Sunday, January 3, 2016

Top Films of 2015

Honorable Mentions:

20: The End of the Tour

19: The Salvation

18: The Stanford Prison Experiment

17: Bridge of Spies

16: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

15: The Martian:

14: Kingsman: The Secret Service

13: It Follows

12: Room

11: The Gift

Steve Jobs
     I've always been a massive Michael Fassbender fan since he came onto the scene with Hunger and Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. But I wasn't extremely excited about the prospect of a Steve Jobs movie, particularly a year after Ashton Kutcher's butcher job. But I'll be damned if Fassbender doesn't pull off one of the great acting feats of his entire career--he makes you feel empathy for Jobs and the non-technology-related problems in his life. It helps that director Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire fame) and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (of 'West Wing' and The Social Network fame) have crafted a movie that--rather than focusing on the entirety of Jobs' live and his inevitable cancer diagnosis--focuses its entire run time on 3 specific (and important) product launches throughout Steve's years, and the personal relationships that are building or being broken down. It's incredibly fast-paced for a film that relies completely on its dialogue.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

     This one was a tear-jerker. Though Me and Earl and the Dying Girl contains a moment extremely key to the story that is annoyingly frustrating, enough of the film was funny, heartwarming and utterly eccentric, like if Wes Anderson still made enjoyable, low-budget films rather than The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film seems to have fallen under the radar lately, even though it won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, premiering to a standing ovation. A recap of the plot line--high school guy befriends high school girl who was recently diagnosed with leukemia--has all of the makings of a sap-infested lifetime made-for-television movie, but the cast does a great job in making Me and Earl a unique experience with a huge amount of heart and humor.

Mad Max: Fury Road

     Man, this movie is batshit. Back when it came out, I was browsing through the review blurbs and came upon something that stated (and I'm paraphrasing): It's like director George Miller took the studio's $100 million budget, drove it out into the middle of the Namibia Desert, and held it for ransom. And that's what Fury Road feels like: after the initial half hour, which is either so bad it's good or so bad it's laughable, this new Mad Max goes to an over-hour-long chase scene that is so innovate and so impressive and unique that it stands tall as the best action movie of 2015. Tom Hardy, who is one of my favorites (and also impresses with his acting ability much more in another film on this list), doesn't do much here other than grunt, so it's Charlize Theron as Furiosa who really stands out, leading a group of chosen women to "the promised land", even though that land is much closer to where they started than they ever could have believed.

Bone Tomahawk 
     It's not often that I can say that "this film is the first film on this year-end Top 10 List that is a Western and stars Kurt Russell", but there we have it. I can't say for sure if that points more towards the state of film nowadays or that Kurt Russell is the God-Damned man: probably a bit of both. Either way, Bone Tomahawk is a total blast for any fan of well-written Westerns with moments of abolsute horror (The film contains one of the more disturbing deaths I've seen in movies for a while--it's Unrated for a reason). A group of old-school badasses, which include Russell's Sheriff, his back-up deputy (Richard Jenkins), a highly-educated drifter (Matthew Fox), and a local cowboy (Patrick Wilson), set off to stop a scary group of cave-dwellers that have a penchant for the taste of human meat. Bone Tomahawk has an interesting script and really good performances, which already makes it a solid Western: the horror elements just make the film even more peculiar and interesting and something to seek out amidst the uninteresting movies of this year.

The Revenant 

   I loved last year's Birdman, director Alejandro Inarritu's film about a man at wit's end with love, life and acting. This year's The Revenant, a nearly 3-hour exercise in brutality about a fur-trapper who get's left for dead and then inches his way back to life for revenge, is a different kind of great: where Birdman excelled in quick dialogue and snappy play-set scenery, The Revenant--other than containing Inarritu's signature style and closeups--is a slow build with beautiful, brutal, gazing imagery (the entirety of The Revenant was filmed using completely natural light) and extremely minimal dialogue. With so little talking, all the power to Leonardo DiCaprio (as the trapper left for dead) and Tom Hardy (as a man with ulterior motives) and their typically awesome acting ability. The film could conceivably be a drag without them, with the never-ending suffering of its characters. Because of this, both actors (and the film itself) deserve significant recognition during the awards season.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

     I stated this on one of my most hated websites, Facebook, the day after I saw the newest Star Wars, but it's worth mentioning here: I was never too into Star Wars growing up--the originals are good (if too dated) and the prequels (especially looking back on them now) are nearly bad enough to just throw onto the garbage heap. Sure, his brain created the world that millions of fans love, but the best possible thing that could have happened to Star Wars happened: George Lucas gave up the reigns and returned to his troll hole. The Force Awakens is great, and the perfect re-invigoration of the franchise. J.J. Abrams manages to nod and wink to the original franchise (with much of the same plot, which isn't necessarily a detriment) while adding an exciting cast full of newcomers that rise far above the challenge of starring in the World's Biggest Movie Ever. Disney is planning on releasing a new Star Wars film every single year: if they can match the quality of Episode VII, epic sci-fi fans are in for a treat for years to come, witnessing the resolution to the stories of Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren.

Ex Machina

     Ex Machina, 2015's early-year surprise, was directed by Alex Garland (the screenwriter for the awesome 28 Days Later and intriguing sci-fi film Never Let Me Go)--and it's his first go-round as a director. It was a supremely successful endeavor: Ex Machina stands out as the year's best sci-fi film, deftly exploring the notion of Artificial Intelligence like a 2-hour, well-made episode of Black Mirror. Coincidentally, Domhnall Gleeson (who was showcased in a specific episode of Black Mirror and also is in The Revenant and Star Wars on this list) is the main star here; he portrays Caleb, a programmer for a company with an eccentric hermit CEO (Oscar Issac, wonderful as always, and also is in Star Wars). Caleb "wins" a contest to spend a week with the reclusive genius and be involved in experiments with his newest creation. What transpires is a dark path down the dangerous aspects of artificial intelligence and technological singularity. 

The Hateful Eight

     The Hateful Eight, coincidentally the 8th film from Quentin Tarantino, is brutal, sometimes-cruel and occasionally dark and disturbing. But like Tarantino's recent films--such as Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds--Eight is a devilishly-violent, middle-finger-to-political-correctness alternate history telling that's packed to explode with humor, race relations, misogyny and blood. In other words, it's what we've come to expect from cinema's directing master of style and don't-give-a-fuckness. Tarantino does what he wants, and all we have to do is sit and enjoy. Clocking in at nearly 3 hours, the first half of The Hateful Eight showcases the director's love of his written dialogue, with Kurt Russel, Tarantino-staple Sam L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and namely Walton Goggins chewing at the words like delicious meals. This first half, with the tension and building mystery, is nearly perfect. The second half...well, I won't spoil it. But let's just say that out of the stellar cast, all of whom are locked inside the blizzard-covered 'Minnie's Haberdashery', nobody is safe.


     Spotlight is an actor's movie, and the film, with its story of the uncovering of the Catholic Priest molestation/rape scandal, is rife with great performances: I particularly enjoyed Michael Keaton (enjoying a rebirth after last year's great Birdman) as Walter Robinson, the head honcho of The Boston Globe's Spotlight team, a ragtag group of journalists who spend months and years uncovering stories with their own unique brand of investigative journalism. Mark Ruffalo is solid too, portraying Michael Rezendes, a member of the Spotlight team whose passion to uncover the story is placed above everything else in his life. If Spotlight's subject matter had focused on another important matter, such as an oil spill or government corruption, I may not have enjoyed it quite as much (though it still would have been one of the better films of the year). But Spotlight so deftly showcases the hypocrisy and immorality of the people in power when practicing religion (Catholicism in particular), that it's spotlighted near the top of this list. 


     Director Denis Villeneuve's 2013 film, Prisoners, was one of my favorites of that year. What could have been a fairly common kidnapping procedural turned into something incredibly special in the hands of the new director and his cinematographer, Roger Deakins, a modern master at his profession. And so it goes with Sicario, which in the hands of these experts turns into a horrific thriller about Law Enforcement and the drug trade on each side of the United States / Mexican border. Emily Blunt shines as the up-and-coming FBI agent, Kate, who puts her career first and her life a far second. But it's Benicio Del Toro, in arguably his best role in a decade as the mysterious Alejandro, who brings the film into absolute greatness. If Prisoners and Sicario are what Villeneuve has to offer, viewers are in for years of exciting and different-than-the-norm films. By the end of Sicario, you'll be reeling from your tingling nerves and thinking about this frightening world for days to come. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation -- Impossible to Dislike

     Not sure how much more needs to be said about the subject, but Tom Cruise--at older than 50 years of age--still produces and stars in some of the most fun-loving action films of recent memory. I really enjoyed Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, a funnier and more light-hearted Mission film after the third incarnation (which I also am a huge fan of, particularly of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's brilliant turn as the villain, Owen Davian). And Rogue Nation is really no different--it's just a continuation of Ghost Protocol, building upon the relationships of Ethan (Cruise), Benji (Simon Pegg) and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) as they attempt to take down a terrorist organization named The Syndicate (lead by a creepy and viscious man named Solomon Kane) that is orchestrating world disasters in the name of anarchy. Cruise, as ever, is game to initiate crazy stunts in the name of entertainment, and it all works in a funny and very-entertaining summer blockbuster that stands above most of what has come this year.
     Rogue Nation is directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who already had the Cruise connection: he co-wrote last year's awesome Edge of Tomorrow and directed Cruise in the "okay" Jack Reacher. His noticeably-impressive credit was being the screenwriter of 1995's The Usual Suspects--he also co-wrote this film. He knows Cruise's strengths and puts them to good use: if you've seen the trailer for the film, you know there are incredible action scenes where Ethan hangs from a plane, speeds down curvy roads on a crotch rocket, and jumps into a dangerous waterway. Sure, the Mission Impossible films are all about wowing us with boisterous action, but Rogue Nation's plot moves along at a speedster clip that is invigorating even without the million-dollar set pieces.
     There was a trailer for the new Bond film, Spectre, before this new incarnation of Impossible, but I'd be surprised if the new 007 had the same amount of energy and humor as Rogue Nation. This is one of those 'us against them' spy films (every series has one or two): Ethan Hunt seems completely and utterly obsessed with discovering the inner workings of the Syndicate that everyone--even his teammates at the IMF and especially CIA head Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin, always great at portraying a dickish, cocky man)--thinks that he's gone over the edge with his infatuation.
     But maybe Ethan has met his match in the gorgeous and transfixing Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), a woman playing so many sides that you're never quite sure if you want to trust her or fall in love with her. Throughout the film, Ethan crosses paths with Ilsa: is she British Intelligence? A member of The Syndicate? Or neither, a much more dangerous option? Throughout Rogue Nation, Ethan's main goal is working his way up the food chain of the terrorist organization, until he can reach the boss, Solomon, and he'll stop at nothing--not even the alluring Ilsa--to race his way to the top.
       Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is full of the amazing action scenes that the Mission films are known for (such as the incredible sequence on the side of the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai in Ghost Protocol). You probably saw flashes of them from the trailer that's been showing for the past few months. But it's the surprises in Rogue Nation that hold the most tension, particularly a long Opera scene that builds and builds into an excitement that is rare in modern summer blockbusters. After five incarnations, Cruise's Mission Impossible films show no signs of slowing down--you could make a valid argument that Rogue Nation is the best of the whole series (though I am also partial to the third and Ghost Protocol), and rumor is that the 6th incarnation will be filming next summer. Like most summer action films, there's no point to worry too much about the plot. But Rogue Nation succeeds where other films fail: it's fun, entertaining, and 2 thrilling hours well spent at the theater.     (B+)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A New Jurassic World

     If you've turned on your cable or Direct TV the past few weeks, it's been nearly impossible to flip through the stations and not see Steven Spielberg's 1993 summer blockbuster Jurassic Park playing any given hour. The potential start of a franchise, the original Park was--at the time--a fun thrill ride that resembled an amusement park event, containing some of the best special effects of that age. The sequels, The Lost World  and Jurassic Park III, didn't fair as well: neither held the wonder or excitement of that first film. This weekend's Jurassic World, a reinvention of the franchise featuring Hollywood's It Boy Chris Pratt, is being hailed as the true sequel to that first film that let so many hearts and minds wanting more over 20 years ago. It mostly succeeds: after a slow start that sets up the human characters (which are mostly disposable), Jurassic World truly excels once the Dinosaurs are let loose, and it contains innovate actions scenes, solid special effects, and battles between our Dino friends that are far better than similar films, such as last year's disappointing Godzilla.
    The park of the first film is now a gigantic spectacle: throughout the whole island, railways bring thousands of visitors to different areas with different attractions. There are rides, refreshments and an undeniable excitement about the hundreds of dinosaurs. It's as big as Disneyworld, as parents and children buy toys and replicas and congregate in the gigantic common area at the front of the park. We first meet two brothers: they are at the park for the weekend visiting their aunt, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who operates the daily operations of the park. She's supposed to be taking care of the boys, but shes so into her work and revealing a new, genetically modified dinosaur, Indominus Rex, that she essentially ignores them until shit hits the fan.
     Chris Pratt portrays Owen, a former Military Man who has a way with Raptors and dinosaurs in general. He's funny and nice and loves animals, and the way that him and Claire sarcastically spar with each other completely telegraphs the fact that they are actually in love. When Owen realizes that the park has created a modified dinosaur that's been held in captivity to spike the attendance at the park (regular, docile dinos are just not cutting it anymore), he knows it's a terrible idea. And--you guessed it--the Rex eventually escapes, and the action and excitement of Jurassic World finally begins.
     Pratt and Howard have a decent chemistry, and the young brothers are serviceable, but we all know why you'd pay 10 bucks to watch a movie called Jurassic World: the action. And once the Indominus Rex begins terrorizing the island (sometimes in surprisingly violent fashion for a PG-13 film), the intensity doesn't let up until the credits roll. Sometimes one could complain about a non-stop barrage of CGI loud action (e.g. the Transformers "films"), but director Colin Trevorrow (who only previously directed the fun, low-budget film Safety Not Guaranteed) does a great job with keeping us interested in the plight of the attendees at the park. It's a fun summer blockbuster: giant Dinos running amok with great special effects with humorous banter and plenty of nods to the 1993 original that set the whole franchise in motion.
     There's no doubt that after it's opening weekend (Jurassic World hit the second biggest opening weekend in the history of movies at 204 Million Dollars), there will be plenty more Jurassic films in our future. But like this film, I will be skeptical: luckily, Jurassic World didn't seem like a simple cash grab by the studio and was legitimate big-budget fun at times, perfect for this time of the summer. You're not watching Jurassic World for narrative coherence or characters that are well-written: you're looking for Dinosaur-crunching action and tension that doesn't let up. Therefore, it's a success.     (B)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Furiously Fast Mad Max: Fury Road

     It's sacrilege to write a review of George Miller's two-hour chase movie, Mad Max: Fury Road, and state in the first sentence that I never enjoyed the original Mel Gibson films that nearly every film lover holds in such high regard. So I came into Fury Road with fresh eyes and almost no idea of the specific plot lines of the first films (other than the post-apocalyptic gas/water being sacred aspect). It's been 30 years since the original films, and in that time, director Miller has worked on projects that are virtually the complete opposite: Babe, the talking pig movies, and the animated Happy Feet series. But he must have had this Max on the back of his mind for years: Fury Road is batshit crazy for a summer blockbuster opening the weekend before Memorial Day, a metaphorical dropping of the mic for Miller, an I-Can't-Believe-the-Studio-Gave-Him-150 Millions-Dollars desert of the weird, maniacal, violent and yes, womanly. It's not perfect--but it deserves all the praise and box office winnings of the world, just for totally not giving a fuck.
     Miller is in his mid-70's, but you'd never guess watching Fury Road: it's one of the fastest-paced action movies in recent memory. After a start that left me wondering how much I was going to like the film (it takes a few minutes to get your bearings in this strange world), once the accelerator is slammed to the floor, it never lets up until the final credits roll. This time Max is portrayed by Tom Hardy (filling in for Mel Gibson's original role), and though he's clearly up-for-anything, most actors could have played the character--he has less than 30 lines of dialogue (minus grunting), and really ins't the star of this installment. The real star is Imperator Furiosa (a shaved-head, one-armed Charlize Theron), who drives the gasoline-collecting War Rig across the barren landscape.
     Furiosa works for King Immortan Joe, who has a cult-like following of Powder lookalikes who are addicted to thoughts of the afterlife and act like crack addicts. At the beginning of the film, Max has been captured by these albino thugs, and he gets thrown in a cage and used as a blood bag for the sickly Nux (Nicholas Hoult, having plenty of fun). Eventually, our Max is strapped to the front of a desert dune buggy and the epic chase (and it is epic, as most of it is with real vehicles and real explosions without an overdose of special effects) begins.
     Reviews have been glowing for Mad Max: Fury Road, which is surprising not because the film isn't pretty great, but because it's incredibly weird and brutal. But--other than the 90 minutes of chase that is the beating, bloody heart of the film--Mad Max: Fury Road, in all of its ugliness and emptiness (the entirety of the movie was filmed in the infertile deserts of Namibia, Africa), is unrelentingly beautiful. Much of it is a work of art straight from Miller's mind: the intricacies of the complicated vehicular warfare, the costumes and make-up of the characters in the fictional world, the gorgeous post-apocalyptic wasteland and Miller's choice of camera angles and cinematography. Something this ugly is rarely so alluring. Specifically, the last portion of the film shines the brightest, with all of the bits and pieces of the action building into a crescendo of blood and fire.
      Many film goers are speaking of the feminist aspects of Mad Max: Fury Road, due to the arc of Furiosa and the women that she is trying to help, but I'll stay away from that. The film doesn't delve far enough into that aspect to truly make a case for it. What Fury Road  really is: an unrelenting action film that doesn't need a real plot to succeed. Other than Furiosa's plight, Fury Road exists for cars, trucks, buggies and motorcycles to drive incredibly fast, smash into each other and explode, all while racing from one end of the desert and then back again, with characters who are bizarre living in a post-society world created by Miller. And for that, it succeeds: Fury Road is incredibly interesting, and though its not quite completely mind-blowing, mind-blowing is what comes to mind when thinking of the movie studio giving Miller 150 Million dollars and sending him off to the African desert to create a summer blockbuster as funky as this one.     (A-)

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Avengers: Yawn of Ultron

     It's my own fault, and there's nobody to blame but myself: I'll admit I was excited when the first trailer for the new Avengers dropped late last year: Joss Whedon returning to direct after the stellar first incarnation of our favorite superhero clan, a new villain that I wasn't too familiar with, our favorite cast of characters returning (plus a few new faces, like Quicksilver, who stole the best scene in the recent X-Men: Days of Future Past). But expectations can turn into a fickle problem: Avengers: Age of Ultron is--no doubt--an incredibly well-made superhero movie, a Marvel of colorful, fast-paced entertainment and humor that would make any 12 year old laugh. But it just doesn't bring enough new to the table to be more than well-made: it's more of the same Avengers, with an uninspired villain and action scenes that too often delve into pieces of metal clanging against each other.
     Three Marvel movies, two of them solo projects since the last Avengers film, are better than Avengers: Age of Ultron: Iron Man 3, the 2nd Captain America, and Guardians of the Galaxy. The problem with having film versions of The Avengers is there is not nearly enough screen time for each of the characters--they are all battling for our time and laughs like the Royal Rumble of a WWE match. The great HBO show Game of Thrones for an example: with dozens of characters, we need 10 episode seasons (and sometimes that doesn't even feel like enough) to truly get involved in each character's plight. A two hour and twenty minute Avengers movie, when we get 3 new, significant characters added to the main ones, just isn't enough time. It's a collage of colors and metallic action with not enough new excitement to make much of a dent in the summer movie season.
   Yet again, this Avengers at least somewhat focuses on Loki's staff and the power of the Infinity Stone that lies inside of it. Who will harness this power, the Avengers (Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye) or a new Artificial Intelligence known as Ultron that can take over the Internet and anything metal to build an army of Iron Man-esque steel to--you guessed it--try and destroy the world? I think we all know the world isn't going to be destroyed, and most of the tension lies within the characters that are jockeying for screen time.
     I hear that Ultron is pretty powerful in the comic book world, but--voiced by James Spader, an interesting if weird decision--in the film he never matches up against the distinct powers of our Avengers: in other words, he never stands a chance. Originally, he has two new characters on his side (Quicksilver, played by Kick-Ass's Aaron Johnson, who can move at the speed of light...and the Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olson, who can give people visions and animate her power of telekinesis), and they add a nice change of originality. But anyone who knows the comics knows whose side they are really on. The action set pieces are huge and impressive (there are at least 3 or 4 of them), an intensely admirable attempt by Whedon to shock and excite--they just don't excite enough when compared to the action of the rest of the Marvel cinematic universe. (It's futile to compare to the best action of the last few years, The Raid 2. I don't even bother anymore.)
     Reading over this review, I feel like a grumpy old man. No doubt kids in their teens will love Avengers: Age of Ultron, with its bombastic special effects, its attempts at humor, its blasts of action. But damn it if Avengers: Age of Ultron doesn't feel like The Avengers with a new coat of fresh paint. And like a new coat of fresh paint, occasionally Ultron comes to close to the excitement of watching paint dry: a new unexciting villain, a plan to destroy the world, a plot that jumps between a dozen characters with scientific jargon that doesn't make a whole lot of sense: It's got a been-there-done-that feel. At one time, late in the movie, Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye states (I'm paraphrasing), "We're on a city rising into the sky, fighting an army of robots, and I'm using a bow and arrow--this doesn't make much sense". Agreed.     (C+)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Spring Sci-Fi Surprise: Ex Machina

     Anyone who has seen the British show Black Mirror knows how deftly the show balances tension and worry about a near-future where technology has evolved slightly past our grasp: its 7 episodes are weird, funny, scary and exciting. The recent Ex Machina, with it's futuristic AI plot, falls into the same niche: a story about the general anticipation and fear of technology gaining a consciousness. Directed by Alex Garland (making his feature film directing debut)--writer of modern horror classic 28 Days Later and the sci-fi film Sunshine--Ex Machina is the best film so far this year, a slow-burn of Artificial Intelligence and Turing Tests that is centered around three great performances from a few great young actors.

     It's best not to know too much about Ex Machina other than the basics: Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac, turning awesome acting into a common occurrence) the owner/creator of the world's greatest Internet search engine, BlueBook. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson, son of the great Brendan and building a fine film resume of his own) works at BlueBook and wins a contest to meet CEO Bateman for one week, who lives far far out in the mountains in a futuristic estate full of luxurious technological advances, living like a hermit.When Caleb finally reaches the automated door of this modernistic mansion, he realizes that the contest that he "won" may be less a victory and more the most interesting week of his young life.

     The two Male performances are precisely what propels Ex Machina into the real of recent sci-fi greatness. Oscar Issac has been noticeable in two recent films: 2013's Bob Dylan-esque Inside Llewyn Davis and last year's A Most Violent Year. Both showcased his ability but were subdued. Ex Machina allows Issac to unleash his darker side, as he slowly reveals to Caleb his plans for his stay. Gleeson is also noteworthy as the nerdy Caleb, showcasing a solid arc of emotions as the week progresses. But it's not just men who make you sit up and watch: newcomer Alicia Vikander portrays a character named Ava with deft skill. It's Ava's situation that brings out the more thought-provoking ideas of the film

     Ex Machina is exciting, but it never veers too far into horror or thriller territory. It's more a slow-burn type of excitement, as Caleb continues to learn more and more about Bateman and the way he lives his life on his remote estate. Secrets are slowly revealed as the tension builds, and Nathan--the mega-rich recluse--begins to grow into a mad scientist rather than a gracious host. Ex Machina eventually delves into notions of Artificial Intelligence, human morality, and the responsibility of creating "life". Nathan's thrill of discovery is was drives him, manipulation his most common character trait.

      Director Alex Garland shows that screenwriting is only one of his skills. Ex Machina is slick and shot without distractions. The music/score is also stellar. If Ex Machina has a fault, it's the fact that it raises plenty of interesting moral questions but doesn't dig too deep into them: but when we're left with such great performances and an ever-building tension, even if the story doesn't break any new ground it's still infinitely watchable. So far, 2015 hasn't seen many films of note, but Ex Machina rises to the top, a film the general public and pimpled sci-fi nerds can all enjoy.     (A-)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Spreading Your Legs in It Follows

     It only takes a few moments of the new low-budget horror film It Follows to realize that it's going to be a far different watch than most of the mass-produced horror films that are pushed into theaters nowadays (just before the movie started, there was a preview for a glossy remake of Poltergeist and the third incarnation in the Insidious (?) saga). Within minutes, the electronic videogame-esque soundtrack begins pumping and director David Robert Mitchell's wide-angle stylistic filming has striking shots that are far more Kubrick's The Shining than recent horror like 2013's The Conjuring. It takes a lot to impress in the horror genre nowadays: a new scary movie either has to have a unique hook that will wedge into your brain and actually scare you or an interesting film-making style that is memorable in its depiction of the events. It Follows has both: no, it's not the greatest horror film in decades like some are proclaiming, but it's an incredibly well-spent 90 minutes at the movie theater and it's the best film so far this year.
      I wouldn't suggest reading any of this review if you haven't seen It Follows but you are planning to see it one day. I went in only knowing the bare minimum: no review reading or trailer viewing. Like any horror film that sometime relies on surprises and shocks, the less you know the better. Let's just say--like 2007's humorous Teeth--it promotes a strong case for young adult abstinence. Maika Monroe (formally seen in last year's The Guest) stars as Jay, a happy young lady who has recently fallen for a mysterious guy who--when we first see him--seems a bit paranoid: he's always glancing around like something is watching him. On a fateful night, Jay decides that she's ready for the next step in their relationship, so they jump in the backseat of his car and (as seen in the movie poster above).
      Turns out--in the film world of It Follows--that HPV and getting pregnant aren't the only things that young women have to worry about after having sex: Jay's boyfriend, in the afterglow of their first sexual experience together, turns violent, and explains the hook that the rest of the film relies on. He's passed on a sexually-transmitted curse. Until Jay spreads her legs for another guy, "It" will be after her. "It" takes on any human form and can show up anywhere, but it always walks, never runs, straight at you, regardless of setting. You can avoid "It", but if it gets close enough and touches you, you die. Yeah: sounds like typical PG-13 horror to scare teenie-boppers whose parents dropped them off at the theater. But It Follows is much better than that.
     It Follows does not rely on jump scares, like demonic children or loud noises. It also doesn't rely on unrealistic special effects, like a girl crawling out of the static of a television set or monsters morphing into other nightmarish beings. It nearly completely relies on a feeling of dread and excellent directorial choices by Mitchell. It may not sound like humans walking slowly toward you is scary. But think of the scene in The Shining where Danny walks into the forbidden hotel room and sees the hideous old woman. It Follows scares are like that: effective and haunting, scares that build at slowly tugging at your nerves instead of blowing it all early and often. And it's effectively a scare that never ends and never leaves you: no matter how many people get transmitted the curse, if those people die, "It" can always work its way back to you. "It" never stops walking, never stops searching for the next victim: the only solution is to get as far away as possible from "It", whether that be travelling far, far away or attempting to distance yourself from it by horny sexual partners who will continually pass it along.
     One could easily write a dissertation on the metaphoric plot points of It Follows: is it promoting abstinence, so "It" will never come to get you? Is it a parable about AIDS and how you can never escape it? Or is it something different, as the only way to get rid of "It" is to actually have more and more much sex as you can to distance yourself from the horror. No point to delve into that stuff here though: the basic fact is that It Follows is a very well-made horror film from a promising new director (this is only Mitchell's second film), a simple and effective little package that may make you think twice about your next sexual encounter,     (B+)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Man with the Golden Umbrella: Kingsman: The Secret Service

     It's basically impossible to talk about Kingsman: The Secret Service without mentioning the 2010 frenetic and brutal take on superheros, Kickass (also directed by Matthew Vaughn) or any of the older James Bond films with over-the-top villains and unique humor. It's impossible because Kingsman: The Secret Service is an off-the-wall combination of both, containing the stylistic brutality of the R-rated kids-turned-hero flick and the gentlemanly-style, dry humor and the most modern gadgetry of any given Bond film. Like Kickass, Kingsman is also based upon a comic book, and Vaughn infuses the film with colorful violence and an entertaining nonchalance about the proceedings that is charming and fun. It's a good start to the 2015 movie season.
     Kingsman is one of those self-aware movies that realizes it's a movie: characters spout quotes about films that fall into similar genres, like Bourne or Bond, and many scenes can end with almost a wink to the camera. But the reason it succeeds on a pure entertainment level is because unlike the movies starring Jason Bourne and James Bond, this one's aimed at adults: London street language vulgarity is spurted at every turn by our young protagonist, and the film contains some almost shocking levels of violence. But the violence fits: it's February--the time of the year when the dregs of the cinematic universe are released--and we could all deal with en entertaining, violent and vulgar story about spies, world domination, and colorful villains.
     The trailer for this movie really annoyed me. It seems like it was shown before every film in the theater for almost a year (part of that is because it was delayed from Fall 2014 until now, which was another reason to be completely skeptical), with the main character saying things like "wicked" and "that is sick" in his British accent. So count me as surprised by the fun-factor of the whole thing: Harry (Colin Firth, in a role that shows he could easily pull off a Liam Neeson-esque mid-career action Renaissance) is a Kingsman, a sort of MI6 badass spy group just as concerned with fashion and manners as they are hi-tech gadgets and hand-to-hand combat. But they need new recruits after a mission goes bad and they are one spy less than they used to be.
     So a group of young recruits, all college age, get sucked into the Kingsman headquarters to take part in a competition involving teamwork, weapon skills, and general perseverance. Our main hero is Eggsy (Taron Egerton, in a career-making role full of flash, humor and charm), whose dad was a Kingsman himself, but whose life has been relegated to low-income housing and his mom's scumbag associates. It's impossible not to root for him with his likability and underdog story. While this is going on, a billionaire villain (Samuel L. Jackson having fun with a Mike Tyson lisp) is developing a technology to secretly control and wipe out the majority of the human race. His main henchwoman is present solely for her sultry, dangerous looks and her sharp feet made out of metal blades that slice and dice any one who dares stand in her way.
      Kingsman moves like a Bond film, full of over-the-top world domination plots and awe-inspiring action, and it's the latter moments that make the film shine: one notable scene, taking place in a Westboro Baptist Church-style teachings congregation, really sticks out at showing the shock value of a hard-rated R spy film--the action is frenetic and brutal, but it doesn't rely on quick-cut editing like the Bourne films. You feel every stab, gunshot and ax wound. And as we learned with Kick-Ass, this is what director Matthew Vaughn is great at: taking a getting-tired genre (in Kickass is was superhero it's Bond-like spy films) and making his own version full of unique humor, weirdness, and stylistic action that gets your blood pumping while this brutally-cold winter piles up another foot of snow outside of our windows.     (B+)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

(Honorable Mention)

25. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
24. The Skeleton Twins
23. John Wick
22. Noah
21. Obvious Child
20. Still Alice
19. Locke
18. Joe
17. Enemy
16. American Sniper
15. A Most Violent Year
14. Gone Girl
13. Mistaken for Strangers
12. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
11. X-Men: Days of Future Past


Blue Ruin

     Blue Ruin is a unique American revenge story, a low budget edge-of-your-seat thriller that is as simple as it is tension-packed. Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is a vagrant who lives out of his car near the beach--he's scraggly and bearded. Once day, he receives a certain bit of news that causes him to clean himself up and return to his hometown with the sole intention of murdering a specific person who wronged him in the past. There's not much to complain about when it comes to Blue Ruin: the directing and visuals are stellar (especially on such a low budget), it's undeniably taut at only 90 minutes, the thrilling unease is felt throughout, and the progression of the story is fast, moving from violent standoff to violent standoff until a satisfying and grim conclusion.



     Director Bennett Miller is a sucker for interesting, true-life stories: his past works include a film about the complicated character Truman Capote, and he explored low-budget baseball with Moneyball. Foxcatcher, his new film, slips into the same categories: it contains real-life drama, intriguing characters, and an extremely peculiar story: it focuses on Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his uncomfortable relationship with mega-millionaire Jon du Pont (Steve Carell, prosthetic face and all), a team-up that turned raw and violent and ended in a tragedy. The stars of the film are the atmosphere--the dark, smokey scenes that set the chilling mood--and the acting: Carell is great in a transforming role, and Tatum continues to show that he's not just a meathead with no talent. Another solid entry in Miller's genre of True-life tension. 


Edge of Tomorrow

     Tom Cruise is a god-damned movie star, and anytime anybody doubts him, he stars in an entertaining action (typically with a sci-fi tinge) film that ends up being super fun: see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Oblivion, etc. It's no different with this year's horrendously-titled film, Edge of Tomorrow (adapted from the incredibly better-titled Japanese light novel "All You Need is Kill"), directed by Doug Liman. It's an action-packed and (actually) thoughtful mixture of Groundhog Day (yes, the Bill Murray film) and Source Code: Cruise dies over and over again in a huge Normandy-style battle with Aliens, progressing further and further each time as he starts getting certain things right. It's like a charismatic first-person shooter video game with heart, humor, and an exhilarating performance from Cruise.



     Jake Gyllenhaal's been on a roll lately, with last year's Prisoners and now Nightcrawler, a showcase for a sociopath character named Lou Bloom who lives on the outskirts of polite society, flying around the city at night, trying to film grotesque crime scenes to sell to the morning news stations. It's up there as one of Gyllenhaal's great roles ever: he's so damn creepy and weird that it's impossible to take your eyes off of him. As Lou's business grows, he begins to gain more notoriety from the news stations, and he begins to make more and more money for the crazier stuff that he films. It's this turning point, when Lou's self obsessions meet up with his realization that he can push the boundaries of society's morals, that Nightcrawler becomes something special, spiraling out of control until its surprising conclusion.



     Snowpiercer is so damn weird and strange that it's impossible to ignore. This is a movie that's in my top 10 of the year, yet after watching about 15 minutes of it I could have shut it off. I couldn't tell if it was intentionally trying to be hokey or if the acting was just terrible: but once the lower-class caboose of the perpetual motion train breaks free of their metaphorical chains, Snowpiercer becomes one of the most entertaining and surprising films of the year. The direction, from South Korean master Bong Joon-ho, is vivid and original, and the action is violent, absurd and shocking. But the best part of Snowpiercer--unlike the protein gelatin blocks that the train's passengers eat--is how fresh it is. It's unlike anything else that was in cinemas this year: the incredibly different and unexpected sets, the peculiar plot twists, the ultra-stylistic action. And like the number 1 film on this list, it's a great example of a non-American director showing us how fun films can be if you can just let loose.


The Drop

      The Drop may forever be known as our last glimpse at the great James Gandolfini, but it's an awesome slow burn of a film in its own right, and it's yet another example of Tom Hardy's greatness. Similar stories have been told before: crime in dank, beer-soaked bars, mob money, shady characters, but The Drop shines because of it's two main actors and the nice script based upon a Dennis Lehane short story. The story focuses on a mysterious bartender (Hardy) and the bar owned by Marv (Gandolfini) that is used as an illegal "drop" point by Chechen gangsters. The pace of the film is slow, but could better be described as natural: we follow these characters as the progression of events continues to raise the tension to the biggest drop night of the year: the Super Bowl. The Drop doesn't look to shock or surprise, but it sets you up to fully enjoy the satisfying climax.



     Interstellar continues the tradition of Christopher Nolan films that have an undeniable epic quality and occasional eye-rolling scenes of sentimentality. But I still loved the Hell out of it. It's chock full of science-fiction mumbo-jumbo, discussions of black holes, the space-time continuum, wormholes and gravitational pulls. I don't know how much of this stuff was true, but it doesn't matter: Nolan has again (like with Inception and the The Dark Knight trilogy) created a theater-going experience rather than just a good movie. It's like a nearly 3-hour amusement park ride at the Epcot Center containing famous actors. I didn't stop thinking about some of its scenes and ideas days after I left the cinema. Much of the film takes place in gigantic vastness and space and completely foreign areas and planets, and it leaves the viewer with a sense of awe. But even though the film sets its sights far, far, away, when Nolan can manage to transcend corny sentimentality and touch on real human emotion, that's when Interstellar shines the brightest.



     Micheal Keaton gives the best performance of the year in a Meta-Dramedy about a former superhero (Birdman) movie actor (Riggan) who's now washed up and trying a shot at redemption by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play. Keaton is the key that locks the film into greatness, but Birdman also relies on its ensemble cast: Edward Norton as the prickish but vulnerable star actor, Emma Watson's just-outta-rehab daughter, Zach Galifianakis' producer friend of Riggan. These actors provide the humor and emotion that fly us into the heart of the story and the satiric wink towards show business culture. And it all fits together perfectly with the seemingly hour-long tracking shots composed by director Alexander Inarritu that make you feel as though your standing on stage or behind the curtain with the play's actors. Birdman is innovative, and you've probably never seen anything like it before.



     Whiplash had been on my radar since its prestigious showing at the Sundance film festival earlier this year, but I didn't expect it to envelop me so completely into it's nervous energy and jazz-music-infusion. It's a fairly simple premise, but one that resonates: Andrew (great newcomer Miles Teller) has just been accepted into one of the best music universities in America. Once we gets there, he catches the eye of an intense instructor who expects nothing less than perfection, a drumming drill-sergeant who is as violent as he is transfixing (J. K. Simmons in a career defining role and one of the best performances of the year). It is an incredibly uncomfortable watch, giving you the feeling of being in a job interview as thinks keep going south far beyond what you ever expected. But what is Whiplash truly about? Having an undeniable talent and going to any length necessary to drum it out of you.


The Raid 2

     Nothing this year could have compared to the exhilaration that was experienced upon the first watch of The Raid 2. It's a 2.5 hour crime epic that contains some of the best actions scenes in just about anything, ever. If you've seen the first film (which you don't need to see to enjoy this sequel, but why wouldn't you?), you know that director Gareth Evans is a master at showcasing the speed and brutality of the martial art, pencak silat: but in The Raid 2, Evans sets his sites on a whole city rather than just one building, complete with car chases and murderous gangsters. The basics of the plot deal with an undercover cop who must infiltrate a dangerous crime organization, and though the plot is much more in-depth than in the first film, the story serves the incredible actions and fight scenes. Like dancers on a stage, the Raid 2's characters glide in an amazingly-choreographed beautiful piece of blood-spurting art complete with bone-crushing beatings and Tarantino-esque style. If only American actions films were this damn good.

Monday, December 15, 2014

7 Favorite Books in 2014

I didn't read as many books this year compared to last year. I just finished number 35. Here are my 7 favorite, in no particular order:

The Orphan Master's Son


     I had read an Adam Johnson work previously--2003's Parasites Like Us--and enjoyed it, and I had heard plenty of praise of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Orphan Master's Son: it didn't come close to disappointing. I read it back in January, and it still stuck with me all the way to the end of the year. Starring Jun Do (a nod to the anonymous John Doe), a North Korean orphan who becomes a kidnapper, The Orphan Master's Son's main character is really North Korea: it's totalitarian way of life, its daily acts of violence, a place where one's identity can become lost in the fold. North Korea is a place that many of us can't even imagine, but Adam Johnson does the impossible with The Orphan Master's Son: he takes the facts of North Korea and turns them into one of the most immersive and impressive fictional worlds in recent memory.

The Art of Fielding

     The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach gave me the same feeling as last year's incredible Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Not because the books deal with similar subject matter, but because both are from debut novelists and have sharply-drawn characters that you begin to legitimately care about. The book is around 500 pages, but you'll wish there were 500 more: it's intricately drawn, with every sentence, plot line and character showcasing Harbach's skill with the English language. If you know nothing about it, it may be casually referred to as "that baseball book", and although the sport of baseball plays a major part, The Art of Fielding is about so much more: friendship, love and loss in a college-era story. The heart of the novel focuses on Henry Skrimshander, a prodigal short-stop in high school who gets recruited by Westish College catcher Mike Schwartz, and his experiences playing at the next level. The Art of Fielding marks the exciting beginning for Chad Harbach, and it's a novel that absolutely anyone can enjoy.

Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.

      Rob Delaney has been the king of Twitter for years now, and his first book contains a variety of painfully honest stories that showcase his darker side. It also showcases how humor is one of the best ways to overcome situations in life that can fill you with sorrow. The writing world always contains stories and biographies of men getting drunk or high and doing completely stupid shit, but Delaney is a master at portraying the lessons he's learned with an excited fervor that brings the readers in. The highlights: having to take an explosive shit while out jogging with no bathrooms available, drunken near-death experiences that shaped his life (including a drunk-driving accident that left him seriously injured), and the experiences having your first child. But the real lesson of Delaney's book is about the hard times in life: if you can laugh, you'll be much better off.

Tenth of December

I try and read a couple of short story books a year, but Tenth of December, by George Saunders, may force me to up that number in the coming months: some of the writing here is better than...well...just about anything. This is the first Saunders that I have ever read, but I'll be seeking him out in the future. He is a master at getting deep inside a character's thoughts and feelings and motivations, and these ten stories showcase a simple expertise in telling moving tales. And some of these short stories are incredibly funny and incredibly satiric, but still can surprise you with shocking twists and slow burns of surrealism. Take "The Semplica Girl Diaries", where a father attempts to please his daughter and compete with neighbors by buying her Semplica Girls, women trafficked from third-world countries to be lawn ornaments. Or "Escape from Spiderhead", a satiric look at love and pharmaceuticals--these are the works of an American original.

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State

     I'll be the first to admit that you shouldn't read No Place to Hide for a completely unbiased view towards Edward Snowden and the NSA leaks: it was written by Glenn Greenwald, who Snowden contacted to divulge the dangerous information. But God Damn if this is not an incredibly exciting and shocking account of the process of the information leak. It reads like a thriller. If you think that Edward Snowden is a villain, you will hate this account, because it essentially portrays him as an American hero for divulging information that--one could argue--the public deserves to know. And Greenwald displays plenty of his own opinions about the matter. But it doesn't stop No Place to Hide from being one of the most thrilling (and shocking) non-fiction books in 2014.

The Light Between Oceans

     The Light Between Oceans
 is from yet another debut author, and the skill in which M.L. Stedman wraps the readers into the words is astounding: this book is damn beautiful. Listen to the plot and tell me that you're not interested: Tom is a WWI veteran and a lighthouse keeper on a tiny rock island off the coast of Australia. One day, him and his wife find a rowboat that washes ashore with a crying baby and a dead dude inside. Despite Tom's militaristic moral code, the couple decides to potentially raise the baby as their own, but the past--as it always seems to do--has a tendency to catch up with them. The story is great, and it's already been optioned for a film directed by Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), starring Michael Fassbender as Tom. Like The Art of Fielding, the subject matter doesn't even matter: The Light Between Oceans can be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys reading a great novel.

The Magician's Land

     I'll start this off with a confession that will piss off many avid readers: I just started the Harry Potter series throughout the past year, and though they are (basically) enjoyable, I don't love them. I'm not sure if the movies ruined the story for me, or Rowling's writing annoys me (which it does sometimes), or I just missed the boat with the total madness when they were coming out. But Lev Grossman's The Magician's Trilogy--full of sex, magic, alcohol, and angst--is more my magical cup of tea. And The Magician's Land, the final novel in the three-book series, is a completely fitting ending. Though Grossman takes plenty from Harry Potter and Narnia, he creates a world that is completely his own, and this third book takes the characters to new, much more mature level. Even the most jaded readers, ones who never thought they could love the fantasy genre, can find something to love in The Magicians Trilogy: the only sad part is that it's over only when Grossman hit his true stride.