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Trenches of the Black Land.

The descriptions of battle scenes in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ seem lifted from the grim memories of the trenches: the relentless artillery bombardment, the whiff of mustard gas, the bodies of dead soldiers discovered in craters of mud. In the Siege of Gondor, hateful orcs are ‘digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring,’ while others maneuver ‘great engines for the casting of missiles.'”

In the NYT, author and historian Joseph Loconte writes on the impact of the Battle of the Somme on young J.R.R. Tolkien. “When the Somme offensive was finally called off in November 1916, a total of about 1.5 million soldiers were dead or wounded.” (Among the deceased: my great-grandfather, Alfred Amory Sullivan.)

Catching Up: Books.

As the clown said, if you’re halfway decent at something, don’t do it for free. So, while it’s been quiet around here, and with the ginormous dissertation finally behind me, I’ve been focused on a few other published writing projects in recent years, either coming to or already on an Amazon website near you.

Prime Minister for Peace tells the story of Milan Panic, a California businessman who’s lived a Zelig-like life of sorts. As a child, he fought with the partisans against the Nazis in his native Yugoslavia. As a young man, he became an Olympic cyclist, and used that opportunity to escape Tito’s Communism and defect to the West. He then started a pharmaceutical business that made him a millionaire several times over.

This book focuses on his experiences in the 1990s, when he went back to the then-fragmenting Yugoslavia to serve as Prime Minister, and, in trying to bring peace to the Balkans, went toe-to-toe with Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, not to mention cynical Western diplomats and sundry other ethnic nationalists.

Buyer’s Remorse, my sixth collaboration with Bill Press since 2001 — he writes; I research, outline, edit, and fine-tune — covers, in a nutshell, all the many ways Barack Obama’s presidency let progressives down. If you’ve swung by here at any point in the past, you’ve already heard me go on about this at some length, so no need to belabor it here. (This book came pre-researched, in that regard.)

Interesting sidenote: This has been the biggest-selling book I’ve been involved with since the Carville/Ken Starr one in ’99, in part because the Clinton campaign tried to bash Bernie Sanders with it in the early primaries. (Clinton is apparently Obama’s biggest fan, except when she isn’t.)

And The Past and Future City, coming out this October, is what I’ve been working on this past spring, with NTHP president and CEO Stephanie Meeks. It makes the case for historic preservation in the 21st century and argues, in effect, this isn’t your grandparents’ preservation movement anymore.

All over America, historic buildings are helping make cities more desirable, and urban residents happier and healthier. They are spurring economic growth, nurturing start-up businesses, and creating jobs. They are reducing energy costs and environmental impact, and encouraging healthy living practices like walking and cycling. They are helping to provide solutions to challenges like affordability, displacement, and climate change. And they are turning diverse neighborhoods into communities, and helping us come to terms with the difficult chapters in our history. And the best part is, they’re already there — they just need smart, forward-looking policies to unlock their power and potential. On sale soon!

2014 In Film.

So, yeah, this is a little late — I believe the current parlance is “dragging” — but I have gotten in quite a bit of catch-up over the past two months. (In fact, I watched two of my top 25 this past week, including the aforementioned Whiplash — Thanks OnDemand!)

The only Best Picture contenders I missed in the end were American Sniper — yeah, no thanks — and The Imitation Game, which looks frightfully Oscar-baity to me, and apparently does rather poorly by Turing, so oh well. Otherwise, and now that those Oscars have come and gone, time to fish or cut bait. So here’s last year’s Top 25 at last!

Suffice to say, 2014 was a pretty lean year in cinema — as weak as any I can remember (and even then the Academy made a hash of it) — so here’s hoping for a higher average quality of prospects over the next ten months.

Top 25 Films of 2014
[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006/2007/
2008/2009/2010/2011/2012/2013/The Oughts]

1. Boyhood: YMMV, of course. But I thought Richard Linklater’s ambitious chronicle of an average Texas upbringing was the one real standout movie experience of 2014, and far and away the best film of the year.

While we’d seen glimmers of this sort of storytelling in the 7-Up documentaries, Linklater’s own Before series, and even the Harry Potter movies (where we watched all the Hogwarts kids grow up over the years), this remarkable coming-of-age tale felt like something entirely new. The degree of difficulty here is extraordinary, and yet Linklater and his dedicated adults — Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, whose onscreen aging makes the film that much more resonant — took what could’ve just been a gimmicky stunt or shapeless experiment-gone-wrong and imbued it with subtlety, nuance, and introspective intelligence.

In a sense, Linklater crafted with Boyhood the experience that Terence Malick clearly sweat bullets to approximate in The Tree of Life — how it’s the little things, the languid afternoons or random car trips, that stick with you as you grow up and/or grow old. But, unlike Malick’s more labored undertaking, Linklater makes the storytelling here seem effortless. Which of course, it wasn’t — this took 12 years! The magic of Boyhood is that that passage of time is woven into the fabric of the film itself. You sense it, slipping past you and the characters both, as you watch.

True, Oscar rarely gets it right — Last year was a notable exception in that regard. Still, as Dan Kois pointed out on Oscar night, snubbing Boyhood was an egregious mistake, and one that will speak poorly of the Academy’s judgment for many moons to come.

2. Only Lovers Left Alive: “There’s water here. And when the cities in the South are burning, this place will bloom.” Go long on Detroit, y’all: While the drop-off from Boyhood to the rest of the pack is a steep one, Jim Jarmusch’s wry-sexy-cool vampire saga Only Lovers Left Alive rests solid at #2. I’ve never been all that much of a Jarmusch fan — long-time readers may remember me wondering what the fuss was about over Dead Man. (And, at this late, post-Twilight date, who isn’t a little sick of cooler-than-thou, elitist vampires?) Still, Jarmusch et al nailed it here.

If Boyhood reflects how quickly the inexorable arrow of time speeds us along from four-legs to two-legs to three, Only Lovers and its bevy of bored blood drinkers suggest that timelessness can be kind of a drag after awhile also. Still, watching our heroes and heroines kick around the ruins of Detroit and Tangier is great fun and, with all due respect to whatever Joseph Gordon-Levitt is cooking up these days, it’s hard to imagine a better film made of Neil Gaiman’s Endless than what we have here. (Mia Wasikowska’s character in particular is the spitting image of Death.)

Also, while I liked her as the White Witch, I’ve generally found Tilda Swinton underwhelming in the past — See, for example, what I wrote about Michael Clayton back in the day. Here, she’s absolutely captivating. (As for Tom Hiddleston, he’s been doing the bored immortal schtick over at Marvel lately, so this isn’t too far afield for him.)

3. Edge of Tomorrow: I haven’t read the source material (Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill), but the concept of Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrowlater remonikered Live, Die, Repeat — seems pretty simple: It’s “Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers.” The beauty of Edge — easily the most fun and fully-realized thrill-ride of the summer — is that it milks this one basic idea for all it’s worth. The result is arguably the best video game movie we’ve yet seen, since Cruise’s character is basically playing Dark Souls here until he gets to the alien end-boss.

Speaking of which, Tom Cruise may be creepy as all hell in real life, but he continues to make excellent decisions on the action and sci-fi film front, and here’s he backed up by a very capable Emily Blunt — who hilariously promised she’d never make exactly this sort of film back in 2005 — and a number of wily, likable genre veterans: Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor, Bill Paxton. In a mostly forgettable summer, this is a movie that deserved to do better.

4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Is this ranked too high? Well, maybe, but The Winter Soldier was one of the most enjoyable experiences I had at the movies in 2014. Cap’s second outing is both a promising debut by the Russo Brothers, who are now apparently slated to take over the Avengers franchise after Joss Whedon, and a significant improvement over Joe Johnston’s sturdy first installment.

Perhaps the best part of The Winter Soldier — at a time when even those of us who wanted more comic movies back in the day are perhaps feeling a little buyers’ remorse — is the Alan Pakula, seventies-conspiracy-theory tone of its first two acts — heck, even Robert Redford is involved. The Winter Soldier demonstrates that Marvel is savvy enough to realize that not all their films have to feel the same (something we’ll hopefully see more of in their upcoming Netflix Daredevil series.)

As I said here, I’m not a big fan of the floating-helicarriers-again third act or the absurd death count in this film. Still, in this age of NSA overreach, CIA torture, and general 9/11 hysteria, it sure is nice to see Cap stand up for the real red, white, and blue.

5. Selma: Ava DuVernay’s powerful Selma — the best of the Oscar contenders besides Boyhood — applies the “House of Horrors” in-your-face approach of 12 Years of Slave to more recent American history, and quite rightfully portrays George Wallace and the cretinous cops of the white South as villains and thugs standing athwart freedom, progress, and basic human decency. Like Steve McQueen’s (better and more artful) film, it pointedly rubs the audiences’ face in the brutal crimes of Massive Resistance, both to evoke an emotional response and to stand as a much-needed corrective to all-too-many “white savior” movies like Mississippi Burning and Lincoln.

All that being said, I found it hard to take my history hat off during the movie, and on that end I felt like Selma had some issues. Much has been made of the treatment of LBJ — here are the briefs for the prosecution and the defense — and, while many films do worse violence to history, I still left the theater feeling like LBJ got screwed here. (His calling in a chit with J. Edgar was particularly galling.)

That aside, a bigger problem is that MLK himself seems off. As everyone knows, for copyright reasons, Selma couldn’t use any of Dr. King’s real words — which, by the way, is totally bizarre. Nonetheless, the words they came up with instead were tonally jarring — less memorable, too script-y, often (as at Jimmie Lee Jackson’s funeral) too on-the-nose. To me, they just didn’t sound like Dr. King, and didn’t capture either his poetic genius or his public persona.

However conflicted and exhausted he was in private (and this the film does well), his public voice — at least in 1965 — was more eloquent and more unshakeable in the conviction that freedom, justice, and the Beloved Community were inexorably going to win out. But, in a perfect world, the scriptwriter shouldn’t have had to reinvent the wheel — if you’re going to make a film about MLK, let the man speak his own words.

6. The Lego Movie: Everything is awesome? Well, for the two-odd hours The Lego Movie is on, it actually kinda is. What could’ve been a cheap-n-cheesy cash grab turned out to be a surprisingly fun trip to a witty meta-universe where the couches are double-decker, Lando hangs with Gandalf and Dumbledore, and Batman’s into therapeutic death metal. (“Darkness! No Parents! Super-Rich…kinda makes it better!”) And sure, the ending was a bit cloying — I’m on Team Kraggle, I guess — but I definitely didn’t expect that final reel going in.

7. Blue Ruin: I enjoy the cinema experience more than almost anyone I know, but tickets now on the north end of $12-a-pop means decisions have to be made on what to see with a crowd. So, for better or for worse, 2014 was the year that I embraced OnDemand for movie-watching.

One definite upside: the chance to catch movies like Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, a Coen-esque indie thriller about what happens when an average, loser-ish guy (Macon Blair) decides to seek revenge on the men who killed his parents, just like they do in the pictures. Ruin loses some steam as it goes along, but few movies this year so vividly conveyed that sickly, lurching “then THIS happened” feeling of watching a simple plan unravel.

8. Force Majeure: Man, Oscar had a bad year. Just as The Lego Movie was AWOL from the Best Animation category, this darkly funny Scandinavian import about a pater familias who fails in his prime directive during a family ski vacation was nowhere to be seen on the Foreign Film list. (This prompted another Majeure Man-Cry.) Force Majeure is likely not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s kinda hilarious if you vibe into it.

9.Whiplash: As Larry Mullen, Jr. once said of Achtung Baby, “I don’t think the lyrics are worth a shit to be honest, if you ask me. I think it’s all about drums!!” I actually caught this two nights ago, and to be honest, I call shenanigans on the Tiger Mom school of artistry that’s the film’s central conceit here. (As far as I know my sis never got ritualistically abused by a dance mentor, and she seemed to turn out ok.)

Nor did the stakes seem all that high to me — I guess, if I’m honest with myself, I just don’t care all that much about the world of jazz drummers. All that being said, this is a sleek, lean, well-made and very watchable audience picture with a fun performance at its core — the inimitable J.K. Simmons as the Hannibal Lecter of bandleaders. And it’s always great to see a long-time character actor get his due.

9. The Babadook: Stephen King once wrote — I think it was in Danse Macabre — that the secret to good horror is tapping into a real-life fear or anxiety. If so, I expect The Babadook would be much higher (or lower) on my list if I were a parent. For beyond all the freaky, stop-motion supernatural antics going on in this eerie Australian horror story, the real question haunting The Babadook is: “Wouldn’t your life be soooo much better if you just got rid of this %^&@%@ kid?” Well….wouldn’t it? If it’s in a word, or if it’s in a book, you can’t get rid of the Babadook…

11. CitizenFour: For all their other mistakes this year, big ups to the Academy (and HBO) for giving Laura Pointras’ CitizenFour a publicity boost. (And how weird was it to see Glenn Greenwald on the Oscar stage? Worlds collide!) I’ve written about Snowden at length here before, and nothing since then has convinced me I was wrong about him. (Sorry, but hysterical and completely 100% redacted warnings of damage, macho death threats from Pentagon dickbags, all-too-typical Hillary-running-right tsk-tsking, and outright lies by the NSA just aren’t getting the job done.)

I do wish CitizenFour had spent more time explaining exactly what Snowden revealed (it does a good job on metadata, for example) and less of him, say, futzing with his hair. Still, for humanizing Snowden and getting the other side of the story out there, this is an important and worthwhile film.

12. Locke: “Do it for the piece of sky we are stealing with our building…most of all, you do it for the fu**ing con-CRETE!” I’ll say this for Tom Hardy: Whether it’s The Dark Knight Rises, Bronson, Peaky Blinders (also by Locke‘s Steven Knight), or this film, half the fun of watching the man at work is doing impressions of him days and weeks after the fact. (Maybe it’s time to watch Star Trek: Nemesis again…lol, no, just kidding.)

All of Locke is just Hardy behind the wheel at night, muttering in a Welsh brogue about last year’s mistake and tomorrow’s “pour.” But damn if it isn’t engrossing for most of the drive.

13. The Double: Based on a Dostoyevsky novella and written and directed by British comedian Richard Ayoade, The Double resonated with me mainly, I confess, because it had the good sense to steal liberally from one of my favorite films (and this blog’s namesake), Brazil. Office satire, film noir sartorial sense, and unrequited love in a overly bureaucratic sci-fi dystopia? I’m in!

In any event, a fun two hours with very likable actors like Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, and Noah Taylor (the latter two also good in Only Lovers and Edge of Tomorrow this year respectively) And if the Eisenberg-Michael Cera Doubling dilemma even exists anymore — Eisenberg seems to have pulled away by now — I suppose this is Eisenberg’s answer to Cera’s Youth in Revolt.

14. Dear White People: A smart, well-written college satire of 21st century campus life — sort-of-a-Mean Girls meets Hollywood Shuffle — that’s both nuanced and topical about issues like being black in the Ivies and how white appropriation of hip-hop quickly devolves into egregious stereotypes. Writer-director Justin Simien is one to watch.

15. Guardians of the Galaxy: I thought the 70’s nostalgia was a little overdone, but still: With the help of some Douglas Adams sensibility and Chris Pratt’s aw-shucks amiability — still not sure if that’ll wash for Indiana Jones — James Gunn managed to tackle a complicated Marvel property and fashion a fun and broadly engaging space opera out of it, one that somehow didn’t turn off mainstream audiences despite having a talking raccoon and Wookie tree along for the ride. (Special props to Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer — he was much better than I’d anticipated.) So gratz on that, tho’ I’ll be realllly impressed if they actually manage to pull off The Inhumans. Lockjaw or go home!

16. The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies: Oh, PJ…well, 4.5 out of 6 ain’t bad. Battle of the Five Armies is a solid-enough Middle Earth fantasy battle pic, I suppose, and moderately engaging when taken on its own. I’m just no longer sure at this point what it had to do with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

There are any number of small problems here. First off, the fact that Smaug the Magnificent is taken care of before the title card suggests that maybe his final fate should’ve been sorted out in the second film. (And cut that awful Alien 3 homage at the end of Smaug too please — it makes the Great Wyrm a buffoon.) Second, having to pad out an entire movie from what’s left means a lot of filler — everything about Alfrid, the Unibrow of Laketown, was cringeworthy.

More importantly, tho’, I get why Jackson wanted to tie The Hobbit closer to Lord of the Rings thematically and aesthetically, but doing so ruins the whole point of the Battle of Five Armies. This was Tolkien in WWI mode — the battle is a ghastly and ludicrous mistake set off by greed and misunderstanding. But as portrayed here, it’s instead a prelude to the WWII, “Good Fight” of LotR against the encroaching menace of Sauron. So instead of Tolkien skirting over the battle because it’s a bunch of nonsense that Hobbits rightfully shouldn’t be caught up in, we get two hours of honor and glory and sacrifice and more martial humdrum. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for that — it’s called The Lord of the Rings.

As a result, Bilbo is very much a passive participant in the film that’s ostensibly telling his story, and that’s a shame. I wouldn’t say additions are necessarily the problem — far and away the best part of this movie is the White Council showing up at Dol Guldur. But it looks like there were probably two great films to make from this source material — not three. The Battle of the Five Armies is still a very competently made action epic, and one that’s engaging from moment to moment. But, sadly, it’s the least of PJ’s six Tolkien films. We’ll always have Fellowship.

17. Under the Skin: Definitely the better of the two super-powered Scarlett Johansson movies of 2014 (oh wait — there were three; I forgot about The Winter Soldier), I still liked Under the Skin less than many of the raves (and, for that matter, less than Jonathan Glazer’s earlier film, Sexy Beast.) Whatever hidden depths others found in those black oily waters, I found it mostly a slow, surface-feeding sci-fi/horror film that was only semi-involving. Still, it was unique, and had some indelible images on occasion, not the least the final shot of soot mingling with snow.

18. Ida: As a grad school friend well put it, this Polish import about a orphaned nun-to-be discovering her roots is “stunningly sterile.” It’s a beautifully-shot film — Ida well-deserved its Best Cinematography nod — and the film offers a memorably well-drawn character in Ida’s world-weary aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). But otherwise, there’s not much there there. Literally: This movie only clocks in at 82 minutes. This is more of a short story than anything — not a bad short story, by any means, but I much preferred Force Majeure and The Babadook as far as 2014 imports go.

19. Jodorowsky’s Dune: Of all sad words of tongue or penJodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about a failed cuckoo-bananas version of Frank Herbert’s classic, is good fun for several reasons. First, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky remains a ebullient personality at age 86. Second, the sheer ambition that went into this film is staggering (Salvador Dali as the Emperor? Orson Welles as Harkonnen? Mick Jagger as Feyd? Whoa.) Third, it’s interesting to notice how many other movies ended up ripping off the work done for this flick, even decades later with Prometheus. All-in-all, a lively documentary about what might’ve been.

20. The Zero Theorem: Also mining the Brazil aesthetic this year was its original envisioner, Terry Gilliam. The actual story here — about a introverted computer programmer (Christoph Waltz) seeking to find meaning through either a long-awaited phone call, the attentions of a beautiful call girl (Melanie Thierry), or theorem that will explain everything/nothing — could use some work, sure.

But the main joy in Zero Theorem is in the canvas it provides for Gilliam to rethink his Brazilian dystopia for modern times. (See, for example, Waltz being chased around by a Gwendoline Christie ad.) I’ll be the first to admit the film gets lost in its second hour, but I still enjoyed this chance for Gilliam to indulge his creativity and sense of humor, be it David Thewlis in a Tigger-suit, Peter Stormare and Ben Whishaw showing up as mad doctors, or Matt Damon in zebra stripes.

21. Still Alice: In all honesty, Still Alice mostly comes across as a well-above-average Lifetime medical movie of the week — it doesn’t have anywhere near the horrible gravitas of, say, Amour. And I think the story here would be more interesting — a la the triumph over stuttering in The King’s Speech — if the person trying to overcome Alzheimer’s was of more limited means than Julianne Moore’s uber-yuppie professor and her family here.

Still, Moore is very, very good in Alice, and her recent Best Actress win is deserved for her slip-sliding away in this film as much as for her impressive body of work over the years.

22. The Grand Budapest Hotel: As I said last spring, I was down on Budapest. To me, this seemed like a fall away from the heights of 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom back to the more kitschy, solipsistic Wes Anderson of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited. Budapest almost felt like a parody of Andersonian tics — the trains, the sets, the whiteness — and, for whatever reason, I didn’t cotton to its spates of cartoon-y violence.

Plus, it may be like complaining about an Archduke Ferdinand joke at this point — and, it’s true, I hardly ever don’t find angry Hitler videos funny — but Anderson’s kitschy SS Banners fluttering about the hotel put me off. Worked for some, I know, but I personally found it a mite weird and distasteful to make a Holocaust film so precious and twee.

23. Le Weekend: Think of it as Before Morning. There’s not much to Le Weekend other than Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan kvetching to and about each other over the course of a brief Paris vacation. (Well, that’s not entirely true — there’s also a winning and well-preserved Jeff Goldblum who shows up to enliven everything in the middle going.) Still, this small film has the benefit of well-observed relationship dynamics and two great actors at work in Duncan and Broadbent. Very much in the same ballpark as Linklater’s Jesse-and-Celine series, and worthwhile in the same way.

24. Snowpiercer: Like Under the Skin and Grand Budapest, I enjoyed this dystopic comic book adaptation by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho less than a lot of the critics. Even notwithstanding the oh-so-Korean-cinema cleaver attacks in the second act, both its physics and its politics are cartoonish to the extreme. (Taking the former, all I kept thinking as they moved up the train was: shouldn’t you be walking through dozens of living quarters at some point? On the latter, sure, making Captain America(!) a dupe of the powers-that-be is funny, but you’re telling me John Hurt’s character enjoyed playing Emmanuel Goldstein so much he ripped off his own limb? C’mon.)

Still, however nonsensical, Snowpiercer had its moments, from Tilda Swinton’s Thatcher-hatchet job to the swing through Alison Pill’s kindergarten class. I’ve seen worse.

26. John Wick: As in other years, the last spot is up for grabs. This could’ve been A Most Wanted Man or Calvary or Nightcrawler or We are the Best. But, as with Dredd a few years ago, I like to reward #25 to a genre movie that knows exactly what it is and makes no qualms about it. In this case, John Wick, a balletic action/revenge movie that does The Raid-style action remarkably well. I’d checked out a little bit by the car-centric final reel, but the club sequence was a-mazing.

MOST DISAPPOINTING:


Interstellar: Hey, you know what would’ve made Gravity better? If, instead of lamenting her dead kid, Sandra Bullock went back in time for the last thirty minutes to see her again! Because there’s no way audiences are going to be interested in this outer space stuff unless we glom it on to a treacly soap-opera-level story about missing fathers and second chances!

Honestly…w…t…f. Interstellar had issues from the start — nothing about getting McConaughey into space makes much sense — but there were still some positives along the way: The wave planet is suitably nightmarish, and Matt Damon’s character is an interesting wrinkle. But then that Looney Tunes, saccharine final act came along and all goodwill I had for the movie was sucked out into the vastness of space. A weird miss by Christopher Nolan — here’s hoping for better next time.

THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES:

Birdman: The irony of Birdman is that the one part of the movie that may well have deserved an Oscar — Michael Keaton’s comeback performance — is the one that got short shrift. (Eddie Redmayne got the award for degree-of-difficulty instead, in the Oscar-baity and completely conventional The Theory of Everything. Because, wow, he doesn’t really have ALS!)

Anyway, with the exception of the game cast, this movie is pretentious and terrible from the word go. Everything else about it: that godawful subtitle, the interminable jazz drums, the ideas that sound smart but are awfully shallow, the high-schoolish references to Raymond Carver and Macbeth, the looking down on comic book movies which are usually better thought out than this affected drek, the delusions of artistic grandeur — is obnoxious and hollow. It’s like a two-hour adaptation of David Denby’s whiny complaint that people who saw The Matrix should read Cheever instead.

The only positive thing I can say about Birdman is that it’s better than Inarritu’s 21 Grams, a film which is terrible for almost exactly the same reasons — and even that’s not much of a positive, because I laughed harder during 21 Grams than I think I have in any movie before or since. This is just a lousy, pretentious movie — but it’s about how hard it is in Hollywood when nobody understands your integrity as an artist (#firstworldshowbusinessproblems) so like Argo and The Artist, let’s give it an Oscar.

Foxcatcher: Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher isn’t as offensively lousy as Birdman, but it is rather full of itself, not nearly as deep as it thinks it is, and deadly dull to boot.

Miller strains hard to make the tragic tale of uber-wealthy paranoid schizophrenic John Eluthere Du Pont (Steve Carell) and his fascination with Olympic wrestling (and specifically with Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum)) a metaphor for wayward father figures, the tyrannical predilections of the super-rich, and the death of the American Dream. And, yes, I’m inclined to agree that 1%’ers are generally awful, exploitative people, and success in America is all-too-often a rigged game. But tell me something I don’t know, like, I dunno, the story of why Du Pont shot Mark’s brother, Olympic coach Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo).

Instead, we get two gray and glacial hours of Tatum playing Mopey McGee, followed by a random-feeling leap to almost a decade later which briefly covers the murder. Tatum can be an engaging actor, but he’s bereft of his usual charisma here — he just grunts at things, eats sad dinners alone in his kitchen, and occasionally wrestles the pain away. (In the first five minutes, when Tatum waits in line — decline-of-America metaphor alert! — at the world’s grayest, saddest McDonalds, I figured we might be in trouble.)

For his part, Carell is solid enough as Du Pont, but he’s given an unfortunate putty nose which makes his performance seem like even more of an against-type stunt. The best part of Foxcatcher is Ruffalo, who doesn’t have much to do but is given one standout scene where he has to contemplate selling out on camera. Otherwise, this film is a portentous slog.

MOST UNFAIRLY MALIGNED:

Robocop: Like John Carter and Ender’s Game in this category in years past, Jose Padilha’s remake of Robocop isn’t an amazing film or anything, and it doesn’t hold a candle to Paul Verhoeven’s twisted, misanthropic classic.

But having watched this reboot several months after it bombed in theaters, I was surprised to discover it actually isn’t half-bad — The filmmakers had actually put some thought into how to update the story in a clever way. Like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it also features a surprisingly-not-all-that-hammy performance from Gary Oldman. And months before Birdman, the beginnings of Michael Keaton’s 2014 comeback were laid here. Again, a Saturday afternoon movie at best, but this wasn’t the remake atrocity it was made out to be.

THE REST:

Worth Netflixing: Calvary, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Fault in Our Stars, Frank, God’s Pocket, Godzilla, Gone Girl, Horns, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt. I, The Immigrant, Inherent Vice, Kill the Messenger, Life Itself, A Most Wanted Man, Neighbors, Nightcrawler, Noah, Palo Alto, The Skeleton Twins, The Theory of Everything, We Are The Best, X-Men: Days of Future Past

Don’t Bother: 300: Rise of an Empire, The Amazing Spiderman 2, Devil’s Knot, Fading Gigolo, Filth, Lucy, The Monuments Men, Nymphomaniac, Transcendence, St. Vincent, This Is Where I Leave You

Best Actor: Tom Hardy, Locke

Best Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Unseen: 3 Days to Kill, Alan Partridge, American Sniper, Annie, Begin Again, Belle, Big Eyes, Big Hero 6, Blended, Cesar Chavez, Chef, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Divergent, Dom Hemingway, Draft Day, The Drop, Dumb and Dumber To, Earth to Echo, Endless Love, The Equalizer, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Fury, The Gambler, God Help the Girl, The Giver, Heaven is For Real, The Homesman, I Frankenstein, If I Stay, The Imitation Game, Into the Storm, Into the Woods, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Jersey Boys, Joe, The Judge, Labor Day, Let’s Be Cops, Left Behind, Life After Beth, Maleficent, The Maze Runner, Million Dollar Arm, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Mommy, A Most Violent Year, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Mr. Turner, Muppets Most Wanted, Need for Speed, Nonstop, The November Man, Nurse 3D, Oculus, Pompeii, Ride Along, The Rover, Sabotage, Sex Tape, The Signal, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Starred Up, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, They Came Together, Think Like a Man Too, Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Trip, Top Five, Tusk, Two Days One Night, Unbroken, Veronica Mars, Walk of Shame, Wild, The Wind Rises, Winter’s Tale

    A Good Year For:
  • Brazil Homages (The Double, The Zero Theorem)
  • Chris Pratt (The LEGO Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy)
  • Jazz Drums (Birdland, Whiplash)
  • Marvel (Captain America: TWS, Guardians of the Galaxy)
  • Stars Driving Around the UK (Locke, Under the Skin)
  • Tilda Swinton’s Thatcher Impression (Snowpiercer, Zero Theorem)

    A Bad Year For:
  • The Family Dog (Calvary, John Wick, The Babadook)
  • Hydra (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, CitizenFour)
  • Parenting (The Babadook, Force Majeure)
  • Sony (The Amazing Spiderman 2, The Interview)

2015: Ant-Man, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Blackhat, Chappie, Cinderella, Crimson Peak, The Fantastic Four, Far from the Madding Crowd, Fifty Shades of Gray, Frankenstein, Furious 7, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt II, Inferno, The Jungle Book, Jupiter Ascending, Jurassic World, Kingsman: The Secret Service, London Has Fallen, Mad Max: Fury Road, Magic Mike XXL, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, The Martian, Midnight Special, Minion, Mission Impossible 5, Paddington, Peanuts, Penguins of Madagascar, Pitch Perfect 2, Poltergeist, San Andreas, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Seventh Son, Silence, SPECTRE, Straight Outta Compton, Taken 3, Terminator: Genisys, Tomorrowland, The Walk, The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, and


“There has been an awakening…can you feel it?”

The Fields Under Lock and Key | In Eclipse.

“Miller, whose parents would rouse him in the wee hours to watch space launches, was awestruck by Launch Complex 19, where the manned Gemini missions took off. It was slowly rusting away, and Miller resolved to photograph it while there was still time. It took two years of haggling before he made his first images of Cape Canaveral…Since then, he has photographed sites nationwide, including Johnson & Kennedy space centers, the Marshall & Stennis Space Flight centers, Langley Research Center and many more.”

In Wired, photographer Roland Miller captures the decaying infrastructure of the early space race. “As launch pads were replaced, retrofitted or decommissioned, Miller was invited inside. By his estimate, 50 percent of the things he’s photographed no longer exist. ‘It’s not in NASA’s mission to conserve these sites,’ he says. ‘With shrinking budgets it’s an impossible thing to do.'”

***

“There’s not only last week’s deadly crash by Virgin Galactic, which hoped to launch widespread space tourism, or the unexpected explosion of a rocket headed toward the International Space Station. The United States also retired the space shuttle fleet in 2011. And…we now spend less on NASA — relative to the wealth of overall economy — than at any point in history.”

In very related news, and in the wake of Interstellar (which, on account of all the reasons I just mentioned, I haven’t seen yet), the Post‘s Zachary Goldfarb briefly surveys our current neglect of the space program. (Here’s what we’ve got planned at the moment.) “As recently as 2012, polling showed that more Americans than ever before thought that we were spending too little.”

Diana of Themyscira.

“‘Wonder Woman’s origin story comes straight out of feminist utopian fiction. In the nineteenth century, suffragists, following the work of anthropologists, believed that something like the Amazons of Greek myth had once existed, a matriarchy that predated the rise of patriarchy. ‘The period of woman’s supremacy lasted through many centuries,’ Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in 1891. In the nineteen-tens, this idea became a staple of feminist thought.”

From the recent bookmarks: Jill Lepore previews her new book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, in The New Yorker. “Superman owes a debt to science fiction, Batman to the hardboiled detective. Wonder Woman’s debt is to feminism. She’s the missing link in a chain of events that begins with the woman-suffrage campaigns of the nineteen-tens and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later. Wonder Woman is so hard to put on film because the fight for women’s rights has gone so badly.”

Migrant Malkovich.

“After selecting thirty-five images to emulate, Sandro contacted Malkovich, who instantly agreed to participate…Sandro states: ‘John is the most brilliant, prolific person I know. His genius is unparalleled. I can suggest a mood or an idea and within moments, he literally morphs into the character right in front of my eyes.'”

Malkovich, Malkovich. Malkovich, Malkovich… Ok, so this is pretty transparent blogger-bait, but, hey, I have a blog! John Malkovich recreates 100 famous photographs for artist Sandro Miller. “Sandro Miller ‘has been photographing people for over thirty years. He became interested in photography at the age of sixteen upon seeing the work of Irving Penn and has since devoted his life to creating expressive images.'”

No Labels — Only Roadkill.

It was the dream of a bunch of wealthy and bored coastal elites who’d determined that the biggest problem facing America was ‘partisanship,’ and that the answer was to give up ‘ideology’ and instead pursue a ‘centrist’ agenda composed mainly of moderately conservative budget reforms and gimmicky demonstrations of bipartisan comity. The fact that ‘centrism’ itself is as much an ideology as liberalism or conservatism didn’t matter – the cause was righteous, and the donations were plentiful.”

Building on this recent piece by Meredith Shiner, Simon Maloy eviscerates the quintessentially Beltway idiocy of No Labels. “Their stated intention is to be high-minded ‘problem solvers’ in Washington who will cut through the gridlock, but most of what they do is silly and self-defeating, and most of the money they raise is spent on promoting themselves.”

See also this worthwhile May 2012 post at Driftglass, where I found the handy historical graph above: “The Big Lie of Centrism is the Magic Lie. The Philosopher’s Stone of lies which has transmuted dozens of mediocre hacks into Very Wealthy and Serious Persons…The Maginot Line of the Beltway Media can withstand any assault as long the Big Lie of Centrism remains intact.”

The Passion of Gamaliel.

“The correspondence is intimate and frank — and perhaps the most sexually explicit ever by an American president. Even in the age of Anthony Weiner sexts and John Edwards revelations, it still has the power to astonish. In 106 letters, many written on official Senate stationery, Harding alternates between Victorian declarations of love and unabashedly carnal descriptions.”

The NYT publishes excerpts from the recently-unearthed love letters of Warren G. Harding, obviously a big character in my dissertation. “The president often wrote in code, in case the letters were discovered, referring to his penis as Jerry and devising nicknames, like Mrs. Pouterson, for Phillips.”

Oof. Poor guy. Politics, scandals and Teapot Dome aside, Harding was an eminently likable fellow, with a keen sense of his own limitations. It’s hard not to feel embarrassed for him, even 90 years later, that these are now out there among the public.

The silver lining for the Hardings, I suppose, is that at least Mencken never got his hands on these. Suffice to say, he was no fan of the president’s prose. “H]e writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.”

Backstream Color.

“Typically one might think of a ‘colorized photo’ as being kind of garish and tasteless, with broad one-color strokes with no regard to detail or any attempt at subtlety or nuance…But a newer generation of colorizers, such as the community of artists at r/ColorizedHistory, approach colorizing with a real reverence towards history, using their skills to eliminate the distraction of the “colorization,” ultimately bringing these scenes to life with a natural realism that hopefully connects the viewer to the past in a new way.”

A follow-up to this post: Paleofuture‘s Matt Novak discusses the art and craft of colorizing historical photos with colorizer Dana Keller. “If done well, the addition of color can help “connect” people to history. It can bridge the gap from a seemingly distant event and make it more immediate and relevant.”

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