Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The Force. The Jedi… All of it. It’s all true.

So. Star Wars. Again. Yep, it happened; we got a sequel trilogy, and the expectations and hype for this first installment of it were absolutely stratospheric. Of course, when it came out, I went to see it opening day; I really couldn’t avoid it, being a movie guy, and wanting to make sure I wouldn’t be spoiled as well as being able to keep up with the conversation as it happened instead of being days behind. Was I pleased? Yep; it was entertaining, all right. But there was absolutely a caveat to the entertainment I’d experienced, which I shared with quite a few other viewers and reviewers that I came across. So, let’s get the big question out of the way right off the bat: Does Star Wars: The Force Awakens deserve a spot on the fresh edition of the List? In my opinion, not particularly, and I’ll explain why.

It is some 30-odd years after the downfall of the Empire, and from its ashes has risen the First Order, which is basically the Empire in all but name. Countering them is the Resistance, led by Leia Organa, just like the old days. Missing from the equation this time, however, is Luke Skywalker, who has vanished after his fledgling New Jedi Order was eliminated by a rogue student of his… Sound slightly familiar? Well, the rogue student, now going by the name Kylo Ren, has made it his mission, and the First Order’s, to exterminate Skywalker, and to do that, he needs the only remaining map to Skywalker’s destination; information found inside a droid unit (named BB-8), who ends up on a desert planet, found by a wayward scavenger living in the desert, who becomes involved with the Resistance, and who also finds a new path to destiny through their latent ability to use the Force. In case you’re that one single individual who didn’t see The Force Awakens, I guess I should remind you: no, this isn’t Episode 4, this is Episode 7, but I’d easily forgive you if you read that plot synopsis and got confused as to which film this was. And there you have it; my main issue with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and the issue I shared with a good percentage of other viewers I found – it’s Episode 4 all over again. Director J.J. Abrams basically did the same thing he did with the sequel to the Star Trek reboot; he made a love letter to the original, and called it a proper sequel. Now, that’s not exactly a bad thing, since the resulting film is certainly an entertaining one. But it just feels derivative, because it is exactly so, and that’s not what a good sequel, and especially a reintroduction to a franchise, should be. As one last note, and there will be mild spoilers to anyone who can’t infer the plot from the synopsis up there, but: I found it quite hilarious that Mark Hamill was billed second in the credits, when he is missing from literally the entire film until the last 40 seconds or so, and has exactly zero lines; I just got a kick out of that.

I have a feeling Abrams deliberately made this film as a handoff of Star Wars to the next generation, of fans and of characters. I’m not sure that sort of idea can support the beginning of the long-awaited and highly-anticipated Star Wars sequel trilogy, of all freaking things. It’s nice to watch, sure, but it absolutely did not live up to the expectations going into the film; though, I will admit, it would’ve been hard for any film to live up to the level of expectations that this film had to it. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a perfect meld of a J.J. Abrams film and a love letter to the original Star Wars, and that should not have been what this film ultimately amounts to. It might get an extra point onto the rating just for being as entertaining as it is, but I was so let down by how derivative it was of Episode 4 that I ended up not giving it that point, and that I think says a lot more than I’ve actually been able to in this review. Did this deserve to get onto the list, just by virtue of being the Star Wars sequel we ultimately got? No, because it wasn’t the one we should’ve gotten.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

And I guess that’s all for 2015, at least for now. Now, back to my regularly scheduled programming.

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies

Jim. You should be careful.

Okay, editors of the list, we get it: you really, really like Steven Spielberg. That pithy dismissal of Bridge of Spies being added to the list was all that went through my head when I found that it had been added, as well as when I went to actually start watching it. I’ve posited the argument before that Spielberg’s films tend to fall into two genres; the feel-good uplifting childlike wonderment type of film that E.T. basically personifies, and the ultra-serious historical epics he does to be seen as a serious director like Lincoln and Schindler’s List. Then there’s the films he makes that seem to want to be both of these two types of Spielberg, such as War Horse, and Bridge of Spies absolutely falls into this latter combo-category. In doing so, however, much like War Horse, the film itself comes across as very perfunctory, an unnecessary watch, and just as unnecessary a production undertaken by the filmmakers.

Bridge of Spies is the story of Jim Donovan, played here by Tom Hanks, an insurance lawyer who is called upon by the U.S. government to be the legal counsel for Rudolf Abel, a Russian citizen in Brooklyn arrested and charged with espionage for the Soviet Union. Knowing the farcical nature of the defense he is meant to put up, Donovan nevertheless does his duty; Abel is still found guilty, but through Donovan’s persistence he is kept from the death penalty in case he may be needed for a future prisoner exchange with the Soviets, should the opportunity arise. Well, the opportunity does, in the form of Gary Powers, a pilot flying a secret surveillance plane shot down in Soviet territory. Donovan, feeling responsible for Abel, is put in charge of the negotiations to secure Powers’ release for Abel’s, which are compounded when Donovan also learns of Frederic Pryor, a U.S. grad student caught on the wrong side of the newly-built Berlin Wall, and Donovan sets out to secure the release of two American prisoners instead of just one. I wanted to go into notable aspects of Bridge of Spies, that could be seen as selling points, but to be honest, the whole thing smears together so well that nothing in particular stands out, with the exception of Mark Rylance, who plays Abel, and who somehow steals the screen every time he’s on it without saying much more than a few words per his even fewer sentences, and who notably won Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars despite no actual campaign run for him to win the award by studios, producers, or Rylance himself. Hanks is typical Hanks, the cinematography, score, and production design are typical Spielberg; this is just really, really typical filmmaking, but since it’s Spielberg, the level of typical is elevated somewhat above what would otherwise be a typical film. It’s good, but nothing about it is so good as to get in a twist about it, which has been my problem with Spielberg’s perennial releases as of late.

I was left feeling mightily okay by Bridge of Spies; it’s a fine picture, with plenty of positive attributes, but when it’s all mixed together, the final combined result is… well, just okay. I went to check this as watched on Letterboxd, and I skimmed some of the other reviews there to see how my opinion fit into the general opinion, and I found one review that so epitomized Bridge of Spies and Spielberg as a filmmaker that I’m going to steal the key phrase the reviewer on that site used to describe both: Spielberg is the ultimate “dad” director, making “dad films”, i.e. films that you can watch with your dad in a family movie night and not have anybody feeling uncomfortable or left unsatisfied at the end. That’s Spielberg in a nutshell, and that’s also Bridge of Spies in a single phrase: it’s the ultimate dad film, or at least the most so that Spielberg has made up to this point. This won’t survive future editions’ culling of the list’s entries, and really, it shouldn’t, but it was nice to watch, I guess, so no real harm done.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Son of Saul (Saul fia)

Son of Saul

You play with our lives.

One of the expected additions each year to the list is the winner for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars; or, if not the winner, at least one of the nominees. Sure enough, the editors chose Son of Saul, or Saul fia, and in the same way that they chose Ida the year before, it seems like a selection made entirely by rote as opposed to actually being a worthy watch or a truly must see film. World War II films are a dime a dozen; I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it again. So when I went into Son of Saul, I wanted to know what was different or unique about it to warrant the watch. To that end, in my usual research, I found out the film, and the main character, takes place in the Sonderkommando of a Jewish extermination camp, which I don’t believe I’ve seen a film cover before, and thus provided me with enough of a different or uniqueness to the proceedings that seemed to justify the watch… at least at first.

For what it’s worth, I’d never heard of the Sonderkommando before this film, and I looked them up to make sure I’d know what was going on, which I was thankful for doing so, as it made a lot of the unspoken plot advancements that took place in the film a lot clearer, so if you’re unsure of exactly what this film is doing or what’s taking place, you might want to do a small bit of research as well.

Saul Auslander is a Hungarian Jew chosen to work as a member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, where he assists in the maintaining of the gas chambers in exchange for not being executed himself. It’s during one such cleanup that he finds a young boy who somehow survived the gassing, who is promptly taken aside and suffocated as Saul watches. Having recognized the boy, he sets about finding a rabbi among the survivors, who can assist him in smuggling the boy’s corpse outside the walls of Auschwitz and giving him a proper burial. Really, there’s not very much more to this one than that; there’s a subplot involving a planned uprising among the other Sonderkommando in Saul’s unit that comes to the forefront near the end of the film, but this is ostensibly all about Saul and his search to put the boy to proper rest. You might be concerned, with the plot synopsis that I’ve given, that the film doesn’t have all that much in terms of plot or narrative to really hold interest during the entire watch, and unfortunately, your concerns would be justified; there’s really not enough plot here to warrant even the average running time this film has. What makes Son of Saul at least barely worth the watch is how it is made and presented. In addition to the 1.375:1 aspect ratio, a much more narrow field of view and square framing akin to Ida the year before, the film crops the image slightly in the corners, giving the picture a look much like watching the film through the eyepiece of an old 35mm camera. Also, the film takes place almost entirely over the shoulder, both front and back, of Saul himself, with an extremely shallow depth of field, so that often the only things in focus during the film are Saul and anyone or anything directly next to him, creating a very insular point of view, as if the world outside of Saul’s immediate periphery is glazed over to reject the importance and horror of everything around him, much like the personality of Saul as shown in the beginning of the film. It’s quite interesting to watch, but risks becoming a novelty too soon during the film’s running time, since the plot of the film isn’t what’s holding us through the whole thing. Additional compliments to Geza Rohrig, who plays Saul, and who has one of the most interesting faces I’ve seen in modern foreign film, which helps us empathize with Saul even when he is not talking, or whispering along with everyone else.

I feel like I’ve already said everything there is for me to say about Son of Saul; it’s interesting to look at, but not for 107 minutes, and the plot doesn’t do enough to fill in the empty portions of our attention span when the film’s interesting point of view becomes much less so. It also suffers from a similar malady as last year’s winner Ida: there isn’t really a point to anything or any part of the story on the screen; the story is just told, and that’s that, and what’s a little frustrating about it is that the story told never feels worth the while. I generally liked Son of Saul, but I can’t say I enjoyed it or that I was entertained; it felt more like I was watching it because I was expected to, a necessity that unfortunately left me underwhelmed by how unnecessary it really was. I can see why it won Best Foreign Language Film, but there isn’t enough here to really sell this film to an audience outside the art house niche, which is a bit of a disappointment in and of itself.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Tangerine

Tangerine

Merry Christmas Eve, bitch.

There’s always one or two additions to the list each year that make people go “wtf?”, as if the editors have to show that their knowledge of must see films extends beyond the obvious ones. This year gives us Tangerine, a film I’d heard of solely because of the filmmakers’ decision-making behind the production, which was trumpeted everywhere I looked on the various indie filmmaking sites I semi-regularly frequent. For those not in the know, director Sean Baker chose to shoot this film not on typical cameras, but on iPhones; not only this, the film is about transgender prostitutes, and actual transgender actors were cast in the lead roles. While I can certainly get behind the film’s progression of the cinematic art form (at least on a technical level), both in how it was shot and how it was cast, I’m not too sure I can get behind it as an actual film.

Sin-Dee is a transgender sex worker, currently on the way out of a 28-day prison sentence, when she meets up with her friend and fellow trans-worker Alexandra, who accidentally lets slip that Sin-Dee’s pimp and boyfriend Chester cheated on her while she was in prison. Needless to say, Sin-Dee gets riled up, and the film follows her as she tries to track down Chester, as well as the girl he was with, and confront them; all while an Armenian taxi driver also has a role to play when the events come to a climax. I hate to make a comparison to Carrie, just because it really seems out of place to do so, but Tangerine is a film that is all about getting to the climax, and once you’re there, you just let it ride until everything that you’ve been waiting to happen happens, and you’re left with the aftermath. I can see how it was a big deal that the film was entirely shot on iPhones, but aside from the novelty of it, it’s not really a worthwhile endeavor to shoot a real feature with iPhones; this film can get away with it mostly because it knows how lurid it wants to be, but the general look and feel of the film was too unprofessional to sell the idea of using cameraphones to shoot other viable feature films with. I assume this was part of the intention behind shooting this with cameraphones, so in that the film kinda shoots itself in the foot. Still, for a film about transgender sex workers fighting and reacting and thinking with their instincts, this has a heart to it, mostly thanks to the two leads, especially Mya Taylor, who plays Alexandra, and who was surprisingly effective pretty much all of the time.

Here’s the thing about Tangerine, and it’s kind of a disappointment that I’m left with this thought after watching it: I don’t really see the point in anyone going to see this. What Tangerine is, and what the entertainment value and lead-up to the climax ultimately amounts to, is akin to watching a trainwreck; in almost no real way should it be entertaining, but just the sheer carnage that’s on display… you just can’t take your eyes away from it. That’s the climax of Tangerine, and to say that nobody gets a happy ending here is to be so tongue-in-cheek that one risks puncturing the side of their face. Now, given that Jerry Springer is still on the air, there’s still an audience for this sort of trainwreck, but in all honesty, there really shouldn’t be. This has some moments, there are certainly some moments in here that may be worth the journey. But not enough, and not nearly enough to outweigh the general sliminess that the film seems to want you to bathe in for whatever reason it has for wanting so.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton

Speak a little truth, and people lose their minds.

It’s kinda weird for me to talk about music on a movie blog; I’ve already covered it with the Beatles’ flick that somehow made the list, and now it seems we’re headed in a completely different direction. The name Straight Outta Compton should be familiar to most people who grew up in the late 80’s/early 90’s as the progenitor of the gangster rap genre of music, a genre of hip-hop/rap that I remained largely incognizant of during my own upbringing thanks mainly due to me growing up in white suburbia; I was thus not privy to the lifestyle that the group members of NWA tried to bring to the forefront of the music world with their debut album. Going into this film, though, I was actually looking forward to having my eyes opened a bit in that regard, something I welcomed as another necessary empathetic experience. So, when the credits finally rolled on Straight Outta Compton the film, and I tried to collect my thoughts on what the film had accomplished, and if it had indeed given me a look into the life that these men wanted those outside Compton, California to experience for themselves, I was surprised to find myself largely ambivalent to the two-and-a-half-plus hour narrative. I’m not sure if the goal of this film was indeed to encapsulate what made NWA’s breakout album such a success and cultural milestone, but for the film to merely present the events as they happened, in a very typical Hollywood fashion, seemed to be underselling what NWA really accomplished.

The film, as I stated in the opener, documents the coming together of the major personalities that would form NWA, from their quote-unquote humble beginnings to how they met the right people who got them in the position to blow the world open with their first record, and all the excess and infighting and drama that would naturally follow such a breakthrough. Primarily, we follow Dr. Dre, Ice Cube (played by Ice Cube’s real-life son), and Eazy-E, who has probably the best and most dramatic arc in the film, but there are plenty of other players who have their roles in the spotlight of this story (I can understand the real-life Jerry Heller’s being upset about his depiction in this film, and the conspicuous silence from Suge Knight about his own depiction suggests to me that it might be more correct than the man may want to care to admit). Still, for being over two and a half hours long, and for covering as much as it covers, I was a little miffed to find that the film, cultural influences aside, was pretty much a standard biopic when you get down to the underworkings. It might be culturally relevant for people to go and see this, but to make the argument that people should see it because it’s an outstanding film or unlike anything else out there are, to be a little too frank, incorrect arguments to make. I don’t have a copy of the new edition of the Book, so I can’t say with certainty why they decided to add Straight Outta Compton, but I’m one to definitely wonder if this one is going to stick around even through the next successive edition of the list.

I can’t help but feel let down by this film. It was good; it was fine, but nowhere was this outstanding, and definitely not a must see. For what the film is worth, though, it’s not poor in almost any regard; the players were very good, the production itself knew what it was doing, etc etc. Really, I think the thing that’s causing me the most ire about a film like this is that it’s leaving me with nothing to say about it, and that to me should definitely not mean this film should make the list. I’m not sad or upset that I was forced to watch it, but neither would I have watched it unless I had basically been forced to. At this point, I’m just hoping I didn’t knock all the good stuff from this year’s additions off first, or I’m in for an underwhelming finish in the next month or so.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

The Revenant

The Revenant

I ain’t afraid to die anymore. I done it already.

After Alejandro Inarritu won Best Picture and Best Director for Birdman, it seemed the world was his oyster; whatever he wanted to do next, he would be able to do it. Well, he wanted to do The Revenant, a film he’d been wanting to do for some time, but was a project deemed too ambitious to really succeed. Now, however, that he had some clout behind his name, Inarritu was given the go-ahead, and he forged forward on his next film to an almost reckless degree. Crew members quit on him, the budget he’d been allotted ended up more than doubling, and word began to spread that this might be Inarritu’s Heaven’s Gate. Well, then the film came out, and everyone who was concerned or wanted Inarritu to fail shut their mouths real quick; this was a monster of a film in almost every way. However, it should be noted that, just because this was a mammoth production, both in its construction and in the end product, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a totally worthwhile one. It’s worth your while, absolutely, but for me, it wasn’t the unprecedented masterpiece I’d been led to believe it was going to be.

Leo DiCaprio practically gives his life and soul to the role of Hugh Glass, a mountaineer part of a fur trapping expedition in the wilds of untamed Missouri circa the early 1800s. The party, after being set upon by hostile natives in a sequence that must’ve amounted to a good chunk of the film’s budget (and absolutely delivers on it), winds up fleeing back to their fort, leaving most of their pelts behind. Glass, their navigator, ends up alone to scout their path, and happens upon a couple of bear cubs and their mother. Mauled and beaten by the encounter, and barely clinging to life, the party’s captain sets three men to wait with Glass until he passes from his injuries, which includes his half-native son Hawk, and John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy. Fitzgerald, however, ends up killing Hawk and convincing the other man to leave Glass behind, haphazardly buried in an open grave, sure that he is soon to die regardless. Glass, however, survives, and sets about traversing the wilderness, healing, and trying to survive, so he can make it back to civilization and exact vengeance upon Fitzgerald for murdering his son and leaving him for dead. I honestly wish there was more about The Revenant to talk about besides the big three, but there pretty much isn’t, so I’ll get those three out of the way. First up is DiCaprio, whose performance is really only about half that; the other half is entirely enduring, surviving, and committing himself wholly to the role, even if it means swimming through a freezing river wearing bear skins or eating raw bison liver. I can see why he finally got his Oscar for this, but I’m in the camp of those who both feel that he’s done better work and that his performance is mostly an endurance match instead of actually acting, but what he puts himself through for this film is still absolutely extraordinary. Second is Inarritu, whose direction in this film rode the gamut of his crew and his cast, all to get his vision across on the screen in its most fully realized form, and he succeeds amazingly. Third, and most certainly not last, is Emmanuel Lubezki, and I really cannot say enough about this man and his accomplishments with light and camera. More than anything, this film is stunning to look at, and with Lubezki becoming the first cinematographer to win three consecutive Oscars, I am certainly not going to be the one to argue that he didn’t deserve this one. What also surprised me was that the score for the film was deemed ineligible for Academy contention, the second time in a row that this would happen for an Inarritu film, which I still don’t fully get, especially when the score for this film is so majestic and beautiful and absolutely helps solidify the vision and artistry of the film as a whole, and should’ve walked away with the prize.

Here’s the thing about The Revenant, though, and it’s this that is pretty much why I’m giving it the rating I’m giving it, even while generally loving the film even more than I originally thought I did when I first saw it. The Revenant does a lot of things right, but while the individual parts (as well as the whole) are absolutely sublime, the whole thing doesn’t amount to very much, and the experience isn’t completely worth the time invested into it. I can see why this was added to the list, as well as its nomination for Best Picture, but as for winning the award, I’m not 100% sold on why this should’ve won over some of the other nominees. It’s a hell of an experience, absolutely, but it’s not a wholly worthwhile one; I’d imagine that a good half of the people who’d see this one will feel like it wasn’t worth the two-and-a-half hours it takes to get through it. Still, exceptional work on display here, and if you’re one to take to art-minded, meditative, almost Tarkovsky-esque filmmaking, this will likely be a new favorite for you.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road

What a lovely day!

I had heard rumblings of a new Mad Max film off and on for the past few years, and when the trailer finally first hit the internet, I didn’t really care enough to view it, even after I’d seen a reaction here and there that was off the charts with enthusiasm. Having already seen the Mad Max movies, and only enjoying them to a tangential degree (mostly finding them too campy to enjoy genuinely), I wasn’t all that interested in another, even some decades after the last one came out. Then, one day, I ended up watching the trailer, almost on a whim… and I was immediately, immensely stoked for this flick. I ended up seeing it with my brother in the theater, and both of us just had a big stupid smile on our face for pretty much the entire running time. Mad Max: Fury Road went on to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, as well as Best Director for George Miller, and that this managed to pull off those two nominations fills me with absolute glee; in the short year since its release, it is already being hailed as quite possibly the best action film of all time, and goddamn does it ever deserve that label.

Here, Tom Hardy is the recast Max Rockatansky, who lives in the most apocalyptic post-apocalyptic world I think the cinema has ever offered us. Captured at the beginning of the film by the forces of warlord Immortan Joe, he finds himself banding together with a group of fledgling runaways attempting to escape from under Immortan’s thumb, led by one of Joe’s generals (or Imperators), Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. What follows can only be described as a nearly nonstop road chase, filled with as much action as you can possibly stomach, and then you realize you’ve only stomached the first half of the film, and there’s still another whole hour of balls-to-the-wall action waiting for you. I wish I could talk about this film objectively; I really do, but I can’t. This movie just fills me with such adrenaline and happiness for George Miller and his passion for this project that I just cannot put it into words; you can so clearly tell that this, this is the Mad Max film he always wanted to make, but just could never quite get there before now. The action is awesome, the stunts are mind-blowing (seriously, Academy, get with the friggin’ program and add a stunt category in some shape or form already; please), the cinematography is vivid and engrossing, and the direction is absolutely unprecedented. The only qualms I have with the film are the script, which seemed a tad too invested in its own universe to really make the dialogue palatable to an outsider (a non-Australian, for instance), and I wasn’t a fan of the overdubbing used for almost all of Tom Hardy’s spoken dialogue, though I saw the necessity for it. I was also a big fan of the Nux character played by Nicholas Hoult, and while trying not to spoil the film entirely for those who haven’t seen it yet (seriously? come on, go see it), his character had the biggest arc of any of the leads, and he really felt like the real hero, even against Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who was arguably the real protagonist of the picture (I won’t go too into the arguments people have made that this isn’t really a Mad Max film since Max is mostly supporting to Furiosa in terms of plot, but I’ll just say that the arguments I’ve read that make the point that Max is arguably really a supporting role in all the films are probably more correct than others might be willing to accept).

I don’t really know what else to say about this, so I’ll just finish with the only things I can say; I loved this film. I loved everything about it. It takes everything that didn’t work for me from the first three Mad Max films, dials it up to eleven, then dials it up some more, and for some weirdly stupid reason, it makes it work spectacularly. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, and for once, I really don’t care; for me, it just works, and it works greatly. If you can stomach some of the dialogue, and can manage to get yourself in the mindset to sit through two solid hours of nonstop action, go see this if you haven’t already, and if you have, go see it again; I’m sure you’ve done something recently to reward yourself for with a big ol’ smile like the one you’ll get watching this film. I love films that give me hope for the future of cinema, and this is absolutely one of those films.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10