Saturday, April 16, 2016

On "Just Don't Give a Fuck" Mode

If there's a few good things I can say about The Divergent Series: Allegiant, they are the following:


  1. I only have to play "Name That Sci-Fi Film Reference!" once, because this installment of this stale Hunger Games-knockoff really only borrows from another slightly better dystopain sci-fi series in the form of Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.
  2. Miles Teller really is the best part of this whole movie. You can see how much he does not want to be apart of this series, and each time he speaks, the disdain comes comes through loud and clear. He knows this is a waste of his talents and his time, and he allows the audience in on the joke. 
Besides that, though? Allegiant is bad. It's legitimately bad, in addition to being even duller affair to sit through than the first two, which is saying something. After the revelation that Chicago was one big experiment in order to help repopulate the world and the destruction of the faction system, the city of Chicago is on the verge of civil war between followers of Johanna and Evelyn, one again played by Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts, respectively. Oh, yeah, I forgot to say this is hours after the second movie takes place. Really. Evelyn, leader of Factionless, has killed off Jeannine (which we saw at the end of the second movie) and has manned soldiers at the wall itself, making sure people don't try to escape. Again, this is not even a full 24 hours after the events of the second film. And now, there's a civil war between the remaining factions of Chi-town and Factionless. Say with me now: Bullshit!! And if you think that's a big flub, take a look at Tris Prior's haircut, before & after:


Before...
...and after
That's right: the movie is so goddamn lazy that they couldn't bother to keep the actress's hair style consistent. And again, and I can't stress this enough, this is all supposedly hours after Insurgent. Jesus, if director Robert Schwentke's lack of continuity and plausibility was this bad, no wonder she, Four (Theo James), Christina (Zoe Kravitz), her brother Caleb (Ansel Egort) and Milles Teller escape the Windy City...even-though there were supposedly soldiers manning the wall at all times. Oh, and why are Tris and the gang dragging Miles Teller along? Last time, he helped Jeannine use mind-control to make people commit suicide in order to draw her out. Why would they think this unrepentant rat bastard would turn a new leaf? Wouldn't it be wiser to leave this little shit back in Chicago and leave him to his own fate? And if you guessed that he sells out his compadres again in this movie, congratulations; you've spotted out how incredibly lazy the writing is and how little characterization there is as well.

The gang's wonder at what they'll see over the Wall becomes a nightmare, as they find themselves staring at dodgy visual effects and several monotonous minutes of them walking across a rejected look of an apocalyptic wasteland from Mad Max: Fury Road. They eventually are taken in by David, the leader of the Bureau for Genetic Welfare, an organization dedicated to studying the last pockets of human civilization in order to.....I dunno, save humanity or some shit? He's also played by Jeff Daniels, who tries to lend this movie some measure of gravitas, but all he does is spend his time doing three things: 1.) spouting line after line of exposition explaining what happened to the word and what their mission statement is, 2.) spouting sci-fi techno-babble bullshit nonsense, and 3.) being the primary wolf in sheep's clothing. Yes, Daniels is the villain, and if you thought the faction system died with Kate Winslet's tyrannical matriarch antagonist, the joke's on you, because this Bureau is basically another system of putting people into factions, deeming who is "genetically pure" and who is "genetically damaged".

Remember when I said I'd be playing the "Name That Sci-Fi Film Reference" only once? I lied, because this movie not only borrows from the main plot of The Scorch Trials, but the theme of determining who is pure and who is not is also taken from Harry Potter, both book and film series. Oh, and the scientific organization/burreacracy-turned totalitarian regime trying to suppress others or an entire group of people and/or commit genocide? Ideas lifted from Equilibrium and Ultraviolet. When you're lifting ideas from that incompetent hack, you know the franchise has run out of ideas. If it sounds like this review is on 'I don't give a flying fuck!' mode, that's only because the movie's on the same wavelength. No one cares at this point about this franchise, and it wouldn't surprise me to hear from its stars like Shaileen Woodley and Miles Teller say that making these films made them go back into the indie scene, swearing off tentpole features. Speaking of the former, Woodley, who's carried the first two films on her shoulders, seems to have given up herself and just decided to cash in her check. Before, it was interesting to see her play this young woman who's coming into her own and trying to stay alive in this dystopian nightmare, but that pull and aurora she gave off on Tris Prior is long gone by the end of this movie. The other younger actors - from Egort and James to Teller and Kravitz - are stuck playing one-note characters, though Teller at least knows how shit the script and this series is, and just milks how much disdain he has for being suckered into this mess; while seasoned character actors like Spencer, Watts and Daniels aren't given enough to do and basically phone in their performances, as if they're all waiting for better roles to come along.

Unfortunately, this isn't the end of the series (though after sitting through this tired, pointless crap, you'll wish it were the end), because Summit Entertainment, like most studios these days, decided to split Veronica Roth's book into two halves, milking the udders dry to maximize profits, no matter how pointless and unnecessary it is. So in 2017, we've got the finale to the Divergent series, in the form of Ascendant, but frankly, I'm done with this series. It doesn't make sense, it borrows from other better literary and film works, and it doesn't really have anything to say, except that that they're trying to stake their claim in the YA-film adaptation market, which frankly, needs to wither away and die at this point. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games were terrific to above-average movies which resonated with audiences and had terrific production value, solid writing, a superb ensemble cast and direction that only got better as their respective series' went on. The Divergent Series, by contrast, doesn't have any of those qualities the two previous series share, and it's obvious that it never will.

* star out of ****

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Maze Runner: Insurgent

The last time I dived into the world of Divergent, Tris (played by Shaileen Woodley) had just stopped Jeannine (Kate Winslet) and her dastardly plot to initiate a hostile takeover from Abnegation for control of the remains of a mostly intact Chicago, seemly the last refuge of civilization on Earth. It's been five days since their escape and.....well, Jeannine, despite that setback, has taken over the Windy City and has enacted martial law. So, the whole third act of the first movie where Tris and Four (Theo James) break into Eritude, stop the tyrannical ruler-in-waiting from using a mind-control serum from killing an entire faction? It was all for nought, because she still assumes power. In fact, couldn't she still use the mind-control serum and still pull off her genocidal plan? Being a diabolical villain who's end goal was complete and total power, wouldn't she have a few spares of that drug, or the formula to remake it at the very least? If you've guessed that the mind-control serum will never be brought up again, congratulations, you've spotted a glaring plot hole!

Anyway, in The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Jeannine, through the help of her right-hand henchmen, Eric (once again played by Jai Courtney), has found an ancient relic from a forgotten age, the Tesseract, which if opened, could spell doom for the planet.....Aaaaaaaaand, I'm playing another round of "Name That Sci-Fi Film Reference!"carried over from the first movie. Oh, deep joy. No, it's not the portal from Marvel Cinematic Universe flicks Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, but it is a multi-sided glowing maguffin that will act as overall main drive of the plot. Tris, Four, Caleb (Ansel Egort) and smug douchebag Miles Teller (his character's name is Peter, but since Teller has played this sort of person in various films before, I'm just going to call him by his first name, since he's essentially playing himself) have escaped to the faction of Amity, led by Johanna, played by Octavia Spencer, a new addition to the series, who will do next to nothing except complain about how she's tired of Tris constantly upending the peace in her community.  We're also introduced to Four's mother, Evelyn, played by Harry Potter alum Naomi Watts, leader of Factionless, a group of underground rebel freedom fighters who want to overthrow the tyrannical regime....and it's a ripoff double-whammy! Not only is Insurgent borrowing from Brett Ratner's Hercules of all things, but they're also borrowing from Joseph Kosinski's Oblivion, as it pertains to having a group of rebels who's leader isn't exactly on the level. Seriously, when you're movie is lifting plot points and character tropes from those two mediocre flicks, you have serious problems.

Like its predecessor before, Insurgent suffers from a lack of originality; it borrows from different elements from other better science-fiction and young-adult adaptations and it fails to produce a different spin of its own. Speaking of borrowing from better sci-fi flicks, she rounds up the remaining Divergents she hasn't killed off and uploads them into the training program from The Matrix and has them undergo a series of brutal trials in order to open the box. When all of the test subjects die inside the Matrix, who else but Miles Teller shows up and rats out Tris by telling the Eritude leader that the cunning warrior attacks his or her enemy by going after the heart....and it's borrowing the scene where Norman Osborn "talks" to the mask of the Green Goblin in Spider-Man, minus the inner monologue from Willem Dafoe. To really hammer home how much this series borrows from other films, I'm going to tell you how this movie ends: Thomas, through injecting himself with Griever venom, reveals that he's been working for an organization called WCKD, who've been using young children and putting them through the Maze as test subjects. After Thomas and his new friends escape the Maze, they learn the truth about why they've been used as test subjects: the planet was hit by a deadly solar flare, followed by a deadly pathogen called the Flare virus, which wiped out civilization as they knew it. The Maze was a testing ground to see if younger people might hold a cure to stop the effects of the virus and restore what's left of civilization. Yes, that's the plot twist to The Maze Runner, but swap out Dylan O'Brien for Shaileen Woodley and the Maze for the factions and the enclosed off ruins of Chicago, and it's essentially the same reveal.

I know I've been harping on this for the entire review, but I swear I now understand how Mathew Buck, a.k.a. "Film Brain" must have felt while reviewing Moon 44 back in 2011: I could look at every scene and figure out where the film has borrowed a specific plot point or maguffin from, and it makes the whole affair a tedious slog to sit through because it brings nothing new to the table.. The only good things I can say about this installment is what I've said about its predecessor, which is that Shaileen Woodley tries her damned hardest to carry the material. Her scenes where she's struggling to come to terms with everything that's happened: the death of her parents, killing Christina's (Zoe Kravitz) love interest, Will, and then confessing her crimes to the Candor court are both powerful and well-acted, because she gives this heroine a convincing vulnerability. And, like last time, Kate Winslet is having a ball playing the tyrannical matriarch. She's a ruthless, power-hungry bitch who revels in being a ruthless, power-hungry bitch who will do whatever it takes to be on top. It kind of reminds me of Lena Heady's Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones, but in a sci-fi flavor: she's out for hers and she wields her power with absolute certainty and without mercy. Another welcome presence is Teller, playing the slimy, double-crossing prick Peter. He knows he should be doing better work like Whiplash and The Spectacular Now, but if he's going to be on paycheck duty, he might as well chew some scenery and mask his contempt for being in this series, and he delivers some of the best lines in the movie. Aside from the key performances and some rather impressive visual effects work, Insurgent is another formulaic and boring entry in a series that's about a young woman trying to break the shackles of adherence to tradition and conformity, ironically enough. It's not terrible, just more of the same from the first movie. Unfortunately, they made a second sequel, Allegiant, and it makes me pine for the blandness of the first two movies.

** stars out of ****

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Numbskull Series: Hollyboobs

Perhaps the best aspect about writer-directors Joel & Ethan Coen when it comes to making screwball and dark comedies is that despite the fact some of their characters are hopelessly stupid, the duo never looks down on their poor fools with malice or cruelty, rather, with sympathy and some degree of likability.

In Fargo, we don't fully shame Jerry Lundegaard for turning to two professional criminals as a way to make a quick payday - he's desperate to make ends meet, and to show to his asshole father-in-law that he's a mistake her daughter never should have made. How was he to know that Gaear Grimsrud was a sociopathic murderer; that his partner, Carl Showalter, was inept; and that the whole plan of kidnapping his wife to force a ransom of $80,000.00 would go so tits up? In Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, Ulysses, Pete and Delmar are dim-witted criminals who escape the chain gang, but there's an earnestness to why they're escaping: the leader (Ulysses) is looking to win back his ex-wife from getting married again, while the other two (Pete and Delmar) are looking for redemption for their past crimes - albeit they find salvation by sheer accident.

From those two films I just mentioned, to Barton FinkThe Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading, these characters from the Brothers Coen are well-meaning folks who have bad things happen to them, simply end up at the wrong place at the wrong time, or are just hopelessly in over their heads, who just happen to be the dullest knife in the proverbial drawer. The pair's latest comedy, Hail, Caesar!, is no exception. Baird Whitlock is Captiol Pictures' brightest stars, and he's on the set for his biggest production yet, Hail, Caesar!. Yes, he's played by George Clooney, and this is the fourth time he and Joel & Ethan have teamed up to play a dim-witted stooge (2000's Oh, Brother; 2003's Intolerable Cruelty and 2008's Burn After Reading). Unfortunately for him, he's been drugged, knocked out, and kidnapped off-set by a mysterious group known only as "The Future", who demand $100,000.00 for the safe return of their prized movie star. For most head honchos of a movie studio, this would make him or her jump out of their seat. For Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) - between dealing with posh filmmaker Laurence Laurentz's (a dry Ralph Fiennes) growing frustration that his performer, Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) can't act outside of Western pictures, working out a way to keep DeAnna Moran's (Scarlett Johansson) out-of-wedlock pregnancy out of the tabloids, and fending off gossip vultures Thora and Thessaly Thacker (both played hilariously by Tilda Swinton) - it's just another day at the office. Watching Brolin's Mannix try to put out one fire after another, along with wrestling a decision to leave the biz for a better job at Lockheed Martin is one of the film's highlights. We see the struggle, both physical and existential, as he ponders exactly what the hell he's doing with himself, essentially babysitting the lives of grown adults who just happen to be famous, charismatic and (in some cases) talented actors and actresses, all the while trying to stall the disappearance of Whitlock from leaking out to the press until he can be found.

Perhaps the biggest joy of watching Hail, Caesar! has to be the way Joel and Ethan lovingly poke fun at Hollywood tropes - Clooney's Whitlock is a Gregory Peck/Marlon Brando-type who finds politics - albeit by accident and tries to be just as serious about it as his acting - very clumsily, and to the irritation of Mannix. Channing Tatum, in addition to be a surprisingly good actor (see The Hateful Eight and Foxcatcher), has real talent as a song-and-dance man, as he's parodying Gene Kelly movies like Singin' In the Rain and Anchors Aweigh. Fiennes' thespian auteur Laurentz is obviously an early Laurence Olivier, and the production of Hail, Caesar! itself is a parody on big budget epics such as Spartacus, Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments. Hell, the brothers get even the look of that movie dead right, from the look on set, to the costumes, to even the aspect ratio of the film! the ever-brilliant Roger Deakins pulls out all the stops to give new life to the "golden age of Hollywood" and he does it damn well.

Despite the star-power at hand, as well as the lovely cinematography, the film suffers from too many subplots which end up distracting up the main conflict: the pair could have honestly written out Johansson's character and story arc, as well as Jonah Hill, playing an accountant for the studio who agrees to make Moran an honest woman for the tabloids, as well as Frances McDormand, playing a film editor. Granted, it's fun to see these actors in a Coen Brothers movie, but they aren't given much to do except appear as borderline cameos for an easy payday. That said, it's easy for me to look past Hail, Caesar!'s shortcomings because it's abundantly clear the cast and crew are having a blast bringing old Hollywood back to vivid life, and the best part is that we're allowed in on the fun as well. I'd chalk this up as another winner for the guys who gave us Fargo, No Country for Old Men and True Grit, and a solid example that even on their weakest day, Joel & Ethan Coen still put out quality work for us to chew on.

*** stars out of ****

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

There's A First Time For Everything

I'm about to do something I never thought I would do: I'm going to (somewhat) defend Jeffrey Wells.

Given all the things I've said about the man on this site and through social media, I'm just as surprised that I'm coming to this douchebag's defense on anything, but I do need to step in here. Last week, the "spiritual successor" to the 2008 hit monster movie, Cloverfield, was released in the form of 10 Cloverfield Lane, which has become a hit with critics and did fairly well at the box office (given that Disney's animated feature Zootopia is still making a killing domestically and overseas), doing $25.2 million over the weekend on a $15 million budget. Of the many things Mr. Wells has said, from wanting to kick a child with down syndrome out of a theater, to making nasty, sexist comments about a woman's shape, going after the dickhead for simply not liking an actress in a movie for x,y and z reasons isn't one of them.


Opinions about movies will always be subjective to the viewer and just because you didn't care for the way an actor or actress gave his or her performance, or simply didn't care for the film in general, it doesn't mean that someone (anyone, really) should get tons of shit for bucking from the popular consensus. Granted, Mr. Wells could have said this a lot better and not tried to further stoke the fire for hits on his site but I'm just not down with punishing a fellow film lover/critic for the crime of not liking a movie you enjoyed. Plus, we did get this sweet response from the film's star, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, over Wells' comments:





Sunday, March 13, 2016

Die Hard Across the Pond

There's action movie logic, there's dumb action movie logic and then there's preposterous bullshit. Care to guess which category London Has Fallen falls under? To be fair, film critic and managing editor for Baltimore Magazine Max Weiss pretty much warned me this sequel to the surprise 2013 hit, Olympus Has Fallen was going to be shit, both in review form & via Twitter.


Before I continue, I need to briefly set up the first movie in order to talk about this absurdly stupid sequel: second-rate John McClain ripoff ex-Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) is the only man on the inside who can save President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and the rest of his cabinet from North Korean terrorists who have blown up half the White House and taken control of seemingly the most secure and heavily guarded avenues on the planet, all the while, Speaker of the House Alan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman) is put in command and watches everything unfolding in the war room. Despite a ludicrous premise and an unoriginal storyline of terrorists taking control on American soil, Olympus did have tense direction from Antoine Fuqua (2001's Training Day) and an effective performance from Butler as a McClain-type character. He was shown to be resourceful under limited options and vulnerable after he gets his ass handed to him a few times in hand-to-hand combat, which made the film sometimes engaging, despite my thoughts that the film took it's premise way too seriously to be fully enjoyable as a whole. 

It's been two years since the events of the first movie, and Banning still has President Asher's back in the rebuilt Oval Office. Yes, you heard that right: the White House was blown halfway to hell by terrorists in the first movie, and has been completely rebuilt in this two-year time span. The Prime Minister of Great Britain succumbs to an unexpected heart attack in his sleep, and the leaders of the free world are gathering to pay their respects in London, which no one questions the cause of death, or finds his untimely demise even the least bit suspicious, save for Banning and Security Chief to the White House, Lynn Jacobs (Angela Basset, a fine character actress wasted), who both urge Asher to not head to London for the funeral due to the lack of time to prepare for security detail, which the Prez refuses. Why does he make this decision, given that last time, he and his cabinet came a hair's breath of being sent six feet under? Because we wouldn't have a movie otherwise!

In London, the leaders from Germany, Italy, France, Canada and Japan all arrive for the funeral, along with Asher, which is when the shit hits the fan: the terrorists carry out an attack by  the ring leader of  ISIS a man named Aamir Barkawi, killing five of the six world leaders, except for POTUS and Branning. Let me stop right here and explain how this all went down: somehow, Barkawi's foot soldiers were able to infiltrate London's law enforcement and its military, figure out where each world leader would be during the run-up to the funeral service, obtain illegal items like remote detonated bombs, automatic weapons, etc. and pull off these heinous attacks without raising any red flags by Scotland Yard MI6 or any counter-terrorism force in the country. And speaking of police - the head of the Metropolitan Police Department, Chief Inspector Kevin Hazard (Colin Salmon) announces that he needed his employers to deliver nothing short of their absolute best to see that this service goes off without a hitch...which is why they let the Italian PM alone on a roof without any security detail on him, the President of France alone, unprotected on his speedboat, and the PM of Japan to deal with traffic on the Millennium Bridge! I'm not making any of this up - this is how Barkawi's minions take out five of the six world leaders! How could the Met Police and British Intelligence bollix this up so astronomically? Similarly, how could the terrorists get their hands on material like stingers to being down all three Marine helicopters, AK-47's and enough explosive material to bring down a fucking skyscraper, without being stopped by local law enforcement?! If you guessed that the movie never attempts to explain how this was pulled off, congratulations, you're smarter than the filmmakers who thought this crap up!

Banning and Asher are now on the run from hundreds of terrorists in London, all the while VP Trumbell, along with the Secretary of State (Melissa Leo), the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Robert Forester), and the White House Chief of Staff (Jackie Earle Haley) are trying to scramble and figure out how to save POTUS and Mike from being a propaganda video for Barkawi, the latter promising that he'll kill more innocent people in London if the former isn't turned over. Yes, the plot is basically recycled from Olympus Has Fallen, right down to the revenge motivation of our bad guys. Unlike the last movie, Oscar-winning actors like Freeman & Leo, as well as great character actors like Haley & Forester are borderline cameos and add almost nothing to the plot that they could have been written out of this mess with some re-writes. Frankly, they would be spared the dignity of being attached to this borderline mean-spirited and deeply xenophobic piece of shit.

Oh, yes: this sequel has a mean streak to it. When Banning isn't spouting off cheezy, half baked one-liners that would make McClain cringe, he's channels his inner Marion Cobretti and goes on a brutal killing spree on the bad guys. At one point, he captures a stormtrooper, sorry...terrorist (the bad guys are so one-dimensional, they might as well be clad in white armor and egg-white helmets), and is slowly killed, his screams being broadcast via a two-way communicator to his brother, the ring-leader. "Was that necessary?!", an aghast President Asher asks Banning. Mike replies simply with one word: "No." So our protagonist has gone from a John McClain-type action hero, to a Chris Kyle-level psychopath. Charming. Oh, and the movie constantly reminds the audience that brown-skinned folks with a Middle Eastern sound to their voice is evil, el diablo!, just in case you still haven't gotten the hint. And the movie brings up the use of drone strikes without really giving the audience much to chew on about the ramifications of raining death from the sky from the comfort of a monitor and/or joystick. The script never brings up concepts like 'collateral damage' or 'blowback', just the strategy of 'blow 'em up, ask questions later' approach is the correct course of action, because we're not to be fucked with, under any circumstance! USA USA! USA! USA!

London Has Fallen is atrocious on every level. The script, while being ridiculously familiar and full of plot holes the size of the Thames River, is just a lazy and familiar rehash of the first movie. Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart and Morgan Freeman phone in their checks, while talented character actors like Melissa Leo, Jackie Earle Haley and Robert Forester are borderline cameo appearances and could have been written out of this mess. The action scenes are virtually identical - shootouts, explosions and brutal scenes of bad guys being taken out - lather, rinse, repeat for an hour and forty minutes. The worst part is the rampant xenophobia and ugly, racist subtext the film has in regards to the War on Terror, with our "hero" acting as much of a barbarian as our "enemies" who brutally kill in the name of their crusade - except the film states that we're the good guys in all of this.

Come to think of it, I may have to revisit Michael Bay's vile, sexist, loud and immensely stupid Bad Boys II at some point, because this sequel just might be the worst action film I've seen in the last 15 years, which, given shite like Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, A Good Day to Die Hard, 2 Fast 2 Furious, 10,000 B.C. and The Purge (to name a few), that's saying something.

Zero stars out of ****

Monday, February 29, 2016

When Ten Isn't Enough: The 12 Best Films of 2015 - Part II

6. Wild Tales - Or, as I call it: Politically Incorrect with Damian Szifron. The Argentinian-born director/writer cooked up, by far, the nastiest black comedy I've seen this side of Scorsese's Wolf of Wall Street, and the funniest piece of filmmaking of the past year. It's a vignette of six stories of people who unleash their darker nature when pushed to the edge, be it from a sleazeball husband who's been screwing around with other women ("Until Death Do Us Part"), or a group of passengers who discover they all share a single thread with an irate pilot ("Pastenak"), humanity's basic rest impulse is the central theme; that despite our concealed appearances, we're all just animals waiting to be unleashed. This is a twisted look on the dark side of our species, and I laughed long and hard through it all.


5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Simply put: this was the movie I expected Mad Max: Fury Road to be, and never was for me, on a personal level. What an exhilarating ride J.J. Abrams took me on, and what skill it took, balancing the nostalgia for the original trilogy and creating a new galactic adventure for a generation that will look to the spunky and resourceful scavenger Rey (a star-making performance by newcomer Daisy Ridley), the redeemed First Order Stormtrooper Finn (the charming John Boyega) and hot-shot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac, blending swagger and tenderness with incredible ease) as their movie heroes. Sure, Episode VII reaches for familiar tricks, like the 3rd act where Resistance forces gather their forces on a wing and a prayer to destroy Starkiller base, and the melodrama of the mistakes of the parents determining the future of their offspring, but the writing goes about showing the conflict in a different, subtle way that makes the device interesting to let itself play out. The ending sequence is perhaps Abrams' at his best - he bridges the link between the battered, yet glorious past and the bright future that's around the bend that both generations can be grateful to look forward to. Well done.



4. Clouds of Sils Maria - Seeing this character-study of an aging actress and her assistant who runs her life has been one of the most perplexing and rewarding experiences I've ever encountered in the years I've been going to the movies. Juliette Binoche plays world renound theater and film actress Maria Enders, who has been offered a chance to perform in her career-making stage play, Maloja Snake as Helena, the older woman who has an affair with a younger woman named Sigrid - the part which jump-started her path to fame - only to be used and discarded when the relationship runs it's course, while Kristen Stewart (yes, Bella Swan from those godawful Twilight movies), plays Valentine, the loyal American assistant. The pair stay at a late playwright's house called the Sils Maria, as Maria mulls over how to approach the character, as well as head full on into her growing insecurities as an actress, as well as her relationship with assistant. What follows in two hours and three minutes is a myriad of endless conversations about the play, about movies, about the hot young starlet, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz) chosen to play Sigrid, despite her run-ins with controversy, and the question of is the art of the play mirroring Maria's life up until this moment, or is is the other way around. Director and writer Olivier Assayas offers no conclusive answers, but gives us a sweeping drama that's filled with terrific performances by it's three leads, excellent writing and direction that feels like a play in motion and like diving headlong into a dream - sometimes both, simultaneously. The end result is a character-driven piece that begs to be seen multiple times, and it's a trip worth taking.



3. Steve Jobs - It's a real shame that almost no one bothered to watch this near-American masterpiece from director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin about the life of one of the most innovative figures of our time, told in a three-act structure, because if they had, they would have seen writing, dialogue, acting, directing and editing laced to perfection. Michael Fassbender nails the overbearing perfectionist to the letter as we're shown a day in the life of a man who's selling the future, while leaving just about everyone around him as roadkill, including his co-founder and creator of the Apple II Steve Woznak (a terrific Seth Rogen) and former CEO John Sculley (Sorkin regular Jeff Daniels). The only two people who don't play dead and roll over are his right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman (a marvelous Kate Winslet) who refuses to let Jobs' forget the best part of him should be his daughter, Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo & Perla Haney-Jardine at different ages thought the film) and not just for the simplicity of his machines. Many see Jobs' as a visionary, others see him as a narcissistic asshole who can't "put a hammer to a nail". Sorkin and Boyle search through the mixed wires and the elegant sheen of both the man and his products to find a complex man at the center of it all - a machine trying to learn what it means to be human.



2. Ex Machina - What do you get when you combine elements from Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Steven Spielberg's A.I., and Mamoru Ohii's Ghost in the Shell? The end result is writer/director Alex Garland's (the scribe behind 28 Days Later and Sunshine) debut sci-fi thriller, a spellbinding and triumphant piece of work that ranks right alongside Children of Men, District 9, Inception, WALL-E and Her as one of the best films in it's genre in the last fifteen years. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer for a software company has won a one-week trip to visit the company's CEO and founder, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac). The true purpose is to show Caleb his latest creation: artificial intelligence, in the form of Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot. Nathan wants him to administer an advanced version of the Turing test to determine if he can see her as a human being, but as the tests go further, the line between artificiality and humanity begin to blur, as Caleb tries to work out if he's being played by Nathan, or Ava, or both. If it sounds like I'm being vague, that's because I am. This is one of those movies you need to go in a experience four yourself, because the script is that hypnotic and cerebral, and because the film is this good. Issac and Gleeson are excellent as a creator who's playing God with two beings - one human and one artificial, and the other a guy who's caught in the middle of two forces playing mind games with him, and each other, but it's Vikander who shines as Ava, the seductive robot at a crossroads on whether or not she's really a person.



1. The Hateful Eight - Perhaps one of the most controversial pictures to come out of 2015, Quentin Tarantino's three-hour whodunit western is perhaps his best film since 1994's Pulp Fiction, and his most polarizing. You either loved the fact he decided to shoot the film on 70mm and released his "roadshow" version (complete with an overture, a program pamphlet and an intermission!), or you hate that it's Tarantino pandering to hardcore cinemphiles for his own sake. You either loved the long-stretches of dialogue between QT's hard-boiled characters or you hate that it's a gabfest that goes nowhere for the first hour and a half. you either love the burst of unexpected and graphic violence, or you hate it for the same reason, especially in it's blood-soaked second half, where just about everyone ends up with a bullet somewhere. For me, no other film had me wanting to go back to the theaters; no other film walked a thinner, tighter rope between good taste and being politically incorrect and had more to say about who we are than this spaghetti western/murder mystery/pitch-black comedy from the mind of Tarantino.

The premise is deceptively simple - eight strangers are held up in a cabin when a blizzard hits before they can reach the town of Red Rock, Wyoming, all heading there for various reasons. John Ruth - aka, "The Hangman" (Kurt Russell) is transporting outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to be hung  Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is transporting three dead bodies to the same location to collect his bounty money, Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), hitches a ride with Ruth, his prisoner and Maj. Warren, claiming that he's the new sheriff of Red Rock. A Brit with a funny name, Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is supposedly the town's hangman. A cowpuncher named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) sits at the back of the haberdashery. Bob "the Mexican" (Demian Bichir) is the caretaker of Minni's Haberdashery when she's mysteriously disappeared. And a Confederate general, Samford Smithers (Bruce Dern), hates black people as much as he does Yankees. They all are connected in terrible ways, and it's not until one vicious moment including poison that they're all not who they say they are. Tarantino's decision to make each character morally suspect, detestable and shady as the next is done purposefully: One, he wants us to stay on our toes and to view these characters with the same sort of suspicion as they do each other on-screen. And two, he's setting us up for the a twist, as well as a flashback that puts everything into focus.

Does Tarantino go too far? Duh, it's Tarantino. Brains, bullets, blood and balls (literally) are splattered across with ferocity after the intermission. Daisy Domergue's kicked, slapped and punched so many times, it does begin to cast a dark shadow over the film's three-hour run-time. Is Tarantino's dialogue too self-indulgent as he makes the three acts all setup? Probably, but when you have actors like Sam Jackson, Walter Goggins, and Jennifer Jason Leigh bringing life to QT's script and words, it all goes down easy and makes it addictive to watch. Does Tarantino use the N-word, along with other racial epithets too damn much? No doubt, but there's a point to the hateful talk: it's all a product of our nation's original sin of slavery and promoting white superiority over the enslaved, lesser races, as well as how it still resonates with us today. And is Tarantino's story, script and themes too far-reaching that doesn't always come together? Yes, but not for a minute do you feel the filmmaker is spinning his wheels for his own sake. The Hateful Eight is messy, both figuratively and literally. It's nasty, ugly, brutal, violent as hell (which is saying something coming from the guy who made a movie where Jewish soldiers took bats and knives to the heads of Nazis everywhere in Inglorious Basterds), and is politically incorrect as all hell. But Tarantino raises the grime to an art form, showing us these people coming together after a civil war, and how the scars of racism, hatred and bitterness still linger in the fabric of our country to this day....all done with the style we've come to expect from one of film's most outrageous and skilled storytellers.


And here's the full list, ranking from 12-1:

12 (tie). Truth & Spotlight
11. Suffragette
10. Sicario
9. Inside Out
8. Straight Outta Compton
7. Beasts of No Nation
6. Wild Tales
5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
4. Clouds of Sils Maria
3. Steve Jobs
2. Ex Machina
1. The Hateful Eight

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

When Ten Isn't Enough: The 12 Best Films of 2015 - Part I

First, let me say right off the bat that I'm sorry it has take me this long to put out anything for this site. To be honest, I was bummed out.

I'm bummed out that the Oscars decided to go all-white for the second straight year and having being reminded that stories about minorities don't really matter all that much.

I'm bummed by the realization that whoever walks away with gold on February 28th, I'll have no dog in this year's hunt.

I'm aggravated with the Bernie Bros and Clintonistas going at each other's throats, completely forgetting that they're on the same side.

I'm frightened that Donlad Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are currently vying for the title of most reactionary candidate I'll ever seen in my lifetime.

I'm nearly apathetic and tired of the continuing saga of will my Chargers remain the San Diego Chargers.

I  (constantly) worry that I'll never be able to get out of my own head and try to live, laugh and fall in love.

To put it plainly: I just totally felt burnt out by many things surrounding me. But I'm back now, and ready to embrace what is to come over the next 10 months at the movies. But before I can do that, I need to put a capper on 2015, and this year, I've decided to do something special.

As the title suggests, sometimes, a top ten list of the best films one has seen in the space of a year simply isn't enough. It usually isn't, but you have to pick and choose which movies you loved, and which ones you have to leave off. This year, I've decided to expand my roster of 2015's finest from the traditional 10 to 12, because I feel the quality of films warrants it. In a year filled with crusading journalists searching for truth, emotions figuring out what's best for a young girl, superheroes vs. advanced technology, and mad women trying to overthrow the system, these are the dirty dozen that stood out for me.


12 (tie). Truth Spotlight - Okay, I'm cheating by putting these two films on here, but both character dramas centered in the world of investigative journalism could act as an engrossing double-billing of give 'em hell filmmaking, albeit done in different ways. Writer/director James Vanderbilt's docudrama on the 60 Minutes Wednesday controversy regarding Bush Jr's service in the National Guard is angry; it's brimming with righteous fury over the (mis)treatment of producer Mary Mapes (a never-better Cate Blanchett) and legendary news anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) at the hands of CBS president Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood) the moment the shit hit the fan, which cost the pair their careers. In contrast to Vanderbilt mourning men and women doing a public service by bringing light to the darkness, director and co-writer Tom McCarthy celebrates that very aspect by telling the story of the Boston Globe's "spotlight" team exposing Catholic priests sexually abusing young children and covering up their crimes. Unlike Truth, where Blanchett is the standout as Mary Mapes, there's brilliant and controlled performances by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams as Walter Robinson, Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer, respectively, as the real-life reporters who put themselves on the line to break the silence about the Catholic faith abusing their power in the Boston community.Both films, however, ultimately say that we need dogged and fearless reporters like a Rezendes, a Rather, a Pfeiffer and a Mapes to be the watchdog for the city, or the entire country, in order to keep the powerful from doing whatever the want, regardless of who gets hurt or the consequences of their actions.


11. Suffragette - This period piece detailing the Suffrage Movement in Britain circa 1912 isn't easy to sit though. Part of it is due to the content: director Sarah Gavron doesn't skimp over what these women went through - arrests, beatings by the police and being shunned in nearly all facets of society; and part of it is due to how these women were willing to forfeit their own lives in lieu of an outcome they knew they might not see, but hoping other women in the future could. Carey Mulligan has put together an impressive resume of one terrific performance after another (An Education in 2009, Never Let Me Go in 2010, and the duo of Drive and Shame in 2011); here, she's never been better as a laundress who loses her family, but gains a cause as member of the Suffragettes. Watching her slowly transform from quiet and subversive housewife/factory worker to a steely-eyed, weary advocate for women's rights who continues to be a thorn in the side of Inspector Steed (Brendon Gleeson) is one of the most complete and fully-fleshed out performances in 2015. Despite the strides made in the fight for gender equality, such as the 29th Amendment outlawing discrimination in the voting booth because of gender in 1920, the right to have an abortion in 1973 and the Lily Lebetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, to name a few, we're reminded at the end of this civil rights drama that we still have a ways to go to. 


10. Sicario - Not since Michael Mann's Collateral in 2004 and Joel & Ethan Coen's No Country For Old Men in 2007 have I seen a more raw, hypnotic, bleak and exhilarating crime-thriller than director Denis Villeneuve's and first-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan's take on the War on Drugs. From the firefight in Juarez, Mexico with Federal Agent Kate Marcer (Emily Blunt) and CIA black ops Agents Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) & Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) going up against foot soldiers for drug kingpin Manuel Diaz, to the explosive third act in the nighttime desert of Mexico, this is both first-rate entertainment and a sobering tale of the results of merging with monsters. Blunt does her best work to date as the straight-arrow FBI Agent Marcer who's constantly coming into conflict with how Graver and his division are carrying out their orders, while Brolin is fantastic as a shadowy black-ops leader with no qualms getting his hands dirty to produce results. But it's del Toro who reigns over as Gillick, an operative with his own agenda. Seeing his true nature revealed, and telling Marcer that she's a sheep "in a land of wolves" brilliantly sums up the film in a nutshell.


9. Inside Out - After a few years making subpar work (Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University), Pixar returns to form, and do it by crafting their most original and unique animated film since 2008's WALL-E, by taking us into the head of a pre-teen girl's emotions. As usual, the animation wizards take a bizarre premise and make it work thanks to a nuanced and lovely script (Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley and Pete Docter, take a bow) which never makes a false step or treats kids as if they're dumb, boasting gorgeous and imaginative animation as directors Docter & Ronnie del Carmen show us the inner-workings of Riley's head, and thanks to terrific voice acting by Amy Poheler as Joy, Phyllis Smith as Sadness, and Richard Kind as Bing Bong, a forgotten imaginary friend from Riley's younger days; as well as spot-on comedic timing by Mindy Kaling as Disgust, Bill Hader as Fear and Lewis Black as Anger. What makes this whimsical, touching and achingly imaginative piece of filmmaking all the more special is how much it gets right about what it's like to be a fish out of water in a new setting: missing old friends, making new ones, and trying to start a new life and form a new identity for yourself. Well done, and welcome back, Pixar.


8. Straight Outta Compton - Not only is director F. Gary Gary's musical biopic an entertaining and compelling late-80's-early 90's version of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights in dealing with the rise and fall of the N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitude), it also works as a parable of how the reality of five young black men shaped the art they would produce; as a commentary of youth having too much, too soon in the spotlight; and as a somber reminder of the strained relationship between the black community and local law enforcement that harass and instigate, instead of serving and protecting the whole. O'Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins and the reliable Paul Giamatti all give fantastic performances as Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Jerry Heller, the manager of the group, respectively, but it's Jason Mitchell as Eric Wright, aka "Easy E", who steals the show as the young man who puts the group together, but takes the hardest tumble as he aligns fiercely with Heller as the manager tears the band apart. It's a film that captures the time and the place of the movement where arguments over race relations were about to boil over, where drug use was as much as a casualty as gang violence and police brutality, and where five young men exploded the truth about the plight of urban living to Americans during the Reagan/Bush era.


7.  Beasts of No Nation - This is one of those movies I can only watch once in a blue moon. Not because the level of skill is lacking, or that the film is terrible - it wouldn't be on this list if otherwise. Rather, this is a film that grabs you by the throat and drags you to the heart of darkness, to a place where the worst of man rules over, leaving a trail of bloodshed and horror in its wake. Director, writer and cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga's tale of Agu, a young boy living in wartime West Africa, who loses his family and becomes indoctrinated into a rebel militia, led by Idris Elba's charming and sadistic Commandant, is gripping from the first frame to the last. Newcomer Abraham Atta is a revelation, capturing in real time, the death of his innocence as he is consumed by drugs, the pull of avenging his family's death, this new makeshift family with his youth-in-arms, and with the monster he is slowly becoming. And Elba gives a career best as the Commandant, a general who acts as warlord, cult-leader and bizarre father figure to a group of lost boys with guns - sometimes, all at once. It's a tale that shows that in war, the demons come from everywhere.

I'll have Part II up and running by the end of next week, perhaps sooner. Stay tuned, and it's great to be back.