Kung Fu Panda 3 Review

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Before Kung Fu Panda 3 started, we were subjected to the trailer for Dreamworks’ upcoming film Trolls, which looks like just about the worst thing humans have created. We’re talking about those 90s Troll dolls dancing to Watch Me Whip bad. It begs the question, how has this once great animation studio fallen so far down the drain? At least, it begged that question, and then the film began. From moment one, it threw me right back into the lush, visually stunning world that this franchise has created, and as the film went on it continually reminded me that there are clearly two very different teams at Dreamworks. The first one, which made movies like Home,  clearly exists just to pedal pop music. However, the second one, behind films like this one and How To Train Your Dragon, are laser focused storytellers looking to push the medium of animation to places we have yet to see, both visually, and narratively.

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When we meet up with Po (Jack Black) and the rest of The Furious Five, everything seems to be going pretty smoothly. They protect the valley, learn under Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), and even get a nice little fast food tie in at Mr. Ping’s (James Hong) noodle shop. That is, until Master Shifu decides that the time has come for Po to become the teacher, imploring the still somewhat clumsy warrior to access his full potential as a leader. Meanwhile, two important new figures enter the fray. Threatening the valley is, Kai (J.K. Simmons), a previously defeated bloodthirsty  warrior, has escaped the spirit world with revenge on the mind and the ability to steal a martial artist’s Chi and make it his own. Meanwhile, perhaps more importantly, Li (Bryan Cranston), Po’s long lost birth father comes into the picture, wanting to take his son to the secret panda village in which he claims Po will learn the abilities he needs to defeat Kai.

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What makes this film such a delight is that it taps back into the rich character development and style that made the first one so unique. That film didn’t just wear the clothes of the classic films that defined the martial arts genre, but immersed itself in the troupes and themes of those stories, giving Po a rich emotional journey. The second installment, while by no means bad, felt like more of a one off story without that same level of depth. What swings this one back into form is ultimately the relationship between Po and Li. While it seems as though every animated movie and their mother deals with some sort of parental issue, it feels completely authentic here. The broad physical moments between the two are there, but there’s also an equal amount of time devoted to giving Black and Cranston (both wonderful here) time to flesh out the bond between these two. Things only get better when you throw Mr. Ping (Po’s adopted father) into the mix, as the film does a wonderful job of paying off his initial jealously of the situation with an arc that is both touching and subtly progressive. It’s a story about Po learning that both of his fathers mean something to him in equal measure, and the film handles this journey with grace and resonance.

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If there’s any detriment to the strength of this relationship, it’s that it dampens the value of the rest of the characters a bit. The Furious Five have always been background players in this franchise, but here they’re not really given much of anything to do. Not even Shifu and Po’s engaging dynamic really gets explored here, the biggest chunks of wisdom dispensed by another returning character who’s appearance I shall not spoil. J.K. Simmons’ Kai is also a bit under-cooked, never quite coming across as menacing as the film seems to believe he is. He’s more of a ticking clock than anything else, the film never really giving the audience time to understand his motivations. There’s a lot of characters vying for attention on screen at once, which can make the film feel a bit frenetic and childish than it actually is.

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The broader elements of the previous two films also show up in full force. Most notably, the visuals are as gorgeous as they’ve always been, the spectacular fight sequences in particular feeling ripped right out of stylistic Asian artwork and campy martial arts film. Also, while there’s plenty of the tired childish humor that comes naturally with the concept of the fat, Jack Black panda, there’s also a lot of dry, self referential humor that really hits. There’s just line after line that is just flat out clever, even during the parts of the film that seem a bit old hat. However, the deal sealer on this film is the way it resolves itself. Bringing the events of the first film back around into this story without seeming forced, the movie masterfully crafts an ending for Po’s story that is both emotionally and visually stunning. During the final couple moments of this movie, I felt more emotion than I ever felt for Andy’s Toys, or Carl and Elle, because of just how wonderfully everything pays off. It’s one of the strongest endings I’ve ever seen in an animated film, sad only in the sense that there will likely be three more of these, as two trilogies are what were originally planned.

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Kung Fu Panda 3 certainly isn’t treading any new ground, but it creates some very intriguing steps in the old ground it occupies. It’s a fast paced, funny, beautifully animated film that has a great deal more maturity than it seems to want to give itself credit for. If the sillier jokes had been lightened up on a bit, and the threat of the villain was made more legitimate, the entire film could have been just as masterful as it’s incredible ending. As it stands though, it’s a satisfying and enjoyable third chapter in what I personally hope will remain a strong trilogy. Leap off of the Jade Palace and buy a ticket, the first worthy sequel of 2016 is here.

Rating: A-

The Top Ten Films Of 2015

10. The Martian

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Where the hell has this Ridley Scott been all of these years? After falling flat on his face with last year’s dubious Exodus: Gods and Kings, he returns with a film that recaptures the ingenuity of films like Alien, and Gladiator, with a renewed sense of humor and energy. Essentially Cast Away on Mars, it provides him with a more intimate setting to focus on story and character, while also naturally providing the stunning visuals that made him such a titan. However, all of this would fall flat without an actor who could absorb us into a tale that rests almost completely on his shoulders, and Matt Damon proves with flying colors once again why he is one of the world’s biggest movie stars. Infusing the character of Mark Watney with both and urgency, playfulness, he gives us a very human character to latch onto in a story that could have easily fallen into science mumbo jumbo. Bring on Alien: Covenant, because this Ridley Scott is not playing around.

9. Spotlight

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After a while, procedural films about some form of scandal that created a big hoopla on the news for five minutes can start to blend together. Actors wear suits, make some serious faces, say some buzzwords, and collect a nice easy check. However, in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which chronicles the exposing of child molestation in the catholic church, every piece of the puzzle is practically an earthquake. Each moment is either frustrating, riveting, or rich. As we watch a group of wonderful, seasoned performers bring utter authenticity to search for the truth, we start to care just as much as they do about bringing those involved in these scandals to justice. It’s a rich, dense, and calculating piece of film making that provokes great thought about the people we allow to mentor children.

8. Room
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The term “emotional powerhouse” is thrown around pretty liberally these days. Lenny Abrahamson’s Room does not belong in this club. No, this film is an emotional bulldozer. Built entirely on a simple relationship between mother and son, that is tested by both the harshest of circumstances and the relief from said circumstances, Room makes us feel so deeply for it’s characters that they feel like our own family by the end. Watching a mother create an artificial world inside a small bunker for her son to live in and enjoy was one of the most heartbreakingly enjoyable cinematic experiences this year. If Brie Larson does not win an Oscar for her stunning portrayal of a mother who must connect with her son on both the most comforting, and devastating levels, it will be an absolute travesty.

7. Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation
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Many of this summer’s ‘event’  action films fell utterly flat on their face. Utterly workmanlike and deeply formulaic, it was hard for me to turn my brain off when the filmmakers weren’t smart enough to find the switch. Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation is the brightest of a few shining exceptions. The collaboration of Tom Cruise and director Christopher McQarrie (which brought us the very solid Jack Reacher a couple of years ago) gloriously crescendos here with a beautifully organized mad house of mayhem. The fact that Tom Cruise is still able to throw himself so completely into these action roles is already a feat, but the real break-out star here is undoubtedly Rebecca Ferguson. The previously unknown actress makes a big, deep, splash here, providing the movies’ coolest female action hero of 2015 (sorry Rey). When a film begins with it’s star dangling on the side of a plane, and then somehow goes uphill from there, it’s a mission accomplished.

6. Love and Mercy
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Enjoyable as they are, most of the biopics we get about musicians follow the same path. While certainly an enjoyable film, this troupe-infused nature brought down a film such as Straight Outta Compton from greatness. Love and Mercy on the other hand, is something very different indeed. As John Cusack and Paul Dano impeccably capture the spirit of The Beech Boys’ Brian Wilson, the film swerves directly into the madness that overcame this deeply creative man. It’s a film that doesn’t just explore music, but the demons that often lay at bay for those who make it. It’s visceral, touching, and shines a whole new light on the way that famous people are treated behind closed doors. It’s my favorite film  about a musician since Walk The Line.

5. The Voices
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Severally under-marketed and criminally un-seen as a result, it would be easy to dismiss The Voices as a silly Ryan Reynolds movie with a cute little cat and a drooling dog. Big mistake.  Director Marjane Satrapi takes us inside the mind of a horrifically schizophrenic, murderous man who’s only escape is through conversations with his cat and dog. In the process, she crafts one of the most absurd, satirical, and unsettling horror comedies this writer has ever seen, and once again proves what an absurdly underrated talent Reynolds has grown into. Love and Mercy brought light to mental illness, but The Voices throws it’s audience straight into it. The advantage of such an under the radar film is being to able to discover it without knowing anything, and if you have a prepped funny bone and a strong stomach, I would highly recommend checking it out. You’ll be singing a happy song for days afterward.

4. The End Of The Tour
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These days, it’s easy for films to attempt to win people over through sheer scale and muscle alone. However, if it’s done right, simply allowing two characters to talk can be every bit as engrossing as any super-hero. The End Of The Tour exemplifies this in spades. Chronicling Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky’s interview with Infinite Jest author David Foster Wallace, the film lets us be a fly on the wall as a both a friendship and rivalry is formed between the two men. Jesse Eisenberg does his best work since The Social Network as Lipsky, but it’s Jason Segel who utterly stuns as Wallace. He gives such a rich, soulful, and ultimately tragic performance here, that it seems to have come from another man far removed from the lovably goofy comedian we’ve come to love. These performances are married to subtle direction by James Ponsoldt that creates a play-like atmosphere as the sharp dialogue written by Donald Margulies runs the gamut from conversations about addiction, insecurity, love, and Die Hard. It’s the most quietly touching film of 2015.

3. Creed

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A Rocky sequel chronicling the rise of Apollo Creed’s son could have so easily been an easy cash grab. It could have stained the legacy created by Sylvester Stallone’s last film in the franchise, which served as a perfect ending in itself, and been one of the legendary bad movie ideas that stains click-bait articles for years to come. Not in the hands of Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. No sir. Instead, they created an absolutely captivating piece of work that stands with the very best in the franchise. While it will be Stallone that (deservedly) takes the statue home on Oscar night, Michael B. Jordan deserves to be just as praised for his rich turn as this generation’s greatest underdog. He creates a rich, soulful character that both we and an aging, cynical Rocky grow to cheer for. Meanwhile, Coogler places us directly into this narrative’s boxing ring, making both the physical and emotional punches hurt. It’s not just a remarkable sequel, but a brilliant piece of film making in it’s own right.

2. Steve Jobs
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As insane as he was, Steve Jobs was a brilliant man, and out of the one thousand film projects that spewed from his tragic passing, one of them was as bound to be up to his level. From beginning to end, this film is an electric shock of masterful storytelling.  Wordsmith Aaron Sorkin has essentially crafted a Shakespeare play about Jobs, and with Danny Boyle’s masterful direction and top notch performances all around, they managed to make a film that is essentially just a series of hallway chats more exciting than most action films. While every single actor here is exemplary, they pale in comparison to the towering force of nature that is Michael Fassbender. Faced with juggling a dense and unpredictable character with encyclopedia length prose, and an utter lack of resemblance to the man he’s playing, Fassbender rises to the task with conviction and grace. As the film goes on, I lost track of him entirely. I saw Steve Jobs. It may have not been welcomed by the mainstream audience due to it’s obtuse structure, but I believe that in 20 years this film is going to be shown in every screenwriting class in America as a prime example of how to bring characters to life through the power of words.

1. The Revenant
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Walking out of this film, I felt as though I had been strangled for two and a half hours. Not interested whatsoever in making America’s frontier look like the glamorous place of legend that we’re brought up to believe it is, The Revenant plunges us headlong into the brutality of people at their most instinctual. Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu, after showering us in prevention with last years un-deserving best picture winner Birdman, puts his fantastic craftsmanship to much better use here, creating one of the most visually beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Leonardo DiCaprio puts everything he has into the role of Hugh Glass, and as he  traverses the treacherous snowy tundras of early America to kill the man who murdered his son, we feel the pain in every step. It’s a survival film in the truest film, using everything the medium of film has to offer to place us there with it’s characters, and every last second of it bear claws you by the throat, and never lets go.

The Big Short Review

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You probably understand very little of the Wall-Street born financial lingo of The Big Short, and it knows that. It doesn’t want to be one of those dry dramas with a bunch of boardroom conversations that only appeal to people who have been in that very boardroom before. Instead, it intends to not only entertain, but to educate those who felt a bit outside the pool when the housing bubble popped back in 2008. Already a respectable notion in its own right, as many people (myself included) feel deeply overwhelmed by information that we seemingly need to know in order to not be jerked away from our home one day. However, the question then becomes if Anchorman and Step Brothers director Adam McKay, who as it turns out was an enraged political activist this whole time, can bring his sensibilities from those broad comedy films over in a way that can make this subject matter entertaining.

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Taking place over the course of late 2006 to September 2008, the film chronicles the story of several men who predicted the financial crisis before it occurred.  Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the head of Scion Capital discovers the problem years ahead of time, and invests nearly all of his company’s money in a “short”, betting against the housing market in anticipation of the crash. Mark Baum (Steve Carell), is a hot tempered money manager who enlists his small team to break down the corruption in the market after a deeply convincing presentation by hot headed Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) convinces him of the collapse. Finally, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) is a retired man of Wall Street who precautions and aids two young business owners as they hope to profit off of the madness.

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A big part of the film’s magnetism comes from it’s performances. Carell’s cut-throat in particular is just fantastic, and is perhaps the best of his career. Mark Baum is not somebody who responds well to lies, corporate greed, or somebody taking his cab, and Carell utterly immerses us in that rage and eccentricity. He’s the character who the film wants us to identify most with, his increasing fury hopefully parallel with our own. Bale also shines as the adorably awkward Burry. He’s not the most stable man in the room, but he just might be the smartest. Gosling gives a more comedic turn, Jared being the character that often breaks the forth wall to explain to the audience what is going on. When things get too complex, we beg for his return to fill us in with his sarcastic, blunt demeanor. It’s yet another marker on Gosling’s steadily growing comedy resume. Pitt has the smallest role, but his paranoid yet sobering speeches balance out the emotions of all the other characters.

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The script by Adam McKay and Charles Randolph is equally sharp and sobering, providing the film’s finest stylistic choices. The choice to consistently talk to the audience is often thought of as a hackneyed one, but it really makes all of the difference here. It works so well because it doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. It knows that the average people in the theater don’t know what the hell is going on, and calls them out on it. The film will often call upon celebrity cameos to explain some of the more important aspects in simpler terms, a choice that is both slightly patronizing and completely hysterical. The dialogue here is also wonderful. Sure a lot of it is lingo, but the film never forgets that these were in fact people as well, injecting a lot of biting humor into the conversations. Since McKay is so experienced with broader comedy, he brings everything down a notch here to create a natural, yet slightly zany tone.

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However, while McKay excels at certain aspects of his first proper drama, several of the other filmmaking gears fall completely flat. The cinematography by Barry Ackroyd is nothing short of terrible. Zooming and heaving around every room to the point of utter nausea, it completely distracts from what’s going on. My guess is that they wanted to capture the feeling of being an onlooker as these people talk, but it just doesn’t work. It just might cause a couple walk-outs from sheer motion sickness. There’s also some strange editing choices, scenes ending as a piece of dialogue as they’re being said, and strange montages with constant cuts to black that go out of their way to reveal themselves as pieces of a movie. The film is at times as shoddily put together as a student film, which makes me wonder if it was rushed out for awards season without getting the proper polish it needed.

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The Big Short is a fascinating and fantastically acted look into the greed of those who take, and handle our money. In some ways, it turns itself into a bit of an underdog story for those who we might root against in a different context. It maintains it’s deeply rooted sense of satire right up ‘till the end, even if it is a bit too long. However, this is truly the work of a director still finding his footing, and more often than not it seems like McKay is struggling with just how much he needs to immerse the audience in his story. With that said, if you want to ingest a bit of knowledge, laughs, and a bit of rage this Christmas, this is a worthwhile investment indeed.

Rating: B+

Legend Review

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It seems as though every year we get at least one Goodfellas knock off. An eccentric gangster film with big performances that takes us though years and years of some of the most deplorable people on this planet tearing at the pillars of society. Some work, some don’t. Earlier this year Black Mass made a flailing swing and a miss at the mantle, too muted to be stylish and yet too cartoonishly acted to be taken seriously. In fact, it’s hard to really place a finger on Goodfellas’ pulse to extract just what was so good about it. Legend, the latest contender to the throne, has certainly picked up a few tricks from the best of it’s predecessors, as well as a few of the shortcomings. However, it has one, or should I say two, aces in the hole that no crime film has been blessed with yet. Tom Hardy.

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The film takes place over the course of the 1960s, following the true story of local crime kingpins Reggie and Ronnie Kray (both portrayed by Hardy).  Reggie, the more clean cut and stable of the two, attempts to balance enforcing a deeply corrupt night-club with pursuing a somewhat regular life with his girlfriend Frances (Emily Browning). Ronnie, on the other hand, lives for violence and crime. Relishing in the only thing he knows, while constantly creating problems with his unstable behavior, Ronnie consistently makes running the brothers’ growing crime syndicate difficult.

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The main attraction here is undoubtably Hardy, and boy does he deliver. The gimmick of having him play both brothers could have easily come across as silly, but he dives so deeply into both Reggie and Ronnie that after a while it might be easy to forget that they are in fact the same actor. Everything about both characters’ outward physical posture, manner of speaking, and internal characterization feels completely distinct. Reggie is the one who pulls us into the film, his clean cut charm making it easy to follow him though all of his atrocities, but Ronnie is by far the meatier role. Despite the somewhat Hamburglar-esqe voice Hardy chooses, Ronnie is an unpredictable joy to watch. Not just the angry brute, but also a somewhat sensitive man battling severe mental illness, we hold on to every word out of his mouth. Even when the movie is coming up short in other areas, Not only is the technology used to put both characters on screen utterly seamless, but Hardy’s performances are such a master-class that there’s at least something interesting on screen at all times. This film only further cements him as perhaps this generation’s most fascinating performer.

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There are also some fun supporting turns from the likes of Christopher Eccleston, David Thewlis, and Kingsman break-out Taron Egerton here, even if their characters don’t get a whole lot to do. Egerton in particular is a blast of energy as Ronnie’s live-wire boyfriend, and it’s a shame that he’s basically forced to the background the whole time. However, the film does have one major weak link in Emily Browning’s Francis. While Browning does a perfectly fine job in the role, the character is a constant distraction from the narrative. Far too much time is spent on Reggie’s infatuation with her, and there is never any real reason for it. He’s just in love with her because she’s around. Even more glaring, Francis narrates the story with some of the worst-written story telling dialogue I’ve ever heard. It’s utterly cringe-worthy, spoon-feeding the audience information that is already made clear by the fairly broad storytelling.

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Writer/Director Brian Helgeland (who wrote LA Confidential) draws heavily from the stylistic choices of not only Martin Scorsese, but Guy Ritchie as well. There’s long tracking shots, strategic uses of period music, and bloody fight scenes galore. It’s certainly nothing original, but it’s certainly entertaining. There’s a snappy, comic-bookish feel to the whole affair, keeping the more emotional beats from ever really distracting from the fast pace of the story. Considering that very story is essentially the typical rise/fall mobster tale that we’ve seen a thousand times before, it might as well be brought to life in a way that stresses entertainment above all else.

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Legend is certainly nowhere near a great crime film, but it certainly is an entertaining one that happens to feature one of the most impressive performances of the year at it’s center. Even when it falls apart a bit, it’s certainly never boring. Helgeland is so intent on keeping the audience’s attention that he’s not only placed a masterclass of performance at the film’s center, but infused the whole thing with life, style, and humor (even if those qualities feel derivative). If nothing else, it proves that Tom Hardy just might be able to do just about anything, and poses as a solid audition for him to perhaps appear in a truly legendary crime film in the future.

Rating: B

The Danish Girl Review

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He’s three films in, and I’m still trying to figure out what is so captivating about the films of Tom Hooper. The British television director popped onto the scene in 2010 with the best picture winning The King’s Speech, and then exploded into a large scale adaptation of the musical Les Miserables to great critical praise. However, as I watch his films, something just seems so utterly stiff. Sure, he gets fantastic performances out of his actors, but every other element of his films seems so completely safe. He’s like a student doing a school project for Mr. Oscar, a notoriously hard grader who strikes off points if things aren’t done exactly according to his formula for a “quality film.” He’s the ideal choice to take on something like The Danish Girl in theory, approaching the hot-button issue of transgender rights from an artistic yet not too risky perspective that will get even the most crusty and conservative of academy voters to well up at the tale. However, once the awards are all given out, all The Danish Girl needs to do is move it’s audience, who often demand a bit more flavor than the one often licked to pieces by the Academy, especially with such an important subject at it’s center.

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The film is a somewhat fictionalized account of 1920s painter Einar Wegener’s (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Gerda’s (Alicia Vikander) lives. The two share a comfortable, happy marriage in Denmark, until a simple piece of clothing changes everything. When Einar tries on a pair of woman’s stockings to help his wife finish a portrait she’s working on, something unlocks inside of him. He begins to experiment with dressing in women’s clothing, and with the ever supportive wife starts to assume a new identity by the name of Lilli Elbe. As Lilli starts to become more and more aware of her gender identity, complications arise in her marriage, as she realizes that she must escape the man’s body she feels trapped in.

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It is very easy to have tremendous respect for Eddie Redmayne for the bravery he shows in this performance. The Oscar winner puts absolutely everything he has on the line here, and especially in bringing the physical aspects of the role to life, he is deeply convincing. However, through much of the film, there is simply something not quite right about the way this character is executed. The disconnect stems from a complicated blame game between Redmayne’s somewhat stagey delivery, and Hooper’s clinical direction. It feels as though he’s  stringing us along by a very thin thread, expecting his audience to take this very complex psychological transformation at face value. He doesn’t want to explore why Lilli emerges out of Einar, he just wants us to see that it is in fact happening. It feels like we’re watching a subject in a lab experiment, instead of getting into her head and feeling her pain. As this loose structure moves along, it forces Redmayne to over-act to convey truth in these moments. It’s a deeply delicate balancing act that was clearly the great challenge in telling this story, and unfortunately, I worry that the film’s more bigoted audience members will come away from this film looking at it as a strange piece of theatrics, instead of a chance to whirl around in the head of somebody different from them.

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Thank heaven for Alicia Vikander, who is the one who really carries the soul of this film. Her turn here, one of several fantastic ones over the course of her breakout year, is nothing short of a revelation. She’s both warm and supportive of her best friend’s affliction, while at the same time heartbroken by the spiritual lost of her husband. The utterly beautiful chemistry she shares with Redmayne brings out the film’s most authentic moments. Her performance is the one piece of the film that is utterly worthy of the awards the film so clearly wants to nab, and hopefully serves as a launching pad for someone who is quickly becoming one of this generation’s great leading ladies.

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Complications that come through Redmayne’s character aside, the direction here is classic Tom Hooper, who still has not overcome his flat, television rooted sensibilities. Sure, he’s got his world famous close-ups that seem to go all the way up his actor’s nostrils, but beyond that, everything is very simple and workmanlike. It’s a shame, as a story this emotionally complicated would have been a fantastic opportunity to try out some new stylistic sensibilities to make the story come alive more. As it stands, every scene looks the same, feels the same, and comes across the same, which doesn’t do any favors for a film that runs over two hours in length.

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Under a director more willing to take risks, The Danish Girl could have been a truly important and revolutionary film that stood at the center of the Transgender community. However, as it stands, it comes across like a stilted product. Sure, there are solid performances, but the film is ultimately more concerned with the bravery of Redmayne instead of reaching beyond that to showcase that of the real Lilli Elbe. It’ll certainly bring awareness and conversation to a few dinner tables come Oscar night, but beyond that, it’ll be a film that sits on the shelves of all involved while being passed up at Best Buy by shoppers for “looking boring.” Unfortunately, they’re right.

Rating: C

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

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It was a moment I had waited for all year. The lights went down, and the words “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far way” came up, and even though it was 1:10 in the morning by that point, my tired brain reverted to being ten years old again. That is how delightful the institution of Star Wars is. For those who love it, it is the literal embodiment of the fantasies that we escaped into in our backyards or bedrooms. With that said, The Force Awakens has a whole lot to prove after George Lucas’ prequel trilogy. It needed to bring the euphoria back, not just for the credit crawl, but for the entire shebang. As such, it is nearly impossible to imagine the pressure TV guru and future sleeping hermit J.J. Abrams was under here. However, against all odds, when the camera pans down from space and we get our first scene, a piece of my heart felt like it snapped back into place.

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Keeping things vague out of respect for those who do not want plot details, the film centers on a conflict between the evil First Order, created out of the remnants of the empire, and the Resistance. As the ruthless Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) searches for what he thinks is the key to winning the war, a new group of heroes starts to form. Finn (John Boyega) a disgruntled Storm trooper who starts to doubt his place in the army, meets up with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku. When the First Order begins to pursue them, they find themselves under the wing of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who agrees to help them complete their mission.

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Although his films are generally well received, director and eternal Star Wars geek J.J. Abrams was a factor of concern for some who find his stylistic flourishes irritating. However, when watching this film, it becomes clear that he was absolutely the best choice to bring this saga back in full force. He rescues us from the boardrooms, and CGI battlefields of the prequels, and returns to the rich, “lived in” feel of the original films. There is not a frame of this film that isn’t embedded with maximum craftsmanship and detail, bolstered all the more by a masterful blend of practical and CGI effects. The creatures here are not only beautifully designed, but feel like you could reach out and touch them. This sense of weight and presence makes the effects that are created in a computer look better, they blend with the world instead of being the world itself. It has the feel of a little boy playing with his action figures, with fantastic action sequences whizzing by at a break-neck pace, and it practically pastes a smile on your face.

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Both the old and new characters fire on all cylinders for the most part. John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Oscar Issac bring warmth, humor, and humanity to our three new heroes. Boyega in particular has the most interesting and occasionally tragic arc as he awkwardly tries to adjust to his newfound freedom. Ford is just as fantastic as he always was in his career defining role, practically oozing charm with every smirk and sardonic comment. However, the real break-out here is Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. It would have been very easy for Driver to simply mimic Darth Vader, but through both his development and terrifying presence (carried out mostly through his deep and unsettling voice) we find a villain guided by pure rage, who we both sympathize with and fear. Unfortunately, the film only has room for so many characters, and as such some of them do end up either getting the shaft completely, or are forced to hang out in the background until their time comes in a later film. It would be more disappointing if a sequel wasn’t absolutely guaranteed, but let’s just say I look forward to seeing more of the characters played by Andy Serkis, Gwendoline Christie, and Lupita Nyong’o.

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The greatest downfall here comes from the need to play it a bit too safe in order to win people back. Most glaringly, the third act is essentially a beat for beat re-hash of A New Hope with a few tender surprises thrown in. It goes from being a roller coaster ride to being a studio tour that you’ve already been on, lots of familiar elements that just fall a bit flatter upon a repeat. Also, while many of the nods to the franchises’ past are clever and fun, there are a few that are just flat out forced, the movie stopping dead in it’s tracks for somebody to look into the camera and bring up something from the original trilogy. It’s a film that is for the most part incredibly organic self consciously checking up on it’s audience to make sure it’s pleasing them.

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Minor hiccups aside, Star Wars: The Force Awakens absolutely delivers what fans of the franchise have been missing since 1982. It’s not the most narratively inventive movie in the world, but most of the time you’ll be too busy smiling to nit-pick such things. In a year when they all seemed to blend together, it certainly goes to show just how massive films like this should be getting made.With a bevy of sequels and spin offs on the horizon, it feels good to say that the future of the franchise is looking bright, and is not very far, far away at all.

You did it J.J., go get yourself some sleep.

Rating: A-

Trumbo Review

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If there’s anything Hollywood loves more than making movies (and money), it’s making movies about movies. Not only is it a way to pat themselves on the back for all the hard work they’ve done, but it generally gets the critics buzzing about how “self aware” and “meta” the filmmakers are. Trumbo however, has a little something else in mind. Chronicling a time when people’s creativity could be stifled just because of what they believed outside of their own writings, the film almost acts like a father slapping his child in the face for being stupid. While that’s normally all well and good, it’s not very healthy at all if the father remembers only the exaggerated strokes of what the child did, with no real interest in delving deeper.

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The film chronicles the life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston). In 1947, he was one of the top scribes in the game, but  that all changes with the rise of Soviet Russia. The United States Government and Hollywood form The House Un-American Activities Committee, to root out Communist artists who they believe are sending out subliminal messages through their films. Trumbo an outspoken Communist, along with nine of his closest colleges are convicted for their beliefs. Upon release, he takes it upon himself to balance the scales, writing some of the most iconic films of the 1950s in secret.

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Trumbo is a film lathered in good intentions, if nothing else. Director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Game Change) earnestly navigates through three decades’ worth of history while propping up the oppressed under-dogs. On paper, it’s a perfect biopic, but that’s what the film feels like, paper. A simple, plain white, and utterly biased retelling of the events that lacks any sense of substance or depth. Sure, we want to rally behind Dalton Trumbo’s rebellion against his oppression, but what does it matter if everyone around him is so flatly written. In the eyes of this film, you’re either a noble crusader looking to take down the system, or you’re essentially a Storm Trooper for Darth Mccarthy. There’s so much focus on the political in-fighting that we hardly get to see Trumbo’s creative process at all, which to me is the most fascinating aspect of any artist. These characters might as well just be sock puppets playing a role in a history show, garbling out facts with their exaggerated facial features.

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It’s even more unfortunate that the sock puppets in question are made in the form of some amazingly talented actors. It goes without saying that Bryan Cranston is an absolutely magnetic screen-presence, but he’s so over-directed here that this natural charisma gets covered up by posturing and bravado. Sure, he’s a quirky man who says funny and often very intelligent things, but it never stops feeling like an actor pretending to be this man. It’s not a terrible performance by any means, but it’s one that is desperately fighting against the script and direction to wring some sort of humanity out of this guy. It’s a shame too, because it would have only taken some slight dialing back to get a great performance out of Cranston. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is either half asleep, or playing cartoon characters. Helen Mirren in particular goes way into borderline comically evil territory as Hedda Hopper, oozing contempt with every glance. Meanwhile Louis CK as Arlen Hird seems like he’d rather be anywhere else, charming only when his ever-lovable stage persona slips out from the thin sheet that is his character, while Diane Lane shrugs through the same supportive wife role she’s had to play for years with utter boredom.

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Every so often though, Trumbo will put its more entertaining aspects front and center with decent results. Although the characterization here is pretty weak for the most part, there are some moments of rather solid dialogue, and generally speaking, most of the film is pretty funny. Shining most brightly is a scene early on when Trumbo tells off an absolutely outrageous “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” version of John Wayne. It’s four minutes filled with more passion and gusto than the rest of the film combined. Also, although the performances are for the most part pretty weak, there are moments where the actors escape their caricaturish direction to bring out some real drama. It’s just a shame how few and far between these moments are.

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Trumbo is the cinematic equivalent of listening to your grandfather tell an exaggerated recounting of a historical event he was in. Naturally, he’s really only willing to share his side of the story, and there’s a whole lot of loud voices and silly side-tracks involved. That would all be well and good if the film had a bit more style, but Jay Roach’s direction is so flat that it ultimately just comes across as a glorified TV movie. It’s the kind of movie to watch if you’re alone at home with a pizza, and want a little history to supplement the loneliness, but if you’re really looking for insight into why a writer does what he does, you may want to put this one in the “un-produced” pile.

Rating: C-

Brooklyn Review

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Many romantic films try to sell the audience on love first, and characters second. As if the concept of two pretty people who find each other attractive, stare into each other’s eyes, and kiss is enough to carry a story on it’s own. It’s certainly proven to be a successful, with people like Nicholas Sparks making a career out of the circus of romance. Enter Brooklyn,  which on paper may sound like yet another dime story reel of nonsense not worth bothering with. However, it it actually a film refreshingly more interested in the circumstances and human urges that make people fall in love.

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Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is a young woman living in Ireland who dreams of a life more fulfilling than the shop-girl existence she’s currently resigned too. When Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), a local priest, finds her a boardinghouse in Brooklyn to live in, she takes the opportunity in home-sick stride. Upon arriving, she finds herself a bit lost in the hustling, never sleeping city until she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), a kind hearted Italian boy who almost instantly falls head over heals for her. However, just as things are looking up in both life and love, tragic circumstances force Eilis to go back to Ireland for a while. Once there, she finds herself conflicted by the charms of Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), a sharp polo club member soon to inherit his family fortune.

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While that might sound like a typical manipulative love triangle that would make Katniss Everdeen blush, Brooklyn pulls ahead of it’s contemporaries in large part due to it’s fantastic performances. Saoirse Ronan has been one of the most magnetic young actresses in the industry for quite some time, but she’s never had a role as quite as meaty as this one. Eilis is both utterly charming through her quiet strength and warm sense of humor, and yet convincingly frustrated and homesick as the more subjective parts of the story start to take form. Is she one hundred percent likable at every turn? No, but that’s the point. She’s a fully three dimensional character that we root for because we see how sweet she is at heart. It will be an absolute shame if she does not receive a Best Actress nomination this year, as Eilis is one of the most well fleshed out female protagonists a film has had in quite some time. As for the two men in question, Domhnall Gleeson is certainly impressive,  the prize belongs to Emory Cohen by a long-shot. After turning in such an utterly lame turn in The Place Beyond The Pines, Cohen is an utter revelation here as the sensitive if slightly dim witted Tony. There isn’t a moment where Tony does not come across as sweet, but it’s genuine sweetness, not movie sweetness. At times, this means that he’s a little awkward and forceful, but Cohen is unafraid of loosing his heartthrob appeal and lets it go there. There are also nice turns by Jim Broadbent as Eilis’ mentor, and Arrow’s Emily Bett Rikards as one of the more icy girls in the boardinghouse.

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These performances are bolstered by a fantastic screenplay by sap master Nick Hornby, and solid direction by John Crowley. Hornby, who’d work ranges from the novel About a Boy, to the script for Wild, has a near perfect balance of sweetness and authenticity loaded inside his pen. While the characters come across a bit old hat on the surface, each one is given enough layers of humor, sadness, and emotional mismanagement that they stretch beyond what would have been sleepwalked through by a lesser writer. Meanwhile, Crowley makes both Brooklyn and Eilis’ home in Ireland look absolutely beautiful, further driving home the conflict within her heart. He has a masterful sense of tone in individual scenes, letting some of the stranger and more awkward beats live in silence, while giving the more glamorous moments the perfect infusion of both music and humor.

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The film does have one major roadblock that keeps it from being as great as it could be. When Eilis goes back to Ireland, she takes a secret with her that turns the ensuing love triangle into something a bit icky. The movie never really provides a good reason beyond very primal emotional ones for why she never tells anybody about this secret, and the way it’s ultimately unveiled is deeply contrived and very ham-fisted. However, it’s easy to get lost in the story and not think about it a whole lot once this segment of the story really gets going, and the somewhat grey nature of the ending provides for a more interesting resolution than the typical film of this type.

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At every turn Brooklyn proves to be infinitely more charming than virtually any of it’s recent contemporaries. While it’s a deeply sensitive film, it never comes off like it’s trying to wring these emotions out of it’s audience. Like the fantastic Creed, which it shares both screens and hopefully an Oscar ballot with, it’s a film deeply rooted in typical troupes that carries them out so well that you’ll remember why they became troupes in the first place. It achieves these reactions naturally, through rich characters and fantastic performances. Beyond that, it provides insight into just how wrenching the life of an immigrant can be, which in light of recent events is both effective and timely. If you’ve got heart-strings to spare, these are just the hands to pull on them.

Rating: A-

Creed Review

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When I was about six years old, I watched my very first boxing match with my dad. Naturally, there wasn’t a whole lot in common between us yet, but as I saw the re-run of whatever Muhammad Ali fight he was watching, that quick changed. Before I knew it, I was learning about the mythology of fighters like Ali, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. As my passion for movies developed, I was always drawn to films featuring fighters, When We Were Kings, Million Dollar Baby, The Fighter, and of course, Rocky evolving into my personal favorites. Many nights were spent with my father and I watching the ever-changing Rocky franchise develop, starting as gritty dramas and transforming into insane superhero films. Even so, writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone certainly did bring Rocky to a very fitting conclusion in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, which made it all the more surprising when the notion of Creed came along. Sure, Rocky stepping into the mentor role for a fresh lead seemed like a novel idea, but would this new character capture the same authentic magic that made Rocky such a sensation? Well, after picking up my jaw from off the theater floor, I have a very clear answer.

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The film centers on Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the troubled illegitimate child of legendary fighter Apollo Creed. Struggling to find his place in the world and constantly finding himself in fights, Adonis decides that like his father, his destiny lies in the ring. Traveling to Philadelphia from Los Angeles, he seeks the training and guidance of a deeply retired Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). Reluctant at first, Balboa decides to take the young man under his wing, and together they form a bond that allows them both to face their own individual demons. Meanwhile, Adonis finds himself smitten with Bianca (Tessa Thompson) a musician living in his apartment complex, who does even more to calm his fiery soul.

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If Creed had a lead who in any way paled in comparison to Stallone, then the whole thing would have toppled over. Fortunately, Michael B. Jordan grapples onto the opportunity with everything he has, and does what might be the best work of his young career here. He gives Adonis, who could have very easily just been a simplistic fuming bore in other hands, incredible depth and passion. At heart, he’s a guy who feels as though he lives in the shadow of a man who didn’t even stick around long enough to love him, and that deeply rooted sadness seeps under every moment of arrogance, anger, and sweetness stems out from that. We never have any doubt that he’s a good person who just needs to apply himself, and watching himself do just that is a pleasure. Meanwhile, Stallone is just as good if not even better as the aging Balboa. After playing a character for the seventh time, it would have been easy for the iconic star to phone it in and just play the barking trainer. Instead, he shows us vulnerable layers that had been touched on in Rocky Balboa but really get exposed here through his relationship with Adonis. It’s a performance worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and is the key piece in perhaps the most touching father/son dynamic that has graced the screen in quite some time, even if it isn’t biological. Thomson is also very impressive, Bianca being afflicted with hearing loss that gives her limits in pursuing what she loves. Even if she is by far the most under-written character in the film, she gets the job done in making sure that we care about her and Adonis’ relationship enough to not make it feel like filler.

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Ryan Coogler (hot off of his spectacular debut, Fruitvale Station) grows and excels like crazy as both a director and screenwriter here. This was an absolutely perfect project for him to cut his teeth on as his stock in Hollywood grows. He creates an style in this film that is both intimate, and operatic in equal measure. All the character moments are given the space and air to breathe, with extended sequences of beautifully written and emotionally stirring dialogue. Then, when it’s time to evolve into a Rocky movie, Coogler crafts some of the most epic training and boxing sequences ever put on film. While the standout sequence is clearly a brilliantly choreographed second act bout captured all in one take, there’s a plethora of moments that come fairly close to matching it. With a beautiful, thundering score that invokes the original Rocky theme without copying it, Coogler makes us feel the snap of every single hit. If real life boxing was this thrilling to watch, it would be the most popular sport in the world.

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The only major failing here is the film’s antagonist, Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew). While Bellew is perfectly component in the role, he’s never really given a whole lot to do. He’s introduced in a fairly clumsy way at the beginning of the film, and then never really gets to develop the larger than life persona that many of the previous Rocky villains have. I’m not asking for Mr. T again, but it would just be nice to have somebody with a bit more charisma or personal connection to Adonis to drive the drama of the film that much further.

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  Creed is not only a respectfully and masterfully crafted reboot of the Rocky franchise for a new generation, but it’s a film that made me remember why I loved the boxing films of my young years so much. It’s emotionally resonant, inspiring, and just about as crowd pleasing as a movie gets. In 1977, the original Rocky went on to take Best Picture. I suspect that almost thirty years later, it just might be time a double K.O.

Rating: A