Film Reviews

Sheepdog David Grant’s 19th Annual Academy Awards Contest Results!!!

THE BROADCAST

We live in a very different America than we did last year.  While there has always been angst regarding the Academy Awards acting as a platform for political views, we had never had a sitting president call Meryl Streep “overrated” before.  After her comments at The Golden Globes – which could basically be boiled down to: Please stop bullying Hollywood, foreigners, the press, and handicapped people, Mr. President – Trump supporters vowed to boycott the Oscars.  This shouldn’t be too surprising to anyone who is paying attention.  The right have long derided “the left coast,” and now they finally have an administration eager to end funding to the arts.

A lot of people were expecting heavy political messages this year, and there were a couple.  When Iran’s “The Salesman” won Best Foreign Language Film, a statement was read by the filmmaker, who refused to come to America as long as we have a president that has openly discussed a “Muslim ban.”  While presenting, Gael Garcia Bernal told a truth about how all those in the film industry are migrant workers who go to other countries to craft their work.  And several jokes were made that teased at the division in our country.  Overall, however, it was kind of lite on hardline statements.

Normally I would do a segment entitled “On a Very Special Episode Of…” that goes in depth into the greater theme the broadcast seemed to be on a crusade to discuss, but it fits in so nicely here.  The reality is that they were going for something more mainstream and neutral this year, aiming to please as many people while spreading out the monolog throughout the program and keeping a tight schedule.  It worked pretty well, but it would have been rather unforgettable had Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway not announced La La Land as Best Picture when Moonlight had actually won.

But there were two themes that did come up.

The first was not a new one.  We’ve seen it a lot since 9/11, actually.  And the year that there was controversy surrounding the rise of superhero movies, the perceived decline of films with depth, and fans that were upset that The Dark Knight was snubbed, the Academy went to extra lengths to elevate the films that were actually given the nod, going as far as to have host Hugh Jackman use his Wolverine street-cred to sing a song in his opening monologue about the subject.  Movies are important.  Storytelling is important.  Film is an important industry, not just for the American economy but for the world’s.

The second was only lightly touched on, but it’s exactly what I thought they should have focused on.  You see, in calling for others to boycott the Oscars, the Trumpeters said things like, “Why do we give awards to actors and not the real heroes?”  First, we do, and if it made for good T.V., you better believe they would air it.  It should go without saying that Hollywood is indeed rewarding the best work in their industry, but their industry routinely pays tribute to real-world heroes.  Captain “Sully” Sullenberg.  Desmond Doss.  The hidden figures that put a man on the moon.  People who adopt and raise children.  Not to mention all the real-world heroes in the documentary subjects!  By bringing famed scientist Katherine Johnson, who Taraji P. Henson played in Hidden Figures, onto the stage to a standing ovation, the point was made.

“Movies about the lives of men and women in the history books have long been a staple of storytellers,” Monae told the audience. “Sometimes the names and deeds of the heroes in those films are known to all.”

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THE BEST ACCEPTANCE SPEECH

The best acceptance speech for an Oscar this year was not during this broadcast.  It actually came from Jackie Chan, who won a lifetime achievement award during an earlier ceremony.  You can watch that speech here.

However, if we’re just looking at the televised ceremony, then the winner would be Viola Davis, who extolled the storytellers to “exhume those bodies.”  You can see that here.

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ALSO DEAD:

They always leave people off the memoriam.  This year, the following people were missing:

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Alexis Arquette (actor)

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Florence Henderson (actor)

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Dan Ireland (producer)

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Jon Polito (actor)

GALLERY

Dorris Roberts (actor)

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Garry Shandling (actor, comedian)

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Robert Vaughn (actor)

 

NOT DEAD:

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Producer, Jan Chapman, whose picture was mistakenly used for costume designer Janet Patterson.

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A SPECIAL TRIBUTE:

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Known for The White Shadow, 1776, Rambo, 30 Rock, and 105 other credits, Ken Howard was also the President of SAG/AFTRA, Chancellor of the National Kidney Foundation, a board member of the Los Angeles Alzheimer’s Committee, a board member of Shambala Animal Preserve, and a national spokesperson for the Onyx and Breezy Foundation.  I had the pleasure of knowing him a little during my tenure at Kent State. He was attending the graduate program and taught a few classes that I was in. He coached me in a couple of monologues.  He was a no-nonsense kind of guy that was very particular about what he considered good acting.  He ended one class with an open q & a. The rest of the class kind of waited, unsure of what to ask and looking to each other to break the ice. I put my hand up right away and asked him about working with Sylvester Stallone.  He chuckled and told a few good-natured stories.  That got things going.

RIP, Ken.

 

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MY FAVORITE PART OF THE SHOW

Bringing his favorite running gag from his late night show to the Academy Awards broadcast, Jimmy Kimmel made a lot of jokes at Matt Damon’s expense.  He has been his supposed arch-nemesis ever since he ended an episode with bad guests by quipping, “My apologies to Matt Damon.  We ran out of time.”  Upping the ante, former girlfriend Sarah Silverman surprised Jimmy with a music video for “I’m F#$%ing Matt Damon” and then taking it to a whole new level with his own response, “I’m F@#$ing Ben Affleck,” the fake-feud has led to a lot of great TV moments.

So. . .  After the insane confusion with the Best Picture mix-up, I had a lot of fun with my live Tweets.

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SCORE BOARD:

0 Correct Answers 0%
Nobody  
1 Correct Answer 4.1666%
Nobody  
2 Correct Answers 8.333%
Nobody  
3 Correct Answers 12.4999%
Nobody  
4 Correct Answers 16.666%
Tarah Hamilton  
5 Correct Answers 20.8333%
Nobody  
6 Correct Answers 24.999%
Elizabeth “E.J.” Jackson  
7 Correct Answers 29.1666%
Matt Ratz  
8 Correct Answers 33.333%
Jamie Mank  
Ann Murdock  
9 Correct Answers 37.4999%
Nobody  
10 Correct Answers 41.666%
Mike Maletic  
Leigh Ann Spratt  
11 Correct Answers 45.8333%
“Shawny” Shawn Page  
12 Correct Answers 49.999%
Regan Page  
David Shoemaker  
13 Correct Answers 54.1666%
Brian Stevens  
14 Correct Answers 58.333%
Victoria Leduc  
15 Correct Answers 62.4999%
David Grant  
Stella Ingram  
16 Correct Answers 66.666%
???????  
17 Correct Answers 70.8333%
Nobody  
18 Correct Answers 74.999%
Nobody  
19 Correct Answers 79.1666%
Nobody  
20 Correct Answers 83.333%
Nobody  
21 Correct Answers 87.4999%
Nobody  
22 Correct Answers 91.666%
Nobody  
23 Correct Answers 95.8333%
Nobody  
24 Correct Answers 100%
Nobody  

 

WALL OF FAME

1999 – Elizabeth Grant

2000 – Eric Fox

2001 – Jillaine Gill

2002 – Eric Fox, Nate Hodges, and Drew Lerman– 13 correct guesses (no tie breaker)

2003 – Eric Fox– 15 correct guesses

2004 – Kevin Schwendeman– 20 correct guesses

2005 – Nate Hodges– 16 correct guesses

2006 – Jes Antolik and Leigh Ann Spratt — 14 correct guesses (Leigh Ann won the tie breaker)

2007 – Jillaine Gill — 16 correct guesses

2008 – Rock Shaink Jr — 14 correct guesses

2009 – Benjamin Crusoe — 18 correct guesses

2010 – Holly Elswick — 17 correct guesses

2011 – Elizabeth Grant — 17 correct guesses

2012 – Christian Hodges and Kevin Schwendeman — 18 correct guesses (Christian won the tie breaker)

2013 – Sheepdog David Grant — 19 correct guesses

2014 – Sheepdog David Grant — 21 correct guesses

2015 – Brian Stevens — 20 correct guesses

2016 – Holly Elswick and Brian Stevens — 17 correct guesses

 

AND THE WINNER IS…

With 16 correct guesses…

 

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Holly Elswick!!!

What makes a great romance? An exploration of ‘LA LA Land’

 

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Like The Artist before it, LA LA Land is a film that dares to think backward while telling a story that tells a story for a forward thinking audience.  It is a film that feels timeless, an instant classic.  Movie-goers feel like they are watching something akin to Singing in the Rain, Rebel without a Cause, and especially Casablanca.

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“I SHOULD PROBABLY TELL YOU SOMETHING NOW – I HATE JAZZ.”

Just as last year’s Whiplash had jazz purists saying, “That’s not how you become a great jazz musician,” LA LA Land has gotten some criticism for oversimplifying the genre into a “hackneyed cliché.”  While these would be fair criticisms of films that boast of being a thorough and definitive exploration of the genre, neither of these movies are actually about jazz.

LA LA Land’s got rhythm pumping through its veins from beginning to end, but the conversations in the film about the music style are used to clarify the metaphor.  Both metaphors, actually.

In one figurative sense, a jazz song is like a love story.  It is alive, improvisational, happens in the moment, and happens once.  You have to be there for it, paying attention and feeling it, or you’ll miss it.  This is a jazz song about two young hopefuls with stars in their eyes.  They find each other in a town that’s become stale, each filled with ambition to change their little piece of the world.

The second thing that jazz represents in LA LA Land film is the town in which the story takes place.   Hollywood – specifically the culture of film – is changing.  The classic cinema that this film lifts up is “dying on the vine.”  When Mia, a talented and yet frustrated actress, tells Sebastian, an equally frustrated jazz-obsessed musician, that she doesn’t like jazz, she might as well be saying, “I don’t like black and white movies.”

A writer tries to chat up Mia at a Hollywood party by telling her his specialty is “world building.”  He tells her he’s working on a “reimagining” of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, and the way he describes it makes it sound ridiculous and familiar.  As he explains that he sees it as “a franchise,” it sounds like the kind of project that could be in development right now.  This trend is comparable to the “smooth jazz” station that you put on at parties and talk over.  It doesn’t challenge or move you, because it’s elevator music.  The only debate left when talking about the popcorn fair that breaks the box office these days (Batman v. Superman, Transformers, X-Men, TMNT, etc.) is whether or not it’s actually any good.

Make no mistake, however, when it comes to that second analogy, LA LA Land isn’t a stickler for stringent traditionalism.  You can’t grow your audience if you only play for an aging audience.  You have to appeal to young people without losing the guiding principles of compelling storytelling.  Films, like great jazz, must continue to be revolutionary.

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“WHY DO YOU SAY ROMANTIC LIKE IT’S A DIRTY WORD?”

Romance stories are difficult to make compelling to a modern audience, and because of that, the genre often becomes stale and predictable.  Like the blockbusters that have come to dominate the large and small screen, modern romance stories tend to involve gimmicks and props (i.e. vampire/werewolf/human love triangles, zombie/human partnerships, or the trust-fall exercise that is a sadomasochistic relationship).  Still, instead of having mass appeal, as it once did, the romance genre has become a niche market that is often enjoyed as a guilty pleasure, usually in a bubble bath with a glass of white wine.

This is not the moment for romance stories.  In decades past, romantic-comedies were an enormous part of the industry.  I’ve heard commentary from producers that made their entire careers off that business that has bemoaned the loss.  They often speak of the quality of the films that have replaced them, insisting that the loss of rom-coms signifies a decline for Hollywood.  They refer to old stereotypes (“She’d see his comic book movie, and he’d go see her romance”), but that misses the point.

That being said, the musical is all but dead on the big screen.  The modern musical – if such a thing exists in film – exists in the form of a musician biopic (Ray, Walk the Line).  It can only be fiction if it’s purely on the soundtrack (The Great Gatsby) or if it’s centered around a music venue (Rock of Ages) or a rock star (School of Rock).  Aside from rare exceptions (Les Miserables), movie characters have only been allowed to sing where they would in the real world, such as on a stage (Ricki and The Flash).

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A BRIEF CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF

Are you saying that theaters full of mindless drivel that tell sloppy, incoherent stories?

Sure.

More so than before?

Depends on when you mean.

I mean – movies like The Lone Ranger?

Oh, or The Tickler!

The Tickler didn’t have the inflated budget of The Lone Ranger!

No, but let me tell you a story about Elizabeth Taylor and Cleopatra.

Come on!  That was a classic!

No.  It’s just old.  Just like The Lone Ranger, it was a flop when it came out, and it included similar cultural appropriation.

But some of these big blockbusters are actually pretty good.

I don’t care if your movie is Captain Philips or Captain America, if you’ve got a good script, some nuanced performances, and a competent director, I will support it.  I’m just sick of the cookie cutter stories.

And you think that the issue is more prevalent with big blockbusters?

Oh, no.  Remember when we were talking about rom-com producers talking about the decline of the genre and saying it’s a symptom of declining quality in Hollywood?

Yeah.

Well, for every As Good As It Gets or Silver Linings Playbook there was a Serendipity or a Failure to Launch.

So what separates a bad romance story from a good one?

GREAT QUESTION!

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WHAT MAKES A GREAT ROMANTIC STORY?

The prevailing consensus for romance movies seems to have been to write the main characters straight, and then write fun, interesting friends for them to get advice from.  It’s not something that doesn’t work.  After all, it comes from Shakespeare’s playbook.  If Much Ado about Nothing is the prototypical rom-com, then why wouldn’t you do that?  Write an ingénue character for the women to sympathize with.  Write a romantic man for the men to sympathize with, and if you think it will make things more palatable for the guys, simply give the male lead a gender-specific pastime, like sports.

The memorable parts of Much Ado about Nothing, however, don’t involve the young lovers.  It’s all about Benedict and Beatrice and their bickering, prickly, reluctant love story, which is why I couldn’t implore more for you to craft characters that are specific and flawed.

Let’s take a look back at a film that is reasonably considered the greatest romance ever put on celluloid, Casablanca.  Rick is a man with some principle, but he isn’t a hero.  He’s a broken man, haunted by a broken heart.  He has disappeared into a crowd of low-life criminals that prey on the innocent, and he doesn’t stick his neck out for anyone.  In walks Elsa, a complicated woman that Rick both loves and hates.  She carries a secret that is the only thing that can heal Rick, but it will only work if they are both willing to make sacrifices.  The “friend” characters are colorful because every character is colorful in this film.  Everyone is allowed to shine, and it makes for a story that is anything but dull.

Now, let’s take a closer look at what is possibly the best romantic movie in modern times to discuss the second main point.  The Notebook, also starring Ryan Gosling, takes a step back from the main ingredients of romantic storytelling and frames them in a context that gives everything greater weight and power.  The deeper subject, that of the power and longevity of love even in the face of debilitating illness has often fallen into clichés of its own.  Boy meets girl; girl gets cancer.  It’s the pitch that’s launched a thousand Lifetime Originals.

What makes both The Notebook and LA LA Land so remarkable is that they each craft the story in a way that it allows for each season of the romance to bloom to its fullest.  Make no mistake, they both come with a gut punch, but it isn’t played to manipulate the audience.  It is the poetic crux of the story.  The same can be said for Casablanca.  There is poetry in pain.  There is love in sacrifice.  There is redemption in compassion.

It’s obvious to anyone that has studied Plato’s Poetics, but the elements of a remarkable romance are the same as those for any great story:

  1. Plot
  2. Character
  3. Language
  4. Music
  5. Spectacle

Take care of each of those things, do it in that order of importance, and you’ll have something.  If you can incorporate Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, then you might end up with a cinematic treasure.

Needless to say, LA LA Land does all of this.

 

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Top Posts of 2016

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10. Keanu!!!, in which I review the Key and Peele film.

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9. How Should I Spend My Lottery Winnings, in which I make plans for a couple million bucks

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8. The DO’s and DON’T’s of Action Flicks, in which I compare and contrast the original Jack Reacher film with Skyfall

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7. How to Spot a Racist, a post that is even more important today than it was when I wrote it in 2013

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6. The Greatest Depictions of Single-Minded Emotion, a continuously popular blog

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5. VOTER’S GUIDE: California Propositions and Measures, a helpful voting tool

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4. Back Story, the story of my debilitating back injury and the miracle that went with it

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3. Ghostbusters (2016): A Superfan’s Perspective, my thoughts on the reboot

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2. Going Long: Reviews for “Kill Me Now” and “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie,” reviews of a couple of independent films made by popular Youtube artists

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1. Predator versus “Predator,” my take on female teacher sexual scandals

 

 

Ghostbusters (2016): A Superfan’s Perspective

My Qualifications

I am not an authority on “Ghostbusters.”  I do not own my own proton pack, have not engineered my own Ecto-1, and I’ve never drank an Ecto Cooler.  But people that know me have expressed interest in my thoughts on the new movie.

I do have a lot of paraphernalia from the first film.  Those are mainly gifts from people that know that the original 1984 film is tied for the top spot of movies in my heart (with “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “American Movie”).  And since I am such a movie enthusiast and because my passion for storytelling is boundless, that top spot means I can tell you details about the film to the tiniest minutia.

If it’s Ghostbusters related, I know about it, and I have something to say.

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So let me start off with a story about a ten year old kid.  I was excited so excited to be going to see my heroes on the big screen for the first time.  I had watched Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson on VHS and TV showings for years.  I had watched every episode of The Real Ghostbusters on Saturday mornings.  Despite being poor, I even had a couple of the action figures (the kind that animatedly freaked out when you pushed down an arm or squeezed their legs together).  Bill Murray was then and still is one of my favorite actors (one of my personal goals is to write a role for him that would win him an Oscar).  I didn’t know it then, but the original film would easily qualify as the film I would see more times in the theater than any other (usually on my birthday).  So when I watched “Ghostbusters 2” unspool on the big screen, I was about as excited as a kid could be.

But I’ll tell you something, that movie is terrible.  It uses convenient job changes that make no sense (Dana goes from world class musician to world class art historian, Luis Tully goes from passionate accountant to lackluster lawyer, all in five years?).  They completely change characters, forgetting what made Egon funny and have him hamming it up for the camera and having Janine go from mousey Queens nerd to flamboyant Queens hipster.  The logo was changed to show it was a sequel with no world-building reason for doing so.  And most importantly, it wasn’t funny.  There are a handful of funny lines in the movie, but overall, the first film was a much-improvised masterpiece, lightning in a bottle, and the second movie fell flat.  I was a child, and they were pandering to me, and I knew I was being pandered to and felt betrayed.

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For years they talked about a third movie, and for years I was in Bill Murray’s camp.  “We made a good one.  We made a bad one.  Why make anther one?”  And when Bill callously said he was concerned that “some of the people involved” had lost their taste, siting Harold Ramis’s “Year One,” I cringed for their unresolved personal relationship but was right there with him.

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My Expectations

So here comes the inevitable reboot.  I knew it was going to happen and had been bracing myself for it.  I even wrote this blog, which is a part of my “Re-Imagining” series that I sometimes do, the premise being “They’re going to remake it, so how could they do it where it could ever possibly satisfy me.”  Knowing the rumors that they were thinking of making a female version (and this was a couple of years ago), I had even included casting choices for that.  The only actor I could think of that could come close to Murray was Melissa McCarthy, so when she was cast, I was optimistic.  Really, the whole cast had me excited.  I’m a huge fan of Kristen Wiig, and I love what Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are doing on Saturday Night Live.  These are great choices.

I watched Paul Fieg’s “Spy,” “Bridesmaids,” and “The Heat” to get a feel for his work.  The first two were great, and the last one was at least funny.  So I was optimistic about his inclusion too.

 

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The Trailer

Then the trailer came out, and it was bad.  The most hated movie trailer in internet history.  It looked lame, unasked for, and worst of all, unfunny.  People were done being tricked into watching terrible movies based on beloved franchises. . .  Sick of Michael Bay’s adaptations. . .  Tired of tone deaf recitations of The Lone Ranger’s theme. . .  Fed up with darker, overly-shadowy versions of beloved icons, this would be the battleground on which they would make their stand and say, “No More!”

In response, the filmmakers called us all misogynists, and some of us undoubtedly were, but not all.

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Ghostbusters (2016)

Which brings me to last night, when I sat in a theater with 3D glasses.  It was the theater directly across from my old store, where I had staged a legendary release party for the video game that had come out seven years earlier.  A party that had authentic costumes and equipment, games and themed snacks, and a real-world, internationally acclaimed psychic who claimed to have talked to someone’s dead mother right there that night.  And there I sat with both high and low expectations.

What a relief when the movie was actually pretty good.

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The Negatives:

There are a few times when the movie makes choices that don’t make sense (Chris Hemsworth standing in the street, saying “I’m a part of the team” comes out of nowhere).  There are a few too many one-liner references to the source material.  And lines that should have been improvised away (“That’ll leave a mark” being the sorest thumb).  But it worked.  Aside from the cameos, which were well-paced and fun, the film hummed best when it stood on its own merits.  There are scenes that lay flat here, and then there are laugh out loud lines and moments that far outweigh those.  The middle of the movie is where it would have benefited from re-writes and skilled improvisation, and the end feels heavily edited.

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The Positives:

Here’s where I might take some crap.  While the first film is a better comedy, this one is a better ghost story.  The ghosts in this movie are beautiful and scary.  The explanation for the extra psychic-kinetic energy in the city is a fun new take.  And while the story of Zuul lingers in the background of a character-driven 80s comedy and only becomes the central figure in the third reel, this new movie’s grounded in that story from the first scene.

A lot of the stuff that bothered me in the trailer were fine in the film.  This is particularly true for Kate McKinnon’s character, which only makes sense when you spend some time with her.  Kate and Leslie Jones are the comic force of this movie, and they both steal scenes, blowing a hole through the television screen to step onto the big screen in a big way.  Still, Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig are the heart of the film, and they keep us grounded in the real world while so many strange things are happening around them.  The movie is about friendship and about how finding someone that gets you can save you from torment and ridicule (or at least from caring about that stuff as much), and after an hour and forty seven minutes with these characters, I wanted to see more of their story.

The film also lets the supporting cast shine in their own right.  Every actor that speaks, from Zach Woods to Karan Soni, Nate Corddry to Steve Higgins, Ed Begley Jr. to Andy Garcia, Cecily Strong to Chris Hemsworth, turns in a strong performance here.  And this honestly shouldn’t surprise you if you’re familiar with Paul Fieg’s work.

The busting also made me feel good.  No, really.  The whole way they fought ghosts was fresh, unique, and emotionally satisfying.

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In Summary:

It’s not a perfect 10.  It’s more of a 7.5.  But in the end, when it comes to material based on the “Ghostbusters” franchise, it stands above most of the rest.  It’s on par with the video game and the best episodes of the cartoon and comic books, and that’s a hell of an accomplishment.

We also learned something about how Hollywood works, didn’t we?  When the studio puts out a trailer the fans don’t like, you can either blame the studio or the fans.  I think by focusing on the most vocal bigots in the fan community, the filmmakers were able to get the studio to back them and get the fans that weren’t rabid woman haters to give the movie a chance.  It sure got ugly and made a lot of people defend themselves for simply worrying about what they were seeing, and it put the cast and director on the defensive.  That’s not the kind of atmosphere you want a big, nerdy love fest to come out in.

Finally, while I hate to tell people their opinions are incorrect, if someone tells you that “Ghostbusters 2” is a classic and this is trash, they’re dead wrong.

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UPDATE  10/15/2016:

I don’t really purchase movies anymore.  I have over three hundred DVDs and never load them, instead streaming Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime or watching Direct TV.  But since I’d really like to see a sequel in this new franchise, I ordered the Bluray for “Ghostbusters: Answer the Call,” which includes the extended cut.  Upon my second viewing, I have a few more things to say.

First of all, I’d like to acknowledge that the first hour of the film is pretty solid.  It’s the middle portion where most of the cuts could be made (some of which were), and if I had the job of doing the theatrical edits, I would have seriously considered leaving out anything that didn’t actively move the story forward.  That would unfortunately include Bill Murray’s scenes.   I think you could have left more of the middle on the editing room floor and left in more of the end.  As stated in my review, the end felt choppy and there were some things that didn’t make sense because of the edits that were made.

That being said, I actually prefer the extended cut.  In fact, some of the scenes that remained in the deleted scenes could have been put back in as well.  Overall, it wouldn’t approve on the score I gave the movie.  It would still be about a seven, but it is more of a comprehensive narrative.  Since I enjoyed what I saw, I don’t mind having more, even if the movie doesn’t kill me like it did during that first hour.

The day I got my Bluray, I woke up from a dream about the sequel that will probably never be.  I was thrilled that it was coming out, and I imagined that they would grow the material in more meaningful, emotionally grounded ways the second time around.  Let’s hope these girls get a second chance to answer the call.

Going Long – Reviews for “Kill Me Now” and “Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie”

Making the transition from shorts to features can inspire and challenge a storyteller.  It can unleash brilliant long-form ideas that may have lay dormant in their minds, but it can also expose weaknesses in their abilities that would likely go unnoticed in smaller doses.  With that in mind, I would like to focus on two full length films that have come about from two of my favorite filmmakers that I found on Youtube.

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Michael Swaim and his production company (Those Aren’t Muskets) is best known for his work on Cracked.com.  I’ve been a fan of his work since the days of Agents of Cracked and have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Swaim and several of my favorites actors from his short films.

They’re great.

“Kill Me Now” is written by Michael and lists Those Aren’t Muskets as one of the production companies in the credits.  Several of Swaim’s collaborators show up in various roles throughout the movie, including Kaitlin Large, Katie Stoll, Nick Mundy, Daniel Rubiano, Katie Willert, and Lisa Marie King.  Daniel O’Brien makes two brief cameos as well.  The film also stars  Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney (both current Saturday Night Live cast members),  Jacob Reed (Piranha 3D), and Brett Fancy (Outpost and Lost Christmas).

The film’s basic plot is one you are probably familiar with.  It’s a horror movie that centers around a teen party that takes place in a secluded cabin in the woods.  In some ways, it’s not much more complicated than that, but there are so many unexpected things that happen that I can’t say it’s a by-the-numbers slasher flick.  It’s not for several reasons, but there are two major areas that I would like to focus my commentary.

The first important thing here are the characters.  Swaim plays the classic Swaim role of the irresponsible party-boy, and it feels like every part is carefully written to fit each actors’ strengths.  You can tell that a lot of work went into this script, and the dialogue shines under Swaim’s polish.  Each of the characters is interesting and fun to watch.  This is admittedly kind of a weird thing to say, but when the lights go out in the cabin and everyone starts to panic, the thought that went through my mind was, “This is as close as we’ll ever get to a Muppet horror movie.”

I say that in the nicest possible way.

The second area where this differs from a standard horror movie is unfortunately a bit of a negative.  The small budget is felt in the big moments.  The crashes and slashes don’t play well.  Not because they are off camera – a lot of films have benefited greatly from allowing the viewer’s imagination to fill in those moments – but rather because the production didn’t seem as interested delivering those set-piece moments as it was in the delivery of the one-liners.

Overall, this is quite an enjoyable movie with surprises and great performances.  It’s the same vein as “Scream” and “Cabin in the Woods,” but while those two could satisfy both the audience that was in for the satire and the horror crowd, “Kill Me Now” is aimed straight for the funny bone.

You can watch the movie here.

ANGRY VIDEO GAME NERD: THE MOVIE

AVGN 02

The Angry Video Game Nerd has been a mainstay on Youtube since. . .  Well, since Youtube.  But before that, James Rolfe (the nerd) and his production company (Cinemassacre) were busy working on film projects.  In fact, James started making movies as a kid, and throughout the years, he’s developed some rather impressive skills for stretching a budget, even if his effects are  – as Rolfe puts it – intentionally made to look a little fake.

Rolfe’s idea is that if you can see how the effects are done that you will have more of an appreciation for them, and since the titular character is overtly retro (on gag involves the use of a record player in lieu of a car radio), the pre-CGI vibe works perfectly for this movie.

In many ways, AVGN suffers in areas where Kill Me Now thrives and is competent where the latter struggles.  Basically, the big set piece moments are thrilling, but the film would have benefited from better writing.  Truly, if we could combine the powers of Rolfe and Swaim, what we’d end up with would be something truly special.

But since that’s off point. . .

AVGN stars Rolfe, Jeremy Suarez (The Bernie Mac Show), and Sarah Glendening (All My Children).  Since the web series on which the film is based centers around reviews of bad old school games, the catalyst of the action was wisely set up to force the Nerd into digging up (pun) what legend holds as the worst video game of all time.

If the movie had merely been a long version of one of the episodes, it wouldn’t have worked at all.  Instead, AVGN is more about the twists and turns and set backs the characters must face before they can do the actual review (which happens in the final credits – spoiler, I guess).  Those obstacles include aliens, death robots, a carnival filled with zombies, a video game level come to life, and a giant monster that destroys Las Vegas.  In all of it, Rolfe’s love for classic cinema is on full display.

My final thoughts mostly circle around how impressed I am by what James was able to accomplish with such a limited budget.  Having made films myself, I was absolutely blown away by how much he managed to ring out of every dollar.  From the high profile cameo to the Bear McCreary (The Walking Dead) soundtrack, this movie is truly a labor of love, and as a testament to the twelve plus years that The Angry Video Game Nerd has been entertaining us, much of that labor and love came from its fans (Kickstarter contributors, McCreary, etc).  In the end,  this movie is a love letter to those fans, and I really don’t think the movie will play well to anyone else.

You can watch the movie here.

 

A Thief’s End – My Thoughts on Uncharted 4

Mild Spoilers.

Naughty Dog is easily one of my favorite developers, because they aren’t afraid to be traditional.  In an era when cut-scenes are considered old fashioned, their games are stuffed with them.  It’s not that the action comes to a grinding halt, there’s some story, and then there’s another movie.  The story continues with the action, but the storytellers behind the games utilize both narrative devices, interactivity and passive play, to create an engrossing, engaging, emotionally-involving experience for the players.

What I wouldn’t give to have Naughty Dog (or Tell Tale Games, who is also very story driven) take on Fallout, my favorite gaming franchise.

This TV spot for Uncharted 4 perfectly captures what these games are all about.

“Nathan Drake, that two-bit thief, risking it all for some piece of treasure.  I guess that’s how they know me.  How they’ll remember me.  But that’s not who I am.”

As he says this, the camera has us believe that Nathan is throwing himself toward a cave-in – toward almost certain death – for a gold coin that is spinning into the chasm, but in the end, he is reaching and putting himself on the line to save his brother, Sam.

Uncharted is a human story.  It’s about relationships.  And those elements are elevated by the perilous stakes.  By the beautiful surroundings.  By the thrill of discovery, the chase, and competition.  The adventure that you go on would be hollow if you were on it alone.

Through three previous games, Nathan’s relationships with his mentor and partner, Sully, and his now wife, Elaina, have come to feel real and vibrant.  The particularly great third part of the series solidified emotional context between these three and in the process continued to elevate the art of video games.  I went into this game with a grand fondness for these characters, and that is very important, I think.

One of the surprises with this final installment of the franchise is that, while the game does benefit from the nostalgia of these mentioned relationships, it doesn’t center on them.  This time around, we are asked to focus on Sam Drake, and until now, we didn’t even know Nate had a brother.  Realizing the risk they were taking, the writers remark on the surprise about halfway through the game through Elaina, but at least for me, I felt like this was a welcome addition to the lore.

It worked, and I felt a kinship with Sam.

Part of that, as I mentioned, is in the execution of the game play.  With every puzzle that requires interaction with Sam, with every door that needed two people to open and every wall you couldn’t climb alone, and with the witty banter between the characters, I felt that closeness growing.  Yes, between the characters, but since video games are more than simple voyeurism, since you CONTROL the actions of the protagonist and literally SEE THE WORLD through their point of view, you feel this bond growing as well.  By the end, you really do develop a connection to these characters.

My only real qualm with the game is that it didn’t quite feel as fresh as the previous installments.  The environments are HUGE, detailed, and masterfully designed, but I’ve explored jungles and snowy plains with Nathan before.  The last half of the game, which takes you into Libertalia, a lost city of pirates, felt new and different, and the ocean was definitely something special.  Honestly, I don’t know what they could do to avoid the mild sense of deja vu, and maybe it’s not all bad.  I mean, this is a game about the past and about our history with these people.

To place a value on the quality of this game is difficult, but as this is a review, that is my task.  I can say this.  I really enjoyed this game.  I don’t quite know if it is my favorite in the series (that’s probably 3).  I also couldn’t say it’s Naughty Dog’s best game (that’s The Last of Us).  However, it is a satisfying conclusion to a series that totally absorbed me.  There were moments of sheer bliss while playing, which is a rarity for me, and I was sad when it was over.

I’ll miss Nathan Drake.

15 Favorite Films of 2015 (Updated)

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What a lovely day 2015 has been for great films!  It’s transformative and miraculous when you really think about it.

The fuel films run on has become a scarce commodity.  Not because less money is being invested in them, but because the gigantic budgets of broad, super spectacles have all but swallowed up the money necessary to fund specific, engaging, and risk-taking films.

Sure, the Transformers movies are critical disasters, but audiences from around the world go to see them.  They go even when they know the series doesn’t live up to their own expectations, because they feel invested in the franchise.  Whereas, an exploration into the psychology of the personal journey of an individual could easily go ignored by moviegoers despite the quality of the work.

This is why the market seems flooded with sequels and remakes to preexisting properties.  And this is why even something that seems to have come strictly from the minds of the filmmakers is usually an adaptation of a book or comic.

What’s crazy about 2015 is that it still worked.

Here you will find my list of favorite films from 2015.  Note that I have not seen every movie yet.  I will update this list when I’ve seen anything else* that might rank on this list.  Also, this isn’t about the best movies of the year.  It’s about the movies I thought were the best personally.  Our lists will definitely be different, and I hope to hear your thoughts on this year in cinema.

Amy kurt cobain montage of heckwhat happened miss simone

15. Amy, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, and What Happened, Miss Simone?

Positives: 

2015 was a great year for documentaries about troubled singers.  All three have very common trajectories with different stories, and each is like traveling into the minds of the subject.

“Amy” explores how the pressures of fame changed Amy Winehouse as she struggled to find someone she could rely on in a world where she was perceived as the cash cow.  “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” takes us on a journey through the audio recordings of Nirvana’s frontman.  And “What Happened, Miss Simone?” weighs the consequences of chasing personal satisfaction versus commercial success when you measure your own personal value on your fame.

Each of these documentaries is excellent for their own reasons, but if you look at it as a body of work – like I do for reasons I think I have already articulated here – then I think you’re really in for a cinematic treat.  If, however, you are simply interested in watching one of these films, I would recommend that you pick the subject closest to your own musical taste.

Negatives: 

As most people aren’t familiar with the work of Nina Simone, it will probably not get the attention it deserves from viewers.

spy

14. Spy

Positives: 

This is a fun, funny, visually appealing movie where you can tell the performers are having a blast.  The results of that mirth are some great performances.  Melissa McCarthy is at the top of her game.  Miranda Hart was a revelation (at least for Americans).  Jason Statham clearly loves parodying himself.  Jude Law, Bobby Cannavale, and Rose Byrne have nuanced roles with plenty of great moments.  And Peter Serafinowicz basically stole the whole picture.

Perhaps this was director Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy rehearsing the action comedy format for the new “Ghostbusters” reboot, and if that’s true, then this is a better trailer for that movie than what we’ve been presented with so far.  What’s on display here is a display of excellent comic taste.

Negatives: 

There are a lot of spy spoofs out there, and as far as the story is concerned, “Spy” doesn’t do much to reinvent the wheel.

trainwreck

13. Trainwreck

Positives: 

Amy Schumer tops off her best year ever with this foray into film.  Bringing her comic sensibilities from her television series (“Inside Amy Schumer”) and stand-up career, she wrote a film loosely based on her personal journey in hopes that some A-list actress could pull it off.  Hollywood wisely made the decision to have Amy do it herself.

The story is pretty basic, but the scenarios within it are creatively inspired.  Since Apatow and Schumer cast performers that don’t often get opportunities like this, every performance builds off of that inspiration.  This is a stellar ensemble where everyone brings their a game.

Negatives: 

It’s an excellent freshman effort, but I still have a feeling that when Schumer has more experience, we’ll see more visual cinematic ability on display.

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12. The Revenant

Positives:

The true story that inspired this film is one that resonates with me.  In fact, I have been tinkering with a modernized version of my own for years.  The writers clearly make the correct decision to add the character of the son to increase the meaning of the betrayal.  It is also smart that they allowed the hero (and audience) to focus on one villain.

The film is beautiful, haunting, and filled with major set piece moments.  DiCaprio doesn’t give his best performance, but he does earn his Oscar.  Tom Hardy rounds out the best year of his career with a perfect portrait of an Appalachian sociopath, complete with a dead-on dialect.  And Alejandro G. Iñárritu cements his hand prints into film legend with his follow up to last year’s Birdman.

Negatives: 

The movie is too long and has too many dream sequences.

The filmmakers also juggle too many balls.  There are three themes to this film, and that works when they all coalesce in the end.  However, these themes are at odds with one another, and the ending comes as a cop out.

The first theme is survival.  “As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe… keep breathing.”

The second theme is revenge.  Both Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) and the tribe of hostile natives (lead by Duane Howard) are seeking vengence.

The third theme is forgiveness and of letting go the past.  Arthur Redcloud’s character says, “My heart bleeds. But revenge is in the creator’s hands,” and it is later echoed.

However, the forgiveness doesn’t feel organic or true, and the danger or revenge flies directly in the face of living for survival.

 

sicario

11. Sicario

Positives: 

This has the pulse of an action movie, the stakes of a drama, and the psychology of a thriller.  The nearest comparison I can give to this movie would be Hurt Locker.  It’s gritty and (seemingly) real, takes you along for the ride, and speaks on issues of international interest.

Each character is interesting and floats in the film like an ice berg.  There is clearly more below the surface than above, and this goes for everyone that shares the screen with our hero.  She is the only one we feel we can trust.  But from the onset, we feel safe and would make the same decisions she does.  We are drawn into the conspiracy the same way that she is, and we feel just as trapped.

Basically what you get here are Oscar caliber people making a movie that should appeal to the masses and to the art house alike.

Negatives: 

I guess if you’re looking for a problem with this film, you could bring up the running time. The common theme with almost every movie in 2015 was that it runs long.

straight-outta-compton-poster

10. Straight Outta Compton

Positives: 

As a rapper and a fan of N.W.A, I felt very close to the scenes that took place in the studio.  Eazy E’s first step up to the microphone felt a lot like my own, because the movie allowed the scene to play out with realism and charm.

The story of N.W.A is fascinating.  They were basically made up of four studio gangstas and one for real dealer, and they brought the raw story of street life out to the mainstream in a way that resonated with kids in Compton and kids in Connecticut.  The album itself is not a retelling of actual events that happened but was a encapsulation of an experience.  It is symbolism and analogy.  Except when Eazy E was at the mic.  Then it was just emotion.

The film, which also has the ability to appeal to virtually anyone, relays the behind the scenes story of that album and the fallout that came with it.  It’s about the making and breaking of a band and the toll it takes on the individual member.  It allows us access into the lives of three of the most influential forces in music during the most crucial time in their lives, and it as it is a well-crafted telling of that story, it is well worth viewing.

Negatives: 

The movie spends a lot of time worshiping Dre and Cube at the expense of the other contributors.  I really respected that this was a tribute to E, but I felt like Yella and Ren got disrespected.  Not in their representation on the screen, because they were not the stars of the group in the end.  But in the dismissal of their work.  Cube says he wrote for everyone, and Dre takes credit for all of the music.  But if you look at the album credits or listen to the response of their band mates, you’ll see contradictions, and since this will likely live on as the historical record, those discrepancies will have devastating impact.

Also, the tell that E has AIDS is that he starts to cough a lot, which feels a bit TV movie.

star wars

9. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Positives: 

What can be said that hasn’t already been said in a million other places across the galaxy?  It’s something the fans wanted: a good Star Wars movie.  Only, a lot of the fans are so obsessed with the mythology of Star Wars that perhaps they didn’t need another good movie.  They seem perfectly happy watching and defending the dreadful prequels and will watch and rewatch and introduce their children to anything Star Wars related that is better than the Christmas special or Ewoks: The Battle for Endor.

No, I take that back.  Some of them watch and rewatch and introduce their children to those too.

What we actually got here is not a movie for the hardcore Star Wars fans, who interestingly enough are conflicted about whether they appreciate the fact that J.J. Abrams ignored the expanded universe.  They seem okay with feeling a little ambiguous about George Lucas as long as you don’t try to fix his mistakes.  Let George retweak everything, and yes, they might moan, but in the end, he’s the creator.

Right.

The best thing Abrams did here was to hire Lawrence Kasdan and to allow him to tell the story he wasn’t allowed to originally with Return of the Jedi.  Sure, we had to reset Han Solo to A New Hope in order to build to that climax, and we had to rehash a lot of the story we already know with characters we are just meeting.  But in the end what we got was something satisfying and mature.  And isn’t it nice to actually use the word “mature” again when talking about Star Wars?

Negatives: 

It’s good, but it’s not the best sci-fi film of 2015.  It’s not even the best one Oscar Isaac was in.

ex machina

8. Ex Machina

Positives: 

A lot of films have gone after the question of what it means to be alive.  Can machines transcend?  But this film goes deeper into that question.  What does it mean if they fail our tests?  And what is the value of our opinions in the first place?

This film is a well-crafted drama with really good actors and a dynamite script.  Added to that is the award winning special effects that layer onto the performances and do not detract from them.  The location is stunning and interesting and allows for diversity within a fairly confined setting.  And the director helms it all with impeccable taste and surprising choices.

It’s basically just a really well done psychological thriller that allows you to both like and dislike every single character.

Negatives: 

It won’t be the Oscar Isaac sci-fi film people remember from 2015.

inside out

7. Inside Out

Positives: 

Inspired by a parent who was watching their child grow up and become more challenged by their emotions, Inside Out is a whimsical journey through the psychological impact life changing events can have on a kid.  It’s told in a sort of Alice in Wonderland narrative, only Alice didn’t fall through the rabbit hole.  She’s still dealing with the real world while her insides are churning down a river of sudden change.

The characters in this film are fittingly well drawn, and the story is heightened with stakes and stunts only an animated film could pull off.  The inside and the out are both equally engaging and play toward the same climax.  This is Pixar doing what it does best: telling quality, original stories for audiences of all ages.

The studio wisely chose to keep one of their major characters a secret, and I will do so for the benefit of readers that may not have yet seen this gem.  All I will say is that the moments that include this character bring about all the tenderness and nostalgia of watching a child grow into virtually another person.

Negatives: 

If you don’t like crying when you watch cartoons with your kids, then you might want to fast forward through a bit of this.  They probably won’t cry though.  Not until they’re older.

the look of silence

6. The Look of Silence

Positives: 

A film about a historic massacre told through the lens of memory.  There are some vibrant accounts.  Some that are clouded by the cataracts of senility.  Some that are unreliable.  And some that are heartbreaking in their lack of empathy.  All of these memories will be unsettling.  All of them are hard to sit through.  And all of them are important enough for our intrepid filmmakers to risk their lives to record.

In an age where our own politicians debate how we should treat our enemies, our immigrants, and our competition, this film is relevant.  If we do not know and learn from our past, we can not save ourselves from it happening again, and this film explores atrocities that were carried out to “please” America.

Negatives: 

If you are seeking a historic account of things, this is more anecdotal.

Spotlight

5. Spotlight

Positives: 

Proving that sometimes all you need is a compelling story, an ensemble of excellent actors, and a capable director to run away with Oscar gold, “Spotlight” tackles an important subject that the world already thinks they know all about.  Unraveling a mystery that everyone already knows the answer to is not a simple story to tell, but Spotlight keeps you riveted to every twist and turn.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this film is the time in which this period piece takes place.  Recent history is difficult to duplicate, and this film is all about how the world of journalism has completely changed in such a short period of time.  The theme of old medium versus new – of analog and digital – builds just as much tension throughout the movie.  Every billboard advertising faster bandwidth, every new discovery on the computer, every sleepless night spent manually searching documents reminds us that print journalism is on the brink of extinction, which begs the question of who will have the resources to investigate the next big story.

And that’s what this film does.  It tells important stories.  And in an era where the stakes are super good versus super evil, it may not be the most popular choice to tell such a realistic, human story, but it’s important to do so.

Negatives: 

Let’s just hope that sometime in the near future, we don’t have a film that tackles the subject of how big blockbusters have choked out smaller, more important films.

The Martian

4. The Martian

Positives: 

I’m a fan of drama.  I’m a fan of comedy.  But what I’m the biggest fan of is when you can properly mix the two together into a film that has both types of tension.  The Martian is a perfect recipe.

Smart, witty, and well executed, Ridley Scott told a personal story that had enough spectacle and gravitas to engage audiences of all ages.  The story behind the story is also an engaging one.  A blogger who wanted to write a book and give it away for free becomes a best selling author with a film adaptation that is nominated for Best Picture.  Both stories are inspiring and worth our attention.

I also really enjoyed the diversity of the cast and the occasional inside joke (ie Sean Bean’s character’s thoughts on The Lord of the Rings, etc).  This movie has class and sophistication, and it’s not afraid to break the fourth wall.

Negatives: 

Uh. . .  Poop potatoes?  I don’t know.

The Big Short

3. The Big Short

Positives: 

It’s like Adam McCay took Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, put them into the blender together, and spiced the mixture up with his Second City and SNL sensibilities.  The filmmakers serve up a dish that is a perfect balance of drama and comedy, and every course is an unexpected serving in a meal you thought already knew.

Like “Spotlight,” this is another important story with a spectacular ensemble cast.  Essentially we have four consecutive story-lines that parallel and amplify one another, paired with small sketches that could fit into an unconventional documentary on the housing market crash.

The cast aren’t the only stars of this film.  The characters – and the real people on which they are based – so rich, so textured, and so eccentric that there are no dead spots in the movie.

Negatives: 

There is an incredible amount of insight in this film regarding the market crash, but they will probably be marginalized by people with imbedded political leanings.

room 01

2. Room

Positives:

As a kind of rule, I don’t cry watching movies.  There are a handful that have choked me up or jerked a tear during the most moving scene, but I’m pretty stoic when following someone’s fiction.  Documentaries, however, do make me cry.  That being said, I will tell you right now that I sobbed through pretty much all of Room.

The book from which the film was adapted is told from a boy’s perspective, and his understanding of the world is shaped by what he is exposed to throughout the story.  In the beginning, Jack knows only lies that were told to him by his mother in her attempt to keep him safe.  Now that he is five, his mother forces him to grow up in order to once again keep him safe.

I won’t go much deeper into the plot, because I know that most people probably didn’t budget their time to watch this film in the sea of releases this year.  However, I will say that the brilliance of the screenplay, which was also penned by the author (Emma Donoghue), allows Jack to tell us how he sees the world while showing us the stark reality the book did not.

This film is truthful and told with great simplicity.  The acting in this movie is absolutely stunning.  Honestly, the directors may very well have captured the greatest performance ever by a child actor by casting and trusting Jacob Tremblay and by letting the cameras roll to capture him in candid moments on the set, and Brie Larson gives the best performance of the year by any actor.  Maybe the best performance of the decade.  The pair is perfect.

Negatives: 

Every decision made on this film was the right one.  The set design, editing, directing, casting, everything. . .  No complaints from me.

room 02

mad max 01

1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Positives: 

It’s no wonder that Mad Max: Fury Road swept most of the technical awards at the Oscars.  The costuming, set design, hair and make-up, the input from every department was inspired and inspiring.  Just watch the trailer.  If it gets you excited to watch this movie, then you’re going to have a great time with it.  It had me giggling with glee just to see how creative and passionate the filmmakers were when they labored lovingly over every frame.

In an age when quick cuts of shaky close-ups pass as action sequences, it is truly refreshing to watch George Miller’s boundary pushing practical stunt work.  This isn’t simply a retro rehash of the 80’s action genre.  This is next level work.

One example of how this is cutting edge comes with the representation of both male and female characters that are more than cardboard cut-outs.  The movie doesn’t spoon-feed you details about these characters.  It doesn’t slow down to dig deeper into the psychology of these characters, because it’s a high-octane roller coaster ride.  But all of the details are there, played appropriately by highly skilled actors that give you all the clues you need to know who these post-apocalyptic people are and what motivates them.

Negatives: 

If you are looking for a movie where Max is the main character or where we see his character get steadily developed, this is not the film for you.

 

mad max 02

Brie Larson

* Notable movies I still need to see include: Carol, The Danish Girl, Creed, Brooklyn, Trumbo, Steve Jobs, Joy, and. . . I don’t know.  Magic Mike XXL?

NOTE: I’ve seen some lists that include Selma as one of the best films of 2015, but since it was from last award’s season, I do not include it on my list.

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