2015 Movies

The Hateful Eight

Tarantino. Scorsese. Lee. Fincher. Nolan. These are some of my favorite filmmakers, and I hold their work up as a measuring stick by which I judge others. Regarding Quentin Tarantino, I’ve been a fan since 1997’s Jackie Brown. His catalogue is varied, but his unique trademark is stamped on each film. He has a penchant for dialogue, frequently utilizes strong female protagonists (see the aforementioned film and Kill Bill), and rarely shies away from controversy. From his gratuitous usage of the n-word to his characters’ oft-displayed bloodlust – the polarizing director sparks rigorous debate in cinematic circles. When I saw a commercial for The Hateful Eight I couldn’t discern what it was about, but I noticed some stylistic similarities to Django Unchained and was sufficiently intrigued.

The eighth (how appropriate) film from Tarantino finds a bounty hunter named John Ruth (Kurt Russell, Furious 7) transporting an outlaw for execution across a frozen, unsettled 1870s Wyoming into the town of Red Rock. The outlaw may be a woman, but she’s no lady. In fact, the surly Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Jacket) is quite a handful. Through swirling, snowy winds they traverse America’s heartland, the brash Ruth determined to claim the reward for his felonious charge. Traveling via stagecoach, Ruth and his driver O.B. (James Parks, Django Unchained) happen upon a hitchhiking Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, Chi-Raq), a Black former Union soldier on his way into Red Rock with bounty of his own.

The first half hour of the film is very dialogue-driven, and although these early moments establish the dynamic between characters, some viewers may find it difficult to keep their eyes open. The language is coarse and both Domergue and Ruth address Warren disrespectfully, as would’ve been expected during the time. Eventually the rag-tag party picks up yet another wayward traveler – this time the new sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, Django Unchained), who is stymied by the impending blizzard on the way into town. He boards the stagecoach and the quintet continues on, but not without stopping at Minnie’s Haberdashery on the way.

When our party arrives at Mininie’s, things take a much more interesting turn. There they meet three other gentlemen who appear to be simply enjoying the warm refuge of shelter and whiskey. Now that the gang’s all here, we have our original group of five, plus three haberdashery patrons including Jon Gage, Oswald Mobray, and simply “Bob.” This dour ensemble comprises “The Hateful Eight,” and they must wait out the blizzard before heading to Red Rock. John Ruth is particularly suspicious of his newfound company, guarding against anyone trying to liberate his prisoner. When one of the gang ends up dead, Tarantino masterfully transitions to a whodunit, and the storytelling shifts into high gear.

Tarantino’s greatest strength lies in his superior storytelling, and he used flashback to effectively break up the action and keep viewers engaged. Once his characters are all assembled at Minnie’s Haberdashery, the setting becomes fixed. In order to hold the viewer’s attention, the dialogue and action must be compelling. It’s challenging to have your characters confined to one place, but the static setting allows the performances to shine through. I was pleasantly surprised that the film only got better and better as it wore on, cresting with each successive moment and culminating brilliantly.

If I had any criticism of The Hateful Eight it would be that it started too slowly. Furthermore, I grew a bit tired of the gratuitous usage of the n-word. Yes, it’s historically accurate to place the word within the context of this movie; no – we don’t have to hear it every two seconds. One can achieve sufficient realism and authenticity without assaulting our eardrums at every turn. That aside, Tarantino is masterful at what he does, and The Hateful Eight was a worthy addition to his stellar filmography. I believe it deserves the recognition it has received during Awards season. Grade: A

The Big Short

My primary motivation in going to the movies is entertainment; but every now and then you learn something. I typically avoid movies that cover mundane industries/topics with which I’m not familiar, but occasionally movies can be entertaining AND insightful. The Big Short chronicles the 2008 economic crisis that occurred after the housing market “bubble” burst and several financial institutions collapsed. I don’t understand the finer points of banking, investing, or real estate – but writer/director Adam McKay (The Other Guys, Step Brothers) crafted an immensely informative, funny, and entertaining docudrama that wasn’t as inaccessible as I initially thought.

There were only a handful of people who foresaw the housing crisis, a few “weirdos” and outsiders who knew what no one else did. Christian Bale (Exodus: Gods and Kings) stars as Dr. Michael Burry, an offbeat hedge fund manager who took a closer look at the housing market and discovered that the industry was being propped up by risky sub-prime mortgages made to undesirable prospective home buyers. He predicted that eventually these people would default on their mortgages and the industry would collapse with devastating repercussions. He then bet against the housing market, making the rounds to several financial institutions that were all too happy to take his money.

The film is narrated by Jared Venett (Ryan Gosling, Gangster Squad); a fast-talking Wall Streeter whose suspicions are aroused when he gets wind of what Burry is doing and wants in. A misdialed phone number leads him to Mark Baum (Steve Carell, Foxcatcher), an irascible hedge fund manager working under the umbrella of Morgan Stanley. He’s initially skeptical, but after independently researching the housing market himself, he follows Vennett’s lead and bets against the market as well. Dr. Burry predicts that it will take about 5 years for the bubble to burst, and his inkling is spot on. He’s so far ahead of the prevailing wisdom at the time that it nearly costs him his job – but he never falters in his conviction. Rounding out the prescient bunch are small-time investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro, Unbroken) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock, Noah), who stumble across Vennett’s inside scoop by happenstance.

The Big Short was a humorous, yet appropriately sobering depiction of the financial crisis. McKay deftly incorporated levity in his storytelling, making the nuanced material much more palatable to the audience. By using humor and splicing the film with actual pop culture moments from the time period, he made the subject matter accessible, breaking the “fourth wall” throughout the film. One of the highlights was his use of celebrity cameo appearances to explain particularly complex financial concepts. Actress Margot Robbie, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, and singer Selena Gomez hilariously interjected timely explanations, effectively breaking up the underlying monotony.

In addition to a strong script and effective storytelling, the film was bolstered by brilliant performances – particularly from Steve Carell and Christian Bale. Carell’s range is incredible. The intonation of his voice was completely different, and I was extremely impressed. Between this and his work in 2014’s Foxcatcher, Carell is showing that his abilities far transcend the comedic realm. Bale was nearly as impressive, and the entire cast was superb. Unlike other films depicting the same events, The Big Short was uniquely refreshing in its pairing of humor with crisis. I never felt that McKay was making light of a tragedy, and it takes considerable skill to execute that technique. The Big Short took a mundane, confusing topic and made it lively and accessible, which was no small feat. It was definitely one of the better movies of 2015. Grade: A

Chi-Raq

Spike Lee has been one of my favorite filmmakers since 1989’s School Daze. His earlier career reflected a steady ascent, with Lee giving us classics like Jungle Fever, Do The Right Thing, and Malcolm X; the latter widely considered his best work to date. No stranger to controversy and never afraid to challenge the white power structure, Lee’s career hasn’t always been as commercially successful as it is culturally relevant. I’ll always give Spike a fair shot, so even though the trailer for Chi-Raq left me skeptical, I respect his intentions as an auteur and wanted to see the film for myself.

You’d have to have been living under a rock for the past couple of years not to hear about the gun violence plaguing the city of Chicago. Like many major cities, Chicago is a dual-sided metropolis. On the one hand the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama called it home. It boasts the “Magnificent Mile,” a renowned street dotted by high-end retailers and fine restaurants. On the other hand, it was home to one of the most notorious housing projects in the nation, and the fatalities reported in any given weekend could rival reports from Iraq, hence the macabre moniker “Chi-Raq.” There are significant cultural, psychological and social observations worth exploring about Chicago, and film could be a useful medium in tackling the deeply complex issues afflicting the city and its residents. Lee seemed like the perfect director for such a task, given his track record of political consciousness – but I’m not sure the casual movie fan will understand his artistic approach.

Rather than a documentary (like his prior work in 4 Little Girls) or a dramatic, original call to action (Get on the Bus) using real life events, Lee chose a unique way to portray Chicago. Chi-Raq is an adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, a comedy depicting its female protagonist’s brilliant plan to end the Peloponnesian War through celibacy, by imploring women to freeze all the men out of their bedrooms in a call to arms to end the suffering. Applying this satirical theme to modern day Chicago, the story is paralleled through local Chicago rapper and gangbanger Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon, Roll Bounce) and his girlfriend Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, Dear White People). Chi-Raq is the stereotypical rapper: young, arrogant and ignorant. Ambitiously striving to transcend his environment through music, his violent behavior illustrates how he remains a product of it.

Chi-Raq’s scenes play out musically, delivered in a lyrical, sometimes rhyming cadence. Samuel L. Jackson (Avengers: Age of Ultron) features as Dolmedes, a fourth wall breaking narrator who frames our perception of Chi-Raq, furthering the action and reminding us that the film’s participants are in dire straits. The film served as a critique of our government and current political climate and a plea to members of the Black community to end our collective apathy demonstrated by misguided thinking like the “stop snitching” movement. Ultimately, I doubt that Lee’s film is accessible in a worthwhile way to the average viewer. Some may misinterpret his farcical approach, given the serious subject matter. Intellectuals and “progressive” types comprise his most likely audience – and they aren’t the ones killing each other.

Although I don’t think Lee crafted a completely successful film, it was not without its bright spots. Teyonna Parris as Lysistrata had more screen time than any other character, and she was captivating throughout. The cinematography was rich and colorful, and some scenes perfectly captured the city’s beauty. Nick Cannon was serviceable as Chi-Raq, though it was hard to take him seriously at times. I understand that the film is a satire, but there were some very cringe-worthy bits of dialogue I couldn’t ignore. All in all, it was a mixed bag for me. Again, I appreciate what Spike was trying to do with the film, but I’m not sure it’s accessible to average viewers in a way that makes it a worthwhile cinematic undertaking. Grade: C

Creed

I think it’s great to introduce an old classic to new audiences with a “reboot,” provided the original legacy isn’t cheapened in the process. When I heard about a movie called Creed that was going to revive the Rocky franchise by featuring the son of Apollo Creed, I had mixed opinions. These things can go either way: corny or rather cool. I was optimistic the film could be entertaining, primarily because director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan (both of Fruitvale Station) were reuniting to infuse the franchise with new blood.

Jordan (Fantastic Four) continues his Hollywood hot streak as Adonis Johnson, son of Apollo Creed. Young Adonis was the product of infidelity, and his famous father was killed in the ring before his birth. Orphaned and understandably frustrated, he found himself fighting often in the juvenile detention center where we are introduced to him as a troubled adolescent. In a benevolent turn, Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad, Good Deeds) rescues Adonis and takes him into her home. Fast forward a few years later, and despite the trappings of privilege and stable employment, Adonis retains his innate love of fighting. A self-taught boxer, he makes his bones in Mexico fighting amateur opponents on the weekends. Finding that no one will train him in any of the local California gyms, “Donnie” seizes his destiny by heading east after quitting his job.

Donnie touches down in the City of Brotherly Love, hoping to train under the tutelage of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables 3) his late father’s former foe turned best friend. Rocky is a Philadelphia legend, but his career has long been over and he isn’t looking to train anyone. Adonis bides his time, joining a gym made famous by Rocky and Mickey, his legendary trainer. Eventually Rocky takes an interest in the younger Creed after observing his patience, dedication and earnestness. He latches on to Rocky almost immediately, endearing himself to the elder man by affectionately calling him “Unc.” Adonis is a raw, unpolished talent but shows great potential, making the most of his first legit professional contest by earning victory. He fights under his mother’s last name of Johnson, refusing to rely on the famous surname of a father he never knew. When he lines up a high profile title bout against a fading champion, Adonis sees his chance for greatness – as long as Balboa is in his corner.

Director Ryan Coogler continues to impress, masterfully weaving a feel-good story of triumph sure to resonate with audiences. Adonis Creed is a likable underdog, much like Rocky Balboa decades ago. Tough, yet sensitive – he never gives up on his dream and pursues it with dogged tenacity. Coogler crafted a fitting homage, and the little references and clever nods to 1976’s Rocky were not lost on me. I spent my childhood in the city of Philadelphia, and I’ve never seen it so glorious and inspiring. That’s a testament to Coogler’s cinematography, and the young director clearly did his research. From Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Selma) explaining the local slang, to depiction of the city itself – Coogler showed an impeccable knack for realism and deft storytelling. The audience in my theater audibly cheered throughout the film, yet Coogler didn’t sacrifice authenticity just to please viewers. When Creed needed to win, he did. When he needed to get his ass kicked, he did.

The fight choreography was superb, and the final bout of the film was simply electrifying. When that iconic theme music sounded, my heart pounded! If I may compare Creed with Southpaw, another boxing movie released earlier in the year, the former surpasses the latter in storytelling and realism. The final scene was framed like an HBO match, and the commentary enhanced it tremendously. Stallone was at his most endearing, like a familiar old friend, his visage well worn but kind. Jordan has undeniable star power. Forgive me if this reads like hyperbole, but the pairing of Coogler and the charismatic Jordan may one day rival the likes of DiCaprio/DeNiro and Scorsese in terms of sheer chemistry. Creed wasn’t terribly complex or original, but there was beauty in its simplicity and I can’t find a single thing wrong with it. Grade: A.

Sicario

It’s been a relatively lackluster year at the movies, so when I started to hear buzz about Sicario, I figured it might be a sleeper. The trailer promised a taut political action drama featuring an accomplished cast, including Academy Award winner Benicio Del Toro (Inherent Vice), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow) and Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice). The film focuses on the US government’s efforts to thwart the Mexican drug cartels and their encroachment across the border. The opening sequence is a heart-stopping raid that results in tragic casualties for the FBI, and the Bureau is left reeling.

Blunt stars as Federal Agent Kate Macer, tough but rather naïve in her approach to neutralizing the cartel. She has bought into a self-righteous way of doing things, earnest but green. After she and partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya, Kick Ass 2) narrowly survive the aforementioned raid, she’s offered an opportunity to join a task force comprised of various intelligence agencies, military personnel and assorted covert types. Heading the task force is Matt Graver (Brolin), a CIA analyst liaising between the Agency and the Bureau. Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro) is attached to Graver, who introduces him to Kate as a DoD consultant. She’s immediately suspicious of him, and neither man provides much clarity about just what his function is on the team.

The task force must travel to Juarez, Mexico to extricate a witness, all the while flying under the cartel’s radar. Corpses line the streets of Juarez, swaying to and fro as a reminder of what happens if you dare cross them. Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) held me at rapt attention, as the film was peppered with one jaw-clenching scene after another. Graver and Alejandro are at the forefront of every operation, mysteriously speaking in hushed tones while furthering Macer’s suspicions. Sicario is Spanish for hitman, and from the film’s outset it was clear that Alejandro is a questionable character with shaky allegiances. Macer and her partner are in over their heads, as everyone else seems to be privy to a secret that they know nothing about. The film follows Macer as she pieces together Alejandro’s identity and her questions her own principles.

Sicario is one of the better films of 2015. Usually movies like this have a lull at the midway point, after becoming mired in plot minutiae. However, I was genuinely enthralled throughout. The pacing was superb, and while director Denis Villeneuve hasn’t surpassed the suspense of Prisoners, he has crafted a very good film. Benecio Del Toro was quietly menacing, conveying a great deal while saying very little. Blunt continues to impress me with the emotional quality she brings to her performances, as well as the impressive physicality and bravado characterized by roles like this as well as in other films like Edge of Tomorrow. This is definitely one to check out. Grade: A

Black Mass

For some reason, organized crime lends itself well to cinematic storytelling. Classics like The Godfather and Goodfellas come to mind, their appeal lying in the allure of pulling back the veil to expose a world that we’d never otherwise see. Black Mass fits squarely within the genre, recounting the exploits of notorious Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. While not without its shortcomings, I found Black Mass compelling, due in large part to a superb performance from Johnny Depp (Mortdecai, Transcendence), one of the most versatile actors of our time.

The film begins in the early 1970s, introducing us to Bulger, a low-level hood navigating the streets of South Boston. Bulger is in clear command of his small group of associates, engendering respect within the community. Loyalty is an essential attribute for any foot soldier, and Bulger inspires such devotion in the brutal, insular enclave known as “Southie.” Bulger operated brazenly, largely because he struck a deal with the FBI to inform on his rivals, shrewdly keeping the Feds at bay while eliminating his competition. From Bulger’s perspective this was not “snitching,” because he wasn’t ratting on any close friends, only his enemies – the Italian Mafia in Boston.

I noticed that the film never really delved into a depiction of Bulger’s criminal enterprise; it only mentioned that he was involved in drugs, vending machines, rackets, etc. Filmmaker Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) never shows us Bulger’s operation, and we are told about rather than shown his ascent up the criminal ladder. Joel Edgerton (The Gift) co-stars as FBI agent John Connolly, a childhood friend to Bulger whose loyalty gave Bulger carte blanche in Southie. Connolly essentially acts as Bulger’s eyes and ears in the Bureau, giving him unparalleled sway in South Boston.

I’ve seen some criticism of Depp’s performance, and find it baffling that anyone would find fault with that particular aspect of the film. He was menacing, exuding a chilling presence that emanated from every scene and steely stare. This is the Johnny Depp that I like, not the quirky weirdo from Pirates of the Caribbean or Charlie And the Chocolate Factory. I thought he gave Bulger complexity, and I didn’t think his performance was one-note. I contrasted his depravity with the humanity Bulger showed in relation to his son and mother, which were moments of compassion and sensitivity. However, make no mistake: Bulger was a monster. He would devour anyone, and when he told one character that he’d eat him – I believed it. A few memorable scenes solidified this sentiment, particularly one involving Bulger and Connolly’s wife Marianne. Depp nailed it, and this scene captured both Bulger’s psychosis and Connolly’s weak complicity to perfection.

While watching Black Mass, I couldn’t help but be reminded of 2006’s The Departed, which was loosely based on Bulger. If you’ve seen that film, it may be helpful to think of Depp/Bulger as Jack Nicholson and Edgerton/Connolly as Matt Damon’s character, at least initially. Of course The Departed is a superior film, but I digress. Black Mass’ cast was stellar, and having the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Kevin Bacon (Cop Car) in ancillary roles only bolstered the overall weight of the film. I’m a fan of the genre, so I noticed an homage (or rip-off) of the classic scene from Goodfellas when Joe Pesci yanks Ray Liotta’s chain when a joke goes awry. I don’t know if this was intentional or accidental, but it reminded me that although Black Mass is a solid addition to the genre, it isn’t replacing any of our favorites. Depp can flourish in these types of roles (evidenced here as well as in earlier works like Blow and Donnie Brasco) and should take on the task more often. While some aspects of the film could’ve been improved upon from a storytelling perspective, the principals (Depp and Edgerton) really delivered. Grade: A-

The Gift

The best movies make you think about yourself and about life. I enjoy movies that explore some of my personal beliefs and philosophies. For me, what matters most in life is how you treat other people. You can be as wealthy and successful as possible, but if you don’t treat your fellow man with courtesy and respect, your worldly trappings mean nothing. The Gift was an intriguing movie that explored what it means to be a “good person,” and the accountability we must have for our actions.

Jason Bateman (Horrible Bosses 2) and Rebecca Hall (Transcendence) star as Simon and Robyn, a thirty-something couple who have recently relocated to California from Chicago. Simon is a successful executive, while Robyn is between jobs. Grieving a recent miscarriage, the couple is looking for a fresh start not far from where Simon grew up. We are introduced to the accomplished couple as they purchase a beautiful new home, and their energy is joyful and expectant. While shopping for furniture, Simon bumps into an old friend from high school, a shy man named Gordon (Joel Edgerton, Exodus: Gods and Kings). We first notice him in the background through the store’s window, watching Simon and Robyn as they shop. He exudes a creepy awkwardness, and it was painful watching him strike up a conversation with Simon, who barely remembers him.

As Simon and Robyn settle into their new digs, “Gordo” (as Simon calls him) begins to subtly intrude into their lives. It starts innocently enough with a housewarming gift left on their doorstep but eventually escalates to unannounced visits and inappropriate gifts. He seems lonely and relatively harmless, but there is something unsettling about his quiet lurking. Robyn is compassionate towards Gordo, but Simon is unnerved by him and mockingly pokes fun at his social ineptitude. It was particularly troublesome that Gordo always seemed to pop up when Robyn was home alone and Simon was working, a detail that foreshadowed the film’s sinister twist.

The film succeeds in evoking sympathy for Gordo, despite his disturbing behavior. There’s sadness in him, a quiet loneliness he hoped to fill by reconnecting with someone from his past. As the film unfolds, we learn just what kind of person Simon was all those years ago when he and Gordo first knew each other. Robyn discovers that Simon isn’t quite the man she married, as he reveals that he hasn’t changed much since high school after all. We don’t know how far Gordo will go to right the wrongs Simon inflicted on him, but when he exacts his revenge it is a cruel masterstroke.

I enjoyed The Gift immensely. It was a quiet movie that arrived in theaters with little fanfare, but deserved more attention than it received. Suspenseful and thought provoking, it was a unique movie that held my interest throughout. Edgerton not only stars as Gordo, but he wrote and directed the film as well. It was an impressive effort and I appreciated the conflicting emotions Gordo inspired. The storyline was strong and original, a testament to Edgerton’s talent and versatility. Hall and Bateman gave emotionally charged performances, and it was good to see Bateman as a flawed character for a change. Make sure you check for this movie when it comes to Redbox and cable. Grade: A