The Unwatchables — Savages


There are many lamentable choices strewn about the history of the Academy Awards, especially when subsequent career choices of individual winners cast a dank shadow on their trophies. Although I’m loathe to offer it as a definitive conclusion, it’s possible there is no more perplexing truth generated by the ceremonies staged in my lifetime than the status of Oliver Stone as a two-time recipient of the Oscar for directing, putting him in the company of Elia Kazan, David Lean, and Billy Wilder. It’s not that he wasn’t reasonably deserving of those two competitive wins, for Platoon and Born of the Fourth of July (though, out of the nominated filmmakers, I would have opted for Woody Allen and Jim Sheridan for the years in question). But his artistic sensibility has degenerated into such an ungodly mass of frothing lunacy in the decades sense that it’s grown difficult to remember a time when he could be taken seriously at all.

Stone’s 2012 film Savages is a proper showcase for all of his worst creative tics. The pointless over-editing, the ludicrous dialogue built on smugly incoherent adoption of film noir styling, and the performances sharpened to inadvertent farce are all in place. The usual hyper-aggressive masculine posturing is also woven through the film, distributed generously to both male and female characters, which I’d wager Stone thinks is progressively minded. Stone also seems to believe that he’s offering criticism of the grotesque behaviors he depicts, but the relevant scenes and moments are executed with a lurid attentiveness that instead suggests that he gets off on the carnage.

Based on a novel by thriller machine Don Winslow, Savages is about a pair of brash young entrepreneurs in the marijuana racket who run afoul of a ruthless Mexican drug cartel. One of the partners is Chon (Taylor Kitsch), an ex-Navy Seal whose quick temper is further aggravated by flare-ups of post-traumatic stress stemming from his service in Afghanistan. Hippie botanist Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is the cooling agent in the team, pushing for more restrained, pragmatic solutions to their woes, at least until the situation goes fully sideways with the abduction of their shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively). It’s just one of those rough work weeks.

The performances in the film are uniformly bad, though I’m not sure how much of the blame can be laid on the actors. Early in the film, Lively is required, in voiceover, to describe sex with Kitsch’s character by speaking the line “I have orgasms. He has wargasms.” A genetically enhanced super-being with the combined talent of Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Marlon Brando couldn’t make that dialogue work. That line is no aberration. The entire film is filled with faux cool dialogue, all clipped and tough and painfully inane, like what Elmore Leonard might have tapped out immediately after sustaining a nasty head injury. (And then surely thrown in the trash after regaining his senses.) Stone runs roughshod over logic and proves far too impatient to find any depth in the characters or meaning in the scenarios. Even in his best work, Stone often mistook freneticism for intensity, but Savages reaches new levels of narrative-imploding haste. Not a single element works, and the worst components rot further as the film scrambles forward.

I made it approximately halfway through Savages.

Previously in The Unwatchables

— Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, directed by Michael Bay
— Alice in Wonderland, directed by Tim Burton
— Due Date, directed by Todd Phillips
— Sucker Punch, directed by Zack Snyder
— Cowboys & Aliens, directed by Jon Favreau
— After Earth, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
— The Beaver, directed by Jodie Foster
— Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. Chu
— The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman
— The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott
Vice, directed by Adam McKay

Playing Catch-Up —Cloud Atlas; Margaret; Venom

cloud atlas

Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Lilly Wachowski, 2012). Based on the dense, woven basket David Mitchell novel of the same name, Cloud Atlas is an escalating dare as cinema. The film freely intercuts between six different plots, spanning from the high seas of the mid-nineteenth century to a dystopian future around three centuries from now. There are echoes and parallels across the stories, including most of the principal cast playing multiple roles, often under mounds of makeup effects. Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis, all familiar with reality-warping narrative tricks, do their best to hammer the unwieldy material into a sleek shape, but it’s probably an impossible task. Inevitably, some stories work better than others, and every instance of endearing inspiration is matched by two of shortcut cliche gussied up in distracting finery. The cast is understandably all over the place in their capability to meet the demands of their varied roles, with Halle Berry the somewhat surprising standout. Tom Hanks should be the ringer of the group, but he frequently lapses into hammy posturing. The weakest might by the Wachowskis’ former Agent Smith, Hugo Weaving, who’s saddled with too much dull villainy, including a proto-Babadook chaos spirit that is maybe the film’s single worst element. Cloud Atlas is messy, but at least its cascading clutter is in service of wild ambition. I’ll always take that over staid safety.



Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2012). I can’t compare this longer, preferred cut of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan against the first version of Margaret that saw release one year earlier, but trimming over a half hour out of this thoughtful, complicated drama would be an act of creative brutality. Filmed in 2005, the film reckons with the anxious uncertainty and aligned aching for justice that was endemic to the U.S. spirit in the long aftermath of the September 11th attacks. And yet it’s not about that in any explicit way, focusing instead on the emotional travails of a high school student named Lisa (Anna Paquin, stronger here than I’ve even seen her) who witnessed — and partially caused — a fatal accident on a New York City street. Without ever letting the film get undone by sprawl, Lonergan covers a tremendous amount of storytelling ground, always with a thematic purpose. Margaret is a dense, emotionally acute movie that invites spirited and exhaustive discussion of its many, many layers. Its imperfections probably make it the weakest of Lonergan’s three films to date, but Margaret is still enthralling as a piece of art that unabashedly aims for greatness.



Venom (Ruben Fleischer, 2018). A rampaging, borderline incoherent disaster, Venom scrapes a cartoonishly designed antihero from the Marvel Universe and sets him bounding along to the most tired rhythms of big screen superhero storytelling. In the comics, Venom’s origin story hinges on symbiotic costume briefly worn by the amazing Spider-Man, which helps to explain the design of the character. Here, it’s just some living, thinking goo coveted by an evil corporation, led by Elon Musk stand-in Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). A chunk of it winds up bonding with down on his luck investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy, affecting a voice and cadence that suggests Bobcat Goldthwait doing an impression of Marlon Brando playing Irwin Fletcher) and the quickly wearying nonsense gets underway. Director Ruben Fleischer seems entirely indifferent to refined qualities such as character depth or narrative coherence, opting instead for so much distracting clamor. For me, the sole enjoyment in the film is watching Michelle Williams, as Eddie’s estranged girlfriend, navigate her scenes as a gingerly baffled bystander.

Playing Catch-Up — Now, Voyager; The Three Faces of Eve; Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

now voyager

Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942). Based on a novel released the previous year, Now, Voyager casts Bette Davis as Charlotte Vale, a miserable heiress who comes under particular abuse from her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper). Charlotte is taken to a sanitarium by Dr. Jacquith (Claude Rains, who’s wonderful in the role), who helps her overcome the feelings of inadequacy that have been instilled over the years. The prescription includes a six-month pleasure cruise following her discharge. It’s on that global jaunt that Charlotte meets Jeremiah Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid). Although he’s married, the two begin a romance. Things are further complicated when both return to their respective homes and then their paths cross again, in quietly heartrending fashion. Director Irving Rapper handles the proceedings with aplomb, preventing the melodrama from swamping the film. He certainly benefits from pointing the camera straight at Davis, one of the most no-nonsense stars U.S. cinema ever produced. Davis gives herself over to complex character work needed to play Charlotte while showing the thread of hard intelligence that will lift the woman out of her misery. There’s also some cracking comedic work by Mary Wickes, in a small role as a nurse employed in the Vale household.



The Three Faces of Eve (Nunnally Johnson, 1957). Any movie exploring heavy-duty psychological issues that bears a copyright date around or before the middle of the last century is going to automatically have some issues. Based on a real case that was turned into a nonfiction bestseller, The Three Faces of Eve is an early cinematic depiction of the mental state now known as dissociative identity disorder. Despite attempts to present the story in a resolutely serious and informative manner — exemplified by Alistair Cooke providing an introduction and narration with journalistic sternness — the particulars are stiffly unconvincing. As is likely expected, the redeeming component of the film is the performance by Joanne Woodward in the title role. A relative newcomer at the time, Woodward took on the part after several other major actresses passed, an almost inconceivable circumstance given the way the challenge of playing a women living with a trio of completely different personalities practically guarantees awards glory. Sure enough, Woodward claimed the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, and it was completely deserved. It’s a role that invites showboating, but Woodward opts for piercing honesty, finding an engaging vividness in subtle shifts rather than sweeping gestures.



Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (Alex Gibney, 2012). A product of the inexhaustible Alex Gibney documentary machine, Mea Maxima Culpa ruthlessly examines the grotesque scandal of sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic Church. Gibney frames the film with the especially grotesque case of decades of abuse perpetrated in a Milwaukee school for the deaf, but devotes time to as much of the sprawling assault on morality as a couple hours of nonfiction filmmaking can contain. The film is laudable in its scope and density. It stirs outrage and sympathy in equal measure, with a handful of individuals — mostly survivors of the abuse who became brave voices for justice — emerging as true heroes. I would have preferred Gibney excised the creepy, foreboding recreations, but overall Mea Maxima Culpa is vital, powerful filmmaking,

Playing Catch-Up — Compliance; The Bad Sleep Well; The Devil’s Bride


Compliance (Craig Zobel, 2012). Based, incredibly enough, on a true story, Compliance shows the ugly susceptibility people have in the face of authority, even when those giving the orders have done nothing to prove they deserve to be followed. On a busy, stressful Friday night, a fast food restaurant manager (Ann Dowd) receives a phone call from a person claiming to be a police officer (Pat Healy). The man on the line says a teenaged employee (Dreama Walker) stole money from a customer. She needs to be brought into a back room to be interrogated and strip searched, he instructs. What follows is an assault of escalating degradation, all perpetrated with innocent obedience by people who believe they are listening to law enforcement. Even the film’s most lurid details are based on fact, but it sometimes pushes so drastically far into implausibility that writer-director Craig Zobel would have been better off omitting the worst of it. Although Walker spends most of the narrative in different states of undress, Zobel clearly tries to prevent the images from becoming leering and sensationalistic. He doesn’t always succeed, proving just how difficult it can be for a filmmaker to safely traverse minutely fine lines.


bad sleep well

The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960). Akira Kurosawa was known — and revered — for taking Shakespearean dramas and reimagining them as samurai epics, but the Japanese master filmmaker could pull of the same astounding trick with more modern fare. With a story that echoes Hamlet, Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well depicts the insidious corruption within the capitalist and political spheres of postwar Japan, couching it within familial drama as a corporate titan’s daughter (Kyoko Kagawa) marries a young man (Toshiro Mifune) with mysterious intent. As usual, Kurosawa insightfully and carefully explores his many themes, while also framing shots with exquisite care that somehow feels naturalistic. There’s a bleak sense of humor laced through the proceedings, as well. If the film lacks the grandeur of Kurosawa’s most famed achievements, it excels at finding the epic within the seemingly mundane.


devils bride

The Devil’s Bride (Terence Fisher, 1968). Known as The Devil Rides Out in its U.K. homeland, this entry in the beloved pantheon of Hammer Film horror offerings concerns itself with the scourge of devil worship. Based on a 1934 Dennis Wheatley novel, the film concerns the efforts of two British gentlemen (Christopher Lee and Leon Greene) to rescue a fellow member of the gentry (Patrick Mower) from the thrall of a cult that passes the time by sacrificing farm animals to surprisingly chill satanic figures. The tone is set by Lee’s characteristic performance, disrupting a prevailing air of stern refinement with flurries of aggravated alarm. The great horror writer Richard Matheson penned the script, and it carries markings of authorial sturdiness and wry humor. Director Terence Fisher bring a vigorous craftsmanship to the proceedings, especially when called upon to deliver the film’s climactic temporal tomfoolery that is equal parts delightfully clever and splashily silly.

Larraín, Lubitsch, Riley, Snyder, Sollett

No (Pablo Larraín, 2012). In Chile in  the late nineteen-eighties, the dictatorial government of General Augusto Pinochet orchestrated a public vote to give the populace a chance to weigh in on whether or not they’d maintain control for another eight years after a decade-and-a-half of bludgeoning rule. With various systems under tight control and the people largely cowed by governmental forces, it was expected to be a mere formality on the way to maintaining continuity, a show of phony democracy to appease the international community. Instead, Pinochet was ousted. In this consideration by screenwriter Pedro Peirano and director Pablo Larraín, the employment of marketing campaigns transferred almost directly from cola commercials is what shifted history. That’s undoubtedly a reductive evaluation, but it makes for a fascinating film. Larraín maintains tone beautifully, giving the film a scruffy anxiousness as the squabbling factions within the “No” campaign struggle to determine the right balance of substance and flash, tactic and truth. If the film is more exploratory than pointed in its thesis, it examines the challenges of politics merging with media in a consistently committed fashion. Gael García Bernal gives a characteristically strong performance as an adman at the lead of the “No” campaign.

Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932). A pair of romantically intertwined con artists (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) insinuate themselves into the life of a Parisian perfume magnate (Kay Francis) with an end goal of getting their hands on a wad of cash squirreled away behind a wall safe door. This pre-Code comedy views morality as an especially slippery thing and has no particular problem with that as the way of the world. As always, Lubitsch brings a remarkable panache to the staging of the film, finding ways to accentuate gags without ever underlining them. The whole cast snaps in a manner blessedly common in that area, with Hopkins making an especially strong impression through her nicely barbed portrayal of a woman with well-founded suspicions and the skills and wherewithal to look out for herself.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder, 2016). Thuddingly stupid, Zack Snyder’s latest abomination can’t even rise to the level of cinematic car crash, stirring lurid interest in its levels of disaster. As opposed to the better crossover moments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s no wit or inspiration to the character interactions. Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck, terrible in the role, just as any sentient filmgoer would predict) are simply flung at each other, like clacking mallets. The returning actors come across as desperately bored and the newcomers all seem pained, especially Jeremy Irons, who plays Bat-associate Alfred like he’s moments away from chucking it all and heading out on a bender in Gotham City. At least disgruntlement in a reasonable response to the material. Jesse Eisenberg is nothing but wired affectation as Superman foe Lex Luthor. At the time this was released, there was some praise for Gal Gadot’s turn as Wonder Woman, presumably for little other reason than she occasional appears to be actually having some fun. She’s certainly the only one.

Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley, 2015). In addition to his status as the actor who, more than any other individual, transformed the craft of acting in the twentieth century, Marlon Brando was an endlessly intriguing human being. He restlessly invested himself in social justice issues and swelled with internal conflicts over the inherently superficial aspects of the professional field he commanded. Employing private audio tapes recorded by Brando, in addition to miles of supporting film clips and interview footage, director Stevan Riley stitches together a portrait of the man. Though commendable for its attempting something new and different than a standard documentary approach, Riley’s technique is more likely to get it its own way than it is to provide unique illumination. Brando is worth watching under almost any circumstances, but Riley puts that assertion to the test.

Freeheld (Peter Sollett, 2015). In dramatizing the true story of the trying attempt by a dying New Jersey police officer (Julianne Moore) to secure survivor benefits for her same-sex partner (Ellen Page), Peter Sollett’s film is noble and sadly drab. Most problematically, it’s lacking in passion, resulting in a movie that plays like an earnest book report. Page is initially very strong, playing her part with a character actor conviction that suggests sharp new possibilities for her career moving forward. Even she’s eventually drawn into the eddy of convention that defines the films. By the closing scenes, she, too, could be anybody.

Dominik, Howard, Junger, Miller, Wolchok

Deadpool (Tim Miller, 2016). And so we’ve reached the point in the superhero era of cinema that allows for a caustically deconstructionist take on the genre to become one of the biggest hits of the year. There might be no better methodology for tracing the chronology of the genre’s takeover than measuring the comparative impact of Mystery Men (a dud in 1999) to Kick-Ass (a solid hit in 2010) to Deadpool (a sensation in 2016). Technically, Ryan Reynolds first played Wade Wilson in the dismal X-Men Origins: Wolverine, release in 2009. Besides the smirking countenance of the actor, that iteration of the character bears no resemblance to the jabbering, comic sadist who romps through Deadpool. Taking cues from most of the Marvel comics featuring the character, director Tim Miller and credited screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick imbue Deadpool with an awareness of his own fiction, letting him comment on the narrative manipulations and pile-up of tropes that dog him as he marauds against a big batch of colorfully brutal opponents and tries to rescue his lady love (Morena Baccarin). It has amusing moments, but the redundancy of the central gag wears thin quickly. Reynolds reverts back to the Jim Carrey, Jr. routine that sustained him when he was one of two guys hanging out with a girl in a pizza place, which only demonstrates how tiresome that performing style becomes when not laced with Carrey’s dark ingenuity.

Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? (Sebastian Junger, 2013). Subtitled “The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington,” this documentary essentially serves as Sebastian Junger’s tribute to his co-director on the exceptional Restrepo. Hetherington was a photojournalist with a special commitment to fearlessly documenting some of the most dangerous corners of the planet. He was killed after being hit by shrapnel while on the ground covering the 2011 Libyan Civil War. More of an admiring remembrance than a sharply-drawn piece of cinema, the film does make a compelling argument for the immense contribution of those reporters, whether armed with cameras, audio recordings, or notebooks, who put their lives on the line to bring stories of global dismay to the public, a reminder that couldn’t be more timely.

Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, 2012). Director Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford aptly illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of his filmmaking approach. More pertinently, it shows just how those opposing qualities intertwine, resulting in a hopeless knot. Based on the 1974 crime novel Cogan’s Trade, Dominik’s film maintains a sleazy, downscale vibe that calls to mind the urban noir films of that era, but updates the action to the fall of 2008, drawing in the presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain and the financial collapse that shaded it into a rueful Greek chorus, singing from televisions and radios in the background of various scenes. It’s presumably meant to give the proceedings a different heft, a heightened pertinence. Instead, it’s a busy distraction from the meaty dialogue and decent, lean drama involving the layers of retribution surrounding a poker game robbery. There’s similar conflict with the visuals, which are both marvelously shot (by Greig Fraser) and sometimes so fussed over they become stultifying. One sequence involving an assassination on the roadway is prime example. It’s objective resplendence doesn’t prevent it from being woefully indulgent.

Very Semi-Serious (Leah Wolchok, 2015). This documentary about the cartoons that speckle the pages of The New Yorker is wispy and enjoyable. While a few of the figures who move through the film are fascinating, notably the endearing oddballs Liana Finck and Edward Steed (the latter of whom approaches genius in his comic creations), the film is strongest as a consideration of process. In detailing the multitude of steps required before a cartoon sees print, director Leah Wolchok highlights quietly makes the argument that nothing should be taken for granted, even that material that, at first glance, appears to be little more than filler.

In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015). Adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s history of the travails of the sailors aboard the whaleship Essex, a story that helped inspire Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, this attempt at a resounding adventure film is primarily notable for its grinding dullness. Ron Howard capably handles the sequencing of shots — despite swirling chaos, there’s rarely confusion about what is transpiring — but can find no passion within the tale. The various characters are thin as fraying thread, informed more by cliche than recognizable humanity.

Enright and Berkeley, Garbus, McQuarrie, Van Sant

Promised Land (Gus Van Sant, 2012). This is exactly the sort of appalling earnest, dramatically inert fare that makes many rightly cringe when they think about the sort of medicine-tinged movies Oscar season might bring. With a story credit for Dave Eggers and a shared screenplay credit for Matt Damon and John Krasinski, who also start in the film, Promised Land takes the issue of fracking and tries to spin a sort of Capraesque fable with a dose of twenty-first century cynicism and a gotcha plot twist for good measure. Damon plays an ambitious employee of a global energy concern who goes to a small Pennsylvania town with his partner in corporate hucksterism (Frances McDormand, who seems sort of amused with her own slumming) to sell the populace on selling drilling rights on the cheap. Every bit of the film comes across as phony, the detached outrage of privileged celebrities rendered into hollow storytelling. Van Sant directs with the sleepy disinterest of a hired hand.

What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, 2015). Sometimes all a documentary really needs to be successful is the right subject. Garbus doesn’t assemble this consideration of the life and career of the great Nina Simone with especially notable verve or invention, but that perversely winds up as one of the film’s great strengths. The less intrusive the filmmaking, the better the film. When the archival footage is presented with the least amount of fuss or contextualizing, meaning it’s pure and direct Simone, the documentary is gripping and colossal. It’s only when actively trying to make sense of the performer and her influence that it starts to wobble, as if the task of explaining a troubled force of nature like Simone is beyond the ken of any single work of cinematic scholarship.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015). The eager embrace and the corresponding implicit mockery of the staggering ridiculousness of his own screen persona is the best thing to ever happen to Tom Cruise, whether he’s fully aware of what he’s doing or not. Following last year’s thoroughly delightful sci fi, action monstrosity Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise bounds back into the Mission: Impossible franchise, bringing McQuarrie (credited co-writer of Edge of Tomorrow and writer-director of Jack Reacher, which also starred Cruise) along for the super-charged ride. I’m not entirely sure the plot makes a lick of sense, but what does it matter when the only real need of the movie is to move breathlessly from one nutty set piece to another. It also gives Cruise another chance to play his new favorite role: guy who everyone thinks is crazy, but has actually been right all along. L. Ron would be proud. Most of the rest of the cast is incidental, though it’s worth noting that female lead Rebecca Ferguson really does seem like a big star waiting to happen, and, on the evidence of what’s onscreen, Alec Baldwin spent his breaks standing around the craft services table coaching his fellow actors on the fine art of delivering lines with raspy, relaxed intensity.

Barbara (Christian Petzold, 2012). This drama about a physician in 1980 East Berlin is measured and thoughtful, steeped in the most world-weary type of wisdom. Nina Hoss plays the title role, a woman committed to escaping her repressive county who takes a position in pediatric surgery at a hospital. She captures the attention of the doctor in charge of her department (Ronald Zehrfeld), in part because of her willingness to push part immediate preconceptions in making diagnoses and in part because of the distance she wants to keep. As he does with the recent Phoenix (also starring Hoss and Zehrfeld), Petzold is careful in his storytelling, parceling out details with the patience of a novelist. That’s admirable, but it also can make Barbara drag at times. It’s a strong film, but a touch more liveliness wouldn’t hurt.

Dames (Ray Enright and Busby Berkeley, 1934). This bubbly lark of a musical is filled with details that now seem familiar: the pompous older relative whose attached conditions to a promised inheritance, the clash between heavy moralists and freedom-loving youth, and the charming rapscallion who dreams of putting on a great big show. Enright’s direction is staid and stalwart, all the better to emphasize the pivot when Berkeley’s musical numbers sweep in with their dreamlike overstatement. Besides Berkeley’s glittery visions, the film is at its best when tweaking the hypocrisy of the judgmental, notably the proud disparagers of alcohol (the film was release mere months after Prohibition was stripped out of the Constitution) getting boozy on a so-called health elixir and therefore becoming ebullient over the very Broadway show they’ve come to condemn for its supposed tawdry flouting of conventions.

Bendjelloul, Bobin, Boone, Lee, Stiller

Muppets Most Wanted (James Bobin, 2014). Once the cinematic franchise is revived, the next task is to prove it can be prolonged and maintained. Muppets Most Wanted is agreeable but oddly inconsequential. Lacking the fanboy passion that Jason Segel seemed to inject into The Muppets all by his lonesome, this new installment is drab and prone to drifting. The plot manages to evoke The Great Muppet Caper, the original Muppet sequel, while also playing around with a mistaken identity gimmick that takes full advantage of the pliability of the characters’ identity. Yes, it’s amusing at times, and the celebrity “guest stars” are game (especially Tina Fey as a Russian gulag guard whose main priority is staging a great follies show for the inmates). That’s not enough though to truly provide purpose. The Muppets are stuck in the same low, idling gear that has been their domain for too much of their shared film career.

Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012). Ang Lee admirably commits to this adaptation of Yann Martel’s smash hit novel, embracing the very parts of it — the stillness, the existential ache, the horrid beauty of nature, the fable-like qualities — that would have sent most directors fleeing from it. If Lee acquiesces too readily to the painterly phoniness of the heavy CGI effects of telling the story of a shipwreck survivor (Suraj Sharma) sharing his life raft with a small batch of wild animals, most notably a powerful, fierce tiger, at least the film operates with a distinctive and bold visual palette. It doesn’t particularly work for me — I think Lee drifts too far from the keen attention to the nuances of beset humanity that mark his best work — but I can see how some could reasonably turn themselves over willingly to the lushness of the imagery. The film is nearly rescued fully by the caring, world-weary work of Irrfan Khan, telling the story. Unfortunately, he’s countered by Rafe Spall, as the writer taking the tale in for his book, delivering one of the most wooden performances I’ve seen in a major film for a good long time.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller, 2013). This is one of those projects that kicked around for an awfully long time before Stiller adopted it as a passion project, believing with all his heart that it was the movie that would finally establish him as a real director, which has long been his goal. Stiller also plays the title role, a nebbishy fellow who works in the photo department of the struggling modern version of Life magazine. He finds his inner wherewithal in pursuit of a missing frame by the magazine’s star photographer (Sean Penn). Stiller has a clear panache with the camera, but he can never quite decide what he wants this film to be. Is it meant to be sweetly sentimental or just another launching band for broadly satiric character comedy. I’m as excited as anyone to see a parodic takedown of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but it sits awkwardly against the more serious segments of the film, which are, quite honestly, more effective. This was positioned as Stiller’s stab at respectability (there was even a New Yorker profile about him in the lead-up to the film’s release). There’s enough that strong and interesting here that hints he may have actually accomplished something of note if he’d allowed himself to fully forgo the safety net of easy comedy.

Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012). This documentary about Rodriguez, a Detroit singer-songwriter whose albums in the nineteen-sixties and seventies were largely ignored at home but became enormous hits abroad without his knowledge, is warm and smartly constructed. Bendjelloul extracts maximum pathos and emotion from the story. Even if it feels forced when the director attempts to preserve a sense of mystery about Rodriguez’s current existence — for too much of its running time, the film is positioned to blindly pretend there’s potential validity to fan confusion over whether or not the performer is even still alive — the various manipulations of the film heighten the emotional potency of the eventual triumph awaiting in South Africa, where Rodriguez is greeted like it’s the second coming of Elvis Presley.

The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, 2014). There are no shortage of intense feelings surrounding John Green’s bestselling 2012 novel about a teenaged girl struggling with cancer who enters into a naturally fraught romance. Boone handles the story admirably, albeit with a touch of understandable reticence. It’s safer to preserve the fundamentals of the story than to push a little harder to come up with something more daring and cinematic. That doesn’t make this film version bad. It’s just a little tame. It does have one unassailable strength in the lead performance by Shailene Woodley, who captures the intense whirl of a character suffering from pending mortality and a body that betrays her in the face of the simplest tasks while still trying to hang of to some sliver of experiencing life as a regular teenager.

Donahue, Hitchcock, Lang, Scorsese and Tedeschi, West

The Sacrament (Ti West, 2014). Following a couple elegant, artful horror features, West finally goes where all modern directors with a propensity to scare must. The Sacrament is a “found footage” that relies on the conceit of a couple Vice News reporters who tag along when a fashion photographer acquaintance goes looking for his sister, who has become a resident with a cult-like commune that has recently relocated to a remote area in South America. The plot draws heavily on the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, right down to the notorious beverage of choice when it comes time to draw the experiment to a deadly close. The familiarity compromises the film’s narrative drive. There’s simply not enough mystery to it, making the film a slow march to the inevitable. If West was able to present it with his usual controlled visual panache, The Sacrament would have a chance to overcome its flaws. The “found footage” approach presumably could have tested his creativity. Instead, it clotheslines it, resulting in an utterly generic movie, especially as West includes a few too many cheats against the technique. About the only original element is West’s perfect capturing of the smug, self-congratulatory hubris that’s endemic to every Vice video I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if that’s sharp commentary is even intentional.

Casting By (Tom Donahue, 2012). This documentary about the work of casting directors is a little too much of a mish-mash to be full satisfying. For one thing, it often seems that what Donahue really wanted to do was to make a full-length documentary on Marion Dougherty, who was a defining groundbreaker in the field, but she wasn’t actually quite notable enough to hang a whole picture on. So it keeps drifting away down other side corridors, always coming back to Dougherty as the prime example of why the role is so slighted by much of the holiday community (the officious egotism of film directors, personified by the grinning dismissiveness of then DGA president Taylor Hackford, is the main culprit). Donahue does make a make a strong case for the value of the role and includes just enough of the best, well-traded tales from the world of casting to keep the film humming along. It’s more introduction than explanation, but it succeeds well enough in that limited capacity.

Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952). If only this loopy, twisty western had stuck with its original title: The Legend of Chuck-a-Luck. That name presented in big, bold letters at the start of the picture is about the only thing that could have made it even more goofy fun than it already is. The film casts Arthur Kennedy as a Wyoming ranch hand who tracks down the roving bandits who murdered his fiancee. He finds them at a Mexican border town ranch that Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) has fashioned into a communal hideout for gunslinging miscreants of all sorts, as long as they’re prepared to cut her in on their loot. Lang directs with a brash, restless energy and an sly willingness to let to the most insidious story elements creep in, like blood pooling on the other side of a cracked door. Most of the cast is fairly undistinguished, but this is one of those later career roles that finds Dietrich absolutely going for it, practically causing the celluloid to pucker with the inspired acidity of her performance.

The 50 Year Argument (David Tedeschi and Martin Scorsese, 2014). For the past few years, Scorsese has ben successfully filling the time between big new fiction films with humble little documentaries about whatever bit of pop culture intrigues him, from Bob Dylan to Fran Lebowitz. Tedeschi, his regular editor and collaborator on those projects, joins him to co-direct a work that is a little trickier to contain: an examination of the fifty year history of The New York Review of Books. While there are plenty of stories and remarkably well-informed colorful characters to go around, the filmmakers never figure out how to wrestle the material into place, leaving a finished product that’s too freewheeling and unfocused. At least much of the archival footage holds some power, if only because it illuminates the way public discourse has degraded from the time when Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer might go at each other on national television, viciously but with deep reservoirs of intelligence. Today, we have loads of the former quality and little of the latter. Even if the film has provided more pointed commentary on that change, holding up the continuing publication of The New York Review of Books as the lonely outlier in the awful modern media landscape, it would have at least had a point of view, maybe even one worthy of its subject.

Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock, 1949). As he had the preceding year with Rope, Hitchcock uses this story of intrigue in nineteenth century Australia as an excuse to stage long, unbroken shots. It’s an impressive technical feat, especially given the equipment of the time, but it also renders much of the film overly static. When Ingrid Bergman eventually gets a chance to really dig into her meaty character, the lady of a manor who is beset by problems causing instability, it’s fascinating to watch her play big, emotional scenes without the mercy of an edit. Aside from that, too much of the film drags with lumpy exposition and bland conflicts. The craft is ever-present in the construction of the visuals and the staging of the scenes, almost distractingly so. The film is too buttoned up, in dire need of more liveliness or even a bit more florid tones infused into the more melodramatic elements.

Bad Movie Night — Battleship/John Carter

bmn john battleship

As I noted recently, it’s been a long time since our household made the proper commitment to a good ol’ fashioned Bad Movie Night. Our tradition is long and honored: a double feature, preferably with some sort of link and heavy encouragement to merciless mock all that plays out on the screen. When we settled down for the night atypically early, we took our shared commitment to whittling down the material on our overstuffed DVR as impetus to dive into some of the material we’d collected specifically because we thought it might suit our more malicious, misanthropic, and misogynistic cinematic habits. Beer at the ready, we dove in.

And what better place to start than with Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012), one of the more notable bombs of the past few years. Part of the increasingly absurd notion that every recognizable brand should be fodder for big screen mayhem, this sci-fi actioner supposedly takes its inspiration from the classic board game. Yes, there are battleships in it, and some of the explosive weapons hurtling through the air vaguely resemble the pegs that were shoved into either plastic sea vessels of embedded cubes of blue, but it mostly seems like a generic riff on Transformers shoved into a different package from the next aisle over in the toy section.

I’m tempted to argue that the plot makes no sense, but it’s actually too simplistic to be confusing in the slightest. There are navy guys, including the obligatory rebellious rule-breaker (Taylor Kitsch), out on maneuvers. Then aliens attack as big robot monsters from the sky. And that’s about it. Yeah, there are subplots, including the rebel’s hope to marry the hot daughter (Brooklyn Decker) of the gravel-voiced and boulder-brained Commander of the U.S. Fleet (Liam Neeson, further away than ever from his Oscar-contending days) and, well, I’m sure there’s another subplot in there somewhere. Maybe not, though, given that most of what comes out of the mouths of other characters is so inconsequential that one website volunteered for the task of cataloguing every line of dialogue uttered by Rihanna as a crew member. Only five of the sixty-eight lines contains more than a total of ten words.

The original plan called for making it a Hasbro night, since G.I. Joe: Retaliation is just sitting out there. Instead, we realized we had the opportunity to experience the totality of Kitsch’s very bad year of attempted blockbuster stardom (he also appeared in Oliver Stone’s Savages in 2012, which also doesn’t look good, but ultimately belongs in a very different category). So we opted for John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012), maybe the year’s most notorious attempt to launch a franchise and a potent argument against giving skilled Pixar filmmakers the keys to live-action vehicles.

The notion of adapting the adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s planetary-displaced warrior had been kicking around for a while. It was reportedly Stanton’s passion for the product that finally brought it to expensive fruition, with Kitsch burdened with the title role. Stanton certainly directs the film like a true believer. Indeed his zealotry is so complete that it is evidently beyond his ken that anyone might find the material completely ridiculous. It doesn’t help that his collaborators in the art and costume departments deliver work that recalls the campy nonsense of 1980’s Flash Gordon. The goofiness packed into the frame accentuates the worst elements of the script, including the dopey framing sequence conceit that Burroughs himself is learning about all this from a journal left to him by his late Uncle John. The most problematic aspect of the storytelling, though, is that its dreadfully boring. Even on a Bad Movie Night — maybe especially on a Bad Movie Night — that remains the worst sin a film and a filmmaker can commit.