Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

St. Patrick's Day 2016

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Glen Hansard likes to end his concerts with this, and have other musicians and guests (not all of them singers) sing a verse. It's a neat, rousing and inclusive way to end the evening. (Here's some background on the song. The lyrics can vary considerably, and it's not unusual for performers to write new verses.)

I've featured some of my favorite Irish tunes in previous years. Feel free to link any of yours in the comments.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

2015 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Reviews

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's Part 2: The Top Four, Part 3: Noteworthy Films and Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

2015 was a decent year for film, with several less conventional movies winning both acclaim and some box office success. The blockbusters were less impressive this round.

The Oscars this year faced some controversy because, for the second year in a row, no black actors were nominated (after racking up multiple awards for the previous 15 years). Chris Rock's opening monologue was edgy and memorable as he chose to take this head-on:

Now the thing is, why we protesting? That's the big question. Why this Oscars? Why this Oscars, you know? It's the 88th Academy Awards. It's the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole black nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times.

OK? You've got to figure that it happened in the '50s, in the '60s, you know? In the '60s, one of those years Sidney [Poitier] didn't put out a movie. I'm sure there wasn't no black nominees some of those years, say '62 or '63. And black people did not protest. Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time.

We had real things to protest! Too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. You know, when your grandmother is swinging from the tree, it's really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.

Some of Rock's other bits fell flat, including a cameo by conservative black actress Stacey Dash as a "minority outreach" ambassador (too much of an inside joke for most of the audience) and Asian kids posing as accountants. Rock's decision to have his daughter and her Girl Scout Troop sell cookies to the audience was, well, an abuse of position, but kind of funny.

The best speechof the night was easily that from Inside Out's duo, producer Jonas Rivera and director Pete Docter, who endorsed the power of the arts:

Anyone out there who’s in junior high, high school, working it out, suffering – there are days you’re going to feel sad. You’re going to feel angry. You’re going to feel scared. That’s nothing you can choose. But you can make stuff. Make films. Draw. Write. It will make a world of difference.

It was somewhat refreshing that no one film dominated. Mad Max: Fury Road rightly picked up most of the technical awards, but Spotlight, The Big Short and The Revenant all won big awards as well. I would have been pleased with any of them winning Best Picture (Spotlight was a slight upset over The Revenant in that category). Spotlight and The Big Short deservedly won their best writing Oscars (original and adapted, respectively), although I also would have been happy if Inside Out had won for "original." The cinematography category was even richer than usual, and although I'd have been delighted to see badass 73-year-old John Seale win again, this time for Mad Max: Fury Road, or see Roger Deakins (Sicario) finally win after 13 nominations, I thought the award deservedly went to Emmanuel Lubezki for the third time in a row, this time for his alternately vertiginous and lyrical work on The Revenant.

The Revenant received a surprising amount of backlash, including the notion that it was unfortunate that Leonardo DiCaprio would likely finally win an acting Oscar for his work in it (as he did). I have my criticisms of the film (reviewed below), and a lengthy, occasionally gruesome revenge tale isn't to everyone's tastes, but it features some superb craftsmanship and was one of the best films of the year. In contrast, I'm flabbergasted that the worst Bond theme song ever, "The Writing's on the Wall," not only was nominated but somehow won, perhaps because of vote-splitting otherwise. At least Ennio Morricone winning for Best Original Score, and being lauded by John Williams and the entire audience, restored some karmic balance.

The Academy really should explain the sound categories better – I've seen Academy voters admit they don't understand the difference. I thought Mad Max: Fury Road deserved its win for Best Sound Editing (the effects and foley) but I'd have given The Revenant the award for Best Sound Mixing (the overall soundscape).

I didn't see all of the Oscar-nominated performances, but Brie Larson was excellent in Room. Mark Rylance delivered subtle, meticulous work in Bridge of Spies, and his win was a pleasant surprise. It was a banner year for Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, winning her the Oscar, but also Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and for Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, The Revenant, Brooklyn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Kid actors Jacob Tremblay (Room) and Abraham Attah (Beasts of No Nation) gave impressive performances. (It was fun to see them make the awards circuit.)

On to the reviews. As usual, I wouldn't put too much stock in their relative category rankings. I've hidden spoilers with toggle buttons. (As always, my guideline is that, if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler). The other sections are Part 2: The Top Four, Part 3: Noteworthy Films and Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

2015 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Four

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review, Part 3: Noteworthy Films and Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

The Revenant: Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki team up again, this time for a wilderness revenge tale set in the American West in 1823. The film's very loosely based on the novel of the same name, itself based on real historical incidents, as scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, left for dead by some of his comrades, and fights to survive and seek revenge against harrowing odds. "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves," goes the saying, and The Revenant delivers one of cinema's best explorations of this concept. The wilderness locations are stunning, and the camerawork is frequently extraordinary (but unobtrusive), with Iñárritu and Lubezki opting for lengthy takes that range from the vertiginous to the lyrical. DiCaprio's gotten flack for the grunting and grimacing the role requires (versus the lengthy, eloquent speeches of some of his other parts), but honestly, he's quite good here – he's grounded and present in the moment, as he needs to be to carry the film. As Glass' chief nemesis, John Fitzgerald, Brit Tom Hardy is earthy and believable as well – Hardy manages to make Fitzgerald despicable but also occasionally sympathetic, or at least comprehensible. (Hardy based his accent on Tom Berenger in Platoon.)

Hugh Glass is the scout for a fur-trapping expedition, responsible for guiding the men through the territory and hunting game. Although some of the native tribes are friendly, some are decidedly not, namely the Arikara, often referred to as the "Ree" by the expedition. Glass has a son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), by a Pawnee woman, who was killed in a U.S. cavalry raid. A grizzly attack leaves Glass badly wounded, with little hope of recovery, and transporting him over rough terrain proves impossible. Expedition leader Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) offers a hefty bonus to anyone who stays with Glass and sees that he gets a proper burial, which turns out to be Glass' son Hawk, young and idealistic Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Fitzgerald, a selfish but highly capable outdoorsman. But Glass isn't dying quickly and the Arikara may be closing in, making Fitzgerald twitchy. (It's hard to discuss much more without giving away huge chunks of the plot.)

The Revenant's biggest faults are its length and pacing. It's 156 minutes long and episodic, and some of the flashbacks, visions and incidents begin to feel repetitive. If you're not in the mood for its immersive filmmaking aesthetic – man against nature, with breathtaking camerawork and stunning landscapes – you might not like this one. (It's got a much stronger plot than Terence Malick's films, but at times, The Revenant similarly feels more interested in mood than story.)

As in the novel, none of the characters or groups are depicted as entirely good or evil, although the film makes some significant changes. The Arikara aren't merely territorial (although that's arguably justified); they're given a more noble motive. Meanwhile, Glass having a son alters the shape of his desire for revenge, and he's presented as essentially the most enlightened of the white guys in terms of attitudes toward Native Americans. French-Canadian trappers aren't depicted well, and that's been criticized as ahistorical (they typically treated native tribes better than their American counterparts). Glass' physical challenges are more numerous and arguably more interesting in the book, and an invented incident of survival feels jarringly derivative (think tauntaun). On the other hand, the book's ending is historically accurate but rather anticlimactic; the film jettisons this to delivers a far stronger climax, including sinuous, long takes of a savage, desperate, scrambling fight. Fitzgerald's words and Glass' looks prove haunting, and their emotional effect lingers long after The Revenant's final shot.

The Big Short: It's fitting that a director best known for comedies (Adam McKay) takes on the absurdities and corruption that drove the global financial crash of 2008. Based on Michael Lewis' nonfiction book, the film adaptation The Big Short assembles a fine cast (if male-heavy), keeps a brisk pace and manages to explain complex ideas and deliberately confusing financial skullduggery in a lucid and entertaining fashion. That's much harder to do than the filmmakers make it look. The Big Short focuses on the few people who figured out that there was a housing bubble based on bad loans and suspect financial instruments who then decided to "short" the market – betting on the seemingly unlikely event that the market would indeed crash. Most of the characters don't meet, and the film flits between them. Quirky, socially awkward Michael Burry (Christian Bale) has a medical degree but manages a hedge fund. He's been extraordinarily successful, but his clients start freaking out when he locks them into a long-time, expensive bet against the housing market. Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), head of a small hedge fund, has a driving sense of justice and hates seeing ordinary people get screwed, yet he comes off as a prick (often justifiably) due to his blunt and insensitive style. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) works for a big bank but has few qualms about betting against it. (He narrates most of the film.) Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are young up and comers who want to make a name for themselves who solicit the help of their former neighbor, the reclusive and retired bank trader, Ben Rickart (Brad Pitt). (Most of the characters have different names from the people they're based on; a couple are composites.) Director (and cowriter) Adam McKay mostly casts actors with comic chops and it pays off well. In addition to the leads, Marisa Tomei, Karen Gillan and Max Greenfield are memorable in small roles. The best decision is to break the fourth wall; a few characters do so, and explain how something we just watched didn't happen exactly that way, or confirm that a specific incident did, in fact, actually occur. Three "celebrity explainer" segments do a great job of demonstrating tricky concepts in a clear and engaging way. There's a darker edge to this story, of course, in that so many people suffered and still are, as a result of the crash and what was (or should be) criminal activity that largely went unpunished. The film at times creates a bizarre dynamic – we're kinda rooting for these characters to win, but on the other hand, them winning means the global economy, and many other people… lose. (And we know this is going to happen.) To their credit, the filmmakers do delve into this. The Big Short is well worth watching, and makes a nice set with 2010 best documentary feature winner Inside Job (the ninth film reviewed here) and 2011's Margin Call (the first film reviewed here).

"I really shouldn't be talking about this."
"I really think you should, actually."

Spotlight is a welcome film for adults, recounting the true story of The Boston Globe's "spotlight" unit, which exposed the Catholic Church's cover-up of widespread sexual abuse of young parishioners by priests. It's disturbing subject matter, but tastefully handled. Most of the film consists of people talking, but the reporters face moral as well as logistical challenges in pursuing this story, giving the film an energy and urgency. The majority of residents in the Boston area are Catholic, and the Catholic Church possesses considerable political influence and massive financial resources for lawsuits. Many of the reporter's subjects are reluctant to speak; some are outwardly defiant, some are stoic and close-lipped, others are frank and confessional, still others are conflicted and self-loathing. Writer-director (and former actor) Tom McCarthy assembles a fine cast, including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Len Cariou, and Jamey Sheridan. McCarthy does a nice job of gradually revealing the story – we're right there with the reporters as they discover a new lead, hit an obstacle, come up with a clever solution, and discover more than they bargained for. Spotlight also captures the dynamics of a really good team (of journalists, in this case) – they drive themselves, help each other out, and occasionally squabble, but not about trivial matters. (Among other things, Spotlight serves as a love letter to great reporting and newspapers, which have been severely hurt by budget cuts, an issue addressed in the movie.) The film isn't critical of the Catholic faith itself or its regular adherents, only the church leadership and its institutions. Several of the reporters are practicing Catholics or were raised as such, and as the extent of the scandal unfolds, it causes considerable soul-searching. (How could this happen? How many people knew, and when? What could I have done to stop it earlier?) Unless you know the subject matter is not for you, Spotlight is well worth seeing.

(NPR's interview about the investigation and the film with Sacha Pfeiffer, played by Rachel McAdams, is excellent.)

Inside Out: After a few lackluster entries, it's nice to see Pixar regain its stride with a tale of a young girl on the edge of puberty and the mix of emotions inside her. Riley Anderson (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) moves with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle McLachlan) from Minnesota to San Francisco. She tries to put on a brave face, but it's a massive adjustment – she leaves all her friends behind, plus plenty of space to skate and play hockey, and a nice, big house, all for a new city and a dreary, uninviting condo. Inside a control room in her head, her emotions are personified by the perfectly cast Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader). Joy is the ringleader, and tries to keep everything upbeat, which occasionally leads to her banishing Sadness to the small circle in the room. Riley has some tough days, though, and Joy's normal chipper approach starts to prove inadequate. A series of control room mishaps leads to one of Riley's "core memories" changing from happy to sad, and the "islands of Riley's personality" (Family, Friendship, Honesty, Sports, Creativity, Goofball) start to erode. Joy and Sadness accidentally get punted to "long-term memory," and need to find their way back to the control room before Riley's psyche is shattered (she's considering what was once unthinkable – running away).

This general concept has been done before (the last, funny segment of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) and the short-lived, underrated sitcom Herman's Head, among others). However, this is one the best treatments to date, and it manages to be surprisingly sophisticated while also being entertaining for both kids and adults. That's a tough feat to pull off, and Pixar makes it look easy. Individual episodes are funny taken on their own terms – the abstract thought chamber, the dream factory, the cloud village, the moody, devoted, idealized boyfriend, the internal control rooms of other characters – but they also progress the core story. This is a wonderful script. Joy is likable, but her cheerleading can become oppressive at times and an act of denial. I particularly appreciated that the story recognizes that sadness is not necessarily a negative emotion and honestly acknowledging it can be crucial. Richard Kind has a memorable turn as Bing Bong, and the voice cameo list is fun. Check this one out.

2015 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review, Part 2: The Top Four and Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

Mad Max: Fury Road: The best action film in many years becomes all the more impressive when one realizes that the director (George Miller) and cinematographer (John Seale) were both over 70 while making it. There's really no explanation of the world or how this film relates to the three earlier Mad Max films, but it starts with a bang as Max (Tom Hardy) is pursued in his car off-road by the pale and fanatical war boys. They capture him and return him to the Citadel, an oasis in the desert ruled by fearsome war lord Immortan Joe, who's stingy about sharing water and keeps a harem. Joe sends Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to go raiding for more gasoline; she drives a "war rig," a souped-up tanker with spikes and turrets, and is accompanied by plenty of war boys in smaller vehicles. But Joe discovers that Furiosa is making a run for it, taking his harem with her. He empties the Citadel in pursuit, and Max, who's an universal blood donor, is hooked up as a "blood bag" for the sickly war boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Apart from a few necessary breathers, the film's almost nonstop action, with vehicular mayhem, amazing stunts and classic, great shot selection. (No shaky camerawork and fast cutting to cover up crappily staged action here.) Both Hardy and Theron are excellent as tough and practical survivors, and their relationship plausibly, naturally evolves. The same goes for Nux's own gradual transformation. A Hell's Grannies biker gang also provides a great deal of fun.

Mad Max: Fury Road does have some issues. It's not surprising that, in a post-nuclear-apocalyptic world of mutations, deformities and sickness, the harem women would be better-looking than the average populace, but their make-up and wardrobe is so meticulous they look like they've stepped off a fashion show runway even in a swirling. suffocating world of dust. A moment of despair for a character is presented in painfully over-the-top fashion, with hollering, sinking to the knees, and a deafening score. Max's final decision doesn't make that much sense. Most of all, we never really get to know either Max and Furiosa. On the one hand, it's nice that the film gets down to the action, and it’s cool that some things, such as Furiosa's disability, are taken as matter-of-fact (she has a congenital stump and a prosthetic arm). We know Max is haunted by the loss (death) of a little girl, but we never learn the details. (His daughter? Someone else?) This lack of character depth and development is the only reason I wouldn't rank Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the absolute best films of 2015, even if it still ranks in my top 10. It may be unfair to compare it to a masterpiece of the genre (that's also much longer), Seven Samural, in terms of character depth, but surely there's some middle ground. That said, this movie wasn't hyped much until right before it came out, it was a very welcome surprise, and it's hard to dislike a movie with a character named "the Doof Warrior," who plays a guitar that shoots real flames. Unless you hate the genre, you'll want to see this one.

Room: Director Lenny Abrahamson does a stellar, sensitive job handling delicate subject matter that easily could have felt exploitative. It's not always an easy film to watch, but it's a very good one. Joy "Ma" Newsome was kidnapped seven years ago and is imprisoned in "Room," a furnished and heavily fortified tool shed, with only a skylight providing a glimpse of the outside world. Joy cares for Jack, a five-year old boy with long, uncut hair, her child from her kidnapper-rapist, who Joy and Jack refer to as "Old Nick." Compliant behavior earns a special, slight "treat" each Sunday. As viewers, we might wonder why Joy hasn't escaped, but we discover why with small details she drops over time – although the biggest factor is Jack. If you've seen the trailer, you know that eventually they escape, although it's not easy and success seems precarious even with that foreknowledge. Room is less about an escape than survival, though, and that story continues long after the actual physical release. What does someone have to do mentally to survive such a situation? The coping mechanisms Joy develops, so essential for making it that far, don't all translate well to outside life. Likewise, not everyone treats Jack warmly or approves of Joy's choices. Room has several laudable aspects. One, it focuses on the victims and not the criminal, refusing to glamorize his actions or position. Two, it doesn't present a happy-ever-after story post-escape –Joy has PTSD, and readjusting to a more regular life is a seriously tough slog. Three, the performances are fantastic. Brie Larson gives a fantastic, multilayered, grounded performance as Joy, an abused, justifiably depressed woman who grits out a horrible situation for the sake of her son. If she reacts ferociously to any perceived threat – sometimes disproportionately – it's hard to blame her. Meanwhile, Jacob Tremblay is astounding as Jack, delivering one of the best child performances in recent memory. (Warning: do not confuse this film with The Room, the infamously bad cult movie by Tommy Wiseau, as did the person who announced the film at my screening, to laughter from the audience.)

The Martian: Director Ridley Scott returns to fine form with this adaptation of the bestselling hard sci-fi novel of the same name by first-time author Andy Weir. A series of freak occurrences leaves astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) left for dead on Mars by his crew. Besides the immediate challenges of survival, neither Watney's crew nor NASA back on Earth even know he's alive. Even if that problem's solved, there's the challenge of how the hell to get Watney off planet, because Mars is drifting further away from Earth, a rescue trip would take a long time, and Watney is going to starve first. Damon's well-cast as Watney, a likeable, smart and resourceful guy with a good sense of humor. (In the book, it's one of the reasons Watney was picked – you want to like the people you'll be cooped up with for a few years.) All the astronauts picked for the mission were dual experts, and luckily Watney is a biologist and mechanical engineer, so his first tasks are growing tons of potatoes to live longer and modifying one of the rovers for longer expeditions than was originally intended. After that, it's a steady stream of more challenges, setbacks, clever solutions, and complications. (It'd be wrong to spoil much more.) The supporting cast is solid, including Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover, among others. The film's a pretty faithful adaptation, simplifying the number and extent of the challenges, making certain characters (Chastain's) play a bigger role than they would in real life, but getting the essence right. The film improves on the book in jettisoning some egregious machismo and posturing that ill fits the rest of the story. (Jeff Daniel's character is the greatest beneficiary.) That said, if you like the movie and the general "puzzle-survival" storyline, it's worth reading the book, which features the same challenges in more detail, plus several additional ones. (Funny meta-moment: as occurs in the book, some characters call their secret project "the Council of Elrond" from The Lord of the Rings, and one of the actors in that scene is… Sean Bean, who appears prominently in the Council of Elrond scene in the film adaptation The Lord of the Rings.)

Brooklyn: Saorsie Ronan gives yet another impressive performance, this time as Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman emigrating to Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s. She's intelligent and industrious, but good jobs are simply too scarce, so she leaves her beloved older sister and widowed mother behind in hopes of better prospects in America. Although some folks are cruel to Eilis (pronounced AY-lish), it's refreshing to see how many people support her through her initial, profoundly homesick months, including some unlikely sources. Eilis comes from a small town where everyone knows each other's business and some people wield shame viciously, as a weapon. The comparative freedom of America proves refreshing. Her housemates at the boarding house may be conventionally prettier and also more flirtatious, doing well at the dances they attend, but Eilis is smart and kind, and before too long, she's been courted by Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen). He's not as learned as Eilis, but he's handsome, nice and genuinely sweet to her. (They're both Catholic, but his expressive Italian family is quite different from her taciturn Irish one.) Eilis and Tony's relationship grows closer, but then unfortunate events force her to return to Ireland, where suddenly she's treated as stylish, and new opportunities open for her – including a new, rich and thoughtful suitor, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). What shall Eilis do?

Brooklyn, adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín's award-winning novel, is mostly a coming-of-age story. It doesn't break tremendous new ground, but it's a tale well-told and well-acted. It does feature some striking, memorable scenes, though, most of all a reunion with her cruel, former employer, Miss Kelly (Bríd Brennan). The acting's excellent, led by Ronan, but Gleeson's good as always, and Brennan, Jim Broadbent and Jessica Paré are standouts. Irish-Americans will likely enjoy this one more than most, but it's an immigration tale that resonates further out.

The Lady in the Van: The Lady in the Van chronicles the real-life story of a mentally ill homeless woman who lives out of a decrepit, squalid van, which playwright and actor Alan Bennett invites her to park in his driveway (to bypass vagrancy law time limits). This doesn't mean that the "lady," who goes by the name Mary Shepherd, is grateful – she's pretty demanding and abrasive. It's hard to stay on her good side because that side keeps hopping around, to the degree it exists at all. (Any sort of music sets her off, for instance.) Naturally, we sympathize with Bennett, who's trying to do the right thing, but whose patience is understandably strained. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger comes around occasionally to harass Mary, and we gradually get glimpses of her past.

As Mary, Maggie Smith is of course wonderful, and although Mary can't honestly be called charming, she does possess a certain charisma due her singular (if roving) focus and dedication. Alex Jennings is likewise splendid as Bennett. (The real Bennett wrote the screenplay, based on his book about the situation.) The script's best invention is that Jennings plays both Bennett as writer's persona and Bennett as person, so the film shows him having conversations with himself, or more often interrogating himself – Bennett the person will point out that an incident didn't really happen that way, most often to accuse Bennett the writer of trying to make himself look better than reality. The film is mostly a comedy, but The Lady in the Van provides some truly poignant, moving moments near the end centering on the power of the arts and the evils of suppressing them. If you like the actors or quirky British films, check this onr out. (The real Alan Bennett has a cameo at the end. Director Nicholas Hytner also directed the excellent film, The Madness of King George, also with a screenplay by Bennett, based on Bennett's play. Personal note: when I was studying in London, I saw Bennett reprise Talking Heads, one of the plays he's shown performing for the first time in the film. He's not as well known in the States, but I like his work.)

Bridge of Spies: This isn't a flashy film, but it's extremely well-acted, and director Steven Spielberg wrings all the suspense he can out of this true-life Cold War tale. It's 1957, and lawyer James Donovon (Tom Hanks), who mainly deals in insurance but served during the Nuremburg trials right after World War II, is appointed to represent Soviet spy Rodolph Abel (Mark Rylance). Abel is extremely quiet and polite, and Donovon is the type of man who firmly believes in due process and a zealous defense of his client. It's not a popular gig, and Donovon faces the scorn of the public for representing someone charged with treason. After Donovon manages to save Abel from the death penalty and plans to file an appeal, even his bosses at his firm, who persuaded him to take the case in the first place, grow angry with him. But then an American Air Force pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is shot down and captured by the Soviets. The U.S. Government recruits Donovon to arrange a prison swap in Berlin, Abel for Powers – Donovon will take all the risks, but has to pose as a private citizen and can be disowned and abandoned. Plenty of complications ensue – the Berlin Wall is starting to go up, an American graduate student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is arrested by the East German police, the East Germans resent their Soviet masters and the two groups tell Donovon different things, plus Donovon's CIA handlers often argue with him. Donovon would like to get Pryor out, too, but the CIA cares only about Powers.

Hanks excels at portraying Donovon as fundamentally decent without ever slipping into sanctimony. (It's also fun to watch Donovon work his negotiating skills – he can be a very smooth operator.) Donovon makes a wonderful argument for due process early in the film, and although he's practical and far from naïve about how the world works, he also quietly holds to his moral compass. This makes him develop an unlikely kinship with Abel, who truthfully is an enemy of the United States, but serves his cause honorably. Rylance is an extremely subtle actor, and he does extraordinary work here (which won an Oscar). Spielberg can always recruit superb actors, and the supporting cast is strong, including Alan Alda, Mikhail Gorevoy, and Sebastian Koch (who starred in The Lives of Others, the fourth film reviewed here). Because of the era, this is a male-heavy film. The excellent Amy Ryan isn't given much to do except fret or look adoringly at her husband. Spielberg can't resist some sentimentality, but a late shot of Donovon watching children from the subway is nicely set up to capture the multiple layers at play in this film. (Likewise, at several other points, a simple gesture is set up to be significant beforehand.) Joel and Ethan Coen helped write the screenplay with Matt Charman, Thomas Newman provides the score, and Spielberg uses his usual stalwarts, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn.

Spy: Melissa McCarthy is hilarious, but often doesn't get a good vehicle for her talents. Spy provides a welcome change from that pattern. In Spy, she plays Susan Cooper, the high-tech handler and all-around Girl Friday for suave CIA agent, Bradley Fine (Jude Law). She's a computer whiz who provides Fine intel in real time (heat signatures of bad guys detected by satellite and so on) to help him complete his missions. They're a great team, and she's hopelessly smitten with him. But then he's shot on camera by a target, the diabolical Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who claims she knows the identities of all CIA field agents. This means the normal top agents will be in danger if they pursue Rayna, which doesn't make the super-macho Rick Ford (Jason Statham) or sophisticated Karen Walker (Morena Baccarin) happy. As a desk agent, though, Susan's unknown, so she goes into the field for this first time. She's not happy with the frumpy cover identities created for her, and also clashes with her boss, the germophobic, disdainful Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney), as well as Ford, who's officially quit but is pursuing Rayna on his own. Every scene playing off McCarthy against Byrne as the catty Rayna or Statham as the stoic, insane Ford is golden. There's a fair amount of action (some of it surprisingly if comedically violent), but the humor takes precedence in this comedy-action spy spoof flick. If only every straight spy movie was as entertaining.

Trainwreck: Comedienne Amy Schumer writes and stars in this ribald and entertaining comedy directed by Judd Apatow. Amy (Amy Schumer) has commitment issues due to her parents' divorce, as we see in flashback (her father explains to Amy and her sister about the impossibilities of monogamy, which they can't pronounce). Amy works for a laddish men's magazine, and early on, we see her try to please her demanding and seemingly soulless boss, Dianna (Tilda Swinton), and have a series of amusing one-night stands. Thankfully, Trainwreck doesn't go in for slut-shaming, but it also doesn't pretend that Amy has her life together, either. Amy hates sports, which leads the quirky Dianna to assign Amy to interview a successful sports surgeon, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader). They go on a date, but then Aaron asks Amy out again – which completely freaks her out. Their dating is tentative, awkward, and funny. One of Trainwreck's better aspects is that Amy and Aaron are both flawed, but neither is inclined to see it – this makes for a more realistic film, and a nice change from less balanced films in the romantic comedy genre (man-child grows up for mature, together woman, for example – even if some of those are still entertaining). As usual for Apatow films, it's a little longer than it should be (124 minutes) and it meanders a bit, but it remains a great vehicle for Schumer's considerable comedic talents. Colin Quinn proves memorable as Amy's cantankerous and candid father (in poor health). Brie Larson is good as Amy's seemingly well-adjusted sister, Kim (married and with kids); she tries to be supportive, but can be a bit judgmental (although Amy may be too quick to accuse her of this as well). The film's full of celebrity cameos, mostly from athletes. (It also features a movie with a movie with some notable stars.) Both John Cena (as one of Amy's more steady lovers) and LeBron James (playing himself) are surprisingly, legitimately funny. Trainwreck has its more serious moments, but also plenty of raunchy comedy, so if that's not your thing, you'll want to pass, but fans of that style or Schumer will enjoy this one.

Beasts of No Nation: This film played the festival circuit but then was released on Netflix with only a limited theatrical release. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (perhaps best known for directing the first season of True Detective) adapts the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, about a young boy in an unnamed African country forced to become a child soldier in the middle of a civil war. Agu (Abraham Attah) and his family try to escape the approaching conflict, but that doesn't work out for all of them. The "army" impressing Agu into service is led by the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba), who fosters a cult of personality and can occasionally be generous, but only within a framework of absolute control and subtle (or overt) abuse. Agu becomes friends with Strika, a mute boy roughly his own age, and they look out for each other through a series of harrowing situations. The life of a child soldier is progressively dehumanizing, and Agu and Strika don't always successfully resist the pressure they're subjected to. Young Attah delivers a strong performance as Agu. The film has its moments of hope, but be warned it depicts brutal situations, from casual murder to child rape. It's not an exploitative movie – our focus and sympathies are always with Agu and Strika – but this is not light fare.

Embrace of the Serpent: This unusual, memorable Colombian movie shot in black and white was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. Set in the Amazon rainforest, it cuts back and forth between 1909 and 1940. In both time periods, Karamakate, a indigenous shaman who may be the last of his tribe, guides a white man along the river in search of yakruna, a sacred plant with supposedly remarkable healing properties. (Karamakate is played by Nilbio Torres in 1909 and Antonio Bolívar in 1940, both giving notable performances.) In 1940, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), a German explorer, is dying, and only the yakruna will save him. In 1940, Evan (Brionne Davis), another explorer, believes that pharmaceutical companies might be very interested in yakruna. Karamakate insists on treating Evan as if he's the same person as Theo, and helps him because he feels he's lost something spiritually and this new trip might restore it. During the journey in both eras, we witness the harmful effects of colonization, from corporate pillaging of the forest to the influence of modern technology to forced religion to a bizarre, disturbing cult. The choice of black and white is interesting; the rainforest would likely be stunning in color; perhaps black and white helps keep the focus on the characters versus the scenery? Regardless, Embrace of the Serpent is an original, striking piece that creates a distinct mood and its own reality. It's definitely a change of pace from the usual Hollywood fare.

Anomalisa: This stop-motion animated feature is one of the most original and memorable films of the year (but be warned it's rated R and not for kids). Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis, a British actor with a Lancashire accent) flies to Cincinnati for a conference. He's clearly an introvert (or just wants to be left alone), which doesn't dissuade his chatty seatmate, or his cabbie, or the bellhop. Oddly, every other person he meets has the same face and same voice (supplied by Tom Noonan, a baritone) – men, women, and even children. (A soprano aria recording is even warbled by Noonan.) This means when Michael calls his wife in Los Angeles (they have marital problems and a kid) or phones Bella, a local ex-girlfriend (she wrote an scathing letter when he left her), he's playing out emotional, personal scenes with women voiced by a man with a fairly deep voice. It produces a jarring and interesting dynamic. (I thought of Brecht's distancing effect, although apparently the Fregoli delusion was the genesis – Michael stays at the Fregoli hotel.) The one exception is Lisa, who has a unique face and female voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh), which excites Michael. It turns out that Lisa and her female friend (Noonan again) are there for the conference, that Michael is the key speaker, and that (ironically) this reserved man wrote a well-regarded book on customer service. Michael maneuvers to spend more time with Lisa, and they wind up spending an intimate evening – surprisingly, one of the most intimate and tender scenes of the year, despite the use of stop-motion animation puppets. (Using puppets also allows for some striking nightmare sequences.)

As always, Charlie Kaufman comes up with some fascinating ideas, but regrettably (as is often the case), can't quite stick the landing. A climatic public scene feels comparatively predictable and conventional if still somewhat implausible, and doesn't add much to our understanding of the characters. The same goes for some political commentary that will only date the film in the future. Unfortunately, the choices in Anomalisa late in the story make it less interesting than it was before (more below in the spoilers). That said, it remains more innovative and thought-provoking than most other films.


Sicario: There's a great deal to like about Sicaro(a Spanish word for "hitman"), an intelligent thriller with a dark, worldly perspective, although its final act will likely divide viewers. Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent based in Arizona fighting drug runners, who are heavily armed and ruthless. After some of her buddies are killed in a raid, she's approached by her boss, Dave Jennings (Victor Garber), about being the FBI liaison for a special operation directed by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who says he's working for the Department of Defense, but may be with the CIA. The pitch is that she'll finally be able to take down the drug lords, and frustrated and eager for payback, Kate accepts. She and her partner, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), wind up puzzled sometimes, though, by both what Matt Graver does and some of the other people working for him – most of all shadowy operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), who's vague about his background. A raid into Mexico to extradite a drug lord is supposedly in coordination with the Mexican government, but there seems to be a tipoff and things turn violent. Kate and Reggie are hardly naïve, but still hold some ideals about how the system should work. As they encounter more and more corruption, they also increasingly question the legality of Graver's operation, his ultimate goals and his methods for achieving them.

Emily Blunt continues to impress with her role choices – she'll play the lovely leading lady in romantic comedies, but is also convincing in grittier parts such as Sicario or 2014's Edge of Tomorrow (reviewed here). Brolin's work is quite interesting – despite his position, Matt Graver dresses casually, for instance, wearing loafers without socks and kicking them off in a conference room. He swaggers with the laidback informality of someone used to calling the shots and knowing he can get his way. As Alejandro, Benicio del Toro is good as always, in this case as a cool cat but also haunted man, capable of ruthless action, but also protective of Kate. (Supposedly, Alejandro will appear in a sequel or prequel, and indeed, an entire other movie could be made based on the eventual backstory we learn.)

Unfortunately, some late storytelling choice significantly alter the film – the filmmakers change our point-of-view character, which makes the final half-hour or so interesting but also unmoored narratively and morally. (Sicario also somewhat chickens out from fully committing to this move – the camera doesn't show the full impact of certain evil acts.) These narrative choices are deliberate and unconventional, but I also found them problematic – the story itself doesn't need to be satisfying, but the storytelling should. (It feels as if the filmmakers thought this direction would be cool but didn't fully consider all the ramifications.) Some of Sicario's characters aren't merely dealing with grey, moral ambiguity or working in the shadows; they've gone completely over to the dark side. It's potentially fascinating subject matter, but especially if there's at least one more film in the works, I'm left wondering about the narrative point of entry and perspective choices. (French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve also directed 2011's Incendies, the 16th film reviewed here.)

2015 Film Roundup, Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful)

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review, Part 2: The Top Four and Part 3: Noteworthy Films.)

Ex Machina: Writer Alex Garland's directorial debut proves to be memorable and interesting, but also less original and less satisfying than its heavy hype suggested. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer, wins a contest to spend a week with the brilliant and quirky CEO of his company, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). The events of the week are highly secret, requiring Caleb to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Nathan's facility is in the woods, accessible only by helicopter, and although the views are nice, it's built like a bunker, complete with keycard-coded doors and lockdowns. Nathan soon introduces to Caleb to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot in female form and, according to Nathan, the most advanced artificial intelligence (AI) ever created. (The visual effects are impressive and justifiably won an Oscar; the sound design for Ava is fairly subtle, and nicely effective.) Ava is intelligent and charming, and Caleb find he likes her – perhaps is even attracted to her – even though, rationally, he knows she's a robot. Meanwhile, Nathan can be generous, but also a bit of a dick. He's prone to acting on whims, and can seem laid-back, but that's contingent on him being in charge. Nathan's servant, Kyoto (Sonoya Mizuno), doesn't speak English, so Caleb only has Nathan and Ava for conversation. Although Caleb's sessions with Ava are monitored and recorded, power outages allow Ava to tell Caleb some things in secret, including her desire for freedom. Caleb also grows to dislike how Nathan treats Ava. Thus is the final act set up.

The main trio of actors are excellent, with Swedish actress Alicia Vikander especially impressive. She has some background as a dancer, and I found it interesting to see the interaction of stereotypically "feminine" body language and intonations on a visibly robot body – what makes us think of something/someone as human? How do we perceive, conceive of, gender? Gleeson's good at making characters likable, and Caleb's depicted as intelligent and compassionate, with a streak of loneliness. Oscar Isaac isn't shy about playing unlikable characters, and provides a memorable turn as Nathan – bright, charismatic, domineering and more than a bit narcissistic. (A dance scene is both funny and a bit disconcerting.)

Ex Machina has plenty to like, but also problematic elements. The fetishistic component was plausible, I suppose, but not that interesting. I found the core premise of the film intriguing, but where the story was taken less so. Alex Garland also wrote 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and has a knack for some neat ideas and cool scenes, but then running out of steam and delivering a more conventional or otherwise unsatisfying ending. (Ex Machina can spur some decent conversations, at least.) More below in the spoilers.

45 Years: A long-married couple, retired in the country near Norwich, England, is planning a large party to celebrate their upcoming anniversary. (They were going to do it for the their 40th, but had to delay because of heart bypass surgery for Geoff Mercer, played by Tom Courtenay.) Kate (Charlotte Rampling) is the sharper and more active of the two, but they're very much a couple, and the little touches of intimacy and familiarity between Rampling and Courtenay give 45 Years a welcome and necessary realism. Geoff receives a shocking letter, though, related to an Katya, a girlfriend who died in a tragic accident when they were both young, back in the 1960s. This stirs up long-forgotten feelings in Geoff, and puts him into a state of deep reflection. Meanwhile, Kate discovers aspects about Geoff she hadn't known before, especially about how close he and Katya had been and his passion for her. In theory, Kate and Geoff known each other extremely well, and they've been married long enough they can be completely honest with each other. However, when Kate, who tries to be supportive, presses Geoff for utter sincerity on tough questions, she discovers to her own surprise that she doesn't actually want unvarnished honesty. Rampling's an excellent actress and I consider Courtenay vastly underappreciated (at least here in the States). They're both superb here and do subtle, multilayered work, which is essential in a film like this about shifts in a close relationship. Although 45 Years falls short of the work of Ingmar Bergman and Eric Rohmer in terms of insight and intimacy, it's a nice showcase for veteran actors and provides a welcome change of pace from more spectacle-oriented fare.

While We're Young:

Dr. Nagato: You have arthritis in your knee.
Josh: Is arthritis a catch-all for some kind of injury to the –
Dr. Nagato: No, arthritis is a degradation of the joints.
Josh: I know what traditional arthritis is.
Dr. Nagato: I’m not sure what you mean by "traditional," but this is arthritis.
Josh: Arthritis arthritis?
Dr. Nagato: Yes. I usually just say it once.

Noah Baumbach's previous film, Frances Ha (reviewed here), focused on a 20-something woman struggling to grow up, whereas While We're Young centers on a couple just entering their 40s resistant to the fact that they've grown up. Josh Schrebnick (Ben Stiller) is a documentary filmmaker who teaches a few classes and is trying to finish a new film in postproduction. He has a warm relationship with his wife, Cornelia (Naomi Watts), but is uneasy around her father, acclaimed documentarian Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin). The Schrebnicks' friends are raising young kids, want the Schrebnicks to do the same, and have both less time for them and less in common. Then Ben and Cornelia meet a fun, young couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who are into retro stuff and profess to love Josh's previous work. Ben and Cornelia wind up being pulled in two directions – their same-age friends drag them to peppy kid events (Cornelia fears become a pod person) while Jamie and Darby encourage them to dive into alternative youth culture, including a spiritual retreat and "cleanse" involving hallucinogenics. Josh and Cornelia, who still feel pretty hip, wind up helping Jamie with his own doc while Josh wrestles with making his own meandering piece work.

Stiller and Watts have good chemistry, and While We're Young> is at its best when it's a plausible, wry and warm depiction of a married couple struggling with middle age. (It's got some pretty funny scenes.) The plot involving Jamie's documentary, however, becomes unnecessarily complicated and is simply less interesting than Josh, Cornelia and their other relationships. The film also gets rather sentimental and conventional at the end, which is disappointing given its earlier embrace of the notion that not everyone has to make the same life choices. That said, it still delivers plenty of observational character vignettes, so if you like Baumbach's other work, you'll likely enjoy this one. (One quibble: in one scene, Jamie psyches up Josh by playing him "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor. Josh says, "I remember when this song was just considered bad! But it's working." It's amusing, but the song was ridiculously popular in its day, and someone Josh's age would be far more likely to think the song was a bit cheesy but kinda awesome, like "Don't Stop Believin'.")

Trumbo: Bryan Cranston's performance and interesting subject matter elevate this biopic focused on the Hollywood blacklist. It's 1947, and anti-Communist fervor rages in Congress, with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigating anyone whose politics it doesn't like or suspects it might not like, their First (and Fifth) Amendment rights be damned. In Hollywood, a similarly minded group, including gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John Wayne (David James Elliott), seek to blacklist actors and screenwriters who are, were, or are merely suspected of being Communists or sympathizers. Among the most notable targets are the Hollywood Ten (mostly screenwriters), and the most successful of them is Dalton Trumbo (Cranston). Trumbo's a writer's writer – witty, clever and industrious when it comes to the actual work, but also a bon vivant with expensive tastes and a flamboyant personal style. He's egotistical, but he's genuinely one of the best at his job; he can be quite generous, but also terribly self-involved. It's a juicy part, and unsurprisingly, Cranston is superb, tackling it with gusto. The entire cast is solid – Diane Lane is wife Cleo Trumbo, a former performer and sharp mind in her own right, as is their headstrong daughter, Nikola (in her teenaged years, played by Elle Fanning). Michael Stuhlbarg's interesting as Edward G. Robinson, a big star who initially supports the blacklist (quite generously), but who's beaten down by being denied work for years. (Stuhlbarg and some of the other performers have the tough gig of portraying well-known Hollywood stars. The filmmakers wisely cast people who roughly look like those stars, but don't bury them in prosthesis. Most viewers will probably still be pulled out a bit, but it seems like the best approach.) Alan Tudyk as Ian McLellan Hunter and Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird (a composite character) are at turns funny and poignant as fellow members of the Hollywood Ten. John Goodman is marvelous as always, this time as schlock-master Frank King, who hires the blacklisted writers under pseudonyms at bargain rates. (This leads to some funny scenes.) Although Hedda Hopper is ostensibly a villain, the filmmakers and Mirren give the woman her due – her convictions are deeply felt. On the flip side, it's nice to be reminded of some figures who resisted pressure and broke the blacklist, including Kirk Douglas. Although Trumbo the movie isn't as brilliant as Dalton Trumbo's own scripts, that's a hard bar to reach (he wrote several bona fide classics). It's interesting and arguably important history to revisit – the blacklist and witch hunting persisted in Hollywood years after the height of McCarthyism – and, as Trumbo the character (and Trumbo the real man, in archival footage) reminds us, people suffered and died because of it. Even today, some conservatives will defend McCarthy, HUAC and the Hollywood blacklist (their notions of defending "politically incorrect" views strangely don't extend to views they don't like). Personally, I find some of the criticisms about the accuracy of the film to be fair and many others miss the mark on historical and/or aesthetic grounds. (Your mileage may vary.) To delve deeper into the history and its complexity, turn to the documentaries and books on the subject.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens: The Force Awakens is a fairly predictable but crowd-pleasing revival of the Star Wars franchise, borrowing heavy from the first film, Episode IV: A New Hope. However, after the debacle of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, seeing familiar faces and hearing John Williams' iconic theme makes for welcome fan fare. It's thirty years after the rebel victory in The Return of the Jedi, in which time some imperial dead-enders formed The First Order and are threatening to impose space fascism once more. Luke Skywalker has gone missing. Ace rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is forced to hide a crucial message inside a droid (the cute BB-8) because Darth Vader's seeming successor, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is closing in and leaving few alive. A young stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega), is shocked to witness slaughter and experiences a crisis of conscience. He manages to free Poe, and the two escape, crash-landing on a desert planet, Jakku, to look for the fled BB-8 – who's found by poor but resourceful scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley). BB-8 sets Finn and Rey on an adventure that eventually introduces them to the old gang – Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2. This is an enjoyable enough flick, albeit with some tragic scenes – you'll get some lightsaber battles, blaster fights, space dogfights, villains glowering and screaming, and heroic and humorous moments. The film certainly has its problems, although some fans might not care much. Kylo Ren is both awfully whiny and surprisingly inept in key scenes for an arch-villain. The background on the stormtroopers is vague –we're told that Finn is essentially a child soldier grown to adulthood, and at times he does indeed seem like the product of a cloistered, domineered life, but this quickly falls away and soon his speech patterns smack of light comedy and contemporary slang ("Droid, please!"). Meanwhile, Rey is plausibly scrappy, but her mastery of the Force – especially compared to more experienced practitioners – comes improbably fast. That said, Boyega, Ridley and the other newcomers are likable enough, and here's hoping this reboot leads to some good new films. (I'm concerned that the Star Wars film machine is being waaay too ambitious about a release schedule; Disney will make a ton of money regardless, so why not take a little extra time to do the films right and reap the artistic and commercial benefits of higher quality? Side note: It's interesting to see Domhhall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac in two sci-fi films in the same year, this and Ex Machina, although their roles are much smaller in The Force Awakens.)

Jurassic World: It's not too surprising that the fourth film in the series (14 years since the previous one) isn't terribly good but delivers some decent dinosaur-on-dinosaur action (so to speak). The premise here is that a new and successful theme park has been opened. The parents of teen Zach Mitchell (Nick Robinson) and younger brother Gray (Ty Simpkin) are going through a divorce, so mom Karen Mitchell (Judy Greer, whose talents are largely wasted) ships the kids to Jurassic World, where her sister Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) runs operations. Claire, a stereotypically uptight career woman, doesn't much like kids and isn't good with them, so she pawns her nephews off to her assistant. The park is trying to come up with new attractions, because somehow, implausibly, the visitors are growing bored of the existing dinosaurs. Consequently, the park breeds a new super-dinosaur, the Indominus Rex (shades of the third film). Naturally, the Indominus gets loose and the kids go missing, so Claire frantically appeals for recovery help from Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), a skilled hunter and military vet who's working to train velociraptors to obey voice commands. (You'll be shocked to learn that the characters dated briefly and he thinks she's a stiff and she thinks he's a lout.) The cast includes B.D. Wong from the first film and plenty of actors with comic chops – Pratt, Greer, Lauren Lapkis, and Jake Johnson, who provides attempts at meta-humor in the control room. The film isn't really clear on its tone. It tries to deliver the usual suspense and occasionally succeeds on that front, but goes for a wink-wink-nudge-nudge element alongside people getting eaten (a few characters' fates seem gratuitous). As others have noted, the kids are remarkably blasé about almost getting eaten by a giant, scary dinosaur, whereas Spielberg had the good sense in the first film to keep the kids realistically terrified (and then overcome their terror at key points). Pratt's pretty good, actually, but Claire and some of the other characters (including an evil corporate guy played by Vincent D'Onofrio) are really badly written; they're transparent, often with painfully on-the-nose dialogue. At least Jurassic World provides some respectable dinosaur fights, which is the main reason you're likely to see it. The "oh, come on" quotient overwhelms the suspension of disbelief fairly regularly (which could make Jurassic World good for a raucous movie night, I guess). One neat back story – the sound team from the original film passed on their work to the new team (who did some original work as well, of course).

Danny Collins: Al Pacino plays an aged but still successful pop star in the Neil Diamond mode. His long-time manager, Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer), gives him a long-undelivered letter from John Lennon urging Collins to stay true to his voice and not sell out (and to call Lennon, who provided his phone number). Collins feels completely upended, because he's been stuck in a rut giving nostalgia concerts, and wonders what might have been had he gotten the letter when it was intended. Collins still lives an extravagant rock-star life, and needs to cut back and get some money from an impending tour, but decides to try something new. He checks into a hotel in his estranged son's town and gets a piano. He has roughly three goals – write good new material, reconcile with his son, Tom (Bobby Cannavale), and get the hotel manager, Mary Sinclair (Annette Bening), to go on a date with him. Danny's fairly charming, somewhat smarmy but mostly friendly, although Mary seems resistant to his charms and Tom wants nothing to do with him. Tom's wife, Samantha (Jennifer Garner), though, is more forgiving, especially when Danny uses his influence to help their daughter (his granddaughter), Hope, who has some special needs. Complications ensue, from creative blocks and fear of artistic failure to health scares and other past demons. I thought certain disappointing choices by the characters were too conventional and weren't sold well enough, but other reviewers found these elements plausible. (More below in the spoilers.) In the end, the family story works better then the artistic story, but it's well-acted, with some humor and pathos. This is a respectable directorial debut from screenwriter Dan Fogelman, inspired by a real incident that occurred to British folk singer Steve Tilston.

Black Mass: Black Mass is an above-average mobster flick due to a chilling performance by Johnny Depp as crime boss Whitey Bulger and the odd, real-life story of Bulger's relationship with the FBI. Many characters give great emphasis to being authentic and covering for anybody from the Irish-American neighborhood in Boston they grew up in. John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) works for the FBI, and recruits Bulger to be an informant, but John admires Whitey and Whitey's brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), the president of the Massachusetts State Senate. Bulger pumps Connolly for information and, conveniently, the tips he offers will take out his criminal rivals. As viewers, we increasingly come to question who's calling the shots in the relationship and where Connolly's loyalties really lie. Connolly scores a few wins professionally and manages to bullshit his way through some trouble, but folks higher-up start pressing him more and more, and his street-hustle shtick of bribes, threats and bluster starts to falter; he's out of his depth. Meanwhile, although Whitey Bulger likes to pose a benefactor to the old neighborhood, he's also an unforgiving, ruthless sociopath, who will choose to go out of his way to be cruel – even savagely violent – rather than just letting minor offenses go. He also likes to deny he's an FBI informant, despite meeting and socializing with agents. Black Mass in a sense centers on two morally compromised men deluding themselves (although one is in a different league as a murderer). Depp ,who dons pale blue contacts to match the real Bulger's eyes, manages to be genuinely creepy, most impressively with the casual cruelty and power games he plays during a dinner scene and its interlude. This isn't a classic crime movie, but for fans of the genre or Depp (or interested in the real events behind the film), it's worth a look.

Far from the Madding Crowd: This is an above-average Masterpiece-Theatre style literary adaptation, in this case of Thomas Hardy's 19th century novel. Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) is an independent young woman living and working on her aunt's farm who catches the eye of modestly successful local farmer Gabriel Oak (Dutchman Matthias Schoenaerts). He's a taciturn but steady and honest man, yet she rebuffs his advances, saying "I'd want someone to tame me, and you'd never be able to do it." A reversal sees Bathsheba come into wealth and property while Gabriel loses his. Bathsheba also comes to be courted by two other men – prosperous but staid William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and the dashing Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). Complications ensue, often in an episodic fashion (frequently the style with such source material). Mulligan is excellent as always, and she and Danish director Thomas Vinterberg do a good job of keeping us guessing somewhat about Bathsheba's feelings for the three key men in her life, even as we admire her independence and resolve to run a large farm as a woman in the Victorian era. If you like the genre and Mulligan, this is worth seeing.

What We Do in the Shadows: (New Zealand 2014, released in the US in 2015) This short mockumentary (86 minutes) makes for a fun watch, as a film crew interviews the denizens of a vampire group house in Wellington, New Zealand. The most talkative is Viago (Taika Waititi), a dandy who wears ruffled shirts and cares the most about keeping the house orderly. Vladislav (Jermaine Clement) used to be extremely powerful, but was defeated by his nemesis, "The Beast." Less than 200 years old, Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the youngest and the most interested in clubbing and rebelling against the old ways. In the basement lives Petyr, a Nosferatu-like vampire many thousands of years old, who frankly scares the crap out of even the other vampires. The vampires bicker and have other issues – one has a familiar who's been promised a vampire bite and is tired of being put off, one's true love has grown old, and there's always the challenge of cleaning up after victims, who have a habit of bleeding profusely. There's also a local, rival gang of werewolves and the social challenges of mingling with other undead or otherwise supernatural creatures. According to legend, vampires don't leave a reflection and technically shouldn't register on film, either, but heeding that would have deprived us this entertaining little flick, a useful antidote to supernatural melodramas.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron: Noticeably weaker and less focused than its predecessor, Age of Ultron is disappointing yet still has some good moments. (The Avengers is the eighth film reviewed here.) The opening of the second installment sees the team taking on an outpost of the evil, intent-on-world-domination organization, Hydra, who have two super-powered operatives of their own – the speedster Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his sister, the Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who can psychically attack foes and overwhelm them with their worst fears. When she assails Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), he's afflicted by a horrible vision of all his friends dying and the world perishing, due to his actions. (This builds on the PTSD he showed in Iron Man 3 due to his freaky extradimensional trip in the first Avengers film.) The experience spurs Stark to finish his "Ultron" defense program – but Ultron (voiced by James Spader) develops sentience, as well as a taste for… world domination. As an artificial intelligence that can survive on the Internet, he's potentially immortal, and hard to catch. Most of the film revolves on Ultron trying to build stronger bodies and acquire more power, with the Avengers racing to stop him. On the plus side, Age of Ultron gives us much more of Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) than the first film, unusual superhero the Vision is introduced, and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) cautiously explore romance despite significant concerns. (There's also a Hulk versus Iron Man-in-Hulkbuster armor fight, which is kinda contrived but at least a decent action sequence.) On the minus side, Thor is absent for most of the film, Ultron's motivations and evil plot are a bit convoluted (and Spader's purring voice is an odd fit), and the final, extended battle scene feels at times like a soulless exercise, a common pitfall of spectacle films that that first Avengers flick happily avoided. (Exceptions: a scene involving Quicksilver has some soul, and one involving Thor and the Vision is funny.) Writer-director Joss Whedon retains a good feel for the characters, including leader Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), but he just doesn't have a strong sense of what to do with them all this time out. I didn't expect this installment to match the first, but I was hoping for better. (Interesting side note: Taylor-Johnson and Olsen, brother and sister in this film, played husband and wife in 2014's Godzilla. Meanwhile, apart from his powers, this Quicksilver is quite different from that of 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past.)

Ant-Man: In an interesting change of pace from the usual Marvel superhero movies (good though they are), Ant-Man is essentially a heist flick. Henry Pym (Michael Douglas) needs help stealing back his shrinking technology from former protégé Darren Cross/Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll), who seeks to weaponize it. Although they squabble, he dare not risk his beloved daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), so he recruits trying-to-reform burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). Lang could use some money and dignity back, especially to impress his young daughter, who lives with his ex-wife, but he's also scared of getting arrested again. Rudd's always likable and the casting is good as usual for the Marvel flicks. Ant-Man has some decent action and much more humor than typical in a superhero film. Sometimes the tone shifts and transitions are jarring or fall flat (Lang interrupting a touching moment between Hank and Hope, for example), but for the most part, it all works. Original director Edgar Wright was fired, although he still has lead screenwriting credit, and most of the most successful sequences clearly show his touch (Michael Peña as Luis telling a funny, energetic story in montage). It's too bad Wright wasn't kept on, because I suspect the film would be even better. If you've been catching the other Marvel movies, you'll want to see this one.

Spectre: The previous Sam Mendes-Daniel Craig Bond outing, Skyfall (the seventh film reviewed here), was excellent, and expecting the same might have been unfair, but Spectre proves disappointing nonetheless. Mendes opens with what's presented as a single, unbroken take and delivers a good opening action sequence, but then all the energy is sucked out of the film by an unintentionally comic title sequence (highly backlit, shadowy octopi) and the worst James Bond theme song to date, Sam Smith's "The Writing's on the Wall" (which inexplicably won an Oscar). Spectre continues the rebooting that Skyfall started, as Bond seeks to track down the mysterious, evil organization Spectre, which will surely challenge him in future movies just as it did in past entries. Craig is solid as Bond, of course, Christoph Waltz makes a good villain, and Dave Bautista makes a splendid henchman. Léa Seydoux's interesting as Bond's love interest, Madeleine, but the writing for her character is uneven. At times, she's smart, independent, skilled and resourceful, and other times she seems surprisingly dumb and just another damsel in distress. Seydoux and Craig make for a dashing couple (especially when the wardrobe department gets it way), but the story demands that Bond express a passion for Madeleine that's deeper and more abrupt than what's justified on screen. Likewise, the story calls for Bond considering retiring from the service, yet Craig seemed far more jaded and world-weary in his previous outings. The ending is protracted as well, with several false climaxes. Spectre comes off as an exercise in setting up the next films in the franchise (and, supposedly, a new Bond actor). The sharp focus on Bond as a character delivered by fine writing, good acting, and excellent direction made Casino Royale and Skyfall two of the best films in the series, but it's lacking here.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: The Mission Impossible series is basically American James Bond with a team – this is comic book spycraft, not the realistic plots of John Le Carré. Ghost Protocol, the fourth film, remains the best (it's the 15th film reviewed here), but this is a solid and enjoyable enough entry from writer-director Christopher McQuarrie. The time, the Impossible Missions Force (IMF, not to be confused with the International Monetary Fund) is trying to prove the existence of the Syndicate, an evil organization in the pulp/B-movie mold. (In this respect, the plot's similar to 2015's Spectre.) But CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) wants to shut down these operations and absorb the IMF, which he portrays to Congress and reckless and destructive (with some justification). Soon enough, super-agent and disguise expert Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is once again on the lam, being helped surreptitiously by his former team member, tech whiz Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg). IMF members William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) are more torn, because they've got good reason to think that Hunt might get killed if they don't bring him in themselves. The most interesting aspect of Rogue Nation proves to be the leading lady, Ilsa Faust (British-Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson), a double agent for British intelligence and the Syndicate, whose ultimate loyalty remains unclear. Guessing about Faust provides the chief suspense of the film – apart from the series' usual elaborate set pieces (including a ridiculous but entertaining dive into underwater computer core). Syndicate head and chief bad guy Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), a former MI6 agent, isn't well set up as a suitable nemesis for the team – we hear about how ruthless and skilled he is, but he mainly works through henchmen until the end, and this robs the climax of weight. Simon McBurney excels once again as a morally ambiguous character, this time Attlee, the head of British intelligence. Tom Holland provides some humor and surprising gravitas as the British prime minister and Baldwin is good as Hunley, who's accomplished as both a blowhard and fixer. This is a decent popcorn flick.

Kingsman: The Secret Service: Based on a comic book, Kingsman imagines a secret group of super-agents who protect Great Britain and the world. Their members take code names based of the Knights of the Round Table, and when one of their members is killed in action, they select recruits to compete to become the new "Lancelot." Our main focus is on college-aged Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), smart but aimless and often on the wrong side of the law. He's the chosen recruit of Kingsman Galahad/Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who's paying off a debt to Eggsy's father, who was killed in the service. Meanwhile, the Kingsmen are investigating Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a lisping billionaire squeamish about violence but who probably had the old Lancelot killed. Valentine is offering free cell phones to the world, but the Kingsman suspect a more nefarious master plan. The action scenes are comic-book-style violence, often over-the-top and unrealistic, but fun and well-staged by director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass, Layer Cake). This is pretty much a James Bond clone, but it's fun to watch Firth in the role of a suave, very British secret agent who kicks ass. (Mark Strong as Merlin and Michael Caine as Arthur are also good, no surprise.) I was less impressed with Egerton as the rough but basically goodhearted Eggsy. When he gets his Kingsman "bespoke suit" and glasses, he looks like a boy playing dress-up. Still, the mentor storyline works well enough. The master plot threatening the world proves far more ludicrous than usual, the politics make little sense, and in the final stretch the film gets unnecessarily crude. But if you're looking for a decent popcorn action flick, it'll do.

The Hateful Eight: As usual, Quentin Tarantino assembles a fine cast, delivers some good moments, and bogs down the proceedings with protracted self-indulgence. There's simply no need for this film to run 187 minutes. The premise isn't bad: it's the post-Civil War west, and ace bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) prides himself in delivering his captors alive to the hangman. In this case, he's escorting outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock and racing a blizzard to shelter at a halfway spot, Minnie's Haberdashery. He picks up two fellow travelers along the way – Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who fought for the Union and loved killing white Southerners, and Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins), a Southern racist who claims he's been appointed the new mayor of Red Rock. John Ruth is an extremely cautious man by nature, and isn't thrilled with the strangers he meets at the haberdashery – not everyone may be as he seems.

The Hateful Eight is essentially a western-mystery, and I'd be curious to see how it holds up to a second viewing when all the reveals are known. Its strengths are excellent cinematography, a good score by venerable master Ennio Morricone, and interesting character moments (a perennial strength of Tarantino's). But as always, Tarantino reverses the wise writing dictum and gets in early and out late for every scene. Almost every character is hyper-verbal and in love with hearing himself speak. Tarantino tries to break his own record for using racial slurs, which are occasionally justified but grow gratuitous. And at the end, there's the obligatory over-the-top bloodbath. Demián Bichir, although a good actor, plays the whole movie severely squinting, with slits for eyes. Tarantino sidesteps the discomfort of seeing Daisy repeatedly punched by John Ruth by making her a raging racist. (I thought the film had a misogynistic streak; others have claimed Tarantino's commenting on such issues, but I don't think the movie, especially its ending, supports that reading.) Likely at this point, you know what Tarantino's delivering and you're either in or you're out. I just wish the guy had what all directors need – someone he trusted who would tell him "no" and other sound advice, because there's good stuff there hampered by all the self-indulgence. On the plus side, Kurt Russell's very well-suited for westerns, Samuel L. Jackson's character is genuinely interesting, and Tarantino provides good character moments for the rest of the cast, including Goggins, Leigh, Bichir, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen. (It's not a cookie cutter film, at least.)

Bone Tomahawk: An odd western-horror film, Bone Tomahawk boasts a surprisingly good cast (Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox and Richard Jenkins, among others). Arthur O'Dwyer (Wilson), stubborn and with a fractured leg, discovers that his young, smart wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons), has been kidnapped by a menacing, reclusive group of cave-dwellers the local Native American tribes don't even consider human. (They're reputed to be cannibals.) Skilled and steady Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) forms a rescue party, consisting of Arthur, aging and amiable deputy Chicory (Jenkins) and John Brooder (Fox), a dandy who's a fine shot and takes pride in his record killing natives. Time is pressing, and some setbacks – encounters with rustlers, impatient Arthur further injuring his leg – make the voyage forward more challenging and force some tough decisions. The last hour features some grisly scenes, not always realistic, but the horror element increasingly takes precedence over "western." Bone Tomahawk thankfully isn't predictable, but I'd have preferred to see Russell and the rest in a straight western – he's a great fit for the genre.

Against the Sun: (A premiere screening late in 2014, followed by release to video in 2015.) This is a decent if unremarkable survival film based on true events during WWII, when an American flight crew of three men on a mission against the Japanese is forced to ditch their plane in the South Pacific and somehow survive on a raft with scant supplies. Chief Harold Dixon is played by Garrett Dillahunt, who's an excellent comic actor (Raising Hope), but also does solid dramatic work (Deadwood, Looper). Brit Tom Felton, playing Tony Pastula and best known for playing Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, proves fairly convincing as an American. Radioman Gene Aldrich, played by Jake Abel, rounds out the crew – and is more likely to challenge the chief on his plans than the deferential Tony. How to survive with no water or food in the open sea? How did they manage to get into this dire situation in the first place – and could it have been avoided? It's an intriguing premise, and leads to some good scenes. Alas, at least one scene (involving a shark) might have occurred in real life but surely didn't in the fashion portrayed, and this and other elements (not very good visual effects, albatross physics) undermine the suspension of disbelief, more crucial in a "true" survival story like this. An on-the-nose score doesn't help, either. It's nice to see smaller movies being made, but Against the Sun suffers from comparisons to better survival films, such as 2014's superb All Is Lost (reviewed here).