My Month in Film: December 2014


Actually, due to the weirdnesses of scheduling, I actually saw a few of these movies in late November.

This month’s content

New or recent releases

For Cinema Axis

Podcast guest appearances

The Masses Demand Year-End Lists!

They can be found here.

*   *   *

Other movies I watched this month include…


The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)

What tends to get lost beneath the J-Law hype, the sense of a studio trying to hit on the next big post-Harry Potter/Twilight YA franchise, and the ridiculously overstated resemblance to Battle Royale, is how brilliantly entertaining this all is.

Yes, this is a dystopian-future actioner with all the clichés that implies (resembling Rollerball and The Running Man more than Battle Royale), but the world-building is effective, if a bit oversimplified, and the design is exquisite. The Imperial Roman elements are the most obvious, but there are some nice touches of Soviet Constructivism as well.

Gary Ross turns out to be the right director for the material: he knows how to direct both exposition and action effectively, and the pacing is surprisingly brisk considering the film’s length.

And while Lawrence is certainly an overhyped actress, she’s also the perfect Katniss, and wonderful supporting performances abound, particularly from Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley, Lenny Kravitz and an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks. Even the eye-candy actors are engaging.

A scene from GET ON UP

Get on Up (Tate Taylor, 2014)

Basically this has Jersey Boys syndrome: it’s a typical biopic about a popular musician, which means it’s about people who had shitty childhoods and went on to neglect their children and cheat on their wives, all the while racking up huge debts and consuming legendary amounts of drugs. There is a formula here, and it must be slavishly adhered to.

What Get on Up doesn’t have is a sense of the person behind the public persona. The film acknowledges that Brown physically abused his romantic partners, verbally abused his creative partners, abused drugs and felt he was too good a human being to pay taxes, and yet somehow still manages to feel like a hagiography. When James Brown encounters an obstacle, he overcomes it with the sheer power of his own awesomeness, effectively James Brown-ing it into submission.

A bit of balance, not to mention some exploration of what made his music so revolutionary (pretty much limited to a single scene where he tells his entire band they’re all basically perccussionists), would have made a world of difference. What saves it is the performances, chiefly Chadwick Boseman and Nelsan Ellis.

A scene from LIFE ITSELF

Life Itself (Steve James, 2014)

Life Itself is the story of Roger Ebert, told effectively and honestly, and giving us a very real sense of who the real man was behind the public persona. Interspersed with this is footage from the last few months or so of Ebert’s life; Ebert allowed Steve James extensive access to his private life, including hospital visits and such. A lot of this material is extremely hard to watch.

It’s a warm and complimentary portrait that still manages to be warts-and-all. Ebert was one of the greatest writers of our age, never mind that he was a film critic, and a personal hero of mine as well. If you want to know who the guy was, watch this movie. One of the best of the year.


Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973)

Bruce Lee is remembered for his skills in the martial arts, and rightly so; but Enter the Dragon demonstrates why he’s a legend: charisma and magnetism. If he’d lived, I would have loved to see him in an Expendables-type exercise.

Yet Dragon isn’t just a Bruce Lee vehicle. It’s a superb action-thriller, taut and tense for its time, and beautiful at many points. Wonderful supporting performances from John Saxon and Jim Kelly, Kien Shih is superb as the main villain, and Bob Wall oozes menace from his very pores.

Add to the mix a vibrant and uncharacteristically funky Laszlo Schifrin score and you get an instant classic.

A scene from FRENCH KISS

French Kiss (Lawrence Kasdan, 1995)

Boilerplate mid-90s romcom that ends up being much better than it ever had any right to be, largely thanks to the primary cast.

Meg Ryan’s intrinsic charm reminds us why we tend to think of these sorts of movies as “Meg Ryan movies” and it also demonstrates that so many latter-day attempts to replicate the formula fail because so few of their actresses have Ryan’s charisma (paging Katherine Heigl). Kevin Kline is saddled with a large pile of lascivious Frenchman stereotypes and a horrible fake accent and still manages to turn his cad of a character into a male lead you can actually root for.

It’s still a trifle, mind you, and Ryan, Kline and director Lawrence Kasdan were all capable of much better work at this point in time. But it’s fun.

A scene from WILD

Wild (Jean-Marc Valée, 2014)

Aaaaaaagh, I just do not get this one. The stock line is “Damaged young woman goes on grueling three-month hike with no preparation or even expectation of how to go about such a thing, refuses to give up, and in the process transforms into the person she was always supposed to be.”

But the film version of pre-hike Cheryl Strayed seems less like a person than a bundle of life experiences in the shape of Reese Witherspoon. I never got a sense of how abusive father + mother dead of cancer by 50 + apathetic brother = broken marriage + drug habit + tendency to sleep with any man who’d ask.

This isn’t really a story–it’s a series of huge blocks of emotional manipulation. Which seems to be Valée’s M.O.: he did more or less the same thing with Dallas Buyers Club. At least Witherspoon puts in a good performance.

A scene from RARE EXPORTS

Rare Exports (Jalmari Helander, 2010)

Kid versus Krampus in this low-budget Finnish holiday horror that weirdly feels like an homage to the adolescent horror-adventure flicks of the ’80s. (During the podcast episode, someone–I think Ele Matelan–compared it to Gremlins, and I’d tend to agree.) The only modern touches are the swearing and the frontal male nudity.

As ridiculous as it is, it largely succeeds by taking itself completely seriously, even when it’s cribbing its camera compositions from Ricola cough drop commercials. I’m also impressed with how far Helander can stretch a Euro; with the exception of some not-so-convincing CGI, Rare Exports looks like it was made for about six times more money than it actually was.

Sadly, the kid never tells the evil elf that he sits on a throne of lies. Missed opportunity there, I think.


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013)

The unspoken promise every sequel makes is “I will give you everything you loved about the first film, plus a bit extra.” Catching Fire delivers on the first half of that promise: more dystopian drabness; more ostentatious Imperial Rome-inspired design; more Jennifer Lawrence being all badass with a bow and arrow and skintight spandex; more Josh Hutcherson trying not to look like a complete dork and failing miserably; more LSD for whoever it is designing Stanley Tucci’s wigs and Elizabeth Banks’s costumes.

The second half of that promise is a bit shaky. I am not entirely sure I buy “the plebes need to believe that Katniss and Peeta are in love or they will riot against the Capitol.” I don’t really understand either of the main master plans that run throughout the film. I gave up trying to figure out how Clock Island about three minutes after it was introduced. Plus, “Plutarch Heavensbee” is a ridiculous name even by Hunger Games standards.

On the plus side we get some interesting new characters and strong actors in the role (Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, and of course the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), so while Clock Island remained a mystery to me I could at least accept that Wright and Plummer could figure it out. Plus, some of the new characters survive to the end so there’s a good chance we’ll see them in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1: The Battle of Five Armies.

tl;dr: Not as good as the first one but still pretty entertaining.

A scene from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN

Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen, 1953)

The thing that always strikes me as odd about Singin’ in the Rain is that, at least to my eyes, Gene Kelly is the weakest thing about it.

I’m not saying that he’s bad or disappointing here: he’s awesome, even in the film’s one draggy spot, the “Broadway Melody” sequence. (Okay, the “Beautiful Girls” sequence is also one of the not-so-strong bits.) It’s just that it seems like someone upstages him in just about every scene: Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagen, Douglas Fowley, even Debbie Reynolds. (Incidentally, is there a classic musical heroine more adorable than Reynolds? I can’t think of one.)

Anyway, yeah, amazing piece of work, this. I’m not sure I’d name it the all-time greatest of its genre–I’d have to give that to West Side Story, honestly–but wow, it just blows me away every time I see it.

*   *   *

Coming in January: No movies in January! (Except, of course, for the Month in Film report.) Instead, I’ll check up on some television shows, starting with Darknet and Black Mirror.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s