La La Land (Full Review)

There’s something about old Hollywood films that feels wholesome and fun. These nostalgic films are what birthed the modern film industry, and although musicals are still relatively prevalent, films like Singin’ In the Rain (or any film starring Gene Kelly) have essentially died off. La La Land, directed and written by Damien Chazelle, is a gorgeous modern day throw back to those vibrant musicals of old.

la_la_landThe film follows a pair of struggling artists in Los Angeles; Mia (Emma Stone) a barista who is an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a pianist who dreams of opening his own jazz bar. After a few chance meetings, the two begin a fun and exciting romance that is tested as they chase their lofty career goals.

There is so much to not just like, but love about La La Land. For starters, any musical needs to have good music. And the music in this film is energetic and infused with soulful jazz and wonderful choreography. This should come as no surprise if you’ve ever seen Damien Chazelle’s directorial debut, Whiplash. The wonderful array of music is aided by colorful scenery and well maneuvered cinematography that make the film feel like a Broadway show.

The two lead actors are both sensational. Emma Stone is loveable and earnest throughout while Ryan Gosling’s signature passion and charisma shines through every scene. The two are so good and their chemistry so electric, that you can easily forgive their descent, but not great vocal performances.

The movie’s biggest flaw, a relatively cliché love story, is even rectified with a beautifully crafted ending that feels both happy and heartbreakingly real. With liveliness and magnetic performances, La La Land manages to be an homage and a revitalization of Old Hollywood filmmaking. Flowing with romance, comedy and soulful music from start to finish, it is a triumph and one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

FINAL GRADE: A

 

 

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The Revenant Review

The_Revenant_2015_film_posterLast year, Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu landed the Academy Award for Best Director for the film Birdman. It was well deserved. This year, Iñarritu has reloaded with another stellar cast, and after watching his newest film The Revenant, it is clear this talented director is no fluke.

Loosely based on actual events, The Revenant stars Leonardo Dicaprio as Hugh Glass, a member of a group of fur traders in the 1800’s. After an attack by a native tribe searching for their chief’s daughter forces the group to retreat from an expedition, Glass is attacked and severely injured by a wild grizzly bear. The attack causes tensions to flare between the group’s captain (Domhnall Gleeson) and hothead John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) about whether to abandon Glass. After taking matters into his own hands and killing Glass’ half Native American son, Fitzgerald leaves Glass to die, only for him to fight for survival and make a quest across the winter wilderness in search of vengeance.

Revenge is a key theme of this film, but survival is perhaps the word that best describes the tone. Most of the movie is dominated by Leonardo DiCaprio giving a very realistic performance as a wounded survivalist; building a fire, finding shelter, and running from angry natives. Many of those elements make the film drag and grow a bit stale in parts. The subplot about the Native American chief in search of his daughter also takes up too much screen time.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s long quest for an Academy Award has dominated the press for this film. But it is actually Tom Hardy’s menacing performance that really drives the narrative. From the start, Hardy’s John Fitzgerald establishes himself as a selfish, greedy, but fiercely intelligent character. The quotable moments delivered by Hardy and some beautiful cinematography of the northern landscapes are what truly make The Revenant a film worth seeing. That and, of course, the gripping final showdown between DiCaprio and Hardy at the film’s climax.

FINAL GRADE: B+

My 10 LEAST FAVORITE Movies of 2015

You have to take the good with the bad. I’ve already released the list of my ten favorite movies. Now it’s time to share the list of ten movies that either should’ve never existed or were just flat out disappointing. As always, I don’t get a chance to see every movie (and some movies I’m too busy to waste time on) so there’s plenty of terrible films from the year that won’t be on this list because I never got around to sitting through them. If you want me to go further in depth as to why I didn’t like these movies, feel free to click on the title for the longer review.

  1. TAKEN 3 Released almost a year ago, this movie is still forgettable, taking Liam Neeson through even more outlandish action antics. This movie might get the award for most unnecessary film of 2015.
  1. PIXELS I’m essentially done giving Adam Sandler chances. There were a few laughs in here, but not enough to justify Sandler and the majority of the cast giving as little effort as possible with a dumb script.
  1. FANTASTIC FOUR *SIGH* So much potential here. The cast was good. The director was supposedly good. And yet, the end result was a boring, obviously rushed attempt to make a fun comic book feel as droll as possible.
  1. ALOHA Never before had I sat through a romantic comedy with a more convoluted plot and a greater sense of purposelessness.
  1. PAN Hugh Jackman and some colorful imagery couldn’t save this film from being a complete waste of time. Dumb characters and casting choices that completely missed the mark on the essence of the Peter Pan story are what made this film a complete disaster.
  1. FIFTY SHADES OF GREY An hour and a half of awkward softcore porn, bad dialogue, and B-movie acting. Twilight at least had an occasional action sequence. This movie just seemed utterly pointless.
  1. THE PERFECT GUY A movie so filled with thriller clichés and moronic characters that it is mind boggling to try and figure out why such a talented cast agreed to take part in it.
  1. SEVENTH SON A movie so bad and forgettable, I literally forgot to review it. Major plot points that are never explained, actors phoning it in, and just an overall boring tone make this one of the worst fantasy films to date.
  1. JUPITER ASCENDING Quite frankly the worst science fiction film I’ve ever seen. Convoluted doesn’t even begin to describe the plot, and every character is downright insufferable. I could rant for half an hour about why this movie sucks, but you can just read the full review.
  1. THE BOY NEXT DOOR Jennifer Lopez being attractive is no saving grace. This movie is awful, from its plot to its characters, to its Lifetime movie production value. It was literally the only movie in 2015 that I felt like walking out of.

 

Honorable Mention: Minions, The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials, Insurgent, Furious 7, Mortdecai

MY Top 10 Movies of 2015

Another year has come and gone, which of course means it’s time to list my Top Ten favorite films of 2015. Quick disclaimer: These aren’t necessarily the films that I think are the best, but they are the films that I enjoyed watching the most. Feel free to click each title for the link to my full reviews of each film. Enjoy, and HAPPY NEW YEAR!!

  1. PEANUTS Shultz’s classic comic strip was beautifully brought to life with fun animation and an endearing story that made audiences fall in love with Charlie Brown all over again.
  1. KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE One of the most fun, action packed films of the year. This movie reinvigorated the spy genre with 90’s action film flare. Newcomer Taron Egerton was a breakout star while Samuel L. Jackson also turned in one of the best villain portrayals of the year.
  1. DOPE A witty, relevant take on the teen comedy that featured several bright young stars. It helps that it provided some of the most memorable laughs in any comedy released in 2015.
  1. JURASSIC WORLD With a nostalgia factor that was off the charts, and a charismatic leading man in Chris Pratt, this 90’s throwback managed to be a thrill ride even if it was just a rehash of the original Jurassic Park.
  1. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS Speaking of nostalgia, this film brought back all of the original emotions created by the classic Star Wars trilogy while also successfully ushering in a new cast of wonderful characters that I can’t wait to see more of.
  1. INSIDE OUT Pixar does it again. This time, the animation gurus gave us a unique story that blended some clever comedy with a heartfelt story filled with great messages for people of all ages.
  1. EX MACHINA This methodical thriller made me a huge fan of each member of its main cast. Stellar performances coupled with a sleek, yet simple production value helped make this film a science fiction classic.
  1. STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON I’m usually not a fan of biopics, especially if they’re three hours long. But this film was a pleasant surprise. Great music, sensational performances and a well crafted narrative made this movie feel like time well spent.
  1. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD Coming in at a very close 2nd, is George Miller’s return to the Director’s chair to bring a new Mad Max movie that was perhaps even more fun than his original films. Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, and Nicholas Hoult (amongst others) helped bring to life some memorable characters that helped transcend a plot that is essentially a non-stop car chase into a Summer classic.
  1. CREED Who new Sylvester Stallone still had this left in him? He and Michael B. Jordan combined to create the best onscreen duo of 2015 and make this Rocky sequel into the perfect movie-going experience filled with heart, soul, and suspense.

 

Honorable Mention: The Man from UNCLE, The Hateful Eight, Ant-Man, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Walk, The Night Before, Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, The Good Dinosaur, The Martian

The Hateful Eight (Full Review)

I consider myself a fan of Quentin Tarantino. Pulp Fiction is one of my favorite films of all time, and I absolutely loved the Kill Bill movies, Django Unchained, Inglorious Bastards, and Reservoir Dogs. But 2007’s Death Proof, his only film I flat out despise, also showed me that the films by the stylistic director can sometimes be an acquired taste if you’re not used to him and irksome even if you are.

The_Hateful_EightTarantino’s newest film, The Hateful Eight, takes place in post-Civil War Wyoming where union soldier turned Bounty Hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) crosses paths with famed Bounty Hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his $10,000 bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in the midst of a blizzard. The weather causes the two men and the prisoner to seek refuge in a small haberdashery with a dopey, newly elected Sheriff (Walton Goggins), an English hangman (Tim Roth), a quiet loner (Michael Madsen), an old Confederate General (Bruce Dern), and a Mexican caretaker (Demian Bichir). But it doesn’t take long for the two bounty hunters to realize that one of their new counterparts is in cahoots with their prisoner.

The film serves mostly as an old western/mystery. That unique quality alone makes it intriguing. But it does feature all of the things many find irksome about Tarantino’s films. For one thing, the director is excessively methodical, from the film’s dialogue to the often 90 second tracking shots, it’s clear QT has no respect for your notions of a proper film’s runtime. Then there’s Tarantino’s trademark gore and rampant use of the ‘N-word’, neither of which bother me and if you saw and liked Django Unchained, they shouldn’t surprise or distract you either.

Negatives aside, as I mentioned before, I consider myself a fan of Tarantino. And as such, I can recognize all of the elements that make him, in my mind, one of the best working Directors in film. From the costumes, to the attention to character details, to the scenery, The Hateful Eight carries an authenticity and tangible nature about it that makes it feel as if you’re right there with the characters. The acting is also solid, thanks to wonderfully charismatic performances by Jackson, Russell, Goggins, and Roth as well as a gross and gritty, yet lovable job by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

If you’re unfamiliar with Tarantino then the violence and three hour runtime with often slow pacing will make you want to leave halfway through The Hateful Eight. But if you’re familiar with the director’s style, then there’s plenty to love about his eighth film. It’s certainly no Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, but the latest film is certainly another worthy addition to Tarantino’s impressive archive.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spoiler Free Review)

I have always been a fan of Star Wars since the days of sitting down with my Dad to watch the original trilogy. I am not, however, one of the members of the angry majority who think the Star Wars prequels are the worst things to ever happen to cinema. There were many things to appreciate about those films (Darth Maul and Ian McDiarmid’s Palpatine), but there is no denying that they were missing many of the things (charismatic characters, well placed humor, practical effects) that made the franchise so beloved. For that reason… and also to make an excessive amount of money… Disney felt the need to rekindle the Star Wars saga, picking up where the original trilogy left off.

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_PosterThe Force Awakens picks up a few decades after the events of 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Original trilogy hero, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone missing, and in his mysterious absence a new oppressive regime known as the First Order has replaced the Empire. To go into further detail would risk accidentally spilling elements of the plot that director J.J. Abrams and Disney have valiantly gone out of their way to keep under wraps. This is a welcomed aspect, especially in a time where many films have too much of their plots given away in the trailers (*cough* Batman v Superman). What I will say about the story, is that it feels much more like the Star Wars films of old, and includes several nods to the original trilogy that are sure to please die hard fans.

Rather than talk about the story, I’ll focus on what really makes this Star Wars film the best since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back… and that is the characters. Old and new, this film is filled with lovable and interesting characters. From Harrison Ford’s Han Solo to Anthony Daniels’ small appearance as C3PO, all of the old faces bring a wonderful nostalgia to this film that gave me a feeling similar to the one I had watching Jurassic World. Ford, who gets the most screen time of the returning cast, fits seamlessly back into his breakthrough role and rekindles his charming chemistry with Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca and Carrie Fisher’s Leia.

But it’s the new faces that not only make The Force Awakens refreshingly fun, but something that makes us look forward to the films to come. It’s hard to pinpoint which new character is the heart and soul of the movie. John Boyega is charmingly funny and endearing as Finn, a First Order Stormtrooper who changes sides. Oscar Isaac brings a cocky suaveness to his role as pilot Poe Dameron. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a female character that is refreshingly intelligent and strong reminiscent of Princess Leia’s appearance in the original Star Wars. Then there’s BB-8, a lovable round robot similar to R2-D2, but with a childlike personality that makes him feel like anything but a retread.

As for the villains, most of them don’t get enough screen time to garner any reactions, positive or negative. The exception being the menacing primary antagonist Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. For me, Kylo Ren steals the show, and Driver gives a layered performance that gives the character more personality than we’ve ever seen in a Star Wars villain. The character is physically intimidating, but has a rawness about him that make him even more intriguing than even Darth Vader was.

This time Star Trek director J.J. Abrams is at the helm to replace series creator George Lucas. And from the moment the opening scene begins, the difference is noticeable. Several shots, like those involving the classic Millennium Falcon, are absolutely breathtaking. That isn’t to say that this movie isn’t without its flaws. One scene in particular, involving Han Solo and some gangsters, is almost completely useless. The movie also takes a predictable turn in its last half hour once most of the secrets have been revealed.

For those that loathe Star Wars and don’t quite grasp the hype, there is nothing here that will change your mind. But for the die hard fan, it is the Star Wars movie you’ve been waiting for. As for the casual fan, or even the newcomer, Star Wars: The Force Awakens provides enough humor, action, and interesting characters to make for one of the most enjoyable movies of the year and easily one of the best in the franchise.

FINAL GRADE: A-

Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur (Full Review)

The_Good_Dinosaur_posterNo one knows how to get you in your feelings like Pixar. Andy saying his final goodbye to Woody and Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story 3, Marlin finally being reunited with his lost son in Finding Nemo, the entire opening sequence to Up… sometimes you have to have a heart of stone just to get through a Pixar movie without getting watery eyes. This summer’s Inside Out was no different, and it is this kind of emotional storytelling that has help make Disney/Pixar films a step above their competition.

The studio’s newest film, The Good Dinosaur seeks to carry on their rich tradition of fun, but emotional animated entertainment. Set in a world where dinosaurs never went extinct, it follows a young Apatosaurus named Arlo who lives with his two farmer parents and his rambunctious, but physically superior brother and sister. After a storm separates him from his family, Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) reluctantly befriends a wild human boy named Spot in hopes that he can help him find his way home.

It’ll be easy for audiences of all ages to sympathize with young Arlo as he embarks on his journey and faces common issues from the loss of a loved one to dealing with an inferiority complex, to learning how to overcome fears. But the real winning element in The Good Dinosaur is the relationship between Arlo and Spot. The film does a wonderful job building their relationship while creatively putting a new spin on the “man and his loyal pet” dynamic. Several other eclectic characters come and go, but none of them resonate as much Spot does.

The only thing keeping The Good Dinosaur from being an instant classic is the fact that it borrows so many elements from animated family films we’ve seen before. There are doses of Lion King, Finding Nemo, Up! and several others sprinkled in that, at times, make the movie feel unoriginal. Still, it’s hard to deny the film’s charm. And, it should go without saying, the animation is as flawless as anything I’ve ever seen. The Good Dinosaur is an emotional ride, but it is a valuable one. And while it may not match the iconic status of some of the studio’s classics, it is still another solid entry that further illustrates how Pixar can virtually do no wrong… except for Cars 2.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Secret In Their Eyes/The Night Before Reviews

Secret_in_Their_Eyes_posterSECRET IN THEIR EYES Who said Holiday films have to be bright and cheerful? In Secret in Their Eyes, Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) stars as an FBI agent obsessed with finding the rapist and murderer of his partner’s (Julia Roberts) daughter. Nicole Kidman co-stars as a District Attorney and Ejiofor’s love interest. Teetering between murder mystery and suspense thriller, the film reaches Prisoners level darkness without quite reaching that same intrigue.

Ejiofor and Roberts are hauntingly strong in their roles as two characters whose senses of morality falter with each failed attempt to bring the suspected killer (Joe Cole) to justice. In fact, essentially every character in the film gets their hands dirty, making most of the characters interesting enough to account for the film’s relatively scattered pacing. The narrative issues are due in large part to a constant switching between past and present that the movie could’ve done without. Still, passionate leads and an unexpected, albeit twisted, ending help make Secret in Their Eyes decent time well spent if you’ve already caught the major releases. FINAL GRADE: B-

TheNightBefore2015posterTHE NIGHT BEFORE ‘Tis the season for family comedies, but every once in a while, myself and other slightly immature adults, are treated to a raunchy ‘R’ rated holiday film. This year that film… made specifically for the Family Guy watchers and those who can’t get enough of Evan Goldberg movies… is The Night Before. This drug filled, profanity laden comedy features Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a single New Yorker in his 30’s looking to have his last Christmas Eve party night with the two best friends who helped him through the death of his parents: A star athlete with a dirty secret (Anthony Mackie) and a soon to be father on the verge of a mental breakdown (Seth Rogen).

As you should be able to tell from my description, this is a real niche film. If you hated This Is The End or last winter’s would-be comedy The Interview, then you’ll be disgusted by The Night Before. The rest of us with a good sense of humor will find this movie hysterical from start to finish. Michael Shannon, as a former janitor turned wise Christmas sage/drug dealer is alone worth the price of admission. Well timed cameos and fun, yet surprisingly heartfelt chemistry between the three lead actors make The Night Before good enough to excuse a narrative that seems as if it’s making things up as it goes. FINAL GRADE: B+

Creed (Full Review)

Remember that twelve round Mayweather/Pacquiao fight so many of us found to be a dud, because by the end both fighters looked like they’d barely taken a slap to the face? Rocky movies might have had a lot to do with those gripes. In movies, fights involve bloodied noses and swollen faces. But these brutal, sensationalized onscreen battles aren’t the only reason the Rocky franchise has managed to survive nearly 40 years and six sequels. Likable characters and great stories have been an important factor in making not all, but most of the Rocky movies some of the most iconic in the genre.

Creed_posterIf you’re going to make a seventh Rocky movie, it helps if you can make things feel fresh. Rather than focus on Sylvester Stallone’s former Boxing Champion, Rocky Balboa, Creed centers on aspiring boxer, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan). A former juvenile delinquent, Donnie is the illegitimate son of Balboa’s former rival/friend Apollo Creed. In a quest to make his own name as a boxer, young Donnie quits a good job and enlists an aging and widowed Balboa to become his trainer.

If there’s a gripe to be found with Creed, it is that the film follows a relatively predictable arc that is similar to the first Rocky, but that still won’t keep you from wanting to stand and cheer when all is said and done. This is due in large part to well rounded characters and a stellar cast to bring them to life. As expected, Michael B. Jordan is incredible in the lead role. Jordan is fierce, charismatic, and gives the perfect dose of heart to make audiences root for the underdog character as much as they did for Rocky Balboa.

Then there’s Stallone. Somewhere between the second and third Expendables movie, it got lost that Sylvester Stallone can be a really good actor when he wants to be. Stallone gives his best performance of his career as Donnie’s mentor and reluctant father figure. And the chemistry between Jordan and Stallone is electric. Every dramatic or humorous moment shared between the two actors feels so genuine that you almost want to believe that all of this is based on a true story.

The supporting cast also doesn’t disappoint. The always captivating Phylicia Rashad is heartwarming as Apollo Creed’s widow and Tessa Thompson strikes the perfect chord as Donnie’s songstress girlfriend. And although the cast is phenomenal, kudos should still be in order for Directort Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and the writers of Creed who managed to reinvent a classic underdog story and make the Rocky Balboa character as infectious as ever. Just when it seems as if the franchise should be put to rest, everyone involved in Creed manages to rise up and create arguably the best film in the franchise and one of my favorite films of 2015.

FINAL GRADE: A

Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Full Review)

All good things must come to an end. And in the case of this teen novel series turned film franchise, it’s that time. As a fan of the book series, I have been pleased with the movies as a whole. Hunger Games was a solid adaptation that launched the career of Jennifer Lawrence. Catching Fire was a surprising improvement on the literary version. And even last year’s Mockingjay Part 1 was well crafted political commentary, albeit a relatively unnecessary creation due to the fact that it only tells half of a story. The silver lining, however, in giving the Mockingjay novel the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows treatment is that they saved most of the action for this installment.

Mockingjay_Part_2_PosterMockingjay Part 2 picks up right where the previous film left off. Reluctant revolutionary Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is recovering from the vicious attack from her Hunger Games bff, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been tortured and brainwashed by the villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland). But Snow, and the residents of the capitol are weakening, and with the 13 districts aligned, Katniss is ready to lead her other would-be boyfriend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and a host of other returning characters into the capitol to assassinate Snow once and for all. They’ll only have to navigate miles of traps and vicious creatures to do so.

Like with Part 1, this film is really only half of a story. And from the start, it feels like we should be coming back from a scene change rather than starting a whole other film. But whatever Part 2 lacks in story structure, it makes up for in the substance of its characters and message. Mockingjay Part 2 may feature the greatest performances of any film in the series. Jennifer Lawrence is once again stellar, but Josh Hutcherson’s turn as a damaged Peeta is arguably the film’s most crucial portrayal. Throw in countless memorable anecdotes that leap from the pages and onto the screen with ease, and this film manages to satisfyingly hit its emotional chord.

And for those who may have found Part 1 a bit dreary from an action standpoint, there is much more to be found this time around. While there are still some periods of dryness, there are enough exhilarating scenes to keep you fully attentive, particularly when Katniss and her unit are attempting to navigate the capitol. At one point as their being briefed by Commander Boggs (Mahershala Ali), former Hunger Games victor Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) leans to Katniss and says “Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the 76th Hunger Games.” And that is exactly what the second half of the film feels like.

This is the end of the Hunger Games story. So expect to say goodbye to a few familiar faces. But regardless of whether you find the ending, and the somewhat anti-climactic death of one character, to make for a satisfying conclusion (I didn’t when I read the book), there’s simply no denying how thought provoking and emotional the series is. With the help of a remarkable cast and a well crafted overall story, the Hunger Games franchise comes to an end as four films well worth the price of admission.

FINAL GRADE: B+