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The Top Five Films of 2014 (And the Not-So-Top Ones)

After the mad dash of the holidays, we stumble into January determined to take stock of the year that was and sweep aside the old in preparation for the new.

2015 brings with it an exciting new batch of movies, but before we welcome such heady stuff as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens,” it’s time to look back on the best of 2014.

My Top 10 list falls a little short this year. I could only come up with five really exceptional films. But there are many other cinematic highlights to discuss, along with a bonus list — the 10 Most Overrated Films of 2014.

Happy New Year.

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The Top Five Films of 2014 (in no particular order)

1. “Birdman”: Like a wild, unpredictable improvisational jazz piece (an idea referenced in the film’s inventive musical score), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s show-biz satire exhilarates and astonishes. Seemingly shot in one seamless, kinetic take, the movie is unlike anything we’ve seen before. An excellent cast lays bare a humiliating array of ego trips and insecurities, most notably Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in performances that are self-deprecating and spell-binding. Fame has never been so fickle, so funny or so heartbreaking.

2. “Boyhood”: Watching 2014’s most languid and lovely drama is like thumbing through a decade’s worth of scrapbooks of one lad’s ordinary, extraordinary life. Writer-director Richard Linklater filmed the movie over a period of 12 years, resulting in a fictional time capsule of youth that never feels fabricated. As the boy in Linklater’s ‘hood, Ellar Coltrane is at once average and remarkable, bolstered by the poignant presence of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his flawed but well meaning parents. Whether you’re 15 or 50, this movie sparks reflections of formative moments in your own life.

3. “Guardians of the Galaxy”: The year’s most undeniably entertaining movie was shockingly absent from many critics’ Top 10 lists. Come on, guys! Don’t pretend you didn’t love this wacky space romp, which expertly culled its irresistibly fun ideas from such timeless classics as “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.” In introducing us to its strangest band of misfit superheroes yet, Marvel shamelessly pandered to ’80s nostalgia and got us all hooked on a feeling. Chris Pratt’s roguishly charming Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana’s butt-kicking Gamora, Dave Bautista’s hilariously literal Drax and the lovable duo of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are part of cinema history now, and rightly so.

4. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”: I thought I was over Wes Anderson. The director’s rococo affectations were beginning to feel increasingly empty to me. But then came “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” detailing the quirkiest of adventures shared by concierge extraordinaire Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes) and his trusty lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori). Anderson’s fantastical fairy tale of international intrigue contains one surprising and delightful cameo after another, but it’s really a showcase for the improbable comedic talents of Fiennes, whose portrayal of the unflappable  Gustave is unexpectedly bittersweet. Anderson has always been a filmmaker to be reckoned with. This is undoubtedly his masterpiece.

5. “Only Lovers Left Alive”: There are movies you like, and then there are movies you fall for, truly, madly, deeply. In 2014, that film for me was writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s effortlessly cool, exquisitely romantic vampire drama. As sleek and sexy as midnight velvet and dripping with playful pop cultural, literary and musical references, “Lovers” depicts the reunion of insomniac soulmates who aren’t your average bloodsuckers. Tom Hiddleston plays angsty Adam as a brooding old-school rock ‘n’ roller from Detroit. Tilda Swinton’s Eve is his exotic, more adventurous paramour, who hangs out in Tangier with none other than Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). This film really has to be seen to be believed. I want to sink my teeth into it again and again.

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Honorable Mentions

“Gone Girl”: Gillian Flynn’s poisonous page turner is demented, disturbing and oh-so-much wicked fun in director David Fincher’s darkly funny big-screen treatment. You’ll never look at Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris and the rest of the film’s fine cast quite the same way again.

“Nightcrawler”: Jake Gyllenhaal’s greasy, greedy, hypnotic turn as a ravenous coyote prowling L.A.’s seedy nightscapes in search of anything that bleeds is the highlight of writer-director Dan Gilroy’s pointed media satire.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past”: Building on the firm foundation laid by 2011’s “X-Men: First Class,” this sequel unites multiple generations of our favorite mutants — including Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven and a double dose of Magneto and Professor X — in a twisty brain-teaser that effectively erases the franchise’s loathed third installment and paves the way for exciting installments to come.

“Edge of Tomorrow”: “Groundhog Day” meets “Alien” in a surprisingly clever post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick, which nobody saw because they were tired of watching Tom Cruise in post-apocalyptic sci-fi flicks. Cruise is billed as the star but Emily Blunt steals the movie out from under him as a tough-as-nails warrior, nickname the Full Metal Bitch.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”: Marvel’s ever popular comic book movie franchise finally grew up with a thriller that boasts slick action and a satisfyingly adult script.

“Snowpiercer”: The year’s most original, intriguing and just plain weird sci-fi thriller depicts a violent, stylish, totally bizarro class war aboard a train designed to traverse an ice-bound post-apocalyptic globe. You probably loved it and hated it simultaneously.

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Memorable Performances

The ever charming Shailene Woodley wormed her way a little deeper into our hearts in “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Divergent.”

Angelina Jolie was deliciously nasty as the misunderstood anti-heroine of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” reboot, “Maleficent.”

Tom Hardy did nothing but sit behind the wheel of a car and talk on the phone but was somehow spellbinding in “Locke.”

No one portrays eccentric geniuses quite like Benedict Cumberbatch, who dazzled as a socially awkward code breaker in “The Imitation Game.”

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The 10 Most Overrated Films of 2014 (in no particular order)

1. and 2. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” weren’t terrible but they were both seriously out of balance, proving the point that splitting book adaptations into too many parts may be financially savvy but cheats the audience out of a tightly crafted story.

3. “Magic in the Moonlight”: Woody Allen’s latest whimsical comedy features gorgeous French locales and yummy 1920s costumes but it’s an epic bore that teases us with the promise of supernatural intrigue, then delivers a lot of tedious talk instead.

4. “Begin Again”: Writer-director John Carney’s follow-up to the captivating “Once” is disappointing simply because there’s nothing genuine about it, from the forgettable music to the precious, pretentious performances of Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley.

5. “Chef”: Many moviegoers were charmed by this sleeper comedy, but I failed to fall under its spell, mainly because I can only watch Jon Favreau drive around in a food truck for so long.

6. “Godzilla”: After last year’s underrated but totally awesome “Pacific Rim,” this monster mash-up promised super-sized thrills. The film’s scaly star was largely absent, however, making this Kaiju smash-fest a giant disappointment.

7. “Under the Skin”: Critics inexplicably went ga-ga for director Jonathan Glazer’s interminably dull indie drama, which consists of a morose, otherworldly Scarlett Johansson trolling the streets of Glasgow for unsuspecting perverts.

8. “The Lego Movie”: I’m not going to deny this animated flick featuring everyone’s favorite building blocks is fun, playful and clever to a point. Seriously, though, how old are we, America’s collective moviegoing audience? 12?

9. “Interstellar”: Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi opus is stunning in many ways and I was one of the critics who highly recommended it. Two months later, though, I have to admit this technically impressive but flawed film was easier to forget than I expected.

10. “The Interview”: Sony Pictures and the nation’s major movie chains never should have caved to the cyberterrorist threats that kept this North Korea-bashing comedy out of theaters. I just wish Seth Rogen and James Franco’s goofy riff on totalitarianism actually had something to say. Then it might be worth all the fuss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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All Hail the Bad-Ass Ladies of Summer

We all know the drill when it comes to the summer movie season.

Summer is popcorn time. Time to switch off the brain and have some fun. Time for explosions. Time for action. Time for Michael Bay to assault us with giant fireballs, urban destruction and noise. Time for action heroes, like Hugh Jackman and Tom Cruise, to run around, look worried, flash massive biceps and DO THEIR OWN STUNTS.

Yes, summer is an exciting time with a potential blockbuster we will all love, so help us, lurking around the corner EVERY SINGLE WEEKEND.

This year, the season is winding to a close after fulfilling all the traditional requirements described above. But something unusual happened, too, something worth noting and celebrating.

In those months that typically overflow with testosterone, more than a few of the BIG MOVIES were headlined by women. And these women delivered amazing performances, proving themselves every bit as — in some cases even more — entertaining than the dudes who usually dominate the summer movie landscape.

So I’m calling it: Summer 2014 was The Summer of Bad-Ass Ladies. Below, we pay tribute to the baddest of them all. Nobody deserves it more.

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Angelina Jolie in “Maleficent”: As one of the most famous people in the world, Jolie is celebrated for her benevolent activism, charity work and super-sized family with husband Brad Pitt, but there’s always been something slightly unnerving about her, too. Maybe that’s why she’s perfectly cast in Disney’s reboot of 1959 animated classic “Sleeping Beauty.” With those celebrated cheekbones sharpened to a knife’s point and all that slinky black leather, Jolie isn’t just striking to look at, she succeeds in transforming one of Disney’s scariest villains into a complicated, funny, tragic figure worth rooting for. Creepy yet playful, right down to that silky purr and killer sneer, her Maleficent is sinister and sexy, outshining every visual effect in a movie that’s built almost exclusively on optical bedazzlement.

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Shailene Woodley in “The Fault in Our Stars”: Hollywood’s latest go-to girl for movies targeted at the coveted teen demographic proved herself a capable action heroine in March’s “Divergent.” Two months later, she took on the risky role of Hazel Grace Lancaster, the beloved protagonist of John Green’s best-selling YA novel. What’s remarkable about Woodley’s performance is her unsentimental naturalism, portraying a 16-year-old girl who isn’t in love with a vampire or fighting for survival in a dystopian death arena. Aside from the harsh fact she’s dying of terminal cancer, Hazel is an ordinary young woman. Woodley embodies her sharp wit and candor with charm and a refreshing absence of glamor. In the film’s opening weekend, a largely female audience showed their appreciation to the tune of $48 million.

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Emily Blunt in “Edge of Tomorrow”: If we were to crown a queen of the Bad-Ass Ladies of Summer, that honor would belong, without question, to Emily Blunt. What’s that you say? You didn’t bother seeing “Edge of Tomorrow”? You’re not the only one. Director Doug Liman’s twisty sci-fi thriller under-performed at the box office, probably because of its resemblance to Tom Cruise’s previous twisty sci-fi thriller, “Oblivion.” The irony is that Cruise isn’t the true star of “Edge.” He may enjoy more screen time, but he plays second fiddle to Blunt, who brings a marvelous mix of toughness and vulnerability to the role of the alien-slaughtering, mech-suit-rocking Rita Vrtaski, aka the Full Metal Bitch. Blunt’s character is the last hope for humanity against slithery outerspace invaders who can control time, resulting in Cruise reliving the same day over and over. I know. It sounds like “Groundhog Day,” but the movie is far more clever than you’d ever guess and Blunt is its most winning asset.

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Scarlett Johansson in “Lucy”: We all knew ScarJo could kick some butt. As the only female member of “The Avengers,” she’s presided over some impressive stunt sequences, proving she’s more than just a hot chick in a catsuit. But Johansson takes it to another level in Luc Besson’s goofy, wannabe-existential actioner, playing a naive college girl who gains instant access to 100% of her cerebral powers when exposed to an experimental drug. At first, Lucy’s evolution manifests itself in lethal martial arts skills but by the end of the film, she simply has to flick her wrist to immobilize an entire gang of stereotypical Asian baddies. I liked the old Scarlett, so sweetly befuddled in “Lost in Translation,” but I love this new Scarlett — so cool, calm and controlled she’s barely human. Of course, Johansson has evolved enough as an actress to make sure her character’s humanity still comes through.

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Zoe Saldana in “Guardians of the Galaxy”: Here is another intriguing actress who has never let her beauty stand in the way of a versatile career. The characters she plays may be wildly different — whether in indie dramas or comic book adaptations — but they’re always satisfyingly strong-willed. As green-skinned warrior Gamora in “Guardians,” Saldana displays strength and humor, holding her own against the formidably funny Chris Pratt. Pratt, of course, plays Star-Lord Peter Quill, leader of Marvel’s unlikely band of galactic superheroes. Refreshingly, director James Gunn grants Saldana equal screen time to her male co-stars. Gamora shows her stuff in several epic fight scenes and she’s by far the most intelligent member of the Guardians. She may flirt with Quill but she never succumbs to his pelvic sorcery. She’s no damsel in distress.

You’ll Find a Few Faults in These ‘Stars’

The Fault in Our Stars
Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (thematic elements, some sexuality, brief strong language)
125 minutes

Here’s the thing about John Green’s best-selling young adult novel, “The Fault in Our Stars.”

It’s a book about a teenage girl, a girl who isn’t in love with a vampire or fighting for survival in a dystopian death arena. This girl has terminal cancer. She has no illusions about the fact that she’s dying, which makes “TFiOS” the rare YA read that dares tackle the thorny intricacies of reality. Its heroine is an ordinary young woman, though she happens to be unusually sharp-witted and insightful, which makes her certain fate all the more heart-wrenching.

What’s remarkable about “TFiOS” is that it was written by a thirtysomething man, who has no trouble at all getting into the head of 16-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster. As if that wasn’t enough, he draws beautifully nuanced, sympathetic portraits of Hazel’s anguished parents, too. It’s quite a literary feat, one that holds enormous appeal for readers at any stage of life.

Teenagers love “TFiOS” for the epic, star-crossed love story at its center. The sweet but doomed affair between Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters is adorable but never precious. Green sets a pivotal romantic scene between the two at Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House of all places.

Adults are wrapped up in the book for different reasons. How you respond to it has a lot to do with your beliefs about and experiences of life and death. After I read it, I sank into an existential funk for days. This is a book that’s brutally honest about the end of life and the process of dying. It raises questions we don’t like to think about. Is it possible to die gracefully? How important is it to leave a legacy? Is it worth it to love when love inevitably leads to loss?

You can see how all of this might be an awkward fit for a Hollywood movie.

Surprisingly, director Josh Boone’s adaptation of Green’s beloved novel gets it mostly right. It’s not perfection, by any means, but it does nothing to dishonor its source. It’s also one of the few movies you’ll see this summer with a young woman in a lead role that doesn’t require her to jump out of moving trains, shoot a bow and arrow or undergo a magical transformation right before the prom. Female moviegoers showed their gratitude last weekend to the tune of $48 million. “TFiOS” even beat out Tom Cruise’s “Edge of Tomorrow” and Disney’s “Maleficent” at the box office.

“TFiOS” succeeds largely on the talents of its ingratiating performers. Shailene Woodley, the luminous young star of “Divergent” and “The Descendants,” plays Hazel Grace, a thoughtful Indianapolis girl whose diagnosis of throat cancer at the age of 13 is a death sentence, postponed by an experimental drug. The disease spreads to her lungs, so Hazel is in and out of the hospital, frequently short of breath and must constantly tote an oxygen tank behind her.

With a lot more than fashion on her mind, Hazel’s only accessory is the cannula, or transparent tube, that wraps around her ears and feeds air into her nostrils. To his credit, Boone takes care that the physical manifestations of Hazel’s cancer remain front and center throughout the film. This isn’t one of those movies in which we’re told the heroine is dying but never see any evidence of it.

Because she prefers to mope around the house reading and watching reality TV, Hazel’s mother (Laura Dern) and doctor declare her depressed. Mom’s solution is to send her daughter to a cheesy cancer support group in a church basement. Hazel can’t stand the meetings and their trite, sentimental speeches, but she does meet Augustus Waters, a charming 18-year-old cancer survivor with a prosthetic leg.

Augustus takes one look at Hazel and is smitten. Hazel clearly enjoys his attentions but is slower to reciprocate. In her volatile state, she considers herself a grenade. It’s her responsibility to minimize the damage she causes to those around her, she says.

Despite her protestations, Hazel and Gus bond over their mutual sarcasm, blunt approach to the prospect of impending death and Hazel’s favorite novel, “An Imperial Affliction,” written by the reclusive Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe). Hazel’s obsession with addressing the questions left unanswered at the end of Van Houten’s book send the couple on an unforgettable trip to Amsterdam, where they discover, as Augustus says, that the world is not a wish-granting factory.

Woodley’s pensive, unglamorous but utterly charismatic performance is a marvel. Her Hazel Grace is more full of life than most people who foolishly bank on the assumption that they have years and years ahead of them. She and the irresistible Ansel Elgort — who plays her brother in “Divergent” — have a warm, rich chemistry that turns even the most potentially maudlin scenes into heartfelt moments, particularly an Amsterdam love scene that is tender, bittersweet and sincere in a way teenage love scenes rarely are.

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber penned “The Spectacular Now,” another teen drama starring Woodley. They’ve filed down some of the rougher, more profound edges of Green’s book, perhaps to make it more palatable. They’ve also softened Hazel a bit, shying away from some of the negative but honest emotions, like rage and despair, that are present in the book.

I wish the movie didn’t require a voiceover. Narration almost always comes across as too on the nose in films that hover dangerously on the edge of becoming obvious and “inspirational,” but the book’s deeply internal qualities practically demand such a device.

I wish Boone didn’t resort to cutesy visual gimmicks, like the wiggly text bubbles that pop up on screen whenever Hazel and Augustus communicate.

I wish Hazel’s parents got the poignant, three dimensional portrayal they deserve.

I wish the movie didn’t have the weepy emo soundtrack all quirky, youthful rom-coms seem to have.

I wish the director had a better handle on the tone of the film, which sometimes segues choppily from irreverent humor, to melodrama, to genuine sorrow.

“TFiOS” the movie might have you reaching for a Kleenex, but Green’s novel reached right inside you and ripped out your guts.