All posts by Brent Leuthold

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice *½|****

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Two titans of the superhero genre square off for the first time on the big screen in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a needlessly dour and overwhelmingly senseless affair that hopelessly squanders an intriguing premise. Director Zack Synder’s follow-up to Man of Steel is one of the most distracted and disjointed action films I’ve ever seen: a result of way too many ideas being thrown around carelessly with no guiding vision. Even the incoherent plotting and the muddled character motivations could have been overlooked if this movie was any fun but it even manages to forget how to have a good time at all.

We pick up two years after the events of Man of Steel, where a devastating battle at the heart of Metropolis has led to intensified scrutiny surrounding Superman (Henry Cavill) from numerous parties. Most notable among his newfound objectors is neighboring city Gotham’s Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who views him as a lawless alien and an imminent threat to the safety of the entire planet. After being coaxed by Metropolis business magnate Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), Wayne seeks an opportunity to face off against Superman as Batman and save their collective cities from any further destruction.

I’ve intentionally left out the innumerable contrivances that lead to these two figures being pitted against each other but it’s important to reiterate just how overstuffed and out of control this narration is. Characters are introduced and re-introduced at such a breakneck pace that plausible development and motivations don’t have a chance to manifest themselves organically from the story. If you don’t already have at least a passing familiarity with most of these comic book characters, I can’t imagine how confusing this movie will be for you. Each scene vacillates so wildly from one narrative thread to another without the slightest sense of tactful cohesion or thoughtful storytelling. There’s just no time for anything meaningful in Batman v Superman.

Beyond the whirlwind of narrative disconnect, just about any shred of spectacle or wonder is undermined by the oppressively brooding nature of the film’s look and feel. Zack Snyder collaborates with his go-to cinematographer Larry Fong to create a vision of Gotham and Metropolis so glum, it makes Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy look positively buoyant by comparison. I don’t have a problem with dark storytelling in comic book adaptions (recent Netflix series Jessica Jones did an excellent job of this) but it’s not enough to just be “gritty”: there has to be an underlying intelligence that informs the stylistic choices.

I sat through Batman v Superman thinking “why does something like The Avengers work so much better than this?” It turns out that there are plenty of answers to that question but most importantly, Marvel has done an excellent job in taking their time to flesh out their characters before bringing them all together. Clearly this is DC’s attempt at creating their own version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but they spend so much time trying to bring these superheroes together that they forgot to create a standalone movie that’s worthwhile on its own merit. It seems comic book fans will need to wait a bit longer for a film that does their legacy justice.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ***|****

Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Based on the memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot stars Tina Fey as Kim Baker, an American journalist who becomes unsatisfied with her tedious desk job and spontaneously decides to take assignment as a war correspondent in the Middle East. She begins in Kabul, where she is eagerly welcomed by fellow female reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and not-so-subtly wooed by Scottish photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman). When the initial two-week time frame of her assignment passes, Baker finds that she’s actually grown accustomed to potentially perilous nature of her new job and stays in hopes of chasing down a career-defining story.

The primary aim of the screenplay, written by previous Fey collaborator Robert Carlock, is to intersperse bits of pair’s formidable brand of 30 Rock-style sitcom wit within the confines of a traditional war movie setting. There are countless ways that this strategy could have gone awry, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only has Carlock maintained a high level of humor with numerous laugh-out-loud moments in the script but he also tells Baker’s story with the kind of intelligence and humanity that it deserves. The sharp-tongued dialogue also has a streak of affable self-deprecation to it, as when Baker explains why she left the States for Afghanistan and another reporter replies, “That’s the most American white lady story I’ve ever heard.”

Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who also collaborated on recent films Focus and Crazy, Stupid, Love, bite off a bit more than they can chew thematically but they do a great job of establishing a playfully irreverent tone without seeming distasteful or flippant towards the subject material. They also wisely steer away from cheap scapegoating or political posturing, instead favoring a more genuine and refined approach to their storytelling. There are also some inspired music choices that liven up some crucial scenes, the most memorable involving a covert, Marine-led hostage rescue set to Harry Nilsson’s “Without You”.

It’s no secret that Tina Fey has had mixed results when trying to translate her comedic success from television to the big screen, which is why it’s so encouraging to watch her hit this role out of the park. By both dramatic and comedic standards, this is far and away her most satisfying film performance to date. She’s such a perfect fit for this character, it’s not hard to imagine that the film wouldn’t have been made without her involvement. Perhaps her work here will be enough to convince other directors to reconsider her dramatic range as an actress and lead to more challenging roles in the future.

The rest of the actors, including FX’s Fargo favorites Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, are just as well cast and lend an added layer of authenticity to the story in both large and small roles. A notable standout alongside Fey is Christopher Abbott as Baker’s Afghani handler, who gives a performance filled with quiet humility and an unstated empathy that I found to be magnetic in each scene that he appeared. So many smart choices were made for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and it’s quite rewarding to see a studio film, especially a comedy, that doesn’t feel the need to dumb itself down.

10 Cloverfield Lane **|****

John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane
John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane

When a teaser trailer was first released two months ago for a new JJ Abrams production, it was difficult to believe that such a promising movie could have been kept so thoroughly under the radar. Pitched as a “blood relative” and “spiritual successor” of the 2008 found footage monster movie Cloverfield, it was intentionally left unclear what this new film’s connection was to its “predecessor”. Now that 10 Cloverfield Lane has finally arrived, the relationship between the two still eludes me but what I can say with confidence is that I was ultimately let down by this entry in an apparently burgeoning franchise.

After surviving a severe car accident when driving through rural Louisiana, the newly engaged Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up chained to a pipe with a man named Howard (John Goodman) claiming to have saved her from the wreck. They, along with another man named Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), are in a doomsday bunker that Howard spent years building and his efforts seem to have paid off, as he also claims that a widespread attack has decimated the entire population of the world above. Fearing Howard’s questionable motives and deteriorating mental state, Michelle and Emmett plot to escape the bunker and discover the truth for themselves.

With any kind of mysterious setup for a psychological thriller like this, the payoff not only has to match the quality of the preceding story but it should ideally exceed it. To say that 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t stick the landing would be a vast understatement, as it veers wildly in a direction that feels incredibly tacked on and frankly betrays the mostly well-earned tension of its narrative. Rarely is a producer’s influence so obvious on a film but it’s not difficult to spot the exact moment when Abrams forcefully grabs the reins from first-time director Dan Trachtenberg and gleefully sneers “I’ll take it from here.”

Though I can’t say that I was fully on board with the film before that point anyway, at least there was reason to believe that things were headed in the right direction. The foundation of solid acting, particularly by Winstead and Goodman, and the slow-burning character moments build nicely on the initial disorientation of the situation that the main character finds herself in. The film’s most effective scene, likely to inspire bouts of nervous laughter throughout the theater, revolves around the surprising prompts in a quietly revealing game of Taboo that rides a perfect median between frightening and funny.

As a whole, though, the movie just didn’t work for me but I do sincerely hope that it finds an audience and that it’s rewarded handsomely at the box office. With a “modest” $15 million budget and a killer ad campaign behind it, this could prove to be an overwhelming surprise hit like Deadpool was last month. It’s important for Hollywood to learn that pays to invest wisely in smaller scale features rather than to throw $200 million at tent-pole movies that seem destined to under-perform. Even if the experiment of 10 Cloverfield Lane came up short in the end, I hope its production principles go on to inspire other like-minded projects in the future.

Zootopia ***|****

Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman in Zootopia
Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman in Zootopia

Walt Disney Animation Studios builds on the overwhelming success of recent hits Frozen and Big Hero 6 with their latest effort Zootopia, which largely takes place in the titular city inhabited by anthropomorphic animals who have learned to peacefully co-exist with one another. When new rabbit resident Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) joins the city’s police force, she crosses paths with cunning con artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) and the two team up on a desperate search for a missing otter. As it turns out, the initial case runs deeper than they both realize and they slowly uncover a conspiracy to divide their seemingly tranquil society.

The most immersive animated films are those that seek to create an entirely original world for their characters to inhabit and this is no exception. The implicit challenge here lies in how these mammals of varying shapes and sizes could plausibly interact with one another despite their differing circumstances. Clever solutions, from the partitioning of different living sectors based on their corresponding climates to appropriately sized pneumatic tubes designed for transportation of smaller creatures, crop up throughout the movie and remind us that the creators put loads of thought into how to make this world work logistically.

By this token, a great deal of attention is paid not only to how the varying species physically co-exist but how they view one another from a cultural perspective as well. After all, this is a world where the traditional food chain has been narrowly circumvented but that doesn’t mean they’re still free from the kinds of nuanced divisions inherent in every civilized society. The prejudices and microaggressions (Judy rebukes Nick at one point for calling her cute, as only bunnies can call other bunnies cute) that pop up between the prey and predator factions are incisive bits of humor that cut deeper than the typical slapstick fare that pervades the animated genre.

With these topics in mind along with sprinkles of overt allusions to other high-minded entertainments like The Godfather and Breaking Bad, this is a film that is clearly aiming for an adult audience but even if taken at face value, Zootopia is plenty entertaining for all ages. The action scenes have a vibrancy and brisk pace to them, while the animation is consistently breathtaking and full of rich detail. Despite having likely recorded their vocal parts completely independent of one another, Goodwin and Bateman still manage to form a palpable chemistry among their witty banter.

The film’s story, which is a great throwback to film-noir inspired mystery, is surprisingly involving for the first hour, until it gives way to predictable contrivances that split characters up just in time for the third act. For as smart as it is for most of the running time, Zootopia does dumb itself down more than it should have and more than it really needed to towards its ending. Still, this is a consistently enjoyable movie with plenty of laughs for kids and enough social commentary to keep their parents engaged too.

Gods of Egypt *|****

Gerard Butler in Gods Of Egypt
Gerard Butler in Gods of Egypt

It’s hard to know where to begin with Gods of Egypt. I suppose it’s best to first ponder how a film this profoundly incompetent and mercilessly dull could ever merit a wide theatrical release in the first place. How a colossal failure like this could even get greenlit is beyond me. To watch this movie is to witness a production collapse at every conceivable level but Gods of Egypt is unique in one sense: it powers valiantly though its ridiculous story under the pretense of entertainment when most other bad movies would have the good sense to just throw in the towel early.

Set in a world that only vaguely resembles ancient Egypt, the plot begins with the coronation of the god Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as the new leader of the land. After the ceremony is broken up by Horus’ bitterly jealous brother Set (Gerard Butler), a fight scene ensues that makes a battle from a video game like Tekken look credible by comparison and Horus is left eyeless and forced into exile. With the help of his grandfather Ra (Geoffrey Rush) and the mortal underdog Bek (Brenton Thwaites), Horus seeks vengeance on his warmongering brother and hopes to restore peace and order to the land that he was meant to rule.

If I had to pin the movie’s problems down to one point, it would be this: not one element of it feels remotely authentic or believable. Not only do the computer generated effects consistently look stilted and out-dated but they pervade every inch of every frame and call attention to themselves in a relentlessly unpleasant fashion. Everything feels about as far divorced from the live action format as you could possible get, which leads me to wonder why the producers didn’t just commit to creating an entirely animated film at the outset instead of clumsily inserting its stars in front of endless green screens.

The actors hardly add any degree of plausibility in their performances anyway. The cacophony of irrelevant and distracting accents makes for a shaky foundation to begin with but the more troubling aspect is how little it feels like any of the performers are striving for anything resembling honest human behavior. There’s a noticeable lack of chemistry between the actors and they all seem to be embarrassingly out of sync with one another. No one is spared from a sub-par performance here but the most egregious among them is Gerard Butler, who I have all but given up on entirely at this point.

Director (“victim” may be more fitting) Alex Proyas hit creative gold in the 1990s with inventive tales like The Crow and Dark City but he’s clearly lost his way since then and maybe this will be enough to steer him away from big budget fare in the future. Perhaps another director could have brought out the campy elements of this silly premise to push it into “so bad it’s good” territory but Proyas’ leaden sense of self-seriousness weighs things down indefinitely. It’s enough to say that Gods of Egypt is epically inept and one of the most truly bewildering experiences I’ve had in a movie theater.

Notes on the 2016 Oscars

Oscars 2016

Best Picture

This year, the Academy has again put forth a confusingly arbitrary number of 8 nominations for Best Picture (doesn’t 10 make more sense?) and we seem to have a three-way tie between The Big Short, The Revenant and Spotlight. These films seemed to divide any sense of critical consensus this awards season by each taking top honors through various channels (The Big Short took the PGA, The Revenant took the BAFTA, Spotlight took the NSFCA). Despite this split, The Revenant still looks poised to take home the top prize and though I would prefer Room to win above it, Alejandro Iñárritu’s singular survival tale remains my second favorite of the nominees and a fine selection for Best Picture.

My Prediction: The Revenant
My Vote: Room
Overlooked: Inside Out, Anomalisa

Best Director

  • Adam McKay – The Big Short
  • George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
  • Lenny Abrahamson – Room
  • Tom McCarthy – Spotlight

Iñárritu is a clear favorite for a consecutive win here after last year’s Birdman, which would make him the first director in 66 years with back-to-back wins in the category. Though I am seemingly the only human alive who didn’t care much for Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller deserves ample praise for his terrifically twisted sense of world-building and his frantically paced action sequences. My preference would still be towards Abrahamson for Room: he’s not the showiest storyteller out there but the emotional integrity that he shows to the story and his characters is worthy of recognition. And how Adam McKay was nominated over the likes of Scott and Spielberg is something that I will ponder over all night.

My Prediction: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
My Vote: Lenny Abrahamson
Overlooked: Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen (Inside Out)

Best Actor

  • Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
  • Matt Damon – The Martian
  • Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
  • Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
  • Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

It’s finally Leo’s year. Sure, it may not be the best performance of his laudable career but the Academy has a long history of handing out overdue awards and it helps that this year’s field is relatively soft compared to previous years. Much has been made of the brutal shooting conditions of The Revenant and how they affected its actors but there’s more to DiCaprio’s towering work in the film than the suffering that he and his character endured. It’s a completely believable portrait of a man fighting valiantly against the elements and it’s a comforting sign that the night’s surest bet is also such a deserving pick.

My Prediction: Leonardo DiCaprio
My Vote: Leonardo DiCaprio
Overlooked: Michael B. Jordan (Creed)

Best Actress

  • Cate Blanchett – Carol
  • Brie Larson – Room
  • Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
  • Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
  • Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn

Another lock here and for good reason: there’s no doubt in my mind that Brie Larson gave the year’s best performance in Room. As a young mother of a 5-year-old boy living under unimaginable circumstances, she gives a heartbreaking and unforgettable performance of staggering empathy and overwhelming conviction. The rest of the field is equally impressive and Charlotte Rampling would likely be my runner-up choice here for her astounding work in 45 Years as a conflicted wife in a 45-year marriage that isn’t as stable as it seems to be. Though I didn’t see Joy, it’s worth mentioning that this is Jennifer Lawrence’s third nomination in 4 years and she’s 25 years old. Just let that sink in.

My Prediction: Brie Larson
My Vote: Brie Larson
Overlooked: Emily Blunt (Sicario)

Best Supporting Actor

  • Christian Bale – The Big Short
  • Tom Hardy – The Revenant
  • Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
  • Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies
  • Sylvester Stallone – Creed

My Prediction: Sylvester Stallone
My Vote: Tom Hardy
Overlooked: Bencio Del Toro (Sicario)

Best Supporting Actress

  • Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
  • Rooney Mara – Carol
  • Rachel McAdams – Spotlight
  • Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl
  • Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

My Prediction: Alicia Vikander
My Vote: Jennifer Jason Leigh
Overlooked: Elizabeth Banks (Love & Mercy)

Both of these categories offer an element of surprise but going off of recent momentum, Stallone and Vikander seem to be the smartest selections. While I didn’t see The Danish Girl, Stallone does add a good bit of heart as his seventh portrayal of the Rocky character in Creed. My personal picks would go to Tom Hardy, who gave some solid dimension to his sneering villain character in The Revenant, and to Jennifer Jason Leigh, who had to actively suppress abject horror while watching her co-star obliterate a priceless antique guitar in The Hateful Eight.

Best Original Screenplay

  • Bridge of Spies – Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen
  • Ex Machina – Alex Garland
  • Inside Out – Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, and Ronnie del Carmen
  • Spotlight – Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
  • Straight Outta Compton – Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, and Alan Wenkus

My Prediction: Spotlight
My Vote: Inside Out
Overlooked: While We’re Young – Noah Baumbach

Best Adapted Screenplay

  • The Big Short – Adam McKay and Charles Randolph from The Big Short by Michael Lewis
  • Brooklyn – Nick Hornby from Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
  • Carol – Phyllis Nagy from The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
  • The Martian – Drew Goddard from The Martian by Andy Weir
  • Room – Emma Donoghue from Room by Emma Donoghue

My Prediction: The Big Short
My Vote: Room
Overlooked: Anomalisa – Charlie Kaufman

The screenplay categories have long been a personal favorite of mine and while the nominees are strong overall, it seems that the Academy will settle on two less-than-deserving scripts this year. Spotlight is a responsible and competent piece of screenwriting that nonetheless offers little surprise and The Big Short comes up woefully short in the way of laughs or insight in regard to its subject material. Much of what made my two favorite films of last year (Inside Out and Room) great comes down to their writing and I know that I’ll still be crossing my fingers for them tonight when the envelopes are being opened.

Best Animated Feature Film

  • Anomalisa
  • Boy & the World
  • Inside Out
  • Shaun the Sheep Movie
  • When Marnie Was There

My Prediction: Inside Out
My Vote: Inside Out
Overlooked: The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

Best Foreign Language Film

  • Embrace of the Serpent
  • Mustang
  • Son of Saul
  • Theeb
  • A War

My Prediction: Son of Saul
My Vote:
Overlooked: Goodnight Mommy

Best Documentary – Feature

  • Amy
  • Cartel Land
  • The Look of Silence
  • What Happened, Miss Simone?
  • Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

My Prediction: Amy
My Vote: The Look of Silence
Overlooked: Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Best Documentary – Short Subject

  • Body Team 12
  • Chau, Beyond the Lines
  • Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
  • A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
  • Last Day of Freedom

My Prediction: Body Team 12
My Vote:

Best Live Action Short Film

  • Ave Maria
  • Day One
  • Everything Will Be Okay
  • Shok
  • Stutterer

My Prediction: Ave Maria
My Vote: Shok

Best Animated Short Film

  • Bear Story
  • Prologue
  • Sanjay’s Super Team
  • We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
  • World of Tomorrow

My Prediction: Sanjay’s Super Team
My Vote: World of Tomorrow

Best Original Score

  • Bridge of Spies – Thomas Newman
  • Carol – Carter Burwell
  • The Hateful Eight – Ennio Morricone
  • Sicario – Jóhann Jóhannsson
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens – John Williams

My Prediction: The Hateful Eight
My Vote: Carol
Overlooked: It Follows – Richard Vreeland

Best Original Song

  • “Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey
  • “Manta Ray” from Racing Extinction
  • “Simple Song #3” from Youth
  • “Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground
  • “Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre

My Prediction: “Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground
My Vote: “Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground
Overlooked: “See You Again” from Furious 7

Best Sound Editing

  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • The Revenant
  • Sicario
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road
Overlooked: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Best Sound Mixing

  • Bridge of Spies
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • The Revenant
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road
Overlooked: Love & Mercy

Best Production Design

  • Bridge of Spies
  • The Danish Girl
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • The Revenant

My Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road
Overlooked: Crimson Peak

Best Cinematography

  • Carol – Ed Lachman
  • The Hateful Eight – Robert Richardson
  • Mad Max: Fury Road – John Seale
  • The Revenant – Emmanuel Lubezki
  • Sicario – Roger Deakins

My Prediction: The Revenant
My Vote: The Revenant
Overlooked: Victoria – Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

  • The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Revenant

My Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road
Overlooked: The Hateful Eight

Best Costume Design

  • Carol
  • Cinderella
  • The Danish Girl
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Revenant

My Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road
Overlooked: Brooklyn

Best Film Editing

  • The Big Short – Hank Corwin
  • Mad Max: Fury Road – Margaret Sixel
  • The Revenant – Stephen Mirrione
  • Spotlight – Tom McArdle
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey

My Prediction: Mad Max: Fury Road
My Vote: Mad Max: Fury Road
Overlooked: While We’re Young

Best Visual Effects

  • Ex Machina
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • The Revenant
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My Prediction: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
My Vote: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Overlooked: The Walk

Enjoy the show!

The Witch ***|****

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch

Over the past few years, there has emerged a new class of intelligent horror films that favor pacing and setting over cheap jump scares and bombastic music cues. Films like The Babadook and Goodnight Mommy are able to create a kind of tense and unnerving mood by way of patient storytelling and I’m happy to say that first-time director Robert Eggers has added another memorable entry to the collection. Subtitled “A New England Folktale”, The Witch is a one-of-a-kind 17th century-set supernatural tale that uses authentically archaic dialogue and a stark color palette to create a chilly and disorienting atmosphere of slow-building dread.

We follow William (Ralph Ineson) and his deeply religious Puritan family as they are banished from a plantation and forced to relocate to a remote area seated right at the edge of a large forest. When his daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is watching her infant brother one morning, he is swiftly and mysteriously abducted by a figure that the family concludes to be a witch from the woods. This news devastates their mother Katherine (Kate Dickie) in particular and after additional suspicious events occur, the seeds of mistrust are sown within the family and they begin to suspect one another of conspiring with the new forces of evil.

There’s a meticulous craft (dare I say witchcraft?) that went into the production of The Witch and much of that credit has to go to writer-director Robert Eggers, who allegedly committed years of research to uncovering what 17th century life was really like. The attention to detail in the costume design and the set design contributes heavily to the sense that we’re actually being transported back to this time. Even a majority of the film’s dialogue was sourced directly from period journals, diaries, and court records of the time, which almost makes it a scarier proposition than the “based on true events” claims of its genre peers.

This level of staid commitment is also carried out by the performers, who may be familiar to zealous fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones but will likely be new faces for the rest of the audience. Ineson plays the tortured patriarch William with humble conviction and Dickie is fearlessly compelling as the grieving mother with insurmountable misfortune cast her way. But the real revelation is the haunting, star-making turn by Anya Taylor-Joy as the oldest daughter Thomasin, who showcases a maturity well beyond her years and proves in only her second film role to date that she has a promising career ahead.

The final piece to this pernicious puzzle is the eerie, skin-crawling music scored by Mark Korven that makes use of dissonant string parts and haunted choir vocals to brilliantly demonic effect. It all adds up to a singular cinematic experience that may be too dour and self-serious in patches but still casts quite the spell during its lean running time. Few horror films have the certitude to look evil so nakedly in the eye but The Witch manages to weaves its unholy elements into something unshakable and unmissable.

Deadpool ***½|****

Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool
Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool

With underwhelming, status quo entries like last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man, superhero movies have been in need of a shake-up and it seems that Marvel found just the man for the job. Production history for Deadpool dates back to 2004 but after VFX footage “leaked” online 10 years later, the project took off quickly and generated a healthy amount of buzz among comic book fans online. Now we have the finished film, which succeeds as both a hilariously vulgar send-up of the genre it inhabits and an engaging action movie with a deft visual style that’s all its own.

Ryan Reynolds is perfect in the title role: a wise-cracking, foul-mouthed mercenary with a pension for breaking the fourth wall and a never-ending supply of self-referential in-jokes. He begins the story as Wade Wilson, whose terminal cancer diagnosis brings a prosperous, year-long relationship with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) to a screeching halt. Desperate for answers, Wilson agrees to enlist in a shadowy genetic research program under the supervision of a mutant named Ajax (Ed Skrein) with the hope of a cure. The experiment causes Wilson to be permanently disfigured and when Ajax leaves him for dead, he takes on the alias Deadpool and vows vengeance on his malicious captor.

That may seem like a downer of a setup but make no mistake: Deadpool is hands down the most comedically successful superhero film that I’ve seen so far and it will likely go down as one of the year’s best comedies. With the exception of his ill-conceived inclusion in the dreadful X-Men Origins: Wolverine (during which his mouth was inexplicably sewn shut), Deadpool was a character of which I had little foreknowledge when going into this movie. Together, Reynolds and first-time director Tim Miller have created what feels like a zero-compromise realization of everything that makes the comic book character special.

Beyond achieving an admirable level of cheekiness throughout the film, Miller also manages to tell a compelling superhero origin story and portray a convincing romance at the same time as well. In addition to the narrative elements, he also excels at shooting breakneck paced and yet visually comprehensible action scenes that benefit greatly from his previous work as a visual effects artist. He gets off to a great start with an opening credit sequence that not only has some hilarious, self-aware bits of humor but also works as a richly detailed, labyrinth style tableau that weaves effortlessly through a convoy car mid-crash.

Still, Reynolds deserves so much credit here for his commitment to this character and to the project as a whole, for which he also served as a co-producer. So much of this film rides on the personality that he provides and his winning combination of deadpan sarcasm and razor-sharp wit prove to be a formidable foundation upon which Marvel will likely look to build a new franchise. Its success may spawn inferior sequels that quickly wear out their welcome but for the time being, I’m comfortable saying that not since The Avengers has there been a more entertaining superhero movie than Deadpool.

Hail, Caesar! **½|****

Tilda Swinton and Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!
Tilda Swinton and Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar!
The Coen Brothers have proven throughout their illustrious careers that they can make just about any kind of movie that they want and with their new effort Hail, Caesar!, they return to one of their most cherished settings: the glamorous days of 1950s Hollywood. This was a time when massive movie studios could house dozens of individual productions on their lots, each with their own set of delicate demands and hangups with which to contend. Because of this potentially volatile environment, the studio system spawned top-level positions for “fixers”, who would not only oversee film production but also keep their high-profile actors out of trouble and especially out of the tabloids.

Enter Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), whose title of “Head of Physical Production” at Capitol Pictures is basically a sophisticated way of saying that he’s the guy who runs in and out of movie sets all day trying to solve each problem that arises. Throughout his strenuous day, he deals with issues ranging from the pregnancy of unmarried actress DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) to a Western movie star who is disastrously recast into a high-class period drama. However, his main task involves tracking down famed actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who disappeared from the studio’s biggest production Hail, Caesar! and appears to have been kidnapped by a group who call themselves The Future.

This may be the first time that I’ve felt that the Coen Brothers have potentially bitten off more than they could chew. This film is jam packed with potentially memorable characters, a number of whom only appear in one or two scenes, and promising setpieces that ultimately lack any greater meaning or relevancy to the story at hand. The marketing for Hail, Caesar! promises the same kind of manic zaniness of their 2008 comedy Burn After Reading but it’s not nearly as well paced or structured as that film, which has only gotten better with repeated viewings.

Even though the day-in-the-life framework might suggest a tighter focus on Brolin’s character, the story instead seems to keep expanding further as it goes along. New characters continue to be introduced well past the one hour mark and sub-plots crop up like tangents in a conversation that was never terribly interesting to begin with. The political and religious allusions add a bemusing layer of subtext that may well reveal itself further upon deeper analysis but doesn’t add much to the story from a humor perspective.

Despite the aimless direction, there is no denying that there are specific sequences that work tremendously. A scene between characters played by Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich, the latter of whom is struggling with a particularly boorish line reading, is one of the funniest dialogue exchanges in the Coen catalog. The large-scale production numbers involving synchronized swimming and sailor-costumed tap dancing are first-rate throwbacks to the genre films of the era. This love letter to old Hollywood could have benefited from a re-write (or two) and a great deal of more concentration from these masterful directors.

My Top Movies of 2015

10. What We Do In The Shadows

What We Do In The Shadows

This horror-comedy drew influence from two already heavily saturated markets (mockmentaries and vampire movies) and against all odds, still managed to find new aspects to lampoon. By taking three, centuries-old vampires and placing them in a present day New Zealand flat, directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi craft a hilarious variation on MTV’s Real World for ancient bloodsuckers. What We Do In The Shadows made me laugh more than any other movie that I saw last year and at the end of the day, that has to count for something.

9. The Revenant

The Revenant

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s vast, cinematic Western proved once again that an auteur’s vision can still trump budget concerns and grueling production demands. From the opening, breathtaking Native American pelt raid to the film’s enigmatic final shot, he commands our attention at every step in the journey. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy give two of the most dedicated performances you’ll ever see and Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork has never been better. Awards buzz has recently triggered a cynical wave of backlash but through it all, The Revenant remains a vital and unflinching work.

8. Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy

For a movie with such a drawn-out and troubled production history, Love & Mercy came together better than most could have ever expected. Even more impressive, this bifurcated Brian Wilson biopic was directed by Bill Pohlad, known as a producer on a number of recent successful films but only credited as a director one other time for 1990’s little seen Old Explorers. Paul Dano, John Cusack and particularly Elizabeth Banks all give career-best performances and there’s a sort of undeniably magic to hearing the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys music recreated in the studio so beautifully.

7. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

They just keep getting better. Tom Cruise returns for his fifth outing as indestructible IMF agent Ethan Hunt in a series that is still finding new ways to devise thrilling daredevil scenarios for the star to endure. You may go in expecting first-rate action sequences from director Christopher McQuarrie, of which this film contains about four or five that will not disappoint, but the biggest surprise is the knockout performance by newcomer Rebecca Ferguson. When Cruise does inevitably throw in the towel (and I am dreading that day), Ferguson proves that she’s a viable candidate to take the reins on the Mission: Impossible franchise.

6. Goodnight Mommy

Goodnight Mommy

Twin actors Elias and Lukas Schwarz give convincingly creepy performances in this unnerving horror import from Austria, which tells the story of two sons whose mother begins to act strangely after a cosmetic facial operation. Directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala display a chilly patience with their material and remind us that sustained dread is much more effective than the jump scare conventions that are so prevalent in the genre. The film’s final image had me wincing away in terror and really, how much more authentic an endorsement can there be for a horror movie?

5. While We’re Young

While We're Young

How were we lucky enough to get not just one but two great Noah Baumbach movies released in the same year? While Mistress America playfully revisits the themes established in Baumbach’s masterful Frances Ha, While We’re Young feels like its wiser and more world-weary counterpart. It’s an inter-generational comedy with plenty of laughs but also plenty to say about how we define ourselves amongst shifting societal expectations. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts do great work as a husband and wife seeking their own identities as individuals and as a married couple.

4. Phoenix


The word “Hitchcockian” gets thrown around too often when people describe thrillers but when one feels like this much of a direct, spiritual companion to Vertigo, it seems apt. Set in post-Holocaust Berlin, Phoenix is a gripping, mistaken identity tale of loss and resurgence played with intimate intensity by leads Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld. Director Christian Petzold finds all the right beats of irony and melancholy in the dialogue and the film’s haunting conclusion, which actually gave me chills, is note-perfect and one that I expect will stay with me for some time.

3. Anomalisa


Leave it to mastermind Charlie Kaufman to again create another brazenly, original work of genius that seems to come further out of left field than any of his previous accomplishments. He teams up with co-director Duke Johnson to create a stop motion movie like no other, one that dwells on the painful realities of life and actually feels like a tempered reflection of our imperfect world. Darkly funny and quietly heartbreaking in equal measure, Anomalisa may prove to be too dispiriting for some but I found it to be an insightful and touching portrait of loneliness.

2. Room


A work of unparalleled emotional power, Room is best experienced with as little foreknowledge of the material as possible. Saying that it’s a harrowing study of the unshakable bond between mother and child should give the uninitiated a sense of story’s surface but the movie’s concealed strength lies in director Lenny Abrahamson’s ability to delicately dissect layers of sentiment with a special focus on groundedness and honesty. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay give two of the year’s best performances as they capture all of the nuances of the mother-son relationship with effortless chemistry.

1. Inside Out

Inside Out

In what may be Pixar’s finest film, director Pete Docter culls the qualities of the studio’s best and fashions an emotionally profound work of art about the value of empathy and acceptance of grief. Inside Out is a brilliant force of sheer creativity, a movie that expertly balances matters of the head and the heart while also appealing to both with light touches of good-natured humor throughout. It taps into universal human truths in such a pure and succinct way that it feels destined to become a timeless piece of animation that may outlast just about everything else in its category.