Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Best and Worst films of 2015

Top 10 Movies of 2015
Spotlight- Terrific ensemble acting in the riveting true expose of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
The Martian- Matt Damon as a stranded astronaut on Mars was suspenseful, exciting and filled with unexpected humor.
The Big Short- Impressive yet highly stylized version of the events leading to the Mortgage crisis of 2008 with an excellent cast including an outstanding performance by Steve Carell.
Sicario- Emily Blount, Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro were excellent in this tension filled southern border crime drama.
Brooklyn- Wonderful period drama filled with emotion about family and finding oneself. Soairse Ronan is luminescent.
White God- The best film ever about a dog trying to survive in a hostile world and the teenage girl trying to find him. Great back story as well about the shelter dogs used in the film.
Inside Out- Leave it to Pixar to create an animated film that was the most emotional movie of the year and certainly not for kids.
Room- Riveting drama of maternal love and devotion that was devastating as well as beautiful. Incredible acting by Brie Larson and Jacob Trembley.
The Hateful Eight- Tarantino…love him or hate him but nobody makes movies like him. “Ten Little Indians” meets “Reservoir Dogs”.
Trumbo- Communist paranoia runs rampant in the America of the 1950’s. Another great ensemble cast led by an outstanding Bryan Cranston as the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

Honorable Mention-
Slow West- an unconventional western that upends the genre.
Love & Mercy- Brian Wilson bio featuring Paul Dano and John Cusack as Wilson in the early and later years of his career. Dano’s scenes creating “Pet Sounds” gives you goosebumps.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens- If you’re a fan, it’s spectacular (even if it seems too much like déjà vu).
Mad Max: Fury Road- The most action packed visceral film this year with Charlize Theron stealing the film from Tom Hardy. Loses some points for basically being a one trick pony.
Mr. Holmes- a great script and the impeccable Ian McKellen. What else do you need?
’71- A terrific thriller that takes place in Belfast Ireland during the “Troubles”. Jack O’Connell is terrific as a British Soldier caught in the conflict.

Worst 10 Movies of 2015
The Fantastic Four- Worst version yet. Utterly unfantastic.
Jupiter Ascending- Sloppy, confusing and Channing Tatum with elf ears.
Blackhat-  Total mess of a cyber thriller.
Black Sea- A submarine sinks and so does the film.
Tomorrowland- a two hour PSA to save the planet.
Poltergeist (2015)- Such an unnecessary remake. Stick to the original.
Rikki & the Flash- Meryl Streep found a way to embarrass herself and Kevin Kline too.
No Escape- that’s what the audience kept thinking as the silly film ran its course.
Crimson Peak- All style and no substance. A terrible ghost story.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.- Again, all style and no substance. Dishonors the original TV show.


     The latest collaboration between Writer/director David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence, Robert DeNiro, and Bradley Cooper. "Joy" is based on the true story of Joy Mangano, a self made entrepreneur,  who created the "Miracle Mop". 

       Mr. O. Russell was not interested in a simple bio and instead stylizes Joy's story into a bigger than life fable. Mr. De Niro plays her father, Virginia Madsen plays her mother, Edgar Ramirez, her ex-husband Tony and Diane Ladd, her grandmother.  It is a very dysfunctional family and the movie begins in a state of chaos.

       When she gets the idea for her mop,  Joy asks her divorced father's new girlfriend, played by Isabella Rosselllini, to invest in her invention.  Initially things do not go well but once she meets Neil Walker, an executive at QVC, played with confidence by Bradley Cooper, things begin to turn around.

          The film is a testament to one woman's resolve but it's a universal tale that will empower women everywhere. Joy is a force to be reckoned with and watching her personal growth throughout the film, you can't help but root for her. Ms. Lawrence carries the film on her back with ease. She continues to grow as an actress with every film. 

            I am a fan of Mr. O. Russell but I didn't find "Joy" to be his best work. The acting is first rate but I found his direction odd at times and the story didn't quite resonant with me. Of course I am not a young entrepreneurial woman but I did go in with an open mind.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Revenant

          The latest film from director Alejandro G. Innarittu is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, a trapper and guide in the 1800's. The story is one of survival and revenge. Mr. Glass is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, in what has to be the most physically demanding role of his career. Mauled by a bear and incredibly wounded, he is at first kept alive by the other trappers in his party but when it becomes clear he is dragging them down and a burden, they leave him behind to die watched over by his son and two of the other trappers. 

          Tom Hardy plays Fitzgerald, one of the trappers tending to Glass who commits two terrible acts that are the catalyst for the remainder of the film. Mr. Hardy makes a worthy villain and adversary. The film also co-stars Domhnall Gleason as Captain Andrew Henry, the leader of the group forced to make the tough decision to leave Glass behind. Both Mr. Hardy and Mr. Gleason have been the most ubiquitous actors of 2015 but they deserve all the work they are getting.

         The cinematography is outstanding, framing the beautiful winter wilderness where the film takes place. Written in part by Mr. Innarittu, certain elements of Mr. Glass's story are fictionalized for effect to create a stronger emotional bond to the character. Mr. DiCaprio has little dialog but his physical acting skills are remarkable as we watch him mauled, beaten, bruised, nearly drowned, almost frozen, fall off a cliff, as well as horrible acts of man testing him to his limits. To say he earns his salary on this film is an understatement.

          Mr. Innarittu interweaves his narrative with beautiful shots of nature. Cuts to streams, rivers, treetops, clouds, mountains take place throughout the film to remind us of the beauty of nature and man's small place in it. However, it drags the story out longer than necessary. While a technical and acting marvel, the film could easily have been 20 minutes shorter and still have the impact Mr. Innarittu ultimately achieves.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Big Short

    Director Adam McKay, known for outrageous comedies, takes on Wall Street with this highly stylized version of the mortgage housing collapse of 2008. Dramatic in nature but still filled with plenty of laughs (some unintentional), the film hits a hard reality in a very entertaining way.

     The film stars Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry (who first predicted the collapse), Steve Carrell as Mark Baum (who quickly became a believer), Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett (who brings the information to Baum looking for investors) and Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert (a retired investor mentoring two young upstarts). Obviously everyone is portraying a real person and while it seems over the top, it's really on the money (pun intended). Mr. Carrell is just terrific as Mr. Baum. His tired resignation at the end (despite becoming very rich) is so human and honest, you almost forgive him for profiting from the disaster. Mr. Bale is also quite good as the very odd but brilliant Dr. Michael Burry. He actually seems to regret how much money he makes from the collapse.

       Mr. McKay makes some interesting choices to help explain Wall Street terminology and financial maneuvering to the audience.  Mr. Gosling narrates and frequently breaks the 4th wall speaking directly to the camera. An odd assortment of "celebrities" explain complicated terms in simple terms, again, directly to the audience.  Definitions appear written on screen. You would think all the breaks in the narrative would be disruptive but you get used to it fairly quickly and it does help to break things down in layman's terms for a wide audience.   

        This is a cautionary tale that, unfortunately, will quickly fade into the history books and and life will go on...on Wall Street and little pink houses everywhere.  


          Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. The brain disease that has crippled and killed far too many football players now has a name, thanks to Dr. Bennet Omalu. This new drama is based on the true story of Dr. Omalu's discovery and struggle to convince the National Football League to acknowledge that condition was real.

           What elevates this film from a Lifetime "movie of the week" is the incredible performance of Will Smith as Dr. Omalu and the taut script from writer/director Peter Landesman. Mr. Smith dominates the film like a Pro Bowl quarterback. His acting is impeccable, whether he is going face to face with The NFL or quietly and subtly falling in love with Gugu Mbatha-Raw who plays his tenant and eventual wife, Prema.

           CTE can only be detected after death and as a coroner working in Pittsburgh, Dr. Omalu finds himself performing the autopsy on Mike Webster (an almost unrecognizable David Morse), a beloved former Pittsburgh Steeler, that leads him to his discovery. The film plays like a mystery thriller, with Dr. Omalu first discovering the disease and then proving to the NFL that it's killing former players. 

            Supporting him from the start is his boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht, played very convincingly by Albert Brooks (who continues to shine in dramatic roles) and later, Alec Baldwin as Dr. Julien Bailes. The film also features Mike O'Malley, Stephen Moyer, Eddie Marstan, Arliss Howard, Luke Wilson, and Adawale  Akinnuoye-Agbaje as various doctors and members of the NFL. Each has small but significant roles to play in Dr. Omalu's story.

           Men who play the violent sport of football know they risk injury on every play but the long lasting effects of repetitive head trauma is not so simple a diagnosis. Concussion protocols early on have been completely rewritten since CTE has been brought to light.

           Balancing a story of medical discovery against an emotional journey of a pragmatic immigrant's struggle to better understand the country he has come to love, "Concussion" scores a touchdown on multiple levels. 

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Hateful Eight

             A group of strangers are forced to wait out a  Colorado blizzard at a stagecoach stopover called Minnie's Haberdashery. The majority of this three hour film takes place in this singular location where alliances are made and broken, secrets are revealed and much blood is eventually spilled. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino's new western plays like "Ten Little Indians" meets "Reservoir Dogs".  It is inflammatory, ultra violent and immensely entertaining ...everything you would expect from Mr. Tarantino.

             The cast is a mix of Tarantino favorites as well as some new faces and everyone is terrific. Kurt Russell is John Ruth, a bounty hunter on his way to Red Rock with his prisoner, Daisy Domergue, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The rest of the ensemble is Samuel Jackson as Major Warren, Demian Bichir as Bob, Michael Madsen as Joe Gage, Walton Goggins as Chris Mannix, Tim Roth as Oswaldo Mobray and Bruce Dern as General Smithers. There are other characters but I don't want to spoil any surprises. Mr. Russell is tough as hardened leather doing his best John Wayne impression. Walton Goggins is terrific as the racist "sheriff" and Mr. Jackson is outstanding as Major Warren. A Tarantino regular, his chameleon-like ability to inhabit his parts so completely, makes him unique with every film. Ms. Leigh steals the film as Daisy. Only a daring actress like Ms. Leigh would tackle this difficult role. During the course of the film, she is physically put through the ringer, leaving her bloodied, bruised and battered pretty much from the onset.

             This is a character driven story and watching this great cast go through their paces with Mr. Tarantino's dialog and direction never leaves a dull moment. Like many of his films, the story is divided up into chapters and the first few take their time setting up an insane second half. A throw back to the "event" films of the '50's and '60's, "The Hateful Eight" comes complete with an overture, an intermission and even a souvenir booklet.  It is after the intermission that things move very rapidly to it's bloody conclusion. The film itself is also shot in 70 millimeter with a wide angle lens giving it a pristine full screen appearance that can't be recreated with today's digital projection. Mr. Tarantino is calling this limited release the "Roadshow Engagement" and if you have the chance, this is the way you should see the film before it goes wide.

            Mr. Tarantino does not shy away from hot button dialog or brutally misogynistic treatment of his female characters. Along with the visceral violence, this may turn many away from the film, but if you consider the time period and setting (a few years after the Civil War), you can appreciate the authenticity Mr. Tarantino is looking to deliver. This film, like the seven before it is quintessential Quentin Tarantino. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

        Written by J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, the script has taken the spirit and adventure of the original Episode IV and improved on it in every way. The direction by Mr. Abrams is perfect. He deftly manages the technical aspects of the multiple battle sequences but also knows exactly how to handle the human element which sets the bar far above episodes 1-3. He pays tribute to the past by updating the future and weaves intriguing original ideas into a world many of us already recognize.

         The film works on every level for old and new fans alike. For the original fans, just the sight of the opening words...."a long time ago..." is enough to give you goosebumps. Reuniting the original stars in unexpected ways keeps the audience guessing and cheering throughout the film.

          Introducing new leads can be tricky but the new cast is terrific. Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is a surprisingly good villain. Daisy Ridley as Rey,  John Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe are all introduced with this film and it's clear early on that they will quickly become important pieces of the Star Wars universe. And the new droid, BB-8 is an instant fan favorite.

        Even if it does rehash the familiar plot of blowing up an even bigger "death Star", this is spectacular entertainment. I can't wait to see it again and episode VIII can't come soon enough.


        Beautifully photographed and meticulously acted, "Carol" is a highly romantic melodrama  starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. It is also exceedingly slow and rather dull as it charts the course of a forbidden love in the 1950's.

         Ms. Blanchett plays Carol, a married woman drawn to Ms. Rooney's  Therese, a young department store clerk with a talent for photography. They begin a courtship that leads to love and a tedious road trip to escape New York and Carol's lovelorn husband, played by Kyle Chandler. Directed by Todd Haynes and based on a short story by Patricia Highsmith, the film bookends nicely with Mr. Haynes other '50's melodrama, "Far From Heaven" (a far better film, however). 

           The  pacing and style deliberately overshadow a weak plot that never reveals much about these unlikable women and what motivates them in the first place. Sarah Paulson fills in some of the blanks as a friend and ex-lover of Carol but it's not enough to provide sympathy or even empathy for these characters. 

            The film lures you in with it's lush recreation of the period and the highly stylized acting of it's leads but it ultimately leaves you as unfulfilled as it's characters. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015


       Bryan Cranston stars as legendary Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo who was blacklisted as a communist threat in the 1950's. Simply put, he is outstanding in the role.

       Directed by Jay Roach, the film mixes fictionalized scenes (based in fact) with archival footage to trace Dalton's life during this dark period in America when Russia was our greatest threat and the cold war caused rampant paranoia and fear. Mr. Dalton and hundreds like him were blacklisted, couldn't work and even ended up in jail.

         Serious in nature but still very entertaining, the film is a metaphor for issues still facing this country today. The supporting cast includes Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, Diane Lane as Cleo Trumbo, Elle Fanning as Niki Trumbo,  John Goodman as Frank King and Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird. They are a wonderful ensemble that bring the period to vivid life.

               The film however, is a triumph for Mr. Cranston. He's in almost every scene and embodies Mr. Trumbo in body and soul. This is a performance and a film, not to be missed.