Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Top 75 Films of 2015

Yes, yes, Top 10 lists of movies or any other work of creation are inherently silly and inconsequential undertakings, usually done more for the vanity of the critic than the films being assessed. They're more about starting arguments than anything else, which some people dislike but I see as one of the most fundamental functions of a critic.

So if a top 10 list is a lark, then what's a top 75?

I have never gone higher than the number 10 on my year-end list of "the best" films, usually throwing in some eight to 12 other titles, unranked, that I think must be included in any discussion of the year's worthy cinematic achievements. Heck, some years I feel like I'm padding out the top 10.

I admit I take somewhat perverse pride in being known as a "tough" critic,  rarely giving out my highest score -- four stars, five Yaps or an "A," depending on where the review is appearing -- and have sometimes gone several years at a time without awarding it to any movie.

So the main purpose in a list of 75 is underline how significant a movie year I think 2015 was. Truly amazing, memorable years that are chock-full of seminal films only come along every once in a great while, like 1939 or 1968. The last one, by most reckonings, was 1994. I think this year will join them. I gave out my top score to an unprecedented five films in 2015, and the bottom half of my top 10 all got serious consideration for the honor.

In listing six-dozen-plus films, I'm telling you how terrific the movies were this year. I'm begging you to pay attention and be passionate. I'm shouting at you to get enthused about cinema and try to watch everything you find interesting. Because this year, the movies have been sooooo good.

A top 75  list is my way of saying, "Wow."

Here they are, with commentary as deemed necessary.

1.    Spotlight

2.    Room

3.    The Big Short

4.    Mad Max: Fury Road

5.    The End of the Tour

My two favorite films were "Spotlight" and "Room," and I agonized over which to declare #1. Ultimately I went with the former because it's an "important" movie that doesn't wear its importance too heavily (as opposed to the occasionally dreary and cumbersome "Concussion," #70.)

The tale of a team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe uncovering an epidemic of sexual abuse by Catholic priests never flexes its muscles or demands that you pay attention. It simply lays out the arduous, vital work that goes on at many media outlets, even as they shrink ever smaller and became the hybrid print version of "clickbait."

"Spotlight" and "The Big Short" bear a great many similarities, featuring ensemble casts that have no true leading performance. (Something that may hurt them during the awards season.) They're crusading films that look back into the recent past to show how great misdeeds were brought to light, and ask why it didn't happen sooner before a lot of people got hurt. Their tones diverge drastically, with "The Big Short" using the scalpel of humor to make its points.

"Room" and "The End of the Tour" also are kindred films, essentially existing as feature-length conversations between two people, with other characters breaking in as necessary. The heartbreaking story of a woman and her 5-year-old son kept prisoners in a single room, "Room" featured the two standout performances of the year, Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Just amazing work, so intimate and so true.

I knew Larson could act, and the same for Jesse Eisenberg, but Jason Segel's performance in "Tour" was  a game-changer for me. The funnyman star of TV and some dorky movies permanently altered my view of what he was capable of as an actor, playing a smart and self-loathing author whose writing style served as a precursor to today's mode of hyperlinks and annotation. It's bothersome that the film seems to have been shunted aside, both at the box office and in awards chatter.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" lies in a category of its own making: a sequel to an iconic but long-dormant action movie film franchise. In bringing in a capable new actor, Tom Hardy, to play Max, and then having him serve as second fiddle to the real protagonist, Charlize Theron's Furiosa, writer/director George Miller showed that he's not afraid to shatter conventions, including those he helped create. An exuberant mix of over-the-top action and surprising character exploration, "Fury Road" was the best time I had at the movies this year.

6.    Amy

7.    Love & Mercy

8.    Mr. Holmes

9.    Son of Saul

10.   Steve Jobs

Great performances drove "Love & Mercy," "Mr. Holmes" and "Steve Jobs." All are portraits of famous individuals, fictional and not, that try to pierce the veil of iconography that have shrouded them for decades. "Amy" serves a similar function in a non-narrative form, a documentary that is both sympathetic and unsparing to the late singer Amy Winehouse. It was the best doc in a standout year for the genre.

"Son of Saul," which will not see wide release in the U.S. for a couple of months, shows how stories from the Holocaust and World War II never fade in their power. In following around a Jew kept alive to clean up the human detritus of the Nazi genocide, "Saul" uses many of the filmmaking techniques I found so distracting in "Birdman" to actual cinematic effect. The use of a very shallow focus, so we only see clearly what is in the foreground, is groundbreaking.

11.    The Martian
12.    The Revenant
13.    Dope
14.    Mistress America
15.    Kingsman: The Secret Service
16.    Brooklyn
17.    Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
18.    Pan
19.    Beasts of No Nation
20.    Sleeping with Other People
21.    The Hateful Eight
22.    The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
23.    Paper Towns
24.    Bridge of Spies
25.    My All American

This next group comprises what would normally be my "also-rans." In virtually any other year, most of them would have easily found a spot in my top 10 or even top 5.

"Bridge of Spies," "The Martian," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," "Brooklyn" and "My All American" are all genre pictures that represent the peak of their expression. "Dope," "Paper Towns" and "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" endeavored to tear down the mass media conception of teenage life. "Sleeping with Other People" was the best and smartest romantic film of the year.

Quentin Tarantino used a confined space to his advantage in "The Hateful Eight," spaying blood and gleeful dialogue in equal measures. (Even my frequent acting-impaired whipping boy, Channing Tatum, enjoys a solid, brief turn.) The countdown on the stage version is already running; first two rows bring plastic sheeting!

I've been up and down on Noah Baumbach, but he released two enthralling character studies this year with pet actors Greta Gerwig ("Mistress America") and Ben Stiller ("While We're Young," which technically is a 2014 film but didn't get into theaters until mid-2015).

"Kingsman" and "Pan" were risky adventure fantasias that, respectively, paid off and didn't. "Beasts of No Nation" shows us that production for streaming services, already nipping at the heels of broadcast TV, is ready to give theatrical movies a run, too.

"The Revenant," which most people won't see until 2016, is one of those love-it-or-hate-it films. I loathed director Alejandro Iñárritu's camera tricks in "Birdman," tracking his actor around like a cinematic wraith. He uses many of the same techniques here in following an intrepid frontier tracker (Leonardo DiCaprio) who struggles to survive after being mauled by a bear.

Much like "Gravity" and "The Martian," it's an effective bit of old-school "you are there" filmmaking. It doesn't really amount to much more than a very well-made harrowing adventure, but I admire it for what it is.

26.    Cinderella
27.    Coming Home
28.    Infinitely Polar Bear
29.    Paddington
30.    The Good Dinosaur
31.    Legend
32.    By the Sea
33.    Inside Out
34.    3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets
35.    While We’re Young
36.    Avengers: Age of Ultron
37.    For Grace
38.    99 Homes
39.    It Follows
40.    Bone Tomahawk
41.    Star Wars: The Force Awakens
42.    The Lady in the Van
43.    Straight Outta Compton
44.    Slow West
45.    Trumbo
46.    White God
47.    Ex Machina
48.    The Danish Girl
49.    In the Heart of the Sea
50.    Anomalisa

It was a somewhat weak year for animation and comedies, at least in contrast to the dramas and documentaries. Just a few notes:

"Bone Tomahawk" is a great Western/horror mashup, and allowed Kurt Russell to repurpose the same walrus mustache he had in "The Hateful Eight."

As good an evil music biz Svengali as he was in "Straight Outta Compton," Paul Giamatti is even better in essentially the same role in "Love & Mercy."

I liked "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," but I also liked the reviled prequels and think #7 is about on par with #1 in the franchise. (Here's my rank, best to least best: V, VI, IV, III, II, VII, I.) I felt similarly about "Jurassic World" (#73) compared to its predecessors.

"Legend" would've been better if they hadn't so consciously been trying to make "the British Goodfellas." Tom Hardy can do anything, except deign to speak his dialogue clearly if doing so conflicts with his "acting choice." (Thank God the "For Your Consideration" DVD included subtitles.)

Michael Shannon ("99 Homes") also can do anything, and is understandable.

"Ex Machina" starts out as really bold science fiction and then makes a lot of safe, boring choices.

I expect I'm on the only critic in America who put Angelina Jolie's "By the Sea" on his best-of list, even if it was at #32. I stand by it.

"It Follows" shows that supernatural horror films are at their best when they don't feel the need to explain every metaphysical nook and cranny of their story. Leaving the "how" and the "why" open-ended heightens our fear.

Michael Fassbender ("Slow West") looks awfully good in a cowboy bandit rig. Of course, he looks awfully good in just about anything. (Or, as "Shame" showed, absolutely nothing at all.)

"For Grace" was a new paradigm: a documentary made by a newspaper, The Chicago Tribune. I'd love to see more of this. It's about restaurants, becoming great and sacrifices.

"Paddington" was a delightful British family flick that got dumped into American theaters in January without fanfare or press, and still managed to find an audience.

"Anomalisa" was wonderfully inventive but ultimately too quirky for its own good. Like the memorable advice from Robert Downey Jr.'s "Tropic Thunder" character, you should never go full Charlie Kaufman.

Here's the rest, sans comment:

51.    Creed
52.    Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
53.    Goodnight Mommy
54.    Peanut Gallery
55.    Diary of a Teenage Girl
56.    Crocodile Gennadiy
57.    Black Mass
58.    A Brilliant Young Mind
59.    45 Years
60.    The Peanuts Movie
61.    What We Do in the Shadows
62.    Southpaw
63.    Escobar: Paradise Lost
64.    The Connection
65.    The Duff
66.    The Walk
67.    Wildlike
68.    Woman in Gold
69.    Grandma
70.    Concussion
71.    In the Name of My Daughter
72.    Far from the Madding Crowd
73.    Jurassic World
74.    Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine
75.    Jimmy’s Hall

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Video review: "Sleeping with Other People"

"Sleeping with Other People" never made it far past the festival circuit and a modest theatrical release, but it was probably the best romantic movie I saw this year. It's funny, smart, sexy and treats its main characters like knowable people rather than mice scuttling through the same tired old romcom maze.

Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis play a pair who lost their virginity to each other back in college, and reconnect as friends. Unlike the usual romantic movie tropes, in which the couple spend the entire film ignoring the fact that they're perfect for each other, Lainey and Jake openly acknowledge their lingering attraction.

But they undertake a conscious effort to break free from their inability to commit, using each other as foils and advisers for the journey. They make a pledge not to hook up to see if they're capable of love without sex, a notion that of course gets tested.

The dialogue from writer/director Leslye Headland ("Bachelorette") is whip-smart and surprisingly honest. The supporting cast is uniformly good, existing as believable people who go on living their lives whenever they're not hanging around the main characters.

This is the sort of movie that blends romantic, comedic and dramatic elements so deftly that we don't work to label it.

Alas, bonus features are non-existent, on both DVD and Blu-ray editions.



Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Review: "The Big Short"

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a movie as simultaneously funny and angry as “The Big Short.”

Ostensibly a dramatic, spit-flecked tirade against the real estate crash and the widespread financial shenanigans that caused it, the film is also wickedly hilarious, dripping in black humor and rife with sharp one-liners. It’s a smart, insightful howl against a system that was rigged -- and, the movie argues, still is.

Here is a sure Oscar contender, and one of the year’s best films.

Director and co-writer Adam McKay, known for lowbrow comedies often starring Will Ferrell (“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”) unbeloved by me, makes the unlikeliest left turn in Hollywood history. He and Charles Randolph deftly adapt the book by Michael Lewis, celebrating a disparate band of anti-heroes who bet against the real estate market when the rest of the world of high finance, from the most junior broker to the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, viewed it as Gibraltar solid.

The most amazing accomplishment of the film, beyond maintaining that bravura blend of wit and fury, is making the complicated world of mortgage financing not only understandable, but turning it into the villain of the piece. We glimpse a few smarmy manipulators, a handful of real estate brokers writing mortgages they know their clients won’t be able to pay, etc. – but they’re cogs in the machine.

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, a former M.D. who founded his own hedge fund. It was he who first looked at how banks were packaging subprime mortgages and selling the debt as an asset, using volume to hide the millions of cracks in what appeared to most observers to be an unassailable wall of strength. Burry, a kook who runs his office barefoot, bet early and bet big that it would all come tumbling down.

Others took his cue and ran with it, further uncovering pieces of the jumbled puzzle. Steve Carell is terrific as Mark Baum, a money manager operating his own shop under the umbrella of Morgan Stanley. A provocateur who lashes out at those who seek to take advantage of others – an odd disposition for an investor, obviously – Baum sees the looming crisis as less an opportunity than a fount of outrage.

Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, a slick operator who helps put the pieces together for others and acts as our snide narrator. Brad Pitt turns up as Ben Rickert, a dispossessed trader brought in to act as mentor/facilitator by a pair of young hotshots (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who sniff out the opportunity. Pure mercenaries looking for a score at first, they slowly become educated that those numbers on a spreadsheet represent real homes, families, lives.

The story essentially moves forward as a triad, each of the three investor groups experiencing pushback and pressure from their colleagues. Just when we think the house of cards must come tumbling down, it magically stays afloat through the sorcery of confidence and delusion.

Like “Spotlight,” this is an ensemble film that essentially has no central character or leading performances. Only with Carell’s Baum do we learn much about him outside of the office, which provides a little illumination into how somebody dedicated to making money could wear his conscious so plainly on his sleeve. As good as he was in “Foxcatcher,” Carell is even better here.

Even as it lauds the rebels who went against the grain and said ‘no’ when everyone else said ‘yes,’ “The Big Short” never lets us forget that the accounting chicanery that caused the worst recession since the 1930s is the real story. Burry, Baum and company may have won a pile of money for their insight. But we all lost in the big game we didn’t even know was being played.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Reeling Backward: "The Night Porter" (1974)

"The Night Porter" was deliberately provocative, and the reaction it provoked ran the gamut.

It was banned outright in a few countries, celebrated in some high society circles, reviled in others. It got glowing reviews and seething ones. The  depiction of a sexual obsession between a Nazi concentration camp officer and one of his female prisoners, both during the war and 12 years after its end, was overtly erotic and deeply disquieting.

This was the cinematic equivalent of a punch in the face -- accompanied by a grope to the groin. Films may go for one or the other, but the combination is combustible.

Roger Ebert famously dubbed it "a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering." The many critics praising it, he wrote in his one-star review, had managed to "interpret trash as 'really' meaningful."

I'm somewhat inclined to agree, though we diverge on the value of trash. Pauline Kael made the distinction between trash and "glorious trash" -- gleefully enjoyable junk -- and I think "The Night Porter" falls into the latter category. (Though, for the record, Kael also despised the film.)

Its only offense is in trying to pretend to be more than it is: a garish portrait of the uncomfortable convergence of love, hate and sex.

People who complained that it trivializes tragedy, as well as those who claimed it spotlights the perpetuation of the Nazi mindset, both seemed to get their glands swelled by the movie -- just not the ones intended.

Today, four decades on, "The Night Porter" is comfortably ensconced in respectability, adorned with scholarly articles and the de rigueur Criterion Collection video release.

The nudity, criticized as excessive in 1974, seems borderline tame. If you take out the musical sequence in which Charlotte Rampling performs a bawdy German tune topless while wearing a Nazi officer's hat and jodhpurs -- a scene now firmly iconic, in which the movie reaches its erotic apex -- her skin time in the film probably adds up to half a minute or less.

Of course, co-star Dirk Bogarde manages to engage in a handful of sex scenes without even so much as baring his midriff. Though the BDSM aspect of their relationship is pretty well-drawn. Writer/director Liliana Cavan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Italo Moscat, plus additional collaboration by Barbara Alberti and Amedeo Pagani, establishes in the grainy flashback sequences that he enjoyed lording his power over her, and she enjoyed being submissive.

The modern sequence takes place in Zurich in 1957 at the Hotel Zur Oper. Max (Bogarde) is the aforementioned front desk man for the night shift. He's sleek, courteous, obsequious in an imperious way. He meets all the demands of the clientele, including supplying some of the older, lonelier women with services of a personal nature. He declines invitations to do so himself, using the bellboy as a sex lackey.

Max has friends, German cinematic archetypes -- right down to the huffing bürgermeister and the stern, monocled authority figure -- who show up from time to time for clandestine meetings. They are former mid-level Nazi officers who hold their own internal "trials" to determine their individual exposure to war crime charges. This mostly involves tracking down incriminating documents or witnesses and getting rid of them.

It is implied, though not directly stated, that Max was actually the highest-ranking officer among them, but now is their socioeconomic peasant, preferring to live as a "quiet church mouse" in a nondescript job of servitude rather than becoming bourgeois elite like themselves.

They speak of their trials in the Age of Aquarius language of the 1970s rather than the '50s, of being cleansed of their transgressions so they can live in peace and harmony. Perhaps, Max suggests, he's chosen the life he has because he alone has a remaining sliver of shame that is only expressed in the light.

Then one day into the hotel walks Lucia (Rampling). They lock eyes, porter and patron, recognize each other instantly and know fear. Through the flashback scenes we establish that Max liked to shoot films of his prisoners, especially while tormenting young and pretty girls, and she was his chief victim. Later, though, we learn that she eventually came to appreciate the attention. He called her simply "my little girl," and theirs was a twisted romance for the ages.

Lucia's personage is nettlingly dubious. It's stated that she is an American, the daughter of a socialist, rather than a Jewess. But the wartime scenes show her mingled with the victims of genocide, right down to the familiar striped pajamas and sheared heads. Rampling's famous cascading mane is hidden, unconvincingly, under a poofy and obvious hairpiece.

Her preternatural lithe body, bordering on scrawniness, is used to obvious effect, along with very theatrical makeup to make her so pale as to be ghost-like. Indeed, many of the Germans favor the same makeup or even wear masks during the flashbacks, and these scenes take on a Fellini-like daze of heightened reality.

These are memories, not history, and are therefore colored by the characters' evolving emotional relationship to these experiences.

The film's somewhat kooky tone grows kookier in the second half. Max's pals become worried about the presence of the woman, believing she'll turn him in and therefore endanger themselves. In actuality, the two resume their fractured romance. He embraces her and hits her, she enjoys it and hits him back, he chains her up for awhile, she resents it, and not. A little blood is drawn, so frequently we suspect it acts as a lubricant to entice the emission of other essential fluids.

Lucia runs away from her famous symphony conductor husband, the police come asking questions, the Germans grow more anxious, and the lovers ensconce themselves in Max's apartment, slowly starving as their supply of delivered groceries is turned away by the schemers.

Their lack of initiative is dazzling, even for a bit of fantasia. The Germans' arrayed forces amount to three or four middle-aged men, a wasting wreck of a friendly dowager (Isa Miranda) and one inept henchman youth. Yet Max cannot procure food from any source or find a back entrance to sneak out of.

Perhaps he's not really trying to escape his fate, but simply wants one more taste of passion before the light dims. It's hard to say; Bogarde was a master of thespian mannerisms, but could not project internal anguish the way later generations of actors did. Lucia's internal mechanisms are even more masked. She exists as a conduit for erotic energy, and little more.

It seems no matter what reaction people had to "The Night Porter," it was a tizzy. It is one of the most reviled and celebrated art films of the last half-century. Personally, I don't see the two reactions as mutually exclusive.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Video review: "Pan"

File "Pan" under biggest flops of the year that deserved much better. This delightful, rousing adventure is the Peter Pan origin story, how a spirited English orphan first found his way to Neverland and learned how to never grow up.

Levi Miller plays Peter, who gets kidnapped from his London orphanage by some henchmen of the dread pirate Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) to slave away in his mines, searching for lost fits of faerie dust. It seems Blackbeard, who looks like he was dug up out of the ground 10 minutes ago, defeated Tinkerbell & Co. and is now ruling Neverland as a semi-sane despot.

With the help of an incorrigible rogue names James Hook (!), Peter manages to escape from the pirate's clutches and falls in with Princess Tiger Lily (Rooney Mara) and the Indians, leading to yet more adventures.

It's a mishmash of wildly disparate story elements -- part J.M. Barrie, part Indiana Jones, and even something of a musical with a couple of interludes put to modern tunes like "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

If all this sounds loopy and unhinged, that's because it is. Director Joe Wright ("Atonement") and script man Jason Fuchs have essentially used Barrie's novels as a mere jumping-off point for their own industrious imaginations. They've essentially "retconned" one of the most enduring fantasy tales of all time, stealing inspiration and turning it to their own purposes.

Somehow, I think Peter Pan's rascally heart would approve of the appropriation. This is one flight of fancy worth booking.

Bonus features are decent, though not expansive. The DVD comes with only one making of featurette, "The Boy Who Would Be Pan."

Upgrade to the Blu-ray combo pack and you add three more featurettes: "Wondrous Realms," "The Scoundrels of Neverland" and "Never Grow Up: The Legend of Pan." Director Wright also provides a feature-length commentary track.



Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review: "Sisters"

Amy Poehler and Tiny Fey have been called the best comedy duo since Martin and Lewis. That may hold for fake TV news shows and emceeing awards programs, but their film resumes are rather spotty -- both together and apart.

Each had bit roles in "Mean Girls," written by Fey, and that was the high point. The less said about their first big-screen pairing in lead roles, "Baby Mama," the better. Now comes "Sisters," with their traditional roles swapped -- Fey playing the party-hearty girl and Poehler as the responsible one in dire need of cutting loose.

Written by longtime "Saturday Night Live" scribe Paula Pell and directed by Jason Moore ("Pitch Perfect"), "Sisters" demonstrates two things: women comediennes, despite the naysaying of some uptight fossil comics, can be every bit as raunchy and uproarious as any male. Second, the tendency for recent comedies to be wildly uneven and overlong is a gender-neutral affair.

The setup is simple: the Ellis sisters were famous for throwing legendary parties back in the '80s in their Orlando hometown. (Also my own; O-town is having a renaissance on film this year, with this movie, "99 Homes" and "Paper Towns" all set there.) Not much is going right as they enter middle age, with beautician Kate (Fey) unable to hold down a job or keep the trust of her teen daughter Haley (Madison Davenport). Maura (Poehler) is divorced, downbeat and coasting.

When they find out their parents (Diane Wiest and James Brolin, brazen scene-stealers) are planning to sell their posh childhood home in order to movie into a swingin' seniors village, the Ellis girls resolve to throw one last big bash before reality resumes its rightful place.

The parts of "Sisters" that work are a sort of eulogy for the spent youth of Generation X, those perpetually overshadowed by the Baby Boomers and their children, the Millennials. Almost the entire second hour is the party itself, a blowout of epic proportions that will involve music, drugs, sex (mostly interrupted or implied) and property damage.

It's fun to see these aging adults, whose rebellions were mostly confined to getting drunk and cutting class to go see "Breakfast Club," finally discovering their inner hellions. For one night, all bets are off, along with the shirts, and who cares if the bellies and chins are slacker than they once were.

The Poehler/Fey dynamic pays off, mostly, but then they keep bringing in their SNL buddies like Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph for supporting storylines that distract and drain. It reminds me of how Adam Sandler keeps digging up spots for David Spade and Chris Rock in his flicks, all of them clutching each other as they sadly circle the drain.

This is one of those movies that has more attitude than jokes. There are scenarios, not scenes. Some of the best stuff is when the women don't have to drag the plot forward, but can just hang out and goof on each other -- such as when they prepare for the party by trying on entirely age-inappropriate outfits.

"We need a little less Forever 21 and a little more Suddenly 42," Maura quips.

There are love interests, of a sort. Ike Barinholtz plays the guy down the street also preparing to sell his folks' home, who gets sexually harassed by the Ellis sisters, but enjoys it. Wrestler John Cena gets recruited to show off his guns as a scary drug dealer with a soft side. ("My safe word," he instructs, "is 'Keep Going.'")

There are also stereotypical gags about lesbians and Asians that, if they were in a dude comedy, would get diced on Twitter by a legion of P.C. valkyries, and deservedly so.

"Sisters" isn't the lamest comedy of the year, but there is lots of competition for that spot. In an otherwise sterling year in cinema, the animated films and comedies have been decidedly lackluster. Some stars, and strains of humor, are simply a better fit for the small screen.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: "The Danish Girl"

“The Danish Girl” is the true-ish story of Einar Wegener, a well-known Danish painter who became a woman in the early 20th century. Today we would refer to this as a transwoman “transitioning” to her true gender, and use her adopted name, Lili Elbe, and the appropriate pronouns.

But the film is less about conforming to modern-day sensibilities than presenting Lili/Einar as she/he was -- a gentle soul confused about the journey being undertaken, but who steadily gains strength and resolve as the challenges grow.

Directed by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) from a screenplay by Lucinda Coxon, based on the historical novel by David Ebershoff, “The Danish Girl” powerfully shows what it was like to question one’s gender at a time and place when such roles were rigidly defined and enforced. Eddie Redmayne, last year’s Oscar winner for Best Actor, is sure to pick up another nomination for his nuanced turn.

The story opens with Einar married to Gerda Wegener. Both young painters with a carefree lifestyle and a strong desire for children, they live rather unequal lives. Einar is feted at gallery shows, celebrated by powerful patrons, while she toils in his shadow. It’s puzzling, since he -- by his own admission -- essentially paints the same thing over and over: pastoral scenes from his drab, lonely childhood.

Gerda (Alicia Vikander, vibrant and emotive) plays Einar’s wife, who actually kick-starts his journey by asking him to don some hose and shoes so she can finish her painting after her (female) model takes ill. Einar finds himself ensorcelled by the look and feel of women’s clothing. The couple playfully continues the game, going to a party with Einar dressed as his cousin, “Lili.” She even attracts the attention of a discerning young man (Ben Whishaw), who pitches woo.

Soon, though, Einar is spending more and more time as Lili, studying the mannerisms of the fair gender and copying them – even to the point of exaggeration. Lili is easily the most girlish woman in any room she occuppies. Redmayne is convincingly coquettish and shy, showing how just because a person’s outward identity changes, the inner soul doesn’t. Since Einar was something of a blushing wallflower, Lili is, too.

Things go on from there. There are marriage troubles as Gerda grows distraught about “losing” her husband. She enlists Einar’s old childhood friend, Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), on whom he had a boyhood crush, to act as a touchstone. But Gerda ends up developing feelings for him herself.

Doctors of the time are no help, subjecting Einar to radiation treatments that leave him bedridden, then reporting him to the authorities as a deviant when their barbaric procedures bring no result.

There are, of course, many liberties taken with Lili’s story, which flow from Ebershoff’s fictionalized portrait of her. The main one is showing her struggling with her surgical transformation more or less in private, when in fact it was quite a renowned feat at the time. Her autobiography, published two years after her death, was a watershed moment in the transgender movement.

It also depicts Gerda as staying by her side throughout this process and her demise, when in fact their marriage was legally dissolved as a result of Lili’s gender change, and Gerda had moved on to other romantic partners. (She was not even present at the death, hearing about it through the news.)

Still, this falls under the filmmaking rubric of ‘lying in order to tell a greater truth,’ as we saw in the excellent “Steve Jobs” earlier this year. “The Danish Girl” may skirt the historical facts, but it still has the compelling illumination of trueness.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Video review: "Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation"

"Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" is one of the better installments in the TV-to-cinema series centered on superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). It can't hold a handle to the previous film, "Ghost Protocol," but that's more an indication of tht movie's strength than any lagging quality in its successor.

Story-wise, the plot bears a great deal of resemblance to the recent James Bond film "Spectre," or should I say the latter takes after the former. It seems a shadowy global criminal syndicate -- called, simply the Syndicate -- has been behind much of the troubles seen in the last few "MI" movies. Hunt is out to get them, with the help of loyal retainers Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), the gadget guy; Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), comms and muscle; and William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), the man on the inside at Impossible Missions Force (IMF).

The CIA director (Alec Baldwin) wants to shut down IMF as an embarrassment and a waste of resources. So Ethan & Co. have to take the fight to the bad guys while also evading, or conscripting the unwitting assistance of, the good ones.

It's a smorgasbord of cool chases, clever reversals and fiendish villains. It doesn't really amount to much, but it's a whole lot of forgettable fun. And, as it turns out, Ethan Hunt does this story better than James Bond does.

Bonus features are good, though you'll have to ante up for the Blu-ray edition to get them: the DVD contains zilcho.

With the Blu-ray you get a feature length commentary track by writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise; plus seven making-of featurettes.



Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review: "In the Heart of the Sea"

“In the Heart of the Sea” works as a rousing sea adventure story, the inspiration for “Moby-Dick,” though it suffers from more grandiose aspirations that largely go unrealized. And some bad Boston accents.

The film makes a half-hearted attempt at a man-corrupts-nature environmental theme, and begins a Christian-vs.-Bligh type of conflict between the ship’s first mate and captain, only to drop it halfway through. Based on a nonfiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick, the screenplay by Charles Leavitt has some structural problems, with a big dead spot about two-thirds of the way through.

But director Ron Howard ably helms the action scenes, including the thrilling bout with the massive white sperm whale. And the movie brings a great sense of authenticity about what it’s like to be aboard a Nantucket whaling boat in 1820 -- the sun-creased faces, the creaking of the sails, the ever-present fear of a squall, the way men’s personalities rub against each other after a year at sea.

Howard reunites with Chris Hemsworth, who starred in the criminally overlooked racing movie “Rush.” Here he plays Owen Chase, a seasoned whaler who thinks he’s in line to become captain, but is instead put under the thumb of George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a greenhorn with the right family name and financial backing.

As a “landsman,” the son of a poor farmer, Chase has had to work his way up from the bottom, and naturally resents the aristocratic captain. Pollard insists on showing the crew who’s boss, and nearly sinks the ship on their second day out of port. They spar, but agree to put their differences aside long enough to collect 2,000 barrels of whale oil.

Eventually they make their way into the Pacific Ocean, where they hear tales of a remote spot where the whales are bountiful. The story turns out to be true, but so does the warning of a giant bull who does not take kindly to having his colony attacked.

Their ship, the Essex, is sunk and the survivors are forced to flee on small boats thousands of miles from land, and things quickly grow dire. The actors make a believable transformation into starving skeletons -- unlike the recent “The 33” -- with the help of a little CGI.

The film uses a framing device of Thomas Nickerson, a 14-year-old member of the crew, being interviewed by Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) 30 years later as inspiration for his most famous novel. Now a mean old drunk played by Brendan Gleeson, he’s reluctant to share the true story of the Essex, which was officially recorded as having run aground. Tom Holland plays him as a boy.

(There’s a certain amount of historical shenanigans going on here with the storyline. Chase actually published an account of the Essex disaster immediately afterward, which was what inspired Melville. It was another writer who interviewed Nickerson, convincing him to write his own book. Interestingly, the film largely gets the events that happened at sea right but finagles with the epilogue.)

I’m not sure whose idea it was to have all these actors of different English-speaking vintages talk in realistic 1820s Nantucket accents, but the result is a mishmash of bent vowels and oft-indecipherable dialogue. At one point Hemsworth greets Cillian Murphy as an old comrade and they share a jaunty banter, of which I couldn’t understand a thing.

(Hemsworth is Australian, Murphy and Gleeson are Irish, Holland is English and Walker is American.)

Another swing-and-a-miss is the attempt to correlate 1820s energy challenges with our own. Whale and petroleum both lit the world in their respective eras and neither is a renewable resource (except as fast as adult whales can spawn new ones, anyway). The parallel is given a few feeble gestures, then dismissed.

“In the Heart of the Sea” is a great-looking picture; Howard is a top-drawer visual storyteller. It’s a good movie that could have been a much better one, either by being less ambitious, or more. Sometimes you have to drown your darlings.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Reeling Backward: "An American In Paris" (1951)

"An American in Paris" is wonderful as a musical -- truly 'S Wonderful, indeed -- though it isn't particularly ambitious as a film.

It's essentially pageantry for its own sake, long musical sequences in which the characters sing and prance because they love to do it, rather than advancing the story in any obvious way. It's about bright colors, vivacious George Gershwin melodies and the inestimable choreography and dancing of Gene Kelly, not to mention co-star Leslie Caron.

Despite its undeniable status as a lightweight movie, "American" won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as earning statuettes for screenplay, costumes, musical score, cinematography and production design (or simply "Best Art," as it was called then).

Vincente Minnelli lost the director award, though he was up against William Wyler for "Detective Story," John Huston for "The African Queen," Elia Kazan for "A Streetcar Named Desire" and the winner, George Stevens, for "A Place in the Sun." That must rank as one of the toughest directors' races in Oscar history.

Kelly did not get an acting nomination, though he was bestowed with a special award for his contributions to the cinematic musical art form. No one else from the cast got a nod, making "American" one of just 11 Best Picture winners lacking an acting nomination. ("Slumdog Millionaire" was the most recent.) Though that apparently was trend in the 1950s, with four winners from that decade lacking any recognition for its performances.

Of course, 1951 was also the year "Streetcar" nearly swept the acting awards, losing only Best Actor, where Marlon Brando probably should've beaten Humphrey Bogart anyway.

I think back then people had a taste for big-budget extravaganzas, and didn't make so much of a distinction between serious films and pure entertainment as we do today.

I enjoyed "An American in Paris," though I admit to growing a bit glazed during some of the dance scenes, some of which go on waaaaay too long. The final 16-minute ballet set to Gershwin's "symphonic poem" of the same title reportedly cost half a million bucks all by itself to stage, a colossal sum back then. If I'm totally honest, I fast-forwarded a bit through parts of it.

Dancing, particularly of the athletic variety practiced by Kelly, is dazzling in short bursts but after a while it becomes repetitive and less impressive. It's like watching a man dead-lift 1,000 pounds -- your breath is taken away the first time, but after 25 reps you're ready to see something else.

One thing I did notice about this film is that Kelly's dancing is often staged in confined spaces, such as inside the cramped apartment of his character, Jerry Mulligan, an ex-GI who stayed on in France after the war in hopes of making it as a painter. He's penniless and proud, and his only real friend is Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a composer living next door who's similarly situated, though not nearly as cute.

(In his opening narration, Levant cracks jokes about his homeliness and "flabby exterior," even though he's hardly overweight. I always wonder, when a character in a movie talks about their physical deficiencies, what does the performer think about being cast in that role? "They needed an ugly pianist" is not exactly a confidence-booster.)

Kelly shimmies and shakes in the small gaps in between Adam's piano and bed, occasionally using the hallway as an overflow space. In other numbers he kicks and spins dangerously close to old women and children, and I kept wondering how many times Minnelli had to call cut after Kelly accidentally clocked someone with his tap shoes.

I can't help but contrast "American" with "Singin' in the Rain" from the following year, which I consider to be a vastly superior film in every way imaginable. Interestingly, both movies are largely built around songs written two or three decades earlier, Gershwin's and Arthur Freed's, respectively. But there's more singing and less dancing in "Rain," and there the characters are largely warbling about themselves or those they adore.

It's notable that "Rain" contained many memorable songs, while "American" can only claim "I Got Rhythm" as a truly enduring popular hit. Other tunes include "Our Love is Here to Stay" and the aforementioned "'S Wonderful." Most of these were written by Gershwin for Broadway shows or other films, essentially rendering "American" as a greatest hits compilation. Though the humorous "By Strauss" was a goofy ditty Gershwin performed only in private for his friends, until it was included in a 1936 revue and this movie.

The story (screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner) is pretty basic. Jerry is a starving artist who falls in love with a French girl, Lise Bouvier, played by Caron with her iconicly unconventional beauty. Little does he know she's betrothed to Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), a famous song-and-dance man and friend of Adam's. The fact that she secretly carries on with Jerry and Henri at the same time says something about her worthiness as a romantic ideal, but this is love in the French style.

Meanwhile, Jerry is being helped-slash-seduced by Milo Roberts, a wealthy American woman who has a habit of picking up boy toys and then discarding, or being discarded by them. She introduces him to important art people, arranges a big gallery show of is work, etc. Ostensibly it's all out of art appreciation, but her fierce jealousy when Jerry pays attention to Lise unveils her true nature.

Interestingly, though Milo is supposed to be much older than Jerry, probably middle-aged, actress Nina Foch was actually 12 years younger than Kelly. At 27 she was barely past the ingenue stage, while he was bumping up against 40.

People complain about Hollywood's ageism today, but it was much more rampant back then, with aging actors romancing young girls without anyone giving it a blink. Foch even played Charlton Heston's mother in "The Ten Commandments," even though he was a year older than her.

"An American in Paris" is a delightful frivolity, fun and energetic, happy-happy moviemaking designed to make people forget their troubles. I'm not surprised it's currently enjoying a huge revival on Broadway. But Best Picture?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Video review: "Ant-Man"

Just when it seemed like every super-hero in the Marvel universe had been covered, along came “Ant-Man” to prove that even little guys can get their own movie -- whether the world needs it or not.

The titular supe has a power that’s, well, kind of outside the mainstream. Cat burglar-turned-hero Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) puts on a special suit that allows him to shrink down to insect size, where his strength is proportionately increased because his molecules are closer together, or something. Also, he can command ants to do his bidding.

If a wee guy flying around on the back of a winged ant is your idea of high adventure, well then I’m glad for you. Personally I found this movie transcendently goofy.

It isn’t helped by Generic Corporate Villain #362, here played by Corey Stoll, who wants to adapt the technology developed by scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) for a shadowy military. Want to take a wild guess if it comes down to a battle between Ant-Man and the bad guy in his own super-suit?

There’s a girl (Evangeline Lilly) because apparently these movies cannot exist without a love interest for the hero. She’s Pym’s daughter, with predictable daddy issues.

Rudd has a twinkly rascal’s charm as Lang, and we root for him even as we wish he weren’t playing a fellow with such a dumb power. Seriously, what’s next? A movie about a guy who can split himself into multiples and creates his own boy band? The woman who absorbs the essence of an opossum and fakes her own death?

Sometimes small things stay small because they deserve to.

Marvel movies tend to have generous packages of bonus features. “Ant-Man” is no exception, though you’ll have to spring for the Blu-ray combo pack to get the best stuff. The DVD has only a single deleted scene.

With the combo pack you add several more deleted and extended scenes, a gag real, a making-of documentary, a fake news package about Pym Technologies, and a look into the subatomic realm where Ant-Man accidentally gets stuck.

There’s also a feature-length commentary audio track, with both director Peyton Reed and Rudd participating.