Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top Ten of 2015

Directed by Sean Baker
Original Review

It's difficult these days to makes something that is as unique as Tangerine. It's unapologetically low-class dive into the lives of two trans women (played wonderfully by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor) is the funniest comedy I've seen this year. Rodriguez plays Sin-Dee, a prostitute fresh off a short jail stint on the look out for her pimp and boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone, in a pitch-perfect performance). Taylor plays Alexandra, a fellow prostitute and Sin-Dee's closest friend. She has dreams of becoming a singer. Sin-Dee is the engine of the film, her thunderous struts throughout the gritty streets of seedy Los Angeles are about as heart-pumping as anything you see in Mad Max: Fury Road; but Alexandra is the film's heart and Sin-Dee's conscience. If it weren't for her, Sin-Dee might set the whole world on fire. There's also an Armenian cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) who has a surprising fetish for transgender hookers and car washes, who's participation in Tangerine seems passive until his family starts to get involved. Tangerine was famously shot on iPhones, which is a gimmick that has helped the film's publicity, but does nothing to distract from the wonderful filmmaking. Sean Baker's film is overwhelmingly cinematic despite itself, and the arrival of this film proves that there is still unforeseen territory for independent cinema to explore. I've now seen this movie three times, and the experience has gotten richer (and funnier) with each viewing. The movie is ferocious throughout before landing gently on a conclusion that is both subtle and heartfelt, executing the year's most difficult dismount with stunning grace. Sean Baker doesn't make awards-bait and Tangerine doesn't waft with the kind of stuffiness of most prestige cinema, and yet his little film manages to be better than all of them. It really is a colossal achievement.

Directed by Tom McCarthy
Original Review

Tom McCarthy's ensemble story is a fierce procedural drama, a stark stomp through the Boston Globe's uncovering of pederasty run rampant through the Catholic church. With a brilliant cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Jon Slattery, Brian d'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci and Liev Schrieber, McCarthy makes his most impressive film to date. Spotlight's conscious steering away from heightened drama, it's fervent grip on the nuts-and-bolts nature of investigative reporting will remind many of the 1976 masterpiece All The President's Men. This film is just as grilling, just as ripe with tension and just as filled with phenomenal performances. When a new boss (Schrieber) enters the hallowed halls of the Boston Globe, he calls upon the paper's prestigious investigative team to tackle a subject matter he thinks is getting too little attention: sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests. The team, called Spotlight, is led by a grizzled veteran (Keaton) and they dig into the story with fervor. They interview various victims, talk to lawyers who have settled cases for the church, and even to members of the Boston archdiocese. The nature of the cover-up begins to reveal itself and the monstrous size of the crime becomes apparent. No one, not even the members of Spotlight and the Boston Globe are prepared for the kind of numbers they dig up with their reporting. McCarthy shows us Spotlight as a true ensemble, with the performances for the actors working for each other, and enriching the screenplay (written by McCarthy and Josh Singer). Keaton, Ruffalo and Schrieber, in particular, stand out amongst all the actors, but what really shines is the exceptional filmmaking, the fine attention McCarthy pays to editing, sound and narrative amidst the chaotic structure of the story. It's a thriller masquerading as a newspaper story, and McCarthy plays all the right notes.

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
Original Review

Is there a more important movie made in the last ten years than 2013's The Act of Killing? It's a documentary so haunting and spirit-breaking it will forever change your thoughts on human nature. Joshua Oppenheimer's 2015 companion piece, The Look of Silence, mirrors the mind-altering power of the previous film. Act of Killing was a vast exposure of the celebrated soldiers at the head of the anti-communist purge in Indonesia in the mid-1960's, which resulted in the killings of over a half-million people. The Look of Silence takes the view of one of the victims, or more specifically, the younger brother of one of the men who met their horrific fate during this dark time. This man (like many members of the crew, he goes by 'Anonymous' for the sake of his own safety) is an ophthalmologist, and under the ruse of giving an eye exam, he visits some of these killers and takes the opportunity to confront them about the acts they've committed. The results are stirring, tense, mortifying; there's a bevy of nauseating adjectives to be used and yet none of them ever seem to be truly fitting. The ophthalmologist has to escape the horrors of his hometown country, but the effects his brother's murder has had on his family is shattering, creating ripples throughout generations. With Oppenheimer by his side, camera-ready, the ophthalmologist asks these now elderly men about their experiences, about their killings. Their answers are direct, their rationalizations elaborate. Some men claim that they drank the blood of their victims to stave off PTSD-induced insanity (read that sentence twice please). The Look of Silence is a feel-bad doc, for sure, but it carries just as much power as its predecessor, exposing these horrific deeds to many unaware of them.

Directed by Todd Haynes
Original Review

The return of Todd Haynes to feature films (he hadn't made one since 2007's I'm Not There) is reason in and of itself to get excited, but this Patricia Highsmith adaptation (from her novel The Price of Salt) goes well beyond a lipstick lesbian melodrama and evolves into the most heartbreaking love story of the year, thanks to the careful hands of its director. The script is written by Phyllis Nagy, and it's the first time Haynes has directed a film from a script he hasn't written. The result is what I find to be the best film he has ever made. Cate Blanchett is the titular Carol, a wealthy 1950's housewife with a history of female romance who falls for Therese (Rooney Mara), a shy, young shopgirl who is swayed by Carol's regal beauty. Blanchett is approaching peerlessness as a screen performer, but Mara matches her performance beat for beat, to create a stunning, symbiotic pair of performances unlike anything else in the movies this year. The story is simple, the intrigue and tension palpable, with terrific supporting performances by Kyle Chandler (as Carol's hangdog, loveless husband), Jake Lacy (as Therese's suitor who can't understand how she wouldn't marry him), and especially Sarah Paulson (as Carol's best friend and former romantic entanglement). Much like 2005's Brokeback Mountain is a gay love story that isn't transformative narratively, but instead measured and thoughtful. It's more about the passion than it is about the consequences of their love. Unlike Brokeback, Carol doesn't feel the need to tell a gay love story and make it tragic. As the threads of love entangle the two women, Haynes and Nagy are careful to have taste, to show that there are some forms of love that are painful, and that there are some forms of pain that you simply cannot live without.

Directed by George Miller
Original Review

Thirty-six years after George Miller's first Mad Max film, the Australian filmmaker returned to make the most impactful studio film of the year. Tom Hardy arrives to play the title character, but his Mad Max is diminished to a number of deranged grunts and fast-twitch muscle fiber. When he crosses paths with a tanker truck transporting five women away from the clutches of a merciless dictator named Immotan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the mercenary Max becomes entangled in a rescue mission. Driving the truck is Furiosa (Charlize Theron), one of Immortan Joe's best drivers, who has defected in an attempted to bring Joe's five wives to safety, away from a life of sex slavery and baby-making. Max and Furiosa push the truck through dangerous terrain, with Joe and and the rest of the calvary hot on their heels. We're left with a two-hour car chase, with only brief pauses in the action. A diesel-fueled thrill ride that only escalates in insanity and inventiveness. Miller's vision here is extraordinary, crafting something so visually spectacular, a wondrous mixture of astonishing beauty (cinematographer: John Searle) and grosteque horrors. The abuse of women is often an undercooked plot point in major films, but Fury Road takes this concept seriously, and instead of focusing on the victimhood of these characters, imbues its screenplay (by Miller, Brendan McCarthy & Nico Lathouris) with a feminist bent, allowing the female characters to take charge, make their own choices and judgments, surrounding the character of Max Rocketansky as figures with true agency. That Miller would make this obvious choice, to make this film about female empowerment, is a brave move, but it's even more impressive that he's able to pull it off so well, while also crafting the most exciting action film of the year.

6. 45 YEARS
Written and Directed by Andrew Haigh
Original Review

The memory of an old flame haunts the marriage at the center of 45 Years like a cumbersome, needy ghost. Andrew Haigh's film is one of the few that truly earns the adjective Bergman-esque with its frank portrayal of marriage, and its sparse, performance-led production. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay play Cate and Geoff Mercer, a married couple a week away from their forty-fifth wedding anniversary. The occasion will be celebrated extravagantly with all their friends and family, but when Geoff learns that the missing body of a former lover has been found over fifty years later, the discovery comes as an utter shock to him and a grim awakening for her. 45 Years is an impressively intelligent film about matters of the heart, about how love is never safe even if happily ever after has managed to last for four and a half decades. It's piercing, adult view of marriage is somber without being cynical, dramatic without being maudlin, and overall a truly refreshing take on the domestic drama. The performances from Rampling and Courtenay are amongst the best you'll be able to see in the theater right now. Courtenay is wonderfully irritable, his altered mind having trouble adjusting to his quickly overacting heart. As Cate, Rampling is incredible. An actress known for her sharp, steely screen presence proceeds as this film's emotional center, translating such a varied slate of emotions, she and Haigh are so acute at keeping the audience off balance. Her true motives, her true thoughts, are never really revealed until the film's final shot which is one of the most heartbreaking conclusions I've seen in a movie in a very long time.

Directed by Brett Haley

This winning dramedy flew under the radar this spring, but those who saw it got a lucky treat. Hollywood mainstay Blythe Danner is given what is probably her greatest role as Carol Peterson, a retired schoolteacher and former professional singer. Since becoming a widow twenty years ago, Carol has stayed alone romantically, but when she makes friends with two very different men - a restless, thirtysomething pool cleaner named Lloyd (Martin Starr) and a cigar-chomping fellow retiree named Bill (Sam Elliot) - she learns that it's never too late for life to begin anew. I'll See You In My Dreams may seem like Nancy Meyers-type cotton candy at a glance, but its heart is closer to the emotionally-piercing female-led films of Nicole Holfcener. The film is directed by Brett Haley, and he co-wrote the script with Marc Basch. The men craft a strikingly bittersweet tale of heartbreak and heart mending, of love both passionate and platonic. That two men could find a way to tell a sweet, honest tale about women of a certain age is an unexpected thrill. A subplot including Carol's group of friends allows the film to employ June Squibb, Mary Kay Place and Rhea Pearlman, giving the movie a handful of great scenes in which these actresses talk about their lives, both romantic and not. How often do we get to see that? Especially in a film so wonderfully told? At its heart, I'll See You In My Dreams is a film about grief, about the death of a husband, but more directly a film about the death of one's dog. As Carol gets older, the reality of death creeps closer, but instead of falling victim to her existential crisis, she instead decides to enjoy her golden years with her friends, within her winning friendship with Lloyd, and by accepting the romantic advances of Bill. This indie hit was one of the year's most wonderful surprises.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Original Review

Not since Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild has a child performance been so completely captivating as Jacob Tremblay in Room. Working with Brie Larson, Tremblay is the center of the most emotionally overpowering film of the year. Larson plays a young mother being held captive by a lecherous, abusive man named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). She has raised her son Jack (Tremblay) inside a small room for the first five years of his life. Room's first half is a wondrous display of film directing, with filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson effectively forming the narrative of these two characters within this desperate (and tiny) atmosphere. The film's second half, dealing with Ma and Jack's escape and further trouble adjusting back into normal life is a somber domestic drama. The film's halves are so different, and yet the performance from Tremblay - the film is told through his point-of-view - keeps the story grounded, seen through the eyes of innocence. The film is based on the best-selling novel by Emma Donoghue, and the author penned the screenplay. Like Gillian Flynn, who adapted her own best-seller with Gone Girl last year, Donoghue proves quite adept at the process and takes a novel that was already written in a difficult structure and modifies it softly, makes it cinematic. Larson had been building good will as an actress for several years, particularly in 2013's Short Term 12, but Room is obviously the young actress' biggest role to date. It's a wrenching performance, filled with heart and terror. The chemistry that Larson and Tremblay build throughout is the film's strongest asset, and Abrahamson allows it to take center stage while building around them a world that is filled with both wonder and fear. By the film's end, I'd been drained, cried out and left exhausted. Room is so emotional, it's actually physical, but it attains all of this without contrivance. It achieves it through strong direction, a stellar screenplay, and two lead performances that perfectly translate those emotions to the audience.

Directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven
Original Review

Parts wondrous, parts tragic, Deniz Gamze Erguven's autobiographical Mustang tracks five sisters growing up and growing against the conservative Turkish village that they call their home. Shot in an immediate cinema verité style, Erguven keeps a stern eye as the sisters try their best to live freely against the wishes of their helpless grandmother and their oppressive uncle. After being orphaned, five spirited sisters rub against the restrictions of their Muslim heritage when their uncle makes it clear that he wants them married off and out of his home. When he takes the girls out of school, bars them within his home and turns the house into a wife-making factory, it only makes the sisters that much more defiant, fighting his oppression by strengthening their bonds and their love. Gunes Sensoy, the young actress who plays Lale, the youngest and most rebellious of the five sisters, is a wonder. The film's script (by Erguven and Alice Winocour) tells the story through Lale's point-of-view, and adapts the young girls naiveté, while still maintaining a strong sense of self within all five of the girls. As the film proceeds, and the sisters begin to bend to the will of their family, a malais sits heavily upon the audience. Watching the spirit of these young women getting crushed is sobering in a number of ways, but mostly because Erguven's strong sense of the material (and her real-life connection to it) really makes the story feel honest. Mustang is not simply a tear-down of Muslim society, but a snapshot of life in the face of draconian rules. Starting like something similar to a sweet comedy, Mustang concludes as a suspenseful thriller, as the remaining sisters desperately find any way they can to escape. Despite this, Erguven's film stands as one of the most delightful experiences of the year.

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Original Review

The Dogme legend Thomas Vinterberg came back strong with The Hunt in 2013, a film that showed that he still had his fastball when it comes to grim, performance-led indie dramas. Earlier this year, he released a much different film: a lush adaptation of Thomas Hardy's beloved novel Far From The Madding Crowd. A period piece is probably the last thing you'd expect from the director of The Celebration, but Vinterberg shows here that he has evolved precipitously since the skimpy Dogme days, and showcases his ability to make a strong, emotional costume drama. The great Carey Mulligan gives the year's most unsung performance here as Bathsheba Everdene, the marriage-averse business woman convinced that a relationship with a man will only sully her free spirit. When she comes into business with moral sheep herder Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), he makes a dignified marriage proposal that is rejected. Despite this, Oak continues working for the business-shrewd Bathsheba, and their relationship evolves as she rejects a proposal from another wealthy man (Michael Sheen) and accepts the sexual advances of a troublesome soldier (Tom Sturridge). David Nicholls' screenplay is an expert adaptation, cutting through a years-long tale with a swiftness that still keeps the spirit of the narrative. It reminded me of Joe Wright's masterful Pride & Prejudice from 2005, which was another brilliant and charming period piece led by the strength of its lead performance. The burning chemistry between Mulligan and Schoenaerts is sparking and tense, and the will they/won't they aspect of their romance gives the film its main point of suspense, which is what Vinterberg does best. But this is not the Vinterberg obsessed with hard-to-watch tales of depravity, and he proves adept at literary adaptation, assuring himself as one of our most exciting filmmakers.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Honorable Mention: The Best Films of 2015, 25-11

I found myself wanting, cinematically at least, for most of 2015. The first half of the year presented very little of interest, and the few films that I did see with some expectation (Trainwreck or Mistress America) felt flat to me, without much of anything real to say. But the second half of the year has brought some real heat, giving us a wonderful, varied selection of terrific films by equally terrific filmmakers. It was a seemingly loaded year for female performances, with obvious standouts like Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol or Brie Larson in Room; but not to be forgotten are the incredible comedic performances we got from Melissa McCarthy in Spy or Kristen Wiig in Welcome To Me. Films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mustang presented audiences with tales of women fighting tooth and nail against an oppressive patriarchy, while Tangerine gave us the most mannered, entertaining tale of trans women that has come our way for some time. Even the new Star Wars film chose a woman (Daisy Ridley's Rey) as its protagonist! Let's hope this isn't a anomaly. 2015 finished up strong, and here's a sample of some of the best films I've seen this year. The Top 10 goes up tomorrow!

25. While We're Young. Noah Baumbach's tale of childless fortysomethings (played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts) getting a much needed boost by becoming friends with a couple of seemingly aimless twentysomethings (played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) is the great millennial satire that we've been waiting for. Baumbach is no longer as angry as he once was, but While We're Young has a healthy amount of bitterness about getting older, but not so much that the fresh humor is muted. The performances add to this Woody Allen-lite comedy and propel this up amongst the best of Baumbach's canon.

24. Son of Saul. László Nemes' debut feature is a fierce Holocaust drama about a Jewish Sonderkommando worker in 1944 Auschwitz. Géza Röhrig stars as the titular Saul, a regretful cog in the Auschwitz machine, who spots the body of a young boy and believes its his son. His search to find a rabbi to give the boy a proper burial amidst the chaos of the concentration camp encompasses the main conflict throughout this biting film. A stunning performance from Röhrig and some startling cinematography separates Son of Saul from the usual Holocaust film and gives us one of our most stirring tragedies of the year.

23. The Martian. Ridley Scott takes Andy Weir's wonderful wise-cracking, fact-heavy science-fiction novel and takes it to the big screen. One of our best movie stars, Matt Damon, gives one of his very best performances as a man stranded on Mars who must find ways to stay alive while a handful of people on Earth (and in space) conspire to come up with a rescue plan. Despite the dire plot, The Martian is one of the year's best comedies, a snarky action film that boasts a killer supporting cast including (but not limited to) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Jeff Daniels and Sean Bean. One of the best studio films of the year.

22. Spy. Melissa McCarthy finally got a starring vehicle that deserves her, with Paul Feig's hilarious action comedy which lets McCarthy's freak flag fly with wonderful gross-out humor and a surprisingly sophisticated espionage plot. With Jude Law, Rose Byrne and Miranda Hart co-starring, Spy boasts one of the best comedy ensembles of the year.

21. Wild Tales. This Argentinian film got itself an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in January, but didn't arrive in American theaters until the Spring. Director Damián Szifrón gives us six hysterical, baroque vignettes, each showcasing the distressing, sometimes violent circumstances of the human condition. Giving us glimpses into humanity that are both unique and bloody (in equal measure), Wild Tales was the year's best anthology film.

20. Creed. Director Ryan Coogler followed his breakout indie, Fruitvale Station, with a new addition to the Rocky films. Fruitvale star Michael B. Jordan joins Coogler here, as Adonis Johnson, the son of Rocky rival Apollo Creed. Movie legend Sylvester Stallone returns as his most beloved character, Rocky Balboa, uprooting what has become a stale life of mourning and restaurant management to be Adonis' trainer. Jordan and Stallone show incredible chemistry in a film that does a striking job of measuring franchise homage and individuality.

19. Labyrinth of Lies. Fictionalized versions of true stories can often spell trouble for movies, but Giulio Ricciarelli's film is a masterly told tale of a young German lawyer trying to expose the Nazis hiding in plain sight after the end of World War II. In showing the internal struggle of a nation trying to outrun its very recent misdeeds, Labyrinth's air-tight script crafts a spellbinding thriller ripe with tension throughout, and the film contains a collection of performances that rivals most of the year's best ensembles.

18-17. The End of the Tour & Mississippi Grind. Two buddy road films, both equipped with terrific dual performances, both with wonderfully spellbinding views into the nature of male companionship. In The End of the Tour, reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) must follow around famed writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) at the tail end of his book tour for Infinite Jest. In Mississippi Grind, a compulsive gambler  (Ben Mendelsohn) convinces a handsome drifter (Ryan Reynolds) to accompany him on a gambling trip down the Mississippi. Both films go beyond the common bromance of Hollywood comedies and delves into the nature of what makes men attracted to one another. Tour's script (by playwright Donald Margulies) is a smart, dialogue-driven dramedy, while Grind is a somber meditation. But both films have a tender understanding of platonic male infatuation.

16. Brooklyn. Nick Hornby penned the script to this sweet, nostalgic tale of a young Irish girl (an incredible Saoirse Ronan) who moves to Brooklyn and builds a life, only to return to her home country to face some dire questions. She falls for two men, one a Brooklyn plumber (Emory Cohen) and the other an Irish aristocrat (Domhnall Gleeson), which complicates her choices. Ronan gives one of the year's best performances as a girl who learns that part of growing up is learning to define what your home is. The great ensemble also includes Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters and Jane Brennan.

15. Legend. Tom Hardy is one of our most brilliant actors, and he showed that early in 2015 while spear-heading Mad Max: Fury Road. While Legend may not have been anywhere near as close of a hit, it's no less of an example of just how talented and exciting the British actor is. He plays both of the infamous Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, notorious killers and criminals who ruled England's East End in the 50's and 60's. Brian Helgeland's script and direction recalls Goodfellas in the best way, and he proves adept at using Hardy in one of the best roles the actor has ever gotten. It's perhaps the performance of the year.

14-13. Dope & Chi-Raq. The two best racial satires of the year. Dope is a high school comedy about a young nerd (Shameik Moore) who ends up in possession of a large package of MDMA and must find a way to sell it all while still managing college applications and getting the attention of the local girl he likes. Chi-Raq is Spike Lee's cheeky adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, moving the locale to gangland Chicago. Both films rank amongst the year's best comedies, but also have a great time skewering the troubled dynamics of American racial politics. Dope boasts a wonderful young cast including Moore, Kiersey Clemons and Grand Budapest Hotel's Tony Revolori; Chi-Raq has one of the year's best scripts (written by Lee and Kevin Willmott) and the characters even speak in verse! But both films manage to be funny and entertaining without undermining the very important discussion they hope to spark. They're both important films that everyone should see.

12. Inside Out. Pixar's first truly great film since 2009's Up, Inside Out is a beautifully emotional film about emotions. As the young Riley grows into adolescence, a major move and burgeoning hormones send her into an unforeseen melancholia. Inside her, five emotions battle, led by Joy (Amy Poehler) and including Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and the turtle-necked Sadness (Phyllis Smith). As the emotions struggle to keep up with an ever-changing Riley, the emotions themselves begin to learn about what growing up is about. The script (by director Pete Doctor, as well as Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley) is one of the best of the year, and includes a supporting character named Bing Bong (voice by Richard Kind), that is the base of one of the most heartbreaking moments in any film this year.

11. Steve Jobs. Aaron Sorkin's second trip to Silicon Valley sees him adapting Walter Isaacson's epic tome of a biography, and shaving it down into a spry, three-act sprint into the mind of one of the Twentieth's Century's most mercurial icons. Michael Fassbender plays Jobs as an all-ego, all-adrenaline line-o-rama, and the actor is boosted by an incredible ensemble including Michael Stuhlbarg, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels and Kate Winslet. Directed by Danny Boyle, who's probably one of the few directors as skilled at timing as Sorkin is, Steve Jobs is a fun twist on biopics, refusing to be dragged into a another Great American Man tale. It instead morphs into a funny, tense narrative that both loathes its protagonist while also standing in awe of him.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Anomalisa (**)

Directed by Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman


Charlie Kaufman's view of the human experience can be so despairing, so bankrupt of cheer and spontaneity, that one must thank their lucky stars that he is incredibly funny, and also that he is an absolute genius. His latest effort is a collaboration with animator Duke Johnson, an adaptation of what he called a "sound play" that he performed the actors David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tom Noonan over a decade ago. The concept allowed the audience to create the real drama in their minds, as the stage only presented actors reading a script and a foley man creating the sound effects. So how fitting, with the film adaptation, that Kaufman decides to go the route of stop motion animation, a medium that is not limited by the possible. The imagination that the audience provides can have its more proper representation in the animated world, where the possibilities are endless as to what you can visualize. The same actors return; Thewlis playing the protagonist, Michael Stone, Leigh playing Lisa, Stone's infatuation, and Noonan voicing literally everyone else. The result is a dour but sweet experience, a resolutely Kaufman-esque story that treats the banalities of existence as the real tragedy of humanity. This is the first feature from Kaufman since his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, a truly grim film that was so exhaustively challenging to the audience, that only a transcendent performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman could save it from complete impenetrability. Anomalisa is a lot gentler and easier to process. Its bite is much less fierce. Is it possible that the gloomy Kaufman is warming to the brighter side of life?

Friday, December 25, 2015

45 Years (****)

Written and Directed by Andrew Haigh


Domestic dramas are a dime a dozen, and while many can be histrionic amd verbose like Revolutionary Road (a good film in its own right) , there are times when you get something as subtly beautiful and stunning as 45 Years. Andrew Haigh's new film stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, two titans of the screen and two of the most celebrated actors of England. They play Kate and Geoff Mercer, a married couple one week away from their forty-fifth anniversary. To celebrate, they'll be having a major party, inviting hundreds of family and friends, renting out an event hall, and organizing catering and music. This party comes after Geoff's bypass surgery postponed the original event they'd planned for their fortieth. It's not the first time that Cate has had to rearrange plans on Geoff's behalf, but poor health is hardly a reason to get upset. All things in marriage take compromise, you're constantly having to make major choices based on the other person - you're no longer just living for yourself, solely. 45 Years is a somber, expertly-told example of what happens when that compromise feels all for naught, when your concept of love and commitment is challenged in a way that you cannot move past. None of its emotion feels cheap, none of its lines of dialogue feel misused, and most importantly, neither of its main stars waste any time in delivering two of the best performances of the year. 45 Years is a performance-led film, but its narrative sinks to the bone, giving us a story of heartbreak unlike any I'd seen in a long while.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (***)

Directed by J.J. Abrams


In our latest podcast (shameless plug!), I had outed myself as a Star Wars agnostic. My appreciation for the films' effect on the culture far outweighs any appreciation I have for the films themselves. Any childhood enthusiasm I'd cultivated for the original trilogy was shattered by the putrid prequels which did everything in their power to undermine what made George Lucas' films so wonderful to begin with (in the story of Star Wars, Lucas is certainly a very greedy, tragic, Charles Foster Kane-like figure). When Lucas sold the rights of Star Wars to Disney in the Fall of 2012, I saw it with very cynical eyes; a monolithic media enterprise grabs control of one of the most profitable (if not the most profitable) film franchises in the history of Hollywood. Plans were immediately announced not only for another trilogy, but spin-offs and adjacent story arcs. It was so obvious to me that Star Wars was sullied by having too many films, so how could they think even more films would make it better? The idea is all very capitalistic, and the sobering truth is that a Star Wars film no longer has to be good, it just has to exist, in order to be profitable for Disney. So, we get to The Force Awakens, Disney's first film in the franchise, in which they pegged J.J. Abrams - the man who boosted the Star Trek franchise in 2009, and who has been a very public fan of Star Wars for a very long time. Abrams wrote the screenplay with Star Wars legend Lawrence Kasdan, and it was then punched up by Oscar-winning writer Michael Arndt. What they bring forward is a fascinating achievement in fan service, which like Jurassic World and Creed from earlier this year, finds a way to both pay homage while maintaining its own individuality. It's not as easy as it seems.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Son of Saul (***)

Directed by László Nemes


The glut of Holocaust films can lead some to wonder whether filmmakers have ever heard of a single other human tragedy. The evil behind it is so calculated, so diabolical, it still seems like humans could not have actually committed the crime. And so, many Holocaust films act accordingly, portraying Nazis as subhuman, mis-wired cretins. Its easier for us to dismiss them as evil, and much harder to reconcile them as people, like you and me. Son of Saul is the first feature from Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes, and in his debut he makes a daunting attempt to tell a Holocaust story that is unique, that understands that it isn't despair itself that makes this awful period of history so unsettling, but the many levels in which despair was able to arise - the senselessness of it all. The film is a gritty, handheld-heavy bull that charges nonstop from its first frame, and forms an incredibly claustrophobic aesthetic within the walls of Auschwitz. Actor Géza Röhrig plays the eponymous Saul, a Jew working as a Sonderkommando (a special unit of Jews forced to work for German soldiers) at the notorious concentration camp. Most of his work consists of disrobing imports of new Jews, throwing them into the gas chamber and then raiding their belongings for valuables to be collected by the Nazis. Son of Saul opens very strongly, with two long takes in which we can see very immediately just how much Saul's soul has been crushed. His movements are mechanical muscle memory, his thoughts are within, his actions motivated only by what one would guess are the most elaborate rationalizations. Son of Saul is about the amount to which we will bury ourselves in our own self-hatred in order to survive, and gives new definition to the word 'survival' itself.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Podcast: Is 'Star Wars' Better Than Jurassic Park?

In our fourth episode of 'Is It Better Than Jurassic Park' (click the link!), Scott and I discuss Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope or as it was called in a much simpler time, Star Wars. For any heading out to see The Force Awakens, have a listen if you want to hear some spirited discussion about the original trilogy. We're joined by Caroline A. (who was the guest in our first podcast) and Olivia Z.

Son of Saul
Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens
45 Years
The Revenant

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Chi-Raq (***1/2)

Directed by Spike Lee


What we see here with Chi-Raq is the Spike Lee of Bamboozled. That 2000 film was an extraordinarily bleak satire that seemed to epitomize Lee's ultimate frustration with the use of black culture within the greater pop culture. Bamboozled is a troubled film, and handles highly delicate material with the care of a spoiled toddler, but it is one of the filmmaker's best films and is still undervalued today. Chi-Raq is the first film that he's made since that has anywhere near that kind of bite and attitude, and it's easily the best film he's made since 2002's 25th Hour. Chi-Raq is sloppy, energetic, problematic, but also brilliantly cheeky. Lee has never been one to take somber tales and tell them with gloom - though he tried that with The Miracle at St. Anna and it produced his most sanctimonious film and no one went to see it - while we know Lee will always have a unique viewpoint on contemporary issues, who would have guessed that he would turn to the ancient Athenian playwright Aristophanes for inspiration? Using the Greek playwright's famed Lysistrata as a template, Lee crafts cinema's most biting take on the gangland violence that has plagued areas of Chicago for the entirety of this short century. In classic Lee fashion, Chi-Raq opens brazenly, we hear a song bemoaning the state of gangland Chicago with nothing on the screen but the song's pleading lyrics. The lyrics are bold, straightforward and threatening, and Lee follows that with statistics showing that more lives have been lost to the gun violence in Chicago since 2001 than the two American military tours through the Middle East in that same time. Lee doesn't care if you need the context, he's going to make sure you get the appropriate info and then some.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Mustang (****)

Directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven


Before any of the action in Mustang starts, we see at least a dozen different international companies attached to its production, which is how a film by a Turkish filmmaker which takes place in Turkey and cast with all Turkish actors ends up being France's 2015 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film. But thank God these arbiters of cinema put their collective heads together to give Deniz Gamze Erguven a chance to tell this beautiful story. This mostly autobiographical film shows us five orphaned sisters who seem abnormally close, their bond fused together by the constrictions set forth by a temperamental uncle and a helpless grandmother. Their obligation to raise these girls is rarely mixed with compassion or understanding, but a bafflement of the girls' personalities and disobedience. The sisters seem from a different time, a different place, and the time-honored traditions of their Muslim heritage is simply something foreign to them, they cannot comprehend it. 2015 has been a great year for tales of women fighting against the patriarchy, whether it be the trans women of Tangerine stomping through Los Angeles looking for a heartbreaking pimp, or the feisty wives of Immortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road who risk life and limb to escape the oppressive grip of their tyrannical ruler/husband. Mustang's universe is more grounded in realism, obviously, and Erguven gives these sisters the cinema verité service their story deserves. The result is a spirited examination of strident passion flying in the face of conservative ideology, and five girls who realize that their bond with each other is much more important than the rules of an archaic society.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Youth (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Paolo Sorrentino


Consider the opening shot of Youth. It's not incredibly complicated. It consists of a young woman singing into a microphone, in the middle of a circular stage. A band surrounds her, but we don't get a very good look at them. The background spins slowly, but the singer's face stays stationary, performing with the gusto of a veteran professional. It's very captivating. It helps that the song is great ear candy - "You Got The Love", originally performed by Candi Staton in 1986 - and it helps that the singer is beautiful. It tells you everything you need to know about the film's director, Paolo Sorrentino, how he values beauty and aesthetic. Hell, his last film was actually called The Great Beauty. That film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and borrowed liberally from Federico Fellini's 8 1/2. Like Youth, The Great Beauty focused on a white-haired man in advanced age, who's resounding success and life of excess has left him feeling empty as death creeps closer. I remembered loving The Great Beauty when I saw it in 2013, but I must admit to not remembering much of the plot. I remember the beautifully constructed shots, the brilliant use of music and the strong performances, all wrapped within a very frivolous narrative. Youth is more of the same. It contains performances from two film legends (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel) that are perhaps the best things they've done in decades, while sustaining such a high level of filmmaking throughout. But what does it all mean? Youth will make you ponder that question more often than not.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Danish Girl (*1/2)

Directed by Tom Hooper


If you want to watch a prime example of how poor editing can really dismantle a film, I'd suggest watching Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl, which spends two hours with a story that it can't seem to find any interest in. Is it the story of a troubled marriage? Well, of course that relationship is what takes up most of the film, and Alicia Vikander, who plays the wife, easily has the most dynamic, entertaining performance throughout. Of course, what The Danish Girl is really about is the husband, played by Eddie Redmayne, who claims to be a woman trapped in a man's body - this certainly isn't too uncommon these days but in Denmark in the 1920s, it was certainly not something to be too open about. The sex change seems to be the post on which Danish Girl hopes to hang its hat, but it spends so little time actually investing the audience with this subject. And what's to make of the husband's childhood friend, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who's presence in the movie seems to only be justified by giving the wife a lover to hold once the husband becomes a woman? Or the homosexual, played by Ben Whishaw, who seduces the cross-dressing husband knowing there's a penis underneath it all? The Danish Girl is a very moribund, interminable film, and its scenes are so choppy and haphazard, it suggests that there was a time when the film was even longer. I haven't even gotten to the Parisian surgeon who looks like Ernest Hemingway!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Creed (***)

Directed by Ryan Coogler


The Rocky series is one of the few film franchises that I truly love. The original film is one of the great American classics, mostly because its screenplay (written by its star, Sylvester Stallone) is a masterpiece in commercial cinematic storytelling. The thought of a spin-off within a movie climate already over-saturated with reboots and unwanted sequels was a bit unnerving to me. How much more story can be sapped from this character? Six films stretched Stallone thin, and the sequels succeeded mostly when they became something between shameless self-parody and outright camp (see: Rocky IV). Upon its announcement, Creed had the scent of self-importance, an attempt to start anew with a rough, grittier style - like they've done with Batman and James Bond and I'm sure plenty of other franchises in the future. But much like the original Rocky, Creed has the benefit of a strong screenplay. It's a real story, not a centerpiece for staged boxing nor a cheap attempt to capitalize on the great films of the past. It helps that Creed was actually the brainchild of its director, Fruitvale Station's Ryan Coogler, who used the goodwill he built up with Fruitvale's success and graduated to this major studio film. Creed's concept and story was created by Coogler, and he wrote the screenplay with Aaron Covington. That personal touch is evident in the film's emotional style. Reuniting with Fruitvale's star, Michael B. Jordan, both director and actor prove that their place in Hollywood is legitimate, but with the help of a Hollywood relic, Rocky himself Sylvester Stallone, they deliver a crowd-pleasing dynamo that would do the rest of the franchise proud.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Good Dinosaur (**)

Directed by Peter Sohn


The Good Dinosaur feels like such an odd child within the rest of the Pixar films. It seems like their most outright for children since 2003's Finding Nemo, and yet, it feels particularly dark, tackling aspects of mortality and existentialism unlike any other film Disney has to offer. It's take on the dinosaur movie feels a bit off. In the universe of The Good Dinosaur, a family of Apatosaurus are akin to Middle American farmers, seemingly with the intelligence not only to speak but to till the land and harvest corn. When Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), the youngest of the family, is struggling to make his mark within the meritocracy of the family, he leaves the family farm in search of the young feral boy (whom he later names Spot) who has been stealing the family's crops. Why Spot, as well as all other humans in the film, act like dogs is never truly explained, nor why the dinosaur universe is set in an aesthetic of rustic farmland. What does Americana add to this tale? I pondered this often throughout. Arlo's journey off of the farm leads him into great peril, including bloodthirsty pterodactyls, cattle ranching T-Rex's and dangerously inclement weather. With the help of the surprisingly resourceful Spot, Arlo manages his way through the hurdles, hoping to find his way back to the family farm. There's something a bit low-stakes about The Good Dinosaur; the screenwriting isn't as solid as we're used to with the famed studio. A lot of the plot points are borrowed from the Disney classic The Lion King, which is fine, but there isn't enough separation for Dinosaur to feel like its own film. There is some good voice acting (particularly Steve Zahn, Jeffrey Wright and Sam Elliot), and some astonishing animation, but this is one of the weaker films in the Pixar canon. The film is preceded by a great short called Sanjay's Super Team, which in less than ten minutes manages to present the kind of hearty feeling that The Good Dinosaur struggles to reach in its 100 minutes. There are times when Dinosaur's sentimentality does connect with its audience, but there's little more that the film has going for it.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Legend (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Brian Helgeland


Legend contains such a brilliant fusion of the two personalities that Tom Hardy so often inhabits in his movies. On the one hand, there's the brooding, but suave man behind Locke and Inception, but then there's also the Tom Hardy we're more familiar with - the one that's quickly becoming a movie star - the brutish blunt object of Bronson, Warrior and The Dark Knight Rises. Earlier this year, Hardy was great in Mad Max: Fury Road, where little was required of him other than scrambling around frantically, driving fearlessly and basically being an unstoppable force careening into an immovable object. It's one of the best films of the year, and no short amount of credit should go to Hardy for subduing his own gigantism for the sake of the narrative. He doesn't have to make any of these sacrifices in Legend, where Hardy is allowed to embrace both halves of his cinematic duality. Here he's playing the Kray brothers, two of the most infamous gangsters in English history. One brother, Reggie, is a shrewd businessman unafraid to get his hands bloodied in the underground world of British organized crime. The other, Ronnie, is a bloodthirsty simpleton, whose certified insanity may not be readily apparent until his penchant for gruesome violence makes an appearance. Hardy plays both these roles with an unwavering flair, painting both brothers with equal parts menace and humor, showing a bombastic range unlike anything we've seen from this supremely talented actor.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Carol (****)

Directed by Todd Haynes


Todd Haynes' ballads of female domesticity are such a treasure to American independent film. His ability to tap into this world with such passion and ferocity, but also with tenderness, has produced what I would call his best cinematic work. I'm not sure it gets much better than Carol, his latest film and his most downright sincere. Like his 2002 masterpiece, Far From Heaven, Haynes takes a pointed view at the 1950's - in Heaven it was the housewife who had to learn to deal with her husband's subdued homosexuality, but in Carol it's the housewife who's sexuality is at the center. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith called 'The Price of Salt' (Highsmith originally published the novel under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), Haynes is given another opportunity to peck away at the facade of the Greatest Generation, to deconstruct a time that took great strides to suppress the very outsiders that Haynes loves to champion. At its heart, though, Carol is a forbidden love story, a document of a passionate affair fighting against the limited tolerance of a society who hadn't even fathomed racial understanding let alone homosexual sensitivity. As Haynes' first feature film since the fun but troubled I'm Not There in 2007, Carol feels like a stunning return to form, a prime example of the filmmaker's talent for blending homage to classic, movie star-driven Hollywood with the intimacy of independent cinema - a brilliant exploration of the artifice of luxury and a testament to the life-shattering effects of love.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Podcast: Is 'Spectre' Better Than 'Jurassic Park'?

Hey guys, writing material has been slow I know, but here's Episode 2 (click there!) of my podcast with Scott Ward 'Is it Better Than Jurassic Park?'. In this episode, we discuss Spectre as well as a smaller amount of time of the more classical Bond film Goldfinger. Our guest this time is David Danby.

Coming Soon:
The Good Dinosaur

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Spectre (**1/2)

Directed by Sam Mendes


The James Bond franchise is one that I'm not totally familiar with, I will openly admit. Spectre clocks in as the fifth Bond film I've seen overall, along with Goldfinger, Goldeneye, Die Another Day and last year's Skyfall. The allure of the Daniel Craig Bond is very easy for me to comprehend. Most of the Bonds we know are unflappable, but Craig seems to be giving this infamous secret agent some inner torment. He's too good an actor to give off the kind of laissez faire that Connery gave off so effortlessly; Craig has to give us something. Under the direction of former-art-house-filmmaker-turned-commercial-director-for-hire Sam Mendes, James Bond has some reluctance, and doesn't tip-toe his way across the tightrope of being a 00 agent so elegantly. Spectre felt less compelling to me than Skyfall. Most of it has to do with their villains. Where Javier Bardem was at his sadistic best in Skyfall, there's an element to Christoph Waltz here - he plays Blofeld, a terrorist leader who holds a devilish partnership with a surveillance squad planning to make British espionage irrelevant - that feels a bit undercooked. The character is too hackneyed to really stand-out and the actor is simply doing Christoph Waltz karaoke at this point - I've seen him look much more interested, let's just say that. But the action set pieces are truly impressive here. There's one sequence in a helicopter and another on a train, both show that the Craig-Mendes partnership is one that can make highly entertaining thrillers, if not particularly substantial ones. Lea Seydoux plays Madeleine Swann, the daughter of a former assassin who Bond must fight to protect once that father dies. Seydoux is one of the sexiest women on the planet, and a talented actress to boot - if she didn't have that French accent, she would be a movie star. Ralph Fiennes reprises his role from Skyfall, but like Craig and Seydoux, the script doesn't really provide anything for this collection of talent to do. This is a romp, it has all the classic lines you want to hear, and a nice tip of the hat to the classic Bond movie formula (a bad guy explaining his plan too soon?!). It should make it's base audience happy, but I found myself having a bit of fun as well.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Brooklyn (***)

Directed by John Crowley


The sincerity of a movie like Brooklyn is something to behold. It takes place in world that's inherently cinematic, with a hard-felt belief in lasting romantic love and the unbreakable bond of family. It's utter sweetness never becomes overbearing because it has a very sensible consideration of its characters, most importantly its main character, Eilis Lacey, a young Irish girl who's given the opportunity to travel to America. Eilis is played by Saoirse Ronan, a formerly precocious child actress who has morphed into a truly talented performer. She was already an Oscar nominee when she was thirteen years old, with a devilish, surprisingly nuanced performance in Atonement, where she played a malevolent child bent on ruining a passionate affair. Brooklyn is a coming-of-age tale, a story about a young woman learning about herself, while also learning about the true capabilities of love and adulthood. The screenplay is written by Nick Hornby, a novelist who's made a nice side-business for himself adapting popular literary works for the big screen. Interestingly enough, his last three scripts have all been female-focused, and all three have a good understanding of the way class and culture color the female experience. It's a bit ironic that the guy who made his name writing Fever Pitch and High Fidelity would then turn to the movies and become so adept at crafting such strong female characters. Yet, here we are, and Brooklyn is another in that tradition.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Spotlight (****)

Directed by Tom McCarthy


A movie like Spotlight almost feels like a miracle. To find screenwriting so precise, an ensemble performance so sharp, in an understated film made for adults is truly rare. Films like this do indeed have an audience, even if it's a small one. It's procedural tone - it's a film about journalism that for the most part takes that journalistic temperament - does not quench what is an obvious, binding tension. In a lot of ways, this film is the inverse of Truth, another film about journalism that came out just last month. That film contained a strong emotional component, it felt the need to shout out about an institution that had been wronged (it also had an Earth-shattering performance from Cate Blanchett). For all it's grandstanding, Truth was essentially about how Dan Rather and an award-winning news team got the story wrong. Spotlight is about reporters getting the story right. At the turn of the new millennium, there were few stories bigger than the one that the Boston Globe unearthed about the Catholic Church's seemingly pathological sexual abuse of young children. Tom McCarthy's film tracks the Globe's crack investigative team, known famously as 'Spotlight', as they delve into the controversy, meticulously carving out each detail, making sure the story is solid before exposing it to the world. In an America so recently exposed to 9/11, emotions are raw, unprepared for even more trauma. Spotlight is an exceptional film that understands the reporter's responsibility to the public, that never underestimates the exhaustive effort it takes to nail the story down correctly.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Podcast: Is 'Crimson Peak' Better Than 'Jurassic Park'?

Hello all,
In a new wrinkle, click here for the first episode of my new podcast called 'Is It Better Than Jurassic Park?'. In our first episode, me and my co-host Scott discuss Crimson Peak along with our fellow friend and moviegoer, Caroline. Stay tuned for further episodes from me and Scott, discussing both new releases and old classics. Enjoy!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Suffragette (**)

Directed by Sarah Gavron


Suffragette is a purposefully-directed film with good intentions. It gets a performance out of Carey Mulligan that proves that she is one of the best young actors working right now. In a time where the reproductive rights of women are still being decided by a mostly-male government, its story - of a rebellious group of working class women fighting for the right to vote in late 19th Century London - is still palpably topical. And yet, the film feels entirely too low stakes, even it's most emotionally-charged scenes feel telegraphed to the audience. It seems to lack nuance. When well-meaning mother and wife Maud Watts (Mulligan) sees firsthand the effect of the Suffrage movement, she decides to join a local group of women called the Suffragettes, performing acts of civil disobedience, stirring the pot under the guidance of their leader, Emmeline Pankhurst (Meryl Streep, in a glorified cameo). This group includes Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham-Carter), a local doctor with a strong loyalty to Pankhurst, Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff), a rabble-rousing launderette in an abusive marriage, and Emily Davison (Natalie Press) a soft-spoken protestor with a lot more in store than it may initially seem. They face the violent punishment from the police, as well as an Irish detective named Steed (a solid Brendan Gleeson) brought in especially to squash the movement. Despite constant arrests and police beatings, as well as the alienation of their husbands, the Suffragettes continue to blow up postal boxes and throw rocks through store windows, sure to be heard. Aside from Parkhurst, the Suffragettes here are all fictional, and perhaps that explains why the film lacks an emotional weight. Despite the solid work Mulligan does here, Suffragette doesn't feel like the kind of watershed film that it thinks it is. Director Sarah Gavron shoots with a lot of handheld, meant to give the story an immediacy, but it too often distracts. Some of the scenes are strong, almost all of them are lead by the performances, but this film feels flat, more steadfast than effective.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Truth (**1/2)

Written for the Screen and Directed by James Vanderbilt


Truth is based on the memoir of Mary Mapes, the CBS news reporter and 60 Minutes producer fired after the Dan Rather scandal. Whatever objectivity James Vanderbilt reflects upon Mapes and her journalistic integrity, Vanderbilt does not hold himself to the same standard of objectivity - the film is completely and unapologetically sympathetic with the disgraced newswoman. Even to the extent that the film admits Mapes made mistakes when she ran with a story disputing then President George W. Bush's military record, it does so while stating that any and all groundbreaking reporting is done with a degree of faith - you can never be 100% sure, you just have to trust your sources. Furthermore, Vanderbilt's film makes Mapes a psychological construct, a character pieced together by a stiff upper lip and daddy issues. She's not great at her job because of her skill, but because she had to fight, and because Dan Rather was there to be the father she deserved. Luckily, Truth cast Cate Blanchett in the role of Mapes, and I'll be damned if she doesn't perform the hell out of this role. The Australian actress is approaching peerlessness, performing at such a high level here, with such pinpoint certainty, such perfect delivery, it's hard to imagine anyone else being able to take this material and churning out this level of work. Truth has a very moral, humanistic view on the network news, and it sees the Dan Rather scandal as the moment everything turned against them, but it's best moments come when we're allowed to see Blanchett smolder along, fraying with growing frequency as the noose tightens around Mapes' neck.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Crimson Peak (**)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro


Guillermo del Toro sure knows how to make a movie look good. The main set of Crimson Peak is a crumbling mansion in rural England built upon a vast landscape seeping with red clay. It's seeping so much that the decrepit building is actually sinking into it. The inside of the place is creaky, a lot of pipes rusted black, a hole in the ceiling where snow falls neatly in a pristine pile in the middle of the entrance floor. The whole scene is delectable - it's meant to come off as unsettling, it instead seems sugary and enticing. Del Toro can't help but make it pretty, but this film doesn't match the frivolity of Pacific Rim and Hellboy, it's story is more tender. The Mexican director often deals with stories so brutal and grotesque, and tends to excel within grand set pieces and wondrous costumes. Pan's Labyrinth is his masterpiece, a film that so perfectly translates his career long obsession with blending the blessed fantasy of imagination with the true horrors of real life. Crimson Peak, is about the same thing, but it is also rooted in the gothic romances of the nineteenth century, filled with monsters both human and inhuman. Sticking this in theaters a few weeks before Halloween seems like an obvious choice, until you realize that del Toro's creepy thrills are not the cheap kind that comes with most horror films these days. His taste is bloody, malicious and the philosophies of his scripts are untrusting of the human spirit. Watching this film feels almost autobiographical, because what other conclusions can one draw about humanity when you see what the characters of Crimson Peak are capable of?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Room (****)

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson


When Room surprised many by winning the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival - besting what many saw as the easy favorite, Tom McCarthy's Spotlight - it was confirmed that it was more than just your garden variety best-seller adaptation. The film is based on a novel by Emma Donoghue, and she also wrote the screenplay. There was a time when novelists were usually considered the worst candidates to adapt their own work, but after Stephen Chbosky's film take on his Perks of Being a Wallflower in 2012, last year's Gone Girl and now this year's Room, that line of thinking should change. Donoghue's script and Lenny Abrahamson's direction of it is an emotionally devastating experience, a tale of the fragility of the human spirit. At times glaring, and at other times sweet, the film watches over a vast landscape of human experience and serves it all to you within a deceptively simple tale of tragedy and survival. The film is led by a couple of powerhouse performances, one from Brie Larson and the other from the fresh-faced Jacob Tremblay, a nine-year-old who's playing even younger. Their mother-son relationship is the crux of the film's narrative, and the key to what makes Room work so well. Their performances are phenomenal, and set the stage for what Donoghue and Abrahamson are bringing to the table: a shattering maternal tale about grasping for salvation in a desperate situation.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Bridge of Spies (**1/2)

Directed by Steven Spielberg


Steven Spielberg has been living in the past for quite a while now. Not since War of the Worlds has he made a film taking place in something resembling contemporary times, and in that film he destroyed the world. Of course, both Munich in 2005 and his previous film, Lincoln in 2012, were pieces of historical narrative drenched in metaphor for the issues of the present. Munich could have been decoded as a strong criticism of the US's occupation of Iraq, and Lincoln simply IS a salute to Obama America, even if Spielberg continues to insist that it isn't so. His Bridge of Spies is a strong piece of filmmaking, a testament to just how good a director Spielberg can be, despite how intriguing or not intriguing his story is. Of course, this story is intriguing, an in-depth drama exploring the most talked about American war that never happened. The Cold War was a decades-long staredown consisting of paranoia seeping from both sides, as two world powers used not-so-veiled threats of complete world destruction to see who would blink first. It birthed so many agencies and counter-agencies, and yet, the movies have never seemed to have much interest in dramatizing it. The way Spielberg goes about it here is interesting, he doesn't see himself as duty-bound to do everything he can to paint America as the benevolent protector, nor does he coyly play the Soviets as sadistic monsters. Instead, he's neutral, the film itself is procedural. If Joe McCarthy had seen this screenplay during his reign of power who knows what he would have made of it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Steve Jobs (***1/2)

Directed by Danny Boyle


It's hard to conjure initial thoughts of Steve Jobs because it's so rare to watch a film in which its plainly obvious just how un-fucked-with the screenplay is. If it wasn't obvious just how much Aaron Sorkin owed to Paddy Chayefsky, then it becomes so after seeing Jobs. No non-directing screenwriter has ever been so fully responsible for the final cut since Chayefsky's groundbreaking Network in 1976. Not that Jobs is the same kind of groundbreaking cinematic achievement that Network is, but both films present elemental theses about their writers that go on to define what they, better or worse, represent. Now, Steve Jobs is actually Sorkin's second vision of Silicon Valley after 2010's The Social Network which was an equally unflattering portrait of a computer tyrant, Mark Zuckerberg. If The Social Network painted Zuckerberg as almost autistically dismissive of humanity, Sorkin now sees Jobs as a sociopathic monster - neither men come off as particularly influential, as they do detrimental. If the history of the world is a collection of tales involving powerful white men bullying there way to the front of the stage, Sorkin feels Steve Jobs should be singled out for his megalomania. Sorkin gets away with this because the characters in his films aren't really people, but ideas. Steve Jobs isn't really about Steve Jobs in the same way The Social Network isn't really about Zuckerberg, because even if they are in fact based on real people, they're actually Freudian constructs of what Sorkin sees as the tragedy of the pursuit of the American ideal. There is always a risk of Sorkin becoming heavy-handed (**cough** The Newsroom), but Steve Jobs is Sorkin at his best, an American moralist with an unmatched gift for dialogue and whose scene construction is above what anyone else can bring to the table.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Martian (***)

Directed by Ridley Scott


A story of space survival should not be as airy and fleeting as The Martian is. 2001: A Space Odyssey set the standard, and Gravity perfected it. Outer space is an unkind, asphyxiating experience; out of the control of your meticulously designed mission, your life is literally up in the air. Andy Weir's novel was fantastic popcorn fiction which nonetheless managed to pile on heavy amounts of information and wax intellectual on the myriad of complexities involved in space exploration. His novel was also funny, thrilling and a surprisingly noble statement on humanity. It's probably a more complimentary story than the human race deserves. But if there was any story that could bring a lightness to the usually tempestuous sub-genre of space peril, this book is it. Drew Goddard's adaptation and Ridley Scott's direction of it really bring to light the adventure that Weir put forth, a long-shot rescue mission for a man deserted on a lifeless planet. The Martian is charming in its way, making a considered effort to avoid self-seriousness - the only thing that it truly takes seriously is the brutality of space - and the result is a pre-Fall delight, a movie that takes on the personality of its star, Matt Damon, while also being a surprisingly effective argument for the concept of cooperation and a collective conscience.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Labyrinth of Lies (***1/2)

Directed by Giulio Ricciarelli


You could spend a lifetime watching films dealing with World War II, the Holocaust and the ripple effects it has had on Europe, America and nearly all advanced nations in the world. You could spend a lifetime watching these films and still not see them all. The war is so readily perfect for films because the lines of good and evil are drawn very specifically - by all accounts, it's perceived as a war in which the good guys won. Despite the amount of films, there's very few that show nuance, that are willing to blur our memories of the heroic allies versus the depraved Nazis. Labyrinth of Lies takes place in the 1960's Frankfurt, decades after the worst was over. Germany is still struggling to regain its place in the world, and the last thing any of the old guard wants is someone to bring up the fact that there is indeed more for them to pay for. That a German film is being made about German comeuppance during the war is astonishing in its own right, but Labyrinth of Lies' cool detachment, its declarative feelings about post-war Germany are its most powerful asset. Directed by Italian filmmaker Giulio Ricciarelli - his feature debut - this film's strong presence makes it one of the fresher films to deal with this subject matter. Lies documents a nation in turmoil, a mass of people trying so hard to convince themselves that everything is fine that they can't see the insidious nature of what's in front of them.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mississippi Grind (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck


There's an inherent dichotomy in most gambling movies in the vain of Mississippi Grind. They usually are very fatalistic about the consequences of gambling: lives ruined, families and friendships torn apart, broken trusts that are beyond repair. All that said, these films usually put the protagonist in a place to redeem themselves by - you guessed it - betting the farm in one last major play. Even the Paul Newman masterpiece, The Hustler, with its conclusion wrapped in despairing realities, lets the main character win big to settle the score. Don't get me wrong. I don't exactly see this as a flaw within this specific sub-genre, not all the time anyway. Gambling presents a never-ending cycle, with the odds stating simply that misery will not always be the result, it's the perpetual possibility of the win that makes the compulsive gambler so tragic - there's never really a good enough reason to stop. Mississippi Grind, the latest from the terrific indie filmmaking duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, takes a stab at this conceit, understanding this basic concept about gambling and the people that fall into its grasp. Like their previous films, Grind has an infatuation with lost souls, and like their very best film, Half Nelson, we're introduced to an odd couple struggling with the amount of need one has for the other. In a lot of ways, Mississippi Grind is a love story unlike anything we've seen in a gambling movie before.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Black Mass (***)

Directed by Scott Cooper


The idea of casting Johnny Depp as James "Whitey" Bulger is comical. I've seen Black Mass and I've seen how good Depp is in it, and I still think it's comical. It's brazen stunt casting, but this film shows you why you attempt it in the first place. Casting a formerly brilliant performer in a role that he should have nothing to do with might just create the impossible: it might get him to try. Bulger is a captivating figure; a despicable criminal responsible for multiple murders, amongst many other crimes. In Black Mass, we see him as an overwhelming figure, not so much of an anti-hero but an anti-god. Given an opportunity by the FBI to take down opposing crime organizations in South Boston, Bulger squeezed every ounce of federal help he could get, informing on his enemies and only making himself a stronger and more menacing presence in the process. When it was all said and done, Bulger abandoned all his partners. Most of them went to jail, and told the story that eventually became the book version of Black Mass. The film version is a flash edit. It's a greatest hits collection, but it understands its purpose. Characters like Bulger do not rise amongst the ranks as quickly as he did without a little bit of intelligence and a lot of charm. This is where employing Depp really pays off, as the actor recreates the notorious criminal with frightening alacrity.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sicario (***)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve


Denis Villeneuve is a French-Canadian director, but his last three releases have been American films for American audiences (Enemy was shot in Canada, but it was a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, so it obviously had a lot of American appeal). All three films are shot with distinct color palettes and sharp imaging, so we know we're dealing with a competent filmmaker. Based on these three films alone, it's obvious that Villeneuve is interested in more nuanced deconstructions of evil. There are no white and black hats, no transparent storytelling structure set up to tell you flatly who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Not very American. It's exciting to see an outsider make films here and crush our dogmatic rules of pro/antagonism. Enemy was a succinct, terrific doppelganger film about a man's split lives; while Prisoners is another film about the male ego, the struggle of patriarchy in the face of tragedy, the incessant need for men to continue the appearance of strength in response to chaos. Neither film was perfect, but both films did defy expectations, and brought out excellent performances from Gyllenhaal. Villeneuve's latest film, Sicario, is his first American film to focus on a woman. That woman is played by Emily Blunt, an actress with a wide range of talent on screen, both emotional and physical. Blunt is surrounded by men throughout this film, Villeneuve makes it so. Even with a female in the lead, Villeneuve's films are still a man's world.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sleeping With Other People (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Leslye Headland


The dynamic of a film like Sleeping With Other People is interesting. It's very dependent on its cast for entertainment, and luckily for the film, it's stars are Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis, two actors whose comedic charms are worthy of star-level fame, but who never seem to quite get there. But the film's script (penned by the director, Leslye Headland) seems packed with ideas about sex, gender and basic relationship ethics. If these two forces were on the same page, we'd probably have the best romantic comedy of the year, but alas, that's not always the case. Saturday Night Live veteran Sudeikis and Community all-star Brie seem poised for a Apatow-esque send off of the classic When Harry Met Sally... friends-with-benefits plot, but their antics rub against the sentimentality that Headland imbues in the story. We've seen plenty of movies about two beautiful people who swear to stay friends despite an obvious attraction to one another, but Sleeping With Other People is the only film within this subgenre that really wants you to believe that these two friends won't get together. It wants to earn a prize for not Jim-and-Pam'ing us, but we know all along that that's exactly what's going to happen. It's hedging its bets as a "serious" comedy, instead of really shining as a film that delivers on what's best: giving its two stars free reign.