Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Best Movies of 2015

Spotlight. Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
2015 ended up being a good - if not quite great - movie year and my top 10 included several surprises - in other words, films that weren't exactly on my radar at this time a year ago.

My best of the year list includes some familiar faces - directors who often make my top 10 - as well as some newcomers, an animated picture and one directorial debut. Also, a horror movie cracked my top 10 for the first time in years.

Here's my top 10 movies of 2015, plus my 10 runners up (numbers 11-20). I'd love to hear from you, so tell me what your favorite movies of the year were in the comment section.

Note: As of Dec. 31, I have yet to see Charlie Kaufman's "Anomalisa" and Andrew Haigh's "45 Years," both of which have been highly acclaimed and appeared on many top 10 lists. I intend to see both this weekend and will update my top 20 accordingly, if necessary.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review: The Revenant

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's intense and brutal sort-of western "The Revenant" gives new meaning to revenge being a dish best served cold as Leonardo DiCaprio's Hugh Glass, who gets my vote for the most physically tormented cinematic character in recent memory, gets beaten and battered against the frigid backdrops of the Dakota territory.

The film is a pretty basic revenge story, but one in which nearly every frame is filled with jaw dropping visual wonderment. It's without a doubt the most gorgeously filmed picture of the year and one of the all-around best.

Melding together such unlikely bedfellows as the visual style of Terrence Malick, the man vs. nature elements of Werner Herzog and the body horror of David Cronenberg, "The Revenant" is a visual feast that's often difficult to watch, due to the agonizing violence perpetrated against DiCaprio's body by bears, falls off cliffs, puncture wounds made by knives, waterfalls and cinders used to heal ripped flesh. Other characters are scalped, stabbed, have their throats pierced by arrows, hanged and lose fingers. It's one of the year's most violent films, but whereas most Hollywood pictures use stylized violence and cartoonish gun play, every gouge in Inarritu's film is realistically rendered.

Glass's story is a true one that has already been told in 1971's "Man in the Wilderness," but is relayed much more viscerally here. The frontiersman and fur trapper leads a group of men through South Dakota in the early 1820s, where they are attacked by Native Americans and forced to leave their furs behind, the remaining men first trekking downriver in a boat before hoofing it on foot.

While out scouting, Glass is mauled by a bear in one of the most frightening sequences you'll likely ever see that is impressive due to both its flawless special effects and one-take shot without edits or cuts. As far as I'm aware, there's nothing else quite like it in the history of film.

Glass's humane captain (Domhnall Gleeson) believes the trapper is a goner, so he pays a few men - including Glass's Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), a novice named Bridger (Will Poulter) and a man with antipathy towards Native Americans known as Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) - to stay behind, care for Glass, who can barely move, and give him a proper burial when the time comes.

Fitzgerald wants Glass to die as quickly as possible, so he can bring back the furs and recoup his losses and convinces Glass to let him smother him on the grounds of saving his son since the Sioux could be approaching, but Hawk misinterprets the situation, intervenes and is fatally stabbed by Fitzgerald, who then halfheartedly buries Glass alive and swindles Bridger into fleeing.

Most of the rest of the picture involves Glass digging himself out of his grave and literally crawling and then, after healing, walking back to Fort Kiowa to track down Fitzgerald and avenge his son's death. Along the way, there's a subplot involving a missing Sioux chief's daughter, some French traders and Glass's running into both that plays into the film's climax.

So, while the story is mostly a fairly straightforward survival and revenge tale, the camerawork is truly incredible. The picture was reportedly one of the most difficult shoots in history as Inarritu, in the style of Herzog, took his crew into unpopulated wilds, where they braved the elements and the film gives off the mad genius vibe that permeated other difficult-to-make classics such as "Apocalypse Now" and "Fitzcarraldo."

And DiCaprio, whom the Academy Award has eluded all these years, should finally get the credit due to him. This is one of the most physically challenging performances I've seen and he rises to the occasion. Hardy exudes menace as Fitzgerald, while Poulter provides the right amount of naivete and, then, maturation as Bridger.

Inarritu, whose early films were primarily intersecting triptych films, has branched off into new territory, first with last year's dizzying dramedy "Birdman" and, now, the gorgeously harrowing "The Revenant." It's one of the most impressive cinematic rebirths of recent years and one that I hope continues onward with the director's next film.

Review: The Hateful Eight

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Only Quentin Tarantino could get away with and successfully pull off a gory, three-hour western that is mostly dialogue-driven, screened in 70 mm and complete with a roadshow presentation that includes an overture and intermission.

The filmmaker - whose love for cinema history, especially spaghetti westerns and a variety of less reputable genres, has been well documented in his previous seven features - really goes for broke with "The Hateful Eight," which is simultaneously one of his darkest, most violent, disturbing and socially conscious.

The setup is fairly simple: a group of eight strangers find themselves snowed in at a tavern in the middle of nowhere in post-Civil War Wyoming and more than a few of them have something to hide. In the style of Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians," the characters begin to unveil their nefarious purposes and the body count stacks up.

Although the setup is familiar, the influence of spaghetti westerns obvious and the scenario inspired somewhat by John Carpenter's creepy 1982 remake of "The Thing," Tarantino's latest is the first in a while that does not overtly reference other movies. And although Ennio Morricone's haunting notes can be heard throughout the proceedings, the director has not sampled the maestro's previous works as he has done in the past, but rather convinced the iconic composer to create a new score for his film.

The cast is pretty terrific. Kurt Russell plays John Ruth, a bounty hunter known as the Hangman, who displays the valiant traits you'd expect in a western hero, that is, until he repeatedly punches and slaps around the prisoner - one Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) - he is hauling to Red Rock to be executed. On the road to Minnie's Haberdashery, he picks up two passengers - the racist Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of a marauder who terrorized blacks in South Carolina during the Civil War, and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter who had also enlisted in the war, but to kill racist whites.

Once they reach the tavern, they find a who's who of potentially dangerous characters - Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir), former Confederate general and bigot Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), actual hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) and Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a soft spoken cowboy who claims to be writing a biography. Other characters pop up during the course of "The Hateful Eight," but saying anything more about them could give away the film's secrets.

Tarantino revisits some tropes those familiar with his oeuvre might recognize - there's an extended flashback halfway through the film, the picture is divided up into amusingly titled chapters and long stretches of the picture involve lengthy monologues, the most outlandish and wildly inventive of which involves Jackson's taunting another character with a speech about how white men are intimidated by the loins of black men.

But there's also some profundity to be found in the film's dialogue, especially in regards to matters of race relations. Goggins' racist sheriff notes at one point that whites feel safe when blacks are afraid, which is later countered by Jackson's assertion that blacks are safe when whites are unarmed, which is prescient considering that the script, written several years ago, seems not only to foreshadow the numerous shootings of young black males by white police officers, but also is ironic considering that police unions have vowed to boycott Tarantino's film after he marched in a protest against said shootings. However, Jackson's Warren notes that he unarms - or, makes comfortable - white folks with a letter he carries around written to him by President Abraham Lincoln.

The film also - and not surprisingly - looks great. It is the first picture to be shot on 65 mm film using Ultra Panavision 70 - which is the ultra-wide aspect ratio used on films in the 1950s and 1960s such as "Ben-Hur" and "Battle of the Bulge" - in 23 years and the result is a gorgeous looking film, despite most of the story being set in a one-room bar, although the movie also includes one of the year's best shots involving a cross bearing Jesus in the snow.

The violence in "The Hateful Eight" is a little unnerving, especially some extremely gory and brutal use of physical force against women, however, similar to the sinister characters in "Django Unchained" and "Reservoir Dogs," the characters behave in ways that would seem true to their natures. Then again, most of the characters - both men and women - whose number is up die particularly violent deaths in "The Hateful Eight."

Tarantino is one of American film's most unique and talented voices and "The Hateful Eight" proves once again that he can deftly blend genre riffs with provocative material. There's a concept on display in the film that - at least, in the case of this narrative - hatred and bigotry can be overcome when people unite to fight against other kinds of evil. Tarantino's film is dark, violent, button-pushing and one of the year's best.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Review: Joy

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Part drama about a businesswoman coming into her own and part wacky comedy about a royally dysfunctional family - oh yeah, and also the story about the creation of a mop - David O. Russell's "Joy" is a little all over the place. But while it's far from being one of the idiosyncratic director's best movies, it's undeniably filled with solid performances, amusing flights of fancy and the work of a singular vision.

The picture follows the true - well, at least, partially - story of Joy Mangano, a Long Island woman who invented the Miracle Mop, but also apparently holds more than 100 patents. She is played here by Russell muse Jennifer Lawrence, who gives some gravitas to the character, while letting the rest of the cast play for laughs.

Her mother (Virginia Madsen) stays in bed all day and watches soap operas, which occasionally take center stage in the story, while her serially betrothed father (Robert De Niro), who is divorced from Madsen's character, moves back into the house and lives in the basement with his nemesis, Tony (Edgar Ramirez), Joy's ex-husband and a wannabe Tom Jones. There's also a jealous sister, a grandmother (Diane Ladd) who is always attempting to boost Joy's confidence and our heroine's two young daughters.

As the film opens, Joy - who works odd jobs to feed her children - has recently seen one of her inventions flop, but she is inspired after being forced to clean up a mess with a mop, leading to her hands being cut by broken pieces of glass. Therefore, she comes up with the idea for the revolutionary Miracle Mop, which enables users to mop up an entire floor with its yards and yards of cloth, which can be thrown in the laundry, and prevents its owners from having to get their hands near the cleaning end.

To get started, Joy loans money from her father's new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini), who was formerly married to a successful businessman and requires Joy to answer four ridiculous questions before getting the loan. She takes her concept to Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), a soft spoken but excitable executive at QVC, who finally agrees to give her some airtime, where her mop takes off.

From the start, Joy finds herself in constant struggle not only with her adversaries in business and manufacturers, who attempt to rip her off, but also her own family. Her sister attempts to undermine her, her father says aloud how little confidence he has in her and Rossellini's Trudy immediately wants a return on her loan.

Russell has said that he meant for "Joy" to be thematically in line with such classics as "The Godfather" and "Citizen Kane" and there's a final passage in the picture that is obviously an homage to the former, although it also seemed to give a nod to "There Will Be Blood," but bowling pins were thankfully not utilized.

"Joy" often veers wildly in tone, from wacky comedy to a serious drama about the dark side of American capitalism. There's always a fair amount going on and not all of it works. The scenes involving the soap opera are good for a laugh at first but, perhaps, are a little too in abundance and Ladd's character is originally established as the film's narrator, although this is dropped fairly early in the picture and only moderately brought back at a later point.

Aside from the quirkier aspects of the film, what makes "Joy" ultimately work is Lawrence's great onscreen presence and strong work here. There are a number of scenes where she shines, but two of my favorites are one in which she freezes up while live on TV attempting to sell her mop only to regain her composure and another during which she learns how to be tough and scares a guy trying to swindle her in a hotel room without even having to be menacing.

As I'd mentioned, "Joy" is not one of my favorite Russell films, whose best work includes "Three Kings" and "American Hustle." But similar to his other movies, it's a compelling and offbeat tale of dreamers and oddballs and, quite possibly, the only movie ever made about a mop.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
The anticipation among some quarters for J.J. Abrams's first entry into the continuation of the wildly popular "Star Wars" saga likely reached such a fever pitch prior to the film's opening this weekend that a letdown was likely in store for some. However, I'm glad to say that not only was I not disappointed in the first of the new trilogy - which picks up 30-some years after "Return of the Jedi" - but I wholeheartedly enjoyed it. It's the first blockbuster that I've genuinely cared about in some time and it's due to the film's intent to recapture some of the magic of George Lucas's groundbreaking original trilogy.

While we see some old familiar faces - Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) as well as R2-D2, C-3P0, Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nunb - much of the focus in "The Force Awakens" is on the newbies.

As the film opens, a hotshot pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is following a clue on a distant planet as to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has been missing for years after an attempt to train a new generation of Jedi went bust. Dameron is soon captured by the sinister Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who has a connection to some of the film's older characters that I wont spoil, but the pilot first manages to send off his small, roly-poly droid BB8 with the clue to Skywalker's locale.

BB8 is discovered by a spunky young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley, a genuine find) and she is soon joined by Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper who deserted on the grounds that he wasn't down for massacring entire villages of people. After stealing the Millennium Falcon, the pair run into... well, take a guess.

In the years since "Jedi" ended, the rebels have become the Resistance and the Empire has become a fascistic outfit known as the First Order that is led by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), whose nefarious plans are carried out by Kylo Ren and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), a sniveling villain whose Nazi-esque speech to a massive crowd of stormtroopers is one of the film's few silly sequences.

Meanwhile, Leia wants to find her brother, whom she believes can bring peace to the galaxy and enlists Rey, who discovers she has some powers of her own, in the task. There are some tender moments when Ford's Han Solo reunites with Fisher and, later in the picture, at least one or two others that will likely leave a knot in your throat.

The visual effects are terrific and, for the most part, they feel more similar to Lucas's original trilogy, rather than the prequel trilogy, which relied heavily on CGI. There's a sequence in a bar involving Han Solo, a pirate voiced by Lupita Nyong'o and our young cast members that acts as a throwback to the iconic bar scene in the original "Star Wars" and I admired that so many characters appeared to be in costume, rather than created through digital wizardry.

It's been said that "The Force Awakens," in a sense, remakes the original "Star Wars" and, to an extent, that's true. Rey is partially Luke and Han Solo, while BB8 is R2-D2 and Finn and Poe are also sort of Han Solo. Kylo Ren is obviously Darth Vader and Snoke draws parallels to the Emperor. The bar scene, as I'd mentioned, harkens back to the original film and there's a standoff on a high beam that reminded me of Obi-Wan's fight against Darth Vader.

But while the sight of some familiar faces and plotlines that recall the original trilogy are present, the young cast members breathe new life into the series. Ridley is another great female heroine in a year full of them (Charlize Theron in "Mad Max" and Amy Poehler in "Inside Out," not to mention the great leads in "Brooklyn" and "Carol"), while Boyega displays deft comedic delivery and Driver is fairly menacing as the picture's villain.

And as for the familiar faces, it's great to see Ford step back into the shoes of Han Solo, one of the series' absolute best characters. Here, he plays a wiser, older Solo who can still toss out a one-liner with his characteristic smirk, but also reminds us why we loved the character so much all those years ago. By taking on the role once more, Ford gives one of his finer performances of recent years.

"The Force Awakens" is a very good start to this new series and the film's literal cliffhanger ending should provide a wealth of material when the second installment comes out in a few years. As I've gotten older, admittedly, blockbusters have held less appeal to me. Although there have been some good ones now and then, they typically fail to capture the magic of films such as the original "Star Wars" or "Indiana Jones" movies. But this one does and I'd highly recommend it.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review: Son of Saul

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Laszlo Nemes's mesmerizing and unique "Son of Saul" is unlike any other Holocaust movie I've ever seen. Set in 1944 at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the film utilizes intimate and claustrophobic camera work as it follows the titular character (played with intensity by Geza Rohrig), a member of the Sonderkommando, who were Jewish prisoners forced to help the Nazis exterminate Jews by leading them to the gas chambers and removing their bodies, thereby delaying their own deaths for a few months.

The picture's visuals often recall Elem Klimov's 1985 masterpiece "Come and See" and stylistically has more in common with Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" than it does your typical concentration camp movie.

The film opens with a blurry long shot as a group of people move toward the camera. Saul walks right up to the frame and, from then on, the film follows his every step, typically framing him from behind or in tight close-ups, where horrific things occur just out of our line of vision, making them in many ways more terrifying.

Some have argued that by focusing completely on just one person - and one who helps assist in the deaths of his own people no less - "Son of Saul" fails to emphasize the sheer number of people who suffered during the Holocaust. I'd argue that by centering the action around one person, especially one who is both victim and, although not by his own choice, perpetrator, the horrors are driven home in a unique way. Also, the often frenetic action taking place on the blurry outskirts of the frame add to the sense of confusion and chaos in the extermination camp.

Set during the course of what appears to be a day, the story begins to come into focus after Saul witnesses a young boy survive the gas chamber, only to die moments later. For reasons at first unclear, Saul decides that he is going to ensure that the boy gets a proper burial and, after some time, begins to refer to the boy as his son.

Whether the boy is actually Saul's son is never quite clear. For a while, I was convinced that he was, especially after he continued to call him his "son." But this is called into question later in the film, especially after the appearance of another child very late in the film, leading me to believe that Saul's quest to find a rabbi and then bury the boy is representative of something else - perhaps, of innocence amid horror, but even more likely the concept of preserving decency or humanity in such a place as Auschwitz-Birkenau by giving a dead body a rightful burial.

Due to the way the film was shot - with Saul's face as our focal point - it is often difficult to discern what else is going on and it's clear that this is a narrative choice. At one point, several of the other Sonderkommandos appear to be concocting a plot to attack the Nazis running the camp and there's another sequence when Saul obtains information from one of the women in the camp, but it's not quite clear how it plays into the men's plot.

There are two scenes when all hell breaks loose, one of which is when the men make an attempt to carry out their plan near the film's end. An earlier one acts as the film's centerpiece and is one of the most horrific visions of hell I've seen in a movie in some time. When the abundant number of people arriving at the camp makes it difficult to send them all to the gas chambers, a large group of new arrivals are taken out to a field, where they are forced to strip, line up and shot point blank, falling into a pit where a large bonfire burns all around. It's a chaotic, masterfully shot and truly disturbing sequence that ranks highly among scenes depicting pure evil in wartime.

And what makes the picture even more impressive is that it's Nemes's debut. The director previously worked as an assistant to the great - and now, apparently, retired Bela Tarr - but this is his first time behind the camera. You wouldn't imagine it while watching the picture, which is a great example of controlled filmmaking. "Son of Saul" is one of the year's best films and one of the most unique ones ever made about the Holocaust. If you see it, I'd imagine it will stick with you long after you've left the theater.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Worst Movies of 2015

Knock Knock. Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Look at poor Keanu Reeves, tied up and screaming in Eli Roth's "Knock Knock." That's how I felt when watching the films I've listed below in my annual top 10 worst of the year.

On the whole, 2015 was a decent year for movies, if not a great one (more on that later when I post my best of the year list on Dec. 31). But, as usual, the year had its share of disasters.

This year, there weren't any catastrophes on the level of "Battlefield Earth" or "I, Frankenstein," although my pick for the worst of the year was pretty awful.

Also, there was only one film among my 10 worst that I found to be revolting. Typically, in any given year, there are at least a few of these - last year's triumvirate was "Moebius," "The Raid 2" and "Big Bad Wolves."

Also, I should note that I didn't end up seeing a handful of movies that a majority of critics panned, including the third "Human Centipede" movie (two was more than enough for me), the "Entourage" picture (never saw the show), "Jem and the Holograms," the (hopefully) final "Paranormal Activity" sequel, the apparently-disappointing "Stonewall" and big budget flops "Pan" and "Fantastic Four."

I did, however, unfortunately see all of the films below. These are my picks for worst of the year. Let me know in the comment section which movies you especially disliked this year and whether you suffered through the ones on my list.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Review: The Big Short

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
When Adam McKay's economic and housing bubble collapse drama "The Big Short" isn't making you laugh, it's informing you and, most likely, making you madder than hell. The film goes a long way - perhaps, during a few scenes, a little too long - in explaining just exactly what caused the 2008 worldwide economic meltdown and it's the type of picture from which you can generally learn something. And it does so in a way that's vastly entertaining.

The picture, which is based on the book by Michael Lewis, follows three different stories between the years of 2005 and 2008 as several intelligent hedge fund managers and Wall Street traders predicted the impending collapse and either profited by it or went ignored when they attempted to warn others. The film's cast is all terrific, especially Steve Carell as the loudmouthed and temperamental Mark Baum (based on Steve Eisman), a money manager who is appalled at the greed that results in the collapse.

In his story, he and his small group of employees at the fund where he works decides to get in on the action with Ryan Gosling's smarmy mortgage trader, mostly as revenge against the banking industry that he so despises. Gosling's character is technically the film's narrator, but Carell's Baum is its - for lack of a better word - moral conscience.

In another story, two young hedge fund kids attempting to break into the world of Wall Street enlist a former trader (Brad Pitt), who helps them bet against the economy. And Christian Bale plays a quirky physician with a fake eye who is a genius at numbers crunching and analysis who, much to the horror of the bigwigs at the hedge fund he manages, bets against the housing market, which costs his hedge fund in the short term, but could potentially pay off in an insane amount in the long term.

McKay, whose previous films include "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights," can't resist finding the humor in the scenario, which ended up being anything but a joke, costing eight million jobs, the loss of six million homes and decades of 401K contributions gone down the drain.

Amusingly, McKay enlists celebrities to pop up out of the blue - but announced by Gosling's character - to explain the confusing phraseology designed by Wall Street for the purpose of baffling the average person. So, we've got everyone from Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez to Anthony Bourdain explaining to us what "sub prime" and "collateralized debt obligation" mean.

This is a film that tells us horrifying details of a catastrophe not long in our rear view mirror. And what makes it so terrifying is that it not only describes in great detail how Wall Street greed led to our nation's economic collapse, but also how those responsible avoided any punishment and how, if you can believe it, they're preparing to do the same thing all over again.

This is an intelligent, entertaining and righteously angry film that I'd argue should be essential viewing for anyone with a stake in the future of this country. It's a very good movie.

Review: In the Heart of the Sea

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
The story depicted in Ron Howard's "In the Heart of the Sea" may have been the inspiration for Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," perhaps the greatest American novel, but the film is a little all over the place. At times, it's a drama about a clash between a first mate (Chris Hemsworth) and a spoiled rich kid captain (Benjamin Walker) and, at others, a high seas thriller with a massive whale as the villain or, to a lesser degree, the picture tries to tell a story how industry overlooks the dangers of a job and, as a result, endangers its employees.

But it doesn't appear that Howard and company knew which story was most significant and so, as a result, the film just emphasizes that it was the inspiration for "Moby Dick," as if that is all that's necessary to keep an audiences' attention.

And, on occasion, it does rivet. The scenes in which the boat's company chase whales in the water and some of the underwater photography are visually compelling. It's unfortunate that what takes place on board of the ship, which is told in flashback, as well as the present-day scenes during which one of the crew members (Brendan Gleeson) tells his tale to Melville (played here by Ben Whishaw) often rely on cliche.

Parts of the picture feel like a retread of "Mutiny on the Bounty" as Owen Chase (Hemsworth) squares off with the arrogant captain George Pollard (Walker). And the scenes in which the Massachusetts whaling industry of the early 1800s tries to cover up the incident with the 100-foot whale that kills many of the crew members on board Pollard's ship reminded me slightly of the scenes in "Jaws" when the local town doesn't want to shut down the beach.

And during the film's second half, there's a lengthy series of scenes during which Chase, Pollard and the surviving crew members are stranded for some 90 days on a raft that recall more successful films of a similar ilk - "Life of Pi" or "All is Lost," for example. And, very unfortunately, there's another plot element involving the whale that reminded me of "Jaws: The Revenge," which is not a film to emulate.

All in all, "In the Heart of the Sea" is not a bad film. It boasts some impressive visual effects and the performances are all decent enough. But it's unfocused and the story - or, rather, stories - it tells have been told much better in other films. Howard often handles period piece dramas very well - such as "Apollo 13" or "A Beautiful Mind" - but "In the Heart of the Sea" will likely go down as one of the director's minor efforts.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Review: Chi-Raq

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq" opens with a staggering statistic: more people have been killed by gun violence in Chicago during the past 14 years than lives were lost during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. So, it should come as no shock that the town has gained the nickname that doubles as the title of Lee's new film, which is equally messy and bold as well as one of the filmmaker's best 21st century films.

Based loosely on Aristophanes' play "Lysistrata," Lee's film follows the efforts of that same character (played here by Teyonah Parris) to quell the violence in her Chicago neighborhood by bringing together the girlfriends and wives of the local gang leaders and getting them to pledge to not have sex with their men until they agree to stop the violence. Or, as they frequently chant during the course of the picture, "no peace, no p-," well, you get the idea.

But Lee is after much more here than just a treatise on gang violence in Chicago and the film is often firing on numerous cylinders and taking on a multitude of topics, which occasionally causes scenes to crash and burn (a few too many musical numbers, for example), but mostly pays high dividends.

On Lee's mind this time around is everything from our national scourge of gun violence (the number of this week's mass shootings alone could have justified the making of this film), the NRA, gang violence, police brutality and the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, unemployment, racism, the confederate flag and much, much more. If the film often feels a little overstuffed, it's counterbalanced by the fact that virtually no other filmmaker is willing to tackle these subjects in such a straightforward manner.

For a movie on a variety of subjects involving doom and gloom, Lee's film is often brassy and funny. The film's male characters are portrayed as such juveniles that it would be difficult to argue against Lee's film having a bona fide feminist platform. One of the funnier sequences involves the men - who now include the police, mayor and all men of the city of Chicago - attempting to woo the women back to bed by playing slow jams on loud speakers, a move that amusingly backfires.

Lee has assembled a terrific cast here, including Wesley Snipes (as the leader of the Trojan gang), Nick Cannon (as the leader of the Spartans), Angela Bassett (as a neighborhood activist), Dave Chappelle (as a night club proprietor) and John Cusack (as a priest, who gives a fairly rousing speech against those who have enabled the slaughter of innocents in Chicago and nationwide).

Samuel L. Jackson pops up as a narrator known as Dolmedes, a trickster figure, of sorts, who was not included in Aristophanes' play. His name, I'd wager, is a nod to Dolemite, the Rudy Ray Moore character from the outrageous 1970's blaxploitation films, due to Jackson's braggadocious rapid-fire monologues that have a similar style of delivery. Jackson acts as a Greek chorus to the action of "Chi-Raq" and provides some of the film's best dialogue.

The other actors mostly speak in rhyming couplets that often include sentiments that sting. During one particular scene in which Bassett attempts to convince Parris' Lysistrata to take action and begin the "sex strike," she makes a telling comment on how the violence in Chicago's black neighborhoods is unlikely to sway politicians if the shootings in Stony Brook, Connecticut made no difference.

"Chi-Raq" is Lee at his ballsiest. Some folks are going to be put off by Lee's latest (in fact, some Chicagoans have taken offense to his film injecting humor into its proceedings), but it's obvious that the filmmaker isn't going to be fazed by that.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Lee was one of the best American filmmakers. His "Do the Right Thing" is, perhaps, the greatest film ever made about race relations and his "Malcolm X" and underrated "Clockers" are also vital.

Other than 2002's powerful "25th Hour" and his Hurricane Katrina documentary "When the Levees Broke," Lee's work in the 21st century has been a little scattershot. His "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" (a remake of the 1970's cult classic "Ganja and Hess") from earlier this year, for example, was a misfire. But "Chi-Raq" finds him back on stronger footing. I wouldn't say it ranks with his very best, but it's great to see him fired up and once again working with material that suits his great cinematic abilities.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Review: Krampus

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Despite promises of possibly being a new trashy seasonal horror classic, "Krampus" instead gets off to a promising start before descending into a series of nonsensical sequences that end up making the film more a lump of coal than a holiday delight.

The setup is fairly simple: a young boy named Max (Emjay Anthony) loses the Christmas spirit after his father prioritizes work over family, his sister snubs him and his gun-totin', football-watchin', monster-truck-drivin' cousins show up with the family's least favorite aunt, who is a foul mouthed alcoholic.

Just moments after Max besmirches the spirit of the holiday, a massive snowstorm descends on the family's house and the titular figure - who has gigantic, hoofed feet - and his band of bizarro helpers (more on those in a bit) begin to wreak havoc on the household. Good thing that Max's grandmother is an elderly German woman who apparently knows all there is to know about Germanic holiday demons and how to keep them at bay (keep the fire going, for example).

All of this is in good fun - although, I'll note that the film has the highest child in peril quotient of any movie, possibly ever - until it begins to take a turn for the absurd. I know, this is all meant to be ridiculous, but I began to lose interest somewhere between the attack of the Christmas cookies and the gigantic elves that weren't particularly scary and brought back memories of "Troll 2."

The film has a pretty able cast who manage to make you care about their characters, even though they merely become figures to be picked off as the picture progresses. Adam Scott is likable as the clan's patriarch, while Toni Collette is solid as Max's mother and David Koechner is the best redneck in a Christmas movie since Randy Quaid in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation."

But, alas, "Krampus" ultimately loses its way. The less you see of Krampus, the scarier he is. However, the more he gets up close and personal and, especially, after his minions (which, I should add, also include a demonic teddy bear, gigantic jester, flying doll and robotic toy of some sort) start taking over, the film seems to be going more for laughs than scares, although neither at this point are much in abundance.

So, if you want to see a truly scary Christmas-themed movie this year, it's best to just re-watch Bob Clark's creepy 1974 cult classic "Black Christmas." Or, of course, "Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas."

Review: Youth

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Much like his 2013 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner "The Great Beauty," Paolo Sorrentino's latest, "Youth," is filled with lush and often beautiful visuals, but similar to that film - and to a greater extent - the director's latest places too high of an emphasis on style and, as he did in "Beauty," appears intent on paying homage to classic foreign cinema, especially Federico Fellini - and, perhaps, a little too much so.

Now, I liked "The Great Beauty" well enough, although I didn't love it as much as some others. Nevertheless, I admired it, especially its visual beauty. "Youth" is also great to look at, but it's a disjointed effort. Random characters pop in and out of the story and serve little purpose and the concept that old artists need look no further than the sight of a young naked woman is a cinematic cliche that has grown old.

In the film, Michael Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a retired and somewhat resigned-to-his-fate orchestra conductor who is taking a holiday at a lush resort in the Alps with his best pal, a film director named Mick (Harvey Keitel), as well as his daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), who acts as his personal assistant and has just been dumped by her husband, who, as it turns out, is Mick's son. Much is made of this break-up, that is, until it suddenly isn't and Weisz's character is given short shrift.

Also at the resort are Paul Dano as an actor seemingly there for some sort of inspiration - although his later scenes when he dresses as Adolf Hitler are a bit baffling - and a large man who is apparently famous for some reason, to which we are never privy, and the only other thing we learn about him is that he can kick a tennis ball up in the air over and over. Jane Fonda also pops up as an aging diva actress, but seemingly only to ratchet up the drama when she drops a bombshell on Keitel's character.

Caine is great as ever as Ballinger, even though his character is a little bit of a cipher. During one sequence, an emissary from Britain's royal family arrives at the resort and attempts to convince Ballinger to perform some of his earlier works in a performance for the queen. He refuses and is so vague about his reason for turning down the request that I began to feel as if I deserved some answers from him as well. He eventually opens up, but mostly to allow the plot to move forward.

The supporting cast is good as well and I think "Youth" could have been a better film had Sorrentino given these characters with potential a little more to do. As it stands, the film plays as a how-to-guide for European art cinema. Sequences with slight surreal touches? Check. Abundant female nudity and even a nude man? Check. Pithy asides about life? Check. And so on.

"Youth" isn't a bad movie. In fact, it has a decent amount of stuff, so to speak, with which to work. But it seems as if Sorrentino and company didn't know how to put the good material they had to best use. There are several scenes of Keitel's filmmaker and his own crew sitting around attempting to come up with a fitting ending for the film he's making that he intends to be his ultimate artistic statement. Perhaps, the makers of "Youth" could have benefitted from a few more meetings of this sort.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: Creed

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Ryan Coogler's "Creed" relaunches (sorry, I'm sick of the word reboot) the "Rocky" franchise in a clever way and, in the process, is the second best of the entire series after John G. Avildsen's 1976 Best Picture winner (for the sake of full disclosure, I've never seen "Rocky II," although it's in my Netflix queue). 

In this film, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) takes on a young protegee named Donny Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) - yes, I know, Don Johnson - who, as it turns out, is actually Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of famed boxer and Rocky pal Apollo Creed, who was, if you'll recall, killed in the ring in 1985's "Rocky IV."

Donny, whom we first meet during a stint in juvenile hall in 1998, has been adopted and raised by Apollo's very understanding wife (Phylicia Rashad). As the film opens, Donny is working a nine to five desk job, but sneaking away to fight for money in Mexico on the weekends. But, one day, he quits his job and decides to follow in his father's footsteps, although he goes by the last name Johnson in order to win respect for himself, rather than rely on his pop's legend.

Meanwhile, Rocky is managing a restaurant in Philadelphia and wants no part of the boxing world anymore. Will it surprise you if I tell you that Donny convinces him to become his coach? Yes, there are a number of those scenes of the young boxer training (although no punching of frozen meat), but "Creed" is a film that does not merely play all the same notes as the numerous "Rocky" films that preceded it.

There's a romance between Donny and a young woman named Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who is losing her hearing but won't give up her dream of being a singer, that remains pretty involving throughout the course of the picture. And Rocky is given some bad news of his own that the filmmakers handle gracefully, rather than through tired cliches.

It also helps that Jordan and Stallone are so well paired. Jordan has long been an actor on the rise - his early work on "The Wire" made me first notice him, but his performance in Coogler's previous film, "Fruitvale Station," proved that he had the goods to be a leading man. 

And Stallone gives one of his best performances to date, one that is continually evolving. Rather than fall back on noticeable characteristics as many recurring cinematic characters tend to do, Coogler and Stallone add some extra depth to the old lug. In fact, this is one of the rare recent franchise films that made me want to see the characters brought back to the screen yet again.

Coogler is a filmmaker to watch. "Fruitvale Station" was a powerful indie film on an important subject and "Creed" proves that he can deliver a major studio film as well. This is one of the holiday season's nicest surprises. I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: Carol

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
Few filmmakers are as adept at capturing eras of American history and then deconstructing them as Todd Haynes, whose latest, "Carol," is a sumptuous romantic drama based on Patricia Highsmith's novel, "The Price of Salt."

With "Far From Heaven," Haynes paid a loving homage to Douglas Sirk, all the while giving the film his own distinct voice, and his "I'm Not There" will, perhaps, be the only picture ever to truly capture the essence of Bob Dylan and what he meant to the 1960s. His "Mildred Pierce" was a fine piece of 1940s noir drama, "Safe" was a near perfect encapsulation of AIDS era paranoia and "Velvet Goldmine," although a mere good film in an oeuvre filled with great ones, certainly portrayed glam rock in all its glorious excesses.

"Carol" finds Haynes working with slightly more moody material and it's a film marked by restraint, although given occasionally given to sequences of gorgeously filmed melodrama. Visually, the picture presents an authentic snapshot of the early 1950s and cinematographer Edward Lachman manages to find beauty in that era's drab department stores, diners and New York City apartments.

Set in 1952, "Carol" is, for lack of a better phrase, a story of a Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. This romance is between Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett, who encapsulates the era in every way in the film, from the clothing she sports from the shape of her face and cat-like eyes), a wealthy New Jersey woman in the middle of a divorce with her controlling husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara in a very strong performance), a quiet shopgirl at a department store with a doting boyfriend who doesn't quite pique her interest.

When we meet Carol, she is fighting her soon-to-be-ex-husband for custody of their young daughter and we learn that among the many reasons the marriage fell apart was her previous affair with a long-time friend and confidant named Abby (Sarah Paulson, excellent in a supporting role).

Carol's eyes land on Therese behind the counter at her department store while Christmas shopping and the younger woman assists her in purchasing a train for her daughter. But the older woman accidentally leaves her gloves at the shop, Therese gets them back to her and this event is the excuse used to launch a friendship that quickly grows into something more.

Therese's boyfriend calls her "Terry," Americanizing her - she's U.S.-born, but with a Czech name - but Carol draws out her name (pronounced "Te-rez") and emphasizes the young girl's exoticness. One of the most fascinating elements in "Carol" is how the upper hand is, at times, held by one of the two women and, at others, by the other. But this film is not about a power struggle, but rather a relationship in which each character benefits and, due to the conservative time period in which it is set, suffers.

A large portion of the picture is in the form of a road trip that Therese takes with Carol that includes elements of romance, eroticism, melodrama and even a little mystery. In one scene, Haynes even breaks the rule of Chekhov's gun. Although the film is straightforward in terms of story and style, there's a dreaminess to much of the proceedings - for example, Therese's staring out of moving cars at young children running on darkened streets or a cloud reflected in a car window as Carol and Therese have a conversation.

One of the picture's best - and key - scenes is repeated twice. As the film opens, Carol and Therese are spotted by a young man as they have dinner. He interrupts them, which breaks up the meeting and Therese goes on with him to a party. It all seems innocuous the first time we watch the scene. The rest of the film is primarily a flashback leading up to that meal and the second time we witness the scene, it's from a different angle in which much more emotional complexity can be spotted.

Although purposely restrained, "Carol" is a powerful, beautifully acted, visually gorgeous and often haunting period piece. Its melancholic mood and relatively open ending will likely stay with you long after you've left the theater. Haynes is a master of period drama and "Carol" is one of the most accomplished movies you'll likely see in a theater this year.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review: By the Sea

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Although the results were often mixed on Angelina Jolie's first two films as a director - the mostly good "Unbroken" and the interesting, if not completely successful, "In the Land of Blood and Honey" - I admired that, in her first two times behind the camera, the actress attempted to tackle some fairly weighty and substantial subject matter.

So, it's unfortunate that her third film, "By the Sea," is mostly a bust, albeit a scenic and occasionally visually stunning one. Yes, the film looks great and there's no doubt that the gorgeous coastlines of southern France where the picture is set go a long way. The cinematography by Christian Berger is also fairly impressive and sets a mood for the film with which the screenplay and other elements can't quite keep up.

Set in the 1970s and obviously attempting to emulate the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and other '60s world cinema masters, "By the Sea" follows a fairly predictable trajectory as its two handsome leads - Jolie and husband Brad Pitt - play a miserablist couple making each others' lives a living hell during a trip to the shore, where Roland (Pitt), a writer, attempts to break out of a creative rut and Vanessa (Jolie) aims to find her way out of a more personal one.

A problem that plagues the picture from nearly beginning to end is how muted it comes across. When dialogue is not being muttered, it's being shouted and while I understand that this is all to show how much Roland and Vanessa's marriage has come apart, it leaves little room for subtlety. Pitt and Jolie are both fine actors, but they are given little to do for much of the film, which is surprising considering that Jolie wrote the script, most likely as a vanity star vehicle for she and her husband.

Things liven up a little with the introduction of a young French couple (Melanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud) who are spending their honeymoon next door to the gloomy Americans. Vanessa discovers a hole in the wall and a significant middle portion of the film involves the older couple spying on the younger one, which seems to revive their own flailing relationship - at least, for a while.

While watching the picture, one senses early on that there's more than meets the eye at the heart of Roland and Vanessa's troubles, but when it's finally introduced, it's not quite given the weight it would need to justify Roland's drinking problems and Vanessa's suicidal behavior. And just when it would seem the action might come to a head - it sort of does after Pitt confronts two of the film's characters - the story just ends.

"By the Sea" is not quite as bad as I might be making it sound. As I said, it's often great to look at and the two leads are always fun to watch, even when saddled with mediocre material. But this is a missed opportunity and it's a film that occasionally feels aimless. There's no doubt that Jolie is focusing more on being a director than an actor these days, so I hope her next move behind the camera is a little more successful than this one.

Review: Brooklyn

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
John Crowley's "Brooklyn" is a lovely, old fashioned and bittersweet immigrant tale as well as one of the best films I've seen in a while. Based upon the 2009 novel of the same name by Colm Toibin, the film - which was scripted by Nick Hornby - tells the story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irishwoman who moves to New York City in the early 1950s after she is unable to find work back home and, through a series of circumstances, finds herself torn between staying in her new home or returning back to the place where she was born and raised.

"Brooklyn" follows some of the elements you'd expect to find in an immigrant tale - the boat ride over, becoming accustomed to new surroundings, culture shock, etc., but thankfully little time is spent on getting through immigration and customs.

At first homesick and shy around her fellow Brooklynites, Eilis takes a job as a clerk at a retail store, where her boss (Jessica Pare, of "Mad Men") is, at first, hard on the new employee. Eilis lives in a boarding house under the watchful eye of a strict, but funny, landlady and several gossiping young Irishwomen, who eventually take to Eilis's good nature.

The priest (Jim Broadbent) who helped her find work in America suggests she take night classes and Eilis, a quick study, learns to become a bookkeeper with the intention of finding work as an accountant.

But the real heart of the story begins once she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a plumber and son of Italian immigrants who has a good heart, which he often wears on his sleeve. Things become serious and Eilis and Tony make a commitment to each other. But a tragedy back home in Ireland strikes, causing Eilis to return to her native land.

Once there, Eilis begins to feel guilty about leaving her mother on her own and settles back into life in Ireland, complete with a bookkeeping job at her sister's former place of work and a well-to-do suitor (Domhnall Gleeson). All the while, Eilis keeps Tony a secret and some obvious complications ensue.

So, while "Brooklyn" follows a story that rings a bell of familiarity, it's done so beautifully through its lovely writing, poignant acting and gorgeous cinematography. This is a winsome film in the best sense of the word.

Ronan, who has long been among the better actors of her generation, is phenomenal here, giving Eilis a heart and soul and making her a complicated person whom we root for, even when we question some of her decisions. She, like many of the other characters in the film, is the type not to suffer fools wisely, but she is also vulnerable and Ronan does such a marvelous job balancing these two parts to her character's personality. The supporting cast, especially Cohen, are also terrific.

The film's final scenes are of a bittersweet nature, but handled deftly. There's an early scene in which Eilis is traveling to New York and she is schooled by another young Irishwoman on the boat who already lives in the United States. The woman shows a tough exterior, but warms to Eilis's naivete and gives her some pointers. A sequence late in the film during which Eilis does the same for another is among the picture's most powerful and beautifully handled.

"Brooklyn" is one of the year's best. It's a simple story made with great care, from its filmmakers to its cast, and one you'll likely grow to care very much about.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Review: Spectre

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
With "Spectre," the James Bond franchise has taken one step closer to making 007 into a comic book character and this film's villain feels more like someone who should be facing off against Batman than a British spy. The picture has been directed by Sam Mendes, who was responsible for the last entry in the series - "Skyfall" - which was one of the better Bond films, especially in recent years.

So, while this latest installment is a pretty decent action movie and mostly fun, it falls short of Mendes' previous foray into the franchise and while it's often thrilling, it's often a little silly as well.

In the film, Bond (Daniel Craig) is given the news that his government's 00 program will be shutting down with a seemingly sinister surveillance program that Bond's boss, M (Ralph Fiennes), opposes replacing agents in the field. If this sounds similar, it's likely because you watched the recent "Mission Impossible" film, in which there was an operation to take Ethan Hunt's team out of commission.

Anyway, Bond stumbles upon a secret organization headed by a man named Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz, the go-to villain these days), with whom our hero shares a past, of sorts, albeit a slightly far fetched one. And, since this is a Bond film, there's a young woman (Lea Seydoux) to protect whose father was a former ally of Oberhauser, but has since turned against his boss.

As I'd mentioned before, the film gives off the vibe of a comic book movie, from the overuse of Bond cliches past ("Bond. James Bond" is uttered, a signature drink ordered, at least two women bedded) to a villain that - during the course of the film - has not one, but two secret lairs and a scarred face to boot. And Oberhauser's connection to previous Bond installments is also a little, well, overwrought.

All these quibbles aside, "Spectre" is an amusing enough - if occasionally slight - entry into the Bond franchise. There's a fun opening sequence during which 007 chases villains through a "Day of the Dead" celebration in Mexico and another well-choreographed chase through the snow involving an airplane with no wings.

But, ultimately, this is more of a middle tier James Bond movie. It's certainly better than the likes of "License to Kill," "Quantum of Solace" and "Tomorrow Never Dies," but it's no "Skyfall" or "From Russia with Love." However, it'll do.

Review: Spotlight

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
In our age of 24-hour news cycles, celebrity gossip posing as actual news and SEO-driven web content, "Spotlight" may strike some as an old fashioned newspaper yarn, which it is, but it's also one of the year's most important and, certainly, best films.

Tom McCarthy's movie follows the team of reporters, editors and publishers at The Boston Globe who, in 2001, began following leads that resulted in their unearthing a massive cover-up scandal by the Catholic Church in Boston that involved the institution sheltering and protecting priests who had molested young children.

While "Spotlight" could technically be categorized as a message film - you know, the type that Hollywood tends to deliver around this time of year in search of Oscars - it's a fascinating and powerful one that is brought to life through terrific writing and a spectacular ensemble cast.

At the film's beginning, a new editor named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is being brought on board and the staff is not only unsettled at the prospect of layoffs, but many among the news team question his credentials. He's from Miami and has never lived in Boston, which is portrayed as an insular town with its own culture, much of which is derived from the Catholic Church.

But during his first meeting with the Globe's various news editors, he makes waves by suggesting that the paper do a follow-up on a column about a rogue priest who had been sent away to another parish after having been sexually involved with a minor as well as filing a suit to force the church to make public documents relating to the incident.

The story is passed along to the Spotlight team, a four-person outfit at the Globe that undertakes long-term investigations. The team is led by Michael Keaton's Walter "Robby" Robinson and includes the hard driving Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). They all report to the paper's Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), who is, at first, skeptical of the investigation.

Much like the great newspaper-centered films of decades past - for example, "All the President's Men," "Zodiac" and "The Insider" - "Spotlight" places an emphasis on the sleuthing element of reporting. A significant portion of the picture involves the team's tracking down witnesses or clues and sitting outside public records offices to sort through files. And yet, much like "Zodiac," these sequences are nothing short of riveting.

Although the movie places the facts at the center of its story, McCarthy and screenwriter Josh Singer inject a sizable dose of humanity into the proceedings. The scenes during which the victimized individuals relay their stories of abuse at the hands of priests to Rezendes and Pfeiffer are harrowing and heartbreaking and it's a good sign that a story is in the hands of a strong filmmaker when every single one of the minor characters feel well represented and the actors portraying them provide solid supporting work.

The film's ensemble cast is among the best I've seen in recent years. Keaton continues his comeback streak with his excellent portrayal of Robby, a man who fits in with Boston's society due to his upbringing in Catholic schools and his one-of-the-guys persona, but who also is willing to rock the boat when it needs rocking. Ruffalo gives one of this finest performances to date as the intense Rezendes, who begins to make the story he is covering into something personal. McAdams, who was already having a strong year with her work on "True Detective," is among the film's most sympathetic characters. She is determined to get the victims to speak, but she does so delicately.

Schreiber brings the necessary gravitas to his role as Baron, an outsider who, in one of his best scenes, tells a high ranking cardinal that his institution is at its best when it "stands alone." And there's also some very strong work by Slattery and d'Arcy James as well as Stanley Tucci as a colorful attorney representing the victims and Billy Crudup as a lawyer who has assisted in negotiations between the victims and the church.

"Spotlight" moves along at the rate of a thriller and it's a sign of great storytelling and direction when a filmmaker can create suspense with subject matter and a story to which most people already know the ending. It's a throwback to the newspaper movies of old when a team of reporters and an editor are viewed as heroic servants of the public attempting to dig deep into a story and brings wrongs to the light.

And at a time when the Fifth Estate is increasingly losing its power due to declining subscriptions, cutbacks, layoffs and being slowly replaced by internet content, "Spotlight" is a reminder of the essentialness of good investigative journalism. McCarthy's film is one of the year's most compelling and very best.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Review: Our Brand is Crisis

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Based upon the 2005 documentary of the same name, David Gordon Green's "Our Brand is Crisis" is an inside look at how a political campaign works, in this case one in Bolivia in which a handful of American campaign managers are involved.

While the documentary followed Greenberg Carville Shrum's assistance in getting Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada elected, Green's film follows the fictional exploits of one Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) and her game of one-upmanship against Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton), a smarmy campaign operative who relishes in making Jane uncomfortable. The two have a history involving several campaigns lost by Jane and a leaked story that caused a young woman to commit suicide.

On the one hand, while Green's film doesn't divulge anything most of us already don't know - that is, how campaigns are about perception, rather than content - "Our Brand is Crisis" is a fast paced political drama featuring solid performances, good writing and more than a few genuinely funny moments.

Bodine has been called out of a self imposed seclusion by other members of the team - which includes Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd and Scoot McNairy - attempting to get Castillo, a Bolivian senator and former president who was not particularly popular, re-elected. Bullock's character displays early on that she's both a pragmatist and a cynic and her particular brand of political mudslinging is effective, but obviously ethically questionable.

Candy's tactics are just as - if not more - despicable and the film benefits from the two characters attempting to outdo one another, including a particularly memorable sequence during which Bodine tricks Candy into feeding his candidate a line that he thinks is from Goethe, but is actually from someone else.

However, the picture is not without its problems, the most obvious being that its script depicts the people of Bolivia as possessing easily malleable minds that are, at most times, under the control of the Americans manipulating them. I'm not sure Green and the film's screenwriters intended for the story to play out this way, but it does.

I don't think I'm being snobbish by agreeing that, yes, a large number of voters in any nation at any time do not often vote in their best interest and focus on attributes of a candidate that have nothing to do with how well they would govern their nation. On the other hand, "Our Brand is Crisis" occasionally creates the unfortunate portrayal of some crafty Americans talking down to third world denizens who can't think for themselves.

Then again, the film does not portray said crafty Americans in the greatest of lights either and by the end of the film, it's hard to find anyone - other than the Bolivians who are righteously outraged at being sold out by their leaders - with whom to sympathize.

For the past decade and a half, Green has taken on everything from Malickian-style dramas ("All the Real Girls" and "George Washington") to raunchy comedies (the unfortunate "Your Highness") and heavier fare ("Joe" and "Snow Angels"). "Our Brand is Crisis" is the first time he has ventured into what could be called, for lack of a better phrase, advocacy films. It's far from perfect, but it's a well-made and humorous inside-baseball look at political campaigns that works more often than doesn't.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Review: Love

Image courtesy of Alchemy. 
Those interested in the world of film will not be shocked to hear that French l'enfant terrible Gaspar Noe's latest provocation "Love" aims to take his particular brand of graphic cinema to the next level. On the other hand, you might be surprised to learn that the film is narratively more sedate than his notorious "Irreversible" or trippy "Enter the Void" and, unfortunately, almost to the point of being stultifying.

So, for every money shot - and in the case of this film, I'm not using this as a euphemism - there are endless scenes of the film's lead, Karl Glusman, walking about his Paris apartment talking to himself in voice-over on topics, such as why his previous relationship fell apart and why his current one doesn't satisfy him. It's the type of material that Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach could mine successfully in film after film, but for Noe it never catches.

"Love" is beautifully lit and very well shot, although it's musical cues are, well, unique to say the least. I don't know which one was more disorienting - the sequence during which Glusman and one of his lovers profess their undying love to one another in the shower to the tune of Erik Saties' "Gymnopedie No. 1" or the other during which Glusman and said lover take part in a graphically executed orgy while John Carpenter's score for "Assault on Precinct 13" blares over the speakers.

In terms of set up and plot, "Love" is fairly simple - in fact, too simple to justify the picture's near two-hour-and-20-minute running time - boy meets girl, girl suggests bringing in other girl, boy makes mistake of impregnating other girl, original girl gets mad and leaves, boy regrets staying with second girl, mother of original girl calls a few years later worried that her daughter might be suicidal and, well, you know the story.

When the actors - Glusman, Aomi Muyock and Klara Kristin - are not engaged in actual coitus - yes, nothing is left to the imagination here - we mostly follow flashback sequences during which Glusman and Muyock's character meet in a park, fall in love and, eventually, fall apart due to his jealousy, her drug habit and the aforementioned third girl played by Kristin. The abundant scenes of Glusman's voice-over monologues are all fairly standard stuff about the disintegration of relationships. In other words, no "Deep Thoughts" by Jack Handy here.

The numerous sex scenes are not - at least, I don't believe - meant to necessarily be considered sensuous, but rather matter-of-fact. The most interesting facet of Noe's film is, not surprisingly, its visual style.

The filmmaker's works always tend to be triumphs of style. His "Irreversible" is extremely disturbing and powerful, although its story is very simple. What makes gives it such a gut punch are its visuals and editing, which make the story seem all the more tragic. And while "Enter the Void" - which, like "Love" is a bit too long - lagged in some departments (character, story), it was filled with mesmerizing images.

So, "Love" is a good looking film, but it's missing something. And Noe asks his actors to not only bare all, but to engage in some very intimate activities here and the story and screenplay don't provide much in the way of meat (the need to crack wise here is nearly killing me, but I'll resist).

During one sequence, Glusman's movie director - which I italicize because during the course of the film we hardly see the guy shoot one frame of film - talks about how he wants to watch cinema about sex and love portrayed realistically. This is obviously what Noe wants to do as well and while he may have managed to do the first, he didn't quite succeed at the latter.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Best And Scariest Movies To Watch On Halloween

'A Nightmare On Elm Street.' Image courtesy of New Line Cinema.
Every year, I post a list of some of the best and most frightening horror movies to watch on Halloween. This year, I've compiled a list for AAA that includes everything from classics ("Psycho") and blockbuster additions to the genre ("The Exorcist" and "Jaws") to foreign entries ("Eyes Without a Face," for example) and pictures that deserve to have a bigger following ("Who Can Kill a Child?").

Take a look at my list and let me know in the comment section if there are any horror movies that you believe should have made the list. And Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Review: Rock the Kasbah

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
It's always an added bonus to have Bill Murray onboard your film, even when the picture itself doesn't quite make the best of his presence. That's certainly the case with "Rock the Kasbah," the latest film from Barry Levinson that stars Murray as a washed up rock 'n' roll talent manager who claims to have once hung with the greats, but now lives out of a motel with his secretary/talent (Zooey Deschanel), a singer of modest ability who sings cover songs during gigs at dive bars.

Murray often plays louts who come to respect and be more considerate of those around him - think "Groundhog Day" as the gold standard as well as last year's "St. Vincent" - through shared experiences.

In "Kasbah," his Richie Lanz is offered to take Deschanel on a tour in Afghanistan, where she will be performing for the troops. But once they've arrived and are greeted with a few IEDs, she flees with the help of a paramilitary character played by Bruce Willis, one of several underwritten characters in the film, and Lanz is forced to find a replacement.

Through sheer luck, he overhears an Afghani girl named Salima (Leem Lubany) as she sings in a cave near her village, is impressed by her voice and attempts to convince her father to allow her to compete in "Afghan Star," which is an equivalent to "American Idol," with the exception of its having a "no girls allowed" policy. In other words, if Salima attempts to sing on the show - or pretty much anywhere else - she's putting her life in danger.

This is the type of film in which the lead character collects an assortment of oddballs - a random Afghani cab driver who is willing to risk his life during the number of incidents in which Richie puts it in danger, Willis's inexplicable gun-for-hire and Kate Hudson as a prostitute who runs her business out of a mobile home in Kabul, that is, until the screenwriters decided that she'd be the "hooker with a heart of gold" character, so she allows Salima to stay with her - for the hell of it, without much purpose for them to serve.

So, the deal is this: while it's still great to watch Murray be, well, Bill Murray, the rest of the film goes back and forth between creating actual tension and running off the rails. Much of what takes place forces the viewer to extend disbelief to great lengths - for example, would Murray's character really have made it out alive during the numerous times when he is stopped by various characters with assault weapons in the desert? And the entire final section of the film - no matter how good natured and well meaning it may be - in which Salima performs on "Afghan Star," not to mention the reaction to it, stretches credibility by magnitudes.

"Rock the Kasbah" is not a bad movie. It has its funny moments, which is a given when you've got Murray as your lead (gotta love his "I'm not a loser, I'm a quitter" quip), and it has its heart in the right place. But, unfortunately, it often has its head in the wrong place. This seems like the type of story that might take place in an alternate universe, but maybe not in Afghanistan, despite that it's allegedly based on a true story. Then again, so was "The Haunting in Connecticut."

Review: Suffragette

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Sarah Gavron's "Suffragette" takes the fairly typical approach that movies about historic moments often do - placing a fictional character (played by Carey Mulligan) at the center of actual events and focusing on her story - and the picture occasionally gives the impression of one out to earn Academy Awards. That being said, it's a fairly rousing film with a story that will provoke righteous anger from anyone who believes in justice for all.

In the film, Mulligan's Maud Watts works in a factory in 1912 England sewing shirts in fairly lousy conditions and lives with her husband (Ben Whishaw) and young son. One day, she spots a fellow worker named Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) among a crowd of women throwing stones through department store windows and calling for women's right to vote and is intrigued.

Slowly but surely, Maud finds herself participating in actions with the women's suffragette movement, doing everything from taking part in marches to planting explosives in mailboxes. Just as the movement is represented by Maud's character, the opposition is depicted in the personage of Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson), a steely policeman who insists on the rule of law at all times and tells Maud and her fellow suffragettes that the world does not care about women's rights. He stands by as policeman punch women in the stomachs and approves when husbands beat up their wives for participating in marches and the like.

Most of the other male characters aren't much better, including the legislators who listen to testimony from women on their working conditions and still reject their right to vote and Whishaw's husband, who not only kicks Maud out of their home, but then - in a scene that might be pushing the boundaries of melodrama a little much - puts their son up for adoption after he determines he doesn't want to take care of him.

On Maud's side, there is some great acting talent. Helena Bonham Carter plays Edith Ellyn, a doctor who allows her apothecary to be the meeting place for suffragette meetings. Her supportive husband (Finbar Lynch) is the only likable character within several miles. And, of course, Meryl Streep pops up in one scene as Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the suffragette movement, who gives a rousing speech from a balcony.

So, even if "Suffragette" follows a standard approach to historical storytelling, the power of its story works all the same. And Mulligan, who I've long admired, brings the necessary gravitas to her character, whose suffering falls just shy of a heroine in a Lars Von Trier movie. And Gavron and cinematographer Eduard Grau bring the mucky, gloomy look of early 20th century England to life.

Gavron previously directed "Brick Lane," the adaptation of Monica Ali's novel, which also portrayed a strong woman attempting to make a life in England during a distant time period (in that case, the 1980s). There have been calls from many quarters during the past year or so for more female representation in Hollywood, especially behind the camera. So far, only one woman (Kathryn Bigelow) has won Best Director and very few others have even been nominated.

The film culminates with a scroll of the years when women were given the right to vote in countries around the world, including some triumphs (England, 1918) and some late to the game (Saudi Arabia has promised that women will be able to vote in 2015 - yes, 2015!). The film suggests there's much more to be done - and that includes more movies about women that are made by women.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Review: Beasts of No Nation

Image courtesy of Netflix.
Based on the brief but intense and disturbing novel by Uzodinma Iweala, Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Beasts of No Nation" is a powerful war drama that often dares you to keep your eyes on the screen, its horrors are so unnerving.

Set in an unnamed African country on the brink of war, "Beasts" starts off as a family story in which Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah) and his family enjoy a happy life in a relatively comfortable home in their small village. His father is a teacher and his older brother attempts to perfect his dance moves in order to score with the young village women. War has broken out in their country, but it seems far away.

But then one day, soldiers arrive and Agu's mother and baby sibling are forced to flee to the capital, while Agu, his brother, father and incapacitated grandfather stay behind. Shortly thereafter, Agu is the only living member of his family left in his hometown and he flees into the woods, where he stumbles upon a group of rebels led by the ferocious father figure known as The Commandant (Idris Elba in top form).

With an army of mostly teenagers and pre-teens, The Commandant leads his troops into a heart of darkness that gives "Beasts" a slight "Apocalypse Now" vibe, the exception being that, in this case, Kurtz is leading the mission rather than being its destination.

Agu and his fellow new recruits undergo training on how to kill. During one particularly harrowing scene, he and other newcomers must run through a maze of rebels, who strike them with sticks. Agu notices one of the new soldiers failing to make it through the maze and getting his throat cut as a result.

It's difficult to pin down the film's most unsettling sequence, whether it's the one in which Agu is forced by The Commandant to take his first life, in this case an engineer whom Agu is ordered to strike in the head with a machete, or a later scene during which the rebels raid a house, kill a woman inside and stomp her child to death.

Fukunaga is no stranger to deeply unsettling material. His 2009 film "Sin Nombre" was an extremely violent story about Mexican gangs, while his amazing work on season one of "True Detective" proved he can be a master of the macabre. "Beasts of No Nation" takes it to a whole other level. It's a powerful film in which it's difficult to root for any of its characters, but even more difficult not to root for their survival. Francois Truffaut once famously said that "there's no such thing as an anti-war film." Had he seen this one, he might rethink that statement.

This weekend, I've seen two of the best child performances of recent years - Jacob Tremblay's work in "Room" and Attah's portrayal of the child soldier in "Beasts." I was amazed by the range of emotions and understanding of character these two very young actors showed. And I've been a fan of Elba since his iconic portrayal of Stringer Bell on "The Wire" and here he again shows how his supporting work can elevate whatever show or film of which he is a part. He's hypnotizing and horrifying as The Commandant, a figure with virtually no redeeming qualities, but whom Elba manages to humanize rather than turn into a cartoonish monster.

"Beasts" is the first film to be produced and released by Netflix, which already provides stellar shows, such as "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black," which is acclaimed and unseen by me. This picture and those shows should be an indication that the DVD service's executives have an eye for great material.

Review: Room

Image courtesy of A24.
Based on the popular and acclaimed novel by Emma Donoghue, "Room" is a compelling story that works well, despite my early fears that its story would be too, well, confining. The picture, directed by Lenny Abrahamson (who was responsible for the deliriously funny and strange "Frank"), tells the story of a young mother and her 5-year-old son who, for reasons I probably shouldn't divulge, spend their every waking moment in a small, claustrophobic room.

The mother (Brie Larson) once lived in the outside world, but her son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), has not only never seen it, but doesn't even know it exists. His mother has told him all his life that everything outside of the room is outer space and convinces him that the shows he watches on TV are solely there for their entertainment. Occasionally, a man shows up to have sex with the young woman and Jack is forced to stay in his closet, where he sleeps on a mattress.

Had the entirety of "Room" be spent in this tight space, I fear the story might have suffered for it. But just as the room-centered story begins to hint at being tedious, Jack's mother devises an attempt for him to flee the space and he eventually assists his mother in leaving as well.

The duo winds up at the childhood home of Larson's parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), who have since divorced in the seven years of their daughter's absence. Allen's Nancy has since remarried and her genial husband has a dog with whom Jack can play.

What ultimately makes "Room" such a compelling movie - other than Larson's solid work and the Tremblay, who gives one of the best child performances in years - is that it's not so much about the strange situation involved in the two characters' being kept in the room, but rather their becoming accustomed once again to the real world.

Larson's character goes through various stages of grief and there's a particularly grueling sequence during which a news reporter poses some unsettling questions to the distraught woman. And, even more powerful, is the concept of a 5-year-old discovering the world anew and having to catch up on everything he has missed thus far. And Tremblay simply nails it. It's an especially tricky role for a young child, considering that most boys Tremblay's age are far from being fully formed human beings. So, for him to be able to portray such wonder and such knowingness at the same time at such a young age leads me to believe it's either through luck or sheer talent - or maybe both.

Abrahamson's adaptation of Donoghue's novel works because it allows us to discover the world through a pair of eyes seeing it for the first time. It goes from being a disturbing story about a woman and young boy trapped in a confined space to those same characters being trapped, of sorts, in the most wide open spaces imaginable by their fears to adapt to the world. It's a film that sneaks up on you and ends up being much effective than you might originally think it would.

Review: The Assassin

Image courtesy of Well Go USA Entertainment.
Hou Hsiao Hsien's "The Assassin" was rapturously received at this year's Cannes Film Festival by a majority of film critics and the picture ended up nabbing the Best Director prize. While I liked the film, which is often visually stunning, I'm not exactly sure why it's being hailed as one of the highly lauded filmmaker's best - which I don't think it is - or how it is different than your average wu xia film, other than in purely structural terms.

For those unfamiliar with wu xia, it's a genre that tells martial arts stories and could be seen as China's version of the western. Films that could described as having wu xia elements include Ang Lee's groundbreaking "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or Zhang Yimou's "House of Flying Daggers." What differentiates Hsien's film is that the director applies his highly recognizable visual style and cinematic rhythms, which typically involve long shots in which characters are merely dots in the landscape and laconic sequences in which characters' faces do more of the talking than their mouths.

In "The Assassin," a mostly speechless warrior named Yinniang (Qi Shu), who lives during the Tang Dynasty years, is sent by her master to assassinate a political rival who, as it turns out, was a childhood friend. Yinniang had been separated from her family as a young girl and trained to be a martial arts expert and her skill is seen early in the film during a black and white sequence when she attacks a man on horseback and promptly slits his throat.

While Hsien's slow pace often befits his dramas, such as the highly praised "The Puppetmaster" and the lovely "Three Times," which is still my favorite of his works, it occasionally causes "The Assassin" to drag a little. It's a good film, but more the type that I can appreciate for its style and technique than feel engaged by.

That being said, there are sequences of breathtaking beauty in the film, including one in which Yinniang speaks to her master on a misty mountain, another during which the mist threatens to engulf a lake and others of brightly colored fields and majestic mountaintops.

The story is a little difficult to follow and I'm glad to see that a majority of the notices on the film say the exact same thing. But as is often the case with one of Hsien's films, the mood and rhythm of the visuals frequently eclipse the story. That is certainly the case here and, for this type of film, such a style yields mixed results. I can objectively say that "The Assassin" is a good film and one that I'd recommend to fans of world cinema, but it didn't quite grab me the way that Hsien's best films - "Three Times" or "City of Sadness," for example - did.