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 In part, it’s people’s cultish fanaticism, the outdated lies the church feeds to gullible geriatrics, and the sick way it lends its “seal of approval” to certain films dealing in its scripture.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.

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Review: The Dark Knight Rises

 

New_Dark_Knight_Rises_Poster_Arrives_Online_1337636698

This review contains mild spoilers.

Well well, it seems Marvel’s Avengers really have beaten the Bat at his own game this summer. Kudos. But as a DC fan first and foremost, it’s no less disappointing to see a series so close to my heart end on such a dishearteningly average note. The plot of The Dark Knight Rises, the highly anticipated final entry in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, could be best summed up as “the shit hitting the fan,” and fans expecting anything more, perhaps something as deeply poetic and immensely powerful as the climax of The Dark Knight, are in for a rude awakening.

The Dark Knight Rises opens eight years after its predecessor with police commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) struggling to continue keeping the truth about Harvey Dent’s death a secret. Meanwhile, a publically reviled Batman is no more, now merely crippled, aged recluse Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), who has left his company in tatters and refuses even to see anyone outside of faithful butler Alfred(Michael Caine). But when cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) steals one of his most precious family heirlooms, and the ruthless mercenary-with-a-mask Bane (Tom Hardy) begins to rise from the depths and expose the truth about Harvey Dent, Bruce realizes he must once again take up the mantle of the bat to defend a city rapidly plunging into anarchy, with the added help of new Wayne Enterprises CEO Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and idealistic city cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Nolan’s third and final bat-outing prides itself on its spectacular action sequences. Finally, Batman gets to stand toe-to-toe with one of his baddies; his fistfights with Bane are some of the most brutal and well-shot fight sequences of all three films. Tom Hardy is perfectly cast as the menacing, hulking (if not towering) beast originating from 1994’s Knightfall arc, in which the villain is able to deduce Batman’s identity and systematically take him down. Anne Hathaway is also surprisingly spot-on as Catwoman, perfectly nailing the villainess’ two-sided behavior. And like its predecessors, the film contains a good deal of nuance, thoughtfully presenting themes of rising; for example, Bane and his followers literally existing beneath the city streets and within its sewers, a repressed part of the city that can no longer be contained, just like the lie Gordon’s kept all these years.

But like Gotham itself, The Dark Knight Rises has glaring problems beneath its surface. Most apparent is how the film misguidedly blows itself up to be this huge, epic conclusion to a saga of Lord of the Rings-scale importance. At its core, this story began with, and should always remain true to, a man broken by the death of his parents and sworn to protect the city at all costs. The Dark Knight Rises can’t be faulted for lack of trying to keep to those origins, but its narrative, heavily reliant on side characters, is simply too self-important, pretentious even, for its own good. It’s as if the filmmakers have been influenced by the colossal hype of the previous film in all the wrong ways.

Indeed, unlike its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises favors scale over storytelling, backgrounding many of its finest moments in favor of expensive set pieces for Bane to conquer. I’d feared as much following the similarly indulgent Inception, director Nolan’s previous film and further proof that his style is quickly descending into convoluted, overblown action movie territory. Both films are simply far too expansive, to the point where plot details, character motivations, and any sense of intimacy are all drowned out by their bloated second and third acts. Where The Dark Knight was influenced by the work of Michael Mann, The Dark Knight Rises might have very well been influenced by the work of Michael Bay.

And if The Dark Knight had its critics for not focusing enough on its title protagonist (I personally thought it balanced its characters fine), then The Dark Knight Rises is by far the guiltier of the two. Sure, Bruce Wayne’s character arc is a poignant look at a hero dragged down into deepest pits of the underworld, forced to overcome his weaknesses and rise once again to serve his destined duty. These scenes are arguably the most emotional of the film, yet they’re given a frustratingly scant amount of screentime. For a movie supposedly about Bruce Wayne’s return to the mantle of the bat, the character doesn’t receive nearly the attention he deserves. Even the iconic cape and cowl itself is too infrequently a part of the narrative, lost in a film lacking a central focus and too heavily devoted to forgettable, less interesting newcomers like Gordon-Levitt’s cop character.

Simply put, the focus should’ve been stuck squarely on the film’s returning cast members and its villains. Those are the characters that have spawned so many memorable moments that make these films so fun to watch, yet in The Dark Knight Rises, I can count to number of truly humorous, entertaining, or otherwise standout moments of character interaction on one hand. I’m reminded very vividly of Spider-Man 3, a film which also suffers from many of the same problems. Both films have far too many things they want to accomplish with their final time in the limelight that they don’t really succeed at any of them, and especially not at bringing their characters full circle meaningfully.

In a lot of ways, The Dark Knight Rises is simply a victim of studio upscaling. Similarly, writing about 1997’s abysmal Batman & Robin, Roger Ebert identified the film’s crucial misstep: “My prescription for the series remains unchanged: scale down. We don’t need to see $2 million on the screen every single minute.” It’s for that reason that Nolan’s own Batman Begins, which boasted a far lesser $150 million budget, was such a breath of fresh air. Conversely, The Dark Knight Rises was given a massive $250 million budget, a grossly unnecessary amount for a film of this kind. Even the film’s opening sequence, an airplane heist sequence in mid-air, is incredibly overindulgent and not only serves little purpose, but frankly has no place being in a Batman film at all.

I was also rather disgusted with the amount of concessions Nolan seems to have made for fans this time around. Not one to pander up until now, Nolan was known for using his influence to maintain  a consistent, singular vision for the previous two Batman films, a resolve made stronger in its resistance to incorporate fan requests for more characters from the comics. In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan detracts from pivotal scenes to incorporate pointless cameos from villains past, other appearances from series tropes, and, perhaps most condescending, even taking time at the very end to reveal that a certain hero character is actually a classic character from the Batman mythology, which itself is nonsensical, tacked-on, and heavily deviant from the comics. It’s a new low for Nolan as it is, but to top it all off, we’re given a clumsily handled and horribly written ending so spectacularly lazy and predictable, not only will you guess it within the first fifteen minutes, but it’s so goofy that you’d swear it was written by the mindless masses of fanboys themselves. You would think a director known for shocking surprises and unexpected twists would be able to dream up something several steps ahead of what talentless Internet dwellers hammer out daily in fan fiction circles.

Even Hans Zimmer’s musical score lacks the invigorating bravado of the composer’s previous Batman-related work. With The Dark Knight Rises, he’s adopted new themes and styles for certain scenes, yet none of them really stick. Sure, Bane’s chant made popular in the film’s marketing is memorable enough, but aside from that, I don’t see why Zimmer even bothered to try to reinvent the wheel at this point in the series, when a more traditional score bringing back the themes of its predecessors would’ve been just as welcome.

It’s with a heavy heart that I call The Dark Knight Rises a bit of a disappointment. While the film does hit a lot of the right notes, ultimately it’s more concerned with ending everything in a big, bold, fan-pandering way than doing its predecessors justice and creating a more grounded, thoughtful conclusion to Bruce Wayne’s story.

Recently, I’ve glanced over headlines hailing Nolan’s Batman films as this generation’s Godfather trilogy. I’m inclined to agree, right down to both trilogies’ similarly anticlimactic third installments.

6.5/10