5 Mar

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In Lucas We Trust

The rollout of pictures on the calendar  for 2015 told you everything you needed to know about the year in film. A required offering of sequels and reboots anchored by the Christmas release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens guaranteed that event release studios covet, where projected 200 million dollar first week numbers for a mega blockbuster of this magnitude would be looked upon as disappointing. JJ Abrahams a director and storyteller adroit at re-imagining what people loved about the tales and touchstones that defined their youth  was handed the Glengarry lead of franchises by Kathleen Kennedy of Lucas Films to guarantee a hefty return on their 300 million plus investment. A blockbuster that comes with comic book and cartoon spinoffs, toys and collectibles, fast food marketing, Lego video games, a slew of product licensing from soup can labels to “Darkside” flavored gourmet ice cream and other tie ins. The so-called, quote-unquote, according to the Star Wars creator “white slavers” at Disney looked to do rather well for the 40 billion dollar payout Lucas received when they  acquired the most coveted brand in all of entertainment. That being said, there simply is not a mass movie going culture anymore with video on demand and streaming readily available. I am one of those guilty of foregoing a trip to the theater when a month or two from now  I can have relatively same experience in the comfort of my own home.

Last year during a Hollywood Reporters executive roundtable studio heads stressed their brand, scheduling and rollouts for the all important franchise picture, a Magic Mike sequel looked on as such, that next installment dictate the profit margin at year’s end because of return ticket sales. And nothing is more tried and true than the reboot, they make up three of the year’s top five grossing films at the box office, Star Wars and Jurassic World a billion and a half one-two punch to date. Jurassic World being one of the films along with Mad Max: Fury Road, Pointbreak, Terminator Genisys, and Creed as part of the summer preview I had to ask myself, do we need another one of those? Stallone is once again in the corner as Rocky and Daniel Craig solidifies his legacy as maybe the best Bond ever with Spectre (Yes, whenever a new 007 signs on to her majesties secret service that qualifies as a reboot for the franchise). I guess it’s not for me to say what will get people out on a friday night, two of those offerings are critics darlings and people just can’t get enough of those gosh-darn dinosaurs. Only the Terminator project that elected to disregard the beloved Cameron storyline was universally panned. True to form devotees of The Hunger Games final installment, Divergent and The Maze Runner follow ups filled the seats as YM fare dominated. Comic book stuff with all its bells and whistles are always a draw even when it all seems run-of-the-mill at this point. Like the animated releases that’s hard to distinguish one from the next, these movies unimaginative of late are what the family moviegoers continue to demand, Inside Out probably the best of the genre this year. With television, specifically cable TV now the outlet for what was once considered independent cinema and as the Amazons, Netflixs and service outlets and most notably  Hulu get into the film game they need to be aware of marketing and theatrical runs, Netflix mishandling of their brilliant first theatrical feature Beasts Of No Nation resulting  in that picture  being passed over during awards season. Rummaging through any number of projects before the prestige releases at year’s end I have to say the majority of those films were remarkably underwhelming. I am not going to name names but when you take into consideration the effort that is required to plan and finance a studio picture the result should not be simply mediocre. To quote a college of mine “mediocrity is a disease”.  And the film business being what it is, how one gets a project greenlit is a mystery of Hitchcockian proportions. A great pitch does not a picture make.

On the OscarsSoWhite hashtag uproar, it’s not that Hollywood is racist, the industry is exclusive, where a large number of the decision makers are white and male. That is what works for them, that’s what has always worked and why change the process that is the basis of a multi billion dollar industry is their mindset I’m thinking. It’s a club that few people get a chance to join. The larger discussion to me has always been who gets to dictate how we’re all represented in the films that go out all over the world as the culture evolves because the percentage as it stands is disproportionately low.



1. Beasts Of No Nation

  • available on Netflix

I dare anyone to tell me different when it comes to the best feature film this past year. Nothing comes close to the what Carl Fukunaga has put up on the screen under the Netflix banner. This brutal and stunningly acted film is an unflinching view from a child in an unnamed war torn African country stripped of all he holds dear and left with no choice but to participate in atrocities to get along. Agu, portrayed by newcomer Abraham Attah has to rely on his wits and wait out this nightmare he has been trussed into, doing the best he can in order stay alive and simply survive under the most extreme circumstances. The promotional material clearly state that “children are not soldiers” and one can clearly understand as you watch this mischievous child we are initially introduced to do things under the watch of The Commandant; a seductive, manipulative junta leader played by Edris  Ilba, his critically acclaimed performance has no equal. A more hideous Fagan from Dickens famous tome where young men are cajoled and forced to do the deeds of those who take them in. Once with the rebels our young protagonist is forced to go through a harrowing indoctrination and each successive episode that follows contributes to the loss of innocence of the carefree young man we first get to know playing imagination TV with his friends. Like his fellow child solider Strika Agu’s reactions speak volumes to what he relates in the voice over narration. And as the soldiers campaign wages we quickly realize that there is no clear humanity to speak of by the occupying forces. Leaving an indelible impression this film overall had me uneasy subject-wise and in sheer awe when it comes to the execution of story.


2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Septuagenarian director George Miller finally brings his on again off again,  years in the making  action-er sans Mel Gibson as the titular Max with Charlize Theron technically in the lead role as Imperator Furiousa in this slam bam popcorn movie that sets the bar pretty high for blockbusters going forward. You can’t help but admire what is basically a chase film set in a post apocalyptic landscape that is so fully realized and has heart, you root for all the participants from the stolen away maidens of Immortan Joe the messianic leader who controls the water supply. To the War Boys serving under him he is a deity, they simply crave his acknowledgement “witness me!”and the denizens of Gastown and the Bullet Farm who have their interests to protect. Your heart goes out to Nux played by Nicholas Hoult as you watch him want to matter so that he is willing to go to Valhalla (give his life) in doing so. Furiousa is all of Aliens Ripley and every bit Sarah Conner going toe to toe with the boys. Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky is simply the same Max we’ve known from the beginning, wanting to go his own way, haunted by those he has failed in the past and not looking to get involved with what he is confronted with now. Ever inventive stunt sequences and practical effect galore go counter to the heavy-handed CGI formula we’ve grown accustomed to and in doing so bests every single big release this year in pure spectacle.


3. The Revenant

This film  inspired by Hugh Glass’ exploits in the early 1800s is Iñárritu’s take on John Ford’s The Searchers with parts Fitzcaraldo.  And to top it off the director goes ahead and out Terrance Malicks Terrence Malick in the process to the nth degree which is the highest praise I can bestow on this level of film-making. Leonardo DiCaprio’s immersive performance is profound,  leaving you breathless with its grandeur and wonderment set against the brutality of the frontier. The resurrection that is acted out as Glass methodically returns to exact his revenge in a satisfying climactic showdown is the stuff of films of yore. The one and only Tom Hardy and emerging star Domhnall Gleeson are no slouches either  as they round out a supporting cast that does all it can not to get upstaged by the attack sequence involving a bear. My hat goes off to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for capturing such stunning images under those conditions in South America in the winter  and the Mid West here in the US with a palette limited to the use of available light for all but two scenes.


4. Ex Machina

Screenwriter Alex Garland explores the God complex of tech genius Nathan Bateman played with relish by Oscar Isaac who is on the verge of a breakthrough in AI at his retreat secluded away deep in the mountains. When Bateman awards a golden ticket to one of his programmers to share what he has come up with, given exclusive access to what he believes will change the world, this staff lottery winner has no idea what’s in store. What initially seems “super cool” to Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb Smith begins to get super weird in a hurry in their restricted confines. Nathan has Caleb administer the Turing test to Ava, a way of evaluating his work to determine if the humanoid he has engineered is ready to be reveled as the technological breakthrough he hopes. The dialogue of ideas and philosophy bristles as they butt heads over her. Can a machine truly emote genuine feelings, have an actual consciousness? That is the underlying question. Caleb is sympathetic to Alicia Vikander in the role as the not fully formed prototype and this leads to certain revelations and an unsettling conclusion. First time director Garland shows exceptional form in this science fiction cautionary tale.


5. Straight Outta Compton

This biopic chronicling the meteoric rise of the seminal gangster rap group of the Mtv era directed by F Gary Gray (an up and coming music video director at the time) gives a vivid account of the circumstances that had these young black men from the streets of Compton with the help of manager Jerry Heller  topping the charts and on the FBI watchlist because of their songs and controversial stage performances. The flip-side of concert tours and music videos; hanger-ons, guns and groupies come at a cost. When the comradery that fueled the creation of the seminal album Straight Outta Compton which introduced gangster rap to the  world and  changed the face of music begets infighting that leads to the group breaking up over contracts and loyalty. In a whirlwind of intimidation and violence it all in the end seems to come down to the almighty dollar.  A climate in Los Angeles at the time really begs the chicken or the egg question in regards to what influenced what; were Easy, Dre, Cube, Ren and Yella  simply reporting on drive-bys, pimps, the dope game and what went on in the streets rhyming over  beats by Dr. Dre or was that record what gave rise to the gangster culture. The cast of relative unknowns really sells this tale with some spot on portrayals along with knockout performances.


nina simoneWhat Happened, Miss Simone?

  • available on Netflix

At the beginning of last year there was a hue and cry surrounding a biopic of this beguiling and outspoken performer. The glamorization in portrayals of real life characters has always gone on but this Netflix documentary shows why there ain’t nothing like the real thing. This North Carolina native has layers to her character that you see through archival footage of trenchant performances and revealing interviews. The arch of her career answers the question posed in the title What Happened, Miss Simone? I can only hope that when the attempt to get a feature film on her life to the screen again that they will source this powerful documentary.


6. The Big Short

That rich people are dysfunctional is a given. When Bernie Madoff rips people off and has no compunction in doing so knowing full well that they will lose their life savings even when it’s clear he obviously doesn’t need the money, you see where director Adam McKay is going with this film. If the housing crisis had zero effect on you I would see where the humor in average hardworking Americans  falling for a scam that got a bunch of  Wall Street wisenheimers stinking rich. One well crafted script based on the national bestseller by Michael Lewis gives this A list ensemble cast of Gosling, Carell, Bale and Pitt the right to go all out Monty Python. Imaginative ways of explaining hedge funds and subprime mortgages with celebrity cameos and characters breaking the fourth wall makes this savvy farce a must see.


7. Anomalisa

This is what Charlie Kaufman does, he brings out what is most venerable in his characters, that uneasiness or embarrassment that may be have a crippling effect he forces you to focus your attention on when you instinctively want so much to look away. I recall his directorial debut, the heart wrenching Synecdoche, New York in 2008 bringing a friend of mine  to tears at that screening. This time around he uses a uniquely original stop motion technique to tell the story of a customer service guru stay at a hotel the night before a speaking engagement. A cartoon  which has no flights of fancy, musical numbers, cute character of the hint of comedy which is the staple of the normal animation not rated R. The chain-smoking, sex obsessed protagonist voiced by David Thewlis again and again  finds himself in awkward situations both imagined and real. The melancholy of individuals trying to connect is the underlying theme of this inventive film.


The Death Of Superman “Superman Lives”; What Happened?

The giant mechanical spider fight sequence the exec pitches to the bewildered director is legendary in film circles (at least in mine), I have told that story at least a dozen times myself. So when I hear Kevin Smith’s take on it, revealing that producer John Peters  was the one who wanted to have a robot with multiple legs do battle in what was to be the Tim Burton Superman project starring Nicholas Cage well… they had me at Hello. I love this documentary! I love stuff about how that project or this project  got made and all the behind the scenes back and forth. Amusing antidotes from  Smith –the original screenwriter before Wesley Strick was asked to step in– about the  wheeling and dealing will have you think he should pursue a career on the speaking circuit instead of his chosen vocation. Test footage of Nick Cage in the suit for fanboys to spaz out about, this film unlike any other  gives inexhaustible insight into the development of the blockbuster that never was Superman Lives. Millions squandered in said development, an array of out-there personalities, farfetched opinions by anyone who had a say and script revisions galore with each new  group that’s brought onboard. The  countless costume and character design costs to tally as more meetings were taken. In their own words accounts by Smith, Burton, Peters, Dan Gilroy and a long list of other scribes, artists, noted designer Colleen Atwood, various members of the creative team assembled over the years between nineteen ninety-six and nineteen ninety-eight before finally going ahead and pulling the plug. And according to director Tim Burton he will wrestle with why this movie didn’t get made well into his later years.


8. Bridge Of Spies

Mister Hanks takes on the cold war in this Capraesque telling of a story based on actual events. This recent pairing of Spielberg and his buddy is  so old Hollywood. Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Atticus Finch take your pick, never has there been a more earnest character up on the screen. The back and forth by government agencies, the US court system and the minutia of geopolitical wrangling won’t deter our straight arrow protagonist who must convince his fellow attorneys, family and the American public in spite of bias towards the political prisoner he is assigned to defend to observe his rights and do the human thing.


Trailer 2015: Deadpool Red Band

Ryan Reynolds seems to have a charmed life; People‘s sexiest man, the knockout wife and he seems like a decent person. The film career … whew! This clip of an R rated Marvel Studios superhero release looks pretty killer.


9. The Tribe

New kid at a private school gets hazed and then is initiated in a gang. That would be the logline for this critics darling first feature by Ukrainian writer and director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, but… (and there is a but) But the entire cast of this  film are hearing impaired and communicate only in sign language, and… there are no subtitles. For the first few minutes of the film you feel like a voyeur, and as I kept watching I personally felt excluded somehow, like the audience was meant to be left out. But not knowing exactly what’s being communicated does not take away one bit from this highly charged look inside of a criminal enterprise with his classmates that includes robbery and prostitution. Dare i say this brutally violent amoral story told in a lyrical silent film way is part of its charm.


10. Phoenix

In a ravaged post Nazi  Berlin an Auschwitz survivor struggles to find her identity after plastic surgery to her disfigured face and while trying to piece together a life knowing she was betrayed by her husband who she still has strong feeling for. Nina Hoss gives a haunting performance as the singer recruited by Johnny once she tracked him down. Encouraged to help him get his wife’s inheritance with a woman who believes has a striking resemblance to his former spouse he believes is deceased. Without recognizing her, he enlists her to play his wife in a bizarre hall-of-shattered-mirrors story that is as richly metaphorical as it is preposterously engrossing. There is psyche damning  love in this film reminiscent of the all time masterpiece Vertigo.  Director Christian Petzold addresses the Jewish German dynamic in this standout piece of German cinema.


Film View Notables

Actor Male: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
Actor Female: Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Brie Larson (Room)
Supporting  Actor Male: Idris Elba (Beasts Of No Nation)
Supporting Actor Female: Cate Blanchett (Carol)
Breakthrough Performance: Abraham Attah (Beasts Of No Nation)
Director: Cary Fukunaga (Beasts Of No Nation)
Original Screenplay: Alex Garland (Ex Machina)
Adapted Screenplay: Cary Fukunaga (Beasts Of No Nation)
Director Of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant)
Visual Effects: Rich McBride (The Revenant)
Editor: Michael Kahn (Bridge Of Spies)
Soundtrack: Daniel Pemberton [score], Various Artists [music] (The Man From UNCLE)
Artisans: Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road [A]), Joel Egerdon (Black Mass [A], The Gift [W, D]), Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, Ex Machina, The Man From Uncle [A]), Roger Deakins (Scicario [DP]), Tom Hardy (The Revenant, Legend [A]), Ryan Coogler (Creed [W, D]), Bryan Cranston (Trumbo [A]), Robert Richardson (The Hateful 8 [DP]), Jacob Trombly (Room [A]), Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina, Brooklyn, The Revenant [A]), Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton [A])
Artistic Merit: The Assassin, Macbeth, Scicario, 99 Homes, Chi-Raq, Spotlight, The Gift, Everest, Trumbo, Love, Legend, Joy
Guilty Pleasure: The Man From UNCLE
My To Do List: Inside Out, Steve Jobs, Tangerine, 45 Years, Brooklyn, Amy, Son Of Saul. In my defense binge watching Archer on FX takes up a helluva lotta my time.

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