Ryan’s Top Ten of 2014

2014filmTransitional. Tumultuous. Tiring. All words to describe one of the most eventful years of my life. Perhaps that’s why, in contrast to my lists of years’ past, I was more keen to appreciate dramatic, think-y flicks over the clang and clutter of the mainstream Hollywood machine. Once again, better late than never, I present my Top Ten films of last year.

I did not have the opportunity to see two films from 2014 which remained on my must-see list: A.J. Edwards’ The Better Angels and Kevin MacDonald’s Black Sea. Sometimes even waiting until January can’t produce a complete list, so if either of these films proves worthy, I will post it as an additional entry.

Other films of last year I quite liked: David Wain’s gut-busting rom-com sendup They Came Together, Jon Favreau’s deliciously meta Chef, Alexandre Aja’s clever and unique Horns, Peter Jackson’s epic Middle Earth finale The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, David Ayer’s real, grimy Fury, J.C. Chandor’s crime saga throwback A Most Violent Year, and Michael Cuesta’s poignant and home-hitting Kill the Messenger.

10. 22 Jump Street

22jsBravo Jump Street series, for showing us that even Hollywood’s worst ideas can be made original and fresh with the right talent behind them. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, as well as writer/star Jonah Hill, are that talent, turning the eye-rolling idea of adapting a forgotten 80’s TV show, into not one, but two uproariously funny, ultra self-aware parodies.

“Nobody gave a shit about the Jump Street reboot, but you got lucky. So now this department has invested a lot of money to make sure Jump Street keeps going,” comments police chief Nick Offerman dryly. “As if spending twice the money guaranteed twice the profit.”

Cue my shit-eating grin.

22 Jump Street takes the absurd, clichéd idea of a same-y buddy-cop sequel and runs, no, skips along delightedly with it. Not only does the film mock the very idea of the sequel, but it uses its predictability to play up a meta-relationship dynamic between leads Hill and Channing Tatum, who’re just two partners who must “investigate other people” before realizing what they’ve already got in each other. If these movies continue on for years to come as 22 Jump Street’s credits suggest, consider my tickets bought and paid for.

9. Exodus: Gods and Kings

exodus2014 proved that America still loves playing the race card, and Ridley Scott’s vastly underappreciated Exodus was an unfortunate casualty of society’s increasingly erratic and irrational views on race. These arguments, easily diffused if one knows even a shred of detail about the way Hollywood works, divert attention from the real issues Exodus brings to light on religion, interpretation, and mythologization.

Gods and Kings is a gritty, contemporary retelling of the myth of Moses (Christian Bale), how he rose up against brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton), and led the Jewish people to freedom. Yet refreshingly, the film occupies a closer approximation of the real world, portraying the events of the myth with objectivity, rather than rehashing the larger-than-life tale of religious folklore. And that’s exactly how modern society needs to start viewing its myths – from a more critical, objective, and rational perspective. Best of all, Exodus doesn’t pander to the faith-based market by forcing the viewer to accept the existence of God in the story. Rather, it allows them to come to their own conclusions based on the events that occur – does Moses truly wield the power of God, or is he just schizophrenic?

While its first act does drag, its third more than makes up for it, standing as a powerful look at how faith and religion can drive men insane, destroy nations, and change the world. The always-solid Scott evokes great performances, staging, and direction as always, and while Exodus isn’t his best, it’s certainly one of his ballsiest.

8. A Walk Among the Tombstones

a walk among the tombstones trailerIf Non-Stop was Liam Neeson’s finest actioner since Taken, then Tombstones is his best dramatic turn since…wait, when was the last time Neeson made a compelling drama? Perhaps that’s why audiences seeking thrills over thought ignored A Walk Among the Tombstones, a true showcase of the actor’s many talents. Based on the novels by Lawrence Block, Tombstones follows recovering-alcoholic detective Sam Scudder (Neeson) on a mission to find the man, or men, who kidnapped, raped, and murdered the wife of a drug dealer (Dan Stevens), in the process enlisting the help of computer-savvy orphan TJ (Astro). Tombstones is, by most accounts, standard detective fare and won’t win any points for originality. But who cares? It’s been far too long since we’ve seen a really good thriller of this kind, a grisly (yet never exploitative), hard-boiled, plot-driven neo-noir that’s well written, well-acted, and well-directed. Writer/director Scott Frank is wise to keep his original script’s Y2K setting, the perfect backdrop for a grim detective story, and the way he stages the final sequence set to Scudder’s reading of the 12 Steps to Recovery is brilliant editing. Tombstones is a rare subtle, smart film that proves familiar isn’t always bad.

7. Joe

cage-joe2Original Review

Most would hesitate to label Nicolas Cage’s career as anything other than ‘wildly inconsistent.’ But undeniably, when the actor hits his mark, he hits it with shocking resonance. In his best performance since 2009’s The Bad Lieutenant, Cage plays Joe, a mysterious southern laborer who begins taking under his wing local boy Gary (Tye Sheridan), who’s in need of both a job and a father. Director David Gordon Green captures some breathtaking, genuine southern imagery in a film that feels born and bred of the region. This is a place that raises generations of people succumbed to temptation and indulgence, including Gary’s abusive alcoholic father (Gary Poulter). With Gary, Joe seeks to right his own wrongs and set the boy on the right path he himself has too often strayed from. Like a dirty, rural Gran Torino, Joe is quiet and poignant, traits which carry over into one of its leading man’s best roles.

6. Enemy

enemy_nws1If I could halt time for a week, I would spend that week delving into the many layers, puzzles, and intricacies of Enemy. Easily one of the most dense, complicated films of this year many years before it, Enemy deserves hearty praise for its ability to pull an audience into its web (pun intended) of complexion. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the dual role of Adam and Anthony, two very different men that nonetheless look the same. But why? How? Enemy is an examination of self, identity, relationships with women, and really big spiders. But it’s also an exploration of totalitarianism and domination, not in the form of physical dictators, but, through societal patterns and motifs, inevitable human nature. Are we doomed to repeat our same mistakes without even thinking about it? These and many, many more questions will be asked of viewers, thought we never feel taxed by them, only challenged.

Enemy is shot with a mesmerizing, beautifully-lit gold aura, supplemented by focused performances and a subtle, haunting score, adding up to some of the most memorable imagery of recent memory. Enemy demands you to think, scattering clues throughout the film to suggest deeper metaphorical truths than its surface narrative might suggest. Yet the film’s answers are never too out of reach, and allow intelligent audiences to come to their own interpretations when all’s said and done. Watch the film, then delve deeper with these two great analyses.

5. X-Men: Days of Future Past

DF-07401 - Logan/The Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) finds himself in the distant past as he becomes the catalyst in an epic battle that can save the future.Original Review

The latest installment of the rejuvenated X-franchise feels plucked directly from the Saturday morning cartoon vein, when this week, all your favorite characters travel back in time, meet their younger selves, then team up with each other to save the present. I mean that, of course, in the best possible way – Days of Future Past is a lot of fun, but what sets it apart from all the old cartoons is how deftly it juggles so many characters and subplots in one epic overarching narrative. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travels back in time to First Class-era 1973 to prevent Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) from using Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) to create an army of sentinels, which threaten to plunge the present, last seen in The Last Stand, into a dystopian future. Featuring all A-listers at the top of their pulp-game, not only does Days of Future Past bring full-circle each of its many character arcs across the series’ 14-years-and-growing lifespan, the film proves even more entertaining and intelligent than any of its past installments.

Credit Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, and Matthew Vaughn, perhaps the only talent capable of fixing the X-franchise, as well as the major turnaround at home studio Fox, all of whom have finally realized the potential of the subgenre, and helped create one of its finest and most sophisticated entries. More, please.

4. Interstellar

interstellar trailerI’ve always found Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to be one of the most terrifying aspects of space travel. Mere hours to the traveler equals years, decades to everyone he/she knows and loves back home. Interstellar might be one of the first films to confront that pain, the pain of seeing your friends, your family, all moving on without you. In the film’s most heart-wrenching sequence, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) receives a video message from his daughter, now aged the same as him, and watches her relate to him all that he’s missed in the mere days he’s been away. Cooper cries openly, and I’m not too proud to admit, I’m holding back tears too.

Those are the kind of emotional cords Interstellar strums perfectly between its sophisticated, occasionally overwrought narrative of a group of scientists travelling into deep space to find and colonize a new world for humanity. Sophisticated and overwrought is Christopher Nolan for you, who’s also consciously channeling some great influences in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, right down to the soundtrack. Look past the breakneck pacing and regular leaps in logic. Interstellar is a better emotional ride than a logical one, an ambitious, complex film which bears a profound sense of wonder missing from most films today.

3. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

x011_BM_04337_04342_R2.JPGJournalist types who’ve hailed Birdman as “Michael Keaton’s comeback,” congratulations, you’ve been had by the very film you’re reviewing. Yes, Keaton did play Batman, and yes, he hasn’t been in a lot of high-profile movies since then, but to suggest a parallel there between him and his character is missing the point. Birdman seeks to subvert, among other things, journalists who sensationalize and critics who critique based on expectation rather than art itself. Birdman is, in part at least, about the ways commercialism hinders that art.

Riggan (Keaton), former ‘Birdman’ actor of the 90’s, is now seeking a career in Broadway, struggling against an audience who cannot take him seriously. Among his obstacles are Mike (Edward Norton), a method actor impassioned by his own vision for his character, and daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who sees her father as a failure. Riggan hears the voice of the Birdman character in his head, a voice of temptation and doubt. My favorite scene comes when Riggan aimlessly wanders the streets of New York, and in his mind, Birdman is flying right behind him, amidst CGI-fueled chaos of a giant robot bird attacking the city. Breaking the fourth wall, Birdman flies up to the camera and taunts, “This is what you want, isn’t it?!” And for many audiences, it is.

And therein lies the Unexpected Virtue in Ignorance. We as an audience use film to shroud ourselves from reality, escape from the harshness of challenge. We want that robot bird to fight Birdman because we don’t want to think, we want our movies quick and vapid, sensational and empty. What we don’t often realize is that the true artists out there are spilling blood, suffering, bearing their souls out trying to bring their art to life. And even when media sensationalism begins to overshadow the art itself, in the end, artists will take whatever exposure they can get, so long as their work gets seen. That’s the tragedy Riggan faces, and the one all true artists do too.

Birdman is shot and edited to give the impression of being captured in a single take, like its own longform Broadway play. It’s also funny, clever, and one of the most original movies of the year, commenting on success, failure, and scandal, all set to a smooth, jazzy soundtrack. Birdman is the type of movie that, the more you’re willing to think about it, the more you’ll get out of it. Which is why most people raised on the Hollywood machine won’t get it.

2. Gone Girl

HT_gone_girl_ben_affleck_sk_140708_16x9_992Of all the films this year that slyly held a mirror up to society, only Gone Girl had the balls to reflect the realest, rawest flaws in all of us. Nick Dunn (Ben Affleck) is accused of killing his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). The media is quick to paint him guilty of the murder, the 24-hour news cycle’s endless speculation fueling deeper and deeper anti-Nick sentiment. Yet what follows midway through the film, if it hasn’t already, will blow your mind. Suddenly, this is a film about something bigger than just a murder.

I offhandedly described Gone Girl to a friend as the anti-relationship movie. While it could certainly fill that role neatly, Gone Girl is moreso a brilliant social satire of marriage, relationships, and how men and women think, feel, and perceive each other, all in the foreground of a global, salivating audience ready to feast on scandal. We watch as gender-biased newscasters (hello Nancy Grace lookalike) are quick to judge. We cringe as we learn the truth behind the murder. We’re intrigued to see how Nick uses the media to share his own perception of reality. And we’re crushed to learn the shocking and disturbing conclusion he chooses to settle on. It’s an ending which, while unrealistic on the surface, remains all too real on a metaphorical level. And just like that, Gone Girl is about how the guns we hold to our loved ones’ heads aren’t just made of metal, resulting in the little metaphorical deaths we all face in relationships, the lies we tell our friends, our family, the world, even ourselves, that everything is okay.

Director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn, adapting her eponymous novel, create a genuinely twisted, terrifying murder mystery, set to a minimalist soundtrack and featuring pitch-perfect direction from Fincher. Gone Girl is simply a damn good film with a powerful message to send to the world – gender politics makes liars, even murderers, of us all.

1. Boyhood

boyhood_still2_ellarcoltrane_byboyhoodinc_2014-01-_87511657There are two directors whom I believe have come the closest to portraying absolute naturalism in their work. The first is Terrence Malick, crafting pieces that seem to mirror nature to a T. The second is Richard Linklater who, while a more traditional narrative filmmaker, is no less talented at conveying, not in words but pictures, what it means to be human.

When I first discovered Linklater in the simple, beautiful Before Sunrise, I felt a remarkable connection to the filmmaker. Dialogue from Ethan Hawke’s character, wherein he expressed desire to create a TV show running 24/7 and portraying the real, unedited life of an ordinary man, mirrored some of my own idle thoughts on using film to depict life, love, legacy, and how they are each affected by the passage of time. And over the past ten years, Linklater has been working in the shadows to do just that – create a sort of video time capsule, a chronology of some of the most vital years of a man’s life, illustrating with stunning accuracy how it feels to grow up and make connections with family and friends amidst a complicated world of adult problems.

Boyhood, a film which gathered its cast and crew once a year every ten years to shoot scenes for the film, realizes almost all of its ambitions. My only nitpick stems from something I think Linklater hadn’t counted on – the change in his lead Ellar Coltrane, playing the principle boy lead Mason. By the time the film begins to explore Mason’s teenage sexual dalliances, Coltrane seems to be straying from where the script intends to take his character, and all I can think about is, “Are we sure this kid even LIKES girls?” Props to Linklater for sticking to the template, but I suppose this is just one of the little ways the passage of time doesn’t completely work in the film’s favor.

All the same, Boyhood transported me back to a consciousness I haven’t occupied in years, seeing the world through bright, curious, unseasoned eyes. It excels at ushering us back to a time when life just sort of happened all around us, a time when we were simply along for the ride, learning and watching, before finally standing up and discovering who we really are. Linklater has an innate knack for making even the simplest of life’s moments profoundly meaningful, and Boyhood proves his most vital film yet.

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Ryan’s Most Anticipated of 2014

So excited was I for 2014’s potential slate of films that I’d actually had a draft of this list written up back in July. Several release date changes, new additions, and comprehensive rewrites later, and here we are at my final list of eagerly-awaiteds. And I haven’t settled for just ten.

15. Exodus

exodus-christian-baleAs an atheist, formerly a COFC (Child of Forced Christianity), biblical films have often rubbed me the wrong way. In part, it’s people’s cultish fanaticism, the outdated lies the church feeds to gullible geriatrics, and the sick way it lends its “seal of approval” to certain films dealing in its scripture. It’s also why I’ll likely be skipping Darren Aronofsky’s Noah – the director spoon-fed me enough Christian tripe in The Fountain to last a lifetime.

Yes, I am an atheist. Happily, so is Ridley Scott.

So it seems Exodus is aiming for something a bit deeper than propaganda. The smartest religion-based films all have a sense of spirituality about them, not in a pandering sense, but to appeal to the similarities we share as a species. Our fears, our hopes, our desires, these emotions transcend organized religion and speak to each of us on a personal level. Scott, who handled even the most heavy-handed Christian themes in last year’s Prometheus admirably, should be able to strike that cord with a more universal tone. On top of that, Christian Bale will almost certainly prove a fantastic casting choice as Moses.

14. Maps to the Stars

file_177163_1_map-of-the-stars1I prefer director David Cronenberg when he’s making hard-edged mystery movies like A History of Violence over winking, meta works like eXistenZ, but the director’s latest film dealing with, according to star Julianne Moore, “the pursuit of fame at any cost,” has me intrigued. And already the signs of Cronenberg’s trademark meta-ness are there – this is the first film the 70-year old Canadian filmmaker has ever shot in Los Angeles, a film being produced by the very people he’ll be criticizing.

Maps to the Stars began as a screenplay by Bruce Wagner, who turned it into the novel “Dead Stars” after the project fell through, then re-adapted it into a screenplay when it was picked up again. The New York Times described Wagner’s novel as, “Stomach-turning, sick-making, rancid, repugnant, repellent, squalid, odious, fetid, disgusting.” Sounds right up Cronenberg’s alley.

13. 22 Jump Street

16-22-jump-streetI’d forgotten just how much I loved last year’s 21 Jump Street until I bought and re-watched the film on a whim during Black Friday. It is a truly hilarious movie, one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with its self-aware sending-up of the action genre. The film also did some really clever stuff portraying the generational gap between this and last decade’s high schoolers, which spoke to my funny bone more than even the passing years ever could.

Its sequel presents a similar premise, with Schmidt and Jenko (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) heading to college to find and bust up a new drug ring. I love the fact that the film unabashedly revels in the absurdity of its new title, being named as such simply because the cops now occupy the church across the street. My only concern is that the original screenwriters aren’t present, but luckily its directors are, so hopefully 22 Jump Street won’t fall victim to the typical comedy sequel pitfall of, you know, completely tarnishing the original film (ahem, Hangover).

12. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Andy-Serkis-as-Caesar-in-Dawn-of-the-Planet-of-the-Apes2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was easily the best Apes film since the 1968 original, effectively relaunching the dormant franchise by going back and telling the backstory behind the simians’ takeover of Earth. It was smart about paying homage to the series’ legacy, while doing enough of its own thing to justify its own existence. One of the best surprises of the year was hearing the familiar, “Get your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape!” followed by Caesar’s bellow of, “NO!” All I remember thinking was, “oh shit!”

Now it’s four years later, and the hyper-intelligent apes have been training and populating the forest where James Franco left them. The humans are now contemplating war against the apes to take back their land. How will the apes continue developing their speech? Will they start using obscenities? Have they perfected their British accents yet? Either way, with some likely incredible effects work from WETA and a motion-captured Andy Cerkis, let’s hope newbie Apes director Matt Reeves can keep this fire stoked.

11. The Expendables 3

expendables-2-logoTo call the Expendables films a guilty pleasure would imply some sort of guilt. I am completely, totally, unabashedly in support of Stallone’s biennial teaming of the best and boldest action stars for one big, fun ass-kicking session. And this time around the roster additions are even more impressive: Wesley Snipes, Jackie Chan, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, and Antonio Banderas round out an already outstanding ensemble of action veterans.

Behind the camera is Red Hill director Patrick Hughes, an interesting choice, one which matches Stallone’s desire to inflict the series with new blood. Let’s just hope the casting of several pretty-boy nobodies won’t take the focus off the more established actors who better deserve the pat on the back. Let’s also hope this isn’t the last we see of Stallone’s franchise; with stars like Nicolas Cage (sought out for this installment, eventually replaced by Kelsey Grammar due to scheduling issues), Kurt Russell, and several other action greats who’ve still yet to enter the fray, it’d be a damn shame for Stallone to retire the team without giving them their time to shine.

10. A Million Ways to Die in the West

amwtditw2Last year’s Ted proved Seth McFarlane wasn’t just a capable showrunner, but a capable film director as well, seamlessly translating his self-referential, gross-out, 80s-referencing, gut-bustingly funny brand of humor to the silver screen. I can’t wait to see what he does with his latest, a parody of the western genre featuring a mess of celebrities in either major roles or cameos (Liam Neeson!). It’ll be a true test of McFarlane’s abilities, seeing if he can’t handle the bigger budget and star-studded cast. But with the way he gracefully took it on the chin during his  unfairly reviled Oscar hosting gig, I have no doubt McFarlane can pull it off. And hey, it can’t be any worse than the current state of his familiar animated cartoon show, which has long outstayed its welcome.

9. Maleficent

maleficent-watch-first-trailer-movie-angelina-jolieWith Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland pushed back to 2015, I’ve turned to another film for my classic Disney fix – this retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of its antagonist, starring Angelina Jolie in a role she is absolutely perfect for.

The film should prove an intriguing re-invention of the timeless Disney mythology. The spindle, the thicket forest, it’s all there thanks to production designer-turned-director Robert Stromberg, who also worked on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, a film which certainly can’t be faulted for its design. There’s also Beauty and the Beast scribe Linda Woolverton and DC Animated writer Paul Dini on scripting duties, both of whom are sure to bring something special to the film.

On top of that, the character herself was the stuff of my childhood nightmares. There’s just something  innately terrifying about her appearance on a very primal level, and the film’s trailer already showcases a doozy of an exchange between her and Aurora:

“Don’t be afraid!”

“I am not afraid.”

“Then come out!”

“Then you will be afraid.”

*shivers*

8. Gone Girl

gone-girlLately I feel as though I’d been unfair to the subject of my first full blog-based review, David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I should’ve better appreciated the film’s atmosphere, its slick mystery plot and unique character portrayal. I very much hope to be better singing Fincher’s praises on his next novel adaptation.

Fincher, whose talents are probably better suited here than on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remake, will direct the story of a man searching for his lost bride from a script by the novel’s original author Gillian Flynn. I haven’t read the novel, but the promise of neo-noir-like themes of deception and paranoia between the couple intrigues me. It’ll prove interesting to see how Flynn chooses to adapt her novel’s way of revealing plot points entirely from the perspective of its leads (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike). And on a side note, Affleck himself has been making some very smart career choices lately (Runner Runner excluded), so I have to give him credit for really growing up in a big way. This is definitely a film I’m watching out for.

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past

xmdofpIt wasn’t until very recently that I began to truly appreciate what director Bryan Singer had done on X-Men. Yes, I’d reasoned, the 2000 film rejuvenated the comic book movie. Yes, it spurred studios to begin taking pulp properties seriously. Yes, it balanced an effective ensemble. It also spawned a series that still hasn’t quite mined the heart of its source material, a series filled with blaringly obvious metaphors and thinly-drawn characters (read: walking sets of powers) in its earliest installments.

Now, I see and appreciate what Singer was doing. His films aren’t about the script or the characters. They’re about the staging, the gravity he lends to the proceedings, the real-world application he brings to the pulp, and the spot-on casting of these actors. With that in mind, I’m even more excited for Days of Future Past, which will not only unite the cast of Singer’s films with their younger, equally brilliant counterparts from First Class, but also boast a script that’s been toiled over by First Class’ Matthew Vaughn and Simon Kinberg. It all feels like one big culmination of everything the series has been building up to.

A dystopian future spurs Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to travel back in time to fix the past and save the present; I like this idea that out of ultimate despair, out of complete hopelessness, comes hope for the future. I also like the idea of Professor X meeting himself at a very different time in his life (as in the above image), comparing and contrasting the two Xs. Days of Future Past’s trailer provides a dark gravity the series hasn’t seen since X2, and could easily wind up being the best of the series.

6. A Walk Among the Tombstones

liam-neeson-filming-a-walk-among-the-tombstones-3Two Liam Neeson-starrers will grace the silver screen in 2014. The first is February’s airplane heist thriller Non-Stop from Unknown director Jaume Collet-Serra, which looks to be along the same silly, fun lines as the first Taken. The other is this, the long-gestating adaptation of Lawrence Block’s 10th Matthew Scudder detective novel about a retired cop investigating the rape and murder of a drug dealer’s wife. And while Taken sold me on the prospect of more action-centric Neeson vehicles (which even he doesn’t take seriously), it’s great to see such a talented dramatic actor bringing his considerable gravitas to something a bit more…well, serious.

The adaptation, to be helmed by writer/director Scott Frank (The Lookout) has been heavily praised by Block himself, who wrote, “I couldn’t be happier about either the star or the writer/director, both of them genuine artists and brilliant professionals. My book’s in good hands.” You rarely hear such a ringing endorsement from the author of an adapted novel these days, so I fully expect to enjoy my walk this Fall.

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

capwsThe second Captain America faces an uphill battle. It must make up for time lost after the all-too-humble characterization seen in The First Avenger, better expanding on Cap’s authoritative voice as written in The Avengers. It must balance the blockbuster thrills of team-based conflict involving newcomers Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), while still depicting the more intimate inner turmoil of Rogers (Chris Evans), a man out of time who has lost both a lover and a best friend, forced to face a world he no longer recognizes. It must take audiences through the tragic arc of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), another sorely underdeveloped character in First Avenger. Most importantly, it must convince audiences that good-guy Rogers is as interesting a character as Batman or Iron Man. Indeed he is, in the comics anyway, which is why I’m happy to see the excellent Ed Brubaker-written Winter Soldier arc being translated to the silver screen. With “Community” directors Anthony and Joe Russo taking over for the safe, mechanical direction of Joe Johnston, Winter Soldier looks to be the smarter, edgier political/spy thriller to better tap into the heart of what Cap is all about. And finally, a suit that looks great and lets Cap’s ears breathe.

4. Interstellar

interstellar_lead-449006It’s a former Spielberg project back on track thanks to the Nolan brothers, and it’s just as shrouded in mystery as when it was last buzzing about. A 2008 draft of the script by Jonah Nolan suggests ties to black holes and alternate planes of existence, a fascinating prospect which should prove to be smart sci-fi material for director Christopher’s first venture into the genre.

I like Nolan as a filmmaker, but despite what Batman fanboys hailing him as god’s gift to cinema will tell you, he really isn’t at his best directing action. It’s the suspense, the intrigue, the sheer storytelling ability showcased in Memento and The Prestige that make Nolan special. Those abilities seem to have suffered a bit after the overwritten Inception and the underwritten Dark Knight Rises, both of which experienced overblown hype that may very well have gone to the director’s head. Still, with admitted influences in sci-fi greats Ridley Scott and Stanley Kubrick, Nolan’s own space odyssey has potential to be something truly special.

3. The Hobbit: There and Back Again

the-hobbit-there-and-back-again-postponed-until-december-2014-129368-a-1362124090-470-75There’s not much praise I haven’t already heaped on Peter Jackson and his team for their outstanding work bringing J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit to life. The third and final installment of the trilogy will be their last-ever outing to Middle-Earth, making for all the more reason to be excited for the epic, bittersweet conclusion to Bilbo and the Dwarves’ saga.

As such, the storied Battle of Five Armies of the novel is sure to be the most epic of Jackson’s entire Middle-Earth saga. It’s a lofty expectation, given that these Hobbit films haven’t quite taken the world by storm in the same way the Lord of the Rings trilogy did. But they are a nice throwback to those films, showcasing a great mythology worthy of praise for WETA’s brilliant design work alone. Something tells me Jackson’s Tintin sequel and whatever other New Zealand-based projects the director has planned after ending his tenure with Tolkien just won’t compare.

2. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

josh-brolin-sin-city-a-dame-to-kill-forDéjà vu…Robert Rodriguez’s highly-anticipated follow-up to 2005’s Sin City teased us with an official 2013 release date before the director revealed it was all a ruse to hold that date for Machete Kills. The film, which will take another year for its effects to be completed, will now see release in August, yet the delay has done little to dampen my enthusiasm for the sequel to one of my all-time favorite films. Everything I said in last year’s Most Anticipated post still applies, so there’s little I have to add to what will hopefully jump-start Sin City into a full-blown franchise. And I can’t be the only one who’s praying for Clive Owen to make a surprise reprisal of post-face-operation Dwight for the climax of the film’s title segment.

1. Knight of Cups

knight-of-cups-stillIt’s rare these days for any one film to completely blow me away, but what Terrence Malick achieved in To the Wonder was nothing short of spellbinding. I’m expecting equally big things from his next, a story of Hollywood excess starring two of my favorite working actors, Christian Bale and Natalie Portman, among a cast of equally impressive players.

As is sadly the standard with Malick’s work, the question of whether or not these actors will actually make the final cut is another matter entirely. Malick is notorious for shooting hundreds of hours of footage and constantly changing the focus of the final cut during his films’ lengthy post-production period.

Malick shot Cups simultaneously with his next, an as-yet untitled film about the music industry which starred, among others, Michael Fassbender, who recently expressed doubt he would make it into the final cut. Yet to read Fassbender talk of what a privilege it was to work with Malick regardless is telling enough. Truly, Malick’s meticulousness is the work of a master director, one who has spawned some of the most profound, intensely detailed, meticulously crafted films of the past half-century. As far as I’m concerned, he can take all the time he needs.

Happy New Year all! Expect my 2013 Top Ten list very soon.

Review: The Wolverine (unpublished)

gal_03_flWolverine – he’s the best at what he does, but what he does isn’t very nice. Which may or may not have proven true for the character’s four previous film appearances over the last thirteen years – despite playing center field from 2000’s X-Men to 2006’s X-Men: the Last Stand, Wolvie was still never portrayed quite as deep a character as fans were hoping. 2009’s laughably bad corporate bile X-Men Origins: Wolverine fared even worse, taking a huge nosedive in quality and featuring a script plagued with clichés, plot holes, inconsistencies, and an ensemble of trivial mutant cameos distracting from the title character. Now, fans finally have a good reason to be excited – The Wolverine is the first real attempt to let the character shine on his own, a feat which the film is largely successful at.

The Wolverine opens with the clawed mutant Logan (Hugh Jackman) several years after the events of Last Stand, wherein he was forced to kill his great love Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) after she’d been possessed by the destructive Phoenix entity. Logan is now grizzled and bearded, a drifter roaming the forests of Canada, every night being jolted awake, claws extended, by nightmares of his loss. In his travels he is found by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a lady warrior who escorts him to her employer, the wealthy tycoon Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), whom Logan once saved during the Nagasaki bombing of World War II. Yashida offers to remove and take on Logan’s healing abilities himself, allowing Logan to live a mortal life and Yashida to go on living. But when Logan is thrown into a plot to kidnap Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), he must face his deadliest demons yet, among them the mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), and discover what it truly means to carry the burden of being the Wolverine.

Based on the excellent 1982 Chris Claremont/Frank Miller comic book miniseries, The Wolverine is the first real character-driven film of the series, standing Logan firmly in the spotlight and asking the hard questions of his immortality. What is it like to be forced to kill the one you love? How can you live knowing that everyone you ever meet will die before you? Director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma) approaches the material like a Clint Eastwood western or James Bond film – a straightforward plot and setting intended as a backdrop for its protagonist’s character. Indeed, from the opening shots of Wolverine trapped in a World War II prison hole, we see only his squinting eyes peering out into the bright of day; one could mistake Hugh Jackman here for a young Eastwood himself.

Trouble is, the Claremont Wolverine series was strictly a character piece with very little plot, setting Logan in Japan to contrast his animalistic fighting style with the honor-bound, swift samurai culture of his surroundings. Mangold doesn’t do enough to play up that contrast, choosing instead to follow the film’s ordinary, linear narrative to its unsurprising conclusions, and use the Japan setting as more of a place where things happen than a true test for its protagonist. Mirroring the flaws of his aforementioned inspirations, even Mangold’s side characters only seem to be granted as much personality as the plot demands, lending things an unmistakably run-of-the-mill feel. And where the film should be exploring Logan’s bestial intuition, it is instead focusing on the loss of Jean Gray, a far less interesting, far more Hollywood-friendly machination.

There’s more power, I think, to be had in this narrative. Mangold himself first read and returned his copy of the script after scribbling the phrase, “Everyone I love will die” on the back, so clearly he had a mind to play up the weight of Logan’s immortality. And yet, the film is only satisfactory at exploring that conflict, falling victim to the classic 20th Century Fox pitfall of being too action-driven, too blockbuster-y, too safe to venture deeper beneath the surface. Shame, as I’ve skimmed Usual Suspects writer Christopher McQuarrie’s draft of The Wolverine, first intended for director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), and it is far  more character-driven than the onscreen result, the latter featuring studio-commissioned rewrites from Mark Bomback and Scott Frank. With just enough subtlety lost along the way, it’s a bit disappointing to think that Wolverine in its original form might’ve been a defining film of the superhero subgenre.

What nonetheless gives life to Wolverine is Hugh Jackman, who lends his performance as much dedication and raw energy as he would the artsier Les Mis. It’s the Australian music man’s best turn in the adamantium claws yet; not only is he the spitting image of Frank Miller’s Wolverine, but his physique for the film is nothing short of incredible. Jackman, 44, has gotten himself into outstanding shape for his (or any) age, aiming to give the character a more “animalistic” look, and handling the film’s many elaborate stunts and demanding physicality like a pro.

It’s nice to see Fox finally getting serious with their Marvel properties; The Wolverine is one of the best films of the franchise thus far. After hitting a surprising high note in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, the studio is counting on The Wolverine to keep the momentum going for next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (stay after Wolverine’s credits for a brief teaser) and rejuvenate their brand in the face of competition from Marvel’s own Avengers films. Even if The Wolverine isn’t as remarkable as it could’ve been, considering the lows this franchise has dipped to, it’s nice to see the claws a bit sharper this time around.

7.5/10

 

This article was intended for publish on the ERIE READER website.