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  • Jeff Marker


    husband, dad, teacher, filmmaker, writer, film geek, musician, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye, Nighthawk

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Best Films of 2015

It wasn’t a particularly deep year for quality films. Some of my colleagues disagree, but some of the movies being touted as awards contenders (“Trumbo,” for example) didn’t live up to the hype for me. The top three films on my list stand far above all others, the next five are all outstanding, then there are several good films that wouldn’t be strong enough to make best-of lists in many other years. Still, the best things about year-end movie lists is they might encourage folks to seek out lesser known movies or debate those they have seen. Hopefully this list does both.

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Image courtesy of epk.tv

  1. Room

Seven years ago, a young woman (Brie Larson) was abducted and confined to a one-room shed by her captor. This room is the only world her five-year old son (Jacob Tremblay) knows – until mother and child attempt a perilous escape. Lenny Abrahamson, who for two years in a row has produced one of my favorite movies of the year (do yourself a favor and see Frank) focuses on the mother’s will to protect her child and the young boy’s discovery of the world outside the room, and leaves us with a deeper appreciation of the bonds between mother and child. Larson should walk away with the Best Actress Oscar, newcomer Tremblay should be nominated, and Abrahamson damned well better be nominated for helping the actors achieve these performances.

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Image courtesy of Netflix via The Guardian

  1. Beasts of No Nation

Cary Joji Fukunaga (“True Detective”) adapted Uzodinma Iweala’s novel about an African child soldier into a harrowing, empathetic, brutal, and unforgettable viewing experience. Idris Elba towers through the film in an outstanding supporting role, but new discovery Abraham Attah gives a mind-blowing performance in the lead role. This is also a significant moment in media history, since Beasts is Netflix’s first theatrically released motion picture. It did very poorly at the box office in terms of dollars, but this is the first feature film produced by a streaming service that has a real shot at winning Best Picture.

Ex machina New Poster

  1. Ex Machina

This thought-provoking, sexy, stylish science fiction thriller is so stunning I watched it on an airplane yet was still enamored. Three brilliant actors (Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac) conduct a cinematic Turing test amongst themselves and with us. Vikander, as an AI so human-like and charming she seduces Gleeson’s character and us, continues to establish herself as one of the most charismatic actresses of her generation. The content is timely, yet the film is timeless, the sort of science fiction (not science fantasy) I wish we saw more often.

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Canadian poster (why not?) courtesy of epk.tv

 

  1. The Big Short

I would call this an essential movie, but people tend to resist must-see recommendations. I would tell you it provides the best explanation yet of the Wall Street collapse, but that description is far too academic and won’t get you to the theatre. And I don’t dare tell you it predicts impending economic dangers. Instead, I’ll just say it’s a hilarious, witty comedy featuring a world-class cast (Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall). Incredibly, all of those descriptions are equally accurate. Director Adam McKay pulls a brilliant bait-and-switch, selling us with the comedy in order to give the best assessment yet of what led to the economic recession.

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  1. Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is less a biopic than a virtuoso enunciation of classic American themes (like The Social Network, this movie owes an enormous debt to Citizen Kane). Drawing on a typically polished Aaron Sorkin screenplay, Danny Boyle directs an exquisite quintet of Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who are occasionally joined by other outstanding players. I don’t even care if the film gets a lot of details wrong or unjustifiably glorifies Jobs. It is a joy to watch perfectly executed filmmaking.

Image courtesy of epk.tv

  1. Spotlight

The next great journalism movie has arrived. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) and a stellar ensemble cast (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Billy Crudup) dramatize the true story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the child molestation scandal and subsequent cover-up that forever altered the stature of the Catholic church. It’s an inspiring reminder of the social role only the fourth estate can fill.

Image courtesy of epk.tv

Image courtesy of epk.tv

  1. Love & Mercy

You might not believe this, but John Cusack is outstanding in this Brian Wilson biopic (I kid, I kid). But his performance isn’t as strong as Paul Dano’s. The two actors play Wilson at different stages of life, and both capture the genius and torturous mental illness that defines the legendary composer and musician. Love & Mercy is an unconventional biopic and a fitting tribute. Elizabeth Banks, in a nomination-worthy supporting role, does what she always seems to do – quietly elevate the film with each scene in which she appears. The glaring weakness here is Paul Giamatti’s garish performance as the psychiatrist who possibly saved Wilson’s life yet definitely infantilized him for years. I believe the real Dr. Eugene Landy was this evil, I’m just tired of seeing Giamatti play this character. Everything else compensates, though.

Image courtesy of cinemavine.com

Image courtesy of cinemavine.com

  1. Sicario

An idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) goes on a covert mission into Mexico with a shadowy task force as part of the “war on drugs.” But she discovers there is much more going on than she initially recognized. Director Denis Villeneuve uses the scenario to say some things about the narcotics trade and the government’s battle against it, but mostly he delivers a taut, fever pitch action movie that, along with Prisoners, places him in a whole new class of filmmakers. Blunt again proves she can do action, and Benicio del Toro is chilling and pitch perfect. I am professionally required to claim Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action movie of the year, but if you like your action grounded in reality, Sicario beats Max.

Image courtesy of Forbes

Image courtesy of Forbes

  1. Inside/Out

This was inarguably Pixar’s best movie in years, but that’s no longer saying much for a studio that has churned out formulaic sequels since being bought by Disney. Honestly, I think this one is a bit over-rated, but I’m including it here mostly because of the superb animation. (I’ve never seen skin textures like those created for the emotion characters!) There is also much to be said about a family movie willing to tackle pre-teen emotions and let kids know they should accept their sadness, fear, and anger, and therefore cope with them in healthier ways.

Image courtesy of blastr.com

Image courtesy of blastr.com

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road

I’m including Fury Road for three reasons. One, people like lists with ten entries. Two, George Miller’s revival of the legendary Australian post-apocalyptic science fiction franchise elevates the car chase to a thing of beauty. Stunning cinematography captures impeccably executed, acrobatic battle sequences taking place on wheels. Miller’s film reminds us how much more thrilling and cinematic practically achieved stunts are. Three, I hope it angers men’s rights activists, a group for whom Fury Road sparked the most pathetic outrage of the year (and in 2015, that is really saying something). Max is not made weak because Furiosa is made strong. The moment when Max recognizes Furiosa is a better shot than he and hands her the rifle is already being cited as a minor landmark, and it’s just one of many ways the film inverts the gender power dynamics typical of the genre. Surprisingly, this balls-out action opus captures gender equality circa 2015 perfectly.

Others worth seeing:

The End of the Tour, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, The AssassinCarol, Amy, Finder’s Keepers, Best of Enemies

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EDGE OF TOMORROW Review

Edge-of-Tomorrow-2014-Movie-WallpaperEdge of Tomorrow is probably the most entertaining mess we’ll see all year. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun watching a movie that makes so little sense.

Although, calling this a movie is a stretch. It is more like a live-action performance of a video game.

As in games, the protagonist/avatar is presented with an enemy to defeat and must play within specific rules. Each time he dies he revives at the same starting point, both in time and place. He learns more about how to defeat the enemy each time he dies. And the narrative/game repeats dozens of times.

The only thing keeping this from being a game is the viewer has no control over the outcome.

tom-cruise-stars-edge-of-tomorrowIt goes like this. A smarmy, military career opportunist named Cage (Tom Cruise) is sent into a battle to stop the advance of an alien species across Europe. He encounters a soldier named Rita (Emily Blunt) who recently became famous by killing hundreds of aliens in one battle.

Cage is killed in this first battle but instantly reawakens back on the day prior to the invasion. Each time he dies, he returns to this exact moment, and for the entire first act, we have no idea why. It just seems to be a game. (Cage doesn’t even have to insert another token each time.)

And like some classic arcade games, the characters around Cage repeat the exact same words and actions every time he experiences this time loop, unless he does something to change the course of events. Memory, for Cage and for us, is thus highly significant in this film.

These comparisons to a game aren’t meant to be negative. This is a summer blockbuster structured unlike any other. The most succinct description I can offer is, Edge of Tomorrow is like Groundhog Day meets District 9 meets Run Lola Run.

In the context of Hollywood tentpole releases, the movie deserves high praise for offering such a novel structure.

The cast and crew also deserve kudos for giving the entire film a playful tone and dark sense of humor. For all its action-movie spectacle, Edge of Tomorrow is mostly a comedy, and Cruise gives one of his best comedic performances.

His character begins as a self-promoting coward who attempts to desert the military after he is assigned to the front. This spineless, squirmy character is worlds away from the swaggering hero Cruise usually plays, and he consistently draws laughs without letting the performance devolve into farce.

bluntIronically, Blunt plays the hard-edged straight man (her character’s nickname is “Full Metal Bitch”) to Cruise’s wise-cracking fool, which is a dynamic I didn’t expect but works very well. Up until the obligatory dramatic climax, the movie never takes itself very seriously, which is a great thing.

The chemistry between Cruise and Blunt plus a steady stream of witty gags built around the time loop are entertaining enough to distract us from the film’s many flaws. The first one being, the initial setup is only half of the movie’s over-abundance of concept.

The alien monsters, which the humans have dubbed “mimics,” come in a few sub-species but function as one huge organism. Kill one sub-species and yadda yadda happens. Kill another sub-species and a different yadda yadda happens. To kill all of them at once, Cage and Rita must yadda yadda yadda. The rules for defeating the mimics and winning this cinematic game are nonsensical and seemingly endless.

Also, the “mimics” don’t mimic anyone or anything, rendering the name meaningless. There is only one possible way the name makes sense, and only three people possess this knowledge. So how exactly did all humans come to call them mimics?

Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Go) occasionally overplays the kill-Cage-to-reset-time gag and handles the time transitions clumsily. Some of the details don’t make sense even within the movie’s own rules.

This isn’t the first time Liman has struggled to play with story time in a movie. One or two of you might remember his 2008 flop Jumper, which suffered from some of the same problems.

And yet, no other recent movie offers the same volume of sheer enjoyment.

Summer movies have turned toward the somber and philosophical recently. Edge of Tomorrow resurrects the humorous hedonism that had gone extinct in the American blockbuster. So what if none of it makes sense?

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST Review

x-men-days-of-future-past-DF-04508_rgbEach year, critics and fanboys eventually start arguing over which summer blockbuster is the best of the season. It’s probably too early to start that conversation, but it’s unlikely any other major summer release will equal “X-Men: Days of Future Past” for screenwriting craft, characterization or complexity.

It is an astoundingly entertaining yet thoughtful movie. Not only is it likely to be the highest-quality tentpole release of the summer, but it might be the best X-Men movie yet.

x-men-days-of-future-past-DF-24983Rv4_rgbThe persistent X-Men theme of social equality manifests here as mature Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 to convince their younger selves (played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

As history has played out, Mystique is captured immediately after killing Trask, and weapons manufacturers use her blood to create the Sentinels who have hunted mutants to the brink of extinction.

The X-Men seek to alter that history.

A scenario such as this could have easily become a convoluted, confusing mess. But screenwriter Simon Kinberg and director Bryan Singer handle the time travel and huge cast of mutants expertly. They also wisely reduce much of the conflict to a series of ethical decisions and focus on the relationship between Charles/Professor X and Erik/Magneto, which is, of course, the heart of the X-Men universe.

“Days of Future Past” capitalizes on what has already passed between these two characters and complicates their friendship even further.

x-men-days-of-future-past-DF-02072_rgbStill, the filmmakers introduce an amazing number of X-Men characters to the movie franchise: Bishop (Omar Sy), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Blink (Bingbing Fan) and so many others. We also see the return of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) from earlier X-Men movies.

The writers stay true to the nature of those characters and leave us wanting to see more of them. In fact, the funniest and most innovative scene features Quicksilver, whose world moves at a comically fast rate compared to everyone else’s.

Like the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot, “Days of Future Past” brings the past and future of the franchise into one cohesive universe. The filmmakers do it so effectively, in fact, they could stop making X-Men movies now and the franchise would seem complete.

Yet because they bring everything to such a perfect point of stasis, they can also take the franchise anywhere from this point, especially since so many mutant characters have been brought into the cinematic universe.

Another facet of drawing so heavily on the X-Men past, however, is this movie is not for newcomers. Many of the best moments will be lost on anyone not already familiar with at least the previous X-Men movies, if not the comics.

X-Men fans, though, will be richly rewarded. “Days of Future Past” is surprisingly funny largely because it features so many inside jokes and references to other storylines and backstories.

Narratively, the movie is rock solid. The pace is taut, the story beats are all coherent despite the massive scope, and the action sequences all advance the story and deepen characterization while providing ample eye candy.

Stylistically, the film will be deemed either diverse or erratic, depending on the beholder.

x-men-days-of-future-past-1009_sl_DF-09307_v04_rgbThe future tense scenes feature the glossy, chiaroscuro look of the X-Men movies of the 2000s. Then when we flash back to 1973, the aesthetic shifts toward the grainy, high-key look of “X-Men: First Class.” The filmmakers also at times mimic the look of 8mm and 16mm amateur eyewitness footage, even offering a twist on the Zapruder film at one point.

These stylistic shifts are motivated by the story, but it might not work for everyone.

On a simpler level, it is just incredibly fun to see the two generations of X-Men actors share the screen and witness one of the more interesting story arcs of the franchise told with such craft and care.

I can’t recommend this movie highly enough.

(This review first appeared in The Times.)

No One Drinks the Merlot: My Review of SOMM

SOMM3SOMM is not the first documentary about wine, but it’s certainly one of the most engaging. The word somm is short for sommelier. SOMM follows four sommeliers – all friends – through the process of preparing for and taking the exam to become master sommeliers, as designated by the Court of Master Sommeliers. It is a secretive process and exclusive world, and this is the first time the Court has allowed anyone to film this much of it.

Even if you have no interest in wine at all, it’s fascinating to watch and listen to these aspiring master sommeliers do tastings. Alan Rickman’s character in Bottle Shock and Paul Giamatti’s in Sideways have nothing on these real, fanatical wine connoisseurs. They sniff, they stir, they examine visually, they sip, they swish, they spit, all the while rattling off adjectives and comparisons that describe every quality of the wine. Much of the time, they are doing blind tastings in which they are presented six glasses of anonymous wines, and they must use their senses to determine the variety, the region of origin, the winery, and even the year of the vintage.

SOMM7The descriptions of the wine’s bouquet alone can be outrageous. The tasters reference everything from baking spices to wet earth to cat pee to a freshly opened can of tennis balls. During one scene of the guys sitting around a table tasting wine and ribbing each other, the description “freshly cut garden hose” causes a heated debate. It’s impressive what these guys can do, but it’s also rather absurd. The film, as well as the sommeliers–most of whom have a great sense of humor about all of this, recognize that absurdity and allow us to laugh along with them.

As you can imagine, it’s also quite entertaining to hear the girlfriends’ and wives’ assessments of life with an aspiring master sommelier. Those are some of the best interviews, and if the movie has a weakness, it’s probably that it doesn’t spend enough time on the guys’ relationships with their significant others or their friends outside of the wine world (then again, maybe they don’t have any friends outside of the wine world?).

SOMM4The filmmakers don’t delve too deeply into the life or psyche of any one of their subjects, but on the other hand, it’s not necessary. One can infer a great deal about the character of anyone willing to put himself through this exam and to devote nearly all of his waking hours to studying something so minute as fermented grapes.

Besides, SOMM is too busy with other topics to devote time to the guys’ other halves.

The doc also gives an overview of the history of wine and of the process by which it is made. At one point in the film, an interview subject says that studying to become a master sommelier is a bit like traveling the world through wine. The film works that way, too, but much more literally. The crew traveled to numerous locations in six countries (most of the film was shot in the U.S., Germany, France, and Italy). SOMM thus is somewhat of a travelogue, too.

SOMM covers a lot of ground, but everything ultimately comes back around to the Master Sommelier Exam. We know these four men just enough to really care whether they pass, and the filmmakers masterfully keep us in suspense until the announcements are made.

SOMM9It couldn’t be any more obvious that SOMM was a labor of love. The exuberance, dedication, and just sheer toil of the filmmakers saturates the film. Director Jason Wise filmed for three years–and the crew consisted of Wise and one other person for two of those years. The post-production process was obviously just as arduous. Over two-thirds of the production was filmed without a budget, with borrowed cameras. Anyone who knows film will spot the care and craft that went into this supremely well-made piece of work.

SOMM is playing in limited release around the country and is available on iTunes. It’s essential viewing for foodies and great fun even for everyone, whether you believe wine comes from a perfectly aged bottle or a freshly opened box.

TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE review

It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to say this: the new Clint Eastwood film is a great date movie.

Trouble with the Curve comes billed as a sports movie, but baseball serves merely as a backdrop and a source of conflict for two intertwined stories, one about a father and daughter bonding and the other about two opposites falling in love.

Click here to read the full review

END OF WATCH review

End of Watch is the most intense cop drama to hit wide release in quite some time. Considering its writer/director’s past work, that shouldn’t be surprising.

David Ayer wrote the screenplays for U-571, Training Day, Dark Blue, and S.W.A.T., among others, and directed Harsh Times and Street Kings, which was based on a James Ellroy story.

With the release of End of Watch, it’s time to recognize Ayer as one of the heavyweights of tough guy cinema.

Ayer brings an extreme realism to this exploration of life as an L.A. cop on a beat, which is both the best and worst quality of the movie.

Brian (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike (Michael Peña) are the hotshots of their precinct. They’re young, tough, and smart. They believe in their mission to protect the people while also respecting the rules of the street.

They are not cliché rebel cop characters (they bear no resemblance to Dirty Harry or Popeye Doyle), but they are willing to violate regulations if it means saving a life.

They are also played by two exceptional actors. Let’s face it, a lot of action movies are undone simply by a lack of acting talent. When the movie needs a dramatic scene to give it a sense of gravity, the actors fail.

No such problem here. Gyllenhaal’s acting chops are beyond question by now, and Peña has become one of the best character actors in the business.

Their chemistry together makes it absolutely believable that these two are not only partners but blood brothers.

The movie pits these tightly bound partners against some of the deadliest criminals in L.A., and every story beat is delivered with exacting plausibility. The most disturbing thing about End of Watch is that all of these crimes do happen in real life, often even more brutally than how they are shown in the film.

The movie spends a great deal of time veering away from the main storyline, though, to give us a sense of the daily lives of two cops on one of the most dangerous beats in America.

Gyllenhaal and Peña are surprisingly funny together as they banter between calls, but then they provide the punch the movie needs when those calls turn out to be horrific situations.

The action sequences are all outstanding, too. Ayer paces them perfectly, ratcheting up the tension and holding us there until Brian and Mike resolve the situation.

Unfortunately, all of these winning qualities are undercut by Ayer’s decision to film the movie in a way that blends reality television and found footage styles.

Brian is taking some college classes, one of which is a filmmaking elective. So he totes around a camcorder and wears a lapel camera as part of a class project. The conceit of the movie, then, is that everything we’re seeing was captured on amateur video.

Aside from being a tired style at this point, the movie has to strain beyond believability to stick to it.

Ayer periodically shifts away from Brian and Mike to a local gang who will play a major role in the main story. It’s necessary and effective to show us these scenes with the Curbside gang, but in order to maintain the amateur video style, Ayer has one of the gang members wielding a camera the whole time just like Brian.

So, for instance, while the gang does a drive-by shooting, we’re supposed to believe that the gang member would still be filming. But Ayer also uses other camera angles that couldn’t possibly be caught on that amateur video camera, so he doesn’t stick to his own stylistic rules anyway.

And as great as Gyllenhaal and Peña are together, the movie spends far more time than necessary establishing how close Brian and Mike’s bonds are.

The visual style of End of Watch is hugely flawed, but its story is told with such urgency and authenticity that action fans should be willing to forgive its stylistic crimes.

Bottomline: A must-see for action fans

HAYWIRE review

How about this for strange casting? Haywire features Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum and Bill Paxton.

Yet who plays the lead? Mixed martial arts fighter Gina Carano, whose biggest acting credit until now was performing as Crush on the “American Gladiator” series.

If that makes you skeptical, get over it. Carano delivers a strong first starring role and is the perfect actress for this movie.

Read the full article here

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