“There are no strings on me.”
You sure about that Ultron? Because even though you were marketed as Marvel’s answer to an overall lame roster of movie villains, you still failed to shake up any long-held expectations about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Actually, nothing about this movie did. It delivered more of what Marvel has been doing for eleven films now, which is by no means a bad thing. The franchise is one of my personal favorites. However, Age of Ultron did make it painfully obvious that the series is cautious to break away from its tried-and-true formula that we’ve seen almost a dozen times now, when this deep into the franchise, a little change may feel welcome. Ultron is more tied down than he thinks he was.
Still, the movie is packed with a heaping portion of the action-and-explosions goodness that fans have come to expect. Even Ultron, the creepy robot king (voiced by James Spader) is satisfyingly freaky and intimidating, until he’s not. Spader’s impeccable voice acting could outmatch director and writer Joss Whedon’s cringe-worthy writing of the character.
So, Shailene Woodley cut her hair.
Haunted by the events of Divergent, in which she was responsible for the deaths of three people important to her, Woodley’s character Tris Prior arms herself with a pair of scissors and a mirror near the beginning of Insurgent. Okay, sure. But, one quick question: Why? Logistically, the haircut does nothing but transform the film’s recognizable star into a doppelgänger of a timid high school boy (come on, that was your initial reaction too).
As the movie’s plot charged forward and I continued to scratch my head (which has hair only slightly shorter than Woodley’s, btw) over this seemingly insignificant question, the more I realized that even the film itself didn’t know the answer. Female characters chopping their hair as a symbol of strength is the “cool new trend” in film and TV. Look at Nickelodeon’s Legend of Korra, in which its title character stopped by the barbershop after a traumatizing near-death encounter. Kristen Bell did it as Veronica Mars. Allison Pill on The Newsroom. Kiernan Shipka on Mad Men. Heck, even the female protagonist of the Pokemon anime did it recently (not that I… watch that).
The last few months of 2014 saw a very abnormal trend for movies. The fall season produced its usual mixture of top-notch thrillers, sci-fis and teen franchises. On the other hand, December, normally the Mount Olympus of movies for the year, was one of the weaker release periods of the year.
Welcome to my eighth annual movie rankings list, as long as ‘annual’ means ‘whenever I feel like it every few months.’ This list will determine the order of the movies I’ve seen and may or may not have reviewed since last September. The nominees for Logan’s favorite (and least favorite) movies are, in order of release:
Are we out of the woods yet?
Watching Into The Woods is like taking a pleasant stroll, preferably through the woods, then realizing halfway through that you are hopelessly, irredeemably lost. And being hunted by an annoying giant. At least the first half of the movie was fun, and the entire run time is packed with consistently strong musical numbers from a fun and varied cast. However, a combination of strange plotting from the original musical and director Rob Marshall seemingly running out of steam in the second act makes the movie less than the massive family holiday event it could have been.
Adapted to the big screen by original playwright James Lapine, the film has quite a few plotlines, but starts out with a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) venturing into the woods to collect various items and lift a curse that a witch (Meryl Streep) cast on their house. Other fairytales happen to be passing through, like Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) on the way to that ball she’s always been obsessed with; Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) looking to sell his dying cow for some money and/or magic beans; and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) on her way to visit her grandma, because that’s all she does. The bakers begin their plunder, as each fairytale holds an item they need.
When Reese Witherspoon yanks out her dislocated toenail in the opening shot of Wild, Jean-Marc Vallée’s biographical drama, a clear message is sent: this woman is tough. And we’re about to witness all the tough things she did on the 1,000-mile hike she forced herself to complete. Especially when her boot tumbles down the cliff almost immediately after the nail. But what follows this brief scene is a completely average film – a normal series of events told with a weighted optimism that is never anything more or less than good. It’s the opposite of wild.
Which is not to detract from the accomplishments achieved by Cheryl Strayed, who wrote the autobiography that serves as source material. Strayed (a name chosen after her divorce) never backed away from the monumental undertaking she assigned herself. As a self-declared feminist, she’s fixated on being one of the few women found on the trail, and one of the even fewer people, gender regardless, to complete it. In that aspect, and in showing her journey, the film is triumphant.
Why not just add a sixth?
I’ve given Peter Jackson a hard time on the two previous overwrought Hobbit movies, but somehow I feel shortchanged on our grand finale in Middle Earth. The Battle of the Five Armies (a suitably long title) embellished the least on the epic trilogy’s single source material, which by all means should have been a good thing. But with an entire movie to fill and only about one chapter of the book left to cover, all that was left to do was strip down the gooey sentimentality that made the previous two movies cheesy but memorable, and instead inject empty-calorie action scenes that try so hard to be “cool” they should have come wearing a spiky leather jacket.
The film picks up with the dragon Smaug (transcendently voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) terrorizing a nearby town after someone certain provoked him in the previous movie. Bilbo the Hobbit (Martin Freeman) and his mostly silent group of dwarf friends watch uselessly from the mountain, admiring Smaug’s truly impressive CGI. “Wait, there’s more movie?” Bilbo mumbles, flicking through the screenplay while Cumberbatch’s voice once again is a highlight of the film, even if he is (dare I say) underused.
Fury calls for a celebration, because not only is Brad Pitt’s hair finally fixed, but it sat atop the head of an actor delivering a fantastic performance in a really, really good movie. Better yet: the war between the Greek gods must be over, because Logan Lerman (aka demigod Percy Jackson himself) has returned to the mortal world to fight in a very different war, one told with enough haunting cinematography to linger in the minds of the audience long after the end. (In more neutral news, it turns out Shia LaBeouf was just kidding about giving up acting. Oh.)
Though devoid of a consistent story outside of “We’re being shot at in this location!” and “Now we’re being shot at in this different location!,” director David Ayer manages to create a great cast of US crewmen operating a tank in the middle of Germany during World War II. Especially effective here is the film’s sound effects during these fight scenes, featuring deep-felt, vibrate-the-clothes-on-your-back missile pops and booms that enthrall far deeper than the battle’s solid but understated visuals.
WCKD is good
And so is The Maze Runner.
The Maze Runner sprinted through the box office this weekend, almost breaking even on its budget by earning $32 million from the United States alone and solidifying its sequel to release in September of next year. Great for the series: it has established itself as one of those never-ending young adult franchises where it’s up to teens to overthrow a futuristic nation’s corrupt government (which is probably its own genre by now). Also great for audiences: we get more of the series that took off with a great start with almost no legwork.
The Maze Runner is directed by Wes Ball, a newcomer to the director’s chair who should probably stay there. His intrusive camerawork is only complimented by the film’s young crop of stars lead by Dylan O’Brien, who undoubtedly guided his legion of pre-included Teen Wolf fans to theaters. Previously a special effects artist, Ball’s direction stays light on CGI (though the small doses included are eye-popping) and focuses more on the film’s satisfying sets and cast.
I’ve waited long enough, but it looks like there really won’t be an interesting-looking movie to come out after Guardians of the Galaxy this summer. Add that to the fact that I’m now a contributing member to society with actual responsibilities, I didn’t get to the movies too much these past few months.
But that doesn’t mean the movies I did see weren’t good. Overall it was a pretty awesome summer for movies, if a little void of content. But as fall descends its chilly omnipresence over summer’s dwindling sun, it is once again that special time of year where I rank the movies I’ve seen the past season, worst to best.