Bay-triotism

A Michael Bay movie is like a Baconator: you know it’s bad for you and has no real benefit, but it combines so many things you like that it’s sometimes hard to turn down. Michael Bay will never be an auteur or an artist, he’s a director for the people. He knows what they want, even if they go on the Internet on a consistent basis and say they don’t. Even if the people are smarter and can think for themselves, Michael Bay believes he knows what’s best for them. He knows all they want is explosions, boobs and sound crashing through speakers. He remains detached from everything around him and sticks solely to his vision, love it or hate it. So how does he apply his polarizing directorial style to an event as serious as the 2012 Benghazi attacks? Thankfully with less boobs, but still the same detachment.

 

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is based off of Mitchell Zuckoff’s 2014 book about the Benghazi attacks told from the perspective of the American security team on the ground during the attacks. Adapted to screen by Chuck Hogan (The Town), the team consists of Jack Silva (John Krasinski), Tyrone Woods (James Badge Dale), Kris Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), Dave Benton (David Denman), John Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa) and Mark Geist (Max Martini). They’re brought to Benghazi in 2012 to help a secret CIA outpost protect in an incoming US ambassador. Tensions are high after the death of Muammar Gaddafi and the overthrow of the Libyan government, so American military presence is not advised. Nevertheless, militant forces storm the American embassy and threaten the life of the ambassador. Despite resistance from the CIA team chief onsite, the security team makes their move to save the ambassador.

 

For those wondering if there are any grand political statements 13 Hours has to offer, rest your minds (this is a Michael Bay film, after all). 13 Hours offers nothing more than Dollar Store-quality commentary on the Benghazi attacks. It’s all about how stuffy government agents are wrong and buff, bearded American soldiers are right. Hardworking, intelligent government agents ain’t got nothin’ on the strapping men of the Armed Forces and their macho guns. American soldiers are the BRAVEST AND TOUGHEST MEN IN THE WORLD!!!! Yeah, 13 Hours might as well be a parody song from Team America: World Police. Though it strongly supports American military, it has a real negative attitude towards American government politics. Whenever there’s a delay in support or a lack of firearms in the movie, the security blames on the “.gov” people. It feels as if it’s trying to be one of those “people should rule the country, not the government,”-type speeches without anything to back it up.

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It’s the most basic form of crowd-pleasing propaganda, but Bay doesn’t make much time for it. He’s too busy focusing on the firefight and building the story around it. The movie hits the ground running when Silva lands in Benghazi and starts throwing out military jargon and exposition. It would be understandable if Bay wasn’t always jerking the camera around every scene. Someone needs to tell Bay that he should take five to ten steps away from his actors since most of the shots in the movie are mediums and close-ups, creating a jarring and annoying experience. To make his gritty war movie feel more realistic, he takes the Paul Greengrass approach by using first-person shots from the rifles of the soldiers and constant shaking cameras to follow the movement of the security team. The bad news is that shaking cameras are in every action movie these days, what once was cool and innovative is now more cause for headaches during viewing.

 

To Bay’s credit, he does ease up on that in the film’s second half when the security team regroups at the CIA compound for an Alamo-esque last stand. He gets some impressive sweeping overlooks of the compound as militants swarm and packs on the dread with every new wave that approaches. He gives the movie time to breathe between shootouts to build the characters, which is needed since none of the actors really stand out. They do have funny banter between them, but it’s nothing more than a break from all the mentions of tangos and RPGs. And no matter how much John Krasinski beefed up for the role, there’s still that awkward demeanor that screams “Jim from The Office.”

 

The odd thing about 13 Hours is that I don’t blame Bay entirely for this being a bad movie. Bay doesn’t have politics: Chuck Hogan has politics, Paramount Pictures definitely has politics, but Bay honestly couldn’t care less. He doesn’t want to make a grand statement about Benghazi, he just wanted to make an action movie, albeit a bad one. Someone like Paul Greengrass or Clint Eastwood would’ve definitely used 13 Hours to make some commentary about the war or the American political climate, but Bay’s detachment from all basic forms of reality make the movie seem hollow. On top of that, the excitement of Bay’s directorial style becomes dull and worn out over time. The movie is nearly two hours and needed to cut about 45 minutes off to make anything seem exciting. There’s nothing to feel proud about after seeing 13 Hours, in fact there’s nothing to feel at all. It’s just another Michael Bay movie *sigh* yayy America.

Final Verdict: Freedom Fries out of 4 (1.5 out of 4)

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Waiting In The Sky

Of all the things to write about in the world of music, film, art and culture, this may be one of the hardest to do….David Bowie is gone. A mere three days after his 69th birthday and the release of his 25th studio album, Bowie’s family has confirmed that he died yesterday after an 18-month battle with cancer. The British performer…..artist….designer..

I’m sorry, what didn’t Bowie do in his lifetime? Pushed art rock into the mainstream? Done. Practically invented glam rock? You bet. Expanded the imagination of fashion? Yup. Touched and tasted various genres of music? Oh yeah. Influenced generations of future artists? Sure, one of them is writing this piece.

Bowie was something beyond being just a legendary musician, but a prime example of being true to one’s self. Bowie rarely did anything on the whim of someone else, no matter how strange or offbeat it appeared. When Bowie was at the peak of his powers around 1974 with the glammed-out freakiness as Ziggy Stardust, he decided to do white-guy R&B. When disco wrapped, he became The Thin White Duke and nearly lost his mind. When he got clean, he rounded out the 70s by diving further into experimental music. He then thrust himself into the 80s by testing out pop music, and making it look cooler than most of his peers.  Even the in 90s, when his influence was felt in most musicians on the charts, he veered into electronic music and more experiments.

 

The 2000s and this recent decade had a smaller output of Bowie music, not that there needed to be. Bowie’s influence had come full circle by influencing nearly every genre of music. Lady Gaga, The Pixies, Janelle Monáe, The Flaming Lips, Sia, Kanye West, U2, Madonna, Florence + the Machine, Pharrell Williams and countless others. You can go on Twitter right now, type in #DavidBowie and scroll through the laundry list of artists that claim Bowie as his or her hero. Whether he was promoting a new album or hiding from the public eye, Bowie was omnipresent in pop culture. He was a looming shadow and beloved legend, like a story told by numerous campfires. Whispers of the Man Who Fell to Earth and his Spiders From Mars.

 

The last few years have seen Bowie enter another reawakening in his career. 2013’s The Next Day had Bowie dipping into the various genres of music he’s touched on over the years, showing his continuous talent that seemingly never faltered. This past Friday had Bowie releasing Blackstar, his freakiest and most challenging album in the last two decades. But put this into context: Bowie had reportedly been fighting cancer for 18 months and still put out a new album. Could he have known this was the end? With songs about Lazarus and refusing to lie down quietly, was Bowie giving the world one last hurrah?

It makes sense. Bowie’s extravagance and showmanship requires that bit of dramatic flair. What kind of performer leaves his stage without a dramatic exit? It wouldn’t be surprising if his coffin turned into a rocket that blasted him into space. David Bowie represented an idea that anyone could be more than just a man. Be whatever you want to be, and be someone else if you get bored with it. Bowie was a chameleon, but he was Bowie. He was proud to be weirdo and even prouder to be different from norm. He never bowed to any muse but his own and no matter how it was received, he wore it like a badge of honor. Bowie is a proud example of how to be an artist, and notice how I use “is” and not “was.” Because Bowie will never leave. He never has. He’ll always be far above the moon.

Top Twenty Movies of 2015

 

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2015 has come and gone after another interesting year at the cinema. There were dinosaurs, X-Wings, War Boys and..umm…Dominants. Stories were told in a small garden shed and in a galaxy far far away about a wondrous robot, a musical genius and a lonely astronaut. Some movies were blockbusters; some were only played at a local art house. Nevertheless, some stood out more than others. So let’s chat about the finest films of 2015.

20. Sicario

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A beautifully shot but bruising crime drama featuring Benicio Del Toro in one of the scariest (and best) performances of the year. Gritty, dirty and damn near hypnotizing.

 

19. Shaun the Sheep Movie

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If Minions was made with creativity and soul instead of merchandising on the brain, it would probably look a lot like this silly and super fun stop-motion animated comedy. Aardman Studios (Chicken Run, Wallace & Gromit) strikes again.

 

18. The Peanuts Movie

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Charles M. Schulz would be proud of this faithful and surprisingly fresh animated adaptation of his beloved cartoon. Despite having bright and colorful modern animation from Blue Sky Studios, The Peanuts Movie shows kids classic melancholy of childhood and how it’s ok to be yourself. No grief, just good.

 

17. Goodnight Mommy

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This Austrian-based horror film takes a twist on the home invasion genre and makes it all the creepier. No spoilers, just see it.

 

16. The Hateful Eight

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Quentin Tarantino remains untouchable with his eight feature (and second Western). Imagine if a dinner theater murder mystery took place in post-Civil War America and acted out by some ace talent (like the immortal Samuel L. Jackson). Tarantino says he’ll retire on his tenth feature, so keep your eyes on him.

 

15. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Is it THE GREATEST MOVIE EVENT IN THE HISTORY OF TIME AND SPACE?!?!?!?!?!?! No, but J.J. Abrams used stunning visuals, exciting action and fresh characters to do the impossible: make a good Star Wars movie. Be honest, when’s the last time you saw a good Star Wars movie?

 

14. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

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The best Wes Anderson movie Wes Anderson never made. A sweet yet off-kilter comedy about the awkward kids in high school and the ways they connect, whether it be from remakes of foreign films or cancer.

 

13. Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Like The Force Awakens, there were ginormous expectations for the sequel to Marvel’s flagship team-up movie and it didn’t meet those expectations. But that doesn’t mean Age of Ultron wasn’t chock full of great characters and action-packed fun. The stars are the villainous yet quick-witted Ultron (James Spader) and The Vision (Paul Bettany) who will surely have a bigger role in future movies. Marvel’s bubble will surely burst someday, but let’s enjoy the ride while it lasts.

 

12. 99 Homes

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One wouldn’t think the Florida housing crisis would be a good backdrop for a morality tale, but writer/director Ramin Bahrani pulled it off in this gripping drama about a struggling single father (a fantastic Andrew Garfield) trying to put a roof over his family’s head and seeing how far that’ll take him before his own greed claims his soul. But the real draw is Michael Shannon as the sinister real estate broker who drops a harsh reality about the current state of America: “America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners.” *Shivers*

 

11. It Follows

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An art house movie disguised as a John Carpenter horror film, this indie sensation is more admirable for its unique story and composition than it is for its scares. That said, writer/director David Robert Mitchell creates a creepy atmosphere that feels like something out of a Twilight Zone episode while also making the precociousness of losing teenage innocence through first-time sex seem all the scarier.

 

And now, the TOP TEN!!!!!!

 

10. Dope

One of the best movies of 2014 was Dear White People, a satire comedy about racism at an Ivy League College. It was refreshing to see such a vibrant, sharp and poignant film about African-Americans in today’s culture. This year came another vibrant, sharp and poignant film about African-Americans in today’s culture, with a lighter touch to it.

Dope follows Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a 90’s hip-hop geek living in the rough part of Inglewood, CA. One night, he goes to the birthday party of a local drug dealer (A$AP Rocky) in order to impress a girl (Zoe Kravitz) and ends up switching backpacks with him. It turns out that backpack contains MDMA and Malcolm needs to sell it before he gets into more trouble.

Everything about Dope is energetic and alive: the actors, the writing, the direction, the music and the setting of Inglewood. When Malcolm (newcomer Moore with a breakout performance) confesses to being a geek, that label isn’t meant to build cheap jokes or create a Revenge of the Nerd-type plot. Malcolm and his friends (Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori in great supporting roles) are young people with passions and abilities they use to succeed in daily life. Realistic black people in movies?! Crazy concept, right? Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa gives perspective to black nerd culture and how they’re perceived in today’s culture. It knocks down stereotypes and provides a look into current black culture as a vibrant part of America.

 

9. The Martian

No matter what he’s done in his nearly 40-year career as a director, Ridley Scott has always belonged in space. He made space scary (Alien), he saw the paranoia and mystery of the future (Blade Runner) and built a new universe from his original work (Prometheus). 2015 saw him go back into space but this time he focused on one man and, like Bill Nye the Science Guy, firmly states that science rules.

Adapted from Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, The Martian in question is NASA botanist/astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon). After a dangerous storm forces he and his team to leave Mars but ends up separating him from the team and stranding him on the red planet, Watney must use his intelligence and pure will to think up a way to survive until he can make contact with Earth to find a way home.

Scott orchestrates everything to near-perfection, combining the visual grandeur of Mars with the grounded science done on Earth and the red planet. He keeps it all moving at a great pace and wants the focus to be on the characters more than the visuals. That’s important because those characters (adapted for screen wonderfully by Drew Goddard) are fantastic to watch. Everyone from the director of NASA (Jeff Daniels), the Mars mission director (Chiwetel Ejiofor), NASA’s PR head (Kristen Wiig), an astrodynamicist (Donald Glover), a satellite planner (Mackenzie Davis) and the NASA crew (Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Michal Peña, Sebastian Shaw and Aksel Hennie) are all fully-fleshed out and make for essential pieces of the whole picture, almost each deserving their own spin-off movie. At the center of it all if Damon, who takes the Tom Hanks route of “Mr. Can-Do” and uses his botany powers to make Mars his own personal farm. Damon hasn’t been this confident, funny, relatable or likeable in a movie in quite some time, but he’s as worthy of cheers as any Marvel or DC superhero (hell, he even makes Iron Man-flying look cooler in space). Sure, Star Wars filled the void of “intergalactic fantasy,” but Scott showed the world that there’s still excitement in our own galaxy.

 

8. Spotlight

Movies about journalism are few and far between because it’s hard to make journalism interesting to the general public. There can’t just be a story about reporters asking questions, doing hard research, going over the facts and making sure the truth is there. Maybe a flashy performance will be thrown in or maybe some kind of political spin will be put on it, but there’s rarely as movie about the importance of journalism and what it can do to drastically shake a nation. Sure enough, 2015 provided one of those rare movies about journalists deep in the muck.

Spotlight is also the name of the long-term investigative team at The Boston Globe, who cover stories that deal with a wide-reaching and important subject. In 2001, the team came across a story about a priest who supposedly molested more than 80 boys over 30 years and how the Catholic Church tried to cover it up. The team, consisting of Walter “Robby” Robertson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), chases the story for over a year and discover more horrifying details as to just how far the cover-up goes.

What makes Spotlight stand out is that there’s nothing flashy about it. No fancy camera angles, no long takes, no visual effects, no directorial flair. Director Tom McCarthy shoots everything in a standard format, keeping all the focus on the developing story and the work that the reporters put into it. Everything that Spotlight wants to tell the audience is out in front, and nothing distracts from it. McCarthy shows the unflinching dedication the investigative team has to the story. When Rezendes is told not to record any information during an interview, he persistently lobbies to use his notepad to make sure he gets information on the record. When the story of the one priest gets finished, the team wants to keep digging. Pfeiffer is a frequent church-goer with her family, but she wants to know the truth. Spotlight showcases the incredible dedication these reporters have not just to the newspaper they work for, but to the people who read it. The actors are all game, especially Ruffalo in what may be his best performance to date. He’s occasionally showy but there’s an understanding of just how horrifying this scandal is and how letting it go unreported might as well be turning a blind eye to sexual assault. Spotlight is a great example of why journalists put so much into their work: they deal in the truth when others want it to die.

 

7. Room

There are many ways to tell the story of growing up: teen comedy, innocent romance, moving on from a big moment in life and so on. But there’s something to be said about a mother and son maturing at the same time, especially when the world they once knew was barely the size of the average kitchen. One way or the other, the big world can be pretty scary when seen for the first time ever or the first time in years.

Room follows five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother (Brie Larson) who live in a small garden shed. This is the world Jack was born into and he thinks it’s wondrous, but it’s been a prison for his mother after being kidnapped seven years ago and sexually abused night after night by her abductor. One day, Jack escapes and garners help to save him and his mom. But when Jack sees how big the real world is and his mother sees how much the world has changed around her, the two are frightened and can’t understand what their place is in the world.

Despite having such dark story elements, Room is more whimsical and kind-hearted than you’d think. It’s a very adult take on becoming a grown-up and breaking out of one’s comfort zone (or in this case, prison). Writer Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the novel the movie is based on) captures the uneasiness Jack feels now that everything he’s ever known has been taken away and replaced with so many new things. It’s almost tragic to hear him claim that he misses what was really a restricting living hell. Donoghue also makes Jack’s mom feel alienated from everything around her when all she wanted to do was go home. It’s all driven home by two of the best acting performances of the year: Larson as emotionally raw and endearing enough to make you weep, and newcomer Tremblay as the precocious yet tragic Jack. There’s something heartwarming about how Jack and his mom can’t live without each other but they still have to become independent. Growing up is hard to do, but it’s never been told with such creativity and realism.

 

6. The End of the Tour

When it comes to movies, the best ones are the simplest. The ones with great writing that turns into great dialogue spoken by interesting characters. There can be occasionally showing of flair like special effects or action scenes, but the characters and the writing are the memorable elements of film. Films are stories, and people like stories for their narrative and the characters involved in that narrative. So what’s more simple than two people talking about life?

The End of the Tour is the true story of Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). In 1996, Lipsky went to interview Wallace for an article after Wallace published his acclaimed novel, Infinite Jest. The two spent five days together talking about each other on the final days of Wallace’s book tour. Lipsky never used the audio tapes he recorded with Wallace, who died in 2008. Lipsky eventually wrote a book about his time with Wallace.

The End of the Tour may be the simplest movie of the year in technical terms, but it juggles a lot from a writing standpoint. Donald Margulies’ screenplay (adapted from Lipsky’s book) captures all of the vital points Wallace made with his scattered but poetic isms about life. One minute he and Lipsky are talking about the joys of commercial entertainment via Die Hard (the first one, of course) and the next they talk about how this crazy new thing called the Internet will eventually take over their lives (mind you, he said this in 1996). The way Lipsky and Wallace peel the layers off of each other while traveling through Gen X America. Eisenberg and Segel are an inspired pair, reading off of each other and seeing mirror images of themselves. Segel in particular is a revelation as the grounded but complex Wallace, he disappears into the role. The End of the Tour is so down-to-earth and human that it feels like a reenactment of a documentary. Nothing flashy or expansive about it, just two people being honest with each other.

 

5. Mad Max: Fury Road

This movie shouldn’t have happened. The creator/writer/director, George Miller, is 70-years-old and has spent the last decade making movies about dancing penguins. The star of the original movies has embarrassed himself out of Hollywood and it’s been 30 years since this franchise had a new installment. But the gates of Valhalla opened up and blessed the cinema wasteland with a flaming, speeding bullet of a franchise reboot. RISE!

Mad Max: Fury Road is another post-apocalyptic tale set in the nuclear desert of Australia where the deformed and desolate remains of humanity are led by the hulking Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his pasty, psychotic War Boys. One of Joe’s head troops, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), decides to rebel by springing his collection of slave wives and escaping to a safe haven. Furiosa encounters a sullen drifter named Max (Tom Hardy) and the two help each other evade the War Boys and ride to freedom.

Fury Road is the best kind of action movie: one that actually has a purpose to it. It’s mostly a two-hour car chase through the desert, but it’s rare that such a simple idea could be given so much attention and imagination. The production design of the cars, the War Boys, the costumes and the wasteland itself is jaw-dropping. It’s strange how the movie supposedly takes place in Australia since the obsession with cars and metal feel more like an American demolition derby. The movie hits the ground running from frame one and paces things out very well. Miller is making chaos, but it’s all organized and hits at just the right time. Miller, along with writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris, also constructed a deeply-woven story using the macho action movie format to tell the rise of feminism. At the head of that rise is Theron’s Furiosa, one of the most fully-formed characters in a 2015 movie. Hardy himself is a near-perfect choice for Max, being able to convey so much emotional when he has maybe 20 lines total in the movie. Fury Road is not only one of the best action movies of the decade, but it’s also a shining example of how to reboot a franchise and how to do a summer action movie. No shaking camera, no shoehorned drama, no sexy girls for the sake of sexy girls and no dated references or morals. Just put the foot on the gas and go.

 

4. Brooklyn

Romance movies are usually associated with the term “tearjerker.” It brings out forced drama or sentiment trying to get a reaction from the audience. If the audience starts weeping, it automatically makes it a good movie. “Did you see this yet? OMG, it had me in tears!” But, as with the case for good movies, there can be real emotional pulled out if the story is good enough. I’m not one for “tearjerkers” myself *sniffle* but occasionally I *sniffle* see a *sniffle* SHUT UP, YOU’RE CRYING!!!

Based on Colm Tóibín’s novel, Brooklyn follows a young Irish girl named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) who immigrates to Brooklyn in 1952. She meets a handsome but shy Italian guy (Emory Cohen) she falls in love with. When tragedy strikes back home, she leaves Brooklyn and then starts seeing a local Irish guy (Domhnall Gleeson). Eilis is torn between the life she once had and the new life she made for herself.

Like The End of the Tour, Brooklyn is a very simply film: a period drama with romance thrown in. But Brooklyn has the task of restoring Brooklyn itself to the 1950s, and director John Crowley’s production team do an exceptional job. The costumes, cars and music are all organized like every shot is a preserved photograph in a history museum (Yves Bélanger’s warm cinematography adds to that). The real driving factors are the excellent screenplay from Nick Hornby (Wild, An Education) and a stellar performance from Ronan. Hornby’s writing is sentimental but not in a pandering way. He knows the story is basically about homesickness and the fear of living on one’s own, so he keeps it that way without adding any unnecessary filler. Eilis just misses her family and feels alone in Brooklyn. The drama doesn’t feel forced either, it’s actually quite a relatable situation: would leaving Ireland forever be selfish or is it really unfair to sacrifice independence? Ronan makes everything work with her heartbreaking portrayal of Eilis. Everything she emotes feels legitimate and honest, like it’s coming directly from her soul. Ronan has Eilis being fragile on occasion, but brings it all back to being a confident woman finding her own identity. But when she lets her emotions pour out, bring tissues.

 

3. Carol

The depiction of gay characters in Hollywood movies has definitely improved in recent years. While it hasn’t fully formed, 2015 did come closer to treating them like real people instead of quirky stereotypes. A torrid love affair between one lost in the love once had and another who’s never known love before is a familiar story, but what were to happen if it applied to the same sex in a time when that wasn’t even considered a possibility?

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Carol’s title character is a middle-aged mother (Cate Blanchett) in 1950’s New York. Carol is in the middle of a divorce with her stern husband (Kyle Chandler) and just trying to be a good mother to her young daughter. One day in a Manhattan department store, Carol meets young Therese (Rooney Mara) working behind the counter. The two spark a connection and quietly start a romance. But when Carol’s husband finds out, he threatens to take sole custody of their daughter. Carol must make a decision whether or not she should make a decision for her heart or for her family, while Therese is caught in the middle with unsure emotions.

This is not the first period piece for director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, I’m Not There), but it’s the most beautifully constructed movie of his career and one of the most stunning movies of the year. Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman shoot the movie with a warm glow that radiates from the screen. Everything from Carol and Therese’s first dinner together to Therese photographing Carol in the snow is natural eye candy. Their production designer (Judy Becker) deserves credit too, as she weaves the environment of the 1950s like a quilt. The story, adapted for screen by Phyllis Nagy, requires great patience and restraint from its actors as the movie’s romance slowly builds over time. That said, the chemistry between Blanchett and Mara practically beams from the movie screen the second they share a frame together. Blanchett, a gorgeous dame and a delicate flower at the same time, is powerful as Carol. You can feel her wanting to break out of all the makeup and fancy clothes she wears because she knows it’s a lie. She adores Therese, but it kills her that she can’t say it out loud. Mara is excellent as well, being the one unsure of how to be in love with another woman even though her heart has never been more sure of anything in her life. Even Chandler is great, playing a jealous brute on the outside but only doing so because he loves his wife. Even the supposed “bad guy” of the movie is given real dimensions. Carol is like looking at a painting and seeing more and more great things about it the longer you look. Carol makes your heart ache and learn how to see past what’s in front of you.

 

2. Love & Mercy

Brian Wilson is one of the (if not THE) godfathers of modern American pop music, pushing boundaries to make music sound spiritual and existential. With him literally trying to pull the sounds in his heads onto a reel-to-reel, it’s no wonder it almost drove him mad. But no matter what his mind may have done to him, his heart was still intact and it’s actually what saved him. So how do you tell that story and avoid the pitfalls of the dreaded cliché known as the “music biopic?”

Love & Mercy breaks down Wilson’s life into two eras: when he was a young man (Paul Dano) writing fun summer songs with The Beach Boys, and in his middle-age (John Cusack) trying to piece his life together after a mental breakdown. The younger Wilson decides to quit touring with his band to build the soundscapes in his head into what would be the classic album, Pet Sounds. The older Wilson is under the watch of a rather imposing therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), while trying to piece his life back together. The younger Wilson loves making this experimental music, but his bandmates and family think he should just keep writing songs about surfing and/or girls (sometimes surfing girls). The older Wilson meets a beautiful woman, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), who is told by Dr. Landy that Wilson is very unstable. The younger Wilson starts losing his mind when he can’t make all the sounds in his head turn into music. The older Wilson is being severed from a woman he’s falling in love with and can’t break from the grip of Dr. Landy.

Big credit goes to director Bill Pohlad, who plays with the concept of the biopic genre by integrating dream sequences as a peek inside Wilson’s psyche. He and the script (penned by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner) depict Wilson as a generally happy spirit but someone who doesn’t have it all together. Whether he’s young or old, there’s a sense that he’s not entirely comfortable in his own skin, but making music makes him feel like a complete person. It’s interesting how both stories are about Wilson rising and falling from grace. Both Dano and Cusack are revelatory at capturing the quiet genius of Wilson. Dano has Wilson’s youthful optimism while Cusack has the frazzled yet sympathetic appeal. Both actors capture Wilson as a man still looking to understand the world around him, with music being the only thing that ever made sense to him. Giamatti is fantastic as always, being damn near sinister in his obsessive control and abuse of Wilson. It’s as if Dr. Landy was a psychotic superfan who never wanted to share Wilson with anyone. Banks, in a rare dramatic turn, is the light of the movie. There’s a warmness to her performance that can’t be ignored as she shows general love for Wilson both as a romantic interest and a human being. And then there’s the music, of course supplied via The Beach Boys’ hits. When Dano plays a solo piano rendition of “God Only Knows,” it’s both beautiful and heartbreaking. Two words that could also be applied to Wilson’s life story.

and now….

1. Ex Machina

When you think of science-fiction movies, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind: Spaceships? Aliens? The future? Lasers? Robots? Memorable sci-fi movies are known for their awe-inspiring visual effects or futuristic technology and vision, but people may mistake these as the essential qualities of a great sci-fi movie. Others can be quiet, intimate, creeping, sexual and still be just as moving. Many sci-fi movies treat robots as a side-character or something one dimensional, but what were to happen if a machine challenged man? In our ever-increasing dependence on technology, what happens when technology fools us?

Writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Dredd) took his first turn at the director’s chair to ask this question with Ex Machina. A lonely programmer named Caleb(Domhnall Gleeson) at a Google-esque search engine wins a contest to spend a week with the company’s owner, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). When he reaches his enclosed estate in the mountains of Norway, Caleb discovers he was brought out to perform in a Turing Test. Nathan wants Caleb to talk to his latest project and see how human it can be. Nathan’s project turns out to be an A.I. named Ava designed as a female (Alicia Vikander) who grows interested in Caleb and the parameters of humanity. The more Caleb talks to Ava, the more uneasy he becomes with Nathan and his motives.

Everything about Ex Machina is beautifully designed: the sets, the score, the camera movement, the cinematography, the pacing and especially the acting. Garland and his team want the audience to fall for Ava as hard as Caleb does, shooting her behind clear glass and with smooth lighting. Ava’s character is meant to be a mirror for humans to examine their basic behavior. All throughout the movie, Caleb’s talks with Ava are like therapy sessions: Why is Caleb so alone? Why is he testing Ava? What does Caleb think of Nathan? It’s a cat-and-mouse game without knowing who’s who. Cinematographer Rob Hardy shoots everything like a glowing daydream, peaceful and yet knowing something is going to snap. Nathan’s house, where about 90% of the movie takes place, is like a giant maze where everyone is constantly chasing each other. The music, composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (of the British electronic group Portishead) combines light touches and haunting, hammering electronic beats into a convulsing sound. It can hypnotize you and scare you at the drop of a hat. The same goes for the actors, leading with Vikander in her breakout performance of a stacked 2015 (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Danish Girl). She’s delicate and fascinating to watch, but has moments when she grills Caleb for how humans treat technology. You’ll fear her when it’s all over, but not as much as you’ll fear Isaac as the maniacal Nathan. Whether he’s praising his intellect for reaching the next step in evolution or dancing with his robotic servant, he’s an imposing figure. Gleeson is the humanity of the movie, experiencing everything without an agenda. Ex Machina is the best movie of the year because it’s analysis of technology and human relationships is something rare. No matter what other movie there has been this year, no other one asked the questions or played with the most basic human concepts quite like Ex Machina did.

Ten Most Tolerable Hit Songs of 2015

Pop music is such a wash. 95% of it sounds the same, has the same message and pretty much contributes the same to the music landscape (nothing). That being said, pop music is EVERYWHERE: commercials, movies, clubs, Spotify playlists and PA systems in shopping malls. It’s practically inescapable, but 2015 was the year when it felt more dominant than others. Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Adele each had a big year in 2015 with chart-topping hits and albums. But they’re a dime a dozen and there were a bunch of other hits this year. Some good, mostly annoying. With that in mind, here (in no particular order) are ten of the biggest hits this year that went down easiest on the earholes.

 

“Worth It” – Fifth Harmony feat. Kid Ink

For what essentially is the female American version of One Direction, Fifth Harmony turned out pretty great. The quintet formed in the second season of The X Factor USA in 2012 and had a breakout 2015 with their debut album Reflection featuring thumping hits like “Sledgehammer,” and “Bo$$.” Their big hit was “Worth It,” flexing their vocals around reminding guys that all the pressure’s on them because they know they’re the total package. The hand claps, spare electro drums and saxophone (courtesy of Stargate) move the song along without being more EDM backwash. But Fifth Harmony themselves are the driving force, with flexing vocal chops that evoke brass and sexual bravado. “Worth It” can be described as a feminist anthem on confidence or just a sexy party song for girls to order more drinks to. Whatever the case, every time Fifth Harmony sings they sound like they’re kicking down a door. So yes, more of them please.

 

“Blank Space” – Taylor Swift

Unless you went to live on that island from Cast Away, it was impossible to avoid Taylor Swift in 2015. She had four major hits from her blockbuster album 1984: “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” “Style,” and “Bad Blood.” Despite her becoming a full-fledged pop star and virtually selling out her sound, her songwriting thankfully remained intact as evidence by “Blank Space.” Swift talks about the early bliss found in love at first sight (“Saw you there and I thought/Oh my god, look at that face/You look like my next mistake”), is honest with herself (“So it’s gonna be forever, or it’s gonna go down in flames”) and the psychotic back-and-forth about relationships (“But you’ll come back each time you leave/Cause darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream”). She puts the blame on her, but still waxes philosophical on the men in her life (“Boys only want love if it’s torture”). Swift’s pop transition has turned her mildly pleasant country into occasionally overblown stadium pop, but Max Martin’s stripped down drum taps and glass synths let Swift speak for herself. If Swift’s music has gone shallow, at least her lyrics are growing up.

 

“Where Are Ü Now” – Skrillex & Diplo feat. Justin Bieber

One would think the collaboration of a dubstep master, an EDM superstar and a global pop phenomenon would be a recipe for an overindulgent, big-headed ego stroke. There’s a lot to say about Skrillex, Diplo and Bieber (mostly bad things), but they seemed to have struck a musical sweet spot this year. Featured on their collaborative album Jack Ü, “Where Are Ü Now” is a surprisingly restrained club banger from two of EDM’s loudest maestros. It’s propelled by slight piano and a quiet repeating beat, even the bass drop with the Eastern island feel feels sparse. Then there’s Bieber himself (pop’s Biggus Dickus), who uses the song to kick off the “Justin Bieber Sympathy Tour” he started with all of his somber, apologetic hits this year. He just wants to know where his true love has gone (where art thou, Madame Gomez?) and actually sounds sorry about it. Somber and lonesome doesn’t usually mesh with summer club smash, but club-pop’s Holy Trinity of douchebags pulled it off in spades.

 

“What Do You Mean” – Justin Bieber

Speaking of the “Justin Bieber Sympathy Tour,” Canada’s former teen heartthrob is older now and is trying to make everyone forget that he’s an awful human being. He himself is brought up more than his music, so it’s easy to find his work easily ignorable. This year, he synchronized with the EDM craze in pop to co-produce “What Do You Mean” with MdL. It’s a laid-back jam with the same Eastern sound as his collab with Skrillex & Diplo. This time around, he’s questioning the mixed signals a girl is giving to him. It’s pretty simple stuff but works because it has the one thing that makes Bieber tolerable: restraint. Bieber can be a bit much at times, but his matured vocals are lower and not as whiny as it was when he was younger. He doesn’t oversell it, just rides the beat. If this is the new sonic direction he’s going for, he might earn some points back.

 

“Sugar” – Maroon 5

Ever since they started using outside songwriters on their 2012 album Overexposed, Maroon 5 has been morphing into a more flaccid commercial act. They’ve dipped in club music (“Love Somebody”), white-guy reggae (“One More Night”), power-pop (“Maps”) and stuff you’d probably hear in a dentist’s office (“Daylight”). But with all those new forms of pop comes one that fits them surprisingly well: discount-funk! Much like Bruno Mars did with “Treasure,” Maroon 5 tapped into the more disco-oriented R&B with “Sugar,” a sex song played with a simple party tune. Light synths, funky bass lines and a light guitar riff keep the energy fun and easy. Even singer Adam Levine, mostly known for a high-pitched voice that borders on whiney, finds a good pitch to keep the song fun. It’s one of the most fun songs to hear this year despite climaxing with the fact that the whole thing is about a girl’s *ahem* sweet spot (“I want that red velvet/I want that sugar sweet/Don’t let nobody touch it unless that somebody’s me”). Adam Levine, master of subtlety.

 

“Hotline Bling” – Drake

For all those times you laughed at his dancing or made a meme from the music video, know this: that’s exactly what Drake wanted you to do. On top of everything else that he did this year (a full mixtape, dropping singles on his Apple Music radio show, a collaborative mixtape with Future), Drake seems to have figured out how to immediately get attention in today’s climate. But let’s put his Internet-culture mastery aside and focus on his continued mastery of rap/R&B jams. “Hotline Bling” is a sober sequel to Drake’s 2011 single “Marvin’s Room,” being a somber jam about one of Drake’s former flames living life without him and he’s not too happy about it. Whereas “Marvin’s Room” was woozy and meant for introspection, “Hotline Bling” is a chilled-out party jam that seems to encourage dancing to it. The tropical beat (once rumored to be lifted from D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha” but actually samples Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together”) glides through the song without overstaying its welcome. You could hear the music in a tiki lounge drinking mojitos by the beach as the lounge music, even it was just an instrumental on loop. It’s almost perfect music for a guy to be sitting at a bar alone, scrolling through his Instagram feed, seeing photos of his ex living an awesome life without him and remembering the simple times when the only way she got good lovin’ was when she would blow up his phone. Drake sounds surprisingly relaxed when talking about something that makes him seem like a jerk. He sounds jaded (“Everybody knows and I feel left out/Girl you got me down, you got me stressed out”) and is only seeing things from his perspective (“You make me feel like I did you wrong….You don’t need nobody else”). The lyrical content makes Drake seem like a bitter jerk, yet he knows “when that hotline bling,” he thinks it’s still from the girl he lost. It’s amazing that something so danceable and memeable is from a song from a lonely ex. But that’s Drake for ya: the man who turns a sad broken heart into being the coolest thing in the room.

 

“My Way [Remix]” – Fetty Wap feat. Drake

Fetty Wap had four big hits in his breakout year of 2015 and all of them just missed the mark of being enjoyable for me. “Trap Queen,” “679,” and “Again” were all fine but it always felt like something was missing from all the songs, like a special “it” factor to drive it all home. “My Way” was the closest to being good, as Fetty throws bars about being turned on by a hard-to-get girl (“flexing on your ex, I know”). Sure it’s another club banger about how much money one guy has than others (“watch me pull out all this dough….I got deep pockets and I swear my sh*t’s on sink), but Fetty’s voice seems more sincere than most rappers and maybe that’s what people like about him. For those wondering why the remix is here and not the original, it’s because the remix has the “it” factor: Drake. He’s fully turned on by a high-rolling successful woman (“I like all my S’s with two lines through them sh*ts..I know you work hard for your sh*t/You know they gon’ hate/Just don’t play no part in that sh*t”) and sounds like a boss proclaiming it. In fact, where was this Drake on “Hotline Bling” and why isn’t this the role model guy?

 

“Can’t Feel My Face” – The Weeknd

The best and most modern Michael Jackson song the late-King of Pop never got to make is a double meaning for cocaine that came from a Canadian alt-R&B star turned mainstream breakthrough artist. “Can’t Feel My Face” is another Max Martin joint and, like “Blank Space,” it’s refreshingly simple: a funky bassline and clapping drums with some occasional ominous filler for the opener and the bridge. The focus is all on The Weeknd, and he hits a home run. His vocals are fantastic, both inherently cool and wallowing in the doomed druggy love affair (“And I know she’ll be the death of me, at least we’ll be both be numb/And she’ll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come/All the misery was necessary when we’re deep in love”). When he hits those high notes, it’s a perfect climax to each verse. He knows he’s in a bad romance, but he gets a kick out of it. It’s almost the archetypal love song for 2015: finding fun in doom.

 

“FourFiveSeconds” – Rihanna feat. Kanye West & Paul McCartney

Yeah, bet this was a collaboration you’d never think would happen, let alone work so well. Nothing but an organ, some electronic fading and Sir Paul’s simple strumming in the background keeps the focus all on RiRi and Yeezy as they come clean about being occasional unhinged jerks. “FourFiveSeconds” feels like what a popular music artist feels about the gossip columns and being independent in a time where one’s image is seen more than the person him or herself. Rihanna is beautiful, but don’t take her lightly (“Cause all of my kindness/Is taken for weakness/Now I’m FourFive Seconds from wildin’”) as she sings to the highest heavens. It’s sad that she has to remind us that she’s actually a good singer, what with most of her biggest hits drowned in EDM overkill. Mr. West is no different, continuously stating how he will not be controlled by THE MAN (“See they wanna buy my pride/But that just ain’t up for sale”). Who would’ve thought one of the best songs about rage could be presented in such a restrained musical format?

 

“Drag Me Down” – One Direction

The apocalypse has come, the Seven Horsemen have rode through the desert, the globe is splitting apart and the skies are on fire….I like a One Direction song. Now that they’re a quartet and are supposedly going on hiatus, One Direction decided to go out with one big blast of reggae-tinged pop rock. “Drag Me Down” has a good pace that builds up to a bouncy chorus that manages to come back down to relaxed vibe. What’s more interesting is how it’s easy to identify the four different voices on the song and how they all come together for the second chorus. Sure, it’s another corny love song for all their passionate female fans, but it also feels like a backhanded slap to their ex-bandmate Zayn. Dammit all if they’re down one man, they’ll still pose pretty if it’s the last thing they do. VIVE DIRECTION!!!!!!