friday’s style restaurant. The cheery greeter seems oblivious to Joy’s gloomy mood, one of the bigger laughs in the film. While waiting in the booth, Andy first appears to her. What starts as a touching heart-to-heart between the two, Joy wondering what death is like and Andy regretting his LaserDisc collection, soon degrades into a rougher argument. Andy reappears several times, attempting to force himself on Joy while she stays at Helen’s house, or putting the moves on her in a synagog. Later on, Joy has ghostly encounters with the other men she has lost. It’s all a not-too-subtle metaphor for past regrets and pain lingering in our lives, never to be resolved or closed. Replacing Lovitz is Paul Reubens, another primarily comedic actor taking on a dramatic part. Reubens is fine when being pathetic or sleazy but can’t summon the anger Lovitz delivered as Andy.

Easily the most despicable character in “Happiness” was Lara Flynn Boyle’s Helen, the most successful sister with the most rotten soul. Helen returns here, now played by Ally Sheedy. Helen hasn’t change much. She now lives in L.A. as a screenwriter with multiple Emmys, living in a McMansion with her own personal sushi chief. She remains endlessly pretentious, making obnoxious, grand statements about poetry and writing. Despite Joy’s evident distress, Helen continues to go on about her charmed life, acting as if she’s the one with the problems. She’s condescending to her sister and even bitches her out a few times. The character’s chapter concludes with her, once again, having enthusiastic sex with a boyfriend off-screen. In “Happiness,” the Helen character was a brutal critique of would-be artist type. Her appearance here is far more mean-spirited. Even Sheedy’s limitless charm is strained as the odious Helen.

But what has Trish been up to? She’s the sister the film spends the most time on. At first, the character seems better off. She’s living in Florida, has reconnected with her mother, and re-dedicated herself to her kids. She seems to have a genuine connection with Harvey. Yet the cracks begin to show quickly. She praises Harv for his “normalcy.” She has taught her youngest daughter to pop pills when she’s upset. (This causes the girl to develop an odd fear of baby carrots, another one of the film’s few laughs.) Most damningly, Trish has told her children that their father is dead. All the cast members need to reconcile with their past but Trish needs it the most. She hasn’t changed much over the years. When she meets with Joy for dinner, she continues the same old habit of passive-aggressively tearing down her sister’s accomplishments, before back-tracking on her behavior. But the years have been hard on Trish too. After a gymnastic round of old-people-sex with Harvey, she reveals that she doesn’t really care about her kids or her sisters. She leaves the film unchanged, having learned the least. Great character actress Allison Janney is the only improvement over “Happiness'” cast, a major upgrade over the vaporous Cynthia Stevenson.

If “Life During Wartime” can be said to have a central protagonist though, it’s young Timmy. Last seen as an obnoxious, screaming child, Timmy has now evolved into an observant thirteen year old. He discovers that his dad is still alive when kids at school tease him for having a convicted child molester for a dad. This reveal is what starts him on a quest towards forgiveness. He wonders out loud, bouncing his opinions off his mom and Harvey, if it’s possible to forgive someone for a great wrong. He explicitly compares pedophiles to the 9/11 terrorists. During the course of the film, he makes his own mistakes and becomes the one seeking forgiveness. After accidentally accusing Harvey of molestation, he seeks forgiveness from the robotic, possibly autistic Mark. As in “Happiness,” “Life During Wartime” concludes that true forgiveness is difficult to achieve and wonders if it even matters. Dylan Riley Snyder is excellent in the part, showing a range of pathos and understanding beyond his year.

Perhaps the most interesting subplot in the film revolves around Bill, now free from prison and attempting to reconnect with his estranged family. Bill carries his mistakes on his shoulders. He admits that he struggles with his deviant desires every day, how it’s always a challenge. He has idyllic reoccurring dreams about seeing Timmy by a pool, the footage blurry and strange. At first, this appears to be a pedophilic daydream. Later, Timmy turns to reveal that he is holding a tulip, revealed earlier in the film as a symbol of normalcy. Another bit of too-on-the-nose symbolism is Bill’s habit of chewing on gumdrops. Gumdrops, the kind of candy a stereotypical child molester would lure children with. He pops them like pills, seemingly as a way to hold back his dark desires. Bill finds the empty home of his family in New Jersey, pausing at the pictures on the wall. He finds the room of his oldest son, Billy, who seems to have developed an interest in punk music and has headed to Oregon for college. Father and son reunite by the film’s end, having an intense conversation in the boy’s dorm room. Though Bill typically stumbles, disturbing his son, Billy makes it clear that he’s willing to rebuild a relationship with his dad. By then, it’s too late. Bill disappears like one of Joy’s ghosts. Dylan Baker in “Happiness” was more like a creepy sleazeball. Ciaran Hinds is sadder, older, more experienced and more burdened by his mistakes.

While “Life During Wartime” features some strong performances and a few stirring emotional moments, the film is seriously hampered by some of the worst dialogue of Solondz’ career. This is unusual, as the director’s scripts are usually very naturalistic and well-timed. The dialogue here is, instead, overly didactic. The film’s themes of forgiveness and acceptance are flatly laid out in dialogue and conversation. This is most blatant during a mostly unnecessary conversation Bill has with a woman in a singles’ bar. The character, who claims to be a horrible person and a monster, talks about whether or not she’s worthy of forgiveness. There are several moments like this, the film hitting the viewer over the head with its ideas and concepts. Solondz has never exactly been subtle but it’s especially egregious here.

The film also has an unusual, uncertain political subtext. Trish’s Jewish heritage is played up. One of the reasons she’s dating Harvey is because he supports Israel. Helen’s home is decorated with a large print of a Israeli tank, adorned with a big Star of David. The September 11th terrorist attacks are referenced repeatedly. Solondz not only seems to be discussing forgiveness on a personal level but on a geo-political level. Should America have forgive the terrorists for their actions? Or were their actions, as Harvey and Trish say, unforgivable? And should the world now forgive America for our rash actions following the attacks, sinking the country into an unending Middle Eastern conflict? These themes seemingly never build to anything and instead float around the main story, never solidifying into a coherent concept.

“Life During Wartime” moves beyond Solondz’ usual New Jersey locations. The film mostly takes place in Florida. In accordance with this setting, the film is painted in washed-out, tropical colors. One moment has strange blue and green lights reflecting on Billy’s face as he stands outside and talks. At first, it provides an interesting change of scenery for the filmmaker. By the end, the audience has grown tired of the sea-sick green tone. This is a shame since “Life During Wartime” is, otherwise, beautifully photographed.

The film’s ending is blunt and sudden, leaving several characters’ fates up to the viewer. (Unless Solondz makes a third film in another ten years, transforming “Happiness” into an unlikely trilogy.) While the director never looses sympathy for these troubled souls, the treatment of poor Joy borders on sadistic. As a sequel to “Happiness,” “Life During Wartime” proves a mostly unnecessary trip. The film builds upon the original in some interesting ways but never justifies its existence. The tone is dour and there are few laughs, making the film a depressing slog. It’s a stumble for Solondz, whose films have all been varying degrees of excellent up to this point. [Grade: C+]