“SPECTRE” is nothing and everything that you’d expect it to be. The fourth James Bond film in the Daniel Craig era continues the work of its three predecessors in rebuilding 007 for the modern era, going for grit and substance instead of the over-the-top theatrics that defined the Bond films at their worst.
Now that audiences are well acquainted with Craig’s Bond, some of the patterns become a little obvious in “SPECTRE.” For one, you know Bond will travel all over the world and operate anything known to man that has a motor and “goes.” You also know that it’s likely some other part of the golden years of Bond will get rebooted in the way “Skyfall” surprisingly (or not surprisingly) revealed Naomie Harris to be Moneypenny.
What is most surprising, however, is the way modern Bond screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (along with fellow “Skyfall” scribe John Logan and newcomer to the franchise, “Edge of Tomorrow” writer Jez Butterworth) continue to build continuity into cinema’s most famous spy series. Although past Bond eras have kept the same supporting characters, even around different Bond actors, most films in the series are episodic—the events of one don’t play into the next. The last three Bond films have all had some semblance of continuity, but “SPECTRE” dives in on that front. It might be the only “Bond” of all time that necessitates viewing previous entries in order to best appreciate it.
Crafting a “Bond” movie is an awful lot like checking off a list. There’s so much iconicity to this franchise that you can’t be too careful in writing it lest you upset the integrity of “Bond.” “SPECTRE” meets all the criteria in terms of action, gadgetry, witty dialogue, beautiful women, beautiful cars and more. That’s what any good “Bond” ought to do. But a great “Bond” ought to make you forget that the movie is a sum of these parts. That’s what “Skyfall” did so well, and it’s what “SPECTRE” doesn’t do. You see this one for the formula behind it. That said, hard to fault director Sam Mendes and the writers, cast and crew who also had a hand in “Skyfall” for setting their own bar too high.
“SPECTRE” dazzles with a Dia de los Muertos helicopter fight over Mexico City, a car chase in Rome, a fight onboard a train in North Africa and more, of course. The sets, costumes and cinematography are all as first-rate as they have been the last few films. And the acting and characters are among the best overall collection in a long time. Lea Seydoux is a terrific Bond girl; she’s smart and fearless, not just a sexy and emotional damsel in distress, and how can you go wrong with Christoph Waltz as the main villain? Well, you can go a little wrong if the part isn’t especially well developed, but the performance – delightful.
In a word, “SPECTRE” is satisfying. So many of its components will meet “Bond” fans’ expectations, almost to the point where it’s a wonder that there’s anything to be critical of at all. Yet there’s a slight hollowness to the story – something doesn’t fully add up. Maybe that’s because its biggest surprises are not surprises, or maybe it’s too busy trying to check off every qualification on the list that the big picture got lost. It’s not the best of modern-day “Bond,” but it fits perfectly in the 007 pantheon.
Directed by Sam Mendes
Written by John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth
Starring: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris
“A New Hope” opened us up to a galaxy of possibilities. “The Empires Strikes Back” begins to show us just how large that scope really is. Not only that, but there is a definite sense that “Star Wars” has grown up a little bit in Episode V, including taking a much darker tone.
After the destruction of the Death Star, the war between the Rebellion and the Empire is on. “Empire” takes us first to the icy tundra of Hoth, then to the jungles of Degobah and lastly the futuristic Bespin aka Cloud City. Immediately our imaginations begin to expand. In terms of characters, we are introduced to Yoda, the ancient Jedi master who begins training Luke. There is also Boba Fett, the cool-looking bounty hunter in the awesome ship and Lando Calrissian, the handsome new friend to the original gang. The film doesn’t settle with what we are familiar with from Episode 4 and keeps pushing our imagination further.
Most importantly, the characters that we fell in love with previously seem a lot more viable than they once were, not merely vessels for the exchange of brash remarks and one-liners. Princess Leia (now sporting a more femme fatal look as suits her true character) and Han Solo begin to carve out a relationship that is essential to the greatness of this film. Luke’s maturity is just as important. We’re blown away by the famous ending scene with Luke and Vader because of how far Luke has come since his days on a desert farm. He no longer sounds like an idiot every time he opens his mouth.
Last but far from least, even Vader, the enigma, becomes more complicated in this film. The character development is really what makes this film considered the best of the entire saga by many, many fans.
So many times, nearly all the time, do middle films in a trilogy fail in comparison to the films on either side of them, but “Empire” doesn’t. Most of the time it can end up as just a bridge with no ability to stand on its own, but it stands on its own. It borrows just enough from “Hope” and sets things in motion just enough that it does its job as a transitioning film, but the climax is kind of thrilling in its own way, not just as in we can’t wait to see what happens next. It has plenty of its own, new elements to keep it fresh and like an expansion of the original as opposed to a mere continuation of it.
Published October 2008
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
Directed by Irvin Kershner
Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
It may have been a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away, but “Star Wars” became an instant classic by feeling so close to home, so human, despite that. In all the intricacies of its universe that fans and not fans everywhere can indulge in to whatever level they choose, it’s really the basic story, the longing for adventure and the never-ending quest to discover one’s destiny that makes “Star Wars” more than just the first real intergalactic science fiction film.
Of course it all starts with the science-fiction. We are captivated by the world that creator George Lucas begins forming around us as the film progresses and we are instantly curious about all the lore that surrounds it. From the origin of the mysterious Darth Vader, lord of the Galactic Empire, to the stories of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Clone Wars, there is so much we want to know about. In addition, the special effects, stylized space crafts, lavish costumes, and excessive rubber that make up for a galaxy’s worth of creatures all expand our imagination beyond what we thought was possible.
Most importantly, we see it all through the eyes of a naive, baby-faced farmboy named Luke Skywalker, a soon-to-be hero in the making, a boy ready to be whisked into a world that we all wish we could be whisked into. Luke is our access point to learning about this world that we are awed by but do not yet understand. It is his character and his journey that makes “Star Wars” universal, and not just in the intergalactic sense.
Topping it all off is a score by John Williams that simply redefined the role of music in film. His various themes and variations help draw yet another bridge from the film to our emotions. Though what we see in “Star Wars” is foreign, what we hear is somewhat familiar and comforting in a way.
“A New Hope” is far from perfect, seeing as George Lucas can’t write anything but plot-driven and emotionally bland dialogue, but the “Star Wars” universe and the colorful cast of characters he put in it is something so special that some of those generally elemental things can be excused for the sheer creative genius. While what truly makes “A New Hope” special are the films that follow it, the seeds of brilliance were planted and well-cared for.
Published October 2008
Written and Directed by George Lucas
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness
The holiday season is when a more diverse crowd comes out to the movies, many of who are aware that these will be the films talked about in January. Here are my 10 most anticipated based on actual buzz and my own interest, followed by five films I’m skeptical of this year.
The biggest movie franchise of the moment comes to a conclusion. Katniss and the revolution arrive at the doorstep of the Capitol to topple President Snow’s regime. The buzz so far is good. I found “Mockingjay Part 1” to be a little underwhelming, but breaking up an underwhelming book into two parts was bound to leave one of them mediocre. Hopefully this is the better of the two-parter.
Seth Rogen and Joseph Gordon-Levitt re-team with their “50/50” director Jonathan Levine for a holiday comedy. Obviously, a comedy about a guy navigating cancer is on a different level than the story of three best friends who decide to celebrate Christmas Eve together for the last time after more than a decade of doing so, but Rogen, Gordon-Levitt and Anthony Mackie should make for a fresh comedy dynamic. If this were Rogen, James Franco and Jonah Hill, however, it wouldn’t have me as interested.
It’s not possible for Pixar to deliver two amazing films in the same year, is it? “Inside Out” was, pun intended, mind-blowing. This one looks more like a straightforward fun, heartfelt adventure about a boy and a dinosaur. It will still likely be the family film of the holiday season, but maybe not in the same ingeniously creative way “Inside Out” was.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around “The Big Short.” I get that making another movie based on a Michael Lewis (“Moneyball,” “The Blind Side”) book makes a lot of sense, even if it’s about the housing collapse and not sports. I also know that putting together Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale, if somehow you can do it, is a no-brainer. I guess what is really impressive is that Adam McKay, as in Will Ferrell’s often-partner, directed it. This one is sure to get a lot of middle-aged adults into the theater, even if it isn’t quite awards-worthy.
The movie event of the season, year, decade, century and millennium (so far) is about to arrive. What more can be said about this film? If it’s not at least “very good,” it will be absolutely heartbreaking, though it’s hard to imagine audiences not loving it, even if it ends up being mildly disappointing.
Ever since they teamed up to host the Golden Globes a few years ago, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have been an unstoppable girl power duo. Now that Poehler is a much bigger star than when the two made “Baby Mama” together in 2008, Universal has found the perfect alternative programming to “Star Wars.” The posters might as well say “let your man go see ‘Star Wars’ with his nerdy friends and make it a girls night with ‘Sisters.'” “SNL” writer Paula Pell wrote the script with Jason Moore (“Pitch Perfect”) directing.
If you’ve seen or ready anything about CTE, a long-term brain disease caused by constant head trauma that is common in football players, then you know how terrifying it is. Americans love their football (myself) included but it’s hard to ignore the effects of this disease. “Concussion” should shed more light on this issue and maybe even lead the NFL to better address it. Will Smith stars as the doctor who discovered the disease, and his fight with the NFL.
David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle”) and his muses, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, return for another shot at Oscar glory. Lawrence stars as Joy Mangano, the single mother of three turned home shopping network entrepreneur who invented the Miracle Mop. Expect plenty of family drama and some dark humor, as well at least two Oscar nominations for the cast — all of which has been Russell’s M.O. the last five years.
Normally one to take three of four years between films, it is impressive to see last year’s Best Director and Best Picture winner Alejandro González Iñárritu back in action with another possible contender. “The Revenant” stars Leonardo DiCaprio in what looks to be his most grueling performance yet. During an expedition in the American wilderness in the 1820s, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) gets mauled by a bear and left for dead. After surviving, he seeks vengeance on the men who betrayed him, led by Tom Hardy. Expect something violent, difficult and beautiful.
Quentin Tarantino’s eighth feature film arrives Christmas Day, so it’s clear that the auteur and his supporters, The Weinstein Co., feel they’ve got a third straight awards contender following “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained.” The cast includes Tarantino veterans (Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins) and newcomers alike (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demian Bechir). A true Western, Tarantino is playing with his favorite genre, so expect all kinds of betrayal, revenge and Mexican stand-offs. If you didn’t care for Tarantino before, however, don’t expect to now.
It’s certain to be better than “I, Frankenstein,” but even James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe can only do so much with the tired “Frankenstein” rigmarole, even if this one is told “from Igor’s perspective.” Max Landis (“Chronicle”) wrote the script and Paul McGuigan (BBC’s excellent “Sherlock Holmes”) directs, and it’s certainly encouraging that a film like this would get released on Thanksgiving, but you have to be wary.
Initially to be released back in March, either Ron Howard’s latest film telling of the voyage that inspired “Moby Dick” surprised Warner Bros., who think they have an awards contender on their hands, or they’re hoping a little bit of awards season buzz will rub off on a film that they fear no one will pay attention to otherwise. I like the writing credits: Charles Leavitt (“Blood Diamond”) and Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (“Jurassic World,” the new “Planet of the Apes” films) and Chris Hemsworth is one of the more watchable movie stars right now, but discretion is required.
We were spared of “Chipmunks” films for four years after “Chipwrecked” performed poorer than its predecessors, but it still made more than $100 M at the domestic box office, so it was only a matter of time. If you have kids, I highly suggest getting them hooked on “Star Wars” so you can make other plans over Christmas, or hold off on “The Good Dinosaur” until then. None of the “Chipmunks” films have gotten better than 27% on Rotten Tomatoes.
I might have made a mistake listing this as a “skeptical” film for the Holidays, but you can never be too cautious when Will Ferrell is involved. Fortunately, one of his better films in the last five years was “The Other Guys,” in which he also teamed with Mark Wahlberg. A comedy about a warring dad and step-dad sounds perfect for Christmas, but there’s no certainty with this one.
Somewhere, Patrick Swayze is rolling his eyes. It’s definitely possible that director Ericson Core (D.P. on the original “The Fast and the Furious”) and action screenwriter veteran Kurt Wimmer can transform this remake into the start of the next “Fast & Furious” franchise), but it would be a tremendous feat. I’m betting against it, even though it looks pretty.
Creed (Nov. 25) – Sylvester Stallone keeps the “Rocky” franchise going but hands it off to Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) in what should be a gritty boxing film. (Dir. by Ryan Coogler)
The Danish Girl (Nov. 27, limited) – Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne stars as a pioneering trans woman in a period love story alongside rising star Alicia Vikander from the director of “The King’s Speech.” (Dir. by Tom Hooper)
Legend (Dec. 11) – Tom Hardy plays twin brothers and notorious British gangsters in what should be a fun mobster flick for genre fans (Dir. by Brian Helgeland)
Macbeth (Dec. 4, limited) – Reviews have been strong for the latest “Macbeth” starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. (Dir. by Justin Kerzel)
Chi-Raq (Dec. 4, limited) – A modern take on Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” the newest Spike Lee joint calls attention to the rampant gun violence in Chicago, but in a darkly comic way. (Dir. by Spike Lee)]]>
It’s official – science is cool again. Yes, even science in outer space.
In “The Martian,” based on the book by Andy Weir, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) gets stranded on Mars when his crew, believing him dead after a storm, sets course for home without him. Knowing the timetable for his rescue would force him to exhaust all of the resources necessary for his survival, Watney must “science the **** out of this” in order to live long enough that he might ever come home.
“The Martian” is built on a series of problem-solving scenarios for Watney and the others rescuing him, including the people at NASA and his crewmates from the Mars mission. The entertainment value comes not from intense drama or the usual theatrical conflict or thrills that come from science fiction, but from writer Drew Goddard’s (“World War Z,” Netflix’s “Daredevil”) plot structure of presenting the audience with an obstacle to Watney’s survival or rescue followed by the clever way in which he or others maneuver around it.
In other words, this is not the type of outer space move you’d expect from Ridley Scott of “Alien” and “Blade Runner” fame. “The Martian” hardly necessitates the guidance of such a veteran auteur, yet many might argue it’s Scott’s most entertaining film in a decade, and without question his most universally appealing effort in that time. It’s the kind of movie that 10-15 years ago you would’ve expected to see Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg direct starring Tom Hanks – a character-driven survival story.
As such, “The Martian” does not warrant much comparison with recent outer space blockbusters, i.e. “Gravity” and “Interstellar.” These films are philosophically driven and perhaps even arrogantly intellectual; “Martian” is more blue-collar – its biggest “idea” is that with a lot of hard work, a never-give-up attitude and plenty scientific knowledge, you can do just about anything.
“The Martian” doesn’t need to be “deep” either. Damon adds depth with his performance, giving Watney real personality that’s both entertaining and humanizing to his character. Considering the movie contrives a video blog for Watney in order to provide explanation of what he’s thinking and doing, it takes someone of skill to turn these expository scenes into character moments. He provides both the humor and the emotion in this film, countering the annoying bickering NASA officials and scientists (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig). The other talented costars, including Jessica Chastain, Kata Mara and Michael Peña are hardly necessary but definitely nice to watch.
Would the science in the film pass the Neil deGrasse Tyson test? Probably not, but I’ll let others search for that article. For most people, maybe even the true science nerds who know better, “The Martian” will be fun escapism at the movies.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Drew Goddard, Andy Weir (book)
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels
The “Divergent” series’ middle installment cracks open the series, bringing the entirety of the Dystopian world Veronica Roth created to viewers. We get a glimpse of the factions Amity and Candor before the very faction system is on the brink of dissolving.
“Insurgent” starts more less where “Divergent” left off. Our hero, Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) is hiding out with her new beaux Four (Theo James), brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) and frenemy Peter (Miles Teller) in the Amity compound following her dismantling of the totalitarian Jeanine’s (Kate Winslet) attack on Abnegation. But Tris has come out of that mess a little traumatized, and Jeanine’s hunt for divergents, specifically one special enough to open a nifty box she found, is bound to bring it all to the surface.
Like the “Divergent” script, this screenplay touches on the key moments from the book but doesn’t do much to mitigate the confusion between what’s going on with all the factions and who is allied with whom — you know, really building out world and the supporting cast. And so much of the action in this movie takes place in Tris’ nightmares or in simulations that are obviously simulations, zapping it of a lot of suspense.
Tough to blame the writers too much, however. Summit hired two of the most seasoned script doctors out there in Akiva Goldsman (“The Da Vinci Code,” “I Am Legend”) and Mark Bomback (“The Wolverine,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”) and while everything about the story ends up making sense and being compelling enough to watch, the heart of Roth’s books — how she hooks you with Tris’ thoughts and emotions — plays second fiddle.
Woodley is a terrific actress and she sells all of Tris’ self-hating inner demons exceptionally well, but she feels more like a cog in the story machine than the driving force behind the story itself. Director Robert Schwentke, who replaces “Divergent” director Neil Burger, gives her moments and lets her be raw, but it hardly compares to the introspection we’ve seen in “The Hunger Games” series and how that franchise has focused around its heroine.
Schwentke proves a competent guide for this series, but not so much a creative one. The aesthetic of “Insurgent” does not capture the imagination, nor do the simulations and nightmares, which offer a lot of creative license to a filmmaker. Burger, I feel, handled those better.
Yet there’s enough talent to go around (including the additions of Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer and Daniel Dae Kim to the cast) to keep the film afloat. The scenes that need to get your attention get your attention; the actors put you in their characters’ shoes; the story moves at a good pace. Honestly, there’s nothing especially awful about any aspect of the movie (aside from some of Winslet’s unfortunate dialogue), it just feels par-for-the-course. The books are kind of that way too, so maybe enjoying “Insurgent” is just about appeasement. It’s about satisfying fans of the book and people who enjoy the genre but don’t need intellectual stimulation or riveting character drama. I’ll stand by the idea that this series could be done better, but maybe not in a way that meets teen blockbuster criteria. I’m at peace that the latter is the direction producers chose to go.
Directed by Robert Schwentke
Written by Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet
Fall season is festival season (this weekend brings us the always-anticipated Toronto International Film Festival), which means awards season is (somehow) right around the corner. You won’t find very many blockbusters on the slate from Labor Day through “Mockingjay,” but as we’ve seen more and more, a few of these films will be recognized come the Oscars.
It has become increasingly difficult this time of year to tell the actually good thrillers and dramas that will be remembered come December/January/February from the ones that will likely be forgotten completely. Usually I look at the writers and directors for some kind of indication, but there will likely be some other surprises. Don’t forget to check out some of the other possible quality (and likely independent) films at the bottom of my list.
I know, I know, but I enjoyed reading James Dashner’s trilogy and found last year’s “The Maze Runner” to meet my expectations as a fan of the book. Things get a little more complicated in “The Scorch Trials,” which will either prove to be a good or a bad thing. At least director Wes Ball and adapter T.S. Nowlin have returned, so there’s some continuity. And this is one of few films fans of blockbusters can cling to before “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.”
Johnny Depp’s involvement in a film used to be an immediate draw, but that power has faded given the horrid reviews for his recent endeavors such as “Transcendence,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Mortdecai.” So call me optimistic about “Black Mass,” a crime drama featuring an almost unrecognizable Depp as South Boston crime king James “Whitey” Bulger. Depp is surrounded by impeccable talent: Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson (“50 Shades of Grey”), Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Peter Sarsgaard and more, all under the direction of Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”). Fall is a great time for crime drama (think of the good Ben Affleck-directed films of the last several years) so sign me up.
It’s easy to dismiss a film called “Everest” as another disaster flick and given the success those movies have at the box office, but one look at all the talent here and you see why “Everest” fits in with the fall slate. Jake Gyllenhaal is just the tip of this mountain of a cast that includes Jason Clarke (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”), Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, Josh Brolin, Sam Worthington, Emily Watson and John Hawkes. Icelander Baltasar Kormakur (“Contraband,” “2 Guns”) directs from an original script by Oscar nominee William Nicholson (“Gladiator”) and Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy (“127 Hours,” “Slumdog Millionaire”).
“Sicario” sounds like a Spanish horror movie, but don’t make the mistake of dismissing the latest film from burgeoning director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) and writer/actor Taylor Sheridan (“Sons of Anarchy”), which made waves at Cannes this year. Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent hoping to make a difference in the war on drugs who gets caught up as a pawn in a scheme involving Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro.
Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s popular novel is bound to be the most buzzed-about film of September-October. Matt Damon stars as astronaut Mark Watney, abandoned on a mission to mars and presumed dead. Damon is not alone in the cast, however, as co-stars include Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Jeff Daniels and more as those who put together a mission to bring him back. “World War Z” writer and Marvel’s “Daredevil” Netflix show creator Drew Groddard adapted the book for the screen.
If Oscar nominees were picked at the onset of each year based on upcoming films’ premises and credits alone, “Steve Jobs” would be an instant contender. Oscar winner Danny Boyle directs from Oscar winner Aaron Sorkin’s (“The Social Network”) script and Michael Fassbender (bound to win an Oscar at some point) stars as the legend and enigma himself. “Steve Jobs” is definitely being positioned as the next “The Social Network” and hopefully it can handle the hype.
In 2009, “Man on Wire” handily won the Best Documentary Oscar for telling the story of Philippe Petit’s illegal high wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the 1970s. Watching that film it was easy to forget you were watching a documentary and not an “Ocean’s Eleven”-style caper. Presumably, that’s what director Robert Zemeckis has done with this story, turning “the artistic crime of the century” into an IMAX-driven spectacle. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars at Petit alongside Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale (“Iron Man 3”) and Ben Schwart (“Parks and Recreation”).
Guillermo del Toro is pretty closely associated with the horror genre, but we haven’t seen him direct a horror film since “Pan’s Labyrinth” if you can call that a horror movie. “Crimson Peak” should blow all the trashy October horror offerings away in every category. “Crimson Peak” looks like a classic gothic haunted house story about a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) discovering a horrible secret who must contend both with ghosts as well as some crazy humans (Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston).
If you were expecting to see this on the “skeptical” list, you forget you’re reading the blog of someone who grew up in the ’90s. It’s hard to imagine R.L. Stine’s books have any pull to them 20 years later, but I’ll take it, especially in this creative “Jumanji”-like form with Jack Black playing Stine and some teens accidentally unleashing his creations on the world, instead of something that takes the “Goosebumps” legacy too seriously.
Although I’m not often riveted by Cold War-era thrillers, you don’t just ignore Steven Spielberg movies, let alone ones starring Tom Hanks or partly written by the Coen brothers. Hanks plays an insurance lawyer coerced into negotiating an unpopular prisoner swap between a Soviet spy and a U.S. pilot. The usual Cold War themes appear at play, but if anyone can give a riveting history lesson, it’s Spielberg.
Food fiction is slowly becoming a movie genre, primarily with last year’s popular “Chef” and now this look at the high-pressure, cutthroat world of high-end restaurants. “Burnt” reunites “American Sniper” stars Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller under the direction of “Shameless” and “The West Wing” director/executive producer John Wells. The teaser has a really cool whisk-driven soundtrack that has me hopeful “Burnt” is more than a flash in the pan.
“Skyfall” certainly righted the ship for Daniel Craig’s bond, so it’s exciting that director Sam Mendes returned for “SPECTRE,” which looks to introduce more classic canon into modern-day “Bond.” One gets the sense, however, that while “Skyfall” seemed to wipe the slate clean for the franchise going forward, that previous Craig-headed entries, namely “Casino Royale,” will play into this one. Also, whether Christoph Waltz is secretly playing Blofeld or not matters little in terms of how good he’s bound to be as the villain. (Bonus points for whoever’s idea it was to get “Guardians of the Galaxy” star Dave Bautista to play a henchman and to call him Mr. Hinx.)
Considering no one wants to be the one who made a modern-day “Peanuts” movie and screwed up, you’ve got to imagine this is going to be everything your warm and fuzzy heart desires. Blue Sky animation has given Charles Schulz’s classic cartoon a fitting 2D computer-generated look and his son and grandson helmed the script, assuring at the least that the “Peanuts” legacy will not be marred. 20th Century Fox has done some good stuff with Dr. Seuss properties as well, so “Peanuts” feels like a safe bet.
Sure to be a hit with critics, “Trumbo” is the story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), who managed to write two some of the greatest, Academy Award-winning films of the ’50s (including “Roman Holiday” and “Spartacus”) despite being blacklisted for not testifying as to whether or not he was a Communist. Interestingly, comedy veteran Jay Roach (“Meet the Parents,” “Austin Powers”) directs, with Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning and John Goodman among the supporting cast.
Is Angelina Jolie ready to step up to the big time? Angelina Jolie the director, that is? Although “Unbroken” was a modest success last winter as a wide release, “By the Sea” looks to be an intimate period portrait of an unraveling relationship, far from an inspirational World War II epic. With her husband, Brad Pitt, starring along side her for the first time since “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” buzz will be swirling and it’ll be interesting to see how far it carries it.
Kate Mara (“House of Cards”) and David Oyelowo (“Selma”) are talented folks, and the premise of a man who busts out a prison, kills the judge presiding over his case and takes a recovering drug addict mother hostage does sound intriguing enough, but there’s a religious bent to “Captive” that just kind of killed the entire experience of this trailer for me.
The latest film from the queen of comedies for middle-aged folks, Nancy Meyers (“Father of the Bride,” “The Holiday,” “It’s Complicated”), has sneakily positioned itself as if it were a sequel to “The Devil Wears Prada” by casting Anne Hathaway as a fashion editor only this time her intern is a 70-year-old widower (Robert De Niro) and the two become close. I’ll give the film credit for casting some talents popular with young people such as Andrew Rannells (“Girls”) and “Workaholics” stars Adam DeVine and Anders Holm, but they could just be part of a demographic marketing tactic for a film mostly meant to get 50-somethings into theaters.
Horror auteur Eli Roth’s “The Green Inferno,” about a group of young adults whose travels to the Amazon to save the rain forest go horribly wrong, will come out in the U.S. more than two years after its festival premiere. There are some solid reviews for it, but this won’t likely become the go-to horror film of the fall. If it were expected to do well, it would’ve been released at some point in the last two years.
I had Joe Wright’s “Pan” on my summer list, but now that it’s been bumped, I have concerns for this “untold story” take on Peter Pan. The film will no doubt be a visual wonder, as Wright is a gifted filmmaker in that regard, but Warner Bros.’ decision to pull it from the summer slate has me a little nervous. They clearly do not believe “Pan” can compete in prime blockbuster territory, which doesn’t mean it’s bad, but certainly isn’t a vote of confidence either. If it reviews well, however, “Pan” could end up being a nice little fantasy gem in a thriller, horror and drama-dominated month of October.
This modern remake of the ’80s animated series is hoping to be the next “Pitch Perfect” in a way, with filmmaker Jon M. Chu of several “Step Up” films and the Justin Bieber concert movie putting his expertise, but it’s clear this film will only really appeal to tweens and fans of TV’s “Nashville” who like star Aubrey Peeples. I’m doubting this will hit the nostalgia market in the way producers might have hoped.
“The Last Witch Hunter” makes a lot of sense to me … as a movie coming out in the early 2000s. We’re a bit far removed from the heyday of films like “Underworld” and Vin Diesel wouldn’t be a movie star anymore if not for the “Fast & Furious” franchise. I did keep my peeled for a long time on director Breck Eisner after enjoying “The Crazies” remake back in 2010, but it’s hard to believe he took five years to make a fantasy film from the writers of failed films of the same ilk in “Priest” and “Dracula Untold.”
The Chilean miner incident in 2010 was international news, and sometimes quick-turnaround history can be a box-office draw, but this inspirational based-on-a-true-story looks to be more of the conventional family-friendly kind rather than the compelling, must-see award-winning kind. Nothing wrong with that, but in a season full of similar movies, this one might be worth passing on, even with stars in Rodrigo Santoro (“300”), Antonio Banderas, Gabriel Byrne and Juliette Binoche.
Angelo Pizzo made two of the most treasured sports dramas of all time in “Rudy” and “Hoosiers.” That was it until 2005, when he wrote “The Game of Their Lives” about a landmark U.S. soccer victory in the ’50s. Don’t remember that one? Neither does just about anyone else. Another 10 years later and Pizzo’s trying again with another undersized football player, University of Texas safety Freddie Steinmark. It’s tempting to think Pizzo, making his directing debut, could pull this one off, but modern sports dramas are a different beast in the 21st century.
About Ray (Sept. 18 – limited) – Teenager Ray (Elle Fanning), mother (Naomi Watts) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon) work to overcome the challenges associated with Ray’s transition from female to male. (Dir. by Gaby Dellal)
Freeheld (Oct. 2 – limited) – The story of police lieutenant Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) who while dying of cancer fought in the New Jersey courts for her pension benefits to go to her domestic partner (Ellen Page). From the Oscar-nominated writer of “Philadelphia.” (Dir. by Peter Sollett)
Legend (Oct. 2 – limited) – Tom Hardy portrays real-life twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray, two of Britain’s most notorious gangsters in the 1960s. Written and directed by the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “L.A. Confidential.” (Dir. by Brian Helgeland)
He Named Me Malala (Oct. 2 – limited) – A documentary about arguably the world’s most famous and respected teenager, Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl attacked by the Taliban for speaking up about women’s rights (Dir. by Davis Guggenheim)
Truth (Oct. 16 – limited) – Cate Blanchett plays former “60 minuter” producer Mary Mapes alongside Robert Redford as Dan Rather in the story of the TV show’s 2004 investigation of Pres. George W. Bush’s military record. (Dir. by James Vanderbilt)
Rock the Kasbah (Oct. 23) – Bill Murray stars as a rock musician manager stuck in Afghanistan who helps a teenage girl compete in her country’s singing competition, Afghan Star. Bruce Willis, Zooey Deschanel, Kate Hudson, Scott Caan and Danny McBride co-star. (Dir. by Barry Levinson)
Suffragette (Oct. 23 – limited) – British screenwriter Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) takes on the women’s rights movement in Britain with powerhouse ladies Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep in key roles. (Dir. by Sarah Gavron)
Brooklyn (Nov. 6 – limited) – From writer Nick Hornby (“About a Boy,” “High Fidelity”), a young Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) is caught between between her new life in New York and her old life back home, including two different men. (Dir. by John Crowley)]]>
In the midst of “The Avengers” and the countless other successful films that Marvel Studios has turned into the mega-franchise of the last decade, “Ant-Man” has never felt like a priority. It has taken the studio ages to figure out how Ant-Man, who originated as a founding member of the Avengers in the comics, would fit into their multi-billion dollar machine, and now that they slipped him in, he just might be the most interesting weapon in their arsenal.
Although this is the first “Ant-Man,” the film feels far from an origin story, partly in the clever way that the story involves two “ant-men,” Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). Marvel movie fans are asked to believe Pym was merely an unmentioned part of S.H.I.E.L.D. for decades, but regardless, Pym hand-picking and training his successor is a new dynamic for a superhero film.
Lang is a burglar with a background in electronic engineering, and unlike his major Avengers contemporaries, he’s a family man too, albeit his daughter lives with his ex-wife. Fresh out of prison for stealing millions from a crooked organization, Lang gets pulled into a new job by his buddy Luis (Michael Peña), which leads him to Pym and the Ant-Man suit. Pym is in need of someone with Lang’s skills to infiltrate his former company, now run by his ruthless former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who is on the verge of a breakthrough in his attempts to replicate Pym’s shrinking technology.
If “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was Marvel Studios’ take on a spy movie, then “Ant- Man” is its heist film. Although the break-in to destroy Cross’ data and yellow jacket suit isn’t the sole focus of the movie, it’s the highlight in a film that ends up being way more fun than even the most optimistic Marvel fan would’ve imagined.
“Ant-Man” has two tricks up its sleeve that prevent it from basically being an “Iron Man” knock- off: a hero who can change his size instantly and a loyal army of ants. The size factor creates infinite creative action sequence possibilities, which is nothing to brush off considering how many times audiences have seen a man in a suit fighting bad guys in the last 20 years. The ant factor is also easy to underestimate, but they add such unique flavor to movie and are integral to the plot.
No fan would ask for Marvel to pick the director of “Bring It On” to bring Ant-Man to life, especially when that man (Peyton Reed) was stepping in for geek-revered auteur Edgar Wright, but it’s clear by how clever “Ant-Man” is that Wright’s story and screenplay work were still influential. With a screenplay from Wright and Joe Cornish revised by Rudd and modern comedy writer/director Adam McKay (“Anchorman”), it’s amazing that “Ant-Man” is a cohesive, exciting action film that’s also funny, rather than just ending up plain silly.
There is a definite limit to the praise that can be heaped onto “Ant-Man,” particularly as it relates to its conventional plot and a few bland characters, but it absolute hits the mark on the entertainment factor in a way no Marvel film has since the original “Avengers” (outside of “Guardians of the Galaxy”). The humor definitely helps, and one prime example of its keen use is when Lang asks Pym why he doesn’t just get the Avengers to do the job. That little bit of self- awareness is good for the tone and rewarding to fans of Marvel films. A scene in which Ant-Man takes on one of the Avengers, though superfluous for the film, is a delightful bridge to the greater universe and serves to put more points in the entertainment column. The tie-ins don’t hinder the film as much as you might expect; Marvel Studios definitely strikes a balance between the ingenuity of Wright’s original concept for this movie and its overbearing necessity to be part of a “phase” of superhero films with bigger objectives.
Ant-Man is a welcome member to the Marvel movie family and he might just even steal some votes as a fan favorite Avenger over time. It’s too bad Marvel doesn’t plan to let him fly solo again between now and the final two-part “Avengers: Infinity War” in 2018-19, but hopefully the reaction to this first installment will change their minds, or maybe they’ve got bigger plans for their tiniest hero than we realize.
Directed by Peyton Reed
Written by Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish
Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll
If I were to tell you “Ex Machina” was a movie about artificial intelligence, your mind would most likely suspect it a traditional futuristic science-fiction flick. But “28 Days Later …” and “Dredd” screenwriter Alex Garland’s directorial debut is anything but conventional.
“Ex Machina” wastes no time with exposition. Literally none. We meet programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) as he is selected for a prestigious opportunity by his employer, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the billionaire founder of the world’s most popular search engine. A minute later and he is dropped off by helicopter at Nathan’s reclusive research facility where he learns that he will be the human subject in a Turing test with Nathan’s new artificially intelligent being, Ava (Alicia Vikander).
What develops is more of a psychological, intellectual and philosophical thriller than any cultish escapist science-fiction. Science, in the case of “Ex Machina,” creates a framework for high-level themes and contemplation, not dissimilar to Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” only much smaller in scope.
The drama picks up when Ava secretly reveals to Caleb that Nathan is a bad person who is not be trusted. From there, the performances really perpetuate the suspense, namely Isaac’s confidently enigmatic Nathan and Vikander’s alluring, innocent yet poised Ava.
“Ex Machina” has a rather quiet disposition, calling much attention to Garland’s visuals. Garland shows some flashes of real talent behind the camera, but not artistic panache. Most of all, it’s his patience that gives the film its eerie, ethereal quality. As both writer and director, he trusts his own material — he knows when the story works, he believes in his the tiny cast shouldering the brunt of it and so he doesn’t need any flashy techniques (or longtime collaborator Danny Boyle) to make the film work.
Although it takes a long time to become captivating, “Ex Machina” does more than the average science-fiction entry in terms of posing big ideas. The script goes well beyond the now trite existential tropes of most films about robots and into a much more complicated examination of the human experience and the characteristics that separate humans from machines meant to replicate their appearance and behavior.
“Ex Machina” will no doubt let down those looking for a more traditional blockbuster sci-fi experience, but for the more artistic, high-brow sci-fi crowd, Garland has delivered the genre something it doesn’t see often enough.
Written and directed by Alex Garland
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander
In “Trainwreck,” there’s a fine if not blurry line between conventional romantic comedy and flipping rom-com clichés on their head. Schumer plays Amy, a 30-something staff writer for a superficial men’s magazine who overindulges in pot, booze and one-night stands, in large part because she internalized the advice her father (Colin Quinn) gave her and her sister Kim (Brie Larson) when they were kids: “monogamy is not realistic.”
Amy’s personal rules about not letting men sleep over are soon tested when a work assignment has her interviewing wildly successful sports doctor Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), who is best pals with LeBron James and loves sports, which Amy detests. After seducing him, she soon finds herself in an
uncomfortable, exclusive situation.
Hader and Schumer seem like an unlikely pair, but Hader’s improvisational brilliance and Schumer’s clever writing work well together, and they also have terrific repartee with the supporting cast, from LeBron James to the nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton as Amy’s editor. These talents (yes, even James, but especially Schumer) pull of some of the script’s really corny moment by infusing a little extra honesty and self-awareness into their performances.
Then there’s the Apatow factor. True to the types of films he has made since his career took off with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up,” there is a strong dramatic element in certain aspects of the film, namely Amy’s relationship with her father and the way she treats her happily married sister. Schumer colors these moments with some somewhat dark humor, but both she and Apatow are not interested in just fluff, which is interesting considering how cookie-cutter much of the plot of “Trainwreck” is.
Romantic comedy fans will feel at ease in this story: wild woman figures out a way to settle down with guy, they hit a major roadblock and things get bad for awhile and then she must decide if she’s really committed to him and if they can live happily ever after. The biggest difference, however is the gender roles are reversed. Normally it’s the out-of-control guy who finds “the one” and nearly loses her. So in one sense, Schumer has written a film that flies against Hollywood gender roles, but on the other, she hasn’t at all.
So, somehow, Schumer and Apatow have crafted a classic date movie yet one that’s fresh and a little edgy. More so the former than the latter, but most romantic comedies don’t ever find an edge. There’s something in “Trainwreck” for everyone, whether you’re a guy into sports or not (especially if you are into sports though) or whether you’re a woman who loves chick-flicks or a hardcore feminist. Somehow, the film exists as this acceptable contradiction. Schumer might not be able to pull that off time and time again, but she certainly has a promising career on the big screen.
Directed by Judd Apatow
Written by Amy Schumer
Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, LeBron James, Brie Larson
When it comes to “Jurassic World,” critics will be damned. To date, the film has grossed more than $1.4 billion worldwide, good for fifth most all time, so nothing anyone was going to say could influence the desire to watch this highly anticipated return to Isla Nublar and the world first created by Steven Spielberg. Why audiences were so eager, however, is in ways more intriguing than the film itself.
From the trailers, nothing about “Jurassic World” appeared to be novel — the park was rebuilt, and now something bigger and scarier than a T-rex has gotten loose. So that suggests the film was an exercise in nostalgic thrills, the excitement of the big bad dinosaur running amok that inspired studios to produce countless ’90s and 2000s monster-driven blockbusters. And to that end, “Jurassic World” succeeds.
A long 14 years since the failed “Jurassic Park III” and more than 20 years since the original adventure, enough time passed to build up this franchise’s novelty value, a wisely calculated move by Universal Pictures to be sure. Although “Jurassic World” doesn’t inspire awe and wonder in the same way “Jurassic Park” did, it feels refreshing to return to the franchise’s overall aesthetic.
Entrusted with created the “dinostalgia” is director Colin Trevorrow of the indie sci-fi comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed” and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver of the recent “Planet of the Apes” prequels. While Trevorrow must simply keep the thrill and pulse of the film alive and throbbing, it’s Jaffa and Silver who must create a captivating story that stays true to the formula of “Jurassic Park.”
Jaffa and Silver were an ideal choice, having taken a previously bygone franchise in “Planet of the Apes” — not to mention one focused on animals and humans — and surpassed all expectations with the quality of storytelling. “Jurassic World” has plenty of compelling moments, effective suspense and a strong sense of danger — it’s the character development that’s lacking.
Not that anyone remembers “Jurassic Park” for the characters, but “Jurassic World” can’t lean on the “wow” factor in the way the original could. The main characters comprise an undeveloped mess of two boys, the park director and a dinosaur trainer. All the lovable charisma of Chris Pratt, who gets top billing as the man who has tamed velociraptors, can’t save the two- dimensional Owen despite getting all the big reveal/epiphany lines, and as a selfish stick of a character, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire takes a long time to warm up to. Yet neither is the movie entirely about the two young brothers, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), trying to survive. Their troubled home life and fraternal bond gets shoved into a film much more concerned with its dinosaurs.
All of these flaws feel irrelevant until the story loses a grip on the suspense it so effectively builds in the first act and most of the second. In fact, there’s a quiet moment amidst the chaos of pterodactyls descending upon hapless park tourists that marks the beginning of the film’s unraveling. Something happens that proves the film has a poor perspective on its characters and it betrays the credibility of the story in a really unfortunate way.
From that point on, “Jurassic World” finds a few nice plot twists, but devolves into your typical mindless blockbuster rather than an extraordinary or noteworthy one. You can sense its desire to be the biggest and most epic “Jurassic” film rather than holding onto the simplicity that made the original so great — that opened up a sense of wonder, fear but most importantly, curiosity. That’s where the heart of Spielberg’s film (and so many of his films) comes in, and “Jurassic World” never strikes those chords.
The most obvious candidate for a sequel since “Avatar,” the franchise can only succeed in this way going forward the with a focus on Owen, filling in all that was missing in his back story and giving Pratt a chance to actually shine with the talents he has. That, or wiping the slate clean and giving the new faces a chance to connect more with this exciting world of “Jurassic Park.”
Directed by Colin Trevorrow
Written by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, Colin Trevorrow & Derek Connolly
Starring: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson
The days of the classy ’60s spy films seemed long lost. The world has gotten too complicated for simple stories of agents in tuxedos squaring off with megalomaniacs. Yet in walks “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” based on a Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons offering that sleek look and those beloved spy genre conventions but with plenty of modern-day sensibilities.
If Matthew Vaughn wasn’t already a candidate to direct a future James Bond film, behold his audition tape. The “Kick-Ass” (also from Millar) and “X-Men: First Class” director makes yet another stylish and wickedly fun comic adaptation, raising his own bar for creative action sequences. More underrated, however, is his partnership with screenwriter Jane Goldman. This duo has yet to slip up, impeccably balancing the tropes and formulas of action flicks with just enough originality to keep their stories engaging from start to finish.
“Kingsman” stars newcomer Taron Egerton as Gary “Eggsy” Unwin, a street kid recruited by Kingsman agent Harry Hart, code name “Galahad” (Colin Firth) to join the top-secret organization after they lose an agent. Eggsy’s father was a Kingsman, and Harry sees that same potential. As Eggsy undergoes a competition with other young men and women to fill the vacancy, Harry works to uncover a sinister plot being orchestrated by tech mogul billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson).
The script does gloss over Eggsy’s development from troubled thief to top-flight field agent, perhaps the film’s biggest flaw, but Vaughn and Goldman maintain suspense is basic yet effective ways. Will Eggsy in fact win that spot with the Kingsmen? And what’s Valentine up to anyway? They recognize their best cards and play them at the right time, and that’s what a good blockbuster does. Some impressive twists toward the end of the second act also rejuvenate that intrigue when it starts to wane.
Egerton is a solid young talent and he’s surrounded by a cast who would do just as well in an Oscar-contending drama with Firth, Jackson, Mark Strong and Michael Caine. Some gravitas was definitely required to legitimize Kingsman in the eyes of the audience; without it the concept would feel too much like a cheap knock-off. These heavyweights help the film give off the vibe of an homage to the spy genre with contemporary twists. The character Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), Valentine’s “muscle,” a double leg amputee with those springy leg prosthetics used by runners but outfitted with piercing metal blades, is not dissimilar from the Bond character Jaws.
With plenty of creative action sequences, many of which have surprises built into them, “Kingsman” entertains with a relative ease that so many similar action films and obscure adaptations seem to so rarely replicate. Not to mention Vaughn is becoming a bit more of an auteur, crafting fight scenes like dances but filming them with a visual roughness so as to get the best of both the practically slow-mo stylish action approach and the physical “Bourne”-style approach.
Vaughn will likely abandon the “Kingsman” series (should it become a series) as he did with his previous efforts that received follow-ups, but where he goes next is worth tracking, especially if Goldman’s in tow. And hopefully a serviceable blueprint remains in the hands of 20th Century Fox to try their luck with developing the next modern spy franchise.
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Written by Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman, Mark Millar & Dave Gibbons (comic)
Starring: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong
When Pixar announced “Up” and “Monsters Inc.” director Pete Docter’s “Untitled Pixar Film that Takes You Inside the Mind,” there was little doubt that the animation giant and its brilliant minds had yet another work of genius in development. Flash forward and the revolutionary studio has not disappointed with this endlessly creative, whimsical journey now titled “Inside Out.”
This totally original film couldn’t have come too soon for Pixar fans following the commercial cash-grabs that were “Cars 2” and “Monsters University” and the beautiful yet very traditional fairy tale “Brave” (not to mention no film in 2014). It’s a huge bounce back, and it would not be a stretch to call this Pixar’s most creative film, or even the most creative animated film of the digital era.
The story depicts 11-year-old Riley’s first major life challenge: moving from Minnesota to San Francisco with her mother and father. Yet it imagines her entire personality/brain as its own living world, piloted by her five chief emotions, all personified as characters: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling).
Narrated by Joy, we see key moments of Riley’s life growing up that have become her “core memories,” represented as shiny orbs, with each memory triggering a part of Riley’s personality. To this point, Riley’s core memories are all tinted yellow because they have been joyful, and Joy plans to keep it that way. The big move, however, makes this challenging, and after a struggle with Sadness, Joy and Sadness find themselves booted out of Riley’s command center and into her long-term memory.
With only Anger, Fear and Disgust to guide her, Riley becomes unpredictable, and Joy and Sadness must find their way back before the damage becomes irreversible. Along the way, they team up with Riley’s imaginary friend, Bing Bong, who assists (and innocently misguides) their journey through all parts of Riley’s mind including her abstract thought and subconscious.
The praise for “Inside Out” could stop at the fact that it’s a compelling animated film without a main villain. When was the last time you saw one of those? Case in point. The story creates danger and suspense by throwing new obstacles at Joy and Sadness left and right, creating a sense of doubt wondering what might happen to Riley if they can’t make it back to “head”quarters. Docter and co-writer/director Ronaldo Del Carmen use sheer creative force to fuel intrigue in the other moments.
“Inside Out” is awe-inspiring in the way it fully develops this personified version of the mind and carries it through to fruition with such conviction that none of the loose ends in the concept derail it. This is exceptionally elaborate, demolishing even “Wreck-It Ralph” in terms of world-building. From how the mind processes and removes memories to what is going on when you dream, the film is an ever-growing tower of “what if we did this?!” ideas piled one on top of the other and it never topples over.
Pixar’s trademark tear-jerking, heartstring-tugging M.O. is in place here as well, even if not to the same extent as “Toy Story 3” or the flashback sequence in “Up.” The importance of love and support, the challenges of childhood – the connections the film makes to the human experience are so profound and direct despite such an abstract premise and unusual storyline.
Topped with spot-on voice casting and a visual style that distinguishes itself while remaining true to Pixar’s form, “Inside Out” is an instantly lovable film for kids and adults, one that current children will grow to love different at each stage in their lives. Speaking of, the bar is quite high for a puberty-driven sequel.
Directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen
Written by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley (screenplay)
Starring: (voices) Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling
As hard as I tried, I could not get into George Miller’s “Mad Max” or “The Road Warrior.” Although the latter at least proved to be a more developed post-apocalyptic Australia concept with progressive action, it felt like a violent costume party for people who like things with engines. Now, 30 years after “Beyond Thunderdome,” Miller takes his franchise out of the shed for a new ride, and my oh my has it aged well.
The cornerstones of the franchise are most certainly there: excessive violence, over-the-top characters and a story more invested in aesthetics than narrative, but the chassis beneath it all this time is rock-solid and effectively compelling.
Tom Hardy takes over the franchise in “Mad Max: Fury Road” as Max Rockatansky, a lone ranger of sorts haunted by wife and child he failed to protect, and countless others. After being captured by the powder-white War Boys, Max becomes a human blood bag for several War Boys soldiers, who worship Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the villain Toecutter in “Mad Max” back in 1979), an overlord running his own colony who promises those who serve him to the death a place in Valhalla, the afterlife.
In what is supposed to be a routine gas-run, Immortan Joe’s right hand, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) betrays him and veers off the road, making off with Joe’s precious wives as her cargo. He authorizes an all-out chase to run her down and retrieve the wives, a journey Max unwillingly becomes part of.
The plot is a straight shot out of a gun, with just enough of a human element and a couple of complicated heroes to root for, something the previous “Mad Max” films were sorely lacking. The context and character development is still minimal, but Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris use some creative substitutes, such as Max’s hallucinations of his past, that provide just enough depth to garner the audience’s investment.
Yet the calling card of “Mad Max” and “Fury Road” is the action and the post-apocalyptic trappings. In an era overripe with computer-generated effects, the stunt-driven visuals of “Fury Road” offer something original, in a sense. Miller has always been one of the greats at practical effects and with a little bit of help from modern CGI, he blends the two in a way the feels more real and more explosive.
The imaginative nature of the series also appears to have taken leaps forward. Even in the more ridiculously campy creative choices, such as a the faceless electric guitar player strapped to one of the trucks who gets an unusual amount of screen time, there’s a certain “cool” factor that before just seemed grotesque and frilly. This could simply be that the “Mad Max” look stands the test of time well, that nothing has compared to it in the last 30 years, or it could be that we just don’t get ballsy creativity like this in the blockbuster landscape these days.
The “Mad Max” films have never necessitated great talent, but Hardy, Theron and Nicholas Hoult as a fanatical War Boy named Knux definitely add something to the film. They aren’t asked to do much in the script, but strong choices in facial expressions can tell a story just as well and it’s enough to make “Fury Road” more of a high-stakes grind than a frivolous chain of vehicular stunts.
And for this movie fan, who for years never understood why this franchise held any degree of acclaim, “Fury Road” shows Miller for a true auteur whose twisted little apocalyptic lovechild will likely have a life on screen that surpasses his own.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Directed by George Miller
Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult
Has the light-hearted coming-of-age cancer drama become a “thing?” In the wake of last summer’s superb young adult novel adaptation “The Fault in Our Stars,” a film like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” also based on a novel (by Jesse Andrews, who adapted it for the screen) and also about two young people – one with late-stage cancer – forming a star-crossed relationship, appears to be a trend-riding copycat. It’s not.
Undeniably, “Me and Earl” shares DNA with John Green’s aforementioned book-turned-heart-tugging-teen-fiction phenomenon, but it turns out to be far less conventional, far more off-beat and equally as moving. And in a world with no shortage of contemporary coming-of-age films, it is – in spite of its premise – an absolute standout.
I was lucky to see “Me and Earl” at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, just its eighth screening since premiering at Sundance and scoring a well-deserved record-breaking distribution deal from Fox Searchlight. It won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award there as well, and no surprise there; it is limitlessly and unexpectedly funny, and when it’s not, it’s insightful and moving.
Thomas Mann stars as Greg Gaines, a high school senior in Pittsburgh who has spent his teenage years carefully arranging his life in order to stay off the radar and on everyone’s good side. When his parents (Connie Britton and Nick Offerman) force him to reach out to Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who has just been diagnosed with leukemia, Greg reluctantly obliges, and the friendship that develops soon begins to shake up his little world.
Narrator Greg reminds us often that this story is not a romance or anything else that we will undoubtedly expect it to be, and it’s true, and true of most other components of “Me and Earl” as a whole. The film never quite fits into the track marks of other high school-set films of its ilk, always remaining a hair different at the very least.
Part of the film’s unique stamp is its high-brow cinema appeal. Greg and his friend Earl (RJ Cyler) – or as Greg calls him, his “colleague” – make films together. Their projects are all inspired by classic films they like, only they butcher the title and make everything up from there. “Apocalypse Now,” for example, becomes “A Box of Lips, Wow.” Mann also does a wickedly funny Werner Herzog impression. The number of movie references (some more easily understandable than others) creates another connection to the audience and brings a certain tone of artistry that most teen dramas don’t often reach for.
The real artist, however, is director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who puts creative intention into every single shot in this film. For a director who didn’t also write the screenplay, Gomez-Rejon demonstrates an uncanny connection to Andrews’ story. Everything from duration of takes, to camera placement, to slow pans – Gomez-Rejon finds endless ways to enhance the core tenor or each scene without making it all seem disjointed. When the story is supposed to be funny, he maximizes the laughs, when it’s supposed to be sad, he lingers and lets the phenomenal performances from Mann and Cooke take center stage. For someone who got started on Ryan Murphy projects “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” Gomez-Rejon shows the level of skill that will quickly land him in big meetings discussing big projects, even if he ultimately should stick with indies.
We’ve seen so many films with structural similarities to “Me and Earl,” yet the sum of these pieces has a unique and powerful balance. Much of this can be attributed to the slight avoidance of clichés: the romantic chemistry between the leads is unpredictable; the relationship between the teens and their parents isn’t especially rife with tension, etc. – Jesse Andrews finds a way to tell a familiar tale in a way that is fine-tuned to the truth yet not duller because of it. You know a script is brilliantly done when a movie doesn’t get boring yet the only antagonist in the whole thing isn’t even a character – it’s cancer. That, and Greg’s inner turmoil. All the more reason, too, that Gomez-Rejon’s direction deserves equal acknowledgment; the camera is needed to create tension and conflict, not just to observe it.
The humorous packaging in which Andrews and Gomez-Rejon wrap the film also factors strongly into the product much like the way the then-fresh humor of “Juno” earned that indie a Best Picture nomination and Diablo Cody an Oscar. Original humor is exceedingly difficult to come by, and when it does, it acts as comfy pillows propping up a film. “Me and Earl” makes its bed this way, but then goes the extra mile with simple yet thought-provoking insight into life and death.
If ever there was an example to prove that a familiar premise can be explored through a different lens and deliver a different product and message, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is it. Some subjects are just too vitally human to look at from one angle. Every person, or at least every creative, thoughtful mind, has something to contribute to life’s challenging and important lessons and moments.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by Jesse Andrews (novel, screenplay)
Starring: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon