Monday, February 29, 2016

Oscar Watch 2016

It feels a little more futile for me to be keeping up with the Oscars every year, but somehow I always end up watching anyway.  I skipped the Emmys and Golden Globes, but fully intended to watch this year's ceremony.  Alas, at some point over the last year my TV stopped being able to pick up the digital signal for my local ABC station, and I didn't notice.  Of course, ABC still refuses to stream the Oscars live without a pre-existing cable contract, and only in certain markets, so I was out of luck.  I resolved to just skip the whole ceremony, enjoy my evening, and catch up with the clips the next day.  And then I went out to dinner with the family in a restaurant with a television, and ended up catching the middle hour anyway.  When I got home and poked around online, Chris Rock's monologue was already available, and then I managed to get the TV reprogrammed in time to watch Leo talk about global warming and "Spotlight" win Best Picture.

24 hours later, the whole telecast is online in various places.  I polished off all the parts that I missed in a little over an hour, happily skipping several thank you speeches, musical numbers, and the recaps of the Best Picture nominees.  Say what you will about who should have won, and Chris Rock's performance as host, but this was one of the most exciting and interesting Oscars in some time.  For one, it was completely unpredictable, full of politics and controversies.  Aside from Leonardo DiCaprio and Brie Larson's locks on Best Actor and Actress, everything else was up in the air.  Rylance beat Stallone.  Iñárritu won two in a row, and Lubezki his third, but the big prize went to "Spotlight," which didn't win anything else except screenplay.  "The Martian" was shut out completely as "Mad Max: Fury Road" rampaged through all the technical categories to rack up the highest total of the night: six Oscars for the fourth entry in a summer action franchise.  The big exception was the Visual Effects Oscar, which went to the very deserving "Ex Machina."

And then there was the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which had everyone on edge all evening.  Chris Rock's ten minute monologue seemed hellbent on making everyone as uncomfortable as possible, but I appreciated the guts it took to deliver it.  Yeah, the jokes were stale and Rock's may no longer be the best choice of provocateur for this situation, but he's still able to keep people's attention.  That really was the whole point of the controversy, to make sure that the industry is aware of its representational shortcomings.  I don't think that either the Compton or the Girl Scout cookie bits worked, but they sure helped to keep everything in context, and everyone on their toes.  The presenters were certainly a diverse crowd too - Whoopi, Lou Gossett Jr., Kerry Washington, Lee Byung-Hun, Priyanka Chopra, Morgan Freeman - and kudos to whoever got Joe Biden and Louis C.K. on the list.  Tell Sacha Baron Cohen and Stacey Dash to stay home next year.  Oh, and Dave Grohl singing the Beatles for the Memoriam was a welcome break from years and years of warbling divas.  I wasn't a fan of most of the musical performances, but he and Lady Gaga had a great evening. 
There were the usual disappointments.  I really, really wanted Don Hertzfeld to win Best Animated Short, and for Roger Deakins to break Lubezki's streak.  Neither of those things happened.  I was bracing myself for "Revenant" to take Best Picture after Iñárritu's win, and was so relieved when it didn't.  I still can't help getting caught up in the races, even if my biggest position this year boiled down to that I didn't want "The Revenant" or "The Big Short" to win Best Picture.  I liked both movies fine, but I just didn't like what that would indicate about the industry as a whole if they won.  "Spotlight," while not one of my favorites, was a perfectly solid, respectable winner for a very strange and wild year.  It's rare that the bulk of Oscar drama hasn't dwindled by the night of the ceremony, but this time around the race actually picked up after the nominations and got more uncertain with every industry award checkpoint along the way.  I wish we had more years like this, even if the movies themselves weren't the best crop. 

My favorite thing about last night's ceremony was pretty minor.  The Animation categories are usually presented by kid celebrities or a comedian with no real tie to the industry.  This year they had animated characters present both.  The Minions presented Best Animated Short and Buzz and Woody from "Toy Story" presented Best Animated Feature.  And it was charming and weird, and felt right. 


Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Look at "Carol"

There's something about the way that Todd Haynes lights his two leading ladies, Cate Blanchette and Rooney Mara, in "Carol."  They look like a pair of Golden Age Hollywood stars, even though "Carol," unlike some of Haynes' previous work, doesn't especially resemble a film of that era.  I spent a good amount of time in the early scenes, trying to decide whether Mara looked more like Audrey Hepburn or Natalie Wood.  It was surely a deliberate choice, contextualizing the film's narrative in familiar, nostalgic cinematic terms.  After all, Patricia Highsmith's source novel, "The Price of Salt," was written in 1952.  Why shouldn't it's tale of a forbidden love between two women be told through 1950s screen iconography?

Mara plays Therese Belivet, a clerk at a Manhattan department store, who one day spies well-to-do housewife Carol (Blanchette) out Christmas shopping, and is immediately smitten.  After selling Carol a train set, Therese visits her home to return a pair of gloves, and finds her feelings are reciprocated.  The two become involved, as discreetly as possible.  However, Carol is in the middle of a contentious divorce with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), and Therese's boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) is making overtures about marriage.  Inevitably, as Carol and Therese's relationship becomes more serious, they find it more and more difficult to keep up appearances.  Carol is in an especially precarious position, and risks losing her social standing and her relationship with her young daughter.

In the reaction pieces I've seen online, those who have had difficulty connecting with "Carol" tend to call the film cold and remote.  They appreciate its technical achievements and visual artistry, but simply do not find the central relationship between Carol and Therese compelling.  I can see why, because so much of the film seems so subdued, with the two leads careful to maintain their distance in a repressive, unfriendly world.  Two women together was so unthinkable in the 1950s that most of the characters do their best to talk around the subject when confronted with it.  Even Carol and Therese can't seem to bring themselves to acknowledge their love directly.  A great deal of the film concerns itself with their yearning, loneliness, and difficulty in accepting what they want.  The pacing is measured, the tone is contemplative, and the mood is melancholy, as reflected by the excellent Carter Burwell score.  A great deal of the romance is played out in a series of silent, lingering looks.  Therese watches Carol through windows and through the lens of her camera, until she can summon up the nerve to do more than just look.

I expected Cate Blanchette to be excellent here, and she is of course.  Onscreen she's luminous, poised, and charismatic.  Even when the façade of perfection slips and Carol's desperation shows, she's still never anything less than lovely.  However, this movie is a showcase for Rooney Mara's talents.  Therese is an amateur photographer, and much of her arc has to do with her development as an artist.  We see Carol's influence on her taste and style, and especially on her eye.  What begins as a passive gaze becomes more and more active, mirroring Therese's role in the relationship.  It's such a subtle, delicate performance, all about the smallest shifts in attitudes, little moments adding up to monumental changes.  I can't wait to see where Mara's career goes after this.

I confess that I want to like "Carol" more than I actually do.  I have a tremendous amount of affection for the characters, for the Phyllis Nagy script, for the Christmastime in New York visuals, and especially for that score.  However, I don't think I appreciate the filmmaking on nearly the same level as the viewers who seem to be really enraptured with the film.  "Carol" strikes me as a small, exquisitely made melodrama that will be best enjoyed by a particular audience in the right mood for it, and I don't think I quite match that description - or ever will.  Todd Haynes' work requires more commitment than I think his fans realize, though it's very comforting to see that he still has a loyal audience.

It's been a banner year for GLBT film, and it's only right that Haynes be at the forefront once more.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Rank 'Em: The 2016 Best Picture Nominees

All caught up on the nominees, so here's the rundown of how I liked them, from best to worst.  I still think that "Spotlight" is going to win, even though it's not my favorite, with "The Revenant" as a potential candidate for an upset.  And yes, it's really a shame that "Carol" and "Inside Out" aren't in the mix too.

"Brooklyn" - It's a small, unassuming little Irish movie about a young girl becoming a woman, about falling in love, and about the immigrant experience.  It looks old-fashioned at first glance, but the performances are lively, the direction is sure, and the writing is endlessly delightful.  I don't know how anyone could resist its charms.  In a year of giant tentpole blockbusters and endless franchises, it's a relief to find that movies like this are still being made, and being made so well.

"The Martian" - The secret weapons of "The Martian" are its humor and optimism, which immediately set it apart from all the other terribly serious space exploration movies of recent times.  This is the first hard-science space movie I can remember really having a good time with in ages, and I just adore its can-do spirit and pro-science attitude.  Also, this is a great comeback for Ridley Scott, who has finally managed to get himself out of his rut and put his skills as a seasoned sci-fi visualist to great use.

"Room" - Two remarkable, and beautifully linked performances make "Room" something special.  Jacob Tremblay as a five year-old boy named Jack, and Brie Larsen as his fiercely protective mother, turn what could have been a by-the-numbers psychodrama into something far more thoughtful and affecting.  I think the film probably works better if you don't have its secrets spoiled for you, but I knew all of them far in advance and still think that this is one of the best films I've seen all year.

"Spotlight" - As much as I enjoy all the actors involved, there's no one that really stands out in the ensemble of "Spotlight," and I think that's to the movie's benefit.  This is a bare bones, straightforward procedural, looking at the ins and outs of the process of reporting a highly sensitive news story.  There's drama in abundance, but all of it remarkable grounded and restrained.  I can't remember the last time we had a proper investigative journalism film this good, and I hope we see more like it.

"The Big Short" - Now on the opposite end of the spectrum we have Adam McKay using his comedy powers to make the subprime mortgage crisis into something coherent and entertaining to the average moviegoer.  This one's very rough around the edges, and I'm not a fan of some of McKay's filmmaking choices.  Still, you have to admire the audacity of the celebrity cameos, the pithy asides, and tackling this kind of material to begin with.  High marks for coming out of nowhere to deliver this surprise.

"The Revenant" - I have nothing negative to say about Emmaneul Lubezki's gorgeous cinematography or the intense, painful performance of Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass.  However, the movie struck me as Alejandro Iñárritu aping Terrence Malick, and felt more and more gimmicky and thematically muddled as it went along.  It was epic, yes, but to what purpose?  I fully appreciate how difficult it was to make the film, but that shouldn't mean it has to be this difficult to watch too.  

"Mad Max: Fury Road" - It's a good action film, a great one even, but I confess that I don't understand why it's garnered the amount of praise it has.  I love the chase sequences and the shiny, chrome worldbuilding, but I wanted more from the narrative and the characters beyond what we got.  I absolutely understand and respect what George Miller did here with his storytelling, but it simply wasn't enough for me to think of it as anything other than a fun, disposable weekend matinee of a movie.

"Bridge of Spies" - I was looking forward to the usually trusty combination of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, but came out of the movie feeling frustrated with their usual brand of earnestness and idealism.  It clashed so badly with the tone of the Cold War spy story that they were trying to tell.  Fundamentally there was nothing wrong with the direction or the Coen brothers' script or any of the performances, but this time it was in service of a film I just couldn't swallow.


Friday, February 19, 2016

"The Danish Girl" and "The Revenant"

Almost done with the nominees.  Another pair of reviews for another odd couple pairing of movies ahead.

I've had very mixed feelings toward Tom Hooper's movies so far.  I found his style in "The King's Speech" distracting and flat out hated its application in "Les Miserables."  I didn't mind him so much in "The Danish Girl," though, where the camera is fairly restrained and unobtrusive.  There's a definite sense of caution here, as the filmmakers are dealing with a highly sensitive subject: Lili Elbe, one of the first transgender women to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. 

It's the 1920s in Copenhagen, and landscape artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is happily married to portrait artist Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander).  One day when a model for one of Gerda's paintings is absent, she recruits Einar to pose in her place in women's stockings.  The episode affects Einar deeply, and he has soon created an entire female alter ego for himself, Lili.  Initially Gerda encourages this, thinking it's all in fun, and finds Lili to be a wonderful subject for her paintings.  but then Lili goes out in public, again and again, and begins a secret relationship with a colleague, Henrik (Ben Whishaw).  Soon, Lili no longer wants to be Einar, and Gerda has to grapple with the loss of her husband.  She finds herself drawn to Einar's old friend Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), as Lili searches for a way to more fully become a woman.

There have been several well-reasoned pieces in circulation that detail why the portrayal of Lili Elbe in this film is problematic, particularly as to how Einar and Lili are often treated like they're different people, and the male gaze is often uncomfortably present.  However, what got to me was how timid the film was, often portraying Lili as a martyr figure, a romantic notion more than a flesh and blood human being.  The performance didn't help - Eddie Redmayne is visualy striking as Lili, but the character herself only seems to be able to express melancholic longing and vulnerability, and is dreadfully passive in her interactions with men.  I found Alicia Vikander far more engaging as strong willed, ambitious Gerda.  She's the POV character, the stronger personality in the marriage, and ultimately the more relatable, sympathetic figure. 

I found "The Danish Girl" an enjoyable watch mainly for the visuals, which are lovely.  Hooper does his best to reflect Einar and Gerda's work in their environs, and gets a lot of mileage out of exploring the artistic community that they belong to.  However, I didn't find the story of Lili Elbe compelling because there is so little to the character.  Most of the film feels like it's Gerda's story, with Lili only really coming to the fore very late in the story.  "The Theory of Everything" was quite similar, spending so much time on Stephen Hawking's disabilities and relationship with his wife, it had a hard time making the case for his scientific genius.  While there's no question that Lili Elbe is a woman, we learn so little about who she is - her internal world, who she is beyond her desire to change. 

And so we come to Hugh Glass and "The Revenant," which is Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki doing Terrence Malick by way of Andrei Tarkovsky.  And after being forced to sit through the endless slog of this movie, I'm feeling much more charitable toward their last collaboration, "Birdman."  Don't get me wrong.  "The Revenant" is gorgeous, with spectacular cinematography and some admirable, committed performances from a talented cast.  Accounts of what the filmmakers had to go through to get the film made are highly impressive.  However, "The Revenant" is chiefly a grim, painful exercise in plumbing the depths of human misery.  And that is just never going to be my thing.

The year is 1823, and Leonard DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a frontiersman who guides a party of fur trappers through the wilderness of South Dakota.  Their luck is bad, and they are attacked by a band of Natives searching for a kidnapped woman.  Glass is then mauled by a bear, who leaves him badly wounded and close to death.  Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), the leader of the group, leaves three men behind with Glass so that he'll receive a proper burial - youngster Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), conniving reprobate John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and Glass's own teenage, half native son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck).  As Glass clings to life, haunted by visions of his dead wife (Grace Dove), the three men clash over what to do with him.  

Now, there are many things about "The Revenant" that I like - the strong depiction of Native American characters, the bleak period setting, and especially the challenging nature of the filmmaking itself.  However, the concept of DiCaprio fighting the elements and dragging himself back from the brink of death is a lot more appealing than actually watching it happen.  To put it bluntly, the majority of the movie is DiCaprio crawling, stumbling, staggering, and lurching though Lubezki's beautifully shot landscapes to track down the evil Fitzgerald.  And frankly, I'd had enough of that after about an hour and a half, but the movie runs 156 minutes total.  For all the dreamy flashbacks, and all the reverence of the natural world, Iñárritu  is no Malick.  He's very good at capturing a hellish experience, but his work lacks the poetry and transcendence I needed to fully embrace it. 

So points for ambition and some very high highs, but this is not a movie I found easy to appreciate.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The 2015 Movie Showdown That Didn't Happen

Once upon a time in 2013, it seemed like every big franchise was planning a movie to be released in 2015.  There were over twenty-five potential blockbusters in the queue, including the next "Avatar," "Batman," "Bourne," and "Die Hard" movies.  I amassed and posted a list based on reports from a couple of sources, and marveled at the possibility of so many of these movies coming out in the same year.  But of course, they didn't.  And I think we could all get some benefit from looking back at those early, hazy predictions of a franchise movie showdown to end all showdowns, and comparing them to how things actually turned out.

From the initial list of twenty-seven potential 2015 blockbusters, only twelve were actually released in 2015.  Seven of those, however, ended up among the top ten global box office earners of the year: "Avengers : Age of Ultron," "Jurassic World," "Mockingjay, Part 2," "Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation," "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," "Spectre," and "Inside Out."  The other three were "Minions" and Furious 7," which were delayed from 2014, plus "The Martian," which had only just been optioned by Fox in 2013.  Of the other five 2015 releases, three more were in the top twenty: "Hotel Transyvania 2," "Terminator Genisys," and "Ant-Man."  Only two were flops: "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip" and the "Fantastic Four" reboot.  When it comes to the biggest franchise earners, it looks like the studios are pretty prescient about their hits long in advance.

Of the fifteen movies on the initial list that didn't open in 2015, three have no release date at all, including the planned "Avatar" and "Die Hard" sequels, eight were moved to 2016, three to 2017, and one was bumped up to a 2014 release date.  That was "The Penguins of Madagascar," which underperformed significantly, and was the beginning of a whole raft of troubles for DreamWorks Animation.  Keep in mind that the later 2016 and 2017 releases could be delayed again.  These are the weaker titles from the original batch - smaller and fading franchises like the fifth Jason Bourne film and the third Robert Langdon film.  My guess is that only two or three films that were delayed to 2016 will be among the top ten grossers:  "Finding Dory," "Independence Day: Resurgence," and "Batman v. Superman."  I wouldn't bet on anything that was pushed to 2017.

I made a couple of predictions about some of these titles three years ago, some of which were right on, and some of which were completely wrong.  It looks like "Terminator: Genisys" was indeed the end of the line for the "Terminator" franchise for the foreseeable future.  The proposed sequel has been pulled from the schedule, and all further plans are on hold.  And keep in mind that the film rights revert to James Cameron in 2019.  On the other hard, because so many films were moved around on the schedule and delayed, pretty much all the big head-to-heads were avoided.  The studios seem determined to avoid competition wherever they can, so the big films were actually pretty evenly spread out.  No blockbuster apocalypses either.  Sure, there were a few bombs, but there's been no sign of any major anti-franchise sentiment yet.  A couple of the older franchises like "Jurassic Park," "Mad Max," and "Rocky" even came roaring back to life, delivering surprise hits.

As we look ahead to the quickly filling schedules for 2017 and beyond, though, I'm finding it hard to work up much enthusiasm.  There's not much coming up that can match the thrill of a new "Star Wars" movie or a Batman v. Superman throwdown.  The biggest franchise event coming up is the two-part "Avengers" movie, and after "Age of Ultron" came out so half-baked, I'm quickly cooling on the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  However, there are plenty of other films that I'm happily tracking the development of, and hope to see onscreen in 2017.  Darren Aronofsky's got one in the works with Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.  Alex Garland's has something that sounds like a distaff "Stalker" remake.

But it's far too early to say anything yet.  Below, find the full list of the 27 would-be 2015 blockbusters I originally discussed in 2013, and where they actually ended up.


The Penguins of Madagascar


The Avengers 2
Hotel Transylvania 2
Alvin & the Chipmunks 4
Mockingjay Part 2
Jurassic Park 4
Mission: Impossible 5
Star Wars Episode 7
James Bond 24
Fantastic Four reboot
Terminator reboot
Inside Out


Independence Day 2
Finding Dory
The Batman and Superman Movie
Snow White and the Huntsman 2
Inferno (The Da Vinci Code 3)
Kung-Fu Panda 3
Bourne 5
Assassin's Creed


Get Smurfy
Pirates of the Caribbean 5
Alien Covenant (Prometheus 2)

No release date

Avatar 2
The Adventures of Tintin 2
Die Hard 6


Saturday, February 13, 2016

"Mr. Robot" Has a Few Bugs

I think the biggest trouble I had with USA's cyberpunk thriller series "Mr. Robot" is that I saw Channel 4's "Utopia" and FX's "Fargo" first.  So all the things that "Mr. Robot" does well - the shock value, the violence, the over-the-top characters, and the interesting cinematography - I've already seen done better. 

Still, credit where credit is due.  The pilot is an extremely strong piece of television, where we're introduced to Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), a depressed, paranoid, drug-using computer programmer, who works for a cybersecurity firm and hacks people's personal information after hours with frightening ease.  Socially anxious and increasingly alienated, he has few connections, aside from his childhood friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), who got him his current job, his psychiatrist Dr. Gordon (Gloria Reuben), and his neighbor and dug dealer, Shayla (Frankie Shaw).  One day, after shutting down a DDoS attack, he's approached by Mr. Robot (Christian Slater), the leader of a hacker group called fsociety.  He's also targeted for recruitment by Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström), an ambitious young executive at E Corp (which Elliot calls Evil Corp.), his firm's biggest client.

There are elements here that stand out as innovative and original.  The hacking that features in the show is reportedly technically accurate, and the hacker subculture is much more true to life than Hollywood usually manages.  I love that the lead is played by Rami Malek, who delivers a hell of a performance, and immediately stands out from the crowd due to the fact that he's ethnically Egyptian.  I like that the villain is a psychopath who is terrible at being a psychopath.  I like the brooding electronica score and bleak visuals.  The oppressive framing is a lot of fun.  I like the use of the unreliable narrator, and how this allows the show to simply call the evil corporation at the heart of the show Evil Corp. with a straight face.  I like that "Mr. Robot" manages to pull off a few genuine surprises.

I just wish it were better as a whole, cohesive show.  Frankly, the writing is mediocre and the characterization of everyone aside from Elliot is haphazard at best.  A lot of the clever ideas are rendered less effective by blunt handling.  I had a hard time differentiating Shayla and fsociety hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin) for multiple episodes.  I'd ding Christian Slater for his bland portrayal of Mr. Robot except that the creators give him nothing to work with beyond a mystery that was too satisfied with itself.  The cast is good and smaller players like Michel Gill and Bruce Altman should get a lot of credit for giving their characters some nuance.  But then you have Tyrell, who despite Martin Wallström's best efforts, is essentially a Swedish Patrick Bateman rip-off, and seems to belong in a more outlandish, hyperreal kind of program.

Pacing is also a major problem.  The middle episodes in particular drag badly, as Elliot keeps getting sidetracked from his end goals by one crisis or another.  There's little sense of stakes and only occasional spurts of momentum.  In order for some of the big surprises to really have impact, we have to be on a limited information diet.  However, this means that Elliot gets sidelined for huge chunks of the show, leaving us with Angela or Tyrell as they pursue other agendas.  Now both of these storylines yield some good things eventually, but they really muck around with the structure of the series, often losing the subjective reality elements that made the pilot so compelling.
What I think really bothered me about "Mr. Robot" is that it thinks that it's smarter and edgier than it actually is.  It's terribly self-satisfied about doing such a good job with the hacking terms, to the point where a minor character actually points this out.  Sex and violence are constantly used for shock value, often in fairly distasteful ways.  So many characters are shallow, vapid, and act in ways that only disillusioned young internet nerds think people act.  And then there are the title screens, which are employed an awful lot like the ones for the "Fargo" series, except that creator Sam Esmail's name is brightly emblazoned on each one, like it's part of the title.  In short, "Mr. Robot" is exactly the kind of show you'd expect from someone like Elliott Alderson, if he were a real person.  And I don't trust that the show's creators understand how to use that.

I'm not unhappy that I finished the first season, but I think the second will almost certainly be less effective, and I'm on the fence as to whether to continue.  Without the surprises of the last few episodes, and with the novelty of the premise having worn off, how far can the creators take this? Will they turn to more shocks and more boundary-pushing or figure out how to actually build its characters?  The jury's still out, but I'm not hopeful for "Mr. Robot's" future.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Two in the "Room"

I wish I could have gone into "Room" not knowing as much about it as I did - I paged through the novel during an airport layover shortly after it was published, and managed to spoil the majority of it for myself.  That way I could have enjoyed watching the story unfold, and gradually learned more and more about its haunting little universe along with the main character, a little boy named Jack.  Even revealing the full cast list is probably too much information, so I'll be very vague about details in the following review.  However, I found that knowing pretty much everything that was going to happen in the film still didn't prepare me for it.

Jack (Jacob Tremblay) lives in Room with his Ma (Brie Larson). He's never known anything else beyond it, identifying the images on the television as "not real," and the skylight above as looking up on Heaven.  A man named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) visits every few days  and brings supplies, but Jack has to stay in the Wardrobe when Old Nick is there, because Ma has forbidden that they have any contact.    Jack is happy in Room, but when Old Nick visits on his fifth birthday, Ma learns that their existence is threatened.  She hatches a plan that will require Jack to leave Room and go on a dangerous journey, in order to save them both.

Brie Larson gives one of her best performances here, and absolutely deserves all the kudos that she's been receiving, but "Room" wouldn't have been possible without Jacob Tremblay.  The child's voice and point of view are what give the movie a special poignancy, that add new dimensions to all the plot developments that look straightforward on the surface, but turn out to be anything but.  Tremblay often reminds me of Quvenzhané Wallis in "Beasts of the Southern Wild," as Jack is another very young child who is able to treat a horrid environment as a place of wonders, who creates his own personal mythology for the world based on limited information provided by troubled parent figures.  Tremblay, however, has the more difficult assignment of playing Jack at different stages of his emotional development, and different levels of awareness about his situation.  And he's remarkable at it.

I can't get over how genuine this kid is on camera, bratty and petulant at times, but never losing the audience's sympathies.  Some of his dialogue is overly precious, but he delivers it well enough that you can believe he came up with the lines himself, and his reactions are wonderfully natural and unselfconscious.  I'm very curious about how some of the trickier parts of the performance were handled, but then I'm also wary of peeking behind the curtain and ruining the illusion for myself.  He's also helped immensely by being paired with Brie Larson, who, for the lack of a better term, he has real screen chemistry with.  And then there's director Lenny Abrahamson, who never shies away from putting Tremblay front and center.

I was surprised by the intensity of the film, especially in the second half.  There's a big, showy, suspenseful sequence at the midpoint that offers a lot of thrills and emotional fireworks.  However, even when it seems like the immediate danger has passed, there are always more issues to confront, new realities to adjust to, and more old wounds being ripped open.  Tensions can boil over anytime, and they do.  The changing relationship between Jack and Ma drives the story, and the characters' struggles to reconcile their conflicting needs and wants are plenty riveting on their own.  I love how their differing views of Room affect them, and how Ma slowly comes to realize that Jack is better equipped to deal with a particularly difficult situation than she is.

The only other Abrahamson film I've seen is "Frank," which I didn't care for, and which wasn't nearly as good a showcase for his talent.  Here, Abrahamson turns common household items into beloved friends, domestic rituals into character-defining moments, and shots of blue sky and power lines into a glorious moment of discovery.  "Room" was made on a very modest budget, and the scope of the story is very small, but it never feels that way.   In other hands, the same material could have turned out very differently - fodder for a low budget genre exploitation flick, perhaps.  However, it's heartening to discover that with the right talent involved, a small but heartfelt film like "Room" can still be made, and made well.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Discovering "Brooklyn"

There doesn't seem to be much to "Brooklyn" at first glance.  Directed by John Crowley with a script from Nick Hornby, it tells the simple, straightforward story of a young woman named Eillis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who immigrates from a small town in Ireland to New York in the 1950s.  She's terribly homesick at first, for her mother (Jane Brennan) and her older sister Rose (Fiona Glascott). Then she meets a young man named Tony (Emory Cohen) and falls in love.

We're getting more and more coming-of-age stories about young women these days, which is great to see.  However, most of the recent ones have been very concerned with rebellion, with breaking away from old traditions and rejecting the usual social norms.  There's a fair bit of that in "Brooklyn," but timid Eillis really isn't the rebellious type.  She's deeply unsure of herself and the prospect of leaving home.  It's really only out of obligation to her sister and the kindly Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), who made all the arrangements, that Eillis gets on the ship to America.  And once she's there, she relies heavily on the support of Father Flood and her new landlady, Madge Kehoe (Julie Walters), to navigate unfamiliar new social terrain.  When the prospect of romance appears, it's not in an environment of adversity, and Eillis's only real barrier to happiness is herself.

"Brooklyn" feels very old fashioned in its worldview, eschewing harsher content that many modern period films have been sometimes too keen on shoehorning into their narratives.  "Brooklyn" certainly doesn't take sex off the table, but it keeps the emphasis on low key courtship, maintaining community ties, and Eillis's personal growth.  The pace is slower, but not sluggish.  The characters are conservative, but lighthearted.  And that approach is so refreshing to see, giving "Brooklyn" a rare timeless quality.  When Ronan and Cohen banter about baseball and family, it's charming and easy and feels so appropriate for the era.  And because the movie does the work to fill in the details of their lives and other relationships, we understand what it means when the couple want to get serious, and the difficulties that it may involve.  The two main actors have real charisma, and I don't think I've been so emotionally invested in any screen relationship in years.

I've heard complaints about some of the flatness of the cinematography and the art design with its heightened colors, but I think the picture is gorgeous.  Yes, there are romantic flourishes here and there, but the visuals struck me as authentic and unfussy.  The recreation of 1950s Brooklyn is especially lovely to look at, and it's a credit to the filmmakers that they take the time to acquaint us with so many corners of it, along with much of the Irish immigrant community.  The small details make all the difference here - the broom closet Eillis stumbles into during her rough journey to America, the glass cases at the department store that she works at, and the bright skies over Coney Island.  Special mention must be made of the costuming.  You can practically chart Eillis's character growth through her steadily brightening wardrobe.

"Brooklyn" is a largely Irish production, and it's to the film's benefit.  There's such a wonderful assortment of lesser-known character actors filling in the smaller roles, and a few of the not-so-small ones.  Many of the film's best scenes involve the ensemble, including several at Mrs. Kehoe's dinner table, where she presides with motherly gruffness over her gaggle of female boarders and their gossip each evening.  Saoirse Ronan has been working steadily since "Atonement," but this is surely her most mature, most well-realized performance.  She does exceptional work, shepherding Eillis along from retreating wallflower to worldly, bold young woman.  I can't wait to see her tackle Chekhov next year.  I'm less familiar with Emory Cohen, but he's a charmer and keeps up with Ronan nicely.

Simple stories told well on film doesn't seem like such a tall order, but somehow "Brooklyn" is a rarity.  It's a film I'd recommend to practically anyone, that's universal in its themes, genuine in its aims, and so, so lovely in spirit.  It's early yet, but I'm pretty sure this is my favorite film of 2015.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

"Spotlight" and "The Big Short"

I am so behind on my 2015 reviews, it's ridiculous.  I'm determined to at least get through all the Best Picture nominees before the Academy Awards ceremony.  So I'm lumping together "Spotlight" and "The Big Short" here, even though they have very little do with each other.

"Spotlight" is one of the dying breed of journalism movies, a no-frills, no-nonsense look at the investigation and reporting on the 2002 Catholic church sex abuse scandal in Boston.  We follow The Boston Globe's "Spotlight" team of reporters, headed by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), under new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber).  Other members of the team include Matt Carroll (Brain D'Arcy), Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Ben Bradlee (John Slattery) and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), who gather information, struggle to access reluctant interview subjects, and balance various interests as they decide when and how to publish what they've found.

I appreciate that "Spotlight" stays focused on the reporting, which generates plenty of drama without ever getting into the particulars of the crimes committed, and only the barest details of the reporters' personal lives.  A procedural through and through, its best moments coming from watching committed professionals doing their jobs in the face of great opposition.  But more than that, this is actually a movie about journalism more than it is a movie about a scandal, which is fantastic to see.  There's a revealing, vital subplot about Keaton's character trying to figure out why the story was overlooked or possibly buried at the paper years earlier, when they had much of the same information.

The ensemble is uniformly strong, and it's hard to single anyone out for praise because all the performances are low-key, and fairly utilitarian.  Under the minimalist, intimate eye of director Thomas McCarthy, everything is kept very grounded and free of embellishment, undercutting any hints of sensationalism.  The camera stays put for the most part, and any melodramatic dialogue tends to be brisk and to the point.  There are certainly some thrills as the story unfolds, but it comes from the mechanics of the story itself, and the real-world facts and circumstances of the scandal and cover-up.  The obvious point of comparison here is "All the President's Men," but "Spotlight" actually takes itself more seriously, resisting witticisms and style in favor of the cold, hard, facts.  And it's still so entertaining and absorbing, you're left wondering how they did it.

Now "The Big Short," on the other hand, takes the opposite approach.  Adam McKay, director of many a Will Ferrell comedy in years past, also tackles a real-world scandal - the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis.  However, his goal is to get his usual mainstream audience invested in a subject that most find impenetrable.  His solution is to pile on the humor, metatextual elements, and loads of style.  Celebrities are recruited for cutaway segments to explain various financial terms.  Characters break the fourth wall to comment on what has been changed in a scene for dramatic effect.  The editing is frenetic and the cinematography unorthodox - often to the picture's detriment - but McKay succeeds in delivering one of the freshest, most invigorating films of his career.

Now, all the Wall Street players involved can be considered unscrupulous to some extent, but McKay puts us on the side of a relatively sympathetic group of them, the few oddballs that saw the crisis coming, and managed to come out ahead by shorting the US housing market.  Hedge fund managers Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), veteran trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), and newbies Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) all find themselves ahead of the curve, and scrambling to verify their information and best position themselves to weather the oncoming storm.  The more they dig into the situation, the more horrible financial practices and outrageous lack of oversight they uncover.

The ensemble is very good, but Steve Carrell is the clear standout as Mark Baum, the one character who is really bothered by the thought of profiting off of others' misfortunes.  He's an anti-corruption crusader and the film's conscience, who is truly shaken to the core by what his team uncovers.  Sure, all the fast, zippy pulling-off-the-big-job shenanigans are a lot of fun, but what makes the film so memorable and so effective is the way that the narrative guides the audience from amusement to outrage.  This certainly isn't the first film about the 2008 financial crisis, but it's one of the most important, because it really gets across on a relatable level how heinous the behavior of the bad actors was, and how complicit so many of our major institutions were.

I have some minor issues with the film - McKay's quick cutting and weird framing make the action difficult to follow at some key points, and the decision to narrow the scope to a group of photogenic white guys grates a bit - in real life the players were more diverse - but overall it's remarkably solid.  It's not in the same class as "Spotlight," but then it's not trying to be.  This movie seemed to come out of nowhere, fairly late in the season, and it's one of the year's best surprises


Sunday, February 7, 2016

2016 Films I'm Anticipating, Part II

Continuing from yesterday, below are my most anticipated films of 2016, in the indie/foreign/not getting a big marketing campaign category.  Picks are listed below alphabetically, since most of these don't have release dates yet.  I admit this is a weird list with a lot of omissions, including the latest Scorsese, Linklater, and Malick films.  I'm also leaving off films that I previously wrote about but ended up delayed, like "The Ferryman."

"Certain Women" - Kelly Reichardt returns, with a story of three women from a small town in Montana, played by Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, and of course Michelle Williams.  This one was previously known as "Livingston," for those of you keeping track.  I've had my ups and downs with Reichardt, but when her films work for me there's nothing better.  This one just premiered a few days ago at Sundance, and I expect to see it making the usual rounds at the indie theaters later in the year.

"Hail Caeser!" - I greet every new Coens brothers comedy with great enthusiasm, because nobody makes them like the Coens do.  This time we have a farcical mystery set in the Hollywood Golden age, with a tonne of great actors: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum are all aboard.  The trailers have been great, with Clooney as his hammy, imbecilic best.

"A United Kingdom" - I adored Amma Asante's second feature, the period melodrama "Belle."  She's following it up with another romance, about Prince Seretse Khama and his wife, Ruth Williams Khama, the interracial couple who caused a storm of controversy when they married, and would become Botswana's first Prime Minister and First Lady in the 1960s.  David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are set to star.  I expect something indulgent and sentimental, and to have an absolute blast watching it.

"High Rise" - I do love a good dystopian thriller, and this one has a great cast, a brutal director, and is based on highly recommended source material.  Tom Hiddleston plays a man who moves into an exclusive high rise community, created to separate the upper echelons of society from the deteriorating world outside.  Of course, everything goes to hell.  Reviews have warned that this one isn't going to be mainstream-friendly, which is what I already expected since director Ben Wheatley is involved.

"Personal Shopper" - Olivier Assayas's latest, which will probably be making appearance at Cannes in a few months.  Now, I usually don't get along with Olivier Assayas' work, and have only liked one of his films without reservations.  I had plenty of issues with "Clouds of Sils Maria," for instance, but I thought Kristen Stewart's role in it was fantastic.  The two will be teaming up again for "Personal Shopper," described as a ghost story set in the fashion world.  I'm very curious how this one will come out.

"Raiders!" - The story has been circulating for ages that in the 1980s, a group of enterprising kids got together and tried to recreate "Raiders of the Lost Ark" shot for shot by themselves.  I've always been sort of curious about the finished product, "Raiders: The Adaptation," but of course there are endless copyright issues preventing any sort of real release.  So I'm glad that the documentary about the making of the fan-film, "Raiders!" will be coming our way soon to let me get a glimpse of the fun.

"Birth of a Nation" - Here's another one that recently premiered at Sundance to considerable acclaim.  Director and star Nate Parker embarked on a seven-year battle to get his film about Nat Turner's 19th century slave revolt financed and made.  Guaranteed to be part of next year's awards conversation after recent events, and already provoking a variety of heated responses due to its unpopular subject matter, this is certainly going to be a major contender for the most timely film of 2016.

"The Circle" - .  Based on Dave Eggers' dystopian novel, "The Circle" will follow a young woman played by Emma Watson as she explores the inner workings of a sinister technology company that threatens society as we know it.  Tom Hanks and a slew of good actors are also in the cast.  Indie darling James Ponsoldt, best known for his wonderful character pieces like "The End of the Tour," will be tackling a genre project for the first time.   I can't wait to see what he does with this one.

"The Red Turtle" - It turns out that Studio Ghibli's work on feature films isn't quite finished yet.  They made a surprise announcement a few months ago that they would co-produce the feature film debut of celebrated European animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. "The Red Turtle" will feature a man stranded on a desert island and no dialogue.  I don't expect to see this one pop up in the U.S. for quite some time, but I'm so glad that the project exists and I'm excited for all the possibilities that it represents.

"The Story of Your Life" - Denis Villeneuve is on a roll, having delivered a string of strong, bleak dramas over the past few years.  Next year he's doing a science-fiction film starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.  The only thing here that makes me pause is screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who has done nothing but horror and action schlock.  But with Villeneuve involved, even if this does turn out to be schlock, at least it will be entertaining schlock.  We know Villeneuve can do a lot with very little.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

2016 Films I'm Anticipating, Part I

I like writing these posts every year a little bit later than everyone else to get a better sense of what the film landscape looks like.  It's hard sometimes to get a bead on what's going to make it to screens by the end of the year and what isn't.  This year, audiences look to be in for some very good things, though it may be a rocky year for the movie business as we settle into the post- "The Force Awakens" period.

As always, I split this feature up into two posts, one for the mainstream would-be blockbusters that everybody hears about, and one for the artsier fare that may break through to the mainstream eventually, but only the cinephiles will be anticipating.  The big films go first, which is ironically the leaner list this time out.  We're being promised a lot of fireworks with superhero showdowns and franchise favorites, but most of the big titles I really want to see aren't going to be due in theaters until very late in the year.  Films are ordered below by release date.

"Money Monster" - Now here's a scenario that I bet many people have secretly wanted to see.  An investor who lost all his money based on a bad tip from a Jim Cramer-esque TV show, breaks into the financial guru's studio and takes the program hostage.  George Clooney will play the Cramer figure, with Julia Roberts as his producer, and Jack O'Connell as the desperate investor.  Jodie Foster is directing.  I have no idea if this is going to be any good, but it's something different and it sure sounds like a good time.

"The BFG" - Though not one of my favorite Roald Dahl books, I have a great fondness for the silly story of The Big Friendly Giant, who along with a brave young girl named Sophie, saves the children of the world from some nasty giants.  Steven Spielberg is directing, "Bridge of Spies" actor Mark Rylance is playing the title role, and Disney is picking up the tab.  We haven't had a proper children's fantasy film from Spielberg in a long while, and I am very excited at the prospect of seeing him have some fun in this universe.

"Doctor Strange" - Who could say no to that cast?  Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead, with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, and Michael Stuhlbarg supporting?  It's impossible.  But it's Marvel and it's Disney, and they make impossible things happen every day.  So of all the superhero movies coming out next year, this is the only one I really have any enthusiasm for.  Sure, Scott Derrickson's not who I would have gotten to direct this, but hey, they let's Carlyle co-write this sucker!  I'm in!

"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" - The whole "Harry Potter" gang is back because Warner Brothers needs more money.  But that aside, I find the idea of Eddie Redmayne playing a bumbling wizard in this universe tremendously appealing.  And the promises of visiting the American wizarding world and exploring a different point in time do intrigue.  This is the kind of spinoff I wish we could see more often, one that is built around familiar concepts rather than familiar plots or characters - though I expect more than a few cameos to pop up here.

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" - And speaking of  impossible casts that happen to include Mads Mikkelsen, I will never forgive Gareth Edwards if he screws this up and wastes the talents of Mads, Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, and Alan Tudyk.  I'm hoping this one can fulfill its promise to put the war in "Star Wars," and be an entirely different beast than any of the previous "Star Wars" films.  Maybe it'll be a prequel in this franchise that's finally worth watching.

"Assassin's Creed" - I haven't seen Justin Kurzel's adaptation of "Macbeth" with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard yet, but I'm itching to, because it might offer some clues as to what "Assassin's Creed" is going to look like. This is still the best hope of a good movie based on a video game property that we've got for the foreseeable future.  I'm not too familiar with the source material, but I know it's got some real potential.  I'm hoping that the late December date doesn't mean that Fox is trying to bury this - we'll just have to wait and see.

"Passengers" - I really do enjoy Jennifer Lawrence in just about everything she's in, and I'm glad to see her being paired up with Chris Pratt for next year's big space thriller.  I don't know much about this one except who's involved, and I think I'd like to keep it that way for as long as possible.  I do know that the Jon Spaihts script made the Black List, and director Morten Tyldum has a lot to prove coming off last year's Oscar nom.  Let's just say that I have a good feeling about this, and I'm going to enjoy the mystery for as long as it lasts.

"The Light Between Oceans" - Finally, this one has no release date yet, but we've known it's been coming from DreamWorks for a while now.  Derek Cianfrance is taking on his biggest film yet, an emotionally fraught drama about a foundling child, starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz.  I expect some devastating melodrama, picturesque cinematography, and for DreamWorks to stuff this into the middle of the Oscar race next year.  Bring it on.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

My Favorite Clint Eastwood Film

It feels strange to be in the middle of an Oscar season without Clint Eastwood.  Over the past two decades it's seemed like Eastwood always had a film in the conversation, even if it was one that I disliked.  I've had trouble with much of his recent output, such that I think it's beneficial to step back, look over his complete body of work, and remember that he's made several films that I like very much over the years, films that transformed his image from that of iconic Western star to dependable auteur.  His first directorial outing was a thriller, followed by westerns, crime, noir, war, action, and comedy films.  And there was also one, perfect romance.

"The Bridges of Madison County" has no business being as good as it is.  It's based on a bestseller of questionable literary merit, often castigated for being smarmy and maudlin wish-fulfillment.  The plot couldn't be more dubious: an Iowa housewife, the lonely and unappreciated Francesca (Meryl Streep), meets a National Geographic photographer, Robert (Clint Eastwood), who is in the area to take pictures of the covered bridges.  The two begin an affair while Francesca's husband is away for four days, and matters escalate from there.  All very trite and familiar, right?  However, the book generated enough attention to get Hollywood's attention.  And then Steven Spielberg bought the rights.  And then Richard LaGravenese added a new framing device and ditched the florid prose.  And then Eastwood and Streep got involved.

Cinematic romance is harder than it looks, because emotional connections are very difficult to fake onscreen.  Either there is chemistry or there isn't.  Between Eastwood and Streep, however, there are plenty of sparks.  Eastwood isn't usually seen as a sentimentalist, but it's the little moments of love and affection in movies like "Madison County" and "Million Dollar Baby" that tend to stick with me more than the hard-edged grimness of the more celebrated "Unforgiven."  I must have seen a dozen of the crime movies that Eastwood directed and starred in during the 1990s, but I can barely recall anything about them.  "Madison County," I remember, though, as if I'd only seen it yesterday.  I remember Meryl Streep's lovely transformation from dowdy housewife into sensual lover.  I remember the tender, patient cinematography.  I remember Francesca's incredulous grown children in the framing story being slowly, steadily won over by their mother's narrative along with the audience.  
Eastwood's biggest contribution here is his minimalism, his lack of frills and fuss.  The elements he needs to tell a good story are few, and he's always been known for working quickly and efficiently, under budget if possible.  While he does make good use of some scenic views of the Iowa countryside, reportedly inspired by John Ford, the film revels in its intimacy, the quiet moments that the characters enjoy alone or together.  It invites emotional responses because it isn't afraid of showing emotion and placing it front and center.  And it's not afraid of letting the characters talk and talk, and really say things to each other.  The final act hinges on the car scene, which is physically so limited, but so intense thanks to Streep's performance and the careful editing.  And it should be noted that Eastwood fought for Streep, over dozens of other actresses who were up for the part.  I wish this hadn't been the only time they worked together.

I've heard some comparisons of "The Bridges of Madison County" to "Out of Africa," mostly because of Streep's similar character, but the latter movie left me disappointed when I finally saw it.  The austerity and grandeur of the imagery wasn't as effective as the careworn, down to earth filmmaking of "Madison County."  It's far from a perfect film, with occasionally odd lines of dialogue, and some of the minor roles could have been cast better.  However, it has so much heart and soul, and it's unmistakably Eastwood's work through and through.  I love that he decided to play Robert himself, taking on a role that doesn't fit his usual persona, but he proved to be a great fit for anyway.  More modern directors should follow his lead.

"The Bridges of Madison County" is the reason I was so looking forward to Eastwood's planned remake of "A Star is Born," that sadly never got off the ground.  I'd like to see his softer side more often, because it is capable of so much more than it's given credit for.


What I've Seen - Clint Eastwood

Play Misty for Me (1971)
High Plains Drifter (1973)
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
The Gauntlet (1977)
Sudden Impact (1983)
Pale Rider (1985)
Unforgiven (1992)
A Perfect World (1993)
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Absolute Power (1997)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
Mystic River (2003)
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Gran Torino (2008)
Invictus (2009)
Hereafter (2010)
J. Edgar (2011)
American Sniper (2014)


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Star Wars "Awakens" (With Spoilers)

All the spoilers ahead.  All of them.

"The Force Awakens" was probably always doomed to be a mess because it's obligated to do way, way too much.  It has to introduce all these new characters and places, then integrate them into the existing "Star Wars" universe that the fans know and love, but without alienating newcomers.  I'd say the film is very successful at doing the first, but stumbles with the rest.  When Han Solo and Chewbacca showed up, and almost instantly got into the thick of the action, I thought we were going to be okay.  But then the action slowed down, and the dialogue got more expository and clumsy.  Things got especially awkward when Princess Leia showed up, and she and Han would only refer to Kylo Ren as "our son" because his real name was played up as a big reveal.  And then we were in the middle of the Skywalker family soap opera again, trying to catch up with decades of past traumas, and bracing for more to come.

I cringed my way through most of Carrie Fisher's scenes.  I respect the woman immensely, but her screen presence just isn't what it once was, and her whole demeanor was just unbearably stiff.  Harrison Ford was much better, and brought so much to the scenes with Finn and Rey.  But I knew that it was pretty likely that the only reason he came back to the series was to be killed off, and the grandiose way it happened left me a little cold.  Han was always the cool everyman who stayed out of the Jedi stuff, and to see him in that operatic confrontation scene with Kylo Ren was just bizarre.  It would have helped so much if we could have gotten a little more of a sense of their relationship, some better understanding of what the hell happened to Ben Solo beyond Han and Leia talking obliquely around the old hurts.  I know that's all coming in the next two films, but we sure could have used some of the highlights up front.

And on that note, I have no idea how this movie could successfully play to newcomers.  There's so much here that requires that you know who these characters are, their history, and their existing dynamics.  Yes, it's quickly explained who Han and Leia and Luke are, but See Threepio's entrance is absolutely reliant on having watched the old trilogy.  So is that amazing moment with the "garbage" ship and Han calling out to Ben.  Some of the worst dialogue involves the clumsy rehashing of concepts like the Force and the Rebellion.  This was a movie made for the fans of the original trilogy, and that's not going to be sustainable in the long run.  The franchise is nearly forty years old, and can't afford to get bogged down in too much nostalgia.  Keep in mind that the movie may be breaking records at home, but it's not playing so well in parts of the world where "Star Wars" was only recently introduced.  

With all that off my chest, I think the set up for the rest of the new trilogy is pretty good.  The mystery of Rey's origins was handled nicely, and I can't wait to see Finn and Poe teamed up again.  Kylo Ren is almost certainly getting a redemption story arc, and Luke Skywalker's story will surely play into that.  I'm more confident about Mark Hamill's acting than Carrie Fisher's, so that's something to look forward to.  Daisy Ridley really is an instant superstar - some of her reaction shots alone made such a difference.  I think Finn got the shorter end of the stick as far as character development, but John Boyega's energy was great.  I really want to see him have some big, triumphant moments in the future films.  As for Kylo Ren, his character is similar to the prequel version of Anakin Skywalker, but there's already a huge difference because Adam Driver is a much better actor than Hayden Christiansen.

The humor in "The Force Awakens" remains its best asset.  Most of my favorite moments were the funny ones - the Millennium Falcon reveal, the stormtroopers backing away from Kylo Ren's tantrum, and Finn going a little overboard telling Phasma that he's "in charge now."  BB-8 worked so well, it caught me completely off guard in the best way.  I don't know if it's going to be a good idea to continue with the same volume of gags and jokes in Episodes VIII and IX, but it's such a relief to have this element of the original trilogy back after the prequels.  I'm fully subscribed to the theory that Han Solo and Chewbacca were a major reason for the success of "Star Wars," and having the two of them and their banter back for this round was vital.      

However, I do think that the training wheels have to come off, and the new trilogy has to find its own footing.  In some ways I'm glad that Han Solo is out of the picture now, so that "Star Wars" won't be tempted to keep relying on his presence.  "The Force Awakens" was a lot of fun, but I thought that "The Phantom Menace" was a lot of fun in 1999.  The sequel trilogy could very well end up like the prequel trilogy, even though it's had a stronger start.  "The Force Awakens" didn't have a Jar-Jar, fortunately, but it has its own set of weaknesses.  Too much retreading old ground, and not enough striking out on its own.  I'm glad that J.J. Abrams isn't going to stick around - I thought his handling of the action sequences was only so-so, and the callbacks really were too much.  The 2009 "Star Trek" is still his best film and best reboot.

Here's looking ahead to Gareth Edwards' "Rogue One," which I suspect may turn out to be a better film for having a completely different story and set of characters from any of the previous "Star Wars" installments.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Star Wars "Awakens" (Without Spoilers)

Well, I'm late to the party, aren't I?  I bet you're all sick of "Star Wars" by now, but I'm determined to have my say, putting general impressions in this review, and a more spoilery reaction post tomorrow.  Ready or not, here we go.

Well, "The Force Awakens" isn't the best "Star Wars" movie ever made or the worst.  It's very reverent and derivative of the original trilogy, often to a fault, but its original elements are all very strong and give me real hope for the following movies in a way that "The Phantom Menace" didn't.  Consider our new heroes: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger eking out a meager existence on the desert world of Jakku, Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper deserter who only wants to get as far away from his pursuers as possible, dashing X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and the little soccer-ball of a droid, BB-8.  They're all so much more interesting than Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala in the prequels ever managed to be, and had me invested in their stories almost immediately.

And consider Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the new Sith baddie who menaces our heroes on behalf of the First Order, which succeeded the fallen Empire and.  Ren is a different kind of villain than we've seen before, someone young and unstable, still finding his footing, though he wields a great amount of power.  It creates such a different dynamic with the heroes and with the other characters than we've seen before.  I think it's going to be as much fun following him through the new trilogy as it will be to follow Rey and Finn.  I'm less enthusiastic about Ren's master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who we get to see briefly via hologram.  He's one of the characters who seems to follow the template of the previous films a little too closely, along with a new diminutive wise alien figure named Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyongo).

"The Force Awakens" is at its worst when it's catering to the existing "Star Wars" fanbase with a constant stream of callbacks, cameos, and references.  The movie captures the feel of the original trilogy to a large degree, but too often does it by creating variations on familiar scenes - droids lost in the desert, a rescue that requires running around an enemy base, a visit to a watering hole full of seedy alien toughs, and of course the final epic battles involving a doomsday weapon.  At certain points the movie feels like a highlight reel of the entire first trilogy crammed into one movie - we're constantly hustling through new environments that feel strangely familiar, meeting old friends again, and there's hardly a moment to stop and catch your breath.  Then again, the slower scenes tend to be the weakest - too many clumsy exposition dumps and not enough character moments.

I liked the early scenes best, where the new characters are being introduced, and old characters are being reintroduced with a great deal of restraint.  Time and care are taken to show that Rey is similar to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), but she's not him.  And Finn might be a good guy at heart, but it takes him a while to wrap his head around the idea.  However, about halfway through the pace picks up, and suddenly we're in the well-worn groove of a typical modern blockbuster reboot, and the goal seems to have become to hit as many of the plot points from the original "Star Wars" as possible before the end credits roll.  I was simultaneously gleeful that all my nerdy "Star Wars" fangirl impulses were being thoroughly indulged, and distressed that I could predict every single beat in the third act well in advance.    

At least with J.J. Abrams in the director's chair, this is all a lot of fun.  Thankfully all the humor works, and there's plenty of it.  No more tin-ear Lucas dialogue.  Finn and Rey are constantly bantering, BB-8 is a great source of physical gags, and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) gets all the best lines, as always.  At least two great bits involve stormtroopers - remember all the silly stormtrooper humor from the old movies?  It's great to see that again after the self-seriousness of the later prequels.  However, I've got to say that the lighter tone and manic pacing does get in the way of the big dramatic moments of "The Force Awakens."  The whole Jedi mythology has never seemed shakier.  And as happy as I am to see the characters from the first trilogy back again, a few of the old actors just weren't up to the task.

I'm grateful that "Star Wars" is back, and that it's in the hands of filmmakers who clearly care a great deal about honoring its origins.  However It's time to move on, and the further the new "Star Wars" films get away from its predecessors, the better.  This is a movie to build on, a good step in the right direction.  However, it's not a "Star Wars" film I think I'll be too keen on revisiting soon.