Reel Film Tome

2015 Countdown: Top 25

By Floyd Rock

With the passing of Oscar weekend I’ve finally put an end to catching up with as many films from 2015 as I could so I can settle on a list of 25 films from last year (US release dates). Narrowing it down to 25 was particularly difficult this year. There were probably 30 to 40 films I was considering for the last 25. Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, Aleksey German’s Hard to Be a God, Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years and Pedro Costa’s Horse Money where just a few that barely missed the list.

25. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Dir. Yinan Diao)

This neo-noir winner of the Golden Bear award at the 2014 Berlin International Film Festival follows Zhang (Liao Fan), a former cop, trying to piece together information from seemingly connected murders. Five years after body parts are found at several coal processing facilities he begins investigating curious connections to the original killing and following a woman named Wu (Gwei Lun-mei), the widow of the man identified in the first killing.

Black Coal, Thin Ice is a slow burn and a grim layered affair. With remarkable cinematography, thick atmosphere, and outstanding lead performances the film draws the viewer into its dark story of underachieving police, forgotten working class, and cruelly subjugated women.

24. Assassination (Dir. Dong-hoon Choi)

In Japanese occupied Korea in 1933 a gifted sniper named Ahn Ok-yun (Jun Ji-hyun), separated from her twin sister as a baby, and a small group of resistance fighters are tasked with assassinating a Japanese commander. Little do they know that a mole for the Japanese army is among them and he’s hired a duo of contract killers (Ha Jung-woo and Oh Dal-su) to dispose of the fighters.

With numerous characters and conflicting parties to establish it takes Assassination a little while to get going but once it does it’s full of wonderfully choreographed operatic shootouts and unexpected turns that culminate at a chaotic showdown during the wedding for Ahn Ok-yun’s twin sister. It’s one of the best action movies of the year.

23. The Martian (Dir. Ridley Scott)

Though Ridley Scott’s science fiction pictures tend to be met with anticipation few could predict that The Martian would be his highest grossing film to date. Matt Damon stars as botanist Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars and left for dead.

Last year I wrote about director Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland and about how its biggest hurdle is the complications involved with actualizing its themes of human ingenuity and optimism in the face of dire odds and later that year comes this new Ridley Scott picture that does just that. The Martian uses its simple narrative about a stranded astronaut to showcase numerous scientific obstacles and the bureaucratic problems that accompany them. It serves as a testament to perseverance and what mankind can accomplish when working together for the common good.

22. Chi-Raq (Dir. Spike Lee)

With two recent films, both Chi-Raq and the critically dismissed though thoroughly underappreciated Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, Spike Lee certainly isn’t slowing down after the setback from the disappointing Oldboy remake. With Chi-Raq he adapts Lysistrata, a play from ancient Athens playwright Aristophanes, setting it during modern day Chicago. In response to gang violence women of Chicago stage a sexual protest, withholding sex from their husbands and boyfriends in order to put an end to the bloodshed.

Though inner city violence is a principle issue in Lee’s latest film it isn’t the only issue he set out to address in Chi-Raq. The film is a broad satire that also goes after political corruption, police brutality, gender and sexual power dynamics, and racial issues imbedded in national traditions. Though it may not be Lee’s most consistent film there’s a fire burning and he propels it with impassioned fervor. Spike Lee with a camera and a purpose is never a trifling matter.

21. Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter (Dir. David Zellner)

Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter is inspired by inaccurate media reports of a Japanese woman that went in search of the hidden money from the Coen brothers film Fargo. Rinko Kikuchi stars as Kumiko, an office worker who lives alone with only the company of her pet rabbit. When she finds a video tape of the 1996 film Fargo in the unlikeliest place her obsession with the film grows, leading her to abandon her life in Tokyo to travel to the United States in search of the money buried in the snow from the film’s end.

What’s so interesting about Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter is how it is able to both adapt the urban legend that grew from the inaccurate story and touch upon the state of depression that its lead goes through, which may be more faithful to the truth behind the real life events which inspired the film. To many individuals the movies are a form of escapism, much like the end of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo which uses footage from the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers picture Top Hat, that can take viewers out of the hardships of their lives, if only for a couple hours. Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter takes this one step further when Kumiko not only finds escapism from a movie, but also develops a purpose, a quest to find a hidden treasure. Plus, the film is sure to present Kumiko with other things people often use to give their life meaning. Her mother pesters her about getting a husband, an old woman offers to drive her to a mall (the prospect of material happiness) instead of her desired destination, and she’s even approached in an airport about finding fulfillment through religion. Ultimately, like many who suffer through depression, the biggest hurdle is communication. Even for the people that want to help it’s difficult to understand just how another person is feeling and their predicament. Try as we might it is never possible to know what it’s like inside their head. One of the film’s most tragic scenes is between Kumiko and a police officer trying to help her and this inability to understand her is presented through the use of their language barrier. The way David Zellner’s film subtly handles its themes is one of the prime reasons it’s one of the more important smaller films of 2015.

20. Wild Tales (Dir. Damián Szifron)

Produced by acclaimed director Pedro Almodóvar, selected for competition at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, and a nominee at the 87th Oscars for Best Foreign Film, director Damián Szifron’s black comedy is a collection of six standalone shorts on vindictive human behavior. From a waitress who recognizes a loan shark that ruined her family’s lives, a man who suffers bureaucratic obstruction after his car is unjustly towed, to a rich family attempting to cover up an accidental hit-and-run no one is safe from the deranged barbarism of Wild Tales.

With Wild Tales Szifron has crafted a cinematic mixtape of common frustrations; road rage, nepotism, bureaucracy, infidelity, and funneled them through a kind of dark comedic lunacy and processed it for wholly satisfying outcomes and comeuppance. The two strongest shorts feature combative road rage fueled drivers and a glorious train wreck of a wedding but each short is sustained by Szifron’s fiendish sense of humor as he acknowledges and ridicules humanity’s common regression into uncivilized behavior and it’s a madcap comedic marvel.

19. Mustang (Dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven)

One of the most recent nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars Mustang is the first feature film from Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. The film follows five young orphaned sisters growing up under strict command of their uncle. After an instance of innocent roughhousing with some boys at the beach the girls are sternly punished. The closer each grows toward adulthood the sooner their uncle and grandmother plan their arranged marriages, against their will, and inevitably fracture the close bond the sisters share.

What’s first notable about Mustang, and a major element that separates it from the comparisons it often receives with Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of The Virgin Suicides, is the way the film is presented through the eyes of the five girls, where as Coppola’s film is narrated from the perspective of the neighborhood boys. By doing so Ergüven is able to present these girls as not just victims of their static cultural barriers but also as rebels, each act of defiance an act of progression. What is so striking is its universal significance where the greatest obstruction to the freedoms of these young girls is not the walls and windows of their house but of the confining traditions heaped upon them. This makes Mustang not just a film about how women are perceived in Turkey but how societal expectations for women can be so inhibiting across the globe.

18. Eden (Dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)

The fourth feature from French director Mia Hansen-Løve Eden was loosely based on the life of her brother Sven who co-wrote the script with her. The film took years to produce because of the expenses involved in obtaining the licensing for some of its music. Eden chronicles the electronic dance movement in Paris starting in the early 90s through Paul (Félix de Givry), a student who gets involved in the scene due to his love of the music. Paul partners with a friend to form a DJ collective called Cheers coinciding with the formation of Daft Punk by two of his other friends.

Like her previous film, 2011’s Goodbye First Love, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden moves unimpeded by time, constantly surging forward like a river, its flow assisted by a frequently panning and tracking camera. Rather than driven by a central plot the picture moves through a rhythmic collection and repetition of situations, relationships, and emotions like an assemblage of memories from youth strung together. Some tragedies and joys fleeting and others lasting, it’s a captivating rendering of young adulthood embodying the music scene with which it accompanies.

17. Magic Mike XXL (Dir. Gregory Jacobs)

After the events of the first Magic Mike Dallas has jumped ship to start a new show elsewhere. Mike (Channing Tatum) is enlisted by his former colleagues to throw caution to the wind, and a few pairs of breakaway pants most likely, and accompany them on a road trip to Myrtle Beach for an annual stripper convention. Though Steven Soderbergh has stepped back from directing he still remained on as cinematographer, camera operator, and editor under a few pseudonyms for this unexpected sequel.

I’m as surprised to find this on my list as everyone else. Though Magic Mike XXL is a big departure from the unconventional gender flipped drama of the first movie it finds success as a feel-good road trip, buddy movie. Though it never really offers high dramatic stakes the movie is surprisingly accessible and inclusive, bolstered by comradely and goodwill. Mike and his friends show a great deal of support in one another and the film itself displays a thoughtful appreciation for sexuality and sensuality for both men and women. Also, with Soderbergh’s eye behind the camera it earns a spot as one of the better looking films of the year.

16. Love & Mercy (Dir. Bill Pohlad)

Paul Dano and John Cusack give duo performances as the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in this biopic split between two periods in Wilson’s life. Dano plays Wilson during the 1960s while Cusack portrays the musician in the 1980s when he meets his second wife, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), while under the strict guardianship of his doctor Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).

Love & Mercy cuts back and forth between two time periods creating a parallel narrative that depicts Wilson’s psychological turmoil that began as a young man which he faces into adulthood. Both Dano and Cusack give two of the most notable performances of the year, one facing the tyrannical control of his doctor and medication while the other facing the obstacles of the music industry and need to express himself through his music, hindered by his opportunist father and artistic disagreements with the rest of his band. By juxtaposing the two halves the film is able to show that not all enclosures and barriers are physical while carefully creating a deep character driven narrative of artistic and emotional expression. It’s one of the best biopics of recent memory.

15. The Mend (Dir. John Magary)

John Magary’s feature film directorial debut The Mend premiered at South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2014 as one of eight selected films among over 1300 submissions and was proclaimed by Time magazine as one of the top ten films at SXSW. The Mend follows two estranged brothers Mat (Josh Lucas) and Alan (Stephen Plunkett) in New York City. A fierce argument between Mat and his girlfriend has him crash at his brother’s place while Alan plans to go on vacation with his girlfriend Farrah (Mickey Sumner) but returns prematurely on his own. Though Alan attempts to tolerate his brother’s presence his company brings mutual frustrations rising to the surface.

With eccentric energy The Mend is consistently moving itself forward into unpredictable places and unexpected terms to its confrontations. This isn’t just any old indie that focuses on hitting plot points and finding typical resolutions for its principle cast and their complications. Just as Mat and Alan must find a way to be open with one another they also must reach honest realizations about themselves and the film itself is no different. Often very funny but never insincere or dramatically fraudulent The Mend serves as natural a display of dysfunction as any comedy in recent years.

14. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Dir. Roy Andersson)

The Golden Lion winner at the 71st Venice International Film Festival A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the third film in Swedish director Roy Andersson’s ‘Living’ trilogy. Like the previous films in the thematic trilogy, Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living, Andersson’s latest film is more a series of loosely connected vignettes than a film driven by a clear central plot. The most consistent plot element of the picture follows a duo of unsuccessful traveling salesmen, Jonathan (Holger Andersson) and Sam (Nils Westblom), with a small briefcase of novelty joke items.

For movie goers looking to satisfy their addiction for droll existential Swedish comedy you’re in luck with Roy Andersson capping off his ‘Living’ trilogy with perhaps its best installment, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Like the film’s opening, observing an exhibit of a bird sitting on a branch, scenes for Andersson’s film are shot with a detached stationary camera positioned to monitor each subject’s absurd or tragic or humorous predicament (often a combination of the three) for the viewer’s scrutiny. While the film lacks a running plot A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is more concerned with capturing moments rather than stories. Some of those moments are sad, some of those moments are funny, and sometimes an impersonal distance or the passage of time alters how those moments are perceived but in the end they’re still the culmination of all our lives and the finality of it all can be devastating, or perhaps not entirely if someone gets a free beer out of it.

13. World of Tomorrow (Dir. Don Hertzfeldt)

It takes something special for a short film to stand out each year among many anticipated features but I rarely look forward to any other short as much as I look forward to the work of Don Hertzfeldt. World of Tomorrow is his first film since 2012’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day, which compiles his short of the same name, Everything Will Be OK, and I Am So Proud of You into a sixty-two minute long feature. In his Oscar nominated short film World of Tomorrow a little girl, Emily, is contacted by her third generation clone from 227 years in the future and explains to her of technology, including the time travel that makes their conversation possible, and life in the distant future.

At only seventeen minutes in length World of Tomorrow may be the saddest and funniest film from minute to minute in 2015. Hertzfeldt employs his signature brand of tragic poignancy wrapped in ironic humor. It’s a film told through otherworldly bizarre futuristic situations where the third generation Emily clone describes her first job programming robots on the moon, falling in love with a rock, and uploading consciousnesses onto digital cubes but the spine of the film is its humanity and frank reconciliation with mortality. For all its surreal qualities it’s one of the most honest films from last year because its sentiment is so genuine. It may well be Herzfeldt’s best work.

12. Shaun the Sheep Movie (Dir. Mark Burton & Richard Starzak)

Wallace and Gromit spinoff Shaun the Sheep gets the feature film treatment much to the joys of the few that took the time to catch it while in theater. Read more on Shaun the Sheep from a post from last year:

Shaun the Sheep Movie Full Review

11. Anomalisa (Dir. Duke Johnson & Charlie Kaufman)

A nomination for Best Animated Feature at the 88th Academy Awards Anomalisa is screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s second theatrical directorial effort, joined by stop-animation director Duke Johnson, based on his play of the same name. In Anomalisa David Thewlis voices Michael Stone, a self-help writer traveling to Cincinnati to promote his latest book. Though Michael works as a motivational speaker he suffers from identifying everyone he meets with the same voice (Tom Noonan) and facial features, even his wife and son. But when Michael hears the distinct voice of an insecure woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) he is compelled to find her and discover what makes her so exceptional.

Similar to how Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York uses the term synecdoche to define the movie’s themes as a whole Anomalisa utilizes inspiration from the rare disorder from which Michael seemingly suffers and for which the hotel is named, the Fregoli delusion. But compared to Synecdoche, New York where there’s a kind of symbiotic collection of many individuals and events pieced together to define its characters and their lives Anomalisa in a way has flipped things where Michael’s uniform perception of everyone around him has detached him from his surroundings until he meets Lisa. It isn’t the culmination of many events for Michael but the chance meeting with a unique woman, a single anomalous encounter, which is so significant to him and the film. In the short span of a single night Kaufman intuitively explores loneliness, longing, and the yearning to sense and feel more in one of the most melancholic compassionate films from last year.

10. Crimson Peak (Dir. Guillermo del Toro)

Always a fan of monsters and ghouls director Guillermo de Toro has followed up his big action monster movie with an unlikely romantic gothic thriller, though unsurprisingly he populates the picture with numerous ghosts. Though the advertisements pushed Crimson Peak as a horror movie it’s closer to one of the stories written by the film’s lead Edith (Mia Wasikowska) when she states that she hasn’t written a ghost story, she’s written a story with ghosts in it. As a child Edith has a premonition from her mother’s ghost warning her of a place called Crimson Peak. She is unfortunately unaware that this refers to the dilapidated mansion owned by Sir Thomas Cushing (Tom Hiddleston), the man she soon marries. When Edith moves into the mansion, which Thomas shares with his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Edith again witnesses the appearance of ghosts which lead her to unearthing the dark past of the estate.

Crimson Peak is a great example of a celebrated filmmaker using his name to make a film that would unlikely be made otherwise. It’s one of the most surprising films of the year, mostly dismissed by critics, part Gaslight and part The Innocents as if made by Hammer Films. Del Toro often builds his pictures around detailed productions and Crimson Peak is no different. Its cast is draped in terrific period costuming and the house itself is almost its own monster, breathing, gurgling like some dying Hill House, sinking into its own soil. It’s the undervalued gem of last year.

9. The Forbidden Room (Dir. Evan Johnson & Guy Maddin)

A new film from Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin is generally a treat or at the very least an interesting curiosity because there simply isn’t anyone else like him. Maddin developed his latest film, The Forbidden Room, along with co-director Evan Johnson, while he was working on an interactive installation and film project called Seances. With Seances Maddin wanted to approach the project with the idea of shooting productions of lost film and though The Forbidden Room is not a part of his Seances project it isn’t surprising that it is also a collection of short pieces that resemble films from the late silent and early sound era, strung together in unorthodox ways.

Even more than Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence Guy Maddin’s latest film is the most unconventional one to appear on this countdown. Though Andersson’s movie links its segments with reoccurring characters and locations and Herzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow uses a time travel narrative to explore its assortment of ideas the story links in The Forbidden Room are tangential at best. It’s a wide variety of micro movies that bleed into one another like melted nitrate film. For those unfamiliar with Maddin this may not be the best first exposure, though his 2007 film My Winnipeg could be a great place to start, but once a taste is acquired there are few films from 2015 as unrestrained and fun. Flapjacks and derrieres never looked so good.

8. The Assassin (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien)

The Assassin is Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first feature film since 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon and it’s a welcoming return for the Taiwanese director, winning Best Director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Set in eighth century China it follows a skillful assassin, Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), who discovers that she has been sent to eliminate a governor (Chang Chen) to whom she was once betrothed.

It’s largely a fascinating study of wuxia aesthetics because Hou’s usual style is contradictory to the quick motion and physicality of the genre but he is able to harness the stillness of his frames to accentuate the flurries of action when they occur. Combined with the beauty of the compositions this gives The Assassin an authenticity to the violence which threatens to endanger Nie Yinniang’s yearning to find tranquility away from her life of killings for which she has been instructed to carry out. While the expository narrative is largely told through dialogue the core of the film lies in the relationships between characters, told more through gestures and inaction than conversation.

7. The Hateful Eight (Dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Always a fan of the memorable cinematic experiences of his youth director Quentin Tarantino used his latest film, The Hateful Eight, to resurrect the practice of roadshow releases which largely ended in the 1970s. 70mm prints of The Hateful Eight made their way to select theater showings with a slightly different cut of the film along with an intermission. Tarantino’s latest picture is an Agatha Christie-esque western set shortly after the American Civil War. Samuel L. Jackson plays a bounty hunter by the name of Major Marquis Warren who meets another bounty hunter, John Ruth ‘The Hangman’ (Kurt Russell), along the road to Red Rock, Wyoming. Ruth is particularly wary because he’s transporting a captive fugitive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). A looming blizzard causes them to hole up in a stagecoach lodge but a variety of shady characters keeps Ruth on edge, suspecting a bushwhack to free Daisy.

Though Tarantino opens his latest film on the road most of the time is spent at the stagecoach lodge Minnie’s Haberdashery. Once there he constructs a well designed chamber piece with a half dozen suspicious characters. Though on the surface The Hateful Eight is a mystery it’s a character piece where it counts. More important than revealing the culprit planning to free Daisy the film uses its post-Civil War setting to divide its cast with racial tension and strained regional conflicts boiling over. Tarantino is sure to show there are no heroes in this picture and The Hangman isn’t the only ruthless individual with everyone having their own deceitful vindictive characterization to propel the film’s series of conflicts. Though set shortly after the Civil War this may be Tarantino’s most topical film. It’s a bitter scathing look at a United States with fresh wounds where duplicity further fuels loathsome hostility.

6. Brooklyn (Dir. John Crowley)

Saoirse Ronan gives one of the best performances of the year as Eilis, an Irish immigrant moving into Brooklyn, New York, leaving her mother and hometown behind on her way to finding her place in the world as she grows into adulthood. It’s a coming-of-age tale where Eilis must discover what she wants to do for a living, find love, and ultimately find a city to call home. This is where Eilis’ greatest conflict lies and by extension the film itself, where to call home. She is torn between making a new life in New York with reconciling the loss of what she’s left behind in Ireland with her mother and sister.

A lot of criticisms of Brooklyn mention that it lacks plot conflicts and conventional climaxes but this misses the film’s biggest strength. One of the most remarkable things a film can do, which Brooklyn accomplishes fully, is the ability to cinematically portray internal conflicts rather than simply depict the plotting of a narrative. A large portion of this achievement belongs to Saoirse Ronan but credit should be given to its direction and writing, both confident in Ronan’s abilities as a performer to bring her internal struggles to the screen and in doing so they have produced a film that already feels as if it’s a classic.

5. Phoenix (Dir. Christian Petzold)

German director Christian Petzold reteams with Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld after his 2012 film Barbara for his latest film, Phoenix. The film is set within Germany during the aftermath of World War II. Hoss plays Nelly, a woman who survived internment in a concentration camp during the war. Though she finds her freedom she must undergo facial reconstructive surgery due to injuries sustained from a bullet wound. Though warned that her husband Johnny (Zehrfeld) may have betrayed her to the Nazis she seeks him out anyway. When she finds Johnny he fails to recognize her but the resemblance to his ex-wife (Nelly herself), whom he believes is deceased, prompts Johnny to ask Nelly to impersonate herself to obtain her own inheritance.

It wouldn’t be a top films countdown without a post-World War II drama that addresses the deep physical, ethical, and emotional scarring of the war and surprisingly Phoenix, like Ida before it, comes in at number five on this list. Similar to how Nelly herself must restore her physical appearance and emotional state Petzold’s film also serves as an allegory for the regeneration of a country fragmented by war and abandonment. It’s an atmospheric morally ambiguous reflection on identity carried by one of the most remarkable performances of the year from Nina Hoss as she attempts to reproduce the woman she once was. However, some injuries can never fully heal from irreversible harm and Nelly, and Germany itself, will be irreparably changed.

4. Clouds of Sils Maria (Dir. Olivier Assayas)

Clouds of Sils Maria is the latest film from Oliver Assayas, husband to the director of Eden, Mia Hansen-Løve. Juliette Binoche returns to collaborate with Assayas after his 2008 picture Summer Hours. Joining Binoche in the movie are Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz. Notably Kristen Stewart is also the first American actress to win at France’s César Awards for her supporting role in Clouds of Sils Maria last year. The film follows Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a prestigious actress traveling with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) to accept an award on the behalf of a famous playwright whose play and film adaptation started her career decades ago. Originally cast at 18 years old Maria reluctantly accepts the opposing lead role, a much older woman, in a revival of the same play.

Clouds of Sils Maria is the kind of reflective drama that may require more than one viewing to uncover all it has to offer. The film deftly concerns itself with a number of themes from the development and commitment to the acting process, with art imitating life or perhaps life imitating art, to self discoveries involved with aging and sexuality. There’s even a vulgar auteurism-esque conversation between Maria and Valentine over a recent superpowers science fiction film starring a young popular actress, Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz). With so much to unpack in this dense meta drama repeat viewings years from now will probably unearth new ways to appreciate the film.

3. Mistress America (Dir. Noah Baumbach)

Mistress America marks the third film from director Noah Baumbach starring Greta Gerwig and the second, after 2012’s Frances Ha, in which she shares writing credit. Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman, is having a difficult time transitioning into college life in New York City when she meets Brooke (Gerwig), her soon-to-be stepsister. Tracy is immediately spellbound by the confident buoyancy in which Brooke seems to live her life. Finding Brooke a distinct personality Tracy begins using her as the inspiration for writing samples for her college’s prestigious literary group unbeknownst to Brooke. This comes to a head when Brooke travels to confront an old friend whom she had a falling out with years before with Tracy accompanying her.

Like Baumbach’s previous film starring Gerwig Mistress America focuses its attention on the transition into young adulthood with Tracy admiring the way Brooke has chosen to live as an adult, a contrast to what we see of Tracy’s mother, compromising to remarry. In Brooke she is able to still see that youthful impetuosity that many young adults may share, the confidence in nearly everything they do but little certainty in what exactly they should pursue and like in Frances Ha Baumbach is able to satirize his characters while not fully condemning them. In the self-serving, self-involved mentality that comes with being young he captures the biting truth of human beings as walking contradictions who may genuinely mean whatever it is they say even if it challenges behavior from moments before. At less than ninety minutes the film is a refreshing departure from today’s adlib driven comedies. Dialogue is precise and cutting as the film builds momentum until it reaches its topsy-turvy climax at the home of Brooke’s ex-friend, Mamie-Claire. Mistress America proves that Baumbach’s previous collaboration with Gerwig was no fluke and is a reason to anticipate whatever the couple produces next.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road (Dir. George Miller)

Mad Max: Fury Road is the sequel we never knew we wanted and the most surprising action movie in years. Read more on Fury Road from a post from last year:

Mad Max Fury Road Full Review

1. Carol (Dir. Todd Haynes)

As an obvious fan of Douglas Sirk, his 2002 drama Far from Heaven can easily be seen as a reinterpretation of Sirk’s own All That Heaven Allows, director Todd Haynes is certainly not unfamiliar with romantic melodrama and with last year’s Carol may have made the finest film of his career, or at the very least his best film since his 1995 picture Safe. Rooney Mara stars as Therese, a young woman working at a department store, who meets an intriguing older woman, Carol (Cate Blanchett), by happenstance while at work. Their meeting and following encounters unearth feelings Therese doesn’t fully understand about herself and a romance blossoms despite Carol’s controlling soon-to-be ex-husband and society’s harsh views against homosexuality in the 1950s.

Where to begin with Carol? First, the film looks stunning and is shot on 16mm, inspired by photography of the time period by artists like Saul Leiter. Director of Photography Edward Lachman captures moments of longing through glances from behind windows or the lens of a camera that can say more than words could and so much credit must be given to the film’s leads, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. Both actresses, deservedly nominated for Oscars, give complex performances under the confident guidance of their director. Haynes is able to make a film that is so carefully measured and yet feels so alive. Each composition has an importance, each glance has a purpose, and yet his film is filled with such raw passion and bittersweet tender affection. It’s a truly remarkable romantic masterpiece, both visually and thematically, deserving to be called the best film of the year and the best film of its kind since Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love.

Review: When Marnie Was There

By Floyd Rock

Following famed animation director Hayao Miyazaki’s announced retirement from feature filmmaking last year the Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli, announced they would be taking a hiatus following Miyazaki’s news. Though Miyazaki himself recently directed what could be his final feature film, The Wind Rises, and Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata made his first film in years, the Oscar nominated The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the acclaimed studio’s last movie could possibly be director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There based on the novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson. Working as an animator on many of Ghibli’s films since Princess Mononoke this will be Yonebayashi’s second directorial effort following The Secret World of Arrietty. Yonebayashi’s film follows 12-year-old Anna Sasaki living in Sapporo with her foster parents. Following a strong asthma attack at school her foster mother, Yoriko, sends her to spend the summer with her relatives Setsu and Kiyomasa Oiwa in Kushiro, a small seaside town, hoping the clear air would be beneficial and help Anna recover. Though the seaside area may help with her health Anna, anxious and shy, still has trouble making friends with the local children. Despite the good intentions of the Oiwas, she feels no less lonely and detached from others than she did in the city. While exploring a nearby marsh Anna discovers an abandoned mansion, a vacation home, in dilapidated shape. When she first investigates the old house she’s stuck by the rising tide and a local fisherman assists her in returning home. As she’s ferried across the water she looks back and miraculously the house appears in good shape with lights shining from upstairs. Intrigued by the phenomenon Anna returns and meets a blond girl named Marnie and she invites Anna to join her family at the mansion for a party. Anna and Marnie begin to develop a unique bond but whether Anna’s encounters with Marnie and the magical home are real or imagined apparitions remain to be seen.

Coincidentally When Marnie Was There shares a couple similarities with Pixar’s huge hit from this year, Inside Out. Both are introspective animated films featuring young girls on the verge of teenhood, uncomfortable with their new surroundings, and in both films memory plays a considerable role, albeit in drastically different ways. Instead of the high concept architecture inside the minds of the characters in Pixar’s Inside Out with their memories defining their personality When Marnie Was There takes a subtler approach to its narrative and characters. Like Yonebayashi’s The Secret World of Arrietty this is also a calm, melancholy film. It’s a film where memories and events don’t just leave an impact on the minds of individuals but leave physical apparitions, of a building and its inhabitants, of the past. The movie blurs the lines between reality and fantasy consistently keeping Anna uncertain of whether her experiences are dreams, waking fantasies of her own creation, or magical glimpses into a grander interconnection to the past and spirituality of the world at large up until its revealing finale.

Like its protagonist When Marnie Was There is a film that moves at its own pace. Like Yonebayashi’s previous picture this is relatively light on narrative. It’s a film that propels itself more on mood, feeling, and emotional discovery than plot events. Like Pixar’s Inside Out this is a picture essentially about what it’s like to be a young girl with Anna’s anxieties, loneliness, and insecurities serving at its dramatic crux but unlike Pixar’s film When Marnie Was There doesn’t feel the need to fill its narrative with such a boisterous plot within its plot. The film’s most dramatic moments gain some of their tension by their infrequency and their opposing contrast to the delicacy of the rest of the film.

Some may find themselves disappointed by the relatively uneventful nature of a movie like When Marnie Was There, lacking the high concept of something like Pixar’s Inside Out or the relative exhaustive narrative urgency that a lot of big budget American animated movies depict but this may be one of the greatest contributions from an animation studio like Studio Ghibli. The studio’s popularity in the United States beneficially fills a void of animated films, often seen as children’s entertainment, for slower more contemplative pictures. As good as many American animated films are they tend to rely heavily on fast paced high concept work to both justify their expense and to stifle any possibility that viewers may become impatient during their runtime. Even Pixar, America’s most critically acclaimed modern animation studio, is often too concerned with pacing for immediacy rather than contemplation. Slower pacing in general is seen as ill-favored and doubly so in animation but really it should depend on a case-by-case basis and the nature of the film in question should determine what pacing is warranted. With this in mind, as a quiet sensitive film, When Marnie Was There is not just a success in how it evokes readiness to empathize with its anxious lonesome adolescent protagonist but how it encourages one to acknowledge their connection to family, their past, and the world at large. If Studio Ghibli fails to return from their hiatus the world will lose a gifted group of filmmakers that provide thoughtful animated films, films that are able to instruct both the young and old emotionally as well as entertain them.


Review: Jupiter Ascending

By Floyd Rock

Since their mega hit The Matrix the Wachowskis have had a rough relationship with the movie going public. The two Matrix sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, though financial successes never reached the iconic status of the first film and left many viewers more puzzled than satisfied with the series’ conclusion. Their follow up, the ambitious live action adaptation of the cartoon Speed Racer was a commercial flop and mostly dismissed critically, though has been gathering a cult following over the years. Next they teamed with German director Tom Tykwer for another ambitious project, the adaptation of the novel Cloud Atlas, though resonating with a handful of critics still failed to perform at the box office. Their latest project is an original science fiction movie of their own making and yet another commercial bust in their body of work. Mila Kunis stars as Jupiter Jones a Russian immigrant working in Chicago with her family to clean the homes and apartments of the wealthy. Unbeknownst to her and the rest of humanity the planet Earth is part of a large interplanetary collection owned by a galactic dynasty, the House of Abrasax, for harvesting, a process in which they incubate entire civilizations for the production of an age defying serum. After the death of the head of the House of Abrasax, Seraphi Abrasax, her children vie for their inheritance with Earth being one of the most valuable pieces. When Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne) sends agents to kill Jupiter she’s saved by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) a former soldier sent by Balem’s brother Titus (Douglas Booth). Jupiter not only learns of the vast intergalactic society of which Earth is only a small oblivious part but she also discovers that she is the exact DNA duplicate of the Abrasax children’s deceased mother and therefor, for some reason, the rightful owner of the planet Earth.

Just from a brief synopsis of Jupiter Ascending’s opening it’s evident that the movie is too convoluted for its own well-being and unlike their most popular film, The Matrix, the Wachowskis open their latest movie entirely the wrong way. Who could forget The Matrix’s mysterious exciting opening? Before revealing its protagonist the film opens with cops cornering a woman in a small apartment. Though warned that she’s dangerous one of the officers in charge informs a man in a suit, presumably of some government agency, that they have it under control. The suit tells the officer that his men are most likely already dead and this is followed by an action sequence that bends the laws of physics and defies expectations. This is not only an exciting opening but also an intriguing one that informs the viewer that the world in which the film takes place is like our own but different, there’s something more and we will soon find out what that is. Jupiter Ascending opens with Jupiter’s expository narration about her parents’ past, about how she cleans toilets, and the movie tries its hand at a joke or two which fall flat. Even the critically panned Speed Racer opens with an exciting race that also defines its futuristic fantasy world, so what gives? The Wachowskis, as surprising as it sounds, could learn a thing or two from themselves. It isn’t like they haven’t already stolen enough from their own movie with the similarity between Earth’s unknowing existence as a cellular harvesting ground and the machines harvesting human bodies for energy while trapped in a digital guise of the real world in their Matrix series.

After about thirty minutes comes the first decent section of the movie, a chase sequences through various parts of Chicago as Caine rescues Jupiter from her would be assassins. Though the sequence may go on a little long it proves that at least there’s some life in the picture. Unfortunately it’s also the highlight of the movie’s action choreography which will feature a few uneventful skirmishes between Caine and a few enemies he’ll encounter later and a perfunctory spaceship rescue mission with Caine and a former comrade (Sean Bean) until the movie ends with its excessive CG supplemented finale as Channing Tatum fights computer generated winged lizard men and Mila Kunis flees from Eddie Redmayne in what one would assume is Balem’s best sequined cape. Looking at the film and judging from the quality of its computer effects a lot of money must have gone into Jupiter Ascending so any shortcomings, and there are many, must either be by choice or by compromise.

The problem with Jupiter Ascending may not just be poor choices but also indecisiveness. From escapist fantasy and fable inspiration like The Wizard of Oz and Cinderella to science fiction action and intergalactic genocide the movie is just a mess of concepts. It plays more like a brainstorming session for a franchise than a singular focused film. Even about halfway through the movie, when it should be developing characters, its romance between its leads, building upon its conflict, and the urgency to save Earth’s inhabitants from slaughter it indulges itself in a little convoluted comedic bureaucracy akin to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Brazil only, of course, not nearly as clever or funny. Whether it’s from a lack of ability or effort the movie is never able to bring its scattered ideas together and its attempts to keep commercial appeal, simplistic exposition of politics and world building or attempts at humor, further hinder any time that could be devoted to developing Jupiter and Caine as characters worth investing any of our time. I’ll defend Speed Racer and admire Cloud Atlas to a degree but it’s difficult to find anything commendable about Jupiter Ascending outside of its special effects. It’s a congested mess and this time the Wachowskis only have themselves to blame.


Review: Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

By Floyd Rock

Even though the Mission Impossible franchise has had steady installments over the years since the first film with sequels in 2000 and 2006 it was the fourth movie, the Brad Bird directed Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol in 2011, which truly revitalized the franchise. For the fifth film director Christopher McQuarrie is brought in to again team with the franchise’s star, Tom Cruise, for a Mission Impossible that picks up directly after the events of Ghost Protocol. Because of the collateral damage caused in the previous film and the lack of transparency observed of the IMF the director of the CIA Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) convenes in front of a Senate oversight committee to have the IMF shut down and its agents absorbed into the CIA. Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) is given a desk job while William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is compelled to reveal the whereabouts of agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), which he refuses. Before he learns of the closing of the IMF Hunt is captured by a phantom organization known only as the Syndicate. While in the middle of a tortuous interrogation Hunt is assisted in escape by Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) a Syndicate operative and possible undercover MI6 agent. With the IMF dissolved Hunt is out of resources and assistance. Hunley refuses to believe the Syndicate is real and Ethan must track the leader of the terrorist organization on his own while avoiding pursuit of the CIA. Along the way Hunt repeatedly encounters agent Faust and with each meeting the pendulum of her trustworthiness swings from side to side.

It’s disappointing that Paula Patton is absent from the latest Mission Impossible but Rebecca Ferguson’s casting is a great addition to the series and better yet seeing all the material she’s given in Rogue Nation. Ferguson not only excels in her role but also portrays the most interesting character in the movie. For most of the film Ilsa Faust’s loyalties are clouded and Rogue Nation uses her character as a double or possible triple agent to present its theme of espionage agent expendability. Though it’s difficult to see where her loyalties lie it’s even harder to see where her superiors in both the Syndicate and MI6 reciprocate their trust. The film also supports its theme with the Syndicate comprised of agents from various countries and covert organizations once thought to be deceased and CIA head Hunley’s distrust of Ethan Hunt and his extreme measures to bring him in from the field. Though the picture never explores this aspect of its plot nor the amoral activities of its secret agencies to the level of something like Martin Ritt’s adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold it’s still a smart, if slight, addition to the movie’s narrative. The rest of Rogue Nation’s story is constructed well. While its plot is as complicated as one would naturally expect of its genre it never becomes too hard to follow. It may lean a little heavily on exposition at times but the likes of Simon Pegg or Jeremy Renner will consistently provide some levity to carry it through.

The previous Mission Impossible left a splendid template for Rogue Nation to follow, with various inventive action set pieces integrated with plot turns to keep the narrative flowing steadily. Though it doesn’t reach the imaginative heights of Brad Bird’s installment it’s easy to see McQuarrie’s strength as a writer in Rogue Nation’s best sequence, the attempted assassination of the Austrian Chancellor while attending the opera in Vienna. Hunt employs Benji’s help identifying the leader of the Syndicate but matters are complicated by the presence of Faust and two other Syndicate agents intending to make sure their mission is successful. Logistically it’s flawlessly designed as it moves between Hunt and Benji attempting to both assess the situation, grasp the different parties involved, and fight off the Syndicate agents as the sequence further obscures Hunt’s perception of Faust and his trust in her. McQuarrie follows this sequence with a dangerous and elaborate underwater heist that eventually leads to one of the most kinetic motorcycle chases on screen in some time. Mission Impossible Rogue Nation may not be the best of its series or the best action movie so far this year but it’s certainly one of the better ones.

Tom Cruise’s persona outside of his movies may bring a lot of attention but it’s difficult to dismiss what he brings to a summer action picture like Rogue Nation. It’s hard to imagine Cruise is now in his fifties and yet participates in as many of his own stunts as possible including two rather dangerous ones in Rogue Nation. After the sequence in Morocco the movie begins to lose a little steam but it still has enough momentum to carry itself to its finale. They’ve exhausted so much energy and created such a tightly tangled narrative that it’s only natural that it needs to unravel eventually. Luckily Rogue Nation is able to do so with some remaining enjoyable action sequences and standoffs, while remaining playful with its cast, and delivering the same kind of humor and excitement as the previous film. If the franchise can stay this consistent moving forward and if Cruise can keep pace it’s difficult to tell when the series will meet its limitations but currently nothing appears impossible.


Review: Shaun the Sheep Movie

By Floyd Rock

Aardman Animations is probably best known for their Wallace and Gromit series and their first feature film, Chicken Run, which was a breakthrough success in theaters. Ten years after Wallace and his dog Gromit got their own feature length film another one of Aardman’s beloved characters, Shaun from their popular animated show Shaun the Sheep and a spin off character from the Wallace and Gromit short A Close Shave, gets his own feature length film as well. During a seemingly routine day Shaun and his fellow sheep devise a plan to put their owner, the farmer, to sleep so they can relax, invade his house and kitchen, and watch television. Their plan goes well at first and they put him in a nearby trailer as he sleeps. However, the trailer is unexpectedly sent careening down the road out of control towards The Big City when it comes loose from the tree log holding it in place. The farmer’s faithful dog Bitzer gives chase but is unable to stop it from wildly crashing through the city. When the farmer staggers out of the trailer, unaware of how he got into the city, he’s hit on the head and loses his memory. Shaun hides on a bus traveling into the city determined to bring the farmer back home but he’s unaware that the entire flock of sheep has followed him. Shaun and his fellow sheep are immediately brought face-to-face with the dangers of The Big City in the form of Trumper, a devilish animal control employee, when they arrive. Shaun and his fellow sheep must don disguises to try to integrate into city life as they search for their owner in the sprawling urban environment.

Though Shaun the Sheep is based on an animated television series no familiarity with the show is required to understand and enjoy Aardman’s latest feature. The movie opens with a sequence of super 8 style footage introducing its main characters, Shaun, the farmer, the farmer’s dog Bitzer, and the other sheep. In a few moments the movie is able to endear its collection of characters to each other and to its viewers. Aardman’s witty humor is in top form delivering comedic material in multiple ways, with character humor, puns, situational comedy, music cues, movie references, slapstick, and other visual gags. Even with close observation one could miss the barrage of jokes packed into this tightly designed animated comedy. Children’s movie or not Shaun the Sheep is one of the brightest, warmest, and funniest films of the year.

Not only is Shaun the Sheep a wonderfully clever and funny film it also delivers all its comedy and tells its story with no dialogue. Characters may grunt or laugh and perform body and hand gestures but they never speak a word. Shaun the Sheep is 85 minutes of pure visual storytelling and it’s an exceptionally well crafted 85 minutes. Great silent comedic performers like Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd come to mind with the movie’s physical comedy and settings like the animals’ farm, the animal control building which serves as an animal jailhouse, and a hilarious scene in which Bitzer is mistaken for a surgeon in the city’s hospital but the culture clash of the quaint old-fashioned farm animals with the monstrous modernization of The Big City immediately brings to mind the work of French filmmaker Jacques Tati, in particular two scenes from Shaun the Sheep. The first is when the flock of sheep visit a restaurant and attempt to observe and impersonate proper table etiquette with uproariously funny disruptive results for the restaurant and its patrons and the second is when the movie lampoons modern culture, contemporary art, fashion, and trends when the farmer becomes a popular hair stylist because of his natural sheep shearing talents.

Some may call Shaun the Sheep a lesser effort from Aardman, due to its short runtime and small scale narrative, but really this is a group of filmmakers working at the height of their visual storytelling craft and comedic inventiveness and their best feature film since 2005’s Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Aardman Animations continues to be one of the most consistent animation studios working today and they’ve built a name for themselves with their intelligent humor and identifiable animation style. Though made and marketed with children in mind Shaun the Sheep offers material that will surely go over their heads like a reference to Silence of the Lambs. Not only is it smart entertainment but it’s accessible and completely charming as well, making it entertainment suitable for viewers of all ages and backgrounds. If the international popularity of Charles Chaplin is any indication there’s something cross culturally universal about pathos and humor delivered visually, without the need for spoken dialogue, and in that respect Shaun the Sheep is a joyful endearing success and a grand excuse for anyone to take the day off.


Review: Jurassic World

By Floyd Rock

Including Mad Max: Fury Road, Terminator Genisys, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens 2015 is a big year for studio franchise revivals. Though the third film in the franchise was not as successful as the previous two it was only a matter of time before Universal would bring the popular Jurassic Park franchise back to theaters. In fact they’ve been trying to get a fourth film into production for the last decade. Set twenty-two years after Jurassic Park, Jurassic World begins by establishing that the fully functioning dinosaur theme park has been operating for years on the same island where the original park was intended to open. Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Claire Dearing, manager of all operations at the park from financial obligations and meeting with investors to monitoring attractions and any emergency that may arise. When her two nephews, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins), arrive Claire is too busy to entertain them and assigns her assistant the task of watching them while they visit the park. She has more pressing matters. To boost park attendance the division of scientists working for the park and its owner Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) has created a genetically modified dinosaur called the Indominus rex. Masrani and Dearing call upon Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), the park’s velociraptor trainer, to evaluate the Indominus and its enclosure before they clear the attraction safe to open to the general public. Grady immediately disapproves of their work with the Indominus. He tells them that their genetic manipulation is reckless because of the unforeseeable attributes they could have bred into the hybrid dinosaur and for its isolated upbringing, both making it an unpredictable threat. As expected Grady’s misgivings are warranted when the Indominus escapes its enclosure and runs wild on the northern part of the island. Dearing orders the northern sections of the park closed to attendees, unaware that her nephews are still out there, while operations to recapture the escaped dinosaur drastically underestimate its threat.

Much of Jurassic World is presented as if to pay tribute to Jurassic Park but it leans too heavily on audience’s fondness for the iconic 1993 movie and borrows more than it contributes to the franchise. Irresponsible scientific hubris gone too far, kids related to an operator of the park visiting at the most inopportune moment, and gradually discovering that a career isn’t the most important pursuit in life due to the near death experience of surviving attacks by escaped dinosaurs are just a few of the elements ripped from Spielberg’s film. Unfortunately director Colin Trevorrow isn’t as gifted in aping Steven Spielberg as one would hope. For instance, the subplot with the two brothers, Zach and Gray, focuses on their parents’ impending divorce and though the movie may utilizes Spielberg’s attraction to sentimentality it leaves out any of the carefully constructed dramatic relationships that sell that sentimentality. The brothers address their parents’ likely split in curt fashion, one sobs over it as the other denies it, and then the movie shifts attention elsewhere, content with its cloddish establishment of their understanding of the situation. Though it’s fortunate for Jurassic World that it has such a strong foundation because when it contributes something original to its narrative, specifically the park’s head of security operations, Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), is when it reaches its harebrained peak. Hoskins keeps pressuring Grady to use his raptors for military purposes and if that seems as ridiculous as it sounds that’s because it is and he continuously talks about them like compliant creatures that would take military orders without problems. It’s doltishly absurd and the movie’s weakest point.

The picture is at its best when Pratt and Howard are on screen. After Claire discovers her nephews are still out in the park, unaware of the danger, she enlists Grady’s help in finding them. Though their characters are little more than Rugged Man and Business Woman in a desperate situation the rule of opposing character types complimenting each other plays to the movie’s favor and Pratt and Howard carry the last hour as well as anyone could. Even when Jurassic World relies heavily on thoughtless convenience, like the placement of a dinosaur enclosure during its finale, Howard and Pratt are able to assist in overlooking some of these smaller shortcomings. If only their performances could help remedy the movie’s tone deafness and especially much of its comedic timing. Like Jurassic Park there are jokes that alleviate tense moments but the best of those would comment on the moment at hand, almost in the way that an anxious person would use humor as a coping strategy. In Jurassic World much of the comedy comes in awkwardly disrupting scenes at hand and falling flat in the process.

What set Spielberg’s picture apart is that the wonder, grandeur, action, and suspense were gradually earned by his talents in building his scenes, utilizing his camera to enhance these sequences rather than merely record them. On its own Jurassic World does little to define itself independently from the first movie and owes most of its success to Jurassic Park. Though there’s still some light adventurous escapism to enjoy in the haphazard bedlam of the picture and much of its cast is likable it never fully comes together as well as it should. It avoids becoming an unmitigated disaster but the movie is like the process in designing the Indominus rex, the outcome of a committee, oblivious to the mismatched attributes of their commercially minded product.


Review: Ex Machina

By Floyd Rock

Writer Alex Garland published his first novel, The Beach, in 1996. The book was met with a variety of praise, many calling it a quintessential Generation X literary work. Director Danny Boyle made a screen adaptation of the novel a few years later and ever since Garland has gravitated towards film productions. His first screenplay was an original work, 28 Days Later, also for Danny Boyle and later wrote scripts for Sunshine, adapting Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and 2012’s Dredd. Ex Machina marks Garland’s directorial debut as well as his return to penning an original work rather than adapting an existing novel or comic. In Ex Machina Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a programmer working for a company that designed and implemented a massively popular search engine called Bluebook. From a random selection process he is chosen to visit the company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), in a secluded mountain research facility. When Caleb arrives Nathan reveals that he has been working on an artificially intelligent robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and wants Caleb to administer to Ava a Turing Test, an examination of a machine’s ability to exhibit behavior indistinguishable from that of a human being. Caleb’s first interactions with Ava go well but the process becomes more complicated when sudden random power outages begin occurring at the facility and Caleb is led to believe that Nathan is hiding more from him than he’s allowed to know.

Garland uses the interview sessions between Caleb and Ava to cleanly structure his film. As the sessions become more personal, for both Ava and Caleb, any attempts the picture may make to present itself as a film about awakening humanity in artificial intelligence become clear to be a bluff. Just as the plot hides its turns and veiled motivations to be revealed later this is more a thriller designed around the façade of free will than a science fiction drama about finding humanity in robotics. The film isn’t concerned with separating humanity from robotics and then bestowing those qualities on to an advanced artificially intelligent construct. Rather than humanizing Ava the film levels the field between man and machine by expressing how human conditioning, vices, and manipulation can be used as strong programing devices for people as mathematic inputs are for computers. With its simple framing the movie is able to move steadily, with interview discussions and conversations between Caleb and Nathan afterwards to drive it. The actors and the script immerse the viewer in a smart analytical, or at least theoretical, science fiction thriller that doesn’t often falter narratively until the end, where a few twist revelations are delivered in curt fashion and in succession.

The movie gives the impression, with its simple and neat structuring, that Garland designed it that way to make it more manageable as his directorial debut. It’s a shame because it’s apparent that there are some interesting ideas flurrying within it trying to break free, contained within that manageable structure. It’s as if the picture is like the research facility itself boxed in its own square confines and gridded corridors. The primary moment when Garland breaks out of his own restraint is the movie’s most stimulating sequence and wildest cinematic image. I’m speaking of course of Nathan’s sudden choreographed dance with Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), his only assistant working with him at the facility, which is sure to become infamous among fans of the film. But the scene’s visual joys aren’t its only strength, because what makes the scene so remarkable is how it reaffirms themes from the movie while also serving as a flourish of directorial style. It’s a moment that takes Caleb by surprise, a scene of seeming spontaneity but the synchrony of the dance between Nathan and Kyoko confirms the notion of action by design, even impromptu dance comes to fruition through conditioning and preparation. Garland’s film could use more of these moments, both to empower the complexities of his ideas and to give the screen more sequences that are as bold and vibrant.

Conceptually it’s an intelligent picture and it’s relatively exciting and intriguing but by the end it may be disappointing to have gained little from its conclusion, at least little more than what was presented throughout much of the film already. Garland receives some strong performances from his principle cast with Isaac giving the best with his enigmatic portrayal of Nathan, wrapped in drink, genius, and dark detachment. With his experience in writing Garland is certainly relying on that to propel most of the picture. It’s unfortunate that many of his promising ideas aren’t delivered with as exuberant cinematic flare as the previously mentioned scene. But this is just his first picture as director and if he continues striving for equally intelligent subject matter he certainly has potential to grow as a visual storyteller, to match his experience as a literary one.


Review: Inside Out

By Floyd Rock

Riley, eleven, moves from Minnesota to San Francisco after her father gets a new job. The experience of relocating to a new city brings with it a variety of difficulties such as homesickness to anxiety involved with entering a new school in an unfamiliar city. If this was any normal movie about childhood that would be the center of its plot but Inside Out isn’t a normal movie about childhood. It’s the latest picture from Pixar’s Pete Docter, the director behind Monsters, Inc. and Up. He was first inspired by the idea for the picture when he started noticing changes in his daughter’s personality as she grew up. What makes Inside Out so special is what’s occurring within young Riley’s mind. Inside her head, and the minds of other people in the movie including her parents, is the personified embodiment of her emotions. Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness are all represented by little color signified people operating her mind like a control room. These parts of her mind are not necessarily controlling all her specific decisions but rather the emotional motivation behind them and they monitor the memories that are produced from her day-to-day life. Sometimes significant memories are produced called core memories. These memories are housed in a special hub in the control room and are significant in defining key parts of Riley’s personality. The movie’s plot kicks off when the family first arrives in San Francisco and everything seems to be going wrong. Riley’s things haven’t arrived yet, her father is called away on business, and even the food is strange to her. Joy (Voiced by Amy Poehler) takes command of the situation, as she does many times, and tries to keep Riley’s mood in cheerful order. Her determination to keep Riley in positive spirits is tested when she first arrives at school. In a deeply embarrassing introduction to her new class Riley begins to cry which creates a new core memory, her first core memory defined by her sadness. Joy’s controlling nature gets the better of her and she tries to stop it from reaching the hub housing the rest of Riley’s core memories. But instead of stopping it she knocks all of Riley’s core memories out, disrupting the sections of her personality they represent, and sending them back through a transportation tube to another part of Riley’s mind. In the chaos both Joy and Sadness (Voiced by Phyllis Smith) are taken along with them.

The movie is not about a girl trying to fit in at a new school but about the development of her emotional maturity. Joy is the central figure in Inside Out, not Riley. Joy is driven by her only goal, to keep Riley happy. Though well intentioned she is oblivious to the possible self-serving nature of her pursuits and the hindrance her controlling nature exerts over the other emotions. Sadness in particular is kept from assisting them in guiding Riley emotionally. This imbalance is the cause of the initial disruption and once Joy and Sadness are out of control Riley is only left with her Anger, Disgust, and Fear to guide her actions. Through Joy and Sadness’ journey through Riley’s mind we discover that all our emotional states have their purpose and how unhealthy it is to ignore them. Sadness is important in the way people connect to one another. It is essential for developing the compassion and empathy that allows one another to create shared experiences, to relate to other people. Joy first witnesses this when she sees Sadness comforting a character they meet on their journey, Bing Bong (Voiced by Richard Kind), an imaginary friend Riley had when she was a few years old.  Though a lot of the supporting characters are used mostly for comic relief and are kept underdeveloped Bing Bong is a clever addition to the movie’s cast. Though he has his own share of humorous uses it’s his representation of a part of childhood psyche that must eventually be cast aside on the path to adulthood that is the character’s biggest strength.

Like the control room in which Riley’s emotions work the rest of her head has been constructed into a physical space to represent parts of her personality and mind. Joy and Sadness spend much of their time in Long Term Memory, a labyrinth of shelves housing all the memories produced each day. The parts of her personality are defined by large sections that look like theme park attractions but little is spent inside them. Though Inside Out is the most abstract concept from Pete Docter’s work at Pixar it’s a little of a disappointment that the inside of Riley’s head is largely so clean with its office building design. There are a few moments of heightened abstract visual creativity like their attempt to wake Riley during a dream, which is created on a backlot like a Hollywood movie, and a dangerous form altering passage through Abstract Thinking, which morphs and compresses their bodies into smaller dimensions, but the moments are brief. They don’t quite reach the height of the space-bending chase sequence through conveyer belt doorways in Docter’s Monsters, Inc.

All faults aside, if skeptics have been dissatisfied with Pixar’s most recent work this is the one to convince them that they still have what made the studio such a success. Their creative concepts, colorful and imperfect characters, and emotional impact all delivered thoughtfully and with a steady supply of clever humor. Though its plot may not be as big as saving the world from a spiteful super villain or travelling across the world in a floating house what it says about small moments in our lives is important. On top of its analysis of emotional development this is also a movie about how people are not only defined by moments in their lives but that those instances that define them can gradually change and continue to develop as they grow older. The personal meaning of a memory and our memories themselves can shift and change over time. Emotional maturity may be defined by allowing those changes to occur, to accept the sadness that comes with them along with the joy.


Review: Mad Max Fury Road

By Floyd Rock

It’s been thirty years since George Miller’s post-apocalyptic series following the iconic survivalist Max Rockatansky graced theaters but Mad Max: Fury Road marks his triumphant return. After planning for over a decade the fourth film has finally hit theaters. Plans to make a fourth Mad Max film went through their own long arduous series of stalled productions and concepts from postponing and canceling shooting that was to start in 2001, 2003, and an R-rated animated feature in 2009. Often long development and complications can foretell doom for upcoming films but against the odds Fury Road, like its titular figure, has managed to overcome its obstacles with miraculous success. George Miller returns directing this newest installment of the series that jump started his career with Tom Hardy replacing Mel Gibson as Max. Also starring Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult in prominent roles and veteran of the original Mad Max, Hugh Keays-Byrne, as the imposing Immortan Joe, a wasteland warlord and the picture’s central villain. The movie opens with Max being captured and imprisoned by marauders, followers of Immortan Joe. At Joe’s stronghold, the Citadel, Max is hung upside down and used for blood donation for one of Joe’s sick War Boys, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), the leader of Joe’s war rig, deviates from a gas run Joe discovers that his wives, a group of women kept for selective breeding, are missing. Infuriated, Joe leads a war party after Furiosa to reclaim his prized prisoners. Nux, in pursuit of the glory achieved from death in battle, joins Joe’s party, strapping Max to the front of his car to continue supplying him blood. Soon, the lives of these three individuals, fighting for survival, liberation, or glory, will be irreparably intertwined.

What’s apparent, first and foremost, is that Mad Max: Fury Road is a marvel of visual design. From its composition, with its sunburned landscapes filled with its broken heroes and their fanatic pursuers, to its precise editing, with rapid editing, use of accelerated frames, and montage editing, it’s a film intended to not only deliver a mouth-gaping spectacle but to tell its story visually with its rebellious yet controlled form. Like its hero Fury Road is a film of little words. With little dialogue much of the movie is told through visual storytelling, driven by its action, its production design, or with much of its mythology just inferred. Piecing parts of the picture together through contextually following slang, its art direction, and bits of sparse exposition is just part of what makes the world Max inhabits so layered and intriguing. Some aspects of these characters and their pasts, like Furiosa’s missing arm or Joe’s rise to power are kept relatively unknown. Leaving these pieces of the story up to imagination and speculation not only allows audiences to become a little more active in their investment in the picture, not entirely dissimilar to the imaginative process involved in reading a novel, but it adds to the spoken legend aspect of the Mad Max series, as if this man and his exploits are tall tales told throughout the land to inspire those living through the aftermath of civilization. It’s as if this apocalyptic tale and the life of its desolate yet rich world exist whether viewers are there to watch the movie or not.

Once viewers are immersed in Fury Road’s harsh unforgiving environments it’s the picture’s relentless impeccably designed action sequences and stunt work which will keep them there. One could lose count of the number of awe-inspiring set pieces devised and the orchestral way they’re implemented and executed in the picture. Not only is the balletic automotive carnage a wonder but even on solid ground the action is fresh and light on its feet with an inventive hand-to-hand fight scene between the two leads when Max first comes face-to-face with Furiosa while chained to an unconscious Nux and a detached car door. Just the logistics themselves of some of the biggest moments during the movie’s finale are mind-boggling and well crafted, yet never confusing. It’s as if the visual symmetry of Buster Keaton’s silent comedies were lifted and infused with George Miller’s signature rebellious rocker aesthetics to deliver something wholly unique.

The set pieces aren’t just the glossy sheen of Fury Road but also its engine, assisting in driving the narrative rather than interrupting it. Each action sequence is propelled by character motivation moving the film, not a single confrontation is a detour in Fury Road. It’s difficult to find another franchise return, gone for decades, that’s this bold and it’s particularly surprising that a movie with Fury Road’s lengthy series of stalled production attempts not only came out of the muck looking this good but is so singularly minded. The entire film functions like a well-oiled machine, like clockwork, each piece moving as one for one singular well-defined purpose. No extra parts, no fat to trim. It’s a lean vibrant action picture and one of the best in recent years.


Review: Tomorrowland

By Floyd Rock

With the success of their Pirates of the Caribbean franchise Disney has decided to look to another attraction from their parks to adapt into a major motion picture. With its visually arresting appeal and history as a significantly personal project to Walt Disney himself Tomorrowland was a prime candidate for their next theme park adaptation. With the 1964 New York World’s Fair as inspiration and intensions of creating a big budget science fiction adventure around the attraction Disney made the likely choice of Brad Bird to direct. One could hope that this was a recipe for success but unfortunately it looks like Tomorrowland is one of the bigger box office failures of the year. The movie opens with Frank Walker (George Clooney) recalling his visit to the World’s Fair when he was a young boy aspiring to be a great inventor. Arriving with a partially functional jet pack of his own design Frank presents it to David Nix (Hugh Laurie) whom is in charge of judging prospective inventors and their creations at the fair. Nix turns Walker away because his invention is both impractical and unfinished but a mysterious young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) gives him a pin featuring a large “T” upon it and tells him to follow her. The pin assists Frank in entering Tomorrowland, a futuristic city of boundless invention and wonder. After telling Frank’s back story the movie shifts to modern day, focusing on Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a teenage girl enamored by dreams of space travel and spends her nights sabotaging the dismantling of a decommissioned NASA launch pad. The mysterious Athena returns hiding another pin, which appears to be her last, in Casey’s motorcycle helmet.  The following night when Casey returns to the NASA launch pad she is arrested. When released she finds the pin among her belongings. Unaware of where it came from she is amazed to discover that when she touches it she is given a transported vision of Tomorrowland. When the vision ceases Casey treks out by herself to learn more about the pin and futuristic city she saw and she meets Athena whom implores Casey for her help. The planet is in danger and they need to return to Tomorrowland. To find a way back into the city they must first find Frank Walker, now a pessimistic adult.

Tomorrowland’s setup is where it first falters. Casey’s story is our window into this picture and we should have been with her from the very beginning, learning about Frank when she does, and more importantly being awestruck by Tomorrowland when she first sees it. However, when the movie follows Casey it’s at its best. Her enthusiasm drives its own wishful idealism with reckless abandon and Tomorrowland’s idealism may be its biggest strength and greatest conceptual difficulty. Rather than an action adventure movie about stopping a specific event or definitive villain it’s a movie not only about the power of ideas but their implementation and the importance of positive thinking in achieving them while facing seemingly impossible odds. Unfortunately, since no major studio would ever fund My Dinner with Andre at the World’s Fair, Brad Bird and screenwriter Damon Lindelof have given their movie about the battle between positive thinking and indifference some action adventure escapades. This is where Brad Bird lives as a filmmaker. Channeling nostalgia for yesterday and prospects for tomorrow while wrapping things around action sequences that could only come from an imagination fostered by his work in animation, where anything is possible. Some of the movie’s creative high points include a raid on Frank’s home by a robot security force and a precognitive elevator assisting Casey in the movie’s finale.

The picture’s finale may be one of the central reasons that critics and audiences have failed to connect to Tomorrowland en masse.  Conceptually it’s apparent that Bird wants his movie to focus on the mentality behind cynicism, trying to locate and correct the motivation that leads individuals to the conclusion that it would be easier to quit. Because of this the global catastrophe that Casey and Frank must avert is intentionally left unknown. This is a decision which is sure to meet a large amount of criticism but I feel it deserves support. It’s central to the crux of Bird’s argument and the purpose of his movie. To make the finale about stopping a bomb, a global war, epidemic disease, or any other specific event ceases to make the movie about the mentality behind it but rather about that specific event itself. It would be the equivalent of treating the symptoms of an illness rather than the illness itself. Unfortunately, the catch-22 of making an action adventure movie of this kind is that Bird is forced to have a final tangible conflict anyway. Something tactile for his audience to grasp onto in an engaging way and this makes the climax somewhat befuddled. Though this causes its final moments to be a little rickety Tomorrowland still reaches its goal fueled by unabashed earnestness.

Even with its shortcomings it’s difficult not to enjoy Tomorrowland and even harder not to admire it. Under Bird’s idealistic call to arms his creative synapses are still firing. He’s still able to deliver an inventive, enjoyable, and at times odd big budget movie. It’s a movie unlikely to come out of a major studio and given its unfortunate poor box office numbers will remain that way which is disheartening because even with its faults this is the kind of purposeful entertainment that studios should be making. It’s a picture for the dreamers of the world and at its best can be genuinely inspiring.  Tomorrowland’s importance, both in context of the movie itself and its own plot, isn’t as a physical location but as a state of mind, striving constantly with ingenuity and positive thinking to make tomorrow better than today. Tomorrowland isn’t just a movie or a place, it’s an ideal.


Post Navigation