Bad Odds

There’s something of a contradiction when it comes to why Han Solo is such a memorable character. He doesn’t have the youthful dreamer sympathy that comes with Luke Skywalker, the spunky attitude of Princess Leia or the history of years-long strife and heartbreak of Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Han Solo is memorable because he’s supposed to be forgettable. He’s a nobody, a schmo, barely even worth mentioning as a nerf herder. Sure he’s charming, cocky and mostly-fearless, but he has no stake in the events of Star Wars. He’s just there, with nothing but the blaster on his hip and the charisma of Harrison Ford to make him one of the most famous characters in movie history. It’s not mystique or history that makes Han Solo cool, it’s just Han Solo.

 

I’m only pointing this out to remind people that Solo: A Star Wars Story had an uphill battle to endure before there was even a hint of who would be directing the movie. And even with all the drama that went down between Lucasfilm and Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the writer/director team behind the 21 Jump Street movies and The Lego Movie who were originally slated to helm Solo before being replaced by groundbreaking visionary sci-fi icon…Ron Howard..this still didn’t make a good enough case for Solo to be made. It was understandable with Rogue One since the story of the Death Star plans being stolen could’ve been interesting (*Arrested Development voiceover* it wasn’t), but with Solo it feels like Lucasfilm are obviously cashing in on the nostalgia of the original Star Wars trilogy. Because despite the potential, telling the origins of a beloved character is a very fine line to walk and the odds of this being a successful endeavor were slim (not that Han would care, of course).

 

Anyway, about that movie: Solo follows everyone’s favorite smuggler in his younger years. Played by Alden Ehrenreich with more feathered hair and a vest with sleeves this time, Han starts as an orphan trying to escape the pickpocketing life with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Sadly fate separates them, but Han then lucks into meeting an angry wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and a shifty thief named Beckett (Woody Harrelson). Han and Chewie end up joining Beckett in his effort to steal some fuel for a testy gangster (Paul Bettany), but they employ the help of a smooth card shark named Lando (Donald Glover), his trusty droid sidekick (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and his spaceship: the Millenium Falcon.

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Solo has elements of different films rolled into its 135-minute runtime: an origin story, another prequel, a space western and a heist movie. Divvying the movie into specific sections is a bit challenging though, considering its pacing moves at breakneck speed with little time left to slow down and take in whatever mood certain scenes set up for the audience. Fortunately the movie doesn’t stop dead for callbacks to the original trilogy (which cut Rogue One off at the legs) and is mostly free of distracting fan service, staying with the events of its own plot and getting right to the action. It is very much its own story and yet it seems to want to get itself over with as quickly as possible. Which is a shame because, like Rogue One, the movie’s depiction of the dirtier bottom-feeders of the Star Wars universe is really interesting to see and shows the possibilities of expanding the cinematic universe of Star Wars. Even the two major action scenes, one being a train robbery and the other being a heist in an intergalactic mine, are well-staged and shot to flow smoothly by Howard. Solo works best when it’s not servicing the Star Wars brand, instead having its action scenes made with the styles of a western and a caper. When Solo is on point, it’s more reminiscent of Firefly and Ocean’s Eleven than a straight-up Star Wars movie.

 

The sets, spaceships, costumes and all-around design of Solo are impressive and immersive, if only the movie would pump its breaks every now and again to let the audience get more invested in the movie. For a movie over two hours long, Solo has an odd paradox of moving too fast and yet somehow feeling stretched out in its final half-hour. That accelerated pacing also doesn’t do much justice to the characters either, as many of the new ones are jettisoned from the movie by death and the established ones don’t have any further development. Which is a shame because there are some likable characters here, but most of them are done away with or don’t get to truly shine in the movie. The movie’s tightness also keeps alot of fun from seeping into its unnecessary drama. It made sense for Rogue One to be a grim and dramatic sense it was supposed to be akin to war movie, but the characters of Solo imply that this could be a looser, more fun adventure movie. Yet there are character deaths and grim moments that throw off any energy the movie gets going for itself. It’s another example of Star Wars thinking its more important than it actually is. The reason why Star Wars is so omnipresent and beloved is because it’s a fun sci-fi adventure with likable characters and a likable universe. So far these spinoff movies have gotten the latter part right but can’t nail down its characters right.

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Solo unfortunately bears the burden of being about characters, specifically one of the most famous in cinema history. That’s a lot of pressure on any actor, let alone relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich. He was caught between a rock and a hard place: he could’ve either done a Harrison Ford impression and be called a glorified stand-in or approach Han from a completely different direction and be castrated by the fans for ruining their childhood hero. Ehrenreich has seemingly tried to do both, capturing Ford’s relaxed walk and constant bargaining like a used car salesman while also bringing his own idea of who Han Solo was as a younger man. He’s more chipper, better able to adapt to certain situations, much more optimistic than Ford’s droll pessimism, which is refreshing. But there’s just something missing about Ehrenreich’s performance that’s a bit hard to pinpoint: he doesn’t have a mean streak, he doesn’t have a strong presence and his charm can seem a bit annoying at points. It’s like Han is a blank slate waiting to be filled in, but there’s not enough of a base to his personality to warrant more adventures out of him.

 

Han Solo is actually one of the least interesting things about his own origin story, though he’s not alone. Emilia Clarke actually gets to show off a little more authority and charge, on top of being a gorgeous romantic lead straight out of a 1950s Hollywood classic. But her character Qi’ra is just another space for an actor to fill without anything to truly make her interesting, replaced with ties to the Star Wars expanded universe that bait for sequels. But the blankest of blank slates in the movie is Paul Bettany’s Dryden Vos, a one-dimensional villain whose only definable feature are a bunch of scars on his face that flame-up whenever he gets angry (which is never explained). Bless Bettany for seemingly having fun in his brief scenes, but that doesn’t make up for his lack of threat. Fortunately the rest of the supporting cast is colorful and outstanding in certain scenes, despite how limited some of their screen times are. Woody Harrelson looks like he’s having the most fun in a long time spinning guns around and flexing long coats, while also being a believable father-figure for Han. Donald Glover, who’s arguably overtaken the movie in terms of must-see performances, slides into the shoes and cape of Lando Calrissian with the greatest of ease. While he doesn’t have the full-out confidence that Billy Dee Williams had, the simple act of Donald waving his fingers in the air has an air of swagger and smoothness to it. It also helps that he plays Lando as the straight man to the hijinks of Han and co. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Thandie Newton and Jon Favreau all make their marks as background players who sadly don’t get enough screen time to keep the fun going.

 
And that might be the biggest worry coming from Solo: Star Wars is starting to not be fun anymore. There was plenty of potential with Solo and some of it did make the final cut of the movie, but a combination of underdeveloped characters and rushed pacing to hide how underdeveloped the characters are make Solo feel intermittently fun but mostly hollow. It is an improvement from Rogue One in that there’s some levity and energy to Solo’s events and characters, but the movie miscalculates the need for it to be another “MOST BIGGEST MOVIE STORY IN YOUR LIFE HAIL STAR WARS” and not just a fun side quest. It’s the contradiction of Star Wars: we always want more, but what happens when the more we want is too much.

2.5/4

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Going Beyond For Everybody

Despite their warring fanbases and differing approaches to science-fiction, Star Wars and Star Trek actually suffer from a similar problem: they’re incredibly overhyped. Both George Lucas’ intergalactic western and Gene Roddenberry’s space explorers TV show have become so ingrained onto pop culture that fans have glorified both properties as these deep epics of poetry and symbolism. It’s great to see such passion in these properties, but both franchises are mostly just fun space adventures with likeable characters. Like most memorable forms of television and movies, the characters are what people remember and cherish the most (the proof is in how many action figures both properties have sold). Taking those properties and trying to make them overly complex and self-serious has proven to be a bad step for both franchises. Star Wars has the prequels, and Star Trek has The Motion Picture, The Final Frontier, Insurrection and Into Darkness. When both properties know what they are and focus on their characters while keeping the fun, they both thrive. Star Wars has its original trilogy and The Force Awakens while Star Trek has The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, The Undiscovered Country and the 2009 reboot. And now, Trekkies and casual fans alike can add one more to that list.

Star Trek Beyond brings audiences back with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise about three years into their five-year voyage, and Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is feeling a little lost (IIIINNNN SPAAAAACE….sorry, had to do it). He has to clear his head fast when a lone alien is rescued by the Federation and asks for the Enterprise to travel to an unknown planet and save her people. Kirk and co. run into the monstrous Krall (Idris Elba) and his swarm of spaceships that strand the crew on the unknown planet. Dr. Bones (Karl Urban) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are fighting hurt, Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) try to find out what Krall is after, Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) are taken captive with the rest of the crew, and Scotty (Simon Pegg) meets a mysterious inventor (Sofia Boutella) with a way to help. Though they crash land apart, the Enterprise crew must find each other to stop Krall’s evil plan.

Full disclosure: I love J.J. Abrams’ reboot films, but I’m not a Trekkie and Abrams made those movies almost exclusively for non-Trek fans, which explains my love for them and why they’re so successful. This may have actually been Paramount’s plan all along: Now that Star Trek has once again immersed itself into pop culture and established its brand amongst typical moviegoers, it can finally be what longtime fans have wanted all along and offer casual viewers more of the same. The trick? Have a longtime fan who just so happens to be a huge fan (Pegg) co-write the script and have a blockbuster action director (Justin Lin of Fast Five and Fast & Furious 6) keep the whole thing moving.

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(Left to right) Chris Pine and director Justin Lin on set of “Star Trek Beyond”

Pegg’s script is simple and has more interest in character interaction than general plot. Beyond may be the simplest Star Trek movie to date, so small in scale and so uninterested in its stakes that Krall doesn’t feel all that threatening. Beyond feels more like an extended TV episode than a major motion-picture, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. While Abrams is great at setting up movies, he has trouble creating an entirely satisfying ending (perhaps Star Trek ‘09 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens are the exceptions). Lin knows exactly how to keep a steady pace and fun atmosphere throughout the movie while sliding in some solid (if not brief) character moments, like how Spock handles the death of his future self (R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy). Beyond is more about watching the crew of the Enterprise come together in a pinch than a grand plot to save the entire universe, sacrificing what could’ve been a great villain in exchange for continuously developing good characters, which works.  Lin knows exactly what Star Trek is through and through, building colorful sets and weaving cool space gadgets into the film. He also gets to have super fun with special effects and CGI, creating an impressive inner-space Federation base that should be seen to be believed. But it’s about seeing the crew interact with each other and how bonded they are with each other. 

 

Beyond thrives the same way all Star Trek movies thrive: with a great, connected cast. Pine and Quinto remain on-point as Kirk and Spock, but Quinto gets out just a bit farther ahead than Pine. Quinto gets the deeper moments for Spock while Pine remains in stern hero mode. Kirk is advertised as “lost in space” and unsure if wants to remain off planet anymore, but it all gets lost in the action and quickly resolves itself before the credits. Pine is still a fine lead, but that’s only because his bland confidence is spaced between the supporting acts like Quinto and the ever-lovable Urban. It makes sense that Scotty gets a lot more dialogue this time around since his actor wrote the script, but Pegg is no comedic slouch thanks to his frantic energy. Sadly, Beyond also commits an intergalactic offense by wasting Elba in the villain role. Not only does he feel restricted behind some (admittedly impressive) alien makeup, but he may be the most expendable villain since the faux-God in The Final Frontier despite a plot-twist reveal on his backstory. Again, the sacrifice is for the good of the main cast, but it feels like something that could’ve used a touch more development especially from such a great actor.

 

Beyond is the movie that meets Trekkies and casual fans halfway, with random science techno-babble and motorcycle stunts going hand-in-hand. It’s a tad ridiculous, but that comes with the territory and, like Lin’s Fast & Furious films, doesn’t mean to insult the audience’s intelligence. How can you hate a movie that takes place thousands of years into the future yet still manages to throw in Beastie Boys and Public Enemy as plot devices?

 

Final Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

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.

The Franchise Awakens

Don’t worry, everybody: it’s good. How good? Well….

Disney had quite the mountain to climb when they announced an entirely new trilogy of Star Wars movies was going into production. Not only would they follow the original trilogy over 30 years after its conclusion, not only would they bring back the original stars (Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill), not only would George Lucas not be involved in the entire process (a good or bad thing depending on who you ask) but it would primarily follow a new set of characters and a new plot line. For any other franchise, that’d be a somewhat tough task. But for one of the (if not THE) most iconic film franchise in history, that’s like climbing Mt. Everest blindfolded wearing a light windbreaker. Nevertheless, the House of Mouse decided to play dirty with one thought; who better to revive this beloved sci-fi space opera than the guy who revived that OTHER beloved sci-fi space opera? J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible III, Super 8) answered the call and conquered Everest…but not without some struggle.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens takes place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. The Empire was defeated, but from their ashes rose a new sinister galactic force called The First Order, featuring Sith warrior Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). When they reveal their greatest weapon with the intent to destroy The Republic, a group of outsiders team up to save the galaxy. That group includes scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)….oh yeah, and these two old smugglers named Han Solo (Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

 

The first thing to say about The Force Awakens is that it’s most definitely a J.J. Abrams movie, as evidence by the visuals and the pacing. As seen in his Star Trek films and Mission: Impossible III, Abrams keeps the movie light on its feet and moving at a brisk pace. That’s a hit and miss strategy since the pacing keeps the movie moving without ever getting boring but also takes the emotional punch out of the more serious scenes (especially in the first half). In fact, the movie’s two main elements are split between the two halves of the 135-minute runtime. The first half has great visuals and builds atmosphere well but the character establishment is lacking, whereas the second half has the audience fully invested in the characters’ actions but the visual wham of it has somewhat worn off. Not that the visuals in the movie aren’t already very impressive, as Abrams glossy sheen on scenes with the Millennium Falcon or The First Order’s reveal of their great weapon. The most of the plot of the movie and the script (assembled by Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan) are both cohesive plot elements and references to the original trilogy. There are some throwaway scenes that matter little to the pot but just keep the movie going, so The Force Awakens keeps audiences in the seats just long enough to keep them from questioning whether or not they’ve seen this before.

 

star-wars-the-force-awakens-daisy-ridley-john-boyega

John Boyega and Daisy Ridley Photo Credit: JoBlo

 

The Force Awakens hits a real home run with its casting, specifically its new lead characters. John Boyega (Attack the Block) and Daisy Ridley (Scrawl) have fantastic chemistry between each other and with the Star Wars universe in general. They and Oscar Isaac bring the energy and humanity missing from the prequels because they’re allowed to look like they’re excited to be here. They want to fly the Falcon, they want to shoot Stormtroopers, they want to be involved in the legacy of The Force. It’s clear from the two leads of their passion for the movie as to how invested they are in the universe around them. Boyega’s Finn is searching for a new purpose throughout the movie after exiling himself (rather abruptly, though) from The First Order. Maybe it’s because of the pacing that his transformation feels a bit too quick, but his charisma carries him through. Adam Driver (Girls) makes for a surprisingly compelling villain as Kylo Ren, even if he is essentially a Darth Vader fanboy gone to the extreme. He gets a bit hard to buy once he takes that helmet off, but the way he uses his backstory (no spoilers) to make his transformation fully-formed sells the whole thing (and yes, his lightsaber is awesome). The heart and soul of the movie is Ridley as the scrappy dreamer Rey. In no way, shape or form is she a damsel in distress. Instead, she’s the one who moves the whole story forward as the dreamer looking to escape her wasteland planet (basically a discount Tatooine) and discover herself. She’s leading Finn through the perils of The First Order, she’s the one piloting the Falcon, she’s the one challenging Kylo. She’s no Furiosa, but Ridley makes Rey feel fully-formed and, for the first time in the Star Wars universe, inhabits a character that the audience wants to see more of in later movies.

 

Despite the excellent job the two main leads do with their work, there’s also a feeling of missed opportunity with some of the supporting players. The likes of Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o and especially Gwendoline Christie are criminally underused in their small roles. They’re clearly happy to join the Star Wars universe and some ham it up to show their appreciation (Gleeson especially as the hilariously sniveling General Hux), but their characters deserved a bit more to do. For those wondering why I haven’t mentioned the original cast, it’s because they’re barely in the movie. The Force Awakens is probably the most Han-centric Star Wars movie to date, but Harrison Ford brings nothing really new to the character. Not that it’s a bad thing, since Ford is one of those guys who out-acts people in his sleep. He and Carrie Fisher still have that chemistry that audiences loved from the original trilogy and even in the elder state, there’s a warm love still felt between the two. And all I’ll say about Hamill is that he’s in the movie.

 

I want to cap this off by emphasizing that, again, The Force Awakens is a good movie. Abrams and his production team establish a universe that is both undoubtedly Star Wars yet unique from previous installments. The production design is fantastic, the effects (both practical and special) are great, and the movie has some of the best cast and characters seen in Star Wars since Return of the Jedi. But here’s the rub; The Force Awakens is less a directly connected sequel, but the purest definition of a “soft reboot.” This movie clearly wants nothing to do with the prequels (maybe in every shape and form) and everything to do with the original trilogy. From a business standpoint, bringing Star Wars movies back into production was more about the maddening hype and excitement of the event more than the event itself. But perhaps out of pure luck or maybe actual passion for this franchise, Disney got a director and team that actually wanted to create something new with Star Wars. Abrams and company’s work feels like that of a team that dressed up in cosplay, wrote essays on the subtext of the movies, made fan-films and alternate endings to the movies. Everyone involved in The Force Awakens (aside from maybe Ford, but that’s forgivable) cared about what they were doing. The Force Awakens is actually similar to the miracle of The Lego Movie: a purely corporate business decision meant to make money and generate marketing revenue that was given actual effort and passion put into it. Granted, The Lego Movie is far better than The Force Awakens, but this movie accomplished its mission. The world wants more Star Wars, Hollywood wants more Star Wars, I want more Star Wars.

 

Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4