2015 was the year of the spy. No less than five major studio films operated in the high-stakes field of the spy-action genre: the subversive Kingsman: The Secret Service; the comedic Spy; the thrill ride Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; the 1960s throwback The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; and the latest installment in the venerable James Bond franchise, Spectre. (I’m not including Bridge of Spies, as my focus here is on the action side of spy stories.) So how does each take on the genre fare? And who will take pole position in this game of cinematic espionage? Spoilers for this quintet of movies follow, but after all the work of spies is to discover secrets…
Out of the five films, two pairs can be created based on the movies’ agendas relative to the genre and similar themes. This leaves an odd duck out, so let’s deal with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. first. A movie in passionate love with the idea of capturing 60s cool, U.N.C.L.E. is all flash and style with little substance. This wouldn’t be an issue, though, if it didn’t keep building up villains who turn out to be nothing-characters, or had the action chops to back up its sense of groovy fun. The film is a likable enough romp that gets by on the chemistry of its leading actors, but its slavish devotion to the tropes of the spy genre isn’t matched with the ingenuity to justify its swagger. This is spy movie as schematic, but dressed up in conspicuous fashion. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a fun time with good elements to recommend it, but it’s like gravy with no meal to put it on – and so it is not the best spy film of 2015.
The first pair we deal with balances love for the genre with the wits to amplify, undercut, and poke fun at it as well; both Kingsman and Spy play with the iconography of spy movies (and particularly Bond movies) in really cool ways. Co-writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman make sure Kingsman is doing a hell of a lot thematically. Just to scratch the surface: the posh and familiar title disguises a strident satire of class politics, presenting heads of state and the 1% as monstrous and selfish hypocrites. The titular agency uses codenames out of Knights of the Round Table, but this picture of British upper crust stateliness is revealed through Michael Caine’s “Arthur” character to go beyond elitism into true corruption. The working-class hoodlum Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is the one to see through the B.S. and save the organization from itself. As Eggsy emerges for the third act dressed in a bespoke suit, the film re-appropriates the idea of the gentleman spy as something open to all. As for the Bond nods, Kingsman takes several of the series’ standbys (the supervillain’s plan, the lethally equipped henchman, the idea of a sexual reward for Bond at the end) and dials them up to 11, lifting the veil from them. So as the film celebrates spy tradition, it also challenges it constantly. Kingsman: The Secret Service is thematically rich, imbued with bold comic book-y sensibilities, and bolstered by great action – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.
Writer-director Paul Feig’s Spy, meanwhile, takes the Bondian archetype and lampoons him in the form of Jude Law’s bumbling but lucky agent Bradley Fine. In this comedy, Melissa McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is a competent agent constantly underestimated and disrespected by her peers and supervisors because of her appearance and gender. The arc of the film brings the put-upon Susan into the field on a technicality, and as she saves the day in place of the gentleman spy parody Bradley Fine (not to mention in place of Jason Statham’s tough-as-nails action hero parody Rick Ford), the film deftly juggles the basics of the genre while having fun doing it. And from another angle, by championing Susan after the more conventionally attractive female agent (Morena Baccarin) has been revealed as traitorous, Spy once again subverts the genre, this time its desire to flaunt exotic and beautiful women. Spy is a solid action-comedy, showcasing Paul Feig’s reliable ability to both get laughs and craft memorable characters to deliver them – but it is not the best spy film of 2015.
And then there were two. They feature certain elements in common… a rogue shadowy organization creating international chaos, an effort on the part of the establishment to shutter the good guys’ antiquated intelligence agencies which forces the hero to go rogue to get the job done, and a crucial trip to Morocco. Spectre has a couple good setpieces and a handful of effective moments, but is crippled by major storytelling problems. An irrelevant personal connection between Bond (Daniel Craig) and the villain, a weak and uninspired finale, limp action sequences such as the remarkably boring car chase in Rome, an unconvincing romance, hollow piggybacking of plot points from previous films, and an M-defends-MI6-from-bureaucrats subplot recycled without passion from its much better treatment in the prior installment Skyfall. Spectre coasts on the James Bond name when it should be blazing its own trail, going through the motions despite being one of the most expensive films ever made – and it is not the best spy film of 2015.
I’ll tell you what is, though, and that’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Every element of this thing sings. (And in fact, my original review really didn’t give it the credit it deserves.) Clockwork plot and structure, consistently excellent action setpieces (go to the opera!), warm but brittle character dynamics amongst the IMF team, airtight control of tone and tension. Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s pulpy epic feels like a perfectly pulled off mission in itself. And then there’s Ilsa Faust.
Played with precision by Rebecca Ferguson, Ilsa is the key to it all. When Ilsa is introduced and helps breaks Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of the Syndicate’s clutches, she feels like a plot device, a spy defined by McQuarrie’s scripted web of triple-crosses. But we later see that this scene comes wholeheartedly from character. Ilsa is a ruthlessly competent specialist, who also has this crazy idea that spies of allied countries have a responsibility toward each other. Her statuesque beauty paired with her matter-of-fact moral conviction makes Ilsa an incredibly magnetic character. In the year of Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ilsa Faust surpasses Imperator Furiosa, Adonis Creed, Finn, and Rey as the breakout action hero of 2015.
It’s strange how things work out sometimes, as I would never have thought that the latest James Bond film, coming off the heels of the hypnotically great Skyfall, would be my least favorite spy movie of 2015. But even so, it fills a corner of the genre. Spectre is spy film as portentous drama. Kingsman: The Secret Service is spy film as anarchic statement. Spy is spy film as wacky satire. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is spy film as rosy-eyed throwback. And Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is spy film as immaculate time bomb. Light the fuse…
In advance of the Golden Globes ceremony, and Academy Award nominations, I present my own personalized awards for the year in film – at least of movies I’ve seen. (So if none of my winners get awards in those or other venues, they can take comfort that they’re winners to me!)
Best Supporting Actress
Sarah Snook, Predestination
Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
Best Supporting Actor
Adam Driver, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina
Richard Jenkins, Bone Tomahawk
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Best Original Score
Tom Holkenborg, Mad Max: Fury Road
Patrick Doyle, Cinderella
Michael Giacchino, Inside Out
Daniel Pemberton, Steve Jobs
Howard Shore, Spotlight
Best Production Design
Thomas E. Sanders, Crimson Peak
Dante Ferretti, Cinderella
Colin Gibson, Mad Max: Fury Road
Arthur Max, The Martian
Gary Williamson, Paddington
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Ryan Coogler, Creed
Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies
Matthew Vaughn, Kingsman: The Secret Service
Denis Villeneuve, Sicario
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Tom Hardy, Legend
Michael B. Jordan, Creed
Peter Sarsgaard, Experimenter
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road
Cate Blanchett, Truth
Emily Blunt, Sicario
Anna Kendrick, The Last Five Years
Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Best Adapted Screenplay
Drew Goddard, The Martian
Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen, Bridge of Spies
Paul King, Paddington
Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer, Spotlight
Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs
Best Original Screenplay
Pete Docter & Meg LeFauve & Josh Cooley, Inside Out
Michael Almereyda, Experimenter
Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi, What We Do in the Shadows
Alex Garland, Ex Machina
S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk
Mad Max: Fury Road
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
A year ago, this blog didn’t exist, and now it’s time to look back on my movie-going 2015. What follows is a ranking of every 2015 movie I saw, with comments (and links to my reviews if I’ve already written on them). This ranking is very personal to me, so consider this a chronicle of my favorites of the year. Note that films I wanted to see but didn’t in time for this post include but are not limited to: Love and Mercy, Pawn Sacrifice, Macbeth, Carol, The Big Short, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, Anomalisa, and The Program, which doesn’t have a U.S. release date yet.
Now, let’s go off the deep end, shall we?
This Happy Madison misfire could have been something, a fun alien invasion romp with 1980s arcade characters utilized in fun ways. In the end, what we got is a movie that often just seems to shrug its shoulders, declaring its apathy for logic, entertainment value and good taste. It doesn’t care, and when the movie doesn’t care, why should we credit it as anything other than a waste of time? It’s bad, and I mean replace-one-of-the-main-character’s-love-interest-with-an-inflatable-sex-doll-and-virtually-nothing-changes bad. It has a willful misunderstanding of dramatic structure and comedic value, featuring a checked-out lead performance from Adam Sandler and all round laziness. Just patch together some of the genuinely effective visual effects into a sizzle reel and call it an editing job well done. That way, at least something constructive can come out of this “comedy” of errors.
In the most basic logline of CHAPPiE (a police robot led astray by a group of gangsters), there is potential. But the execution is alternately ear-splittingly annoying, and hands-down some of the best so-bad-it’s-good viewing all year. The boring bad stuff centers on real-life musical group Die Antwoord playing veiled versions of themselves. The fun bad stuff mostly revolves around Vincent Moore as played by Hugh Jackman, who gives one of the most over-the-top and hilariously strained villain performances I’ve ever seen, bringing to life a truly bizarre character. (Read my review to get the low-down on this amazing scene-stealer.) In the end, this tale of an artificially intelligent police robot impresses with the mocap physicality of the title character, but spectacularly malfunctions almost every other step of the way.
51) Project Almanac
Okay. The only reason I watched this movie is because the director, Dean Isrealite, is doing Power Rangers in 2017, and I am fascinated to see how that will go down. (This movie, like Power Rangers, features a “team” of five teens. That’s all I’ve got for that connection.) We have a pretty standard found-footage setup: a group of vaguely unlikable teens discover plans for a time machine, they build it in one of their moms’ basement, it goes unnoticed by her even though it sparks and explodes all over the place, and the teens record everything even when it’s not plausible or logical. If you watch Project Almanac, I hope you enjoy the first act, because it goes off the rails after that, getting worse as it goes along. I don’t think this trifle of a movie needs any more attention from me.
50) Jupiter Ascending
An original space opera is a rare beast – it’s hard to build a compelling interstellar world and tell a good story with fun characters. Judging from the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, they sure went for the glory in the former, and utterly failed to tend to the latter! There’s enough exposition here to choke an elephant, delivered by actors who are positively lost at sea. You may find solace in the various bizarre choices made here (Sean Bean as half-man, half-honeybee! A Brazil parody that comes out of nowhere! A half-assed Oedipus complex for the villains!). But Mila Kunis’ Jupiter (sort of a real person but also insultingly written – she loves dogs a little too much), Channing Tatum’s Caine (vacant to the point of cardboard), and Eddie Redmayne’s Balem (zero-to-rabid in 2 seconds and impossible to take seriously) are pretty poor company on this theoretically epic adventure.
This romantic and easygoing tale is set in Hawaii, revolving around a military contractor’s (Bradley Cooper) romantic entanglements, and his assignment to secure Hawaiian airspace for a new private satellite. Cameron Crowe’s latest effort is awkward and largely too relaxed to get much of a reaction from anyone, good or bad. Even though I don’t find Cooper a likable screen presence at all, Aloha glides along to its own particular beat and it’s almost like it’s there not to bother you. One random observation that will thrill anyone who knows a lot about cult movies is that there’s one scene where images are being transmitted through a satellite, and you can see the demonic villain Pitch from the bizarre 1960 movie Santa Claus. In my estimation that’s the most interesting thing about the Aloha.
48) Terminator Genisys
The biggest threat in Terminator Genisys is not a new badass Terminator, but the screenplay. The dialogue is full of boring declarative sentences, the most stock place-holding character scenes, and a convoluted plot that also allows for a bland and insulting nostalgia-fest. Genisys inspires nostalgia for 20-30 years-past earlier films while not bothering to create in itself something people might be nostalgic for in 20 years. There’s admittedly only one truly weak link in the cast, but it’s Jai Courtney’s lead role! He makes for a main character-sized black hole of charisma, while the rest of the ensemble tries gamely to entertain (J.K. Simmons feels like he’s in a different movie). But their efforts are in vain; what can they do to stop the lukewarm tide of a watered-down, insular, continuity-torturing rebootquel? If Genisys has James Cameron’s endorsement, this franchise is terminated.
47) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
The winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival rubs me the wrong way. It’s incredibly self-conscious in its attempts to be quirky and offbeat (cue irritating intertitles, cutaways and narration), and in the end seems to hope that its own pandering love of classic movies will convince the audience to give it a break for all its excesses of hipster filmmaking. The basic plot is that Greg Gaines (the “Me” of the title) and his “coworker” Earl (because friends are too mainstream) are going through their usual routine of filming parodies of old movies, until Greg’s mother asks him to befriend a high school classmate dying of cancer. Angst and bonding ensues.
Lead character Greg is insufferable, nominally developing out of being an asshole but at almost all turns excellently resembling one. But in the interest of feelings often being complicated, there is good here. The film parodies are kind of great. Supporting performances from Jon Bernthal and Molly Shannon work well in context. And as the titular Dying Girl, Olivia Cooke quietly acts up a storm. With any luck she’s a rising star to watch. But in the overall picture, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl misfires far more than it hits bull’s-eye, hampered by a terrible main character and its own pretentions.
There are only three James Bond movies I dislike, and I’m sorry to say Spectre is one of them. It’s a superficially great-looking mess with largely unexciting action (save to the pre-titles and the train fight), baffling story and character choices, and a genuinely bad third act more likely to induce a roll of the eyes than a pump of the fist. The overall sense I got is that Spectre is more devoted to weaving in the continuity of the Craig-era Bonds than being a good Bond movie on its own. But your mileage may vary; positives include that Daniel Craig plays a slightly looser and more traditionally “fun” Bond, the big SPECTRE meeting scene is genuinely creepy, and in a production so handsome there’s bound to be some fleeting moments of inspiration. But fleeting is the key word; I personally found Spectre to be frustratingly insular and navel-gazing.
45) Fantastic Four
I find the negative reaction to this film to be way overblown, but that doesn’t mean Fantastic Four isn’t a mess of mutually exclusive agendas clashing before our eyes. The thing is, elements of it work (the cast, the Cronenbergian body-horror part) while obvious studio reshoots and interference rear their heads as the runtime goes on until we’re left with a shallow mishmash of a movie laughing in the face of coherence. This was Fox’ big chance to make a statement, to prove they deserve to hold onto the rights to Marvel’s first family. As it happened, Fox sabotaged itself at nearly every step of the way, until we’re left with a genetic hybrid that’s part competent, part brain-dead. I think it turned out average overall. But given their behavior, Fox got the flop they deserved.
This is half of a good movie. The good half: a wealth of creative design work, a sense of wonder, two intoxicating scenes touring the dizzyingly well-realized city of Tomorrowland, energetic direction from Brad Bird. The bad half: lots of overacting, a paltry amount of Tomorrowland for a film named after it, insulting and simplistic messages, and screenwriting choices that end up making this much more of a chore than it needs to be. In this end this love letter to retro-futurism is torn in two, weighing itself down with bricks when it should be soaring.
43) The Good Dinosaur
My favorite thing about The Good Dinosaur is the wealth of stunning landscape visuals. The decision to go with semi-photorealistic environs and heightened cartoony designs for the dinosaurs is a challenge to adjust to at times, but is overall interesting. It serves what is at times like a stripped-down travelogue narrative featuring an Apatosaurus’ quest to return to his family after being swept by a river current into strange territory. (On the other hand, the fact that the setting is photorealistic and the creature designs are few and far between mean that this is the Pixar “Art of” book you’ll least want to own).
Story/character-wise, this is the least ambitious movie Pixar’s ever done. It’s all so noticeably basic (shockingly so after Inside Out). Which isn’t bad per se – simplicity can be great in certain contexts, but this movie really depends on your specific emotional investment in the one or two central emotional cores of the movie, and I just wasn’t quite on its wavelength. I also personally noticed some weird sociopolitical themes going on. The good guys are the traditional farmers and upstanding cowboys. And they’re all threatened by weird hippies and trailer trash. What’s going on here?
42) Testament of Youth
Based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of the same name, Testament of Youth follows Vera as she experiences an Oxford education, which is then swiftly interrupted by love, loss, and the ravages of the Great War. The film adaptation proceeds exactly as you think, populated with profound human tragedy and a ground-level perspective on the insanity of World War I courtesy of Vera’s nursing position on the front lines. Early scenes of idyllic cinematography give way to an odyssey of stark truths. You get nothing more or less than what you bargain for from this story of a lost generation, and those who are left behind.
This is a movie that gives you exactly what it advertises: a tale of fleeting triumph and bitter adversity as a group of intrepid adventures summit the highest peak on earth, and lose 12 people on the way down. While the film doesn’t hit me as hard as I know it will others, it is a very impressive achievement in technical filmmaking. It’s frequently beautiful (owing to a production that took principal photography up 16,000 feet on Everest itself), the sprawling cast is game, and the writing is a cut above the stereotypical disaster fare. I like it well enough for what it is, but others more connected to the material and the itch to explore will probably get more out of it.
40) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
The Hunger Games series dies as it lived, populated with sobering subversions of blockbuster formula, lots of awkward silences, and a laser focus on the subjective experience of its heroine Katniss Everdeen. This final installment takes us through an infiltration of the booby-trapped Capitol, following close with Katniss so as to feed the audience her confusion and perspective on the ground. There are no sweeping shots of armies clashing here, just stop-and-start progress in a semi-deserted cityscape. This makes for choppy, herky-jerky plotting, but it also makes clear the franchise’s goal to take the risk of keeping things very intimate.
This doesn’t mean that things are always subdued. During an episode in the sewers the film briefly turns into director Francis Lawrence’s own I am Legend, and the series-long love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta is resolved in a fairly brutal way (although a scene where Gale openly discusses the triangle comes off as clumsy). But the most interesting developments are saved for the climax; suffice to say that the marketing of this film is one big fascinating bait-and-switch. And a single act of laughing at a crucial climactic moment may just make for the best scene in this four-film franchise. How ironic for this super-serious series.
39) Jurassic World
Jurassic World has perhaps the weakest script of any movie I saw this year. This is a movie that hates its own main character, that relies on Indominus Rex-sized plot contrivances, that fills itself with character and narrative dead ends, and whose most fun character is the moustache-twirling villain. Add to that, the sense of wonder isn’t there (the Jurassic Park theme is never played when a dinosaur is own screen). So how do certain parts of it still work? Well, the climax is fun. The pteranodon attack (despite ironically containing a moment I dislike and another I despise) is vividly brought to life. In short, director Colin Trevorrow has an all-right batting average when it comes to setpieces. And I do think the bit featuring the field of dead dinosaurs is a near-perfect scene. So Jurassic World is a movie that cruises onward despite itself. There are good elements, but they’re kind of snowed in, here in this colorless schematic of a tentpole movie. To paraphrase John Hammond, “You’ll have to get used to Jurassic World, it suffers from a deplorable lack of personality”. This is the movie that made $1.6 billion?
As a side note for the future, I have a personal director recommendation for the sequel: Brad Bird. Whatever you or I think of Tomorrowland, the sense of wonder and awe is there. We know from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol that he can make colorful and indelible setpieces that snap, crackle and pop. We know from his animated work the depth of emotion he can bring to a movie. It would fit his schedule, as shooting would come before the bulk of work on The Incredibles 2. And Bird already had a cameo in this movie, so he’s got his foot in the door. Make it happen!
38) It Follows
It Follows is a John Carpenter-esque throwback, a horror movie that takes a simple concept (sexually-transmitted sight of a ceaselessly pursuing thing coming to kill you) and uses the camera eye to make for the most tension and creepiness as possible. Director David Robert Mitchell uses 360 shots often, conditioning the audience into a twisted game of watching the frame to see if “It” is there, for it can take any form. The best moment of the film is probably the school scene where It is there, but the characters don’t notice it themselves. Given my extremely low tolerance for this sort of creepiness, don’t expect me to ever watch It Follows again. If you’re into that kind of thing, though, go to town.
37) Woman in Gold
Woman in Gold is based on the true story of a Jewish Austrian woman trying to reclaim a series of Gustav Klimt paintings of her aunt, which were confiscated during the Nazi occupation, and postwar were kept in the Austrian state gallery. This is a story mostly well told here, with handsome work from Helen Mirren in the lead, and the rest of the cast (though Katie Holmes is saddled with maybe the most thankless role of the year). It’s just that there’s a lack of willingness to engage in the more complicated questions of motivations that arise from this quest to recover paintings by then iconic to Austrian culture (see the review for more).
36) The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
The 1960s buddy spy show of the same name sold itself on the pairing of CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill here) and KGB specialist Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), and this film adaptation similarly places the odd-couple pairing as the highest priority. Their dealbreaker chemistry really works, complemented by third-wheel Gaby, played by the ubiquitous Alicia Vikander. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is all flash and style, much of it working a charm, but it’s held back by an inane focus on building up villains who end up being ultra-disposable, and Guy Ritchie suddenly not being able to direct action. It’s fun, but there were better spy movies this year.
35) Clouds of Sils Maria
Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart’s headlining performances are the glue around which this entire film revolves, with Binoche in the role of an actress who got her big break in the junior role in a drama featuring a relationship between a young seductress and an older woman, and is now being approached for the latter role. This leads to lots of verbose but sober conversations about the fickle highs and lows of acting, and read-throughs of the script that bleed fictional conflicts into the characters’ “real” lives. This wordiness is contrasting by long stretches of atmospheric ambiguity, especially in the intentionally off-putting third act, and while that opacity doesn’t always do Clouds of Sils Maria’s credit, the film’s character shines through the fog.
Truth is the Hamlet of television journalism. Everyone gets fired, asked to resign, or resigns of their own free will by the end. The reason? Controversy surrounding a 2004 60 Minutes piece on President George W. Bush’s service in the [National Guard] – the evidence seems to suggest that Bush was circulated through the system so as to avoid actual attendance and to preclude service in the Vietnam War. The problems come when persistent questions are raised as to the veracity of [CBS]’ sources. Cate Blanchett is producer Mary Mapes, and she is magnificent here, volcanic and subtle in turn when it’s called for. I found Blanchett’s performance to be better than the often on-the-nose and insular movie she’s in, but Truth is nonetheless well made. My favorite scene? In the editing room, Mapes is overseeing the cutting of the special. The deadline to air is reconfirmed. And all in the room buckle down with the determination to do this thing, and do it fast. It’s an exciting moment in a film that can get a little swamped elsewhere.
Tom Hardy just might be my favorite actor working today, so of course I was going to see Legend, in which he plays the two lead roles. They are twin English gangsters Reggie (the smooth one) and Ronald (the barking mad one) Kray, and the two wildly different performances are both fantastic. The ferocious but loving conflict between the two unambiguously works, and that’s where the film derives all of its energy. The problem is that the movie as a whole is paced unevenly and gets worse as it goes along – we’re into the swing of things in the first two acts (the Krays expand their territory between jail time, while Reggie courts Emily Browning’s Frances), but the third act rather falls apart entirely. A significant part of the problem is the Frances character, so integral to the story. Despite a very solid performance by Browning, Frances is a terribly weak character. She has no life outside of her fiancé Reggie, and plays the victim at most every turn. Now, I realize this is based on a true story, but there must have been some way to give us the everywoman contrast to gangster life without doing it in such a limp way. So Legend is an overlong and questionably structured film, but that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of Hardy, who knocks an acting challenge out of the park once again.
Paul Feig’s second collaboration with Melissa McCarthy produces a romp with unexpected thematic depth even as it commits fully to outrageous comedy. The thing is, McCarthy’s Susan Cooper is super-competent at her job, but people constantly underestimate, judge, and treat her based only on her appearance. So while the jokes are flying, something deeper is being portrayed. The whole situation is also like a reflection of McCarthy’s rise in Hollywood, with the hotshot star agent roles taken up by men and one token conventionally beautiful woman (Morena Baccarin), before the situation arises for McCarthy/Cooper to shine. With sterling support from the comedy goldmine that is Jason Statham, Spy rises above some overall patchiness to show us all how solid it is at its job.
31) Irrational Man
I was maybe too protective of spoilers in my initial review of Irrational Man. First there’s the context of a philosophy professor’s (Joaquin Phoenix) existential crisis and his student’s (Emma Stone) moral support. Then there’s the meat of the story, one of ennui, finding purpose, and the perfect murder, all spun out from the singular mind of Woody Allen. I was hesitant to give away the murder aspect, because the way it unfolds in the movie is such a dynamic left-turn. I find the film fun and light on its feet for the most part, and a welcome entry to Allen’s canon of insane proliferation (at least one movie a year since 1982).
30) The End of the Tour
The seminal 1996 novel Infinite Jest runs 1,079 pages. It’s an intimidating volume, and for people like me who have not scaled its heights, this film does a very good job of getting you in the head of its fascinating yet down-to-earth author David Foster Wallace, played here with unpretentious skill by Jason Segel. Rolling Stone contributor David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) tagged along with Wallace at the end of his Infinite Jest book tour, and Lipsky’s memoir of the experience forms the basis for the film. It makes sense that screenwriter Donald Margulies is traditionally a playwright, because the film lives and dies by its two-handed scenes between our two Davids; the script gradually siphons off external concerns until the third act is stripped mainly to just the two of them, probing and conversing.
The End of the Tour is a meditation on life, human relationships, and depression, but it’s also operating on a pretty even keel; I found it a pleasant and even relaxing watch, with no great ambition to be anything else. And it works well, give or take some semi-forced beats of jealousy that develop on Lipsky’s part. The End of the Tour is talky but not in a showy way, and supported by soothing but striking music from Danny Elfman. And hey, for all its quiet, you might get a little something in your eye for the ending – from the beginning of the film you understand that perennial regular guy Wallace ended up a victim of suicide in 2008.
29) Furious 7
Furious 7 will always be known as the one hit hard by Paul Walker’s untimely death, and the heartfelt tribute at the end sends off Walker’s character elegantly and beautifully. The rest of the movie’s not bad either, give or take a dumb macguffin-obsessed plot and a few ridiculous action beats (Dominic and the villain ram each other head-on three times!). In fact, the chemistry of the Fast and Furious family unit is still beating as the heart of the franchise, and the over-the-top action (parachuting cars! Building-hopping cars!) is still thrilling. To be honest, this was the first film in the series I’d seen at the time, which is shocking to a linear guy like me, but it still delivered an entertaining ride.
28) Mr. Holmes
Mr. Holmes to an extent lives or dies with Ian McKellen’s central performance as the retired detective haunted by the fractured memory of his last case. But that’s not exactly a risk, as predictably excellent as McKellen is. This is a unique spin on a Sherlock Holmes story, introducing in tandem Holmes’ retired day-to-day life, and flashbacks of his final case. In 1998, director Bill Condon and McKellen made a film with a near-identical premise called Gods and Monsters, in which another retired genius is haunted by the past. Mr. Holmes is the much less risky and challenging film, but that doesn’t diminish its considerable merits.
27) The Voices
Strap in, this one gets dark and weird. Ryan Reynolds stars as a seemingly normal guy living in an oddly idyllic/creepy town. He works at Fixture Faucet International, and after a short-circuited night out with a co-worker he has a crush on, his psychosis starts to take over. Reynolds does exceptional work as the mannered but looney-tune Jerry Hickfang, and he’s supported by smart visual filmmaking that balances the superficially pleasant with the gruesome (often, they’re inseparable). There is comedy and grotesquerie here, in a mixture that will surely alienate some audience members, and the deeper you get into it the darker things get (there are some creepy-as-hell flashbacks that got to me in a big way). If you’re feeling it’s all too much, though, stay for the credits. Fun fact: The Voices is (well) directed by Marjane Satrapi, author of the acclaimed graphic novel Persepolis.
26) Bone Tomahawk
This genre bender from first-time writer-director S. Craig Zahler lulls you into the world of a beautifully pitched western, before topping it off with brutality so shocking it takes the film into the realm of horror. The fact that both parts of the equation are so striking gives Bone Tomahawk a unique flavor. In fact, before unkind things are done to bodies and limbs in the often-disgusting finale, for the majority of the runtime the western setting is as grounded as you please, following the efforts of a western sheriff (Kurt Russell) to rescue a handful of kidnapped townsfolk. The entire second act consists of walking and talking between the members of his search party, with not an antagonist in sight, which ensures that you get to know these characters very well. My favorite is Richard Jenkins’ deputy sheriff, often dopey and used for comic relief, but always balanced with sharp competence and decency. My favorite element is the stunning western cinematography, courtesy of Benji Bakshi. For a certain kind of viewer, one who likes slow burns, the tenor of a Searchers-style western, and a helping of grisly horror, this is a godsend.
25) The Last Five Years
The Last Five Years’ depiction of a relationship’s five-year run, from moving in, to marriage, to withering heartbreak, and finally break-up is conveyed almost entirely in song, and I think two things. One, that sounds great, like it’s a constant conveyer belt of entertainment. Two, it sounds like it would be super-tough to maintain the impact of those songs over a 90-minute runtime. So I can now report that yes, the film is entertaining if you’re on its wavelength, and that yes, these songs get samey pretty quick. But Anna Kendrick’s dynamic performance, and really interesting structural choices become the film’s salvation even as not every song/dramatic setpiece has the breathing room to stand out.
As a palette cleanser after the operatic Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man works well, as it scales back into a more compact package of superpowered shrinking suits, heists, daddy issues, and wacky comedy. While on a second viewing not all the humor holds up, the flavor of the film is still fun, supported by a likable cast led by the charismatic Paul Rudd. The flaws are right there in your face – Corey Stoll is really trying, but Darren Cross is just a stock villain and a weak character; and in the first act it feels like there are two completely different movies running in parallel, with each paying for the other instead of harmonizing together. But with a third act as good as this has, taking such great advantage of its combatants’ shrinking abilities, Ant-Man leaves a good final impression.
23) The Walk
More than any film I’ve seen in 2015, The Walk almost demands that you experience it in the theater; but more than that, in 3D; but more than that, in IMAX 3D. The 3D here is integral to the immersion of this film depicting the true story of Philippe Petit’s World Trade Center wire-walk. Director Robert Zemeckis (always noted for his trademark of dynamic and ambitious camerawork) has a field day using 3D for extraordinary depth perception and sweeping visuals in that cinematic centerpiece, but also in all corners of this movie that dramatizes a spectacular “artistic heist”, and the insane drive necessary to pull it off. In real life, Petit walked back and forth on that wire eight times, performing for 45 minutes. You can’t make this stuff up.
Predestination is a heady concoction of time travel shenanigans, with paradoxes, closed loops, and self-fulfilling timelines so ironclad, and presented with such audacity, that you can’t help but go with it. Ethan Hawke is very much the standard hardened time agent, but the barnstorming, breakout, ready-your-theoretical-Oscar-ballot performance belongs to Sarah Snook in a double role as a woman named Jane who needed gender re-assignment surgery to survive as John. Get this woman some awards! Predestination is occasionally on the nose, but on the whole whip-smart, and after all the dust of the plot twists have settled, it becomes a fun time travel story to think about after the fact.
Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo, a big-time screenwriter and one of the victims of blacklisting in the paranoid McCarthy era. The general premise is played broadly, drawing clear battle lines between the sides of righteous heroes and closed-minded villains, before blurring them with a slight flicker as the film goes on. For much of its runtime Trumbo gains a lot of traction as a pacy and appealing romp through this uncertain time in Hollywood, headlined by an ensemble committed to keep the wry humor coming right alongside the moral outrage and interpersonal drama. Of course John Goodman is in there as an executive of a studio churning out cheap and trashy “B” movies. That’s the kind of humor we’re in for, and it’s quite welcome, along with hilarious caricatured versions of such figures as Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger. The movie gets a little choppy with the frequent time jumps, but as Trumbo says, “If every scene is written brilliantly, your movie will become dreadfully monotonous.”
20) Crimson Peak
Partially set in a new contender for one of the all-time great film sets, Guillermo del Toro’s visually sumptuous Gothic romance fills the screen with vibrant color and characters with magnetic personality, all to service the full-blooded melodrama of the story. It’s a Victorian bodice-ripper, by way of the themes and visual conceits that del Toro has always concerned himself with, making for a lovely auteur-driven film. There are ghosts here, but this is no hororshow; they’re secondary to the pulpy drama being played out between the prototypical 19th Century heroine Mia Wasikowska, the vulnerable Tom Hiddleston, and the scene-stealing Jessica Chastain.
19) What We Do in the Shadows
This charm offensive of a low-budget mockumentary gives us a sitcom-like setup of multiple generations of vampires living together in a house in New Zealand. But vitally, What We Do in the Shadows also takes its vampire lore seriously. It builds it world and gives us full-blooded yet laid-back conflicts, while all the while we get to know an endearing cast of characters. In recent news, co-director, co-writer, and star Taika Waititi is in final negotiations to direct Thor: Ragnarok. If he can do for Norse mythology half of what he did for vampires, the MCU just got even more interesting.
The latest from Denis Villeneuve takes Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, and the audience, south of the Mexican border and into a world of drug wars, cartels, and twisted morality. It’s a descent into a living nightmare, as every element of Sicario, from the cold performances to the stunning cinematography to the droning score, envelops the audience in dread. This is a beautifully constructed film depicting horrific material, giving the audience a lot to chew on. It’s just that it all tastes like ash.
17) The Peanuts Movie
The Peanuts Movie feels like the Peanuts! With an absolute minimum of anachronistic modern elements (just one or two pop songs, and not in your face), this is an hour-and-a-half charmer. It gives Charlie Brown a quintessential but uplifting arc, plays its ace Snoopy for plenty of cute and funny material, and makes great use of the ensemble cast of characters. I love the animation style, melding Charles Schulz’ line-drawn work with CG rendering. The biggest noticeable flaw here is that the Red Baron sequences are overlong, and have a couple strange elements to them. Also, given the nature of slapstick, not all of it lands, but it’s encouraging how much of it does. This is something of a “greatest hits” Peanuts movie at times, but when it’s done this well in 2015, it feels fresh all over again.
16) Pitch Perfect 2
The first Pitch Perfect was surprisingly solid, but now it’s time to meet its better. The sequel gives us a more interesting conflict/roadblock to greatness for our national a capella champions, a better joke hit ratio, added depth to several returning characters, and themes to die for that pay off beautifully in a show-stopper finale. While Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson etc are all reliably charismatic, heightening their performances to just the right ridiculous level, you could say the real star of the show is the music. And it’s on point here, with the exception being that a few early songs have non-diegetic backing beats – this is a baffling choice given that the attraction of a capella is that it comes entirely from human “instrumentation”. But thankfully the problem resolves itself over the runtime. And they do “Lady Marmalade”. Co-star Elizabeth Banks directs, and her work is excellently suited to the tenor of the material.
15) Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
The Mission: Impossible series used to be okay. After Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, it’s great. Tom Cruise and company excel in another round of show-stopping setpieces (the plane takeoff, the Moroccan chase, and my absolute favorite, the geographically rewarding opera house scene), while also interrogating why this series works in fun and unfussy ways. Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is put through the wringer but never stops with the heroics, Simon Pegg continues to prove himself vital to the series, newcomer Rebecca Ferguson nearly steals the movie, and it all culminates in the most triumphant moment of the franchise. Tentpole action filmmaking doesn’t get too much better.
14) Ex Machina
Writer-director Alex Garland has always impressed me, to the point where I believe he’s the best screenwriter science fiction has ever had. And his simple, haunting, and vibrantly alive chamber piece between programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), AI creator Nathan (Oscar Isaac), and AI Ava (Alicia Vikander) still packs a punch. On a second viewing, however, the twist I find so brilliant the first time around seemed a lot more telegraphed, which has a hand in lessening its impact. However, I still think the whole third act of Ex Machina is exceptional, with all the big ideas that have been building resolving themselves chillingly. Add to that an already iconic scene that breaks up the pacing and seems to be a non sequitur, but upon reflection is a brilliant illustration of the story, and where you think it’s going. (Hint: it has strobe lights.) That’s what this movie does best, in-your-face twists and turns that seem to come out of nowhere, but are actually creepily appropriate.
As a psychology minor who found social psych particularly interesting, I’m almost an ideal audience for this look at the life and work of pioneering experimental psychologist Stanley Milgram, played here with subtle gravity and a touch of profound world-weariness by Peter Sarsgaard. Several of his smaller experiments are also touched upon here, but Milgram will never escape the shadow of his crucial obedience experiments, in which subjects who believed they were inflicting disciplinary/corrective electric shocks to a “learner” escalated the shock voltage in increments to the highest setting (450) at an alarming rate. 65% of subjects went all the way! I must stress that the shocks were not in actuality being administered, but that the subject believed them to be – no real shocks to the learner. (That’s more than I can say for old-time horror director William Castle, who loved his gimmicks, and rigged mechanisms to audiences’ seats for showings of The Tingler so people could be actually shocked while watching the movie!)
This is not the venue to properly discuss the work and its implications, but the film dramatizes it and the linear progression of Milgram’s work exquisitely. I imagine the main criticism of Experimenter would be that it’s too much like a lecture at times. Fair enough, but when it is enlivened by such rich performances, and creative filmmaking courtesy of director Michael Almereyda, I don’t mind at all. Experimenter is a formally loose but coherent character study for Milgram, the people closest to him, and human nature in general – and I enjoyed it a lot.
The stories of Paddington Bear have a simple set-up: a (sentient and adorable) bear makes his way from darkest Peru to England and finds a home with the Brown family; teatime adventures ensue. So when I tell you that writer-director Paul King’s translation of the source material onto the silver screen is brilliantly funny, charming and thematically rich, the accomplishment is all the more impressive. The thing I love most about Paddington is its playful but in a way daring themes of xenophobia and immigration – this is allegory for children done oh so well. Not all of the humor works (hello, comedy cross-dressing), but when it does it’s fantastic. The marketing campaign for this movie was stomach-churning. How wrong it was.
11) Kingsman: The Secret Service
The project of Kingsman: The Secret Service is to push every element of the spy movie to an extreme, while also subverting tropes, and delivering one of the most cutting and incisive messages about class I can imagine. And the action is astonishingly realized, cementing Matthew Vaughn as a premiere action director. There are at least two setpieces here that are already iconic: The church scene; and the entire finale, capped off with Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”. This is a movie that features a henchwoman with blades for legs, and ends in an explicit sexual joke. But it also boasts genuine heart alongside smarminess, a lead character who sees through bullsh*t like we see through glass, a brilliant role for Colin Firth as the refined but deadly mentor, and real themes to dig into. Honestly, I think this movie’s conceptual brilliance is even greater than my personal regard for it.
You know the Disneyfied story of Cinderella, and so does this movie. You might say the surprise is that there are no real surprises. This film is not subversive, or reliant on new twists, but instead is a straightforwardly beautiful story, updated well in certain areas, and with no shame in its sentimentality. The original film ran 75 minutes, and a shocking amount of that was devoted to animal antics, but its expansion to feature length works magically well. Lily James’ Cinderella, Cate Blanchett’s Lady Tremaine, and Richard Madden’s Prince Charming all have wonderfully clarified personalities, and because the film does the work in establishing them, the larger-than-life spectacle of the ballroom scenes is amplified because what it means to each character has been deftly established. Indeed, there are whole sequences (the appearance of the Fairy Godmother, the ball) that for some unknowable reason get by through sheer force of majesty. There’s something simple yet stunningly realized about this production. The only thing is, the first act, all the way up to the stepsisters and Lady Tremaine bestowing Ella with the nickname Cinderella, can be a bit of a slog. Everything afterward is movie magic.
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to molest one.” In 2000 going into 2001, a team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe uncovered the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-ups of priests’ child molestation. This is their unglamorous and fascinating story. The cast of reporters (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery) has no room for a star, and the depiction of their work is striking in its lack of showiness. Meticulous research, tenacious investigation, and sensitivity for the stories of the victims are all depicted here, tied together by Howard Shore’s utterly mournful main theme. To watch Spotlight is to be swept up into something in stages of escalation; and it has to stop somewhere, right? It’s a very human story of hard work and soul-searching, with a real sense of place in Boston. Look for it to get a lot of Oscar buzz in the Best Picture race.
8) Bridge of Spies
May Steven Spielberg never lose his touch. Bridge of Spies is tailor-made material for him, a humanistic true story of justice and hostage negotiation set against the iron backdrop of the Cold War. Tom Hanks’ James Donovan finds himself in the eye of a political storm, and eventually in a position where his moral need to do the right thing actually bore fruit. The world of Bridge of Spies at first blush looks profoundly unwelcoming, with lots of greys and metallic colors. But with Spielberg as our guide, the richness of the world shines through. And with a fiendishly well-constructed script, as well as a rich supporting performance from Mark Rylance, this true story is delivered exceptionally fluently.
Forget The Walk; Ryan Coogler’s brainchild Creed is a true high-wire act of a film. It has to establish Adonis Creed (illegitimate son of Apollo) as a new protagonist, while integrating the story into the Rocky “universe”; put an entirely new and 21st Century spin on elements of the Rocky formula; and do justice to Rocky Balboa, a character who has never before been written by someone other than Sylvester Stallone, and who has never appeared on screen without support from Burt Young’s Paulie and Tony Burton’s Duke. That this movie is as good as it is resembles a miracle.
Michael B. Jordan’s lead performance is outstanding, excelling both in physical and interior arenas. His Adonis’ perspective brings a more explicit focus on boxing to the Rocky franchise, while also highlighting yet more different sides of Philadelphia. He brings the charisma, and his collaborator Coogler has a dynamite eye for shooting. The boxing scenes in the film are simply electric, whether it’s the gob smacking oner of the fight against Leo “The Lion” (one of the scenes of the year), or the hard-edged finale. The camera gets right up close and personal with the visceral bobbing, weaving, and slugging, creating a harsh intimacy. Smart visual touches permeate the film, whether it’s a simple POV shot of a shut door, or the opponent entrance in the finale that resembles an entrance from hell itself.
Stallone is radiant and brilliantly used here, playing a vital part in the “Mickey”/trainer role. Rocky still has his easygoing dorky humor and touching decency, all with a much more wizened perspective. (And he still plays with his little bouncing ball!) The dramatic stuff works wonders because of the history we have invested in him, particularly the show-stopping locker room scene. There are quite a few similarities to the first Rocky (Rocky/Adonis convincing Mickey/Rocky to train him, the split-decision finale), and easter eggs spanning the whole franchise (from only Cuff or Link left standing, to the foldable chair at the graveyard). The line that most deftly shows Coogler’s knowledge and love for the series? When Rocky says, “Now, Paulie was my best friend, but he wasn’t very friendly.” Hilarious, heartfelt, and insightful, all at the same time.
Creed is a wonderful marriage of old and new. Adonis is a great new hero for the series, putting his own stamp on the old tropes. The use of “Gonna Fly Now” is emotionally stunning. Adonis Creed wants to prove he wasn’t a mistake. Creed has proven itself not a mistake in the slightest.
6) Inside Out
There’s a Control Room inside young Riley Anderson. Five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear) live inside Riley and guide her through certain behaviors and feelings. As Riley sleeps, Joy replays a favorite ice-skating memory of Riley on the Control Room’s view screen, and mimes Riley’s movements as a fan might mime those of their favorite athlete. There’s something sad and at the same time wonderful about this scene. And there’s something sad and at the same time wonderful about the whole movie, how brave it is in its themes of embracing sadness as well as joy, how visually audacious it is, how funny yet telling the jokes are, how inherently interesting it is to hear emotions speak for themselves. And of course, in a movie all about emotions, expect them to run high, with devastating results. My only issue with Inside Out is the nature of non-Riley Control Rooms, which come across as simplistic at times. But overall, Pixar has inverted dramatic stakes so well that it gives us one of the most human films of the year.
5) Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Episode VII of Star Wars boasts an exciting new cast; as Rey, Daisy Ridley is a rising star we can believe in, receiving sterling heroic support from John Boyega’s Finn. On the flip side, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is one of the best movie villains I’ve seen in a long time. While the original trilogy’s characters are more iconic, I daresay the cream of the new crop is much more interesting; Rey, Kylo Ren, and Finn are among the best Star Wars characters out there, and putting aside all (very minor) complaints I have about The Force Awakens, that is something to cheer for. (I guess I could say: better storytelling in the originals, better characters here.) Episode VII stands as a synergistic work of craftsmanship, with solid cinematography, music, production design, writing, and directing. These elements lay the groundwork, and the characters jump off the page and carry the day.
4) Avengers: Age of Ultron
There are arguably nine Avengers featured in Age of Ultron, plus a villain and a few vital supporting players. So when I say that it’s not overcrowded, I mean that I find each character has an important function revolving around the themes this movie preoccupies itself with. Can an Avenger have a normal life? How do the Avengers affect the people on the ground? Can “normal” people be given a voice? Can a “normal” person be an Avenger? How does an artificial intelligence understand humanity? My analysis of these themes can be found in the relevant section in the review linked above, and that section’s length is a testament to how fascinating I find this film’s interrogation of these questions. This is not to mention the knowing banter and glowing humor of characters that have gotten used to each other, which gives Age of Ultron a lot of needed levity.
This is a weird movie at times. There are narrative cul de sacs like Thor’s vision quest. There is a resolution to an already kind of overlong climax that feels underwhelming and confusing. There’s maybe a problem in explicitly articulating the clear intent behind the Bruce/Natasha safe house scene (watch the extended scene on the blu-ray. It makes the conflict crystal clear.). But in the face of deftly illustrated character development, committed performances from the entire cast, organic humor, and such brilliant thematic work from Whedon, these imperfections are put in perspective for me. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is built on character, and as someone invested in these characters, I see Age of Ultron as a gift.
3) Steve Jobs
Some of my favorite people made this. Aaron Sorkin writes. Danny Boyle directs. Michael Fassbender acts in the title role. In the film there’s a running theme about the role of the conductor’s job being to “play the orchestra”, and the metaphor extends to this film; Steve Jobs is the result of the right screenwriter, the right cast members, the right director, the right composer, the right editor, and countless others working in concert to produce movie magic. Ironically this isn’t always the most cinematic piece; there’s a rigid formalism to the structure (three lead-ups to three product launches) and verbosity to the dialogue that recall a stage play, but even so the production always feels visually interesting. And there’s stunning drama in the second act between Jobs and Jeff Daniels’ former Apple CEO John Sculley, furiously accentuated by Elliot Graham’s editing and Daniel Pemberton’s thrilling score. That scene in particular is one of the best sequences of the year for me, and Steve Jobs is one of the movies of the year.
2) The Martian
The Martian is one of the greatest science fiction movies of the 21st Century, especially when considering the word “science” in that phrase. The film constantly champions scientific ingenuity, by depicting the far-flung but still very practical puzzles that stand between survival and death for Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars, and the contemporary efforts of earthbound characters to bring him home. Its reverent but relatable use of science may actually inspire fledgling scientists among the audience, while also delivering one of the most breezily entertaining movies of the year. Gifted with this tricky balance, The Martian as written by Drew Goddard and directed by Ridley Scott is absolutely addictive viewing. Every element is firing on all cylinders, including the most likable cast of the year and a message of earned optimism. What film could be more perfectly constructed than this?
1) Mad Max: Fury Road
It all comes down to this, this miracle of action filmmaking and visual storytelling. That George Miller was given the resources to mount a fourth Mad Max, 30 years removed from Thunderdome, and that it became this perfect storm of craftsmanship, almost defies belief. But here it is, right before our eyes. The plot is simple: Despotic warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) keeps his prized breeders/Wives under lock and key, until his Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) spirits them away in search of the Green Place, where Furiosa was born. Max, a captive of Joe’s, is caught up in Joe’s pursuit of Furiosa, and eventually decides to put his nihilism to one side and help the women in their escape. The plot is punctuated by vehicular mayhem of the finest order, effortlessly rich and at times disgusting world-building, an evocative supporting cast, iconic and endlessly quotable pockets of dialogue, a score so exciting it’s unreal, and moments of quiet and characterful reflection.
In addition to being one of the great action movies, Mad Max: Fury Road is a wonderfully compact sociopolitical argument. (MILD SPOILERS) In the film, Furiosa takes the Wives to the Green Place, but its idyllic quality is lost to the sands of time. After chewing on this bitter disappointment, Furiosa and Max decide to go back the way they came, try to cripple Joe’s fleet of vehicles, and take control of Joe’s den of patriarchy, the Citadel. Through this story, we are told so elegantly that: You can’t say the system is broken without acknowledging that you’re a part of it. You can’t conjure up a utopia where none exists. You can try to effect change where before you only saw oppression. The scene of Furiosa’s success, and Max’ imparting of respect, is life-affirming stuff.
You can count on one hand the number of movies that have become as iconic this quickly. And there’s a reason for that; these symbols and concepts carry weight. The disabled female hero Furiosa, the blind, axe-shredding Doof Warrior, “witness me”, the list goes on. Well, we did witness Mad Max: Fury Road. And it was damn good.
By the Numbers
5 spy films (Kingsman: The Secret Service; Spy; Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; The Man from U.N.C.L.E. ; Spectre)
4 films with filmmakers (Project Almanac (found footage); What We Do in the Shadows (mockumentary); Me and Earl and the Dying Girl; Trumbo)
4 films featuring artificial intelligence (CHAPPiE; Ex Machina; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Terminator Genisys)
4 films prominently featuring journalism (The End of the Tour; Everest (Jon Krakaur); Truth; Spotlight)
4 Hayley Atwell films (Testament of Youth; Cinderella; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Ant-Man)
4 Michael Giacchino scores (Jupiter Ascending; Tomorrowland; Jurassic World; Inside Out)
3 Alicia Vikander films (Testament of Youth; Ex Machina; The Man from U.N.C.L.E.)
3 Anna Kendrick films (The Voices; The Last Five Years; Pitch Perfect 2)
3 blockbusters with Judy Greer in the unfortunately inert mom role (Tomorrowland; Jurassic World; Ant-Man)
3 Brian Tyler scores (Furious 7; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Truth)
3 dimension-hopping films (Tomorrowland; Ant-Man (sort of); Fantastic Four)
3 films featuring time travel (Predestination; Project Almanac; Terminator Genisys)
3 Josh Brolin films (Avengers: Age of Ultron; Sicario; Everest)
3 Sean Bean films (Jupiter Ascending; Pixels; The Martian)
3 seventh films in franchises (Furious 7; Creed; Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
3 Taron Egerton films (Testament of Youth; Kingsman: The Secret Service; Legend)
2 dinosaur films (Jurassic World; The Good Dinosaur)
A Loose End
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Extended Edition (one-day theatrical event)
Wow. Anyone who read my 2014 year-end review knows that I had some issues with the finale of The Hobbit. In this extended cut, there is no movement on my biggest problem with the film (the dragon-sickness subplot), but two other things I found to be significant mistakes were actually, dare I say, corrected. The first is the misplaced payoff as to the Free Peoples of Middle-earth marshaling for war. In the theatrical cut, dwarves, elves, and men ready for war over political disagreements, something unprecedented in the earlier Lord of the Rings – then they just start hacking off orc heads when that army arrives. Here, the dwarves and the elves fight. And it is brilliantly executed, multi-layered because meaningful carnage is happening where there should be harmony, and tactically fitting.
Now as for the second thing, I complained before about the titular battle going on for the length of a Bible, while being kind of faceless and numbing. It would sound like the worst idea in the world to add reams of new action to an already epic 45-minute battle, but these additions work an absolute charm! The extended action is funny, weird, crowd-pleasing, draws a clearer picture of battlefield strategy, and gives most of the dwarf characters (especially the brilliant Balin and Bofur) moments to shine.
There are just nice touches throughout, whether it’s these bigger changes or something as starkly emotional as Gandalf’s impassioned words to Thorin that “this treasure will be your death”. Is there something in my eye? One negative word, however. Unless I’m mistaken, I believe one of my favorite lines from the theatrical version has been cut! It’s when Lee Pace’s Thranduil says of Dain, “He’s clearly mad – like his brother!” with a very odd line reading. Other than that, thumbs up all round.
2016 in Preview
The Coen Brothers are back with the hilarious-looking Hail, Caesar! in February… The “most technologically advanced movie ever made”, April’s mocap adventure The Jungle Book, looks like it might be a dark-horse favorite… Shane Black’s May action-comedy The Nice Guys seems ideal popcorn fare for some… Anything Spielberg is one to watch, so roll on July’s Roald Dahl adaptation The BFG… 2016 is going to be absolutely huge for comic book films, with 7 in the pipeline… The one I’m rooting for the most is May’s Captain America: Civil War, which looks to pay off years of character development… November’s Doctor Strange has the best MCU cast ever assembled (Cumberbatch, Ejiofor, Swinton, Mikkelsen, McAdams, Stuhlbarg)… If May’s X-Men: Apocalypse can stick the landing, the recent X-Men trilogy will rival The Dark Knight trilogy as a comic book saga… Finally, the one I’m most worried about is March’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which has the weight of a cinematic universe on its shoulders and may collapse in on itself by the strain… As a big Trekkie, I’m in Star Trek Beyond’s corner come July; it looks like a brash and weird original series episode with a message about colonialism… Also in July, the all-female Ghostbusters has a lot of symbolic and financial value riding on its quality… My second-favorite film series is Harry Potter, so November’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is of particular fascination for me… In December, more Star Wars! Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is being described as like Saving Private Ryan in space; it’s gifted with an exciting cast, and given the Death Star setting Darth Vader will almost certainly appear. Nerdy request: Get Wayne Pygram, who played Tarkin in Episode III, back in the role.
What may be the most highly anticipated film of all time is here, continuing the most popular film series of them all. So after all the hype, what are we left with? Impressive restraint. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is something I would have hardly expected: a movie whose ambition largely doesn’t exceed its reach. It’s a high wire act, where the small-scale interpersonal drama (with unprecedented levels of character development for this franchise) is just as important as the large-scale space opera. Star Wars is back, with all its old trademarks of pulpy dialogue, a lived-in world, humor, and screen wipes, all energized by an exciting new cast of characters.
It’s thirty years after the Empire was sent scurrying to the Outer Rim after the Battle of Endor; a New Republic governs, but remnants of the Empire have come together as the First Order, countered by a paramilitary Resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). On the desert planet Jakku, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) recovers a key piece of intelligence, before he’s beleaguered by Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) force of stormtroopers (including John Boyega’s reluctant trooper Finn). Poe hides the information in his droid BB-8, and as the little BB unit comes across a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley), the hunt is on for the droid. Because both the First Order and the Resistance covet what’s hidden inside it…
The Force Awakens’ greatest strength lies in its new characters (which in and of itself is a kind of best-case scenario for this franchise reintroduction). In Ridley and Boyega’s Rey and Finn, Star Wars has hit upon a pair with exceptional chemistry together, and charisma apart. She is technically minded and self-sufficient, with abandonment issues. He is stubborn in his desire to do the right thing in all cases, with a tendency to get in over his head. Together, they’re a fun pair to follow into the future of these films, especially given that they feel like real and relatable people in a universe where that’s not necessarily the norm.
But in my mind the film’s breakout character is its villain, Kylo Ren. He is as ragged as the untamed blade of his red lightsaber, always playing at being more than he is, more implacable, more dominant, more evil. He has spectacular Force-assisted temper tantrums. And when the mask comes off, Driver reads his lines with this beautiful mixture of menace and ineffectuality. Because The Force Awakens gives nearly equal time to developing its villain as it does its heroes, Kylo Ren is given space to shine as a fascinating character, and while he may idolize and model himself after Darth Vader, Kylo is a different beast altogether.
Kylo Ren puts on the mask because he wants to be larger-than-life. But in good guy Poe Dameron and bad guy General Hux, we have characters here that legitimately are. Poe is a semi-flamboyant, ultra-charismatic top gun X-wing pilot, given little room for particular depth but lighting up the screen because of his mere “coolness”. On the flip side, Domhnall Gleeson’s Hux is a tyrannical yet jealous, conniving yet pretentious, General in the First Order (or should I say in my best all-caps staccato English accent, “the FEHST AWERDEHR”). There’s a total Triumph of the Will scene involving legions of stormtroopers and Hux’… particular rhetorical style, bringing the First Order in line with the Third Reich as much as possible in a galaxy far, far away. Hitler at Nuremburg, much? The movie pushes the Nazi thing far, but Gleeson’s work as Hux makes it work, and he’s a character I’m particularly interested to see progress in future installments.
It must be said that stormtrooper Captain Phasma is a waste of Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie’s talents at this point, but again, the future should hold good things for this chrome trooper. If Phasma is developed well, Star Wars will have a very symmetrical balance of a trio of great heroes (Rey, Finn, Poe) opposing a trio of great villains (Kylo, Hux, Phasma). For now, in Rey and Kylo Ren, we have a hero and villain both still learning, still rough around the edges, and that’s exciting.
If there is a worry in The Force Awakens, it’s that this is a movie that doesn’t really cut loose its imagination. There are no big space battles. In Jakku we have a desert planet like Tatooine. In Takodana we have a forest planet complete with old temple like Yavin 4. In Starkiller Base’s surface we have an icy landscape like Hoth. The locations are not the most imaginative, but their groundedness also gives them cinematographic beauty – their relatability is a strength, but being earthbound could also could give the impression of a fan film. I think these choices mostly work for The Force Awakens, though, because it’s bringing an interesting hybrid of zaniness and realism to the Star Wars universe.
After all, these decisions also give us a dynamic shooting style courtesy of director J.J. Abrams. On Takodana, we have a thrilling oner that goes from a character scrambling on the ground, up to a kinetic dogfight in the sky, back down to the ground; it’s fluid and energetic in the best way. These decisions also give us a visceral and fresh take on lightsaber dueling. No 20-foot Force jumps here. A bruiser, pitted against a defensive combatant using a lightsaber almost like a rapier at times. Breathlessly exciting peaks and valleys in the flow of battle. There are a couple moments in the duel that do for lightsaber dueling what Creed did for boxing, both films shooting its action with hard immediacy and empathy for its characters.
Scaling back to the big picture of plot, The Force Awakens is nothing revolutionary. (I don’t weigh plot so much as character and quality of writing.) There are a few clear similarities to beats from the original trilogy, but I maintain that they’re superficial. The whole tenor of the beats, as well as how characters interact around them, is wildly different in context. The one noticeably weak plot element is Starkiller Base. There’s a bit where its size is compared with the Death Star, and that moment is kind of dumb and rote. But the Base is merely a backdrop, incidental in the face of its own destructive power. The real ballgame is what’s going on with the characters: Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and by this point, Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Yes, old characters have moments to shine in The Force Awakens, and it’s a credit to the movie that it took me this long to mention them directly; the film’s fresh blood is so good, I don’t have much to say about their predecessors. Suffice to say that they’re all present and correct, and welcome sights. It’s been 30 years since we’ve seen them, and a lot of history has happened in the meantime. The movie obfuscates a thing or two (the politics and beliefs of the First Order are quite unclear), but on the whole takes the right tack: hinting at things that have happened in that time gap without feeling the need to lengthily exposit on them. In the old days throwaway references were expanded into whole spinoff novels; a similar thing will undoubtedly happen now.
Episode VII: The Force Awakens reintroduces Star Wars through an exciting new cast. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and especially Adam Driver inject extraordinary energy into their roles, making the movie a great ensemble piece. The old elements are there, but they’re not the focus, and Star Wars can now look entirely to the future with a new creative regime. Let’s just get more imaginative in Episode VIII. (Stay tuned for the spoiler P.S. for more.) Unlike certain other films in the franchise, The Force Awakens stands as a synergistic work of craftsmanship, with solid cinematography, music, production design, writing, and directing. These elements lay the groundwork, and the characters jump off the page and carry the day. 9/10.
P.S.: May the SPOILERS be with you
In 1983, Harrison Ford wanted to be killed off in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. I presume he wanted the door closed so he didn’t have to return to the character. But thank the Maker he didn’t get his wish, not only because it freed him to have a last hurrah and interesting death in Episode VII, but also because Episode VI would have been a terrible swan song for him. (As far as I’m concerned, the writing and Ford’s goofy performance in that movie barely qualify as Han Solo.) So Han is dead at the hand of his son Ben. I like the death for Han because it’s such unfamiliar territory for his original character: dealing directly with dark side corruption, and intensely personal as opposed to a blaze of glory. But what I like most about the scene is that Kylo Ren’s plea to Han is entirely genuine. Far from being some kind of cheap fake-out, by looking directly into Ben’s eyes, Han really is giving his son the strength to take decisive action. It just happens that that action is patricide.
That kind of irony appears elsewhere in the film; Kylo Ren unwittingly has a large role in awakening the Force within Rey. And that duel is one for the ages. Firstly the slight misdirection in the marketing about Finn works a charm (the cross guard blade digging into Finn’s shoulder! Ouch!). And then when Kylo Ren tries to summon the lightsaber, and it proceeds to arc to Rey, is a crowning moment of triumph that left me physically shaking. The duel is great, and I think Rey’s moment of calm at the cliff edge is vital, because it’s something that Kylo Ren could never achieve. It’s a beautiful point to all those discussions about whether the Dark or Light side of the Force is stronger (expressed here as aggression vs. inner peace).
So the macguffin of the whole movie is the map to Luke Skywalker, in his hermitage on an island in a vast ocean. I’m totally fine with the relative lack of Luke; that just means a bigger role in the next movie. And how about that look on Luke’s face when the sees his old lightsaber? Like a look of profound sadness? Roll on Episode VIII! I’m rooting for you, Rian Johnson.
And am I the only one who thinks Supreme Leader Snoke resembles the Silence from Doctor Who?
The name Steven Spielberg instantly commands attention, as a director who has consistently demonstrated mastery of his craft. If he directed The Teletubbies, I’d watch it, because his capacity for visual storytelling is that finely tuned. But more than in a technical sense, he has certain sentimental themes he likes to return to, and the remarkable true-life story of Bridge of Spies is a triumph of humanism that Spielberg brings to the screen fluently. It’s no wonder that German Chancellor Angela Merkel observed the filming on the titular Glienicke Bridge (which used to connect domestically-held West and Soviet-controlled East Germany); Bridge of Spies represents a confluence of artistic talent and historical relevance.
In 1957, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in Brooklyn and tried for Soviet espionage, and insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is asked to handle Abel’s defense. Even as Abel is found guilty, Donovan goes beyond the expected call of duty and succeeds in securing his client a sentence of 30 years imprisonment rather than execution. One salient argument of his: that Abel may be useful as a bargaining chip in the future. Cut to 1960, when U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured by the USSR, and Donovan is tapped to handle the exchange of Abel for Powers. But when the Berlin Wall is erected the following year and American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is arrested by the East German Stasi, Donovan feels he must go against everything his CIA allies are telling him and not accept Powers without Pryor as well. It’s the right thing to do, but the chances for it to backfire are real…
Donovan is a man in the eye of the storm of a potential international incident, and Hanks plays him as a beacon of decency. As a historical dramatization, the story sort of writes itself; there is a symmetry to real events that lends itself to a script, and it all revolves on the axis of Donovan’s determination to do the right thing. Hanks’ role is familiar performance ground for him, and is not showy as a more ambiguous character might lend itself to be, but he knocks it out of the park all the same. And Donovan’s bit about what makes an American is a quick and understated beat, but still enough to make me want to cheer.
Matching him (though with a lot less screen time) is Rylance as the accused Soviet spy. He’s fantastic in a largely internalized role, magnetic despite coming across as having the mildest of manners. In a sense both Rylance and Hanks are underplaying their roles, but getting more out of them that way, doing a lot with a little while seemingly effortlessly drawing the audience in. The rest of the cast are effective in proportion to their function but mostly incidental. The female characters in particular (intentionally?) don’t make an impression and are underwritten. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the time period?
The world of Bridge of Spies at first blush looks profoundly unwelcoming, with lots of greys and metallic colors. But with Spielberg as our guide, the richness of the world shines through. His trademark “oners” take us over either side of the under-construction Berlin Wall, around and inside a car beset by incipient snow, and following bicycle couriers in an administrative building. Each extended take involves us in the setting. And there is a wealth of visual parallelism between the USA and USSR’s deployment of espionage being in many ways exactly the same.
Spielberg has often talked about his existential fear of atomic apocalypse, so the “duck and cover” material is in there as well. The other harsh realities of the time period are present but not in your face. I love how the public vilification of Donovan is there, accomplished by compact visual storytelling and not dwelt upon hamfistedly. The script (by Matt Charman and punched up by the Coen brothers) avoids melodrama and remains sharp and taut throughout.
And it all culminates in the Glienicke Bridge scene, which is really an ideal Spielbergian climax. It’s got his familiar background spotlights illuminated our characters. It’s got inherent tension, and it centers around the moral accomplishment of one man’s need to secure the safety of not one but two people. Consider it the Cold War’s own Close Encounters visitation sequence.
Bridge of Spies is a great, unshowy movie that is the product of a bunch of talented people firing on all cylinders. Hanks and Rylance play off each other subtly but memorably, the script is on point, and Spielberg hits the visual and emotional beats like clockwork. Not that the film feels artificial! It’s just, what else can I expect from probably the world’s greatest living filmmaker? Bridge of Spies is an understated but fiendishly well-constructed piece. It quietly rocks. 9/10.
We find James Bond (Daniel Craig) moving across three continents in pursuit of the truth behind a shadowy criminal organization known as SPECTRE. Along the way he discovers Italian assassins, a dying familiar nemesis, and new and creative ways to crash vehicles into each other. And all the while on the homefront, ambitious bureaucrat Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott) works to fold MI6 into MI5, scrap the 00 program, and generally annoy MI6 head M (Ralph Fiennes), his assistant Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Chief of Staff Tanner (Rory Kinnear), and quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw). What does psychologist Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) know of SPECTRE? And is a face from Bond’s childhood, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), truly alive and running the show?
Over the course of the past year I’ve become a big fan of the James Bond films. Not only that, the recent Skyfall is my favorite film of 2012 and in my opinion the best Bond movie; my anticipation for Spectre was naturally very strong. So I’m sorry to report that I think Spectre is the worst the series has been since Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997. Spectre is less a concrete action movie and more a collection of uninspired setpieces, less an entertaining Bond story and more a pseudo-fanservice-drenched house of mirrors.
I know I’ve rather showed my hand, but let’s talk good stuff first! Spectre should silence critics of Craig’s Bond who peg him as too dour. He’s got that twinkle in his eyes, a sense of sharp humor that brings some welcome levity. I love Q in this, his relationship with the frustrating 00 agent in his charge, and the general use of the MI6 cast. The two highlights of the movie are the big, legitimately creepy SPECTRE meeting; and the pre-titles Mexico City sequence, which needs only a helicopter to deliver the best action scene of the film. The Día de Muertos bursts with life, and the powerhouse filmmaking from director Sam Mendes and crew is apparent from the beginning; the film begins with a long oner tracking shot that sets a great first impression. Too bad the impression doesn’t last.
Now, ever since the first trailer, we’ve known that Franz Oberhauser (now, of course, head of SPECTRE) is the son of the man who took in James after the Bonds died, making Oberhauser Bond’s long-lost foster brother. This is presented to us as a big deal, but the film does nothing with it. The one time the script does touch it, Oberhauser’s dialogue addressing the matter is so quickly brushed over and so nonsensical that I can’t believe this is the final draft. Supervillain wants to kill superspy; superspy wants to kill supervillain. There. That’s the same as what we get here. If you removed all references to Bond’s foster-brother and just proceeded with a no-frills, traditional supervillain characterization, nothing. Would. Change. If this was the screenwriters’ attempt to “make it personal” between hero and villain, it failed miserably.
And the script has the gall to build up Oberhauser in the most insipid way possible: through fanservice. You see, Oberhauser is the head of SPECTRE, and the villains of the previous Daniel Craig Bond movies all turn out to be working for that umbrella organization all along. So Oberhauser actually says stuff along the lines of, “Le Chiffre, Green, Silva – it was me all along,” and “Your precious M was killed – that was me”. NO, IT WASN’T YOU. IT WAS BETTER, MORE INTERESTING VILLAINS, IN BETTER, MORE INTERESTING MOVIES. Since the film dares to bring him up, look at Raoul Silva in Skyfall, a great example of a Bond villain who makes it personal in a compelling way. His axe to grind with M is integral to his character and to the overall story, and he’s a fascinating foil for Bond because they have crucial similarities as well as obvious differences. Oberhauser is barely a character. He’s full of hot air. Does it add anything that he’s Bond’s foster brother? Why does Oberhauser allude to backstory regarding his relationship with his father without elaborating on any iota of context? Why has he done anything he’s done? Why should we credit him as anything other than a jack in the box? I guess you could maybe say Waltz is kinda fun in the “role”, but he’s building a sand castle and the high tide’s coming in.
The problem of continuity fetishism persists throughout the film. Spectre folds in references to the three previous films with such persistence I don’t know whether to be frustrated or amused. Seeing the images of Le Chiffre, Vesper Lynd, Dominic Green, Raoul Silva etc is cool the first time, but the film just keeps beating the dead horse, serving only to remind me of other, better Bond movies. It’s an ouroboros snake of sorta-fanservice, devouring its own tail and sucking the story of Spectre of any meat on its own bones. It’s insular, it’s navel-gazing, it’s self-defeating.
As I’ve said, I think the film blows its best action setpiece before the title sequence; with the partial exception of a fight in a train car, the remaining action is largely uninspired with little in the way of dynamics. Oh, the vehicular stunts look great in and of themselves. Practical vehicles clash in many configurations of conflagrations, and seeing it in person must have been impressive. But I’m not reviewing the job of the special effects team, I’m reviewing the movie, and from where I’m sitting, the vehicle chases are not anything to get the blood pumping. And worst of all is the shockingly flat third act, which is a genuinely poor and uninventive anticlimax more likely to induce a roll of the eyes than a pump of the fist.
There are plenty more baffling and varied flaws. Andrew Scott’s slimy Londonbound antagonist is dubbed “C” by Bond early on… for some reason. And then every other character starts calling him C in all seriousness from then on… for some reason. I don’t get it. Why C? But more importantly regarding his character, M is forced to defend MI6, the 00 program, and “old-fashioned” espionage again, after the ground was covered much more effectively and poignantly in Skyfall! (More on that, and the whole Oberhauser thing, in the spoiler-y P.P.S.) Most glaring of all, at a certain point, it becomes apparent that we’re supposed to believe Bond and female lead Dr. Swann are supposed to actually be falling for each other (they deployed the “l” word!). It escalates way too quickly; I just don’t buy that the connection goes all the way to love in the course of the film, no way no how. Hey, the script says these two love each other, so it must be true.
Spectre is a great-looking mess with largely unexciting action, baffling story and character choices, and a genuinely bad third act. It’s a disappointment whose main strengths are of the superficial, as everything looks pristine and well-tailored. It’s just that what’s being tailored lacks punch and interest. In the end devoted more to weaving in continuity than being a good movie on its own, Spectre has its head up its own franchised arse. 4/10.
P.S.: Sing-along time! Or, you know, not; your choice. Time to talk about Sam Smith’s Spectre song “Writing’s on the Wall”. Overall it’s… all right. An all right song is an undeniable comedown after Adele’s world-beating “Skyfall”, but Smith’s over-crooned ballad has admittedly grown on me a bit after my first listen. The verse vocal melody is solid, and I even like the falsetto chorus as it’s distinctive and catchy. (The reference in the chorus to the speaker wanting love to “run through [his] blood” reminds me of the speaker of Casino Royale‘s “You Know My Name” stating, “The coldest blood runs through my veins.”) But the song refuses to truly gel, in part because of the vocal flavor; plus, it doesn’t help when Smith comes out with stuff like “I never shoot… to MESS!” (But in case anyone thinks male cod-operatic vocals are without precedent in James Bond songs, I refer you to Morten Harket of a-ha in “The Living Daylights”.) So I like certain discrete elements of “Writing’s on the Wall” in and of themselves, but it’s overall a very mopey experience for a Bond song, whose one attempt to gain a more proactive, rousing quality (“If I risk it a-a-all…”) falls flat for me. And the ending of it just fizzles into nothing. So the song’s a real mixed bag. But it’s leagues better than “Die Another Day”, *shiver*. Okay, I’ve rambled enough about this. If you didn’t notice, I love talking about James Bond theme songs.
P.P.S.: SPOILERS FOLLOW. So Franz Oberhauser lets his fluffy white cat get snuggly with Bond, basically says, “Boo, I’m Blofeld”, and proceeds to monologue. Huh. I must ask what the point is of making Blofeld the equivalent of Bond’s secret brother if it has absolutely no coherent bearing on the character dynamics. What is this guff about Blofeld becoming convinced his father “had to die”??? It isn’t explored at all; it just sits there in the air and never lands with any impact, because we can’t even begin to understand the context. I say again, if the script had gone with a traditional Blofeld characterization, the only difference would be a semantic one. Secret brothers, indeed! When Blofeld showed up with his iconic facial scar, I said under my breath, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” It’s empty iconography with the pretense of piercing characterization, which is worse than embracing simplicity. Next time, make sure you write an intelligible character instead of leaving the heavy-lifting to how he looks and dresses. And another thing: what is up with the scene where Bond is so insistent for Dr. Swann not to be shown the video of her father’s suicide? Is it because he doesn’t want her to face the pain of seeing her father die? I get that, but the way it’s contextualized, it’s framed more like Oberhauser saying, “Observe the real James Bond”. The scene changes nothing in the characters despite being intensely melodramatic, and its obscurity of purpose just serves to make it baffling.
The sour cherry on top of the lackluster ending is the baffling way Spectre leaves Bond and the 00 program. What, the 00s are just shut down? What about the forthcoming movies? Is Bond actually retiring with this woman he never had any real grounds to fall in love with? Considering Bond and Dr. Swann’s onscreen relationship I think it would be more than appropriate for her to amicably part with Bond exactly as she tried to before Bond and the gang drove to MI6. (And that way, she wouldn’t have to be in the damsel-in-distress climax, either!!) I understand that plenty of Bond movies end with him in the embrace of the female lead as they figuratively go off into the sunset, but there was always an MI6 to come back to, a job to do, and the women were always gone come the next story. Will the next film give M the burden of advocating for 00 agents again, after already doing so and succeeding in Skyfall, and doing so and failing in Spectre?!? And don’t tell me how this ending is designed to give closure to Daniel Craig’s version of the character, because James Bond is not a goddamn code name!
The Aaron Sorkin-penned Steve Jobs biopic had a very scattered and uncertain development phase, with the project passing like a hot potato between studios, directors, and stars. That the final product turned out as brilliant as it has is a minor miracle. In the film there’s a bit of a running theme about the role of the conductor’s job being to “play the orchestra”, and the metaphor extends to this film; Steve Jobs is the result of the right screenwriter, the right cast members, the right director, the right composer, and countless others working in concert to produce movie magic.
I hesitate to use the word biopic because this is not necessarily a traditional one. The structure is tightened, with a focus on three segments of behind-the-scenes drama leading up to three separate product launches: the Apple Macintosh in 1984; the NeXT computer in 1988; and the iMac in 1998. The three-act structure gives this film the skeletal structure of a play, written in trademark Sorkinese, relying on the actors to carry the words as if they’re on stage.
And the three segments each feature check-in points with a few characters whose relationship with Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) evolves through the years. Marketing director and confidant Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Mac software engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Jobs’ daughter Lisa all appear in each act, and the familiarity of the people involved gives the overall story formal symmetry. Certain relationships have dramatic downswings, others fluctuate, and others remain consistent, but it’s always interesting to track them.
As in a play, the importance of the cast is even greater than usual. Fassbender has long since proved his ability to disappear into challengingly nuanced roles, and his Steve Jobs is no exception. While arrogant in the extreme as a semi-socially-bankrupt innovator (“artists lead, and hacks ask for a show of hands”), Fassbender is magnetic and the character is always more than just an intellectual anvil. The rest of the cast handles Sorkin’s tongue-twisters admirably as well, and are solid-to-exceptional across the board. As one example, the NeXT scene between Fassbender and Daniels is the film’s standout in my mind, bringing two actors toe-to-toe for excitement just as profound as in the most engaging action sequence. And the editing in that scene! It’s hands-down one of my favorite scenes of the year.
Director Danny Boyle is one of my favorites working today, and while at times he just lets his actors do their thing, a few trademarks of his show up. He always depicts such specific realities in his films, and this is apparent in the 1984 section, as it is converted to deliberately grainy stock. Also look for very choice and evocative Dutch shots, and a flourish involving a literal launch before a product launch. The visual storytelling is on point; just as Jobs and Wozniak drift further apart, their scenes are blocked literally father apart each successive time.
As a fan of screenwriter Sorkin, his script more than lives up to expectations, full of sharp barbs and quick insights. But I’d also like to draw attention to his treatment of the Steve Jobs character as a very flawed man, no punches pulled. Having gained perspective on events from consultation with the real-life major players (Wozniak, Hoffman, Sculley, Hertzfeld, and even daughter Lisa, who did not have contact with biographer Walter Isaacson), authenticity comes across in the screenplay. Jobs’ extraordinary capacities for both bad and good are present here, and the film has no trace of hagiography. At first blush Sorkin’s Jobs looks like a fairly typical misanthropic genius, but as the story winds down there is also the odd touch of schmaltz. Granted, the way a couple moments of sentimentality are portrayed don’t strike me as ideal, but the balance is there. The moments of warmth are earned, and help the egocentric material go down, and vice versa.
The rest of the production is well-done, with the standout being Daniel Pemberton’s super-cool score. While not always built to be listened to outside the context of the film, it underscores the action with a thrilling, bubbling spirit of innovation. Making fantastic use of the synthesizer, it also on occasion reminds me of a less in-your-face version of Henry Jackman’s Big Hero 6 score. And the score’s not one-note, as it’s sometimes downright operatic in conveying drama (the “Revenge” cue in particular).
It feels like Steve Jobs is playing to a metronome, and it’s pure entertainment to me. Even with the on-the-nose conductor/orchestra theme present in the film, it genuinely feels to me like the movie itself is being conducted more than directed, tuned more than edited. The complementary efforts of Sorkin, Boyle, the ensemble cast, and Pemberton are all of a piece. Despite the tightness of the story construction, this is a filmed environment I could have stood to spend more time in. 10/10.
Described by director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro as his first English-language film “for adults” – as opposed to movies about day-walking vampire hunters (Blade 2), cigar-chewing demons (Hellboy and sequel), or human-piloted and kaiju-crunching giant robots (Pacific Rim) – Crimson Peak does not go the implied route of its marketing and tell a straightforward ghost story. It is instead a story always revolving around characters, with ghosts that fulfill very specific and tertiary thematic functions different from what you might expect. It’s much more concerned with the people making up 19th century high society than the specter of the supernatural, and works very well for what it is.
In 1887, aspiring writer Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is doted on by her industrialist father and occasionally haunted by the shade of her late mother. When the dashing and sensitive English baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) propositions Mr. Cushing for an investment in a clay-mining invention, events lead to Thomas also proposing marriage to Edith. But what is really going on with Thomas and his enigmatic sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain)? And what secrets lie seeped into the walls of the Sharpes’ ancestral and dilapidated mansion, Allerdale Hall?
Before I talk about anything else, let’s address that Hall, being the visual centerpiece of the film. Allerdale Hall has got to go down as an all-timer as far as film sets go. The production design (credited to Thomas E. Sanders but of course guided by the imagination of del Toro) is astonishing. For the duration of principal photography, there was a three-plus-story gothic mansion constructed on a soundstage in Toronto, complete with a massive library, functional elevators, and uncounted nooks and crannies. Seeing the set on the silver screen is a genuine privilege, but del Toro is also engaged in the business of, you know, story, so the showcase it gets on film is only a start. To have seen the set in person, as members of the press did, must have been amazing. Anyways –
As the story unfolds, its structure resembles a cross between Jane Eyre and The Shining. Like Jane Eyre, there is the mysterious Byronic figure (Edward Rochester=Thomas Sharpe) as a figure of sexual magnetism for the young heroine, and who also hides a significant domestic secret. Like The Shining, a struggling writer finds him/herself (Jack Torrance=Edith Cushing) isolated in a vast haunted structure and may be losing the grip on sanity. But it is important to note, as alluded to earlier, that the supernatural is taking a back seat to the merely heightened human drama. Crimson Peak is not grounded, as its characters function more or less as pulpy characters in a bodice-ripper (there’s even one reveal shot exactly like a mass-market paperback romance novel cover), but it’s decidedly not a horror movie. You might say it’s derivative, but I prefer to call it deliberately emblematic of certain tropes it wishes to exploit. This extends to the casting of the lead role.
Mia Wasikowska is sometimes typecast as the prototypical 19th century heroine (Alice in Wonderland, Madame Bovary, and yes, the 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre), and nowhere is that more true than here. Her casting speaks to an aim to create a story with some familiar foundations and trappings, but defined by other vital eccentricities. Edith is a bit underdeveloped, but given her role as the normalizing counterweight to the strangeness of her new “family”, that’s appropriate. Hiddleston plays a twist on his usual suave and icy persona; his Thomas may be darkly mysterious, but he’s also insecure and at times even flustered. Wearing the pants in his family is his sister Lucille, as played by the clear acting MVP of the film, Jessica Chastain. Lucille is odd, intense, and I must say, scarier than any of the ghosts featured throughout. Crimson Peak just wouldn’t be itself without the rarefied and off-putting air that Chastain radiates here.
Another key ingredient is the del Toro of it all, as Crimson Peak explicitly dwells on themes that have permeated all of his films, such as the hold the past has on the present. The ghosts in the film even have the same thematic function as the ones in del Toro’s previous Spanish-language drama The Devil’s Backbone. One Crimson Peak ghost in particular shares the exact distinctive visual hook as the most prominent ghost in that previous classic as well, providing a clear link to del Toro’s larger filmography. One criticism I harbor relates to the ghosts, and that’s the consistent use of the tired screeching musical sting in Fernando Velázquez’ score for each ghostly visitation. Given the (relatively) subtle visual application of ghosts in Crimson Peak, the traditional jump-scare sting is out of place.
Guillermo del Toro has conducted a very pulpy and evocative gothic romance, with supportive threads of frank bloodiness and a taste of the supernatural. The cast perform very well, though Chastain pretty much steals the movie. But the biggest star of Crimson Peak is its exquisite visual design. The Allerdale Hall set is to die for, and the 19th Century period trappings are all elegantly present and correct. While not the most scintillating experience, the film is a fun ride for those who go along with its full-blooded melodrama. A weak 8/10.
On August 7, 1974, high-wire artist Philippe Petit (as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in this film) hung a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center with help from a cadre of accomplices. He then proceeded to walk the wire with only the clothes on his back and a balancing beam between him and oblivion; no safety harnesses here. He walked the distance eight times, performing for forty-five minutes. The enterprise was illegally done, of course, so Petit and some of his co-conspirators were arrested directly upon completion of what he called “the artistic crime of the century”. His sentence: to perform a wire walk in Central Park. You can’t make this stuff up. But if you’re ambitious visual stylist Robert Zemeckis, you can put the audience up on that wire with the power of 3D filmmaking.
More than any film I’ve seen in 2015, The Walk almost demands that you experience it in the theater; but more than that, in 3D; but more than that, in IMAX 3D. The 3D here is integral to the immersion of the film, and when Petit gets on the wire, director Zemeckis (always noted for his trademark of dynamic and ambitious camerawork) has a field day using 3D for extraordinary depth perception and sweeping visuals.
Now, I myself am acrophobic, and spent the majority of the film in anxious anticipation of the climax. Would I be able to handle it? Would I have to look away? Petit’s character expresses similar trepidations throughout: “My head is full of doubts. And when it’s time to step on the wire, I don’t know if I’ll be able to take my first step.” But as Petit steps on the wire, he describes letting go of his anxiety, and strangely enough, my experience mirrored his. Even as someone who shakes at the knees at the prospect of great heights, I was fine throughout the climax, free to appreciate the money shots of the film.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has always been an extraordinary physical actor, whether he’s coping with a rotating set to shoot the famous hallway fight for Inception, burning rubber on the streets for the bicycle chases of Premium Rush, or receiving coaching from Petit himself for the wire act of The Walk. But also in the dramatic aspect of the performance, Gordon-Levitt convinces, rising above the tricky French accent that could have sunk the performance. Now, Petit’s character is a bit of an asshole, there’s no denying; he hates compromise and sometimes plays the hard taskmaster to his friends in service of his own artistic ambition. But that’s part of the deal; only someone with that type of obsessive drive could have performed the walk.
The supporting cast, particularly his gang of aiding and abetting friends, are a fun group that help in giving the film its character. This is especially true in the second act, which depicts the weeks of planning for working out the practicalities of infiltrating the towers and rigging the wire. The heist element that kicks in there gives The Walk very welcome momentum and excitement, after a first act that, while solid, is very much in the standard biopic mould (although I’d be remiss not to mention the memorable setpiece wherein Petit does a dry run for a high-elevation wire walk on an iconic Parisian structure).
The production and costume design do a great job transporting us to the 1970s, while Alan Silvestri’s minimalist score underscores the ambition and accomplishment of the walk beautifully. If there is a (relatively) weak link in the chain, it’s Zemeckis’ and co-writer Christopher Browne’s screenplay, which hits favorite beats very transparently throughout (we know it’s your ever-lovin’ “dream”). There’s also an explicit narrative framing device that breaks the fourth wall, which I’m fine with, but may take some out of the experience.
But the standout element of the screenplay is the fairly understated sentimentality surrounding the twin towers; what they meant to New Yorkers as they were being built, what they came to mean after Petit’s walk. The thread culminates in a great bittersweet ending, and leaves a lasting impression.
So The Walk is an extraordinary visual experience, legitimately supported by 3D, best seen on an IMAX 3D screen. The cast is fun together (including Charlotte Le Bon, Clément Sibomy and the rest), the well-edited heist section makes for light-hearted tension, and Gordon-Levitt continues to prove his leading screen talent. Robert Zemeckis’ filmmaking ambition pays off here, in depicting another instance of ambition paying off on the biggest New York City stage of all. 8/10.
In an alternative version of 1985, time travel technology exists and its surgical use to prevent certain past disasters is overseen by the Temporal Bureau. A time agent (Ethan Hawke) receives an assignment to catch a terrorist in the 1970s, and while undercover as a bartender, hears the remarkable story of a woman named Jane who needed gender re-assignment surgery to survive as John (Sarah Snook in both roles). With the involved story told, time jumps and lots of heady twists ensue, and the world-building of the alt-1985 ends up taking a backseat to the mother of all ontological paradoxes. Watch out Looper and 12 Monkeys, Predestination is in town and it’s got time travel shenanigans to spare.
This is one killer time travel thriller, with a cast committed to its insane premise. While Hawke is good as a hardened time traveller, he is not the highlight here. Sarah Snook gives an astonishingly good performance in a double role, as both strident pre-surgery Jane and world-weary “present day” John. Snook brings such a distinct energy to each role (as John, helped by the wonders of make-up to boot) that it takes a very long to sink in that the same actor is playing both parts, even when the audience knows off the bat that Jane and John are the same character. She really is a revelation here, steely and brittle and broken by turns. It’s almost needless to say that she walks away with the movie. (And with Tom Hardy coming out with his own double act in Legend, he’s going to have to knock it out of the park to even match Sarah Snook in this.)
The film is loosely based on a Robert Heinlein short story, and indeed, the construction of the narrative feels like a clever method of adaptation. And very admirably, the film is really interested in presenting a dark underbelly to the 1950s, gee-whiz space travel sci-fi that Heinlein could be so fond of in stories like “The Man Who Sold the Moon”. The gender issues played with create a strong sense of place in the ’50s and ’60s-set scenes.
Early on there’s a fair bit of certain characters trying to coax information out of other characters, and you could cynically read that as reflecting an audience member coaxing coherence out of an opaque film. I say Predestination is not obtuse, but rather assured and whip-smart. Granted, some of the dialogue can get very on-the-nose when the themes reach their payoffs in the third act, but it’s a minor point. And it’s all in the service of a finale in which the twists come fast and furious, each stacking on each other with such audacity you can’t help but go with it.
It’s a dazzling showcase for Sarah Snook, it’s a heady yet thrilling tale of time travel El Mariachi style, it’s a mind-bender, it’s a science fiction gem. Predestination retains its dignity even as it shamelessly fires twists at the viewer, each one a cannonball. And I can almost guarantee this is a more interesting film involving gender re-assignment surgery than the upcoming The Danish Girl. A strong 8/10.
What We Do in the Shadows
There’s an exchange in the show Monk that goes like this: “[He’s] the Prince of Darkness!” “No, he’s not the Prince of Darkness. I’ve seen him vacuuming the ceiling. You wouldn’t see the Prince of Darkness doing that.” What We Do in the Shadows reminds me of that quote, because this hilarious mockumentary is preoccupied with depicting a multigenerational vampire flat, where the bloodsuckers argue over who has to do the dishes, hold flat meetings to iron out issues, and for that matter, iron out their shirts. It’s got lots of domestic comedy, it’s just that the domestics here happen to be able to levitate and cast no reflection. And that’s the other side of what this film accomplishes: it shows with flippant but clever (and at times gut-busting) humor what it might really be like to be a vampire. Does the Prince of Darkness vacuum the ceiling? Well, as you can see in the picture below, vampires do indeed vacuum the walls…
Our tenants are Byronic softie Viago (Taika Waititi, also co-writing and co-directing), 379 years of age; intense and no-nonsense Vladislav (Jemaine Clement, ditto), 862 years of age; insouciant and callous Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), 183 years of age; and most ghoulish of all, ancient Petyr (Ben Fransham), 8000 years of age. Petyr looks like full-on Nosferatu due to advanced age, while the others are free to walk out in the world, provided, of course, the sun has set. The ages are fairly important, because they indicate a generational difference among the vampires – you have bloodsuckers from the dawn of man, the Dark Ages, and the 17th and 18th Centuries living together and conversing just like regular humans.
But through the naturalistic lens of these characters, lots and lots of vampire mythology gets put through the mockumentary wringer, making for some great matter-of-fact comedy. And at certain point the scale is cleverly dialed up, which translates to charmingly low-budget action setpieces that end up being damn memorable. (Look out for a hallway fight straight out of Inception!) So the laid-back production pays off, and seeing the boom mic in frame isn’t a low-budget gaffe, but a part of the film’s conceit of documentation. I should mention, the doc conceit of the movie doesn’t really make sense, and some pedantic viewers might be bothered by that. But the fact that the film lampshades this at several points makes it work comedically if not logically.
And that’s the ambition of What We Do in the Shadows. To craft a really clever comedy but not to get too hung up on a few of the details. The film is a haven for puns, satire, and even a couple scares, all involving endearing and insecure characters who we see deal in the mundane aspects of being vampires. It’s a gem. A strong 8/10.
P.S.: Taika Waititi is in final negotiations to direct Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel. It’ll be really fascinating to see his vision if he stays with the project.
Desk-based and terminally under-appreciated CIA agent Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) guides her field specialist partner Bradley Fine (Jude Law) on missions far and wide, until one day Fine lands into some serious trouble with notorious terrorist Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). With a nuclear missile in play and all known field agents’ identities compromised, Cooper is very reluctantly sent on a mission to stop the deployment of the nuke. Can a woman all but ignored by her superiors for years get the job done when the stakes are so high? And can comedic writer-director Paul Feig do for spy movies what he did for buddy cop films in The Heat?
The humor of Spy is a bit scattered and random at times, but it hits the mark often enough. As the film begins, there are very obvious Bond pastiches (Theodore Shapiro’s John Barry-esque main theme, the title sequence), but all kinds of broad physical humor as well as off-center banter find their way into the mix. Some of it doesn’t work, most of it does; it’s really a function of keeping the jokes coming on a conveyor belt, as it’s almost inevitable that there are misses in there.
What does work unequivocally is the thematic framework on which the jokes are hung. Susan Cooper is super-competent at her job, but people constantly underestimate, judge and treat her based only on her appearance. So while the jokes are flying, something deeper is being portrayed. It’s only reinforced further when you see that the villain has under-appreciated grunts/employees as well, making for lots of gags that also work thematically. The whole situation is also like a reflection of Melissa McCarthy’s rise in Hollywood, with the hotshot star agent roles taken up by men and one token conventionally beautiful woman (Morena Baccarin), before the situation arises for McCarthy/Cooper to shine.
The supporting cast all commit admirably to their parts. Law has a lot of fun adopting an exaggerated American accent and portraying the false bluster of an agent who appears invincible but is in reality useless when relying on his own senses. Allison Janney, Byrne and others also heighten their performances well, but the entire supporting cast is overshadowed by Jason Statham’s fucking hilarious parody of his usual type of action-badass role. He’s a consistent comedic highlight, especially when he rattles off various over-the-top episodes from his spy career (think the Most Interesting Spy in the World) with bug-eyed conviction.
The film has flaws other than its joke hit rate. There’s some confused geography in the action; I think Feig can keep the jokes coming but I don’t know about his visual style. There’s also slightly shaky editing at times, and the third act gets too plotty for its own good; we have to care a bit about who’s doing what, but not that much.
In any case, Spy does what it sets out to do and more. It’s a funny spy genre romp/take-off (in a year littered with spy films), but its real triumph are the themes that its surface-level jokes illuminate around its central character. McCarthy and Statham own the film, and while Spy isn’t the funniest nor the most well-made comedy around, it’s good at its job. A weak 7/10.