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5/10
Not as fine as you would expect from this cast
20 February 2016
"In the coast guard they say you go out, they don't say you gotta come back."

Director Craig Gillespie and Disney team up once again following their 2014 film, Million Dollar Arm. This time the true story is based on the 1952 Coast Guard rescue attempt at Cape Cod. The film counts with a stellar cast starting from the always charismatic Chris Pine, and including some strong supporting performances from the likes of Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Holliday Grainger, and John Magaro. The Finest Hours captures the fifties with delicacy while also remaining old school. The film is by the books and told in a way that most movies based on true events are, so it doesn't stand out. The effects are believable but they never accomplish much visually. There are some thrilling moments and the film slowly builds the tension during the final act, but it does take a bit too long setting the premise and trying to establish a love story that doesn't seem to be all that interesting or relevant.

The Finest Hour begins by introducing us to the hero of the story who is about to go on his first date with the woman who will eventually become his fiancée. Chris Pine is Bernie Webber, a shy man who follows orders and likes to do things by the books, while Holliday Grainger is Miriam, a woman who is set on going after what she want. The love story lacks emotion and therefor it is the weakest link in the film. It is the reason why the first half of the film didn't work for me and why I wished the film focused more on the events taking place in the split oil tanker during the storm. Pine is playing against type here since his character is rather timid and that takes away a lot of his charm. I will give him credit for trying to play a different character, but I don't think he was the right choice for the part. Casey Affleck is the true standout, playing one of the crew members in the oil tanker fighting for their survival. He reminds us what a great actor he is and I wish the film focused more on his character. The rescue mission is exciting and thrilling, but the film takes too long to set itself up.

Perhaps The Finest Hours is one of the better films being released in January since this is considered the dumping ground for most movies, but it still isn't good enough to get a fresh grade from me. The film has its moments and Casey Affleck should be getting bigger roles, but other than that the movie does fall flat and lacks the emotional depth other rescue films have. I'm usually a fan of Chris Pine, but I didn't enjoy his performance here and this is one of the few films from him that I haven't liked. If you are nostalgic for old-fashioned adventure films than this might be the right film for you, otherwise skip it.
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The Revenant (2015)
8/10
Beautiful but exhausting
19 February 2016
"As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe... keep breathing."

It's only been a year since Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu delivered the award winning Birdman and somehow he managed to deliver another visual masterpiece in record time. To follow up such a groundbreaking film like Birdman, with an epic adventure film like The Revenant is mesmerizing. But Gonzalez doesn't deserve all the credit, his films have stood out because of Emmanuel Lubezki's groundbreaking cinematography. The best thing about The Revenant is without a doubt its visual style. And the same could be said about Lubezki's previous efforts: Gravity and Birdman. In three years Lubezki has delivered some of the most beautiful looking films of our decade (and I'm not even including The Tree of Life which he worked on in 2011). This man is pure genius and will without a doubt win his third Oscar in a row. I hope the two continue to work together and deliver more visually inspiring films.

Leonardo DiCaprio deserves all the accolades he's received for his physically demanding performance here. From the very first scene we see him face one obstacle after another as the opening sequence takes place while he is being attacked by a group of indians during a fur trading expedition. It's not much later when the much commented bear mauling scene takes place, but that is only the beginning of his struggles. DiCaprio gives it his all and even though this isn't the best performance of his career, it will finally be the one that gives him the Oscar. Tom Hardy also delivers a fantastic supporting performance as John Fitzgerald, the man who wants to leave him behind. The film ends up feeling like one long chase in a similar way as Mad Max Fury Road, although at a much slower pace. A survival/revenge film like this has never looked so beautiful. The film is a bit too long and it eventually begins to wear down, but it's a constant feast to the eyes despite the exhaustion.
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8/10
Audrey Hepburn
5 February 2016
"You call yourself a free spirit, a "wild thing," and you're terrified somebody's gonna stick you in a cage. Well baby, you're already in that cage. You built it yourself."

Breakfast at Tiffany's is one of those classic films that has stood the test of time and turned the lead protagonist into a fashion icon. Audrey Hepburn will forever be remembered for her role here as Holly Golightly, the New York socialite that made everyone fall for Tiffany's. Her performance is so iconic that sometimes we forget everything else about the film: the original song, "Moon River" which continues to be included in many modern day movies, the adapted screenplay from Truman Capote's novel, one of America's most revered writers, and Blake Edwards's comedic direction which still stands today as one of his funniest films. Not even the love story is as effective as Hepburn's presence, and what seemed to be a miscasting for some producers ended up being the major strength of the film. Everything about Breakfast at Tiffany's is now resumed in two words: Audrey Hepburn. Her presence even makes us forget about some of the weak elements in the film, such as Mickey Rooney's performance as Mr. Yunioshi (a terrible casting decision). We forgive anything that doesn't work in the film because Hepburn's presence simply takes over the screen and she makes the film such an endearing one.
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Room (I) (2015)
9/10
Room is a powerful and inspiring film that is unlike any other film I've seen
5 February 2016
"When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I'm five, I know everything!"

It doesn't feel right to call Lenny Abrahamson's latest film a small one because it is such a rewarding and emotional experience. Yes, it is a low key and small scaled film, but it has such a profound impact on the audience that it is far from being small. The first half of the film takes place in a very confined space, which makes the second half of the movie even more rewarding as the world around these two protagonists expands. Very few times in film has a director captured such an interesting and authentic mother and son dynamic as we find here with Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay's performances. Larson is guaranteed to win the Oscar for her lead role here and she fully deserves it as this mother who has endured the worst of times, but found a means of surviving through her son. She truly lives a nightmare, but Abrahamson doesn't focus on that as much as he does at making us experience their world through the young son's eyes. He is innocent and has never seen the world outside of the small room in which he unknowingly has been held captive since his birth. His mother has done everything she can to give him a happy and normal life despite the situation. Tremblay delivers an equally impressive performance, and his young age shouldn't have been a factor when it came to voting for the best performances of the year. He was outstanding and held his own in each scene he shared with Larson. The two performances are the main reason why Room has achieved such greatness.

Room is based on Emma Donoghue's best selling novel about a 5 year old boy who experiences the world in the confined space of a small room. The only person he has direct contact with is his mother. His only contact with the outside world is through a small TV, but his mother has told him that the images are of other universes far from theirs. Jack also knows there is one other person that exists in their world, as some nights a visitor comes into the room from a locked door, but his mom orders him to keep away from him and stay in his wardrobe. Jack's mother has done her best to give him love and nurture, but as his curiosity begins to grow there is only so far she can go with her story. What will happen when young Jack realizes that there is actually more to the world than the small room in which they have been confined in? What follows is a deeply emotional and profound thriller that shook me to my core.

Lenny Abrahamson is known for delivering original and unconventional stories. Previously to Room he had directed Michael Fassbender in Frank, a film in which the main protagonist wore a giant paper-mache mask throughout the story. Room however goes a step further delivering a thriller in a very unconventional way as we get to experience the harrowing events through the innocence of a five year old boy and the depths his mother goes through to give him a normal life. From the very opening scene we know there is nothing normal about their lifestyle, but at the same time the film avoids the typical atmosphere we are used to seeing in crime related films. I don't want to say too much about Room because the less you know about it the better, but the second half delivers even more thrills and engages the audience with even more to ponder about. Finding freedom is only have of the battle, and most of the time these films fail to focus on it, but Room manages to deliver on both ends. This is an effective and powerful film and I'm finding it incredibly hard to put into words how much it affected me.
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99 Homes (2014)
8/10
Bahrani delivers a provocative moral play
5 February 2016
"Don't get emotional about real estate."

99 Homes is a powerful drama that resonates with the current economic state of the United States in the same way that Wall Street did in the 80's. Michael Shannon's Rick Carver as a realtor who makes his living by evicting families from their homes and cheating on the bank system, is in a way the modern Gordon Gekko (a character that turned Michael Douglas into an iconic figure for business people around the globe). 99 Homes is a morality play and a film about greed which poses interesting questions as to how far one would go to achieve the American dream. The film could be a great companion to McKay's The Big Short which focused on the housing bubble collapse, although this film focuses exclusively on the real estate brokers who managed to make a fortune upon the disgrace of the hard working blue collar families. Director, Ramin Bahrani, however doesn't try to turn Carver into a charismatic character. He is a greedy, selfish, calculating, and cold blooded man who doesn't care one bit about the families he is evicting from their homes. There is no glorification of his character whatsoever and it truly shows what kind of person you have to be to live with such low morals.

Andrew Garfield's Dennis Nash on the other hand is the character the audience can relate to because he goes through a deep struggle as Carver's protégé to accept his new line of work. Dennis was a former construction worker who due to the real estate crisis is left without a job. He lives with his mother, Lynn (Laura Dern), and his young son Connor (Noah Lomax) in the family home he's always grown up in. Unfortunately due to the current economic situation he is evicted from his home by Carver who shows up at his door and gives him two minutes to take his belongings and move out. As much as he hates the situation there isn't anything he can do so he is forced to relocate his family in a nearby cheap motel. After realizing his tools are missing during the eviction, Dennis goes to confront one of Carver's handymen. Dennis arrives at the right time because a crisis ensues and Carver realizes that his construction experience can come in handy. Despite not liking his boss one bit, Dennis begins to realize there is an easy way to make money and he justifies his actions by wanting to give his son a better life. The question then becomes how far Dennis will be willing to go to be like the man he despises.

Ramin Bahrani isn't a director that many people know because he has made several small independent films, but if you were an avid reader of Roger Ebert's film reviews then you know Bahrani was one of those small directors that he had high praise for. That is how I actually ended up hearing about his movies and decided to check out Goodbye Solo, a film focusing on two strangers who form an unlikely bond. Bahrani is passionate about delivering social films and you can see traces of it here in this much bigger film. The cast elevates the material even more as both Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon deliver superb performances. There was even some talk of Shannon receiving an Oscar nomination, but his work was overlooked once again. 99 Homes works as a morality play but it still is concerned on the social issues present in today's world. It might not have the same character development and dynamics that we saw in Goodbye Solo, but that is because there is so much more suspense and thrills going on here. I personally prefer his smaller films, but this was a memorable film that still remains provocative and resonant in today's economy.
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6/10
Forgettable period piece, but strong lead performances
30 January 2016
"I love you, because you are the only person who made sense of me. And made me, possible."

Tom Hooper's latest film is a fictionalized portrayal of real life Danish artists Einar and Gerda Wegener. It is a period piece that re-imagines the love story between these two artists. Einar who later becomes Lili is recognized as one of the pioneers in trans-gender, but the film takes many liberties and is far from representing the true relationship between the artists. Alicia Vikander plays Gerda, the artist who painted her husband as a lady. Eddie Redmayne is Einar Wegener, who after enjoying the transformation in his wife's painting discovers himself as Lili. The film focuses on the couple's struggle to accept these changes, although history proves that this depicted love story is far from true. David Ebershoff's novel takes several liberties, ignoring the fact that Gerda herself was a lesbian.

Now that I got that settled and out of the way, I can focus on the film itself. It is a formulaic biopic that does little to stand out from other period pieces. This is my fourth Tom Hooper film and despite being gorgeously filmed, I found it to be one of his weakest efforts. My favorite from him continues to be The Damned Untied, which ironically was the first film from him I've seen. The King's Speech and Les Miserables were also movies I enjoyed, but to a lesser degree. The Danish Girl has a fantastic production design, but it stands out exclusively for its two lead performances. Both Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are superb and worthy of their Oscar nominations. Redmayne comes fresh out of his Oscar win for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, but I think his performance here is even better and just as physically demanding as his previous one. He probably won't win, but I think this performance is stronger. Vikander has had a wonderful year after her stunning performance in Ex Machina. Here she gets to shine along Redmayne and even steals several scenes from him. Ever since I first saw her in the Danish film, A Royal Affair, I've always been a fan of Vikander's work. This might be her best performance to date, but competing against Kate Winslet in the supporting category for this year's Oscar will make it hard for her to stand a chance. The Danish Girl is worth the watch for the strong performances alone, but there isn't much more to the story. I found the pacing a bit dull and lost interest in the story halfway through. The Danish Girl is a forgettable formulaic biopic, but it's worth the watch for the fantastic performances.
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Spotlight (I) (2015)
9/10
A love letter to investigative journalism
29 January 2016
"It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We gotta nail these scumbags! We gotta show people that nobody can get away with this; Not a priest, or a cardinal or a freaking pope!"

Good investigative journalism is a dying medium in today's world where most media outlets are in a rush to get the exclusive and tell the story first. The same could be said for the film industry, but there are always exceptions because for every dozens of films like Alvin and the Chipmunks, we get a Spotlight. Director, Tom McCarthy, takes his time to tell this brilliant true story through a tight script that slowly begins to uncover the truth behind one of the Catholic Church's greatest cover-ups. It is a reminder of how important good journalism can be in today's world. Hopefully after watching Spotlight more people will begin reading their news from trusty newspapers instead of simply reading headlines from any internet article. It was refreshing to see a film like this portraying what good journalism is all about without taking any shortcuts. As a communication major the subject matter really appealed to me and I felt very emotional during a couple of scenes. McCarthy did a fantastic job at going through the every day ordeal of investigating. If you notice there is barely any reference towards these characters backgrounds or their family life. The entire film focuses entirely on their profession and that is what makes this such a powerful film because it avoids any kind of manipulation into character development. I loved the attention to detail that McCarthy brought to the film and how he decided to exclusively build it all around the investigation.

Bringing the true events of an investigation concerning the child molestation cover-up by the Catholic Church to life in a film might not seem like an interesting subject matter, but McCarthy handles the material with grace. He manages to slowly build the tension by going through the everyday ordeals of serious journalism. Spotlight is the name given to the investigative section of the Globe comprised of four reporters that take their time to research an important issue and build a compelling story. In this case they discover a link between several child molestation incidents with some priests from the Boston area and how the Church has repeatedly covered up for them by simply relocating them to other areas. These four reporters are given the gigantic task of trying to unmask this secretly huge system of defense built by the Catholic Church. The film accomplishes what it sets out to do from the first frame and it delivers one of the best films about investigative journalism in years.

This is a team effort, there are no lead performances in this film. Michael Keaton might be the leader of the Spotlight team, but Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d'Arcy James all deliver strong performances. Ruffalo has received much of the acclaim because he has some of the more emotional moments on screen, and that verbal standoff off with Keaton is powerful, but everyone on screen delivers solid performances. Liev Schreiber is also outstanding as the new editor in chief who arrives at the Globe and comes up with the idea for the story. And Stanley Tucci of course is always mesmerizing any time he's on screen. Spotlight has probably my favorite ensemble cast of the year. I was a huge fan of this film and of course comparisons with All The President's Men are justified.
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The Big Short (2015)
9/10
Economics for Dummies
23 January 2016
"Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come."

The Big Short is such a refreshing and surprising film because it manages to perfectly balance a difficult subject matter and make it entertaining. It is perhaps one of the most important films made this year reminding us of the worldwide economic breakdown that began in 2007 and left millions of people without their life savings. Many of us don't understand much about economics or how it works, and that is why we have been so eager to forget what happened and continue moving on as if nothing ever happened. This film refreshes our memory and reminds us of what a terrible crime was committed during the housing bubble collapse. The film centers on the few men who recognized the problem early on and took advantage of the situation. The Big Short is a dramatic movie, there is no doubt about it, but it also manages to include some comedic moments by breaking the fourth wall and including pop culture figures to explain some of the more complicated financial terms. It does it in a brilliant way and it's been a while since I've seen a film break the fourth wall as well as this one did. I've seen many documentaries on this subject, but this film manages to explain things better and open our eyes to the dangers we might face again in the future because we've ignored the real problem and seem to be repeating the same mistakes once again. Mckay manages to infuriate and open our eyes while entertaining us at the same time with an engaging film thanks to a witty adapted script which he helped co-write with Charles Randolph.

It's not the first time that a film based on a Micheal Lewis novel manages to draw in an audience that doesn't necessarily need to comprehend the subject matter. You could be clueless about baseball, but in Moneyball the story still managed to engage a worldwide audience. The same can be said about this film because the economic terms are explained in a simple way. That is why I believe this is one of the most important films of the year because it allows even those that never seemed interested in economics to understand how it still affects them. It is an eye opening film for those that felt uninterested in trying to understand what happened in 2007. If there is one film that audiences should see this year then this might just be the one (not for its technical or artistic value, but for the importance of its subject matter).

The Big Short is Adam McKay's dramatic directorial debut and his background in comedy is what probably helped this film become more accessible. The man who brought us Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys, now brings us a thought provoking film. He's received two Oscar nominations (directing and writing) for his work here and what an impressive film he has crafted. The film is heavy on dialogue, but the script is so perfectly written that each character in this film becomes memorable. The performances are outstanding which simply proves what a key element writing is for an actor. It was refreshing to see Ryan Gosling back again after his retirement from the big screen for two years. He plays the charismatic character he could easily play in his sleep, but he is still a delight to watch. He delivers a solid role, but out of the four big names it was Steve Carell who stood out. He gets the best dramatic moments and lights up each scene he enters in. Brad Pitt has a smaller role but he makes perfect use of his screen time with an understated performance. Christian Bale is the only actor who received a nomination for his performance in this film and it is well deserved. He plays a socially awkward character and totally sells it. There are films where there are so many big names that no one really gets to shine, but this film manages to make every character memorable thanks to the wonderful script.
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Steve Jobs (2015)
8/10
Aaron Sorkin, the true orchestrator of this powerful film
22 January 2016
"Musicians play their instruments. I play the orchestra."

Danny Boyle might have been the director of this biopic, but the true orchestrator of the film was Aaron Sorkin who once again delivers a powerful and engaging screenplay that makes the entire cast look fantastic. There is no denying the genius of Jobs, but it is so hard to encapsulate an entire life into a two hour film (several attempts have been made but failed to do so until now), but Sorkin masterfully pulls it off by focusing the film in three stages; each one involving a product launch. The first act takes place in 1984 during the launch of the Macintosh computer. Here we are introduced to Jobs's vision and his stormy relationship with his co-workers as well as with the mother of his daughter who he refuses to recognize. Jobs is an intriguing man with a unique vision who can't seem to balance his personal relationships with his creative genius. Through witty dialogues and fantastic character interactions we get a glimpse of who this man is. The second stage takes place after Jobs has been fired from the company he co-founded, for the launch of his new creation: NeXT in 1988. And the final third act is where he is finally consecrated as a genius during the launch of the IMac computer after having been called back to save the almost bankrupt company.

The performances are fantastic, but you couldn't expect less from such a rich script. Michael Fassbender is superb as Jobs. He delivers an outstanding performance of such an iconic public figure. But the rest of the cast never falls behind. Kate Winslet plays his head of marketing, Joanna Hoffman, who is brilliant and shines in every scene she shares with Fassbender. Apple's CEO, John Scully is interpreted by Jeff Daniels, and there is a fantastic parallel scene where he and Jobs go off at each other during two specific moments that changed their relationship. Then there is another powerful scene where Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) have a disputed argument where they finally let all their feelings out in the open. Every character in this film has his or her moment and each one is key to unraveling who Jobs was and how he thought. The film is perfectly written and I don't think anyone will take the Oscar away from Sorkin.
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Concussion (2015)
7/10
Predictable sports drama with a great performance from Will Smith
20 January 2016
"The NFL owns a day of the week. The same day the Church used to own. Now it's theirs."

The film relies heavily on Will Smith's performance. This is one of the few times were he doesn't rely on his personal charm to create a compelling character. He disappears completely and his transformation seems natural. He speaks with an authentic African accent and I completely forgot I was watching Smith, the mega star. Unfortunately it is the only thing worth rescuing because the pacing is a bit slow.

The subject matter, a doctor who discovers a link between football players and brain damage, might not seem interesting enough to maintain the audience's attention, but if you're into sports medicine this is the film for you. There is an interesting scene where Smith's character explains the effect of each blow to the head that a player receives. Other than that the film does follow a familiar beat and the story becomes formulaic and predictable up to the inevitable inspiring grand final speech. The film plays it safe, but Smith makes it worth the watch.
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Blended (2014)
6/10
At least it's a watchable Sandler movie
8 January 2016
"Even in nature, there are blended families."

It's been a while since I can remember enjoying an Adam Sandler film. Does that mean this film is great? No, but at least it surpassed my expectations. Looking back at Sandler's career, there is no doubt that the person he's had the greatest chemistry with is Drew Barrymore. This is their third collaboration together and I have enjoyed all their films. The Wedding Singer is by far the best, but 50 First Dates also had its moments. Blended does have a lot of unwelcoming jokes that don't work and plenty of dead air, but there is enough heart to keep the family engaged. It is a family film more than anything else. Director Frank Coraci has probably directed some of Sandler's best films (The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy), but he has also delivered some terrible films like The Zookeeper and Here Comes the Boom so you never know what to expect from him. Blended couldn't have begun in a more clichéd way, but twenty minutes into the film the story does pick up and once we arrive in Africa the adventure truly begins. The kids deliver the authentic charm the film needed and once Sandler and Barrymore stop hating on each other the film does become sweet. The film banks on their chemistry and it is what works best in this otherwise formulaic family film. Unlike most of Sandler's recent films, Blended is very watchable and I didn't find myself hating him.

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Pan (2015)
4/10
Doesn't smell like Neverland
8 January 2016
"If you don't believe, Peter, then neither will they."

It seems that every decade there is a new attempt at bringing Peter Pan back to life whether it be a re-imagining of the classic tale or a prequel. This time it was Joe Wright's turn to give us an origin story of Peter Pan and how he arrived at Neverland. The concept seemed pretty interesting considering Pan is such a fascinating character, and Joe Wright who delivered solid films like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement seemed to be the perfect man for the job. That is why Pan was among my most anticipated films of the year, although that anticipation began to wear down once the first reviews starting coming in. The visuals are quite mesmerizing, but the problem with Pan has more to do with the narrative structure of the film. Pan is such a lovable character, but here he seems to lack that charm that made kids fall in love with his childish and wacky behavior. This Pan seems more mature and not very mischievous. He is in search of his mother and is trying to find meaning to his existence. But that approach sort of takes the fun out of his character. However, the choice of including Hook as an ally was pretty engaging. I liked that element of the story, but that was about it. Hook and Pan have a solid relationship in the film, but it never takes center stage and the action scenes kind of eclipse any attempt of establishing these characters. Hugh Jackman rarely works for me as a villain since he seems to go over the top with these characters at times. Blackbeard was not the exception for Jackman. Rooney Mara seemed like the perfect choice for Tiger Lily, but her character is never given much opportunity in the film and I thought it was a waste of talent. Pan seemed to have all the right ingredients to become a success but from the moment Peter arrives at Neverland to the sound of miners chanting Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, all the magic disappeared.

I wouldn't blame the film's lack of heart on its cast because I thought there were some strong performances. Levi Miller did a good job playing the title character, but the problem is that this Peter simply wasn't childish and lively as the ones we are used to seeing him in. Adeel Akhtar was given the task of playing Sam Smiegel and in my opinion his character was the closest to the cartoon. Of course here Hook is playing Peter's friend so he is nothing like we are used to seeing. Garret Hedlund gives the best performance of the film and I think that his character would've been a more fascinating character study. We could have used more of his origin story and then explore reasons as to why he ultimately became the Hook we all know. The cast and the visuals were all very satisfactory, but the narrative elements are what ultimately hurt this film and didn't allow it to take off the way I would've wanted it to. Pan was definitely a disappointment for me, and it just goes to prove how difficult it is to bring Neverland to life. I'm in the minority here, but I think that Spielberg's Hook is the best adaptation of the story. Watch that instead.

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5/10
Steers ad Efron back together again!
30 December 2015
"Nobody ever gets to see what could have been."

After directing a crowd pleaser like 17 Again which banked on Zac Efron's incredible charisma, Burr Steers decided to team up with the talented actor once again for a more dramatic project. Efron has his faithful female fans who will sign up for anything he does, but add a romantic drama to the mix and you will certainly have most young female audiences on board. Charlie St. Cloud is a film that gives you exactly what you are expecting: a story of brotherly love and learning to deal with loss. Its themes of love and loss are a bit heavy handed and melodramatic, but that is exactly what the audience is expecting. There are also some twists that are a bit too predictable and don't seem to add much to the movie, but the chemistry between the leads is enough for fans to be delighted. Efron is a talented actor and he sells his performance here. Perhaps the bond between him and his brother played by Charlie Tahan could have been stronger, but their relationship is still solid. The film seems like it's going to be about their bond, but it ultimately focuses more on Efron's character and how his loss has affected him, not allowing him to move on with his life, giving up on his dreams and aspirations to stay close to home. The film then introduces romance into the mix when an old acquaintance from Charlie's past returns home. The love interest is played by Amanda Crew and if the bond between Charlie and his brother would've been stronger I think that it could have had a more dramatic effect. But instead the film takes a suspenseful turn and kind of losses the point the film was trying to make about overcoming loss and moving on. Charlie St. Cloud is a film that delivers what you are expecting and nothing more, but it could've been a much better movie if a few changes were made. It was still a pleasant watch, but very forgettable. Kim Basinger, Dave Franco, Ray Liotta and Donal Logue all have very forgettable roles here and never get a chance to shine. This is Efron's movie and your enjoyment of it may depend on how much you like his work.

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The Martian (2015)
8/10
Space Smart
22 December 2015
"I don't want to come off as arrogant here, but I'm the greatest botanist on this planet."

Ridley Scott's latest film, The Martian, is an intelligently crafted science fiction drama that takes on the form of a problem-solving movie in a very nerdy way. It is not an easy movie to sell considering it is very talkative and there is a lot of science involved, but Drew Goddard's adaptation of Andy Weir's novel is quite captivating. There is no denying that the true star of the film is Matt Damon who basically manages to put on a one-man show in Mars and deliver a very entertaining performance in a similar way to what Tom Hanks did in Castaway. Although this film does give much more screen time to the characters back home as they try to communicate and find a way to bring their astronaut back, but it is Damon who really stands out. The film has been nominated for the Golden Globes for best comedy and although I don't agree with that designation it is Damon who delivers the comedy through his charismatic performance as he faces each new struggle in quite a light and positive way. The movie is a drama more than anything else and it carefully studies every scenario of what could go wrong in Mars and presents interesting solutions to those problems. Ultimately that is what makes this film stand out from other space films which Ridley himself has directed. This is a different kind of movie, a survival film with brains that respects its audience and doesn't try to include any fantastical elements for entertainment purposes (not that I have a problem with it since I was a huge fan of Prometheus, but this is a completely different genre).

Matt Damon gets all the credit for his charismatic performance as Mark Watney, the astronaut who is abandoned in Mars after a storm breaks out and his crew is forced to leave him behind, but the supporting cast is quite impressive as well. Jessica Chastain is Melissa Lewis, the astronaut in charge of the mission who has to make the fatal decision. The rest of the crew members are Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Chis Beck (Sebastian Stan), and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). They don't get much screen time, but they are each given their moment and it is enough to know what motivates their decisions. I would've enjoyed to spend more time with these characters considering the cast is wonderful, but Matt Damon doesn't even give us time to miss them. The focus is on his character and he delivers every line to perfection. We are instantly drawn to his character and we identify with his struggle to survive. Back home at NASA headquarters we are also introduced to several characters who are doing the best they can to bring Mark home. Jeff Daniels is Teddy Sanders, the man responsible for any decision taken as the NASA director, Kristen Wiig is Annie Montrose, the director of Media Relations who is trying to save face in the midst of the situation, Sean Bean is Mitch Henderson, the flight director who is in contact with Watney's crew as they are returning home, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is Vincent Kapoor, the mission director. It's surprising how Ridley Scott manages to include all these characters in the film and give them a unique personality as they all join forces to come up with the best solution. Daniels plays a very similar character to who he plays in The Newsroom, but if you only know him from Dumb and Dumber than you are in for a treat.

When I first heard about this movie I was a bit worried about the effects that recent space films like Interstellar (which also starred Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain), Prometheus (which was directed by Ridley Scott), or Gravity might have on The Martian considering the space theme. To my surprise, the film stands out from the very opening scene as it takes a totally different approach and focuses more on Mark's survival skills and his wit. He is a very charismatic character who easily pulls you in to his conflict and allows you to participate in the problem-solution process. This isn't about special effects, it is about intelligent people getting together to come up with a solution.

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7/10
An emotional family drama centering on female performances
21 December 2015
"You kind of look like a superhero."

Catherine Hardwicke may not be a director who has consistently delivered strong work, but I tend to enjoy her more personal and female centered films. Many probably know her for her direction in the first Twilight film, which I actually enjoyed quite a bit despite the critical hate. Red Riding Hood I can agree with everyone was a huge failure, but her debut film, Thirteen, still remains one of her best films to date. I found some similarities between that film and Miss You Already, Hardwicke's latest movie. Although Thirteen centered on two young teenagers, it was basically a movie about female characters. In Miss You Already the characters are in their late 30's but the film also centers on a strong female friendship. It is not every day you get to see a film where the two protagonists are females and both the director and the screenplay writer are also women. The film has a voice of its own and despite being melodramatic at times it does feel authentic. It deserves to be seen.

I know that there will be many comparisons between this film and The Fault in Our Stars because it centers on a character battling with cancer, but this film deals with the subject matter in a much more authentic tone. It is not aimed towards teens by introducing a charismatic character, but it tries to deal with the subject matter in an honest way by showing how cancer affects not only the individual but the family and friends around them. The friendship between Drew Barrymore's Jess and Toni Collette's Milly is at center and we get to see how this new struggle alters the course of their own personal family lives. The men playing their husbands (Dominic Cooper and Paddy Considine) are relegated because this is a film centering on female characters, but they each add emotional value to the film. I enjoyed the family dynamics here and was touched by the more emotional moments. I never felt them manipulative because the film has a voice of its own. Hardwicke seems to be in a much more comfortable position when she centers on dramatic stories and stays away from science fiction.

The performances from both Collette and Barrymore are solid and I believe they are the reason why the film works as well as it does. Collette especially gets to shine since she has some of the most difficult and emotional scenes in the movie, but Barrymore knows how to stand her ground and the chemistry between both actresses was solid. Cooper and Considine also get to have their moments although they don't get much screen time. The cast is great and the film benefits from their charismatic performances. Miss You Already might not be an original or groundbreaking film, but it is a sincere family drama that manages to deliver authentic emotions.

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9/10
Predictable but beautiful
19 December 2015
"There's been an awakening. Have you felt it? The Dark side, and the Light."

There is a new film that has been released this weekend that not many people may have heard of, so I want to recommend it because it's worth checking out. Apparently The Force Awakens is the seventh film in the little recognized Star Wars franchise and I'm surprised not many people have been talking about this sci-fi action packed adventure franchise. It seems to have some sort of cult following because there were a few people dressed up in the movies as some of the characters in the film. I'm glad I was lucky enough to have heard about this J.J. Abrams's directed movie. Abrams who is better known for creating the hit TV series Lost has directed some remarkable films. His first feature film was Mission Impossible III which I will always remember for having one of the best villains in the franchise (played by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman). He followed it up with the reboot of the Star Trek franchise which was a wonderful surprise for fans around the globe. I wasn't a fan of the franchise myself until I got to see what Abrams did with it. He later went on to direct Super 8 which was as close to a Steven Spielberg 90's movie that you will ever get. From that point on I knew Abrams could do no wrong. After succeeding yet again with another Star Trek sequel he decided to aim for something much smaller: A reimagining of the Star Wars franchise. If the film has success it will probably be thanks to my recommendation of the movie since I'm hoping it gets a lot of word of mouth. Please go watch this movie even if you haven't seen the other films in the franchise because it stands on its own. It is almost a remake in a way since it follows the basic blue prints of the original film with some returning characters. I guess Abrams can receive some of the credit because everything he's done up to now has been highly entertaining. Hopefully the film will be a success and that way people will go back and check out the other films in the franchise starting way back in the late 70's.

The Force Awakens takes place some 30 years after Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) defeated Darth Vader's evil Empire (sorry for the spoilers if you haven't seen the original films). It was a battle between the dark forces and the light. Now the galaxy is facing a new threat. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) has been training his apprentice, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and establishing the First Order which wants to rule the galaxy and put an end to the Resistance which is led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher). Ren is extremely powerful and he uses the dark side of the force to his advantage subjugating anyone who opposes him. The only one who could threaten his abilities is Luke Skywalker, but he has disappeared and no one knows his whereabouts. Both the First Order and the Resistance are searching for him for different reasons. One of the Resistance's best pilots, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), has received an important tip about his whereabouts, but when Ren finds out he will stop at nothing to retrieve the information. Dameron has no other option but to hide the information in one of his personal droids (BB-8) and sends him off before being captured by Ren. The droid is discovered by a young scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) who helps BB-8 escape from some mercenaries who are after it. Rey and the droid find assistance from an unlikely ally, a rogue stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) who is fleeing from the First Order. The fantastic sci-fi adventure begins as these fugitives try to reach the Resistance before the First Order discovers their whereabouts.

Abrams and Disney both leave their personal stamp in this film. There are classic Disney elements to this story which are told through Abrams's unique style. Abrams knows exactly what his audience wants and he delivers a nostalgic piece of filmmaking by following pretty much the same beats as the original film did. Disney recycles some of its known humor and adds its own familiar tragic elements. I don't know if The Force Awakens is more of a sequel than it is a reboot with returning characters because it feels so familiar and predictable. But it is exactly what fans wanted and it delivers. Darth Vader is probably the best villain in the history of film, but here Abrams manages to craft another memorable villain who comes close to matching him. Kylo Ren will probably become a pop culture icon just as Darth Vader has been over so many decades. Driver delivers a fantastic and memorable performance although my only complain about his character would be that his powers seem to weaken throughout the film after such a powerful entrance. Although I'm sure that will be resolved in the next film which will probably have a similar tone to The Empire Strikes Back which is my favorite film of the franchise. Harrison Ford stands out once again as Han Solo and he gets a lot of screen time, reminding us all why he is such a beloved action star. He delivers most of the funniest lines in the movie just as he did in the late 70's and 80's. The new additions, Daisy Ridley (who reminded me of a young Keira Knightley), John Boyega (who was discovered in the fantastic British horror comedy Attack the Block), and Oscar Isaac all deliver fantastic roles and inject the movie with fresh and well established characters that will deliver the franchise beyond nostalgic value. The Force Awakens had huge shoes to fill, but Abrams managed to reinvigorate the franchise by combining fresh blood with returning beloved characters.

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6/10
Jason Bourne on drugs
10 December 2015
"I think I'm that tree. And I think you're the car and I think I'm stopping you."

American Ultra is what you get when you combine any classic stoner comedy with The Bourne Identity. It is a hybrid of both genres which results in a fast paced action comedy. It is almost cartoonish at times despite trying to remain serious. There are scenes in this movie that reminded me of Pineapple Express because the action scenes are extremely violent at times, although the comedy is much more toned down here. The film never ceased to entertain me throughout its entire runtime, but at the same time I felt like the characters lacked a bit of personality and the story didn't offer much. The cast is extremely talented, but the fast paced action scenes don't give us time to center on the characters. I wouldn't rewatch this film, but I still enjoyed it. American Ultra is Nima Nourizadeh's follow up to his directorial debut, Project X. The main reason I wanted to catch up with this film however, was because it was reuniting Kristen Stewart with Jesse Eisenberg after their wonderful collaboration together in Adventureland. I loved the two together and I was looking forward to seeing them play love interests once again. Perhaps I ended up enjoying this movie more than others because I like the two leads, but I wasn't even close to hating this. It does have several flaws, especially the decision to cast Topher Grace as the main villain because he is completely one dimensional. This isn't a film for everyone, especially if you're expecting a full blown out comedy because it is more of an action film that feels like a graphic novel adaptation at times.

The plot revolves around a stoner, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), who doesn't seem to be going anywhere in life. He is waiting for the perfect moment to propose to his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) who is the only person he cares for in the world. Mike isn't the brightest kid, but he has a good heart. It doesn't take long for us to realize that Mike has a special ability that he doesn't even know about. He has been part of a CIA experiment that has trained him to become an assassin. Now the people that made him want him dead. Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) orders his agents to terminate Mike after their experimentation with the Ultra program has been abandoned. His former trainee, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), decides to activate Mike so he can defend himself against the onslaught of agents that are coming after him. Now Mike inadvertently discovers his new set of found skills and uses them to protect himself and Phoebe from the people that want him gone. Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, and Tony Hale have small roles in this film, but are always a delight to see. Neither of them stand out, but they each deliver in the few scenes they are given.

Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg both play characters we've seen in the past and that we know they can play in their sleep so there isn't really anything new they bring to this film. If you're not a fan of these actors then skip this film, but if like me you enjoy them, then you won't be disappointed despite them not doing anything unique. Eisenberg has proved in the past that he can deliver stronger material (The Social Network) as well as Stewart (Clouds of Sil Maria), but here they seem to be in more comfortable territory and therefor don't bring anything unique. American Ultra benefits from an interesting story even though it doesn't live up to the initial setup. It starts off pretty strong, but ends up lacking a stronger finale.

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4/10
Can't Hardly Age Well
7 December 2015
"Don't look back. You should never look back."

There is a scene during the movie where someone spray painted "This Party Sucked" on the door, and I guess that the same thing can be said about this predictable and formulaic teen comedy that tries way too hard to capture the spirit of former John Hughes' comedies from the 80's. Perhaps it is my fault that I just got around watching this film now, but if that is the case all I can say is that it hasn't aged well considering many films since have done a much better job at delivering laughs and breaking genre conventions. Can't Hardly Wait is completely predictable from start to finish and the characters all fall flat despite some charismatic performances from the cast. The script may be the biggest disappointment because the characters aren't given anything interesting to say and they all play generic characters. This was Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan's first feature film as directors, and they only went on to direct one other movie together (Josie and the Pussycats). Can't Hardly Wait was received quite well in the late 90's, but I can't see its appeal. It feels like a generic teen comedy about teenagers partying after graduation. They all promise to be memorable, but in the end everything that goes on in the party is completely predictable. There are fun moments, but the film never justifies it 100 minute runtime.

Jennifer Love Hewitt plays the girl everyone in school loves and admires, but she has recently been dumped by her boyfriend, played by Peter Facinelli, who wants to move on and meet college girls now. Their breakup is the talk of the school, and Ethan Embry's Preston believes fate has given him another shot to talk to the girl of his dreams. Preston has always been in love with Amanda (Hewitt), but she doesn't even know of his existence. We find out about his secret crush for Amanda through his best friend, Denise (Lauren Ambrose), who he confides in. Other people we meet at the party are the classic characters we've seen in many other 80's and 90's teen comedies: some of the hot shot athletes who are best friends with Mike (Facinelli), their gorgeous girlfriends who are part of Amanda's group, the rockstar wannabes, and the nerds who want to avenge all the years of bullying they've endured. Charlie Korsmo gives one of the most funny performances as this nerd who after drinking a bit too much becomes the sensation of the party. There is also a side plot involving Denise getting locked up in the bathroom with Kenny Fisher (Seth Green), someone who she shared a past with but hasn't been in contact since. Locked up together in the bathroom seems like a good way to dig up the past and they both open up with each other. The side stories and secondary characters are actually more interesting than the actual main plot involving Hewitt and Embry's relationship and that is what ultimately hurt the film for me.

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Hot Pursuit (2015)
3/10
A front runner for the Razzies
18 November 2015
"He is known as the Bank of Bogota, the Tender Tender, the Lender Lender, the Money Launderer, El Chapo, the Pork Chop."

There are films where the producers and everyone involved in the making of the movie seem to demand that its audience shut down their brain in order to simply enjoy the movie and have fun with it, and then there are movies like Hot Pursuit where it's simply impossible to experience any pleasure from it no matter how long you've shut down your brain for. Hot Pursuit is the definition of lazy film making where every character is a stereotype and all the jokes seem to revolve around the same concepts: white southern girls are flat and uptight, while latinas are loud, busty and aggressive. There is not much more to this film that only stands out because it stars two females in the lead roles. We've all been asking for more substantial roles for females so it is always a delight to see a film like this highlighting two females as the main stars. Unfortunately the script lacks ideas and the comedy falls completely flat which doesn't help the feminist case at all.

The film stars two extremely talented and funny actresses, but the script completely handcuffs them and there isn't anything they can do to save the movie. If you want to have fun go watch Sofia Vergara in any episode of Modern Family and I guarantee you that you will get more laughs out of it. Reese Witherspoon was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year for her performance in Wild where she was outstanding, but if she's not careful she might end up turning into the next Cameron Diaz who tries so hard to be funny that she only ends up being annoying. If you want to see Witherspoon giving a fun performance then check out Legally Blonde or Election which were the two films that put her on the radar. Vergara and Witherspoon are funny actresses so on papers this seemed like an interesting project, but here they aren't given any opportunity to shine.

The premise of the film is pretty simple: Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) is an uptight cop who takes the law seriously. Her boss asks her to escort a key witness who is going to testify against an important drug cartel leader. The witness is Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara). Things don't go as expected as several corrupt cops and drug dealers try to prevent the two women from reaching their destination. There are also some twists along the way that really don't add much to the comedy. The film is an excuse to put the two talented females together, but the screenwriters managed to take away whatever magic the two actresses might have had together. Hot Pursuit might be one of the front runners for this year's Razzies for its lack of imagination and being such a missed opportunity.

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4/10
Looks Atmospheric but doesn't build on it
18 November 2015
"We're all mad Dr. Newgate. Some are simply not mad enough to admit it."

Set in a mental institution during the end of the 19th century it's hard not to compare this Gothic thriller to Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. Whereas Scorsese managed to create a film with an eerie atmosphere full of intrigues and thrills, Stonehearst Asylum fails to do so. It seems to have the perfect setting and cast to do so, but director Brad Anderson (known for The Machinist) isn't able to come up with a compelling script. There is a scene during the opening of the film where a young doctor played by Jim Sturgess arrives at this Gothic asylum and the atmosphere seems ideal for a great suspenseful thriller, but the story never seems to catch on with the visuals and the atmosphere is lost. It isn't enough to make a film with a Gothic look if the story isn't engaging, and this movie is proof yet again that a talented cast doesn't always make for a good film. Jim Sturgess, Kate Beckinsale, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Kingsley, and Michael Caine all star in this film which should automatically make it worth giving it a watch, but unfortunately the script doesn't do anything to make their characters interesting. The film is based on Poe's short story, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, but the adaptation to the big screen doesn't necessary make for a good watch.

The plot revolves around Dr. Edward Newgate (Jim Sturgess) who arrives at a remote mental institution to offer his assistant. Despite his young age, he is eager to help these mentally ill patients and Dr. Silas Lamb (Ben Kingsley) greets him with enthusiasm. Edward realizes that Lamb's methods are a bit unorthodox as he allows his patients to run around freely in the institution helping around with the chores. Mickey Finn (David Thewlis) is Lamb's right hand man, but he seems a bit unstable and many of the patients seem to fear him. When Edward meets Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale), a patient who seems very enlightened and educated, he immediately becomes infatuated with her. She seems to have issues with touch and intimacy, but at the same time she is also a very caring individual who looks after some of the patients in the ward. Early in the movie there is a twist that I won't give away, but where Edward is introduced to some other characters among which is Benjamin Salt (Michael Caine) who makes a very interesting claim that could change everything he has come to believe about the asylum.

I think the revelation in the film is made too early on and it takes away from some of the suspense it could've benefited from. Once the reveal is made the film seems to lose some of the tension and it becomes a bit predictable along the way. It is a shame because there was an interesting cast to work with here. As stunning as she is in this film, Beckinsale doesn't get much to do other than simply captivate audiences with her looks. Ben Kingsley and Michael Caine are such wonderful actors that I could've used more face off between the two. The film continues to deliver some twists along the way, but they never do anything to build the suspense. It has the right look, but it simply doesn't transmit the suspense and the Gothic atmosphere it so desperately tries to establish.

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Spectre (I) (2015)
6/10
Doesn't live up to the high standards Mendes had set in Skyfall
13 November 2015
"You are a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr Bond."

Sam Mendes did a fantastic job sitting in the director's chair for Bond's previous movie, Skyfall, so expectations were really high for what he could deliver in his follow up: Spectre. If there is something that Daniel Craig has brought to the franchise is that he has turned Bond into a serious character from the start. Casino Royale is still my favorite Bond film, but I've enjoyed all of his films, which wasn't the case when Pierce Brosnan was playing the titular role. After the success of Skyfall it would be impossible to live up to the expectations Mendes had built with his now demanding crowd, so it is only normal that Spectre feels like an average spy thriller. The film still continues to look gorgeous, but the story did lack some originality and for that it feels predictable and familiar. Spectre also has pacing issues, but I'd say the main problem is that we've seen better spy films released this year. Mission Impossible raised the bar in its action sequences, while Spy was a comedy action film that barely missed a beat. If Spectre would've come out any other year it might have been a bit more interesting, but after the fresh success of both those films I felt like this was a letdown. As much as I love Craig as Bond, he didn't have much to work with here and the villains didn't present much of a threat either. Spectre has the look and feel of the rest of Bond films, but it fails to entertain or bring anything new to the table. Out of the four films Craig has played Bond this is probably the most formulaic one.

Spectre opens with a rather impressive sequence in Mexico during the Day of the Dead celebration, which was a perfect opportunity for the marketing campaign to include the cool looking skeletons in the posters and the trailers. Bond (Daniel Craig) follows a gorgeous women through the crowded streets of Mexico during the parade to her hotel room, kisses her and walks out to the balcony saying he'll be right back. That is when we realize he's actually on a mission and a series of gunshots, explosions, and chases ensue. It was a great opening sequence but the film failed to build up the momentum from then on. What we get next is what we've seen before, Bond arrives in London and is suspended by M (now played by Ralph Fiennes) for causing so much chaos without being authorized to actually be in Mexico. Bond is working on his own because he doesn't know who he can trust after the previous M left him a secret message before being murdered. Her message is what led him to Mexico in the first place and then to Rome where he discovers a secret organization responsible for several terrorist attacks that is led by a man named Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). Blofeld discovers Bond and sends his assistant, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) to try to stop him. In order to uncover what this secret organization is all about, Bond enlists the help of the daughter of one of its former members, Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux). Naomi Harris and Ben Whishaw are also back playing the roles of Moneypenny and Q respectively.

Spectre is a little over two hours long and the pacing really doesn't help the film either. You can feel it take its toll because the action sequences are far from being impressive and the plot is predictable. As cool as Craig is playing Bond, we've seen him do it so many times that we need more now. Waltz is a talented actor, but he seems to excel only when working with Tarantino. Here he doesn't get much to do really and at times his character seems a bit cartoonish. Bautista is menacing, but he says one word in the entire film. Lea Seydoux is the Bond girl and she looks great, but there isn't much more she can do to add to the story. Spectre isn't a bad film, but the success of Skyfall raised the bar and left us a much more demanding audience. I think the major issue here was the screenplay which felt rather weak and bland. There is some fun to be had with the movie, but it ends up being forgettable in the end with a rather unsatisfying climax. Spectre has its moments but it is just too dull when compared to the other Bond films.

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The Visit (I) (2015)
6/10
Shyamalan getting back on track with a lower budget film
11 November 2015
"Would you mind getting inside the oven to clean it?"

I've always been a fan of M. Night Shyamalan's work despite his recent strikes, so The Visit was one of my most anticipated films for this year. I had stayed away from the trailers because I wanted to experience it as fresh as possible. Shyamalan has directed some of my favorite movies (The Sixth Sense, Signs, Unbreakable) and I even defended The Happening because I found it to be rather hilarious and it worked for me. The Visit has a similar approach in that it balances out the horror aspects of the film with the comedy (some may argue that in The Happening he never intended it to be a comedy but I disagree) although I wouldn't say it works as well. There are many funny scenes and a few jump scares that work, but overall the film doesn't seem to do much more than entertain. This is Shyamalan's lowest budget studio feature film and I think this is the kind of films he needs to be directing (staying away from big Hollywood productions like After Earth or The Last Airbender). Shyamalan has always worked best when he is contained and his films center on a few characters enclosed in a small space. In that way The Visit is a return to form for this talented director, who I've never questioned in the past. His decision to make this a found footage film also does wonders for the film, and I usually don't tend to be a fan of such a style. Everything is executed really well in The Visit and I was so enticed in the story that I was never really trying to discover what the twist would be at the end so when the revelation came I was pleasantly surprised. It probably wouldn't be too hard to figure out the twist if you were trying to search for it from the first minute, but if like me you simply let yourself enjoy the narrative then you will be pleased with the result. My problem with the film actually has to do with the final execution of the climax once the twist has been revealed. I wasn't a fan of the ending and that ultimately brought my score down a bit, but I still had a fun time with the movie.

There is a perfectly believable reason why the film is shot in found footage style. Becca (Olivia DeJonge) wants to document her visit to her grandparents house and she gets her younger brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) to help in the process. She is a film fanatic and knows her way around the camera despite her young age. The reason she wants to document the visit is because her mother hasn't been in contact with them since she ran away from home as a teen. Becca believes she can heal the wounds between her mother (Kathryn Hahn) and her parents if she documents their story. The film takes its time to introduce each character before the grandkids head to meet their grandfathers for the first time. Tyler is very charismatic and loves to rap, while Becca is more of a quiet and studious girl. Their mother has been dealing with depression after her husband abandoned her, but is currently dating someone. After her parents reached out to her via email they ask if she could send the kids to spend a week with them so they can meet. Becca and Tyler both convince their mom to send them to their place, but once they arrive they discover that their grandparents seem to be hiding a secret of their own. Nana (Deanna Dunagan) seems to act in a very strange way once night falls and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) seems to have some issues of his own as he secretly comes in and out of the shed near the home. Of course this awakens the kids' curiosity and strange things ensue.

Much of why I felt this film worked for me had to do with the cast. Ed Oxenbould, who I really wasn't a fan of in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, gets to shine in this film. He carries the film for me and delivers much of the needed charm. The comedy is what works best in the film since there are really few scares, although I must admit that I did jump up from my seat a couple of times. Oxenbould was responsible for most of the funny scenes and I don't think this film could work for anyone if they find his character annoying. DeJonge as the older sister also delivers and is believable in her role although she doesn't seem to stay out. Deanna Dunagan is the creepiest of the grandparents and she delivers in some rather scary and tense moments. Even though I wasn't blown away by Peter McRobbie's performance he is responsible for the funniest scene in the movie which involved him being caught on tape with a shotgun to his mouth and after he immediately realizes it he claims to be cleaning out the gun. These moments of humor are what work best in the film and Oxenbould really delivers in that department with his sharp and witty commentaries. This might not be one of Shyamalan's best films, but it definitely is an improvement over his recent films. I was really enjoying this film up to the final five minutes where the comedy is pushed aside to build the climactic ending. Other than that I really enjoyed this film and I will continue to look forward to what Shyamalan will be doing next. He seems to be getting back on track and doing what he does best. Here he gets to tackle some of our fears involving old age and health and plays with them in a very inventive way.

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5/10
Light hearted drama
10 November 2015
"My father was diagnosed manic-depressive in 1967."

Maya Forbes's debut film received a lot of praise when it was released at TIFF last year, especially for Mark Ruffalo's lead portrayal of a father undergoing a bipolar disorder. The film is set in the early 70's and it centers on this unconventional family that is separated when Cameron has his first breakdown and is sent to a halfway house. Maggie (Zoe Saldana) is left on her own trying to raise her two young daughters with very low income. Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) and Amelia (Imogene Wolodarsky) are very spirited and loud spoken girls who want their parents to be reunited once again. Wanting to give her girls a better life, Maggie decides to move to New York to study and leaves the girls in Cameron's charge. The film focuses on this estranged father and daughter relationship in a very light hearted way. Cameron has his usual up and downs, while the girls struggle to adapt to their new lives. Ruffalo is a talented actor, but every time he would have an outbreak I kept on waiting for him to transform himself into The Hulk. I never really saw him as Cameron and I had a difficult time seeing Ruffalo as this character despite all the praise he's received for his performance. I personally felt the material was taken in a very light hearted way, but I'm in the minority here. Overall I did enjoy the pacing of the film, but I couldn't help but feel that something was missing.

Zoe Saldana is a talented actress, but she is relegated here to a supporting role because the focus of the film is on the father and daughter relationships. Her chemistry with Ruffalo wasn't an important aspect of the film and it is a shame because she is the one making the sacrifices for her daughters. She is playing a strong and independent female role but the film doesn't take time to focus much on her character and the sacrifices (or risks) she makes for her children. It decides to center on Cameron and his ups and downs as he struggles to care for his daughters. The two child actresses are fantastic. They have some strong emotional scenes and I especially enjoyed Imogene Wolodarsky's performance. The daughters are given pivotal roles because the film revolves on them and how they are affected by their father's mental illness. This is a light hearted drama that never manages to scratch under the surface, but for audiences who are simply looking for a fun drama it offers more than enough.

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Sicario (2015)
9/10
Villeneuve delivers another thrilling film once again
6 November 2015
"You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now."

It's been over a month now since I've seen this film and it has stuck with me in a way few films have this year. Denis Villeneuve is a talented director who knows how to build the right atmosphere for his movies. Sicario is all about tone and atmosphere. We've seen the premise of this film done to death, but somehow Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan manage to tell a familiar story in a very unique way. The success of Sicario isn't that it has a unique premise or a fantastic twist, but that it manages to tell a familiar story in such a captivating way with some of the best performances of the year. Sicario will be included in my list of the best films of 2015 without a doubt, and it is a must see for movie fans around the globe. Emily Blunt continues to expand her acting career with another brilliant performance although its Benicio de Toro who will get all the accolades for getting the stronger dramatic material to work with.

The film has the best opening sequence by far in a movie released this year as we are introduced to Emily Blunt's character, Kate Macer, who is leading a SWAT team across an Arizona desert and into a house where they suspect to find one of the Mexican cartel leaders, but end up finding much more than what they bargained for. Kate is a tough DEA agent who is determined to bring down the Mexican cartel. Once they arrive back at the station she is introduced to Josh Brolin's Matt Graver, a superior who wants her assistance in catching the cartel leader who was responsible for the events that unfolded at the house. Graver has a suave persona, he may be in charge of the operation but he seems laid back with his flip flops and cargo pants. His right hand man is much more silent and mysterious. It's Benicio del Toro's Alejandro, who certainly seems menacing and is hiding something underneath his calmed demeanor. He is evidently a man who has seen and experienced a lot of things in life. Kate accepts the mission despite not being fully informed of what she must do and she becomes a surrogate for the audience as she tries to understand what these men are up to just as we do. Villeneuve keeps the audience hooked and engaged while taking us through the Mexican border an back again with some magnificent cinematography from Roger Deakins. Sicario is a brilliant film that maintains the tension throughout its entire runtime. My only complaint is that the second half isn't as strong as the first.

Sicario is a film that should receive several nominations come Award time and I can't see how Del Toro won't be nominated for his superb supporting performance here. Although I must say that Brolin and Blunt are equally deserving for their work. Blunt is much more subtle in her approach as she has to adapt to this masculine dominated world and is constantly left in the loop of things. Brolin plays a character that he could play in his sleep with his suave and cool exterior, but he does it so well that it's hard not to sympathize with him. Del Toro is menacing and his turn as Alejandro will be one of the most memorable characters of the year. He has some great scenes. It's hard to avoid some comparisons with Zero Dark Thirty, especially the way some of the scenes were shot and how it focuses (although in a very different way) on two strong motivated female characters who are determined to accomplish their goal in a masculine run world. It also happens to be a very intelligent thriller that manages to tell a familiar story in a fresh way. Sometimes it's not what you say, but how you say it that makes the difference and in Sicario Villeneuve manages to craft an engaging work of art. This is the Zero Dark Thirty of war on drug films.

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Dope (2015)
7/10
Fun and energetic coming of age film
30 October 2015
"I'm from a poor, crime-filled neighborhood, raised by a single mother, don't know my dad, blah, blah. It's cliché."

Writer and director Rick Famuyiwa delivers an energetic coming of age film that goes out of its way to avoid clichés. That is why despite having a familiar premise, the characters feel unique and are fun to hang around with. This film premiered at Sundance and it was well received thanks to Shameik Moore's charismatic lead performance. It's a feel good movie about a straight-A student who despite growing up in a poor neighborhood dreams of being accepted into Harvard. Malcolm also happens to have a punk band and hangs around his two best friends, Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). The three are geeks who happen to be fascinated with 90's hip hop culture, but Famuyiwa writes these characters in such a way that they don't feel like your typical geeks from high school. The three friends have a difficult time surviving their last year in high school, but things take an unexpected turn for them when a drug dealer named Dom (ASAP Rocky) invites them to his birthday party. A riot ensues later that night in the club and Dom hides the drugs in Malcolm's backpack which will in turn unfold a chain of crazy events that will put his and his friends' lives in danger. I know the premise might sound a bit familiar for a coming of age film, but the movie does avoid familiar clichés and ends up taking a life of its own. Not every scene works in this comedy and I was grossed out a couple of times (the Chanel Iman scene didn't work for me), but there are some funny moments. There is one scene where Malcolm and his friends are having a conversation with their stoner buddy (played by Blake Anderson) about why white people can't use the n word. The film also ends with the main character breaking the fourth wall and giving us a moral lecture about racism which many found to be a bit preachy and out of place, but I didn't have an issue with it.

The things the film does get right is the energetic editing that keeps the pace of the film moving at a fun beat and the fantastic soundtrack from Pharell Williams. It's hard not to enjoy a film that pays tribute to some of the 90's pop culture references and there is even a scene where Dom's character disses Malcolm and his friends for being overly excited about that era, so even if you weren't a fan of the 90's you can enjoy his rant about it. The film always has this feeling of being fresh and fun and Shameik Moore plays a huge role in doing so. His friends don't get much character development and are only there to back him up at times or land a strong joke, but they have strong enough chemistry with Malcolm to give the film its energy. Forest Whitaker is the narrator and we get several interruptions during several moments in the movie to hear what he has to say. I don't know if it was necessary, but it didn't take away from the movie either. There is also a romantic relationship that is very loosely explored between Malcolm and Nakia (played by Zoe Kravitz), but it isn't really a big part of the film. The entire film feels fresh because it's very different from other coming of age films. As I mentioned before these aren't the typical geeks we've seen in other films and Malcolm has a strong and charismatic personality that allows the story to rely on him. The script is witty and avoids falling into familiar stereotypes and that is why I enjoyed this comedy.

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