Retrospective Reviews #1: Kung Fu Coens

I’ve done a few retrospective reviews on their own on this blog, but I’ve forgotten how time consuming they can be. So, I’ve instead decided to collect all the older films I’ve either watched before or just watched for the first time and put them all together in one article on a (roughly) weekly basis.

1/26/16: Kung Fu Panda (Re-Watch)

kungfupanda

Dreamworks Animation

With a film called “Kung Fu Panda” starring Jack Black from Dreamworks, one would immediately expect the worst. This was especially true in 2008, coming off the massive disappointment of a Shrek the Third and the lingering burns of the previous Dreamworks/Black collaboration Shark Tale. Yet, the first Kung Fu Panda, much like its titular lead character, is much more promising than it sounds. With a clear love for Shaw Brothers martial arts films, Kung Fu Panda manages to create a dynamic sense of conflict and scope through its action sequences. More so than any piece of western animation, this film gives each of its animal characters their own distinctive styles that both clash in quarrel and symphonically move in a dance. It builds the stakes of each battle while also showing off the elaborate fighting moves and production design of this mythological version of China the animators have built. Yet, the characters and their arcs are still key here, mainly in terms of the unusual version of a “chosen one” narrative that mainly builds on the cryptic mysticism and honing of one’s skills rather than the simple nature of a bland prophecy. Plus, the eclectic voice cast is filled with astonishingly prolific yet appropriately cast actors, particularly the oddly fitting chemistry between Black and Dustin Hoffman, the mistrusting Angelina Jolie and the genuinely intimidating yet still hilarious Ian McShane. Some of the gags can be a bit too modern and show some of Dreamworks’ issues with adding generic comedy lines on to physical gags. Yet, Kung Fu Panda still manages to be a cut above their previous fare and gave way to a great new era in the animation studio’s history.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Noodle Bowls

1/27/16: Kung Fu Panda 2 (Re-Watch)

kung-fu-panda-2

Dreamworks Animation

A masterful follow up to such a fascinating surprise. Instead of merely wadding the same waters of the original film, Kung Fu Panda 2 genuinely develops its world and characters. Po isn’t only given the chance to find out about his mysterious past, but also has to find the balance in his technique to allow him to find inner peace. This creates the emotional core of the film, which is sustained by the genuinely heart wrenching vocal performances of Jack Black and James Hong as well as the notably gorgeous use of 2D animation for the flashback sequences. The side characters from the first film even get more of a chance to shine, particularly as Angelina Jolie’s Tigress shows a more complex emotional range. All of this is conveyed with even more gorgeous examples of animation than the first film, particularly with the vibrant color palette infused into every scene and extensively grand scale sense of scope found in every establishing shot. The ancient version of China created for the last film is given more vibrancy, particularly as the complex past of the surprisingly intimidating peacock antagonist of the film (voiced by the reliably sinister Gary Oldman) is revealed with his ties to Po. Not only does this sequel build more on the promise of the original Kung Fu Panda, but it surpasses that potential in every way imaginable.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Dragon Warrior Sized Dumplings

1/27/16: The Ladykillers (1955)

the-ladykillers-1955

Ealing Studios

A blackly comedic crime caper that works best at its most nasty. The conceit of these criminals trying to fool an old lady is one that’s admittedly a bit thin, even for the film’s 90 minute run time. The first hour or so is mainly built around these colorful characters trying to fool said elderly woman into believing they’re musicians instead of criminals, which can only go so far without growing tiresome. Of course, there are plenty of funny moments had within the first hour or so, mainly due to the hilarious performances from Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Katie Johnson & Herbert Lom. Yet, the premise’s comedic potential sort of wanes when it heavily relies on the sort of farcical antics that Johnson’s character attracts, including a lengthy diversion of street chaos that lingers on endlessly. The Ladykillers does steadily pick up the pace as the distrust within the group steadily increases, causing a rising tension that’s released in a darkly comedic fashion that’s highly entertaining. Plus, Johnson’s growing awareness of the situation and pleasant presence only strengthens the comedic cowardice and destructive nature of the group.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 False Musical Instruments

1/27/16: The Ladykillers (2004)

the-ladykillers-2004

Buena Vista Pictures

While the original Ladykillers has a fair amount of charm that ages well, it’s not above being remade and by filmmakers as exemplary as The Coen Brothers no less. Surely, they could put together an over the top comedic treasure from source material that fits their character driven and morbidly cartoonish sensibilities. Yet, in practice, their remake is a complete mess of a comedy. The cartoonish nature provides ample amounts of silly characters, like Ryan Hurst’s monosyllabic lunk of a man or Tom Hanks’ southern educated gentleman, with the latter managing to entertain far more than the former or quite frankly any of the other characters. This is especially true of the more awkwardly problematic characters, such as the quiet “mysterious” Tzi Ma and the foul mouthed and ignorantly stereotypical Marlon Wayans. Given the lack of black characters in The Coen Brothers’ filmography, the later is especially cringeworthy, with every black character showing a severe lack of genuine satire that translates more as a couple of middle aged white men getting their cultural commentary from misreading OutKast music videos of the time. Regardless of horrible stereotypes, this version of The Ladykillers misses the dark yet comedically escalating edge of the 1955 film and just starts from minute one as a goofy cartoon where the stakes never seem to matter and the relationship between Hanks & the old lady (played here with decent chops by Irma P. Hall) provides more sitcomish circumstance than the then-nearly 50 year old original film. It’s such a hodgepodge of ideas and concepts that never coalesces into anything truly worthwhile. Easily the worst in the entire filmography of The Coen Brothers.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Work Tunnels

1/28/16: The Big Lebowski (Re-Watch)

the-big-lebowski

Universal Pictures

The stand out comedic masterpiece of the Brothers Coen despite its confused nature. In a style similar to the mystery works of Raymond Chandler, The Big Lebowski feels like a story ripped from a man’s hangover infused dream. One filled with bizarre seemingly disconnected characters and events that seem straight out of an intoxicated retelling. The stream of conscience style of the storytelling helps sell the silliness of these characters as their genuine thought processes, though it helps that Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Jullianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and all the other members of the cast don’t bat an eye at any of this strange behavior. It all feels natural in this universe, which makes their antics all the more ludicrous and hysterical when populating this existing LA environment. The Coens are also some of the few people in mainstream cinema that know how to visually craft comedy, lingering on facial expressions and empty shots for the exact amount of time needed. Even Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography manages to mix expansive landscapes and quiet close ups for the sake of an individual joke’s situation. It’s an odd beast, but an incredibly memorable one.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Bowling Balls

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“The Boy” (2016) – Creeps Up To A Whimper

Mainstream theatrical horror of today has an issue with familiarity and expectation. Many horror films, particularly within the spectrum of the January dumped dregs, tend to stick to a jump scare style formula, usually relying on bland characters being pulled along to a conclusion that would serve as a twist, yet has little backing within the story itself beyond shock. Thus, I was surprised by the much of the first two thirds of The Boy. I mean, the jump scares were still there and did little to elicit much of a genuine gasp. If anything, the more common reaction was a titter of laughter despite the best efforts of The Walking Dead actress Lauren Cohan. Yet, Cohan and the film itself oddly managed to surprise me by simply creating a bit more dimension with its characters that I had expected. Cohan’s journey into knowledge of this doll managed to grow and twist in certain directions I didn’t expect, intriguing me for a solid amount of the film.

Cohan’s initial distrust of this situation, rising terror & worry about its outcome and eventual curiosity seemed to flow naturally. She even shows a realistic sense of sympathy for the “parents” of this doll, who are well portrayed by Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but her curious line of thinking, the mystery of the doll and the solid chemistry she had with Rupert Evans seemed to build towards something that, maybe wasn’t unique, at least more intriguing with the questions potential supernatural drama that could be found. Unfortunately, the third act trudges along to wreck things, introducing twist after twist that slowly destroy most of the potential for those elements in a quick minute. Even if it wasn’t going the way I thought, the least The Boy could do was actually engage me on some level with its twist. Instead, the shock value results in a rather shallow and remarkably underwhelming reveal that changes things into a completely different subgenre of horror. Then again, why am I surprised given the similar yet much more offensive ending of director William Brent Bell’s previous film The Devil Inside?

Watched: 1/22/16

Rating: 2 out of 5 Non-Creepy Dolls

the-boy-poster

STX Entertainment

Harry Potter Retrospective Part I: Stoned Sorcerers

In anticipation of November’s release of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, I plan on revisiting all of the films in the Harry Potter franchise. This will likely be a once a month type deal, though it’ll vary depending on time and the films in question (ie anticipate both parts of Deathy Hallows coming shortly after one another). In any case, I should explore a bit of my history with the franchise. Harry Potter served as a pretty significant pop cultural touchstone for myself and those I grew up with. More so than even the Star Wars prequels that were being released around the same time, this was the highly anticipated series of films that my friends & I eagerly awaited on a semi-annual basis. It also served as the first series of films where I had read the books prior, working up that book geek feeling of disappointment over details that weren’t in the final adaptation. Yet despite meaning so much to me at the time, I haven’t really taken a look at any of the Harry Potter films since Deathly Hallows Part 2 was released five years ago. Until now, that is.

harry potter hat

Warner Bros

So, our journey begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (at least for American audiences like myself, though Philosopher’s Stone is a far more appropriate title that I guess Warner Brothers figured we couldn’t wrap out heads around). Director Chris Columbus – most likely chosen due to his practice getting memorable performances out of child actors in Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire – had the immense task of introducing JK Rowling’s world to cinema and quelling the needs of the demanding fanbase at the same time. The resulting film is often criticized for feeling too close to the page, but that dedication to adaptation is honestly needed for an introductory film like this. Through the eyes of young Harry himself, we get a vibrant sense of variety that this magical land hidden beneath our own can give. The wondrous ennui of discovery from the halls of Hogwarts. The danger that lurks in the shadows of the Forbidden Forest. The hauntingly infinite sadness of the Mirror of Erised. It’s the perfect combination to build this wondrous world yet tease the terrors that will come in the inevitable future of the franchise. Of course, Columbus’ direction would be nothing without the seminal production design by Stuart Craig or the gorgeously sweeping John Williams score. There are moments where the seams are a bit more torn than others, mainly with the confusing and completely unneeded aspect of Qudditch that bogs things down in a sport that’s ultimately pointless and the rather muddy CG that makes the humans in particular look like Shrek extras. Yet, the better moments of the latter and the enchanting practical effects work strongest at crafting a world that hadn’t really been depicted in many mainstream fantasy films beforehand, arguably on par with the admittedly more vast and grandiose initial Lord of the Rings trilogy from Peter Jackson that came around the same time.

harry potter hermione

Warner Bros

Well, inevitable might not be the perfect choice of words. For the time, no one working on this first Harry Potter film knew if this would pay off. The gamble of putting out this first in a at least seven part series – let alone casting these kids and acclaimed UK actors – with the potential chance that some of them wouldn’t continue with it is staggering. Given hindsight, it’s a risk that ultimately paid off. Sure, one can see the training wheels clearly set in place for our leads. This works out for someone like Daniel Radcliffe, whose genuine stiff child actor awkwardness fits the titular character given his harsh and suffocating upbringing. Of course he’d be socially inexperienced and shy, which makes the embrace from his new friends all the more endearing. The same awkwardness isn’t as well worn by young Rupert Grint as Ron Weasely or Emma Watson as Herminone Granger, who have plenty of cringeworthy examples of delivery that show the type of naive acting choices they would luckily soon grow out of over the course of their ten year journey. Other child actors fit comfortably in their admittedly more standard roles, particularly Matthew Lewis as the dimwitted yet lovable Neville Longbottom or Tom Felton as an effectively slimy Draco Malfoy.

dumbledore-stoned

Warner Bros

But the balls they fumbled are picked up wonderfully by the immense talents around them. Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid is the perfect lovable deliverer of initial information. His emotional honesty instantly attaches us not just to his character, but also to the magical world he’ll introduce Harry and the audience to, especially after he gives the Dursleys the verbal lashing they’ve been asking for. This is then carried into a more complex sense of authority from the more familiar group of English actors, particularly the elegantly stern Maggie Smith, the brief playfully black comedy of John Cleese or the warmheartedly regal nature of Richard Harris. Harris in particular is interesting to note, given this is only one of two turns he had as Dumbledore before his eventual death shortly before the release of what will be our next topic Chamber of Secrets. Though Michael Gambon would be given the chance to show much more range for the character over the course of five films, Harris did the better job of getting across the more authentic sentimentality of the part. Even for as schmaltzy as his monologue to Harry is about “love” being the big factor that saved him from Voldemort’s grasp, it’s sold incredibly well by Harris’ genuine dedication to the role. One can see it in every moment he has on screen, from the building warmth of his House Cup ruling to the small aside of “Alas. Earwax.”

severus-snape-stoned

Warner Bros

But of course, the main reason I started this series this month was spurred by an unfortunate event. Alan Rickman, who played Severus Snape here and would go on to play the part for the entire eight film series, passed away on January 14th, 2016. Rickman, beyond being an iconic actor from films like Die Hard, Galaxy Quest or the Harry Potter cast grab bag Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, was a professional who knew how to embody the varying facets of a character that would grow to be incredibly complex from this point forward. One can see, even at this point when JK Rowling had only a vague idea of where Snape would be, the conflicted heart that would lead to Snape’s reveal in the final part of the series. Right from the moment Snape introduces himself for Harry’s first potion’s class, the intimidating presence of Rickman sends eerie vibes down the audiences’ spines, showing the mysteriously droll effect Snape has on those around him and building up enough seemingly incriminating evidence to support the red herring of Snape’s motives. Yet, that piercing face is still able to transition into dedicated worry, showed off in probably the most redeeming aspect of that Quidditch scene. Rickman’s face was one of complex variety, managing to show off intense warmth and rage with mere seconds apart. It’s a shame we’ll never see that face again in a new context.

hogwarts-express-stoned

Warner Bros

By the end of Sorcerer’s Stone, we’ve gotten a true sense that an adventure has started. Many of the attempted fantasy YA based franchises that came in Harry Potter‘s wake like The Spiderwick Chronicles or The Golden Compass failed to give their commencement chapters much weight by simply introducing a few pieces of world building via exposition and a cliff hanger rather than truly endear us to the characters populated within that world. With Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the characters find a genuine connection of friendship as they’re tossed into an environment based around learning. Learning not just about spells and magical creatures, but how to deal with social situations, how to question authority within reason and how to deal with immediate danger thanks to their collective skills. Even with the clear foibles of the era it was made in, this first chapter of the Harry Potter saga serves as the adolescent’s imperfect entrance into a strange new world, both of the magical and adult variety. Something I really could relate to as a child when I originally saw it. But it’s only the first step. See ya in the Chamber of Secrets!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: 3.5 out of 5 Hogwarts Letters

harry_potter-stoned

Warner Bros

“Martyrs” (2016) – Torturous Remake Without Point

The original French version of Martyrs is a pretty divisive horror film, given it’s proximity to the torture porn sub genre’s peak with the Saw and Hostel series. Yet, the extensive torture that takes place in the original film (which I only recently viewed for the first time to prep for this remake) ultimately has a purpose. A purpose that relates to the rather cruel yet serviceable truth that all the suffering and horror one can inflict doesn’t ultimately bring one to a satisfying conclusion. So, Blumhouse has decided to release a new Americanized version of the story, leaving us to question both how this new Martyrs will differentiate itself from the original film and how it would still keep the basic message.

The answer to both is “not very well.” Directors Michael and Kevin Goetz spend the first two thirds pretty much recreating the story of the original film beat for beat, though the violence is far more toned down. By doing so, it completely lacks the direct and harsh impact that sold the nature of the story’s major twist (which I won’t spoil here), thus completely negating the lengths and cruelty that sell the merit of the torture put forth. None of this is helped by the fact that the few moments that are added here are merely there to heavily sell the friendship and Catholic martyr related imagery blatantly to the audience, who this remake seems to completely underestimate the intelligence of. Then, the final act takes a rather direct different take on the narrative that in theory could set itself apart for a modern context while honing in on the message. Instead, the film takes a direct contradiction to the central twist of the premise for Martyrs that not only messes with the intent of the original film, but more importantly completely destroys the premise that this version is going for. I’m not against someone taking the original Martyrs and making it their own… but that’s not what this is. This is just a blatant bastardization, with the only people worth any sort of praise being the solid turns from main actresses Bailey Noble and Troian Bellisario. Otherwise, this is an incredibly incompetent remake that doesn’t do the original justice or carve out its own place. Instead, it lies there like a tortured soul without a single bit of life left in it.

Watched: 1/19/16

Rating: 1 out of 5 Faulty Torture Devices

Martyrs-Poster

Blumhouse

 

Thomas’ Top 20 Films of 2015

I know, I know. I’m a bit late on this one. Then again, I’m one who loves being thorough. Publishing a Best Of List before the end of 2015 can be a bit regrettable, given the lack of films one can consume by end of that individual year. I even felt that way after publishing my Top Ten Horror and Genre Films of 2015 list from Gruesome Magazine. But for the major overall list, I dug deep into what 2015 had to offer. Upon reflection, 2015 was a damn good year for film. Plenty of stinkers in there, of course. I’m not doing a worst of list, but just to add some perspective, my least favorite film of the year Area 51 is honestly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. Yet, the hits were pretty strong and reflective of a tumultuous year full of change, fear and ambiguous resolutions for the world in general. 2015 was so strong that I could have easily done a Top 30. But I’ll still give some of those a spot light for honorable mentions. Anyway, let’s get this show on the road;

Honorable Mentions: Bone Tomahawk, Carol, Chi-Raq, The Gift, The Hateful Eight, He Never Died, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Slow West, Straight Outta Compton, The Voices

20. The Big Short

the-big-short

Paramount Pictures

I’ve gone on at great lengths about this one, so I’ll be a bit briefer here. The Big Short is probably the most unconventional of the Oscar frontrunners, going on tangents that may seem odd, given the editing style resembles that of a young Oliver Stone for the ADHD generation. Yet, all of style culminates in a consistently hilarious, biting satire that takes these risks for the sake of investing and informing a modern audience about a terrible event in our nation’s history that may happen again if we’re not too aware.

19. Tangerine

tangerine

Magnolia Pictures

Speaking of unconventional, Tangerine is about as far away as one can go from mainstream fare, with characters who are often unpleasant towards one another, a grimy East LA setting and centering around topics of identity & place that might turn off those used to familiar Hollywood tactics. Yet, Tangerine still manages to relate on a very human level, showcasing these transgender and other unconventional lead characters for who they really are in this soot covered backdrop that’s often cast them aside. They aren’t portrayed as saints, yet they’re also not completely condemned by the film either. They just live and breathe, with all of it being captured in a highly kinetic and oddly beautiful style that’s shot on an iPhone. It’s a day in the life for a life not often depicted, with equal parts hilarity, genuine drama and surprising heart that sneak up on you when you least expect it.

18. It Follows

it-follows-pool

Radius-TWC

As this list will continue to argue, 2015 was a great year for horror. Probably the most beloved of the examples in the larger critical community was It Follows, a film that applies the most traditional aspect of conventional horror (a young woman being followed by a stranger) to a new aesthetic. Those Michael Myers style sequences of fearfully trying to run from an intimidating stranger is multiplied here, in that it can happen at any time, the villain is pretty much unkillable and even if you seemingly pass the curse onto another, it could easily come back if that other person fails. That paranoia is presented in gorgeous terms by director David Robert Mitchell, with visuals like the above that manage to represent the budding sexuality’s temptation and watery purity meshing into a murky visual of oncoming doom. That plus the genuinely terrifying Disasterpiece score makes some of these sequences incredibly uneasy.

17. Steve Jobs

steve-jobs

Universal Pictures

Steve Jobs as a subject already had a rather traditional biopic of his life with 2013’s forgettable failure Jobs. So, what could director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin do to spice things up? Well, remove the traditional structure and turn it into what is essentially a three act play. Each act shows a different stage in Jobs’ life, but the jumps still manage to have a consistent development for the ego centric icon of the industry without pulling punches. With a cast this immersed in their roles and a story this constrained, the lack of extravagant detail doesn’t detract as much as strengthen the power of the performances and kinetic camera moves. It’s the Steve Jobs movie we wanted… and it’s a shame people didn’t actually see it.

16. What We Do In The Shadows

what_we_do_in_the_shadows

The Orchard

It’s hard to praise a comedy without simply repeating jokes and laughing about them. So, I’ll be brief on What We Do In The Shadows. Giving vampires the Christopher Guest mockumentary treatment, co-stars/writers/directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi manage to show their dedication to the lore while managing to find new avenues to make fun of them. Waititi, Clement and others in the cast have this grounded chemistry that carries the movie through its silliest antics and the mockumentary style even lends to the quiet fun of seeing these vampire do mundane things like brush their teeth or complain about household chores. All of this allows the laughs to flow about as quickly as the gore that sprays out of people’s necks.

15. Sicario

sicario-bodies

Lionsgate

The War on Drugs has never been so tense. The trio of Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and especially Benicio Del Toro serve as a demented love triangle of a metaphor for the broken nature of a system this corrupt. Brolin is the American government, using whatever tactics they can to take action against those they deemed guilty. Del Toro is the morally unhinged perpetrators of said questionable actions that merely wants to get paid. Then there’s Blunt, the human last voice of humanity trying to topple the system the best he can, only to find that it’s a fruitless endeavor. Put all of this into the context of highly intense action sequences and some of the best cinematography of the entire year from Roger Deakins & you have one entertaining yet ultimately depressing films about such an endlessly ongoing conflict.

14. The Final Girls

the_final_girls

Stage 6 Films

Another great horror comedy for 2015, The Final Girls has plenty of laughs and jabs at the expense of the slasher genre. It can’t help but not with a cast that involves some of the best young comedic actors out there. Yet, the biggest surprise and most engaging element of Girls is the genuinely endearing heart. The relationship between Taissa Farmiga and Malin Akerman here is one full of palpable emotion, particularly for those who have lost a loved one. It’s the thread that keeps the film moving and actually feeds into its major theme of rose colored nostalgia glasses that the characters constantly try to keep alive, both figuratively and literally.

13. Bridge of Spies

bridge of spies

Touchstone Pictures

Steven Spielberg’s output as of yet in this millennium has been extremely varied. Between the adventurous fun of The Adventures of Tintin, engrossing drama of Munich and just plain massive disappointment of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it seems like Spielberg is a filmmaker caught between the crowd pleasing joy and grounded drama that his career often oscillates between. Probably the best combination of both worlds is Bridge of Spies, a Cold War drama that is admittedly light on action, but is full of intriguing characters dynamics that mirror the war it takes place during. Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance drive the emotional center of the film, giving a human face to both the American attempts to squash the potential of communism and the spies themselves who merely tried to provide for their own families and country. Despite its length and lack of constant action, Spies is the kind of Cold War story that speaks to the nature of the tension filled war, one filled with true human fear and attempted understanding.

12. Trainwreck

trainwreck

Universal Pictures

Judd Apatow works at his best when he’s grounded by the comedic personalities of others. With writer/star Amy Schumer, Apatow found one of his best comedic anchors. Schumer’s story is one that recalls the traditions of romantic comedies and has a consistent hilarious pace, but shows off a surprisingly complex heart for the people in her life. All of this manages to hit particularly hard with the incredibly tight romantic chemistry she has with Bill Hader, who serves as a solid contrast to her hedonistic attitude. Films like Trainwreck show that the romantic comedy genre doesn’t have to grow stale. It can vibrantly breathe when something interesting is done… like having LeBron James be the supporting sidekick.

11. Spring

Spring

Drafthouse Films

Speaking of a twist on romance, Spring is about as unusual a romance as one can get. I mean, it does follow the traditional meet cute formula; boy moves to another country, boy meets girl, boy finds out a massive secret about girl that could test their relationship. It just so happens that said secret is one that reveals something major about said girl’s background, age and even species. Yet, this revelation is treated as more a bump in the relationship than a point of no return, making one feel even more invested in Lou Taylor Pucci and Nadia Hilker’s chemistry and willingness to stay with each other despite their differences. That along with the understated effects work makes Spring a unique and worthy example of what horror can do to differentiate itself.

10. Krampus

krampus

Universal Pictures

Horror comedy is my favorite subgenre of film, one that combines the spooky scares and horrific kills with the same jolting joy of a laugh at its absolute best. Few films manage to find that perfect balance between the two emotional extremes, but one of them is Krampus from Trick r Treat director Michael Dougherty. The building of the mythology behind the titular character and the genuine threat that he & his little helpers actually hold against this family. Plus, said family manages to inhabit these very relatable archetypes that show more detail and weight as the film goes along, all with subtle indicators explore these characters without blatant exposition and deconstruct the commercialized nature of the holiday season. It’s also incredible to see in a year where Star Wars: The Force Awakens is bringing back the use of practical effects that Krampus ups the game even further with its detailed and near flawless creature designs.

9. Phoenix

phoenix

Sundance Selects

While many of the recently announced nominees for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film can boast technical complexity like Son of Saul, a film like Phoenix shows that the true universal language is emotional complexity. I spoke to this in my previous review on this blog, but Phoenix‘s simplicity in plot is in service of an emotional tug of war that plays on the heart strings with flawless execution. Nina Huss’ performance here is easily the most underrated of the year, showing off the type of layered intrigue that makes or breaks a character focused film like this.

8. Ex-Machina

ex-machina

A24

The Prometheus Myth is a familiar one. One that Mary Shelley took full advantage of with her original novel Frankenstein and in that specific form has been endlessly retooled in a cinematic landscape for ages. With Ex-Machina, we have the first truly great one in decades, taking the concept of man creating life and applying it to modern methods of technology and gender roles. With phenomenal performances by Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander, Ex-Machina manages to use its sleek subtlety to its advantage as it presents this familiar dynamic of man & tech from a brand new perspective that speaks to modern worries and perceptions impeccably.

7. Spotlight

spotlight

Open Road Films

Spotlight isn’t a flashy film. The limited direction from Tom McCarthy is mainly used to show the lives of these journalistic characters without ever plainly expositing things to you about their home lives or their perspectives. It’s mainly used to present these actors committing to these as much as these journalists are committing to uncovering the corruption of the Catholic Church. That corruption, despite how much of it was revealed in fairly recent history, still shows off an emotional gut punch as these journalists dedicate so much time and attention to unveiling the one thing that matters to them with their work: the truth. Something journalism often forgets about these days.

6. The Martian

the-martian

20th Century Fox

The joy of hard science fiction is basing its science in fact and extrapolating from there within reason. Case in point, The Martian manages to make a story full of complex equations and mainly centered around one man on his own into a genuine crowd pleaser that utilizes a phenomenal cast quite well. The comedic charms of the dialogue and the agency of the characters only strengthens the tension, far more so than the dull characters that have populated most of director Ridley Scott’s recent films. Plus, the film does what more piece of pop culture need to do; show off the idea that competency with science can be cool.

5. Creed

creed-sly

Warner Bros

In the age of “legacyquels,” its hard to argue for a upteenth iteration of a franchise to do something completely different. Yet despite being the seventh entry in the Rocky franchise, Creed managed to take the older constructs of the series it takes place in while adapting it in its own new modern context. The titular Adonis Creed isn’t a punk boxer aging out of his weight class and romancing a shy girl. He’s a strong tempered man with a family name he both can’t escape yet wants to reconcile his issues with, finding a connection with a driven woman with a goal that (much like his desire) could harm her. There’s more of a modern complexity that at the same time bounces off the kind hearted yet dopey Rocky, wonderfully brought back with gusto by Sylvester Stallone. Even more so than the mega hit of The Force AwakensCreed is the type of franchise reboot that gives us the right balance of new pathos and heartfelt nostalgia.

4. Anomalisa

anomalisa

Paramount Animation

The concept of Anomalisa doesn’t sound like one that necessarily needs the stop motion treatment. It’s a film with relatively few characters and a limited amount of sets. Yet, the genius craft of Anomalisa is that the art form still truly resonates with the emotions of the characters. The uncanny valley nature of the animation feeds into our lead character’s disconnection with the world around him and the tragic artifice that his worldview creates for him. So, when someone who enjoys life despite her troubles like the titular Lisa enters his life, it’s a brief glimpse at how he could perceive life, yet not something that cures his anxieties. It’s a masterful example of how much more complex the animated format can be, detailing the human experience with genuine subtlety and heartbreakingly relatable emotional honesty.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

mad_max_fury-road

Warner Bros

With Creed, we got a film that paid specific homage to the earlier films in its franchise while adding its own spin. With this fourth iteration of a thirty year dead franchise, Mad Max: Fury Road breathed new life by taking the major aesthetics of that franchise without heavily referencing the earlier films. Fury Road instead injects a shot of adrenaline into the proceedings and puts the film into high gear, screaming towards valhalla with all the visual storytelling gumption of a Vagner opera on speed from George Miller, the very director who inspired this chaos in the first place. Yet, in the middle of all these glorious action scenes is a story of survival and redemption told with subtle yet poignant moments of interaction between the characters, particularly the outwardly abrasive yet genuinely worried Charlize Theron and the silently troubled Tom Hardy as the titular Max. Both share the screen as equals, attempting to right the wrongs of man and give the Earth some hope of rebirth in the wastelands.

2. Inside Out

insideout.jpg

Pixar Animation

Pixar has carved out a market for making people go through a roller coaster of emotion. Inside Out could be their crowning achievement in that department, literally using its cast of emotions to capture the rather universal evolution of the thought process one feels at a prime age like 11. It’s an incredibly clever film that takes the vague idea of personified emotions and fleshes it out into a chancy adventure film where the stakes are the emotional clarity of a young girl rather than anything earth shattering. No evil villain or life threatening actions, just this one girl’s emotional clarity. Yet, thanks to the constantly clever use of visuals and surprising maturity hidden beneath the gags, the stakes manage to feel far more grand than the ultimate scale would imply.

1. Room

room-jack-brie

A24

If we really want to talk about emotional roller coasters, Room is biggest Six Flags ride of emotional resonance out there. Director Lenny Abrahamson took the very nature of the initial titular environment and used it to map the trajectory of Brie Larson and Jacob Trembly’s characters. From their claustrophobic start to their expansion into the wider world, you see an inner turmoil between the both of them, one trying to adjust to an environment she hasn’t been in for years and the other attempting to grasp what this new unseen world is to him. Room doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of this scenario and even the aftermath, but in it’s humanity there’s a chance for clarity and and ability to move on from adversity. It isn’t for the the faintest of emotional hearts, but those that can stand being built up and crumbled like myself can admire a powerful example of what truly gripping dramatic filmmaking can be.

“Carol” (2015) – Subtle Love Speaks Volumes

Carol is a rather low key example of the recurring trend of LGBTQ love stories from older time periods for the Oscar season. Yet, unlike many of those films that aim more for the issue of the time, Carol wisely decides to aim for such a love story firmly from a character basis that allows the LGBTQ element to breath naturally. It’s appropriate to speak about the nature of the central love story, given the setting of 1952 when such action would be considered highly taboo and even illegal in some places for the era. However, the romance that builds in Carol isn’t one steeped in explicit passion and pronounced joy, deciding to go for a more muted exploration that comes from character rather than issue. It’s one that thrives when it’s downplayed, through gazes and soft caresses. The titular character as beautifully performed by Cate Blanchett is only at her most jovial when she’s with her daughter, a beacon of love that she feels most comfortable expressing open affection for. Her and Rooney Mara’s romance is one that brings comfort behind closed doors, one that both feel compelled to hide for fear of losing what little they have.

There’s a tragedy there. A complex one that serves as a quiet 180 from the more openly exciting same sex romances of our modern era. There’s a beauty in the understated nature of Blanchett and Mara’s performances, making each small moment of connection matter far more. These are two people who can’t express who they are, not just because of the society they live in for Blanchett but in Mara’s case because she’s not sure about this side of herself. She’s discovering who she is, but is also conflicted about what revealing that side could do for those around her. Mara’s journey is one of quiet realization that her needs truly matter, through a progressive self confidence that manages to temper and evolve naturally. Yet, Blanchett’s Carol isn’t treated like some sort of “manic pixie dream lesbian” that’ll immediately open Mara to who she is. There’s a struggle there, one that’s full of distrust and one that isn’t even fully solved by the narrative’s end. Director Todd Haynes takes that limited interaction and allows it to flourish in gorgeous glimmers, particularly during one car ride between the two that serves as an instantly relatable metaphor for the queasy beauty of falling for each other.

That’s not to say this isn’t without a few quibbles. Most of them mainly come toward the end of the second act where there’s a sort of meandering nature to story, drifting certain intriguing side characters like Sarah Paulson or Kyle Chandler to drift and rarely get any sort of time to play off the aspects of their personalities. There’s also a conflict that manages to force a sort of romantic comedy style end of the second act, leading Carol along a seemingly predictable line to an inevitable resolution. Yet, the genius of Phyllis Nagy’s script is that this low simmering story never goes for the more exaggerated approaches to this situation. The emotions are real, the reactions are grounded and most of the beats are remarkably relatable. Carol may be understated, but what speaks loudest about it is the emotional honesty and small moments of human connectivity.

Date Seen: 1/13/16

Rating: 4 out of 5 Blurry Lensed Car Rides

carol-poster

The Weinstein Company

 

“The Danish Girl” (2015) – Tragedy Fast Tracked

The topic of gender identity is prevalent one worth exploring. With LGBTQ ideas edging closer and closer to major cultural exposure with every new year, it’s encouraging to see a major Oscar contender release focused on the topic of gender. That being said, The Danish Girl is more of an early step rather than a full run up the stairs and even then, it doesn’t feel like one that’s all that memorable once you’ve climbed past the final hump. The biggest assets the film has on its side are its leads Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne. Redmayne is the performance likely to get more attention due to the very nature of the character he’s portraying, one that may turn some off given his status as a cisgender male. The problems with the character of Lili aren’t quite on the actor himself, as he at least approaches her with the right amount of vulnerability in his performance for a person transitioning in a world that’s a far cry away from even the meager acceptance we have for such issues now.

Yet, Redmayne’s character as an individual person isn’t quite as interesting as Vikander’s Gerda, a woman torn between realizing that the man of her life & the female friend who has helped jump start her career can’t exist in the same time. It’s a nuanced and complex turn from Vikander in a year that already had an extremely captivating performance from her in Ex-Machina. Unfortunately, The Danish Girl has a very wonky focus, initially setting this situation as a dual hander for the both of them before veering off in varying directions and having detours with side characters that mean next to nothing once the huge problem of the film rears its head; once the second act kicks in, this thing rushes the plot along faster than The Flash on an oil slick. Everything important is sped through once we arrive in Paris, leaving little to no breathing room for the characters to interact in.After a promising start that sets up an interesting dynamic between the couple, The Danish Girl becomes a break-neck race to get through all the major plot points of Oscar bait as quickly as humanly possible.

This removes much of the potential moments of tragedy and human connection one can have with the characters, settling on giving us broad strokes. Even a much shorter and unpolished film like 2015’s Tangerine gives us far more of a sense of individuality and identity with its transgender characters than this one by simply letting them exist in their cultural space. None of this is helped by the coldly uninvolved direction of Tom Hooper, which stagnantly examines this highly emotional concept like an autopsy rather than a relationship. It’s so clinical and uninvolved in what’s going on for the most part, removing a true intimacy with the characters beyond a few moments of intriguing close ups. For all its inconsistent shot construction, even Hooper’s last film Les Miserables managed to capture far more personal and engaging moments with its characters than this ever does. For all of this, The Danish Girl is very well intentioned, but will likely be a mere footnote in what will hopefully be a bright future for gender identity in a mainstream cinematic landscape.

Date Seen: 1/12/16

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Danishes… Mmmmm, Danish

danish-poster

Focus Features

 

“Phantasm” (1979) – Surreal Nightmare Fuelling Fun

Phantasm is like a terrible nightmare; it’s filled with haunting imagery, populated with garish characters and when it’s over you wonder what the hell just happened. Director/writer/producer/cinematographer/editor Don Coscarelli completely devoted himself to this bizarre sack of surreal images, utilizing limited lighting and creative camera moves to mask his lack of budget. Sometimes the masking doesn’t work to his advantage, but the gradual reveal of the machinations behind The Tall Man and his minions is consistently fascinating to watch thanks to the vast amounts of glorious atmosphere, a likable cast and an appropriately intriguing sense of humor. The biggest highlight of them all really is the now late Angus Scrimm as The Tall Man, who combines a mysterious sense of authority with a limited yet deafening use of his booming voice.

Date Rewatched: 1/11/16

Rating: 4 out of 5 Mustard Covered Severed Fingers

phantasm-poster

AVCO Embassy Picture

“The Forest” (2016) – Lost Among the Familiar Trees

The Forest is the first mainstream horror release of 2016 in the US. That’s probably the most significant title it can claim, as otherwise The Forest is an unremarkable effort on every front. The central conflict focuses around Natalie Dormer’s Sarah flying to Japan to find her twin sister Jess, who was in Japan for school. As she exposits, she has a natural connection with her twin, sensing that she’s in some kind of danger after hearing of her disappearance. That dangerous sixth sense sends Sarah to search for Jess through the infamous Aokigahara Forest a.k.a. The Suicide Forest, a real life woodland location where various Japanese citizens take their lives.

Naturally, there’s a lot of potential in a film about such a culturally significant location. Yet, the titular forest could have just been any other dense forest locale, as the scares here feel rather unconnected to any real mythology beyond the basic concept and a typical Japanese school girl ghost that pops up on occasion. They’re all mostly generic and seemingly disassociated jump scares, the only real narrative connection being toward a backstory component for Sarah & Jess that never truly gives us a connection to these two as sisters. It’s also a shame that The Forest gives a fine talent like Natalie Dormer nothing to do with either of her two roles, since Jess is essentially a plot device and Sarah is a forgettably bland white girl cliche with vaguely xenophobic attitudes and a charmless smirk. She’s also paired with Taylor Kinney as a block of wood that seems to be a partner of varying motives, but only ends up serving as a relatively rather flimsy excuse for false tension one could see the outcome of a mile away. The few scares that manage to work are based in rather primal fears, particularly one involving maggots. Otherwise, this is a complete dull thud of a horror film.

Date Seen: 1/11/16

Rating 1.5 out of 5 Broken Tree Limbs

the-forest-poster

Gramercy Pictures

“Labyrinth” (1986) – Menace and Magic Through Puppets

In light of the passing of musician and actor David Bowie, it only seemed natural to revisit the film that put his iconic visage on my radar as a child: Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. Henson and Bowie were obviously a natural fit for the time, with their work evoking a similar (though in Henson’s case, far more family friendly) sense of elaborate mystique and surreal glee that marked both artists as auteurs. The presence of Bowie allowed Henson to open his palette to other horizons, ones that recall the more unhinged surreal imagery of his early short films. This can be particularly seen in the MC Esher style climax, which fits the major themes of deception and misdirection. After all, Jareth the Goblin King is very much a character of temptation and mischief, even if his motives are a bit hard to place.

Then again, that ambiguity is part of what gives Labyrinth as distinctive a stamp as it does. The world of Jareth is never elaborated on in detail, but showcased for all its nonsensical and silly glory while keeping the constantly looming threat of The Goblin King in check. Clearly, another major theme of Labyrinth is the ever looming fear of adulthood for Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah. Denying responsibility is what sets her on the path towards Jareth, having to realize the unfair nature of the world around her through these bizarre and untethered rules of the Goblin Kingdom. It’s all brought to life gloriously through the detailed production design and over the top synthesized songs. Some of the detours could have been edited down (mainly the Fiery song and dance number), but it all manages to paint the tapestry of this environment without ever spelling things out too elaborately. Easily a highlight of the 80s fantasy trend.

Date Rewatched: 1/11/16

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Goblin puppets

Labyrinth-poster

Lucasfilm and Tristar Pictures