Movies & More


Posted on January 8, 2015 by Blake Leath

My wife (of all people!) actually ENCOURAGED me earlier this evening to submit a few movie reviews. (Apparently, she has one or two friends on facebook who actually read them, so wow—now I feel sorta obligated, like I had homework and missed it, or a test and forgot!) But whatevs. It’s been a long day of logsplitting and asphalting, so a few moments of reflecting on holiday shows and 2014 frivolity sounds like just what the doctor ordered.

Below are my 2¢ on twenty-three (23) Q3-Q4 2014 movies, should you…or you and your spouse…or you and your fam wanna get out-o-the-crazy-house this weekend, or just burrow into the couch ‘neath a blanket with roaring fire, hot chocolate, On Demand, and that clicker with worn-off buttons.

(I’ll conclude with thoughts on 10 more “current and coming” shows, some of which I’ve seen, and some of which—admittedly—I have not, but have opinions about nonetheless….)

1. Annie (9.5). I know, I know, “Annie,” right? I don’t know what to tell ya, man! I’ve seen three stage-mounted musical productions of Annie in my lifetime (2 of which were great, 1 of which was sufferable), but this movie is a delightful surprise. (Now, as is the case with all movie reviews, this movie review is CONTEXTUAL. When I’m reviewing a “kid’s movie,” I’m thinking of it in that context. When I’m reviewing a “horror film,” I’m reviewing in that context; I’m not comparing Annie to Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Raging Bull or Shawshank Redemption, mind you.) But as for Annie, well, it begins and ends strongly with lots of zip and zest, the acting is fun and fresh, and every single song you know (or think you know) has been recomposed. Annie is played by the “Beasts of the Southern Wild’s” Quvenzhané Wallis, and she’s effortless in this role. Cameron Diaz is, regrettably, the weak link in the production, but oh well, people don’t show up for her acting, do they? If you’re looking for a great family film that’s bouncy and uplifting, this is one to see. Be ready, because once it begins—it won’t release its hold on you.

2. Big Eyes (7.5). Not a bad movie, but a bit flat. Fortunately for the viewer, it does NOT feel like a typical Tim Burton movie which, frankly, is a relief (at least to me). Amy Adams is lite as cotton candy, and Christoph Waltz is good, though he’s becoming an all-too-articulate-enunciator-and-self-mocking-caricature of himself. He was amazing in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, where his intellect crackled and popped, but here’s he’s just…a pitiful person who’s painted himself into a sharp corner. I suppose you’ll enjoy it, but you won’t rave about it, that’s for sure, and your kids will hold you responsible.

3. Big Hero 6 (9). Lauren and I saw it twice together. It’s perfectly executed, as many recent Disney animations are (think “Frozen”), and the story is wholesome and good. We thoroughly enjoyed it and left feeling encouraged.

4. Dumb and Dumber To (0). Sorry, pass. Never saw it, won’t see it; too stupid. Saw the trailer, saw how tired and old and pitiable both actors appeared in a movie that’s two decades late (the original came out in 1994, can you believe it?) and spared myself the pain.

5. Exodus: Gods and Kings (7.75). Better than a 7, but not an 8. It’s serviceable. Pros: It’s not “Noah,” which was such a heretical, convoluted, fighting-rocks mess that I nearly exited stage right after 35 minutes. Cons: Exodus starts well, does a nice job developing a few key characters, and them blammo, two things go wrong. First, God-as-burning-bush’s messenger (the theophany, “Malak”) appears, at times, as if he’s shifty, or making things up as he goes, or that he’s confused, or that he’s really negotiable. And he’s kinda creepy. These are not traits one usually associates with God, who is positive, certain, all-knowing, constant, firm. Second, the final 40% of the film is way too rushed. It really needed another installment altogether (does the Biblical book not warrant the same treatment as Twilight, Divergent, or Hunger Games?), or should have been extended 20 more minutes and edited as well as the first 60% of the film. Forgiving the man/boy/angel/bush/stacking-rocks problem, I was otherwise digging the movie’s character development…until it appeared that Ridley Scott ran out of time, money or interest to finish what he started. Frankly, I believe he lost heart—having lost his brother in 2012, one year before production began in earnest. Oh, and yes, I would have appreciated more ethnicity and diversity in the film, and don’t understand why there wasn’t more, but c’est la vie: this is 20th Century Fox we’re talking about, and with $140M at stake, “brand names” are the usual bet.

6. Foxcatcher (9.75). One of my top-3 picks for 2014, Foxcatcher is atmospheric and moody and bleak, like Iceland in winter. Steve Carell is brilliant as wacko ornithologist, wannabe and ne’er do well John E. DuPont, and Mark Ruffalo rallies, having lost his [real life] brother, Scott, in a horrific incident in 2008. Channing Tatum is “very good,” almost “great,” which exceeded my expectations wildly. It’s a huge role for him, and he performs it admirably. The scenes between Carell and EVERYONE are electrifying, and Ruffalo is so decent that we see his fulfillment coming a mile away. Whatever you do, don’t miss this movie. Accept that it will be quiet, haunting, “very interior,” and a sad portrait of men with Mommy issues. Foxcatcher is NOT a “fun date movie,” but it’s so well done that it warrants being seen. Now. It will haunt you for a couple days afterward, it’s that good. (It’s playing in The Lofts at LOOK Cinemas; there’s a seat with your name on it.)

7. Fury (5.5). Sorry; I really, really wanted to have something positive to say about this movie. I know it was a labor of love for Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, and several others, but it’s just flat. It creeps and crawls, like the tanks themselves, and when it’s over, it’s just over. I didn’t cry, I wasn’t moved, it never compelled me. Apathy not being a trait typically engendered by war, this means that something went terribly wrong somewhere along the line. The little tank that could…didn’t, and that’s too bad. It should have been a really powerful tale. Maybe if Tom Hanks had produced it instead of David Ayer?

8. Gone Girl (8). Nowhere near as good as the book, nor Silence of the Lambs, which was the level of production I was expecting, but it was gritty and gripping and good enough.

9. Horrible Bosses 2 (8.5). You’ll blush, you’ll squirm, you’ll rib the frat boys beside you and, if you survive until the end, you’ll have laughed so hard your sides will hurt. But yes, it’s raunchy and raucous. The trio of Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis is as funny an ensemble as any working today (probably funnier), and Chris Pine, Kevin Spacey and Christoph Waltz perform their roles as written. Jamie Foxx, however, steals every scene he’s in (just like in Annie!), and the Twizzler-eating/barricaded-fence car-chase scene will leave you howling so hard you’ll need a restroom afterward. Do NOT take your children. Duh.

10. Interstellar (8). It is very difficult for me to be objective about this movie. Is it a 9? No way. Is it a 7? Possibly. The “realization of the conclusion” is a major meltdown/letdown/fizzle/“so that’s all?” kinda moment, but the first 75% of the movie—from archival Dust Bowl clips (courtesy of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary) and gorgeous cinematography and swelling music to the father/daughter love story brought me to tears and goosebumps more than once. I personally love Matthew McConaughey’s Austin drawl and shtick, and in light of his character being a farmin’ engineering astronaut maverick in a tiny town with dreams outsizing his reality, I thought he was perfectly cast. I also love Christopher Nolan’s cinematography, always enjoy Michael Caine’s diction, and any movie that quotes Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” THREE TIMES is a slam-dunk for me. But Jessica Chastain’s anger was so misplaced, so intolerable, and Anne Hathaway played such a mopey troll that I found myself flinching each and every time either one of their characters spoke. Mackenzie Foy (the daughter, also from The Conjuring and Twilight) was perfection incarnate, let down mostly by forces outside her control, namely, the ending and miscasting of her adult self. But as for lingering effects, I’ve now seen the movie three times, and play five particular soundtrack songs every day as I shower and shave. They are very anthemic, which seems a fitting way to wash off yesterday and tackle today.

11. Into the Woods (7.5). It’s pretty dang good. Absolutely NOT my typical fare, nor usual interest, but the songs are vibrant and dynamic and Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp and James Corden are strong. Any musical written by Stephen Sondheim, produced by Disney, and directed by Rob Marshall (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Damn Yankees, Cabaret, Victor/Victoria, Annie, Chicago and Memoirs of a Geisha) deserves consideration. Its major downfall is that it’s not quite a children’s movie, and it’s not quite “Chicago,” so it falls somewhere in that murky-gray place in between. Your kids will not love it, nor will you—but again, it’s populated with talent, is well-executed, and has great songs…but NOT the possessive sort (like Frozen) that your kids will remember, care about, or sing for days/weeks/months/years on end. Who knows, maybe that’s a good thing and the gift that keeps on giving [because it does not]?

12. Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (6.5). They shoulda stopped at 1, not 3. Everyone does fine, but gosh, it’s so tired now. Hindsight being 20/20 (and maybe I’m just “projecting”), but I coulda sworn that Robin Williams had lost a step. He exhibits two or three decreased motor features, including a left arm that doesn’t swing like it used to, so I couldn’t help but break down by it, as it lends credence to his family’s claim that he was suffering from (among other things), “diffuse Lewy body dementia,” an offshoot of Parkinson’s.

13. Nightcrawler (9). I wrote about this earlier in the year, so I won’t bother repeating myself, but it’s a dark, creepy, excellently acted and produced movie. Gyllenhaal’s eyeballs pop-out at all the right times, and his character—so slitheringly, calculatingly, lycanthropingly bizarre—draws you in despite your mightiest resistance…precisely as any sociopath would.

14. The Babadook (9). Here’s all you really need to know about this Australian horror film: William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist) wrote on Twitter, “Psycho, Alien, Diabolique, and now THE BABADOOK. I've never seen a more terrifying film. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.” Here’s my take on it: I saw it at a midnight showing recently, plopped myself down, ordered my meal…and could not eat for two hours straight. I was that unsettled and ill by it. It’s a perfect horror movie, as good as any I’ve seen in a very, very long time, and it will keep you looking over your shoulder and under your bed and in your closet for a solid week. (Oh, and if you’re wondering, the most frightening film I’ve ever seen in my entire life was “Insidious.” I saw it in Scottsdale, AZ late one night a few years ago, traveling by myself and viewing it in a theater with no one else. Afterward, I had to drive to the Grand Canyon and sleep in a vacated dormitory ALL BY MYSELF for four consecutive nights. Two dozen rooms, and I was the only occupant. There was no TV, no internet, no Wi-Fi, no cell service, no HVAC, no nothing. Each night after I concluded my workshop [which occurred far across the National Park], I would walk back to the war-era dormitory through a crunchy, boundaryless, absolutely pitch-black-inky forest—all alone—to this single room at the top of creaky, rickety, ancient wood stairs. I would draw back curtains to an 8’ wide window, beneath which was only forest, and above which only starry sky, and strive mightily to fall asleep in the cool breeze, hoping against hope that Insidious had not followed me there.)

15. The Gambler (8). Loved it. Wahlberg’s perfect. It’s a very straightforward gambling story: up, down, then numerous efforts to crawl out again. John Goodman is outstanding, while also serving as a great reminder to put the ice cream down.

16. The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (7). Well, heck, I just love all things Rings and Hobbit, and this is a definitive conclusion to all that, but frankly, after the first twenty minutes of dragon-slaying, I was sorta pooped and began to think, “Yeah, hmmm, okay, I feel like I’ve seen this movie already…about, what, maybe 5 times?” There’s only so much wandering, woe-is-ing, and wondering one wants to do in his life, and watching these beloved characters do it one time too many was tough. I enjoyed it, but perhaps as much for “ending” as “existing” in the first place.

17. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I (5). I enjoyed the first couple very much, yes, but can only assume they obliterated the third’s original text, because caring about Katniss, the Capitol, Peeta, Primrose, Panem and promos has worn me out! When Lenny Kravitz’s [Cinna] fashion renderings took center stage for what felt like twenty minutes, I thought to myself, “Is this what Katniss has been reduced to? Promos and dresses? Oy vey!” She, defender of the realm and kick-ass archer, deserves better targets. Plus, the attraction to elfboy Josh Hutcherson simply does not compute for me. He seems more like a gerbil that should be protected than a dear friend or potential love interest. And lastly, I was saddened to think this was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final movie. He made his bed, but it doesn’t make watching his last outing any more tolerable. I will choose to remember him in Capote, The Savages, or Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. (The only gem in this movie is Lorde's contribution, "Yellow Flicker Beat.") 

18. The Interview (7). It’s hilarious, in an “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” and “I hope they don’t kill me” and “Did he just say what I think he said?” kind of way. It’s tacky and trashy and, precisely like Horrible Bosses 2, un-take-your-eyes-off-able. It has way more one-liners than HB2, but a smidge less character and chemistry. But admittedly, lots of both.

19. The Penguins of Madagascar (6.5). I love the penguins, and think they are the best part of Madagascar anything. It’s a cute movie, but I’d recommend Annie or Big Hero 6 before I’d recommend TPOM.

20. The Theory of Everything (7.5). It’s a fine movie, very PBS-y and Masterpiece-y and period-y. But gosh, Stephen Hawking’s spacy and abstract assertions, personal and vocational alike, are themselves such philosophically conceptual black holes that I left feeling like I’d seen a great costume drama, with phenomenal acting and lots of depressing nothingness. It’s very hard to care about a romance one knows ends in divorce, but certainly inspirational to learn more about a man who has done all he has, day after day after day, for decades on end and to worldwide acclaim. Kudos to Dr. Hawking for that, absolutely, and for Eddie Redmayne’s and Felicity Jones’s performances. He was amazing in Les Mis, is amazing here, again, and she is captivating and steadfast.

21. Top Five (5). Trash. I have a lot of professional respect for Chris Rock as a clever comedian and social commentator, and absolutely grasp what he is trying to say (both satirically and literally) in this movie (his first outing as writer, producer, director), but I find it deplorably self-involved and scummy. Unlike HB2 or The Interview, which are lite winks and nods and puns and punchlines, Top Five is just miserable. If I had $12M (the stated budget for Top Five) and was Chris Rock, gosh, is THIS what I’d want to communicate to America? Clearly it was what HE wanted to say, and that's entirely his privilege and prerogative, but where’s the virtue, the raw talent, the fine craftsmanship, the greater friendships, the hope, the deeper message? And frankly, the genuine laughs? It strives to be a Cinderella story within a Cinderella story, but I find it a shallow 2-hour sitcom, nothing more than a fortune cookie sans fortune, as vacuous as all the relationships presented.

22. Unbroken (7). Well done, but the true story (and book) are far better. I was moved, but never to tears, and found the duration of the POW camp retelling too lengthy, and the seventy years following (!) too brief. It’s a perfect example of Hollywood missing the entire point, like the proverb, “Why—when I point to the moon and all its glory—do you stare at my finger?”

23. Wild (7). Oy, this is a toughie. Reese Witherspoon is a pistol, currently cooking up nearly two dozen projects in her production company, Pacific Standard. She has been busy-busy-busy, having released Mud, The Good Lie, Gone Girl, Wild and Inherent Vice all within a period of one year. Her picker is getting better, and her charisma and smarts are always on display. But Wild ends in precisely the same way The Theory of Everything did: with the clear sense that I’d seen something beautiful, yet ultimately hollow and not particularly constructive to anyone involved.


Looking Here and Ahead

1. American Sniper—It’s playing in limited release, and though it’s in Dallas, I’m waiting for it to be at “our theater.” It will be deep, lasting, and impactful. My friends who have seen it wept like babies, so I’m sure I will, too. I absolutely loved Chris Kyle’s autobiography of the same name, was devastated to hear of his senseless murder, and will be taking others who have served our country when I go.

2. Blackhat—Looks promising; is certainly timely! I love Michael Mann movies. The first trailer was great; the second one, not so much. It went from feeling very “Collateral/The Insider” to sorta “Swordfish,” so we’ll see what we see when it’s out.

3. Inherent Vice—Quirky and fun. I love Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master), and Joaquin Phoenix—the wacko—has acting chops, so if you’re into “quirky,” then yes, it should be good in the same way Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was (if you like that sort of confection). And no, the Anderson’s are not related in any way other than they make good independent films.

4. Kingsman—Looked good, but looks “less good” as I see more about it. I worry their efforts at gadgets, gizmos, goofy fight choreography and English affectations may detract from the storyline in the same way a wild haymaker detracts from what would have been a perfectly good jab.

5. Paddington—What’s not to love? He’s adorable, like Pooh, the effects look great, and I love most everyone in it. Remember, IT'S A KID'S MOVIE.

6. Selma—I’m sure it will be good, as long as it’s not too heavy-handed and overly burdened by the obligations accompanying the telling of Dr. King’s story and being “the" message movie of the entire Civil Rights Movement. David Oyelowo is a tremendous actor, and he appears to have done a marvelous job channeling King. Here’s hoping he didn’t get tripped-up by the machinery and distraction that is Oprah Winfrey.

7. Taken 3—It is what it is, right? Liam Neeson playing Liam Neeson. If you like him, which I do, you’ll buy popcorn and soda and enjoy the ride. This isn’t Schindler’s List.

8. The Imitation Game—You tell me! It’s playing, but I haven’t seen it and intend to. The trailers looked promising.

9. The Wedding Ringer—Originally “The Best Man.” I’m anticipating a 5. Movies that are perpetually delayed and renamed, as this one has been, typically do not fare that well. But again, it's an in-your-face/over-the-top comedy, so my expectations and bar will be appropriately low.

10. Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (6). Like I always tell my wife, "Being startled is not the same thing as being scared." It has lots of jumps and boos and creepy violins, but that ain't scary, that's just jumping out at me from the shadows. Wholly underwhelmed.



People sometimes ask why I love movies so much; why I make time to see them—so dang many of them. The long answer is because I’m a storyteller (serviceable or lousy, I leave to you), and I work with storytellers. That’s what training, development, strategy, culture, leadership, change and communication are all about: finding the thread and making sense of it for others. Plus, isn’t that what life is…one big story? Three Acts—infancy/adolescence/adulthood, a beginning/middle/ending—told to us through parables, through poetry, through prose. Stories of creation, the rise, the fall, the resurrection, the redemption of all things good and true or even icky and seemingly irredeemable in between.

After several consecutive days of being immersed in our own ideas/content/materials or wrestling with clients’ bottomless challenges, my butt/back/brain are wholly fried, or my legs and voice are shot, and all I really want to do is collapse into a plush chair, press a button, order dinner, and experience a potentially immersive tale in which I am not already vested and for which I am not responsible.

It’s a simple pleasure, I know, but one through which I am rejuvenated and refreshed and restored and re-juiced. I don’t golf, I don’t play cards or board games or ping-pong or drink with buddies. When I need to recharge, I watch movies, and I dig ‘em. That’s the short answer.

Later this month at Sundance, they’ll screen a movie entitled “Chuck Norris vs. Communism,” the true story of how smuggled VHS tapes (of drive-in schlock, no less) were partly responsible for the 1989 toppling of Romania’s dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu. Stories, as inaccessible as they may initially seem, so reliably succeed, often in spite of their cast, in spite of their production value, and make it halfway ‘round the world while reality is putting its sneakers on. Whatever criticisms one might have about “The Interview,” for example, it’s the umpteenth exhibit that proves the point of the power of story and its ability to influence a conversation or affect society at large, line by line, scene by scene, act by act.

Stories have and always will have the power to change the world.

Meantime, if you want to get your groovy story on and live anywhere remotely near Dallas, join Sandy and Danny for the “Grease” Sing-Along coming 1/15 at 7:35 at Alamo Drafthouse. It’s no Citizen Kane, but that’s the point. It never was, and will be sold-out just the same, because it’s as effective a teleportation device as has ever been created. Within minutes you’ll be up on your feet, boogieing beside strangers, combing or coifing your hair, and lost again—just like in high school—only to be found and saved when Sandy struts out, bedazzled and bedangled beneath the Ferris wheel, crooning "You're the One That I Want," eventually joined by the hitherto clueless Danny and his Greased Lightning (the flying car) as everyone harmonizes "We Go Together."

Good times. See you at the movies.