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2015

The Danish Girl (2015)

danishDIRECTOR: Tom Hooper

CAST: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Amber Heard, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch

REVIEW:

The Danish Girl arrives in theaters at a time when it’s virtually guaranteed to be rewarded with Academy Awards attention.  Transgender issues are prominent in the news, and it’s easy to be cynical about feeling there’s something a little opportunistic in the timing and subject matter of director Tom Hooper and star Eddie Redmayne clearly aiming for what would be each man’s second Oscar, but more visible representation for the transgendered community in high-profile Oscar contender motion pictures isn’t a bad thing.  Based on the same-named 2000 novel by David Ebershoff, itself a somewhat fictionalized account of the true story of transgender pioneer Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, The Danish Girl, like Hooper’s Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, is a somber, stately, and sedate period film, and while its subdued tone sometimes mutes its emotional impact, it’s still a poignant and handsomely-filmed semi-biographical drama. Continue reading

The Revenant (2015)

7851989_fc819d0327a9899589c1a220af8b6bc8_wmDIRECTOR: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter

REVIEW:

WARNING: THIS REVIEW WILL REVEAL IMPORTANT ASPECTS OF THE FILM’S PLOT

For the follow-up to his 2014 Oscar-winning offbeat comedy-drama Birdman, Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has chosen to take the saying “revenge is a dish best served cold” very, very literally.  The Revenant is inspired by the true story of 1800s frontiersman Hugh Glass, which also inspired the 1971 Richard Harris film Man in the Wilderness, but takes its share of liberties with the true story, and the two loose versions of Glass’ tale are different enough to each be judged on their individual merits (The Revenant is not a remake of Man in the Wilderness, merely inspired by the same story, and does its own thing).  In a year with its share of survival stories hitting theaters, it’s better-crafted than In the Heart of the Seaand far more dark and brutal than The Martian (compared to The Revenant, The Martian is practically a comedy).  In its “man vs. Nature” narrative, sometimes existential tone, and unflinching bleakness, it’s a cinematic cousin to both the Liam Neeson drama The Gray and the gritty Australian revisionist Western The Proposition.  The Revenant is hardly the “feel good” movie of the year, and it definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those to whom the subject matter appeals, it’s a visceral, immersive, and uncompromising film experience. Continue reading

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

firefightDIRECTOR: J.J. Abrams

CAST: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker

REVIEW:

With 1977’s Star Wars (at the time simply titled “Star Wars”, later as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), writer-director George Lucas launched a pop culture phenomenon that has arguably never seen its equal (Harry Potter mania might be the closest runner-up), and 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s The Return of the Jedi only solidified its status.  It’s hard to overestimate Star Wars‘ influence on the filmmaking industry, whether bringing sci-fi into the mainstream, hearkening back to the old-fashioned adventures of Flash Gordon and the like, bringing about a virtual visual effects revolution, spawning countless imitators and direct and indirect descendants, spawning a massive merchandising blitz and copious tie-ins with novelizations, animated series, highly collectible action figures, “Expanded Universe” fanfiction that took on a life of its own, and launching Industrial Light & Magic and Lucasfilm.  One doesn’t have to be a Star Wars nerd to know phrases like “may the Force be with you” or know who Darth Vader is.  The long-gestating prequel trilogy, beginning in 1999, was anticipated with astronomical expectations no films could possibly have lived up to, and that and various questionable choices on Lucas’ part tainted the franchise for many fans, sparking a sometimes over-the-top fan backlash.  By his own admission, the vitriol from some disappointed fans turned Lucas off to all things Star Wars, and he eventually sold the property to Disney.  And now, a decade after the last of the prequels, the first Star Wars movie to have no involvement from George Lucas has brought the iconic text crawl across theater screens again.  Director J.J. Abrams (whose reboot of the Star Trek film series could be said to be a warm-up for this) makes his fanboy levels of love for Star Wars obvious (sometimes too obvious), but while an entertaining space fantasy adventure in keeping with the spirit of what Lucas originated, The Force Awakens falls somewhat short.  It’s better-crafted than the prequels, but lacks a certain spark that keeps it from ascending to the original trilogy’s iconic status.  Fans with open minds may find much to appreciate, but tempered expectations may lead to a more positive reaction. Continue reading

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

in-the-heart-of-the-sea-teaser-trailer-1280DIRECTOR: Ron Howard

CAST: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, Ben Whishaw, Brendan Gleeson

REVIEW:

In the Heart of the Sea got a lot of promotional mileage out of its loose connections to Herman Melville’s literary classic “Moby Dick” (it’s based on the true incident of the 1820 sinking of the Essex that in turn inspired Melville’s magnum opus), but at least as brought to the screen here, the true story is less compelling than its fictional counterpart.  The studio pushing its release date back from the original March to December, presumably to put it in awards contention, seems ill-judged and pointless.  The movie might have fared better in March, and risks getting lost in the shuffle in November-December’s crowded and highly-anticipated field of movies.  There are things to appreciate for fans of seafaring adventure, but the movie isn’t Oscar material, and there’s a generic, by-the-numbers feel that holds it back from ever becoming as powerful or compelling as it could have been. Continue reading

Legend (2015)

Legend (2015)DIRECTOR: Brian Helgeland

CAST: Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis, Christopher Eccleston, Chazz Palminteri, Taron Egerton, Paul Anderson, Paul Bettany, Kevin McNally, Sam Spruell

REVIEW:

My opinion of Legend is much the same as that of another true crime docudrama, Black Massa few months earlier; a tour de force lead performance(s) and some memorable individual scenes doing too little to enliven an otherwise dull and generic gangster flick.  If you’re a big enough fan of the gangster movie genre, or of Tom Hardy, Legend may be worth a look, but “legendary” it is not.  Those hoping for a gangster epic conveying the true story of 1960s London’s notorious Kray twins will be left wanting.  For writer/director Brian Helgeland, who made a name for himself with 1997’s LA Confidential (and also wrote and directed 1999’s deliciously hard-boiled crime caper Payback), this is a disappointingly uninspired and generic effort that like Black Mass comes across as “Scorsese-lite” and fails to make the true story of the Krays as riveting as one senses it should have been.  LA Confidential won Helgeland an Oscar, but while a case could easily be made for a nomination for Tom Hardy, the rest of Legend is far from Oscar material.   Continue reading

Spectre (2015)

spectreDIRECTOR: Sam Mendes

CAST: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen

REVIEW:

After taking iconic super spy James Bond back to the nitty, gritty basics in 2006’s Casino Royale and 2008’s Quantum of Solace, the “new” rebooted 007 film series slowly worked familiar Bond ingredients (Q, Moneypenney, the Aston Martin, more liberal use of the Bond theme) back into the mix with 2012’s Skyfalland now with Spectre, director Sam Mendes and star Daniel Craig, reuniting from Skyfall, have brought Craig’s Bond full circle with his most “traditional” outing yet.  Of Craig’s four Bond films, Spectre has the most “classic Bond” feel, but admittedly part of the strength of Casino Royale and Skyfall was that they eschewed the conventional Bond formula, or at least used it with restraint.  Spectre is entertaining, but it lacks the freshness of Casino Royale and the emotional depth of Skyfall.  In resurrecting the shadowy global domination organization Spectre, last seen as a recurring villain in Sean Connery’s Bond films of the ’60s, the “classic Bond” pieces have nearly all clicked into place, but the movie lacks a certain spark.  There’s a by-the-numbers feel here that makes Spectre an entertaining Bond adventure but, unlike Casino Royale and Skyfall, not one that transcends the genre. Continue reading

Steve Jobs (2015)

jobsDIRECTOR: Danny Boyle

CAST: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, Perla Haney-Jardine, John Ortiz

REVIEW:

Steve Jobs is a bit to the late Apple Inc. founder and CEO as The Social Network (directed by David Fincher and like this written by Aaron Sorkin) was to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and while the laurels heaped on Danny Boyle’s character study hasn’t quite equaled that showered upon Fincher’s, one trait they share is that, just as The Social Network was able to shape such a seemingly dry and mundane topic as the founding of Facebook into a compelling character-driven drama, Steve Jobs does not require one to be an Apple aficionado or a particular fan of the real Steve Jobs to find this interesting viewing.  As brought to the screen by Danny Boyle, Aaron Sorkin, and Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs is not a dry docudrama, but a near Shakespearean morality play that leads us to reflect on the gift/curse of genius, the costs of limitless ambition, and the ways in which being a great mind does not necessarily equate being a great person. Continue reading

The Walk (2015)

walkDIRECTOR: Robert Zemeckis

CAST: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Steve Valentine, Clement Sibony, Cesar Domboy

REVIEW:

During their twenty-eight-year lifespan, New York City’s iconic Twin Towers were host to their share of newsworthy occurrences, including a 1993 terrorist bombing that did fairly little damage but in hindsight would serve as foreshadowing of their eventual demise.  A more uplifting (albeit death-defying) incident, and one of the most amazing spectacles they or any other building in the world had ever seen, came when the towers were still under construction, on the morning of August 7, 1974, when a French high-wire walker named Philippe Petit spent approximately forty-five minutes walking back-and-forth on a 200 foot cable suspended 1,370 feet above the ground, without benefit of net or safety harness.  Petit’s audacious stunt got him arrested (though he faced only a slap on the wrist), but also made him an international celebrity and helped make the new Twin Towers icons in their own right (before Petit’s stunt, many New Yorkers disliked the new towers, considering them oversized eyesores that towered over the city and blocked the sun, but Petit’s walk helped usher in their status as iconic NYC landmarks).  Petit’s walk was already the subject of a 2008 documentary, Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh and narrated by Petit himself, and now Robert Zemeckis has brought the story back to the big screen as The Walk, working off of Petit’s memoirs “To Reach The Clouds”.  While it’s debatable whether The Walk really brings anything new to the table that can’t be gleaned from Man on Wire (apart from recreating the titular walk through state-of-the-art technical wizardry), it serves as an entertaining and engaging, albeit flawed, docudrama and a love letter to not only Philippe Petit, but the towers he crossed. Continue reading

The Martian (2015)

martianDIRECTOR: Ridley Scott

CAST: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Michael Pena, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong, Donald Glover

REVIEW:

Following in the footsteps of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Christopher Nolan’s InterstellarRidley Scott’s The Martian, an adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, is the latest in a trend of “hard sci-fi” movies that make serious attempts to give a reasonably realistic portrayal of space and the challenges that come with it (like the earlier films, the filmmakers consulted experts, with NASA involved as technical advisers during The Martian‘s script writing and production).  For Scott, whose prestigious name has taken a hit in recent years with unimpressive entries on an uneven filmography, this is a welcome return to form, and raises the argument that perhaps Scott is most comfortable with sci-fi Continue reading

Black Mass (2015)

BulgerDIRECTOR: Scott Cooper

CAST: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Corey Stoll

REVIEW:

Black Mass, a docudrama of the unholy alliance between FBI agents and 1970s-1990s crime lord Whitey Bulger, has a feel of “Scorsese-lite” (Jack Nicholson’s mob boss in Scorsese’s The Departed was loosely modeled after Bulger).  Solid acting and some memorable individual scenes enliven a straightforward gangster crime drama that’s otherwise serviceable but generic.  Black Mass is reasonably engaging, but nothing groundbreaking, and there’s a sense of a rushed and underdeveloped storyline.  Among the many gangland flicks to come out over the years, it’s not a bad installment, but also not a classic.  A chilling lead performance by Johnny Depp is likely to linger longer in the memory than the pedestrian narrative. Continue reading

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