Sunday, January 03, 2016

December 2015

A lot of “prestige” films come out in December, which is also the time I go on vacation and don’t see any movies for at least a week. I was, however, able to watch TV shows on my iPad, and this month I finished binge-watching Jimmy McGovern’s amazing show The Street—and burned through most of his follow-up series Accused as well. (Up next will be two more McGovern shows: Moving On and Banished.) This was also the month I got a new car (a 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee) and finished converting all of Cindy’s old camcorder tapes to DVD and digital media. Hurray! Meanwhile, here are the movies I saw in December:

CREED (2015)—A guy named Michael Jordan playing a guy named Don Johnson? That’s just the beginning of his identity crisis. More accurately, he’s Michael B. Jordan playing a guy named Adonis (aka Donny) Johnson (aka Creed), the illegitimate son of the late Apollo Creed, who once fought (and later trained) Rocky Balboa. Confused? Well, poor Donny sure seems to be, but one thing’s for sure—he wants to be a fighter, and he wants to do it on his terms, without letting on that he’s Apollo’s kid. (Yes, it’s that old trope.) He asks Rocky to train him, which he eventually agrees to do, albeit begrudgingly. Although neither written nor directed by Sylvester Stallone, Creed steals all of the best plot points from the first Rocky movie and enhances it with enough fresh material to make it successful on its own terms—much like the Creed movie treats its own lineage. One reference to a boxer needing help wiping his ass is one too many for my liking, and this movie has two such references; the trade-off is that sexy Tessa Thompson is cast as Creed’s love interest. Not the best boxing movie of the year—Southpaw was better—but thoroughly entertaining overall. (8)

THE LADY IN THE VAN (2015)—"If I write about this, people will say there's too much about shit," muses Alan Bennett, referring to the ancient homeless woman living in his driveway. Mary (Maggie Smith) is, in his words, is a “bigoted, blinkered, cantankerous, devious, unforgiving, self-serving, rank, rude, car-mad cow—which is to say nothing of her flying feces and her ability to extrude from her withered buttocks turds of such force that they land a yard from the back of the van and their presumed point of exit.” As Mary, Maggie Smith is, as always, peerless. But this film—based on Bennett’s memoir—is too much about shit, and the foul odor emanating from Mary, a smell that is constantly alluded to. So little happens that Bennett (played here by Alex Jennings) is actually written as two different roles (the housebound writer and the liver of life) so he has somebody to interact with. It’s a device that wears real thin, real fast. (5)

TRUMBO (2015)—Fortunately, the bad experience of the previous biopic about a real-life writer was quickly offset by this biopic about another real-life writer (and an infinitely better one). Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted in the 1950s for belonging to the Communist party, managed to survive by ghostwriting movies, some of which went on to critical acclaim and Oscar wins. It’s a familiar story (The Front covered blacklisting in a fictionalized way), but still an outstanding one—it’s both entertaining and educational, and the entire cast, especially Bryan Cranston as Trumbo and Elle Fanning as his young daughter, are exceptional. One of the best movies of the year, if not the best. (10)

THE BIG SHORT (2015)—Four years ago, writer/director J.C. Chandor gave us Margin Call, a drama about events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. That film, starring Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and Zachary Quinto, was the story from the perspective of investment bankers and brokerage houses. Directed by Adam McKay, this new movie—presents the same crisis from the point of view of four Wall Street analysts who successfully predicted that the housing market was going to collapse, and how they made a fortune betting against the U.S. economy. Most of the machinations are way over the head of the common moviegoer (me included), but that’s not necessarily a drawback, because McKay comedically breaks the fourth wall to help us understand what’s going on. As a result, the viewer is simultaneously amused and horrified by this particular history lesson. Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale are standouts; based on the book by Michael Lewis, whose 1996 volume Trail Fever single-handedly turned me into a political junkie. (7)

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)—Director J.J. Abrams and his co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan don’t add a lot of twists to the original Star Wars formula, choosing to stick with what works (and in fact plundering so much of the original recipe that it’s practically a remake of the 1977 film). Still, it’s awfully nice to see the old faces again, and the new ones—particularly Daisy Ridley, sure to be catapulted into stardom virtually overnight—will make fine performers in the inevitable sequels. Loaded with action, shooting, killing, explosions…and it has BB-8, that adorable new droid. (9)

YOUTH (2015)—This wasn’t the best movie of the year, but it definitely has the best poster of this year or any year! Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino’s comedy-drama about rich guests staying at a fancy Swiss hotel, including Michael Caine as a retired composer/conductor, Harvey Keitel as a washed-up film director, Paul Dano as an actor, and numerous others in smaller roles. The movie is about life’s regrets and failures—and the dangers of giving up on life when you’ve still got a few hours left on the clock. Although the movie moves at an agonizingly slow pace, I was willing to go on its rather ponderous journey, due to the excellent performances and intriguing conversations. Jane Fonda is wasted in what amounts to a cameo, but poster girl Madalina Diana Ghenea (as Miss Universe) really gets everybody’s hearts pumping. (8)

THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)—Quentin Tarantino’s latest is a Western set largely inside a snowed-in Civil War-era haberdashery. It’s like a long, talky play with sudden explosions of violence. At times I was reminded of Death Proof, another Tarantino film that spent an awfully long time on meandering dialogue before the slow burn finally resulted in some action. Approximately 20 minutes of H8 are spent showing various characters having to hammer up a door without a latch, every time somebody enters or exits; I found this annoying diversion to be positively excruciating, and points have to be taken away from a movie that might’ve been watchable had it not been so needlessly long—there is a much better movie in here waiting to be edited down to a reasonable 100 minutes. (6)

SUFFRAGETTE (2015)—Carey Mulligan stars in a film about women in 1912 Great Britain who are seeking the right to vote. Mulligan’s character, Maud Watts, does not start out as a radical, but slowly gets sucked into the cause by others around her. It’s an interesting period piece, not quite electrifying, but well acted and a decent history lesson. (7)

WHERE TO INVADE NEXT? (2015)—Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore has made his best movie yet, a moving and hilarious piece that strives to show how much better foreign countries tackle issues like education, health care, the prison system, drug abuse, etc. Can we as Americans borrow these proven ideas and put them into action? Don’t be ridiculous! Still, Moore relentlessly proves what a backward country we live in. This movie is a masterpiece that had me laughing and crying, often during the same scene. (10)

THE REVENANT (2015)—Another long Western picture, but a much more episodic one than Tarantino gave us. Leonardo DiCaprio is a hunter attacked by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his fellow hunters—but only after one of them murders his son. On the brink of death, DiCaprio must pull himself together, battling severe weather conditions and unfriendly Native Americans, and find the killer of his son. It’s long but never boring; at times, hard to watch some of the more gory and repulsive scenes. But it’s quite a yarn. DiCaprio really makes us feel every throb of agony his character endures. (9)

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