Friday, January 22, 2016

My 2015 Movies in Review

So, 2015 was a little lighter going-to-the-movies-wise than last year, because my wife and I became foster parents and found ourselves with a toddler in the house. Still, you trade one fleeting joy for another that lasts, I suppose. As of this writing, I’m ashamed to say one of the biggest movies I have yet to watch is M. Night Shayamalan’s THE VISIT (2015). Shayamalan is my favorite director, (one of the top three, at least) and though there'd been a couple of recent misses, I know I’ll enjoy this one. Just… never got out to see it. Yet. Also, SPECTRE (2015). Having been a major fan of Daniel Craig’s James Bond, this one should have been a no-brainer. Just didn’t have the time to sneak out and watch it myself.

But I did see some movies (though sometimes via streaming). I had high expectations for a couple, but they ended up meh in my opinion (like ANT MAN (2015) and KUMIKO: TREASURE HUNTER (2015), the latter being just a tad too slow and introspective for the couple times I tried to watch it). There were some major winners, however. In no particular order, I may as well address the elephant in the room first:

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015): Yes, I had a few issues with it, specifically in the second half where they felt the need to resurrect the same plot of a Death Star, lowering shields, etc, and some facets were nostalgic to a fault, but on a scale of 1 to 10 for how much these hurt the film, I’d say only 3, and there were a still a few surprises even so. This newest entry into the franchise was the most beautiful film I’ve probably ever seen, well-acted and well-cast. Back are the story and characters which have dimensions which you can touch and feel (metaphorically speaking). This was a labor of love of many people, but a geek’s nod to producer/director J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy, and the writers. I want to go back and watch it again soon. 

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015): The Mad Max movies have always had a way of getting my attention over the decades, though I can’t honestly say any of the three (or four?) Max films ever would make it to my top anything list. This reboot, however, starring one of the most intense actors on the screen today (Tom Hardy, LOCKE (2013), INCEPTION (2010)), grabbed my face from the opening scene and did not let go until the credits rolled. Only then could I finally fall back into my seat and breathe. Happy for all of it. Honestly, I do not think there was a single frame of CGI in this film, every stunt was real  and at times quite dangerous. And it never, ever, let up. Above, I just called the new STAR WARS one of the most beautiful films on the big screen, but MAD MAX could easily fall into that category, with its ballet of violence and stunts. If you have any inclination toward action in your films, watch this. Now.

TRUMBO (2015): This was a last minute decision to see with my (adult) kids. The story of Dalton Trumbo, rising star in the screenwriting world of Hollywood when the Communist black list insanity began in earnest, and his battle against the public hysteria around the supposed threat and those who spread it using fear and blackmail. He epitomized the artist’s need to write, against all odds. It was interesting to see how those in Hollywood did anything they could to work around this legitimately dangerous and biased legislation to keep the movies coming. Admittedly, I’d only looked at the black list era as an insane reaction of unthinking sheep led by a few misleading individuals (much like facebook today), but TRUMBO was not one-sided. I learned a lot, what the communist threat was (or at least why it was viewed as a threat), and why people would want to stop it from spreading. Dalton Trumbo was one of its major proponents, many in history who thought the pie-in-the-sky utopia promised could work and never admitting it never, ever could. For no other reason, watch TRUMBO for Bryan Cranston (GODZILLA, 2014, Breaking Bad TV series). The man is so …. Well, everything. Hal can act!

SPY (2015): Ok, Melissa McCarthy stars in one of my Best of films, and Worst of films. We rented SPY the other day hoping (and these days those hopes are more often dashed than not) for a comedy film which is actually funny. SPY is funny. McCarthy’s timing is perfect throughout, along with costars too numerous to list here. I enjoy a comedy that actually makes me laugh. Too often, lately, comedies resort to the lowest denominator to elicit laughs born of discomfort rather than strong writing and acting. SPY is directed by Paul Feig (THE HEAT, 2013, BRIDESMAIDS, 2011) who's worked with McCarthy very successfully in the past and delivers a fast-paced, fun, and, yes, very funny movie.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION (2015): I reviewed this film earlier this year. I’ve been a fan of the MI films since they started, and of the franchise’s star, Tom Cruise (EDGE OF TOMORROW, 2014, JACK REACHER, 2012). Say what you will of his eccentric personal life, the guy is a great action star who does his own stunts and has a great screen presence. Like the previous MI films, ROGUE NATION is packed with action and gadgets (some of which, admittedly, defy a few laws of physics), but unlike the older Roger Moore James Bond films, MI takes itself and its storylines seriously. Beautifully shot, with a stellar cast, MI: RN was well worth the ticket price.

WAR ROOM (2015); Now, this film is probably not for everyone, but as someone of faith, I’d certainly like everyone to see it. Unlike many previous Christian films which have come out lately, WAR ROOM was not made as an evangelistic tool (ie getting non-Christians learn about Jesus through some form of outreach) but instead, it’s a movie specifically for people who have already nurtured a strong sense of faith. Someone who doesn’t believe in God or Satan, who thinks the Bible is just a collection of made-up stories, will watch this and shake their head in bewilderment. But as a believer, WAR ROOM will grab you much like MAD MAX did earlier this year and (hopefully) shake you up. It’s a serious lesson in the power of prayer and the need to let go of our lives and connecting with God. Another advantage this has over other recent films in this emerging genre, is the acting. Everyone does a honest, believable job. With backing from Sony Pictures and other major players, there was money available to cast some strong actors. This is the latest big budget release from Alex and Stephen Kendrick (COURAGEOUS, 2011, FACING THE GIANTS, 2006)

THE MARTIAN (2015): Now, I will admit, THE MARTIAN wasn’t full of surprises. The film played out in a deliberate, safe manner. I was never really concerned about Matt Damon’s character (ok, maybe a little). THE MARTIAN gets its kudos for how it plays out the story, both visually and scientifically. Yes, perhaps not all the science was perfect, but it was close, and the story was fascinating in how it depicted someone marooned on Mars surviving for an extended period of time. There is some drama and humor throughout, all keeping your interest glued to the screen. It’s an enjoyable film, visually stunning much like GRAVITY (2013) was a couple of years back.

JURRASIC WORLD (2015): This almost fell got demoted to my Runner’s Up list, because although it was well-done and fun to watch, and suspenseful at times, like THE MARTIAN it played it safe, making it more accessible to a wider audience but leaving me wanting more. Still… Chris Pratt. Much like Stephen King fans would pay good money even for one of his shopping lists, I’d see anything with Pratt these days. The guy is genuine and fun to watch. The new dinosaur in the film is nasty and scary, as well, most of the time. What made the movie flat to me was the nostalgic story-rehash (see STAR WARS above) of the original plot. Children of the senior staff (niece and nephew this time) trapped in the wilds of the island where the dinosaurs run amok. There are many references and nods to the original film, but considering there were two sequels prior to this one, the nostalgia didn’t cut it. Still, a fun film. Maybe I should move this to the runner up section, but L.L. is waiting for my article so I’ll leave it.

Runners Up:

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015):I was probably looking forward to this too much. My expectations were too high, maybe because I’d watched the trailer too many times so the film didn’t feel fresh. It felt like a mad jumble of chaos. The story was a little disjointed and the cast didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the first THE AVENGERS (2012). It’s still a great action and superhero film, don't get me wrong, just… dunno. Maybe I should watch it again.

RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015): We watched this movie a few nights ago and, unlike AGE OF ULTRON, my expectations for this newest Merryl Streep vehicle was low. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much. But it is a good movie, with a lot of heart and some great music.

INSIDE OUT (2015): Pixar’s newest smash hit INSIDE OUT is quite a different kids’ movie, and dark at times but very, very good. Fascinating to watch, you never quite know where it’s going and for that it deserves much applause. As usual, the animation is stellar.

Best films from prior years I only got to see this year: 

SELMA (2014) – how this movie was so snubbed at the Oscars I’ll never understand. It’s amazing. Watch it.  /   42 (2013) – This Jackie Robinson biopic is powerfully acted and never falls into too much sentimentality. Special nod to one of my favorite comedic actors Alan Tudyk (SERENITY, 2005, TUCKER AND DALE vs. EVIL, 2010) who takes a supporting role as the uber-bigoted coach of the Phillies baseball team. /  FINDING VIVIAN MAIER (2014) – this documentary follows one man’s search for the identity and story of a woman whose photographs are discovered stowed away in boxes he purchases at an auction. Such an amazing talent, no one had ever seen her work or knew anything about her, until now.

Ok, and to finish up, three of the worst films I saw in 2015 (not necessarily from this year):

UNFINISHED BUSINESS (2015) – though I enjoyed Dave Franco’s (NOW YOU SEE ME, 2013) performance, overall this is a good example of a potentially funny film being mired down with shock and gross-out scenes instead of trying to write actual humor. Don’t watch this with your teenaged daughter, unless you want to both sink slowly into the cushions from embarrassment.

INTO THE WOODS (2014) – This Broadway big screen adaptation from last year is, well, horrible. The songs are terrible (remember, I’m comparing to other Broadway shows, here), and the story is plain stupid. Sorry. I want to be honest. I know everyone thinks I love everything. Obviously, I don't. I fell asleep halfway through and never went back to finish it.

TAMMY (2014) – Like I mentioned earlier, I’m a Melissa McCarthy fan. She executive produced this movie. It should never have been made. How do I put this…? Did you ever watch a film and feel embarrassed for everyone that made it, wondered why didn't someone say something early on? We only made it 20 minutes before deciding to find something else to watch. You can’t blame the marketing department on this one, TAMMY genuinely tried to be funny. It just wasn’t. Go see SPY instead.