reviews by Thom Yee
Sometimes we run out of time for a full review, sometimes release dates don’t fit into our schedule, and sometimes we just don’t have much to say about the things we’ve just watched. Here are some quick reviews of some of 2014’s bigger – but not big enough – movies.
In many ways a towering achievement in filmmaking and in many more ways a simple, straightforward film about growing up, Boyhood is a strong work from every reasonable perspective, but is obviously most notable for its production schedule. Shot over the course of twelve (12!) years, the ambition of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is almost staggering, particularly considering that the key figures in the movie’s production were far from stagnant in the intervening time — director Linklater delivered prolific work, including mainstream hits like School of Rock and the final two installments in his romantic drama series, Before Sunset and Before Midnight; Ethan Hawke, who plays the father in Boyhood, starred in more than twenty movies (even if nobody actually saw them); and even Ellar Coltrane, the boy himself, had roles in several other films throughout the teen years that formed the basis of his onscreen time in this film. It’s the sheer audacity of the concept combined with coherent storytelling that makes Boyhood one of the most notable movies of 2014.
As for the story itself? A little conventional. We follow Coltrane’s Mason from his six-year-old existence as a child of separated (and never married) parents, living with his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and sister as he moves from town to town, school to school, and stepfather to stepfather, and whether it’s hearing Coldplay’s “Yellow”, seeing the kids celebrate the release of the latest Harry Potter book, watching visits with their biological father, Mason Sr. (Hawke), or seeing Mason pack up as he sets off for college, it’s all strong stuff and really genuine, with most of the nuances of a real, honest life. Sure, it would have been nice if Mason’s various stepfathers didn’t all turn out to be jerks (though I was definitely on the side of Bill, Olivia’s second husband, when he blew up at everybody for Olivia’s serving squash for dinner; wtf squash, why do you taste so bad and why do moms continue to insist on serving you?), and sure, I’m doubtful of Mason’s career prospects as a photography major, but it’s all there onscreen and it rings true for the most part. Maybe the biggest compliment I can give the film is that I finally get the appeal of Ethan Hawke.
For me the hardest thing about reviewing Boyhood is that underneath the technical achievement, sound storytelling, and compelling (if conventional) themes is a pretty basic story about some kid growing up. The fact that it’s the same actors undergoing subtle changes year after year rather than different actors ten years removed after a time jump helps significantly in all of the disparate elements coming together so well, but at the end of the day, there’s really not too much to discuss. It’s a story about some kid growing up, going through things that are familiar, normal and true to growing up, and then the movie ends. Which is fine. Great even… but I don’t have much more to say.
Final Score: 9
My vote for this year’s most criminally under-rated movie of the year, Robert Downey Jr.’s The Judge is at least a good enough movie if not a pretty good one. I really don’t get what everybody’s problem was.
Robert Downey Jr. (and for a lot of us, that’s really all you need to say to get us to watch) plays Hank Palmer, big time defense attorney who finds himself defending his estranged father, small-town Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), from charges of voluntary manslaughter. The Judge is a movie far from reliant on the strength of its plot, it’s broader themes carried through by an all-star cast, including Vincent D’Onofrio, Vera Farmiga, and Billy Bob Thornton as Prosecutor Dwight Dickham. As far as acting forces go, Downey and Duvall are nearly unparalleled in terms of ability and screen presence, and it’s through their characters that the movie shines. Any movie can set out to tell a story about children who hate their parents, but the The Judge is a virtual master-class in the form, with emotional beats that land hard in a way that completely avoids being undercooked or overblown or maudlin. It hardly even matters what’s going on around the two, Downey and Duvall’s performances are worth the price of admission alone. Add in Billy Bob Thornton as Downey and Duvall’s nemesis in the film, and I think that’s more than enough to sell even the worst script, which The Judge is far from. It’s true that some of the choices are a little on the nose (Hank’s responsible for ruining his older brother’s chances at a pro baseball career and his younger brother’s a rainman-style autistic and his marriage is falling apart and his high school sweetheart stayed in his hometown and is still available?), but none of it ever feels all that forced or unnatural.
Finding The Judge to be a relatively strong movie almost made me wonder if I’m judging movies on their own merit or if I’m just naturally tuned to being contrary. So many critics disliked it, and here I am telling you it’s a worthwhile movie with faults that many movies have and, more importantly, strengths that few can match, and it’s hard not to think I’m just projecting a contrary viewpoint, but the truth is, I liked The Judge, and I would think the majority of people will as well. Besides, who can resist a movie where Robert Downey Jr. gets to fool around with a former girlfriend and her daughter?
Final Score: 8
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
Considering how much I’m inside the target market, considering that I did watch the original show, and considering how many of the toys I had, I am incredibly ambivalent towards the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a franchise. There is almost no change so drastic, no permutation so sacrilegious, no interpretation so off the mark that could ever arouse any deep-seated anger or revulsion inside me. All things considered, my TMNT attitude doesn’t make that much sense, but the truth is I just don’t care about the Turtles, and there’s almost nothing and nobody that could make me care less about them.
Nobody except Michael Bay.
And that’s a bad thing.
So let’s take a step back for a second. It’s Christmas 1988, and I’m all of just enough years old to watch cartoons, play with toys, obsess about the deadly art of ninjutsu, and retain a lot of the details of my life at that point. All winter long, you could only find the Donatello action figure, and sometimes Leonardo, when what to my wandering eyes should appear but Raphael and Michelangelo underneath the wrapping of presents from my favourite aunt and uncle, completing the set (that is until Mikey’s toy nunchakus broke apart since they were made from the cheapest, thinnest plastic, but that’s a story for another time). To this day, that remains my favourite memory of Christmas, and it helped to kick off a short-term obsession with the Turtles. Weekend specials would give way to daily airings, however, and all too soon the whole thing started to feel just that much less special. It was sometime shortly after receiving the “Pizza Thrower” — a treasured possession even to this day — that my interest in the franchise began to truly wane. Sure, the pizza thrower was a cool toy, but really, what offensive potential could be had from mechanically expelling high-velocity pizzas at your enemies (not to mention the high cost of projectiles and the waste of food that could be put to better use for any number of charitable causes; plus there’s a pizza on the seat, and they never clean it off, they just keep sitting on it?)? My theory is that my love for these heroes in a half-shell decreased in direct proportion to the quality of the show, and so it wasn’t long before my interest disappeared (and never recovered), even as my ability to move swiftly in the shadows, silent, as I dispatched my enemies, both personal and political, would continue to grow over the remainder of my pre-ten-year-old years.
This time around, after years of relaunches and restarts of varying success, Michael Bay is serving as producer, making such notable changes as the turtles originally being the pets of April O’Neil, learning ninjutsu from a book rather than directly from a master, and a sidekick role that even Will Arnett can’t bring to life, and I just. Didn’t. Care. In spite of rumours of major reboots and alien origins, what we got in the 2014 rendition of the TMNT was relatively minor changes (that still manage to detract), a more contemporary attitude (that wound up being self-admittedly a little creepy and stalker-ish), and a little more variation in costuming (y’know, like, bandanas and goggles and like that). It’s all fine, and up to a certain extent (roughly the movie’s halfway point) it kind of works, but by the end it comes across as largely unimportant and really unfocused. In the final tally, Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (no matter who directed it) isn’t a total waste of time, but only just so, and the best thing I can really say about it is that it wasn’t the slap in the face Age of Extinction was.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles final score: 5
A Walk Among the Tombstones
In the annals (that’s with two ‘n’s) of Liam Neeson’s over-aged-action-hero movies, A Walk Among the Tombstones just may go down as the grittiest. Whatever that means.
If you’re looking for over-the-top revenge fantasy, mind-bending plots that aren’t especially intricate, or catchy monologues about particular skills, you should probably look elsewhere. Based on the Lawrence Block novel of the same name and serving as the first in a potential series of movies, Walk introduces us to Matthew Scudder, former New York cop and current private investigator who becomes embroiled in the sinister machinations of a group of death fetishists.
The success or failure of A Walk Among the Tombstones lies almost entirely on the mood the film evokes and the mood with which one views it. As I said earlier, don’t go into this one expecting Taken-level action (or drama). Walk very much errs on the side of the probable, with gunmen who can’t be trusted to take down more than one or two bad guys by themselves, procedural work rather than questionable leaps in logic, and collateral damage aplenty. By far the film’s best and most jarring scene comes early in Scufred’s investigation as we track down a cemetery groundskeeper who’s found the remains of an earlier victim. After finding that the connection runs much deeper than merely finding a body, the groundskeeper suddenly elects to jump off a rooftop rather than face the wrath of the movie’s antagonists.
It’s an understated scene that lasts only a moment but speaks volumes of the kind of trouble Scudder’s found himself in. If that’s the kind of movie you’d like to see, and I wouldn’t blame you if you wouldn’t, then you’ll probably find A Walk Among the Tombstones to be much more fun than any ordinary visit to the cemetery.
A Walk Among the Tombstones final score: 7