ryan gosling

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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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