Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Charles Cassady Jr.'s 2014 movie year in review

I was reading the 1965 Playboy interview with Peter O'Toole, who passed away a little over a year ago at this time. In it, the reporter asked what O'Toole would like inscribed on his tombstone after he died. O'Toole said "`Oh Christ, What a pity!'"

I do not know whether that request was honored after O'Toole's burial. After all, nobody reads Playboy for the articles (except me - that's why I have no friends). However, may I at least try to make some small amends for the late O'Toole by saying that this epitaph might just as well serve as a summary of the year in Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that was 2014:

"Oh Christ, what a pity."

After a weak spring and a lackluster summer, (yes, I know, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER made Marvel-loads of money, but it just used Cleveland as a backdrop; I prefer to dwell on the negative) spectators of the movie racket judged it the worst fiscal year for Hollywood since the abysmal annum of 1997, a date I remember with special unhappiness as well.

BigSummerBlockBusters came and went like disposable, overpriced white elephants. Offscreen, humanity's calamities, atrocities, epidemics, and bizarre happenings ranged from disappearing airliners to war in Gaza, Ukraine, and Syria, American race riots, Ebola, beheadings, Islamofascism, an epic fail of a White House administration, and the US misadventure in Iraq finally paying off as an exercise in tragic futility (unless you were a Halliburton stockholder). Compared with those, the mainstream cinema's comic-book-inspired aesthete felt phony and irrelevant.

Considering that I'm the guy who writes for the Cleveland Movie Blog, yet mainly finds movies annoying (and don't ask about Cleveland), you would think that I would rejoice in the cinema's humiliating anno horribulus of 2014. But I can't. Because I heard a broadcast with a smug entertainment-industry expert who said don't worry, 2015 is going to make up for it and become the most financially successful year in Hollywood history. Ever.

Why? Lots of big-budget sequels, mostly with comic-book superheroes, he said, matter-of-factly.

I wonder if I could have done anything useful with my life if I hadn't become a movie reviewer.

How bad was 2014? The movie year 2014 was sooo bad...Ricky Jackson, a local man, was freed from prison after having spent nearly 40 years behind bars, due to fabricated testimony against him and two friends (paroled 10 years ago) in a 1975 Cleveland murder. The first thing the men did after their exonerations: go to the movies. Afterwards, they asked if the judge could review their cases and please consider sending them back inside. 

The movie year was sooo bad...LeBron James returned to Cleveland. A Cleveland Movie Blog investigation finally found why. His former city of residence, Miami, is economically in much better shape than Cleveland. Miami thus has more movie screens. Our own No.23 is counting on NE Ohio's picture palaces and multiplexes closing down during Ohio's endless recession. With those screens gone dark, LeBron's young family will be saved from the unholy influence of movies. Maybe LeBron tells his kids that movies aren't real, they're just make-believe horrible things that parents use to frighten their kids into behaving, like the boogie man and Eric Holder.

The movie year was sooo bad...A California youth whose father (or stepfather...or step-step-stepfather; it is California, you know) worked on THE HUNGER GAMES series went on a killing-spree rampage he dubbed "Retribution Day" over the fact that he (the son, that is) was still a virgin and girls were snubbing him. Okay, now, something's not right here. California, as we know, is a magnet for nubile, promiscuous girls from across the country wanting to break into showbiz. Being related to someone on THE HUNGER GAMES bandwagon would be like crack cocaine to those little tramps. There's no reason on Earth why this guy should not have been smothered with lustful female attention...unless he had career leanings to be a movie critic. That would explain things. Especially the lifelong-virgin part. I speak from experience.

The movie year was sooo bad...You know those teens in Bay Village who got in trouble for dumping a bucket of urine and cigarette butts on their autistic friend? During a police inquiry, it came out that the autistic was given a choice between that and being forced to go to Regal Cinemas at Crocker Park and watching SEX TAPE. Naturally he took the more humane option. Me, I would push for acquittal.

The movie year was sooo bad...Bill Cosby. Need I say more? What to add to a dynamic, world-class multimedia talent whose legacy is now irretrievably ruined. Except that, as a fan who was fortunate enough to see Cosby perform live here at the old Front Row Theater, I still hold out hope that Cosby is innocent. That the entire scandal is a frame job, orchestrated by a group of obsessed, hateful, bitter women still vengeful that they spent time and money going to see LEONARD PART 6 and GHOST DAD.

The movie year was sooo bad...A travel magazine named Cleveland as number 7 on the ten ugliest cities in America. Oh well, now at least we know now at least one person went to see the Ivan Reitman/Kevin Costner Cleveland Browns drama DRAFT DAY. Yes, Jennifer Garner as a Cleveland girl, one who loves football. Right. And the Browns appear to be bound for the Superbowl by the finale, too. Hey, if I wanted to watch way-out science fiction, I would have gone to EDGE OF TOMORROW when its disappointing performance landed it early in the second-run theaters.

The movie year was sooo bad...We lost golden-age-of-Hollywood stars Lauren Bacall and the 104-year-old Luise Rainer, the latter dying just in the closing hours of the year. Once again, behold the corrosive and degrading side effects of silver-screen celebrity. Who knows how much longer these talented women might have lived and what worthy things they might have accomplished were they not cut down in the prime of life by the damnation represented by movies. You'd better be paying close attention, Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes!

The movie year was sooo bad...You know that famous Christmas-season display of multiple gingerbread houses that are found this season at the Cleveland Botanical Garden? This year there was a scandal, as police descended on one and discovered that, sure enough, there was a gingerbread man secretly holding three long-missing gingerbread women hostage as sex slaves. What does have to do with movies? Nothing. I just thought myself clever and twisted for thinking that up, so I repeat it every year. Hope it turns into a "meme."

The movie year was sooo bad...the new President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is Slender Man. Sooo bad that Robin Williams' suicide was finally attributed to Entertainment Weekly's Fall Movie Preview issue. Sooo bad that...it was within sight of being as bad as 2013. But fell short of that milestone of awfulness. Just as Cleveland always takes solace that at least we're not Detroit.

The movie year 2014 was sooo bad...Okay, the Sony Pictures super-hacking scandal surrounding THE INTERVIEW. When I first heard the news, it really smacked to me of an old-school publicity stunt.

I can't blame those who, even today, who write off the INTERVIEW hack, embarrassing e-mail broadbanding, and terror threats against theaters, as a similar non-event fake. The conspiracy theory is that Sony did it themselves to draw more wider attention to a dim-witted feature, one of those potboilers of the approximate worth of NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VAN WILDER sequels cranked out strictly for the coveted 18-24 male lad-magazine readership. Movie history is replete with hucksterism of just that degree of idiocy to boost the profile of equally mediocre films.

Nobody much remembers, in fact, but when the early Angelina Jolie cyber-film HACKERS came out way back in 1995, there was an alleged "hack attack" of the movie's website - basically virtual graffiti and childish name-calling. Just about everyone in the computer underground dismissed the incident sneeringly as a banal in-house hoax to get the silly, trend-riding youth movie more media attention.

At the present time, opinion is split between whether the 2014 hack actually originated from North Korean forces or with a disgruntled Sony employee or two. The Obama Administration claims it was North Korea. Given what we know about the Obama Administration, it is a good idea to assume everything they say is wrong. So smart money is on a disgruntled Sony insider.

If so, their having laid bare the Sony executive attitudes, egomania, salary inequities, Social Security numbers, and other skeletons in the closet of artistes du cinema really was a wakeup call to businesses across the board of the threat of electronic extortion and cyber-warfare. But you know the real tragedy? THE HACKERS DIDN'T HIT ALL THE OTHER STUDIOS! Sony can't carry the blame for all of it, can they?

And the hacker/hackers, whoever they are, provided me with a wonderful excuse for not seeing the majority of theatrical releases in 2014. What, me, risk my life to go attend GONE GIRL when an entire elite-commando invasion from Pyonyang might land atop that very multiplex at any time? No way! And I was actually fleetingly interested in GONE GIRL, too.

So my viewing in this unfortunate year must remain regrettably (snicker) incomplete. But of those works of photoplay art that I did happen to behold, these ones merited enough attention for a somewhat anemic top-ten list:

1 - THE GALAPAGOS AFFAIR: SATAN CAME TO EDEN - My most satisfying all-around viewing experience was this documentary by husband-and-wife filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, who revisit an exotic, haunting unsolved mystery of yesteryear, kind of an Agatha Christie meets Gilligan's Island. In the 1930s a handful of back-to-nature Germans arrived in the remote Galapagos archipelago off Ecuador. Chief among them: vegetarian philosopher-doctor Friedrich Ritter and his ailing mistress, whose Utopian dream of living by the rules of Friedrich Nietzche in a tropical paradise crashed with rigors of subsistence farming and resentment over new neighbors, the happy, healthy and thoroughly mundane Wittmer family (who just wanted to be the real Swiss Family Robinson). Then came real disaster, a straight-oughtta-1930s-Hollywood-central-casting character, a shady aristocrat calling herself the `Baroness von Wagner', scheming to build a luxury island hotel. Soon half these oddballs would be dead or missing, and survivors penned self-serving memoirs pointing fingers of guilt at each other. What's really fab (besides the Baroness looking faintly like Lady Gaga) was the fact that a Darwin-variety shipful of scientists, replete with quality 35mm cine gear, regularly visited the island and got all these players on camera. Captivated by the Baroness, they actually shot a DIY pirate drama with her in a starring role. Added are interviews with descendants and other folks who grew up in the splendid isolation of the Galapagos. Maybe I connected with the material because I enjoy strange-but-true stories, and I once submitted a job application to a tropical-paradise island (if only it had been accepted! I'd be writing for the Virgin Islands Movie Blog right now, and for all I cared you could all freeze to death this winter in your silly Rust Belt joke of a city).

2 - WITCHING AND BITCHING - I've never seen a movie by Spanish fantasy-gore director Alex de la Iglesia before, and Bob Ignizio says that this one isn't even his best. I must be missing out. Behind the stupid Engish-language retitling (pic's original name literally translates as "Witches of Zuggarramurdi") lurks a smart, sharp, big-budget horror-comedy from that plays like a hybrid of Roald Dahl's The Witches and the Quentin Tarentino/Robert Rodriguez vampire-franchise launch FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, but as if the latter had a real point to make. Battle-of-the-sexes premise shows alimony-stricken Madrid dad masterminding a bank robbery so he can bolt with his small son from an ugly custody battle to a haven in France. But their taxi of conspirators and hostages enters the notorious witchcraft-infested village of Zugarramurdi, where a cannibal witch coven (they're man-eaters, get it?) awaits. In pursuit of the imperiled robbers are two cops (with lady problems of their own) and Jose's vindictive, type-A businesswoman ex-wife. Blockbuster-level f/x include an explicitly nude goddess-monster who could be sister to the gross, giant zombie mom at the end of Peter Jackson's DEAD/ALIVE. One could make a strong case for the film being anti-woman (Yeah! Bro's before ho's!), but, as in a Pedro Almodovar piece, no gender escapes entirely unscathed/unmutilated. This film introduced me to the popular Basque melody "Baga Biga Higa" (cunningly reinvented here as a ritual chant) which will haunt you for life.

3 - PARTICLE FEVER - A joyous celebration of achievement and intellect, words which normally only get bandied about in Hollywood when someone does a retro-schlock genre slasher or monster movie just like in the drive-in era (which they've already done, about 1,121 times now). Instead, filmmaker Mark Levinson goes behind the scenes of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva, the biggest machine ever built. Approximately 3,000 international scientists and engineers worked together on the historic, pure-science effort to create conditions to view and assess the Higgs Boson, AKA the "God Particle," a crucial building-block of matter during the origin of the universe. The physicists come across as quirky, creative, funny and real people without lapsing into The Big Bang Theory nerdism, as they navigate technical snafus, a 2007 media extravaganza at the first test-fire of the LHC (later, they regret the hoopla as unfortunate showboating and a misleading PR stunt) and the ultimate hunt for the Higgs Boson that may determine, in a fashion, whether science has any future in it. The answer could have come from a master scriptwriter. Veteran Hollywood editor Walter Murch, prominently billed, can be credited for shaping the material into a strong narrative, and the sublime scientific underpinnings are comprehensible to the layman.

4 - MORE THAN THE RAINBOW - Not the sequel to MORE THAN A GAME, the docu-feature about LeBron and his Akron teammates. Director Dan Wechsler aims the lens at the "street shooter" mystique and aesthete, with input from several NYC photo mavericks who came to photography from other career paths. Foremost is Matt Weber, a self-taught shutterbug who drove a taxi through the mean streets for years, capturing prostitutes, the homeless, porn parlors, subway travel, 9/11, Coney Island, the upbeat delirium (sigh) of the first Obama inauguration and "colorful" neighborhoods, on traditional 35mm. He remembers the pre-gentrification, sleazy Big Apple of the 1970s and 80s with nostalgia. The colorful Weber explains himself, his vision, life and times in wonderfully accessible working-class argot, and what comes across from these folks isn't just a love for their art but also a terrific composite of New York (set to a Thelonious Monk soundtrack).

5 - BOYHOOD - I'll be honest, I haven't even seen Richard Linklater's acclaimed drama, filmed in "real time" over 12 years, covering 12 years in the lives of its protagonists. I don't need to see it; it is appearing on top-10 lists everywhere, so I will just be a tool and follow along, And I do have faith that the sheer audacity of the production concept, not to mention Linklater's excellent track record, results in a first-rate filmic experience. Thus it goes into the pantheon...So, a definite high-intelligence-mark of 2014: BOYHOOD. This was the one in which the talking apes rose up against mankind, am I correct?

6 - VALENTINE ROAD - Bob Ignizio was especially impressed by the locally filmed documentary MENTOR, an angry indictment of a string of teen suicides here in lovely NE Ohio likely inspired by relentless peer-group bullying. But I found VALENTINE ROAD an even more riveting riff on the same idea. It's Marta Cunningham's inquest into a 2008 school shooting in Oxnard. The homicide was a one-on-one act of classroom violence in a junior high that defies easy stereotypes and simple finger-pointing. Larry King, an openly gay student, was fatally wounded in a computer lab by classmate Brandon McInerney. Both came from dysfunctional families, and in the lawyerly gamesmanship in runup to the jury trial, the notion is floated that King had "gay-bullied" his killer. On the flip side, however, is the presence of Nazi material in the defendant's home, and a white-supremacist presence in the community, and a grassroots movement urging mercy for the shooter. It remains for the viewer to decide whether this is bigotry-ridden travesty or a pro-active town trying to deal humanely with a crime that, everyone agrees, never should have happened. For once, firearms do not become a trigger issue, the nonfiction narrative is that intelligent and nuanced.

7 - PATEMA INVERTED - Sorry, INTERSTELLAR, but for me the most mind-blowing SF concept foisted on viewers in the year was the sublime, simple twist (twist? more of a reciprocating motion - a little engineering humor there) in writer-director Yasuhiro Yoshiura's Japanimation feature. An experiment tapping a new energy source went badly awry, causing gravity to reverse itself for much of mankind, who straightaway fell skyward, into oblivion. Years later, the "inverted" survivors dwell beneath the Earth's surface, literally walking on the ceilings of their subterranean colony-environment. Meanwhile, a society of unaffected humans also perseveres, separately. Each side regards the other with fear and suspicion. Patema, a girl from the underground, accidentally "falls" to the surface stronghold and is rescued from hostile authorities by a broad-minded boy - and it helps that the couple are about the same weight; by clinging to each other, they can cancel out each other's gravity and practically fly from pursuers. As the mise-en-scene passes from one world to the other, where gravity pulls 180 degrees in the opposite direction, the viewer has to completely rethink the everyday; you may not even be certain of your own footing.

8 - THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL - This Wes Anderson comedy gets the asterisk as the only theatrical release, really, to which my wife managed to drag me to see in a genuine cinema (Valley View, scene of massive brawls that ushered in the year of 2015, which is why you have to drag me to a genuine cinema kicking and screaming nowadays). Noblesse oblige it go in this list, if only through default. Fortunately it did strike me as a halfway decent picture. She could have dragged me to ANNABELLE or OUIJA, now, couldn't she have? That GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is appearing on the top-ten list of my peers also means, what do you know? It was a good movie after all. Or a really, really lousy year.

9 - SUPER DUPER ALICE COOPER - What impressed me about this rockumentary by divers hands about the original shock-rocker (but making the very good point that he wasn't all that original; when Alice hung out with the likes of George Burns and Jack Benny, they knew perfectly well he was doing the old stage Vaudeville stuff) was how three-headed directors Sam Dunn, Reginald Harkema and Scot McFadyen told the Alice Cooper saga without using one scrap of fresh footage. The audio interviews were new, but the entire story was told in material from the rock archives, scrapbook albums, handy public-domain clips, and the many, quite imaginative promos, TV specials and music-videos-cum-concert-features that Cooper made during the 1970s. For the evocation of those bygone days, much thanks. I never thought I'd miss them to the extent I do.

10 (Tie) - SHORT PEACE - Okay, while this four-part Japanimation anthology feature had its strong points and its weak points, it was never less than dazzling to look upon. And it saved its most effective, short-subject kick for the very last, A FAREWELL TO WEAPONS, Hamimi Katoki's hard-combat SF. This one's a compact, total-package slam-bang entertainment, in which a squad of post-apocalypse soldiers in powered armor, doing a mundane cleanup patrol in a ruined city, find themselves in the fight of their lives battling GONK-18, a tough, determined and terrifyingly single-minded robot tank. This short packs more kinetic firepower than many a feature, and you WILL find it well worth seeing SHORT PEACE just for that segment alone, foreign-devil round-eyed barbarian! Now, please nobody tell me that Hamimi Katoki is going to reboot A FAREWELL TO WEAPONS into a full-fledged feature. That would just mess things up, as when Shane Acker regrettably expanded his original short 9.

Tied with:

SNOWPIERCER - I wouldn't quite call South Korean director Bong Joon Ho's post-apocalyptic action-allegory a classic, but it did provide many memorable scenes and succeeded in rescuing the future-dystopian genre from the teen-baiting/YA book fantasy-romance dungeon in which it seems hopelessly imprisoned (DIVERGENT, THE HUNGER GAMES, THE GIVER, MAZE RUNNER etc. etc.). After a new ice age destroys civilization, remnants of humanity are tenuously preserved aboard an advanced luxury passenger train, making an endless circuit around a dead world. People are divided sharply along class lines, and a rebellion - one of several, it turns out, develops among the peasants in the rear section, determined to reach the posh front compartments and legendary Engine. Half the fun for me viewing (albeit on video, where the blockbuster production values and CGI of a major Korean production somewhat go to waste) was the film's backstory. SNOWPIERCER is an adaptation of Transperneige, a respected but largely forgotten early 1980s French graphic-novel serial, which reached Bong Joon Ho's eyes in a `pirate' Korean translation. The making-of documentary, showing the surviving French comics artists welcomed in the Far East, barely believing their work has finally won such belated recognition, just about makes one feel good again about film, filmmaking and comic books. And that's incredibly rare nowadays, at least for me. 

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