You couldn’t have scripted it any better if it were a movie: An actress who hasn’t been taken seriously in years deglamorizes herself for a role as a woman going through a serious health crisis and wins over critics, audiences, and the Academy, earning an Oscar nomination in the process. That was the story Jennifer Aniston seems to have laid out for herself by playing a woman suffering from chronic pain (and chronic dishevelment) in Cake. Too bad Reese Witherspoon beat her to the punch by going make-up free and stringy-haired as a hiker overcoming grief, drug abuse and promiscuity in Wild.
That film earned 90% positive reviews, a very respectable $34 million so far, and an Academy Award nomination for Witherspoon, who hadn’t had a hit since 2005’s Walk the Line and had seriously tarnished her reputation in the decade since with a high-profile DUI incident involving her husband. Meanwhile, Cake garnered a mediocre 47% “fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes, took in just over $1 million in its first weekend of release (barely edging out Wild, in a similar number of theaters, in its eighth) and failing to snag Aniston an Oscar nod, although she was nominated along with Witherspoon for the Golden Globe and the SAG Award.
Why did Cake fall flat? It could be that Aniston forgot a key ingredient: give a great performance. Beneath the physical surface—the prosthetic scars, the drab clothes, the aforementioned limp coif—she doesn’t seem to go deep into the character. It’s mostly a one-note performance: she winces and snarls cranky remarks. I’ve seen more convincing work in Excedrin commercials.
The only real moment of transformation occurs when her character, smitten with the widower (Sam Worthington, another spectacularly uninteresting performer) of a fellow support-group member (Anna Kendrick, mostly wasted) who committed suicide, gets her hair done. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that this is the extent of Aniston’s acting, considering her greatest career achievement to date was inspiring a hairstyle craze with “The Rachel.”
Okay, that’s not fair. She deserved the Emmy she earned for Friends. The episode in which Rachel gives birth was a comic tour de force reminiscent of Lucille Ball. But Lucy never bored us by trying to get all serious and play some dead-serious character in search of professional accolades. She knew her strengths and her limitations as an actress. That’s why we’ll always love Lucy. And why I hated Cake.
All right, hate might be too strong. Adrianna Barraza (Babel) contributes an award-worthy turn as Aniston’s long-suffering caretaker, and the real-life husband and wife team of Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy excel in too-small roles as a support-group leader and the perpetrator of the accident that caused Aniston so much pain. Suffice it to say Cake left a sour taste in my mouth. But probably not as sour as the one Aniston must’ve felt on the morning of the Oscar nominations.
Americans have voted with their wallets: Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is a huge box-office hit, racking up $200 million in its first 10 days of release. In a somewhat rare occurrence, the Academy agrees, as the film scored six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper) and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Well, call me un-American, but I wasn’t blown away by the movie. My objections have little to do with the film’s politics, muddled as they are. Eastwood has always been more complicated as a filmmaker than he is as a political spokesman (just ask that chair he addressed at the 2012 Republican National Convention). His attitude towards violence has evolved from the ask-questions-and-shoot-before-they-can-answer days of Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name to his masterfully rueful ruminations of the ramifications of mayhem, Unforgiven and Mystic River.
As it recounts the life and (all-too-briefly) death of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. history—as the film’s brilliantly calculated marketing campaign reminds us—American Sniper flirts with an anti-war message, depicting the post-traumatic stress that “the Legend,” as he’s nicknamed, and his fellow veterans suffer. Yet it ends on a note of empty hero worship, as Kyle seems miraculously cured of his PTSD by his work with veterans, which is quickly glossed over. (I wish Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall had devoted more of Sniper‘s 132-minute running time to his difficult life Stateside and less on rat-a-tat-tat action sequences of Kyle and his cohorts hunting down “savages” with names like “the Butcher.”)
It all starts with the script, of course, but Eastwood might’ve been able to breathe more life into the film’s stick-figure characters if he’d cast more nuanced actors. I gather I’m in the minority on this, considering he’s received (undeserved) Oscar nominations for three years in a row, but I don’t find Cooper to be an actor of any great depth. All I can see is the surface. Yes, he physically transformed himself for this role, packing on 40 pounds of muscle. But, to me, he seems dead behind the eyes, and not in a dead-eyed killer kind of way, which might suit this character. He’s just emotionally opaque.
As his long-suffering wife, Sienna Miller is equally skin-deep. She’s the very definition of a one-note character, constantly crying and complaining about her husband’s absence, physically as well as emotionally. Both actors are as un-lifelike as the creepy plastic baby Eastwood employed to embody their squirming infant.
None of the film’s other characters are allowed more than one dimension either. Once one of Chris’ fellow soldiers starts talking about the engagement ring he bought for his girlfriend, you know he’s doomed (Hot Shots! shot down this war-movie cliché more than 20 years ago with the character of Pete “Dead Meat” Thompson).
By skimming over Kyle’s death—his killer is barely even a character—American Sniper not only comes to an abrupt end but cheats the audience out of a meaningful catharsis. This could’ve been the cinematic equivalent of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”, a complex, albeit wilfully misunderstood, meditation on the true meaning of patriotism. Instead, it’s just a shallow shoot-‘em-up. To paraphrase George W. Bush, as well as Hall’s screenplay: Mission not accomplished.
Well, you had to know it was coming. Yesterday I posted my 10 favorite films of 2014, so here are my ten least favorite, with links to longer reviews in some cases.
10. Gone Girl The year’s most overrated movie also featured the most baffling bit of casting (human iceberg Rosamund Pike, above right). I. Don’t. Get. It.
9. Wild Reese Witherspoon (above left), who also produced Gone Girl, miscast herself as a recovering-hedonist hiker in this not-as-deep-as-it-thinks-it-is outdoor misadventure. Maybe she should’ve combined the two movies: Girl Gone Wild!
8. Interstellar Even the always-welcome presence of Jessica Chastain can’t redeem this brutally slow, overlong sci-fi slog. Matthew McCona-what-the-hey?
7. Mr. Turner Yes, Timothy Spall gives a colorful performance as artist J.M.W. Turner, but Mike Leigh’s biopic is the dramatic equivalent of watching paint dry.
6. Annie This is what happens when you cast non-singers like Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne and Jamie “Auto-Tune” Foxx in a musical. You get a movie that’s seriously off-key. Oh well, at least Quvenzhane Wallis was cute.
5. The Gambler Mark Wahlberg should’ve known when to fold ‘em: before he decided to star in this needless remake of a quintessential ’70s flick.
4. Pompeii I was rooting for the volcano. True, it did win, but not nearly soon enough.
3. Need for Speed Needed even more: a script. Aaron Paul went from Breaking Bad to just plain bad in record time.
1. Monuments Men Even a know-nothing like Sgt. Schultz couldn’t defend George Clooney’s unintentional homage to Hogan’s Heroes. Dis-missed!
What were the worst movies you saw in 2014? Sound off below!
They say that good things come to those who wait, and that’s certainly the case with my moviegoing year, as my two favorite films were released in the last days of 2014 (all the better to remain fresh in Oscar voters’ minds). On the surface, A Most Violent Year and Selma might not seem to have much in common, aside from the presence of the exotically named up-and-coming actors David Oyelowo and Alessadro Nivola in their casts. But dig deeper and you’ll find they share more than you might expect.
They’re both period pieces, albeit of very different times and places. Selma, of course, follows the Alabama march led by Martin Luther King Jr. (Oyelowo, in a performance that seems touched by grace) that resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A Most Violent Year takes place in a pre-Giuliana, graffiti-strewn 1981 New York City, where a local heating-oil company owner (Oscar Isaac, simmering like a young Al Pacino) fights to save his business against threats from mobbed-up competitors as well as a crusading DA (Oyelowo).
At their hearts, they’re each stories of flawed men struggling to stay on a straight, non-violent path, despite the moral corruption that surrounds them and pressure from alleged allies to resort to more brutal tactics. They’re also finely observed portraits of complicated marriages, as MLK and wife Coretta (the beautifully restrained Carmen Ejogo) grapple with his infidelity and Isaac’s Abel Morales attempts to mollify his more aggressive better half, Anna (Jessica Chastain, who continues her run of remarkable work with a steely yet surprisingly understated turn).
Selma and A Most Violent Year represent the best films yet from a pair of promising and supremely gifted young directors, Ava DuVernay and J.C. Chandor. It’s only the third feature made by each (after DuVernay’s micro-budget indies Middle of Nowhere and I Will Follow and Chandor’s star-studded yet small-scale Margin Call and All is Lost), and their storytelling canvases keep expanding, as does their visual sophistication. While Chandor thrillingly conjures the gritty cinematic spirit of the late Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternooon, Prince of the City), DuVernay seems to be developing a style all her own, with signature shots of the backs of men’s heads—brilliantly echoed in Selma‘s poster—and a focus that can expand from intimate extreme close-ups to breathtaking epic landscapes.
These two spectacular movies cap off the most exciting cinematic year in recent memory. Here’s the rest of my top 10 list, with links to longer reviews in some cases.
2. A Most Violent Year
5. Locke (my Q&A with star Tom Hardy and director Steven Knight is below)
9. St. Vincent
What were YOUR favorite films of 2014? Let me know below!
Can a movie be a classic if it’s never been released? That question was answered this week when Turner Classic Movies premiered (at 2 am on Sunday!) Nothing Lasts Forever—a film featuring Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd that was pulled by MGM before its planned opening in 1984, the same year the Saturday Night Live vets co-starred in Ghostbusters. Written and directed by SNL short-filmmaker Tom Schiller and produced by Lorne Michaels, the comedic fantasy has never been distributed on video and has only been seen at a few film-festival screenings over the last 30 years.
It’s not hard to see why Nothing Lasts Forever reportedly bombed in its one and only test screening with audiences in 1984. Hard to categorize, it’s simultaneously retro and futuristic, as an aspiring artist (Zach Galligan, who starred in Gremlins the same year) tries to make it in a gritty, black-and-white, Depression Era-esque New York City, only to discover it’s all an illusion perpetrated by a subterranean homeless community who run a bus line that shuttles the elderly to the moon on shopping trips.
Murray is well-cast as the bus’ not-as-friendly-as-he-seems steward, as is Aykroyd as Galligan’s boss on his night-shift job turning away subpar cars at the Holland Tunnel to prevent overcrowding in a Manhattan crippled by a transit strike. Other familiar faces include Imogene Coca (from SNL‘s skitcom progenitor Your Show of Shows) and Late Night with David Letterman‘s late, great Calvert DeForest, aka Larry “Bud” Melman, as bus passengers; stand-up pioneer Mort Sahl as Galligan’s psychiatrist uncle; Reservoir Dogs‘ Lawrence Tierney as a horse-and-buggy driver; and future Friends love interest Lauren Tom as the lunar dream girl whom Galligan moons over.
The movie is more funny-strange than funny ha-ha, although there are laughs to be had from gags like a German conceptual artist whose performance piece involves him counting to a million while walking on a treadmill and a self-mocking cameo by crooner Eddie Fisher as himself. While the visuals pay homage to vintage films like The Battleship Potemkin and A Trip to the Moon, the surreal deadpan tone feels up-to-date with contemporary comedies like Stranger Than Paradise, Repo Man and Buckaroo Banzai, which were all released in the same seminal cinematic year.
Most of all, the movie feels of a piece with Schiller’s SNL shorts, most notably “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” in which John Belushi (who was cast in Nothing Lasts Forever but died weeks before its filming) literally dances on the graves of his fellow Not Ready for Primetime Players, and “Love is a Dream,” an Old Hollywood-style musical reverie that’s even more poignant now that stars Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks are both gone.
Like “Love is a Dream,” Nothing Lasts Forever is beautiful to look at and strangely moving. It may have taken three decades for the film to see the proverbial light of day, but its belated TCM premiere proves nothing—not even the shortsightedness of movie-studio execs—lasts forever.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Big Fish. And now Big Eyes. Clearly, size matters to Tim Burton. Yet his latest, based on the real-life story of painter Margaret Keane (Amy Adams) and her credit-grabbing husband Walter (Christoph Waltz), is one of his smallest-scaled films in years. And it’s one of his best, a hell of a lot better than bloated, mega-budget bores like Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows.
It may help that he’s separated himself, at least temporarily—no, not from real-life wife Helena Bonham Carter (theirs seemed like a match made in twisted-movie heaven), but from frequent collaborator Johnny Depp, who seems to have gone off the rails creatively with the likes of The Lone Ranger, Transcendence and the excruciating-looking January dumping-ground release Mortdecai. (I haven’t seen Into the Woods yet, but it seems telling that he’s barely visible in the trailers.)
The filmmaker has found a simpatico spirit in Waltz, whose grinningly theatrical acting style is almost as well-suited to Burton as it has been to Quentin Tarantino, who’s directed him to two Oscars. (I’d love to see what David Lynch would do with Waltz.) As for Adams, to whom I’ve referred as America’s Most Overrated Actress, at least her Southern drawl is more consistent than her peekaboo British accent was in American Hustle. I know, it was supposed to be fake, but it’s hard to believe anybody would’ve bought that phony voice.
Big Eyes is ultimately about a footnote in art history, but screenwriters and unlikely biopic specialists Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon and Burton’s own Ed Wood) manage to turn it into a satisfyingly upbeat story with a beginning, middle and an end, something that’s been lacking in too many of Burton’s movies, like his take on Planet of the Apes; he’s often seem more interested in art direction than in narrative drive.
Big Eyes is also a hell of a lot better than The Gambler, with Burton’s old Apes star Mark Wahlberg. What a pretentious, miscast mess this movie is. It’s a needless remake of a pleasingly downbeat 1974 drama that starred James Caan, looking eerily like his son Scott, who broke out in Wahlberg’s semi-autobiographical HBO sitcom Entourage. Only two years after The Godfather, Caan managed to embody a character who’s both a collegiate English professor and a degenerate gambler. Wahlberg, who’s a terrific actor (he deservedly was the only cast member singled out for an Oscar nomination in The Departed and should’ve gotten nods for Boogie Nights and The Fighter as well), simply can’t make the unrealistically flowery language of the screenplay by William Monahan—who also wrote The Departed—sound like actual human speech. The original screenplay, a semi-autobiographical work by James Toback, tried much less hard and rang much more true.
Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes!) doesn’t help matters with his arty visuals (out-of-focus strippers, slow-motion basketball players, sped-up casino action…yawn). And the supporting cast is mostly wasted: George Kennedy (who knew he was still alive?) and Andre Braugher are given but one scene each—there must be more left on the cutting-room floor, no?—and The Wire veterans Michael Kenneth Williams and Domenick Lombardozzi (also an Entourage alum) are stuck with one-dimensional street-tough parts… although they, too, are forced to recite stilted lines like “It’s been so since the Greeks.” John Goodman, as always, makes everything better, but he’s only got four scenes as an intimidatingly bald loan whale…er, shark… and in two of them, he’s topless. And Jessica Lange, as Wahlberg’s wealthy mother, seems like she’s still in Ryan Murphy melodrama mode after too many seasons of American Horror Story.
Worst of all, Brie Larson must grapple with the ridiculous role of Wahlberg’s prodigious student, who’s also inexplicably a waitress at an underground gambling den in the film’s opening scene (that’s never explained and only glancingly brought up again—again, there must’ve been more to this subplot). Oh, and of course, she becomes his love interest, because apparently no one in Hollywood can have an age-appropriate girlfriend. And just when you think it can’t get worse, there’s a yes-you-can-have-it-all happy ending that’s as tonally jarring as it is insulting to the memory of the morally ambivalent ’70s original. The moral of this story, believe it or not, is: You’ve got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them. Maybe the filmmakers thought they were remaking Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler?
I probably wouldn’t have seen The Interview were it not for Kim Jong Un. So let me just say: Thank you, Kim Jong Un. Your two thumbs down—with one finger on the nuclear button—made me want to flip you the proverbial bird. So I paid $5.99 to rent the movie at seetheinterview.com. And when that didn’t work (it just kept endlessly loading—maybe North Korea hacked the site?), I paid another $6.42 ($5.99, plus tax) to watch it on Google Play Movies. And it was worth every penny.
I’m not just saying that because Sony’s switcheroo decision to release The Interview as scheduled on Christmas Day—albeit in a limited number of theaters as well as on VOD—was a blow for creative freedom. I’m saying that because the movie made me laugh. Out loud. Sitting all alone in a hotel room.
I thought I’d had enough of Seth Rogen and James Franco. I loved them 15 years ago on Freaks & Geeks and rooted for them after they became movie stars under the tutelage of Judd Apatow with movies like Superbad and Pineapple Express. But their humor became repetitive and boring, and This is the End was the end for me: It felt like a movie that was written and filmed while the participants were stoned, and it just wasn’t that funny when it was seen sober.
Yet with The Interview, Rogen and co-writer/director Evan Goldberg have seemingly sobered—and grown—up. True, there’s a little drug humor, and plenty of low-bro jokes about buttholes and pooping (some of which, I must admit, made me plotz with glee). But like his character, TV news producer Aaron Rapaport, Rogen set out to do something with substance, and in large part, he’s succeeded.
You won’t learn much about North Korea from The Interview: the depth of political commentary pretty much begins and ends with the fact that Kim-Jong Un (Randall Park) starves and murders his people and threatens to unleash nuclear hell on his enemies, most notably us. But like The Great Dictator and The Producers did with Hitler, The Interview uses the humor of its day to portray an evil dictator as an object of ridicule. In this case, the North Korean despot is exposed as a margarita-drinking Katy Perry superfan. (The fact that I enjoy the occasional fruity frozen drink and don’t switch the station when “Teenage Dream” comes on the radio is neither here nor there). And such a silly satire can pack more pop-cultural power than a million well-meaning documentaries.
Franco’s performance as infotainment personality Dave Skylark is pitched a little high for my taste—it’s hard to believe someone this inane could command such a devoted audience. He’s a cross between Piers Morgan and Billy Bush. (Then again, Harvey Levin.) But Rogen and Franco have combustible comic chemistry—they’re a classic fat-guy, thin-guy team—and their bromantic relationship ultimately proves touching.
So I urge you all to see The Interview—in a theater, on your computer, or by any other means. Because he or she who laughs last laughs loudest and longest. Even if it is at a poop joke.