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Never in a Million Years Did I Think This Would Be One of My Favorite Movies of the Year
"Tangerine" is easily one of if not the biggest pleasant surprises of the past movie year. At first, I didn't think I was going to be able to get into the film's vibe. Watching a couple of transvestite prostitutes with depressing lives charging around L.A. throwing tantrums and telling everyone what's what isn't fun for very long, and it seemed that that's all the film would be. But as it develops, and the characters start to develop with it, I sort of fell in love with the movie and even with the people in it who did nothing but annoy me at first.
As "Tangerine" moves along, the lives of the principal characters cease to seem quite so depressing. They're sad, certainly, and between disease, drugs, and thugs, they're almost certain to come to a bad and quite possibly early end. But what "Tangerine" gets just right -- and what makes it so much more than a goof at the expense of a bunch of caricatures we can feel superior to because we're so much more fortunate than -- is that it respects its characters and its characters respect themselves. There's a certain dignity in the way the characters embodied by Katana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor go about their lives completely true to who they are. They don't apologize or ask for sympathy. This is what prevents their lives from being depressing. They and the people around them live on the fringes of a society that doesn't know what to do with people it can't easily label, so they create their own place in it. And in the character of the outwardly conventional cab driver who's smitten with the "girls" and the world they come from, the movie suggests that there are many out there who force themselves into categories that don't completely fit them and admire the kind of freedom in which those who don't conform live, even as they would likely condemn them for their behavior.
And I would be remiss if I didn't also mention as part of this review that the movie is at times uproariously funny.
"Male" Film from a Female Point of View.....Sort Of
In a year in which the movie industry is being raked over the coals for not being diverse enough, "Sicario" had the opportunity to give us a woman's perspective on a genre generally reserved for macho men. And it makes good on that opportunity for a while, but in the end, the film's decision to drop its female protagonist and let events play out in a very traditional and male way makes it one of the bigger disappointments of my movie year.
Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent who's recruited to join an inter-department task force whose objective is to take out a Mexican drug lord. Her role on the team is left intentionally vague, both to her and to us, for most of the movie; not until the film's last third do we learn that she's there so that the CIA can basically dot its "i"s and cross its "t"s in establishing clearance for doing whatever it needs to do, much of it illegal, to control the situation.
Stories about idealistic folk who wake up to the questionable motives and methods of whatever cause they've aligned themselves with are a dime a dozen -- just earlier this year the movie "'71" covered the same thematic ground but set it against the backdrop of the IRA conflict in Ireland. But for its first half or so, "Sicario" feels like a fresh approach to the subject, mostly because it's told from a female point of view. Emily Blunt is a very good actress, and though she's not given perhaps as full a character as she could have been, she's given enough to work with and she does well with it. But toward the end, the film decides it's no longer interested in her, and it instead follows Benicio Del Toro's CIA double agent while he carries out criminal acts in the name of U.S. justice, and that's where the movie lost me a bit. It wouldn't have bothered me so much had not the movie leading up to that been told exclusively from Blunt's point of view. We don't see any events that she herself isn't present to witness. The change in perspective is jarring and disappointing.
"Sicario" is far from a total loss. It's quite a well made film and though it didn't live up to the potential it established for itself, I still enjoyed it. But how much more I might have enjoyed it had it lived up to its promise.
The Revenant (2015)
A Boring, One-Note Slog
Revenge may be a primal human drive, especially in the setting and time period in which "The Revenant" is set, but it makes for a very boring narrative hook if you don't give a hoot about the person seeking revenge or the person that person is seeking revenge against.
Alejandro G. Innarritu's latest exercise in human misery is two and a half hours of Leonardo DiCaprio suffering capped off by a showdown that finds him getting what he wants -- the death of the man who left him for dead after being mauled by a bear and then killed his son. Does Innarritu use this story to bring any insight into the human condition? Are we given any reason to care about DiCaprio's character other than a couple of obligatory flashbacks that use narrative shortcuts to tell us that he had a wife who was killed? Could the villain, played by Tom Hardy without a hint of nuance or subtlety, be any more of a caricature? Innaritu directs every single shot with a self-conscious sense of self- importance, as if he's pausing to say to the audience, "Just wait and see how impressed you are going to be with my directorial skill." Too bad it all adds up to such a boring, one-note slog.
DiCaprio will win what everyone seems to think is a long overdue Oscar for this performance, despite the fact that he's given the same performance in his last ten movies and he's asked to do no more in this one than grunt, moan, and grimace his way through it. Every time I hear anyone talk about how brilliant he is in "The Revenant," the focus is on how difficult the shoot was, not how well he acted the part. Honestly, the brilliant makeup work is 95% of his performance.
"Birdman" was the first Innarritu movie I've really liked, and it looks like that was an anomaly. His philosophy seems to be predicated on the belief that human existence is something to suffer through until one finds a reward in the afterlife. Since I don't believe that at all, his movies have nothing to say to me.
Ich seh ich seh (2014)
A Late Act Reliance on Torture Porn Mars an Otherwise Effective Psychological Horror Movie
A psychological horror film in the same vein as "The Babadook" and "It Follows" in which the "monster" of the film is really an emotional event that becomes a skeleton in the closet for the movie's characters. In "Goodnight Mommy," that event is a tragedy that occurs off screen and provides the film with a twist that some viewers might see coming right away but which didn't hit me until around the two-thirds point of the film, right about the time it's supposed to. It's an upsetting and effective movie, but I was disappointed that it veers toward torture porn in its final third. By the time the film ends, the violence has become the point rather than a servant to the film's point, and its gratuitousness took me out of the movie. Still, it's a very well made and acted movie, especially by the twin boys who play the little boys in the film. The movie's poster would have you believe it's a kind of "Omen"-esque story of demonic possession or childhood evil, but it's not like that at all. It bothered me deeply and stuck with me for several days after I'd seen it.
The Big Short (2015)
Irritating Movie That Thinks Its Audience Is Dumb
"The Big Short" takes a fascinating subject (the collapse of the real estate market that instigated the global economic collapse and recession in 2008) and then spends its entire running time apologizing for boring its audience. It tells the viewer early on that ordinary folk like us (the audience) and the bros who made the movie don't understand any of that stuff anyway, so they're going to make it interesting. Interesting means we get shots of Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a hot tub while she explains some economic term to us. Despite the filmmakers' attempts to make themselves one with the audience, the tone of the movie is ingratiating and condescending, and the whole thing is annoying to the extreme.
It's not like this subject matter hasn't been addressed before. The film "Margin Call" was about something very similar, but it managed to present the material straight and as if it really mattered without making its audience feel like dunces. "The Big Short" tells us here and there that the economic collapse was devastating to average people around the world, but it treats it mostly like a joke. It's like "Wolf of Wall Street" lite. And it commits what for me is the ultimate movie sin -- it telegraphs to us in flashing neon every emotion we're supposed to be filling at any given moment, never once giving us the opportunity to react ourselves.
The cast is pretty good, but they're asked to do things like pause and speak directly into the camera, the effectiveness of their performances hampered by poor directorial choices. Steve Carrell and Christian Bale are the standouts. Ryan Gosling suffers the most from the film's jokey tone. And Brad Pitt once again uses his producer credentials to insert himself into a film as the character who gets to lecture someone in the movie (and by extension the audience) about the moral ramifications of whatever the film's topic happens to be.
I would rather have just watched a documentary about the housing collapse. It might have given me more credit for having a brain in my head.
Todd Haynes Returns to 1950s American Repression
"Carol," the latest film from director Todd Haynes, covers a lot of the same thematic and aesthetic ground covered by Haynes' beautiful 2002 film "Far from Heaven." Set in the 1950s, like Haynes' earlier film, and concerning itself with homosexuality, this time female homosexuality, in an era when such a lifestyle was nearly impossible without universal condemnation, it also features exquisite cinematography by Edward Lachmann and a rarefied period glow that makes the film feel more like an artifact from an earlier time than a recent release. If it doesn't have the same emotional wallop as "Far from Heaven," that's partially because it has a happier ending, and also because it feels like less is at stake. "Far from Heaven" took on a whole world of prejudice; in fact, the homosexuality of Dennis Quaid's character was accepted more quickly than the interracial romance between Julianne Moore's well-to-do housewife and Dennis Haysbert's working class gardener. In "Carol," Cate Blanchett brings such a determined resolve to the title character that you never worry much about the outcome. If she loses custody of her daughter, which her husband threatens as a way to keep her on a tight leash, you get the sense that she'll be fine anyway. And Rooney Mara's Therese is so young and still discovering herself and the world that you get the sense her affair with Carol is just one of many transformative experiences that will make her the ultimate woman she will become. The two actresses are sensational, Blanchett wafting through the film with an air of regal melancholy and Mara using her large expressive eyes to convey Therese's fear and excitement at entering a forbidden world she didn't even know she wanted until it presented itself to her. It's a film I thoroughly enjoyed, but it has a colder, more insular quality than "Far from Heaven." I felt more like I was watching characters in a jar with a detached interest than going through their emotional journeys with them in real time.
The film also stars Sarah Paulson as Blanchett's friend and former lover, and though her role isn't large, any movie is made instantly better by her presence, no matter how brief.
There was quite a bit of outrage that this film didn't make the final roster of Best Picture candidates at the Academy Awards, but it's not an outrage I share. I admired it but don't think it was Best Picture material.
Excellent and Exciting Film in the Tradition of "All the President's Men"
"Spotlight" is the "All the President's Men" of a new movie generation.
Establishing a journalistic tone that matches the film's setting, it tells the story of a Boston newspaper team's efforts to expose the sexual abuse running rampant throughout the Catholic Church. It's a film with hardly a misstep or false note. Eschewing the histrionics and emotional manipulation that other films would have brought to the same material, "Spotlight" understands that the screenplay and actors hired to interpret it are strong enough without any emotional embellishment, and the film is far more powerful because of the understated approach. The entire cast is at top form, with Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, and John Slattery as the standouts (Ruffalo in particular delivers an impassioned soliloquy so emotionally powerful that it nearly brought me to tears), but this is an ensemble film with actors working together like a well-oiled machine, and it seems unfair to single out any one when they're all so good.
Director Tom McCarthy is most known for his work to date on the Pixar movies, and you couldn't find a movie further away from the colorful palettes and winsome stories of the Pixar world. But he proves himself a versatile filmmaker, one who knows how to handle extremely varied material. It would be easy to discount the direction of this film, but one should not underestimate how difficult directing a film that consists almost entirely of conversations would be. And when one also considers that part of good directing is getting good performances from actors, McCarthy's goes down as some of the best directing of the year.
So far, this and "Mad Max: Fury Road" are my two favorite movies of the year. How's that for opposite sides of the movie spectrum?
The End of the Tour (2015)
Road Tripping with the Author of "Infinite Jest"
Jason Segal surprises with the strength of his acting ability in this recreation of an interview a writer from "Rolling Stone" conducted with author David Foster Wallace over the course of a book tour promoting Foster's cult classic opus, "Infinite Jest."
The film is a series of low-key conversations about writing, the nature of fame and celebrity, Alanis Morrisette and everything in between. The interviewer is played by Jesse Eisenberg, an actor I've come to actively dislike, but the general douche bag vibe he exudes no matter what role he plays serves him well here, since his character is riddled with jealousy of Wallace's talent. The reason to watch the film is Segal, who manages to bring the same likable but melancholy tone to Wallace's character that Wallace himself brings to his writing in "Infinite Jest."
One of the better overlooked movies of 2015.
Jurassic World (2015)
One Dinosaur, Two Dinosaur, Red Dinosaur, Blue Dinosaur
Oh, will those crazy dinosaur-creating scientists never learn? As if all the people gobbled up by giant reptilians run amok over the course of three previous movies wasn't enough, a giant corporation thinks it's a grand idea to open Jurassic World, the Sea World of dinosaurs. And because dinosaurs have become de rigeur, audiences demand bigger and meaner ones if they are to continue buying tickets. Thus, a team of geneticists manufacture monsters intended to satisfy customers, until they do too good a job and create one that's a sort of super hero and has all the best traits from various other dinosaurs combined into one. When it escapes from its pen, things go predictably badly.
Once I recovered from the disappointment of realizing that Bryce Dallas Howard was not going to be swallowed up or torn apart by the movie's end, I was able to settle in and enjoy this movie for what it was, which is a game if somewhat lacking attempt to recreate the roller coaster thrills of Steven Spielberg's first installment. Remember that one, that ancient relic of a movie that came out way back in 1993? Yes, it's so old I'm surprised it was even in color. Of course we need a reboot -- God forbid anyone should be bothered to push a button and stream the original from any number of available services.
"Jurassic World" has lots of set pieces that sound good on paper, and they manage to offer up a moderate does of entertainment, but there's something lacking from the whole enterprise that made the first one so special. It's got the same slick production values and technical wizardry (though the visual effects in the first one look better than the ones in this, despite being more than 20 years old). But it feels like a movie written and directed by a committee; you never appreciate Spielberg's ability to direct an action sequence until you see someone try to imitate him.
Chris Pratt, once again, is not up to the nominal challenge of the role he's been given. Every time I see him in a movie, he's just missing whatever essential quality the character he's playing needs in order to work. In "Guardians of the Galaxy," it was a roguish scruffiness. In this, it's a macho resourcefulness. But he's never convincing as anything other than a pretty boy bro. It's like ordering Indiana Jones and getting a doofus frat boy.
The most memorable sequence in the movie is one where a flock of pterodactyls swoops down on the unsuspecting visitors to the theme park and wreak all kinds of havoc. The rest of the movie is a blur.
Les diaboliques (1955)
The Wife, the Mistress, and the Devil
A slow-burn thriller about the fragile wife of a sadistic boarding school master and his mistress, who hatch a plan to murder their husband/lover to pay him back for all the abuse they've both had to endure.
Vera Clouzot, real-life wife of the film's director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, plays the wife in the movie, but Simone Signoret, as the cool-headed and cynical mistress, steals the show. It was hard not to come to the film with a heap of expectations given its reputation, and I have to admit I was a bit let down by it. The real plot of the film begins not with the headmaster's murder, but with his corpse's disappearance and unsettling episodes that begin to lead the wife and mistress to suspect that he may not be dead. I thought the film was going to venture into some interesting psychological terrain, and even began to suspect that it was going to go into Bergman territory and have some sort of twist in which we learn that there aren't really two women at all, but rather two different facets to the same woman's personality -- the cold and cruel strength of the mistress representing what the wife would be if she weren't a near invalid. But the film doesn't get that intellectually complex, and instead tells a literal mystery story with a twist ending that probably seemed much more shocking at the time but is blunted now by the fact that we live in a culture of twist movie endings. It's not exactly a fault of the movie; I can't blame it for not being something it never intended to be. But I can't help my reaction to it either and my disappointment that it didn't end up being more interesting than it was.
Still, it's a very good and effective movie and has a great look to it. There are a couple of genuinely creepy scenes, the kind that make it the perfect film to watch on a cold, rainy night.