Managing my own expectations has always been one of the hardest parts of being a critic. Because, first and foremost, I’m a movie fan. I love movies, I read and write about them more than I read and write about anything else, and even though I went to college for theater and want to work in the professional theater, if I ever get the chance…you’re damn right I’ll make a movie. (Maybe not if it’s something like The Oogieloves, but showbiz is showbiz.)
Rarely have I been lucky enough to go a movie with no expectations, to go in with a blank slate and let the film work on me in perfect ignorance. Sometimes, my anticipation for a film is so great, I insist on seeing a second time before writing it up (Snowpiercer is a prime example), because on the first pass, I just can’t form a truly objective opinion. Other times, I’ve gone into a film with high expectations which were let down (The Immigrant), or low expectations that were exceeded (to cite a timely example, Black Mass).
And other times, my expectations were well-met. So, as I work through these 10 films, I’ll discuss how they met, or fell short of, or exceeded my expectations. And pat myself on the back or smack myself accordingly.
Spoilers for most of the following.
Jupiter Ascending I wanted to like. I thought Cloud Atlas was really quite good and the idea of an original sci-fi epic from the Wachowskis intrigued. The premise was a touch weird, but that in itself wasn’t a deterrent. The trailer didn’t look amazing (and inadvertently warned us how perpetually in need of rescue the protagonist is), but it wasn’t until the last-minute shift of the release date from late July to February that I realized something was probably very wrong. Supposedly the shift was to allow for the extensive special effects to be completed, but here are two general rules movie buffs should observe:
- If a film is moved from a prime release date to a dumping-ground date, it’s probably not very good;
- When an anticipated film is so relocated, there will always be those who claim the film is an exception to the preceding rule.
Just look at The Monuments Men.
Indeed, when Jupiter Ascending finally came out, it was on the heels of a disastrous surprise screening at Sundance and fêted by terrible reviews. And I saw it, and it was pretty damn lacking. I even recorded an audio review with my friend Ness (of The Ness Empire), which owing to varying forms of bullshit was unembeddable, and eventually lost.
I won’t say Jupiter is the worst film of the year, but given that I at least hoped for some form of fun, I was gravely let down. The plot is not only derivative, it’s tremendously convoluted–it’s only fitting that a sequence, detouring from the film’s space-opera tone into a Gilliamesque satire of bureaucracy (with Gilliam himself making a cameo), subjects Jupiter (Mila Kunis) to a tiresome trek from department to department, filling out forms, etc. It’s an inadvertently apt approximation of the experience of watching the damned thing.
Compounding the fact that Kunis is fairly miscast, Jupiter herself is a fairly awful character, lacking in agency (again, she’s in constant need of rescue), manipulated by the villains with ease, and finally opting, after securing her ownership of the Earth, to return to her humdrum life with her horribly stereotypical family, only occasionally zipping around on rocket boots with her boyfriend Caine (Channing Tatum), with whom she has the historically absurd exchange:
CAINE: I’m a splice, you don’t understand what that means. I have more in common with a dog than I have with you.
JUPITER: I love dogs, I’ve always loved dogs.
How that was allowed to be filmed, let alone kept in the film and featured in the fucking trailer, is beyond me.
Of course, there’s also Eddie Redmayne’s instant-camp-classic performance as the villainous Balem, where he generally speaks in a hoarse whisper which occasionally breaks into screaming rages. I kind of hoped it would Norbit him out of an Oscar, but to his credit, he seems to be embracing the film’s ridiculousness. Certainly he gets a better deal than Gugu Mbatha-Raw, utterly wasted in a nothing role (I think she has less than five lines), or Doona Bae, who was quite good in Cloud Atlas, but here is barely an extra. Sean Bean doesn’t even die, nor does his character’s daughter, despite her coughing onscreen (normally a sure indicator of impending death).
Yes, the production and costume design is appreciably lavish, though variable. The effects and makeup likewise reflect the monstrous budget (around $175 million, or about 3,500 times the cost of Upstream Color). The money does show on the screen–but it’s ultimately for naught. It lacks true imagination and is so bogged down by the complexity of its premise that it never compels or excites.
That, and dog fucking. 38/100 – **
On the other hand, I had minimal expectations for Fifty Shades of Grey, except for the brief moment when the early reviews suggested it might actually have made a decent melodrama out of the infamously terrible book. That seems to have been mostly the work of the studio, as the ultimate critical reception was fairly damning, and Razzies are almost guaranteed. Though on balance it is a worse film than Jupiter Ascending, it has a few very mildly redeeming features.
Those do not include the story, which is laughably thin–when the film ended, I was rather astonished at how little had happened. Nor do they include the acting, which is mediocre at best; Dakota Johnson is not good, but Jamie Dornan actively reeks of being a last-minute choice (he stepped in for Charlie Hunnam, who wisely got out while the getting was good). Their lack of enthusiasm for each other off-screen is a matter of record; on-screen, sparks certainly don’t fly.
They do, however, include Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, which manages some striking images–the scene where Anastasia and Christian go over her contract is superbly lit–and to a degree, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s direction, which, as others have noted, allows a few details a male director would have suppressed or not thought of, like Anastasia’s clearly depicted leg hair. The costumes are also decent–there’s some good formal wear on display–and the production design, especially Christian’s secret BDSM chamber, is quite satisfactory.
But the story is so fundamentally awful, the characters so absurd and, especially in Christian’s case, repulsive, that it doesn’t really matter how many minor touches work; it’s all in the service of awful material. Any film which drops the line “I’m fifty shades of fucked up” with a straight face, or which deals with BDSM but has a character ask what a butt plug is, is clearly not working in its own best interests. Nor is anyone who sees this film without the right expectations.
Seriously, though, I can think of no reason (aside from time constraints) why anyone would watch this instead of Nymphomaniac. 33/100 – *½
I don’t recall exactly what my expectations were for It Follows; on one hand, I have never fully embraced the horror genre–on the other hand, I have liked some horror films quite a bit. And, given the critical plaudits It Follows received, it seemed like a film I needed to see.
And it was good! It’s been several months since I’ve seen it, and my memory of it is not perfect, but I can offer a few specific critiques.
Now, the film does get off to a shaky start. Not so much the prologue (which is well done), but the first few minutes of Jay (Maika Monroe) hanging around the house (while her friends watch public domain films) and going out with Hugh (Jake Weary) to a theater which just happens to be showing Charade (also in the public domain!) felt chintzy and stiff. Had the film gone straight from the prologue to Jay and Hugh in his car, having the sex which will transfer “it” to her, I think it would have been a bit more effective.
Once it gets cooking, though, it’s a scary little corker, one shot in particular (of “it” emerging from the shaodws) is truly terrifying. It’s a sharply crafted film, the acting is good (Monroe is of course the MVP–I was much relieved to see a horror film with a totally sympathetic protagonist–but Keir Gilchrist is also strong), and most notably, the score by Disasterpeace is incredible. It, if nothing else, might well contend for my awards come the end of January.
Beyond that, I just don’t have much to say. It’s a fine horror film, one of the best I’ve seen in a while, and given how 2015 has been for great films, I’d say it’s certainly worth it. 82/100 – ****
Ex Machina probably deserves a more detailed analysis than I’m going to give it. It’s been heavily acclaimed, especially given its April release date, and I had high expectations for it.
In some respects, they were definitely met. The script is intelligent, telling a simple, yet precisely crafted story about artificial intelligence and manipulation. Alex Garland, who wrote the script, directs it cleanly and gracefully, balancing the crispness of the narrative and visual style with humanity and humor. The performances are magnificent; Alicia Vikander gives perhaps the most convincing performance yet of an artificial intelligence–indeed, she’s still currently my #1 ranked Best Actress in what has been so far a very good year for lead actresses.
Oscar Isaac, as her inventor, is my #1 Supporting Actor, and he might be even better; it’s clear from the start that he’s up to something, but he’s so charismatic and persuasive that you totally understand how he keeps our protagonist in his thrall for as long as he does. He really is one of the best up-and-coming actors, and I hope he gets some attention for his work here. And as the aforementioned protagonist, Domhnall Gleeson finds sympathetic depth in a character who in most films would be a weakling and a gull.
The special effects are low-key, but excellent; the production design is as sleek and sharp as the writing–and the editing. It’s a film which works incredibly well…
…up until the ending. And it’s the ending which weakens the film for me, keeping it just out of the ****½ range and, unless this turns out to be a very bad year, out of my Best Picture lineup. The ending has its defenses (and I won’t try to claim it’s a terrible ending), but to me it gives Gleeson, who has been a fairly sympathetic character for the whole span of the film, an unnecessarily raw deal.
Moreover–and perhaps more pertinent–is that it opens up a huge number of logical gaps. With no ID, no background, no references, could Ava ever truly blend into human society? And even if she managed that, how long could she hide her robotic nature? How long before someone notices that she doesn’t need to eat or drink? Or before it is revealed she has neither skin, muscles, blood, or bones?
And how will no one notice than Nathan is dead? Even if he’s reclusive, he’s still a hugely wealthy and powerful individual–someone will notice soon enough that he’s not around. Or Caleb, for that matter–surely someone will notice that he hasn’t come back from his trip. What about the helicopter pilot who picks Ava up from the rendezvous point? Wouldn’t they know they were supposed to pick up Caleb? Did Ava kill them? That surely wouldn’t go unnoticed.
Maybe I’m overthinking it. But in a film which otherwise works so well, which seems so carefully thought-out, for the ending to be so problematic and raise so many otherwise unnecessary questions is a major frustration. And not in a way which I think Garland necessarily intended.
And yet, in that final shot of Ava becoming swept up in the unaware tide of humanity, you sense the mood Garland was seeking for his denouement, even if he had to take a rather graceless path to get there. 84/100 – ****
And some films are just baffling. Take Little Boy. It’s not quite as odiously meaningless as The Identical, but like that sad/hilarious film, one wonders just what the inspirational message of the film is meant to be. I guess there are some generic points being made about overcoming one’s own prejudices and believing in yourself–and if it does anything well, it does depict the insidiousness of racism within one’s own family fairly well–but the one real lesson it could’ve taught it undoes in its absurd final moments.
It deals with a diminutive young boy, Pepper Busbee (Jakob Salvati), whose rich fantasy life is encouraged by his father (Michael Rapaport, and not Harland Williams as I assumed). When his father goes to war, taking the place of his brother (David Henrie), who’s been rejected for having flat feet, Pepper plans to bring him back, using the magical powers a stage magician has convinced him he has. His priest (Tom Wilkinson) tells him that by having faith he will accomplish his goals, but that he must not bear any hatred in his heart.
To purge himself of hatred, he is directed to spend time with Hashimoto (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Japanese immigrant who, because of the era (it’s WWII), faces a great deal of prejudice, some of it violent–and a lot of it from Pepper’s brother, who is utterly disgusted by Pepper’s growing fondness for Hashimoto and their mother’s (Emily Wilson) willingness to host him for dinner. (She herself is subject to the unwanted attentions of the local doctor, a widower (Kevin James).)
Pepper, believing himself to have achieved the powers he requires to bring his father home, tries to move a nearby mountain–and at that moment, the earth shakes, which convinces many of the townsfolk that Pepper does indeed have powers. He then focuses his energies in the direction of his father (who’s in the Pacific theater), but word eventually comes that his father was killed attempting to escape from a POW camp.
Pepper’s brother then participates in a brutal assault of Hashimoto, who survives; the brother is not prosecuted. Then–my memory of this part is unclear, but I think it’s meant to be implied that Pepper somehow led the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to occur. And then it turns out that his father isn’t actually dead, and the family–including his brother, who seems to have realized the error of his ways–is reunited.
Many of the film’s most damning reviews (which, in this case, is saying something) focused on how problematic the presence of the A-bomb in the narrative was, but I found the he-wasn’t-dead-after-all twist to be more aggravating. Because there was a real lesson the film could have imparted–that one does not always get precisely what one wants, or even what one prays for. Sometimes there are hard facts you have to accept–tragedies that, if you have faith, you must accept as being as much a part of God’s plan as your triumphs.
But a film like this can only end in the most conventionally happy way, no matter how much it violates the integrity of the story. And how. Rhett leaves Scarlett, Ilsa leaves Rick, and Old Yeller gets shot. But Pepper Busbee’s dad, somehow, makes it home. Whoopee.
That Little Boy has its moments makes its overall mediocrity all the more frustrating. It’s a sincere film, however misguided, and the period detail isn’t too bad given the lowish budget. There are some good performances, especially Tagawa’s–he plays embattled dignity well, and he brings a dry humor to the role which makes his scenes consistently solid. I’m not sure how Wilkinson ended up here, but he’s not bad, either.
But a lot of it is simply bizarre. If Wilkinson’s casting is odd, James’ is outright weird, especially given the relative insubstantiality of the role. There’s narration by an older Pepper which doesn’t add much and is one of the most actively cloying parts of the film. And after the reunion with Pepper’s father, the film fades out–a reasonable point for the film to end–before fading back on what must be the family driving home, before fading out once more. It’s a brief shot, but so bafflingly pointless as to be the most fitting capper to this peculiar film.
Director Alejandro Gómez Monteverde clearly wanted to make a film which embodied the kind of Americana prevalent in 40s and 50s cinema. Lacking the narrative skill and control the studio system generally provided, he did not much succeed. 51/100 – **½
Old Fashioned wasn’t much better than Little Boy, but given the depths of my expectations, I think I actively liked it a little more. Elizabeth Roberts’ performance helps quite a bit, as I felt she brought a brightness and spirit to the table which made the film more watchable than it would otherwise have been.
There are, however, many problems. Chief among them, I’d say, is the very premise of the film, where the leading man (writer-director Rik Swartzwelder) supposedly embodies “old-fashioned” values, being so abstemious he refuses even to be alone in Roberts’ apartment with her. Maybe I’m just jaded by the pervasive immorality of the modern age, but I have a hard time believing such rigid morality was ever very common–I’m reminded of Colin Firth’s line in Shakespeare in Love: “[it] is not piety, it is self-importance.”
That Swartzwelder’s lumpy hero is wracked with guilt over having once made some kind of “Girls Gone Wild” video series only makes its morality the more hard to swallow. But had Swartzwelder allowed a more capable actor to fill the role, it might have at least been emotionally believable, even if no actor could counteract the fundamental absurdity of the material. As it is, Roberts’ relatively likable and natural performance makes his lack of charisma or energy all the more obvious.
As a director, he’s functional, and the film was actually a deal more technically competent than I expected, though at 115 minutes it was a good 20 minutes too long at least.
That’s really about all I have to say about it. It’s not that bad, though it’s not good, and one good performance aside, I can hardly recommend it. I might do better to quote my friend who encouraged me to see in the first place:
“This is a movie that ends with a proposal in a baby food aisle.” 57/100 – ***
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is a film I wanted to be able to say more about. Perhaps after seeing it again I will have more to say, but as it is, I see it as being very well-made, but lacking that extra dimension which would make it more than a fable.
It deals with Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi), an emotionally isolated office worker (at 29 older than most of her peers and under pressure to marry) who discovers a buried VHS copy of Fargo and becomes obsessed with it, finally determining to travel to Minnesota to track down the money Steve Buscemi buries towards the end of the film. This she does, despite knowing very little English, and somehow not knowing the film is fictitious, ultimately rejecting this fact when it is explained to her by a sympathetic policeman (director/co-writer David Zellner).
Without giving away all the particulars of what happens, she eventually finds the money…but only in what is presumably a dying fantasy. Perhaps the film could only have ended thus, but it feels extremely predictable, and only further adds to the film’s sealed-off quality.
I had high hopes that Rinko Kikuchi would finally have a great showcase in the role of Kumiko, but from what I saw, Kumiko is too muted, too much of a cipher, to show off what Kikuchi can do. She does her best, of course–she doesn’t overplay Kumiko’s gradual deterioration or outbursts (like when she sets her pet rabbit loose before leaving for Minnesota and screams at it to go)–but there’s just not a whole lot to Kumiko as written. Zellner brings some warmth and sympathy to his scenes, and Nobuyuki Katsube is properly obnoxious as Kumiko’s arrogant boss, but on a human level, it’s all too one-dimensional.
What elevates it, then, is the filmmaking, which is rather accomplished. Zellner’s direction evokes Kumiko’s profound isolation quite well, Sean Porter’s cinematography is often quite beautiful (there’s a scene of a plane being de-iced which isn’t really relevant to the narrative, but looks glorious), and The Octopus Project provides a great score (though the song over the end credits is, sadly, not an original composition).
It’s a striking film in a lot of respects, and if there isn’t a great deal of depth to the story, it’s rarely less than compelling. There’s a streak of darkly absurd humor which keeps it from becoming sluggish. I only wish there had been some real insight into Kumiko’s psyche, or some more profound reflection on the relationship between fantasy and reality. Certainly there are parts of the film which seem to be fantastical–how else can you really explain the buried tape?–but the viewer is generally kept at arm’s length, and as fascinating as the film is, it’s ultimately never more than that.
It’s worth noting that I rewatched Fargo not long before seeing Kumiko, and found it didn’t entirely live up to its reputation. It’s a very good film, no doubt, with a great performance from Frances McDormand (and a probably great one from William H. Macy that’s hampered only by the script’s use of cutesy Minnesota stereotypes), but I couldn’t help feeling that the Coens have gone above and beyond it since. It’s just a little too choppy and broad to be an unqualified classic in my eyes.
I give Kumiko 81/100 (****), but Fargo just sneaks into the ****½ spectrum, at 85/100.
It’s easy to sum up ’71. Maybe if I gave it another chance I’d like it a little better and have a little more to say…maybe not. From what I saw, there’s just not much to ’71. That’s not to say it’s a bad film. Yann Demange does a good job of directing it, and the recreation of 70s Belfast is quite effective. The sense of a city at war is well evoked. The cinematography is good, the sound design is very strong, and on the whole, I think Demange shows promise as a craftsman.
But there’s just nothing to the story or the characters. Between Unbroken and this film, I’ve seen quite a bit of Jack O’Connell, but I have no idea if he can actually act. He suffers a lot, that’s for sure–though here his sufferings are less romanticized–but in terms of playing anything like a three-dimensional character, the script gives him essentially no help. And Sean Harris, as a duplicitious MRF Officer, makes little impression either, despite getting a BIFA nomination. That’s about it in terms of the cast (though I did kind of like Richard Dormer as a sympathetic doctor).
Maybe it was the theater I saw it in, which had a comparatively small screen, and maybe not having subtitles to compensate for the sometimes thick accents increased my distance from the characters. But I felt almost totally unengaged by ’71 on an emotional level. On a cinematic level, I had to recognize its strengths, and I was not bored while watching it–indeed, there’s a cat-and-mouse sequence near the end I really liked–but once it was over I found myself empty-handed. And as such, I must regard it as a disappointment. 77/100 – ****
I expect a certain level of warped virtuosity from David Cronenberg’s films, and Maps to the Stars at least intermittently achieved it, though it falls short of his best work, in part due to the script, which chooses the fucked-up-ness of Hollywood as the target of its satire–not exactly unexplored territory, and I can’t say it says anything about the film industry I hadn’t already heard.
But it’s enjoyable as a piece of Cronenbergiana, in large part due to the performances. Julianne Moore may have won the Oscar for Still Alice (which I’ve yet to see), but she won at Cannes for playing the fading star Havana Segrand, haunted by the ghost of her legendary mother (at times literally) and desperately fighting for a part which she finally gets when the chosen actress’ son takes ill (or dies, I can’t recall offhand), leading to Havana dancing and singing “Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey, Goodbye” in celebration.
The role could easily have gone so far over the top as to have been insufferable, but Moore keeps it under control, and she’s extremely entertaining without becoming a caricature. I wish I could recall more specifics about the performance (I saw it back in March), but suffice to say, she was excellent.
But so is the whole cast, from Mia Wasikowska as the enigmatic Agatha, whose origins and motives provide the main mystery of the story, to John Cusack as an arrogant celebrity therapist who wants absolute control over his life, to Robert Pattinson as Agatha’s frequent driver and more or less friend. He’s not as spot-on as in Cosmopolis (which, if you haven’t seen it, is a hell of a film), but his continued partnership with Cronenberg is a heartening thing.
And that’s really all I’ve got for Maps. It’s minor Cronenberg, but minor Cronenberg is usually still very much worthwhile. 79/100 – ****
I wasn’t sure just what to expect from Kingsman: The Secret Service, but when a family friend recommended it, I figured I should go ahead and give it a chance. As a big fan of the Bond series, it seemed like it might be up my alley, and while it was not an unqualified success, I did find myself generally enjoying it.
The story itself is far from original–yet another story of a yet another maverick youth, recruited by yet another organization with impossibly limitless resources, who ends up combatting yet another villain who wants to destroy humanity.
But the villain is Samuel L. Jackson, having a campy blast (though he gives the character a pronounced lisp which can’t help but feel like a gay stereotype), and his even plan involves some type of mind-control which makes human beings uncontrollably aggressive to one another. And the day is saved in part by having a lot of brains exploding in colorful fashion.
Even the maverick youth is a little more likable than most; Taron Egerton gives a good performance in a role than could’ve been insufferable. Colin Firth is his mentor, and he’s great, getting off one of the best lines of the year. Michael Caine is the head of the Kingsmen, and he’s as fun as ever. Mark Strong, as the organization’s arms expert, is enjoyably eccentric. The script is generally pretty sharp, and although the film is a touch overlong, it’s a lot of fun.
There are issues. The special effects are surprisingly variable (at times they remind one of those shitty HDTVs where everything looks too bright and moves a touch too fast). Some may be rankled by the character of Jackson’s henchwoman (Sofia Boutella), an amputee with Flex-Foot prostheses which are used for their full weapons potential. Others were rankled by the final beat of the film, which suggests impending anal sex (which I didn’t even pick up on the first time).
But for the most part, it’s a very enjoyable spy comedy and was certainly one of the better films of the first quarter of the year. I doubt I’ll see it again, but for the time I spent with it, I was pretty well entertained. 75/100 – ****
Part II coming next week.
- Kingsman: The Secret Servce 75/100