Directed by Niki Caro Written by Lauren Hynek, Rick Jaffa, Elizabeth Martin & Amanda Silver Starring Yifei Lu, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jason Scott Lee, Rosalind Chao, Tzi Ma, & Utkarsh Ambudkar
Upfront disclaimer: the politics behind the credits thanking Xinjiang, as well as Yifei Lu’s support of Hong Kong police are not lost on me. I find those to be incredibly problematic, and definitely worthy of discussion. But that discussion will not happen here. Not in this particular entry, anyway.
Directed by Dean Parisot Written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon Starring Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, William Sadler, Hal Landon, Jr., Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Kid Cudi, Beck Bennett, Erinn Hayes, Jayma Mays, Holland Taylor, Kirsten Schaal, Jillian Bell, Anthony Carrigan and Amy Stoch
The Bill & Ted films have long been a part of my life, and indeed a part of whatever The Empty Theatre has been. I used “Be Excellent To Each Other” as a sign off for the brief video series I produced. #BETEO has been my own personal hashtag in all my socials for almost four years. I went into Face The Music with equal parts excitement and caution. But in the midst of the career renaissance Keanu is having (Keanussance?), and with all the other madness of the world, this was the right film at the right time.
Directed By Josh Boone Written By Josh Boone & Knate Lee Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Maisie Williams, Charlie Heaton, Blu Hunt, Henry Zaga, and Alice Braga.
For two whole years of waiting, and the first major(ish) release after five and a half months of a pandemic, I would have hoped the first major film I saw in theatres was a bit more major, and a bit worth both extended waits I had to endure for it.
Cold Pursuit. Directed by Hans Petter Moland, written by Frank Baldwin, starring Liam Neeson, Tom Bateman, Laura Dern, Emmy Rossum, John Dorman, William Forsythe, Tom Jackson and Julia Jones.
Liam Neeson has carved out a particularly curious career as a late age action-thriller star, and for the most part, they’re enjoyable. This chapter in Neeson’s career should probably come to an end with Cold Pursuit. It’s not a high note to go out on, but definitely indicative of a quit while you’re still ahead mentality.
Arrival was exactly the movie we needed at exactly the right time. We have been offered so many dire, apocalyptic visions of alien contact, in the form of invasion, that it was… well, truly inspiring for director Denis Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer to approach the concept from a place of hope. There’s a quiet, unassuming quality to Arrival that reassures the audience that even though it appears, at face value, to be frightening, there is ultimately nothing to fear. Amy Adams delivers a stellar performance that impresses without being showy.
The Witch‘s selling point is the mood. It’s a horror film, but in the classical sense. It’s as tense as they come. And the way writer/director Robert Eggers is able to layer everything together to create such a gorgeous film is damn fine filmmaking. If one aspect of the process didn’t work, it would have thrown everything else off. If one performance was out of place, if the cinematography didn’t quite work. But everything was on point.
Hell or High Water
What’s great about Hell or High Water is that it doesn’t reinvent the Western. It sort of wanders through the first act unremarkably. But the deeper we get into Taylor Sheridan’s script, the more Ben Foster, a career-best Chris Pine, and Jeff Bridges unfold the story, the more they pull you in. They build characters you really care about.
Everybody Wants Some!!
It’s no secret Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused is my all time favourite film. There’s a brilliance to the film where nothing happens, and everything happens. Much like D&C, Everybody Wants Some!! is about the characters growing. There’s no hero’s arc. There’s no goal to accomplish. It’s just here are these guys in the first week of college. No one does character pieces like Linklater. And the cinematic world is better for it.
The Nice Guys
I can’t pin down exactly what worked best with Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, but it’s a whole lot of everything. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was the delicious appetizer in his meta-sans-the-wink examination of comedy noir, while The Nice Guys was a fantastic main course. Black plays like a less bleak, not quite as a dark Coen Brother. He toys with your expectations of storytelling, of comedy, of mystery thrillers, and delivers some damn fine cinema.
Captain America: Civil War
Civil War is as damn near a perfect superhero movie. We get the best aspects of the genre all rolled into one film. The modern era god myths. The political and social allegories. We get fantastic performances, a wonderful, intricatly crafted story. One thing the Marvel films struggled with early on was serving the universe, while still being a great film in their own right, but Civil War perfects that.
Jeremy Saulnier crafts beautiful, tense thrillers. Green Room is a beautiful bottle-episode thriller. He film’s an aesthetically pleasing film that locks its characters in a box with wasps and kicks that box. Every step of the way, Saulnier ups the ante, but it doesn’t feel over the top. The film goes precisely where it needs to go each and every time, and it’s anchored by great performances from Patrick Stewart and the late Anton Yelchin.
Kubo & The Two Strings
The first thing you notice about Kubo & The Two Strings is how gods damn beautiful it looks. The major animation houses have a great technical appreciation of creating animation, but Kubo focuses on the art of it. Yet where Kubo excels is the amazing family story that’s told. A boy and his family. A son and his parents. Kubo is a glorious marriage of masterful storytelling and gorgeous animation-as-art.
Not to downplay Denzel’s directorial efforts, but this film belongs to the writer and actors (which, Denzel also is among, so he doesn’t escape praise-free). August Wilson adapted his own stage play for the film (though the screenplay was unfinished when he passed over 10 years ago, and was finished by Tony Kushner), and all of the adult cast members reprise their roles from the Tony winning Broadway revival. What we’re treated to is a powerful character study in Troy’s role as a father, a husband, an employee and a black man in 1950s Pittsburgh. Denzel delivers one of his career best performances, then Viola Davis walks on set and puts him to shame.
I’ll preface this by saying that there were certainly better films this year than writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special which could occupy this 10th spot. But I loved this film on a level that it didn’t feel right not including it in the top 10. And really, any of the honourable mentions below could also occupy this spot, but this is one I didn’t feel got a lot of love over the year, getting lost in the shuffle. Which is too bad because it truly is a remarkable film. Netflix gave us a great modern take on the kid-adventure flicks of the 80s with Stranger Things. We got that in the cinemas with Midnight Special. It’s a less whimsical look at E.T. or Flight of the Navigator. Not as dark as Stranger Things. But still a great small scale sci-fi flick with great performances from Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon and the kid, Jaeden Lieberher.
Written & Directed by Andy & Lana Wachowski; Starring Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne
The Wachowskis really need Warner Brothers to tell them no. Or at least rein them in. Because ever since The Matrix, they’ve been, at best, too scattered and in their own way. Speed Racer aside, of course, that’s a highly underrated film.
Jupiter Ascending, as a film, tries to be too much. There’s too much going on that the great film it should be, and could be, becomes lost amid the overly convoluted universe the Wachowskis attempt to build. The potential to be a great, THE great sci-fi film is there, it’s right within reach. But that doesn’t wholly prevent the film being enjoyable. I still had fun watching it. It certainly wasn’t the mess it was made out to be. It was just a little… muddled
The Wachowskis build a universe with its own rules and operates fully abiding by said rules. And as long as you, the viewer, accept that, not expecting it to play by another universe’s rules, then you’ll walk away mostly satisfied. The problem is that the whole thing feels rushed. They crammed way too much into the film that it everything that should have been fleshed out gets glossed over, and before you have a chance to contemplate it, the film has moved onto something else for you to get confused by.
Tatum has done well to prove himself as a not terrible actor. He flexed his comedy muscles in the 21 Jump Street films with surprisingly good results, then flirted with awards season recognition in Foxcatcher, despite not quite sticking the landing, granted that’s through no fault of his own, the film kinda sucks. He handles the unique-ness of the sci-fi world extremely well, diving into the character to really sell the story. He really tries, to his credit.
That credit can be given to everyone else. From Kunis, Bean, Redmayne and the rest of the cast, to visual effects team, the cinematographer, everyone. It’s a pure exercise in “Best with what they’re given.” Maybe not Redmayne, I don’t know what he was going for with that voice he affected. Just a loud whisper
The problem is 100% the Wachowskis. They’re afforded too much creative freedom and too much money by Warner Brothers, and it feels like they’ve let it go to their heads. They’ve still got the ideas, but they need help focusing those ideas to be more concise. This is one instance where I think studio interference would actually be a good thing.
All that said… I’d still definitely recommend this film to sci-fi fans. Worth it if you find yourself with a few hours to kill on a lazy weekend afternoon and this pops up on Netflix.
Directed by Matthew Vaughn; Written by Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn; Starring Colin Firth, Taron Egarton & Samuel L. Jackson.
The Vaughn/Goldman team has produced some of the more fascinating films of the past decade, including Stardust, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. And much like their previous collaboration on a Mark Millar book, Kick-Ass, Kingsman effectively lives inside the rules of the genre, but moves around inside those rules to explore them and poke a little fun at them (Kick-Ass with superheroes, Kingsman with spies). Bourne and Bauer created a new era of the spy film, but Kingsman takes those modern influences and applies them to the classic era Bond. All of which get shout-outs in the film.
Firth enters full action hero mode, which is unusual territory for him, but he excels at it like he made a wrong career turn somewhere. Granted that wrong turn led to him being one of the most celebrated dramatic actors of the past 20 years, so it’s not necessarily a “wrong” turn. But the climactic action sequence featuring Firth is such a beautifully choreographed piece of action, it should take its rightful place as among the best executed in modern film-making.
The supporting cast of Michael Caine, Jack Davenport and Mark Strong help build the world of classic hero vs. villain with a suave swagger and just a hint of cockiness. All that builds a wonderful foil for Jackson’s delightfully grandiose supervillain to play against. He has just as much fun in the role that everyone seems to have creating this world.
Egarton, a relative newcomer, perfectly handles himself against the who’s who he’s been cast against, and is ultimately the driver of the wink and nod to the genre. His Eggsy is recruited to the Kingsmen, and put through the ropes at James Bond Hogwarts (spy training school). It provides a fun answer to the question “Seriously, where do THEY get THAT training?” Egarton presents a new school approach to an old school character type, and creates a great, layered character in the process.
What I like most about Vaughn is that he closes out the film with a satisfactory ending, but definitely teases that there is more story to tell. It is exactly what we talk about “leave them wanting more.” I’m definitely hoping this can take off as a franchise.
I know it’s only February, and the competition isn’t very stiff, but Kingsman so far leads the pack as best film of the year (so far) and while I can’t speak to the quality of the rest of 2015’s releases, I’d imagine this will stick near the top of the list by the end of the year. Definitely don’t miss this film.
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser and Melissa Benoist; Written & Directed by Damien Chazelle
J.K Simmons’ powerfully intense performance proves that the parts of a film can overcome their sum whole.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle remakes his own 2013 short as a full length feature, and it’s easy to see that while it’s not his first time behind the lens, it’s certainly tackling a large-scale project, even if it is familiar territory. Every decision he makes with the camera is predictable, from the long one shots, to the rapid cuts, to the shakey-cam, distant angles. It comes across as a comprehensive study in film-making 101. I’m not asking for him to change the game, but it would be nice if he took the training wheels off.
Where Chazelle excels, however, was in his exceptional screenplay. He builds this beautiful Yin-Yang relationship between Teller’s Andrew and Simmons’ Fletcher. Both are incredibly passionate about what they do, and are looking to achieve the same goal, but their approaches counter-act each other which leads to a climactic explosion of drum playing that leads to the exquisitely executed final scene that showcases not only Simmons & Teller’s abilities as actors, but Chazelle’s ability as a filmmaker. It makes the viewer wonder where Chazelle of the last 10 minutes was during the previous 90.
Teller is a difficult actor to pin down. He launched his career with art house flair Rabbit Hole, then ran through the young actor motions of party flick, teen romance, YA future-world. He never presented as the breakout star, but he was definitely entertaining on another level than his fellow cast-mates, and showed a lot of promise. Whiplash is where that promise comes to fruition. He puts a lot of heart into Andrew. You see the drive and determination in his eyes. He masterfully masks the pain of forsaking a personal relationship for his ambitions. He’s soulful at all the right moments.
But Simmons. J.K. Simmons is in another world, on another planet with his brutal and intense performance as Terrance Fletcher, Andrew’s instructor. Simmons plays Fletcher with bi-polar swings from loud, big and angry to soft, reserved and almost friendly. He exudes an air of superiority without coming across as annoyingly arrogant. He truly believes in what he’s doing and that it’s the right way to do it. There’s no hint of smugness, just bull-headed passion. If I had to handicap the Oscars, he’s the runaway leader for Supporting Actor.
Whiplash firmly plants itself as one of the must-see films of the year, despite the aesthetic flaws. A strong script and brilliantly realized performances carry it to one of the top films of the year.
Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling joined forces in the early 80s to bring forth one of the most earnest looks at teen life ever put to screen in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, based on Crowe’s book of the same name. Hughes gave us high school through rose-tinted glasses, and throughout the 90s and into the new millennium, we are, with few exceptions, get over-exaggerated idealistic characterizations, tinting those glasses even rosier. Jocks with hearts of gold, geeks getting the girl, plain Jane taking down the popular cliques. Crazy sex-pacts, raging parties and perfect proms.
But not Fast Times. Ultimately it isn’t really about anything. No unifying narrative goal ties the film together. Everybody doesn’t meet in the end for a big hug. We get the opportunity to follow a group of people for a whole year at high school as they deal with douchebag friends, teen pregnancies, overbearing teachers, shitty jobs and everything else the teen years decide to throw at us.
It was daring in its approach to teenage sex, by presenting it and accepting it as a given. It explored the consequences of those actions, but never demonized the actions, which makes it outstanding in its genre. No film geared towards the contemporary youth broached the topic of abortion with such sincerity. There was no redemption for Damone, the guy who skipped out on his responsibilities to Stacey Hamilton after he got her pregnant, and was ultimately a scumbag to his only friend Mark.
As a 22-year-old, Cameron Crowe went undercover as a high school student to write his story. He knew he’d never get an honest answer by just asking questions, so he lived and existed among them, listened to their conversations, went to their get-togethers. And that’s how we got some of the more interesting characters put together that weave a rich tapestry of high school experiences. And if it weren’t for the talented young cast that included Sean Penn, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Brian Backer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, with early appearances from Anthony Edwards, Forest Whitaker, Nicolas Cage and Eric Stoltz, the would not have endured through the years.
The John Hughes flicks are great, but if you want a great 80s teen flick, the best of the era… you’ve found it in Fast Times At Ridgemont High.
A few years back, I created a few movie centric holidays. I’m a man of no religion, but a huge appreciation for the cinematic arts, so I needed a few high holy days to give me cause for celebration. Back to the Future week happens the week of November 12th, the date of the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. Die Hard Day happens Dec. 24th-25th. Rex Manning Day on May 6th, Dazed & Confused Day on May 28th… a few others. The main conceit of them is offer some personal reflection time, and to relax. Enjoy some music, some good food, the company of friends. You can read about them all in this post from a few years ago.
But today is March 24th. According to opening title cards, today is the day The Breakfast Club spent a whole day in detention, 30 long years ago (thanks to A.V. Club for posting a screen grab). In its genre, the teen flick, it’s certainly one of the best. Not the best, however, American Graffiti, Dazed & Confused and Fast Times at Ridgemont High are certainly superior films. But for almost 30 years, The Breakfast Club has landed with teen audiences in a way few films have. It’s helped many teens navigate the rough seas of high school.
The Breakfast Club takes 5 high school personality archetypes, the geek, the burnout, the jock, the prep and the outcast weirdo, throws them in a giant, library sized blender, and asks them to connect. It’s a completely clichéd narrative device and probably shouldn’t, by any rights, have the iconic status it has. But a masterful script from 80s teen flick guru John Hughes only uses the clichés as a mechanism to not make us identify with one character, but with all of the characters.
Over the course of the film, all of what we assume we know about the characters are slowly scraped away and picked apart till we grow to have a better understanding of who they are, and why they are who they are. Andy Clark isn’t just some dumb meat head jock. Johnny Bender isn’t just a disinterested burnout. Claire Standish isn’t just an above it all priss. They’re all going through a struggle. They’re all fighting a battle. And that’s what we, as the audience, identified with. We’ve got a struggle we’re trying to get through at that age. Knowing that everyone does too makes it that much easier to take.
I love that the film explores more realistic outcomes of their day together. It asks the question, “We’re friends right here, right now… but what about Monday?” And we get a beautifully honest answer: Probably not. Brian and Allison might hang out. But everyone’s going to go their separate ways. They kind of blew that up by pairing everyone, except Brian, off in the closing moments, but we still get the sense that that was fleeting romance. And while deep down we know that things will probably go back to status quo once the bell rings on Monday morning, we also know that Alison, Andy, Brian, Claire and John all experienced some personal growth, and that they are different, better people because of that shared experience. That gives us, the viewer, the hope that we will emerge on the other side of our struggles as different, better people.
So while the aforementioned films from Amy Heckerling, George Lucas and Richard Linklater are decidedly better films, the reason Hughes’ Breakfast Club has created such a lasting impression is that it connects the characters to each other, and to the audience, in a way that we as audiences need at the time we see it (preferably in high school… the film kind of has a shelf-life of relevancy).
Breakfast Club Day, like the movie, is about acknowledging the differences we have with the people we interact with on a daily basis, but recognizing how similar we all actually are, and how we can use both the similarities and differences to better understand one another.