Just when I thought we'd get out of 2014 without losing another artist: RIP Edward Hermann. I had to search to find an obit that didn't start with Gilmore Girls, because to me, he's always the unassuming vampire from The Lost Boys. Also on his credits: movies like The Aviator, Overboard, Big Business, Nixon, even playing FDR in Annie; TV shows like Oz, The Practice (for which he won an Emmy), Homicide: Life on the Street, MASH, you name it. In case you were wondering... cancer sucks.
Now, I can't give you a roundup of all the movies of 2014. Since this blog isn't a full-time gig and AMC still doesn't let me in for free, I can only give you the snapshots of the movies I saw. I can't say it was a stellar year for movies, but we've had worse disappointments. Probably.
• Saving Mr. Banks. Despite the screaming, if anything this movie was kinder to P.L. Travers and more harsh on Uncle Walt than anyone expected for a film bankrolled by the corporation most dedicated to preserving him as Saint Disney. From the available biographical information on the author of Mary Poppins, they tamed down the gigantic hissy fits she threw and ignored the son she adopted who grew up pretty much hating her. When she died, it was said she loved no one and no one loved her, which is about the saddest obituary I can imagine. Instead, Emma Thompson created a Travers we could understand, if not like, and Tom Hanks' Disney is shown as a canny businessman who could manipulate with the best of them, as well as a children's showman. Extra credt to Colin Farrell, who created a fascinating if tragic figure in Travers' alcoholic, perennially irresponsible father.
• A Winter's Tale. I was harsher on this one that I remembered; Will Smith as the devil is pretty much worth the price of admission, if the price of admission is "click on this on Netflix."
• Captain America: Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Usually the in-between comic-book movies aren't as fun, but whoa did these two deliver. Winter Soldier continues my favorite of the Marvel heroes - keep your Tony Stark, Cap is Marvel's Superman because he refuses to give in to the cynicism and manipulations of the world around him. He continues to believe that the world is good and so are we, when we can get out of our own way. Winter Soldier took a huge piece of the Marvel Universe and blew it up, which oddly reinvigorated the dying Agents of SHIELD series into something I could stand to watch.
And I cannot give enough of a standing ovation to Days of Future Past. I expected to hate it, because it was Kitty Pryde who went back in time, dammit! Grr argh Wolverine-is-God let-a-woman-run-the-show-someday etc., because the real protagonist in this story is Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique, and her character arc was far more compelling than it was when she was just Magneto's naked blue henchwoman. The film has its flaws, of course, but in all I absolutely adored it. I'm trying not to be too spoilery, but it does a few bits toward the end that basically makes all the crap that pissed us off about the X-Men series unhappen. It was almost a reboot within a series, and sorely needed given how far the series had gotten since the spectacular X-2.
• Speaking of Jennifer Lawrence, she's the biggest-bankroll star of the year thanks to donning the blue suit and her latest turn as Katniss Everdeen in Mockingjay, Part 1. I eyerolled at yet another film studio splitting one book into two movies to squeeze a little more money out of us, but somehow they managed to make Part One without making me feel like they were dragging it out (read: Peter Jackson). It helps that I'm ridiculously in love with the Hunger Games series, both as postapocalyptic militaristic SF and as female-driven speculative fiction, plus Jennifer Lawrence is just awesome. The song she sings was belatedly released on iTunes, and has already made it to my writing playlist. We'll be lining up for the final battle, even though I've read the books and I know what happens. Meep.
• Edge of Tomorrow was a badly-named science fiction movie that didn't deserve its lousy box office. I've been allergic to Tom Cruise action flicks for a while now, but since he "stars" in this one as a weaselly coward who uses his money and influence to get easy desk jobs during the alien war and ends up conscripted on the front lines, it's fun to watch the prince get taken down several pegs. The idea of "live die repeat" isn't new, but it takes some fun bounces (and I understand it's the new title, since they realized that Edge of Tomorrow is a title that blows chunks). It has its flaws (his punishment of being placed almost literally in front of the cannon is a bit on the harsh side for a guy who simply ran his mouth at the wrong time), but Emily Blunt kicks the camera in half as the real heroine of the movie, and Bill Paxton has fun chewing Cruise to pieces over... and over...
• Speaking of more movies headlined by women that made gazillions... Maleficent, Lucy, the aforementioned X-Men and Mockingjay... it was a good year for the women in speculative fiction. Maleficent was a love-it-or-hate-it, not much middle ground unless you're me. I liked Angelina Jolie's take on my favorite Disney villain, because I like backstory, I like a villain who has an actual reason for doing the things that she did, and I like a character arc with some completion and even redemption. I didn't like what it did to King Stefan or to the three fairies. Remember how villains need to have reasons? Well, if King Stefan is the villain, he was one step away from twirling a mustache. And the three fairies were the true heroines of the tale, so reducing them to squabbling idiots who are nearly abusive to little Aurora really hacked me off. Visually Maleficent was amazing, and the worldbuilding was a lot of fun, so it's definitely worth your time. Just remember... it's the alternate-universe Sleeping Beauty.
Lucy, however, was a weird little film that didn't know what it wanted to be when it grew up. I'm really enjoying the evolution of Scarlet Johansson as a bankable action star, and she gets to do a lot of that as Lucy. True, its entire premise is based on an entirely false concept that we only use a portion of our brains. It's pseudoscience, of course, but it goes beyond that to speculate that it is only a portion of our potential that we use, that people can do more and be better than they are. It's the closest thing to the optimistic science fiction of which David Gerrold has been writing for a long time, that many of us orphaned Star Trek fans would like to see. Lucy isn't that film, and its philosophy becomes babbling toward the muddled ending. But I gave it credit for trying to be more than its whiz-bang poster, more than a beautiful woman kicking ass and freezing time.
• Speaking of the apocalypse... Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was a bit of a letdown from the stellar reboot that created fresh interest in the simian future. Populated with the usual array of cannon fodder (there is some rule that the more annoying a character, the less likely he is to live to the credits), Dawn shows us humans trying to survive and simians who have built an entire peaceful society. So naturally, they can't get along. There's plenty of problems - wooden characters, stupid plot twists, nonsense physics - but they mostly center on the humans. The brilliance of the simian society, the interplay between Andy Serkis' Caesar and the conniving ape trying to replace him, the seamless motion-capture work and actual emotional resonance all make for a terrific film. Extra credit toward the special effects team: to me, the mark of good effects is when you forget they are effects, and think you're watching apes. Just pretend the humans aren't in the movie, and hope for more apes and fewer humans next time.
• Oculus was the one true horror movie I managed to see, since just about every movie is "found footage" - oh wait, so was Oculus! I give this film a lot of credit, actually, because it was light on gore and heavy on suspense, even if it fell prey to the "cat knocks over the dish" type of startle in the beginning. It wove together the siblings' initial horror (their father's madness and murdering their mother) with their current investigation of the evil mirror they believe drove their father mad. Karen Gillan (of Doctor Who fame) and Rory Cochrane do the heavy lifting as the siblings, with extra sf credit for Katee Sackoff (Battlestar Galactica: The Good One) as their mother, seen in the flashbacks. Other critics were divided on whether it was truly scary enough to be considered horror, but for me, it was chilling. Oculus plays a lot with the perception of reality, where you are seeing one thing but suspect the reality may be something different. Can you trust your own eyes? Are you really where you think you are? Are you truly alone in the empty room? If those questions cause you to shiver a little, give Oculus a try.
• And finally, finally, we come to the end of The Hobbit: A Tragedy in Nine Hours. Look, I loved the book as a girl, and I could even manage to wend my way once or twice through the LOTR series because it was visually stunning and loads of fun, even if it takes the course of an entire day to watch the movies. And I'm married to one of the biggest Tolkein fans currently breathing; the man has read The Simarillion three times and lived to tell the tale. But the Hobbit movie series was simply dragged out far too long. This is not a new complaint, and not one you'll hear from the big Tolkein fans because, as Stephen King once pointed out, fifty years and 10,000 pages isn't enough Middle Earth for them.
In that regard, they'll enjoy the last Hobbit film. It's basically a 2.5-hour fight scene with a handful of stuff thrown in from other sources because Peter Jackson knows he'll never make another one. Oddly, the stuff I like the most in the Tolkein films is the stuff they made up, like Tauriel's wildly expanded role in the latter two Hobbit films or Galadriel taking on Sauron in this latest round. Tolkein mostly had the ladies hang back and cringe (yes, I said mostly, I remember Eowyn too so save the nasty emails). I suppose there's only so many hours I can watch Big Manly Europeans Bash Swords. But I loved Smaug, the visuals are stunning as usual and Martin Freeman did a terrific Bilbo.
Jackson obviously gets Tolkein, almost too much. The theme of "gold corrupts all" gets to be a little heavy-handed with a literal "dragon fever" that besets anyone who has too much of it. Tolkein was such a hippie. (Ducking the emails now for sure...) Seriously, you can boil the entire theme down to Richard Armitage gritting that if everyone valued a home as much as they valued gold, there would be fewer wars.
And that's really the point, and the moment when the movie has shades of being something more than gigantic fanservice to Tolkein's loyal followers. The armies gather to bash each other to pieces, with silent footsoldiers waiting to die on the command of feckless leaders who are more interested in a national dick-measuring contest than what is best for their people. And all over a pile of gold. Yes, Tolkein was saying something about us here.
And that's the movie wrap-up for 2014. Not the best we've had, but not the worst. Here's hoping for a really strong 2015 (where's my Mr. Fusion already?), and I'll see you at the movies.