The Movie Club is a weeklong conversation about the year in film. Read all the entries here.
Dear Stephanie, Dana, and David,
What an awful day, everyone. I’m writing this while listening to reports on the Charlie Hebdo attack. Writers and cartoonists are compatriots. Punish one paper for printing their minds, and it’s a strike on us all. My heart is in Paris right now.
Dana, I’m 100 percent with you on Birdman. The key problem is that Alejandro González Iñárritu allows the camera to wander away from Michael Keaton for two-person scenes with Emma Stone and Edward Norton. Not that they weren’t both wonderful in the movie! But to work, Birdman has to be about Riggan’s increasingly crazed POV. The camera can’t leave him or the whole thing crumbles—especially that pseudo-symbolic ending, which to me didn’t so much signify Riggan’s rebirth or whatever as much as Iñárritu’s hope the audience would catch his Hail Mary pass. With two tweaks, I’d consider Birdman a mini-masterpiece: cut the Stone/Norton subplot and end the movie 10 minutes earlier with that final onstage scene with the prop gun. When that curtain came down, I thought, “Now that’s how you end a movie.” Except Iñárritu couldn’t resist that one last satirical jab at social media.
Stephanie, I have a proposal for you. Let’s you and me buy an old leper colony and squat there watching A Million Ways to Die in the West on repeat. We may be two of the only critics in the country who thought Seth MacFarlane’s disdain for all things old—the ignorant rednecks, the superstitious doctors, and mind-numbing pre-TV boredom—was a hoot. Honestly, I was so shocked at my own laughter that I bought a ticket and watched it twice—and liked it just as much.
Maybe MacFarlane was just born four decades too early. He should be slinging quips with Mel Brooks, but today, we’re too desensitized to howl at jokes that were dangerously edgy in the 1970s. To startle audiences in 2014, MacFarlane has to go so far over the line that he offends 90 percent of America. It’s gotta be hard today to have a real edge. The comedians who have one—Louis C.K., Chris Rock—seem to be sharpening it either on their inner sadness or on their political outrage. Both are great and necessary, but they’re much harder to write a movie around then, say, Adam Sandler riding an ostrich, to pick on a movie with an even worse Rotten Tomatoes score than A Million Ways to Die in the West.
At least Blended had an extended cameo from macho goofball Terry Crews. If the comedies of 2014 had a theme, it might have been: put Terry Crews in everything. I saw three stinkers this year that were rescued, however momentarily, by his chest-popping, hip-swiveling charms.
But on to another T.C.: I wrote a lot this year about Tom Cruise—possibly more than anyone might want to read—and sat down to see Edge of Tomorrow with some anxiety. My Cruise conundrum is that I’m both invested in wanting him to succeed and readily deflated. I care too much.
Copping to that, I thought Edge of Tomorrow was great—great and meh. I loved the story, the ambition, the freshness, the shifty, skippy editing that made the audience race after it like merry drunks. I loved Cruise’s performance—one part send-up of his own screen image, two parts Wile E. Coyote. But Cruise has gotta stop it already with the expensive sci-fi blockbusters. I feel like he’s still questing for that $600 million hit that will prove he’s still got it. He does still have it, but it’s time to do a smart drama and remind the world he can really act. It’s time for that fourth Oscar nomination. So, while I adored Edge of Tomorrow (or All You Need Is Kill or Live Die Repeat or Hey It’s That Cruise Thing You Heard Was Good or whatever they’re calling it on airplanes this month), I wish he’d take a five-year break before making anything else like it. Someone else can pick up the mantle. Paging Channing Tatum.
Two years ago, I would have said “Paging Chris Pratt,” but it turns out he’s doing just fine. Like Stephanie, I didn’t enlist in the Guardians of the Galaxy, though if I had, I’d have liked to be an ass-kicking space flamingo. Pratt has a unique energy: He’s daffy and handsome, self-mocking and sincere—plus, there’s that wild glint in his eye. On TV’s Parks and Recreation, he gets to be all of those things. But the screen has yet to fully harness his powers—like Ryan Reynolds, it’s trying to put him in the box office hero box when he’s so much weirder and more wonderful.
But back to Channing Tatum. Stephanie, several missives back, you wrote about finally joining Team Tilda and said, “It’s so joyous when someone surprises you.” In 2014, Channing Tatum surprised me twice. First, he carried the comedy in 22 Jump Street. That guileless joy when he discovers his himbo soul mate! Who knew he could do that? And then, he outacted both Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher, which is no small feat as all three were terrific (if only the script deserved those performances). Both movies made full use of Tatum’s body: scrambling up walls, vaulting over beer kegs, grappling with other burly dudes. Maybe in a past life I was a 1930s scout for a studio’s star-making factory, but I thrill to see actors who, to quote Liam Neeson, have a very particular set of skills. (See also: my love for Zac Efron, and even MacFarlane above.)
On that note, it’s time to bow down to Get On Up’s Chadwick Boseman, an underdog in the Best Actor Oscar race for no reason I can fathom. He made a powerhouse James Brown—earthy, striving, profane, and double-jointed in places where I didn’t even know humans had joints. The role seemed to sweat out of Boseman’s pores. Of course, for better and worse, Boseman’s talent hasn’t gone unrecognized by Marvel Studios, who’ve snatched him up to play the Avenger Black Panther in two films that should tie him up for a while. I swear, I’m starting to wonder if every young male ingénue in Hollywood shares the same agent because they all follow the same advice: get critics to love you, then do a superhero blockbuster to win over everyone else.
Dana, you’re singing my tune in your woeful ballad about blockbuster domination. The schtick is that critics hate comic book flicks. But we do resent how they’ve hounded everything else toward extinction.
Still, as critics we have to review every movie fairly—very fairly. That’s one of the hard parts of the job: sitting down in the theater for, say, Grown-Ups 2 with an open heart. It’s almost like pulling into the parking lot for a blind date: You have to leave your baggage in the car. And then five minutes in, your date tells a racist joke or Dennis Dugan has Sandler battle a urine-dripping deer. Check please.
To that point, David, I’m curious to know if any of this year’s comic book heavy hitters hit a home run with you? Captain America: The Winter Soldier? X-Men: Days of Future Past? Are you a Guardians man? A sucker for Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy? If John Lithgow swaggered up to you at a urinal wearing a Spider-Man mask and challenged you to prove you’re no art-house snob, what would be your defense? Speak now, or forever hold your pee.
As James (I mean, Mister) Brown would say: “It’s too funky in here,”