Forget for a moment the Cannes Film Festival darling you saw last May. Throw out that sneaky, insightful summer flick that none of your friends watched. Today, I'm keeping things shamelessly mainstream. If you’d really like to hear my thoughts on Last Days in Vietnam, shoot me an email. We can discuss heroism and fear in the film industry over artisanal cheeses and a glass of Sonoma chardonnay.
Among Mainstream Movies, the 2014 crown is currently a two-flick race: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood versus David Fincher’s Gone Girl. No doubt, we’ll see some sharp competition as we head into Serious Films season (read: November and December), but our temporary leaders deserve a late-October boxing match before we all drown in Oscar positioning and award-baiting. Let’s break this down in six rounds.
Round #1: Accessibility
Purists will tell you that accessibility doesn’t matter. Purists will say that films should stand solely on their artistic merits. Purists will be wrong. Accessibility is just as much a part of a film’s art as story or character development. Regardless of a movie’s subject matter, it’s the filmmaker’s job to draw us in, to quickly create tension, to make us curious, puzzled, intrigued. Even discomfort is its own form of accessibility. Whatever the hook, a great director will bend audiences to her film’s world, and rapidly so.
Boyhood opens softly, but confidently. We start with a shy six-year-old, who is staring in wonder at the clouds above. He’s marveling about the size of the universe, or maybe he’s just daydreaming about Legos. The film is at once dream-like and ordinary, depicting glimmers of youthful imagination next to things utterly ordinary. We may not be enraptured right away, but the emotional beats seep in slowly and steadily.
Conversely, Gone Girl opens with the deliberate thumps of a heartbeat, ticking off its title sequence, then cutting, almost rhythmically, from one scene to the next. The pulse quickens, then stalls, then skips a beat, all in the first five minutes. The control here is classic David Fincher: tight, unswerving, even treacherous.
Boyhood’s first ten minutes will leave you in a fuzzy state of wonderment, but Gone Girl’s will haunt you. Here, spookiness beats coziness.
Winner: Gone Girl
Round #2: Acting
Both well-acted overall, Boyhood and Gone Girl share one rarity: the leading man is the weakest link. Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane (Mason) is sometimes fantastic, but occasionally awkward and gangly, and not just because he’s playing a boy going through puberty. In a handful of scenes, you can spot Coltrane among the actors around him: he’s the one guy who’s intermittently self-concious about his expression, his gestures or his lines. It’s tempting to excuse Coltrane—after all, his 12-year-long performance is unprecedented, and he does a far better job than most probably would in his position. For a non-actor to blend in with professional thespians as often as Coltrane does is admirable. But TheCroakingFrog isn’t a charity, and Boyhood must ultimately be judged for what it is: a theatrical production. Overall, Coltrane is simply good, not great.
Meanwhile, Gone Girl’s Ben Affleck plays the dopey, misunderstood Nick about as well as any character he’s ever played, which is to say, merely competently. Like Keanu Reeve’s Neo in The Matrix, you tend to feel like the role is bailing out the actor, the character’s shortcomings perfectly matched to the actors’. Nick is by turns moody and eager to please, frank one moment, inscrutable the next. In other words, he’s Ben Affleck. The performance is neither memorable nor offensive—capable, but never compelling. We’ll call the leading man debate a wash.
The supporting roles, conversely, are all quite good, from Boyhood’s Ethan Hawke (goofy, surprising, rebellious) to Gone Girl’s Kim Dickens (the shrewd, skeptical, small-town detective). My personal favorite? Gone Girl’s Tyler Perry, who plays the flashy lawyer with a $100,000 smile. Once again, the two films fight to a draw.
In the end, then, it comes down to the two most prominent female roles: Patricia Arquette as Mason’s mom in Boyhood versus Rosamund Pike as Nick’s wife in Gone Girl. Arquette delivers a raw, pragmatic performance, trying to do right, to find love, to raise her children correctly even as her own life bends, breaks, or even shatters. With a burst of desperation in her final scene, Arquette underscores an already stellar showing, proving the best, most memorable character in the film. It’s a near-flawless performance.
Pike’s Amy Dunne, in contrast, is delightfully nasty, then sickly sweet, then venomous, a role that sidles up to the cliffs of caricature, before tumbling off merrily, even deliberately. I wanted to be mesmerized by Amy Dunne, but I ended up incredulous. Arquette wins this round for Boyhood.
Round #3: Technical Merit
Comparing the performances in Boyhood and Gone Girl was largely an apples-to-apples exercise, but contrasting the technical merits is almonds-to-grapefruit. Boyhood’s breezy flow comes only from a decade of preparation, strategy, and pacing, the sort of long-term craft that makes a great American novel read like poetry or a brilliant software program run like butter. Linklater creates a sense of effortless art, but only through 12 years of organic development.
Fincher, meanwhile, shows us every jagged edge, every seam, but all in service to his confident, unwavering mastery of the material. Fincher’s framing, pace and cuts are precise, sharp and even diabolical. He dares us to keep up, then leaves us behind if we can’t.
So which deserves the award for technical merit? The artist or the scientist? The poet or the military commander?
In the closest call yet, I have to give the edge to Fincher (Gone Girl). Linklater’s free-spirit approach is bold, daring and successful, but its true strengths are artful, not technical (which we’ll see shortly). On technical merit alone, Gone Girl’s precision triumphs.
Winner: Gone Girl
Round #4: Storytelling
Each film deserves praise for its storytelling, but for opposite reasons. Gone Girl perfects an existing genre. Boyhood reinvents one.
With Gone Girl, Fincher sets out to make the ultimate detective procedural. We get (literal) clues, a hard-boiled investigator, a skeptical sidekick, and some tempting red herrings. Every once in awhile, the proceedings threaten to become formulaic, but Fincher adds a touch of humor or an ounce of dread at just the right time. We’ve seen it all before, but we’ve rarely seen it done this well before.
But then Fincher goes further, turning the murder mystery on its head just halfway through the film. As the story winds and twists through its second half, Gone Girl becomes all the more devious, daring us to move, to breathe. The interrogations become ragged and desperate. The music grows harsher and more grating. And then, just before the film’s emotional (and physical) climax, we wait in petrified silence—for five unsettling minutes, the film’s world is calm. You simply won’t find this sort of commanding, confident control in any modern detective series.
Meanwhile, Linklater’s Boyhood throws out the typical “coming of age” tale. Sure, we’re watching a boy become a man, but we miss all the familiar, dramatic moments. Where is the life-altering car crash? The first sexual encounter? Hell, I’d at least expect a rousing speech at high school graduation.
Boyhood has none of these things. Instead, we simply watch Mason’s life in all of its mundane, silly and organic moments. We don’t see Mason at his high school graduation, but we do watch as he drives home afterward, chatting casually with his high school buddy. We don’t watch Mason visiting classes at a potential college, but we laugh as he chats with his older sister later in a local bar. What’s more, Linklater sees fit to linger with his characters, longer than Hollywood would normally advise. Fincher might cut constantly, but Linklater stays put, letting Mason sit for ten, fifteen seconds longer, after the primary action of a scene has played out. These small moments say more about Mason’s life than a big party or funeral service ever could. For Linklater, it must have been a risky decision, but it says more about the human experience than even Fincher’s most dastardly edits. Boyhood tells the more human story.
Round #5: Cultural Resonance
You know a film is special when it begins to trickle into day-to-day conversations, to frame discussions for days or even weeks at a time. Gone Girl passes this test, thanks in part to a strong marketing campaign, but largely because of the film’s many sobering themes. Marriage is often nasty. Can we trust our intimate partners? Can we trust ourselves? It’s easy enough to make a movie that tries to ask these questions, but Gone Girl asks them in new, chilling ways, enough to make us wonder collectively, as a society.
Boyhood, however, taps into something even deeper...and more eternal. What is it like to grow up? Why does our memory work the way it does, with seemingly arbitrary moments dotting the landscape of our past? Do we want to be the hero, or do we just want to walk with everyone else? (Watch Boyhood’s trailer again, and listen to the lyrics—a perfect match.) Boyhood’s themes don’t pester us the same way that Gone Girl’s do. But boy do they stick. I imagine I’ll puzzle over Boyhood’s quiet questions for years to come. With Gone Girl? I had two or three lively debates about marriage and love, but beyond that, I’m just about ready to move on.
Round #6: Oscar Potential
We may not want the Oscars to define a movie’s legacy, but unfortunately, that’s the reality. Oscar-nominated films tend to get history’s benefit of a doubt, while the snubbed movies tend to lose their luster much faster So which film has the better chance to earn Oscar’s approval?
Boyhood likely has the better outside shot of a Best Picture nomination, if only because the Academy loves a good off-camera story. If Matthew McCounaughy can win for losing a bunch of weight off-screen, Boyhood might be considered for its epic, 12-year-long production schedule. I also think Arquette is the one possibility for any of the acting awards, so throw another bullet in Boyhood’s column there too.
Meanwhile, Gone Girl is much more likely to receive a nomination for a technical category, like film editing or original score (in my mind, Gone Girl’s musicians--Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross—do cinematic music better than anyone in the business). If I were betting strictly on “which film is more likely to win at least something," I’d go with Gone Girl for this reason.
The tie-breaker, appropriately, is Best Director. Unfortunately, I see this as a toss-up. For now, I’ll just predict that only one of the two will be nominated, but whomever it is won’t win, and regardless of what happens, I’ll be upset. Whether this is an accurate assessment of the Academy Awards today or my own cynicism getting the best of me, I’m calling this a tie and leaving it at that.
So with six rounds in the books, Boyhood wins 3.5 to 2.5, earning TheCroakingFrog’s coveted title of “Best 2014 Film Before All the Real Contenders Arrive in November and December.” Congratulations to Linklater, Ellar Coltrane, and every boy in America ages six to eighteen. Now good luck to Boyhood staving off the winter onslaught. It’ll need it.
Overall Winner: Boyhood
If you’re like most of America, you haven’t gone out to a movie in months. And why should you? You’ve got your brother’s Netflix account, your mom’s HBO GO password, and an old college roommate who can get you anything overnight, complete with Portuguese subtitles. It’s just cheaper and easier to stay home.
But all that penny-pinching and time-saving comes with a hidden cost: really, really awful sequels. Hollywood knows we won’t pay for original documentaries about the realities of divorce or the strength of the human spirit—so we simply get more Batman, more Bilbo, and more Bourne.
Enough is enough. Let’s tell Hollywood we’re ready for something better. We’ll take a quick look at a couple of series that somehow got things right, then count down the most stale series in Hollywood, from “starting to smell” to “spoiled rotten.” Just remember: this is our fault, not theirs.
Quick note: for this list, I only considered series with at least one installment since 2010, or series with firm plans for a new entry within the next couple of years.
First: Series That Got it Right
A. James Bond
B. The Fast and the Furious
Both series have avoided sequelitis, but for opposite reasons. Bond is the rare series that takes itself seriously enough, reworking old concepts, consistently featuring great villains, and even recasting the leading man every few years to keep things fresh. With the possible exception of the last couple Pierce Brosnan Bonds, you never feel like a new Bond installment is there only for the money. They’ve got a classic brand to protect, and they’re not going to waste it on a B-quality film.
The Fast and the Furious, meanwhile, never took itself seriously in the first place. The series made a few critical decisions early on—looks over acting talent, fast cars over intricate plots, one-liners over realistic dialogue—and stuck to them, churning out six supremely entertaining films in just over a decade.
If only we could say the same for the following series…
The “Don’t Push It” Category
23. The Before Series
22. The Toy Story Series
21. The Despicable Me Series
The chatty, critically-adored Before series was a quiet surprise (Before Sunrise), then a charming sequel (Before Sunset), then a surprisingly raw drama (Before Midnight). With nearly two decades between the first and third entry, the series has already survived far beyond anyone’s expectations. So let’s be happy with that and not fiddle with a good thing.
Similarly, we should proceed cautiously with Pixar’s last great film (Toy Story 3) and the best non-Pixar animated series of the last five years (Despicable Me). Toy Story remained impossibly good in its third installment, while Despicable Me probably has done well enough to deserve one more feature film (already slated for June 2017). Anything else, however, and either series likely jumps the shark.
The “What, They’re Still Making Those Movies?” Category
20. The Air Bud Series
19. The Alvin and the Chipmunks Series
18. The Madagascar Series
While we’re discussing animated films, let’s throw these three hidden gems in the conversation. Air Bud is now in straight-to-video mode, but with 12 entries, something had to be said. Let’s toast the times we’ve had and put these puppies to sleep.
Alvin and co. are a bit more worrisome (after 2009’s The Squeakquel and 2011’s Chipwrecked, we’re all set to bottom out by Christmas 2015), but the real threat is the new soundtrack, not the upcoming movie. The world can only take so many chirpy, shrill pop-singles-turned-Alvin-mp3s.
And yes, finally, the Madagascar series is still trotting along defiantly, with both a direct-to-video and feature film release planned through 2018. I think we all would have been happy to leave things in Africa after #2, but this whole thing was a literal zoo in the first place. Let’s not pretend we can control it.
The “Got a Little Greedy” Category
17. The Harry Potter Series
16. The Die Hard Series
Some series earn classic status, then take things one installment too far, tarnishing their legacy slightly, but not fatally. Think Michael Jordan on the Wizards or Tiger Woods' sloppy play post-2009.
Say what you will about the Harry Potter film series (poorly paced! worse than the books!) but the films had achieved something resembling a satisfying hum by entry #5. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) had finally developed some acting chops, Emma Watson (Hermione) was clearly destined for a long acting career, and Rupert Grint was, well, Ron. Then Warner Bros. demanded that the 7th book be split into two, reminding us that the whole thing was just a big money grab after all. Shameless.
The Die Hard series got a little greedy too, but only because it kept milking the series all the way through 2013. For anyone who doesn’t know, here’s the official rule: if more than a decade has passed before the last installment in a series, you get one (1) bring-the-band-back-together reboot, and only one. For Die Hard, 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard was that movie. 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard? Now that’s just embarrassing. Give it up.
The “It Was Old, But Maybe It’s Not Anymore?” Category
15. The Star Wars Series
14. The Mission: Impossible Series
For this category, things can go one of two ways: first, a classic series can be revived with stunning success…or that same series’ legacy can be tainted forever. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Star Wars is the most obvious example, with Episode VII looming in 2015. We exhausted the whole “but wait, you just can’t make more Star Wars movies” narrative back in 1999-2005. Today? We’re just numb. Episode VII will determine everything: whether Episodes I-III were the sophomore slump, or the beginning of a slow, multi-film death, more agonizing than death by Sarlacc.
Mission: Impossible finds itself in a similar place, although the stakes (and chances of future success) are both a bit lower. When the last installment--Ghost Protocol--was first announced, it seemed the series was headed toward the direct-to-video bargain bin, or as it’s come to be known in 2014, "Netflix.” But with Brad Bird at the helm (The Incredibles, Ratatouille), Ghost Protocol was light on its feet, briskly-paced, and best of all, playful. Suddenly, Mission: Impossible has an outside shot to become another Fast and Furious action series: reliable entertainment, year after year. But perhaps more likely, the series will end up a proud member of the next category...
The “We All Realized, All At Once, The Series Was Done” Category
13. The Hangover Series
12. The Expendables Series
Call it a victory. When a series ends with a truly rotten installment—so rotten that even the studio knows it—everybody is better off. We avoid the slow decline of straight-to-Netflix sequels. We go back and watch the good entries to forget the stink of the bad one. We dodge the usual “what went wrong” cocktail party post mortems, because, well, everybody knows exactly what went wrong. Trust me: this is the least painful way to go.
The “Just Getting Going” Category
11. The Batman Series*
10. The Iron Man Series**
9. The Pirates of the Caribbean Series
8. The Bourne Series
These series all should have ended abruptly, but regrettably, are just picking up steam. This can happen for two reasons. First, the latest installment might actually be pretty good (ex: Batman, Iron Man), and the studio misinterprets the good vibes as a reason to keep churning out sequels. This is unfortunate, but not dire—not even the studio can take the good entries away from us.
The far more ominous situation, however, is when a series’ latest installment is bad (ex: Pirates, Bourne), but not bad enough for the studio to get the message. Rapidly, the studio begins to act like a spurned suitor whose object of desire didn’t get the message across. A long line of misfires follow, each an attempt to “make up” for the last transgression, but each even more awkward and offensive than the last. And so we implore Pirates and Bourne: save yourselves the trouble, give it up, and move on, please. Maybe if we’re both still single by 2024, we can try again.
*I know the Christopher Nolan series is officially over, but I’m counting Batman vs. Superman (2016) as an extension. For reference: superhero films must wait at least one (1) decade between series before I’m willing to sit down for another slate of films.
** It looks like Robert Downey Jr. is done with Iron Man. But I don’t trust Marvel to kill this thing. Hopefully, I’m wrong.
The “It Was Immediately Old Upon the First Film’s Release, and Somehow, is Still Going” Category
7. The Chronicles of Narnia Series
6. The Divergent Series
This happens most often with me-too film series trying to recreate the success of another hit. After The Lord of the Rings blew up the box office, Disney signed on to distribute the closest thing they could think of: Narnia! It was perfect. The book series’ two authors (Tolkien and Lewis) even used to get together at the same pub in Oxford. While the Narnia series has done just fine in the box office (read: all that really matters), the series’ entries have gotten steadily worse. I don’t care how much The Silver Chair makes—this won’t end well.
Meanwhile, Lionsgate hopes Divergent will be the next Hunger Games (they even reference “The Hunger Games” by name in some promotional materials). The two leads aren’t bad, but the film itself is comically unoriginal, a patchwork of Hunger Games-style class warfare, angsty teenagers, and stern societal rules. The film is desperate to make a bad concept work. More films won’t fix this.
The “Colossal Nose Dive” Category
5. The Men in Black Series
4. The Transformers Series
Some film series suddenly drop off after a good run. Others fade off gradually. Still others hang around for a decade, releasing a stream of similar, mediocre installments year after year.
Not these series. Men in Black and Transformers are unique: they both began on high notes, promptly released terrible sequels, then somehow continued the negative trend, releasing third (and in Transformers’ case, fourth) installments, each noticeably worse than the last. This is rare territory. We’re beyond the low-profile flops and quiet killers—these films are Godzillas, destroying the collective will of moviegoers with each loud, terrifying release.
In a metaphor far too tidy for the disastrous state of the series, USA Today reports that Michael Bay will “pass the baton" for future Transformers installments. Here’s hoping he botches the hand-off.
The “Please, Please Just Stop" Category
3. The Middle-earth Series (Lord of the Rings + The Hobbit)
2. The X-Men Series
1. The Spider-Man Series
And so we arrive at the worst of the worst. These series are the sadistic villains of the movie world, deriving pleasure from audience pain, insulting the intelligence of moviegoers around the globe. At one point, we used to joke about these series, wondering “how long they could possibly go” and whether people would “keep paying” to see the "same plot" played out for a third, fourth, or even fifth time.
Today, we’re past the jokes. There’s nothing funny about turning 300 pages of a single children’s book (The Hobbit) into three, 3-hour films. There’s nothing funny about releasing eight X-Men films since 2000, with two more already in development. And there’s nothing funny about rebooting Spider-Man after the Tobey Maguire series had already tried the world’s patience, then adding a single word (“Amazing”) to the series title, as though that excuses such a shameless burst of unoriginality.
Stop the madness, Hollywood. We know we started it, but we promise to be better. It’s time for a fresh start.
I shouldn’t make excuses. I haven’t been keeping up with summer movies, let alone television, and so TheCroakingFrog has been puttering along with all the senile grace of Grand Maester Pycelle (Game of Thrones). I wish I could say I spent the last two months immersed in classic film. I wish I could emerge from hibernation with a five-part, 10,000-word feature story on how cinema has shaped modern culture. Hell, I’d be happy with a passable review of some AAA video game, like the latest Metal Gear Solid or Bungie’s first post-Halo creation, Destiny.
Instead, I’ve been getting married, going on a honeymoon...and playing iOS games. Let’s be honest: ten-hour flights to London aren’t going to entertain themselves.
So with that in mind, here are 14 miniature reviews for 14 miniature games. I’ve given each title an Accessibility Rating for the Candy Crush / Angry Birds crowd (1=more complicated and serious, 10=pick up and play in seconds). I’ll start with the worst of the bunch and work my way to the best. iPhones out.
Every year, I write a summer movie preview anticipating the best- and worst-case scenarios for the most popular upcoming flicks. This is part II for 2014. If you missed it, see part I of the 2014 preview here. See the full 2013 preview here.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11)
After four sequels, one remake, two television series, and a “series reboot,” Planet of the Apes somehow, someway still makes gobs of cash for 20th Century Fox. Gary Oldman proves a sensation, dropping the bumbling Commissioner Gordon shtick from Batman and adding some ruthless determination. “No more monkey business,” he deadpans in the film’s opening scene, eliciting cheers from longtime Planet loyalists. Compared to his previous turn as Gollum, Andy Serkis plays head ape Caesar with twice the energy and three times the creepiness. Even Rise of the Planet of the Apes looks tame by comparison. When Dawn tries a bit of subtle commentary on the state of the human race and our treatment of animals, everyone agrees its points are “spot on,” and “not at all sanctimonious or heavy-handed.”
Confused by all the similar Planet of the Apes titles (Battle for the, Escape from the, Rise of the, Dawn of the), most of America assumes Dawn is just a re-release of “some film from the 1970s.” Even illegal downloaders nab Beneath the Planet of the Apes, assuming it’s the latest version. Scrambling to set the public straight, 20th Century Fox releases an emergency ad campaign featuring Gary Oldman. The actor botches the spot, descending back into his bumbling Commissioner Gordon shtick and mumbling his way through the new movie’s title. The film flops, but not before PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals), files a lawsuit, calling the movie “sanctimonious” and “heavy-handed.”
Last year, I wrote a giant summer movie preview in the spirit of Pat Forde's annual Dreams and Nightmares March Madness column. A year later, here is Part I of my 2014 Summer Movie Preview. See part II here!
Godzilla (May 16)
Energized by a sensational Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Godzilla stomps its way past mixed critical reviews to the top of the box office. "Looks like the man can do more than cook meth!” tweet 14 film critics, more or less simultaneously. At a red carpet showing, no one mentions “Heisenberg,” “Jesse Pinkman" or “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Only one reporter calls Cranston “Walter White.” Meanwhile, a rejuvenated Ken Watanabe (previously, Batman, Inception) nearly steals the show—he hasn’t sounded this profound since The Last Samurai. America forgets that this exact movie has been done ten times before and will be done ten times again.
Godzilla stumbles in its opening weekend, as Cranston’s gruff performance gets buried in an avalanche of negative reviews and poor ticket sales. A week after the premiere, a Good Morning America segment goes sour when Cranston admits his angry, saliva-spewing performance “wasn’t exactly acting.” Meanwhile, Ken Watanabe hasn’t sounded this ridiculous since The Last Samurai. "The arrogance of man is thinking nature is under our control,” he says at a press conference, repeating one of his own lines from the movie. “Relax Ken,” says a reporter, "this is Godzilla, not An Inconvenient Truth.”