Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

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).

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