Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My Top-10 Films of the Year (So Far) Part 2

This is Part 2 of my favorite films of 2015. For Part I, please click this link to read it.  Thanks.

As before, where I've written a blog entry of the movie, the title will be linked so you can go there. Thanks again.

5. Tie: Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part II and The Martian

Far better than Part I, because this one has a sense of fate, of finishing up, of ending a war and moving on with life. Its themes and messages are more mature than the other films, on purpose. And it makes a point to choose humanity over war, of even winning a war, which is dubious to me, but carried out well here. It asks: How barbaric are we willing to be to win a battle, or a war? That depends on the war, I suppose, and it's easy to make sweeping platitudes, but it all works here, anyway. It's directed better, too, though all the Hunger Games movies have the same director. A minor bone to pick is how Coin was situated right behind Snow at the end; I didn't read the books, but I didn't have to in order to know what was going to happen there. It couldn't have been telegraphed more than it was. But it all wraps up well, and meaningfully, and I'll repeat here what I said in the blog: Kudos to the filmmakers for making an action movie where a woman is the main character, the one kicking ass, and the one who has to save the rather short-sighted and dim-witted (or tyrannical) men. And for showing that a woman can be just as tyrannical, just as cold and evil. Not a single stereotypical female role here. That's rare.

The Martian is a very gung-ho, optimistic movie from Ridley Scott, who's not known for being that way. Like, at all. An astronaut gets marooned on Mars, and is forced to grow food from his feces and to listen to bad disco music before he's saved by his crew, which comes back for him, thereby sacrificing another year of their lives in space. The martian, for his part, loses a ton of weight and endures a few catastrophes, but never loses his smile or his extremely positive outlook. A friend of mine found this excessively unrealistic and therefore didn't like the movie. I disagreed, saying that the movie was purposely optimistic about space, space travel, and our role in space. It was Ridley's way of saying, "Let's fund NASA more, because Earth is screwed and sooner or later we're going to need to leave." Ridley is known to be fascinated by space, about living in space, about the optimistic and positive attributes of being in space. This despite Alien and Prometheus, very pessimistic movies about the horrors of space--though both do end with an optimistically intellectual attitude about space, and about our ultimate creation. Well, Prometheus does, anyway. So IMO The Martian has to be seen with this in mind. It's not unrealistically positive, exactly, because it's whole point is to be very positive about humans in space. Think, Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

4.  Jurassic World

Extremely exciting and hyper-visual movie that was lightyears better than Jurassic Park 2 and 3. In some ways, this even exceeds the original. Yes, it's still what David Letterman infamously called "mechanical lizards," but here there are flying ones with razor-sharp teeth, and the gigantic whaleshark, and the velociraptors and T-rex are back, plus one more...All of them very scary, and very real. These all existed in the past, unlike a few of the original movie's lizards, especially that annoying fan-shaped thing. Real danger, real menace, and a couple of characters--especially Bryce Dallas Howard's--who might also exist in real life.  It doesn't focus on the kids as much as the first one did, which worked better for me. So, yes, again, just a romp with CGI lizards, but an exciting, eye-popping one, guaranteed to please and make you wish for popcorn. An almost perfect summer action / special effects popcorn-chewing visual experience, that must really be seen on the big screen.

3. Mad Max: Fury Road

About this film I ca say almost the same thing as Jurassic World, but without the dinosaurs. An unbelievably awesome action romp, it's basically two very long action sequences, or a movie-long car chase. The most inspiring thing about it is that it's NOT CGI-heavy. George Miller wanted all the stunts and all the cars to be real, and they all look it. There are Cirque du Soleil performers, real cars on top of tanks, explosions and sand and jumping and so much precision it'll make your head spin. It's perhaps the best action movie ever made. That's not just me saying so, but most of the critics, too, all of whom have put it on their own Top 10 of 2015 lists. And the National Board of Review named it the Best Picture of the Year!!!

Perhaps as equally impressive is the message. First, it's an action movie with a message, a rare thing in of itself. That the message is of female empowerment and freedom is even more rare--in all of film, never mind in an action film. But don't lose sight of the fact that the cargo driven in the movie's War Rig is not gasoline, but the five women who are escaping with Charlize Theron's Furiosa to a better place, a world of green where they are not slaves, where they can be free. Think of the women worldwide, who live in cultures where they are not free, where they are subservient to men in absolutely every way (and I do mean every way) and I think you'll agree that this is no small thing.

2. Sicario

I have misgivings placing this here instead of at #1, and went back and forth about it. My reason is simple: It has hardly any special effects to speak of, and is all acting, writing and directing. It excels at all three, plus the score to boot, which I listen to on YouTube all the time, and will probably buy soon. Benicio del Toro gives a performance that is memorably chilling, and Emily Blunt gives a performance that is easily the best of her career. I hope they're both remembered at Oscar time--and Mark Rylance should be, too, for Bridge of Spies. (His performance was as quietly nuanced as del Toro's was loudly menacing, so it's tough to know who should get it. This shows the Oscars are often a crapshoot.) Anyway, this movie is exceptional in every way, and relevant, and a dirty little corner of America's politics and its (failed) War on Drugs. It's an important movie done dirty, menacing and well.

1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Of course. A huge movie that makes it all relevant again, and it sets the mark for the remaining movies. Makes you wonder why George Lucas went for the prequels and Vader, rather than the sequels, and Skywalker / Leia / Han Solo, plus the newcomers. My only caveat, as mentioned above, is that Sicario is all about acting, writing and directing, and does not count a lick on special effects. This movie has very good acting and directing as well, but it of course counts very heavily on its technical side--but how could it not, since it all takes place in space? Having said that, I don't know what else I have to say about it that I didn't say in my blog entry, so without further ado I'll direct you there.

Well, thanks for reading my two Top-10 Movie List blogs! What movies did you like the best this year? How would you rank the ones I mentioned?

Monday, December 28, 2015

My Top-10 Films of 2015 (So Far)

I may see one or two more before the year ends, but thus far here's my listing of the 10 films I saw this year.  When I've already written a blog entry for it, a link will be provided in the title of the movie:

10. Terminator: Genisys

A big let-down, and the only film I saw in the theatre this year that had me checking my watch. Couldn't wait for it to end. And making John Connor the antagonist was the biggest bonehead decision of 2015. Well, before Slater elected to kick away in overtime in yesterday's Patriots game.

9.  The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I: I 90% liked it; 10% didn't.  Read about that here.

8.  Bridge of Spies

Not a bad film, exactly, as my blog entry said. But I couldn't recommend it with excitement, either. A professionally made, professionally acted, professionally delivered movie, and all over the year end's Top-10 lists in many places (and #8 for me, though I only saw 10 total movies as of 12.28.15.), but still not a film that will generate awe or excitement. Spielberg's genius works against him here. My expectations for his films are sky-high, and this isn't. Even more low-key than Lincoln was, but without Day-Lewis's awe-inspiring performance. A good film for a Sunday afternoon on cable.

7. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The Middle East is a land mass unlike any other in the world.  Without traveling it, if you want to get to Africa, you'd have to take a ship or plane.  Those who control the Middle East control all trade (today, much or most of the trade) coming and going from all of Africa.  Control that, and you will have riches and power, then and now.  Combine that with the extreme religious significance of those lands (three of the world's major religions spring from it) and combine that with the concentration of oil there, and you've got land that everyone wants. And they'll all fight for it. Forever.

Now think of this movie, and that mountain. It's got gold and not oil, but it's all otherwise the same. A better movie than it's being given credit for, especially when compared to Jackson's LOTR films. And a very political movie, too. It's got something very relevant to say.

6.  Spectre

A very good Bond film, Daniel Craig's 3rd-best, IMO, after Skyfall and Casino Royale. Expecting it to be as good as Skyfall was indeed too much to ask, and that's okay. The planets aligned for Skyfall, which was a better movie than it had a right to be, and perhaps was the best in all of Bond. And a great movie in of itself, by itself, that transcended the genre. Spectre doesn't do that, but it's a great ride nonetheless, and Christoph Waltz's performance is as good as you figured it would be. Though it's not as good as Javier Bardem's in Skyfall, Waltz doesn't have as much to work with, either. There are a couple of head-scratches here, in terms of what Blofeld does, and you wonder why he's treated as well as he is at the end (to better set him up in the sequel?), but overall this was a good ride.

Honorable Mention: Jaws (re-release).  This would have been rated if it had been released this year.

Top Five Next Blog Entry--to be continued

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens

Photo: Official Star Wars poster from the movie's official Wikipedia page

Warning: Here there be spoilers!!!

The Force has indeed been nudged awake, as J.J. Abrams does (the best of) George Lucas proud, while putting his own exciting, realistic-action stamp on the franchise.  Abrams does a nice job here of looking back as he looks ahead; he clearly went out of his way to show respect to Lucas, and to Episodes IV-VI.  He does this so often that he comes perilously close to simply remaking A New Hope; more than a few critics have said that The Force Awakens and A New Hope are basically the same film.

Some obvious nods / homages / outright steals:

--movie-important information is hidden in a small, round droid, which gets away in the middle of an attack

--the chess game, flashed on and off just to make fans of Episode IV happy (which works)

--a more powerful, meaner Death Star-like weapon that can destroy planets easily, here called Starkiller Base

--a glaring weakness in said weapon that the Rebels can explode from within

--the de-activation of this weapon's defenses from another location (okay, this is actually Episode VI)

--the Millenium Falcon and its victory in 12 (not 14) parsecs

--another Cantina scene

--another R2-D2-like droid, this time a rolling ball, with a bit of WALL-E in him, named BB-8.

--the boss of a bad guy wearing a black mask is clearly just using him and his Force as puppets for his own power.

--there's a lot of Freudian / mythological daddy issues here

--before the newest Death Star-like weapon can destroy more planets, there's a countdown that the rebel fighters must beat to destroy said weapon

--the main character of this one is a scavenger / orphan who doesn't know she has The Force.  Luke was, well, exactly the same.

--said same character gets attached to the Rebellion via the escaped droid, which has the plans that get the idea.

Need I say more?  This is almost the same movie.

But also it is not.  The bad guy here literally is a Darth Vader wannabe--so much that he admits it! But he is no Darth Vader, and he's no Emperor.  He's not even Hayden Christiansen at his best as Vader, in Episode III, when he's fighting with Obi-Won Kenobi or when he's striking down the future Jedis.  He's no Ben Kenobi, either, despite his birth name. Kylo Ren does have a helluva sinister voice, though--from a mask that he doesn't need to wear, and does so only as an homage to Darth Vader.

The better villain is one we rarely see: Kylo Ren's master, Supreme Leader Snoke. We'll see more of him.  (And of Han Solo, I'll warrant.  In fact, a guess: Before Kylo Ren escapes the exploding planet, he finds his father and takes him with him.)

I say that this movie is essentially Star Wars 1977 in a good way.  As one reviewer pointed out: Isn't that what we all wanted anyway?  And I add: Isn't that why most of us disliked Episodes I-III so much, because it was all special effects and no magic?  That it was George Lucas losing The Force? Abrams simply gives us what he knew we wanted.  Though it's true that there are no huge surprises here, there is a very comfortable sit-back-and-enjoy feeling, while at the same time seeing something that is at least a little new, a little fresh.

Daisey Ridley is very, very good, as is Harrison Ford, who wears Solo's jacket much like he did Indiana Jones' coat--like he's comfortable in it, like he's never stopped wearing it.

Ford has infamously said many times that he has no emotional attachment to Han Solo.  I saw him tell Jimmy Fallon that he did it only because they paid him a lot of money. (Which they did: $25 million, plus .05% of the total revenue.  By my math, when this makes $1 billion [which it will do easily], that gives Ford...let's see: 10% of $1 billion is $100 million, so 1% would be $10 million, so half of that is $5 million.  Right?  Feel free to correct my math if I'm wrong.)  Anyway, take my word for it, Harrison Ford had fun in this role. He looked like he was having more fun filming this than he did any of his previous Star Wars movies.

Carrie Fisher is very serious here, as her character should have been in all of the previous movies.  I'm still not sure how I feel about Lucas dressing her in that bikini in Return of the Jedi.  Jabba would've made her wear that, I guess, but she's a princess there, right? I know that's the purpose of him degrading her, but...Whatever. P.S.--She's extremely negative in her commentaries for her previous Star Wars movies, released together with newer special effects in the late 1990s. She throws Billy Dee Williams under the bus a few times for forgetting his (few) lines and for needing constant re-takes.

John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver were serviceable here, but didn't wow me like Daisy Ridley did.  They'll have their chances in the next two movies.

Anthony Daniels as C-3PO and Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca reprised their roles well.  Chewbacca especially got most of the laughs.

Despite the new faces, this was definitely Ford's movie, and the moviemakers were wise to put it in his trustworthy hands. Aside from that, this was really Daisy Ridley's movie, and she showed me a lot. She's not just another pretty face.  When she's ready to kick ass with the lightsaber, her face shows it, and it's correctly intense and serious.  She gets an unreal number of (very) close-ups in this movie, which for any actor could spell doom. But she carried it all off, and only good actors can do that. She's got the Luke Skywalker role, and Boyega is the Han Solo.  (My guess, BTW, is that her character is Luke's daughter with someone, probably British.)

So go and see this if you're one of the 6 or 7 who want to see it but haven't yet. I'll see it again. IMO, it's the 3rd-best Star Wars movie, behind only The Empire Strikes Back and the original. (Return of the Jedi is 4th, mostly for its silliness. It's at its best with the super-serious chorus-filled lightsaber fight at the end.)

P.S.--It was nice to see Max Von Sydow here.  Gwendolyn Christie, from Game of Thrones, is the Stormtrooper leader, unmasked throughout the film. Speaking of stormtroopers, Daniel Craig, Mr. James Bond himself, is any one of the two million stormtroopers, in an uncredited cameo role.