Faxon and Rash, Kasdan, Lloyd, Lord and Miller, Snyder

Darling Companion (Lawrence Kasdan, 2012). I’ve got loads of residual affection for writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, but he sure doesn’t make it easy to be one of his defenders these days. Darling Companion was his first film in nearly decade, following the appallingly bad Stephen King adaptation Dreamcatcher. It doesn’t make an argument that he used his creative downtime wisely. As wispy of a film concept as anyone’s likely to come across, Kasdan’s story (co-written with his wife, Meg Kasdan) concerns an older couple who adopt a stray dog and then lose that new furry family member in the woods around their Colorado vacation cabin. And that’s about it. There are different personal conflicts and evolving relationships at play among the extended group of family and friends staying with them at the cabin, mildly heightened by the stress of the absent pet, but they have no depth or bite. Kasdan assembles a stacked cast that includes Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, and, in a dinky part that could heave been written in its entirety on the back of a PetSmart receipt, Elisabeth Moss, causing my partner-in-all-things to refer to the movie as “interesting actors doing uninteresting things.” She’s spot-on.

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013). The kindest thing I can say about Zack Snyder’s reboot of Bryan Singer’s reboot of the adventures of the original superhero and the last son of Krypton is the director’s worst tics, the stuff that makes other entries in his filmography downright unwatchable, are largely tamed. The oppressive slo-mo and fetishistic sexualization of everything in sight may be gone, but Snyder still has an evident love of the garishly bombastic. By all evidence, he values cool shots over all else, which could be acceptable if his version of striking visuals wasn’t mired in some bizarre arrested development version of thought and creativity. Everything across the film’s overlong running time comes across as the very first idea presented that made Snyder helplessly mutter, “Killer.” It’s a rough draft of awesomeness. It’s also incredibly boring, proof that bigger sometimes leads to nothing more than bludgeoning excess. No one in the cast distinguishes themselves, but special scorn is necessary for Russell Crowe’s amateurish shouting as Jor-El, Superman’s pop from across the universe.

The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011). I read recently that Phyllida Lloyd maintains she was being completely deliberate with the hacky, cheesy elements of her directing job on the dreadful big-screen jukebox musical Mamma Mia! I wonder, then, what her excuse for the same bumbling, ham-fisted approach to staging and developing insight that crops up in her presumably serious attempt at making a biopic of legendary, controversial U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Played by Meryl Streep (and, for a surprisingly amount of time, Alexandra Roach), Thatcher is ultimately more of a witness to history than she is a shaper of it. Her vaunted steeliness–which gives the film it’s very title–is in evidence in only the most facile way, in scenes that play like weak tea drama. Streep finally won her third Oscar for her performance here, but the work was basically incidental. With far more nominations than any other actor, she was going to get rewarded again, and the time had simply come. It’s not a bad performance, but nothing really distinguishes it from boilerplate docudrama either.

The Way Way Back (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, 2013). The writing team that got to stand near Alexander Payne as he gave a speech when they all won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for The Descendants may have been obscured in his heavy auteur shadow, but at least they got to leverage that experience into making their directorial debut. Supposedly pulled somewhat from the youthful experiences of co-director Jim Rash, the film is a fairly standard-issue slice-of-life, coming-of-age movie, settling into a crummy water park to help give it some added flavor. The film has its moments, many directly attributable to Sam Rockwell doing his Sam Rockwell thing as a mentor of mild ill repute the youthful protagonist (Liam James) gravitates to at the park. Rash and Nat Faxon pull the whole thing together with a reasonable skill and an eye for the occasional telling moment or side detail. It could use some more storytelling meat to make it seem like it has a real reason for being as a film.

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014). I think some of the heady praise doled out to The Lego Movie is an indication that a lot of critics were rounding up, but it’s hard to deny that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller spun up art from the unlikeliest clay. Or, rather, plastic. Just as they’ve done in the Jump Street films, the pair sidestep the pitfalls of crassly conceived material by calling attention to the shallowness of it all, creating by explicitly pointing out how they’re creating it, cheekily mocking all the inherent contradictions and compromises along the way. It’s remarkable that a condemnation of Lego’s current business model of ready-made construction kits is one of the less subversive elements of the film. It’s occasionally a little sloppy and the pathos of the very weird third act twist sits a little awkwardly against the rest of the movie’s wild energy, but the filmmakers deserve credit for seeing their vision through to its logical endpoint. I wonder how deep they got into the filmmaking process before they were sure–really, really sure–no one was going to take it away from them.

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