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+

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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

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+

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+

The Peanuts Movie (Full Review)

Peanuts_2015Few cartoons or comic strips have ever been more endearing than Peanuts. Originally created by Charles M. Shultz, these cartoons have been a staple for family fun and holiday entertainment for 65 years. It only seems right to bring loveable loser Charlie Brown and his imaginative, eclectic canine pal, Snoopy to the big screen.

The Peanuts Movie, directed by Steve Martino and written by Chultz’s son and grandson, follows Charlie Brown as he embarks on a journey to gain respect from his classmates and gain the affection of the new girl in school. Meanwhile, Snoopy and his bird pal Woodstock try their hand at writing a novel. Along for the ride are all of the classic Peanuts characters: Piano playing Schroeder, know it all bully Lucy, wise, blanket toting Linus, tomboy Peppermint Patty and her brainy assistant Marcie, and Charlie Brown’s spunky sister Sally.

If you’ve ever been a fan of Peanuts then there is absolutely nothing to dislike about this movie. It is as witty, charming, and as downright goofy as the best Charlie Brown comic strips and TV specials. It is the perfect family film for anyone from ages 3 to 93. While it certainly seems lengthy in relation to the TV movies you might’ve become accustomed to, the payoff is more than worthwhile. The only negative part of the experience is the insufferable Ice Age short that appears before the movie starts.

The animation is also stellar, blending the classic style of Shultz’s original artwork with impressive modern age computer generated technology. Blended with a fine soundtrack and the fact that Charlie Brown is just a wonderful character who brings a positive message, The Peanuts Movie is a must watch for anyone who wants to enjoy a movie with a little one or who just wants to embrace their own inner-Charlie Brown.

FINAL GRADE: A

The Martian Review

Ridley Scott brought us such cinematic classics as The Gladiator and Blade Runner, but lately, it seems the famed director has lost his touch. Prometheus was underwhelming, The Counselor was a flat out mess, and just thinking about last winter’s Exodus: Gods and Kings sends me into a world of frustration. Simply put… Ridley Scott, you owe us one.

The_Martian_film_posterScott’s latest film follows the trend of recent fall space films such as Gravity and Interstellar which trade big budget action sequences for scientific realism. If you’ve seen those films then you should know to prepare yourself for a movie that is more Cast Away than Star Trek. The Martian stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a U.S. Astronaut who gets stranded on Mars after he gets separated from his crew during a violent storm. Presuming him dead, the world grieves until they find out that Watney has managed to not only survive the storm, but also figure out a way to stay alive until a 4 year manned rescue mission can be put together.

Some (the same people bored by Gravity and Interstellar) will be bored by The Martian. The story is often methodical and filled with scientific jargon you aren’t really meant to understand as much as accept. What makes The Martian captivating through its meticulous pacing is a surprising dose of humor thanks in large part to the charisma of its lead actor. Matt Damon’s charm and ability to bring a humbling sense of emotion to his character made me route for him as if he really was stranded alone on a barren planet. The supporting cast, loaded with big names and recognizable faces, is mostly good, but not memorable. The exception is Donald Glover as a quirky astronomer who is hilarious in limited screen time.

Although the journey feels lengthy, it is undeniably fascinating and heartfelt. The movie also provides breathtaking visuals along the landscaping of Mars, although you’d be foolish to pay the extra money for 3D here. Overall, The Martian may not be a classic, or as suspenseful as 2013’s award winning Gravity, but it is an educational and amiable story about human courage and resilience. And more importantly, it is enough to get Ridley Scott back in our good graces.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Straight Outta Compton (Full Review)

Back in January, in my review of Selma, I talked about my love/hate relationship with biopics. These films, no matter how relevant, have to rely on strong performances and good direction to avoid being tedious. A great performance by David Oyelowo and strong direction by Ava DuVerney helped Selma overcome its preachy tone. Straight Outta Compton could’ve felt like just another gangster film with the same old lessons and tropes, but luckily director F.Gary Gray (Friday, Set it Off, The Italian Job) provides a stylish, seamless narrative that makes this film stand out.

Straight_Outta_Compton_posterThe film follows the meteoric rise and subsequent breakup of Compton, California based rap group N.W.A. between 1986 and 1993, focusing on the core members: Charismatic former drug dealer Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell), writer and chief lyricist Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), ambitious top producer Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins), fellow producer DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and rapper MC Ren (Aldis Hodge). They are brought together by manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who helps them transcend from local success to national phenomenon, but not without a world of conflict brought on by the group’s brash, controversial music.

If you’re only vaguely familiar with N.W.A., then this movie does a masterful job of explaining why they were so important. Their lyrics, though violent and belligerent, were the voice of an unheard generation and their style helped pioneer the future of rap and hip-hop. But that’s just the history lesson element that this film brings. As a whole, Straight Outta Compton paints a grim, but very real picture that illustrates why the genre exists and why they were true artists. Strong performances also help make the dramatic elements of the film incredibly gripping even if you already know the details. Jason Mitchell’s portrayal of Eazy-E and O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s performance as his father are the most notable, but virtually everyone brings something to the table.

If there’s fault to be had, it’s probably in the films lengthy run time of over 150 minutes. There are certain scenes the movie could do without, but everything flows well. And just like Selma, with so many stories of police brutality flooding the news, this story is as topical and relevant as any film to come out this year. Straight Outta Compton is a vulgar, angry, beautiful ode to an overlooked and misunderstood culture and it deserves to be appreciated and respected as much as the influential group it depicts.

FINAL GRADE: A

End of Summer Quick Reviews

While you eagerly anticipate my Straight Outta Compton Review, here are a couple of Summer films that might’ve fallen under the radar that you might want to check out (or avoid).

Vacation_posterVACATION A reboot/sequel of National Lampoon’s popular 1980’s ‘R’ rated comedies about family vacations gone wrong. Ed Helms takes over the lead role as Rusty Griswold, a pushover air pilot in a floundering marriage to his former sorority girl wife (Christina Applegate) and the father to a sensitive nerd (Skyler Gisondo) who is bullied by his foul mouthed younger brother. To bring the family closer, Rusty decides to take all of them on the same cross-country road trip his father (Chevy Chase) once took his family on.

Beware of comparing this movie to Chevy Chase’s classics. Tonally this film is a bit raunchier and the family members themselves aren’t remotely as likable. The story is also uneven and lacks any real surprises. But as a stand alone comedy, this movie has plenty of laughs to outweigh the few moments when the slapstick falls flat. Cameos from Chris Hemsworth and Charlie Day add some hysterical moments that overall make this Vacation film feel like time well spent, even if it isn’t too memorable. FINAL GRADE: B-

Temple_Hill_Entertainment_-_Paper_TownsPAPER TOWNS Based on a novel written by the same author of The Fault in Our Stars, this story follows a high school senior named ‘Q’ (Nat Wolff) who pines after his wild child next door neighbor, Margo (Cara Delevingne). After a night of elaborate pranks on her cheating ex-boyfriend, Margo disappears. With the help of his two quirky best friends (Austin Abrams and Justice Smith) and Margo’s best friend (Halston Sage), Q connects clues to try and find Margo so that he can profess his love for her.

The film doubles as a mystery and a coming of age teen dramedy. It’s only interesting when it focuses on the latter. The mystery aspect is long and drawn out and hardly believable and things only get intriguing when Q finds her supposed whereabouts and goes on a road trip with his friends to find her. That’s when we get to discover some great chemistry between the cast. The story isn’t nearly as grounded as The Fault in Our Stars, but like it, the film does provide some solid insight on its subject matter that’ll at least leave the audience with some knowledge if they haven’t been confused or bored to death by the plot and execution. FINAL GRADE: C

Shaun_the_Sheep_MoviePosterSHAUN THE SHEEP The makers of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run bring another stop motion story to life in the form of their TV show about a rambunctious sheep. In this film, after getting fed up with his farmer owner’s routine, Shaun and his sheep brethren hatch a plan to escape from the farmer and his dog and explore the big city. But they soon find out that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

An important disclaimer should come with this film: THERE IS NO DIALOGUE. ZERO. NONE. WHATSOEVER. With that, it takes a strong attention span to keep from dozing off once or twice even if you feel interested going in. Children used to the manic pacing of Spongebob and Minions will probably not enjoy this, but young children who don’t understand words anyway, should love it. The lessons should also hit home and adults, who can stomach a film void of dialogue will also find several moments in the film to chuckle at, making Shaun the Sheep a solid niche family film. FINAL GRADE: B

The_Man_from_U.N.C.L.E._posterTHE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. A British actor plays an American spy and an American actor plays a Russian spy? If they can pull it off… sure, why not? Based on an old 1960’s television series, this film unites the two Cold War rival countries on a mission to stop a socialite/megalomaniac (Elizabeth Debicki) from selling a nuclear bomb. The Americans have suave former thief, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and the Russians have tough, temperamental KGB agent Illya Kuryikan (Armie Hammer). Together, they must put aside their obvious disdain for one another to protect a former Nazi scientist’s daughter (Alicia Vikander) and use her to find their nemesis.

Part classic James Bond, but more historical buddy cop movie, Man from U.N.C.L.E. manages to deliver with action, style, a smooth soundtrack and some charismatic comedy. The camaraderie of its lead actors is overwhelmingly enjoyable from start to finish. The plot is a bit feeble, but who cares when you’ve got magnetic characters who have great chemistry. You probably ended up watching Straight Outta Compton this weekend, but if you feel like one last dose of summer fun before the season ends, Man from U.N.C.L.E. is definitely worth a look. FINAL GRADE: A-