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.