The power of film is in its ability to create a totally immersive experience unique to any art form. We sit in a dark movie theater, aware that what we’re about to see costs millions of dollars and took hundreds of people to make, and the filmmaker’s chief task is to essentially make us forget all of that. Some may call it suspension of disbelief but it runs deeper than that: there’s an undeniable magic to those films that effortlessly transport us from time and place. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant follows this tradition with a rare kind of cinematic conviction and steadfast authenticity that will likely render it timeless.
Amongst the unsettled wilderness of the 1820s American northwest, a band of fur trappers and hunters stave off the harsh elements and Native American aggression to collect pelts for trade. After the party’s scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is viciously mauled by a grizzly bear, his severe injuries begin to hinder the group’s progress and their captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) orders three men, including hunter John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), to tend to his wounds. After a fatal dispute amongst the volunteers, Glass is left for dead and must fight through unbearable circumstances to return to his outpost.
Iñárritu has the poise and confidence of a master filmmaker right from the opening scene, an exhilarating and immensely well-choreographed ambush sequence that reminded me of the similarly stunning D-Day beach raid in Saving Private Ryan. Apart from providing a thrilling action scene to kick things off, he also clues us in early to the type of visceral brutality and natural realism that he goes on to employ throughout the film’s exhausting journey. The story that he tells here is not necessarily a complex one but it’s told with an emotional purity and ruthless honesty that makes the end result as rewarding as the narrative is challenging.
Indispensable to the film’s success is veteran cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked with Iñárritu previously for Birdman and received an Academy Award last year for his work. Not only is the film simply gorgeous to take in (Lubezki reportedly used only natural lighting while shooting), he tempers the overwhelming beauty of the natural landscape with an unflinching eye towards the dangers that spontaneously present themselves. Lubezki also showcases his signature style of close-up here as well, characterized by a low side angle that stays tight on the subject’s face and lends depths of intimacy that the performances may not have otherwise had.
And then we come to DiCaprio. Much has been said of his work here and even more has been said of his chances for winning his first Academy Award after having been nominated four times previously. While the notion that he has been under-appreciated by the Academy throughout his career is just, I fear that the “Overdue Oscar” talk may overshadow just how committed and tenacious a performance he gives in this film. In fact, the same could be said of Tom Hardy, who brings an unrelenting intensity to another memorable antagonistic role that serves as a career-best for him. The Revenant is bravura filmmaking from a director at the peak of his powers.
Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film, appropriately titled The Hateful Eight, is the director’s most self-indulgent project yet and he’s not a man known particularly for his modesty to begin with. Presented to select theaters in 70mm projection complete with a roadshow program and a 12 minute Ennio Morricone-scored overture at its start (with an intermission halfway through), this is his attempt to bring the high art prestige of a classy theater play back into modern movie theaters. It’s a noble effort, one that generated plenty of buzz, so it’s a shame that the film at the center of it all is simply not worthy of the spectacle.
Set during a harsh winter in post-Civil War Wyoming, we’re introduced to bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his outlaw prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as they travel in stagecoach bound for Red Rock. Along the way, they also pick up former Union Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and former Confederate fighter Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims that he’s on his way to Red Rock to be sworn in as the town’s next sheriff. To stave off the impending blizzard, the four shack up at a secluded lodge but when they start to converse with the other four characters who reside there, suspicions about their motivations and identities begin to grow.
Due to its dedication to a single location and focus on solving a central mystery, the film has drawn comparisons to Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs but that film benefited greatly from a tighter structure and comparatively brisk pace. The intentionally slumberous pacing in the first hour of The Hateful Eight is meant to build up excitement for when Ruth and his passengers finally arrive at the lodge but it comes across more as a storyteller spinning his wheels while we wait for the movie to start. While the dialogue between Mannix and Warren is likely the sharpest in the film, it doesn’t come close to matching the poetry and poignancy of passages from films like Inglorious Basterds and Pulp Fiction.
Unlike those movies, The Hateful Eight is severely lacking when it comes to compelling characters. Tarantino clearly went for the quantity over quality method here with eight loathsome characters who hardly possess any distinguishable traits beyond boorishness and sadistic self-interest. It’s possible to write an interesting story about eight “bad guys” sharing a room for the night but it’s an especially bad idea to paint their personalities in broad strokes and then ask us to care about anything that happens to them as individuals.
Most disappointing, however, is the depiction of violence in the film’s second half. This is an area that I’ve noticed Tarantino begin to slip since the conclusion of his last film Django Unchained. There used to be an artfulness and craft to his action sequences that now feels like it’s been superseded by laziness and sensationalism. A primary example is the extended flashback that comprises the film’s fifth chapter, which adds very little context to the main narrative and whose only purpose seems to be to raise the overall body count. Tarantino has always seemed steadfast on topping his previous effort but The Hateful Eight is a sign that it may be time for him to reign things in.
Set in the fall of 2001, Spotlight takes its name from the select sector of Boston Globe journalists who, through months of rigorous investigation, uncovered a pattern of sex abuse crimes kept under wraps within the Catholic Church. Along with Globe editors Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and Ben Bradlee (John Slattery), the story focuses on the four members of the Spotlight team: Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). Together, they doggedly piece through years of evidence and eventually publish the scathing exposé that would take the world by storm.
It’s likely that this is the most heartfelt love letter to newspaper journalism ever put on film. There are a multitude of small details, from set design choices to nuances in the actors’ performances, that clue us into how these investigative minds really work and what it’s like to live a journalist’s life. My personal favorite inclusion is the ever-present pocket-size note pads and frantically scribbling pens, which are seen so often that they practically become main characters in the story. Director Tom McCarthy is fascinated with how these professionals operate on a day-to-day basis and his admiration for their work shines brightly throughout Spotlight.
He also has a commendable dedication to telling this story ethically and with a great deal of integrity, which is not only critical for a movie based on true events but also for one whose central scandal is still in the process of unfolding. As is the case for these type of films, there are many opportunities to take artistic license in trying to spice up the content but the dramatic flourishes are few and far between. Playing it straight doesn’t always make for the most exciting or dramatically fulfilling cinema out there but when it comes to true story adaptation, I’ll take the honest, humble version over the gaudy, glamorized version any day of the week.
This ethic also carries over to the casting as well, as none of the actors (with the possible exception of Ruffalo) seem to be interested in putting on showy performances for award consideration. Instead, they wisely focus on the studious nature of these characters and the work that they carry out together as a team. The film is economical in its opportunities for us to glimpse into the personal lives of the journalists but perhaps even that is by design: we’re kept at a similar distance as the subjects that they interview. Despite the potential lack of depth with the lead characters, the crime victims are thankfully portrayed with the dignity and empathy that they deserve.
I’d be remiss not to mention the overwhelming Oscar buzz that is prematurely swarming this movie. While the nominations have yet to be announced (January 14th is the date for that) and I have yet to see all of the likely front-runners, it’s easy to see why Spotlight is leading in the Best Picture talk. It has the kind of qualities that the Academy frequently fawns over: based on true events, timely subject matter, a recognizable veteran cast. Something about its approach feels a bit too modest for me to throw overwhelming adoration its way but as a piece of workmanlike filmmaking, it’s a respective and responsible effort.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a number of notable films have been released with the intent of showcasing the collapse from varying perspectives. J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call depicted the final days of an unnamed Wall Street bank through the eyes of its financial analysts, while Curtis Hanson’s Too Big To Fail showed the meltdown through the US government officials and bank executives who were forced to come together to save the economy. Based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 bestseller, The Big Short focuses on a different group entirely: a select band of Wall Street “outsiders” who saw the credit bubble develop before anyone else did.
It starts with hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who notices a massive spike in subprime mortgage loans and decides that it would be profitable to effectively bet against the housing market through credit default swaps. This catches the attention of hotshot investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and after a misplaced phone call from his secretary, day trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell) runs with the idea as well. When Baum and his team dig deeper into how these overrated packaged loans were perpetrated, they uncover a staggering level of fraud that threatens to take down not only the US housing market but the entire world economy as well.
The primary reason that this film flounders comes down to one simple fact: director Adam McKay simply does not know how to handle this material. He has the unenviable task of having to explain macroeconomic theory and terminology while also attempting to get us invested in the motivations of a host of unlikable characters, all while adding a supposed layer of zany self-aware humor into the mix. McKay has proven in the past that he can make us laugh (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) but when he’s tasked to take a complex narrative like this and try to make it funny, he comes across as a woefully incompetent storyteller.
It doesn’t help matters that The Big Short has a surprisingly unpleasant look to it too. From scattershot editing to distracting camera zooms to baffling black-and-white freeze frames, there are off-putting visual choices in just about every scene. Other bizarre touches like the distracting, fake-looking hair on the main actors or the stock footage montages of pop cultural milestones (with the indulgent inclusion of McKay’s own short “The Landlord”) crop up without warning and don’t seem to do much but deter from the main story at hand.
For those interested in learning more about the factors that led to the 2008 financial crisis in a more straight-forward approach, I can’t recommend the 2010 documentary Inside Job highly enough. That film lays out many of the same concepts that are also explored here but does so in a way that values the intelligence of the viewer instead of relying on condescending cameos for clarification. The Big Short had a chance to put a humorous spin on sobering true events but the lack of vision behind it makes it a frustrating miscalculation.
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.