The hype could not have conceivably been higher for the seventh entry in the Star Wars series, the first of a “sequel trilogy” that was launched after Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012. Amid unprecedented pre-order ticket sales and massive expectations from insatiable fans, it almost seemed as if Star Wars: The Force Awakens was doomed to disappoint audiences before it was even released. Despite these circumstances, director J.J. Abrams has tapped into his most formidable skill set of nostalgia commodification and delivered an immensely entertaining blockbuster that should thrill both hardcore loyalists and newcomers alike.
We pick up about 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, where the disappearance of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has driven remnants of the Republic and the Empire, now called the Resistance and the First Order respectively, to find him at all costs. When Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) recovers a portion of a map that leads to Luke, he stores it in a roaming droid unit that finds its way to a parts scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley). After Poe is rescued by a rogue Stormtrooper nicknamed “Finn” (John Boyega), the two travel back to seek out Rey with the First Order and their leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in constant pursuit.
It’s clear that there’s a lot at play here that correlates strongly with the original trilogy but what’s most important is how effective the new material is by comparison. What makes The Force Awakens work so well is that at its foundation, this is a truly character driven movie. The focus is wisely put on the young cast of mostly new faces and rising stars, who provide plenty of personality in their performances and ground their roles in a kind of realism that has previously been lacking in other Star Wars films. The sly bits of fan service and self-referential humor also give things a modern update without alienating the audience or getting too cheeky.
Top-notch special effects have always been a key component to the franchise and the breathtaking visual prowess of The Force Awakens is a testament to how far computer generated effects have come even in the ten years since Revenge of the Sith. This is especially evident in the scenes involving Resistance and First Order spaceships, which move through the air with a kind of nimbleness that can’t be achieved in the same way with miniature models. The X-wing and TIE fighter battles are choreographed at a breakneck pace with thrilling precision and just watching the Millienium Falcon speed through the corridors of a downed Star Destroyer was enough to make me feel like a kid again.
So many filmmakers have tried and failed to capture that feeling in audiences before but Abrams has proven once again how well he can transform the old into something new once more. He and his team have laid the groundwork for an already promising addition to the Star Wars legacy while also leaving unanswered questions and tantalizing cliffhangers for Episode VIII. The already announced writer and director for that film is Rian Johnson, who most recently directed the fantastically imaginative science-fiction film Looper in 2012. Regardless of what he accomplishes in the next chapter, The Force Awakens has already set the bar high for this new trilogy.
Genuine emotional resonance is a rare quality among most modern movies. Unlike technical aspects that are tangible and can be measured more easily, an emotionally satisfying payoff cannot be manufactured in the same way and is a riskier pursuit altogether. More often than not, filmmakers aim for us to care about their characters for just long enough to stay interested in the story that they’re telling but how often do their struggles stay with us after the film is over? For me, Room was a wholly rewarding experience that has grown even more meaningful from the moment that it ended.
Brie Larson has been one of the most outstanding young actresses around and she does her best work yet here as Joy Newsome, a young mother who raises her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) within the confines of a single 10×10 room. Once a day, a man they refer to as “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) comes to visit them and replenish the supplies of their limited living quarters. While the circumstances of their living situation and their relationship to “Old Nick” are best left for viewers to discover on their own, it’s enough to say that Joy is unhappy living in the room and plans an escape with Jack to the outside world.
Every note of Room rings true with a deep sense of emotional intelligence and that starts first at the story level. Adapting from her 2010 best-selling novel of the same name, screenwriter Emma Donoghue unfolds her tragic narrative at a perfect pace and finds just the right words for Joy and Jack to share as we learn about their complex relationship. Because their dialogue has to be filtered through the understanding of a five-year-old, the simple language that they use is often coded with deeper meaning and it allows for a rich subtext to develop within their conversations.
The acting by Larson and Tremblay is flawless and since we’re fast approaching Oscar season, I should mention that both absolutely deserve Academy Award consideration for their work. Not only are they completely believable as mother and son, they are equally convincing as two people dependent on one another to behave normally, despite their incredibly unorthodox living arrangement. The natural rapport between the two actors on screen is evidence of how much thought and detail went into creating these fully fleshed out characters.
All of these tremendous creative forces are anchored with unshakable poise by director Lenny Abrahamson, who was responsible for last year’s off-the-wall dramedy Frank. He clearly knew the challenges that would arise from adapting such difficult material but his ability to do so with such focus and care is the mark of a dedicated and impassioned storyteller. Heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure, Room is not only a beautiful portrait of young motherhood but also a harrowing testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.
Director Ryan Coogler reunites with Michael B. Jordan, the star of his excellent debut Fruitvale Station, for the seventh Rocky film in a franchise that has seen many high and low points in its near forty-year run. While it doesn’t quite manage to reach the heights of the original Rocky, Creed does come closer to any other film in the series to capturing the winning spirit of its predecessor while also blazing a new trail of its own. In lesser hands, this reboot could have come off as cynical and obligatory but Coogler has a genuine, back-to-basics sensibility that proves to be the perfect fit for this boxing saga.
Jordan stars as Adonis “Donnie” Creed, the son of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, who feels unfulfilled with his undemanding desk job and decides that he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a professional boxer. Against the advice of friends and family, he moves to Philadelphia in hopes of training with the great Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to become a formidable fighter in his own right. With Balboa and a new love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson) in his corner, Creed works his way up to the heavyweight championship with a determination to restore his family’s fighting legacy.
Though Stallone gives a very touching performance as an aging Balboa, it’s clear from the start that this is Jordan’s movie. He not only brings a tremendous ferocity and physicality to the role but he also captures the emotional turmoil of a young man with both unresolved family issues in his past and an uncertain life path in his future. When Donnie spars with himself in the mirror or with a television projection of his father during a previous fight with Rocky, his personal demons come to the forefront and we gain a deeper understanding of his character without the movie needing to explain away his motivations.
Besides the noteworthy casting of Jordan in the title role, the most notable distinction between Creed and its predecessors lies in the look and the feel of the fighting scenes. From an audacious one-take opening scene in a Tijuana boxing club to the climactic final battle, it’s not a stretch to say that this is the best looking entry in the franchise. The nimble camerawork brilliantly mirrors the movements of the fighters and gets us close enough to the action to catch bits of dialogue and body language that would likely otherwise get lost in wide shots of the ring.
Despite all of these unique touches and improvements, what’s frustrating is how little this film chooses to experiment with the basic plot structure of the previous Rocky entries. There’s an almost slavish dedication to the training montages, love story arcs and musical cues of the previous films that make this more closely resemble a remake rather than a reboot or a sequel. Still, there’s plenty of new elements in Creed to inspire a whole new generation of crowds to cheer on a champion.
Quality-wise, the Daniel Craig era of the James Bond franchise has been a fascinating game of tug-of-war for the past nine years. First we had Casino Royale, a fantastic revitalization of the Bond character that ranks among the very best films in the series. Then came Quantum of Solace, a befuddling and bombastic misfire that may be my least favorite Bond movie ever. Skyfall, which continued to build upon the winning themes of Casino Royale, opened four years later to overwhelming critical and financial success. Now we have Spectre, which is certainly not as poor as Quantum but nevertheless feels like a step backwards for Bond.
We begin in Mexico City during a Day of the Dead parade, where Bond is on unofficial assignment to take out two terrorists plotting to bomb a local football stadium. Upon traveling to Rome to attend the funereal of one of his victims, he also sneaks into a meeting for the shadowy organization SPECTRE, whose leader (played by Christoph Waltz) seems to have a close personal history with Bond. After a rendezvous in Austria to protect the daughter of a fellow assassin (played by Léa Seydoux), the two track down the organization’s covert headquarters and plan to shut down their nefarious plot to utilize mass surveillance for global domination.
What’s troubling about Spectre is just how hollow and obligatory the whole thing feels. There is evidence of some worthwhile ideas that were likely hatched early in the planning stages but instead of seeing these through, we’re instead given an almost insultingly rote series of action setpieces and dramatic “reveals”. On paper, this has all of the elements of a solid Bond movie but director Sam Mendes can’t seem to make things congeal the way that he did so effectively in Skyfall. Even the same screenwriting crew has been held over from that film (with the addition of one Jez Butterworth, whose name itself is too good not to mention) but it’s clear that something got lost in the mix.
Basic story elements like character motivation and relative realism remain stubbornly murky throughout most of the film but all of that seems to stem from the filmmakers’ modern conceptualization of Bond. It’s clear to me that they’ve lost their way in trying to figure out what this character is all about and more importantly, where they want him to go from here. He seems to be on “dark and brooding” auto-pilot since Quantum of Solace and this lack of depth in characterization is starting cast a dour shadow on the kinds of stories that can be written around him.
There are some worthy attempts at levity during this leaden story — a killer one-liner from Ralph Fiennes’ M in the third act being a highlight — but try as it might, this film will never have the kind of fun that the Mission Impossible series has been able to conjure up with its two most recent entries. Still, Bond has the opportunity to do what those films can’t do: to explore the psyche of a trained killer in a more serious and dramatically compelling way. That’s where Spectre should have had its focus but instead, it hedges its bets and leaves us with a mulligan of a movie.
We open with a child, maybe ten years old, as he runs through a cornfield and is then ambushed by his twin brother. They play games like hide and seek outside together and we get the sense that they are inseparable. When Elias and Lukas (played by real-life twins Elias and Lukas Schwarz) return to their home, they find that their mother (played by Susanne Wuest) has come back from the hospital after surgery that has left her face heavily bandaged. Noticing a drastic change in their mother’s demeanor, the twins take on the notion that this woman may not be their real mother and take substantial action to gain the truth.
Put simply, psychological horror is rarely as unshakable and unsettling as Goodnight Mommy. Most films in the genre tend to over-explain their material, especially in the third act, but don’t come into this movie expecting expository flashbacks or heavy-handed voiceover narration. This is a film that is almost gleefully loaded with ambiguity, one that respects the intelligence of the audience and invites speculation on nearly every aspect of its story. Even as I’m writing now, I’m questioning the myriad of details that were presented during my viewing and trying to factor them into the larger context of the narrative.
But Goodnight Mommy also isn’t trying to outsmart its audience either; this isn’t typical puzzle box storytelling that requires a second watch to figure out what’s happening. With the exception of a few impressionistic scenes that seem to happen out of time or a strict sense of reality, the story is told with clinical precision and is kept to just a few characters and locations. Co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala wisely forgo scenes of backstory that would too overtly explain plot points that are much better left up to interpretation.
They also understand that the absence of stimulus can be much more terrifying than too much. The sound design and music score by Olga Neuwirth are both brilliantly sparing, neither giving into the easy moments to jolt the audience but rather staying out of the way as tension builds organically in each scene. Even the chilly looking lake house where the characters reside seems devoid of any decorative sentimentalities that would seem vaguely comforting. Even the film’s final shot, which I wouldn’t dare spoil, had me wincing away from the screen not because I was expecting a final scare but because it was so relentlessly creepy in a hauntingly simplistic way.
I should note that due to the deceptive nature of the trailer that was released for this film (which has incidentally received quite a bit of attention), I have instead linked to a short clip in the image above instead of linking to a full-length trailer like I normally do. It seems that American film distributors still struggle to marketing foreign films faithfully but on the other hand, perhaps it’s enough to give Goodnight Mommy a larger audience than it would not have had otherwise. It’s certainly worthy of one.
By this point, it’s become quite clear that director Denis Villeneuve is a man who enjoys challenging his audience. With the constantly twisting plot lines of Prisoners to the subconscious probing head trip that is Enemy, he makes a concerted effort to keep viewers engaged on an intellectual level and more importantly, he isn’t afraid to make bold narrative choices that run the risk of potentially alienating and dividing viewers. He’s done it again with Sicario, a film that can be easily summarized as a day in the life of new DEA agent in cartel-controlled Mexico but slowly reveals itself to be a thoughtful meditation on moral compromise and human frailty.
After raiding an Arizona drug home filled with dozens of corpses linked to cartel violence, FBI agent Kate Macer (a superb Emily Blunt) rises quickly through the ranks and catches the attention of cocky DOD advisor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). He recruits her to find the men responsible for the killings, which leads them to the threatening streets of Juarez, Mexico. With the help of Graver’s partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), they must navigate the dangers of an area torn apart by drug trafficking and rampant violence.
And while there are bursts of graphic violence, most notably in a terrifically tense border crossing scene, this film is much more interested in the suggestion of violence rather than displaying the grisly details on screen. During an interrogation scene, the camera lingers on a lone floor drain while faint sounds of anguish can be heard. We can surmise that a man is being tortured but his pain isn’t made visually explicit. An even more prevalent example throughout the film is the gunshots humming in the distance, which serve as an uneasy soundtrack to the hellish cityscape.
We’re informed in the opening frame that “sicario” is Spanish for hitman, which doesn’t seem to be a fitting descriptor for the first half of this film as we follow Macer’s point of view but during a pivotal scene at her apartment, the entire focus of the film seems to shift to Gillick’s perspective. His personal mission and vendetta then start to kick in and seem to supplant the tumultuous moral dilemmas that plague Macer through most of the story. We’re trained, in a way, to root for her to triumph over the moral deficiency of her male superiors but Villeneuve doesn’t give us the satisfaction of an easy conclusion here.
First-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan deserves ample credit as well, forgoing “message movie” cliches about the war on drugs to write a script that does justice to its characters and the world that they inhabit. Cinematopher Roger Deakins, a true master still waiting patiently for his first Oscar (he’s been nominated 12 times previously), continues his great run of work here with bold choices of camera placement and movement that make even routine scenes exhilarating. Everyone is firing creatively on all cylinders to create this subversive and enduring work.
Do stories of survival, bleak as their subject material may be, always have to be so serious? Over the years, we’ve seen countless iterations of characters stranded or deserted in various circumstances (Gravity and All Is Lost being recent examples), struggling mightily against the formidable forces of nature. As a storyteller, it’s important to convey the sense of desperation felt by the protagonist but does the perspective need to be drab and dour in every case? Ridley Scott’s The Martian has answered that question with a resounding “no” and in doing so, it has single-handedly reinvigorated the survival film genre and also given the science fiction genre a welcome addition of sly humor as well.
We open with astronaut and botonist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) and his crew, led by Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain), as their mission on Mars is put into jeopardy by an intense storm that crops up unexpectedly. During an evacuation attempt, Watney is struck by a satellite antenna and presumed dead as the rest of the team reluctantly flees the planet. He wakes to find that he has been stranded with limited resources left to his disposal and with no way of communicating with NASA, he must wring every bit of scientific knowledge from his mind to endure the hostile living conditions of a foreign planet.
What’s so unique and captivating about this movie is the level of pragmatic optimism and self-aware humor that Watney is able to cull from his dire situation. Since the majority of his dialogue is presented via video journal, we not only have the practical benefits of hearing his scientific process firsthand but there also exists a kind of conversational aspect with the audience that allows for plenty of down-to-earth moments of levity that don’t feel contrived. It’s also effective in making him relatable as well; we’re not just rooting for him because he’s an anonymous man under terrible circumstances but because these things are happening to someone that we’ve grown to care about as a human being.
While there is a playfulness and wit to Watney’s narration of the proceedings, there is also a copious amount of good old-fashioned applied science that he details throughout the film. Challenges and obstacles pop up with increasing frequency during his time on the red planet but each one is met individually with a calculated and well-reasoned response. In some ways, this is the most pure form of problem solving that can be exhibited in a feature film but the tricky part is finding a way to present it in a consistently entertaining fashion while still showing respect for the scientific process.
This is where screenwriter Drew Goddard deserves so much credit in his adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. The writing is not only superbly clever but also thoroughly engaging in following the ingenuity of its main character and the support system around him. Scott also deserves ample praise for balancing the brainy dialogue with a few well-crafted action sequences and also some moments of well-earned suspense. There’s something liberating about how purely The Martian strives for intelligent entertainment and I hope it serves as a model for more science-based movies to come.
In August 1974, high-wire artist Philippe Petit stunned the world by rigging a cable between the top of the then-newly built Twin Towers in New York and performing the most daring balancing act ever committed. His remarkable story has been covered in recent years through various mediums, from the children’s picture book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers to the excellent 2008 documentary Man on Wire. Now comes a breathtaking new variation from visual effects maestro Robert Zemeckis, who makes full use of the current IMAX and 3D technologies at his disposal to create another worthy retelling with a truly unforgettable climax.
The plot leading up to the titular Walk is relatively paint-by-numbers biopic fare, with Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) narrating his life’s story over flashbacks while standing atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty. We follow his humble beginnings in France as an apprentice for eccentric ringmaster Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) and as a street performer who wins the heart of a young musician named Annie (Charlotte Le Bon). When he happens upon a magazine ad for a gargantuan set of towers that are under construction in the United States, his entire being is immediately dedicated to the sole purpose of claiming his place between the two buildings.
Gordon-Levitt lends a welcome sense of dimension in his portrayal of Petit, fusing aspects of the man’s charm, dedication and whimsy to craft a fleshed out character instead of simply playing him as a crazed buffoon on a tightrope. He also doesn’t shy away from the more unlikeable points of Petit’s personality either, often imbuing his actions with an air of arrogance and selfishness that don’t always make him the easiest guy to root for. It’s true that we may never really know why Petit did what he did that day but Gordon-Levitt seems closest than anyone has previously come to capturing his true essence and finding the method in his madness.
Like his protagonist, Zemeckis is performing a balancing act of his own: finding a happy medium between the heart and humanity of his characters while also providing a first-rate visual experience. The pacing involved in pulling off a story like this also requires a fair amount of tact as well, as the audience is already aware of the film’s big climax and everything leading up to it could come across as nothing more than tedious build-up. Thankfully, the director has just enough tricks up his sleeve to keep us interested in the story and invested in the characters prior to the high-wire sequence.
This feels like an appropriate time in this review to candidly reveal that I am petrified of heights (as was one of Petit’s accomplices, incidentally) and I had reservations even seeing this movie on that basis. I convinced myself that the rampant use of green screens and CG effects would generate just enough incredulity to keep my fear at bay. I was woefully mistaken. No matter how many times I told myself that this daring escapade was just an illusion, it did nothing to deter the effectiveness of this film’s great event. The audacity and the wonder of Petit’s walk is captured flawlessly in The Walk, even if there are some narrative mis-steps leading up to it.
Director James Ponsoldt follows up the tender and thoughtful The Spectacular Now with another intimate and insightful look at a relationship between two characters searching for a sense of meaning in one another. This time around, those roles are filled by Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and acclaimed author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), who tragically took his own life in the summer of 2008. Covering a five day period during Wallace’s 1996 book tour for his gargantuan novel Infinite Jest, The End of the Tour focuses on the real life encounter between the two men as they discuss a myriad range of topics including the nature of fame, the sting of loneliness and the ever elusive metric of American achievement.
In this way, this film can really be thought of as one large conversation and on those terms, it succeeds quite well. The screenplay, adapted from Lipsky’s novel Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, is able to draw directly from the most notable exchanges between the two without feeling like it’s ticking off boxes on a thematic checklist in the process. The dialogue between Lipsky and Wallace is appropriately brainy, as it’s meant to highlight their shared intellectual prowess, but it’s also grounded in the world of these characters and still comes off as sounding natural without being overly clever.
The two lead actors also do a fantastic job of adding layers of subtlety in their performances to keep the writing fresh and to keep viewers on their toes as well. Together, Eisenberg and Segel conjure up a competitive chemistry that is never quite made explicit but rather resides as a source of underlying tension between the two characters. There’s all sorts of insecurity and bitterness that frequently threatens to crop up mid-conversation but they’re both very deft at sublimating these impulses into something more meaningful or productive instead.
Lipsky and Wallace do participate in psychic and verbal sparring from time to time but ultimately, these two have quite a bit of respect and admiration built up between one another. They bond on superficial topics like fast food and popular music but they also relate on a more philosophical and spiritual level, discussing concepts of self-expression and modern entertainment with vigor and passion. Had they met under different circumstances, where the roles of interviewer and subject weren’t so clearly defined, it’s easy to imagine these two becoming close friends.
Nevertheless, the journalistic perspective is always in the forefront of this film. The tape recorder that Lipsky utilizes almost serves as the primary antagonist of the film, its red eye constantly surveilling their most intimate moments of conversation. It’s made clear that both men are doing their jobs: Lipsky is trying to find any new angle on Wallace that will give him an edge and Wallace is desperately attempting to conceal his bruised ego while assuming the role of a “normal guy” who just happens to be a brilliant writer. They never stop performing for one another, which makes their talks all the more riveting to encounter for the first time.
“This film is in sign language. There is no dialogue, subtitles, or voice-over.” The opening text of the new Ukrainian film The Tribe reads as more of an ominous word of warning than a friendly footnote. It also turns out to be completely accurate: not only are the ensuing two hours devoid of any spoken word but the only audio present in the film is diegetic, meaning that there is also no musical score (music of any kind, really) or sound effects. It’s a punishing conceit, one that made for one of the most challenging movie-going experiences that I’ve ever had.
My analysis of the plot is entirely conjecture but I feel confident enough to relay a few basic plot points. We meet a young man named Sergey (whose name I caught in the end credits) during his first day of admittance into a run down boarding school for the deaf. He is swiftly initiated into what seems to be a pervasive crime ring made up of young men and women in the area, who spend their time assaulting strangers and looting from nearby homes. Eventually Sergey’s loyalty to the organization is called into question when he falls in love with a girl who sees him as a ticket out from their mutual life of corruption.
Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s central thesis here is that film itself is a universal language and that by depriving the audience of characters that can speak openly, we are forced to desperately pick up any other visual cues in order to follow the narrative. Not only is that an exhausting proposition but it also presumes that the characters on-screen are compelling enough in their actions alone to warrant our attention. With no introduction, backstory or even names being offered, how much empathy can we really be expected to have for these kids?
It doesn’t even seem like Slaboshpytskiy has much concern for the characters or their disability either. With both the criminals and their victims being characterized as deaf, it’s hard to even read this as a metaphor for a power struggle between disadvantaged vs. advantaged parties. Devoid of context, their increasingly hostile behavior fails to justify itself and pushes the film’s already dark subject matter to intolerable bleakness.
All the more saddening is the cinematic skill that went into making such a dreary piece of work. The long takes helmed by cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych are frequently stunning in their composition and orchestration, while the acting from the cast of rookie actors is credible enough to carry an entire story that relies solely on their body language. It’s just not enough to make this depressing cinematic experiment much more than a sadistic curiosity.