Welcome to Part Three of this ongoing Mid-Year series on the best and worst that the first half of 2014 had to offer. Today will see us discussing the work we found overrated, underrated, and frankly just the worst to date this year. It’s basically split into two parts, with part one looking at the overrated/underrated picks, and part two allowing us to debate/rail about the worst. Enjoy:
Robert: I’m so glad you picked Enemy because I didn’t understand what the big deal was with that movie, either. Denis Villeneuve can conjure a foreboding atmosphere with the best of them and Jake Gyllenhaal was pretty good (if a little fussy, but then again his acting comes off that way to me in general) in the dual role of Adam Bell/Anthony Clare. But I honestly found it a whole lot of effort in the service of not much. Enemy had some interesting conceits in its Kafkaesque nightmare puzzle box; too bad none of them coalesced into anything very substantial to me. The picture above – with that chalkboard in the background with a bunch of arrows looping around vague buzzwords like “CONTROL,” “PROGRESS” and “HISTORY” in the kind of college classroom that only exists in the movies – is a perfect example of how much it actually fleshed out its own concepts. An engaging, twisty little mind-bender in the moment for sure, but all this masterpiece talk from its relatively small but vocal supporters is confounding to me.
Joey: Funny you would describe it like that. I told someone after seeing Enemy that I half-believed the film was made so the folks involved could get off on hearing it called “Kafkaesque.”
Robert: Ha! You might be on to something there. I definitely got the feeling that Villeneuve had visions of film class debates dancing in his head while making the film, and explicitly aiming for that almost always results in diminished returns. My choice didn’t have such high-minded aspirations, but that didn’t stop the film from getting swept up in something much larger than itself anyway, raising its status to a degree that still irritates me. Taken on its own…argh, look, Neighbors is fine. It’s a pretty consistently funny romp aided tremendously by Rose Byrne seizing on *gasp* an interesting, rounded female character. Somehow the meager achievement of acknowledging women as people and that gay jokes can be executed without coming off as a retrograde bigot has given critics the idea that Neighbors is some exemplar of the genre. Never mind that it suffers from the same shaggy improvisational scene structures and worn-out material (Dick jokes! Pop culture gags! Immature adults learn to accept responsibility!) as every other comedy ever starring Seth Rogen. But things really got out of hand when, in the wake of the Santa Barbara Massacre, a film critic with two X-chromosomes committed the ultimate sin of critically examining how Hollywood movies subtly breed unreasonable expectations in young men. Not surprisingly, mansplainers of the internet who didn’t bother to read her article (including Rogen himself) decided to vilify her as the Handicapper General come to life despite stating almost nothing that hadn’t already been observed by cultural critics for years now (my own thoughts on this controversy is a blend of what Jessica Goldstein and our own Terence Johnson published). The movie’s elevation from “a step in the right direction” to “the symbol of embattled artistic expression against the forces of censorship” was what really sealed itself as the most overrated film of the first half of 2014 in my eyes.
Joey: Fair enough. Just as a side note, a while back I quipped that Snowpiercer turned out both better and worse than I’d expected; sort of a middle ground between overrated and underrated, if that makes sense? Is there something you’ve seen that also fits that description? Better than the detractors (few as they may be in my case) claim but not nearly on the level that supporters are stating?
Robert: The only Schrödinger’s Cat of hype versus actuality that I saw this year was The Raid 2. What’s really weird about the debate surrounding it is that most people – including me – seemed to agree on the film’s strengths (exceptional fight choreography, stuntwork, and formal craftsmanship) and flaws (overlong, Uwais an iffy actor, ho-hum crime war plot). Yet almost all of the reactions that I saw tacked to one extreme or the other as to its overall quality. Depending on whom you asked, Gareth Evans is responsible for no less than the greatest action movie ever made or he released a bloated, monotonous disaster. I’m the last person who sprints to middle of every issue, but in this case I didn’t understand the extremes of either response.
Then there’s also the controversy over its violence, which some critics have decried as sadistic and needlessly gruesome. Normally I’d take issue with that criticism since I found Evans’ depiction of the film’s undeniable brutality to be harrowing without coming off flippant about it (unlike some *ahem* other action flicks I could name). Or, I would take issue…until I remember the cheering and giggling from the three guys a few rows in front me in the theater. Begrudgingly, I realize that I can’t exactly call the detractors’ gripes unfounded even if I personally interpreted The Raid 2’s action sequences very differently.
Joey: Go figure, we have basically the same interpretation of that one. It may very well be the most violent non-horror movie that I’ve ever seen, almost to the point of overkill (no pun intended). And yet, that poignant impact is still there…that’s a long way of saying I agree.
And what did we think was the most underrated film of the first half of 2014?
Robert: In terms of exposure, I think I have no choice but to agree with your selection since I probably would have never even heard of Love & Air Sex if it weren’t for you. It had a decent festival run last year before getting a limited release in the dumping ground of February and then just evaporated for some reason. Why do you think that happened? Was the film just badly marketed or were audiences not ready for its particular brand of humor?
Joey: I’ve tried to figure this one out for a while now since it would seem to be something ideally situated to be a big hit. It’s got Apatow-style humor, but it’s not endless riffing. It’s got a strong female co-lead who’s just as sexually independent and modern as her male counterpart and ex. It’s a raunchy comedy that also has a heart. Those don’t come along every year and it’s a shame that this one failed to register at all. Audiences might have given it a chance if they had known about it. The film underwent a title change from The Bounceback, which might have been a more marketable title and apparently just took forever to announce itself to the world. When they did, it was too little, too late. Well, I’m doing my part at least.
You know The Immigrant was considered an Oscar contender once upon a time, right? Did you give any thought to citing a more under-the-radar film? Trust me, I’m all for praising James Gray’s latest, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had anticipated something much smaller getting the spotlight from you.
Robert: It may very well have been considered an Oscar contender once upon a time, and I suppose some below-the-line citations aren’t totally out of the question. It’s been getting good…ish reviews and virtually everyone agrees that the acting is exceptional. But let’s not bury the lede, here: The Immigrant didn’t see a theatrical release for almost a year after its festival run, has been getting almost no support from its distributor The Weinstein Company, and is currently tanking at the box office. The film’s detractors (Clayton is one of them, so just imagine me giving him the evil eye while you’re reading this!) have been quite vocal in their disappointment that a movie would have the gall to emphasize character over incident, labeling it a “pacing” issue or some other nonsense. What really chaps my ass about the collective shrug greeting this film is that not a year goes by where I don’t hear someone complain that they “just don’t make ‘em like they used to,” yet when James Gray goes out and actually delivers a classical, honest-to-goodness period drama – the kind that would have been made by Luchino Visconti in his heyday – they mostly blow it off. And this has been the fate of virtually every film from the man. The Yards was delayed for two years and then bombed hard when it finally arrived in theaters. We Own the Night got mixed reviews and sputtered in theaters despite occupying a genre that often plays well with general audiences. Two Lovers was overshadowed by Phoenix’s faux-retirement shenanigans and barely made back its budget. I cannot tell you how frustrating this pattern has been to witness.
Sure, Edge of Tomorrow was a box office disappointment, but nearly everyone who’s seen the film has loved it and will likely make a nice profit off its international run. Only Lovers Left Alive will probably struggle a little to break even in limited release (though I think it’ll eventually get there), but the reviews have been less divisive than I would have predicted and the film looks well on its way to amassing a cult following over time. Blue Ruin is a much smaller indie but also a bonafide sleeper hit, bringing in a quarter of a million on a $35,000 budget. The Missing Picture, my favorite documentary so far this year, has enjoyed near-universal acclaim plus a surprise Oscar nomination and a very prestigious award from the Cannes Film Festival last year despite its odd premise. But The Immigrant still needs all the support it can get.
Now, on to the second half of this article, where I tear into God’s Not Dead and Robert tries to get me to reconsider Chef…
Robert: Ah, God’s Not Dead. You know, every now and then a trailer comes along that teases such enticing horridness that I’m almost tempted to go out and see just how low it sinks. I’m especially fascinated at such an extreme persecution complex of some – not all! – Christians being displayed there without any self-awareness whatsoever. Because all atheists have some personal anger towards God since deep down they secretly know He exists! And I just cracked up at the evil professor who “forces” his students to declare that “God Is Dead” (never mind that that wasn’t the point of Nietzsche’s quote at all) like a tyrannical bully, because I’m sure that kid was never threatened with eternal hellfire or ordered by Christian authority figures to “just believe” at any point in his life.
Suspicions justified, you’d say?
Joey: And then some. I’m almost never offended by a movie. Remember, I sat through The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence), A Serbian Film, and other such garbage (I’ll avoid the in-poor-taste joke that I saw them for our sins, especially considering the topic), not to mention Movie 43, but not since 2016: Obama’s America have I felt so angry at a piece of cinema, a term I use loosely here. I’ve long been a bit of a troublemaker when it comes to talking to people of devout faith, not because I lack respect for their choices but because I feel they lack respect for mine. Full disclosure: I look at myself as an agnostic atheist, so to some – not all, like you say – I’m fundamentally immoral in some way. That’s what gets my goat, that I lack a moral code because I don’t believe that an invisible man in the sky will punish me if I “sin.” Somehow I’ve managed to keep a clean criminal record. Hell, the New York City Police Department deemed me an upstanding enough citizen to join their ranks at one time. That frustration I have with how people like me are perceived is displayed tenfold in God’s Not Dead. You have a college professor who hates god, not because he has a legitimate reason, but because of a personal tragedy in his life (but don’t worry, He Sees The Error Of His Ways!). You have someone too busy with their career to properly acknowledge their religion, and boy do they find out That’s The Wrong Way To Be. Almost worst of all, you have someone of a different faith persecuted by their parents by wanting to practice Christianity since obviously that is the only acceptable religion out there. It’s just dreck, propaganda that’s meant to be masturbatory fodder for those who believe that Rick Santorum is a deep thinker. It would be more accurate to say this movie is full of santorum.
But the awfulness of God’s Not Dead is obvious (to me, anyway) and I’m actually surprised that you picked easier targets than normal. With the exception of Chef, which I like quite a bit as you know, I think the vast majority of folks would agree with you that these are in the bottom of the barrel, to one degree or another. I guess I’m just curious why public perception has lined up with you more this year than usual? Could it be that folks are coming around to your way of thinking, or vice versa?
Robert: For newer readers who may not know this, I usually try to avoid movies that I know for certain will be terrible. Since I don’t write enough to be invited to screenings I do my best to be discerning with what I spend money on seeing, which is why I don’t even bother with something like Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Legend of Hercules, Devil’s Due or I, Frankenstein. I honestly have no idea why critics still do. Nobody bases his or her decision to see an Adam Sandler gross-out comedy on reviews, so why waste time writing one? Another advantage to dodging guaranteed trash is that I’m less forgiving on things that are “better” than the level of Movie 43 (big whoop), but are still bad movies that deserve to be called out.
Perhaps because I’ll miss this entire Oscar season, my walls broke down a bit these last six months. Since I’ll be lucky to see any new release this fall, why not slightly lower my inhibitions while I’m still shoreside? And I have to give it to you, sometimes it is a good idea to see just how bad it can get in theaters, whether it’s the incompetent result of a corporate pissing contest, an almost hilariously egotistical pseudo-autobiography, a boring and narcissistic teen fairy tale, a bottomless pit of smug vileness, or a “romantic comedy” that’s never funny or romantic…though at least two of those I had reasonably high expectations for at the time. Hooray for perspective and hopes being dashed! Did you have hope for any of your five picks at all? I for one was somewhat intrigued by reports of Eva Green being a delicious ham in 300: Rise of an Empire.
Joey: Frankly…no. I wasn’t wild about the first 300, so this pointless sequel felt just like that to me. Green hams it up and is the closest thing to fun that the movie has, but still, no. I actually haven’t had anything turn out crappy that I had decent expectations for this year. Nothing like To the Wonder last year, when I went in hopefully I was about to be blown away and instead, well, wasn’t. I’ve also skipped some likely bombs this year, so I can’t say for sure whether Blended would have pleasantly surprised me, but I had a feeling that it wouldn’t, and life is just too short, you know?
I guess that’s one thing you can look forward to missing on deployment: terrible movies in the second half of 2014. Any Oscar contenders you think will really bomb? Into the Woods, perhaps?
Robert: I don’t think it’s even possible for me to be less invested in the fate of Into the Woods, but since Rob Marshall’s last three theatrical features were also terrible it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that ends up one of the year’s worst films and I won’t shed a tear if that happens. You know what? While we’re on the subject of directors in a slump whose upcoming projects I have little faith in, Exodus: Gods and Kings looks even chintzier than the worst parts of Noah, though I suppose there’s nowhere to go but up with Ridley Scott these days. And I’m sorry, but if Wish I Was Here is anything like Garden State I’ll just go ahead and mark it as one of 2014’s most annoying films right now and save myself the trouble.
But you know…whatever. If Phil Lord and Chris Miller have shown us anything, it’s that nothing is impossible to make into a great movie and I’m open to any of those films surprising me. Honestly, the worst of the worst – the ones that actually make me angry – are those that I can’t see coming. It’s easy to point and laugh at simple incompetence, but films that possess an odious core is what separates the truly toxic from just disposable garbage. There’s always at least a few of those that I have to suffer through every year. I have to believe that at least one of your bottom five also meets that criteria.
Joey: I’m with you on everything except Wish I Was Here, which I have a hunch I’ll love. You’re right about the hateful nature of certain works, and I’m not even talking about God’s Not Dead anymore. This is Need for Speed, a film where Man of Steel-levels of death are just unaddressed. There are multiple instances where law enforcement officials are at the very least injured, if not killed, and we’re supposed to ignore it since Aaron Paul needs to right his wrong. Give me a break. I’d go off more on this one, but it’ll upset me too much.
So I have to ask you about The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Chef. Since you know I disagree with you on both of them (the latter more so than the former, which I can’t defend much), I want to open that door. Where do you think things went wrong for you on them? The former is what it is in a way, but the latter has been almost universally acclaimed, so I’m curious what you think we’re all missing?
Robert: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 “is what it is” and you “can’t defend [it] much”…is that an admission that you were way too kind to it in your review? I sure hope so, because you’re absolutely right; you can’t defend a movie as fundamentally broken on a storytelling level as Sony’s desperate efforts to hang on to the rights to Spider-Man for as long as they can. At no point in this film’s 140-minute running time is there anything resembling a narrative shape, overarching theme, or established dramatic stakes or character arcs. At all. I’m sorry if this comes off harsh, but what in the world possessed you to give three stars to a movie that can’t even figure out what story it wants to tell?
What personally surprised me the most about The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (and I’m amazed more critics haven’t observed this) is what a selfish, inconsiderate jerk Peter Parker is throughout the entire movie. He doesn’t even try to take an active role in helping any of the major characters surrounding him – not Gwen, not Harry, not Aunt May – and the film never holds him accountable for that. In fact, the movie instead sneakily manipulates events so that he doesn’t have to be. The most obvious example of this was when Gwen insists on staying to help Peter during the climax despite his pleas, essentially letting him off the hook for her death even though she would never have been put in that position had Peter just left her alone and kept his promise to her father like a grownup. This of course also adds a nice little dash of misogyny, because if Gwen had just unquestioningly obeyed her boyfriend, she would’ve been okay! This is only compounded by the fact that the movie spends, like, two minutes on the aftermath of her death before just dropping it to rush into a tacked-on fanservice ending, even though the entire dynamic of their relationship was supposedly (and heavy-handedly) built up to that event.
Near the end of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, when it became clear that the film wasn’t even remotely interested in actually dealing with the consequences of her death, the movie that popped into my head was The Descendants. No kidding. Just like Alexander Payne’s disaster, it bends over backwards to prevent us from recognizing the douchiness of its protagonist by jerry-rigging every character and situation to make him look better. If it wasn’t such a hilariously pitiful failure of basic screenwriting, this thing would be downright offensive.
And yet, I don’t hate The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on the level of The Descendants, partially because there are some things I actually thought it did pretty well. In a 180° from the cruddy visuals of its predecessor, this one looked quite lovely, with some inspired uses of color and probably my single favorite web-slinging sequence ever. A lot of people slagged on Hans Zimmer’s Electro dubstep, but I thought it was cleverly used. Plus, it’s also hard to get worked up over a film that seemingly everyone not named Joseph Braverman feels very little affection for. It’s critically and financially the weakest Spider-Man movie, and everyone involved in this flailing franchise has been not-so-secretly jumping ship (Shailene Woodley “isn’t sure” if she wants to be in the third one? What a shocker!). I can only assume you were in an unfathomably generous mood on the day you saw it.
But your review of Chef; now that one I’m really curious about. I’m especially wondering how you didn’t seem to mind or even mention in that review what a thinly-veiled, self-aggrandizing autobiography this was from writer/director Jon Favreau. Consider:
- He casts himself in the lead role of a genius culinary master being artistically oppressed by a business-minded restaurant owner who only wants him to make safe, boring superhero sequ-uh, I mean, dishes that are popular with customers.
- Everyone – including the snooty critic – agrees that he is a legendary artiste, especially the sexy hostess Molly who invites him over to her place and is so visibly turned on by his cooking that I half-expected her to start touching herself and moaning right there in front of him.
- When he sets himself up with a Twitter account, his presence is immediately a big deal, with thousands of followers and retweets in a matter of hours.
- After an embarrassing viral video of him throwing a tantrum at the critic who bashed him online (has this guy never encountered a negative review in his whole career before this one?), he realizes he has to go out on his own and be an independent chef again…kinda like, *gasp* his own efforts to make this movie!
- Apparently he is such a recognizable celebrity that people from different states can identify him by sight and the travels of his food truck are tracked by thousands of rabid fans just waiting for his “El Jefe” truck to show up in their state.
- Despite doing absolutely nothing in the preparation of his Cuban sandwiches to distinguish them from what one could get in many establishments on the east coast, his sandwiches are instant hits which propel him back to stardom and widespread respect.
- His ex-wife is played by Sofía Vergara. She of course remarries him when she’s reminded of how awesome he is. Although this begs the question of how a man could be married to a Cuban woman in the first place without bothering to learn a word of Spanish…
I mean, really, the self-absorbed obliviousness of some people never ceases to amaze me. Even as an allegory to his own career it doesn’t make sense. Did I miss reading that part of 90’s film history when Swingers and Made were these explosive, critically-celebrated debut masterpieces akin to fucking Reservoir Dogs? And if the only reason why Iron Man 2 sucked was because of Kevin Feige’s tyrannical thumb under his supposed genius, how come Shane Black was able to make a much better follow-up under ostensibly the same artistically suffocating studio? Doesn’t casting Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson and Robert Downey, Jr. in this movie sort of undercut the desired narrative of going back to his roots as an indie filmmaker? And does he honestly believe that critics wouldn’t write negative reviews if they only knew how hard filmmakers worked, as if a) effort guaranteed success and b) he put an ounce of effort into Iron Man 2 and Cowboys & Aliens? That attitude toward critics especially pisses me off because I work in a profession that expects harsh criticism and brutal honesty. Aw, somebody wrote something mean about one of your movies? Get over it.
Taking away his ego from the project – as difficult as that can be, considering it pulsates from every frame – Chef is still a tacky, weak example of the kind of safe “indie” that does nothing bold or risky and aims to please everyone (hence its success at Tribeca and why most critics are giving it a pass). It has the same tired joke setup of “No, we’re definitely not doing that!” *jump cut to character doing that very thing he refused to do* delivery that Favreau does all the time in his movies. The snooty critic ends up going through, beat-for-beat, the exact same arc as Anton Ego’s from Ratatouille. Characters often behave according to the demands of the script instead of any believable, developed character psychologies. The tweeting effects were gratingly redundant to me and were almost as prominent as the actual cooking. On that note, I wasn’t even impressed by it as foodie porn; Big Night mops the floor with Chef in that department.
The prosecution rests.
Joey: Oddly enough, I find myself agreeing with you a lot on both films, so what I’ll say is that with the former, I agree that I was in a generous mood. Just like how I gave The Amazing Spider-Man three-and-a-half stars when I should have gone three or maybe even two-and-a-half, I have this one three stars when I should have gone two-and-a-half or even two. That being said, in the moment I found it entertaining enough, though thinking more about it does make it lose esteem. That’s kind of the hallmark of these writers though. I had the same experience with Star Trek Into Darkness last year. Still, I remain fond of the romantic element of the franchise under Marc Webb and hope someone new will help write the third installment.
On Chef though, I find myself much more charmed by the allegory than you. Much as I loved how Zack and Miri Make a Porno was also the story of how Clerks got made, I was fond of it being about movies as much as food and I totally thought it was top notch foodie porn…it gave me mouth-watering flashbacks to the tasting menus at some of the swanky restaurants I used to frequent once upon a time. I’m also not sure it’s supposed to be 100% about Favreau’s career in all but the broadest strokes. It’s not a perfect film but it is very pleasant and hit me in a good spot, so I stand by my inclusion of it on the list. Hey, I’m a decent cook myself, so any movie that makes the case that Scarlett Johansson can be driven to ecstasy by culinary talents is good in my book.
So with all your charges against this rebooted series, how would you fix Spider-Man so the next one avoids the same ranking a few years from now in a piece like this?
Robert: Avoiding my personal ire is the least of Sony’s problems right now, because financially-speaking, this franchise is in trouble. Maybe not catastrophically so, but it’s enough of a downtrend to where if I were a Sony shareholder, I would be nervous. So if I were in charge of “saving” Spider-Man at this point, I would start by saying buh-bye to Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci with all of their paranoid, sexist, deterministic, family romance hang-ups. I would then bite the bullet and acknowledge that the Spider-Man name is just not going to be what it was ten years ago, not in its current state at least (The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has to earn $800 million worldwide just to start turning a profit). So make the budget lower and compensate for that with smaller-scale stories. As much as I hated the shoddy effects and Twilight shenanigans of The Amazing Spider-Man, I definitely understood the logic of that direction from a business standpoint, and if that’s the only way they can keep this gravy train going until Marvel Studios eventually gets the property back (and they will get it back eventually), then that’s what they should stick to. Don’t try to make lightning strike twice with the same characters. Don’t try to bring back Mary Jane, don’t give us yet another Doc Ock or Venom, in fact, don’t even stick with Peter Parker.
That’s right; get rid of Peter Parker. “BUH-BUH-BUT ONLY HE CAN BE SPIDER-MAN!” Says who? One of the few things that DC does better than Marvel is the idea of superheroes as a title transcending any one individual, and since this new Peter is such a selfish putz played by an actor who’s already leaving after the third one, why not make the next one about him passing the mantle to someone else? If only there was a character who became “Spider-Man” in the Marvel comics continuity already…someone who played well with fans, who is an interesting character and can launch the acting career of some young, promising up-and-comer…hell, with all the white heroes dominating multiplexes, why not make this new Spider-Man black or Hispanic? Turns out, there already is one.
Hey, why not? This Miles Morales character would immediately put to rest any criticisms of the Amazing Spider-Man series being just “more of the same” and he could be a version of Spider-Man that Sony could actually claim as their own, instead of constantly trying (and failing) to define itself against the mark that Sam Raimi already made. Such a move won’t completely reverse franchise fatigue, but it would go a long way toward keeping it afloat.
But that’s just one series of movies and one I don’t really care about that much; I won’t even bother getting into the debate on the general state of superhero movies that dominated the internet a few months ago. For better or worse, the box office receipts of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past make it pretty clear that formulaic superhero blockbusters are here to stay…for a while longer, at least. Besides, the genre hasn’t been in the doghouse for as long as the romantic comedy, in my opinion. Ugh, that genre used to produce such smart movies, and now we get Walk of Shame and That Awkward Moment.
Joey: I think it comes down to formula, really. If there’s a recipe that works, the folks with the money are loathe to stray too far from it. Sadly, that’s why I think if Sony for example were to blow up The Amazing Spider-Man franchise after this or the next one, they’d likely wind up doing Spider-Man 2099 or something still expensive and easily dumbed down. Honestly, I’m with you on the smaller stories, even if I’d be fine with Andrew Garfield and maybe even Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane in a new one. They don’t need to overdo the CGI on Venom or Carnage, they could just as easily introduce a lower-tier villain like Kraven the Hunter and let a bigger piece of the story be Peter dealing with who he is, etc. Listen, it won’t happen, but we can dream. As for superheroes in general, you’re right…they’re here, we might as well get used to it. With regard to romantic comedies though, it’s also formula, though there are more opportunities for smart filmmakers to play with the notions of what a rom com can be. Something like Walk of Shame just plays to the lowest common denominator and assumes that since it’s a woman in the lead role, it’s being bold as opposed to being stupid. I didn’t hate That Awkward Moment like you did, though I think it’s only competent aspect was when the actors and actresses got to just riff and display some chemistry as opposed to following through on the crappy plot.
Robert: I’d like to think that I’m pragmatic about the business, so I understand the desire for movies wanting to attract a wide audience to find a “formula” that’s a safe bet for success. It comes with the territory and I accept that. But since when did “the formula” become so antithetical to decent storytelling and why the hell are we okay with that? Go back twenty years and you find something like The Lion King, which is totally formulaic but knows exactly what story it wants to tell, how to tie each scene together, the conflicts of all of its major characters, and why these characters behave the way that they do. Whatever criticisms I have of its story (and I do have some quibbles), it totally works as broad entertainment. Then somewhere along the way aspiring screenwriters took as gospel a horrendous how-to book spewing “one-size-fits-all” lies about screenwriting from the genius behind such masterpieces as Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Blank Check.
I’m not asking for Chinatown in my big-budget superhero epics. I’m really not. Nor am I necessarily asking for them to be as radically bold as The Dark Knight, a movie I’m still shocked got released in its current form. But go back ten years from now and I’d be more than happy to see movies take notes from Spider-Man 2. While I wouldn’t call it “unquestionably” the greatest superhero movie ever made, it understands and applies “the formula” of superhero movies better than virtually any other. Raimi’s Spider-Man doesn’t automatically transform into a badass when a spider bites him like Webb’s, in fact he still makes mistakes and lets people down and his life becomes much, much harder…and he goes and tries to do the right thing anyway. If movies reinforced that side of superheroes, instead of the indulgent, weirdly fascist junk food we’re getting from most them now, I’d be much more inclined to watch and defend them.
But the best of superhero movies still don’t approach the Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally highs of the romantic comedy. They used to provide us with some of the smartest movies ever, now the genre is one of the most indefensibly stupid, lazy, crass, and often sexist of all modern movies. Hang on…you’ve actually talked to people who thought Walk of Shame was good because a woman was the main character? Please tell me that was the worst defense of a bad movie you’ve seen this year!
Joey: Not for Walk of Shame specifically, but often for raunchy female-centric comedies (think The Sweetest Thing, for example) a defense from fans that I’ll see here and there is that because it’s the women being sexually frank or dirty, it’s worthwhile because it’s transgressive to the norm. They never take into account if it’s actually funny or not, which is weird to me.
Well, almost any defense of God’s Not Dead is pretty much the worst to me, though no defense will ever be as bad as the ones I encountered with 2016: Obama’s America when I reviewed that. I think some of the conversations about that one are still in the review’s comments section, and those were reasonable compared to some in-person issues I had with folks out to defend it. There were also those who completely ignored the carnage in Need for Speed by saying “it’s just trying to be like those Fast and Furious movies.” My response is that now you know why I dislike those movies, too.
Now I want you to try and be positive. What was the best part of each of your bottom five? Much like we can all find flaws in our top ten selections, what silver lining can you find with your bottom five?
Robert: You can forget about seeing anything nice written here about Dom Hemingway, the worst movie of 2014 so far. I cannot for the life of me recall a single element of that movie that isn’t tedious or offensive or grating or, most often, a combination of those. A lot of critics, including the ones who disliked it, seemed to find room to tip their hats to Jude Law’s “commitment,” but you’ll see none of that from me, especially when his dedication is to something so anti-entertaining.
I’ve already mentioned the surprisingly decent visuals of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Divergent has a pretty active cinematographer in Alwin H. Küchler, whose camerawork is kinetic and effective despite the pacing of the movie itself dragging like a dying sloth through a tar pit. It’s certainly a lot better than the shakycam of The Hunger Games, for example.
As for Chef, Emjay Anthony thankfully avoided indulging the Cute But Precocious Kid Who Helps Dad Become A Better Man stereotypes written into the character, and his scenes with Favreau were genuinely sweet.
That Awkward Moment has one funny joke – just one – where Mikey compares his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s new boyfriend’s looks to an actor that his friends don’t know. Him having to explain Morris Chestnut to his white friends is the only funny and the only clever…honestly, the only awkward moment in a film called That Awkward Moment that actually comes off as a believable exchange between human beings. Otherwise, I thought Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller had no rapport with each other at all…you sure you aren’t thinking of some other cast that “got to just riff and display some chemistry?” A cast that, you know, actually had some?
Joey: I think maybe I just wanted to like it so I looked for things? The joke you mention was amusing though, I agree. In any event, it’s not good, so we basically agree there. And so it goes…
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s final installment, where we actually reveal our favorite films of the first half of 2014!
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!