Ink-Stained Wretches

Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015) and Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
As I finish my book about the progressive rock movement — or, more to the point, as I procrastinate by spending 20 minutes writing something else — two nagging demons keep jumping on my shoulder. One says that I need to do a bit more work to get the story right. (That’s for the second draft, asshole.) One whispers the possibility that someone will cover the same subject, and drop it when my book drops, and make me wilt in the shadow.

So: I do not envy James Vanderbilt. Under normal circumstances, in which there are no movies about journalism in theaters, he would have just made a frustratingly bad one. The cruel god of timing cursed him to release that bad movie just weeks before “Spotlight,” probably the best movie of 2015, and one of the best-ever about journalism.

Talking to another friend (a journalist) who sat through both, we found ourselves wondering why Truth‘s story of hubris and failure was so much less compelling than Spotlight‘s story of success. It’s more than the clunky writing or Truth‘s seemingly endless use of slo-mo for effect. It’s that Spotlight is just so much smarter, and finds the darkness, the lack of real satisfaction, even in what seems like success.

It’s a smart movie, is what I’m saying. Truth is most decidedly not. It adapts the memoir of Mary Mapes, the CBS producer who we would remember as the scapegoat of the botched story on George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service, if not for the fact that Dan Rather threw his scalp on top of hers. Cate Blanchett plays Mapes, Robert Redford plays Rather, and both seem to be stretching the thin material into Oscar-shapes. It does not work, because they are trapped in the kind of movie that introduces a heroic veteran with a slow-mo shot of him saluting at a rainy military funeral; the kind of movie where a character warns that “you’ll know it’s bad when they ask to see our source,” then later has a villainous executive ask to see the source, and the same character turn and wryly tell his companion “now it’s bad.”

These are decisions that assume a very stupid audience. Strange, because… who did Vanderbilt think his audience was? The “Rathergate” disaster was compelling enough to inspire a similar story in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, but the only people who want to revisit it are journalists and partisans who know the basics of the story. They — okay, we — are not permitted to watch a straightforward drama about how ego and speed and outright fraud can throw lives off course. No, no, instead we get Lt. Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid, who unfortunately is the character I keep citing as example of the cinema sins here) telling a colleague that Mapes wanted to break this story in 2000, but her mother fell ill, and you know, “537 votes in Florida.”

We feel whipsawed between two equally stupid theories. One: The story of George W. Bush skipping out on TANG service was big enough to change the election. Two: The story was true, and repressed by partisans. Both are highly dubious. Add to this a cringe-inducing scene where a reporter on the story, played by Topher Grace, is being escorted out of the CBS News building and rants about how corporations are trying to suppress any news that threatens their power. It’s the sort of thing the whole narrative is implying, and then a character actually vocalizes it, and we shudder at the stupidity.

There is nothing like that in Spotlight. Actually, the only thin criticism it’s received has focused on the lack of character-building. I found that criticism totally misguided. McCarthy’s script perfectly captures how journalists talk, and more specifically how these journalists talk. (I only know one of them, Marty Baron, who hired me at the Washington Post, and anyone who wishes Liev Schreiber’s Baron was more animated or explosive is wishing he got the role wrong.)

Lots of people have heaped praise on the plotting and momentum of this movie. I think the characterization has been underrated. We do not get or need expository scenes of how months of work on the Catholic Church abuse scandal is affecting Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams). We get a scene of her struggling with a dishwasher, and a telling look from her husband when another reporter (Mark Ruffalo) shows up late at night and asks for her. We get that reporter, Mike Rezendes, living in a hovel that he says he can’t really move out of what with the story consuming his time. We get that fact when the Boston Globe’s assistant managing editor (John Slattery) shows up with leftovers, because he knows Rezendes doesn’t have time to cook.

I loved everything about this movie, but what stuck with me was the lack of finality. After Rezendes delivers a copy of the paper with the first (of 600+) Catholic Church expose pieces on the front, he walks past two children who have an appointment with the attorney. They’d been molested two weeks earlier. Two weeks — after we’d seen a lengthy legal fight for documents and a six-week reporting delay due to the 9/11 attacks putting demands on the newsroom. We are told this iteratively, not force-fed. Strangely, it’s Truth that sanctifies the act of journalism and Spotlight that clarifies it.

2014: The First Annual Only Culture Awards That Matter

This year, like every year, I consumed a bunch of #content. Less than usual, and far fewer books than usual, as I have trouble committing to a long read when I’m finishing up my own. I saw roughly half as many movies as I did in 2013, which actually led to less disappointment than usual when the year-end lists informed me that eight of the 10 best films came out for critics in December.

Best movie: Boyhood. I’m inclined to like every Richard Linklater movie, so it was awfully polite of him to make an absorbing classic.
Best movie-within-a-movie: Dune, as envisioned by crazy people in Jodorowsky’s Dune.
Best dystopia: The frozen world of Snowpiercer, everything from the roach-jelly that feeds proles to the psychotic elementary school to the machines run by tiny children. (Runner-up: Whatever the hell happens in the last act of The Congress.)
Best dopplegangers: A tie between the ideal couple in The One I Love and the parallel dinner-partiers in Coherence.
Best Angela Merkel joke: Her appearance in the credits montage of witches in Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi. (The Spanish ain’t happy with her.)
Best miniatures: A tie between The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Lego Movie.
Most jarring use of Ken Burns footage: The dust bowl scenes in Interstellar, which ground the famine-plagued future with interviews of real Okies. Nolan really gave away his source there.
Best sociopath (male): Nightcrawler‘s Lou Bloom, a criminal who’s terrifyingly good at applying self-help language to his manipulations and wanton destruction.
Best sociopath (female): Amy Dunne, the titular Gone Girl.
Worst fake journalist: Gone Girl‘s Ellen Abbott (Missy Pyle), a Nancy Grace stand-in who ruins a man’s reputation and tries to make up for it with the gift of a four-legged robot.
Best use of bluetooth: Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), in Locke.
Worst sex: The endless S&M of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and K (Jamie Bell) in the second chapter of Nymphomaniac.
Best music cue: “Real Gone Kid” by Prefab Sprout, which plays just as Under the Skin is shedding its plot dynamics and Scarlett Johanson’s alien has decided to try out humanity, and fail at it. The song gets her tapping her hand to the rhythm in a way that makes her seem more alien than ever.
Worst music cue: “Tusk” in Tusk, Kevin Smith’s attempt to ruin a great Fleetwood Mac song by associating it with fighting men in walrus costumes.
Worst science: Lucy, which not only relies on the myth that humans have yet to tap 90 percent of their brains, but gives Morgan Freeman a serious-sounding expository lecture about that “fact.”
Worst use of Kickstarter: Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here.
Best song by a fake band: “I’ll Have to Dance With Cassie” by God Help the Girl. Listen and agree:

(Runners up: “Hate the Sport,” by the adorable kids of We Are the Best! and “I Love You All,” by Frank and the Sonopofprbs.)
Best supervillain: Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn), the Starred Up prisoner whose efforts to protect his equally evil son are not stymied by physics, or timing, or logic.
Worst supervillain: Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Guardians of the Galaxy. Look: I’m a huge goddamn nerd and can quote back parts of the “Infinity Gauntlet” arc. But in the movieverse, so far, Thanos has 1) grinned, 2) glowered, and 3) fallen for the old “instead of delivering this powerful item to you I will steal it and defeat you!” rumble.
Worst action hero: Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who gives us very little to root for in Godzilla. If you’re going to kill off Brian Cranston, don’t replace him with a stack of cardboard.
Best action hero: Groot, duh.
And if I was assigning Oscars by diktat, I’d hand ’em to Julianne Moore (yes, Still Alice is Oscar bait, but it’s devastating thanks to her), David Oyelowo (for Selma), and Patricia Arquette (for Boyhood). Haven’t seen Whiplash, which all the smart kids say J.K. Simmons is perfect in.

Best mash-up:
Did mash-ups stop being cool? I haven’t heard one at a party in ages. Your loss, humanity: 2 Mello’s Final Fantasy (The 3-6 Chambers) was a complete masterpiece.
Best progressive album: Peter Hammill & Gary Lucas’s Other World. Hammill can really do no wrong, but the ambient guitar sounds brought something fresh and distracting to his music.
Best hip-hop album that isn’t Run the Jewels: Freddie Gibbs & Madlib’s Piñata.
Worst progressive album: Pink Floyd, The Endless River.
Best cover song: Bryan Ferry’s “Johnny and Mary,” a synthtastic pop hit transformed into a slow roasting ballad.

Best supergroup: The Both, the collaboration between Aimee Mann and Ted Leo that produced some of their best music in years, as well as a gripping, friendly live show.
Best concert: See above — 930 Club, earlier this year.
Best music video: The masses are right: Sia’s Chandelier kicked everything else in the ass, and hard.

Most lifelike robot: St. Vincent.

Best flesh-eating monsters: Not The Walking Dead‘s stalwarts; instead, I got way too into the horrifying sex-crazed civilization-destroyers of Crossed.
Best space opera: Jeff Lemire’s Trillium.
Most confounding creator: Between East of West, Manhattan Projects, and God is Dead, I have no idea what the hell Jonathan Hickman is doing. Yet I keep reading.
Best biography: Different All the Time, Marcus O’Dair’s comprehensive life story of Robert Wyatt. A real tonic, and a real reminder to stop slacking on my own history of progressive rock.

The Movies of 2014: The Year of Seeing Fewer Movies

As I keep saying, partly to remind myself to go back to working on it, 2014 is the year I finish the progressive rock history that I’ve wanted to write since I was 20 or so. And 2013 was the year I should have done more work on this, the year I took a bunch of international flights, the year I decided (not sure why) to break my movies-per-year record. No such ambitions this time. My Netflix queue is half old movies, half new. I’ll probably end up seeing 40 or so movies this year, catching up a bunch once the book is handed in, but no longer feeling like it’s worth it to rent crappy movies because they count toward a goal that maybe six people on the Internet care about. I can live and die without ever watching that goddamn Transformers movie.

Anyway! Here’s what I’ve seen so far, taking into account that I need to see Boyhood. Should Snowpiercer count as a pre-2014 release, as that’s when Korea got it? Should Nymphomaniac count as two movies? Whatever, I’ll figure this out, but need a placeholder.

1. Boyhood
2. Jodorowsky’s Dune
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. Selma
5. Snowpiercer
6. Nymphomaniac Vol. I
7. Guardians of the Galaxy
8. Blue Ruin
9. X-Men: Days of Future Past
10. Under the Skin
11. Starred Up
12. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
13. The LEGO Movie
14. The Babadook
15. Rich Hill
16. Coherence
17. Nightcrawler
18. Life Itself
19. Ida
20. 22 Jump Street
21. Still Alice
22. The Lunchbox
23. Frank
24. Gone Girl
25. Obvious Child
26. Only Lovers Left Alive
27. Gloria
28. The Immigrant
29. The Congress
30. Interstellar
31. The Unknown Known
32. Begin Again
33. We Are the Best!
34. Joe
35. Edge of Tomorrow
36. Nymphomaniac Vol. II
37. The One I Love
38. Birdman
39. Las Brujas de Zugarramurdi
40. The Fault in Our Stars
41. Borgman
42. Willow Creek
43. Magic in the Moonlight
44. The Double
45. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
46. Neighbors
47. The Normal Heart
48. Locke
49. The Rover
50. Jimi: All is By My Side
51. Rosewater
52. Palo Alto
53. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
54. Let’s Be Cops
55. Zero Theorem
56. Veronica Mars
57. Tusk
58. Life After Beth
59. Wish I Was Here
60. Winter’s Tale A fascinating failure, exemplifying for some future film school class what studios can do when they really want to option some material but don’t realize that what made it work was un-filmable. Oh, and when they’re unwilling to hand it to a weirdo. It’s like a Jodorowsky movie but filmed by Ron Howard; aka, an Akiva Goldsman film.

Still to see: Hey, I’m in no danger of thinking for myself, and I will want cinematic rewards after turning in the manuscript. I suppose I should see Whiplash, Bird People, Strangers by the Lake, Two Days One Night, Force Majeure, Life Itself, Inherent Vice, and The Missing Picture.

Apocalypse Pretty Soon

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

If you have not yet seen Ken Burns’s documentary about the Dust Bowl, then go, do. It’s a little shy of four hours long, but all of those hours are on Netflix, and they’re compelling in the way that only resurrected history can be. From the first moments, you see heart-stopping footage of mountain-high dust clouds terrorizing shacks that might as well be paper-mache. You see old people who somehow survived this, telling the modern audience that no one who did not live through the horror can understand it.

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled into Interstellar (at a premiere put on by Northrup Grummon, because #ThisTown) and saw… the exact same stuff Ken Burns had shown me. Christopher Nolan’s often-beautiful and just-as-often-stupid epic begins with suspense-killing survivors of a future dust bowl explaining what life used to be like. It is the year 2000-and-something, and an unspecified world crisis has destroyed the environment. The residents of an un-named, still-fertile rural area have watched the destruction of “the last okra crop ever.” Old people like John Lithgow’s Donald still remember the days when “it seemed like they were inventing something every day,” and rue how the declining food supply means wasted lives and corn for every meal.

Several stupid things happen, and Donald’s son-in-law Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) discovers that his daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) may have some connection to intelligent life. Patterns in the dust on her floor, which she attributed to “a ghost,” lead him to the underground bunker where NASA is secretly trying to save humanity. Having just shown up and been recognized by an old mentor (Michael Caine), Cooper is drafted into a mission to determine whether a wormhole, near Saturn, leads to a world that can sustain the dying population of Earth. He must leave his young children and come back with salvation — though it’s optional whether he’ll come back at all.

What follows is 90-odd minutes of space opera, with some of the most striking imagery yet put in a blockbuster. Most of this imagery is recorded because Cooper and his crew (including Anne Hathaway) make stupid decisions. Three astronauts preceded them through the wormhole, and have been sending back transmissions about the wisdom of settling on the new worlds. In a plot device borrowed from Goldilocks, the astronauts strike out twice, and we only see the just-right world in an epilogue. We do see a planet that consists of nothing but water whipped into giant storms, and a planet so cold and nitrous that the recon astronaut has set up base camp on a frozen cloud. Oh, and all of the planets revolve around a black hole — don’t ask where the light and heat necessary for life come from — so some mistakes related to relative time lead the expedition to take decades, while earth grows sicker and hungrier.

I have spoiled plenty, and won’t spoil the ending, but will say that it is downright Spielbergian in its use of Arthur C. Clarke pop science to engineer a love-wins scenario. Films like these are critic-proof — who wants to hear a nerd explain that they got black holes wrong — but they should not be as boring as Interstellar occasionally gets. Between the Ken Burns world-building and a few dynamite action sequences (one, and this is very cool, entirely based on one object’s ability to rotate at the same speed as another), there’s considerable slack.

The Rover (David Michod, 2014)

I’ve taken to recapping/reviewing/rambling about two movies at a time. The gimmick is especially worthwhile this week: The nerd who so chooses can easily pretend that these movies occur in the same universe. The Rover begins a decade after some unexplained “collapse,” when grimy people of varied accents are making it by barely in the Australian outback. This is a loaded location for apocalypse drama, and the expectations grow when our hero Eric (Guy Pearce) kicks off the action by refusing to allow a group of thugs to steal his car. “Step away from the gasoline,” and all that.

Eric fails to get his car back, largely because his initial revenge plan involves chasing down three men and fighting them solo. When he recovers, he rendezvous — by pure coincidence — with Rey (Robert Pattinson), a plucky but slow-witted criminal whose brother left him for dead… in order to steal Eric’s car. The two men team up in a shambling plot of revenge and survival. It goes like you might expect.

Honestly, I struggled to follow the threads or the action. The world-building, as mentioned previously, was derivative; there’s one very evocative scene that establishes how militarized gangs seem to have the run of the post-apocalypse, but we’ve seen better in films like The Road. The motivations are dead-end, desperate, sad, but not quite compelling.

Lovesick Teenagers

The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, 2014)

Hollywood’s romance with Young Adult novels, which have remained plot-focused while the grown-up kinds have gotten more abstruse, produced this faithful adaptation of (I’m told) the defining millennial non-vampire love story. It aims for tear-jerking, and does not miss. Hazel (Shailene Woodley, so hot right now) is a cancer survivor whose lungs were partially collapsed in a near-death experience, and who knows her sexless life can end at any moment. Gus (Ansel Elgort) is in the same leaky boat, minus the oxygen tank — he lost a leg to a youthful malady. They meet cute at a therapy circle held at a church (Mike Birbiglia is very funny as the youth leader), and I’m not spoiling anything if I say that they fall in love before one of them dies.

The movie is engineered to make you cry, and it goddamn sure will. Hazel and Gus are larger-than life soulmates in the Montague/Capulet vein, wordier and smarter than any kids you know. A sample piece of dialogue that will make your eyelids damp if you’ve seen the movie: “You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I am eternally grateful.” Who talks like that? Maybe smart kids who are aware that they need to have a eulogy on hand, maybe they do. The world treats them differently; the movie has a lot of fun with the Make a Wish Foundation, and in one weird scene, a friend whose cancerous eyes were amputated (Nat Wolff) gets away with egging his ex-girlfriend’s car even after the ex’s mom catches him. Why not? Why make his hard life any harder? (The viral WaPo essay that accused this movie of making sick teens too glamorous really papered over the whole amputated-eyes thing.)

I’m 33, so my touchstone romantic movies are Say Anything and Before Sunrise, both about healthy people who clearly are going to stay together without any thought of mortality or aging or ending. (In Before Sunrise, we have proof in the form of sequels.) The direction of The Fault in Our Stars is a little rote, and little is left unexpressed by monologues, but it’s hard not to be affected by a story about love with no future. There is nothing to aspire to, or copy, or be jealous of. Sidebar: “Boom Clap,” the onomatopoeiac love song by Charli XCX, is wasted on a short shot of a plane landing. It should be to this movie what “In Your Eyes” was to Say Anything. (It’s not lost on me that “a Peter Gabriel song” as a romantic side dish is an in-joke of this movie.)

Palo Alto (Gia Coppola, 2014)

It’s hard to discuss this without getting into the casting. Here we go: This is a movie by the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola, whose wineries are only a short drive away from the Bay Area setting. It stars Emma Roberts, daughter of Eric and niece of Julia, as a sullen and searching teenager named April who resists an emotional connection to Teddy, played by Jack Kilmer, son of Val. (Val Kilmer plays April’s stepfather, an intellectual burnout who rewrites one of her history papers as “Alexander the Dubious” and clearly spends the rest his time hitting bongs and killing XBox characters.) They’re both fine actors, though Roberts is downright compelling where Kilmer is sort of promising. Both of their solidly upper-middle-class characters are spending their high school years making bad decisions, which is realistic enough for me.

Realistic but nothing special. Coppola’s visual style is just like her aunt Sophia’s, bleary yet focused on her actors’ faces as they conceal their emotions. The plot, based on a short story collection by James Franco, is all about people creating mediocre fates for themselves. A girlish conversation about how the soccer coach (Franco, taking one for the team) probably has a crush on April is followed by an affair between April and the coach. The ominous interactions between Teddy and Fred (Nat Wolff, arresting and unrecognizable from his TFIOS performance) lead to trouble for both of them. There are memorable shots — April daydreaming in a car after a successful sexual conquest, Fred’s car careening through the middle lane of a freeway, going the wrong direction. But what’s the point? Wealthy boys and girls with big, soulful eyes are meant for each other? Hell, I could’ve told you that.

Messages in a Bottle

Locke (Stephen Knight, 2014)

Not quite sure what all the fuss is about. Locke is a “bottle” movie, set almost entirely inside the car of the eponymous Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), as he drives from Birmingham to London and conducts phone calls with his in-auto bluetooth. We learn quickly that Ivan is 1) a talented construction site manager on the verge of a career breakthrough, 2) married, and 3) throwing all of this away, because he’s driving to be present for the birth of an illegitimate daughter. Over 80-odd real time minutes, Locke walks a stressed-out and cider-loving assistant through the job he can no longer be present for, gets fired, gets kicked out of his house, and conducts cold medicine-fueled “conversations” with his absent father, whose own awfulness inspired Locke to take responsibility for his mistake.

Hardy is unsurprisingly fantastic, making some strange decisions — like an accent modeled off Sir Richard Burton’s — that give us a full sense of a character we will never see interact physically with anybody else. I liked in particular how Locke refused to say anything untrue when the hospital was on the line, reiterating “I am the father” instead of making things easier and saying “yes, I’m a relation, patch me in.” It’s compelling, and that’s enough for a rental, but in sum it’s a modest story about a guy who made some bad calls — literally! [Rimshot sound effect or gif to be inserted here.]

Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2014)

Another bottle movie, set in and around the director’s home, which doubles for a Bay Area yuppie pad that’s hosting a dinner party on the night that a comest is coming close to Earth. Emily (Emily Baldoni), a struggling dancer with a movie-approriate expository knowledge of comets, notices that her iPhone has shattered without dropping. A few other strangenesses plague the party, including a freak power outage, which sends two of the yuppies outside to find that… holy fucking shit, the only other house on the block is a mirror version of their house. Same people. Slightly different decisions, like the color of glowsticks they use to explore after the blackout. Most importantly, for dramatic purposes, the Earth 1 Emily ruined her career by backing out of a dance show she’d designed. The Earth 2 Emily went ahead with the show and became a star.

There are surface similarities between this movie and Another Earth, a strange but memorable indie melodrama which made a semi-star out of screenwriter/willowy screen presence Brit Marling. (Baldoni even looks a little like Marling.) Coherence is in some ways more predictable, complete with characters who know exactly what knowledge to drop in order to advance the plot, and how to react dramatically to MacGuffins. But it’s tense as all hell, thanks to little tricks like the improvised dialogue and Byrkit’s edits that chop up dinner party patter and rattle your confidence in the narrative. If I didn’t like the movie I’d describe it as jayvee Shane Carruth, as it’s much easier to follow and less visually striking than the Primer director’s work. It’s just a good, sticky suspense film that takes familiar-seeming people into the penumbras of their consciences.

Hot Freaks

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2014)
First off: What a title! The phrase “Only Lovers Left Alive” dates back 50 years, to a science fiction novel in which adults have departed and left the world to be run by reckless, sexy teenagers. (This was not an uncommon theme in the 60s.) It’s a combination of words that’s as romantic or dark as you want it to be, and Jim Jarmusch wants it to hit both marks. In his movie, brilliant and beautiful people who have been undead for a long time are struggling with how to stay interested in the world and each other.

It’s slow-moving, like most of Jarmusch’s stuff, but the pace works perfectly. The first time we see Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton — also, get it?), they are lying flat on their large beds, listening to records, and the camera is slowly descending at the pace of a spinning LP.  Adam is a musician who was famous, or at least cult-famous, at some time in the past, but now he’s recording the same droning “funeral music” and asking a fixer (Anton Yelchin) in his abandoned corner of Detroit if he can find a wooden bullet “for an art project.” Eve lives in Tangier, reading piles of books — there’s a very nice touch in which she quickly runs her fingers down the pages, speed-reading, because she’s had centuries to master this — and wants to be reunited with her lover.

Vampirism, in this movie, is like being a grad student for all eternity. After Eve flies to Detroit, the two of them reminiscence about the great people they’ve known (“What was Mary Shelley like?” “Delicious.”) and take long drives as they wonder how human civilization will crumble.

“Everybody left,” says Adam of Detroit.

“But this place will rise again,” says Eve. “There’s water here.  When the cities in the south are burning, this place will bloom.”

“Do you want to see the Motown museum?” says Adam. “Well, there’s not much to look at from the outside.”

To me, that’s pretty funny. As is the scene when the lovers have to dispose of a corpse, and Adam grumbles that “it’s not like the old days when we could just choke them in the Thames alongside the rest of the tuberculous floaters.” These people (well, monsters) have witnessed centuries of human progress, and become bored and a little scared of the diseases that now contaminate blood. They are not in control at all — they are trapped amid their hobbies and attachments. But don’t they look good that way?

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)
On the way out of the theater, I overheard the lesson that someone else took from it: “Social media ruins music!” He wasn’t wrong. Approached one way, Frank is the story of a young man who wants to be a famous musician and succeeds for two minutes. When we meet Jon (Domnhall Gleeson, who like most red-headed male actors always plays the approachable but goofy character), he’s walking around his anonymous English town, writing bad lyrics for songs with chord sequences that he belatedly realizes are from Madness songs.

By black-comedy-luck, he’s eating a panini (which he tweets about, with the hashtag #livingthedream) by the seaside when the keyboard player for the Soronprfbs, a band whose posters are advertising a show that night, is trying to drown himself. As the keyboardist is gurneyed away, Jon is invited to sit in with the band. With no practice, he is told to walk onstage right before Frank (Michael Fassbender) arrives, wearing a wetsuit (which he doesn’t always wear) and a giant paper mache head (which he does). Frank is magnetic, the song is a noise-rock jumble of words and concepts, and Jon adds some Cs and Gs and Fs to the show before the power blows and the manic Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) erupts, ending the show.

Jon wonders if he’s lost his chance at greatness. Then he gets it: The old keyboard player is institutionalized, and Frank wants Jon to join the band. For what? A gig, Jon assumes, though when he jumps into the Soronprfbs van, he discovers that 1) Frank never takes the head off and 2) the band is actually renting a cottage in Ireland to record a perfect album. Jon uses his life savings to pay the rent, documents the madness with his iPhone, and gets the band booked at SXSW.

“Why does it say ‘two-three-seven-five-one” at the bottom?” asks Frank, looking at a YouTube clip Jon has uploaded.

“That’s the number of people who’ve watched the clip,” says Jon.

“Two-three-seven-five-one people are interested in us?” asks Frank.

Against Clara’s advice, and against the warnings of the (mysteriously French) band members, the band heads to SXSW. You can guess what happens. This movie is based loosely on a real encounter Jon Ronson had with a comedian/performance artist whose “Frank Sidebottom” persona played fractured covers of pop songs. It’s based more closely on the lives and critical moments of a few outsider artists like Captain Beefheart and Daniel Johnston. Johnston was a breakout star at a pre-corporate version of SXSW, and was too mentally distraught to capitalize on it, and at times Frank felt like a version of Johnston’s life with some tropes removed (unlike Johnston, Frank does not pine for an unrequited love) and some added. Like Johnston, Frank seems to write songs about whatever is running through his mind or in his field of vision at a given moment, and like Johnston he retreats to be with his understanding, supportive parents when the pressures of success destroy him.

This is the sort of movie that shows big, gaping seams while it’s playing, and feels much more taut and poignant when it’s over. Jon’s quest for fame is handled perfectly, because whether or not you like Frank’s music, you don’t disagree that it’s fascinating and could find an audience. You also can see that Jon is talentless, and jealous that he is not a genius. “Miserable childhood, mental illness… Where do I find that kind of inspiration?” he asks himself. It’s a laugh line when he says it, and a profound line after he meets the real Frank. That’s the other thing — Fassbender is completely spellbinding as Frank, conveying emotions with just his voice and body the way Tom Hardy had to when he slapped on the Bane mask. When Frank is in his element he’s loose and limber. When pressure drops, he seems to shrink in on himself, standing around like a cigar store Indian. It’s very recognizable behavior if you’ve met (or are) a depressive person, and Fassbender plays it just right.

Adventures in America, 1921-2014

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) Earlier this year, New York culture critics came up with one of those trends that’s unprovable outside Brooklyn yet sets the entire Internet on fire. “Normcore,” allegedly, was a “self-aware, stylized blandness” adopted by cool kids, who were eschewing high fashion. (Surely this had nothing to with living in a city so expensive that two-income couples are willing to flee to Jersey City.) They were putting no thought into their clothes, so they could focus on the rest of their lives.

I thought of this trend — again, it may or may not be real — when “Boyhood” opened with the fake-dangeous guitar riffs of Coldplay’s “Yellow.” The song arrived in America during the dark reign of rap-rock and Sisqo, and it seemed meaningful at the time, but no self-respecting snob would admit to liking it in 2014. Yet here was Richard Linklater, who was making Austin’s weirdness famous before anyone was willing to shell out for SXSW wristbands, putting “Yellow” on the soundtrack and starting a movie with a kid gazing at a bright blue sky.

Much smarter critics (critics who are actually paid to analyze movies) have dissected “Boyhood” like a science class frog already, so I’ve got little to add beyond amazement at normal it is. It was filmed in yearly segments over 11 years, and the music cues reflect what was generally popular among average white people at the time. (The official soundtrack excludes schlock by Sheryl Crow and Soulja Boy, but it’s perfectly used in the movie.) There are many scenes of young kids playing video games.

Some of the story cues are familiar: Every time a character is drinking booze in a strange setting, he will turn out to be an alcoholic. But the callbacks to details filmed over 11 years are either nonexistent or purposefully transparent. The only Big Speeches are given by characters who have reasons to give them, which is Ethan Hawke’s Mason, Sr gets the most memorable dialogue as he spends precious weekends with the kids he’s left his estranged wife to raise.

There is no subtext. At one point, Mason, Sr pulls over his 1968 GTO to inform his kids that they simply are not going to be one of those families where the kids have bland conversations with their biological fathers. Yet after you watch the already-famous scene in which Mason, Sr gives his son a two-CD compilation of post-breakup Beatles songs (“There is no favorite Beatle!”), you expect Mason, Jr to meaningfully plunk it into his truck’s sound system at some point. That doesn’t happen. You expect some dark consequence when Mason, Jr drinks and does drugs. That doesn’t happen, either — he’s a white kid living in central Texas, he gets away with that sort of stuff on the way to figuring out what kind of man he is.

See, this movie is a rich and strange experience because there’s nothing particularly strange about it. What would it have been had Linklater just cast a few actors of different ages to play the same characters over 11 years? I don’t think it would have worked at all. The metatextual details are everything. The 2005 bookstore party for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince reminds you that Linklater did not invent the idea of tracking a few characters over their difficult years, but realized how much more vicariously you can live through characters if you watch them live and age, instead of living through one crazy night or the aftermath of some crime, or other plot contrivance. Like Slacker, Linklater’s first movie (and one of my favorite movies, period), it’s about how interesting human beings can be when they’re being alive. And, yes. When they are enjoying the music of Coldplay.

The Immigrant (James Gray, 2014) And here’s a movie that’s all about contrivance and setting. Set in 1921, Gray’s melodrama begins when Ewa (Marion Cotillard, whose voice is the quietest in any scene she’s in unless she’s crying) and her sister are prevented from entering New York City via Ellis Island. Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), the manager of a less-than-racy burlesque show, takes advantage of the situation and brings the beautiful, lost Ewa to his lair. Over the course of a few months, she’s degraded by her surroundings and rejected by her family and — well, I’d spoil it if I mentioned what happens with her love life.

It’s an old-fashioned melodrama, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I heard one critic describe Ewa as “the opposite of a Lars Von Trier character,” and I’d invert that — this is like a Lars Von Trier movie made by human beings who believe in strong women and happy endings. I ended up seeing this movie soon after Von Trier’s “Nymph( )maniac,” and funny enough I think Von Trier’s heroine asserts herself more fully. In the morality of that movie, sex is a pastime and a tool. In Gray’s movie, sex is like kryptonite to Ewa, depriving her of her destiny as a madonna finding her way in America.

Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014)
If you’re the sort of geek or critic who relies on extra-textual information to judge a movie, Guardians of the Galaxy is simply too good. Which narrative do you choose? The likeable blockbuster that saved Hollywood after a dismal summer? The rise of Chris Pratt, comic foil-turned-leading man? The risks and ultimate successes of James Gunn, a proud genre-bender who rose from Troma schlock to ambitious failures like Slither to make a movie that some critics prefer to Star Wars? The redemption of a director who helmed a segment of Movie 43?

All right, nobody needs to go with that last narrative. But your beloved critics are right — this is a very good movie, which made little sense as a Marvel blockbuster until smart people grabbed hold of it. (Remember, this was announced as a future Marvel epic at the 2012 Comic-Con, where any nerd could have named 20 comics more deserving of a film. I wasn’t there but I’d go with “Black Panther.”) Like The Avengers, it takes the scale and structure of a superhero movie and weds it to farce.

Gunn and Pratt et don’t exactly reinvent the wheel, as most big action movies are meant to be funny. Even the wretched Transformer movies are full of jokes and goofball casting — Shia LaBeouf, for chrissake. Guardians is just forward-facing in its kookiness, parodying a genre with full permission from the studio that invented that genre. It’s a movie that realizes the best parts of Star Wars are not the lightsaber fights, but the Cantina scene and Chewbacca’s grunt language.

Which is to say that it’s not exactly original. The five Guardians, based on characters from some of the more cosmic but less culturally relevant Marvel comics, fit neatly into archetypes. Pratt plays Peter Quill as a gym-sculpted ideal version of the space opera hustler. We meet him in 1988, when his mother dies of cancer and he’s immediately abducted by aliens. (Their reasons for abducting him are kept mysterious until the end of the movie, but they’re not obscure.) We skip right ahead to 2014 — there is no how-he-got-there montage — when Quill is a vain intergalactic “ravager” (like Han Solo) who goes on a treasure hunt without realizing he left a hot alien babe in the ship (like Captain Kirk might). Quill loves listening to the 70s pop mixtape that his mom left him, but apart from that he’s not damaged or out for revenge at all. Hell, the guy has a spaceship and has not bothered either returning to earth or trying to find his father. He seems more interested in establishing an identity as “Starlord.”

Hijinks ensue; Quill is hunted down by Gamorra (Zoe Saldana), an agent of the genocidal Ronan (Lee Pace, who’s buried under make-up), at the very same time he’s being hunted down by Rocket Raccoon (voice of Bradley Cooper) and his living-tree companion, Groot (voice of Vin Diesel). The four are thrown into the Kyln, a crowded space jail, but on the way out they’re joined by Drax (someone from the WWE who’s surprisingly great in the role), an alien whose family was killed by Ronan and comes from a planet without idioms. A sample Drax exchange:

ROCKET: If you use a metaphor it’ll go right over his head.

DRAX: Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too quick.

The five of them protect a MacGuffin, which turns out to be one of the Infinity gems that, as comic readers know, grant the users godlike powers. When Ronan finally obtains the gem, the heroes stop him. That’s the movie, but what thrilled me (and every critic) was the genuine delight everyone has in telling this story. The cosmic Marvel stories were full of pomp and drama, from the Silver Surfer’s space poetry to Adam Warlock’s battle against his evil future self. In Guardians, the only people who take this crap seriously are the villains (including Josh Brolin as Thanos and Karen Gillen as his daughter, Nebula), Gamorra, and Drax. And their seriousness is mostly played for jokes. Space is fun, alien worlds are fun, the stars are gorgeous — that’s the point of paying to watch this. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s head spins as characters survive being shot into space, but the audience gets to see a stunning sequence in which Gamorra floats amid debris and Starlord almost kills himself to save her. Ronan’s final assault is a strategic mess, but it allows all manner of characters to trade jokes and heroics.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2014)
Well, I didn’t mean to watch these movies back to back, but they cohere into a perfect double feature. In 1975, coming off the cult success of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky obtained the rights to the greatest sci-fi novel of all time. He set about finding “spiritual warriors” who could bring about his vision, for $15 million or so. These people, including Moebius, HR Giger, Dan O’Bannon, and Salvador Dali, went on to create some the sci-fi nightmares we see when we close our eyes. But they didn’t get to make Dune; the movie exists in a storyboard, and in the mind of a director who never fully recovered from the debacle.

This is one of those documentaries that puts a bunch of talking heads onscreen to tell you one version of a story, with no rebuttal. Nicolas Wending Refn, the Drive director, asks us to imagine the world had Dune, and not Star Wars, been the first sci-fi blockbuster. Jodorowsky (who is immensely fun to watch, lapsing between Spanish and broken English) recounts his joy at seeing David Lynch’s Dune and realizing “it was terrible!” A montage shows us the images ripped off from the storyboards, which had been passed around Hollywood like the smart kid’s homework.

What’s funny — and what does not really diminish the movie, at all — is that the lost Dune looks like it might have been terrible as a movie. In Jodorowsky’s own words the script was made by “raping Frank Herbert,” and the plot details he added are baffling, like a sequence in which Paul Atriedes is conceived by a drop of blood making the journey to his mother’s egg, or the robot through which the Emperor (Dali, who was going to be paid $100,000 for each minute he was onscreen) spoke. Jodorowsky’s ambition was a movie that would spark a cultural revolution, a new religion, just like in the novel. It might have been four hours long. It might have been 12 hours long. Whatever the muses dictated.

You don’t listen to that and conclude “yeah, this would have been as big as Star Wars.” But you do appreciate the madness. Why shouldn’t a director try to start a religion with his movie? Why shouldn’t he try to hire Pink Floyd and Magma to write new music for each planet in the movie? Over the closing credits, we learn that the act of making this documentary put Jodorowsky back in contact with his old producer, and that this led to the 85-year old making his first movie in 23 years. It’s the best ending I’ve seen, or can imagine, to a movie this year.

Three Movies, Only One of Which is Canadian

Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998)
Somewhat forgotten in the (growing) canon of apocalypse films, this low-budget Canadian project has been ransacked for spare parts and rarely gotten credit.

The plot is simple: The world is ending at precisely midnight (eastern time), and a few colorful residents of Toronto are dealing with it in their own meaningful ways. Patrick (director Don McKellar) is moping around, stopping by then bailing on his family’s faux Christmas party so he can die at home. Sandra (Sandra Oh) is stranded after she makes an impulse champagne run and hooligans overturn her car. Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) is running through a bucket list of sexual acts with volunteers he finds on an adorably antique Internet. Duncan (David Cronenberg) and Donna (Tracy Wright) are running the final shift of the gas company, because, shit, somebody’s got to.

That last running gag demonstrates what’s great about the movie. Using a ruler and pen, Duncan slowly notches off the names of customers, leaving each of them a nice voicemail about how the gas will keep running. It’s the little things, like the home movies Patrick’s family watches and the concert recital that his friend has “finally!” booked at Toronto’s classiest space and the never-explained crazy woman who jogs the streets announcing how many hours are left before oblivion and the DJ who spins his horrible countdown of “the all-time top 500.” (The film’s theme song is the schmaltzcore 5th Dimension classic “Last Night (I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All.”) The cause of the apocalypse is never actually explained — it’s always bright, and Patrick “misses the night,” but it’s not sweltering or anything.

Before renting this, not by any grand design, I’d seen some rip-offs. The meandering and pompous 4:44 and the strangely mean Seeking a Friend for the End of the World take some of the themes, but make the error of explaining the cause of the apocalypse. (Global warming in the first movie, an asteroid in the second.) McKellar’s film owes a little to Miracle Mile, which puts two lovers in Los Angeles on a nuclear countdown. But the Canadian film is… well, Canadian. It’s small. It’s funny. It’s poignant, even if some of the heart-tugging comes from unrealistic character run-ins. (By the end, everyone is connected.) The final shot, which I won’t spoil, is instantly unforgettable, and leaves you happier than the death of six billion people really should.

Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, 1952)
I’d been meaning to watch more classic movies, and a successful author friend assured me that it made a good break from book writing (“stretches the storytelling muscles” — fabulous), so I polished off one of the legends of movie musicals.

It’s okay. The problem with rediscovering a film like this is that it’s been parodied or homaged for so damn long that you’re not sure if you’re watching the discovery of fire or someone lighting a cigarette butt they found on the ground. Don (Gene Kelly) is a marquee star who’s always paired up with the odious Lena (Jean Hagen). He’s going to star with her in a movie scored by his old vaudeville buddy Cosmo (Donald O’Connor), but he’s a little bored until he meets cute with Kathy (Debbie Reynolds), a talented kid who’s just starting out. Complications arise when the public goes wild for “talkies,” and squeaky-voiced Lena becomes all wrong for a romantic picture. What to do?

Everybody knows the plot, right? It was inspired (sort of unfairly) by the fate of some silent movie stars, and decades later it was inverted for the new-silent film The Artist. It’s schmaltz, stringing together iconic musical numbers (songs actually taken from prior, forgotten films). They hold up. You cannot bleed red blood and not smile when Gene Kelly duck-walks through the puddles (that we now know gave him a cold and ruined his suit).

But the scenes don’t always make sense. What does the “Broadway Melody” scene have to do with anything? The company needs one more musical sequence for its baroque-era romance, so we cut to an enormous day-glo soundstage? Why? The songs are fine, but Nacio Herb Brown is no Rodgers or Sondheim or Cohan.

Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas, 2014)
Watching this, I finally understand what normal people must think of all the superhero movies that us nerds conquered the world with. Put me in a theater playing an X-Men film and I can point to all the easter eggs and callbacks. Put me in front of my TV watching the beloved Veronica Mars cast reuniting, and I see… a pretty okay detective comedy with a slightly overwritten narration?

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with this movie. A short sepia montage starts the proceedings, informing us that Veronica (Kristen Bell) left the “seedy beach town” of Neptune, California, and with it her hotheaded boyfriend who we assume she’s destined to be with. Veronica’s about to nail a high-paying law firm job in New York, where she lives with her public radio boyfriend (this results in an Ira Glass cameo) and happens to see (via a TV in an American Public Media office) that the aforementioned boyfriend is wanted for the murder of his pop star girlfriend.

Am I spoiling if I say he didn’t do it? The mystery is well-constructed, the characters who I assume were on the TV show are funny, but I didn’t fall in love with any of it, lacking the context of 66 (right?) episodes. Gaby Hoffman, the much-eyebrowed child actress who’s made a comeback recently, blows most of the TV actors off the damn screen even when her character is making no sense. A big setpiece set at a (sigh) high school reunion feels especially like fan service, and ends exactly how you think it will once you see that the bitchy popular girl showed up. Wonderful that we have a movie that was Kickstarted by fans, but that’s all this will be known for.