Post Date Dec 20

Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens Movie ReviewWalt Disney Pictures.
PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.
Running time: 135 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

You guys have all seen “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” by now, right? So I can go ahead and wallow in all the spoilers?

Actually, I wouldn’t dream of it. Not here, at least. (If you’re interested in a spoiler discussion after you’ve seen the movie, though, feel free to hop on over to our What the Flick?! review.) But I did want to write a little something, just because I loved the movie so much and I’ve had such a good time over the past few days talking about it with folks — those who had and hadn’t seen it alike.

I had the pleasure of bringing Nicolas (who’s 6) with me to a screening on Tuesday afternoon at the Disney lot. Those of you who know me or have read my previous posts about “Star Wars” know that my kid is obsessed. I showed him all six films — in release order, of course, because I’m a good mom — back when he was 4 1/2 years old. Since then, he’s dressed as Darth Vader for Halloween, carried various “Star Wars” lunchboxes to school each day, romped about with his collection of light sabers and played countless hours of the Angry Birds iPad game. I was more excited for him than I was for myself; he’d only seen the movies at home on television, so this would be his first time watching one in a packed theater with all the excitement and ritual that entails.

He sat in my lap the whole time and was transfixed — although he did ask who Han Solo and Princess Leia were when they came on screen for the first time. (Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher look a little different than they did 32 years ago in “Return of the Jedi.” It happens to us all.) But even before the film began, just during that brief, silent pause between the words: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” and the first blast of John Williams’ stirring fanfare, there was a palpable sense of anticipation and even reverence. This mattered, no matter how old you are.

And J.J Abrams didn’t disappoint. He actually exceeded my expectations of what this experience would be like — and it truly is an experience on both a cultural and an emotional level, and not just your everyday Saturday night at the multiplex. When Abrams was handed the franchise, the expectation was that he would return it to the glory of the the original trilogy. If anybody could, it was this director. And he did. Working from a script he co-wrote with Lawrence Kasdan (who also wrote the best film in the series, “The Empire Strikes Back”) and “Toy Story 3” and “Little Miss Sunshine” writer Michael Arndt, Abrams beautifully combined the elements of the first three films that we loved so much with a fresh sense of purpose. Characters, images, themes and even lines of dialogue that make the “Star Wars” lore so rich co-exist seamlessly with new faces and adventures and a revitalized energy.

It also blends much-ballyhooed practical effects with the best of what crisp and shiny computer-generated imagery can achieve. “The Force Awakens” flat-out dazzles, filled with a wide variety of perfectly-paced set pieces. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a chase involving the Millennium Falcon zooming through the remnants of a crashed star destroyer that’s the most thrilling sequence I’ve ever seen in the entire series. And yes, that includes the climactic destruction of the Death Star in “Star Wars.” This is not hyperbole.

But speaking of the original film — yes, a lot of what we see here is awfully familiar, but with enough tweaks to provide some novelty. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the plot in the slightest, but there’s a desert planet where a droid (the adorably perky BB-8, arriving just in time for Christmas) is entrusted with secret information. There’s a cantina where various intergalactic freaks meet to mingle and menace (although this time, the owner is a woman, played by Lupita Nyong’o in a vivid bit of motion-capture performance). There’s a giant planet that destroys other planets but also has an Achilles heel that makes it vulnerable to an X-wing attack. And there’s snappy banter between Han and Leia, only now they’re older and filled with regret, which adds a sense of wistfulness to their exchanges.

As for the newcomers, Adam Driver provides real depth and inner conflict as Kylo Ren, Dark Side head honcho and leader of a new evil empire known as the First Order. The black helmet, cape and mechanized voice may all seem familiar, but once again we know the whole film aims for a different perspective when it allows the character to reveal his face and true identity. That element of humanity actually makes Kylo Ren even scarier.

John Boyega is enormously charismatic as Finn, a disillusioned Stormtrooper who must figure out what he believes in and then choose to find the strength to fight for it. If you’re one of the few who saw “Attack the Block,” you know what a pleasing screen presence this young, British actor has. Now the whole world will now. And I love the fact that the massively versatile Oscar Isaac has such a crucial, meaty supporting role as bad-ass pilot Poe Dameron. In the past few years, he’s shown he can really play any kind of character in any kind of film, from “Inside Llewyn Davis” to “A Most Violent Year” to “Ex Machina.” (Isaac’s “Ex Machina” co-star Domhnall Gleeson, who’s also been all over the place lately, is chilling as the First Order’s military czar.) Now, Isaac brings his formidable acting chops to the biggest blockbuster imaginable and provides it with even more substance.

But this is Daisy Ridley’s movie all the way. She is just a superstar. It’s as simple as that. As the plucky heroine Rey, a resourceful scavenger who discovers abilities she never knew she had, she has an electrifying presence but also a down-to-Earth accessibility. It’s a tricky balancing act she pulls off: a mixture of daring and vulnerability, smarts and openheartedness. We now have a “Star Wars” movie for a whole new generation in which the central figure is a woman — and a strong woman, at that. Rey never needs to be rescued. She’s the one doing the rescuing. Ridley has excellent chemistry not only with her fellow newcomers but also with veterans Ford and Fisher. Fellow old friends Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C3-PO (Anthony Daniels) and even R2-D2 are welcome sights once more, with Chewie enjoying a significant and even poignant storyline this time.

“The Force Awakens” is a complete blast but it also features real stakes, which woefully were missing from most of George Lucas’ duly derided prequels (although “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” was actually pretty good). A dramatically lighted scene on a catwalk is a prime example of this; again, I wouldn’t dream of divulging what happens in this moment, but I will say that its familiarity in no way diminishes its power.

That’s what’s so impressive about the tricky balancing act Abrams has pulled off with “The Force Awakens”: He’s made a movie that’s simultaneously gripping and a huge release. We are in good hands, at last.

Post Date Dec 18

RogerEbert.com — Son of Saul

Son of Saul Movie ReviewThe Hungarian drama “Son of Saul” is a marvel of controlled, precise filmmaking and an impressively assured debut from director Laszlo Nemes and star Geza Rohrig. The story of a Nazi concentration camp prisoner trying to bury a boy he says is his son is harrowing to watch, yet mesmerizing. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Dec 17

RogerEbert.com — Sisters

Sisters Movie ReviewThe zippy, zingy chemistry of longtime collaborators and best friends Tina Fey and Amy Poehler keeps “Sisters” consistently entertaining, even when it grows a tad repetitive and overlong. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Dec 14

The Ridiculous 6

The Ridiculous 6 Movie ReviewNetflix
Unrated.
Running time: 119 minutes.
Zero stars out of four.

I’m gonna do away with this quickly, because why should I put more thought into “The Ridiculous 6” than the people who actually made it? That’s just nuts. But several of you guys asked whether I’d seen the latest Adam Sandler debacle, and so out of professional edification (if nothing else) I made myself hop on over to Netflix to stream it on Sunday night.

My husband and I cracked open a bottle of red wine in hopes that it would ease the suffering, but alas, it did not. He fell asleep next to me on the couch pretty quickly, but I take my job seriously, dammit, so not only did I force myself to stay awake the whole time, I also took notes. Actual notes! That’s dedication, people. They include phrases like “burro projectile shitting,” “Taylor Lautner fares better in ‘Grown Ups 2′” and “Steve Zahn eyeball scoop,” but there was indeed an attempt at offering some sort of substantive analysis. One can only do so much.

The mostly lazy “Ridiculous 6” may have more impressive production values than the average Sandler vehicle, and it feels less like a shameless vacation for himself and his friends than most of his movies do because it takes place in a remote, scrubby section of New Mexico. Several Native American cast members notoriously walked off the set in protest because they found the cliche-addled script so offensive. Truly, though, it would be news if a Sandler film didn’t offend somebody, at some point, on some level. The only difference this time is that he brings his brand of crass, puerile humor straight to television rather than theaters.

You can watch “The Ridiculous 6” whenever you’d like from the comfort of your own home. Lucky you.

Anyway, the film from frequent Sandler collaborator Frank Coraci (“The Wedding Singer,” “The Waterboy,” “Click”) is a Western, in theory, because it takes place in the American West and it’s a knock-off of “The Magnificent Seven.” Sandler stars as Tommy, who’s been raised by Native Americans under the name White Knife. He goes on a quest to rescue his estranged, bank-robber dad (Nick Nolte) from kidnappers and along the way runs into the random-idiot half-brothers he never knew he had: Ramon (Rob Schneider), Lil’ Pete (Lautner), Herm (Jorge Garcia), Chico (Terry Crews) and Danny (Luke Wilson).

Seems Dad got around, which brings us to a recurring and unpleasant theme: Except for White Knife’s fiancee (Julia Jones), whose name is Smoking Fox, all the women in this film are straight-up prostitutes or they’re just generally promiscuous and forward. (This includes Sandler’s real-life wife, Jackie, who has a brief supporting role as a flirty woman named Never Wears Bra. This is the level of humor you can expect in the script from Sandler and Tim Herlihy.)

The six of them team up to save their father and retrieve his hidden, pilfered fortune. It’s a journey that consists of a series of painfully unfunny gross-out gags and cliched cultural stereotypes, strung together with no sense of cohesion, timing or forward momentum but frequent bursts of explosive donkey diarrhea. “The Ridiculous 6” slogs along for two staggering hours but never really goes anywhere. If the humor were inappropriate but funny, it would be totally fine. But the jokes come in an overlong, tone-deaf litany, with Sandler at the helm phoning it in more than usual. Increasingly, he’s seemed bored in his own movies; here, he ostensibly can hide behind the stoicism of his character, but he just talks in a lifeless monotone. How can he possibly motivate others when he’s so obviously unmotivated himself?

Anyway, Vanilla Ice shows up as Mark Twain and Sandler regular Dan Patrick has a cameo as Abraham Lincoln. Neither casting choice is as amusing as it probably sounds in your own head. Among the other actors in the massive ensemble cast who could not possibly need work badly enough to say yes to this: Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Will Forte, Whitney Cummings, Zahn and Lautner. Hell, Blake Shelton is a brand unto himself, but for some reason he agreed to show up in one scene as Wyatt Earp. Additionally, the usual suspects abound: former “Saturday Night Live” pals David Spade, Jon Lovitz, Chris Parnell and Schneider and — of course — Nick Swardson.

At one point, several of these actors take part in a high-stakes poker game in which they talk about the significance of satire. Is that what they were going for here? Never would have guessed that amid the muck and stench of donkey feces.

Post Date Dec 11

RogerEbert.com — Boy and the World

Boy and the World Movie ReviewThe animated Brazilian film “Boy and the World” may look simple, but as it unfurls and takes hold, it’s dazzling in its colors and aesthetics. As a parable about the perils of industrialization, it’s not the most subtle, but it’s always a wonder to watch. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Dec 4

RogerEbert.com — Macbeth

Macbeth Movie ReviewPlenty of toil and trouble (and sound and fury) in Justin Kurzel’s viscerally violent and devastatingly gorgeous adaptation of “Macbeth,” starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Nov 27

RogerEbert.com — The Danish Girl

The Danish Girl Movie ReviewLike most of Tom Hooper’s movies — “The King’s Speech,” “Les Miserables” — “The Danish Girl” is tasteful and restrained to a fault. The story of transgender pioneer Lili Elbe is impeccably made and strongly acted, but easier to admire than love. My extremely mixed RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Nov 20

RogerEbert.com — The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 Movie ReviewIt’s the final film in the “Hunger Games” saga — no, really it is this time! With the exception of a couple of truly dazzling action set pieces, “Mockingjay – Part 2” provides more of what we saw in “Mockingjay — Part 1”: a lot of wheel-spinning and repetitive imagery. But the stakes are higher this time, and Jennifer Lawrence once again gives it her all as the plucky Katniss Everdeen, even though she outgrew the role a long time ago. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Nov 20

RogerEbert.com — Mustang

Mustang Movie Review“Mustang” may sound like a Turkish version of “The Virgin Suicides,” but it’s got a melancholy all its own, as well as a rebellious spirit. The debut from director Deniz Gamze Erguven is both intimate and urgent. Take your daughters to see this one — it’s excellent. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Nov 14

Spotlight

Spotlight Movie ReviewOpen Road Films
Rated R for some language including sexual references.
Running time: 127 minutes.
Four stars out of four.

Journalists love to bitch about things, especially when it comes to movies about journalism. They never seem to get what we do right, from the newsroom vibe to the way we go about our work. Something is always off: the dialogue, the reporting process, even how we look. We’re never shlubby or disgruntled enough.

“Spotlight” gets all that right and so much more, from its big-picture drama to its smallest details to its casting in even the briefest of supporting roles. It vividly depicts what being a reporter is really like, from the doggedness to the drudgery, but it also offers a strong sense of place — not just in the newsroom but also in the city where the film is set: Boston. One of writer-director Tom McCarthy’s many great achievements here is the way he truly “gets” Boston: its insularity, its provincialism and the almost primal way in which its natives rush to protect their traditions and identity in the face of change.

The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning uncovering of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in 2002 was a defining moment for the city, and for the newspaper. It was tumultuous; it forced people to take a closer look at themselves, their personal faith and the faith so many of them had placed for generations in such a towering institution. McCarthy gets his arms around those big, emotionally complex notions with a narrative that’s lean and efficient. (He co-wrote the script with Josh Singer.)  He knows he doesn’t need to beat you over the head with the importance of this story. The drama is real, and it’s bracing, and it emerges organically.

Like the inferior “Truth” from earlier this year, which was noisier in its chest thumping about the virtues of journalism, “Spotlight” is, at its core, a movie about chasing documents. It’s about waiting for court filings and digging through basement archives. This might not sound inherently cinematic, but McCarthy brings this story to life with a rich array of characters played by a uniformly excellent ensemble cast. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James make up the Globe’s Spotlight investigative team. They all spent time in the Globe newsroom with their real-life counterparts — Walter “Robby” Robinson, Mike Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll, respectively — and they all feel like fully fleshed-out people with back stories and perspectives that matter as they dig deeper into this troubling story and endure pressure to keep it under wraps.

The ever-reliable Liev Schreiber also stands out — albeit in a totally low-key way — as Marty Baron, the new Globe editor who lit a fire under the Spotlight team to investigate reports of child molestation within the Catholic Church, a story the paper had touched on only here and there by the time the film begins in 2001. Schreiber’s work here is beautifully understated, and he provides consistent humor in playing a man with zero sense of humor, but he’s also a forceful voice of reason with a critical outsider’s perspective. On the other end of the spectrum providing his own essential guidance, Stanley Tucci enjoys a deliciously showy role as the eccentric attorney who’d been quietly building a case against these pedophile priests for years.

“Spotlight” follows these reporters as they practice old-school, shoe-leather journalism tactics, pure and simple. They knock on doors, meet sources in coffee shops and furiously scribble in their notepads. This is one reason we in the media are loving this movie so unabashedly: It provides a poignant time capsule, a proud and nostalgic look back at a time before clickbait dictated journalistic decision-making. The montage of printing presses rolling, delivery trucks making the rounds and thick Sunday editions landing with a thud on front doorsteps may sound like a newspaper-movie cliche, but in “Spotlight” it truly is cause for celebration. This is the way it worked once, way back when, and it was a privilege to be a part of it.

But nostalgia alone isn’t enough — although costume designer Wendy Chuck completely nails the utilitarian and unflattering newsroom uniform of khakis and button-downs, which is always good for a chuckle. “Spotlight” works because it has a propulsive forward momentum. Every conversation matters — every revelation matters — and we feel as if we’re right alongside these reporters and editors with each new discovery they make. Individual scenes quietly buzz with anticipation as the team members meet with victims who had been reluctant to speak for years and piece together names, dates and parishes. And here’s where the supporting casting really gives the film a feeling of authenticity and substance; the filmmakers obviously took great care with even the tiniest of roles, because each voice is crucial in building a thoroughly illuminating and damning case.

Like the story being reported within the film, “Spotlight” is simultaneously emotional and clear-eyed. It’s an explosive yet necessary piece of journalism in and of itself. And it’s easily one of the year’s best.