Monday, January 5, 2015

Ranking the Movies of 2014: #s 78-71

The Manifesto is ranking every movie we saw in 2014. If you missed it, here's what we've covered so far:

Nos. 92-79 (Tiers 12 and 11)


Tier 10: Second-Rate Sequels, and Other Disappointments

78. Muppets Most Wanted (directed by James Bobin, 79% Rotten Tomatoes, 61 Metacritic). I loved the first Muppets movie, and the general formula—sly meta gags, ironic cameos, enjoyable songs—remains in place the second time around. But this one just doesn't click. The story is pitiful, which wouldn't matter if the movie were funny, but too many of the jokes land with thuds, and the songs, while functional, never spark. Ty Burrell steals the show as an epically lazy French detective, but he's the only memorable character. The Muppets gleefully recalled the wide-eyed wonder of childhood. Muppets Most Wanted just made me feel old.

77. The Interview (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, 54% RT, 52 MC). The controversy was interesting and important. I wish I could say the same for the actual movie. Sure, there are some funny bits—when you frantically lob this many jokes at the audience, you're liable to stick a few landings. James Franco is impressively insufferable (though the great Lizzy Caplan is criminally underused), Eminem delivers a hysterical deadpan cameo, and the film makes inspired use of a notable Katy Perry earworm. But beyond the memorable concept, there's nothing here resembling clever satire or even good writing. Most of the comedy is stained with flop sweat, and given that Rogen and Goldberg favor bludgeoning their audience with purported humor, their flailing desperation only grows exponentially more painful as the movie lumbers along. The saga regarding The Interview's distribution will justly be remembered for years. But The Interview itself will deservedly be forgotten.

76. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 85% RT, 75 MC). No one will ever accuse Kelly Reichardt of being in a rush. But while the slow pace of her prior feature, the anti-Western Meek's Cutoff, helped communicate the sense of inexorable bleakness that beset her trudging pioneers, Night Moves just feels glacial. Jesse Eisenberg is shrewdly withdrawn as a supposedly fanatical eco-terrorist, and Reichardt's staging of the film's centerpiece—in which Eisenberg's protagonist and his two comrades in faith attempt to blow up a dam—is gripping without being sensationalist. But in its first and especially third act, the movie remains stuck in low gear, attempting to mine tension out of people doing little more than whispering and looking panicked. Reichardt does seem to know these people, but her devotion to stillness is her undoing. Night Moves could have used more motion.

75. 22 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 84% RT, 71 MC). 22 Jump Street is a shameless cash-grab, and the joke is that its characters seem to know this. And so, bosses instruct the heroes to just "do the same thing as last time" even though "it's always worse the second time around", while participants in a car chase pause to comment on how much more expensive everything looks. It's a funny joke, and it's executed with considerable wit (though nothing is funnier than the light bulb going off in Channing Tatum's dim head when he finally processes a crucial piece of information). Yet beyond that one, endlessly repeated joke, what else is there? Tatum and Jonah Hill do remain good together, while both Ice Cube and Jillian Bell earn big laughs. But otherwise, the movie is almost intentionally devoid of imagination, recycling the same comedic riffs from the first film and just repurposing them to slightly different effect. That it's all done with a wink and a nudge doesn't make it any less canned. Serves us right for getting exactly what we wanted.

74. Bad Words (Jason Bateman, 65% RT, 57 MC). Speaking of repetitive humor, the single arrow in Bad Words' quiver is its incessant and profane humiliation of others, mostly children. That may seem mean-spirited, but it can also be highly amusing, especially when it comes from Bateman, who continues to distort his straight-laced persona in deft and surprising ways. (His comparison of a woman's vagina to an elephant's trunk—"grey and distended"—is particularly ghastly and hilarious.) But for all of the movie's supposed cruelty, its center is as soft as cotton candy, with the ultimate reveal that even the meanest of us just want to be loved. That may be true, but in attempting to give his film an emotional center, Bateman deprives it of its zip and originality. Better to be incorrigible than familiar.

73. The Raid 2 (Gareth Evans, 79% RT, 71 MC). Most modern action sequences are bad, with excessive CGI depriving them of weight and realism. That's why I freely concede that much of The Raid 2's action is impressive. The car chase is jaw-dropping, and the prison yard melee is a stunning combination of frenzied violence and elegant choreography. But what, may I ask, is the point? The perfunctory story feels like a token remake of Infernal Affairs, while character development is nonexistent. Really, the whole movie is just an excuse for people to fight one other. This makes some sense; Evans is good at this stuff. But eventually, even the most expertly arranged combat sequences feel monotonous, and at two-and-a-half hours, The Raid 2 has monotony to spare.

72. John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, 85% RT, 67 MC). It's like The Raid 2, but with weaker action scenes. Sure, the concept of Keanu Reeves slaughtering countless henchmen has its appeal, but Stahelski and Leitch's visual style, while not incoherent, is fairly ordinary. The real reason to see John Wick is its impressive world-building; it creates an underworld mythology that teems with unspoken codes, freighted totems, and lively history. (Supporting turns from Lance Reddick and Ian McShane always help.) I want to know more about this place, with its magic coins and secret language. But the skeleton is more interesting than the live body, and the ceaseless gun battles of John Wick are unworthy of such a strange, impeccably detailed world.



71. Fury (David Ayer, 78% RT, 64 MC). Ayer's End of Watch was a curiosity, a profoundly character-driven film in which the muddled plot and obligatory set pieces played second fiddle to the playful, easygoing banter between Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. Fury is the opposite. Some of the war scenes here are breathtaking in their impact and vision, most notably a multi-tank battle that serves as a marvel of thoughtful, spatially conscious filmmaking. But in improving his spectacle, Ayer has lost sight of his characters, who are either one-dimensional or wildly inconsistent. And in attempting to honor the bravery of the Greatest Generation, Ayer supplies a ludicrous finale, which operates like an inversion of the sniper propaganda film from Inglourious Basterds. That movie had its tongue firmly planted in cheek. Fury's jingoism is mindlessly, numbingly literal.

More coming soon.

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