[2 September 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As the final days of August recede in the rearview mirror, as Hollywood prepares for its second massive movie dump of 2014 (January through April being the first of such cinematic exiles), it’s time to reflect on the best and worst of what turned out to be a surprisingly uneventful Summer season. Indeed, with only one movie making significant inroads worldwide (yep, Michael Bay’s tepid Transformers: Age of Extinction managed to break the billion dollar bank around the planet) and no domestic release reaching $300 million, Tinseltown is hanging its head in shame.
Sure, there were significantly less flops this time around than last year (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and Hercules being the ‘lone’ exceptions), but there were also more mediocrities. Indeed, bad movies have been replaced by “meh” movies in 2014, films you can neither love nor loathe.
As the various festivals gearing up announce the beginning of Awards Season, let’s look back at the last four months and find the ten films we hated, and the ten we’d spend time with all over again. When you consider that we saw somewhere in the range of 70 some titles over the last 17 weeks, it’s amazing we can come up with 20. Usually, the pickings are rather slim. This time around, the choices seemed sort of obvious, beginning with the bottom of the barrel:
10. As Above, So Below, in which the phrase “Hell on Earth” gets reconfigured as “boredom under the streets of Paris.”
9. The Giver, wherein we’re subjected to a dull, drab society sans emotions and joy? Sounds like the perfect setting for 110 minutes of dystopian dullness.
8. Blended. Look on the bright side: this may be the only time that an Adam Sandler comedy doesn’t end up at the top of such a list.
7. The Devil’s Knot. This film was a wholly unnecessary (and fictional) retelling of the West Memphis 3 case. Seek out the superior documentaries, instead.
6. Are You Here. Matthew Weiner tries his hand at big screen comedy, and drops a dud the size of Don Draper’s ego on the audience.
The big mistake made here is not in the casting. You’ve got Melissa McCarthy in her element, with help from Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates. It wasn’t even letting the actress’s significant other, Ben Falcone, co-write and direct. No, the issue here involves the character McCarthy is given to play. When she’s hardnosed and empowered (The Heat, Bridesmaids), she’s amazing. But Tammy herself is a whiny dolt who couldn’t see the forest or the trees if she were given a tour guide and a map of the surrounding wilderness. This character is antithetical to the persona this star has cultivated for the last few years, and it shows.
Considering that we no longer live in an analog age, the title alone should tell you what a misstep this movie is. Add a couple of flailing lead performances (Jason Segel and Cameron Diaz look completely lost) and a second act plot twist (a little kid with extortion on his mind) and you’ve got one of the most intolerable attempts at comedy since. Well, at least since the next two entries on this list. Indeed, the Summer of 2014 will be noted for having served up several supposed laughers when in fact only a couple (Neighbors, our number nine “Best of” selection) are really delivering the giggles. This didn’t. Not by a long shot.
Sigh. It’s bad enough that this dumb gross out comedy (an extended sequence with some fat guy’s testicles, anyone?) had to come out just as the events in Ferguson, Missouri were unfolding. That it was also decidedly dumb and witless was just as big an insult. The notion of two losers “discovering their self worth” while pretending to be policeman might have worked had this movie not stuck to the grade school contrivances of its dress-up premise. No, it had to go completely overboard, mocking everything we hold dear about justice and the social order for the sake of some scatology.
Two Oscar winners, Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton, teamed up with a fellow Academy nominee (Rob Reiner) and all they got in return was this lousy movie. An attempt at an old fashioned RomCom, the plot points are so predictable and telegraphed that Samuel Morse should rise from the grave and sue. Douglas is a sour old crab apple. Keaton is the wannabe lounge singer with a heart of gold. A little kid (his heretofore unknown granddaughter) becomes the biological glue that holds these mismatched mates together, along with about 100 years of tired Tinseltown history. A complete and utter disaster.
In one of the funniest examples of backhanded complimenting in recent memory, the producers of the animated CG nightmare blamed critics for killing this otherwise “worthy” sequel to a certain celebrated wizard at the box office. Sure, that’s a slam, but it also assumes that this otherwise “excellent” family entertainment would bank Pixar-level cash, had we journalists just kept our mouths shut. Who knew we still held such sway over finicky ticket buyers? Of course, the godawful efforts on the screen might have played a part in such pans, but if you believe the makers, this movie is “amazing”. Apparently, word of mouth was significantly less so.
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10. Get On Up, in which Chadwick Boseman proves Oscar worthy as the late, great Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
9. 22 Jump Street. The meta comedy gets a meta sequel and the meta laughs just keep on coming.
8, How to Train Your Dragon 2. This is as adventurous and full of heroism (and heart) as the original.
7. Edge of Tomorrow. Tom Cruise shines as a cowardly military PR officer forced to relive his death in an alien invasion over and over again. Exciting and very entertaining.
6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. With the origin story out of the way, Matt Reeves makes one of the great sci-fi follow-ups in the history of the genre.
After the one-two punch of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry seemed to abandon the magic realism that made his career, and instead tried his hand at high concept comedy (Be Kind Rewind), the Hollywood blockbuster (Green Hornet), and the oddball indie drama (The We and the I). So we are happy to say that the Wizard of Whimsy is back, bedeviling the viewer with a Rube Goldberg-like film experience, which deconstructs the standard cinematic romance with as much heartrending and head scratching invention as possible. Some called it twee and overly arty. We call it fantastic.
A few decades ago, “cool” music critics loved to lambast the Beatles, calling them everything from “a boy band” to a cultural anomaly. Time has rectified such nonsensical criticism. The same thing is happening right now to the King of the Blockbuster, Stephen Spielberg, and if Gareth Edwards’ homage to the man and his moviemaking is any indication, we’re glad there are artists willing to stand up for him. By keeping the title creature in the shadows, by establishing the world in which he and his sequels will live, this new Godzilla gives us everything we loved about the giant lizard without any of the Toho tackiness or man in suit shenanigans.
Harvey Weinstein wanted to cut 20 minutes out of this movie and offer up title cards and narration to make it “more friendly” to filmgoers in the US. Director Bong Joon-ho refused, and the compromise was a limited (very limited) release of the original cut. The result: one of the most brash and visually arresting sci-fi allegories in a long time. Using a dystopian society set on a train, with each car representing another social class level, the filmmaker perhaps most famous for The Host deconstructs the genre, allowing for elements both political and fanciful to infiltrate his ideas. Weinstein wanted less. All we want is more.
In some ways, we’re talking about the same movie, here. Well, maybe not the same movie, but the same overall motion picture experience. Richard Linklater’s sprawling epic of everyday existence, Boyhood, was shot over 12 years, allowing its actors and actresses the opportunity to literally age, or “grow up”, on screen. In so doing, he highlighted the changes we all go through both personally and within our families as time trudges along. Boyhood s a reminder of childhood, a reflective experience which taps into your own “awkward” years and allows you to meditate on all the little things that added up to the person you are today. It’s also an amazing bit of artistic chutzpah.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a similar experience, in that it makes you feel like a pre-adolescent all over again. Yes, this is what the Star Wars experience felt like for those of you too young to have spent six hours online opening weekend to see George Lucas’ space opera when it opened way back in 1977 (I was there). It’s a high tech throwback, a blockbuster that remembers that the key to any popcorn entertainment is fun. James Gunn, taking all of his Troma training to heart, unleashes a sprawling spectacle overloaded with repeat viewing opportunities and wisenheimer happiness. No wonder Guardians of the Galaxy is currently the biggest moneymaker of 2014.