I know, I’m a week late. I don’t get paid to write these, not yet at least, so I can’t always get to the movies on opening night. Luckily, I’m not here to beat a dead horse. I’m not going to trash the movie (because lord knows I was prepared to going in) nor am I going to hail it as the superhero film as the year, because it isn’t. It’s not even close. The days of a middle ground in regards to superhero films seem to be a thing of the past. This is most likely because of the massive influx of them, as well as the lopsided-ness of the genre (Marvel cornering the market of shared cinematic universes for years before DC even started its attempt). Whatever the reason may be, a superhero film can’t just be “good” anymore, or decent, or alright. It has to reinvent the wheel, or it is deemed a colossal failure. A movie is either masterpiece or piece of hot garbage, and it all depends on who you ask. DC movies, in particular, especially this year, seem to be inspiring one of those two reactions. There’s an innate, aggressive defensiveness among fans, and in response non fans have taken on a more aggressive offense in their criticisms of the films.
In the end I suppose it all comes down to what you value, fan service, strong writing, visual flair, or subtext. All four of these factors add up to a great film, superhero or otherwise. For Deadpool, it had fair balance of all of them, though maybe light on subtext. Batman V Superman had visual flair, subtext and fan service to spare, but a complete lack of strong writing left it as a series of montages loosely strung together. Captain America Civil War probably had the best balance of all of them. Suicide squad was…certainly a way to kill an afternoon. If I were to review it in a sentence, that sentence would be: “Not great, or even very good, but it has some bright spots, so it’s worth a watch.” It had the possibilities for subtext, about the nature of good and evil, the mindset of a criminal, ect. This largely goes unexplored in lieu of an aesthetic of sheer carnage and mania to match the unstable nature of some of its characters. This results is a god awful 15-20 minute stretch at the very beginning of the film that feels more like a playlist on YouTube than the opening of a film. It’s like having constant noise thrown at you in a bad children’s film, a cadophany of light, color and sound to keep you from getting bored in case Batman v Superman didn’t do the trick. Luckily this manic, hot topic Andy Warhol routine is dropped when the film starts zeroing in on an actual plot, but the disjointedness never leaves.
There are obvious gaps in characterization throughout, with character developments feeling very unearned by the end of the film. This also leads to a generic villain that’s like an amalgamation of Malekith from Thor: The Dark World and Viper from The Wolverine. Rather than emphasize the “true villain” of the film (Viola Davis as Amanda Waller), the film instead opts for the avengers formula of “big bad has a shiny thing that’s blowing up the sky while an army of minion fodder get thrown at the squad to deal with.” And therein lies the main problem with this movie: focus is put on the wrong people at the wrong times. Why is Enchantress (the default antagonist in a film full of villains) singled out as evil, when she, along with every member “task force X” are black ops slaves to shady, Machiavellian government figure who is framed with multiple allusions to the devil throughout the film? Every other criminal on the team is given some element of tragedy, why not her? There is a good movie here, a great movie, even. But something went very, very wrong in the production. Removing some excess characters like Karana or Killer Croc, fleshing others out more, shifting the role of antagonist, and an editor who actually knows how to do his or her job would have accomplished just that.
While so far I’ve done nothing but pick the movie apart, I must stress that I do so because there are parts of this movie that I really, really liked. The cast all around if fantastic. The characters are enjoyable to watch and easy to get invested in, which is more than I can day for DC’s other outing this year. There are even some pretty inventive visual designs and effects work peppered throughout other highly questionable directorial choices. Will Smith is great as Deadshot, Margot Robbie is infectious as Harley Quinn, and Viola Davis is sublimely intense as Amanda Waller. This is also the first movie where I actually really enjoyed Jai Courtney in a role. I’m hoping for a sequel, preferably with a new crew behind the camera, because there is the making of something special here, and it is the shot in the arm that the DC cinematic universe desperately needs. To quote Deadshot, someone just needs to get it there.
The truest mark of a great children’s movie, if one exists, is to once more feel like a child while watching, and to do so without ever feeling insulted or talked down to. To be immersed, educated, and transformed while also entertained, regardless of whether you’re an adult or child. With that in mind, it hasn’t been a bad year for animated films. Finding Dory managed to not only justify it’s questionable existence as a sequel to a decade old film (that worked just fine one its own), but also delicately and sympathetically shed light on the hardships of living with a mental disability (and living with some who’s mentally disabled). Zootopia provided a fresh, funny blend of buddy cop thriller tropes and punchy real world commentary on prejudice and stereotypes. Even Kung Fu Panda 3 provided some of the most dynamic and dazzling action scenes of any blockbuster this year (in the January dumping ground no less). But this past weekend, the animated children’s film to beat didn’t barrel it’s way into theater to lay waste to box office records. Instead, it snuck in through the back door of online streaming.
Distributed as a Netflix original film after being dropped by Paramount, The Little Prince is a U.S/ French/ Canadian-produced adaptation of the famed novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. A stunning hybrid of computer-generated animation and stop-motion, the film features a tour de force of visual ingenuity, a stellar voice cast and the earnest, thoughtful storytelling that made the original novella such a revered classic. The film utilizes stop motion to bring the original novella to life while using CG for an original tale that bookends the known story. In this new story, a young girl (voiced by Mackenzie Foy), pushed hard to succeed by her organized, overachieving mother (Rachel McAdams), learns the importance of holding on to the values of a child when she hears the extraordinary tale of the little prince and his journey across space to Earth. The tale is told to the young girl by her senile ex-pilot neighbor (the human protagonist of the novella, voiced by Jeff Bridges). As with any adaptation of the classic story, the movie covers a myriad of philosophical themes, ranging from the facing inevitability of death, faith vs the known, conformity vs nonconformity, loss and the reclaiming of innocence and finding meaning in a busy, apathetic world through singular, unique bonds between people. Not once does the film pander to its audience with base humor or superfluous slapstick. It know exactly when to be funny and when to take itself and its audience seriously, delivering every philosophical point with poise and nuance.
While diehard fans of the source material may be put out by the inclusion of new content (and at such an extensive level), American director Mark Osbourne grounds new additions with humanistic charm, never once “Americanizing” this emphatically French story. The new content is integrated into that of the classic seamlessly, never abandoning or distorting the themes of the novella, but rather illustrating them to the further extent that a feature film length allows. When all is said and done, I can’t imagine a more perfect children’s film to define the terms of all others to come out this year. The Little Prince is an emotional marvel of animated film making that deserves to be seen, and I cannot fathom why it was dropped by Paramount. Whatever the reason may be, it was a colossal mistake on their part.
In conjunction with my top 15 movies of 2015 list, I decided to tackle another genre that I hold dear, superheroes. More specifically, superheroes on TV. So without futher ado, here is my apologetically belated…
Top 10 comic book/ superhero tv shows to debut in 2015
10. Arrow: Season Four
I won’t lie, this one is kind of a placeholder. I couldn’t think of a valid ten, and the only other superhero show I watched was Gotham, and I refuse to put that on any “best list.” Arrow season four is an…adequate…season so far. The show has yet to completely recover from the abysmal soap opera that was Season three, but it is a step in the right direction. The singular entity in the show that accomplishes this in the new villain: Damien Dahrk. Ridiculous, faux-edgy name aside, Damien Dahrk, as played by Neil McDonough, is a fun, interesting antagonist, which is already a vast improvement over the third season’s terminally boring interpretation of the batman villain R’as Al Ghul. He squares off against the green arrow and his private army of vigilantes with charm, an air of mystery and brings a new exciting threat to show: Dark Magic. He, and the occasional ham flavored cameo by John Barrowman as Malcolm Merlyn, keep the show watchable.
9. Ultraman X
I’m a newcomer to the Ultraman franchise, but having been raised on Godzilla and Gamera movie and having recently decided to spring for the premium package on Crunchyroll, I decided to give it a whirl and jumped into the latest iteration of the multi decade-spanning Tokusatsu series. While the show is hampered by overt Power Rangers tropes like the revolving door of armors and bulky, plastic gadgets that are obviously toys they’re trying to sell to kids, the show has a fun, energetic cast of characters and bright, colorful visuals to accompany the battles between the Alien Giant Ultraman X and his rogues gallery of giant monsters. What truly sold me on the show was a surprisingly fantastic two part finale that amped the stakes and drama of what had mostly been a children’s show to 11. I also enjoyed the inversion of the DaiKaiju Eiga(giant monster movie) tropes. While Ultraman X does wrestle monsters in rubber suits in a flashy display of colorful SFX, the show also introduces the idea of that they aren’t just monsters for Ultraman to blow, but simply enormous, scared animals too big for the environment they’ve been thrust upon by outside forces. So a good portion of the show follows protagonist Daichi going out of his way to study and understand the Kaiju, rather than simply hunt them, which added a refreshing complexity to the conflict of the show.
8. Supergirl: season One
Supergirl introduces the world to the cousin of Superman as she fights through alien prison breaks and American gender politics to establish herself as a competent, powerful superhero independent of her cousin. For the most part, the show succeeds. Melissa Benoist is a revelation as Kara Zor-El/ Danvers aka Supergirl. She’s infectiously likable and easy to root for while also bringing the weight one would expect from a character who’s lost her entire planet (a planet she actually remembers, unlike superman). The show also of focuses the microscope on issues of gender equality in the media and workplace in a way that’s unabashed without being overbearing and obnoxiously soap box-y (for the most part). The show does suffer the drawbacks most first seasons do, such as an ensemble of side character that could use a little fat-trimming and some rather underwhelming villains for Supergirl to fight. But I’m hopeful that the show will only continue to get better and better as it goes on.
7. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Season Three
While still suffering from a bloated cast of character (only 2 or 3 of whom I actually care about), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D starts off its third season with four strong storylines: the ongoing war with the terrorist organization Hydra (now run by ex ally/ revealed Hydra agent Grant Ward), the disappearance and search for S.H.I.E.L.D scientist Gemma Simmons (who’s found herself on a seemingly dead alien planet), an outbreak of an alien mutagen revealing superpowers in people who come to be known as the “Inhumans” (bringing in an interesting mystery surrounding an Inhuman Serial Killer) and the sociopolitical upheaval this outbreak causes prompting government over-regulation of the situation. While this may seem like a lot to be going on for the first half of one season, the show does a good job of juggling these storylines, and even, quite masterfully, ties them all into one singular plot thread towards the middle of the season. Since it’s a season that’s still in progress I’ll refrain from spoiling too much, but it quite a thrilling watch so far.
6. The Flash: Season 2
Last year it seemed whatever enthusiasm and passion for good work the creators of Arrow had in them went into the first season of the Flash. It was fun, full of heart and had a fantastic main antagonist in the form of Eobard Thawne, the Reverse Flash. In season 2 the train keeps on rolling. Whereas last season dealt with time travel, now the Flash and company face an onslaught of doppelgängers and meta humans from across the multiverse, and leading them is a terrifying new villain, Zoom. Silly name aside, the design and voice work by Tony Todd make Zoom an absolute monster, bringing a sense of dread to the show that not even Reverse Flash had brought. While there’s still some of that token CW melodrama that’s been suffocating Arrow for two seasons, The Flash continues to muscle through it with fun characters, great villains, and high flying sci fi adventure.
5. Doctor Who: Series Nine
I hesitated to include this as its first and foremost a science fiction show, but I’m also of the mind that all the best superhero shows and movies transcend that singular mold and embrace other genres, and what is the Doctor if not a superhero? He’s a powerful alien who flies through space and time in his TARDIS saving people and fighting off monsters in the best way he knows how: being clever, reckless and unafraid of whatever harm may come to him. As always the most interesting Doctor Who stories are ones where the threat isn’t quite as cut and dry as “the thing that looks like a monster is bad while the humans are good, therefore humans should win.” It’s never that simple in Doctor Who, and this season is no different, with one notable two parter concerning an invasion of alien Shapeshifters and the Doctor’s desperate pleas for both sides to embrace forgiveness and avoid the horrors of war. Another great struggle for any hero is with the notion of doubt of one’s righteousness. This season, and seasons before, heavily feature the Doctor denying the idea that he is actually a hero, recoiling at the horror of actions he’s taken to “save the day” at whatever cost. This moral complexity, coupled with the epic space opera flair and Peter Capauldi’s fantastic performance as the 12th regeneration of the Doctor made this season a blast to watch and I can’t wait to see where Doctor travels next.
4. Agent Carter: Season One
The Marvel juggernaut continues to stake it’s claim on audiences, not only in film, but now on television. One such show enriches the franchises ever expanding mythology with the furthered exploits of S.H.I.E.L.D founder, WWII spy and ally to Captain America: Agent Peggy Carter. Set in post-WWII New York, the show follows Agent Carter as she investigates the theft of high tech Howard Stark-designed weapons while traversing the minefield of antiquated 20th century gender politics and inequality. Haley Atwell excels in the role of Peggy Carter, kicking ass while simultaneously maintaining the characters femininity with charisma to spare. A good supporting cast of allies, enemies and fun, pulpy period setting make Agent Carter a rollicking fun sit, but not at the cost of substance and emotional weight.
3. Jessica Jones: Season One
Continuing the 2015 legacy of great female-led superhero tv shows, the buck stops at the Netflix/ Marvel collaboration Jessica Jones. A moody Noir throwback/ psychological thriller with a fantastic lead performance by Kristen Ritter as a hard-boiled, super-strong P.I riddled with personal demons, the most horrifying of which is made manifest by a stellar David Tennent as mind-controlling serial rapist/murderer Kilgrave (known in the comics as the Purple Man). The show at it’s best is a nail-biting silence-of-the-lambs style game of cat and mouse Between Jessica Jones and Kilgrave, as well as a beautifully layered dissection of personal trauma, the scars it leaves, and the different ways in which different people cope with it. What really launches the show is it’s tone and it’s leads (namely Jessica and Kilgrave, possibly Marvel’s greatest villain adapted to screen, or he would be if not for the next show to be listed). Like most Netflix Original programming it’s structured for binge-watching, and the show does suffer from a surplus of side characters and spinning it’s tires, so to speak, towards the end, but the show is defintiely one Marvel’s best screen outings and an instant classic.
2. Daredevil: Season One
And now we come to Marvel’s best outing of 2015, be it in either film or television, the first season of their first collaboration with Netflix, Daredevil. A gritty, tense and complex morality tale of heroics and gentrification, blind vigilante-by-night Matt Murdock/Daredevil battles the Kingpin of crime Wilson Fisk for the soul of his home neighborhood, Hell’s Kitchen. Charlie Cox is suitably intense, charismatic and vulnerable as Lawyer/ Superhero Daredevil, while Vincent D’Onofrio turns in a possibly career defining performance as the raw, unstable, yet surprisingly tender force of nature that is Wilson Fisk. The fight choreography is a wonder to behold, and the supporting cast all fit into an intricate web of intrigue befitting a crime epic such as this.
1. One Punch Man
At last we come to my number one pick for best superhero show of 2015. This witty, dazzlingly drawn anime blends the satirical with the genuine in an adaption of the hit web comic that follows Saitama, the unbeatable “superhero for fun” in search of a fight worthy of his seemingly limitless power. Gradually easing it’s main character into a larger world of superheroes, One Punch Man explores a wildly creative rogues gallery of monsters, ninjas, gangs and Alien warlords. Fun, magnetic characters, great action and thoughtful explorations of what makes for true heroics (super or othewise) make One Punch Man the superhero show (or show in general) to watch from the past year.
And that’s my list, hope you enjoyed my thoughts on these shows. If you haven’t seen any of them, by all means, don’t just take my word for it, seek them out and watch them. Every show on this list is worth a watch at least.
It’s that special time of year where those with too much time on their hands like to reflect the film’s of the past of year. The standard for such reflections usually manifests in the form or top tens lists, but I often struggle in whittling down the list. I see so many movies that I enjoy. So at the risk of invalidating the list with too many movies, I’ve decided to do a top fifteen. Four honorable mentions, followed by what I saw as the cream of the crop, at least in terms of movies I’ve actually seen. Unfortunately there are movies I’d love to have gotten the chance to see and probably would have been on here, but couldn’t (Creed and Spotlight come to mind, and The Revenent and Hateful 8 haven’t come out at the time that I’m writing this. So without further ado, here is my top fifteen movies of the year:
15. Jurassic World.
While rife with clichés and some rather questionable gender roles, Colin Trevorrow’s first foray into blockbuster filmmaking is a tremendous spectacle of good old fashion monster movie fun. While hampered from touching the quality of the original (hampered by its characters and writing), this sequel/ quasi reboot eclipses the previous two entries in the Jurassic Park franchise, reinvigorating the brand with dynamic action sequences, a fun, intimidating main monster (in the form of the Indominus Rex) and delivering an epic fist pump of a climax. The best sequel in a franchise of lame sequels, Jurassic World reminds us that when you can’t be smart, at least be fun. Dinosaurs help a lot as well. Always add more dinosaurs.
14. Ant Man.
Another check in the column reading “derivative, but well done,” Ant Man surprised audiences with just how completely far from awful it turned out being. In fact, it turned out pretty damn great. The character is not well-known by any stretch, and if he it’s due to being the punching bag of jokes. He is essentially Marvel’s Aquaman. Couple that with the bad taste of behind the scenes drama and directors and actors leaving the project, well, most people just didn’t have high hopes for this movie. But that doesn’t stop three creative forces known primarily for comedy (director Peyton Reed, writer Adam McKay with a story by Edgar Wright, and lead Actor Paul Rudd as the titular hero) from turning in a slick, well written heist film with some of Marvel studios most creative and engaging action sequences to date (and one of their strongest origin stories).
13. Avengers: Age of Ultron
This was complicated beast of a movie. It’s both better than it’s predecessor (the record breaking colossus that was “Marvel’s The Avengers) while simultaneously failing to live up to it. Personally, I think the story being told here is a lot more interesting than in the first one. The characters are expanded and developed into more interesting directions and the broaches some really interesting ideas. The whole conflict of the film is predicated on the idea the a superhero team taking justice into their own hands is actually damaging to the world and causing backlash among the the public in certain areas. The villain is a mentally unstable Artificial Intelligence called Ultron (created by Avengers Tony Stark/ Iron Man and Bruce Banner/ The Hulk for purpose of fighting crime and defending the earth in their stead) who shares in this notion that the Avengers must be stopped…but then eventually comes to the notion that all of humanity needs to be wiped out as well. And therein lies the film’s problems. It has so many great ideas for a sequel that COULD have surpassed the original in every way, but focuses too much on action scenes and setting up future sequels and too little on filling in the gaps in the narratives logic. At the end of the day it’s fun action film with good characters and an interesting story. Unfortunately it’s eclipses by the shadow of a much better movie that could have been made.
12. Black Mass.
This movie was exactly the adrenaline shot to the chest that Johnny Depp’s career needed. Depp delivers his best performance in years (and one of his best performances in general). The film itself offers an intense look into the Boston crime scene in the 70’s and 80’s, following the real life corruption within the local FBI as they let deranged Mob Boss Whitey Bulger run amok for decades. As a mob film it’s fairly standard, good cast, great soundtrack, moody atmosphere. But what truly elevates the film is Depp, who portrays a sadistic demon on a man with unrelenting malice, but also scenes of warmth (Whitey Bulger did have a family). Every scene with this man is terrifying, making it one of the best performances of the year as far as I’m concerned. But Eddie Redmayne is playing a transgendered person, so I guess there goes THAT Oscar.
11. Kung Fury.
If you have any love for the first ridiculousness that is 80’s pop culture, you will love Kung Fury. A super Kung fu cop travels through time and space with his triceratops partner, Vikings and a gun toting T Rex to fight the malevolent Time jumping Hitler. Special appearance by Odin, the All-father and a malfunctioning arcade game robot. This short film is a masterpiece of nostalgic 80’s LA excess and pulp Kung fu noir. It’s on Netflix. Do yourself a favor and watch it.
10. The Visit.
The Shyamalan twist of the decade…the horror movie about killer grandparents actually wound pretty great. Shyamalan seems to have remembered what made him a master of tension back in the 90’s, because this is without a doubt Shyamalan’s best film in a decade. He’s crafted a surpassingly chilling thriller that actually utilizes the found footage format better than 90% of the Handheld horror schlock saturating the box office these past few years. Aside from the great performances by its cast, the linchpin of this films success is its sense of self-awareness. This film, while scary, also has a hilarious sense of humor about itself. It realizes that it’s a silly concept, and isn’t afraid to crack jokes and let its characters laugh between the scares.
9. Crimson Peak.
While Guillermo Del Toro has yet to recapture the greatness he achieved with Pans Labyrinth, his English language films still have a good track record of being fun, stylish and brimming with creativity. Crimson Peak is no different. What I found especially clever about this movie was the little meta-fictional touches. While a horror movie, it is not ghost story. It is, as the film’s aspiring writer of a protagonist often says about her own work, NOT a ghost a story, but a story with ghosts in it. As is often the case with Del Toro’s work, the monsters at play are not in fact monsters, but products of a more insidious entity, the darkness that humanity is capable of spreading. Couple that with gorgeous cinematography, infectiously creepy atmosphere and great performance by Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, and Crimson Peak is a tremendously enjoyable gothic thrill ride.
8. It Follows.
What can I say, it was a fun year if you enjoy horror movies. While there was still plenty of dregs to wade through, there was a noticeable abundance of good, memorable movies to watch in the dark, and the one that most emphatically screamed “instant classic” was It Follows. A sleazy, dirty throwback to 80’s slasher movies (complete with thumping synth score) combined with a rather clever allegory for STD’s and teenaged promiscuity, this thriller features an instantly likable cast, slow moody tension and a brilliantly barebones simplistic, almost elemental concept for a movie monster. With the help of Kubrickian slow moving long takes and pan-and-scans, this movie carries a constant air of dread throughout its runtime that will haunt you even after the credits roll and you’re on your way out the door.
I won’t lie, I was not looking forward to Paddington when it came out. The trailers had too much of that Beethoven/ air bud/ Garfield vibe where it’s an animal doing embarrassing things much to the chagrin of some stuffed shirt who doesn’t like animals because random shenanigans=comedy gold for some reason. In a way, that is what this movie was. A bear gets into some shenanigans with a family in London and lessons about love and togetherness are learned by all. But the film is made with such passion, creativity and warmth that all of that becomes not just likable, but lovable. And the humor is so dry and unabashedly British that you can’t help but be charmed by it. The characters are all funny and likable in their own ways, the sets and art direction are colorful, detailed and rich and the camera work is just stunning. I was taken completely aback by how moving, charming and inventive a movie about a homeless talking bear wound up being.
6. The Martian.
The Martian is a very safe choice for Oscar season. The special effects aren’t groundbreaking but they’re still relatively flawless. Matt Damon carries his time alone on screen with charm and gravitas, but is also enhanced by a great supporting cast observing him from earth. The wide, lingering vistas of Mars are gorgeous to see in 3D. What makes the movie work so well is that, despite the dramatic weight of the circumstances, the movie has a marvelous sense of humor (and a fantastic 70’s soundtrack), but it still gets serious enough that you feel stakes when it needs to. All in all The Martian is a movie that you will undoubtedly feel great after having watched it. It also has the benefit of being a comeback of sorts for director Ridley Scott, who hasn’t made a crowd-pleasing film in a little over a decade.
And here we come full circle. The fourth and final (I promise) horror movie of the list, and my favorite horror movie of the year. Is it a better made film than any of the others? Who’s to say, It Follows is probably better, objectively speaking. But what the hell, it’s my list, and I loved the fuck out of this. Evil Santa demon, evil elves, demonic toys, killer gingerbread men, and likable cast in on the inherent joke of an evil Santa movie. The film is brimming with thrills, scares, and laughs with some of the most creative (and practical) monster design work I’ve seen in years. Krampus will become an annual holiday watch for me, among such classics as Gremlins, Die Hard and Batman Returns.
4. Kingsmen: The Secret Service.
Who would have thought that during a year with 2 marvel films, the best comic book films would an adaption of Mark Millar’s parody of/ love letter to the spy genre? Kingsmen: The Secret Service is kinetic, colorful, fun and dangerous with a brilliant cast and the second best action scene of the year (for first time viewers: when they get to a church, brace yourselves). This film does for Spy-fi what Kick-Ass did to superhero films and exceeds in ways I didn’t know were possible, making it one of the most fun theater-going experiences of the year. Put down whatever device you’re reading this on and go see Kingsmen…but then come back and keep reading, I like the views.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road.
And now for the first greatest action scene of the year…Mad Max: Fury Road. The entire film is a car chase, which I’ve seen people try to use as some kind of edgy, contrarian criticism of the movie that’s been hailed by many as the best of year. My rebuttal: so the fuck what? It has fun characters, good acting, the visuals and art directions are fantastic, and enough creativity and weirdness that puts David Lynch’s Dune to shame. You want deep character development? Read the between the lines, it’s there. There’s a very prevalent feminist/ anti-patriarchy message throughout the film (hell, even those idiotic men’s rights activists were able to pick up on that). To me, this movie had a little bit of everything for everyone. The film itself is an adventure to embark on, so by all means. Do yourself a favor and heed that call to action.
2. Ex Machina.
Until very recently, this was my number one film of the year. Ex Machina is a creepy, cerebral techno thriller with fantastic lead performances by Domhnal Gleeson, Oscar Issac and Alicia Vikander. The setting a claustrophobic, Kubrickian maze of sterile underground hallways with stark, monochromatic coloring and a tense, pulsating score. It’s the kind of film where it would be a massive disservice to any viewer to spoil any of its twists and turns, so I’ll leave this. Review right where it is.
1. Star Wars: The Force Awakes.
What can I say. It’s Star Wars. And the first good one in decades, at that. It’s emotional, it’s exhilarating, it celebrates the franchise that precedes it while introducing a superb, vibrant new cast for a new generation. Sky-flying adventure, space age mysticism, and fun, memorable characters make Star Wars: The Force Awakens the movie to beat this year, stating to quarreling franchises like a Marvel, DC and Star Trek in the most emphatic of tones: step aside kids, the king is back.
And that’s my top films of 2015. It’s been a great year, here to the next one!
Allow me to get the buzzwords out of the way. Thrilling. Engrossing. Mesmerizing. Unnerving. Any number of these words and words like these can be used to describe Jake Gyllenhaal’s newly released thriller, nightcrawler. In a chilling but darkly comical Frankenstein’s monster of network, American psycho and Drive, it follows Gyllenhaal in what I can only describe as the male performance to beat this year. In it Gyllenhaal is accompanied by a small but well put together ensemble of Renée Russo Bill Paxton and Riz Ahmed.
Mr. Gyllenhaal plays Louis bloom, and odd but resourceful thief who stumbles upon the world of freelance crime journalism in Los Angeles. Well it is never stated, he appears to be playing the character of louis bloom is someone on the autism spectrum and, evidenced by his characters detachment from anything resembling a moral barometer (which at first makes him seem like a sociopath) as well as a number of physical idiosyncrasies and and mannerisms. Like Ryan Gosling’s character of the driver, we are given no background information on his character. Any information he does give can only be taken with a grain of salt, As Louis Bloom is a master of words, slyly, and often to terrifying affect, talking his way into what he wants not with charisma or likability but with cold statistics and ruthlessness while still demonstrating a broad range of emotions (though nothing resembling remorse or mercy).
The cinematography, which takes place primarily at night, is subtle but effective, building tension almost effortlessly. The film is surprisingly not gratuitous with the violent subject matter it entails. Rather than focusing on the brutality of the crimes documented by Louis bloom, the camera instead lingers on bloom himself, separated from the grizzly scenes before him by his camera. It also accentuates the connectivity modern Los Angeles, frequently focusing on Broadcast towers, satellite dishes on people’s homes, and cables. The film also offers a biting indictment on the manipulative nature of the news media as well as the inherent racial profiling that it facilitates.
It continues to be a fantastic year for film, not only within the sphere of action blockbusters, but in your regular suspense thrillers and dramas. I would normally call these kinds of films Oscar bait, But between Nightcrawler, Gone Girl and earlier films like Filth, Grand Budapest Hotel and Chef, for once I think I have an idea about how the Oscars will be going this year, and I couldn’t be more excited.
I won’t lie, I was not impressed with the trailers for the Guillermo Del Toro-produced animated film, Book of Life. Despite the creative and vibrant animation, the modern references and celebrity casting of Channing Tatum and Ice Cube seemed painfully forced and pandering to the lowest common denominator. I kept getting flashbacks to Shark Tale and the Ice Age sequels. I cannot recall the last time I was so undeniably mistaken about a film, because Book of Life was fantastic. As one could already tell from the trailers, the animation throughout the film is astonishingly inventive and beautiful. Reflecting the narrative framing of a story being told to children, the main characters are designed like ornate marionettes with outlandishly exaggerated features. The set’s are detailed, colorful and effortlessly craft the illusion of depth. Whether in design, color or motion not a single frame of this film is without bountiful energy and personality.
The voice cast, which also includes Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Christina Applegate, and Ron Pearlman all imbue their characters with charm and personality. The Characters are all likable and three dimensional (even the default “villain” of the film, the Ron Pearlman-voiced Mayan god Xibalba, isn’t portrayed as evil but rather desperate, bored and mischievous). Numerous cliched character and thematic tropes are proudly displayed and reinvigorated with gusto and charm: the sensitive romantic, the meat-headed warrior, the feisty princess ect. But they all have personalities and motivations that delve beyond their archetype thanks to clever writing and heartfelt vocal performances by their actors (even Channing Tatum, who continues to redeem himself for years of pretending to be a bad actor).
The story is simple but classic. Two gods/ lovers, La Muerte (Kate Del Castillo) and Xibalba make a wager regarding the outcome of a love triangle between three child friends: a musician from a family of bull fighters named Manolo, his friend Joaquín, the orphaned son of famed warrior, and the princess of their town, María (Zoe Saldana). Drenched in Central American mythology and folklore, the film tackles one particular theme with such maturity, tenderness and pointedness that is unfortunately lost in a lot of children’s films: death. That’s not to say people don’t die in other Children’s films, but here death and not treated as this world stopping catastrophe, nor is it glanced over or ignored. It is looked at for what it is, a part of life. That is why this film’s version of the underworld is called the land of the remembered: it is in remembrance that our loved ones stay with us, and I could not be happier to see a film targeted at children addressing such a powerful concept.
While not without ample dramatic weight and suspense, the film is first and foremost a comedy with a frenetic rhythm of clever jokes hitting the audience at a mile a minute. Ranging from slapstick to pop cultural reference, some jokes don’t work (mostly the ones from the trailer, at least for me) but even the ones that aren’t on point are still bearable because of how charming and sincere the film is. Due to the speed at which the jokes are displayed I foresee this being one of those films you need to see a few times to catch them, and you’ll not poorer for it. This is definitely a film I intend to watch again.
Last night saw the debut of the latest superhero television series to hit the CW, the flash. Based on the long-standing DC comics character, this marks the second live-action outing for the character in over 20 years (The first one being the the 1990 television series starring John Wesley Shipp). If the pilot is any indication, The flash could very well be on his way to claiming his spot alongside Batman and Superman in the pop-cultural lexicon (and wonder woman, come 2016).
Grant Gustin delivers a tremendously likable and relatable performance as Barry Alan, the awkward but affable forensic scientist who after receiving Superspeed from a freak lightning strike (incurred by a particle Excelerator explosion) begins moonlighting as the flash: The fastest man alive. Gustin’s performance here is very evocative of Andrew Garfield in the latest string of Spiderman movies (The shy, lanky but quickwitted Everyman/ nerd wish fulfillment archetype). The supporting cast does a serviceable job. Candace Patton plays obligatory love interest/childhood best friend Iris West (One episode in and there’s already a love triangle in motion, I don’t know why studios think people like this got old 10 years ago). While suitably convincing in the role of ” concerned female friend” her character has yet to make much of an impression, however it is only the pilot episode leaving room for improvement. Jesse L. Martin plays her father, police captain and Surrogate father to Barry Allen, Who brings both charm and wisdom to the role of mentor to Barry Allen.
Tom Cavanaugh, Danielle Pennebaker and Carlos Valdes Play the group of scientists from star labs who help The flash in his quest to better understand his abilities, fight the oncoming storm of meta humans like himself and clear his father’s name of the murder of his mother. Cavanagh brings a surprising bitterness to the role that suits the character (or just what the character presents himself as, and end of episode stinger implies a much larger secret behind him). Danielle Pennebaker comes off a little stiff but her character is very coarse as a result of her grieving a deceased husband,so I imagine she’ll be feeling more comfortable in the character as the series progresses. Valdes’s character could potentially prove to be quite annoying, being the nerdy goofball who makes bad jokes (he’s a nerd so he wears a Bazinga T-shirt, get it?) finally there is the antagonist of the episode, known in the comics as weather Wizard, A bank robber who receives Weather controlling abilities during the particle Excelerator explosion, and promptly develops a God complex. He is played by Chad Rook with ample sleaze and smirk, giving sufficient personality to a one off character (Spoiler alert: He is shot dead at the end). In a fun bit of casting, previous Helmer of the Of the Flash moniker, John Wesley Shipp plays Barry Allen’s jailed father, in an almost passing of the torch fashion.
The plot runs at a brisk pace, which I suppose fits the nature of the character. It’s very simple and straightforward: we are introduced to Barry Allen, he gets powers, bad guy emerges, he stops bad guy, accepts his role as superhero. However the show has ample heart to it with a likable lead and some impressive special effects for television budget. All in all the pilot is fun, if a little familiar (but not so devoid of personality that it appears tired or derivative). For example, there is a creative externalization of Barry Allan’s intellect during his investigations of crime scenes that are very evocative of the BBC show Sherlock and films like stranger than fiction that I hope to see more of as the series goes on. In retrospect that seems to be the defining characteristic of the pilot, some good ideas with room for improvement: let’s hope they keep the momentum going.
So “Transcendence”… happened. I don’t regret having seen it, if only for the joy of seeing it in an empty theater with some friends and co-workers, thus being granted the freedom of unmitigated riffing. To put it sweetly, it’s not very good at all. The techno-thriller attempts to shed light on some rather tired themes (most emphatically the dangers of technological advancement) with yet another modernized variation of the Frankenstein allegory. Award winning Cinematographer Wally Pfister, famous for having worked with Christopher Nolan on The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception, makes his debut as a director. If Transcendence is any indication, then despite his proficiency with framing/lighting/ tracking ect, he has a lot to learn about the mechanics of translating a cohesive story to the screen and drawing compelling performances out of actors.
Johnny Depp plays Jeff Goldblum from Independence Day (you’ll know it when you see it) and quite literally phones it in (he spends about 75% of the movie on a computer screen). For his little time on camera as a physical entity Depp plays the trite “quirky scientist who doesn’t want to work for the man.” Rebecca Hall does her best as the distraught wife and Frankenstein archetype for the story (after her husband’s death she upload his consciousness to a computer kick-starting the dull, flaccid proceedings). Paul Bettany tries his darnedest to put in a good performance (despite disappearing for long stretches of time, held captive by and eventually joining Kate Mara and her Luddite terrorist cell). Cillian Murphy shows up for about five collective minutes as an FBI agent investigating whatever the plot demands he be investigating at the moment, and does an adequate job given the material. I’m still unsure as to why Morgan Freeman was in this movie. He kind of just hangs out with Cillian Murphey while things get investigated and exposits whatever vague messages this movie was trying to convey.
The main problems with this movie stem from the script and the inexperienced directors inability to transcend (oh yeah, that happened) the shortcomings of said script. The story plods along with weak, poorly defined characters. The science fiction elements are not contextualized by anything in the story, making the more fantastical things that happen here feel really out of place. For example, the cause of Johnny Depp’s death: after delivering a speech at a convention about artificial intelligence, an assassination attempt is made on him by the aforementioned Luddite group. They shoot him with a radioactive bullet that puts him in the hospital and gives him cancer, killing him in the span of a month. This creative decision just baffles me. He needs to die for the story to advance, audiences will understand this….but a cancer bullet? You couldn’t just have him get shot and die? Or get poisoned? Or just simply die of cancer and forgo the silly Luddite thing? And this is about fifteen-twenty minutes into the movie…well at least they prepare us for what’s to come ahead of time.
The movie is peppered with unintentionally silly little touches like this, despite it’s heart attack-serious tone. My god, does his film take itself seriously. The air of self-importance is stifling from the first few minutes, even though the oh-so-deep themes being explored really aren’t anything new. Couple this with characters who range from cliche to two-dimensional to downright unlikable and this movie, under ordinary viewing circumstances, could be quite a chore to stomach for it’s two hour run time. But at least I had a blast, despite the film’s best efforts.
After the smash return to the big screen in 2011, the muppets continue their reintroduction to pop culture with a sequel entitled “Muppets: Most Wanted.” The previous film asked the question of whether or not a franchise like The Muppets could still be relevant in today’s pop cultural lexicon, and was answered with a resounding yes. But can they maintain that relevance?
In keeping with the franchises trademark forth-wall breaking humor, the film follows the muppets directly after they finish filming their previous movie. Seeking to capitalize on their newly reacquired fame, the muppets, at the manipulation of their dubious new manager played by Ricky Gervais, embark on a tour across Europe to generate brand awareness. Little do they know that Gervais’ character, Dominic Badguy (pronounced badge-ee, apparently French) is working for escaped criminal Constantine, the world’s most dangerous frog and doppelgänger (with the deception of a birthmark) to Muppet frontman Kermit the Frog. His plan: to switch places with Kermit, (landing the innocent frog in Siberian gulag under warden Tina Fey) so Constantine and Dominic can use get Muppet’s tour as a front for series of heists. Hot on their tail is the classic muppet Sam the Eagle as CIA agent accompanied by an Inspector Clouseau Pastiche played by Ty Burrell.
As a whole the film is tremendously enjoyable. The songs are all fantastic (even better than those of the previous, I felt). While there are certainly a few that just take up time rather than advancing anything, they’re all well crafted and delivered with both hilarity and grace (and remarkably complex instrumentation). Since it’s a muppet movie there are numerous little celebrity cameos, some so subtle I had to be told about them after getting out the theater (so keep your eyes open). Ricky Gervais and Ty Burrell are really fun as the main human characters, especially Burrell with his hammy French accent and buddy cop interactions with Sam the Eagle (there are also a few funny jabs at general European customs like taking month long holidays and driving annoyingly tiny cars). What is refreshing about the movie is that while the human characters are enjoyable, the true stars of they to film are unquestionably the Muppets, particularly Kermit. The film’s villain Constantine, also gets a fair amount of screen time and he is a blast to watch.
However, I will say that movie does fail to capture the charm and sense of joy of it’s predecessor. This could be due to difference in emphasis: the last movie’s central theme being nostalgia for long-forgotten franchise as oppose to the more straightforward narrative of a farcical crime caper on display here. Be that as it may, there is noticeable lack of heart here, at least compared it’s predecessor. As such the story, while fun, does drag in parts and fizzles out a bit by the time the climax rolls around. With that said, the fun characters, great comedy and fantastic musical sequences make it a well-above average family film, and I definitely look forward to seeing it again.
From Shoulin Soccer to Kung Fu Hustle, Chinese film maker Steven Chow has carved a niche for himself as maker of quirky action comedies. While he may not be a household name stateside, I’ve definitely noticed his body of work and enjoyed it immensely. So when I found out that he was directing an adaptation of age old Chinese epic “Journey to the West,” a story that has fascinated me for a few years now, my excitement exceeded measurement. Today I was finally able to sit down and watch the movie, and it did not disappoint. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, despite deviating pretty heavily from the source material is various areas, is a blast to watch.
The entirety of the film, from the acting to set design, music and action, just pulsates with energy and imagination. The action is both thrilling and hilarious, and surprisingly sad at certain parts, providing a tremendous amount of heart to complement Steven Chow’s manic comedic sensibilities. The story follows a naive but well meaning Monk in quest to protect the innocent from demons and cure those demons of their evil, rather than simply destroying them. Throughout his travels he comes across various monstrous demons and other demon hunters. Eventually he seeks out the infamous Sun Wukong, aka The Monkey King (who has spent 500 years imprisoned under neath a mountain by Buddha for his crimes against the heavens) for guidance in defeating a powerful demon. But he soon discovers that the mischievous Sun Wukong is an artist of deception and will say anything to be released from his prison.
Wen Zhang is tremendously likable as the lead, the kind-hearted Buddhist monk and hunter of demons Tang Sunang (later in the story known as Trikipitaka, his holy name when he achieves enlightenment). Shu Qi is captivating and hilarious as his love interest, fellow demon hunter Miss Duan. Despite her character being made up for the movie (obviously for the purpose of providing a romantic subplot), the relationship dynamic is refreshing in that her love for Sunang (born from an admiration for his kind-hearted approach to fighting demons) is unrequited due to Sunang’s devotion to the Buddhist lifestyle (which he has interpreted as one of abstinence). Huang Bo plays the devious Monkey King with an electric physicality, charm and barely hidden menace befitting of the classic folk character.
The film is not without it’s faults: some of the comedic gags go on a bit longer than they should, which left me a bit cold to them. There is also a significant dip in production value in middle section of the film. During Sunang’s journey to the Monkey King’s mountain prison it becomes clear that the film’s budget was stretched to it’s thinnest, relying heavily on obvious green screen effects rather than the colorful sets from the first forty minutes or so. Luckily the production value regains a more grand scope when the climax comes around, resulting in a dazzling battle between the Monkey King, three demon hunters and a giant, cosmic Buddha. While it may not be particularly inventive on a narrative level, Journey to the West: Conquering here Demons is a hilarious, visually inventive martial arts epic and beautiful portrait of Chinese Buddhist Culture. I look forward to watching it again as well anything Steven Chow has to offer in future outings.