Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top 25 Films of 2015

25. The End of the Tour

Jason Segel gives a career best performance as author David Foster Wallace, while Jesse Eisenberg perfectly plays a journalist caught between being respectful to a writer he admires, or prying for the best (and juiciest) story possible. The film essentially is one really long conversation, but it's a thought-provoking and well-acted one, and it lingers long after you see it.

24. The Big Short

Presented in a format that is a little "The Office" and a little Goodfellas, this housing bubble romp is messy, yet meticulously detailed. Scathingly funny, yet infuriating. Absorbing, yet devastating. It also contains the best usage of "Money Maker" by Ludacris ever on film. And did I mention it has a top tier cast in Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, and Steve Carrell?

23. While We're Young

In a turning point scene, Josh is walking down the street and he looks down and glares at a single bike wheel that's chained to a pole. Like, how does that even work? Is it a postmodern art project? Does it mean nothing or does it mean everything? Are we all just descending and ascending spokes crossing each other in a spinning circle that orbits around another circle? That's life, I guess.

22. What We Do in the Shadows

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi write/direct and star in this brilliantly funny and gleefully clever take on vampires. The deadpan style hits all the right spots when mining humor from the vampires' everyday activities, and it twists tropes from the vampire, mockumentary, and horror found-footage genres in ways that are too hilarious and smart to be written off as gimmickry.

21. The Gift

What initially looked like a bad stalker film that you might see on Lifetime, ends up being a well-wrought suspense thriller in every sense. The story is genuinely unpredictable and it adeptly toys with expectations. The intrigue is kept at a constant--each new turning point or reveal just propels the twisted mystery even more. It also drives home a topical message, all the while.

20. When Marnie Was There

Possibly the last Studio Ghibli film. It's also one of the more accessible (and shorter) ones of the bunch, and it has one of the most potent endings. And frankly, it's just beautiful. With a hint of the supernatural, the story comes down to a tale of two lost souls finding each other. The power of this resonates in the film's stirring final act. And yes, it's a major a tearjerker.

19. Ant-Man

With a nicely cast Paul Rudd, a spread of sight gags, and a playful tone that diverts from the usual bombastic and overstuffed 'the world is crumbling' scenario (looking at you, Age of Ultron...), Ant-Man warps into a fun and entertaining superhero heist movie. It isn't necessarily reinventing the genre, but it's a slight comic book film twist that proves that sometimes bigger isn't always better.

18. Brooklyn

Saoirse Ronan gives a tremendous performance as a young wide-eyed Irish immigrant who moves to the U.S. and falls in love with a young Italian man in this fittingly old-fashioned period piece and irresistible love story. Backed by a beautiful string-driven score, and filled with wonderfully captured details of 1950's Americana, Brooklyn is as charming and bittersweet as can be.

17. Straight Outta Compton

This hyped portrayal of the infamous and influential hip-hop group N.W.A. is crafted with a lot of respect and enthusiasm. While the musical side of things is a magnetic draw for generations of rap fans, it's the relevant themes that give this film its power--from racial profiling to police brutality, record industry politics, and the plight for freedom of speech.

16. Inside Out

Pixar returns triumphantly with Inside Out. It's really an inventive premise with such clever storytelling and characterization, and it's all utilized with immense success. The film functions as one of the more expansive worlds the studio has created. It also allows for some of the more dazzling, surreal, and dare I say--somewhat psychedelic visuals that have appeared in a Pixar film.

15. Furious 7

A squadron of cars skydiving out of an airplane onto mountains? Check. Cars speeding through buildings in Abu Dhabi? Check. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson breaking out of his arm cast by flexing? Check. Leave any uptightness at the door. Furious 7 is a whole lot of fun, and it works as an exhilarating contemporary stunt flick, as well as a poignant sendoff for Paul Walker.

14. Spotlight

Complete with a stellar A+ ensemble cast of Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d'Arcy James, and Liev Schreiber, Spotlight is a based-on-true-events film that details a group of journalists delivering a church-shattering report to the public. The final scenes of constant phone-ringing remind us that molestation within the Catholic church is still an ongoing issue.

13. It Follows

The best horror film since The BabadookIt Follows thrives on an unnerving mood and atmosphere, while mixing physical and psychological terror within a teen movie setting. The story is powerful in its metaphor--less of an STD gimmick and more representative of the trauma from sexual assault and its lingering and pervasive nature. The tact is jarring and more disturbing than a jump scare.

12. Steve Jobs

Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin ditch the usual by-the-numbers biopic formula and dive straight into an immediate story about Apple's complicated co-founder. With its great cast and excellent screenplay, Steve Jobs is a highly proficient portrait of a relentlessly difficult, egotistical and narcissistic innovator and marketer who is attempting to change the world... and succeeding.

11. Bridge of Spies

Wow, does Spielberg sure know how to construct scenes in order to generate the greatest interest and appeal, while also staging some terrific looking #PerfectShot frames. This Tom Hanks-starring Cold War thriller is a story about just how damned complicated things can get when a lot of different people at-odds are trying to do the job that they were sent to do.

10. Sicario

Directer Denis Villeneuve continues his impressive streak with this brutal, tense, and heart-racing Mexican drug cartel thriller. Emily Blunt's character is thrown into some highly dangerous zones without having much background information about the specific situations or instruction about what exactly the mission entails, so in a way, it feels like we're on the unpredictable ride with her.

9. The Martian

Matt Damon is the man left behind in this gripping, well-executed space survival epic and slick NASA drama. The accessible narrative propels enough obstacles, dilemmas, and high stakes to give you gray hair. It almost unfolds like a sports movie--even though we're probably predicting the optimistic outcome, we're still on the edge of our seats rooting for the squad to pull it off.

8. Mistress America

Between its screwball antics, dysfunctional characters, and hilarious dialogue, Mistress America is the best comedy of 2015, and it wears its heart on its sleeve. It's full of failed ambitions and rejection, and it propounds the idea that sometimes we're all in the same boat when it comes to not getting what we want. But most of all, it's a testament of friendship--as simple as that.

7. Ex Machina

Complete with phenomenal performances from Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina is a stunningly well-crafted slice of future-shock drama with some A.I. eroticism. Given its heavy explorations of empathy, morality, human attachment, and the weirdness of hi-tech creation, the entire premise plays out like a new-age Willy Wonka factory trip.

6. The Walk

Based on the true, incredible story of Philippe Petit's walk across a tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, The Walk dramatizes the events with immense success. It's all spunkier than expected, and the film strolls a taut balance between a compelling caper that pulls off the near-impossible, and a moving tribute to the iconic buildings that are no longer there.

5. Dope

The movie Dope can be defined as:

Swiftly paced; highly entertaining at every turn
synonyms: fresh, hilarious, downright fun, wildly absurd, offensive

an exuberant romp of youthful energy, heavily informed and influenced by hip-hop culture and "hip" culture in general

A movie that I frickin' love

4. Creed

It's the Rocky spin-off that we didn't know we needed. Ryan Coogler directs this film with so much flair, grit, and passion. The film isn't just insanely watchable, but you also might want to give it a fist bump and a hug. It contains a number of highly memorable scenes and fantastic performances from Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone. Creed is nostalgic and ode-full, yet contemporary--carving out its own path. Some boxing experts might scoff at Donnie's quick rise to a title shot, but Rocky has always been an underdog story, and Creed is taking the torch.

3. Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

It's been labeled as The Fault in Our Stars meets quirky Sundance-core, but I think it's more "Freaks and Geeks" meets 50/50. Even considering its poignant premise, this is surprisingly hilarious and heartwarming. The script taps into the absurd environment of high school where everyone attempts to find themselves, as well as the significant moments, relationships, and perils that come along with it. The film approaches the subject of cancer with such refreshing honesty, even inserting its own icebreaking moments. It doesn't try to sugarcoat anything either, and it stresses that you can't just automatically dehumanize someone or act like they're an elephant in the room when they're diagnosed with a terrible disease, and you don't *really* know what a person is going through on either side. I'm getting emotional just thinking about this one, so I'm gonna go grab a tissue and return with the Top 2.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Fury Road is a film in which you can hear rusty engines revving up before the first scene even fades in. What's so striking about it all is the uniformly frenzied aesthetic, from the hodgepodge rigs, to the on-the-verge-of-death makeup work, to the jagged grease warrior attire--all amidst the drought brown tones. Along with all the busyness stuffed into the frame, visual flairs of jittery fast-forward effects are injected--conceiving some imagery that is reminiscent of seminal silent films like Metropolis and Man on the Moon. There's a lot of post-apocalyptic ugliness here, but it is gorgeously shot and furiously choreographed. We witness setpiece on setpiece on setpiece. A standout sequence is a pedal-to-the-metal chase through a gargantuan sandstorm filled with tornados (and lightning), and it literally takes your breath away. Everything is just so relentlessly aggressive and operatic. And just in case things weren't already loud enough, there's a guy strapped to a tower of amps slamming on a flamethrower guitar to fill out the volume.

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A cultural phenomenon that unites countless moviegoers--be it casual fans, super-fans, or new fans that were completely unfamiliar with the series. (We won't discuss the haters).

Upon it's colossal, spoilers-on-lock arrival, The Force Awakens proves to be an exciting rebirth for a beloved franchise, which will be a force for many more years to come. With its great cast of old and new, dazzling action sequences, humor and heart, the film captures the multi-dimensional magic that many of us adore when it comes to cinema. The indies, arthouses, heavy dramas, and thought-provokers all have their place, but sometimes a fun and entertaining spiritual boost like The Force Awakens or Fury Road ends up being the most memorable.

Sure, one particular scene reeks of clumsy exposition, and there's some plot point retreading, but the movie is just so awesome that it's easy to forgive. The Force Awakens is one of those theater experiences where you can practically sense the thousands of goosebumps arising within the room. And it's an experience that is worth going back to witness multiple times. Aren't those the best kinds of movies?

"Chewie, we're home."

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top 10 Documentaries of 2015

In no particular order...

An Honest Liar

James Randi is a renowned magician and escape artist, and he's dedicated to debunking hoaxes, psychics, faith healing, conspiracy theories, telekinesis, and con artists. He uses tools of deception to uncover real deceptionbecause he's against frauds who dupe people for money. But it also turns out that he's been hiding his own secret from the public for almost his entire life.

The Nightmare

From the makers of Room 237, this horror documentary revolves around the creepy phenomenon of sleep paralysis. Whether it involves shadow figures, "old hags", or incubuses/succubuses, this doc listens to the accounts of many different people (enhanced with reenactments). Fittingly, the film provides no new answers and just propels the mystery even more. The mystical subject matter is both enthralling and terrifying, especially if you've experienced any of it yourself.

Cobain: Montage of Heck

Stocked with loads of never-before-seen footage, photos, audio clips, and notebooks provided from an entire garage of storage by the Cobain family, Montage of Heck presents a deeper and intimate look into Kurt Cobain's life from childhood to death. It's an artfully crafted, engrossing, and bleak visual biography of Nirvina's iconic rock musician and complicated persona.


If you're reading this, you probably remember the tragic drug-addled (and highly publicized) down-spiral of neo-soul artist and distinct voice, Amy Winehouse. This extensive documentary sheds light on the talented singer's personality, while showing the highs & lows of her short-lived career--from the promising early beginnings to rock bottom and then Back to Black.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

This controversial doc is a disturbing look into the Church of Scientology, complete with interviews from ex-members who divulge secrets about the organization, whether it's certain horror stories, manipulation tactics and mind control, the dangers of leaving, and the insane amount of money the cult possesses. The highest-ranking members like Tom Cruise and John Travolta claim they've never had any problems with the Scientology, and that sounds about right.

The Search for General Tso

This upbeat doc is everything you need to know about the popular takeout dish General Tso's Chicken. What makes it interesting is the examination of its origins (which might surprise people), the controversy surrounding the spelling and meaning of the word, and how the food's accessibility and multidimensional flavoring has united millions. Do not watch on an empty stomach.

Cartel Land

A non-fiction companion piece to this year's thriller Sicario, the film profiles two vigilante groups (one from each side of the Mexican border) who work to fight against the murderous drug-dealing cartels. It's an immersive experience, taking us right into the ruthless action. Kathryn Bigelow serves as executive producer in this eye-opening view of never-ending crime, disorder, and injustice.

Listen to Me Marlon

The legendary actor doesn't need an introduction, but maybe his off-screen antics and soured relationship with the public do. Hailed as the most definitive piece on Marlon Brando, this poetic doc presents an archive of deeply personal and confessional audio that Brando recorded himself throughout his acting career, so it's as if he's narrating his own posthumous autobiography.

Finders Keepers

Sometimes the strangest docs are the best, and this is one of them. Finders Keepers is the story of John Wood, who kept his amputated leg as a mummified souvenir, only to lose it again. Across the state of North Carolina, a man bought a smoker grill at an auction, which happened to contain the leg, and he refused to give it back. The whole thing is even funnier and twist-ier than you can imagine.

The Wolfpack

A group of brothers grew up isolated from society and were holed up in a small apartment. Their only interactions with the outside world were through films--mostly classics and genre staples: The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Shawshank etc... If that premise isn't interesting and perplexing enough, just wait until you see them journey outside during this home movie-like story of real-life stoop kids.

Monday, December 28, 2015

[Review] The Revenant

Director Alejandro G. Inarritu follows up last year's Best Picture winner Birdman with The Revenant, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. Some people going into this film for the big names alone might be in for an unpleasant surprise by the stranger and more experimental aspects, as well as the near 3-hour runtime and overall gruesomeness of the story. (I'm anticipating seeing a lot of complaints on Twitter from casual moviegoers.)

Inspired by true events of the West in the early 1800s, The Revenant tells the crazy revenge tale of frontiersman Hugh Glass (played by DiCaprio). After one hell of a battle scene with no shortage of sharp objects and shotgun bullets jamming into organs and bones, along with a disturbing bear attack (which will likely be popular conversation piece), Glass is left for dead by a thief named John Fitzgerald (Hardy). From there, Glass attempts to survive his wounds, endure the unforgiving terrain, and track down the man he hates.

While The Revenant isn't presented in one-shot form like Birdman, the camera still doesn't take a break here. With its constant movement and combination of close-ups and wide scopes, it makes for a fittingly immersive experience in a harshly visceral setting. And as stark as things are, you'll be taken aback by the sheer beauty of the frames, thanks to some stunning use of depth, sunlight, and the provocative images of the wilderness itself. However, despite how well-shot this is, the story eventually freezes into a lull near it's halfway mark, making the film an exhausting viewing (and not just because of what the protagonist goes through). Like Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, you can add this to the list of this year's films that could've been better if they didn't drag so much.

Tom Hardy continues his run as a trekker across the elements, even though his character here is less to root for as opposed to Mad: Max Fury Road, but he's still really grizzly nonetheless. Domhnall Gleeson (who wasn't shown much in the previews) shows up as a fur trader . He's also having a pretty big year (Ex Machina, Brooklyn, and a little movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens.)

As reports suggested, it definitely looks like this was not a fun (to say the least) filming experience for DiCaprio. "I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I've ever had to do...Whether it's going in and out of frozen rivers, or sleeping in animal carcasses, or what I ate on set. I was enduring freezing cold and possible hypothermia constantly." Now, "being hell to shoot" doesn't always equal an Oscar win, but it will most likely help his case here, especially (and most importantly) because the impressiveness of it translates to the screen. His character is put into situations where he's expressing his rage and fury, even though his tattered body doesn't allow him to do so. And it just looks painful. But as difficult as it is to watch, the guy commands attention.

Inarritu's filmmaking once again is something to behold and it not only allows for great performances, but it showcases them. While Eddie Redmayne was fantastic in last year's Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, I thought Michael Keaton in Birdman had the slight edge. The way things stand now, it looks like DiCaprio is in favor to solidify his first Oscar--that is unless Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl) snatches another one away.

The Revenant is a visual marvel, a procedure in technical brilliance, and a source of great performances. But somehow, it feels hollow in the end.


Sunday, December 27, 2015

[Review] The Hateful Eight

It's a film that almost didn't get made, due to an unfortunately leaked script. Even if it's a step down from Quentin Tarantino's previous two, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, I think it's safe to say most of us are happy it did get made. Plus, with a title like The Hateful Eight, it couldn't be any more fitting for Tarantino's 8th film right?

Opening with wide snowy landscape shots and a menacing score from Ennio Morricone, we know we're in for a mischievous, violent, and bloody Western. Samuel L. Jackson plays Marquis "The Bounty Hunter"--he's sitting atop a pile of dead bodies when he's first introduced. In order to get in from the cold, he tracks down a stagecoach, which contains John "The Hangman" (Kurt Russell) and Daisy "The Prisoner"(Jennifer Jason Leigh)--a fugitive facing a murder trial.

Along the way, they pick up Chris "The Sheriff" (Walton Goggins). Once the blizzard riles up, the grizzly crew seeks shelter at a shack called Minnie's Haberdashery, where they encounter Bob "The Mexican" (Demian Bichir), Oswaldo "The Little Man" (Tim Roth), Joe "The Cow Puncher" (Michael Madsen), and General Sanford "The Confederate" (Bruce Dern). As you can guess, all hell eventually breaks this loose when these 8 wrongdoers are stranded in small quarters, and I'll leave it at that.

Nothing in The Hateful Eight strays from the Tarantino norm. The mostly talky scenes (that are stuffed with filthy dialogue) gradually escalate, almost in stage play fashion. You can practically visualize Tarantino himself acting out the scenes exactly the way he wants things said and done. Everything straddles borders of exploitation and offensiveness. And despite being overlong (as usual), there is so much style and panache displayed in all its filmmaking and storytelling aspects--that it remains sadistically entertaining. The Tarantino norm also means that there are many surprises and payoffs that break through all the slow-build and excess.

One of The Hateful Eight's big draws from the beginning has been its stacked cast, and the ensemble proves to be well-chosen as they deliver with all they've got. Obviously some of the characters are more key players than others, but there are enough quirks wrangled in for each one of them to differentiate from each other. We expect Kurt Russell and Bruce Dern to be solid here as gritty Western vets, and they certainly are. Walter Goggins often finds himself in familiar territory with his roles, which isn't a bad thing because he fits in perfectly here. Then there's Tim Roth, who seems to be filling the Christoph Waltz void. It's difficult to choose a standout of the bunch because they all offer a lot within their lanes, but Samuel L. and Jennifer Jason Leigh emerge as those ones.

It's an ugly film populated with nasty people, but somehow we're glad they're here... There just may be a little too much time with them.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

[Review] Concussion

Head trauma in the National Football League has been a rising topic of concern, and the Will Smith-starring Concussion arrives right during the thick of it. You get the impression that the film might've served better as an ESPN '30 for 30' documentary, rather than an Oscar-bait drama.

It's based on the true story of Bennet Omalu (Smith), a highly renowned doctor from Nigeria who discovered CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy)--a neurodegenerative disease often found in football players due to repeated hits to the head. At the time, this was far from forefront information, so Concussion profiles Dr. Omalu's battle to bring it to the public.

Will Smith is good here and there are a couple of really good scenes, but his attempt at a deep African accent can't help but sound a bit distracting. The character's determination, selflessness, and genuine care about his patients is commendable, which makes him very likable all the way through. The pacing falls on the slower side, and lot of the scenes involve Omalu looking at microscope slides, medical books, x-rays, and conducting tests and experiments, which aren't the most compelling things to see on the big screen, unless you're super into that stuff. Also, if you get a queasy when seeing surgical procedures, this probably won't be the first film you'll want to rush to this holiday season.

The film isn't necessarily out to proclaim "FOOTBALL IS BAD IT SHOULD BE BANNED", but it's more-so bringing about awareness to the potential brain damage the sport can cause, as well as calling for a significant increase in safety measures. It adds more power to its message by showing the recent news stories of players like Junior Seau at the end, who committed suicide. But despite Concussion's weighty topic, it's boring fare for a film. And maybe, someone like Aaron Sorkin (Moneyball, The Social Network, Steve Jobs) could've brought more intrigue into this screenplay. If anything, it's a decent discussion piece that will result in many different conclusions.


Friday, December 25, 2015

[Review] Joy

Director David O. Russell has been on a hot streak with interpersonal relationship dramas/comedies, whether they involved fighting (The Fighter), dancing (Silver Linings Playbook) or hustling (American Hustle). Joy contains each of those, yet it falls short of the greatness of all of those films, despite containing another tour-de-force Jennifer Lawrence performance.

Joy (Lawrence) is an aspiring inventor, saleswoman, and future company owner. Her father is played by an ornery Robert De Niro, and her ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) lives in her basement. While The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle all had memorable openings, the beginning of Joy is just basic flashbacks with narrated backstory. Eventually, with some help from investor Bradley Cooper, Joy attempts to get her Miracle Mop business off the ground.

There's obviously a great list of actors here, but if you've seen Russell's aforementioned last three films, it finally feels like an overload of reoccurring cast here. And it's actually about 30 or 40 minutes before the film forms a direction for its plot. Early on, the frenzied editing from scene to scene is more off-putting than spunky and energetic. The bright spots, aside from J-Law's constant voracity, are the film's ideas about commerce, as well as turning the ordinary into the extraordinary. Dascha Polanco (a favorite from "Orange Is the New Black") also makes an appearance as Joy's best friend.

Maybe Joy is a victim of Russell's immensely successful previous efforts, and unable to escape comparisons to them. But even on its own merit, there are just too many questionable artistic choices in it to warrant praise, and the narrative frankly lacks much investment or interest.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

[Review] Carol

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star in this well-crafted but ultimately underwhelming tale of forbidden romance.

Set during 1952 in New York City. We meet Therese (Mara), a young woman who works in a department store around Christmas time. She makes a connection with the title character Carol (Blanchette), and the two form an intimate love. But there are societal obstacles in the way. Their sexuality is frowned upon by others, and Carol is currently in the process of divorce from her husband (Kyle Chandler), which creates a custody battle for their daughter. To top it off, Carol is much older than Therese.

The cinematography is lush and even voyeuristic at times, the period detail and atmosphere is wonderfully captured, the performances are very solid (would you expect anything less from Cate Blanchette?), but the narrative just isn't all that engrossing, especially if you're still on a recent Star Wars high. It's slowly paced (even the conversations are full of long pauses), and much of the duration involves the characters staring out windows. We get it--they're thinking about each other and their situation, but it's not the most interesting thing to witness on the big screen, nor does it warrant much replay value.

Carol is one of those films that does a lot of things right on compositional levels, and it's sure to be a significant contender during awards season, but it isn't a viewing that is really going to knock your socks off. Large stretches of time pass where not a whole lot happens. The arguments behind closed doors are fairly typical. Most of the emotion displayed is ramped up melodrama backed by musical cues of crying strings and poignant piano keys. It's a bore.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

[Review] Youth

Paolo Sorrentino has always demonstrated a penchant for displaying lively, provocative, and beautiful frames often enhanced with memorable musical scores and songs, but sometimes the film's story underwhelms or takes too long for its payoff. The Michael Caine-starring Youth is no different.

Fred (Caine) is a retired composer and conductor vacationing in the Swiss Alps. Some of his acquaintances are trying to get him back into the game, but he's reluctant. The film is very slow-moving early on, just like its main character. During a massage scene, his daughter (Rachel Weisz) lists the health routine that she's devised for him, and Fred answers with "Now I'll get even more bored." And unfortunately, we can relate too much while watching this film.

The narrative is aggressively sluggish, and there are some questionable scenes that almost seem like tangents. As glacial as the pace is, we still don't have time to figure out what the fuck some of this stuff means. And maybe it doesn't mean anything. At least it's nice to look at, even though this aspect probably won't be worth it for most audiences. There are some gorgeous on-location shots that are often injected with hints of magical realism. The camera gracefully glides along and rotates, revealing a full dimension to the scenes, rather than just reveling in individual static shots.

The lush imagery is on par with Sorrentino's last two efforts, including the grand yet confounding The Great Beauty, which earned an Oscar win for Best Foreign Language film last year. Then there was 2012's leap into accessibility with his first English language film--the slyly endearing This Must Be The Place, which is worth a look, especially if you're interested in quirky aging mopey post-punk musicians turning over new stones. It also features a great musical sequence with David Byrne (The Talking Heads). Speaking of indie music... Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek briefly appears in the background of Youth to sing a nice little tune.

With all that said, the film is too snoozy and perplexing to fully embrace, and its nicest moments come when you're already thinking about going home to take a nap.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

[Review] Room

Not to be confused with Tommy Wiseau's so-bad-it's-good cult masterpiece The Room, or the film James Franco is currently making about it. Room (no The) is a dire and compelling mother & son story, starring the consistently tremendous Brie Larson.

Joy (Larson) and her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) have been living in a claustrophobic bunker-like shed for years. In fact, it's the only thing Jack has ever known, so he has no real experience or knowledge of the outside world. How did they end up there, you ask? Well, it isn't really known for sure, but there is a delusional and despicable man keeping them holed up, only occasionally visiting to supply them with a minimal amount of necessities (and some other nasty things). It's not completely inaccurate to call the premise a serious and heavily dramatic version of Netflix's charmingly quirky and hilarious comedy series "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt".

Jacob Tremblay is very convincing, and the film probably wouldn't have thrived very well if he hadn't been. Then there's Brie Larson, who has proven to be one of the best performers in the game right now (household name or not), especially when she has the opportunity in a leading role (seriously if you haven't seen 2013's Short Term 12, get on that). She's full of nuance and emotion, yet she makes it look so easy. A well-deserved Oscar nomination should be coming her way.

The film is an immediate thought-provoker. How exactly does a mother go about raising a child in such a desperate, trapped situation. What should she teach him and what shouldn't she teach him? Does she lie or tell the truth? How does one define let alone describe the world to someone that has never been outside? Can that innocent and (extremely) sheltered child's imagination break through the confines? The narrative of the subject matter is handled gracefully, mining for every bit of conflict, as well as philosophical and psychological details. And yes, there is suspense--because Joy is developing a difficult plan of escape for the both of them, which yields some major stakes. That raises another question: How the hell does one adjust to the drastic change of, well... everything.


Monday, December 21, 2015

[Review] Star Wars: The Force Awakens

We've all been bombarded enough to know about the colossal arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, so let's get right to it. Does it live up to the hype? Is it even possible for it to live up to the hype? (Star Wars apples?). Maybe not. But it's pretty damn excellent anyway.

(As with all my reviews, this is spoiler-free, so you're safe to read on.)

The story picks up a few decades after Return of the Jedi (1983), and the Rebel Alliance is now called The Resistance, fighting against a legion of stormtroopers under the First Order ("THE DARK SIDE"). Carrie Fisher reprises her role as Leia (now a General of the Republic). Harrison Ford is back as Han Solo being Han Solo. And Luke Skywalker is currently M.I.A. It's good that the icons are constituent parts of the plot, rather than just glorified cameos. But the newcomers take the lead here. Oscar Isaac, who is destined to be one of the biggest stars on the planet, plays a top fighter pilot for The Resistance. Jon Boyega (Attack the Block) is a stormtrooper who doesn't want to be a stormtrooper. Adam Driver (HBO's "Girls" and indie film stalwart) is the bad guy here, sliding into the Darth Vader-like position. And then there's Rey (Daisy Ridley)--a scavenger turned compelling main protagonist. I'll just go ahead and say that the entire cast is terrific.

Unlike George Lucas' disastrous set of prequels, J.J. Abrams 's The Force Awakens maintains the spirit of Lucas' original trilogy and actually looks like it belongs within the same world. It genuinely feels like a Star Wars movie, and the importance of that can't be overstated. The duration packs in some dazzling action showcases, and it isn't just a bunch of stuff flying around and exploding for the sake of flying around and exploding. The setpieces manage to be both epic and intimate, as the camera's focus stays within personal reach of the central characters. The sequences are designed and carried out with an entertaining and escalating intensity--keeping us on the edge of our seats, as all great blockbuster spectacles should.

There's a lot of humor and lightheartedness here too--probably even more than expected. It's refreshing that the film doesn't launch into one-dimensional "taking itself too seriously" mode, but it still holds weight all the while. It also strays away from just being a 35-years-later victory lap steeped in nostalgia. It extends the universe, gives old characters new arcs without jumping shark, and wonderfully establishes some new characters that we invest heavily in. Best believe this is an exciting rebirth for a beloved franchise, which will be a force for many more years to come.

Sure, one particular scene reeks of clumsy exposition, and there's some plot point retreading, but the movie is just so awesome that it's easy to forgive. The Force Awakens is one of those theater experiences where you can practically sense the thousands of goosebumps arising within the room. And it's one that is worth going back to witness multiple times. Aren't those the best kinds of movies?

* 10/10 *

Thursday, December 17, 2015

[Review] In the Heart of the Sea

If it seems like the trailers for In the Heart of the Sea have been showing for a mighty long time, that's because they have been. This Ron Howard film is based on the real story that inspired the famous tale of Moby Dick, and it's largely underwhelming and overly familiar.

Current megastar Chris Hemsworth plays First Mate to Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Them and a crew of early 18th century manbuns set out on a whaling ship voyage, and as you already know, they run into a legendary gigantic whale.

Aside from some grand scale visuals and a solid musical score, In the Heart of the Sea sinks as a mediocre piece of man vs. nature, as well as the lost-at-sea genre. It takes longer than you want to set sail, and it's very talky (and yell-y) and full of lulls. Even though Chris Hemsworth gives a physically demanding performance with a dramatic weight loss along the way, there isn't much emotional connection to any of the characters themselves. They're all a bit bland.

The film also suffers from peaking too early. The whale, which looks great underwater but appears a little CGI heavy when it emerges--comes and goes at the midway point. It certainly is the most thrilling part of the story, but unfortunately the entire back half of the narrative drifts into a slogging survival mode, and it isn't worth the seasickness.


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

[Review] The Good Dinosaur

For the first time ever, Pixar has released two feature-length films in the same year. The Good Dinosaur follows the wonderfully imaginative Inside Out, and it's a sweet, seen-it-before journey.

Arlo is a newly born Apatosaurus. He's a scaredy-cat saur--the runt of the family (when his eggshell popped open, his parents didn't think he was in there at first). After a couple of devastating scenes at the beginning involving Arlo's parents (Oh, Pixar), he gets lost and befriends a little wild-ling human, similar to Donnie from Nickelodeon's "The Wild Thornberrys", but much cuter (Oh, Pixar). From here on, they journey to find their way home. Sound familiar?

Still, this might be Pixar's most impressively animated and visually beautiful film. The colors are both vibrant and earthy, and the textures are so incredibly vivid and detailed. From the sky to the dirt, some of the landscape views actually appear to be so realistic that they look like they were pulled from an Animal Planet or National Geographic documentary. Things get pretty at night time when the scenes glow with a surreal luminance. It's all aided by a wondrous musical score (if you listen closely, it has a major Lord of the Rings vibe to it).

The plot is not a bad one at all, but it is certainly less innovative or original, not just by Pixar's standards but also in general. Whether it's The Lion King, The Jungle Book, or Ice Age--it's all in here, not just because of the settings and creatures, but also because of the narrative paths. Even with that in mind, this is still a finely enjoyable tale. One of its commendable qualities is that it contains stretches where not much dialogue is said, and it's a refreshing break from a lot of the motormouth tendencies that a lot of animated films for young kids seem to have. And as expected, there is a nice amount of humor and heart. I've never been one to stray away from a good dinosaur story.