Archive for December, 2015

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Amy (2015)

December 22, 2015

Starring: a documentary about Amy Winehouse
Director: Asif Kapadia (Senna)

Bottom Line: It’s hard to believe that Amy Winehouse has been dead for nearly five years. It’s even harder to believe that her tremendous 2006 classic Back To Black, the first album that really helped me realize that I could fall in love with music that wasn’t hip-hop, came out almost ten years ago. In fact, with all the media attention focusing on her addiction and public meltdowns the last few years of her life, making her out to be a joke, I wouldn’t be surprised if more people remember her for being a total mess than for being one of the best songwriters and singers of the 21st century. Amy should help rectify that negative image and paint a clearer picture of what exactly pushed Winehouse to the edge.

Amy is filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the rise and tragic death of British superstar Amy Winehouse. And it’s stunning. And absolutely brutal. Scary even. It’s like watching Requiem For A Dream – except real. Amy paints an honest and accurate portrayal – with the help of a plethora of home video featuring a pre-stardom Winehouse and tons of interviews with those closest to her – of how a happy-go-lucky, seemingly ordinary British teen with a great voice becomes arguably the greatest jazz singer of her generation and how the unwanted and enormous fame she rose to, the unrelenting paparazzi and attention she received everywhere she went, and, drug and alcohol addiction ultimately killed her.

Early in the documentary, long before Winehouse releases Back To Black, she predicts how she would react to fame: “I don’t think I could handle it. I would go mad.” It’s an unfortunately accurate prediction and it becomes clear that while Winehouse absolutely loved making and performing her music, she had absolutely no interest in the cultural responsibilities that came with it – and that’s a question that Amy effectively raises: musicians, athletes, actors, and other celebrities are often faulted for being poor role models, but is it one’s responsibility to be a good role model or a good ambassador simply for doing what they are passionate about? And should the media be allowed to make their lives hell every time they slip up or don’t welcome them with open arms? Like normal humans never make mistakes?

Of course, Amy’s path towards addiction goes a bit deeper than that. Back To Black was largely inspired by her relationship with Blake Fielder, her future husband and this film paints that relationship as anything but rosy. Winehouse seems plenty happy and totally in love, but to call Fielder an enabler would be putting it mildly. Someone in the film, a doctor, even goes as far as to say that Fielder treated Winehouse as a means to keep the free high going with little regard to the awful affects it was having on his wife. Regardless of whether any of this is truly accurate information, I can’t help but wonder how Amy Winehouse’s inner circle could ever let things get so bad. Her parents… her husband… her manager…? The rest of her team? No one saw this coming? No one cared enough rescue her from herself?

I knew Amy Winehouse was going to die. I just couldn’t see any way that it wasn’t going to happen. I don’t mean to say that with judgement or because the media was influencing my thoughts due to their portrayal of her. I knew it as a fellow alcoholic. I knew that if she didn’t figure things out and didn’t get help that stuck, she wasn’t long for this world. I knew, and still know, that I would die or be in jail if I didn’t give up alcohol. And perhaps it’s unfair to point fingers at the people around her – I could never get help unless I was forced to make a decision between jail or sobriety – but I don’t understand how anyone in her inner circle could be surprised that she’s gone today.

Amy is a tough film, but it’s an essential one. It manages to provide a condemning narrative without coming across as biased. Kapadia doesn’t inject his own opinion into the film much, but allows real footage and interviews to tell the story for him. Amy is a sad and tragic, difficult watch, but after you see it, you can put on Back To Black and remember that this wonderful musician has left her mark on this world forever.

Replay Value: Definitely won’t be something you want to watch over and over – and maybe once will be enough.
Sequel Potential: N/A
Oscar Potential: I like its chances for Best Documentary.

Grade: 8/10 (Excellent)

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

December 21, 2015

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Andy Serkis
Director: J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Super 8)

Bottom Line: There were a lot of things going right with the development of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We can all appreciate George Lucas for bringing the Star Wars franchise to the world, but after the bitter taste he left in our mouths with Episodes I-III, I can’t imagine that anyone was sad to hear he wasn’t going to be involved much with the making of Episode VII. Replace Lucas with proven sci-fi master J.J. Abrams, who recently reinvigorated the Star Trek franchise with great success, and the creative minds at Disney, and well, there was plenty to be excited about.

And The Force Awakens immediately feels familiar… and special. Before I even heard the names Finn or Rey, I already knew Episode VII was going to be eons better than the last three movies. It feels like a Star Wars movie – a good one; and yet, it is carried by an entirely new cast of characters.

It opens with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver as the new Darth Vader), field commander of the First Order (the new Empire) and a crew of storm troopers trying to find a map that leads to the location of a missing Luke Skywalker. Of course, the map is hidden in a droid (no, not R2D2) that is accompanied by a top pilot in the Resistance named Poe (Isaac), both of whom are captured by the First Order. However, during battle, one of the storm troopers, who we will come to know as Finn (Boyega), seems to become aware of his wrongdoing and decides to deflect, saving Poe and his droid and escaping before crashing on the planet Jakku, where Poe disappears and Finn meets Rey (Ridley), a scrappy scavenger with all the signs of a future Jedi. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s up to Rey and Finn to use the map to find Luke Skywalker, the last known Jedi, and avoid the clutches of Kylo Ren and the evil First Order.

At first glance, that plot might look eerily similar – and it should. The Force Awakens is certainly not breaking new ground in storytelling and considering this is the seventh installment in the series, it honestly makes me laugh any time I see someone legitimately criticize this movie for being unoriginal. What did you expect? It’s pretty clear that the writers decided to take the elements of the original series that worked, flip them around a bit, add a twist or two, add some new characters, sprinkle in some old ones, shake it up a bit, and hope they had the ingredients for another commercially (and this time critically) successful trilogy.

And I’ll be damned if the formula doesn’t work to perfection. Abrams and company manage to infuse The Force Awakens with plenty of call backs and cameos from the original trilogy without overdoing it, all while developing brand new players that will carry the story for the next decade. Both Ridley’s Rey and Driver’s Kylo Ren are worthy additions to the Star Wars legacy, but it’s Boyega’s Finn that is the true standout. As a former storm trooper, Finn’s arc is the only one that is truly unique in the movie and Boyega plays the part with wide-eyed giddiness. Already a potential breakout candidate with his awesome performance in 2011’s wonderful and criminally overlooked Attack The Block, Boyega is now officially a megastar. Having watched the original trilogy recently, I was also impressed with how seamless Harrison Ford’s performance as Han Solo feels considering it has been over thirty years since he played the part. That kind of nostalgia didn’t carry over into the latest Indiana Jones movie, so it’s a welcome feat here.

Not everyone in the cast is brilliant, however. Carrie Fisher’s General Leia Organa feels out of place and her portrayal is a bit jarring. I don’t know if time just hasn’t been kind to the actress or what, but she doesn’t feel or sound like how I would imagine Princess Leia 30 years later. Also, after seeing such brilliant performances from Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron) and Domhnall Gleeson (General Hux) in Ex Machina earlier this year, it’s a bit disappointing to see how little screen time Isaac gets for what I thought would be a major character and how rigid and forced Gleeson’s First Order general feels.

Still, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was everything I could have hoped for. It feels like a movie George Lucas would have made in his prime with 2015’s film-making technology. The story lacks originality, sure, and while you might not be able to guess the plot twists exactly, they won’t really surprise you when they happen – and I can only assume more “big” revelations are coming (if Finn is an ordinary storm trooper that simply decided to switch sides, well, then I know nothing about anything). Regardless, the movie is entertaining and funny enough that we can be happy that we are getting more of what we already know we love: an awesome space adventure with great and memorable characters. We have a new core of potential Star Wars icons to root for and against and it will be interesting to see the rest of the trilogy play out. This is a superb blockbuster film and I can’t imagine how any Star Wars fan would feel anything less than glee while watching it. J.J. Abrams done did it again!

Replay Value: I actually want to see it in theaters again… preferably in IMAX 3D.
Sequel Potential: Episode VIII is due out in May 2017 and Episode IX comes out in 2019, plus we are getting Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in 2016, a Han Solo prequel in 2018, and possibly a Boba Fett movie in 2020.
Oscar Potential: This movie should get some technical attention: special effects, make-up, visual effects, costumes, sound editing, sound, etc. the real question is whether it can sneak into the Best Picture or Best Director categories…

Grade: 8/10 (Excellent)

MINOR SPOILER: My one real complaint with this movie was that about midway through, Han Solo and Chewbacca are encountered by some sort of bounty hunters played by Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, amazing martial artists that are responsible for some of the best fight choreography I’ve ever seen (see: The Raid and The Raid 2) and yet, their roles could have been played by any other extra, as they have minimal dialogue before being whisked off screen while we get a monster chase sequence. Talk about a waste.

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Bridge Of Spies (2015)

December 7, 2015

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda
Director: Steven Spielberg

Bottom Line: Bridge Of Spies took me by surprise. With Steven Spielberg directing, the Coens Brothers writing, and Tom Hanks starring, I’m not sure how this movie snuck up on me, but it did. Maybe it’s because the only Spielberg movie I’ve seen in the past decade was Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull and, well, I think we know how that disaster turned out. Now that’s not to say that Spielberg’s most recent films (War Horse, Lincoln) have been bad, but for whatever reason I just haven’t gotten around to watching them.

I’m happy to report that Bridge Of Spies, at least, is a return to form, as Spielberg takes us into Cold War espionage, with Hanks playing James B. Donovan, an American attorney charged with the unenviable task of representing a Soviet spy in court. Donovan is soon Public Enemy No. 1 when he takes his duties seriously and becomes enamored with the Soviet prisoner, making sure that the captured spy gets the due process that is the right of anyone in America.

I knew nothing of the plot before watching this movie and I was expecting an action flick, so I was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be a riveting character drama. Hanks is great as Donovan and Mark Rylance made Soviet spy Rudolf Abel so affable it’s easy to see how Donovan’s commitment to his case went beyond a sense of duty and became a task he was proud to see all the way through.

I would recommend Bridge Of Spies to just about anyone. I felt that it had the perfect blend of drama and character building, but I could see how some people might find it slow. I thought it was well paced, sometimes intense, and all around entertaining.

Replay Value: Worth a second viewing.
Sequel Potential: None.
Oscar Potential: It’s early, but I could see this film getting some attention – perhaps in the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor departments. I think Rylance has a good chance at a supporting nomination as well.

Grade: 7.5/10 (Recommended/Must See)