Begin Again Directed by: John Carney Written by: John Carney Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, James Corden and Hailee Steinfeld
Begin Again is a cute, light-hearted musical with just enough bite to avoid being irredeemably fluffy. It’s a movie where I knew everyone would be all right at the end, because the main characters’ redemption arcs are so unchallenged that the story would work whether they score a hit record or not. Dan (Mark Ruffalo) is a heavy drinking, has-been record executive with a crumbling marriage. While down on his luck and drunk at an open mic night, he discovers Greta (Keira Knightley), a recently dumped singer/songwriter whose music becomes the driving force of their uplift (and ours).
Those character archetypes sound unbearably cliché, but writer/director John Carney’s disinterest in mining the narrative for drama proves to be an asset here. Ruffalo and Knightley have enough chemistry to make their recording sessions interesting, and it was surprising to see how exactly their relationship conflicts settled.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Directed by: Matt Reeves Written by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver & Mark Bomback (screenplay), Pierre Boulle (novel) Starring: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman and Keri Russell
Aside from a prologue where the spread of a humanity-eradicating virus plays out in mock news footage projected on a map of the globe, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes begins and ends with the same pair of enraged eyes. Those eyes will be familiar to anyone who saw the spectacular first installment of this rebooted series, 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. They are Caesar’s, the ape brought to inquisitive, now-domineering life in yet another astonishing motion capture performance by Andy Serkis.
Part of what made Rise such a thrill was they way it surrounded its outbursts of action-movie violence with an emotionally resonant, elegiac beauty. CGI apes were utilized not just as disposable bodies for battle scenes, but as characters even more important than the humans. Images of young Caesar sitting at a piano with an old man with Alzheimer’s, or a horde of freed apes swinging through rustling trees as pedestrians stop on the street to look up are just as memorable as the incredible action set piece on The Golden Gate Bridge. It was a summer blockbuster that insisted on taking its time, making its big finale (and the shouting of the word “No!”) all the more rousing.
Snowpiercer Directed by: Bong Joon-Ho Written by: Bong Joon-Ho and Kelly Masterson (screenplay), Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette and Benjamin Legrand (graphic novel) Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-Ho, Octavia Spencer and Tilda Swinton
In Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-Ho and his production crew do something that is incredibly important in sci-fi films: they’ve mapped out a vision of their world down to every minute detail. This is where, for the most part, other recent films that attempt to show the horrors of tomorrow go wrong. Divergent and The Hunger Games films are competently made and their action sequences are sometimes thrillingly executed, but their generic, uninspired dystopias are almost interchangeable when arrows and bullets aren’t flying.
Snowpiercer is by no means a perfect film, but it is a transporting one. Its success is in its environment, in its imagining of a train that appears to be all that is left of civilization after an attempt to thwart global warming ended up freezing Earth and killing off nearly everything. Here a person’s value in society is, for the most part, measured by how close they are to the engine. (Spoilers ahead) Someone at the tail of the train can have their arm frozen off for protesting when their child is dragged away for work, while those in the front eat sushi and have access to a train car that is a huge night club.
Godzilla Directed by: Gareth Edwards Written by: Max Borenstein (screenplay), Dave Callaham (story) Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe
The 1998 iteration of Godzilla will always hold a special place in my 7-year-old heart. It is one of the first PG-13 movies I remember seeing in the theater, and the first thing I wanted to do afterward was go out and buy all of the Godzilla toys (yay, product tie-ins!). Of course, watching that version years later isn’t good for much else but that memory.
Because of that movie, however, I also rented countless other old Godzilla movies, where the nuclear dinosaur faced off against city-eradicating nemeses like Mothra, Rodan, Bollante, Gigan, Mechagodzilla and, of course, King Kong. I watched those showdowns indiscriminately alongside the English language remake of the original, reenacting the battles with toys and imagined skyscrapers.
Neighbors Directed by: Nicholas Stoller Written by: Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien Starring: Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron and Dave Franco
Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are disarmingly excellent in Neighbors. Their performances are so fluid and in sync that they take what would otherwise be an amusing, sometimes audacious series of physical gags and ground it with their portrait of a convincing young marriage. The poster sells a macho showdown between a millennial frat boy (Zac Efron) and a pothead-turned-dad (Rogen), and while that feud is very much at the core of the movie Byrne’s character is in on the raunchy scheming, too.
Andrew J. Coehn and Brendan O’Brien’s script switches effortlessly between the two worlds next door to each other. Mac (Rogen) and Kelly (Byrne) are a younger couple who moved to suburbia to “grow up.” Not long after they move in, Teddy Sanders (Efron) and his frat brothers turn the house next door into a non-stop rave. The movie leans heavily on their somewhat elaborate frat party set pieces, with a blacklight rave and Robert DeNiro-themed mixers.