Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 Movies Revisited

Is is a sickness? Most certainly. Or a madness, perhaps. But those of us who review movies in any capacity have no choice in the matter. As the end of the year inches closer, we hear the call.

Retrospectives, best of lists: call them what you will. It is not the form that matters, but the exercise, and the knowledge it is all so futile cannot quell the urge to participate. We write these not to inform or reflect, but out of some strange compulsion.

I see many movies every year, the majority of which are Christmas related. But that's not what this list is about. This is about new movies, released at some point in 2015, that I've watched. It's a far more limited set, so I do not separate the good from the bad. Instead, I present all films fitting those criteria, ranked from my least to most favorite:

13. The Last Five Years
I didn't review this formally: hell, I didn't even catch it in theaters. Then again, seeing it on the big screen was hard to do outside of New York and Los Angeles.

If you haven't heard of it, The Last Five Years is an adaptation of a musical starring Anna Kendrick released last winter that wasn't Into the Woods. In it, she plays... er... actually, a character in a situation surprisingly similar to Cinderella's in the second act of Into the Woods. Not the giant part: just the whole thing about being married to a successful man who cheats on her.

Sorry. Retroactive spoiler alert?

The plot of The Last Five Years doesn't matter, anyway: both the musical and movie's selling point is how the story unfolds, with the man's version told start to end and the woman's end to start. It's just one of the many subtle ways the writer implies women are irrational.

In case you couldn't tell, I wasn't a huge fan of this one. There were some great songs and cool ideas, but this musical is better chopped up into MP3-sized segments than played start to end (and simultaneously vice-versa). It delivers some good moments, but the whole is tedious and a little sexist.

12. Jurassic World
Fun but ultimately underwhelming, this was part homage, part sequel, and part remake. There were some great moments, but the film as a whole felt redundant. There's very little in this movie we haven't seen before: even the movie's new monster was basically a rehash of the spinosaurus in part 3. I guess the mosasaurus was a new addition, but it felt like a tacked-on joke, more than anything else. Honestly, the most memorable, original aspect of the movie was probably the petting zoo (the petting zoo was really damn cool).

There's really no excuse for retreading the same ground a fourth time. We're three sequels overdue for a dino-pocalypse: it's long past time for the franchise to start living up to its potential.

All that said, I had a good time in the theater, and the movie was well-paced and enjoyable to watch. It was solid summer entertainment, but it wasn't anything more than that.

11. Ex Machina
Full disclosure - I didn't catch this in the theaters, so it's of course possible I'm judging it a little harsher than I'd be if I experienced it on a big screen.

But... I don't know. This movie was largely cerebral, so I doubt it would make all that much of a difference. Also, I absolutely enjoyed it. It's a clever SF film that approaches the Turing test from an interesting angle. The actors are great - especially Alicia Vikander, who does a phenomenal job playing an android whose consciousness is in question. The effects and design work help with that illusion, too, but I really think Vikander's performance is what makes it work.

Like I said before, the movie's extremely clever. But I didn't really find it surprising. As soon as you've been introduced to the concept, you know it's going in one of a few directions. The movie resolves without any real surprises, and feels more like a refresher in AI than anything original. It left me feeling like I'd just seen a great episode of the Outer Limits. Maybe that's all intelligent SF can hope for in this day and age.

This was a really smart, fun movie. If I were rating this on quality, it would be significantly higher on this list. But, as an experience, I just didn't feel like it had much impact.

10. Jupiter Ascending
Yes, there was bloat. Yes, the movie was about as far from elegant as you can get. But, frankly, I'm getting a little tired of elegant, streamlined movies, anyway. The Wachowskis made this by combining more genres and concepts than I can wrap my head around, and the result is nothing less than fantastic. Sure, the story meanders, but who the hell cares? The visuals are gorgeous, the setting is intriguing, and the action is awesome. Are we really that attached to simplistic narrative we can't appreciate something this cool because it goes off-book?

Add this to the growing list of Wachowski films that are underrated, right beside Cloud Atlas and Speed Racer. I hope they know there are a few of us out there who appreciate their work.

9. Avengers: Age of Ultron
There's a lot to love in Age of Ultron, between the awesome fight scenes, fantastic villain, and cool new heroes. How amazing is it that we're getting a cinematic version of Vision? How cool was Scarlet Witch? The Hulk-Buster, in all its glory?!!!

But all that needs to be weighed against the hard reality that, no matter how many elements they got right, the movie was ultimately a disappointment. Sure, the first one had a few minor plot holes, but the emotional arcs worked, and the film came together as a whole beautifully. In contrast, part two was messy. There was neither a consistent tone nor any kind of narrative arc. The characters' individual stories were a jumbled mess of incoherent nonsense. Why is the team falling apart? Because the plot calls for it, and the Scarlet Witch gave them a nudge: maybe not the best direction to take.

But enough worked to hold my attention and keep me fascinated for the film's duration. If this is ultimately set-up for Civil War, it didn't fail: I'm excited to see how that plays out next year.

Still, the first Avengers movie was my favorite film the year it came out, while this one was just summer entertainment.

8. The Good Dinosaur
This is a tough movie to rank. Visually, it was stunning: the landscape was breathtaking and complex to a degree that was almost unfathomable. But story-wise, there just wasn't much meat to this film. The conceit was cute and all - a boy and his dog story where the boy's a dinosaur and the dog is a human child - but, once you move past that, the movie feels incredibly flat.

The same goes for the minor characters. All are cute mashups, but there's no real depth. Once you're done chuckling at the fact the T-rex cowboys run like they're riding on horses, there's not much else to dig into. Meanwhile, the main character's emotional arc is simplistic and kind of dull.

But, all that said, Spot is adorable, and the world is rich. It's not an especially strong Pixar offering, but it's still a solid movie.

7. Krampus
I'm not 100% set on this movie's placement - I think I'd have to see several of these movies again to be sure - but it feels right in the moment. Krampus's problem was structure: the movie relied so heavily on its monsters and premise, it muscled out any real story line. There was lip service connecting how Krampus was summoned with the resolution, but it never really clicked.

That said, the monsters were amazing, the characters unusually strong, and the overall tone just spectacular. This was a movie that took a piece of folklore, tied it to modern holiday tropes, then took the whole thing all the way back to the primal origins, when the winters grew cold and the only hope we had was together. The movie doesn't really state any of that, but it asks the question, what's the point of family and Christmas? Then, by stripping away the artificial trappings, it provides a very real, very ancient answer.

If I wasn't a Christmas nerd, I wouldn't have ranked this nearly so high. But this is more than a holiday adventure/horror about a monster who's become extremely popular in the last few years: this was a movie about the heart and soul of Christmas itself.

6. Ant-Man
Who the hell would have expected Ant-Man to be a more fulfilling Marvel experience than Age of Ultron? If you move past the fact that we're still waiting for our first female-led Marvel film when this would have worked better as a Wasp film than a Scott Lang movie, it was a solid light superhero piece. It was funny, entertaining, and - frankly - better integrated into the larger MCU than Age of Ultron.

The Ant-Man/Falcon fight was worth the price of admission alone, and the far-too-brief sequence with Janet stood out as the high-point of the film.

It wasn't great, but it was good. Really good, even. I can't wait to see these characters show up again.

5. A Christmas Horror Story
With the occasional exception, I haven't included direct-to-video and direct-to-streaming movies on these lists. I think the rule I'm drifting towards is to include them if and only if I think they can compete. And this one can.

This anthology cuts back and forth between several holiday horror stories, all of which unfold in fascinating ways. This movie's philosophy towards combining Christmas and genre is one I share - make Christmas relevant, but don't treat it like a gimmick. Not all of the stories use Christmas tropes as their subjects: half involve classic horror or fantasy elements, then tie them to the holidays through thematic or story elements.

The movie starts a little slow, and there are a few bad jokes, but overall it was a lot of fun to watch. Parts were funny, parts were scary, and others were just impressive. One of the segments wraps with a twist I didn't see coming and loved. This jumped onto the short list of my favorite Christmas horror movies.

4. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Rogue Nation is a surprisingly playful film. It continues the Mission: Impossible movie tradition of disavowing the team and/or disintegrating the entire organization (only the second movie breaks that pattern, and that one sucks for unrelated reasons).

While I'd love to see them actually do a Mission: Impossible movie where they're given a mission that they solve as IMF agents, I can't deny this one really delivers. Sure, it's yet another rehash of the premise of the first movie, but I'll be damned if it isn't a fun rehash.

It doesn't hurt that the movie gives us a new ally played by Rebecca Ferguson. Frankly, I'd love to see Hunt promoted to director in a movie or two and have her take over the team. Cruise can't keep playing the action hero forever, and she'd clearly be a better choice than Renner, who never really felt like leader material.

At five movies in, this series really seems to have found its stride. This wasn't the best movie of the summer, but it came a lot closer than I'd have expected.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road
I feel like this took a lot of us by surprise, despite the fact there were plenty of positive rumors floating around in advance. Still, after the Star Wars prequels, the fourth Indiana Jones movie, Tron: Legacy, the last Hobbit movie, and all the other failed attempts to revive a long gone film franchise, it's easy to be cynical. I suppose the law of averages meant one of them had to work. Either that, or it's an Australian thing.

Regardless, this movie was impossible not to love. Charlize Theron got to be an action hero in a sci-fi movie deserving of her time for once, and the supporting cast was just amazing. This was an inventive, fun, and thought-provoking movie, not to mention a welcome break from typical summer movies.

If this is the kind of movie Miller's making at 70, just imagine the Mad Max films he'll be directing when he turns 90.

2. Inside Out
Even before Pixar started to falter with movies like Cars 2 and Monsters University, the studio has had issues with redundancy. Plot lines have a tendency of repeating, villains are a little too similar, and emotional beats have been reused since the start. While there's nothing wrong with reusing some storytelling elements, Pixar has been stagnating.

That's half the reason why Inside Out is so exciting: it feels fresh. Of course, the other half is that Inside Out is an incredibly good movie. It's a touching, complex film that also manages to deliver topnotch comedy.

The list of Pixar's best movies is a long one, but Inside Out deserves a spot.

1. Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens
This seems like a great time to remind you that this list is based on preference, not an appraisal of how good a movie is. I don't think anyone could seriously argue The Force Awakens was the best movie of the year, even within the geek-friendly subset of films. Inside Out was nearly flawless, and Fury Road was technically superior to The Force Awakens, no matter how you cut it.

But I love this movie. Even with its plot holes, ridiculous contrivances, and ill-advised preoccupation with nostalgically retreading the story we've already nostalgically retread in 1983's Return of the Jedi: I love it.

I love it for reuniting us with the characters we loved - with Han, Leia, Chewie, C-3PO, R2-D2, and - for the briefest possible moment - even Luke. I love it for rebuilding that galaxy; its vehicles, inhabitants, and buildings.

I REALLY love it for the new heroes - for Finn, Poe, and Rey. Especially Rey: forget this trilogy nonsense - I want a dozen more movies with her as the lead.

And, on the villain side, I love it for Kylo Ren, quite possibly the most intriguing antagonist the franchise has ever offered. We've had Jedi fighting to stay on the righteous path for decades, but we've never really seen the other side of that coin - a disciple of the Dark Side actively working against his better instincts, trying to keep the light from dominating his destiny.

It may not be the best movie of the year, but I can't help it: it's absolutely my favorite.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

We arrived at the movie theater to see this about an hour and forty minutes early. Much to our surprise, there was no line outside the theater. But it wasn't because we were the first ones there: it was because the movie was already seating. We were there for the first show, the 7 PM, and apparently AMC made the call there was really no point scheduling anything on that screen beforehand. Can't say I blame them: for all intents and purposes, there's only one movie in theaters this weekend.

In case you're wondering, I'm not relaying the exciting adventures of me and Lindsay sitting in a theater for an hour and a half because it builds to some sort of fascinating story; I'm doing it because Facebook and Google+ automatically drop the first paragraph in along with the link. All of this is mainly to fill space to make sure no spoilers accidentally wind up in anyone's feed.

Which is, among other things, a roundabout way of stating that there will be spoilers in this review. Because what could I possibly have to say about this movie that doesn't contain spoilers? I mean, sure, I could tell you that you should rush out to the theater and see it as soon as you possibly can, but I'd be wasting your time. Even if this wasn't trending towards 95% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, you'd probably be planning to see it. Hell, you've probably already got tickets.

I will say that I don't think spoilers will actually hurt this movie. I went in with a pretty good idea what was going to happen in this thing, and that's from early plot leaks a year or more old. Honestly, I'm glad I knew what to expect, because... because....

The because is a spoiler, actually. So - last chance if you're reading this without having seen the movie.

...because the plot sucks.

No, really. The plot of The Force Awakens is horrible. All they did was reuse the one from Star Wars. It's essentially a remake where they're using the Force to imply a mystical reason for the past repeating itself, when it's obvious the real reason's that the folks behind this are just huge Star Wars nerds.

I'm glad I knew this going in, because it made it all the easier to get past it. Because, at the end of the day, I don't give a womp rat's ass that they rehashed A New Hope. A decent story barely made the top ten list of things I wanted from this movie, and they nailed more than enough of the items above it.

Including #1. The deviation I most wanted from this was something we've never gotten from this franchise, at least in the movies: a great female protagonist. If we're doing the "hero's journey" thing again, I want a heroine. And the reason I want this is selfish and simplistic: it's because I am bored as hell of watching almost indistinguishable young white men go through the same adventures with minor alterations.

When it comes to Star Wars, story is a minor trifle, but characters are immensely important. And, in Rey, we get the single best POV character the franchise has ever offered. I'm not going to go into too much detail on this, because this is something I don't want ruined for anyone.

Likewise, I'm not going to tell you too much about Finn, Poe, Maz Kanata, or Kylo Ren.... Especially not Ren. What's going on with his character is pitch-perfect: I'm thrilled with the choices they made. These characters - and the actors bringing them to life - are what Star Wars needs to carry the legacy forward for another generation.

Supporting them are the core characters from the original. Well, mostly just Han and Chewie, though Leia gets some good scenes, and Luke... Luke grew a beard.

It's great to see these characters, really - the audience I saw the movie with applauded when each appeared. The only thing that might have been better would have been maybe not having them in the movie. Honestly, it wasn't their movie, and I'd have preferred more time with the new characters. But that's a plot issue, and we already established how big of a deal that is.

Throughout the movie, there was a voice in my head that kept noting whenever something stupid happened, when characters were randomly thrown together to move the story along or when they devoted massive amounts of time and money to set up an unnecessary homage. I never stopped spotting them, but I never really cared.

Because of the music. And the action. And the adventure. And the amazing character moments that spun into even more amazing character arcs.

I can see the flaws here, but I still love every minute of this movie.