Tag Archives: 2015

Creed ***|****

Michael B. Jordon and Sylvester Stallone in Creed
Michael B. Jordon and Sylvester Stallone in Creed

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.

Spectre **|****

Monica Bellucci and Daniel Craig in Spectre
Monica Bellucci and Daniel Craig in Spectre

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.

Goodnight Mommy ****|****

Elias Schwarz and Lukas Schwarz in Goodnight Mommy
Elias Schwarz and Lukas Schwarz in Goodnight Mommy

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.

Sicario ***½|****


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.

The Martian ***½|****

Matt Damon in The Martian
Matt Damon in The Martian

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.

The Walk ***|****

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Walk
Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Walk
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.

The End of the Tour ***|****

The End of the Tour
Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel in The End of the Tour
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.

The Tribe **|****

The Tribe
The Tribe
“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.

The Gift **½|****

Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall in The Gift
Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall in The Gift

Australian actor Joel Edgerton makes his directorial debut with the slow-burn, psychological thriller The Gift, a film that builds up quite a case for itself until its clumsy climax manages to tarnish the memory of its well-devised setup. The script, also penned by Edgerton, does include an appealing level of ambiguity not often showcased in modern American movies but it also doesn’t do much to sidestep genre clichés that crop up periodically in the story. In some ways, it is a mature film with worthy themes but it also feels like it’s trying very hard to be a movie “for adults”, often delving into oppressive levels of self-seriousness just to keep a straight face.

We meet LA newcomers Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) as they move into their luxurious new home with the intention of starting a new life and with hope, a new family as well. While out running errands, a man named Gordo (Edgerton, again) introduces himself to Simon as an old classmate from his high school years ago and the two awkwardly exchange contact information. What started as an “accidental” run-in develops quickly into a one-sided relationship when Gordo continually drops by for unannounced visits and sneaks unexpected gifts onto their doorstep. Eventually put off by the “friendly” displays, Simon insists on Gordo vacating their personal lives but it becomes clear that the two have unresolved issues that Gordo intends to rectify by any means necessary.

The story and the film’s marketing hinge on this central mystery, the event(s) in the buried past of these two men that will ultimately lead to a climatic showdown. Edgerton does an admirable job in pacing the first half that leads to this moment and although the reveal is thankfully not done through blurry flashbacks or overwrought voiceover, its delivery is instead so underwhelming that I initially thought I missed out on all of the key information. It turns out that I didn’t; I was just expecting a revelation that matched the impact of its build up.

Despite struggles with the story, the performances by the three leads are excellently rendered and contribute to the near-success of this movie. Bateman turns in his finest dramatic work here, oddly enough by using similar notes from his type-A, straight man persona in comedic works to reveal depths of desperation and disrepair hidden right under the surface. Edgerton creates a character who is steeped in creeping menace but is still not beyond fleeting moments of pity, while the always reliable Hall lends a conflicted sense of emotional intelligence that raises the dramatic stakes early on.

It’s a shame that the second half and specifically the final 15-20 minutes are mishandled because there’s a strong foundation present here. If only Edgerton had stayed true to the characters instead of trying to contrive an ending intended to be shocking rather than haunting. I look forward to seeing what he does next but a few rookie mistakes kept me from graciously receiving The Gift.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation ****|****

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

For almost 20 years now, the Mission: Impossible series has distinguished itself by involving various high-profile directors for each entry, all of whom bring their own unique set of sensibilities to the table. From the non-stop cliffhanger approach of JJ Abrams to the cartoon-inspired setpieces of Brad Bird, each film feels like a director’s self-contained argument on how to create the perfect action movie. Christopher McQuarrie, of Usual Suspects fame, steps up for the fifth entry in the franchise and makes the strongest case yet by creating the most outrageously entertaining and consistently enjoyable M:I movie in the series.

We rejoin IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) as he finds himself at odds with the Syndicate, a shadow organization comprised of ex-operatives from intelligence divisions across the world. One of its members, Ilsa Faust (newcomer Rebecca Ferguson), is a perpetually elusive femme fatale type who forms a makeshift alliance with Hunt based on mutual interests. Along with returning IMF recruits Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), Hunt must stay one step ahead of the Syndicate’s head Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) as he attempts to create a new world order, one violent act at a time.

As is typical, the plot is an elaborate excuse on which to hang extended action setpieces that move the story along at a reasonable pace. While there’s nothing in this movie that quite equals the masterful, series-best Burj Khalifa sequence of its predecessor, it does contain about 4 or 5 exquisitely well-crafted action scenes that come very close to besting it. Advertising of the film has focused on the opening sequence, which literally has its star Tom Cruise hanging off the side of an airplane mid-flight, but the most pleasant surprise is that none of the other sequences feel like a letdown by comparison.

It should go without saying at this point that Tom Cruise gives everything that he has to these movies. At 53, he’s pulling off stunt work that actors half of his age would be proud to accomplish. His dedication and commitment to the increasingly ludicrous demands of the M:I movies is not only admirable but it also goes a long way in selling his performances each time out. When we know that it’s truly Cruise holding his breath underwater for minutes at a time or careening through highway traffic helmet-less at top speeds on a motorcycle, it creates a thrilling sense of peril that just can’t be matched.

I should note that I also saw this film in both digital IMAX and “true” 70 mm IMAX formats and I would highly encourage readers to seek it out in either form. Not only is the visual experience vastly expanded but the sonic quality is much more sophisticated and powerful than what the common movie theater offers. No matter which way you choose to see it, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is top-notch entertainment, proof that an action movie made at the highest level can be a true work of art.