Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Review: Carol (2015)

* * * *

Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett

It isn't until Carol's final, breathtaking scene that you can appreciate just how masterfully director Todd Haynes has controlled the film's tone. For most of its 118 minute running time, it's a tightly contained piece that holds a lot back, but in that final moment the dam finally breaks and it becomes clear that the degree of restraint Haynes has demonstrated in unfolding the story up to that point has been very much a deliberate choice. In terms of the story, it's also a wholly appropriate one, given that the narrative turns on something which must remain hidden due to circumstance, but which ultimately can't be denied. While Carol might seem at first to be too cold and closed off to connect with, it tells such an inherently simple and human story, and is so profoundly moving, that in the end connection becomes easy.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review: The Big Short (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling

Writer/director Adam McKay is best known for his broad comedies, having now made several with Will Farrell (both Anchorman movies, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys), so on the surface he might not seem like the obvious choice to tell a story about the 2008 financial crisis which resulted in the collapse and subsequent bailout of the United States' major banks. However, if The Big Short wasn't a comedy, its story would be too damn depressing to watch. McKay, who adapted the screenplay with Charles Randolph from the book of the same title by Michael Lewis, takes a self-referential, aside-heavy approach to the story that, in its way, seeks to be educational in addition to entertaining and largely succeeds. It's just sort of a shame that the inescapable fact of the story is that, in the end, the joke isn't on any of the characters in the film (or the real people some of them are based on) but on all of us.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: Ant-Man (2015)

* * *

Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll

Sooner or later, the superhero movie bubble is going to burst simply as a result of saturation. It's bound to happen and possibly quite soon as from 2016 to 2019 there are already 21 such movies planned, with seven coming out in 2016 alone. A feeling of "sameness" is going to start setting in sooner or later, especially when the same story beats keep getting hit over and over again across multiple films. Now heading into the third phase of its cinematic universe films, Marvel has the genre down to a science, but it's also reaching the point where its films could start taking on an assembly line quality. A film like Ant-Man (and, arguably, Guardians of the Galaxy before it), which probably seemed a lot less essential during the planning stages than a film like, say, Captain America because there's a lower awareness of the character in terms of the general moviegoing audience, nevertheless brings something crucial to the whole Marvel project. It's sillier and lighter than a lot of other Marvel movies, but it's also a nice break from the series of movies where the fate of the entire world is at stake and everything gets resolved with a huge battle in the sky.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Review: Brooklyn (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: John Crowley
Starring: Saoirse Ronan

In less volatile times, a film like John Crowley's Brooklyn, adapted from the novel by Colm Toibin, might seem too gentle to be really important in the wider social context of our day-to-day lives. Right now, released in theaters at a time when politicians are competing with each other to see who can take the most vile and closed-minded position about people who didn't have the good fortune to be born in a place of democracy and/or opportunity, it's a film that touches a nerve and is a reminder that the vast majority of those people who have in the past and are right now undertaking the long journey away from everything that they have ever known and starting over in some place where everything is entirely foreign to them are doing so not to hurt anyone or destroy anything, but to try to have a better life. Brooklyn is, at its core, a love story, but it's also an immigrant story about the bravery it takes to pick up and move into the unknown half a world away, and the opportunities for kindness available to be taken by those who already happen to be there.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Road to Oscar: Winners and Nominees So Far

The awards are still rolling in, with the critics from St. Louis, Kansas City, Utah, Nevada, and Vancouver weighing in (all listed below). In addition, the Critics Choice Awards have made the rare move of adding a nominee to their Best Picture lineup after the fact, making room for a nomination for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Here's how things are stacking up:

Monday, December 21, 2015

Review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013)

* * *

Director: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster

Writer/director David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints is like a Terrence Malick movie for people who wish that actual Terrence Malick movies dialed back his stylistic tendencies by about half. It's meditative and beautifully shot, but less elliptical and slightly more driven by plot. Parts of it are really, really good, but overall it feels poorly paced for its 97 minute running time, dragging in many places whereas Malick, at his best, unfolds his films in a way that sweeps the viewer into its current and then floats them along through to the end. This is all to say that while Ain't Them Bodies Saints is ultimately a fine film, it's a bit derivative and generally unexceptional.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Road to Oscar: The Winners and Nominees So Far

The Critics Choice Awards nominees have been announced and even more critics awards have been handed out in the last week, including the Phoenix Critics Circle, Chicago Film Critics, and the Las Vegas Film Critics Society. Here's how things are stacking up:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

21st Century Essentials: How to Survive a Plague (2012)

Director: David France
Country: United States

As little as 30 years ago, a government could openly stand back and willfully ignore a health crisis that decimated a community because that community was considered morally and politically undesirable, and hospitals could turn away the sick and dying, refusing them treatment for the same reason. 23 years ago, a President could go on the record as saying that those living with AIDS were suffering as a result of their own “behavior,” a statement which, at best, reads as him saying, “It’s not my problem, so I don’t care,” and at worst as him saying that gay people deserve to be punished for being who they are. When I first saw David France’s How to Survive a Plague about 3 years ago, what surprised me the most was how, in the span of 3 decades, public opinion could go from “let them die” to “let them marry.” Now, having endured so many months of Donald Trump uttering rhetoric that verges on hate speech and becoming more popular as a result, and having seen some reactions to Charlie Sheen’s announcement of being HIV positive that were so ignorant it made it seem like it was 1995 rather than 2015, nothing really surprises that much. Oh, except for a clip in this film of Pat Buchanan on Crossfire where for a moment he actually seems like a reasonable human being before turning it around and reminding you of exactly what kind of closed-minded reactionary he really is.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

More Critics Award Winners

A whole slew of awards have been given out by various critics groups in the last couple of days, including the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association, Detroit Film Critics Society, Indiana Film Journalists San Diego Film Critics Society, Southeastern Film Critics, and Online Film Critics Society. Here are their winners (spoiler alert: there's a lot of Mad Max)

Best Picture

Mad Max: Fury Road
San Diego Film Critics Society
Online Film Critics Society

Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association
Detroit Film Critics Society
Indiana Film Journalists
Southeastern Film Critics

Monday, December 14, 2015

Critics Choice Nominees

The winners will be announced January 17th. Here are the nominees:

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Ten Years Later... King Kong (2015)

The world didn't necessarily need a new King Kong in 2005, but the advances in technology by that point being what they were, I can understand Hollywood's inclination to revisit one of cinema's most iconic characters. I'm not sure why anyone thought it needed to be 3 hours long, particularly when it tells essentially the same story as the 1933 version which ran at a fleet 100 minutes, but I can definitely understand why it was tempting to have another go at the story. Coming off the massive success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, director/co-writer Peter Jackson had the luxury of indulging himself and so he created a King Kong that is more padded than it needs to be, and yet so artful and, at times, so soulful that those self-indulgent stretches are easily forgiven.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Road to Oscar: Post-Globe and SAG Nominations

More critics awards have been handed out since last week, including today's announcements of the picks from Toronto and San Francisco (included in the lists below), but the big news is the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. Tomorrow the nominees will be announced for the Critics Choice Awards, but until there here's how things are stacking up:

Netflix Recommends... The Paperboy (2012)

* * *

Director: Lee Daniels
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Zac Effron, Nicole Kidman, John Cusack, David Oyelowo

The Paperboy was one of the most critically reviled films of 2012, a film lambasted for everything except Nicole Kidman's performance, which received Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations and at the time seemed to be a real threat for an Oscar nomination. When it showed up in my recommendations from Netflix, I was more intrigued than anything, and after watching it I was greatly surprised because it's actually not terrible. It's lurid and trashy, but it's lurid and trashy by design not by accident, and there's something weirdly admirable about Lee Daniel's willingness to get right down there in the swamp with his characters, making the film as down and dirty as the people within it. Parts of it are pretty gross, parts of it feel undisciplined and self-indulgent, but if there's one thing The Paperboy isn't, it's boring.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Review: Amy (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Asif Kapadia

By the time of her death in 2011 at the age of 27, Amy Winehouse had long since transitioned to the phase of celebrity when a person ceases to seem like an actual human being and starts to become a pop culture caricature of celebrity excess. If nothing else, it is to director Asif Kapadia's credit that Amy immediately re-establishes its subject as a real person, one with talent and dreams and painful experiences, and then maintains that sense of genuine humanity even as it charts her very public descent from a star embraced for her undeniable gifts to a punchline and tabloid curiosity. Because we know how it ends, Amy is a somber viewing experience, sometimes difficult movie to watch, but it's also totally engrossing and often moving.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Golden Globe Nominations

Best Film, Drama
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

Best Film, Musical or Comedy
The Big Short
The Martian

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Screen Actors Guild Nominations

The nominees for the Screen Actors Guild Awards:

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Sarah Silverman, I Smile Back

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Johnny Depp, Black Mass
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Best Supporting Actress
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Helen Mirren, Trumbo
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Jacob Tremblay, Room

Best Ensemble
Beasts of No Nation
The Big Short
Straight Outta Compton

Monday, December 7, 2015

Washington DC Film Critics Winners

More for Spotlight, Mad Max: Fury Road, Amy, Inside Out, and Son of Saul as the Washington DC Film Critics weigh in. Their picks:

Best Picture: Spotlight

Best Director: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Actress: Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

Best Supporting Actor: Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation

Best Ensemble: Spotlight

Best Youth Performance: Jacob Tremblay, Room

Best Adapted Screenplay: Room

Best Original Screenplay: Inside Out

Best Documentary: Amy

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul

Best Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Cinematography: The Revenant

Best Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Original Score: Sicario

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Road to Oscar: The Winners So Far

A whole bunch of awards have been handed out in the last few days, with something like consensus already forming in the Best Picture (Spotlight), Documentary (Amy), Foreign Language Film (Son of Saul), Animated Feature (Inside Out), Screenplay (Spotlight), Supporting Actress (Kristen Stewart), and Supporting Actor (Mark Rylance) races. The Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe nominations will be announced on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, further solidifying certain contenders, but until then here's how things are shaping up so far:

Los Angeles Film Critics Association Winners

Spotlight has quickly emerged as the consensus choice for Best Picture. Here are the winners from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association:

Best Picture: Spotlight

Best Director: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Actress: Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Best Actor: Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

Best Supporting Actor: Michael Shannon, 99 Homes

Best Screenplay: Spotlight

Best Documentary: Amy

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul

Best Animated Film: Anomalisa

Best Cinematography: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Editing: The Big Short

Best Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Musical Score: Anomalisa and Carol

New York Film Critics Online Winners

Chalk up another win for Spotlight. Here are the winners from the New York Film Critics Online:

Best Picture: Spotlight

Best Director: Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Best Actress: Brie Larson, Room

Best Actor: Paul Dano, Love & Mercy

Best Supporting Actress: Rooney Mara, Carol

Best Supporting Actor: Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Best Ensemble Cast: Spotlight

Best Screenplay: Spotlight

Best Foreign Film: Son of Saul

Best Documentary Feature: Amy

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out

Best Use of Music: Love & Mercy

Best Debut Director: Alex Garland, Ex Machina

Best Breakthrough Performance: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Boston Society of Film Critics Winners

Boston Society of Film Critics picks:

Best Picture: Spotlight

Best Director: Todd Haynes, Carol

Best Actress: Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

Best Actor: (tie) Paul Dano, Love & Mercy, and Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant

Best Supporting Actress: Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria

Best Supporting Actor: Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Best Ensemble: Spotlight

Best Screenplay: Spotlight

Best Cinematography: Carol

Best Documentary: Amy

Best Animated Film: (tie) Anomalisa and Inside Out

Best Foreign Language Film: The Look of Silence

Best Film Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Use of Music: Love & Mercy

Best New Filmmaker: Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Saturday, December 5, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Amal (2008)

Director: Richie Mehta
Starring: Rupinder Nagra
Country: Canada

In 2008, a film came out about a young man living in poverty in India who finds himself with the opportunity to come into a great deal of money, but who is far less interested in those riches than he is in reuniting with the woman for whom he would do anything. That movie was uplifting and widely celebrated and would eventually be rewarded with the Oscar for Best Picture. But in that same year that Slumdog Millionaire won hearts and minds, another film was released, one with a similar premise but which is ultimately as different from Slumdog as night is from day. In comparison, Richie Mehta’s Amal is a much quieter and slower movie, lacking the glossy high energy of Slumdog, but beautifully telling the story of a good man surrounded by greed and despair, and of the power of money to insulate us from hardship but also isolate us as human beings. It’s a simple story, a modern fable in some ways, but it’s incredibly moving in that simplicity.

Boston Film Critics Online Winners

Another day, another win for Mad Max. Here are the winners from the Boston Film Critics Online:

Best Picture: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Director: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Actress: Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Best Actor: Michael B. Jordan, Creed

Best Supporting Actress: Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Ensemble: Spotlight

Best Screenplay: Spotlight

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul

Best Documentary: Amy

Best Animated Film: Inside Out

Best Cinematography: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Original Score: Mad Max: Fury Road

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

New York Film Critics Circle Winners

And they are:

Best Picture: Carol

Best Director: Todd Haynes, Carol

Best Actress: Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Best Actor: Michael Keaton, Spotlight

Best Supporting Actress: Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria

Best Supporting Actor: Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Best Screenplay: Carol

Best Cinematography: Carol

Best Animated Film: Inside Out

Best Non-Fiction Film: In Jackson Heights

Best Foreign Language Film: Timbuktu

Best First Film: Son of Saul

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

National Board of Review Winners

Let the onslaught of end of the year awards begin. Here are the winners selected by the National Board of Review, announced earlier today:

Best Film: Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Director: Ridley Scott, The Martian

Best Actress: Brie Larson, Room

Best Actor: Matt Damon, The Martian

Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Original Screenplay: The Hateful Eight

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Martian

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul

Best Documentary: Amy

Best Ensemble: The Big Short

Best Breakthrough Performance: Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation, and Jason Tremblay, Room

Best Directorial Debut: Mediterranea

Spotlight Award: Sicario

NBR Freedom of Expression Award: Beasts of No Nation & Mustang

Monday, November 30, 2015

Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (2015)

* * *

Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence

And so it ends. After four films the saga of Katniss Everdeen concludes in a fashion that is as rough around the edges and unwilling to "pretty" things up as she is. Even in triumph, Mockingjay - Part 2 is almost unrelentingly bleak, its characters more exhausted than relieved, its outlook only tentatively positive. It's a fitting end for a series with such a dark premise and which has always foregrounded the human cost of tyranny and rebellion, yet I can't help but feel like it doesn't quite have the impact that it should have. This is possibly (probably) the result of splitting the final chapter in the story into two films, leaving Part 1 feeling padded and Part 2 feeling a little bit empty. Mockingjay - Part 2 is full of action, but it doesn't have quite the same level emotional grounding that the other films have. It's a good film regardless, but the final two parts to the story are definitely the lesser pair compared to the series' first two films.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Review: Harlan County, USA (1976)

* * * *

Director: Barbara Kopple

Everything you need to know about the situation in Harlan County, USA, Barbara Kopple's Oscar winning documentary about striking coal miners in Kentucky, can be summed up in the words of Norman Yarborough, then President of Eastover Mining, when asked about the living conditions of the miners, who live in company housing with no water and no electricity: "We were attempting to move our people - and these are our people, they're my people - to move our people, to upgrade our people into trailers, upgrade our people into better housing, better conditions because it will make us better people when we are able to do this." These aren't the words of an employer; they're the words of an owner in a slavery system or a lord in a feudal system, words of oppression disguised as words of benevolence. It was a situation bound to explode sooner or later and it did, right in front of Kopple's camera, which not only captures the violence but also became a target of it in this powerful, sometimes horrifying, documentary.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Netflix Recommends... The Seven Five (2014)

* * * 1/2

Director: Tiller Russell

Tiller Russell's The Seven Five, a documentary about a major NYPD police corruption scandal during the 1980s and early 90s, is a film as infuriating as it is entertaining. It's entertaining because many of the people involved and who participate in interviews with Tiller, including main "character" Mike Dowd, are really great, charismatic storytellers. It's infuriating because it tells a true story about massive police corruption that was allowed to go on for years as a result of the police code of looking the other way when it comes to the actions of a fellow officer, and because the film itself, good as it is, can't help but further the self-aggrandizement of the subjects, some of whom seem pretty impressed with themselves and proud of what they were able to get away with even as they're expressing remorse for some of their misdeeds.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Friday's Top 5... 2015's Low Key Gems

All the big guns will soon be out for Oscar season, but before we get into the thick things, check out some of these smaller (and wonderful) movies from earlier this year:

#5: Appropriate Behavior

A romantic comedy (sort of) about a woman struggling to get over her ex and trying to reconcile her own desires and way of life with the expectations of her very conservative family. Star Desiree Akhavan also wrote and directed the film, which is a genuinely funny and fresh take on a well-worn genre.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Ten Years Later... Walk the Line (2005)

Director: James Mangold
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon

So, here's the thing. I don't think I've watched Walk the Line since it first came out 10 years ago, but in the years since seeing it for the first time then and rewatching it recently, I've seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story a few times and, as it turns out, that has completely ruined me for this Johnny Cash biopic. Basically, every time Robert Patrick showed up as Cash's father, I half expected him to shout, "Wrong kid died!" (and I had completely forgotten how close he comes to actually saying that), and every time Ginnifer Goodwin showed up as Cash's first wife, I couldn't help but picture Kristin Wiig as the prototypical biopic "first wife" who stands in the way of her husband achieving his dreams and does nothing but complain and get angry. That's not really fair to Walk the Line, but it's certainly a testament to how thorough a parody Walk Hard really is.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: Spotlight (2015)

* * * *

Director: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber

In a perfect world, we could all at least agree that children are deserving of protection and that their safety should take priority over everything else. That we don't live in that kind of a world, that we live in one where people who exploit and abuse children can be not just shielded from prosecution but given multiple opportunities to perpetuate abuse, proves that we still have some evolving left to do. The story told by Tom McCarthy's Spotlight is not surprising - the specific story on which the film is based was well-publicized and there have been so many other stories of systematic sexual abuse by priests that that's now the first thing many of us think of with respect to the Catholic Church - but it's nevertheless shocking to see in action the workings of a conspiracy of silence and the abuse of institutional power undertaken to keep the ugly truth hidden. Yet Spotlight is no David and Goliath tale of taking on a massive, powerful entity and defeating it; rather, it presents itself as a story in which there is a lot of complicity to go around and even the protagonists aren't necessarily without some guilt in helping to perpetuate the silence and, by extension, the abuse.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Review: Margin Call (2011)

* * * 1/2

Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons

"It's just money; it's made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat." It's true to a point, society is built on constructs that exist because we've all agreed to recognize that they exist but, on the other hand, the notion that it's "just money" is a lot easier to take when no matter what happens you'll still end the day with over 7 figures to your name. For the ordinary people who have been sold a false bill of goods and are about to discover how unstable the house of cards they've been allowed to build really is, money isn't so much a concept as it is a matter of life and death. But J.C. Chandor's Margin Call isn't about the ordinary people, it's about the masters of the universe playing their games on Wall Street. It might just as well have been called "Sympathy for the Devil."

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Review: Tyrannosaur (2011)

* * * *

Director: Paddy Considine
Starring: Peter Mullan, Olivia Colman, Eddie Marsan

Kindness is a rare commodity in Tyrannosaur and even when it does appear, it is laced with the same violence that marks everything else. Written and directed by Paddy Considine, and based on his short film Dog Altogether, Tyrannosaur is an unrelentingly bleak film about broken people who know nothing but brutality. It's one of those rare films that is so absolutely excellent that you're glad to have seen it, but so incredibly depressing that you look forward to few things as much as never seeing it again (it's not quite the same combination of great and soul crushing as, say, The Road, but it's not that far off, either).

Saturday, November 21, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Vera Drake (2004)

Director: Mike Leigh
Starring: Imelda Staunton
Country: UK

To watch a Mike Leigh film is to be dropped into such a completely realized, fully-fleshed out world that it's almost as if you're living the story alongside the characters rather than watching a film. This is especially true of Vera Drake, a film in which even minor, one scene characters are made to feel as though they have these entire lives that we're only seeing a little snippet of in medias res and that the film could, conceivably, follow any of them out of the scene and carry on with their story for the rest of the movie. But the story that Leigh wants to tell is that of Vera Drake, a woman who is described as having a "heart of gold" but whose inherent goodness and pureness of spirit does not rob her of complexity. Indeed, as depicted by Leigh and star Imelda Staunton, her goodness only makes her more complex and utterly compelling.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review: Unfinished Business (2015)

* *

Director: Ken Scott
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Tom Wilkinson, Dave Franco

God bless Dave Franco, the Franco who makes all other Francos worthwhile. What a delightful little imp he is and how close he comes to single-handedly making Unfinished Business, a lesser Vince Vaughn comedy even by the increasingly lax standards of Vince Vaughn comedies, worth seeing. Well, okay, Tom Wilkinson is pretty good, too, and doesn't let the fact that this is clearly a role he took solely for the paycheque keep him from being an utter professional and turning in an actual performance, one that even has just a tiny bit of pathos to it. But, still, this is Dave Franco's show, which is all the more impressive when you consider that, by any objective standard, his character is kind of offensive.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Review: It Follows (2015)

* * *

Director: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe

If nothing else, David Robert Mithcell's It Follows proves the theory that less is more. It's a horror movie almost entirely without blood and with a very minimal body count, and which relies almost entirely on the power of suggestion and anticipation in order to get the audience where it needs them to be. It's an effectively creepy movie with a synth heavy score and a preoccupation with sex as a harbinger of death that makes it feel like a throwback to 80s horror movies and which, like last year's Only Lovers Left Alive, makes great use of Detroit as a location, turning it into a city of the undead. I'm not much for horror movies generally, but It Follows is pretty great.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: Suffragette (2015)

* *

Director: Sarah Gavron
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter

For a story that's all about the tenacity, fervor, and indefatigable spirit necessary to push a social movement towards victory, Suffragette is a weirdly passionless film. Too restrained, too polite, and way too superficial, Suffragette is at best a moderately successful period piece and not at all the searing political piece that it ought to be and wants to be. It's frustrating because there actually is a lot to say about the women's suffrage movement, which isn't just one story but a series of stories about tiered victories in which certain categories of women were granted the vote followed later by women of other categories (these categories determined by class, marital status, age, and, of course, race and ethnicity), but the film ultimately says little of any substance. It touches briefly on a lot of different issues about women's rights, but offers no real insight into any of them, so that the statement it makes is of the most basic kind: inequality is bad and harmful to society. And? The women in the film may gladly call themselves rebels, but there's nothing revolutionary about Suffragette.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review: Dark Places (2015)

* *

Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Corey Stoll, Christina Hendricks

10 months before Dark Places briefly appeared in theaters, the first adaptation of a Gillian Flynn novel hit theaters to acclaim and a healthy box office take. 3 months before Dark Place's release, a film starring Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult hit theaters to acclaim and a healthy box office take. Although Dark Places isn't even half as good as Gone Girl or Mad Max: Fury Road, I find it hard to believe that the distributor, small though it may be, couldn't have capitalized on those films enough to push it to a box office take of more than $208,588. I'm not arguing that it deserves to have made more money than that since it's not very good, I'm just surprised that affection for those other films couldn't have gotten it some curiosity box office at the very least.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Review: Tangerine (2015)

* * *

Director: Sean S. Baker
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor

If the entirety of Sean S. Baker's Tangerine worked as well as its final, almost silent, scene it would be an unqualified masterpiece. That one scene displays so much empathy and understanding for its characters, such a rich and moving sense of camaraderie between them, that it absolutely makes the movie and prevents it from being reduced to a work most notable for its production gimmick (Tangerine was shot entirely on an iPhone). What comes before that final scene is a breakneck journey through Los Angeles over the course of Christmas Eve and while it's often exhilarating, sometimes funny, and definitely unlike anything else that's come out recently, it's a film that sweeps over you and doesn't really begin to attain power until those final moments of grace.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review: Crimson Peak (2015)

* * 1/2

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain

Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak is a triumph of crafts over storytelling. Its production design and costumes are some of the most glorious of any film I've seen this year, but though del Toro is able to build a creepy, effective atmosphere in the film's middle section, he's not quite able to sustain it for the remainder of the story. The story itself is a classic ghost/haunted house tale, though again, while the film nails the look of it, the actually telling of it unfolds in a largely predictable fashion. But, man, is it ever grotesquely beautiful to watch.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Canadian Film Review: Room (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Starring: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay

"This is the story you get." It may not be pretty, it may not be nice, but sometimes the narrative is given to you by circumstance rather than decided by you according to choice and desire. Room, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, who also provides the screenplay, is the story of a usurped narrative, of a girl plucked from the story she thought she was living - one of an ordinary girl who would live an ordinary life doing ordinary things - and dropped into a nightmare scenario that is, horrifically, less uncommon in real life than most of us would probably have ever guessed. It's a story of pain and brutality and the enduring effects of trauma, but it's also a story of hope, of endurance, and of love. It's a difficult movie, but also a profoundly moving one.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Netflix Recommends... Elysium (2013)

* *

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Sharlto Copley, Jodie Foster

Three features in, I'm pretty well convinced that Neill Blomkamp is a one trick pony, and I'm not sure the trick is all that good. Don't get me wrong, District 9 has more going for it than not, but it still shares with subsequent features Elysium and Chappie a confused political outlook and a basic visual aesthetic, the latter of which may have seemed bold and exciting in District 9, but just feels recycled in successive films. Elysium isn't totally derivative, but many times when it does take a chance and try something different, it doesn't quite succeed in it, and in general it plays like a film that was imagined on a purely visual level first, with a narrative built around it to connect the images, and then some half-baked socio-political commentary crammed into it. All told, I'd have to agree with Blomkamp's own assessment of the film: "The script just wasn't there."

Monday, November 9, 2015

Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

* * *

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Sammuel L. Jackson

There's James Bond and there's Austin Powers and somewhere in between there's Kingsman: The Secret Service, suave as Bond but as in on the joke as Powers. If I'm being completely honest, Kingsman is a mixed bag of things that do and don't work, with violence so literally cartoonish that it becomes off-putting fairly quickly, but every time the film starts to veer off course it finds a way to pull you back in with its nonchallantly ironic humor. It helps to have a cool as a cucumber performance by Colin Firth front and center, with a so weird it works performance by Samuel L. Jackson standing beside it, as well as healthy doses of Mark Strong and Michael Caine; Kingsman has all these things and more, which is why it ends up more on the "good" side of the scale than the "bad."

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Review: Southpaw (2015)

* *

Director: Antoine Fuqua
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker

Intense and visceral and filled with an innate sense of urgency, boxing is a sport that translates easily to cinema, which is perhaps why it's one of the sports featured most often in Hollywood movies. It's an inherently filmable sport on a visual level, one which allows for the physical toll on the protagonist to always be made apparent, and which allows for the protagonist to always be seen, never getting obscured by a helmet or lost in the crowd of a team. It makes sense for filmmakers to be drawn to boxing, but at the same time the genre's tropes are by now so deeply entrenched that it's difficult to escape them and create a story that feels in any way fresh. Southpaw is, unfortunately, a pretty standard fall and rise, young hotshot and grizzled mentor, type of story that feels entirely derivative even when you factor in the family drama that's supposed to hold down the narrative's center. Its main character may be called "the Great Hope," but this movie is not.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Almost Famous (2000)

Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Frances McDormand, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Country: United States

Few movies make it look quite as effortless as Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, a film that manages to be sweet and earnest even as it sets itself firmly in some of the seedier aspects of the music industry, including a plot that hinges on some of the female characters being treated like chattel. That it can go to such dark places - and some of what happens in the movie is pretty dark - while maintaining its earnest and open-hearted manner, that it succeeds at being a feel good movie, is a testament to Crowe's deft touch as a storyteller and his ability to craft compelling characters (in this respect, he shares credit with the excellently assembled cast). 15 years ago, Almost Famous was not one of the year's biggest hits, earning little at the box office and receiving surprisingly few accolades (it received 4 Oscar nominations, including Best Original Screenplay for Crowe, but it failed to crack the Best Picture lineup, despite it being a relatively weak year for contenders); but 15 years later it's one of the more enduring films from the year 2000, a work that remains touching and entertaining in equal measure.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Political Comedies

#5: The Candidate

The Candidate is a man who agrees to run a campaign guaranteed to lose simply to get his message out, and who gains the Democratic nomination simply because no one else in the party wants to run against the overwhelmingly popular Republican candidate. However, while the Democratic party needs someone to run, they also don't want to see him humiliated, which results in the would-be "say anything" candidate having his message tempered until it is basically meaningless... and gaining the lead in the polls in the process. A cynical and blackly comic Robert Redford vehicle, The Candidate is a movie that seems less and less like the satire it's supposed to be, and more like realism, with every election cycle.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review: Steve Jobs (2015)

* * *

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogan, Jeff Daniels

As written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs is not your typical "important man" biopic. It's a biopic that unfolds in three distinct acts, each one focusing on the minutes leading up to a particular product launch, concerned less with pure historical accuracy and revealing the "real" Steve Jobs than it is with exploring the idea of Steve Jobs, pivoting around two key ideas about the man - his struggle over the fact of being adopted and his struggle to accept his role as a father to his eldest child - connected by his need for control. It isn't an especially subtle movie (if you miss the point the first time, the screenplay will circle back to it once or twice later), but it's a vibrant one and totally engrossing from beginning to end. It also adds yet another entry in Michael Fassbender's quickly growing gallery of fantastic performances.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: Dope (2015)

* * *

Director: Rick Famuyiwa
Starring: Shameik Moore

For a film that spends a decent amount of its running time hearkening back to the not too distant past, reviving dead fashions and obsessing over decades' old cultural artifacts, Rick Famuyiwa's Dope is a blisteringly original movie. Part comedy, part drama, part crime thriller, Dope is a film that defies easy categorization and which, if it did not have such a confident and skilled hand guiding it in writer/director Rick Famuyiwa, would probably fall apart as a result of its frequent and sharp tonal changes. In Famuyiwa's hands, though, it works, the film's point of view always firm, the shifts merely an expression of the complexity of the protagonist and his circumstances rather than a sign of a filmmaker who doesn't quite know how to say what he wants to say. Dope knows exactly what it's doing, and it does it well.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Review: Beasts of No Nation (2015)

* * * 1/2

Director: Cary Fukunaga
Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba

While the great thing about the release strategy for Beasts of No Nation, which was made available on Netflix simultaneously with its theatrical release, is that more people will be able to see it right away (because, let's face it, even if a bunch of theater chains weren't boycotting it because of it being available already on Netflix, a small budget drama about a child soldier was probably never going to get a very wide theatrical release), the unfortunate thing is that most of us will see on a small screen scenes which were made for a big screen. The story may be an intimate one, but the vistas captured by Cary Fukunaga, who takes on cinematography duties in addition to writing and directing, are truly grand. Above all, Beasts of No Nation is a stunning looking film, though it's the content, not the look, that brings it just within reach of greatness.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

21st Century Essentials: Mother (2009)

Director: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin
Country: South Korea

Is there any force more powerful than a mother’s love? Certainly not in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, a film in which the title character would do anything for her son, a young man of marginal intelligence, vulnerable to manipulation, who ends up arrested for murder. Hers is a crusade to prove his innocence and, in a more conventional film, that would be the story: a determined woman fighting against the odds to rescue her child. But Mother isn’t a conventional film and its hero is not a conventional woman; it tells its story in shades of gray, unfolding it so that the concept of morality becomes increasingly meaningless. The only thing that remains true from beginning to end is that it is a fascinating, endlessly engrossing movie.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Friday's Top 5... Movie Chefs

#5: Antonio, I Am Love

In terms of screen time, Antonio does not play a major role in I Am Love. In terms of the film's story, however, he's of major importance, his cooking causing the protagonist to have a moment of spiritual awakening that begins the process of her breaking away from the rigid rules of her unsatisfactory life and running away. With Antonio. That must have been one hell of a dish.