Mini-Reviews: Movies from 2015

With Awards Season just around the corner, here are my mini-reviews of some of the leading films for 2015:

Black Mass (2015): As an A-list actor, I’ve never found Johnny Depp to have much range. He is pretty damned good, however, in Black Mass, a film based on the exploits of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, the legendary Irish mob boss of Boston. Casting is superb, with Joel Edgerton delivering a standout performance as corrupt FBI agent John Connolly. Ably directed by Scott Cooper, the film is based on the book Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The FBI and a Devil’s Deal by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. 7/10.

Ex Machina (2015): an outstanding Sci-fi film directed by Alex Garland, which I previously posted about here. This is one of the best new films I’ve seen in many years. 9/10.

Irrational Man (2015): I wanted to like this film. I had high hopes for it. But it’s subpar, mediocre Woody Allen work, that can be avoided. Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a ‘bad boy’ philosophy professor who arrives at an exclusive college near Newport, Rhode Island. Abe’s philosophical specialty appears to be existentialism, which allows this protagonist to pontificate about his own personal existential crisis he is currently in the throes of. I’m a philosophy buff, so when Abe starts discussing Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or bemoans his current book project as “yet another” futile book on Heidegger and Fascism, I perk up. But much of Irrational Man is rehashed Woody Allen thoughts on moral philosophy already found in his past films, including the line used in a previous film describing philosophy itself as “mental masturbation”. The two main characters are nothing more than mouthpieces for ideas, and the manner in which student Jill Pollard (played by Emma Stone) immediately falls in love with Abe is much too facile. Plot-wise, there’s more than its fair share of coincidences, as well as Allen’s pattern of late of trite, deux ex machina endings. 5/10.

The Revenant (2015): On the heels of his fantastic film Birdman, Alejandro G. Iñárritu helms this very dark western based on Michael Punke’s book The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge. Set in the unrelenting Pacific Northwest of the early 1800s, the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as trapper Hugh Glass, a man ruthlessly left for dead by John Fitzgerald (played by a mumbling Tom Hardy). The increasinbly ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson (who is excellent in Ex Machina but somewhat miscast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens) plays Captain Andrew Henry, the leader of the expedition that Glass was part of. Overall, the film is excellent, like a Cormac McCarthy novel put to screen. Yes, there’s a few fleeting platitudes about how we ‘stole’ land from the Indians, but such nonsense is overridden by the wonderful cinematography (all natural lighting & with Iñárritu’s style of fluid camera movement.) DiCaprio’s total commitment to this role is evident; if he can’t win an Oscar for this role, he never will. 8/10.

Sicario (2015): Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Sicario focuses on the drug cartel mess that is creeping evermore so into the U.S., and features a miscast Emily Blunt (what is with every other film these days having 90-lb ‘tough female’ leads?), Josh Brolin, and an excellent Benicio del Toro, the latter a peripheral figure throughout most of the film, until the last 15 minutes, where he becomes pivotal. “You should move to a small town,” del Toro’s character tells Blunt’s at one point in the film, “where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You’re not a wolf, and this is the land of wolves now.” Whether it’s the shifting legal boundaries in the interminable drug war, the barbaric violence meted out by the drug cartels, or the inevitable corruption of local police on the U.S. side of the border, Sicario has been heralded by critics, but I was less than blown away (pardon the pun) and would give the film 7/10.

Spotlight (2015): Directed by Tom McCarthy, Spotlight tells the story of The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team (an investigative unit) and their investigation into child abuse by Roman catholic priests in the Boston area, which ultimately led to Cardinal Law’s resignation, the imprisonment of priest John Geoghan, and much-needed attention to scandal of global proportions. As a subject matter, this isn’t the stuff usually green-lit by Hollywood, but it’s reasonably compelling (joining All the President’s Men in the canon of films about investigative journalists) and features a heroic Jew (Liev Schreiber), as the Globe’s new chief editor Martin Baron, targeting the institution of the Catholic Church. “So the new editor of the Boston Globe is an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball?” one ‘evil’ character asks rhetorically, to emphasize Baron’s Jewishness. Such is the stuff that a gives a Hollywood producer a stiffy. (Just don’t ask for similar transparency when it comes to scrutinizing Jewish tribal behavior.) The film has a top-notch cast: Michael Keaton; Mark Ruffalo; John Slattery; Rachel McAdams; Stanley Tucci; Liev Schreiber; and Billy Crudup, among others. 7/10.

Spy (2015): This one isn’t an Awards Season film, but it’s a damn funny film from 2015. Written and directed by Paul Feig, Spy is pretty much a vehicle to allow Melissa McCarthy to shine as a physical comedienne. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a desk-bound CIA employee who aids and assists (through remote computer, recon assistance) field agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), the latter a James Bond type of guy. She’s forced “into the field”, so to speak, where hilarity ensues. While it sometimes gets a bit vulgar, I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time. Spy dispels any uncertainty that Melissa McCarthy is America’s foremost comedienne, whose comic timing is impeccable. 8/10

Trumbo (2015): Jay Roach’s biopic of Dalton Trumbo, starring the great Bryan Cranston, certainly has star power behind it (Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, John Goodman), but it quickly devolves into yet another hagiography of the Jewish-heavy Hollywood Ten. The caricature of Hedda Hopper as a vindictive, pure evil, nemesis was so over-the-top (in treatment, not portrayal), that she became a cartoon character. The conspicuous Jewishness of the Hollywood Ten, and Hollywood itself, is referenced in the film, but only by the most evil characters imaginable. More cartoon characters appear in the form of anti-Communists of any type: men who, according to the stock Hollywood template, were all sweaty and overweight, and whose shirts were buttoned too tightly. 5/10.

Youth (2015): With several nods to Fellini’s immortal 8 & 1/2, Paolo Sorrentino directs this film starring Michael Caine (as a retired classical composer) and Harvey Keitel (as a septuagenarian film director) who are best friend, and both accomplished men in their fields. Now, in the twilight of their lives, and while staying at high-end spa in the Swiss Alps, they reflect upon their lives, careers, and what it has all meant. Their memories are fading, their best work is long behind them, the beauty and promise of much younger persons appears all around them, a constant reminder of their own advanced ages. The cast also includes Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, and Jane Fonda. With sumptuous visuals, Youth is a haunting tone poem of sorts, on the eternal themes of time, mortality, and existence itself. 8/10.

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