THE IMMIGRANT (2014, James Gray)
The opening shot of THE IMMIGRANT is a look at the iconic Ellis Island Statue of Liberty — but instead of the frontal view we usually get in this moment, we see her back. Lady Liberty has turned on our heroine, and we’ll get no help from America. The final shot is even greater: splitting the screen into halves, each following one of our two main characters, with different fates through different frames. Everything in between is… solid, but not exactly groundbreaking. We get a lot more of the Lady Liberty symbolism, and some speeches about forgiveness, sin, and love. It’s all shot by Gray and the phenomenal DP Darius Khondji (he of SEVEN and MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS) in blacks and sickly yellows, elegantly put together and acted handsomely, especially by Joaquin Phoenix in yet another sensational turn. Marion Cotillard, however, doesn’t exactly find her way out of her character’s grim state, which is to be constantly nervous, depressed, angry, and desperate. Beyond her beauty, it’s hard to see what so many men see in Ewa; she’s about as fun to be around as a broken radiator. Still, it’s difficult not to be engrossed in her quest to reunite with her quarantined sister, and it’s even more interesting to see shades of humanity beneath Phoenix’s initially off-putting terror. This is the fourth film I’ve seen by Gray, and all of them have been perfectly fine. But I have yet to be blown away by this guy, and I fear it may be time to damn him with the faint praise of being just a solid filmmaker.
GODZILLA (2014, Gareth Edwards)
Aaron Taylor-Johnson is such a charmless, uncomfortable non-entity that he makes Jeremy Renner look like Tom Hanks. There’s a scene in GODZILLA where Taylor-Johnson is asked to do nothing more than stand in a room opposite Bryan Cranston and he can’t even manage to hold his arms in a natural position. (He’s such a meathead that even the first three letters of his character’s last name are “bro”). Look, I know 21st century blockbusters aren’t star-driven in a way that films of the stone age were. The highest grossing film of all time was anchored by Sam Worthington, a man whom most of the people who saw it wouldn’t even recognize if he rolled up to them in a wheelchair. But big CG-driven sci-fi Hollywood product, even one whose theme is the inefficacy and irrelevance of mankind, could still stand to use a movie star — and if not, at least someone who can act.
The people who can act in GODZILLA, such as Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Elizabeth Olsen, and Sally Hawkins, are to one degree or another ignored by Max Borenstein’s (I’m failing to resist the urge to make a cheap “boringstein” joke) screenplay, which calls for them to mostly stare skyward in awe or rattle off silly exposition. Ken Watanabe gets the unenviable task of refusing to make eye contact with anyone asking him a question, so he can answer while looking off-camera and spouting nonsense about nature vs. man. This is a script where a monster leaves Honolulu and war room expositioners say “it’s heading DUE EAST!” while the signs point to San Francisco. What maps are they using? This is a script where a wife who is desperately praying for her unknown-whereabouts husband to return from a disaster-torn nation doesn’t even turn on the ringer on her phone (so Edwards can use the cliched shot of a vibrating phone in the foreground gone unheard by the owner in the background) — not to mention the fact that the husband calling said phone doesn’t even try the landline previously established in the film.
But hey, it’s got giant blue-fire-breathing dinosaur sea monsters fighting radioactive sky mantises. And yeah, those scenes are extremely well put together. And the film is fast-paced and consistently watchable. And a lot of money is on the screen in impressive fashion. But none of it lands home, and I’m pretty sure it’s because of the script. Edwards puts together an astonishing demo reel mid-film where the Las Vegas strip is torn asunder, yet it feels wholly clinical and cute, even though thousands of people have just been killed. This movie has the highest body count of any film I’ve ever seen barring the ones where the world actually ends, but you never feel the death matter. It’s one thing to tell a story where humans are insignificant in the grand scheme of things (paging 2001 to a white courtesy phone); it’s another to tell that story from a human’s point of view and still have no idea what they think.
NEIGHBORS (2014. Nicholas Stoller)
Zac Efron has 34 acting credits on IMDb, and after looking through them all, I just realized the only time I’d ever seen him was in the execrable NEW YEAR’S EVE. I don’t know if any of his prior work was this impressive, but I certainly didn’t expect that he’d be the best thing about NEIGHBORS. From his dead-on imitation of Christian Bale’s Batman voice to his gift for physical comedy (during a fight that seems like the very first major motion picture sequence written explicitly with the intention of winning an MTV Movie Award for Best Fight Scene), Efron is quite a good actor here. Seth Rogen spins his wheels a bit, playing what seems like exactly the same guy from ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO — I’d like to see him stretch a little more like he did in TAKE THIS WALTZ one of these days, but he’s still quite funny when riffing during an improv scene. And Rose Byrne continues to prove that drama (DAMAGES, for example) may not be her thing, but comedy sure is (she was terrific in BRIDESMAIDS).
As a raunchy frat comedy disguising a more sober fear of adulthood, NEIGHBORS has its hits and misses, but luckily it keeps improving as it goes along and contains some great setpieces (my favorites being the aforementioned fight and a breast-milk scene about which the less said the better). Better directed and edited than Stoller’s prior THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT, though not as consistently funny as his FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL, you pretty much know what you’re in for with NEIGHBORS (and if you’re into this genre, you won’t be disappointed), although the sound of the Russian pitcher from EASTBOUND & DOWN doing a terrific Mark Wahlberg impression is one of its many welcome bizarre surprises.
MILLION DOLLAR ARM (2014, Craig Gillespie)
Those of us devoted to MAD MEN think of Jon Hamm as a leading man: a marquee name, a big star, the anchor. So it’s always weird to see him in movies, because until now he’s played strangely small supporting roles, often brilliantly in comedies (BRIDESMAIDS, FRIENDS WITH KIDS) or uncomfortably in sci-fi or action (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THE TOWN). It feels long overdue that MILLION DOLLAR ARM arrives, a vehicle for Hamm to take charge of, a formula film where his existence is the primary reason to see it. Even if at times, it feels like a made-for-TV movie.
Without Hamm, this is about as corny and cliched a piece of studio product you’ll get. Obstacles are introduced to be overcome, romances introduced in order to be requited, and life lessons to be learned in the end. Even when the messages are hilariously mixed (“The first time you had too much pressure; this time you just need to relax; now remember, an entire nation’s success is riding on this one pitch, so whatever you do, make them proud — but just have fun, no pressure”) they still get dumped onto the screen in a truckload of platitudes. Commit to things. Be yourself. Change yourself. Work hard.
But with Hamm, it livens up considerably. He plays his J.B. Bernstein less as a sports-centric Don Draper than as a Disneyfied Jerry Maguire: he’s slick but nervous, cranky but vulnerable. He can deliver a rant against cricket with brutal finality, but then show warmth and understanding with nothing but an eyebrow-drop. As a piece of feel-good family sausage this film may end up in a forgotten land of faux-inspirational true-life triumphs alongside THE BLIND SIDE, but as exhibit A in the rise of Jon Hamm from TV’s leading man to the silver screen’s major movie star, it ain’t half bad.
BLUE RUIN (2014, Jeremy Saulnier)
I’ll give it credit for being consistently unpredictable — when a revenge thriller is directed with as much deadpan realism and gritty indie authenticity as this, you can’t rely on genre cliches to bail you out. (A more cynical critic might even call this a mumblecore action movie). But despite a series of yeah-that-probably-would-happen-if-a-normal-dude-tried-that consequences, this story does ultimately lead to a dumb and ineffective conclusion loaded with stock characters and bizarre, sub-Hatfields/McCoys hillbilly justice. There’s a lot of “my daddy and your mama” whining, and as incompetent as our hero is, he’s conveniently pitted against even more incompetent villains — who, when forced by Saulnier to huddle over an answering machine shaking their fists and making evil grunting noises, come across like even worse caricatures than those in films which are less ostensibly realistic.
I admire Saulnier’s ability to tell his story with minimal dialogue, little-to-no speechifying, and a brutal inspection of the nature of violence and its unstoppable nihilism. But I wish it had been cast with stronger actors (luckily its protagonist, played by Macon Blair, is the best, but the supporting players suffer a lot) and found a way to display its craftsmanship without resorting to the piling up of slack-jawed yokel bodies.
LOCKE (2014, Steven Knight)
Movies set entirely in one location with one actor always risk being too on-the-nose. But when they succeed, they offer creative new ways to tell stories and are often surprisingly gripping. The best recent example of this was 2010’s BURIED, an unlikely Ryan Reynolds vehicle that became a profound anti-war drama shot with incredible grace by DP Eduard Grau (he of the gob-smacking A SINGLE MAN) for director Rodrigo Cortes. Unlike Reynolds alone in a coffin, Tom Hardy in LOCKE is alone in a car — a car that’s hurtling down a freeway and loaded with Beamer comforts like perfectly-working bluetooth. And while the obvious metaphor is a man confined in space, painted into a corner but unable to stop while heading in one direction, writer/director Knight’s story does reveal enough shades to let that metaphor sink in and work nicely.
The situation is distinctly dramatic (Hardy’s character is involved in both a family and career crisis, with limited time to address both), but Knight finds room for humor as well — Hardy’s second-in-command at work, with whom he’s often on the phone during his drive, is a spastic Irishman played by Andrew Scott in what is the best voice-only performance since HER. And even when a line is meant to be heart-breaking, Hardy delivers it with a darkly comic reality: when asked by his son whether he is coming home, he responds. “Absolutely! Hopefully.”
But the best line in the film reveals the crux of the issue — what being alive in this world means, and whether it’s all worth it. A lot of movies (especially a lot of recent films, e.g. ENEMY) have been hitting hard the male fear of parenthood, and LOCKE throws in a healthy dose of daddy issues. Not only is Hardy’s character about to become a father again, but spends a lot of his drive addressing his shitty absent father in soliloquies directed at a ghost in the backseat (and this is the film’s worst digression). Yet whereas many new dads may say “I’m about to become a father, awesome!” or “I’m nervous but I have created life!” Hardy says “Someone is being brought into this world, and it’s my fault.” The idea that giving birth is perpetrating a crime upon the newborn is a dark and cruel one, sold magnificently by an actor who needs to command leading roles like this far more often. Masked up as Bane in a comic book blockbuster does Hardy’s face and mannerisms a disservice — he’s at his best when he’s cool, measured, and intelligently understated. This is one of his best performances to date (even stronger in my mind than BRONSON or WARRIOR) and Knight — who ladles on music too thick and too often, but who shoots the car and its windows and the dark night whipping past with smooth skill — serves him well. Ivan Locke is a fascinating character, and it’s Tom Hardy’s fault.