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Favorites of 2015

2015 was another excellent year for the film industry! Cars, Dinosaurs, Spies, Emotions, Space, Robots, and Boxing! Last year had all of those genre regulars and more, especially the spies, we had a great many antics within that realm. Here though is where I take a moment to zone in on all the films that I believe earned high praise. These aren’t Oscar picks, nor are they the films I think that are “The Best”, but rather my personal favorites of 2015, aka the Future.

Ex-Machina

Between the Avengers sequel, Chappie, and this lovely little film by Alex Garland you might sense an anxiety about artificial intelligence in the cultural Zeitgeist. This film is the best out of those three and not because of any special effects, although it does look good when it has to, but because of the ideas it introduces and leans on. The story centers on Genius Mastermind Nathan Bateman’s (Oscar Issac) latest creation, artificial intelligence, and the turing test administered to said creation by an employee of Bateman’s tech company in the form of Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). Alicia Vikander’s performance as the savvy AI Ava is the masterful centerpiece performance that the axis of the story pivots on throughout. A smart psychological thriller worth falling in love with.

Kingsmen: The Secret Service

I went into ‘Kingsmen’ not knowing what to expect, it is from this point that I benefitted from most. It was unexpected , high octane, gleeful action snazzed up in a fine suit and cufflinks. With a nicely fleshed out cast surrounding the new talent ‘Kingsmen’ took the spy movie to a memorable new place, and in a year when both Mission Impossible and James Bond earning  entries in their respective pantheons, that is no small feat. Taron Egerton stars as the young street level inductee into the british spy organization known as, you guessed it, The Kingsmen, a highly refined and hyper violent group that saves the world while looking exceptionally dapper. Watch for the Church scene, it’s a bloody affair. This is  strong kinetic action in a new property that knows its place in the world of genre fair spy films, and it revels in it.

What We Do in The Shadows

Easily my favorite comedy of the year, ‘What we do in the shadows’ utilizes the mythology of The Vampire to spin pure comedic gold. Viago, Deacon, and Vladislav ( Taika Waititi, Jonny Brugh, & Jermaine Clement) play three vampires, all born and from different time periods, that all room together in the same house in New Zealand and squabble with each other over things like rent obligations, chore responsibilities, getting into nightclubs, and squashing conflicts among themselves. Done in a mocumentary style in which a film crew follows the vampire gang around filming their everyday lives. I found it to be a pun and wordplay laced riotfest throughout the runtime. Genius comedy filmmaking in a unique style and voice.

Mad Max: Fury Road

What can I say about ‘Mad Max: Fury road’ that hasn’t already been said? It’s grandiose. Gorgeous. Brutal. Spectacular. Intense. Gritty. Pure Fun. If you somehow haven’t seen this film yet, you need to. Point blank. It’s that simple. Need more? It’s the best car chase sequence in film history and its oddly, and beautifully, feminist in its nature. With the addition of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa the decades old series has roared back to life, even without the original Mad Max himself, Mel. Tom Hardy played Max in a gruff and tortured turn and it worked better than expected. George Miller has made a ground breaking Mad man’s masterpiece in his seventies, we should all be so inspired.

Turbo Kid

This film is the bloodiest entry on my list. It’s also the most heavily 80’s inspired piece as well. ‘Turbo Kid’ is an independent flick that takes place in a radioactive wasteland version of an apocalyptic future… in 1997. The toxic tale follows our young and lonely protagonist (Munro Chambers) as he takes on a tyrannical one eyed overlord, Zeus (Michael Irondside), to save his newly acquired, and bombastically enthusiastic friend Apple (Laurence Leboeuf). There’s saw-blades and fountains of blood, bicycles chase sequences, and a cowboy with a robotic arm. It’s weird and self aware, and a lovely unique film, check it out!

Dope

This story is about well meaning misfits Malcolm, Jib, & Diggy (Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, & Kiersey Clemons) as they navigate the end of their High school experience in modern day Los Angeles. As self proclaimed geeks that are in love with 1990’s hip hop and culture the three are fleshed out, layered characters that get caught up in outrageous scenarios. Malcolm in particular is the character we follow most closely as the story progresses. As life in a tough neighborhood has its own challenges Malcolm has his sights set on gaining higher education admittance, he just has to survive with his friends until graduation. The message of the movie lays out nicely over the course of the story and admittedly, I might be partial to coming of age storylines if done well, and this film definitely falls into that category. This won’t be the last time you see the three leads, they each ooze charisma were all a joy to see onscreen.

Inside Out

Pixar hit another homerun with ‘Inside Out’. It’s instantly memorable and heart wrenching. Only this studio could take such a concept and make it so relevant to the inner child in each of us. We follow Riley, a young girl that must navigate the new challenges of life in San Franscisco after her family moves to the west coast from the wintry Midwest. Riley’s emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, & Disgust all vie for the best method of handling these new hurdles in life. Learning concepts like ‘It’s okay to be sad’ and ‘Life has ups and downs, we all just learn to live and make the best of it with a healthy mindset’. It’s a brilliant film with a stellar voice cast to round out a profund idea with Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, and Mindy Kaling.

Jurassic World

I may get some flack, maybe even lose some credit for having this film on my list for some, but I can’t help the fact that I absolutely loved this film. Is it perfect? No, not at all. Is it better than the original Jurassic Park? No, absolutely not! But it IS a very fun monster movie with a super predator hunting our heroes. I quite enjoyed the antics of Owen and Claire (Chris Pratt & Bryce Dallas Howard) as they tried to retrieve and save Claire’s nephews from the Indominus Rex. Like I said, I recognize that some characterizations were slightly cartoonish to say the least, Vincent D’Onofrio’s villainous character for example has hilarious motivations, using Raptors for Military use? If you thought a Dino theme park was nuts then strap in, it gets a little nuts. It’s just great to see dinosaurs in movies again.

Mission Impossible 5: Rogue Nation

Who knew Tom Cruise had this revival of the last few years in him? After a resounding return to form in the fourth Mission Impossible the lastest doesn’t quite live up to Ghost Protocol’s standard, but its an incredibly enjoyable return to the Impossible franchise. As in both Rogue Nation and this year’s 007’s Spectre the plot centers around our hero spy taking on a shadowy organization on a globe trekking scale with plenty of action, intrigue, charm, and huge set pieces. If you want a solid spy movie, this might be the best of the year,  which is saying something in a year when the genre exploded with numerous unique attempts.

Creed

My personal favorite of the year, ‘Creed’ is the story of Adonis Creed, son of famed Rocky Balboa opponent Apollo Creed, as he comes to terms with the legacy of his father and shaping his own future going forward. Stallone shines again as the Italian Stalian in one of the best performances he’s given in years and Michael B. Jordan deftly crafts Adonis as a hungry and determined personality that snaps and crackles with potential in his punches. The beauty of Rocky’s story coming full circle as he trains Adonis in the ring coupled with exquisitely shot fight sequences in and out of the ring ties everything together incredibly well in the end, the film doesn’t even feel like it should have the right to be this good. There isn’t a single shot I would change, and I find it a disappointment that Ryan Coogler wasn’t nominated for Best Director for this film, he deserves it.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars. Modern Mythology at its finest. The Force Awakens did exactly what it needed to do following the somewhat disastrous prequel films of the early 2000’s. It brought back memorable characters, like Chewbacca & Han Solo, scenery and aesthetics from the original films, and established new fan favorites in Finn, Rey, and Poe (John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, & Oscar Isaac). We also got new villains in Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren and Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke, the overlord of the new evil regime The First Order. Granted, this isn’t the best Star Wars movie, it’s just a really satisfying entry in the saga that never ends.

Hector and The Search for Happiness (2014)

Lastly, here is where I cheat a bit. Technically yes, this film came out in 2014, but I didn’t even know of its existence, much less watch it, until 2015. This film has one of the qualities I love most about movies: It’s got an earnest positivity about it that doesn’t quit. I also have a tendency to love films that involve Simon Pegg. ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness’ is about Hector (Pegg), a psychiatrist in Britain that feels unfufilled by the doldrums of his overly regimented life. He laments giving people advice while not yet having lived life himself. Thus he goes off on an international quest to find the formula to Happiness. Is it a particularly challenging film for the viewer? No, not really, but that’s okay. It’s a tale meant to uplift, and maybe I’m a shmuck for it, but this film made me feel things, and I love it because of that.

Potential Contenders that (somehow) I missed: Straight Outta Compton, The Revenant, The Big Short, Spotlight, Sicario, The Danish Girl, Trumbo, Brooklyn, Peanuts, Spy, Trainwreck, Sisters, Joy, Chappie, & Concussion

Those are the films that affected me most over the course of 2015. It was a uniquely stellar year in which Hollywood learned that some franchise returns can yield Box Office smashing results like Mad Max, Jurassic World, and Star Wars. However they also learned that some franchises don’t soar as high as they could or should, here’s looking at you Terminator Genisys and 007’s Spectre. Let’s Hope this year holds as many gems, if Deadpool is any indicator it’s going to be a weirdly amazing year. Go see Deadpool if you’re old enough, it’s a bloody riot in the best sense. Then see it again.

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Review: 007’s Spectre, Superb-but its no Skyfall

*Warning: Spoilers*

Spectre opens with, quite possibly, one of the most fun, brash, and intense sequences in all of James Bond’s onscreen adventures. It’s a shame the rest of the film doesn’t live up to that standard. Heading into this movie I wasn’t entirely sure if this iteration of MI6’s most famous secret agent would be a more direct sequel to Daniel Craig’s previous films, or simply another standalone adventure in the spy’s long gestating cinematic history. Let me tell you now, this movie heavily leans on Daniel Craig’s Bond legacy. If you want to fully appreciate all that ‘Spectre’ has to offer repeat viewings of the three previous Craig films would do you well (Although it would be understandable if you skipped ‘Quantum of Solace’).

Now, you might ask, with the 007 series reaching 24 films long, is ‘Spectre’ worth the price of admission? Overall, I say yes. There is enough the film accomplishes here to merit it a success within the terms of what people come to expect from Bond films.  That being said the biggest shadow looming on ‘Spectre’s horizons is ‘Skyfall’. ‘Skyfall’ reshaped Bond’s world in a way that was unprecedented in the series’ history. What made ‘Skyfall’ a standout was that it continued what ‘Casino Royale’ started in adverting expectations and wowing us with a Bond for the new millennium. More visceral, grounded, and gruff yet still suave and classy. ‘Spectre’ has a problem though, its not entirely sure what kind of Bond film it wants to be. The film relishes in larger set pieces, more visually captivating locales, and a host of other well trodden established Bond tropes. Bond reverts to the more Sean Connery style of persuasion with women, he exhibits far more reckless behavior than past Craig offerings, and black turtlenecks. Which I might add, I thoroughly enjoyed purely out of my adoration of the cartoon, ‘Archer’. So you might ask, ‘do any of these aspects weaken the overall experience?’ Well, that depends on what you expect out of a Bond film. Were there car chases? Did Bond have/drive/crash an expensive car? Did Q and Bond have an argument/moment? Was there a torture sequence? Did he get the girl? Did Bond go fist to fist in a brawl with an overly large henchman?  The answer to all of these questions is ‘Yes, most definitely’. If that is enough for you as the viewer, then it is enough, just don’t go into ‘Spectre’ expecting a reinvented wheel. This film is in love with its own past, and it seems to be racing to check off all the boxes of Bond’s world so quickly that it doesn’t even realize that the audience can feel the expectation of the plot as it happens. Every time a box was checked I was happy that it was, though it felt as if we’d all been here before. ‘Skyfall’, again, looms large.

Speaking of Henchmen, Dave Bautista’s ‘Mr. Hinx’ is one of the truly standout performances of the film. The bulky and brooding heavy hitter barely utters a word his entire time onscreen, but this doesn’t mean he isn’t an unrelenting challenge for every second of his time with us. Mr. Hinx will definitely be remembered in the long line up of Bond baddies for his introduction alone, forgoing eloquence for complete brutality in the juxtaposition of the orderly and organized ‘Spectre’ boardroom that the scene takes place in. The organization at the heart of the film’s title is one that largely rests its image on the shoulders of Christoph Waltz’s Oberhauser. I am at the same time both content with, and let down by, this performance. It has nothing to do with Waltz’s acting ability, I think he was fine, I was just expecting a bit more out of it. This may have been unfair of me to do so because of my comparing the character of Oberhauser to that of Hans Landa, Waltz’s infamous Nazi from Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’. Oberhauser is a far more restricted, internal character of sorts, in short, I simply had brought a different level of expectation to the role than if it had been a different actor. The slow burn of his introduction in ‘Spectre’ is handled enticingly well in my opinion though. Oberhauser is however part of the film that, in my opinion, asks almost for too much from us.

THE WORST SPOILERS

‘Spectre’ attempts, and ultimately succeeds, in asking the audience to retcon the last three Bond films into one cohesive piece of storytelling. Partly in building the mythos around the shadowy organization ‘Spectre’ the film constantly throws us little reminders of villains of Craig’s past as bits of evidence tantamount to the tentacled group being, as Oberhauser himself describes it in one particular line, “I am the Author of all your pain James Bond”. But is he really? Oh and the big reveal that Oberhauser is actually ‘Blofeld’ shouldn’t have been all that much of a surprise to anyone knowing the history of the organization in the film series’ past. I think the idea at face value is a bit of a stretch, though they handled it effectively enough in the film, but the less time you spend analyzing it, the more you will enjoy it. If they had gone further with the idea I think it would have been too much, but done as it was, it is acceptable.

It is also worth mentioning that from ‘Skyfall’ to ‘Spectre’ there was a change in the guard of cinematographer from Roger Deakins to Hoyte van Hoytema. It might not be the most apparent change from film to film but the loss of Deakins style can be felt throughout. The use of Q and his relationship with Bond was also more fleshed out than in ‘Skyfall’ so that was a welcome addition. There was also the subplot of Andrew Scott’s ‘C’ merging both MI5 and MI6 operations while simulataneously nixing the double O program in its entirety. He is also the link between ‘Spectre’ and MI6 as he hurries to get international approval for a new global initiative of blending cutting edge technology with George Orwell’s worst nightmares. Hey, a dash of ‘Winter Soldier’ never hurt, right? The film also tries, ever so briefly, to peel back more layers of Bond’s childhood past and psychology, but again, ‘Skyfall’ did this better and in a more compelling fashion.

All in all, this is a fine James Bond movie. If all you are looking for is a competent, rousing, and entertaining action spy movie, then you’re in luck, because ‘Spectre’ was made for you. If on the other hand you wanted just a bit more from Daniel Craig’s latest, and possibly last, outing as the double O, then you might be left wanting more.

Final Score: 8/10

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2015: Year of the Spy movie

When thinking of the biggest films of this year the average moviegoer will probably cite “The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron”, “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “The Martian”,  and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, or “Pitch Perfect 2”, maybe even “Inside Out”. Rarely however will somebody name off one of the many Spy films that are out, or have yet to come out. Which is a surprising notion as there are a lot fo spy oriented films when you take the time to look.

Kingsmen: The Secret Service

This movie by Matthew Vaughn arrived, seemingly, out of thin air.  Hugely stylistic in nature this spy movie, adapted from the comic “The Sercret Service”, is hell bent on delivering unique action with sensible modesty in this very gentlemenly of motion pictures. The story follows the recruitment of a young and promising, if a little bit unrefined, street kid in London by the name of Gary “Eggsy” Unwin into the prim and proper spy organization known as, The Kingsmen. With a proper mentor in Colin Firth’s master spy character the young Eggsy is placed into the Kingsmen’s highly competetive selection process. All the while Samuel L. Jackson’s evil character moves world threatning pawns into play with a character that admittedly could have been borderline too over the top, but he ended up leveling out nicely in the performance. This was quite the unexpected box office hit and a sequel is already in delevopment. Check this one out if you have the chance, it was better than expected.

Spy

This film, out of all the options listed here, is the standout in terms of genre. This is a fun and self aware comedy that lives in a Spy’s world. Jason Statham and Melissa McCarthy work in tandem in Director Paul Feig’s gutbuster of an action comedy.  In the flick McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a frumpy CIA analyst with surprisingly good combat skills that steps up when fellow agent, Jude Law, gets into trouble. She then teams with Statham’s agent Rick Ford to avenge her comrade, and be empathetically exuberant while doing so. Sharp, electric, and downright fun, this might be the best comedy to come out of the summer. If you want to have the pace of an action film with a good hearty side of laughter, go see this one!

Mission: Impossible Rogue nation

This summer also saw the return of Ethan Hunt, the legendary IMF (Impossible Missions Force) agent with a penchant for getting in over his head, and always coming out on top. For a series five films deep Mission Impossible has had to evolve over the years in its revolving door of impressive creative teams and this film does no less. Reuniting Tom Cruise with Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Ving Rhames in an ultimately solid and satisfying sequel. This time the IMF is disbanded right from the gate by Alec Baldwin’s CIA  director who crushes and absorbs the agency in the film’s beginning.  The team continues to track a new deadly organization that has been organizing strategic terrorist attacks in order to change world events and eventually wipe out the IMF in entirety, The Syndicate. Cruise ends up teaming with a double, or possibly triple, agent in the form of Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa to prove the existence of the shadowy and elusive organization. Rhames, Renner, and Pegg give the film a nicely balanced comedic routine while Ferguson herself injects a strong female character into the film without just being there for Cruise’s character to prove his own masculinity to the audience. Speaking of Cruise, this is another example of why the man is still making these movies, and still doing all of his own stunts, he’s excellent at it and has few competitors or contenders in this realm. The film overall has a slightly edgier feel than it’s predecessors and is tense throughout without forgetting to have some fun while they do it. While I must admit I’m not quite sure if the film exceeded the last franchise film, Ghost protocol, in quality, it is however a valiant and entertaining effort that should not be avoided because of this. Writer, Director Christopher McQuarrie excels in his take on the franchise and proves his worth onscreen once again, especially after penning last year’s surprise Sci-Fi wonder “Edge of Tomorrow” or “Live. Die. Repeat.” by the same name.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Guy Ritchie’s charming spy movie takes place in the early 1960’s at the height of the Cold War. The film pairs Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo, a slick and suave American CIA agent, with Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin, the deadliest KGB agent. As far as adaptions of television shows goes, this movies excels in giving what the original intent promised, an almost psueo spy vs spy feel that forces adversaries to cooperate in flashy and masterful style. The story here centers on the bitter rivals working together despite strong aversions to one another for the ultimate good of mankind, to stop former Nazi’s from getting the components to build a nuclear weapon. Here is a case where the argument of style over substance is less negligible than in other films as Guy Ritchie’s unique flair is often what keeps the film aflot over a structurally sound, but expected plotline. That’s not to say the film isn’t a hell of a ride mind you, just that it won’t be blowing anyone’s mind with plot twists anytime soon. This movie is more concerned with it’s set pieces and performances from the engaging leads as well, and everybody making or starring in the piece knows this, which is probably why it works as well as it does. A solid, if slightly underwhelming, film that I still strongly suggest people go and see!

Bridge of Spies

Even Steven Spielberg is going to be throwing his hat into the spy genre ring this year. Another period piece set in the early 1960’s, “Bridge of Spies” looks to be wandering close to Oscar territory again for Mr. Spielberg. I wouldn’t be surprised, when the legendary director fires on all cylinders he ascends to that special zietgeist of “Movie Magic”, and if the trailers are anything to indicate it looks as though he has done it again. Tom Hanks stars as an the American attorney tasked with negotiating the release of a U-2 spy plane pilot who was shot down over Russia at the height of the Cold War. With the Coen brothers writing the script and a knockout cast surrounding Hanks, this film is sure to stand out and engage people. I for one will be seeing this flick as soon as possible.

007 Spectre

After the massive success of “Skyfall” Daniel Craig has cemented his James Bond performance in the anals of cinema history. This follow up is hopefully more “Casino Royale” than “Quantum of Solice” though. With Sam Mendes returning to helm the sequal and new villain (most likely) in the form of Christoph Waltz please-be-Blofeld-please-be-Blofeld-please-be-Blofeld.. I feel more than secure with the franchise in these hands. Not much is known about the plot at this point and much like JJ Abrams, I am okay with this. Secrecy has its place in moviemaking and I don’t necessarily want a trailer pointing out every plot point for me before seeing the film. I’m looking at you “Terminator: Genisys”. With all the talent behind this one after the brilliant “Skyfall” in particular, who needs to know any more than that to be excited?

B.O.O. Bureau of Otherworldly Operations

This last entry I hadn’t even heard of until looking up any spy themed movies I might have missed but it looks like a fun little animated movie.  The film stars the voices of Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Matt Bomer and Melissa McCarthy and was slated to come out this summer but was pushed back for unknown reasons. The film is about fresh faced agents at the Bureau of Otherworldly Operations uncovering a plot to destroy the organization itself. So in all likelihood this seems like a fun little adventure coming out of Dreamworks and hey, it’ll be the second time Melissa McCarthy has been in a spy oriented movie this year! So there’s that. I feel like this could have a “Monsters Inc” feel to it, hopefully the final cut lives up to the potential of this premise.

So there you have it people, a bunch of very different and unique Spy films to sate your need for supreme secrecy, and espionage adventure! If you haven’t seen any of these flicks, besides the one that have not come out yet I highly recommend them all, each has their own rightful merits upon which they all stand. Maybe next year the popular genre will be Ninjas, or Ninja Musicals, that’d be new. Until next time!