Selma (2014)

★★★★ / 👍

Selma (2014) poster

Selma is an occasionally clunky morality play, featuring numerous recognizable actors in a self-congratulatory parade. It is also, by far, the most visceral, moving, and important film of the eight movies nominated for Best Picture of 2014. It’s a travesty that the Academy didn’t recognize any of the performances in this film, particularly David Oyelowo’s or Carmen Ejogo’s.

Like all movies “about race” and the American civil rights movement, Selma serves as a Rorschach test. For some, it’s a simplistic fable about how bad those evil southern racists used to be, and how we’re all so much better than that now. For others, it’s a reminder of how little fundamental attitudes have actually changed in the half century since the Selma-to-Montgomery marches.

In a more reasonable world, Selma‘s relatively mild caricature of LBJ wouldn’t attract the same level of controversy as Oliver Stone’s insinuation that LBJ was involved in a conspiracy to murder the President of the United States. (Or more pushback than Oscar-bait Frost/Nixon‘s insinuation that a cartoonishly venal Nixon was aware of the Watergate burglary in advance.)

In a fairer world, Selma would at least spark conversations the way The China Syndrome did after Three Mile Island, with the often striking parallels to the events in Ferguson, MO and beyond in 2014.

In a better world, Selma‘s painful and occasionally brutal reminders of continued systematic racism in America would be unnecessary.

John Wick (2014)

★★★★ / 👍

John Wick (2014) poster

A well-made and effective action movie, with fight sequences which are kinetic and brutal in ways that surprisingly few films actually manage. I don’t care if Paul Greengrass is the greatest stylist since King Hu; when I watch an action movie, I want to see the goddamn action, and John Wick lets me see the goddamn action.

Sure, this tale of a revenge-seeking ex-hitman (and recent widower) hits exactly the beats you’d expect: Sad Keanu, Mad Keanu, Kung-Fu Keanu. But it also gives Reeves an archetypal role that turns his tendency to underplay into a strength, while still allowing him room to emote without losing his Cool Guy status.

Big-budget Hollywood productions tend to cast for acting talent and/or star power, relying on the second unit to sell the spectacle. “Stunt team” productions tend to surround Jackie Chan or Tony Jaa almost exclusively with amazing martial artists, while settling for more…functional performances overall. John Wick splits the difference, and doubles down on the stunt/actor dichotomy. Keanu plows through waves of clones in black suits in order to converse with the real players in the criminal underworld, all of whom are played by recognizable character actors with unique looks and points of view.

The conceit of a criminal fraternity straight out of a Teens and Up comic book is enhanced by the gorgeous art direction and cinematography. The world of John Wick is that of a stark, stylized New York (and New Jersey!) in which there are no innocent bystanders, only hardcases of all types skulking in time to a dance/rock beat under a neon-noir glow.

Best of all for this kind of movie, the action is clean and generally easy to read in a way that I, at least, find deeply satisfying. The hand-to-hand combat goes a beat “too long” on occasion as a result, but it feels messily realistic rather than self-indulgent on the part of the fight choreographer. That same relative restraint is also present in the frequent gunplay. While the violence is often bloody, it never seems excessively gory. Unlike in, say, The Raid 2, I never found myself wondering when John Wick—and all the poor doomed bastards who aren’t John Wick—would stop trying to gross out the audience, and get back to killing people. Likewise, despite featuring more headshots than your average zombie flick, the protagonist’s reliance on “control shots” seems appropriate given his background as a cold-blooded killer for a Russian mafiya type.

Finally, it helps significantly that unlike its titular protagonist, John Wick has a sense of humor. This is, after all, a film in which the proximate cause for the Roaring Rampage of Revenge is literally “they stole my car and killed my dog,” and which features a radio announcer blandly reporting the “seven inches of rain” that have drenched New York over the course of the film. It’s hard to hold a grudge against a movie as deliberately made and self-aware as John Wick.

Chef (2014)

★★★★ / 👍

Chef (2014) poster

I want to quibble about the too-pat ending, but the movie makes a decent argument that even the “sure-fire crowd-pleaser” dessert requires skill and passion to execute properly. The makers of this film make expert use of both traits throughout (though not always at the same time).

Godzilla (2014)

★★★★ / 👍

Godzilla (2014) poster

When I saw Godzilla 1985 for my sixth birthday, I was underwhelmed. When I saw the Godzilla In Name Only at age 20, I was furious. Today I saw an IMAX-sized Godzilla on an eight-story screen, and am very happy indeed.

The film takes itself seriously, but isn’t afraid to wink at the audience on occasion. The human leads are fine but bland; you don’t mind too much when they are, inevitably, dwarfed by the spectacle. The film is a bit too coy about withholding said spectacle, but it hews closer to the slow-burn template of Jurassic Park than the tedium of Jackson’s King Kong. When it did finally come, the action fulfilled the dreams of my inner first-grader, which is honestly all I wanted from this movie.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)

★★★½ / 👍

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010) poster

Horror-comedy with a one-joke premise (“hillbillies” mistaken for murderers by partying college kids) that runs out of gas fairly early on, but coasts successfully on the chemistry and comic timing of its leads. (With any luck, the recently-announced sequel in development will give these actors a better vehicle.)