Certainly with the ability to replicate near-theater quality experience in your own home, why would you want to go to the cinema? Even if your home-entertainment system is far more modest (as is mine), there are still many advantages to watching movies at home. You can watch the film at any time. You can control your audience—you don't even need an audience. You can eat and drink whatever you want, and when nature calls, you just pause the movie. In fact, if you don't follow something on-screen, you can watch it again as many times as you need to until it becomes clear. (I'm ignoring whether the filmmakers were even capable of making it clear in the first place.) And if you own the movie, or are saving it on a recording device, you can watch it again whenever you want.
And yet there is still an allure to seeing a film in the theater. Movies with lots of action and special effects, including 3-D, demand viewing on a big screen, but although many movies can still be seen on your small(er) screen at home without losing too much impact, there is still that sense of an event occurring at which you are a privileged participant.
It's the romantic in me, but even after decades of going to the movies, I still get a shiver when the house lights darken completely and the film begins. I feel part of a collective that has gathered to await the cinematic transformation in the dark, embarking on the journey that may lead to entertainment, education, and, maybe once in a while, enlightenment. Films are a storytelling medium, and many times those stories not only tell us something about the characters we see on the screen, they tell us something about ourselves.
Furthermore, from the quixotic standpoint (look up the adjective "quixotic" to discover its storytelling origin), I go to see a film at the cinema to tell filmmakers that this is the kind of movie I want to see, in essence voting at the box office. Of course my "vote" is a spit in the ocean amidst box-office receipts that amount to millions of dollars—and films are ultimately all about the box office—but I do it anyway.
Not surprisingly, that can be a double-edged sword. When I go to see a film, I try to learn as little about it as possible beforehand so that I can approach it with as little prejudice as possible; this means that I don't read any reviews of the film before I see it (and I don't read any until after I've written my own review), although I will glance at Rotten Tomatoes to check the "Tomatometer" reading for films about which I know very little beforehand or are on the fence about seeing. So, while I have been disappointed, I have also been pleasantly surprised. Again, it's all about that transformation in the dark, and sometimes that transformation is not always for the better—although call me perverse but I do find value in bad movies because they put good movies into relief, as I celebrated with ten bad science-fiction films from the 1950s.
In recent years, and as a rough estimate, I have averaged about a dozen films a year, or one every month. In 2015, though, I more than doubled that. Not that this year seems to be noticeably better for movies than in previous years, but for some reason I had been motivated to see more films in the theaters.
And 2015 had been an eventful year for films: A number of high-profile franchises returned, including Mad Max, Jurassic Park, James Bond, and Star Wars, while old television shows got raided again (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), and a number of films based on true events dramatized those events after having been filmed previously as documentaries (Everest, Trumbo, The Walk). Fact-based films, both biopics focused on specific individuals (American Sniper, Black Mass, Love & Mercy, Steve Jobs, Trumbo) and films exploring social issues (The Big Short, Selma, Spotlight, Truth), also featured prominently among this year's cinematic offerings, as did features from big-name directors Clint Eastwood (American Sniper), Ridley Scott (The Martian), Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies), and Robert Zemeckis (The Walk).
The Spotlight's investigative-reporting team uncovers child molestation among Boston's Catholic priests in the best movie I saw that premiered in 2015. The stellar cast includes Michael Keaton (left) and Mark Ruffalo (third from left.)
Those listings above represent only a fraction of 2015's films—thus the "Somewhat" in the title of this article—and I'd be lying if I said that they do not represent my own preferences and limitations. I've arranged the reviews below roughly by season, which largely reflects when I saw the film in the theater; within that seasonal section, the films are listed alphabetically. You have noticed that I did include a few films with an official release date in 2014, such as "Oscar bait" films released at the end of 2014 that I did not see until early 2015, or else did not gain a wide release (or an American release) until 2015.
The table below outlines my rating scale. A specific note about three-star movies: I consider them to be truly "good" movies in that I feel that I got my money's worth—no small feat given ticket prices—and that I did not feel as if my time was wasted. As I've noted in my baseball writing on this site, this equates to "league-average," which may not be exceptional but does mean the film belongs in the "league," which sometimes can itself be an accomplishment. Whether a three-star film is "disappointing" can depend on the expectations I might have had for it going into see it (Bridge of Spies), but, conversely, it can also indicate that the film was better than I expected to be (Jurassic World). Ultimately, and despite all the "critical analysis" I may bring to a review, it is all subjective—and your mileage will vary.
Oh, and one last note: There are NO SPOILERS in these reviews!
Ratings are from one to five stars:
|Classic. Transcendent filmmaking or storytelling that epitomizes a period, style, or genre.
|Excellent. Superior but not transcendent filmmaking or storytelling.
|Good. Filmmaking or storytelling of average value, or typical of a period, style, or genre.
|Fair. Fundamentally flawed technically and/or artistically, or an interesting failure.
|Poor. Technically inferior and/or artistically bankrupt; no redeeming qualities.
WinterEarly in the year brings films being trotted through awards season as well as films that may not be expected to be commercial or critical successes. American Sniper and Selma typify the former, but regarding the latter point, I found Blackhat to be unfortunately representative of that point—however, I was most pleasantly surprised by Kingsman: The Secret Service, which was the most fun I've had in a movie theater in a long time.
American Sniper (2014)
Is American Sniper the Iraq War equivalent of The Green Berets? Director Clint Eastwood, with screenwriter Jason Holt adapting the autobiography of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history, has made a quiet hagiography of Kyle; moreover, by ascribing the briefest, most basic patriotic motivations to Kyle, and by omitting any mention of why America invaded Iraq in 2003, Eastwood and Holt strip any context from Kyle's four tours of duty there while enabling them to humanize Kyle and his comrades at the expense of untrustworthy, nearly incomprehensible foreigners. In other words, American Sniper wants to extol what Kyle did without suggesting why he did it beyond the constantly invoked rationale of the September 11, 2001, attacks, which don't adequately explain American involvement in Iraq, anyway, much in the same way that The Green Berets lauds the US Special Forces (nicknamed the Green Berets) and their actions in Vietnam without explaining why they are there.
Actually, Eastwood and Holt give Kyle (Bradley Cooper) an opposite, and perhaps unintentionally apposite, number: Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), a sniper seemingly in league with al-Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Mustafa seems to take as much professional pride in his craft as does Kyle, although his motivations are just implicitly assumed because, well, he's the bad guy, and that's all you need to know other than his actions are designed to presage the climactic showdown. Before that, though, Eastwood and Holt sketch in Kyle's background (because he's the good guy, after all): Taught to shoot by his domineering father, he becomes a Navy SEAL, meets future wife Taya (Sienna Miller), and leaves her pregnant before embarking on his first tour in Iraq, where his first two kills are a woman and boy trying to attack an American patrol. Kyle soon becomes known as "Legend" for his kill record, but furloughs at home find him withdrawn and distant from his young family while his main regret about the war is not being able to save more fellow soldiers.
Cooper is fully invested in his portrayal of Kyle—he is easily the calm, competent center of the narrative—and Eastwood steers that narrative with a skilled, practiced hand. But American Sniper has no depth or dimension—it fails to rise above its surface storytelling, which merely couches age-old war-movie cliché in contemporary clothing, while refusing to provide any meaningful context either for Kyle, who broods and stares with little motivation beyond his patriotic duty, or for the war that incites his patriotic duty. Miller's Taya cannot advance past simple hand-wringing, and the rest of the cast are ciphers. American Sniper targets only the simplest knee-jerk elements.
Cybercrime can have devastating consequences, but to portray it effectively onscreen, you take essentially two approaches: either a thoughtful thriller involving a battle of wits or an overwrought action overlay involving a battle of bullets and bombs. Guess which approach writer-director Michael Mann and co-writer Morgan Davis Foehl take with Blackhat? If you guessed thoughtful, better check the globetrekking, shootouts, and explosions that fail to disguise a perfunctory cat-and-mouse narrative enacted by ciphers masquerading as characters in a hackneyed crime drama whose plot twists announce themselves like software update notifications minutes before they begin installation.
Mann's opening sequence does feint toward inspiration: At a Chinese nuclear power plant, his camera snakes inside the computer system as attacking malware evades detection and disables the water pumps, triggering a cinematically impressive explosion. Chinese intelligence investigator Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) decides that he needs American hacking help, so he wangles his former college chum Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a brilliant "black hat" (malicious computer hacker) serving time, from prison, with FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) in tow. Dawai also needs help from his systems administrator sister Lien (Wei Tang), and when she meets Hathaway—guess where that leads? Tracing a clue to Hong Kong, they encounter (cliché alert!) Russian heavies who, no surprise, blow up Dawai's car, leaving Hathaway and Lien to battle mysterious black hat Kassar (Ritchie Coster) in Jakarta over the even bigger terror plot he's cooking up in Malaysia.
Yes, Mann's geographical puddle-jumping is just smoke and mirrors trying to conceal the truth about Blackhat: It is a simple caper perpetrated by caricature criminals confronted by equally cardboard good guys. Mann wastes Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography with showy hand-held shots while Atticus and Leopold Ross's blatant score tries to keep Blackhat from sagging. Hemsworth goes the cool, steely route to minimal effect while displaying no chemistry whatsoever with listless Wei. Blackhat needs serious debugging.
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
Making the familiar seem fresh is a challenge for genre films including the spy genre, which has seen its hidebound formula recycled endlessly with both sincerity and silliness. But because Kingsman: The Secret Service loves the very genre it's sending up, this crackling, hilarious action tale packs a tremendous wallop. Moreover, director Matthew Vaughn, who with co-writer Jane Goldman based their story loosely on the Dave Gibbons-Mark Millar comic book The Secret Service, displays a rapier touch that excises any dead spots while Colin Firth supplies the credibility and import to make this raucous yarn serious business.
Firth is Harry Hart, a Kingsman, an impeccably dapper but eminently lethal British secret operative, and if you're thinking James Bond, that's the point—up to a point. There are few surprises in Kingsman: Following the death of another Kingsman, Hart and the Kingsmen's leader Chester King (Michael Caine) trace the killing to Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), a seemingly harmless billionaire whose philanthropy is of course not beneficent—and naturally he has a comely henchwoman, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), and her literally killer pair of legs. To replace the slain Kingsman, Hart proffers working-class Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton), the son of the slain Kingsman whose anointing comes gift-wrapped in an early scene. Eggsy competes with other candidates including Roxy (Sophie Cookson), all under the tutelage of the Kingmen's taskmaster Merlin (Mark Strong) even as Valentine, like any spy-saga villain, initializes his dastardly scheme for world domination.
Colin Firth is about to unleash holy hell as dapper but deadly British secret agent Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service, the most fun I've had in a movie theater in a long while.
Under Vaughn's kinetic direction, Kingsman unloads one barrage after another while it gleefully unleashes a shameless stream of references both sly and blatant. The crowning moment has to be Hart's tour de force one-man carnage in a fundamentalist church gone berserk from Valentine's diabolical dabbling, shot with bold disorientation by cinematographer George Richmond and a brilliant deployment of the Lynyrd Skynyrd chestnut "Free Bird" on the soundtrack. But in a bold stroke, Kingsman withholds its shocking break from convention until just the right moment as Firth, Egerton, Strong, and especially Jackson shine through the acrobatics and splashy effects. Brilliantly blending homage and spoof, Kingsman: The Secret Service pumps enough new blood into the spy genre that it will blow your head off.
Voting-rights struggles during the Civil Rights era come to a head in Selma, the Alabama city where white resistance to African-Americans' registration efforts was challenged by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and a series of peaceful protest marches. Local authorities met those marches with brutal suppression that shocked the world and, eventually, prompted federal legislation championed by President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). However, that capsule description barely hints at the sustained scope and intensity of director Ava DuVernay's absorbing, affecting docudrama that makes those events from a half-century ago sear with the immediacy of a contemporary news flash.
Paul Webb's thoroughgoing script does present a roster of events and personages, great and small, passing through Selma as if in a historian's dream, although that dream does display dramatic license, such as the seeming conflation of King's being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing that killed four African-American girls; King had been awarded the Prize in 1964. DuVernay and Webb then send King into 1965 Selma to support voting-rights policies spearheaded by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Once there, though, not only are their efforts rebuffed by determined city leaders ultimately supported by Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth), but additional complications arise from internecine struggle between SNCC and King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference coterie; meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's determination to discredit King through its COINTELPRO counter-intelligence program foments alienation between King and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).
That domestic thread, while touching, seems superfluous to the roiling social and political currents driving Selma as waves of personal anguish spotlight the events, culminating with "Bloody Sunday," the Selma authorities' violent reaction to the protesters' attempt to march to Montgomery begun by crossing Selma's iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge; DuVernay, with cinematographer Bradford Young's sepia hint, conveys the narrative with brilliant clarity while Jason Moran's score resists the temptation to embellish. Tasked with portraying an icon, Oyelowo makes King human, not symbolic, while Wilkinson, similarly challenged, delivers a sturdy performance. Supporting stars Dylan Baker, Oprah Winfrey, and Martin Sheen provide gilt, but final credit for Selma's triumph belongs to DuVernay's sweeping, empathetic vision.
SpringSpring brings blossoms even in the cinema, and in the spring of 2015 two big franchises unleashed their latest offerings: Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World. Both looked spectacular on the big screen—if you're looking for popcorn-munchers, look no further—although Mad Max was more convincing. Stuck between those two was the fuzzy Disney exhortation for a brighter future, Tomorrowland, that didn't seem to convince anyone, least of all its cast. But first, About Elly, a 2009 film from Iran, finally gets an airing in the United States.
About Elly (2009)
Sometimes my desire not to learn anything about a film before I see it can come back to bite me. This Iranian film was made in 2009, but it wasn't released in a cinema near me until 2015, which is why I'm including it here. Friends who wanted to see it mentioned that About Elly was from director Asghar Farhadi, who was responsible for 2011's A Separation. That was all I needed to know. A Separation is a brilliant, five-star film, one of the best films I've seen in the last few years. Thus, I went into About Elly thinking that it had been made after Farhadi had made A Separation, and thus I was puzzled—and disappointed—as to why it seemed to be a step backward for him. It was only afterward that I learned why: It actually predates A Separation.
Deception permeates About Elly, whose contrived premise is the pretext to examine reactions following a tragic event that involves Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), a young woman persuaded to join a group of Iranian families on a seaside outing by Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani)), who considers Elly a match for their recently divorced friend Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini). Producer-writer-director Asghar Farhadi opts for no musical score and for verité photography by Hossein Jafarian as he parses out details of his narrative, which takes too long to attract interest amidst the blur of characters framed by Jarafian's shaky camera work.
Ill-prepared for its trip, the group discovers that its original lodgings aren't available; the group is forced to bunk at a disused bungalow right on the beach, with Elly and Ahmad pretending to be newlyweds to avoid scrutiny. They soon develop an attraction even as Elly, the kindergarten teacher of Sepideh's daughter, remains enigmatic. Then one of the children Elly has been watching disappears in the surf, and although he is rescued, the group soon realizes that Elly has now gone missing. Fearing the worst, the group fumbles to contact Elly's family—including a brother (Saber Abar) who may be something else as Sepideh remains cagey about Elly's history.
Once About Elly settles into its narrative tension, its emotion begins to build, but by then Elly has departed, leaving scant trace of why we should care about her beyond the group's attempts to do the right thing—or at least appear to do so. Farahani gradually becomes the focal point—her Sepideh has the most substance—with Rana Azadivar and Merila Zarei portraying the other wives, and Mani Haghighi, Ahmad Mehranfar, and Peyman Moaadi portraying their husbands; Farhadi does capture a portrait of contemporary Iranian family dynamics with an intimate eye, an indication of the narrative incisiveness he would soon display, but his telegraphing familiar storytelling elements hampers About Elly.
Jurassic World (2015)
As disaster befalls the extremely wild-animal park Jurassic World, and dinosaur wrangler Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) warns, "Evacuate the island," the response from company flack Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is immediate: "We'll never reopen." Ah, business is business, and it's worse than dog-eat-dog. Tasked with continuing the Jurassic Park franchise, writers Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, and Colin Treverrow, who also directed, must balance franchise- and horror-film expectations while inserting not-so-subtle digs at corporate and military mindsets amidst the animatronic and computer-generated dinosaurs, the star attractions that dwarf the human characters in both scale and depth.
In fact, Jurassic World follows a reassuringly familiar template informed by executive producer Steven Spielberg's predispositions: Relaunching the dinosaur park to negative balance sheets, playboy mogul Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), to bolster attendance, authorizes creation of the genetically-fortified (and winkingly-named) Indominus rex, a super-duper predator that naturally defies containment and triggers the daisy chain of dino disasters that must be stopped by Owen and Claire, who is also absent-mindedly minding nephews Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), who naturally roll into trouble when they wriggle free of adult supervision. Meanwhile, InGen security leader Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio), initially interested in Owen's velociraptors as weapons of war, turns his sights on I. rex, apparently not heeding the lessons of the Alien franchise.
Aided by veteran cinematographer John Schwartzman, fledgling director Treverrow (who showed promise with the 2012 indie sci-fi rom-com Safety Not Guaranteed) displays a visual grandeur despite a few dubious realizations, but, ultimately, it's a matter of pointing the camera at the pervasive special effects, all underscored by sycophantic composer Michael Giacchino, slavishly channeling the master of manufactured emotion, John Williams. Howard and Pratt attempt chemistry although it's not their fault that everyone's character is in stereotyped shorthand; even consummate performer D'Onofrio dutifully ticks off his narrative expectations. Granted, Jurassic World is about the big, brutal beasties—and how quickly we can become jaded by them—but with scientist Henry Wu (B.D. Wong) skulking off with precious embryos, this franchise is hardly extinct.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director George Miller might not know how to tell a good story, but he knows how to make a good film. In fact, Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth installment of the post-apocalyptic saga featuring grim, revenge-minded former cop Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), uses a simple, elemental tale as the framework for the nearly non-stop parade of stunts and effects that compose this visual feast, although its raw, brutal, desolate atmosphere disguises the narrative simplicity, which pares backstory to an absolute minimum as it tosses the characters into the hungry maw of the kinetic, often-frenetic action.
Captured by the tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), Max is made an unwilling blood donor for mutant warrior Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Suitably enslaved, he is hauled out for Immortan Joe's epic chase after Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who is sent on a mission to collect fuel from Gas Town; however, that mission goes awry when she lights out for "the Green Place" instead while absconding with Immortan Joe's five nubile wives, one of whom is carrying Immortan Joe's child. Miller and co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris don't even pause for exposition until the mid-point of Mad Max: Fury Road, and by then Miller's sweeping vistas, captured by veteran cinematographer John Seale's lush photography, have created an enveloping mood that reduces the narrative to crude, sometimes sadomasochistic basics.
Charlize Theron is at the front and center of the non-stop action in Mad Max: Fury Road, director George Miller's latest post-apocalyptic saga.
The real stars of Mad Max: Fury Road seem to be the plethora of fantastical desert vehicles, from motorcycles to muscle cars to tractor-trailers, plausibly built and embellished in a world of scavenging and scarcity; they careen and collide and explode in lieu of civil exchanges as Junkie XL's symphonic score veers between gravitas and portentousness. Hardy is largely a water carrier until the final third while Theron's Furiosa quietly but firmly inhabits the narrative's practically monosyllabic center; Theron is the glue that holds your interest. Mad Max: Fury Road looks spectacular, with the night scenes particularly evocative, a tribute to Miller's artistic eye that gives this sweeping, sprawling thriller its feral excitement, but, crucially, this dystopian discourse lacks emotional involvement.
The future is what you make of it—but you better make something of it, for better or for worse. That's the heavy-handed message Tomorrowland fumbles to convey, first with a fitful chase to locate one keynote character carried out by another keynote character, then with strident speechifying at the climax led by their mutual antagonist. Granted, Tomorrowland is a Disney live-action science-fiction fable that makes no secret of its family-friendly approach as it tries to disguise its clunky script, by Damon Lindelof and director Brad Bird, and underwhelming performances with a constant injection of bravura special effects accented by Michael Giacchino's ubiquitous, solicitous score.
Young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) arrives at the 1964 World's Fair with his homemade, faulty jetpack fashioned from a vacuum cleaner; he's hoping to help jump-start the future, but while haughty David Nix (Hugh Laurie) nixes Frank's hopes, young Athena (Raffey Cassidy) encourages him, giving Frank a glimpse of Tomorrowland, a futuristic Mecca for dreamers and visionaries. Years later, Athena, who still appears to be an adolescent, discovers Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), an optimistic teenager with boundless engagement; Athena gives Casey a glimpse of Tomorrowland that whets Casey's curiosity and spurs Tomorrowland into its familiar paradigm: Chased by malevolent robots, Casey seeks out now-middle-aged Frank (George Clooney); they bicker, then band together to learn the shocking secret of Nix's crumbling Tomorrowland.
Hampered by a narrative evenly split between halting and hackneyed, Bird lurches from one flurry of activity to another, occasionally flashing a visual flair but ultimately succumbing to action-film convention. Tasked with carrying the first half, Robertson appears plucky but fails to make a favorable impression; Clooney bolsters the proceedings when he arrives, but he and Laurie can only project against a tired, familiar background. Bird and Lindelof labor to make a social statement both passionate and inspirational, but they wallow in Disneyesque platitudes as Tomorrowland sputters with overactive incoherence while evincing little hope about its future.
SummerIf it's summer, it has to be the Beach Boys even if only your grandparents will care to listen to them any longer, although Love & Mercy, a distinctive biopic about Beach Boys' guiding light Brian Wilson, is worth heeding. The blockbuster from this "season" goes toward the other temperature extreme as Everest tries to climb the heights of suspense with its tragic true tale. More real-life individuals had their stories splashed across the big screen: Travel writer Bill Bryson takes A Walk in the Woods that is amusing if incomplete, while Boston gangster Whitey Bulger gets a chilling rendering by Johnny Depp but not much else to recommend Black Mass. Finally, and recalling your grandparents again, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. makes a game stab at a Sixties spy spoof that fell off the radar . . . until now.
Black Mass (2015)
Although Johnny Depp's compelling portrayal of Boston Irish mobster Jimmy "Whitey" Bulger is quietly terrifying, Black Mass lacks the narrative cohesion to give Bulger's infamous deeds sufficient impact as director Scott Cooper's biopic borrows a few too many stylistic cues from Martin Scorsese. Bulger's sensational tale deserves cinematic exposure—coerced into becoming a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant, Bulger used that cover to escalate his criminal activities before becoming a highly sought-after fugitive—but Black Mass emphasizes action and atmosphere over storytelling clarity and thus loses its punch, squandering Depp's performance and a few key supporting ones in the process.
Basing their script on Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's true-life Boston Globe account, Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk force viewers to infer contexts and relationships with their allusive, elliptical plotting that instead highlights personalities such as Bulger's and John Connolly's (Joel Edgerton). Connolly was the cocky FBI agent, once a childhood friend of Bulger, who successfully recruited Bulger to combat Italian organized crime in Boston; this enabled Bulger's Winter Hill Gang, buttressed by key subordinates Stephen Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), to foment gambling, arms- and drug trafficking, and murder with the FBI's largely unwitting sanction until Connolly's new boss Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll) demands accountability.
Depicting Bulger as cautious, collected, yet coldly ruthless, Depp keeps attention riveted on him, particularly when he menaces Connolly's partner John Morris (David Harbour) and especially Connolly's wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) in this crime drama's most compelling scene, although Depp occasionally recalls Jack Nicholson in The Departed, which incorporated a Bulger-like villain and thus reinforces Black Mass's derivative approach; similarly, Depp's exchange with Harbour may remind viewers of Joe Pesci's "I make you laugh? I'm here to fucking amuse you?" colloquy with Ray Liotta in Goodfellas. Ultimately, Cooper delivers a series of vignettes—violent yet often telegraphed, such as Bulger's killing of a potential witness against him that you can see coming for miles—that suggests Bulger's sordid saga without illuminating it even as cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi's subdued color palette imbues Black Mass with a period feel. Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Dakota Johnson provide varying degrees of support behind Depp, but Black Mass fails to cohere convincingly despite it.
The May 1996 Mount Everest disaster that killed eight mountaineers was not only the worst single-day tragedy to date, it underscored both the increasing commercialization surrounding the ascent of the world's highest mountain and the danger posed by inexperienced climbers. At least that is according to mountaineer-journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), who survived the disaster and wrote his account of it as Into Thin Air. Director Baltasar Kormákur's Everest recounts the events in bold, vibrant strokes while paring the narrative, credited to Simon Beaufoy and William Nicholson, to its essence, which leaves most of the participants sketched in as victims of fatal circumstance and Krakauer's conclusions mere suggestions.
However, two figures do gain dimension through peeks into their home life: cocky Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), whose family doesn't even realize at first that he is at Everest, and especially diligent Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), who leaves pregnant wife Jan Arnold (Keira Knightley) in New Zealand to guide Weathers, Krakauer, and other climbers up Everest. Hall's company, Adventure Consultants, operates on a tight budget not helped by competition from Scott Fischer's (Jake Gyllenhaal) more gonzo-oriented outfit that, along with other companies, are guiding their own groups of climbers; this swell of climbers creates a logjam near the summit, which exacerbates the many dangers of big-league mountain climbing including perilous altitude sickness in the "death zone" of Everest's upper reaches, and the deadly blizzard that suddenly engulfs the now-crowded peak.
Everest doesn't quite reach the summit of cinematic brilliance, but it makes an evocative and visually spectacular attempt all the same.
And save for maternal base-camp manager Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) and plucky blue-collar climber Doug Hanson (John Hawkes), all other participants disappear into their brightly colored survival suits and exist primarily as decoration—however, Everest's triumph is its gripping depiction of the excruciatingly arduous ascent to the summit: Buttressed by Salvadore Totino's sweeping, vertiginous photography and the generally impressive visual effects, Kormákur captures Everest's terrifying grandeur that swallows its human adventurers, yet that is still contrasted effectively by the naked emotion of Weathers's plight, blinded and left for dead by other exhausted, severely weakened climbers, and Hall's poignant calls with Arnold, with Dario Marianelli's quietly effusive score simmering underneath. While Everest may be diffuse storytelling, it is evocative, visceral, visually spectacular filmmaking.
Love & Mercy (2014)
Thanks to Brian Wilson's compositional genius, the Beach Boys became a landmark pop group, epitomizing teenage suburbia, and a particularly Californian one, in countless brilliantly crafted and exquisitely sung hits. But as Wilson's genius flourished, so did the pressures, internal and external, to perpetuate the band's success. This led to his increasing mental and emotional disintegration, and as the biopic Love & Mercy outlines, it leads also to a heroine, concerned romantic interest Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), and to a villain, unorthodox and controlling psychotherapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), both of whom challenge Wilson to overcome his real and imagined demons.
The screenplay, credited to Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman, does succumb to heavy-handed cribbing—another villain is Beach Boys singer Mike Love (Jake Abel), unhappy with Brian's increasingly complex ideas, while abusive father Murry Wilson (Bill Camp) is the root cause of Brian's breakdown—but director Bill Pohlad, mirroring Brian's schizophrenia, not only tells two tales concurrently, one of Brian's 1960s professional rise and fall and the other his 1980s virtual and chemical subjugation by Landy, he uses two actors to portray Brian: Paul Dano is young, creatively explosive Brian, and John Cusack is middle-aged, despondent and desperate Brian whose having met Melinda could offer salvation—if only they can break from eccentric, and finally disturbing, Landy and his suffocating control.
Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson (center) is depicted both by Paul Dano (left) and John Cusack (right) in the fascinating profile Love & Mercy.
While occasionally insightful, the 1980s thread lacks depth, which the 1960s thread, a fascinating, bravura peek into the creative process, assuredly does not; similarly, a compelling Dano does the heavy lifting in Love & Mercy although Cusack is impressive in a straitjacketed situation as Banks and Giamatti try their best to overcome plotting convention. Pohlad keeps the threads comprehensible, abetted by cinematographer Robert Yeoman's distinct period-photograph textures as Atticus Ross supplements the soundtrack songs with a sympathetic, unobtrusive score. When Love & Mercy hits its high notes, as it does with impressive regularity, it's giving us good vibrations.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
Although director Guy Ritchie exhumes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from the 1960s vault, he does resist the temptation to give the tongue-in-cheek television spy series an earnest makeover. Indeed, he and co-writer Lionel Wigram, from a story they developed with Jeff Kleeman and David Wilson, slyly capture the series' insouciant surface sheen, and if the plotting feels pasted-in, so what? The series was more style than substance, anyway, spoofing the decade's spy craze even as it contributed to it. Moreover, Ritchie and team make The Man from U.N.C.L.E. an origin story to enhance the mythology.
That story finds Central Intelligence Agency operative Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) extracting Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from 1960s East Berlin because she could lead the CIA to her father Oleg (Misha Kuznetsov), a nuclear physicist kidnapped by chic criminal mastermind Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), who is determined to become a rogue nuclear player and upset the Cold War balance. Also pursuing Gaby is KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), who causes Solo no end of grief in the film's tension-filled opening salvo. Kuryakin, though, soon finds himself paired with seeming nemesis Solo to shepherd Gaby as they journey to Rome. (As that covert partnership is being forged in a crowded Berlin park café, Ritchie works in a well-worn but still effective gag: When the seemingly incognito spies get up to leave, so does everybody else in the café.) However, once British spymaster Alexander Waverly (Hugh Grant) appears on the Swinging Sixties scene, Gaby's true identity is gradually exposed.
Composer Daniel Pemberton's aggressive, off-kilter score fuels Ritchie's driving narrative while Ritchie uses split screens and cartoonish subtitles to capture the period mood. Ultimately, the suspense, and the story's resolution, is subordinate to the droll wit that underscores Solo's and Kuryakin's occasional haplessness, hilariously exemplified by their inadvertent electrocution of Gaby's Uncle Udo (Christian Berkel), a former Nazi torturer hoist by his own dastardly petard. Cavill must have done his homework: He apparently studied the original Napoleon Solo, Robert Vaughn, well enough to have captured Vaughn's vocal mannerisms with remarkable tribute. Unfortunately, though, Hammer was less diligent, or perhaps more defiant—in contrast to original Illya Kuryakin David McCallum's phlegmatic portrayal, Hammer plays Kuryakin as borderline psychotic; meanwhile Vikander is adequate and Debicki coolly cliché. The original The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was an entertaining trifle, which Ritchie's film adaptation replicates faithfully.
A Walk in the Woods (2015)
Idiosyncratic travel writer Bill Bryson once attempted to hike the 2000-mile-long Appalachian Trail from Georgia back to his New England home, a journey he chronicled in his waggish A Walk in the Woods. In this often-hilarious if ultimately unsatisfying adaptation, co-producer Robert Redford portrays Bryson, with Nick Nolte portraying Bryson's long-estranged friend, the pseudonymous Stephen Katz, who accompanies him. Ken Kwapis, directing Bill Holdeman and Rick Kerb's agile script, emphasizes wit over slapstick as he plays with familiar road- and buddy-movie tropes, yet his story sputters midway and loses inspiration.
Moreover, the Holdeman-Kerb script leaves unanswered key motivations and backstory, which lends intrigue to the various vignettes but finds A Walk in the Woods ultimately lacking a center. Even though Bryson's wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) tries to dissuade him from his quest, and with no friends willing to join him save long-lost Katz, Bryson, with arch mirthfulness, does manage to organize and mount his expedition. As Bryson and Katz set off, they encounter, and must finally ditch, overbearing, chatterbox hiker Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal) out on the trail; then, during an in-town respite, Bryson catches the eye of motel proprietor Jeannie (Mary Steenburgen)—but Katz's attempt to dally with zaftig Beulah (Susan McPhail) after an encounter in a laundromat incites her jealous husband to run them both out of town.
Kwapis does capture the men's gradual toughening during the arduous trek, and he does reveal hints of their shared history, but there is no overriding focus to their relationship or their individual and shared motivation. At least John Bailey's photography captures the Trail's abundant allure while Nathan Larson's bold, patchwork music gooses the energy level, with both elements giving A Walk in the Woods a peripheral charm. Armed with pithy zingers, Redford displays a surprising comedic side—his Bryson is the film's most engaging feature—while Nolte, tasked with providing dimension to a shaggy, raffish wastrel, fights to overcome cliché as Thompson and Steenburgen similarly court the overused nurturing-woman stereotype; fortunately, though, Schaal delivers a bracing exclamation point. Demonstrating that it's the journey, not the destination, that matters, A Walk in the Woods does eventually lose its footing.
Fall"Fall" here is a little deceptive in a calendrical sense as a few of these films were not in general release until after fall had passed, and others I didn't see until it was officially winter. Many of these films are "Oscar bait," prestige pictures released just before awards season so that they stay fresh in voters' minds.
But before we get there . . . Combining big-screen appeal with prestige, The Martian kept the blockbusters coming while previewing a pair of franchise heavyweights, the latest James Bond offering, Spectre, and the long-awaited next installment in the Star Wars saga, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which even Mark Watney from The Martian has probably heard about by now. Also stepping out in a big way is The Walk, from director Bob Zemeckis, while his mentor Steven Spielberg brought us another easily digestible history lesson with Bridge of Spies.
New faces join familiar ones in the galactically-conquering latest installment of the Star Wars saga The Force Awakens. You might have heard something about it already.
In fact, real persons and real history got quite a workout in 2015: Steve Jobs took an incisive look at the computer visionary while Trumbo visited a Hollywood figure whom even your grandparents might have trouble recalling, but the guy from Breaking Bad nailed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's blacklisting during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s anyway. Speaking of persecution, 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes is caught broadcasting a dubious version of the Truth about President George W. Bush's shady stint in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war, but Cate Blanchett knows how to make it work. Blanchett is getting raves for her work in Carol, but you might want to think about that one again as it's an unfortunate case of style over substance.
Real-life English gangsters the Kray twins are treated criminally in the lackluster Legend—although check out the audacious treatment the financial finaglers receive in The Big Short. Even better, though, is the painstaking investigation to expose the very highly placed criminals in Spotlight, the best movie released in 2015 that I saw this year. (Remember how I started this article by moaning about high ticket prices? I paid to see Spotlight twice.)
Room is inspired by an actual, heartbreaking event, and its first half is more intense than any big-budget popcorn-muncher such as the one featuring Jennifer Lawrence shooting arrows—although Lawrence hits the bull's eye as Joy, which continues to make the case for David O. Russell as one of America's most inspired, insightful filmmakers working today. Elsewhere, Crimson Peak is a stylish homage sure to provoke smiles of recognition from any fan of old-school horror/thriller flicks, but Youth fumbles to convey a Big Statement while sheathed in elite finery, and Sicario uses the savage consequences of the "War on Drugs" to similarly impart a hard-nosed lesson that is only partially effective.
The Big Short (2015)
How do you depict the massive fraud and hubris in the American mortgage industry that led to the 2007 global financial collapse, a topic as dry and arcane as it is dramatic and profound? If you're writer-director Adam McKay, first you make The Big Short bold and irreverent—use generous sprinkles of pop culture, such as hip, eclectic songs on the soundtrack and stunt cameos by various celebs. Then you focus your narrative on money managers Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), bank trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), and former Wall Street heavyweight Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) advising wanna-be fund managers Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Whitrock) as they all seek to profit from what ultimately will be failure and misery experienced by unwitting shlubs who think that they can own that shining symbol of the American Dream: a home.
Don't bet the mortgage with these guys (clockwise from top left: Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell), but do see the audacious The Big Short.
Adapting Michael Lewis's (Moneyball) non-fiction best-seller while changing several of the actual parties' names, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph sketch the shorthand: Financiers had developed a new investment product, the mortgage backed security, which wraps home mortgages into a fresh bundle considered to be a low risk because—well, who doesn't pay their mortgage? Apparently a lot of homeowners, or at least they're delinquent with those payments, as Michael Burry notices at the height of the housing boom—he predicts significant mortgage-loan failures in the future. So what does Burry do? Broadcast a warning? No, he devises a credit default swap (CDS) investment strategy that he markets to banks: He offers to pay them protection for mortgages that hardly anyone expects to fail; in essence, it seems like free money for the banks—and look how Goldman Sachs laughs behind Burry's back when it agrees to his offer. However, a few other money men notice Burry's idea: Jared Vennett tips off Mark Baum's team, who at least investigates just how notoriously unstable and overinflated the mortgage-loan business is—yet they and Geller and Shipley offer their own CDSs to banks that, once mortgage defaults begin to multiply, must now repay all that "free" money. (And when the banks go bankrupt, who bails them out? Raise your hand if you pay taxes.)
Simply put, there are no heroes in The Big Short although Baum is at least a Cassandra, uncovering the fraud and fatuousness during his investigation, while former insider Rickert, now looking to live off the grid, owns the closest approximation to a conscience. And if the gory details are hard to follow—despite wacky but witty lessons from Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez, and Margot Robbie—McKay ensures that the broad message of greed, amorality, and venality glows like a neon dollar sign. Carrell is charismatic and Bale is enigmatic while Magaro and Whitrock come closest to an audience surrogate, but at this rarefied level of financial manipulation, can you really recognize anyone? (Would you want to?) Compelling without being preachy, The Big Short pays off dramatically with big-time interest.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Director Steven Spielberg examines Cold War history in microcosm with Bridge of Spies; that means that he narrows its focus to certain key events, and then even ignores the scope of those events to instead concentrate on the principal individuals involved. Working from a witty, lively script launched by Matt Charman and embellished by Ethan and Joel Cohen, Spielberg chronicles, respectively, the arrest and trial of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and the shootdown and capture of American U-2 spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) by spotlighting American lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who defended Abel and then later negotiated a prisoner exchange involving Abel and Powers.
Compressing the timeline while ignoring the big picture—the 1960 Powers shootdown exacerbated superpower tensions and escalated the Cold War, which is not even suggested here—Bridge of Spies instead paints Donovan as an integrity-bound Everyman: First, Donovan earnestly defends Abel by espousing the virtues of American justice, and then he demonstrates the art of the deal in the prisoner exchange slated to occur in Berlin, which also picks up young American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), detained by the East Germans, along the way.
With a winsome family led by wife Mary (Amy Ryan), Donovan courts Capra-esque depiction—he even nurses a cold throughout the prisoner negotiation in Berlin—and hamstrung by some flippant moments at the expense of functionaries on both sides of the Iron Curtain, Bridge of Spies lacks both dimension and incisiveness; Spielberg's depiction of Cold War urgency gets a lazy, shorthand illustration through the classic turtle-centric instructional film Duck and Cover, shown to countless schoolchildren to demonstrate how to survive a nuclear attack.
Yet Hanks remains convincing throughout, his Donovan tapped as an unlikely agent whose resourcefulness and sense of decency prevail, abetted by a droll performance by stoic Rylance, while Spielberg, production designer Adam Stockhausen, and costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone produce the requisite period verisimilitude. (Old-movie fans will get a kick out of seeing a Berlin cinema marquee list the James Cagney Cold War comedy One Two Three as one of the features.) Still, Bridge of Spies attenuates landmark events to emphasize the personal over the political.
When Patricia Highsmith wrote The Price of Salt in 1952, its theme of lesbian love was daring and empowering, but although Phyllis Nagy's adaptation retains the novel's essence, Carol becomes a quaint period exercise in the hands of director Todd Haynes, whose debt to Douglas Sirk's sotto voce identity politics in his films made during the 1950s extends beyond Judy Becker's painstaking production design and Edward Lachman's frosty, foggy photography. Indeed, Haynes attempts to make a film that is set in the early 1950s as if it had actually been made during that time. That in turn all but ensures that the love affair between Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) lacks not only conviction but credibility—the make-believe is uncomfortably obvious.
This charade, then, finds Blanchett and Mara mired in affectation, with Blanchett's Carol struggling to remain urbane and glamorous amidst her domestic turmoil while Mara's Therese is not mysteriously impassive but simply, transparently passive. Before Christmas, the pair strike sparks in the department store where Therese works; Carol leaves her gloves on the counter—was it deliberate?—and rewards Therese's returning them with lunch and other incremental overtures. Carol certainly indulges this distraction—it allows her to forget about her impending divorce from estranged husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), who is battling Carol for custody of daughter Rindy; meanwhile, Therese indifferently dismisses boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) as she joins Carol for a Christmas road trip.
Why the road trip? Because it's in Highsmith's novel, and it's not as if the subtext between the two women isn't clear, it's that the vehicle used to provide that subtext is now cliché although Haynes tries to present it as novel. Compounding that problem is Haynes's coy veiling of their taboo (at least until the soft-core lovemaking scene), which sublimates the women's feelings into miles of rural travelogue and forces Carter Burwell's sympathetic but overworked score to carry the emotional weight. Harge's meddling sunders the women's budding affair, although that ultimately frees Therese from her creative chrysalis that Haynes touts pointedly although without much insight into her motivations. Blanchett emotes in a vacuum while Mara sports blankness and the supporters lack dimension as Carol delivers a sumptuous period tableau whose taboo is sadly counterfeit.
Crimson Peak (2015)
Fernando Velázquez's swelling, melodramatic, pervasive score is merely one indication that the gothic thriller Crimson Peak is director Guillermo del Toro's unabashed homage to classic horror films, complete with a huge, rickety mansion, Allerdale, on a desolate English moor that bleeds crimson clay; Hammer Studios would have given its eye teeth for Allerdale. Yes, film fans can suffer whiplash from spotting all the time-tested elements, but this predictable yet enjoyable terror tale, by del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins, remains an impressive stylistic exercise.
It helps that del Toro sets the story in a vaguely defined Victorian-Edwardian era, where American heiress Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) becomes smitten by charming Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet in America seeking funding for his clay-mining operation from Edith's father Carter (Jim Beaver), who is skeptical about Thomas's track record; also traveling with Thomas is his protective piano-playing sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain). When Carter is killed, his death at first ruled an accident, Edith marries Thomas and moves to England, although Carter's physician—and hopeful Edith paramour—Alan MacMichael (Charlie Hunnam) remains suspicious about the Sharpes, but by then Edith is isolated in a godforsaken wintry manor, seeing ghosts and apparitions and discovering disturbing clues as Lucille plies her continually with dubious tea—you can do the math from here.
Indeed, you don't have to scratch that hardened clay too deeply to find Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and even Alfred Hitchcock informing this recycled story, but del Toro makes Crimson Peak a visual feast with help from cinematographer Dan Laustsen, production designer Thomas Sanders, and costume designer Kate Hawley. Wasikowska remains a flat presence, but Hiddleston maintains a game face while Chastain, her Lucille a quietly chilling factor, owns the best performance. Crimson Peak offers awfully familiar thrills, but it looks terrific doing it.
Beginning as a divorced mother, Joy Mangano became a multi-millionaire by inventing the Miracle Mop, which led to her becoming a pitchwoman while patenting other clever household inventions. For Joy, writer-director David O. Russell uses Mangano's précis and Annie Mumolo's original script as a springboard through the Cinderella poverty-princess and Horatio Alger rags-to-riches fables to illustrate how a thinly veiled Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) fights to succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds as Russell weaves a compelling myth of the pitfalls and rewards of family and capitalism in modern America. Along the way, Joy crackles with incisiveness, determination, and poignancy as Lawrence delivers a powerhouse performance.
Working menial jobs, Joy struggles to provide for her two children while her family fills her house: Her mother Terri (Virginia Madsen) hardly ever leaves her room (converted from an enclosed porch) and is addicted to soap operas. Her ex-husband Tony (Édgar Ramirez), who still dreams of being the next Tom Jones, lives in the basement. And then her father Rudy (Robert De Niro), thrown out by his latest wife, moves in with her—he has to share the basement with hated Tony. At least Joy can take comfort in her grandmother Mimi's (Diane Ladd) steady encouragement, which began when Joy was a child (Isabella Crovetti-Cramp) with big dreams, albeit dreams discounted by disapproving half-sister Peggy (Madison Wolfe as a child; Elisabeth Röhm as an adult).
Forget the bows and arrows--Jennifer Lawrence hits the bull's eye as Joy, the sparkling centerpiece of director David O. Russell's latest gem.
Rudy meets wealthy widow Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), who invites the family sailing, and when wine glasses break on deck, Joy has to clean it up. While mopping up the spill, which cuts her palms when she wrings the mop-head by hand, Joy is inspired to create a durable, easily wrung, reusable mop. Setting up manufacturing in Rudy's auto-body shop, she scrapes together the capital to make a prototype and, when she convinces QVC shopping-channel executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) to give her a chance, Joy manufactures an initial run—but a marketing misfire and unscrupulous sub-contractors threaten to bankrupt her and her family unless Joy can fix the situation.
With a tightrope sense of parody and pathos, Russell knows when to reel back the humor and dole out the sentiment, all while painting Joy as the resilient and resourceful center, a portrait that Lawrence fulfils in spades. Guiding cinematographer Linus Sandgren, Russell frames his evocative shots with riveting immediacy and intimacy as the sympathetic West Dylan Thordson-David Campbell score accents the period songs on the soundtrack, and familiar faces Susan Lucci, Donna Mills, and Melissa Rivers work in sly cameos. However, Russell's ending sags—it's foregone and redundant—because by then Lawrence's enthralling portrayal has made Joy an unabashed triumph; anything more is simply mopping up.
In the 1950s and 1960s, twin brothers Reggie and Ronnie Kray not only ran much of London's criminal underworld, they were celebrities for doing so, made even more legendary for their ruthlessness and brutality that stemmed from their upbringing in the tough East End. Using John Pearson's biography The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins as his basis, writer-director Brian Helgeland attempts to make a Legend out of the Krays' extortion and protection racket, run from their trendy nightclub, but with the brothers' sanguinary exploits already entrenched in pop culture—even Monty Python's Flying Circus spoofed them in a 1970 skit—Helgeland must try to mine their personal lives for new insight but seldom digs below the surface in an unfocused and ultimately uninvolving excavation.
Don't blame Tom Hardy, though, as he often succeeds in displaying some piquant personality portraying both brothers, psychopathic Ronnie and more socially adjusted Reggie—although both siblings are equally capable of mayhem, even against themselves. However, that's the problem with Legend: After decades of gangster chic, it's hard to produce anything fresh even if Ronnie is openly gay, with admiring if equally psychotic gunsel Teddy Smith (Taron Egerton) in tow. (Be sure to check both definitions of "gunsel"—and thank 1941's The Maltese Falcon for expanding that definition.) Reggie, though, becomes smitten with teenage Frances Shea (Emily Browning), the sister of Reggie's driver Frankie (Colin Morgan); Frances's narration informs this tired story despite their stormy marriage and other complications, which renders her voiceovers as more ill-considered storytelling.
Other familiar, if actual, characters include Leslie Payne (David Thewlis), the twins' business manager who seemingly abhors their brutality even as he continues to work for them; American gangster Angelo Bruno (Chazz Palminteri), who strikes a deal with the Krays for a piece of the London action and whose connections seem to extend to legendary mob boss Meyer Lansky; and police superintendent Leonard "Nipper" Read (Christopher Eccleston), who endures endless stakeouts and tails and even official reprimands as he dogs the Krays' every step. Tom Conroy's diligent production design and Caroline Harris's astute costuming define a gritty Swinging Sixties London, but Carter Burwell's patchwork score gets lost in the blur of overused period songs, the lazy musical shorthand that complements the lack of clarity and incisiveness in Helgeland's narrative, which namechecks a well-explored era without establishing its own imprimatur. Hardy's performances almost overcome Helgeland's limitations—almost—but this is a Legend that's been cloned, not created.
The Martian (2015)
Over the closing credits for The Martian, the saga of botanist-astronaut Mark Watney's (Matt Damon) struggle to stay alive all alone on Mars, Gloria Gaynor's disco classic "I Will Survive" fills the soundtrack: It is a reminder of the supposedly dubious musical taste of Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), Watney's mission commander, and, more critically, of the glib humor that undercuts Damon's showcase performance as the lone individual compelled to overcome tremendous adversity in director Ridley Scott's well-executed if tame and predictable interplanetary suspense yarn.
Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard, adapting Andy Weir's best-selling novel, imbue The Martian with a wealth of convincing detail as Watney is accidentally left for dead when a fierce sandstorm forces Lewis to abort their Ares team's Mars mission and return to Earth with her surviving crew. Finding himself all alone on the planet, Watney must adapt what resources remain behind to keep whole in the lethal Martian environment. Once he solves those survival basics, Watney then improvises communication with Earth, where a NASA team led by Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) struggles to devise a rescue mission before Watney's food runs out, an effort that ultimately involves Lewis and her crew still returning to Earth.
The science feels legitimate, and Watney's sojourn on Mars, impressively photographed by Dariusz Wolski in Jordan's stark, severe Wadi Rum desert, quietly carries the dramatic weight capped by Watney's keen isolation. However, The Martian inevitably succumbs to the demands of plot mechanics while Scott, perhaps conscious of the relentless deathtraps in 2013's Gravity, keeps the danger level surprisingly low. Moreover, Goddard's flippant dialog curtails the narrative's urgency and stunts character development, crucially Damon's Watney, although Damon remains convincing throughout, with Daniels effective as the story's requisite heavy; meanwhile, Sean Bean, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover, Michael Peña, and Kristin Wiig fill supporting roles of varying importance. The Martian is entertaining if not quite world-class.
The first half of Room crackles with a near-claustrophobic intimacy that then builds to a nearly unbearable tension; inevitably, though, the second half comes as a letdown, yet the emotional and psychological frisson remains vivid until the end. Emma Donoghue adapted her own novel, inspired by the abduction experience of Austrian Elisabeth Fritzl, who had birthed seven children by her own father during the 24 years he'd held her captive in a basement, to chronicle the plight of Joy Newsome (Brie Larson), kidnapped by Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) and held prisoner in his Akron, Ohio, backyard shed, where she gives birth to his child, Jack (Jacob Tremblay).
Director Lenny Abrahamson creates an evocative, constricted atmosphere in Room, which is what five-year-old Jack calls the only world he has ever known, with only a television and a small skylight with which to contrast the confinement in the small shed offering only the most basic essentials for survival. Somehow keeping sane amidst such extreme conditions, Joy manages to raise him as normally as she can—she cannot cut his hair because scissors would be a weapon—while having to endure Nick's periodic carnal visits, during which Jack must sleep in Wardrobe. But following a fight with Joy, Nick cuts the power and heat as punishment, although that inspires Joy to make Jack look sick enough from the cold to fool Nick into taking him to the hospital. The ploy fails, but then she and Jack pretend that Jack had died from that neglect: In her supposed grief, she rolls Jack up in their rug for Nick to then haul away, which triggers Room's nail-biting climax.
It's a climax that comes too soon, for although mother and son are rescued, their acclimatization cannot help but dissipate the opening intensity even if all is not rosy: Joy's parents Nancy (Joan Allen) and Robert (William H. Macy) are divorced—Nancy now lives with old family friend Leo (Tom McCamus)—while Robert cannot accept Jack, who along with Joy discovers restrictions even in the wide-open world that includes Joy's old middle-class comforts in suburbia. Legal and financial issues darken the periphery of their recovery, and when Joy is interviewed on television, the presenter's (Wendy Crewson) questions eventually suggest a blame-the-victim air. But although Room's second half falters fitfully, Abrahamson and cinematographer Danny Cohen maintain a tense stillness abetted by Stephen Rennicks's quietly perceptive score. However, the final triumph belongs with Larson's and especially Tremblay's tremendous performances, which remain moving long after the credits are done.
Violence in the Mexican drug war has become pervasive and horrifically brutal, and Sicario pulls no punches in portraying that mayhem: When Federal Bureau of Investigation agents Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) lead a paramilitary-style raid on a suburban Arizona home, they make a gruesome discovery—numerous corpses concealed in the walls and an exploding booby trap in a shed. The home belongs to Sonoran drug lord Manuel Diaz (Bernardo Sarachino), and when Kate is invited to join a task force pursuing Diaz, she is ushered into the current environment of the "War on Drugs" on an entirely unforeseen level.
That is the set-up Taylor Sheridan's hard-nosed script delivers and that director Denis Villeneuve executes with effective suspense and intimacy, which at times can become unbearably intense: witness a daytime incursion into Juarez, Mexico, which resembles nothing but an urban landscape engulfed in a civil war, to exfiltrate a Diaz lieutenant—the operation eventually triggers a white-knuckle border shootout. Leading the task force are cagey Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and shadowy Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), both of whom know far more than they are telling Kate, particularly when Kate tries to bust a money-laundering operation linked to Diaz whose tentacles extend into American law enforcement. But that is peanuts compared to the ultimate enforcement goal while Alejandro's true identity is similarly shocking.
As the earnest naïf thrown into international parapolitics that evince dubious morality, Blunt must display impotent outrage while Brolin delivers the lowdown and Del Toro gets to play the deadly enigma; his is easily the most compelling performance in Sicario. Villeneuve can generate suspense, and with talented cinematographer Roger Deakins he delivers beautifully framed scenes in the stark Southwestern desert while Jóhann Jóhannsson's percussive score is suitably ominous. But the style supplants the substance—Sicario feels too much like an exercise and not a full-bodied story, tension with no satisfying release.
The James Bond institution may have rebooted successfully and, as shown in Spectre's predecessor Skyfall, introduced significant psychological dimension into the deathless British secret agent (Daniel Craig), but given its (somewhat) storied pedigree, Spectre must still uphold the Bond tradition as it struggles to make the familiar fresh. This installment, a solid if overlong spy thriller written by John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade with credited input from Jez Butterworth, maintains Craig-era Bond continuity as it re-purposes the Cold War-vintage Spectre organization as a global surveillance network, but after a half-century, specters of 007 films past cannot help but permeate the well-executed if generally predictable proceedings.
Daniel Craig returns as James Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret--er, better make that Spectre, although it does re-purpose all that you love about 007 movies. Or not.
To be fair, director Sam Mendes understands the clichés and keeps the fights, chases, seductions, and globetrotting at a relatively credible level while cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema uses a dull color palette to suggest both history and grit. Tipped to a shadowy organization by a slain assassin's ring—pulled from his finger by Bond at the climax of Spectre's bravura opening sequence—Bond learns of Spectre's substance from the man's alluring widow (Monica Belluci), then infiltrates a Spectre meeting and uncovers a key contact (Jesper Christensen). This wizened wretch then implores Bond to protect his pretty psychologist daughter Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) before Bond encounters Spectre mastermind—wait for it—Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). Meanwhile, MI6 head M (Ralph Fiennes) is supplanted by the British government's intelligence maven Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott)—and no prizes for guessing his Big Brother Is Watching You agenda.
Stoically enduring any number of sequences sure to recall any number of bygone Bond films (add yet another fight on a speeding train to that crowded roster), Craig soldiers dutifully through his paces although he seems to know that Bond's romance with Swann feels contrived; however, Waltz is impressive in limited screen time while his Blofeld drops an Easter egg sure to be picked up subsequently. Meanwhile, Dave Bautista as hulking Blofeld henchman Hinx, Naomie Harris as loyal administrator Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw as timorous gadget guardian Q fill obligatory roles. And although Thomas Newman's punchy yet respectful score feels contemporary, Spectre is haunted by the ghosts of Bonds past.
Good journalism must be methodical, thorough, and accurate to be considered credible, particularly if it explores a controversial subject; not surprisingly, movies that portray such journalism must have a similar integrity if they wish to be effective. Spotlight, which dramatizes The Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of widespread child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, seamlessly blends intelligent writing, committed performances, and assured direction to emerge as an absorbing account that illuminates its emotionally-charged, morally reprehensible subject without sensationalism or melodrama, a testament to the brilliant scope and attention to detail fashioned by writer-director Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer.
When no-nonsense newsman and Boston outsider Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) becomes the Globe's editor, he pushes the newspaper to concentrate on local stories to bolster reader interest; specifically, he instructs Spotlight, the investigative team led by connected hometown veteran Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), to follow up on allegations of molestation by Catholic clergy. Soon dedicated reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) is shadowing harried attorney Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), waging a lonely campaign on behalf of a myriad of voiceless victims, while the team, including duly diligent reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy), interviews more victims, victims-rights advocate Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), and others as the shocking magnitude of the church's crimes gradually unfolds.
Also unfolding is the church's low-key yet palpable resistance to the investigation from attorneys Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) and Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) and amiable but firm Boston old boy Peter Conley (Paul Guilfoyle), all running interference for venerable Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) as the question builds: How pervasive are the crimes and the cover-up? But also exposed is the Globe's previous indifference to the story, to the chagrin of old-timers Robinson and editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery).
Bradlee's father was executive editor of The Washington Post during Richard Nixon's presidency and oversaw Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's reporting on Watergate, which was depicted in the Alan J. Pakula-directed All the President's Men. Spotlight is more accomplished and compelling than that justly acclaimed film. Aware of the pitfalls of portraying a procedural, McCarthy and Singer enforce a businesslike, economical clarity to their quietly compelling narrative while trusting their performers to explore the narrative's many dimensions with understated engagement. They do so impressively, with Ruffalo the lightning rod although Keaton emerges as Spotlight's dramatic fulcrum while Tucci delivers a terrifically nuanced portrayal. With Howard Shore's unobtrusive, sympathetic, piano-driven score accenting the revelations, Spotlight dazzles like a sharply focused beacon.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
The Star Wars franchise has become a cultural juggernaut, its simple, universal mythology, clear-cut morality, and crowd-pleasing action sequences delighting audiences the world over. Picking up 30 years after Return of the Jedi left off, Star Wars: The Force Awakens reprises familiar faces as it introduces the latest generation of plucky heroes toiling for the Resistance against the First Order, arisen from the remnants of the Galactic Empire with—not to put too fine a point on that clear-cut morality—a definite Nazi flair; just check the Nuremberg Rally assemblage that would make Leni Riefenstahl blush. However, series creator George Lucas has bowed out, leaving director J.J. Abrams, credited as a co-writer with Michael Arndt and franchise veteran Lawrence Kasdan, to deliver a competent if uninspired facsimile.
When First Order commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) invades the desert planet Jakku, looking for missing Jedi icon Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is captured although Poe's rolling-polling little droid BB-8 escapes with the map to Luke's location, and if that makes you nostalgic for another squat, adorable droid, don't feel deprived. Rescued by renegade stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), Poe and Finn crash-land back on Jakku, and although Poe goes missing, Finn and BB-8 encounter Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenging space urchin who hustles them away in an old space freighter when stormtroopers return to capture BB-8. Lo and behold, Rey is piloting the legendary bucket o' bolts the Millennium Falcon, whose owner, Han Solo (a deadpanning Harrison Ford), and furry pal Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) soon reclaim it before joining General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and the Resistance's resistance to the First Order while Han and Ren try to bridge their differences.
Yes, the familiar comforts of the Star Wars universe get a full airing in The Force Awakens, with an Industrial Light and Magic-fueled mixture of nostalgia (hello, Princess—er, General—Leia!) and merchandising-ready fresh blood. Like a good soap opera, the faces change but the same problems remain while Abrams stages the epic battles and chases with precision flourishes and John Williams's relentless score hammers home the recognition, and if that is your primary criteria, then I have shorted Star Wars: The Force Awakens a star because, as that kind of spectacle, it is not disappointing. Ridley is the brightest new spot—you know her Rey is tapped for destiny—with Boyega and to an extent Isaac filling out the cultural-diversity quotient, although Driver, despite his light-saber tantrums, is lukewarm as this space opera's next installment beckons as irresistibly as the Force.
Steve Jobs (2015)
Just as Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) finds himself battling various adversaries, particularly Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), in Steve Jobs, so too do the biopic's creative drivers engage in a power struggle for control of this kinetic if fragmented and diffuse examination of arguably the most dynamic figure in the personal-computer revolution. Director Danny Boyle displays an overall visual sense—does that then make Boyle the Jobs-like big-picture guy? On the other hand, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, drawing initially from Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs, supplies the crackling verbal code that animates the actors' performances—so, is Sorkin the Wozniak-like designer?
Using the structure of three separate Apple product launches—1984's Macintosh, 1988's NeXT, and 1998's iMac—to highlight Jobs's travails, Steve Jobs is overwhelmingly performance-driven, epitomized by Fassbender's sustained incandescence although Jeff Daniels as Apple CEO John Sculley and especially Kate Winslet as Apple marketing executive Joanna Hoffman go toe-to-toe with Fassbender; all of them are armed with Sorkin's verbal tracers, fiery and on-target, and through the engaged performances, Sorkin seems to be the dominant force. Yet Boyle, allied with Daniel Pemberton's yearning yet subdued score, manages to wrest control by the finale, giving Steve Jobs a stylistic sweep that is keenly photographed by Alwin Küchler (who used different film mediums to give each product launch its period feel), and that sweep reveals Boyle with his heart on his sleeve.
Fittingly, then, Jobs's biggest struggle is not professional but personal; each product launch finds him evaluating his problematic relationship with Lisa, his young daughter (portrayed progressively by Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine) with estranged high school sweetheart Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston); that interaction is a partial mirror into the personal insecurities that drove Jobs to alienate those around him. Fassbender's forcefulness embodies Jobs's cult of personality although Winslet is an essential counterweight, with Daniels not too far behind as Steve Jobs teeters between Aaron Sorkin's seamless, quicksilver dialog and Danny Boyle's naked, intimate vision.
Bryan Cranston takes a star turn portraying blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in his darkest days, a performance that sparkles with endearing idiosyncrasy while illuminating the toll that the House Un-American Activities Committee's (HUAC) investigation into communism in Hollywood took on both professional and personal lives. Based on Bruce Cook's biography, John McNamara's lively script for Trumbo takes some liberties—it skips Trumbo's exile in Mexico City, and it was Ring Lardner, Jr., not Trumbo, who encountered HUAC chairman J. Parnell Thomas (James DuMont) in prison—but as a portrait of 1950s anti-communist hysteria it is frequently amusing and occasionally poignant without being preachy or maudlin.
A top screenwriter who often works in the bath, his typewriter, scissors, and adhesive tape perched atop a tub-straddling tray, the chain-smoking Trumbo, seemingly never at a loss for a witty rejoinder, provides handsomely for his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and three children including elder daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning), who may be an outspoken ash off the old cigarette. At the same time, though, Trumbo publicly espouses radical leftist ideas, which lands him and other writers including Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.), collectively dubbed the "Hollywood Ten," before Thomas's HUAC, where their refusal to divulge names of suspected communists banishes them to prison for contempt of Congress. Once released, they are unofficially "blacklisted" by Hollywood's studio system, forced to use "fronts" who take credit for their scripts, and Trumbo soon organizes a cottage industry in aliased screenplays, two of which, Roman Holiday and The Brave One, win Academy Awards—which Trumbo cannot officially accept.
Taking work-at-home to a squeaky-clean new level, Bryan Cranston proves that he absolutely owns Trumbo, a heady biopic about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s.
Villains large and small abound in this tale of fear, betrayal, and resilience, with gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (a wonderfully viperlike Helen Mirren) spurring John Wayne (David James Elliott) and others to denounce Trumbo and his ilk as Theodore Shapiro's score comments quietly. Yet there are heroes, too, or at least allies, or—hell—schlockmeisters such as Frank King (a chops-licking John Goodman) who, along with brother Hymie (Stephen Root), are willing to hire Trumbo and his cronies to help crank out their low-budget opuses. True, both Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman) do offer light at the end of the tunnel, although Michael Stuhlberg's portrayal of conflicted Edward G. Robinson may symbolize most keenly of all the toll that HUAC took on Hollywood. That robust supporting cast, which also includes Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Alan Tudyk, along with McNamara's well-focused narrative, camouflage Jay Roach's uninspired direction that would threaten to make this just an average biopic if Bryan Cranston didn't absolutely own Trumbo, an unlikely, flawed hero whose typewriter couldn't be stilled.
The perception of evidence and the conclusions that evidence may suggest get an unsubtle examination in Truth, a take-no-prisoners docudrama inspired by CBS's 60 Minutes investigation in 2004 into then-President George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard during the final years of the Vietnam conflict. The 60 Minutes investigation, delivered by journalist Dan Rather (Robert Redford) based on research overseen by producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), alleged that Bush received preferential treatment to get into the Guard while he later made unauthorized absences; the smoking gun was copies of memos written in the 1970s by Bush's commander Jerry Killian that described these circumstances; former Air National Guard officer Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) then furnished those copies—not the originals—to CBS.
If writer-director James Vanderbilt seems to be supporting Mapes's side of the story, that is because his script is based on Mapes's memoir Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power. Given the green light by CBS to investigate, Mapes pulls together a team that includes Rather, associate producer Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), and researchers Mike Smith (Topher Grace) and Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid). However, scheduling pressures that coincide with the 2004 general election prevent a full vetting of the documents; those documents are quickly challenged by the political blogosphere, which claims that they are forgeries created in Microsoft Word, word-processing software that did not exist in the early 1970s. The growing uproar in turn prompts media scrutiny and subsequent backpedaling by CBS, which includes an internal investigation focused primarily on Mapes.
In truth, Truth plunges ahead with slick convention and hastily drawn characterizations underlined heavily by Brian Tyler's plangent score, and its unabashed championing of the Mapes team is guaranteed to polarize viewers with established political convictions. Yet conviction drives the essence of Blanchett's dynamic performance—she is the very heart of Truth—which lifts Vanderbilt's directorial debut above merely satisfactory and into the realm of compelling drama; meanwhile, Redford, no stranger to cinematic and political conflict, delivers a nice emeritus turn. So, is Truth a lie? Better examine the evidence before you draw your conclusion.
Cate Blanchett is compiling kudos for Carol, but her performance is much more powerful in the hard-hitting docudrama Truth, spotlighting 60 Minutes and George W. Bush's Vietnam-era record.
The Walk (2015)
On August 7, 1974, French tightrope walker Phillipe Petit traversed the expanse between the World Trade Center's Twin Towers on a cable suspended a quarter-mile above the ground. With no safety apparatus. The death-defying feat was the culmination of Petit's dream to stage an artistic "coup"—an illegal one, and much of the pleasure of The Walk is watching Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his motley "accomplices" mount their operation as a good-natured yet earnest caper designed to get Petit onto that cable above the surprised, gawking throngs gathered on the Manhattan sidewalks far below.
Director Robert Zemeckis, who with Christopher Browne co-wrote the script based on Petit's account (also illustrated in the trenchant 2008 documentary Man on Wire), puts Gordon-Levitt himself on the story-telling high-wire: Not only does Gordon-Levitt dramatize Petit's actions, but he also narrates the tale from start to finish, an ingenuous, and seemingly redundant, approach as ebullient Gordon-Levitt, sporting a redolent French accent, recounts Petit's lifelong passion with engaging enthusiasm: Petit begins as a street artist on the sidewalks of Paris who becomes inflamed by wowing the crowds with his daring stunts. Then Petit woos fetching busker Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon), whom he meets as she's strumming Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" before he steals her audience; next up is photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) as both become crucial collaborators while Petit is being mentored by gruff wire-walker Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). Traveling to New York, they recruit Jean-Pierre (James Badge Dale) and Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine, looking like a refugee from P.T. Barnum's sideshow) for their meticulous assault on the Twin Towers and Petit's breathtaking endeavor.
Director Robert Zemeckis and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt strike a fine balancing act in the dramatization of Philippe Petit's 1974 World Trade Center "coup," The Walk.
Filming in 3-D with seamless special effects, Zemeckis frames the visuals to emphasize the thrill of Petit's walk, and with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, he delivers the dizzying, vertiginous vistas. However, and strikingly so, they are in service of the narrative and not simply technical bravado. Accordingly, Gordon-Levitt, carrying the lion's share of the tale, displays impressive preparation and fervor that overcome any performance limitations, although his supporting players, notably Le Bon, merely carry water for him. With Alan Silvestri's robust score complementing Zemeckis's taut pacing and technical command, The Walk offers genuine endearment with its high-stepping thrills.
Its title both wistful and ironical, Youth is also writer-director Paolo Sorrentino's studied rumination on the Big Questions of Life and Living, Love and Loving, and Death and Dying. Those capital letters are apropos because Youth doesn't just scream art-house, it is belted out by Sumi Jo as the celebrated coloratura soprano is backed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, featuring violinist Viktoria Mullova, as they perform English composer Fred Ballinger's (Michael Caine) suite of "Simple Songs" for no less than Queen Elizabeth II as part of his peerage process. The musicians and the monarch are the real things, but elderly Fred and his lifelong pal, film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), are Sorrentino's fictional creations—and Sorrentino's entire premise feels like a lie as it probes for truth.
Ensconced in an exclusive spa in the storybook Swiss Alps, Fred and Mick are hardly the only celebrities taking steam baths and massages—fictional movie star Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), the pretend current Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), and fictionalized Argentinean soccer legend Diego Maradona (Roly Serrano) nod, smile, and occasionally converse with the Sunshine Boys. Fred insists to the visiting Queen's emissary (Alex Macqueen), desperately trying to convince him to conduct "Simple Songs" for the royal couple, that he's retired—and that the only singer fit to perform his opus is his wife Melanie, presumed to be dead. However, Mick is still working—he huddles with his team of young writers to finish his "testament" film as he and Fred reminisce, compare their daily urine output, and commiserate on how Mick's son Julian (Ed Stoppard) has left Fred's daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who is also Fred's assistant, for another woman, real-life pop star Paloma Faith (herself).
But whether the personages are made-up or actual, Youth is the worship of celebrity angst—it's as if Sofia Coppola, the doyenne of moping fame, had filmed Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. (In fact, one of the filming locations is precisely where Mann had set his existential novel.) Certainly the rich and famous are not excluded from having insights and tragedies: Mick's muse, actress Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda), delivers both when she arrives to read the riot act to him. And Sorrentino does feint toward the hoi polloi: Fred reads The Guardian, Maradona has a huge portrait of Karl Marx tattooed on his back, and Miss Universe is hardly an airhead—although Sorrentino is also sure to capture her fully nude in a swimming pool for a gawking Fred and Mick's benefit. (And for ours too, of course.)
Moreover, Sorrentino crafts exquisite portraits—his sumptuous framing among the gorgeous Swiss scenery, captured by Luca Bigazzi's pristine cinematography, is visual splendor underpinned by David Lang's charming, resonant score. But despite the easy camaraderie of Caine and Keitel and a crucial supporting turn by Weisz, too much of Youth is luxurious sophistry that has been fabricated in rarefied circles. Youth is wasted on a beautifully empty exercise.
Closing CreditsThere had been a few more films I wanted to see before I posted this article: Straight Outta Compton, Suffragette, The Danish Girl, even The Hateful Eight. However, they and others from 2015 will have to wait for later, once they are available for the home market.
I'm not sure why I found myself going out to see more films in the cinema in 2015 as opposed to previous years; as I noted above, I don't know that 2015 was any better or worse for films than any other year before it. And I won't pretend that the 30 films I have reviewed here are anywhere near a definitive sampling, or even a representative one, because as I've previously stated, I along with everyone else am shaped by my preferences and limitations.
Sure, people told me that Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation was very good, but I lost interest in that franchise after the second one. Were I a slave to pop culture, I should have seen Fifty Shades of Grey just to see what all the hoopla was about, but I couldn't whip up the enthusiasm. I liked The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but not enough to think that 2015's The Second Best Marigold Hotel would be anything but at best second-best. Avengers: Age of Ultron? Joss Whedon, panting like a golden retriever to please his audience? I got that from the previous one; so, no, thanks. And so on for a lot of films released in 2015, acclaimed or not, for which I am glad for the aftermarket that enables me to see what I missed.
Indeed, my bowling teammate told me that the remake of Far from the Madding Crowd was the best film she saw in 2015, so I have that tabbed for viewing in Netflix. In fact, most of the films I've reviewed here I did see with various friends who wanted to see this film or that one; thus, they became part of the collective who, once the house lights dim and the film begins, awaits that transformation in the dark—even if ticket prices are ridiculous, snacks are priced similarly so, and you had better time your trip to the restroom so as not to miss anything important.
It's the allure of the big story on the big screen that still calls me to her side. What are your recommendations, or non-recommendations, for 2015—or any other year, for that matter? Movies are timeless, and the right one is a wonderful way to spend some time.