X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)


About halfway through X-Men: Apocalypse, there’s a scene disconnected from the main narrative where three teenagers—desperately seeking an escape—go to the mall to see a movie. Stepping out at the conclusion of 1983’s Return of the Jedi (for that is when Apocalypse takes place), the three kids are nonplussed, and start arguing about which movie in the trilogy was superior—Star Wars or Empire. “Can we all just agree that the third movie is usually no good?” interjects Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). End of scene. Ba dum tish.

Series devotees will identify that suspiciously pointed line as a metatextual jab at 2006’s fan-reviled-but-monetarily-quite-successful X-Men: The Last Stand, the capper to the previous X-Men trilogy, which committed the cardinal sins of (a) catastrophically misusing the key  character of Jean (played then by Famke Janssen) and (b) firing director Bryan Singer, in favor of action-comedy impresario Brett Ratner. Singer, who birthed the X-Men movie franchise (and the resulting wave of comic book films that we’re still living through) all the way back in 2000, returned to it in 2014’s time-travelling soft reboot Days of Future Past. He’s back in the director’s chair once again for Apocalypse, and he continues to make it his business to dismantle and mock the choices the series made in his absence.

That slam about trilogy enders (I promise I’ll move on from it in one second) comes across in the film as fairly obnoxious (it exists as an isolated cutaway), and, ultimately, quite unwise. Because Apocalypse, let’s be clear, can be considered either the third or sixth X-Men movie, depending on how you’re counting, and if you include the two Wolverine solo spinoff outings (which you might as well because 2013’s The Wolverine is a franchise high-point) and this past spring’s Deadpool (which, yeah, apparently that has to be considered, too) than that makes Apocalypse count as number nine. No matter what, we’re dealing with threes in Apocalypse, which means it takes some courage to blow a raspberry like that in a movie like this.  Especially since X-Men: Apocalypse is such an undisciplined mess that not only does Return of the Jedi come out looking better by the comparison…so does practically every other film in the X-Men franchise. Including The Last Stand.

Uniquely for comic book movie franchises, the X-Men (on film at least) have not really drawn their power on the strength of their rogues gallery. At their best, the movies are philosophical debates between Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Eric Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) with the ensuing superheroic battles between acolytes for both functioning like wham-pow extensions of that struggle. So already we’re on uncertain ground in Apocalypse when we open in ancient Egypt and the promise of a full-on comic book supervillain. In a sequence that looks for all the world like a deleted bit from Stargate, an all-powerful mutant named En Sabah Nur transfers his consciousness to a new host body and is waylaid by a last-ditch sabotage effort. He then sleeps until 1983. Upon waking (now known as Apocalypse, although dialogue doesn’t exactly spell this out), he looks at society in bafflement. He feeds off TV signals (“Learning!” he croaks, showing here infinitely more intellectual curiosity than some presidential candidates). And then he decides it’s time to end civilization as we know it.

Apocalypse is played by Oscar Isaac in a subdued, uncomfortable performance that lacks menace, nuance, wit, or even the joys of well-played camp. Buried under pounds of blue makeup, he looks ridiculous, his voice is twisted into a low-register sinister boogedy-boogedy sneer that sounds ridiculous, and judging by his discomfort with his truly bottom-of-the-barrel dialogue, he understandably feels ridiculous, clearly. But he isn’t allowed to go completely ridiculous. Oh no. If he had, then maybe it would be okay. But because this is a serious (or at least “serious”) comic book film, all he’s allowed to do is stand around and wave special effects at people and recite endless pseudo-profundities that mean zilch. The role has absolutely no juice to it—no motivation, no internal drama, no reason for any of this (he wants to destroy the world I guess because that’s what he does) and if there is secretly buried material that could be mined by an actor even with a baddie this paper-thin, Isaac has not found it. The role utterly defeats him, and we should consider the momentousness of that. Isaac is one of the most gifted and charismatic actors working today (see Inside Llewyn Davis or A Most Violent Year), and even when occasionally stuck in horrible movies (Sucker Punch, Robin Hood), up until now he was always the best thing in them.

But Apocalypse is just an elaborate example of the movie’s key unifying problem, which is that none of the boatloads of characters are serviced very well. Upon rising, Apocalypse goes searching for four minions to become his horsemen. Horsemen? Yes, just like in the bible. “Maybe the bible got it from him,” intones someone at some point. Ooooh. Okay. But…to what end? Why? Never mind. Apocalypse collects his trophies in perfunctory (and altogether unclear) scenes. We have Angel (Ben Hardy), who has wings that are blades, Psyloche (Olivia Munn), who wears a goofy swimsuit of a costume and wields purple energy blades, and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) who can control the weather but, bizarrely, does not have blades. There. Now you know both everything you need to know and everything you will ever learn about the horsemen.

Okay, not quite. There’s also Magneto, played once again by Michael Fassbender, an actor who is incapable of phoning in a performance. In the years since the last movie, he has settled down, taken a job, taken a wife, and now has a daughter. By all that is just half of a clumsy and manipulative setup on part of the script to rip things away from Magneto and make him so vulnerable that he listens when Apocalypse comes a’knocking. So he becomes the fourth horseman. But the movie is maddeningly unspecific on what Apocalypse is doing here. Is he brainwashing these folks into becoming his followers, or hypnotizing them? Or is he just preying upon their emotions and leading them towards corruption? Either way it robs Magneto of at least several degrees of agency and cheapens him into a pawn. Do we really want to see a character possessing such piercing intelligence and resolve willingly signing up to be a minion for a dull-witted Smurf in battle armor? I vote NO.

But it’s not just the villains who fail to register. Series staple Professor X spends the whole film stammering away like Hugh Grant though would-be romantic encounters with amnesiac CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne, inexplicably not having something better to do). These scenes are, the more that you really think about them, pretty creepy. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the blue-skinned shapeshifter, gets one or two scenes as she contends with being an icon of mutant suffrage—she has a couple of blue moments, but most often than not she takes the uncanny form of a bored Jennifer Lawrence desperately looking for the exit. Meanwhile, Beast is played by Nicholas Hoult. He exists.

Even the youngbloods are ill-served. Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler both help open the movie excitedly as if thinking it’s going to be about them, and them glumly realize that they’re just window dressing. Turner’s stiff Jean Grey gets a dramatic payoff without nearly enough setup. Quicksilver (Evan Peters), for that matter, gets a setup and then waits around as the movie deliberately withholds a payoff for him. The movie’s threads feel picked up and dropped and picked up again at random, and the plot follows suit, which is why it allows itself a half hour detour to a secret military installation right before the climax—it’s an entire subplot that goes nowhere, lasts too long, and does nothing (well, it injects some unwelcome Twilight flavoring into one of the series’ key relationships—but other than that, nothing). One need only look a few weeks ago to Captain America: Civil War to see the skills needed to juggle characters and plot points with well-organized gusto. It pulled it off. Next to it, X-Men: Apocalypse stumbles.

By the time of the overlong and undercooked third act (which is accomplished via some really shoddy greenscreen work, it must be said), there’s a weird disconnect happening. The ending of Apocalypse lives up to its (or his? Or His?) name and rains down unholy evil on Cairo, Egypt, in much the same manner that Man of Steel laid waste to a city (this is yet another superhero epic that ends “happily,” except for the fact that thousands are clearly dead). This is the same film that, an hour earlier, transported Eric back to Auschwitz, where he could reconnect with his tortured past and purge his demons (Fassbender makes it work). The holocaust reference points have been coded into Magneto’s backstory for quite a long time in the comics, and since the start of the movie series. That’s worthy, or at least it was at the time.

But there’s something borderline-reckless (if not morally bankrupt) in the way the movie mindlessly veers from real-life horror to comic book horror-cum-blockbuster-spectacle without the slightest bit of pause or introspection (unlike, say, Civil War, which was all about making that kind of soul-searching an actual virtue). Bryan Singer’s original X-Men movies took pains to ground his universe and consider human costs. They had big showy moments, and they didn’t steer away from people dying, but the movies had the grace and scale to acknowledge those deaths. But that was almost two decades ago. Apocalypse, sensing which way the wind is blowing, tries to compete in a crowded superhero field by giving us craven, consequence-free destruction . It’s boring, of course. Most CGI explosion fests are boring. But this one is not just boring and morally dead, it’s also fundamentally at odds with the universe that Bryan Singer built.

But then, Apocalypse doesn’t feel like a Bryan Singer film anyway. Some shot choices are puzzling, the blocking feels ridiculously rushed and ill-considered, and neither Singer nor mainstay cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel are able to inject much flair into the proceedings, save for one cute time-lapse sequence for Quicksilver set to Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” (that and the Jedi reference are the few times the movie actually goes for period detail). For Singer, the whole movie is a misstep. The careful, deliberate craftsman who long ago made The Usual Suspects (before becoming just the guy who makes X-Men movies) feels utterly adrift here. Maybe Mystique got to him.

I don’t feel angry at X-Men: Apocalypse, I’m just disappointed in it. If we’re going to be sentenced to so many comic book epics per year, wouldn’t it help if most of them were good? Apocalypse plays like a movie made by a committee that persistently confuses fanservice with story and character, and for those of us not in step with the comics (the last time I read an X-Men was maybe a decade ago) it’s like playing to an empty room. No doubt there are X-Men fans who will love Apocalypse, and I’m glad for them. They will have the ability to go above and beyond in explaining its excesses, embracing its winks and nods, and rationalizing its choices. It’s nice to have a superpower.

The Nice Guys (2016)

The Nice Guys is a riotous, delightful and volatile cocktail that blends film noir mystery, buddy movie trajectories, grotesque violence, bracing cynicism, warped pulp masculinity and more than a little outrageous comedy. Here’s a crime picture that takes place in 1977 Los Angeles that eulogizes an era’s lost innocence, that knowingly kids just as many tropes as it quotes, that savors its own wordplay, stealth parody touches, high-brow references, low-brow language and tossed-off period details. And it takes wicked pleasure in bashing together elements that shouldn’t work, like action heroes who are sometimes disastrously incompetent, a plot that you have to think about three times to see if it hangs together (I think it does), jokes that don’t undercut action so much as stand beside it with an axe, and avant-garde brushstrokes like a little boy who casually makes obscene offers, a mini-debate on the merits of ventriloquism, and a cameo by a U.S. president in the very last place you would expect him to be.

It is, in short, exactly the sort of movie you’d expect from Shane Black, who knows a little something about making new juice from old bottles (his rise-to-fame success story involves penning a little spec script named Lethal Weapon). Nice Guys is a return not exactly to Weapon’s buddy-cop aesthetic, but more to Black’s 2005 directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which starred Robert Downey Jr. as a smart-assed, dim-witted thief who stumbles through a Los Angeles murder conspiracy that “labyrinthine” doesn’t even begin to do justice to as a descriptor (Black also directed Downey in Iron Man 3, arguably the best of the Marvel Iron Man films). Black’s screenplays are frequently rich with character invention, strong dialogue and bruised hearts that are still unmistakably beating, and their shaggy, spontaneous-seeming qualities often disguise their secret Swiss-watch precision. In our sometimes aggressively kid-glove times, his sensibilities act as a zippy tonic, smuggling in potentially problematic material (like a preteen girl who tries to sharpen her Nancy Drew skills by sneaking into a lavish party of pornographers in full-on business mode) with a winking, dedicated self-awareness. In other words, don’t try this at home, folks. This man’s a professional.

At the center are Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. Crowe is Jackson Healy, a bruiser-for-hire who has hidden smarts. His narration opens the film, lamenting a world where kids grow up too fast, as we see him apply muscle to a pothead for corrupting a minor. Gosling plays Holland March, a sad-sack private detective who has made himself fitfully comfortable with bilking little old ladies on dead-end jobs, and is such a hopeless drunk that his precocious, hapless daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) has to chauffer him from time to time. Both men hate themselves almost as much as they hate the kind of society the next generation is inheriting from them. Like many noir heroes, both men lament how ugly the world has become while still accepting the work that ugliness provides with a smile and a nod. Also, like many noir heroes, both men aren’t actually very nice. “Am I a bad person?” March asks his daughter at a low point. “Yes,” she says simply, in a very specific tone of “How many times have we been over this” exasperation.

Healy and March both meet on the job: March is trying to find a young girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a person of interest in his investigation into the death of a porn star. Healy, under Amelia’s employ, arrives at March’s door one day to quite forcefully persuade the PI that Amelia should stay lost. But some lowlifes (Beau Knapp, Keith David) are also after Amelia, and one meeting with them convinces Healy that he should team up with March to track the girl down, and so they venture into an L.A. crime web that involves underground porn, nasty assassins with peculiar distinguishing marks, bizarre double-crosses, a drive to a rendezvous that is interrupted by a very unusual backseat passenger, and a reunion between Crowe and his L.A. Confidential co-star Kim Basinger, who plays…well, nevermind.

Crowe and Gosling are brilliant together. Gosling shows keen and unexpected, high-energy comic chops (his discovery of a dead body at one point would make Lou Abbott quite proud indeed). Crowe dials down a little into the mode of a mopey, lumbering wry bear, doing plenty with either a stoic face or a single eyebrow movement. They make a good team, adept at shotgunning Black’s rat-a-tat dialogue without it seeming like an air, and also up for any sight gag or pratfall that comes their way. Gosling’s slapstick exit from a party, for example, is especially memorable –he and the stunt team both deserve a well-baked cookie.

But it’s Rice, as Gosling’s detective-wannabe daughter, who steals pretty much every scene she’s in and bestows the movie its beating heart without ever making the whole thing corny. Rice creates not an annoyingly precious kid sidekick but a complicated young adult who has has grown up fast in a lot of ways, but is still a child in a lot of others—she’s simultaneously perky and wounded, knowing and oblivious, disappointed in her father and yet not quite resigned to see disappointment as her eternal condition. She never feels like a character straining for sitcom effect. Her regard for the world seems to tiptoe between childlike naiveté and sophisticated wherewithal, and her wide-eyed insistence on urging March and Healy to do the right thing is what slowly inspires both scumbags to maybe live up to the film’s semi-ironic title. And kudos, by the way, to the film’s set dresser: Holly’s room, when we see it, is peppered with the distant but unmistakable yellow spines of Nancy Drew hardcovers.

The story is simple in the broad strokes but the details are another matter, combining Black’s penchant for twists (oh so many), cynical attitudes (his heroes are once again schmucks who grow a conscience just in time for no one to care) riffs on ancient cliches (like mastering the logistics of a shoootout where the only available cover is a rotating Cadillac), and playful magic realism (the film’s opening sequence, a blend of prepubescent curiosity, violence, coincidence and a sense of complex, budding sexuality, is like a little primer on Shane Black-itude) There’s also plenty of meta-commentary, like a chase-the-McGuffin climax with a runaway film canister containing either state secrets or smut (or both), making the none-too-subtle point that trash can be just as meaningful as high art, just like how the plot of Kiss Kiss depended heavily on characters posessing an encyclopedic knowledge of a pulp author’s dime-store canon.

I’ve talked too much. Here’s the truth: The Nice Guys is terrific, ribald, daring and clever summer fun, a movie made for adults that still has zip and irrepressible energy, and a healthy reminder that once upon a time, summer movies didn’t have to star superheroes. In fact, this one kinda gleefully doesn’t even bother to have heroes at all.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

captain-america-civil-war-still-02It has become a pretty standard occupational hazard for superhero franchises that, the longer they go on, the more they have to devote their resources to crowd control. It’s become straight-up de rigueur to shovel extra characters into these movies; many a comic epic has been ultimately felled by shoehorning in characters in successive sequels. But that’s the trouble with adapting funny books: audiences want to see their favorites, and pretty much every character is somebody’s. Captain America: Civil War, the 13th movie in Marvel’s inexhaustible house-produced comic book movie cycle, bows to this inevitable trend, but it pulls it off a little better than most through a clever stroke of plot mechanics: it cherry-picks from a core of about a dozen major Marvel Comics characters and divides them straight down the middle over a thorny policy issue.

This isn’t a new idea, of course. “Who would win in a fight? X or Y?” is a popular fanboy question for a reason, after all. Superheroes in the comics are routinely roughing each other up for invading each other’s turf or resisting their policies. Even the iconic superhero teams (including Marvel’s Avengers and competitor DC’s Justice League) are forever fraught with the unspoken tension that each squadmate could turn against the other at any minute. Uneasy alliances between alphas are pretty much the bread and butter of comic book arcs. Civil War goes about exploring this trope in a somewhat thoughtful way, pulling off the neat trick of making all of its star players simultaneously heroes and villains. Heck, even the real villain behind the scenes here is less an evil genius and more of a small, hurt man who has a real point, however misguidedly pursued.

The key icon here is, of course, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), the red-white-and-blue supersoldier who stands for what’s right first, and America second (sometimes a distant second). But he’s given an ideological opponent this time in billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), who patrols the skies as Iron Man. There’s fallout to deal with in the Avengers’ world, since recent superheroic operations have created undeniable collateral damage, world-saving results aside. The U.N., represented by William Hurt, feels the need to respond to a growing world complaint that the Avengers are vigilantes that must be put in check with legislation. Stark, who even when we first met him in Iron Man (2008) was a guy with a penchant for sudden self-flagellation, is happy to accept the so-called “Sakovia Accords” (named after the city that was levelled by the apocalyptic tussle at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron [2015]).  Cap, however, rejects this plan, since previous movies have shown his troubled history with authoritarian regimes, both abroad and at home. Or perhaps Cap’s stubborn moral rectitude shows a conscience bubbling with latent, uncomfortable objectivism. It’s a credit to the Marvel franchise’s careful attention to character development and planning that both of these characters’ attitudes make a lot of sense. “Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth,” says Tony to Cap, after Cap insists he can’t look the other way to injustice, even though sometimes he wishes he could. We get what both of them mean.

Civil War’s surprisingly talky first act deals with these ideas in altogether intangible terms, making them feel a little dramatically inert. But things get tangible with the re-emergence of Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Cap’s oldest friend who was brainwashed into an evil cyborg assassin and now is a broken man trying to piece together fractured memories (by the way, tough luck to you if you haven’t seen the past several Marvel movies, as this one is in no hurry to stop and recap). Bucky ends up getting framed for a bombing and used as a pawn by the vengeful Zemo (Daniel Brühl), who has drafted a careful plan to rip the Avengers apart. Cap’s moves to protect Bucky become the focal point for the titanic clash, as both Steve and Tony start rallying troops to their banners. And if you’re starting to suspect that this conflict is just a convenient clothesline to hang action sequences, you’re right. There are gestures made to have the political conversation of this movie appear to be topical and relevant, but it’s isn’t actually.

So here’s where we mention who the supporting players are. Deep breath. In Cap’s corner there’s the telekinetic Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the versatile and acrobatic archer Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who flies in an bird-wing exoskeleton, shrinky-dink Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), and of course, Bucky. Meanwhile, Tony’s group enlists his partner-in-crime War Machine (Don Cheadle) and the conflicted assassin Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, who, top-billing wise, is yet again always a bridesmaid, never a bride). There’s also the domesticated artificial intelligence known as Vision (Paul Bettany), and two new players to this crew. The first is Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who has a day job as prince to an African nation but moonlights in a clawed costume, and the second is a scrawny webslinging kid from Queens known as Spider-Man (Tom Holland).

As you can tell, this is a very very busy movie, and it’s a true credit to it that it somehow keeps all of these plates spinning without quite collapsing under its own weight, plus setting aside time for some nimble introductions (The most common line of dialogue, aside from steadfast declarations of what’s right and what’s wrong, is “Who’s this new guy?” or variations thereof). The motivations of the supporting players, and their decisions to be on each team, range from reasonable to arbitrary: Black Panther wants revenge on Bucky, Stark effectively buys Spidey’s loyalty, Hawkeye remains a cipher, and Rudd’s Ant-Man shows up to the fight asleep in the back of a van—that’s how little the movie cares about his perspective on things. It’s mainly just an iffy excuse to get a fight going, which everyone is up for; you can almost imagine Wolverine and the Fantastic Four sitting by the phone waiting for a call from either Tony Stark, Cap or their agents.

But the two teams rumble in a key sequence midway through the film that ranks high as one of the great superhero brawls. Powers and abilities are used and doubled and complemented and counteracted in an intricate free-for-all that is really quite fun to watch (and despite the movie’s grimmer tone, it uses its diverse cast to inject some welcome playfulness to the proceedings). It’s an evocation of what action figure-owners did as kids smashing together their favorites (“Now Ant-Man’s going to fight Spider-Man! Thwip! Black Widow’s going to fight Falcon! Swoosh!”). It’s a well-conceived bit of mayhem, veering just to the edge of camp silliness but staying on the right side, although the above-par fight choreography is flattened just a smidge by Joe and Anthony Russo’s flavorless direction (the team also helmed Cap’s last solo adventure, 2014’s superior The Winter Soldier).

The major thing that keeps Civil War from teetering into the goofball is its cast. I like the way Olsen, who was just one of many moving pieces in last year’s Age of Ultron, finds room to grow and struggle with her abilities. Holland makes an agreeable new Spider-Man, finding the right synthesis of good-hearted, quippy dweebitude. Boseman makes a formidable impression as Black Panther. Johannson is as engaging as always, Mackie and Rudd are always welcome, and Bettany finds just the right note as Vision, who gets a laugh just in the way he wears a cardigan as a simulacrum of human behavior. Downey has been playing Tony Stark for so long he has now edged into the iconic. But Evans gives the movie its heart. Has there ever been a more perfect marriage of actor to comic book hero role? He’s so sensational, making goodness and purity an honest-to-God virtue, not a mockery (unlike other franchises that don’t know how to process a character who stands for things). With the completion of this trilogy, Evans’ Cap cements himself as the clear superhero gold standard.

What hurts Civil War a little bit, though, is its lack of personality. The first Captain America, The First Avenger (2011), was a dynamite two-fisted throwback to pulp serials, Indiana Jones-style. The follow-up Winter Soldier evoked shady’s 70’s conspiracy thrillers like The Parallax View, achieving a neat intimacy underneath the bombast. This one is just a lumbering superhero epic. Its only reference points are other Avengers movies, which feels vaguely incestuous, not to mention that there’s an unshakable feeling of product made by a studio, not filmmakers (even Joss Whedon’s lesser Avengers sequel from last year has plenty of Whedon’s trademark wit, which feels kinda absent here).

Maybe that feeling is aided by the countless references and call backs and call forwards and easter eggs and in-jokes which don’t feel 100% reigned-in this time. The franchise-building used to feel exciting, now it’s just exhausting and calculated. Martin Freeman shows up and is wasted in a nothing CIA role. Brühl’s villainous Zemo is underutilized. Black Panther and Spidey are in this entirely to set up their own movies, lending a vaguely mercenary air. Emily Van Camp reprises her role as Sharon Carter (Cap’s official gf in the comics, revealed here to be the niece of movie-Cap’s paramour Peggy, not that that doesn’t weirdly keep her from getting a big smooch anyway). She does a little fighting, a little spying, then goes back into the woodwork. Job security at Marvel is pretty good, as long as you only want to work there only a couple days a year. After all, let’s give a big hand to returning player William Hurt, who injected the role of General “Thunderbolt” Ross in The Incredible Hulk (2008) with all the vigor of a coma patient and here successfully reprises his role by replicating that energy note for note.

Granted, none of these touches are as lame as some other universe’s attempts at world-building (this spring’s sloppy, contempt-laden adventure at Warner Brothers, Batman v Superman, pretty much defines the lowest possible bar for such lazy fan-wankery). And Civil War, despite its sops to crowd-pleasing theatrics, does venture to some darker places, including a cruel third-act trap that is practically a superhero chamber-piece tragedy (relatively, anyway). This is a movie that’s very much about consequences, in both the innocents who suffer under the boot of superheroics, and also the friendships that break because of this dust-up, and that function of the story is well-conceived by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley (who have stewarded all three Captain Americas). It’s brave, sort of, to see a blockbuster series lean into some of this stuff and risk alienating its audience.

But despite the very high entertainment value, it all feels just a tiny bit rote, mainly because despite Civil War’s Empire Strikes Back­ish underpinnings and the grim notes sounded by its finale, we know that any setbacks will be temporary. The wheel will go on turning, friendships will crumble and rebuild, nothing is permanent. Civil War is a sequel to a prequel to a bridge to a new ending to a spinoff to a reboot to a new beginning, and while in the moment it’s good fun, there’s a stubborn speck of fatigue at the core of it, as it takes a movie that promises the end of all things for us to realize that this will never end. “Spider-Man will return!” trumpets the end title crawl, and it might as well amend that to “Every single one of these characters will return.” Which means it’s left to us to wonder when we’ll be able to pencil in some time to miss them.

Green Room (2016)

Green-RoomJeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is a smart, mean and brutal thriller that has an undeniably grimy vibrancy. At its heart, it can trace back its origins to countless westerns, zombie slashers, crime films, or pretty much any story that features scrappy underdogs holed up in a ramshackle outpost surrounded by hostiles. In the past, the others have been Native Americans, monsters, street gangs, aliens, etc. Here, they’re neo-Nazis marshalling themselves to eliminate a punk band that’s locked itself in a room after strolling into a classic wrong place/wrong time situation.

So far, so ordinary, at least on paper. But being a good filmmaker is often like being a good singer: delivering an old hit in such a way that it makes you feel like you’re hearing it for the first time, and that’s exactly what Saulnier does with Green Room, substituting our memories of classics gone by with well-constructed storytelling and characters, an eye for smart and telling details, and a way for ratcheting up tension to sickening levels. This isn’t a film for the faint of heart. But if you’re game, what a ride it is.

The setup is nimble in its execution. We meet a punk band from D.C., The Ain’t Rights, trying desperately to survive. They siphon gas to make a gig in upstate Oregon, and when they get there they end up mumbling through interviews in exchange for crash pads, and then screaming their music at a lunch crowd for $6 apiece. A contact puts them in touch with a place near Portland who might pay. “Ultra right-wing,” the guys grimaces. “Well, actually, ultra left-wing.”

The band arrives at a dingy, depressed-looking bar in the middle of the woods, littered with swastikas and Confederate flags. The feeling of “let’s just get this over with” lingers over every uncomfortable look. “I have a dumb idea,” says Pat (Anton Yelchin), the lead singer. The group comes out and starts their set with “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” thoroughly angering the crowd before quickly winning them back with the next song. It’s a dumb idea that sort of pays off, unlike Pat’s next dumb idea, which is to barge back into the green room after Sam (Alia Shawkat), the guitarist, forgets her phone. While they were playing, violence has happened, and now there’s a dead girl’s corpse with a knife in its head. The club manager herds Pat, Sam and also bassist Reece (Joe Cole) and drummer Tiger (Callum Turner) back into the green room. “We’re not keeping you,” he says firmly. “You’re just staying.”

The situation escalates. A gun changes hands back and forth and the power dynamic changes within the room between captive and captor, but that still leaves the hostile elements on the other side of the door, personified by the club owner, the gruff and cold Darcy (Patrick Stewart, in a sublime piece of non-stunt casting stunt casting). Darcy is smart and slides into practical, crisis management mode, already thinking about the most efficient way to dispose of the kids. His plan has a perfect, procedural sense to it as he dismisses the bar crowd, takes stock of his men and resources, and starts mentally calculating what’s the smoothest murder scenario to stage for the police. Meanwhile, the group starts to slowly understand how much trouble they’re in, despite the faux-reassuring words of Darcy from the other side. The only other innocent in the room, Amber (Imogen Poots), was friends with the dead girl and knows the scene well enough to offer advice, all of it bleak.

From here, Saulnier (who also scripted) uses the setup as a platform for a clockwork chess game with moves and counter-moves, where strict attention is paid to resources, time, money and wits, all while the tension is wrung out of every frame. His plot moves in ingenious ways as the mangnitude of the trap these five kids are in grows and grows: in one of the story’s neatest movements, a desperate attempt to improve their situation ends up doing little but supplying the kids with unwanted information that worsens it considerably. Saulnier also refuses to let his characters congeal into cookie-cutter shapes, or become hardcore action heroes, or make speeches where they explain their motivations. Realistic—if heightened–behavior informs character here, not monologues where people share philosophies or backstories. Even Poots’ Amber, who offers dry commentary, seems not like artificial comic relief but like a certain kind of person in shock and trying to cope.

But despite all the trappings of a genre exercise (and it is well-done at that – Saulnier is a skilled director capable out of conjuring unease out of thin air), Green Room has more on its mind. It humanizes its villains, to a degree, creating not a thinly-sketched supporting cast out of an American History X casting call, but a group of people who have their own rules, concerns and dramas. “This is not a party, it’s a movement,” says the grandfatherly Darcy at one point to a gathering of folks, and there’s sly commentary when Darcy and his manager have to look to true believers in their newer ranks to get things done. Murder is a game for younger men, it seems. The elders have to resolve having a white supremacist philosophy with keeping the lights on and keeping the books balanced. Yet none of this is spelled out—the movie’s most shocking quality might be the way it takes volatile sociopolitical material and just bakes it all into the story, rather than writing on-the-nose dialogue that addresses it.

Stewart’s gripping performance is underplayed and controlled, and while Saulnier doesn’t waste the shock value of seeing Captain Picard hurling a racial epithet, he and Stewart create a nuanced character who seems weary and sad but you understand why others would flock to him and seek his approval. When one of the goons brings along a pack of attack dogs, the parallels between the men and dogs’ relationships with their respective masters is clear, especially with the quiet point made that cruelty is taught. These are touches that show thought, and it’s a rare to see a thriller be so circumspect about its violence, and what it’s trying to say with it, right down to the final scene.

Saulnier’s last film, Blue Ruin, was a terrific and tense deconstruction of revenge stories that stressed cyclical violence and collateral damage (his lead from Blue Ruin, Macon Blair, turns up again here as a panicky club manager with a truly inconvenient conscience). Clearly the effects of violence are things that weigh on his mind, and with Green Room he’s made a tight and engaging piece that works on multiple. What a refreshing change of pace, when so many thrillers don’t seem to work on any.

The Jungle Book (2016)

jungle-book-2016-posters-mowgli-balooWalt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Jon Favreau. Screenplay by Justin Marks; based upon the books by Rudyard Kipling. Produced by Jon Favreau, Brigham Taylor. Music by John Debney. Photographed by Bill Pope. Edited by Mark Livolsi. Production designed by Christopher Glass, Abhijeet Mazumder. Starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken.

Jon Favreau’s new film version of The Jungle Book counts three major points of inspiration: Rudyard Kipling’s original 1893 series of children’s stories, the 1967 Disney animated classic that cheerfully rewrote Kipling, and (most crucially) astonishing achievements in cutting-edge special effects. The new movie charts a tricky course by trying to honor both Kipling and Disney, and it does so by successfully creating a world in and of its own. And yes, I mean “world.”  Effects are to be expected when we’re discussing a story about talking animals, but it’s not just the beasts that are completely computer-generated here, so are the endless landscapes: the trees, the plains, the rivers and mountains and valleys and plateaus. Aside from various special effects houses, this production never once left Los Angeles.

This is the correct (if expensive) move, because Kipling’s jungle, located in India, is not a real place. Not really, anyway. What he created in his stories is more of a super-jungle that unspools in endless directions, serving as a stage for archetypal adventure fables. It is a jungle with a capital “J,” a place that, like Barrie’s Neverland, is home to endless surprise and invention. Kipling, of course, was a proud colonialist and more than a little unenlightened. But he lived in India as a boy and again as an adult writer, and you can see him peering into the underbrush of his birthplace with rapacious, romantic imagination, like a child of today looking outside his backyard and wondering with delight.

Favreau’s jungle operates on a similar level. It’s a stunning sprawl that seems to wind its way into dreamscape and then back again, and the CGI method gives Favreau license to not twist composition to fit tone, but instead to build each shot from the ground up. In one the movie’s best visuals, the young hero Mowgli (Neel Sethi) emerges into a canopy full of branches that twist and curl into frightful infinity—all the better the hide the thick, sinister coils of the python Kaa (Scarlett Johannson). (It’s well-worth seeing in 3D, by the way).

The movie takes its primary cues from Disney, focusing on Mowgli, a human orphan who is adopted by the jungle, and then is stalked by a tiger and other parties once he comes of age. The tone, however, has been elevated out of the realm of jolly musical comedy and into something much more primal (though still with some music). Kipling might approve of the way the story has been pushed in the direction of adventure, with dashes of real majesty and menace. There are beautiful encounters with a pack of elephants, who are revered as caretakers of the wildneress. Bowing to them is not optional, and they more than earn their keep. And the savagely villainous tiger Shere Khan here speaks not with the wry, wicked amusement of George Sanders from the cartoon (who you could imagine talking his victims into his waiting jaws) but with the fierce, rumbling tones of Idris Elba. This may be a family film, but it’s also one that takes the natural laws of the jungle quite seriously. Parents should be warned that it doesn’t shy away from an appropriate sense of intensity. Like the best Disney films, it knows that once in a while, life (whether in the wild or not) is scary.

That’s maybe the most thrilling thing about Favreau’s Jungle Book: it somehow captures Kipling’s method of making the wilderness accessible and vivid, but not made either domesticated or toothless by trips through too many focus groups. It gives the animals dialogue, yes, and some of it is for laughs, but none of it is insulting, lowest-common denominator stuff, and it’s all modulated in a way that works in concert with the visuals and doesn’t feel out of place. Compare that to, say, Disney’s 2000 film Dinosaur, which uncomfortably joined photorealistic backgrounds and creatures with jarringly cute dialogue. The creatures like Bagheera the panther (Ben Kingsley) have a real dignity to them. Johansson as Kaa is seductive and pleasing, as she should be. The monkey king Louie peers at Mowgli out of the darkness of an abandoned, overgrown temple like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, and when he speaks with the voice of Christopher Walken, he evokes that uncanny tone that Walken sometimes has of a powerful man who needs to threaten but it worried he is coming on too strong. Even Baloo the bear, voiced by the indispensable Bill Murray, doesn’t feel at a right angle to the material, maybe because despite his humorous lines he never really stops being a bear and starts being Bill Murray.

The storytelling itself, though reminiscent of the Disney film, thrums with an upgraded energy. There’s new elements re-appropriated from Kipling for this go-round (like when a lack of rain calls a water truce, where predators and prey can drink from the same parched riverbed in peace) and a deeper meditation on what the difference is between man and animal. Shere Khan’s view, that when Mowgli becomes dangerous the minute he starts being a man, is given some sympathy and weight, and it leads to what might be a miracle in modern blockbuster filmmaking: a fiery, apocalyptic battle between man and beast that actually directly ties into the themes of the film. Wonderful.

None of this would work, though, if the film didn’t have a strong lead at its center. Sethi, as Mowgli, is given a near-impossible task for a young actor: to be the only human and react to CGI creatures as if they were right there next to him, all while wearing an unforgiving loincloith. Not only does Sethi pull this off, but the movie trusts him. In a film like this, with CGI talking animals, you can imagine a director cutting to the child less and less, in order to both showcase the hard work of the effects technicians and also paper over the cracks of a lesser performance. Not here. Favreau correctly judges that this is Mowgli’s journey, and his throughline is most important: so much of the story plays across Mowgli’s face and actions, and the decision to make him more proactive than his rather dopey cartoon counterpart helps tap into the revised story’s real power.

The Jungle Book is a surefooted step for the Disney Studios’ campaign to remake their classics, after the real disappointments of the wrong-headed Maleficent and the obnoxious Alice in Wonderland (although billions of dollars of revenue tell me I’m wrong about both of them). This one joins Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella from last year as a live-action update that does the brand proud, and while it lacks the Branagh film’s pageantry (naturally), it substitutes a significant beauty of its own (and has the good sense to keep some of the better songs from the original movie, although some of them are shuttled to the end credits). Like Avatar, you can go to it just to swim in the gorgeous visuals, and if The Jungle Book sets itself up for perhaps an inevitable sequel…well, why not? There’s plenty of stories to tell in Kipling’s jungle. That’s the point.

Carol (2015)


The Weinstein Company presents a film directed by Todd Haynes. Screenplay by Phyllis Nagy; based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. Produced by Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley, Christine Vachon. Music by Carter Burwell. Photographed by Edward Lachman. Edited by Affonso Gonçalves. Production designed by Judy Becker. Costumes designed by Sandy Powell. Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler.

In 2002, director Todd Haynes made Far From Heaven, which starred Julianne Moore as a 1950’s housewife who learns her husband is having an affair with another man. Amidst the crumbling of her marriage, she grows closer to a gardener played by Dennis Haysbert, and their relationship spurs a story that is steeped in challenging the decade’s sexual, racial and class distinctions. In its particulars (its lighting, camerawork, performances and score), it was made as a conscious attempt to recall the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950’s like Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows­ – films that gleefully smuggled in bold material under the guise of spicing up soap opera theatrics.

Haynes has improved as a director since Far From Heaven, which is a strong piece of work, but one so in love with its throwback formalism that it has the air of an exercise–although one redeemed by superb performances. In Carol, Haynes returns to the 1950’s with another story that shakes up the decade’s norms, but his approach here is more restrained, more pensive. That works for the material, which is about a love affair that develops between a shopgirl named Therese (Rooney Mara) and an older housewife, Carol (Cate Blanchett). Their first encounter is a classic meet cute, in its broad strokes: Carol is shopping for a Christmas present, Therese is there to help, and Carol “accidentally” leaves her gloves behind at the register. The shopgirl helpfully mails them back, Carol invites her out to lunch to thank her, and an undeniable attraction soon starts to grow, although, to be fair, Carol most certainly feels it first.

This is inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s classic 1952 novel The Price of Salt, long cherished as a keystone in LGBT literature. Highsmith specialized in icy manipulators who skillfully wedge themselves into other people’s lives. To be sure, there’s the sociopathic dash of Highsmith’s Tom Ripley character in the early scenes where Carol, who has been around the block a few times, takes the young girl out to lunch and sizes her up, toying with her anxiety and naiveté, enjoying the tension that her class and experience allows her to afford, exploiting signals that the young girl doesn’t even know that she’s sending. But Carol is not a monster. Her behavior is predatory and transgressive, yes, but only because she has to be: she has found herself in possession of a compulsion that the times do not provide an outlet for, and she has made do the best that she can.

We see this in the brittle way she sits in her home and presides over the collapse of her marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler, square-jawed and full of righteous anger). Harge is not a bad man. She just plain doesn’t love him; their marriage was certainly an arrangement she made with herself to keep up appearances. He sees her newfound malaise as a betrayal, and he reacts with pain and frustration.  Therese, meanwhile, is a pretty girl who attracts a lot of guy friends that she can’t seem to work up strong feelings about: when one boy makes an unsuccessful pass late one night, not even she can quite figure out her own low-key reaction. Her sexuality feels less unformed and more unconsidered. The theme that connects these two people, that heteronormative values (of which there is no better poster child than the 1950’s) can be sometimes poisonous and emotionally stifling, is one that asks to be heard even today, and it reflects one of the film’s key strategies in connecting with us.

One of Therese’s friends, Tommy (Cory Michael Smith) is a film projectionist, and at one point he says why he likes to take notes: “I like measuring the difference between what people say and what they mean.” There’s loads of irony in that statement, since 1950’s Hollywood, thanks to the Hays Code, was pretty adept at coding sexual themes on wavelengths someone like him wouldn’t necessarily be on. But that quote speaks to a unifying theme in Carol. During the film’s second act, which involves the two women going on a road trip to Illinois, they spend every car ride, meal and hotel room chat toying with the gulf between what is being said and what is being felt, especially since Therese is still very uncertain that what she feels is allowed to be said…or felt, for that matter. Yet the connection is decidedly there between them, forged by a subtext they’re both uncomfortably tiptoeing around. Compare that to the relationships they have with their men: there’s a recurring motif of male obliviousness to the nuances of female communication, even when they could not be more obvious: notice how differently one key early scene plays when it’s revisited later, shifting from a male perspective to a female one.

The story is told primarily from Therese’s eyes, mining her descent into emotional confusion. From a developmental standpoint, how must it feel to suddenly learn that so much of what you “knew” about yourself was wrong? In Therese’s world, lesbianism is something that’s whispered and joked about. It’s not discussed in polite conversation, not validated, not encouraged, and there are no instructions left around on how to proceed. Therese has no social conditioning, no accumulated knowledge that can help her, no one she can turn to for advice. Gay people of the twenty-first century certainly don’t have it easy, exactly, but imagine being without the support system that a community can provide. Therese has not the slightest clue how to behave.

As both women drift into a romance, the people in their lives voice concern. Richard (Jake Lacy), Therese’s boyfriend-by-default, raises objections, ones that seem to be sourced out of control rather than jealousy (despite his mutterings, he doesn’t really seem to view Carol as a sexual threat because the notion must be so unthinkable). Carol’s former lover, Abby (Sarah Paulson) is supportive of her friend and even relatively nice to Therese, but you see in Paulson’s face what an uneasy and peculiar thing it must be to find your own role in a secret affair (one more peppered than any other with potential for shame and fear) recast with a newer, younger person. Harge becomes more poignantly desperate. Eventually, some low-key thriller elements enter the picture, not as a way to make the drama more slick or exploitative, but as a way to subtly comment on a society that sees a type of love as a serious transgression.

One thing that has remained consistent in Todd Haynes’ career is how well he taps into telling stories  about female psychology (let’s not forget the first movie that got him serious notice—1995’s Safe, which was about another housewife played by Julianne Moore—one who develops a literally allergic reaction to her home life).  Haynes and his cinematographer, Edward Lachman, here shoot on 16mm film to create a gauzy, wistful atmosphere, and the color palette favors drab browns, whites and grays, underlining the repressed, tamped-down emotions of its leads. The most lush colors are the gaudy lights of chintzy Christmas decorations, ones that don’t offer joy but instead oppressive artificality. The love scene, when it finally arrives, is done tastefully, because Haynes wants not to titillate us but to share the satisfaction, the just plain correctness of finally acting on a passion. Definitely not the same thing.

Blanchett and Mara are both superb in navigating tricky, prickly material. Blanchett begins with a calculating smile that seems positively unwholesome, but as we get to know Carol, and as things crumble around her she slowly reveals a more touching, basic need. Mara has an even more challenging role, tasked with being both headstrong and innocent, conventionally “happy” and yet suspiciously incomplete, anonymous and yet slightly other. There’s a lovely shot early on establishing Mara alone at the department store counter, wearing a Santa hat apathetically as she smiles at customers, trying just a little too hard to look like whatever it is other people thinks she should look like (that kind of purposeful vagueness is built into the performance). Therese isn’t disconnected, but she’s always slightly aloof, like she’s tuned to a different station as everyone else in her life, but she’s too polite to bring the difference up. Her encounters with Carol bring about change in subtle, granular fashion, and Rooney uses tone and body language to reveal it, because Haynes’ script isn’t interested in spoon-feeding. The performance’s riches feel spontaneous: a mischievous smile here, a demure look away there, a varied repertoire of shared silent exchanges. Mara has an innocent-sounding line towards the end (when she says “Oh, I don’t think so”), but in its force and inflection and through her poise, we can’t imagine the Therese from before ever thinking of saying something like that. She just wouldn’t.

For a romance, Carol has been criticized for being a cold movie. I think it’s more an honest one, depicting the lives of two people who constantly feel like they need to ask someone’s permission for something, but they don’t know and they can only fitfully articulate what. Haynes has made a movie about homosexual love that doesn’t make them shining martyrs to absorb the world’s abuse, but instead specific and flawed people who are trying very hard to be themselves, once they figure out what exactly what that means. The final scene of Carol can be read as being either very sweet or very sad, and the ambiguity is most appreciated. This is one of 2015’s best films.

My Favorite Movies of 2015

Note: There’s a couple of major 2015 releases that I have not seen yet, including The Revenant, Anomalisa, The Big Short and Carol. However, I really wanted to get this out there and update my list (if necessary) once I get to those. 

  1. mission-impossible-rogue-nation-2015-movie-action-stillMission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

The summer’s best blockbuster (well, second best…keep reading…) was a superlative piece of pure action craftsmanship, with spectacular and distinctive set pieces (including Tom Cruise really hanging from a plane, really riding a bike at dangerous speeds, and really holding his breath through a cavernous underwater supercomputer). It’s also got a mile-a-minute pace, a strong sense of humor, a lavish scale, a dynamic feature film debut for leading lady Rebecca Ferguson (who is simply sensational) and a smart, tight screenplay (despite its well-worn hook of distrusted special agents) that makes it arguably the best of all the Mission: Impossibles.

  1. predestination-2Predestination

Directed by Michael Sperig and Peter Sperig

Predestination is a heady, trippy, more-twists-than-a-bag-of-pretzels time travel story (based on a Robert Heinlein short story) that eats other twisty time travel tales for breakfast. It’s also a quirky indie picture, a heartwrenching love story, an exciting thriller and a well-oiled evocation of inching closer and closer to cerebral, existential terror. With just plain outstanding performances by both Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook.

  1. brie-larson-room-02-600x350Room

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay’s astonishing performances anchor Room, a film that, on paper, sounds like one of the bleaker setups in indie movie history: a young girl is kidnapped and held captive in a tiny backyard shed by a rapist. Seven years later, she and her five-year-old son try to engineer an escape. To tell more of the plot would be severely unfair. The film’s basic conceit (that it is told from the perspective of Tremblay as the child, not Larson as the adult) does more than simply control the elements of horror inherent in this setup that could overtake the story (Larson’s performance is all the more amazing at hinting at the dark corners even while she puts on a brave face for Tremblay).  It creates a space for fascinating psychological and philosophical pondering, since Jack, the little boy, has spent his entire life in the shed (which he calls “room,”) and can only relate to it as if it is the entire universe. When Ma, who suddenly needs to enlist Jack’s help in the escape plan, tries to brief him on the existence of houses, hospitals, streets and even other people, these are concepts that his brain literally does not understand. The film’s second half, which deals with consequences in ways that stories like this never do, is agonizing, heartbreaking, tricky and compelling. Only one quibble: a musical score that tries just too hard to do some of the heavy lifting.

  1. the-gift-reelgoodThe Gift

Directed by Joel Edgerton

The Gift’s trailer promises the kind of boring domestic home invasion thriller we’ve seen dozens of times. We should have known that actor/writer/director Joel Edgerton would have had something else up his sleeve. He instead made something sharp, tricky observant, incisive and mean. He cast himself as Gordo, a shy, socially awkward guy who worms his way back into the life of former classmate Simon (Jason Bateman) and takes a shine to Simon’s wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall). The two men have a more complicated and contentious history than they let on, and it only gets worse for Robyn when the men, poisoned by embarrassment, rejection, envy and sore feelings, enter a vicious and destructive spiral. Edgerton is fantastic as Gordo, and Hall is quite good (she typically is). But the real standout is Bateman, who is in a movie that knows how to use him perfectly: the way he can project smug entitlement, buried misanthropy, desire for control, or that especially snaky thing he does where he shows us the flaws in the nice-guy personas that his characters wear like imperfect masks. (One scene between Hall and neighbor Alison Tollman speaks volumes just through a quick non-verbal exchange…one of many examples of the film’s smart, nimble nature.) The Gift closes with real nastiness regarding who really suffers in games of toxic masculinity. Not the only movie this year that sounds that note.

  1. maxresdefaultDope

Directed by Rick Famuyiwa

An exciting, funny, absolutely-of-the-moment coming-of-age story about three black teens (Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons) in Los Angeles who are smart, inquisitive, good-hearted and sweet…but also have to survive every day in an Inglewood neighborhood so riddled with drug dealers and gangbangers, and where simple misunderstandings and innocent choices can get good kids killed. The setup (kid goes to party and accidentally switches backpacks with someone else) is classic mistaken-idenity-ish trope, but the consequences (that bag contains drugs, a lot of people really want that bag) are the beginning of a wild adventure with real stakes and real heartbreak, and it ultimately leads our heroes into grappling with real issues of identity, community and outsider expectations that have only gotten more relevant over the course of the year. It’s also a story told with tremendous energy and verve, and is one of the rare films about young people that seems to actually understand what it’s like to be young in the 21st century (it’s appreciation of music, the creation of memes, and modern day economics, is spot on).

  1. what-we-do-in-the-shadows1What We Do in the Shadows

Directed by Jermaine Clement, Taka Watiti

The setup is foolproof: a mockumentary about three vampires living in a flat in a New Zealand, reality-show-style, from some of the people behind Flight of the Conchords. It’s funny. Very funny. Very very funny. But what’s also magnificent about What We Do in the Shadows is how poignant and genuinely emotional it sometimes gets, how seriously it takes arcane vampire lore, and how it effectively mines its premise for every drop of rich, gushing black comedy. (The dialogue explanation for why vampires prefer virgins, or the scene where one of the guys’ dates goes disastrously wrong, are each worth the price of admission by themselves.) Remember, folks: werewolves. Not swear wolves.

  1. CINDERELLACinderella

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Yes, really. This well-acted, utterly gorgeous update of the 1950 Disney animated classic actually improves upon the original by leaps and bounds, creating a heroine (Lily James) who is spirited, wise, kind and passionate. She’s a more active heroine in ways that modernize the feel of the classic story without betraying it, a trick Disney has rarely pulled off with its recent fairy tale do-overs. She’s supported by a really good cast, including Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter and Derek Jacobi, who all find real humanity in their characters: a testament to both their skill and Branagh’s sure-handed direction, which is on par with some of his best work. The centerpiece ball scene, with its luscious production values and Patrick Doyle’s lovely score, is exquisite…but what ties it all together is the quick moment where the Prince offers to dance with Cinderella, touching her side and causing her to sharply inhale as we share her trepidation, her excitement, her joy, her dreams at this, the first man to ever touch her. That marriage of the deeply personal with the beautifully grand is what fairy tales often strive for, but seldom achieve.

  1. The-Walk-Film-2015The Walk

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

The Walk is not Man on Wire. That 2008 documentary, which told the story of Phillipe Petit’s high-wire traipse across the Manhattan skyline as he tiptoed from one World Trade tower to the other, is a damn good piece of work. And The Walk, in its first half, is so heavily indebted to Man on Wire that it borrows the other film’s heist-story structure, spinning a real-life yarn about a group of crazy dreamers and ennablers who masterminded a plan to get themselves and hundreds of pounds of equipment up to the roof of the still-under-construction towers. And yes, Man on Wire is much more honest about who Phillipe Petit was as a man, warts and all, where in The Walk he is remimagined as a fanciful, cockeyed, G-rated dreamer who seems like Pepe Le Pew in more than just his accent.

But what Man on Wire could not do was put us up on Philipe Petit’s wire with him, and that’s what The Walk does. In astonishing 3D IMAX, Robert Zemeckis’ thrilling recreation of the historical event is an incredible achievement, a nail-biting symphony of tension that is as exciting as almost any action scene this year. On the wire, Petit walks, saunters, dances and contorts with acrobatic grace and precision, and these moments, which constitutes the film’s final forty-five minutes, are nothing short of gob-smacking, as two packs of police officers watch Petit  make history in jaw-dropped fascination. Wouldn’t you?

  1. brooklyn_feature-770x472Brooklyn

Directed by John Crowley

A lovely little movie, Brooklyn stars Saorise Ronan as a young Irish girl in the 1950s, who is given the chance to move to America and possibly make a better life for herself…leaving her family behind. Stricken at first by homesickness, she eventually makes friends, finds her way in New York City, and even falls in love…until home beckons with new developments that split her mind between the two countries and threaten to tear her apart. Well-acted from top to bottom, sensitively directed and sharply written (by Nick Hornby, based on the novel by Colm Toibin), Brooklyn is sweet, observant, and delicate, with a female heroine and warm sensibility that would be right at home in the same Era of Hollywood that the film is set.  Favorite moment in this wonderful movie: the extremely well-written, subdued emotional climax that occurs between Ronan and the most unlikeliest of characters.

  1. bridge-of-spies-trailerBridge of Spies

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg is so good at making movies that he makes it look impossibly easy. Bridge of Spies, his cold war thriller that touches on the values that make us who we are, is a small movie by Spielberg standards. Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, a lawyer in the 1960s who is asked to defend Rudolf Abel, a man believed to be a Soviet spy. If he is, does that make him a traitor? To whom? Donovan is meant to mount a half-hearted defense in little more than a show trial, but he takes his job seriously, seeing it as his duty, which causes no small amount of consternation in those who are wondering why he is defending a man so obviously guilty. Eventually this story leads to Berlin (as the wall is going up), in which Donovan has to effectively mastermind a three-way prisoner exchange with an integrity than no one else wants to adopt (“Standing man,” Abel ruefully calls him, in a label that grows more and more pointed in a world where everyone else wants to sit). The result, replete with a little speech-making and warm humor, feels like fresh cut Frank Capra, even when the film’s second half takes a turn into slightly absurdist spycraft (which the script, by the Coen Brothers, mines for gentle, wry humor). The real heart in Bridge of Spies, however, lies in the relationship between Donovan and Abel (a brilliant Mark Rylance), which is proof enough that understanding across the Iron Curtain is somehow possible.

  1. starwarsforce_newstill1Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Directed by J.J. Abrams

One of the year’s best pure entertainments, a triumphant return to a galaxy far, far away and a wonderful reminder (after a string of disappointments that some could argue started all the way back in 1983) that the Star Wars franchise can fly again, especially when you have a director as spirited as J.J. Abrams and a screenwriter as seasoned as Lawrence Kasdan at the helm (A new Star Wars movie that has good lines and funny jokes? Remarkable!) Yes, the plot is intentionally reminiscent of the original Star Wars, but that’s a feature, not necessarily a flaw, because it retains the mythological aura of the Star Wars saga, and the series’ by now well-established conceit that history repeats itself until things are gotten just right.

But The Force Awakens isn’t an empty-headed Star Wars victory lap, or a pointless nostalgia trip. Yes, it evokes the spirit of the beloved original trilogy, and its peppered with old hands like Harrison Ford (giving his best performance in decades) and Carrie Fisher (who has aged quite well, thank you very much). But Force Awakens is very intentionally ground zero for a brand new strain of Star Wars  fandom, so it puts front and center a bunch of new (and refreshingly diverse) faces that we fall instantly in love with. There’s Oscar Isaac’s charming and swaggery Poe Dameron, and John Boyega’s conflicted, soulful Finn. There’s Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, a villain who neatly sidesteps our expectations of following up cinema’s most iconic villain and delivering a baddie who is complex and vulnerable.

And then there is Daisy Ridley, a newcomer, as Rey, a young woman who has  the entire movie (nay, the entire new trilogy to follow) on her shoulders. What pressure. And yet her performance, so filled with life and energy, so expressive, makes Rey an instant classic Star Wars character, and arguably its best protagonist since…well, ever. (Yes, fans, I’ve thought about this.) The film’s climactic battle, and its signature, goosebump-tingling moment (involving a flying lightsaber that the Force redirects at a crucial moment) has brought the house down every single time I’ve seen Force Awakens in the theater. For a whole new generation of kids (and adults) who care not a bit about the previous films, the face of Star Wars now is a young girl filled with exciting, exhilarating, scary power who is now charting her own course in a huge way. And that’s a most exciting place for a long-running franchise to be in.

  1. martianThe Martian

Directed by Ridley Scott

A crowd-pleaser if there ever was one, The Martian is a nuts-and-bolts story of science fiction survival, as stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) must figure out a way to live on an uninhabitable planet, helped only by equipment and supplies that have a shorter-than-he-needs shelf life. The movie retains some of the humor of Andy Weir’s book, and enlists an all-star (and possible overqualified) cast to breathe life into Weir’s characters: Watney’s homeward bound shipmates and also NASA personnel on Earth. The Martian is a smart meat-and-potatoes sci-fi procedural, with real weight in its scripting (by Drew Goddard) and real beauty in some sequences (Watney patrolling his desolate home) and an infectious “yay science!” spirit that is not only refreshing to see in a big studio production, but it no doubt will create an entire generation of science enthusiasts, just like the original Star Trek did. That such a movie came from the typically dour and pensive Ridley Scott is something of a minor miracle. So good-hearted is The Martian that it concludes at just the right moment, leading into the year’s single best closing credits sequence. One minor quibble with the saga of Mark Watney: methinks he doth protest too much. The movie’s disco soundtrack, despite Watney’s gripes, is actually pretty rad.

  1. creed-movie-still-2015-billboard-650_0Creed

Directed by Ryan Coogler

What a great entertainment. What an exciting piece of work. What a wonderful movie.

No one thought we needed this. A long-gap sequel for the beloved Rocky series…it seemed like a mistake for Ryan Coogler to cash in his post-Fruitvale Station pass on this. But we shouldn’t have doubted him. Creed is a phenomenal entertainment, returning the Rocky series to its scrappy roots and by instituting a race flip for its read, revealing that it’s a franchise that has plenty of gas left in its tank. (It’s also a movie that gorgeously photographs the city of Philadelphia, a key ingredient.) There’s so much to love about Creed: Michael B. Jordan’s electric performance and his fascinating arc, the movie’s street-level atmosphere, the sweet love story between Jordan and Tessa Thompson, the single-take centerpiece fight in the film’s second act, the rousing climax, the canny way that Ludwig Göransson samples and expands Bill Conti’s classic Rocky score, or the mentor/trainee relationship between Jordan and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, with transcends any and all clichés. (Creed gives us one of Stallone’s best performances in a long long time.) The most shocking thing about Creed is that it’s a movie that would be just as good if the original Rocky had never existed.

  1. Spotlight-Movie-2015Spotlight

Directed by Tom McCarthy

A deeply-felt ode to investigative journalism that refuses to overly lionize the subject, Spotlight is the story of four Boston Globe reporters (played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’arcy James) who in 2001 exposed the full depths of pervasive corruption in the Boston Catholic church’s handling of numerous sex abuse scandals, a story that rocked the entire world as more victims in parishes all over the globe continue to come forth. Whereas Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men won a clean victory against government corruption, Spotlight is more thoughtful. It’s about a world where the Church is more insidious, its tendrils inextricably interlaced with the DNA of practically everyone in town. This is not a story of good guy reporters, but instead of people doing their jobs and grappling with poignant, existential disquiet. (The twin ideas that this could have happened to any of them, and that they had the power to print this material earlier, weighs heavily on these reporter’s heads.) Spotlight is, like many newspaper stories, a thrilling detective story, but it’s also an engrossing slice of city sociology, and it modulates its supporting performances to devastating effect (notice how sensitively the victim interview scenes are handled, not wallowing in misery but allowing the psychological impact on each person to be keenly felt). The film’s closing scenes sound not a tone of victory, but an unmistakable note of elegy, memorializing not just invisible decades of stolen innocence but also the Spotlight team, a department that no newspaper would ever be able to maintain today.

  1. crimson-peak-stillCrimson Peak

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

A sumptuous gothic romance with tinges of horror, Crimson Peak is a marvel. With its dilapidated manor that squats on a mine of blood-colored clay, its broken ceiling that shakes snow and leaves directly into the foyer, its adjacent rooms full of forgotten wealth, decadent books, maze-like pipes, cauldrons of ooze and millions of butterflies, Crimson Peak would be a crowded place even if ghosts never showed up (spoiler alert: they do). The direction is typically fantastic, with Del Toro perfectly in his element. But what really makes Crimson Peak soar are the performances, especially Tom Hiddleston’s frightened baron who seems permanently imprisoned by unseen forces, Mia Wasikowska’s feisty, none-too-easily seduced heroine who learns how to reclaim her agency, and Jessica Chastain’s iron-cold baroness, whose soul has just about had enough of her bottled-up, repulsive family secrets. Crimson Peak is a wonderful piece of work, a passionate love letter to Hammer horror and gothic fiction that reassembles well-worn tropes into a singular, energetic, uncompromised vision. Favorite moment: the beautiful and haunting early dance sequence, which is accented by Dan Lausten’s lovely and graceful camerawork.

  1. LM_00304.CR2Love and Mercy

Directed by Bill Pohldad

Love and Mercy is a double-barreled biopic of Brian Wilson (played in the 1960’s by Paul Dano and in the 1980’s by John Cusack), cutting between two timelines. In the past, Brian is a tortured genius looking to reshape the Beach Boys’ pop sound into something more experimental, despite the objections of his overbearing father and his less-than-receptive bandmates. In the present (well, the 1980’s), Brian is a defeated shell of a man living under the thumb of corrupt psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giammati, never more slimy) who finds new purpose in his budding love affair with pretty car salesman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks, in a really really good performance).  The film’s recording studio scenes have a rarely-seen level of authenticity in movie biopics, and Dano is superb evoking the pressure and self-destruction in Brian’s determination to revolutionize music itself (the movie gives us just enough examples of the concepts he invented that we now take for granted in pop composition). The 1980’s story has its own interest; this story strand, as Melissa and Landy butt heads, with Brian caught quite in the middle, is skillful at establishing real stakes as it stokes the possibility of reconstituting a victory from decades of ashes. The movie’s final scene, which is hopeful, wistful and bittersweet, is one of 2015’s best closing scenes.

  1. sicario_stillSicario

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

The borderland between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas has been a fertile ground for filmmakers to tell stories about the tragedies and moral compromises swirling around the Central American drug trade. 2000’s Traffic covered this ground, as did the FX television series The Bridge and this year’s documentary Cartel Land. Sicario might not be the final word on the subject, but it’s one of the most fatalistic and cynical words on the subject. This altogether intimate story with a sprawling backdrop is about a capable SWAT officer (Emily Blunt) who leads a team that stumbles upon a horrific crime scene. She soon finds herself assigned to a special task force led by a morally nebulous pair of federal officers (a laconic, disturbingly relaxed supervisor played by Josh Brolin and a shifty-eyed, smoldering pile of suspicion played by Benicio Del Toro). Confusion soon becomes the name of the game, as Blunt’s cop is kept in the dark at every turn by those pulling the strings. The federal operation grows all the more morally questionable, as games are played within games that have more pawns than players. The pieces take a long time to fall into place in Sicario, with Blunt’s determined cop and her (in retrospect) naïve quest establishing a momentum which eventually grows so cancerous that it crushes her own agency (a rare example of a female character weakening over the course of a story actually working as a narrative choice, since that’s the whole point). Along the way, there’s astonishing sequences, like a snatch-and-grab black op across the border and back which climaxes in the most nerve-jangling traffic jam ever seen on film, or the haunting moment when Blunt is brought to an El Paso rooftop so she can watch the potent nighttime violence in Juarez from afar like it’s a light show. Sicario is also astonishingly photographed by Roger Deakins, crafting beautiful digital frames that at every turn show an oppressive landscape that threatens to swallow our heroine as she and her companions slide further and further into unwashable murk.

  1. inside_out_2015_movie-2560x1440Inside Out

Directed by Pete Docter, Ronny del Carmen

Beautifully designed, wonderfully animated, and exquisitely constructed, Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out is an ingenious story that kids will enjoy on one level and then spend the never several years of their lives gradually meeting their parents on the level that they love it on. At the control panels in the mind (or “headquarters”) of young Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), there are five emotions: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Diller), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Riley is a happy kid, but a sudden uprooting of her family from Minnesota to San Francisco causes emotional turmoil, leading to a power struggle between Joy and Sadness that leads to them being booted to the recesses of Riley’s mind, where they may become lost forever. It’s an incredibly clever metaphor for the inner workings of actual, scientifically sound child psychology, and Inside Out is peppered with endless sly jokes and sight gags, as per Pixar tradition. And like their very best, the film takes its characters tremendously seriously and plumbs real emotional depths to reach its ultimate conclusion: that innocence must be lost, that it’s necessary for some things in the mind to be sacrificed, that emotions must work together, and that growing up means detaching more than a little from joy (or Joy). This is heady stuff for a kids movie, but its lessons are delivered with high energy and humor, with a pitch perfect voice cast and a singular clarity of vision that makes it one of the well-loved studio’s very very best.

  1. Ex-Machina-Download-WallpapersEx Machina

Directed by Alex Garland

It’s only once every so often that we get to see science fiction done as well as in Ex Machina, which is about the hoary concept of artificial intelligence, but links it to thoughts on toxic masculinity that feel fresh and contemporary. Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a computer programmer whisked away under the pretense of a company contest to meet his reclusive boss, Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac as a brilliant but brash bro who seems to have almost stumbled upon both his privilege and intelligence by accident.  Caleb is here to administer an advanced version of the Turning test to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot that Nathan has created and wants to have an outsider assess. So begins the intense psychological gamesmanship of Ex Machina, which is a three-hander between two people and a robot, all of whom have very good reasons not to trust each other. Ava is beautiful, and was designed to be, which makes the lonely Caleb perhaps an easy mark, especially when she spins stories about how abusive and ugly Nathan can be (which he is, especially when Caleb discovers the previous Ava models that Nathan keeps as sex slaves). But Caleb, who is willing to see Ava as a person only if it means he can justify objectifying her, is not exactly a prize either: he’s a “good guy” who holds a reserve of deep seated chauvinism, and a willingness to patronize rather than engage. Many stories of AI are ones where humans bring about their own end, but Ex Machina makes it specific: those who usher in an artificial intelligence will probably reap what they sow, because it will be a product of their ugliness, and whatever nasty biases they bring to the table will be studied by an intelligent and curious machine who might need little persuasion to find its maker wanting.

The performances here are sensational, with Vikander (an up-and-comer) putting in tremendous work as Ava and making her a very specific machine, with convincing approximations of tentative affection, fear, and righteousness. Isaac, always one of the best things in practically everything he does, is stellar as the bro-tastic Nathan (and showing off some killer moves as he “tears up the fucking dance floor”). And Gleeson, a lonely boy who has, like many, internalized the way our society sees women, captures the right note of tainted innocence. Garland, who has worked in films before but never as director, evokes an eerie tone of calculated dread, underlined by his Kubrickian interiors that suggest a maze that there’s inevitably only one way out of, horrific as it may be.

  1. still-of-tom-hardy-in-mad-max--fury-road-(2015)-large-pictureMad Max: Fury Road

Directed by George Miller

It’s a movie that shouldn’t exist. But somehow it does. Somehow, George Miller got Warner Brothers to give him $150 million to go into the African desert and shoot an insanity-fueled action masterpiece. Because, yes, even within the context of being the fourth entry in an apocalyptic action series that once had Tina Turner presiding over the Thunderdome, Mad Max: Fury Road is a work of straight-up unadulterated, high-octane insanity. A feature-long chase sequence between quirky characters spouting weird dialogue in getups that S&M enthusiasts would never go near, shot in the brutal desert, made up entirely of real stunts, real vehicles and real explosions, only occasionally goosed by speed ramping and judiciously deployed CGI. How the hell did this movie get made? Mad Max is somehow real, and it’s the real deal.

And man, is it great. The verisimilitude is one thing: the palpable, undeniable sense that these outlandish things are actually happening, lends the action so much weight and gravity. But also the editing, the direction, the script that somehow mingles incoherent grunting with arch sentences constructed out of decayed language, or the eye-popping camerawork that prizes geography and coherency and still looking absolutely gorgeous (Michael Bay should watch this movie and weep). The film’s critiquing of ugly masculinity, personified by Immortan Joe, the Darth Vader of diseased, flabby rapist despots. The film’s pro-feminist bent, which is so good at creating roles for women that it passes the Bechdel test even if you doubled its standards. The smart storytelling that gives everyone an arc, and which illustrates quite clearly that simplicity is different than half-baked, and often valuable than complex convoluted. The brushstrokes in the world-building that the camera simply doesn’t linger on, focusing for just a few seconds each on things like the power dynamics in the Citadel, or the weird guys who wander the wastelands on stilts, or the pig-footed People Eater, or the Doof Warrior, who strums an electric guitar for an endlessly looping battle song. The sweep and scope and vision of it all, and how it bottles all this crazy energy and puts it under a whip of bat-out-of-hell momentum. And then there’s Charlize Theron’s sincerely Oscar-worthy turn as Imperator Furiosa, one of the key movie characters of 2015, and the best female heroine in a genre film since Sarah Connor. Or there’s Tom Hardy, who so ably slips into the role vacated by Mel Gibson that we don’t miss Mel one bit at all.

Or how about that this movie pissed off Men’s Rights Activists? I mean, seriously. You know you’re doing something right when you do that.

This is genre filmmaking at its very best: direct, bursting with ideas, packed with emotion, viscerally thrilling, impressively mounted, funny when it wants to be, never an out-of-place moment to be found, made with such balls-to-the-wall skill that at every turn it communicates the pure joy of filmmaking, with George Miller treating this nutty demolition derby with the zeal of a man given the world’s biggest train set, to pull from Orson Welles. Only a madman could have thought up this movie, let alone have pulled it off so well, so let that be an ultimate affirmation of what we all suspected. George Miller is a goddamn madman. God bless him.

Honorable Mentions: Bone Tomahawk, End of the Tour, Kingsman – The Secret Service, Ricki and the Flash, Spy, Steve Jobs.

Joy (2015)

joy-trailer20th Century Fox presents a film directed by David O. Russell. Produced by John Davis, Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon, Ken Mok, David O. Russell. Screenplay by David O. Russell; story by Annie Mumolo, David O. Russell. Music by West Dylan Thordson, David Campbell. Photographed by Linus Sandgren. Production designed by Judy Becker. Costumes designed by Michael Wilkinson. Edited by Alan Baumgarten, Jay Cassidy, Tom Cross, Christopher Tellefsen. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Bradley Cooper, Elisabeth Röhm.

     There’s one scene in Joy that really works, and it’s when Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), the inventor of the Miracle Mop, is given a tour of fledgling shopping channel QVC by passionate network executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper). As he stands between a live studio broadcast and a bank of manned phones, he whispers into Joy’s ear and conducts the entire process with musical precision: a symphony for sales pitch and telephone. The camera swirls around Cooper as Lawrence watches the sales numbers rise, awestruck, and for a moment the movie achieves a feverish intensity. “In America, the ordinary meets the extraordinary every day,” whispers Neil, and the moment nicely underlines the point.
     For most of its runtime, unfortunately, Joy is a repetitive, messy slog. It’s a surprising misstep from director David O. Russell, whose films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) usually possess thunderous self-confidence, even as they juggle complex tones and tricky (dare I say sometimes unlikable?) characters. This one feels terribly uncertain: its drama is misshapen, its comedy never surpasses the level of an awkwardly handled sitcom, and its storytelling is clunky and unconvincing. For a biopic of a person who invented a mop, the movie cant even seem to declare its status as one, opening with a title card where it claims to be “inspired by all powerful women, but especially one in particular.” Huh? This is Russell’s third collaboration with genuine movie star Jennifer Lawrence (after Silver Linings and Hustle), but this time she is miscast and his movie seriously doesn’t work.
     Lawrence is a gifted actress and does what she can with Joy, but we don’t buy her here–playing ten years her senior as a real-life person with two kids, no money, crushed dreams and an overbearing family all too willing to suck her dry. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) spends all day in bed watching soap operas (which Russell constantly cuts back to for both unfunny parody and ham-fisted commentary). Dad (Robert DeNiro) moves into Joy’s basement to bicker with her already-living-there ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez), while grandmom (Diane Ladd) frets. That’s what her character is. Person who frets. There’s also Joy’s perpetually sour stepsister (Elisabeth Röhm), who alternates between making bad choices and then glowering at Joy from the sidelines of medium shots. Joy is put-upon and depressed, but it all changes when she invents a self-wringing mop with thick cotton strands–its a revolutionary product that could change homes forever, but she has to get it manufactured and sold: enter Walker at QVC (and Joy helps herself out by ultimately appearing on the network herself to hawk her own product). And then there’s a seemingly endless chain of third-party manufacturers willing to cheat Joy out of her money.
     Aside from the QVC scenes, which have a vibrant energy, the movie divides its attention between familial squabbles and murkily explained business decisions. Joy’s family (which grows when Isabella Rossellini enters the picture as dad’s wealthy new lover) puts up cash to invest in her dreams, but they’re only sporadically supportive and they’re all too willing to imagine, verbalize, and even  create some worst case scenarios for her. The manufacturers, meanwhile, keep siphoning money for mysterious settlements, undefined expenses, and phony patents. Despite a pre-sold run of 50,000 mops, Joy faces utter destitution thanks in no small part to her dim-witted family.
     There are pieces here of a good story about innovation, and about how that forces you to grapple with poisonous influences in a dysfunctional family. It could work just fine as a focused character study. The film, however, (with a script by Russell) has supreme difficulty paying attention to itself. Characters are introduced and then vanish, or sometimes they appear without being introduced. Whole subplots are unceremoniously dropped, crucial issues are brought up and then not dealt with, details are glossed over, and even primary characters feel ill-defined, possessing motivations we can’t determine and making decisions we can’t explain. Were there a lot of severe cuts made here? Perhaps; how else to explain the presence of four (yes, four) different editors? Joy has the desperate whiff of a production where egos trumped all other planning, and quickly went off the rails in a huge way. And unfortunately, the whole thing is made a little painful by Russell’s fatally overripe dialogue that rarely feels human, let alone genuine.
     The biggest problem with Joy’s storytelling, though, is…Joy. She’s a fundamentally flat character, and her story overall lacks emotional heft, right up to its ineffectual climax. It’s always sad when a story based on true events feels built out of shopworn cliches, but that’s what we get here, complete with the dramatic hair-cutting scene, the “oh gosh, I have stage fright” scene, the teary-eyed deathbed scene, and maudlin narration that lends not a darn thing to the proceedings except a couple of accidental laughs. The film’s dramatics are so shallow that they never fully conceptualize Joy: she’s not a character we end up caring about. Not that the other actors fare better – Cooper’s barely in it, DeNiro sleepwalks through his role, Madsen seems unable to make heads or tails out of her character, and the less said about the wooden Elisabeth Röhm, the better.
     Russell’s cast has some great actors in it, and he himself is a formidable director with serious skill. But Joy is a pretty disappointing misfire: a cluttered, lead-footed character study that never gets a solid grip on what it wants to do, or how to get there. It’s certainly possible that the inventor of the Miracle Mop deserved her story to be told in a good movie. Maybe some day we’ll get one.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)


Walt Disney Pictures and Lucasfilm present a film directed by J.J. Abrams. Written by Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams, based on a story by Michael Arndt and characters created by George Lucas. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk. Music by John Williams. Photographed by Dan Mindel. Edited by Mary Jo Markey, Maryann Brandon. Production designed by Rick Carter, Darren Gilford. Costumes designed by Michael Kaplan. Starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hammil, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie.

     Lightsabers hum, spaceships race at the speed of light, and plucky droids, Wookies, star pilots and Jedis band together to save the universe in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the hotly-anticipated, long-awaited seventh installment in the immensely popular space franchise. George Lucas’ original trilogy of sci-fi/fantasy/adventure films holds a beloved place in the hearts of millions, and after a Lucas-produced prequel trilogy that many found busy and soulless, the task has been given to wunderkind director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) to revitalize Star Wars for the next generation. He has succeeded. The movie is a delight.
     The Force Awakens is so shrewdly engineered to please Star Wars fans that it even has callbacks and plot echoes to the original 1977 film hardwired into its DNA. Once again, a droid holds a key piece of intel and finds himself stranded on a backwater planet, leading to a hasty series of introductions as the droid ends up attracting disparate folks in a plot that ends with an assault on a massive super weapon operated by an evil Empire. The coveted object here is a star map held by BB-8 (a cute little guy with a soccer ball torso) that points the way to the location of Luke Skywalker, who has gone into hiding in the thirty years since Return of the Jedi (1983). In Luke’s absence, a villainous sect called The First Order has risen, led by the evil, helmeted dark Jedi Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who wants that map. Slowly allied against Ren are an unlikely trio of allies: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a resourceful junk scavenger who finds BB-8, Finn (John Boyega), an in-over-his-head stormtrooper who has decided to become turncoat, and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a hotshot star pilot for the good guy Resistance.
     Abrams’ achievements in The Force Awakens are numerous, but his most monumental is the way he creates a vivid set of wonderful new characters here. After the flat, disaffected performances of the prequels, the central trio here are a breath of fresh air. Boyega, from Attack the Block, is soulful and put-upon–his exasperation at the movie’s whirlwind of events is utterly endearing. Isaac, a flat-out wonderful actor (Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis) captures the right blend of good natured swagger. Ren is a different type of villain for the series: wrathful, immature and highly vulnerable (he’s also got some secrets) and Driver (HBO’s Girls) gives a superb performance. But the real find here is Ridley, a relative newcomer. She is sensational, conveying a mix of capability, toughness and heart that is utterly bewitching. It’s one of those “instant movie star” moments you hear about but rarely see.
     So good are the newcomers that they can easily stand toe-to-toe with returning series stalwarts General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Wookie copilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the one and only Han Solo. Yes, Harrison Ford is back, in his best performance in over twenty years. He slips back into Han’s smuggler jacket like a comfortable pair of jeans, and by the time the film’s second act kicks in, the quadruple-act of Han, Chewie, Finn and Rey makes for the best scenes of Star Wars character-based humor since The Empire Strikes Back; credit goes to Abrams and his invaluable co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (who also wrote Empire and Jedi)–together they capture a welcome, light-footed and kookier screwball tone.
     Mr. Abrams, a lifelong Star Wars fan, clearly is relishing his chance to fill in his own corner of the Star Wars universe. He invents a wise, rodent-like, orange-flesh-textured ancient alien and then has her played via motion capture by the beautiful Lupita Nyong’o, almost as a little joke (no matter; Nyong’o is good in the role). He delves deep into the Star Wars canon and crafts his story as one that both contains surprises and hints at future surprises. Like Lucas before him, Abrams clearly kept a dog-eared Joseph Campbell guidebook on his desk, but he’s also able to craft a story that evokes the mythic without feeling overly schematic. There are dogfights and visits to cantinas and gun battles and of course, the indispensible fact of The Force: who can wield it, and who is misusing it. And anyone who tells you anything more explicit than that deserves to be put on a stormtrooper firing line.
     The script has its lapses in plot logic and a few loose ends (Gwendolyn Christie’s hugely-hyped armored villain, Captain Phasma, is a big letdown), but that’s compensated for by wonderful visuals and a lovely return to the “dirty, used universe” design aesthetic of the original Star Wars, which was shucked by the prequels in favor of sparkly CGI (note the quiet, pitch perfect, grimy world-building in Rey’s introductory scenes, or how BB-8 always has a thin coat of dirt on him). The movie also ends in a spot that practically begs you to buy your ticket now for the upcoming episode 8 (directed by Rian Johnson, due summer 2017). But what a final shot it is. Abrams has done the impossible with Force Awakens, and made a new film that stands proud with the original trilogy, but also works like bananas if you’ve never cared about Star Wars before. The force is that strong with this one. Go and experience it.

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)



Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Ron Howard. Screenplay by Charles Leavitt; story by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver; based upon the non-fiction book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. Produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Will Ward, Joe Roth, Paula Weinstein. Music by Roque Baños. Photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle. Edited by Dan Hanley, Mike Hill. Production designed by Mark Tildesly. Costumes designed by Julian Day. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Michelle Fairley, Tom Holland, Paul Anderson, Frank Dillane, Joseph Mawle.


In the Heart of the Sea tells the story of the whaling ship Essex, which set sail from Nantucket Island to Cape Horn in 1820 before running afoul of a vindictive sperm whale. That attack was mere overture for the harrowing ordeal that followed: a shipwreck, an inhospitable island, death, disease, terrorization from a pod of whales, mutinous feelings, and then ultimately cannibalism and crippling, horrific guilt. Like Titanic, this is a story of men believing they have dominion over the sea, before being reminded that the machines with which they bind their faith to that premise are perfectly fragile. That is one of two story threads that In the Heart of the Sea covers; the other involves a young writer arriving in Nantucket to hear the story from a survivor (Brendan Gleeson). Since the writer’s name is Herman Mellville, I will argue that his plot contains considerably less suspense than the other.

That’s one of the issues with Ron Howard’s okay-but-forgettable In the Heart of the Sea: it can’t quite manage to step out from Moby Dick’s shadow. Of course, the true story this movie is based on did inspire Mellville’s Moby Dick, but “The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” (as so dubbed by the subtitle of Nathaniel Philibrick’s non-fiction book) is not a footnote to the writing of Moby Dick. It is a bone-chilling survival tale that should stand on its own. Here, it has been yoked to a frame story of limited interest, made slightly uncomfortable by the way it tries to manufacture false uplift by showing you how the tale became fodder for Mellville’s novel. True, Moby Dick is one of the best American novels ever written, but that information would probably come as cold comfort to the crew of the Essex.

If Moby Dick is a story about revenge and obsession, then the real story is about greed and economic pressure. For the first hour, its central conflict rests between two gruff men. Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) is a natural seaman who has more than earned his own command. Corporate politicking makes him instead a first mate under Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a privileged and naïve beneficiary of nepotism, who likes to enforce the class divide, belittle his subordinates, and blame them for his own mistakes. They are tasked with delivering 2,000 kegs of whale oil (then one of the world’s most crucial commodities), which is the type of expedition that could take a year or more. Spurred by pride, greed and their own mutual enmity, Chase and Pollard push the vessel further south, along less-traveled whaling routes, where the wildlife seems more akin to the abilities of sea monsters. Soon the ship is down and the crew is now at the mercy of the elements, hunger, and vengeful whales.

This is a corker of an adventure story, as the crew descends into a Lord of the Flies scenario where social conventions cease to matter. But Howard’s movie keeps pulling us out of the narrative with the Mellville framing story and Gleeson’s dutiful narration. It’s a choice that relaxes the story’s tension rather than aiding it, and the effect pushes the audience away rather than involving them. The narration feels like a device to gloss over the unsavory portions, preserve the PG-13 rating, and make the shipwrecked survivors’ story more toothlessly episodic. The shipwreck scenes are bite-sized, self-contained, slightly sanitized mini-dramas about shame and regret, and they don’t add up to enough. Another issue may be the script, which gives us characters who lack definition outside shopworn clichés. Charlotte Riley, who plays Owen’s good, sweet and perpetually worried wife, has the unenviable task of saying the horary line “Promise me you’ll come home” and trying hard to make it look like she means it.

The surprisingly cheap and murky cinematography, by Anthony Dodd Mantle, favors yellows, as if everything was shot through a dingy spyglass. That might have been done to obscure the more unconvincing special effects, but it doesn’t help our desire to be immersed. Ron Howard is an accomplished director who has made superlative pictures, but In the Heart of the Sea is unfortunately a whale long way from his very best.