Posts Tagged ‘Movie Reviews’

Favorite and Least Favorite Films of 2014

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Here’s just what nobody was waiting for – my (sometimes) annual listing of my favorite and least favorite movies, this time for 2014. Among my least favorites are Academy-Awards “Best Picture” nominees, BOYHOOD and SELMA, both of which rate my Emperor’s New Clothes Awards, the former because it’s a gimmick in search of a narrative and the latter because it transforms compelling history into a smeary slow-motion bore. The fuss over the lack of Best Director and various acting nominations for SELMA should be replaced with outrage that it got a politically correct nomination.

The black actor who deserved a nomination – in my opinion, the actor period who deserves to win the Best Actor Oscar – is Chadwick Boseman for his spellbinding portrayal of James Brown in GET ON UP. And Brandon Smith’s snapshot of Little Richard in that same film is easily worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Keeping in mind that I prefer to praise filmmakers and films than condemn them – having some experience in just how terribly hard making a movie is – I am nonetheless sharing the names of the films that made my frequent movie-going a blessing and those that made it curse.

FAVORITE MOVIES

1. GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL – Wes Anderson hitting on all eccentric cylinders. Nothing else I saw last year came close.
2. EDGE OF TOMORROW – Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt are first-rate in this wonderful s-f spin on GROUNDHOG DAY.
3. THE RAID 2 – A mindblowing sequel to a mindblowing action film.
4. THE IMITATION GAME – Intellectual thriller both life-affirming and tragic. Benedict Cumberbatch deserves his Oscar nomination and probably should win (but won’t).
5. INTO THE WOODS – Surprisingly good if slightly watered-down film version of Sondheim’s daringly dark take on fairy tales. Haunting music and genius lyrics.
6. THE INTERVIEW – Boldly tasteless but genuinely biting satirical comedy, with both Seth Rogen and James Franco fearlessly self-mocking.
7. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – Worst trailer for a comic-book movie shockingly turns out to belong to the best comic-book movie of recent years; funny and exciting.
8. 22 JUMP STREET – Inspired self-aware sequel.
9. VERONICA MARS – It exists and therefore appears here. You see, a long time ago we used to be friends.
10. THE JUDGE – Traditional Hollywood storytelling at its old-fashioned best. Critics hate that.

Honorable mention in no special order: HORRIBLE BOSSES 2; THE EQUALIZER; JOHN WICK; DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES; EXPENDABLES 3 (surprisingly); NEED FOR SPEED (in 3-D on imported blu-ray); NEIGHBORS; GET ON UP; BIG HERO 6.

LEAST FAVORITES:

1. BOYHOOD – A stunt that does not hold together; no story, flimsy to nonexistent characterization, rife with meandering non-scenes – an endurance test for all but the easily fooled.
2. NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB* – Shoddy sequel with (despite a co-scripting credit) no indication of the work of Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, the gifted RENO 911 boys who created the franchise. Shameful, but the place to go for seeing a monkey piss on Ben Stiller.
3. SELMA* – Slow, self-important, unevenly acted, incompetently shot (I suggest a crossing-the-axis drinking game), full of speeches (though none written by MLK). It earns a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes…for liberal guilt.
4. DIVERGENT* – A laughable imitation of THE HUNGER GAMES, itself a laughable imitation of the great BATTLE ROYALE.
5. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2* – Slow, irritating, politically correct sequel to a much better film.
6. BOXTROLLS – Unfunny and unpleasant; makes one long for the elegance of the Garbage Pail Kids.
7. A HAUNTED HOUSE 2 – The original kinda funny spoof of found-footage horror films gives birth to this painfully laugh-free sequel.
8. SEX TAPE – Jason Segel, whose work I usually at least like (he’s a FREAKS & GEEKS cast member, after all), joins a particularly irritating Cameron Diaz in an embarrassing shambles of a supposed comedy; an idea for a movie, not a movie.
9. GONE GIRL – Spoiler alert: the victim is the audience and the culprit is the book author’s interminable screenplay.
10. ANNABELLE – A prequel to the much better THE CONJURING, lacking the leads of that picture…and its chills.

* = means that Barb and I walked out. We always gave the movie at least forty-five minutes and sometimes an hour or more. Also, full disclosure: we walked out of BOYHOOD, two-and-a-half hours in. It felt like we’d seen the whole thing. Twice.

FOR THE RECORD: I have not yet seen BIRDMAN, AMERICAN SNIPER, FOXCATCHER and several other Academy Award-nominated films that might have made one of these lists.

Also, for those of you who are going to write in to point out how wrong I am about this film or that one, you are absolutely invited and even encouraged to do so – but do remember this is not a “best” and “worst” list, but a “favorites” and “least favorites” list.

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Here’s a terrific and very smart review of QUARRY’S CHOICE, with some interesting reader comments.

It’s always cool to receive a good review from the UK for something as inherently American as QUARRY’S CHOICE.

Finally, that first-rate writer Ron Fortier likes QUARRY’S CHOICE. Check it out.

M.A.C.

Why Critics Can’t Be Trusted With Sequels

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

The kneejerk reaction of most film critics to a sequel is to trash it. They walk in hating the movie they are being forced to see (usually for free, I might add). There have been exceptions – the second GODFATHER, for instance – but in recent years, when sequels have proliferated, the critical response to them has been so automatically negative as to make their comments worthless.

Case in point: two recent films that are sequels to very successful comedies have received almost interchangeably bad reviews: DUMB AND DUMBER TO and HORRIBLE BOSSES 2.

In the first instance, the critics have a point – this many-years-later sequel to that beloved celebration of idiocy is something many of us looked forward to. Who, with the ability to laugh, would not want to catch up with Lloyd and Harry? For the first two-thirds or so of the film, the movie is funny, and Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels deliver throughout. Then there is a bad and unfortunate stumble in the third act, where plot concerns kick in and laughs fall out. And the co-directing/scripting Farrelly Brothers seem out of step, their gross-out ‘90s sensibility turning cruel, not darkly funny. An easy line to cross, particularly when you’re struggling to catch lightning in a bottle twice. You’re more likely to get hit by it.

So DUMB AND DUMBER TO probably deserves some bad reviews – though not to the severe degree it suffered. But, yes, it’s a disappointment.

Then comes HORRIBLE BOSSES 2. The reviews read almost exactly the same as those for DUMB AND DUMBER TO. But the film is easily funnier than its predecessor, if having less integrity (this is a fate most sequels meet). BOSSES 2 builds on the first movie, turning its trio of former would-be murderers into would-be kidnappers (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudekis), who are in high bumbling, fast-talking form. Bateman may be the funniest straight-man of all time, and that’s coming from somebody who reveres Bud Abbott and Dean Martin.

Jaimie Fox, Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey reappear in top form (the latter a glorified cameo that still almost steals the film) while Chris Pine turns out to be very funny, at times seeming to channel William Shatner more overtly than in the reboot STAR TREK films. Then there’s the most horrible boss of all – Christoph Waltz – who is, as usual, a master of civility-coated villainy.

This is one of those richly comic films that will require several viewings to catch every funny line. At the same time, it manages to present a new story for the central characters that has enough echoes of the previous one to serve the “same but different” requirement. Because we are familiar with the characters, they don’t build – they reappear full-throttle and yet ascend from there.

A typical critical complaint: the three leads do not have horrible bosses this time. And that’s true – they are the horrible bosses, although in a much different way than the trio they hoped to murder last time around.

The lesson here is simple: don’t trust film critics (except me, of course). Most of them didn’t like either DUMB OR DUMBER or HORRIBLE BOSSES, either – so their reviews tend to be bad sequels to a previous bad review.

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Our condolences to a good friend, Bill Crider, on the passing of his wife Judy. There was not a nicer, smarter couple in the world of mystery fiction. Hearing Bill describe Judy as his in-house editor, business manager and collaborator resonated deeply with me.

Typically, Bill hasn’t missed a day posting funny and informative squibs on what is my favorite blog site, hands down: Bill Crider’s Popular Culture Magazine.

* * *

I posted this already on Facebook, but here’s a terrific review of THE GIRL HUNTERS on blu-ray and DVD.

Here’s a nice review, with a mention of moi, of Otto Penzler’s The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. This came out last year but is hitting the book stalls again. You can find a personal favorite short story of mine, “A Wreath for Marley,” in its pages.

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. We certainly did, with son Nate and his wife Abby as well as granddog Toaster, who expects (and gets) walks in the most frigid of Iowa weather (which is pretty damn frigid). We shopped not at all on Thanksgiving (assuming “on line” doesn’t count) and on Saturday we fed mazuma into the mammoth maw of American consumer culture. My sale-item find – a new office chair with improved back support…black leather but with a gold Hawkeye symbol on that head rest. That echoey laughter you hear is from my late father, a devoted Hawkeye fan always mystified by my lack of interest in my alma mater’s sports program.

M.A.C.

Couldn’t They Make the Dog’s Pic Bigger?

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014

I thought I’d share with you the cover of the just-published large-print edition of ANTIQUES CON. Frequently large-print books have new, different covers and this is a good example of that. It also demonstrates how the “cute pet” aspect of cozy mysteries is viewed as uber-important by editors and publishers. Barb’s panel at the upcoming Boucher Con in Long Beach is devoted to the subject of pets in mysteries.

Antiques Con Large Print

I’m also posting my latest jack-o-lantern. Pumpkin carving is one of my few skills, so I thought I’d better share this one with you. We love Halloween around here, and decorate inside and out, plus view horror films in the evening all October. We ran through the HALLOWEEN flicks a year ago, so despite the lavish new Blu-ray boxed set that I picked up, we are saving a binge of that for next spook season. This time we concentrated on Hammer films (the Brit studio, not Mike), a number of which are now on Blu-ray, particularly in England. That’s where having an all-regions player comes in handy.

Jack-o-Lantern 2014

Barb is hard at work on her draft of the new ANTIQUES book and I have just wrapped up research on BETTER DEAD and will begin writing it today (Monday, as I write this). It’s a big subject and I’m intimidated. When I’m gearing up for a Heller, I have terrible stage fright – I have to tamp down the panic of wondering how I do this. I have a similar feeling before starting a Quarry, though not so intense. The enormity of a Heller project – the countless decisions that have to be made, the mountain of research that has to be culled and shaped – makes me uncharacteristically unsure of myself. Fortunately, Heller himself – like Quarry – seems always to be there, to assert himself and guide me.

A few brief movie recommendations.

JOHN WICK is a first-rate, stylish thriller with the underrated Keanu Reeves as a retired hitman brought back into action by tragedy, fate and maybe karma. It’s larger than life and particularly good at creating a fantasy world of hitmen and gangsters who operate with the benign neglect of the authorities (a point cleverly made by one quick scene). This was an odd experience for me, because the film is clearly influenced by my work – ROAD TO PERDITION, both the film and graphic novel; the Nolan series; and of course Quarry. But it’s also beholden to POINT BLANK, and that film (and the Richard Stark novels) had a huge impact on me and my career. The Parker novels were the last thing I read as a fan that influenced me, as both Nolan and Quarry demonstrate. Prior to that I was strictly a private eye guy, an inclination that came back around. Anyway, odd to see a film that is influenced by me and by the stuff that influenced me.

BOOK OF LIFE is a computer animated number drawing upon “Day of the Dead” Hispanic imagery. Very good, with a decent script that has some wit to it, BOOK is a feast for the eyes and a relief to me, since I was afraid BOX TROLLS had ruined such films for me.

ST. VINCENT is a comedy/drama that has nothing particularly new to say but says it well. What a relief to see Bill Murray at the center of what is clearly a Bill Murray movie, and not just a quirky supporting role in an indie. It’s almost an updating the relationship at the heart of MEATBALLS. Naomi Watts is very good as a pregnant Russian stripper, and Melissa McCarthy shines in a supporting role that shows her depth as an actress, though she does have a few very funny moments to remind us of her considerable comic skills. Most of all, ST. VINCENT understands the difference between sentiment and sentimentality.

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Here’s a nice small review of that crime comics anthology I contributed to a while back.

Once again ROAD TO PERDITION makes a list of best graphic-novel movie adaptations. Weird poster, apparently from India.

Finally, Jeff Pierce at the Rap Sheet kindly picked up my mention of the private-eye soundtrack boxed set that just came out in the UK.

M.A.C.

Novels Aren’t Movies

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

GONE GIRL is doing well at the box office, and many critics like it, but that doesn’t make it a good movie. It reflects a new trend – so very much at odds with Hollywood’s traditional approach – of filmmakers being extremely faithful to their bestselling-novel source, apparently out of fear of alienating the book’s enthusiastic fan base. This started with the HARRY POTTER films, and goes on through the TWILIGHT series among others. Traditionally, Hollywood has played fast and loose with even the most popular source material (GONE WITH THE WIND a famous exception), including even Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films.

Frequently I get asked about the changes Hollywood made to ROAD TO PERDITION, usually with the asker’s expectation that I’ll do a rant about what the filmmakers “did” to my book. While I don’t agree with every change made – I would have retained the adult narration and my ending – I fully understood the need to rework the material for the screen. Some of what they did was an improvement – more was done in the film with the Looney father-and-son relationship, for example, and the Jude Law character was created to be a single tracker, combining my ongoing, oncoming fleet of such hitmen into one nemesis.

Novels are not movies, and novelists rarely make good screenwriters. One of the exceptions – Donald E. Westlake – refused to adapt his own work to the screen, basically on the “fool for a client” theory. Certainly novelists have trouble killing their darlings when adapting their own work. But it has more to do with basic differences between the forms, novels being an interior telling of a story and films an exterior one. There’s a reason why many classic films come from short stories, not novels – it’s easier to expand a 40 page tale into a 100-page screenplay than to reduce and compress a 300- to 800-page novel into one. GUN CRAZY, REAR WINDOW and STAGECOACH began as short stories, for instance.

I don’t know if Gillian Flynn is a good novelist – I haven’t read GONE GIRL, but it’s certainly popular – because (as regular readers here know) I don’t often read contemporary crime fiction, for reasons I’ve stated plenty of times. Still, a couple of things seem apparent. First, GONE GIRL the novel would appear to be one of those big popular mystery thrillers read by mainstream readers who don’t regularly read in the genre. I say this because the big surprises such readers go on and on about are (in the film at least) very obvious to seasoned mystery fans.

Second, GONE GIRL – adapted to the screen by Flynn – has a structure designed for a novel. Without getting into spoiler territory, major characters are off screen for long stretches of time. There is no focus, no one to root for (or against), despite the best efforts of a strong director (David Fincher). Flynn has in interviews spoken of how many characters and scenes she dropped, and the painful process of doing so, but she didn’t drop enough – the film runs a bladder-busting three hours. VERTIGO runs a little over two hours. LAURA is 88 minutes. Both were adapted from novels, the latter from a novel with a structure similar to GONE GIRL’s, but dropped in the otherwise faithful film.

GONE GIRL is a well-directed mess, and the faults largely come from the script. I don’t know whether putting this story on film reveals flaws in the novel, or whether Flynn couldn’t figure out how to deal with character and plot weaknesses on screen. The number of plot holes are staggering (the married couple has money troubles, except that also have endless supplies of money and live in a five-million dollar home), and the characters who don’t come alive are near legion (Neil Patrick Harris, generally a good actor, is defeated by a character so unbelievable as to be laughable). Three hours just weren’t enough for Flynn. Well, for me they were.

I was reminded of Brian DePalma’s THE FURY (1978), which I revisited on blu-ray recently. Some of you will recall that PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is one of my favorite films, and that in the mid-‘70s I considered DePalma my favorite contemporary movie director (he’s still high on my list). SISTERS, OBSESSION, CARRIE – all blew me away. THE FURY, DePalma’s first big-budget film, was a stumble, filled with great set pieces but an unfocused narrative. The screenwriter was John Farris, who wrote the original, sprawling novel. Based on what’s on screen, he provided DePalma with a bewildering Cliff Notes version of his book, retaining a novelistic structure that put star Kirk Douglas on the bench for twenty or thirty minutes at a time.

The Judge

Ironically, one of the most novelistic recent films – in a good sense (rich characters, intertwining story elements, exploration of setting) – is the first-rate courtroom thriller, THE JUDGE. Chiefly the film is an acting showcase for Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, the former a big city amoral lawyer who returns to the small town he grew up in (and despises) to attend his mother’s funeral, and winds up defending his father, an idealistic judge with whom he’s been estranged for decades, on a murder charge. It’s a melodrama and a soap opera but a damn good one, and the supporting cast is rich with fine actors (Billy Bob Thornton, Vera Farminga, Vincent D’Onofrio) and interesting, fleshed-out characters. The focus is Downey. The film is leisurely at 148 minutes, but the characters and the narrative earn and use the time. The screenwriters are Nick Shenk (GRAN TORINO) and Bill Dubuque.

Of course, Rotten Tomatoes tells us that GONE GIRL is 87% fresh, and THE JUDGE only 46% fresh. Salon.com critic Andrew O’Hehir says of THE JUDGE: “It’s ‘what people want.’ Whereas I say the hell with people and what they want.” Well, guess what? I say to hell with jaded critics who have contempt for the moviegoers they are supposedly guiding. Oh, and O’Hehir loved GONE GIRL.

This is possibly another installment in my long-running AM I OUT OF TOUCH? series. But I don’t think so.

M.A.C.