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.

Krampus (2015)



Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Michael Dougherty. Written by Todd Casey, Michael Dougherty, Zach Shields. Produced by Alex Garcia, John Jashni, Michael Dougherty, Thomas Tull. Music by Douglas Pipes. Photographed by Jules O’Loughlin. Edited by John Axelrad. Production designed by Jules Cook. Costumes designed by Bob Buck. Starring Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Conchata Farrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Krista Stadler.


Krampus, the new Christmas horror film about a demonic spirit of the holiday tormenting a suburban family, will not be everyone’s cup of Yuletide cheer. But there are some moviegoers who treasure the occasional lump of coal with their holiday entertainment, and Krampus will be right up their alley. This is slick, well-made Christmas comedy-horror, with its dark heart in just about the right place. Imagine something along the lines of another Christmas classic, Gremlins, and you’re on the right track. Besides, if you think that Christmas movies should refrain from the spooky and supernatural…well, tell that to Ebeneezer Scrooge and George Bailey.

The opening of Michael Dougherty’s picture, however, grounds everything in different Christmas movie traditions. The spirit of John Hughes hangs over these early scenes. After a cheerfully cynical title sequence of violent shoppers, we move to an affluent Midwest suburb that sits with growing dysfunction. We can imagine that Griswolds living down the street from our hero family: Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah (Toni Collette), and their kids Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) and Max (Emjay Anthony). Tom is a workaholic, Sarah is overstressed. The family seems to be anxiously inching towards divorce. Beth, like many teenage girls, is a professional eye-roller who would rather be with her boyfriend for Christmas. Max is a thoughtful, bullied kid prone to fits of anger. Into this mix come the antagonistic and lower-class Aunt Linda (Allison Tollman) and Uncle Howard (David Koechner), and their brood of mean children (Maverick Flack, Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel). Plus, boorish Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Farrell) and Tom’s Austrian mother Omi (Krista Stadler), who seems to know more about Christmas than she lets on.

Max, who just wants his family to be happy again, rips up his letter to Santa one night in frustration. This turns out to be a mistake, because it summons the vengeance of Krampus, a real-life subject of endless, unsettling folklore. He is referred to as “St. Nicholas’ shadow,” and he specializes in punishment of the wicked. Those who seriously betray the Christmas spirit don’t just get a pass-by from Santa; they get a visit from Krampus. Krampus has goat hooves, a burly, towering figure and a stitched-together face. His howl is bone-chilling. His assistants include murderous gingerbread men, demonic toys, hungry clowns with three-pronged jaws and a small army of dark elves who wear pagan masks. Warning to parents: despite the PG-13 rating and festive iconography, this movie is very scary. Not PG-13 scary. Scary scary.

That said, it’s an absolutely splendid premise for a horror film, and Krampus runs with it while keeping a sly comic tone, which rises in pitch as the movie’s threats rise to delirious levels. Scott at one point has a line that recalls one of the memorable moments from John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, signaling a similarly terrifying descent into sheer absurdity. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, this kind of tonal toggling, and all I can say about Mr. Dougherty and his co-writers (Todd Casey and Zach Shields) is that they know exactly what they’re doing.

It’s also an intriguing wrinkle in that the movie humanizes everyone. Uncle Howard is smarter than he looks. Beth is a better sister than she lets on. Tom is presumed to be a milquetoast, but he keeps his own options open. Sarah and Aunt Linda both show that they can rise to the occasion. This isn’t your everyday slasher setup where everyone wears a tag indicating how much they deserve to die. This is important, because Krampus’ target is actually, exclusively, Max, who has lost his faith in Christmas and must be punished.

Mr. Dougherty also directed 2007’s Halloween-themed cult classic Trick  ‘r Treat, also about a spirit doling out twisted–but consistent–justice on a holiday. Dougherty is an excellent filmmaker, able to stretch tiny bugets (15 million here) with superhuman skill, and he’s able to season his horror with real suspense and characters we care about. His movie has the cheeky, wicked sincerity of a tale from the Cypt, right down to its ambiguous ending, which will probably inspire debate, but we can all agree old Scrooge was probably happy he didn’t get that one.

Pan (2015)

IMG_1779.DNGWarner Brothers presents a film directed by Joe Wright. Screenplay by Jason Fuchs; based upon characters created by J.M. Barrie. Produced by Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, Paul Webster. Music by John Powell. Photographed by John Mathieson, Seamus McGarvey. Edited by William Hoy, Paul Tothill. Production designed by Aline Bonetto. Costumes designed by Jacqueline Durann. Starring Hugh Jackman, Levi Miller, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara.

Pan comes billed as “the untold origin of Peter Pan.” Well, they got the untold part right. I somehow doubt that Scottish writer J.M. Barrie envisioned the boy who never grew up as an orphan rescued from the 1940 London blitz, given the simple fact that Barrie died three years before it happened. I also don’t believe he imagined Peter’s first days in the enchanted world of Neverland involved working in a mine alongside thousands of enslaved children, under the iron fist of the time-traveling, pixie-dust-huffing, contemporary-pop-song-loving villainous pirate Blackbeard. Nor do I believe that upon arrival, Peter Pan befriended a young, pre-amputation scalawag adventurer named James Hook, or that together with a Caucasian version of Native American princess Tiger Lily, they fulfilled an ancient prophecy about a Chosen One. I can believe in fairies, but I do not believe in this.

What I do believe is that, in collaboration with his production team and actors, and with the freedom of $150 million dollars, director Joe Wright has made a grave error with Pan, an exhausting monstrosity so comprehensively miscalculated that not a thing about it works. Not the garish production design that excises all magic. Not the endless and oppressive special effects completely devoid of wit or wonder. Not the screeching, shrill pantomime performances, nor the parade of storytelling cliches, or the unpleasant tone or the flat direction or the just plain bizarre stylistic choices. Wright is a good filmmaker (Atonement, Hanna), which makes sense. You have to be talented to make something this stubbornly wrong-headed.

It’s a movie far removed from the legend of Peter Pan, because J.M. Barrie created this story as more of a cautionary fable than a heroic epic. Pan’s existence, though seductive to frustrated Victorian preteens, is actually a sad and lonely one, and his adventures in Neverland are, in the end, poignant, dreamlike emblems of the important things we sacrifice if we surrender to arrested development. P.J. Hogan’s 2003 Peter Pan understood that, but few other adaptations have. This one imagines Peter’s origin as an empty, run-of-the-mill fantasy swashbuckler, replete with wholesale pilfering of plot points from successful blockbusters (Star Wars, Harry Potter, Avatar and even Mad Max are shamelessly thieved). You have to wonder what the point was, if this is all they were going to do with it.

In Pan, Peter (newcomer Levi Miller) is an orphan under the care of corrupt nuns who hand off their charges to Cirque de Soleil-style bungee-jumping pirates so they can be whisked away to Neverland on their flying pirate ship (after dogfighting, pointlessly, with the RAF). There, Peter is enslaved by Blackbeard, played by Hugh Jackman in a grating and aggressively bipolar performance. Peter’s salvation comes from his new friend Hook, a misdirected Garrett Hedlund. Hedlund is a fine actor, but so mannered and over the top here, as if he’s channeling Daniel Day -Lewis playing Han Solo for Saturday Night Live. With Peter revealed to be a (sigh) Chosen One, they search for his mother with the assistance of Indian princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara, looking as uncomfortable as we are to see her in this part). After much running around and sword fighting and obnoxious nods to Peter Pan lore (sample dialogue: “The boy was lost?” “Yes, he’s a lost boy.”) the movie ends with a rote promise of sequels, because of course.

Then there’s the really weird stuff, like the way Hook’s followers rally themselves by singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (and later, the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop,”) as if Baz Luhrman stepped in as guest director.  Or the way Tiger Lily’s tribe members, when killed, poof into colored smoke. Or the sloppy green screen photography that makes every CGI backdrop look like one. At one point, Peter and Hook have a conversation on the deck of a pirate ship barreling through the sky, as if they could even hear themselves. Wright shows discomfort here with making a crowd-pleaser, probably because given the aggressively unpleasant tone, it’s very tough to determine what audience Pan is actually for, aside from collectors of expensive movie disasters.

Crimson Peak (2015)

crimson-peak-photo-54aaabbd194a0Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Written by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins. Produced by Del Toro, Callum Green, Jon Jashni, Thomas Tull. Music by Fernando Velázquez. Photographed by Dan Laustsen. Edited by Bernat Vilaplana. Production designed by Thomas E. Sanders. Costumes designed by Kate Hawley. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam.

Crimson Peak, the new film from director Guillermo Del Toro, is a gothic horror tale in the classical sense. “It’s not a ghost story,” our heroine says at one point. “It’s a story with ghosts in it.” Yes. She, a budding novelist, is describing her new manuscript, but she is also describing Crimson Peak, which hews closely to cherished gothic traditions. In such stories, the supernatural is used judiciously, overlaid onto narratives of disturbing human behavior in order to enhance them without overtaking them. The spirits are important, but they are not the point. These stories often feature distraught female protagonists. There is sincere romance. Social conventions of the day are strictly observed, serving as counterpoint to joint themes of sexual repression and perverse secrets amid the upper class. And crucially, there are reserved key roles for haunted, eerie landscapes and architecture that uncannily conjure silent dread.

Crimson Peak is nothing if not dutiful in deploying these tropes. But Del Toro, a gifted fantasy storyteller with an unerringly rich cinematic eye, has embroidered every frame of his love letter to this genre. And he has cherry-picked a bevy of influences, some literary (Poe, Collins, fairy tales, both Bronte sisters), some filmic (half the back catalog of the UK’s Hammer horror studio) and yet has filtered it through his distinct sensibilities without making it a bloodless pastiche. Crimson Peak is a marvel: a gorgeously-crafted work that thrums with vision and unity of purpose. How rare it is to see a genre picture of this kind made on this scale, let alone this well.

Mia Wasikowska stars as Edith Cushing, a debutante and frustrated novelist in 19th century Buffalo, NY. She is a free-thinker who chafes against the limited options and high expectations the era places upon young women, but everything clicks for her, momentarily, when she meets the mysterious, mesmerizing Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet who speaks of vague industrialist ambitions. His sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) is cold and unpleasant, and she eyes the lovestruck Edith like a spider. Thomas soon offers his hand in marriage to the girl, just as a family tragedy leaves her most in need of such an arrangement. Together, they retire to Thomas’ family home in the English moors, a decrepit mansion that becomes a stage for ghost sightings, ones that Edith soon perceives as warnings. As Edith begins to investigate her new husband’s past, Lucille becomes more cruel and vicious, and Thomas seems poignantly caught between the two women.

The mansion is a superbly-realized movie location, a baroquely-designed nightmare of rich, sickly dilapidation: a hole in the ceiling spills leaves and snow perpetually into the foyer, while the clay mine below causes red ooze to seep through the floorboards and coat the grounds like a bloody blanket. The house is literally, slowly, sinking into the earth and the surrounding moors are chilly and bleak. Dan Lausten’s cinematography captures ornate and beautifully intricate spaces that have succumbed to disease and corruption; shots caress Edith’s face as a sole source of warmth in these ghastly interiors, while her two cohabitants (or captors?) are lit more like porcelain dolls. At one point Thomas and Edith make an unscheduled stay at a ramshackle inn, and the ensuing night slakes multiple hungers in Thomas, who basks in Edith’s glow as his inner conflict worsens. Colors are splashed on the screen in gorgeous fashion. Iconography comes into play: cauldrons filled with ooze, iron bars and keys, snowfalls that envelop the country like a malicious cloak. Del Toro, a master visual storyteller doesn’t “make” movies. He paints them, marshaling an army of cast and crew to make it all seem effortless.

This is rich, dark and rewarding filmmaking, bolstered by strong performances that refuse to get lost. Wasichowska makes a fine receptacle for the story’s air of tragedy, Hiddleston is perfectly cast as the morally complicated Thomas, and Chastain is in exquisite form as Lucille, walking an actor’s tightrope with absolute ease. In lesser hands, Crimson Peak would become laughable. But in the hands of absolute masters, it creates an experience so vivid and rare that many filmgoers will be grateful to have it.

The Walk (2015)

Sony and Tri-Star Pictures present a film directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne; based on the book “To Reach the Clouds” by Philippe Petit. Produced by Jack Rapke, Tom Rothman, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis. Music by Alan Silvestri. Photographed by Darius Wolski. Edited by Jeremiah O’Driscoll. Production designed by Naomi Shohan. Costumes designed by Suttirat Anne Larlab. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine.

In 1974, a French magician and acrobat named Philippe Petit wanted to make a name for himself. He was as skilled a tightrope walker as the world had ever seen, and he became fueled by a singular, unshakable obsession: to suspend his wire between the two newly-constructed World Trade Towers in New York and walk across. This is, of course, crazy. But what’s crazier is that he actually did it. He assembled of team of specialists and engineered a plan of brazen ingenuity to break into the towers with his equipment, assemble his rigging undetected, and then perform his stunt at dawn to the gasping crowd below. For many New Yorkers, Petit’s stunt was a defining moment in the life of the newly-minted towers, a touch of magic bestowed upon what had been dismissed as flat, “giant file cabinets.” In one single morning, Petit had helped usher them into iconic status.

Robert Zemeckis’ new film The Walk tells the story of Petit’s incredible stunt, using the canvas of IMAX 3D to render each moment in teeth-chattering detail. But Zemeckis’ aim is not to tease us with nausea, it’s to summon our wonder. It’s a joyous and whimsical picture, and touched with some of the same mad genius that ran through Petit, and also Zemeckis’ best films (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump). Zemeckis has always been a bit of a tightrope walker himself, making projects that are huge gambles supported by intricate, unmistakable precision. With Petit, as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, he has found his uncanny avatar: a man who, with his exaggerated accent, devotion to magic and superior craft, walks the fine line between ridiculous and sincere. It only makes sense that Petit narrates the movie, sometimes talking right to his camera. This is his and Zemeckis’ joint magic trick.

The movie takes its time getting to the top of the towers. We start in France, where Petit is a young street busker with visions of fame. He learns the art of the tightrope at a traveling circus run by Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), who is wise in many things, especially in knowing what an audience will let an artist get away with and what it won’t. In Paris, Philippe meets a lovely street singer named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), who becomes both the chief ally for his schemes and the primary apologist for his worrisome madness. Upon flying to New York, the emboldened lovers enlist a team to help them in their quest, which includes a loyal photographer (Ben Schwartz), a slick French immigrant (James Badge Dale) who has achieved maximum New York assimilation, a banker (Steve Valentine) who actually works in one of the towers, and a brilliant engineer (Caesar Domboy) who is–wait for it–petrified of heights.

The film’s second act is a heist picture of distinguished caliber. We see the colorful team devise a plan with split second timing and then must execute it with a degree of improvisation that surprises even themselves. We experience tension, excitement, intrigue, doubt and a tangible sense of yearning. The blueprint of these sequences, it must be said, comes from James Marsh’s exceptional 2008 documentary about the same events, Man on Wire, which included so many reenactments it practically served as a trial run for this film.

But while a documentary can tell you how it happened, only the power of drama can best communicate how it felt, and that’s where The Walk excels, especially in its closing half hour, as Zemeckis succeeds in putting us on that wire with Petit–letting us feel every gust of wind, every twist of cable, and–crucially–every stirring in Petit’s soul as he performs for a growing sea of New Yorkers (and a group of gobsmacked cops on each tower roof, with whom he plays with as he retraces his steps more than once). It’s all nail-biting, but it’s also a lovely and magical payoff, made all the more poignant in closing moments that pay heartfelt tribute to the World Trade Towers that Petit, who soon after became a New Yorker, loved so much. The Walk is one of the year’s best entertainments.