And here’s my list of movies that get an A for effort…or is that ‘adequate’?
Denzel Washington hass never been the kind of actor to spearhead a franchise, but it appears he did just that in “The Equalizer.” An adaptation of an intellectual property that screamed “dad movie” long before Liam Neeson’s family was Taken, Washington stars as an ex-Black Ops badass attempting to live an altruistic life, until he’s dragged into a scuffle with the Russian Mafia that forces him to utilize his spatial awareness as a kind of superpower to take them all out. Washington is one of our most reliable actors and he’s great here as the icy cool but super deadly McCall, but tired father-knows-best moralizing with Chloe Grace Moretz as a prostitute that he feels compelled takes under his wing and a slightly overlong runtime muddy up what is otherwise a pretty slick little action movie.
There are a handful American animation houses that are automatically innocent until proven guilty in my eyes, and Laika Animation is definitely among them. Laika’s third animated feature “The Boxtrolls,” based very loosely on the novel “Here Be Monsters!” by Alan Snow, amounts to nothing more than a cute diversion, a blip on Laika’s radar toward more interesting things. The Dickensian story of a young boy taken in by a society of trolls who wear boxes like clothes (their names even come from the boxes, so Fish, Eggs, Fragile, etc.) and are hunted by a sociopathic social climber voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, with Laika’s still charming animation/humor style and warm non-patronizing storytelling continuing to shine through. It’s just missing the usual pathos-laced oomph that gave previous flicks “Coraline” and “ParaNorman” that push from good to great.
Someone at Disney stepped forward with the bold idea of a revisionist take on “Sleeping Beauty” that shed some light on the iconic villainess while all but denouncing the original tale…and wasn’t only not immediately fired, but got the project greenlit. You can’t say Disney isn’t trying to make up for lost time. Angelina Jolie plays the lead role of Maleficent, who according to this version is actually a fairy whose wings were cut off by King Stephan, the father of Sleeping Beauty herself Aurora, which led to Maleficent placing a curse on the child. Jolie plays Maleficent’s wing loss like a rape scene, giving the film a Sleeping Beauty meets I Spit On Your Grave-type vibe, which was uncomfortable yet oddly welcome. Bold in its revisionism and visual design but tone deaf at the screenplay level, it’s ambitions (and Jolie’s barn-burner performance) ultimately exceeded the film’s grasp.
This is the indie darling that all critics were expected to salivate over this year, and there are definitely praises to lop at its feet for its sweeping scope, beautiful direction and cinematography and really good performances. But as a film with an experimental stop-and-start narrative, an increasingly grating main character (no disrespect to Ellar Coltrane, who gives it his all), and a generally boring and dull disposition, “Boyhood” isn’t exactly what I’d call Best Picture material. Watch The Academy voters prove me wrong, though.
“Transformers: Age of Extinction”
I’m as surprised as anyone, but “Age of Extinction” is actually a major improvement from Michael Bay’s first “Transformers” trilogy. It’s no less loud, vapid, overlong, and dumb than the Shia LaBeouf-led films, but the redesigned Transformer robots look excellent, especially the bounty hunter Lockdown, and shaky cam is kept to a minimum, meaning that the action scenes are much more coherent this time around. And for what it’s worth, the 15 minutes we do wind up getting of the Dinobots near the end almost makes the whole enterprise worth it. Bay finally found his groove.
Gareth Evans wowed the world with his indie monster survival flick “Monsters” back in 2011 and was almost immediately given the director’s chair on this second American reboot of Godzilla. For one, the King of The Monsters doesn’t show up in any way until the third act, which wouldn’t be a huge deal if the proceeding story wasn’t so bafflingly dull. Aaron Taylor-Johnson strutting around as G.I. Generic for an hour and a half isn’t interesting in any way, and Bryan Cranston as his paranoid conspiracy scientist father and Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa are criminally underused. When the iconic Toho monster does shows up, rendered convincingly in CG for the end fight with the equally generic MUTOs, watching him kick some ass is the closest the movie comes to lively or even fun. Eat your heart out, Jaws.
The life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an illegitimate bi-racial woman adopted by English royalty in the 1700s, is still shrouded in mystery, but this fictionalization is an interesting account of what might have been. It’s an England-set period piece from the POV of a POC, namely Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a fiery performance that we can thank for her appearance in “Beyond The Lights.” The film, directed by Amma Asate, is a well-acted and socially conscious British period piece, and you don’t see those every day. Because it’s a fictionalization, it falls prey to some genre trappings, but it’s still a very good watch.
Few reinterpretations of The Bible have been as gonzo strange as this. Darren Aronofsky (yes, the director behind Black Swan and Requiem for A Dream) here tells the story of Noah’s Ark with the visual and narrative panache of The Book of Enoch, slow-burn horror movies, and Cecil B. Demille Biblical adaptations, all rolled into one. It’s VERY annoying that this is yet another Biblical adaptation with no dark-skinned people anywhere to be seen (Russell Crowe as Noah? For real?) and , but the sheer boldness and audacity of this project in almost every conceivable manner puts it five or six cuts above the dreck that was Exodus: Gods and Kings. This isn’t your grandmother’s version of The Bible.
“Maps To The Stars”
David Cronenberg returned to the scene this year with “Maps To The Stars,” his adaptation of Bruce Wagner’s novel “Dead Stars,” written when the original film production fell through. The originator of the body horror genre has become known for his contemplative and often violent character studies as of late (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, Cosmopolis), and “Maps” is no exception. A story of Hollywood decadence dressed down to its soulless and materialistic core, it’s also pervaded by a sense of detachment from everyone involved, another trademark of Cronenberg’s work. The mindless diversions eventually put too fine a point on the criticism that Cronenberg and his cast are trying to convey, but Mia Wasikowska, Julianne Moore, and Robert Pattinson all turn in good performances and when the satire of this twisted Hollywood tale hits, it hits hard.
Here’s a film so deceptively simple many probably took it as stupid: John Wick (Keanu Reeves, back in the scene) is living alone with a dog after the passing of his wife, when he is robbed of his car, beaten, and has his dog killed by the son of a Russian gangster. What the toughs didn’t know is that Wick is the world’s greatest hitman, and he’s out for all types of crazy revenge. This simple setup leads to some killer action and some inspired world-building that utilizes the usual tired “I hear ___ is a badass” dialogue to actually build the world without us seeing it. It’s an inversion of the Show, Don’t Tell rule that actually works fantastically well. Love him or leave him, Keanu’s always been good in stuff like this, and the meta-nature of the narrative (old pro is back in the saddle) makes this one hell of a good time. The only reason this one didn’t make my Best Films list is because I just wanted more of it.