Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Fistful of Summer 2014! (Brad's Picks)

May to August, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to Sin City 2.  Ha! You would not know it from the starting shot or the finish line, but Summer 2014 is going down as one of the better Blockbuster Seasons.  Thank god.  I don't think I could take another drought like last year.  And as you'll see below, this was one of those rare years in which nearly all the films I was anticipating landed in my Top Five.  Financially, fewer butts hit the seats this year, but that didn't stop Guardians of the Galaxy from crossing $500,000,000 worldwide, or that TransFOURmers behemoth from stomping all over Earthly good taste.  Geez.  Rocket Raccoon is a real-deal Hollywood icon!  I can't believe it...can you?  Just a few months ago I was worrying that America wouldn't show up, and we'd be stuck with just Iron Man & Captain America sequels until this whole spandex hype died down.  Looks like that's not going to happen anytime soon.  Bring on Doctor Strange.

However, as great as it is to report the success of the films below, it's a little bit of a bummer to not have a slew of out-of-nowhere surprises.  I enjoyed a batch of mean little dramas amongst the popcorn fare (Locke, The Rover, Snowpiercer), but as fantastic as their lead performances were their narratives lacked a certain punch.  A lot of folks seemed to go nuts for X-Men - Days of Future Past, but as I did with the previous X-Films, I found Bryan Singer's latest to be a mediocre comic book pretender.  Those are just not my X-Men.  Meanwhile, the knives were out for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & The Expendables 3, but I found them both to be disposable fun.  The Rock dropped a deuce with Hercules, yet nothing will kill the charm of that man.  Next summer, say the word - "SHAZAM!" and I'll be all over that film.

And then there were those Summer bookend sequels, Spider-Man & Sin City.  Damn.  They really were the only films this year that I absolutely loathed.  Similar to my X-Men reaction, Marc Webb's Spider-Man just doesn't work for me.  He's now crafted two films in which Peter Parker is defined by death.  Spidey is not Batman.  I'm not asking for a disco strut comedy for ol' Web Head, but Peter Parker lives & breathes through his sense of humor, and it's important to showcase the thrill that his adventures illicit for the woe-is-me nerd.  Sin City's biggest problem is that it is so brutally dull.  Whatever your thoughts on Frank Miller's source material, generally the complaint is not boredom.  As cool as Robert Rodriguez's green screen tapestry was in 2005, the end result here is not nearly as artful as the comic book graphics, and the drag-and-drop performances are absolutely lifeless.

Both Edge of Tomorrow & 22 Jump Street get the Close-But-No-Cigar Award.  I had an absolute blast with each film, but they dragged on a little too long and suffered during their final moments.  It's popular to hate on Tom Cruise these days, but as one-time fans pretend to distance themselves from the Scientologist, I find myself warming up to the Movie Star.  I'm no apologist, and I won't defend crazy, but the man has never phoned in a performance.  From Knight and Day to Rock of Ages, Cruise throws himself into his roles, and as he delves deeper into genre the resulting movies have been rollicking thrill rides.  Edge of Tomorrow is one of his recent best.  22 Jump Street is simply hilarious.  Channing Tatum & Jonah Hill, a buddy cop team equal to Tango & Cash.  And if Tatum's meet-cute had actually traveled its obvious narrative path, then I could have forgiven the overlong runtime.

5.  Life Itself:  I've watched more documentaries this year then any previous.  A lot of them dealt with the arts (Jodorowsky's Dune, The Dog, To Be Takei) and a couple highlighted social injustice (Dinosaur 13, Let The Fire Burn).  On the surface, Life Itself appears to be a simple talking heads tribute to Chicago Sun Times movie critic Roger Ebert.  Sure, it's that.  Although, thanks to Ebert's allowance of Steve James' ever-present camera, the film also captures the universal experience of a life winding down.  What is it to say goodbye to a loved one?  How do you define your existence?  Life Itself is a celebration of the movies, sure, but it's also a celebration of Love itself.  Roger & Chaz.  Heartbreaking, heartwarming.  I imagine the more you appreciate Ebert's work, the more you'll enjoy the film, but I also think Life Itself offers a lot for the uninitiated.

4.  Godzilla:  Unlike Matt, I did not grow up the Godzilla fanatic.  In college, I watched & appreciated the original film, but that's about it.  However, in preparation for this latest monster-mash, I made it my mission to bone-up on the classics.  I succeeded in watching nearly all of my resolutions, and that certainly had an affect on how much I enjoyed this remake.  Obviously, I friggin' loved it.  You might be one of those frustrated folks that felt there wasn't much of the monster, or that the human characters were one-dimensional...I agree with you.  So?  Bryan Cranston & Aaron Taylor Johnson got the job done.  Would I have enjoyed the movie more if they were complex individuals with arcs involving weepy internal struggles?  Maybe.  But I don't need that in Godzilla.  Broad strokes are perfectly apt in Blockbuster magic.  What I need is dread....devastation...and a bastard brawl between beasts.  Gareth Edwards delivers on that.

3.  Cold In July:  Joe R. Lansdale, one of my favorite novelists finally gets a movie adaptation worthy of his twisted stories (I love Bubba Ho-Tep as much as the next blogger, but that's more about Bruce Campbell's charm than a satisfying script).  Michael C Hall is a weak Texas family man who frantically kills an intruder just minutes after the opening credits.  A violent act that ignites a grotesque plunge down a rabbit hole most viewers will not be equipped to handle.  Faint of heart, need not apply.  Cold In July is a mean-spirited flick full of awful surprises, plus a pair of delightfully grizzled turns from Don Johnson & Sam Shephard.

2.  Guardians of the Galaxy:  Fun.  The end.  You probably won't have more of it this year than you will riding around in The Milano with Star-Lord and his gang of intergalactic losers.  It's been 20 years since we've had a space adventure this genuine.  Fanboys love tossing Star Wars around, and they're not wrong, but Guardians feels more like the Star Wars knock-off film folks like Roger Corman were so desperate to recreate in blunders like Battle Beyond The Stars. But, you know, it's actually AMAZING.  Chris Pratt has all the requirements of a Han Solo character - charisma, a bit of a dick - yet he still manages to get upstaged by a raccoon, a tree, and a professional wrestler.  The film is not without its flaws (big bad Ronan The Accuser lacks threat, the hand-to-hand combat is bland, mean green Gamora is disappointingly upstaged by the raccoon, the tree, the pro wrestler, and the Han Solo), but you're having too much damn fun to harp.  Again, I am pleased as punch that Guardians proved to be such a success, and now we're ready for the rest of Marvel's Cosmic Universe.

1.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes:  A character centric melodrama disguised as a big expensive Summer Blockbuster.  Similar to Godzilla, I hear your complaints about one-dimensional human characters.  So what?  They're barely in it, and they only serve to punctuate the emotions of the film's real leads - Caesar & Koba, a couple of chimpanzees struggling to lead their families from squaller to civilization.  What the animators, Toby Kebbell, & Andy Serkis have accomplished here is the next stage in performance; the subtlety in their movements packs as much of a wallop as the Apes on Horses machine gun climax.  For this fanboy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes represents the very best of Have-Your-Cake-And-Eat-It-Too filmmaking, and it is the very best of Summer Entertainment.


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