Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

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.)

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