Movies I Watched During the Break

In 2014, I was on top of my game, in terms of watching films that were in theaters. I was (surprisingly) able to watch all 8 Best Picture nominees when they were out, as well as some other great movies. But I was not as committed to watching movies in 2015 as I should have been. I still have a lot of other movies to catch up on (“Creed,” “Brooklyn,” “Carol,” “Anomalisa,” “Room,” “The Revenant,” “The Danish Girl,” to name a few) before they finish their theatrical run. However, I was able to watch some films this past break. Here’s what I watched:

“Sisters”:sisters-poster-tina-fey-amy-poehler-647x1024I probably wouldn’t have seen “Sisters,” but I decided to see it with my family, simply for the sake of entertainment. While I did enjoy seeing Tina Fey and Amy Poehler back in action on the silver screen, the movie itself was not spectacular. I had a hunch anyway that wouldn’t be a great comedy, considering Tina and Amy’s last venture into film was 2008’s “Baby Mama. Like “Baby Mama,” “Sisters” takes on a very simple plot with very simple characters and its only strengths are the chemistry and physical humor between the film’s two leading ladies. Perhaps “Sisters” did have some potential: two women wanting to regain the glory days of their adolescence by throwing a huge house party and having one night of unlimited fun. But it didn’t really go that far; the jokes were very hit-and-miss, the party sequence was severely overlong and the Asian-American and lesbian characters were heavily stereotyped (“Pitch Perfect 2” used a similar method by casting a Mexican-American woman and portraying her as a confused immigrant, for the sake of comedy. Thanks, Hollywood!) I did enjoy several cameos in “Sisters,” particularly John Cena as the deadpan, heavily tattooed drug dealer, whose safe word is “keep going.” Overall, I was just glad to be watching a movie with my fam, even if it wasn’t the best movie.

Grade: C-

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”:tfa_poster_wide_header-1536x864-959818851016Technically, this was my second time seeing “The Force Awakens,” but it was nevertheless still awesome. Watching it again actually made for a more interesting situation, as I was able to analyze the plot developments and situations a little more closely. The first time, I was in awe of how well director J.J. Abrams recreated the world of “Star Wars,” and how he still made it his own. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were great on-screen and, like every moviegoer in America, I grinned when Luke, Leia, Han, Chewy, R2-D2, and C-3PO made their appearances. The action sequences, visuals and cinematography were all outstanding (those establishing shots though!). But on my second outing to “The Force Awakens,” I did perceive the film a little differently, especially when juxtaposing it with the plot of the 1977 original “Star Wars” film. Like Luke, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is destined to become a Jedi and must face off against Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren (who is basically the new Darth Vader). The evil Galatic Empire is now the First Order, the Republic is backed now by the Resistance, and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, in typical CGI form) is basically Emperor Palpatine/The Sith. But even by acknowledging the extreme similarities in both the old and new films, “Star Wars” is still an incredible saga that has cemented its standing in pop culture as one of the greatest film series of all times. And considering how well the movie has done financially, there’s no doubt that the new “Star Wars” trilogy will continue to propel into new grounds, even if it does somewhat mimic the original trilogy.

Grade: B+

“Spotlight”:spotlight-one-sheet“Spotlight” had been on my list of Movies to Watch for a while now. At first, it seemed strange that director Tom McCarthy, of 2003’s “The Station Agent” and 2011’s incredible “Win Win” would choose to make a more dramatic film, considering his repertoire of light-hearted dramedies. But after reading about “Spotlight”‘s critical acclaim and Oscar buzz, I knew that I needed to see it. And, let’s just say, it was definitely worth watching. While a little slow at the start and very heavy on dialogue, “Spotlight” was so immersive in its storytelling, captivating in its acting (Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton especially were fantastic), and exceptional in its writing. Though the actual story — a scandal involving numerous sexual abuse cases of children by Bostonian Catholic priests between the 1970s and the early 2000s — was adapted from a piece by the Spotlight team of The Boston Globe that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003, it still manages to shock. The end credits especially posed a haunting message, in that the cases in Boston were not just isolated incidents, but much more common and worldwide. It is a story such as this and a film such as “Spotlight” that make me want to be both a storyteller and a filmmaker.

Grade: A-

“Tangerine”:tangerineAlthough “Tangerine”‘s standing as an independent release made it very under-the-radar in 2015, it’s possibly one of the best films of the year. The movie pushed past several cinematic conventions, both in terms of technicality and casting. “Tangerine” was shot in L.A. only on an iPhone, which is not only incredible in and of itself, but also made the film more gripping. The iPhone’s camera technology captured the vivid colors, fast pace and artificial environment of the L.A. streets. Even more so, the iPhone’s easy accessibility made it possible to shoot scenes that probably wouldn’t as interesting if it were shot on a regular movie camera. In terms of the film’s stars, director Sean Baker (“Starlet”) cast unknowns Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor as “Tangerine”‘s protagonists Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra, who play two transgender prostitutes trying to live through the hustle and bustle of L.A. The story takes place in one day, Christmas Eve in fact, and the camera follows Sin-Dee and Alexandra all across L.A., where Sin-Dee goes on a manic trek to find the cisgender woman banging her beau and pimp Chester. Like the city of Los Angeles, “Tangerine” is filled with eccentric characters and can be overwhelming at times. But in even its darkest, most chaotic moments, “Tangerine” contains a lot of heart, warmth, depth, and tenderness.

Grade: A-

“The Big Short”:the-big-short-teaser-poster1-e1445275948938I found it rather interesting that director Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “The Other Guys”) was diverging from screwball comedies and venturing onto a much different cinematic path when creating “The Big Short.” But McKay still manages to put some comedic flair into a film that tackles a heavy and serious subject. The story takes place during the years building up to the 2008 financial crisis in America — one of the worst recessions in history and a largely haunting, detrimental staple that still looms over our society today — and how five businessmen saw it coming. Instead of taking a conventional, stoic approach to depicting the crisis on-screen like “Margin Call” or HBO’s “Too Big to Fail,” “The Big Short” has a lot to offer, both in its writing, acting, and editing style. Christian Bale is definitely a standout as Dr. Mike Burray, a glass-eyed introvert who bet hugely against the housing market in 2005 that made the greedy ones laugh and left the smart ones intrigued. It captures the attention of the high-strung, no-nonsense hedge fund manager Mark Baum, played by Steve Carrell, who does yet another exemplary performance after his dramatic 2014 role in “Foxcatcher.” The topic of how/why the financial crisis started and who started it still remains an enigma to some (including myself), but “The Big Short” did a somewhat admirable job of making some sense. The fast-paced, abrupt editing, which I was extremely opposed to at first, helped showcase the quick, jarring atmosphere of Wall Street. Celebrity cameos from “Wolf of Wall Street”‘s Margot Robbie to actress/musician Selena Gomez even made things more entertaining. But in truth, “The Big Short” did what most films about money, greed, and financial jargon have trouble doing: being both educational and appealing.

Grade: B+

“Joy”:joy-movie-posterI was disappointed by the mixed reviews on David O. Russell’s newest film “Joy.” As a fan of 2010’s “The Fighter” and 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” I figured Russell’s next film would be as good, if not better than the rest of his work. Even the trailer of “Joy” looked promising, with Jennifer Lawrence’s eponymous protagonist tackling triumphs and failures over the beat of Alabama Shakes’ “Sound & Color” and the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” When I finally saw “Joy,” I still found it to be promising and even better than I expected, but definitely not one of Russell’s best nor most satisfying. The cinematography, the editing, some bits of dialogue, and Lawrence’s acting were really the only bright spots of an otherwise mediocre story about a woman pursuing her dreams of inventing things. At times, “Joy” felt even a bit misanthropic, with the hapless Joy facing against her contemptuous father (Robert De Niro), her airheaded, TV-addicted mother (Virginia Madsen) and her visibly jealous half-sister (Elisabeth Röhm). Russell has always had a gift of depicting dysfunctional families well, giving each flawed family member some depth, personality, and likeability. But Joy’s family just seemed plain mean-spirited. Bradley Cooper, who plays a groomed QVC executive, and Édgar Ramírez, portraying Joy’s ex-husband, are severely underused, but even the two charismatic actors can’t seem shine through Lawrence’s powerful presence. This film could have used a lot more oomph and it definitely missed a “wow” factor, but “Joy” was still a pleasure to watch and I’m sure Russell will bounce back again soon.

Grade: B

“The Hateful Eight”:h8Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to cap off 2015 with yet another work of art, his brutal, post-Civil War western “The Hateful Eight.” As a huge Tarantino fan, I had high expectations for the film, especially in how it would follow up his other revenge flicks, 2009’s excellent “Inglorious Basterds” and 2012’s intense “Django Unchained.” While I wished I had seen “The Hateful Eight” in its roadshow 70 mm version (“the way it was meant to be seen,” according to Tarantino), seeing it in a regular theater was nevertheless exciting and thrilling. Every aspect of the film — the beautifully ominous overture, the classic western score (made by music veteran Ennio Morricone), the powerful acting, and, of course, the over-the-top violence — made for a thrilling treat. Though it was slightly too long and a bit heavy on dialogue (and the N-word), I still enjoyed all the moments in between. Samuel L. Jackson plays a deceitful Union cavalry leader, who hitches a ride with a devious bounty hunter (Kurt Russell, in all his mustache glory) and his vulgar bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Their journey to Minnie’s Haberdashery and the situations that occur once they arrive there are as cruel and unrelenting as the blizzard they encounter. The other five of the Hateful Eight make up for a great cast that includes Tarantino veterans Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, as well as Bruce Dern, Walter Goggins, and Demián Bichir. At times, I squirmed in my seat, not just from the film’s unending suspense, but also from the amount of gratuitous gore Tarantino so often uses in his movies. Similar to Tarantino’s classics “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs,” “The Hateful Eight” employs that one extra “shock value” moment that’s bound to get people out of their seats. And I’d rather not write it down, but if you feel so compelled to know, I would suggest either seeing the movie or reading the plot on Wikipedia. Other than some faults within the pacing and “bottle episode” type set-up, “The Hateful Eight” was breathtaking, both for the good and bad reasons. It wasn’t Tarantino’s best and the ending may not have been satisfying, but the film definitely gets you thinking about the ideas of morality, justice, racism, and good ol’ movie violence.   

Grade: B+

“The Martian”:the-martian-movie-poster2Regrettably, I did not see “The Martian” in theaters, but managed to watch it on a small screen in an airplane. However, even in the lack of sound and visual quality, I was still very drawn to “The Martian.” After hearing repeatedly good reviews and word-of-mouth about the film, I found watching “The Martian” to be a rewarding experience. Not only was it visually impressive, but “The Martian” manages to work on every level cinematically, in that it’s poignant, entertaining, funny, sad, and suspenseful. Other than “Spotlight” and “The Hateful Eight,” “The Martian” has one of the best ensemble casts of 2015: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig, and Donald Glover. Damon plays Mark Whatney, a botanist/astronaut stranded on Mars after his team (Kate Mara, Michael Peña, and others) leaves him behind. Presumed dead by NASA (and the whole world), Whatney continues to make life possible for himself, growing plants and potatoes and finding as many ways to communicate back to Earth as possible. Once he makes contact with NASA and his team, Whatney does whatever he can to survive. Unlike most current sci-fi films that depict space as this scary vacuum (“Interstellar,” “Gravity”), “The Martian” offers a more light-hearted, optimistic message about human perseverance in the face of adversity. There aren’t any scenes of frightening despair nor are there are moments where Whatney just gives up. It’s surprisingly refreshing to see this persistence from someone who could easily be driven insane from spending almost a year alone on another planet. That, plus Ridley Scott’s directing and the film’s source material (which I haven’t read, but also hear is good), makes “The Martian” worth the watch. It may at times be sentimental, but considering how masterfully made was, that doesn’t even matter.

Grade B+ 

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