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2015 Reviews

ANOMALISA (****)  FINALLY, turns out 2015 DID have a movie worth RAVING about. This is so far above & beyond every other movie this year, it's laughable. The endlessly imaginative Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York) does it again, with this stop-motion tale about a man braving the drudgery of life until...I don't even want to tell you, because the world of this movie is so unique & beautiful, that I want it ALL to be a surprise. Sure it's animated (passing WALL-E as hands down the best animated movie I've ever seen), but it's the most human tale I've seen in ages - rife with parables, and a heartfelt investigation into what makes us tick. It's unlike anything I've ever seen before, as are all of his films somehow. I cannot implore you enough to GO CHECK OUT THIS MOVIE!!!!!


ANT-MAN (***1/2) is exactly as much fun as it ought to be.  And Paul Rudd rocks.  Go & enjoy!


THE ASSASSIN (**) wants to be a cross between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Farewell, My Concubine, but winds up just being one of the most boring moviegoing experiences of my life, with about 3 minutes of Crouching Tiger-ness scattered in 20 second chunks throughout this 140 minute movie.  The bonus points for the sumptuous scenary and costumes only go so far.


BEASTS OF NO NATION (**1/2), the African war drama about kids getting pulled into the war mix, is a seemingly great movie that I personally struggled to engage with.  It's narrated by an African boy non-actor whose accent is so thick that I missed almost everything that he said, which kept the movie at arm's lengh sadly.


BLACK MASS (***)  The Johnny Depp Whitey Bulger movie rests on Depp's magnetic performance and a hard-to-believe-it's-true story.  If only the style and dialogue had been more dynamic, this really could have been something more.


BOULEVARD (***) is Robin Williams' last performance, and yet this drama (about a married "straight" man whose life is turned upside down by his interactions with a young gay hustler) somehow went completely under the radar this past summer.  Probably because, even though Williams brings something utterly raw & beautiful to this, it isn't that great; and no one wanted to draw attention to an overall unsuccessful swan song.  But his scenes with the hustler are often achingly good, which was so cool to see because my buddy from acting class in LA (Roberto Aguire) plays the troubled 20-something!


BRIDGE OF SPIES (***1/2) is Spielberg back at the top of his game for the first time since 2005's Munich.  Tom Hanks is a lawyer forced to defend a captured Russian spy, and then winds up stuck as the guy who's gotta try to barter a trade: said spy for an American one captured by the Russians.  Great story, well told - not as thrilling as you might like, but it feels consistently engrossing nonetheless.  Highlight: English stage vet Mark Rylance, in his most high-profile film performance ever after winning 3 Tonys in the last 8 years.  (I saw all three of those plays, and he's dynamite, and brings it in this movie - likely Best Supporting Actor nominee.)


A BRILLIANT YOUNG MIND (***1/2) stars Hugo's Asa Butterfield as an autisitc kid obsessed with math (duh).  His father is dead, his mom is the lovely Sally Hawkins, and it's a BEAUTIFUL British import that'll pull your heartstrings.


BROOKLYN (***) is the story of an Irish late-teenager (Saoirse Ronan) who immigrates to Brooklyn, finds a life & love, needs to take a temporary trip back, finds love back there (and the kind of life she never was able to achieve before in Ireland), and is thus torn about which life she wants to hold on to.  It's a touching story...  a bit slow, and it could have a more interesting filmmaking style... but good stuff.


CAROL (***) is the period lesbian drama with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.  It's a bit lethargic at times, but Blanchett and Mara are outstanding, and there's something raw about watching gays cope in the 1950's (especially as they each navigate an excisting, rocky relationship with a man).


CINDERELLA (***)  A lucious, gorgeous, well-acted live-action version of the classic tale that I'm so glad exists...for girls under 18.  I could have done without it myself.


CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (***) is about an aging actress (Juliette Binoche) coping with the waning of her starlight in the face of a rising star (Chloe Grace Moretz).  It's an at-times moving story, and Kristen Stewart is great as her assistant, but it's ultimately a bit meandery and tedius.


CREED (***) Many gave me crap for seeing this without having seen Rockys 2-4.  And those same people loved this movie. So maybe I would have felt is greatness more had I seen them; but I look at it this way: my fresh eyes allowed me to see its mediocrity.  It's a solid, entertaining film, but nothing special.


CRIMSON PEAK (***) is a rather luscious thriller drama about a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) who marries a man (Tom Hiddleston) and goes to live in his spooky mansion with him and his spooky sister (Jessica Chastain).  What could go wrong?  It's rather fun to see what shakes out.


THE DANISH GIRL (***) Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are outstanding in this period piece about a man realizing he was born a woman on the inside, and how he and his wife cope with this.  It's nothing too too special, but the performances sell it.


THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (***) is about a... teenage girl... who has an affair with her mother's boyfriend.  It's got a lovely style to it and pairs levity and depth in a divine way, but ultimately doesn't add up to as much as you wish it did.


DOPE (***1/2) is a super-fun flick about a trio of high school minorities who get swept up into a drug heist situtation that's over their heads... or is it?! :)


THE END OF THE TOUR (***1/2)  stars Jason Segel in a revelation of a turn as writer David Foster Wallace during a book-tour interview with a journalist (the functional Jesse Eisenberg, who I've grown tired of but tolerate just fine here).  The conversations are often wildly beautiful for their sheer & relatable humanity.


EXPERIMENTER (***1/2) is about psychologist XXXX (Peter Sarsgaard, excellent) and his various psychological experiments.  It makes some stellar, unique storytelling choices that really help this fascinating material pop - check it out!


EVEREST (***) is sufficiently entertaining, primarily because it's a true story that I knew nothing about - the fact that it was true had me leaning farther forward into it than I otherwise would have, eager to know how everything turned out for the humans on this fated venture to the highest peak in the world.  But I would have appreciated more depth of character & humanity.  It felt like the whole project was on auto-pilot.


EX MACHINA (***1/2)  A hypnotic, slow-burn, sci-fi thriller that I strongly recommend.  Domhnall Glesson & Oscar Isaac are outstanding.


45 YEARS (***) is about septuagenarian couple coping with a sudden hurdle in their relationship after 45 years of marriage.  I was relatively transfixed until it added up to nothing by the end.  Charlotte Rampling is especially magnetic as the wife.


THE GIFT (***1/2)  Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, and Joel Edgerton (who also, impressively, wrote & directed this gem) shine in this deep-cutting revenge thriller.


GOING CLEAR: SCIENTOLOGY AND THE PRISON OF BELIEF (***1/2)  Wow.  You will not believe this s**t is true.  Watch it!!


GOODNIGHT MOMMY (**1/2) is a subtle, slow Austrian film about twin boys who suspect that their mother, wrapped in face bandages from costmetic surgery, may have been replaced by an imposter.  It's an eerie concept that seems to rest primiarly on that concept itself, raising tension in almost zero other ways.


GRANDMA (***)  Lily Tomlin does some of the best work of her career as a down & out lesbian widow helping her granddaughter get an abortion.  The film is nothing to write home about and often leaves you wondering why it was made except as a platform for Tomlin.  But as just that, and as a delivery system for a decent amount of enjoyment, it's a fine picture.


THE HATEFUL EIGHT (***)  This is 2 hours of delicious filmmaking packed into 3 hours, and that's a real problem.  For those who don't know: it's a Tarantino movie about 9 people (yup, I'm confused too) holed up in a cabin amidst a Wyoming blizzard, each with dubious intentions surrounding a woman with a $10k bounty on her head (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a deliciously fun turn).  Somehow it's not as taut as you'd imagine, and it's gotta be all due to is lugubrious pacing.


THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 2 (***) is probably the weakest of the Games of Hunger due to some melodrama and pacing issues, but it's enertaining enough for sure.


I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (***)   A lovey film about a widow (Blythe Danner) coping with singlehood in her 70's.  Don't expect anything enthralling or novel, but it's... lovely is just the word.


INSIDE OUT (***1/2) This is the best Pixar movie since 2010's Toy Story 3, though I guess that's not actually saying all that much.  It didn't dazzle me the WHOLE time, but it was consistently entertaining, and by the end packs QUITE a beautiful wallop.


THE INTERN (***)  Widower Robert DeNiro becomes a "senior" intern at an exploding online fashion startup run by go-getter, over-extended-wife-&-mom Anne Hathaway.  They develop an unlikely friendship and change each other in beautiful ways, and it's a lovely if cliched Nancy Meyers joint.


IT FOLLOWS (**1/2)  An adequate horror thriller.  It's got some great cinematography at times, and is quite creepy at times, but the acting and writing are pretty bad - I'm rather shocked it landed a 96% on rottentomatoes.


JOY (***) is the third consecutive David O. Russell movie to star Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper & Robert DeNiro.  But this time, it's fully Lawrence's movie - and she's pretty great.  I have conflicted feelings about the structure of this film: on one level, it's divine in how it makes an epic-feeling movie out of a story that is relatively straight-forward and human; but on another level, it's really just a movie about a mop-saleswoman.  So for me, it doesn't quite live up to Russell's Silver Linings Playbook or American Hustle; but I did love the feel, and so much about it.


JURASSIC WORLD (**) features some pretty dinosaurs and epic thrills, but totally falls short of our Jurassic standards in every important element of writing & directing.  (Especially the directing of the acting, which leaves a few talented people looking almost as bad as female lead Bryce Dallas Howard, who is a middle school actress in the body of a famous 34-year-old.)


KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (***1/2)  A sheerly delightful wild romp of a campy ol' fun British spy comedy action piece.


KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER (***)  What a fascinating project to choose to make: the tale of a quirky Japanese girl who believes that Fargo was actually based on a true story (as it jokingly claims at the beginning), and thus travels to the snowy Midwest to track down that suitcase of cash that Steve Buscemi's character buried at the end of that film.  It's fascinating, but not as stimulating as I had hoped.


THE LADY IN THE VAN (***1/2) stars Maggie Smith in a divine turn as an old lady who parks her van in a playwright's driveway for 15 years, and lives in her van to escape the police after accidentally hitting a motorcyclist.  It's a mostly true story that happened to playwright Alan Bennett (The History Boys), and there's delicious, occasionally meta creativity in how he himself is represented by co-lead Alex Jennings.  A rather enjoyable hour 45, especially if you're a Dame Maggie fan!


LEGEND (***) stars Tom Hardy as twin mobsers.  It's a bit of a slog of a movie at times, but Hardy is fantastic in both roles - especially impressive in the differentiation between the two.


LOVE AND MERCY (**1/2)  is a biopic about Brian Wilson, lead singer of the Beach Boys, and flashes back and forth between his rise to fame (starring Paul Dano) and his post-schizophrenia spiral (starring John Cusack).  The Dano pieces are actually the best parts (though I personally am allergic to Paul Dano), but the Cusack half is less interesting.  If you love those actors and love biopics about musicians, you might LOVE this - it just wasn't quite for me.


MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (***1/2)  Now, I've seen zero of the originals and thus have no point of reference or comparison; but I thought this was an outright blast.  It's truly JUST one long car chase with a thin plot, so... don't expect anything else.  But the stakes are there, but holy moly is the cinematography enthralling.  It's one HELL of a chase, let me tell you.


THE MARTIAN (***1/2)  Turns out Ridley Scott does still know how to make a good movie!  (First since 1991's Thelma & Louise? #notagladiatorfan)  Matt Damon does some of his finest work in years as an astronaut left for dead (but he's not!) on Mars.  I could have used more character development around the slew of terrific actors that flesh out the wheel-spinning rescue team on Earth, but this is event filmmaking as it used to be in the 90's (ie *story*-based), and I really appreciate it.


ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL (***1/2) is just divine.  It's like the Fault in Our Stars with a little Wes Andersony flair.  It's about a boy who befriends a girl with leukemia, and it'll make you feel rich full things in wonderfully unique ways, elevated by delicious cinematography.


MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION (***)  The least exciting or interesting of the M:I flicks, it's nonetheless a fun time.


MISSISSIPPI GRIND (***) is a poker movie with Ryan Reynolds and Australian phenom Ben Mendelsohn.  The movie meanders, but Mendelsohn alone makes it debatably worth seeing.


MISTRESS AMERICA (**1/2)  Only bother if you're a die hard Noah Baumbach fan.  I loved his early stuff, but his current Greta Gerwig stampede is only mildly interesting to me.  There's plenty to like & enjoy here, but it all adds up to a "quirky" average film.


MR. HOLMES (**) stars Ian McKellen as Sherlock himself at age 93, grappling with an unsolved case from his past.  The opportunity to see the great McKellen as Sherlock brought me to the theater, and the lugubrious pace put me to sleep.


99 HOMES (***1/2) features Andrew Garfield as a strapped-for-cash single dad who, left with no other option for how to get his family's house back post-eviction, goes to work for the real estate devil (Michael Shannon).  Raw human suspense and strong performances makes this surprisingly good.


PAWN SACRIFICE (***1/2) will be known as the Tobey Maguire / Bobby Fischer movie.  That label would have turned me off, but this is actually an incisive, fascinating film that dynamically tells a story that has so much more to it than I ever realized.


PITCH PERFECT 2 (***) isn't as good as the original if you ask me - it may be frothier & splashier, but it doesn't have quite the same raw true spirit.  And farrrrrr too many of the jokes are flat-out easy instead of smart.  But it's a good time, for SURE.


THE REVENANT (***1/2)  Leonardo DiCaprio is a trapper in ye olde woodsie times who gets mauled by a bear and then is left for dead by his team (namely Tom Hardy, in a magnetic but frustratingly mumbly-incomprehensible performance) and strives to surivive and return for revenge.  By director Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman), and Birdman and Gravity's cinemetographer, it's expectedly visually impressive.  And watching Leondardo survive through extreme circumstances is a decent proposition to hang a movie on.  But I have to say: it's a too long, the social dynamics among the various teams of trappers in the woods is unnecessarily confusing, dialogue is too hard to hear over the impressive (but overly loudly so) soundscape, and these elements keep the movie from landing as enthrallingly as it could.


RICKI AND THE FLASH (***)  is worth it only if you're a die-hard Meryl Streep fan, like me.  Not to say that this formulaic sugar-fest is flat-out bad, it's just flat-out unnecessary, except to see Meryl eat it up as a rock 'n' roll singer/guitarist struggling to reconnect with her family after decades of estrangement.


ROOM (***1/2)  Brie Larson is a revelation as a kidnap victim with a 5 year old son who has spent his entire life with her in captivity (where he was presumably conceived and born).  Holy moly this is some captivating stuff (no pun intended).


'71 (***)  This true story of a British soldier caught behind enemy lines (essentially) in a street brawl is quite well done but ultimately a little unstimulating, leaving some more to be desired.


SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE (***1/2)  is a wordless animated delight from the makers of Wallace & Gromit.  Endlessly smile-inducing :)


SICARIO (***1/2)  Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent who joins an under-the-rug drug-traffic-control team at the Mexican border led by Josh Brolin, with wild & unpredictable support from Benicio Del Toro.  The action sequences are superb and the plot lands somewhere rather outstanding by the end, but if more thought & artistry had been put into the dialogue and style throughout, this would have really been something to write home about.


SPECTRE (***) is a moderately satisfying Bond flick.  The dialogue and acting often underwhelm, but there are enough great scenes by the end to make it worth the trip.


SPOTLIGHT (***1/2) is about the Boston Globe uncovering of the Catholic Priest molestation scandal in 2002.  It's super engaging, at times moving, and exquisitely acted (especially Michael Keaton; I could live with Mark Ruffalo never opening his mouth again).  However... it's considered by many to be a front-runner for Best Picture, and I don't quite see that myself (I don't think it's that good, and don't think it'll go that far in this race - but I could see it being close!)


SPY (***1/2)  Melissa McCarthy shows us yet again (though maybe more than ever before) why she's kickin' ass and takin' names in Hollywood these days.  You can't quite construct a better star for a movie like this - an action spy comedy with the last person you'd expect, well, kicking ass and taking names.  Go and have a blast.


STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT (***1/2) isn't a documentary about the pschology experiment in which college students were paid $15/day to act as prisoners or guards in a pseudo-prison for 2 weeks, but rather a dramatic reenactment of the story.  Wow, what a wild thing that happened, and watching it unfold in this format was very much worth my time.


STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (****) I feel like I just experienced what the world experienced in '77, '80 & '83, that I didn't get to on account of being -4, -1, and 2 years old; to see an epic of this scale & quality, on the big screen, in the year that it was made for, was a profound experience. J.J. Abrams has created a cultural event that is worthy of the shattering box office records it's setting. I'm not intimately familiar with the original series (though I have a distinct aversion to the preposterous prequels), but they were certainly a part of my childhood. I grew up on movies like the Star Wars series, E.T., Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park - large scale classics you can trust because they take the time & care to make sure that the characters are fleshed out and the storytelling is sturdy. They warmly welcome you into their epic world, rather than ostentatiously slap you in the face with their garish abundance as so many blockbusters do these days, seemingly more & more so and more & more often. Instead, here, J.J. & his team actually took the time to care, and he trusted us to welcome with open arms a movie that took the time to develop characters and earn its explosions, rather than simply give us popcorn fluff. I value that deeply, and am grateful for the impact that his choice (and the success that is following) may have on our invaluable industry. And on top of that, I think he combined the classic feel with a modern flavor remarkably well - this feature was, appropriately, less cheesy than the originals, and utilized some modern technology where it both benefited & tastefully fit. The Force Awakens isn't your typical "Tommy Dickie 4 star", but for alllll the skill & effort that went in to making a Star Wars reboot as high quality and classic as this was, and for the example that this sets for today's big budget filmmakers, it sure has earned an immaculate rating.


STEVE JOBS (***1/2) Bet you can't guess who this biopic is about.  Buckle up for 2 straight hours of non-stop Sorkin walk-and-talk, as artiste Danny Boyle brings us backstage for the tense moments before three big product launches throughout Jobs' life, in this three-act drama.  You really gotta be ready to hop on the fast-talk train, but the dialogue is emaculate and the performances (namely Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg) exquisite.


STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON (***1/2)  I hate rap, so figured this biopic about the generation and progression of the rap group N.W.A. would be wildly out of my interest zone.  But the reviews & fan response swayed me, and I have to say: I loved it.  It's not only a compelling story told via an enthralling directorial touch, it's quitely simply a very important film about race that's decidedly relevant right now.


SUFFRAGETTE (**1/2) is the womens rights movement flick, with Meryl Streep in a hilariously brief cameo as the leader of the pack.  It's a pretty boring movie, unfortunately (as if it was made for a History class rather than as a piece of art of its own); but Carey Mulligan is gangbusters in the lead role.


TANGERINE (***)  stars real-life trans actors as trans prostitutes on the streets of LA.  It's a fascinating window into a real world part of my city that I didn't know about, and directed with a more stylistic tone than I anticipated.  Some is lost by having the leads played by non-actors, but more is gained by watching the real deal people.


TRAINWRECK (***1/2) is Amy Schumer's first stab at the mainstream (in the form of a rom-com co-starring Bill Hader), and I think she nails it.  She brings her signature filth and self-deprication to the standard format, but also adds a healthy dose of depth and honest vulnerability that only enhances the laughs.  She and Hader are outstanding.


TRUMBO (***) is a rather bubbly film, especially given its topic of Hollywood in the Cold War / blacklist era.  I imagine that some will be turned off by its tone, which is in a space between frenetic farce and drama that is a bit unanchored; but I overall enjoyed its unique tone.  Bryan Cranston is dynamite as nutty blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.


TRUTH (***1/2) tells the true story of the Dan Rather 60 Minutes 2004 pre-election report on how George W. dodged fighting in Vietnam, and how he (played by Robert Redford, sufficient) and his producer (Cate Blanchett, excellent of course in the movie's lead role) retired and were fired, respectively, after the thoroughness of the investigation fell under fire.  It's an engaging story, well told.


VICTORIA (***1/2) is a German drama about an aimless late night on the city streets... where a 20-something girl strikes up conversation and shenanigans with four 20-something guys... and suddenly, about halfway through this 2h20m movie, gets wrapped up in a heist.  It's one of those slow-burn flicks that might knock your socks off, aided by its most impressive quality: the entire [long] film is ACTUALLY one single take.


THE WALK (***1/2) is the story of "that guy from Man on Wire" Philippe Petit, who tightrope walked between the twin towers.  It's odd to watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt play a French acrobat, but the filmmaking wraps you up in the story and the cinematography makes you feel a little more THERE than some of you may be ready to handle.


WELCOME TO ME (***)  A quirky dramedy starring Kristen Wiig as a woman with personality disorder who wins the lottery and buys her own talk show.  It's rather entertainig, super interesting and hits on some really great ideas, but I wish the world had been fleshed out more and filmed more dynamically.


WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (***1/2)  A mockumentary about vampires living together, Real World style.  It's just a delight to watch - definitely check it out if mockumentaries are your thing.


WHILE WE'RE YOUNG (***1/2)  Ben Stiller & Naomi Watts are a 40-something couple who latch onto a 20-something couple because they love the stimulation of feeling more youthful.  Wackiness ensues, as do some lovely poignant notes.  A fun dramedy that I *totes* recommend :)


YOUTH (***) features some of the best moments of filmmaking I've seen in awhile.  But it's surrounded by so much shotty dialogue and tonal awkwardness that the beauty feels imprisoned.  But watch the trailer!  Because the second half of it is amazing and will give you dose of said beauty (and tell you what this movie is about, so I don't have to right now).


Z FOR ZACHARIAH (**1/2)  is a decent enough postapocalyptic drama about a trio (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Wolf of Wall Street's Margot Robbie, and Chris Pine) negotiating how to proceed and move on as possibly the only humans left on Earth.  It's got some great stuff, but is ultimately relatively unnecessary and tedious.


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