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Oscar Predictions 2015

“The Oscars: the white BET awards.”

                                           – Chris Rock

I think we can unanimously agree that the single biggest snub the Academy made in this year’s nominations was not with a motion picture, but with entire communities. 20 white actors were nominated for their performances this year. All eight best picture nominees featured white protagonists. All the screenplay nominees are white. The only major category to have slight diversity in its nominations is best director, where it has four white directors and one Mexican. To have 42 out of those 43 nominees belonging to a single diversity is just plain sad, and shows that in its own way, we still live in a segregated society.

A strong statement, I know, but the situation warrants it. How many wonderful stories were told this year by actors, filmmakers, and storytellers of color that the Academy chose to skip over? There was no best picture nomination for Straight Outta Compton. No acting nominations for Idris Elba or Jason Mitchell in Beasts of No Nation and Straight Outta Compton. No best screenplay nomination for Ryan Coogler for Creed. No acting, directing, or writing nominations for Sicario. No best picture nomination for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The worst part about these snubs is that it isn’t just entire communities that were disregarded: it’s that the year’s best films and performances weren’t recognized at all, period. And it’s not like the Academy’s hands were tied either: they literally had two open slots to include two more nominees for best picture, and they chose not to use them. Tell me, would it have really hurt to include Creed or Straight Outta Compton in there just to ease people’s nerves? It’s not like those pictures are undeserving, and I think people would be more excited for their nominations rather than they were for Brooklyn or Bridge of Spies.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first stupid mistake the Academy has made, and it won’t be their last either. We can only hope that with time and initiative, the Academy will be more fair and considerate of their nominations in the future. From my experience, though, they probably won’t be for quite some time.

In either case, the Oscars are still a few days away, and I still have to predict which movies are going to take home the gold. These are my predictions:

Best Picture: I’ll be honest here: I’m stumped. I’m absolutely stumped. Normally, this is one of the easiest categories to predict from the ceremony, but this year, I’m faced with three strong candidates in the running for best picture. What can I say? It’s been a close race this awards season. The Revenant won the Golden Globe and the DGA award. The Big Short won the PGA award for best feature film. Spotlight won best overall cast at the SAG awards. These accolades place each of them on equal footing in their reach for the night’s top honor. Who’s going to get it?

Considering the other accolades that it’s expected to get that night, my best guess is going to be The Revenant. Read on to find my reasoning.

Best Director: So nine times out of 10, the winner of the DGA award also wins the best directing Oscar at the Academy Awards. Call it movie science. There was only one time this decade where the DGA winner wasn’t even nominated for best director, and that was Ben Affleck for Argo in 2012. Every other winner this decade matches up with the Academy Award winner. Since this year’s DGA winner was Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu for The Revenant, he’s the most likely to win this year’s Oscar.

If he does win both best picture and best director, that will not only make him a five-time Academy Award-winner, but also the first director in film history to win best picture and directing Oscars in consecutive years. It’s an honor Inarritu deserves. The Revenant was not the most action-packed film of the year, but it is easily the most contemplative, compelling, and impactful. It would have been the best film of 2015, if it wasn’t released in January.

Best Actor: It’s already sickening enough that Johnny Depp wasn’t nominated for his mesmerizingly evil performance in Black Mass. If Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t win his long overdue Oscar for The Revenant, then all it truly lost for this prestigious category.

Best Actress: Ever since Room premiered in Telluride, Brie Larson has been racking it in for her portrayal as a traumatized mother seeking peace and understanding in a new world her and her son are only beginning to adjust to. To take the honor from her now would just seem ludicrous, as she seems locked for the award after winning the Golden Globe, the Critics Choice award, and the SAG award. Brie Larson is primed and ready to receive her Oscar. Root for her come Oscar night.

Best Supporting Actor: Did you know Rocky Balboa himself never won an Academy Award? It’s true that his movie did, with the first Rocky picture taking home best picture, best director, and best film editing at the 1976 Academy Awards. But Sly Stallone himself never won an Oscar as an actor or screenwriter, despite his career taking off due to the Italian Stallion. His time has finally come. Not only was Creed one of the best pictures out of the franchise, but Stallone himself gives one of the most pure and honest performances out of any other actor from the year. Give Sly his Oscar, guys. You could argue he’s just as overdue for it as Leo is.

Best Supporting Actress: I’ve flipped-flopped a ridiculous amount of times on this category, as there are once again three deserving candidates who have good chances at taking home the award. Kate Winslet was concerned and caring as an almost sisterly figure in Steve Jobs, while Rooney Mara was equally compelling in Carol as this star-crossed 1950’s teenager who was hopelessly lost and heartbroken by her love. There’s no denying, however, the outstanding year Alicia Vikander had, who besides starring in The Danish Girl had breakout roles in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Ex Machina. To make a decision between these three actresses is nearly impossible, but since the SAG award is on Vikander’s side, I’m going with her.

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out. It’s not only the best animated film of the year, but also arguably one of the best films of the year, period. Don’t bet against it.

Best Documentary Feature: I think it’s safe to say that Amy is going to take home the award for best documentary feature. Not only has its acclaim on the late British singer Amy Winehouse’s life been top-notch, but it was also a massive financial success, grossing over $22 million at the box office, a rarity for documentary films. Now even though box office numbers have never been a good indicator on how the Academy will vote, it does accurately show the public’s reaction to a film. Since it has fared so well with American audiences, it’s doubtful that Academy voters will vote against their preferences. It’s wise to go with Amy.

Best Foreign-language Feature: Son of Saul won this year’s Golden Globe for best foreign-language feature. Since the Golden Globe winners for best foreign-language films have been mostly consistent with the Academy Award for the past five years, it would be best to bet on that one too.

Best Original Screenplay: If we’re being really picky, I think we can all agree that the best screenplay out of all of the nominees here is Pixar’s Inside Out. However, since we’ve already decided that it’s going to win best animated feature, I don’t think that would be fair to the other nominees if it won in this category too, now would it?

My bet, then, goes to Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which is not only the best live-action nominee out of the list, but also the most relevant. Sexual assault is a big problem in today’s country, and one that often gets overlooked. But McCarthy handles the subject with respect and urgency in Spotlight, ushering a call to action to end sexual violence wherever we may find it, whether it be in a neighborhood or a church pew. It is one of the most important films you could see in 2015. To not recognize it for its credibility would be an absolute sham.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Here’s the best thing I can say about The Big Short: it knows exactly what it is. It is an irreverent, funny, obscene, smirking, yet tragic adaptation of one of America’s biggest financial crises. It knows it’s based off of real events and people, and it uses that to its advantage in moments of self-awareness and quirky comedy. While it is debatable whether it is the “best” adapted screenplay of the year, it is without a doubt the most clever. For that reason, I’m going with The Big Short.

Best Film Editing: In order to correctly predict this category, you need to replace “best” with “most.” The movie with the “most” editing is The Big Short, as editor Hank Corwin cuts in between multiple perspectives, cameos, explainers, and B-roll footage that will make your head spin. Does that make his work the best out of the year, though? I would contest that it doesn’t, and I would put Spotlight in its place as the superior. While it had a steady pace and took time to build up big ideas, Spotlight followed through its story with precision and clarity. There was no wasted space in this movie, as we understood everything we needed to know at the exact moment we needed to know it. Such editing is difficult to do skillfully, and Tom McArdle balances pace excellently with this complex, sensitive story.

But I don’t think McArdle is going to get it. Corwin will for his spasm editing on The Big Short, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not much of a good thing either though.

Best Cinematography: Poor Roger Deakins. He’s been nominated for the Academy Award for best cinematography 13 times now, ever since he was nominated for The Shawshank Redemption in 1994 (Which was the year he should have won, by the way). He’s going to have to wait even longer. Sicario looked great, but the best-looking film of the year by far is The Revenant, and that’s due to the pure ambition of Emanuel Lubeski’s scope of filming, with the adding challenge of shooting completely in natural light. If he wins the Oscar this year (which he will), it will be very well-earned. Sorry Roger. You know I’ll be rooting for you next year.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: I don’t see how shaving Charlize Theron’s head and by throwing white powder on a bunch of set extras constitutes a best makeup and hairstyling nomination for Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet, that movie is so far the most popular choice for this award. Why? Because a bunch of desert maniacs spray their faces with silver paint? Yeah, that’s award-worthy.

The Revenant, in comparison, had thrusted extensive effort to make Hugh Glass look like a battered, bruised, bloodied, and stitched-up mess after he barely survived an encounter against a grizzly bear. I would like to say The Revenant is going to take home this award, but considering the legwork Mad Max already has behind it, I doubt that will be the case. Mad Max is going to win best makeup, although I hope I am wrong.

Best Costume Design: Sandy Powell has been nominated too many times for best costume design at the Academy Awards. Yes, I know her work is amazing; that doesn’t change the fact that she has become the Meryl Streep for costume design at the Oscars. This year she has not one, but two nominations: one for Carol, and another for Cinderella. It’s safe to assume that the Shakespeare In Love, The Avaitor, and The Young Victoria designer is going to win her fourth Academy Award from this ceremony. The question is for which movie? I flipped a coin, and I’m going with Cinderella. Don’t make me flip again.

Best Production Design: There’s a difference between the best production design and the most obvious production design. The best from this year was The Revenant, as its set design was not only authentic and gritty, but it was also (and this is the important part) invisible. It blended with its environment. You didn’t notice it as much as the other elements in the film, and that’s the point. It’s supposed to provide the illusion that we are in a different place without making it too obvious that that’s the case. Everything in The Revenant breathed of realism and practicality. That is why it’s the best of the year.

The most obvious is… well, duh. It’s Mad Max: Fury Road. And while I applaud the design of its cars and its scenery, it is not the most skilled art direction from the year. Mad Max made great production work and blew it up. The Revenant made great production work and sat on it, reflected on it, and let it breathe in its own space. One such work should obviously be more celebrated than the other, but since the Academy has a history of naming the most obvious production design over the quote-unquote “best”, I’m going with Mad Max: Fury Road. 

On a side note, Academy members should be frustrated at themselves for not nominating Rick Carter and Darren Gilford’s amazing work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A film hasn’t had such an effect on me since the original Star Wars. To not recognize their work with even a nomination is just plain stupid.

Best Original Song: Well, let’s start with the obvious: the fact that The Weeknd’s “Earned It” got an Oscar nomination over Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” is just plain B.S. Now that I got that out of the way, let’s focus the discussion towards music that’s actually good, shall we? Lady Gaga is undeniably a powerhouse in the music world, but what gives her song “Til It Happens To You” an edge over the competition is how engrained it is in the tragedy of sexual assault on college campuses. It’s combined beauty and sadness creates an urgency of how much of a problem it is we need to fix, and Gaga’s musical influence only doubles its chances of winning. There is a slight chance that Sam Smith can sneak in a win there for Spectre’s “Writing’s On The Wall,” but with only a Golden Globe behind it, that isn’t likely. Go for Gaga.

Best Musical Score: I’m a die-hard John Williams fan. His music is not only the greatest film scores you can listen to, but some of the greatest music, period. He won his first original score Oscar 40 years ago with Jaws, and he’s nominated again for updating his own music in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Nostalgic and beautiful as his music is, however, he won’t win this time, and he shouldn’t either. The most likely and the most deserving winner is Ennio Morricone for his unsettlingly sinister soundtrack for The Hateful Eight. His career has spanned over 60 years, writing scores for The Dollars trilogy, being first nominated for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, and finally winning an honorary Oscar in 2006. It’s his year to shine. The Hateful Eight’s hauntingly ominous soundtrack still plays in my mind, just as much as Williams’ own wonderful music does.

Best Sound Editing: How do you predict the winner for the Academy Award for best sound editing? By picking the loudest, most obnoxious action picture out of the nominees, that’s how. What nominee is more loud, obnoxious, and action-packed than Mad Max: Fury Road? The answer is none of them. So that’s the one I’m going with.

Best Sound Mixing: Mad Max: Fury Road, for the same reasons as above. 

Best Visual Effects: Before I make my prediction, can I take a second to applaud all of the nominees? Year after year, the best visual effects goes to the movie with the best CGI. With this year, however, all of the nominees had a greater emphasis on practical effects as opposed to computer generated ones. Rotoscoping was used in the place of green screen for Ex Machina. Ridley Scott grew real plants to illustrate photosynthesis during The Martian. Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu filmed The Revenant in natural lighting. 90% of the stunts and visual effects of Mad Max: Fury Road were practical. J.J. Abrams built a real BB-8 droid for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This was a great year for visual effects in film, and that is because of the pioneers in the industry opting for real special effects as opposed to digitally artificial ones. A big salute to all of the nominees, as all of them have pushed the boundaries for what we could achieve visually for films this year.

Now then, predictions. I’m biased towards Star Wars: The Force Awakens for its innovation and invention, but since a Star Wars film hasn’t won an Oscar in over 30 years, I don’t expect the Academy to break the chain now. No, the award will go to Mad Max: Fury Road for its incredible stunt work and ambitious scope of destruction. I guess it pays to be a little mad after all, huh?

And finally, the dreaded short categories. I never have the opportunity to see the shorts, so I’m always completely in the dark on these nominations. I’m just going to throw out the first three titles that I see: Sanjay’s Super Team for animation, Body Team 12 for documentary, and Shok for live action. Good luck to anyone on getting these right.

And those are my predictions. I’ll see you on Oscar night when Chris Rock rips the Academy a new one. If that does happen, at least there’s one good thing that came out of #OscarsSoWhite.

– David Dunn

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“THE REVENANT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The broken spirit, revived. 

The Revenant is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and I never want to see it again.

The film tells the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), an 1820’s frontiersman who got mauled by a bear, watched his son get murdered, was left for dead by his friends, and crawled 200 miles to society, seeking revenge against those who betrayed him. His story is not fictional. Author Michael Punke captured the true accounts of Glass’s life in the novel of the same name, which serves as the primary basis for this film.

At hearing about the film, you would never have guessed that this is a true story. Watching the film does little to suspend your disbelief, but as it continues on, you catch yourself slowly conforming to the film’s convictions, believing it more and more as it builds to its emotionally binding and captivating climax. Director Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu, who won an Oscar last year for directing Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, has made a film so vivid, eerie, and compelling that it could, and indeed does, pass itself off as reality.

Look at the huge risks Inarritu takes as a filmmaker. In Birdman, he took a great risk by filming in multiple long takes, editing them together to give off the illusion that Birdman was all filmed in one shot. Here, Inarritu takes another risk by shooting everything in natural light, using the sun to naturally fill the space that Inarritu captures on camera. The result allows us to experience The Revenant’s environments as they are, rather than being artificially constructed for the film’s sake.

Beyond its practical filming and staging, Inarritu is equally ambitious in his overarching vision for the film. To pick one word to describe The Revenant is impossible. It’s beautiful. Disturbing. Shocking. Heartbreaking. Violent. Gritty. Emotional. Meaningful. Spiritual. The scope of Inarritu’s filmmaking is simply incredible, peering into this man’s loneliness, desperation, paranoia, and drive as he struggles not only to survive, but to live beyond his son’s death.

Oh, this is a wonderfully shot film. In wide angles, cinematographer Emanuel Lubeski captures the sheer scope and vastness of his environments, capturing both the beauty and danger of nature around Glass. In tight shots, he perfectly encapsulates Glass’s struggle against life, nature, and himself as he fights to keep on living. DiCaprio lends just as much to Glass’ turmoil as Lubeski does. At times he doesn’t speak, but simply reacts to the environment around him, and his grief and angst is so believable that you buy his struggle not as a character or an actor, but as a real person.

All of these elements build to embody a perfect film. Yes. A perfect film. Why then, do I say that I never want to see it again? Because it captures its vision so perfectly that the filmmaking aspect no longer seems like an illusion. It doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie: it feels like you’re watching life. You feel Glass’ nerves as he freezes in the cold, struggling breaths in between his slit throat and his stitches. You feel the pain stab through Glass as the bear’s claws tear into his flesh, literally ripping apart his fragile body as the blood replaces his decaying skin. And you feel Glass’ wrath and his pain, his internal torture where he knows that he will never be the same man again. The film is so convincing in its art that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. That’s what I mean when I say that I can’t see it again.

The film never tells us that it’s based on a true story in the opening and closing credits, and it doesn’t need to. We are already convinced of this through experiencing pure film.

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Top Ten Films of 2015

2015 was the year of change.

As I sit here, thinking about how this year ends and the next one begins, that’s the thought that keeps coming to my mind. I’ve changed this year. Not just me, but everyone else this year. People changed after terrorists attacked the city of Paris twice in both January and November, killing more than 140 people in total. People changed when business mogul Donald Trump announced his campaign for presidency in June, and as voters continued to debate the upcoming elections and how important it is to elect the right leader for the future of the U.S. People changed when war raged on in Syria, consuming over 200,000 lives as they died trying to escape their reality and come into Europe or the United States.

People all around the world changed as tragedy struck it again and again. It is years like these that remind me that we need the movies now more than ever. Not just to comment and bring exposure to the different realities we don’t know about, but also to escape from them when we need to.

It is times like these where I am overjoyed that the movies decide to change with us. To not only bring us stories that we don’t know about, but also to give us emotions of insight, joy, angst, tragedy, anger, sadness, and hope as we see these characters growing and changing, just like we are.

A few notes I want to point out before going into this year’s top 10 list. First of all, this is my top 10 list, meaning not every critically acclaimed movie from the year will be on this list. Movies such as Steve Jobs and The Martian, for instance, were highly regarded by critics and audiences everywhere. Neither of those are in my top 10. If you want to see movies like those in your top 10 list, go to RottenTomatoes or iMDB. Or better yet, make your own and comment below. Either case does not affect me. Top 10 lists are supposed to be celebrations of your most cherished movies of the year. Not everyone will share your views, and indeed, you might disagree with one or two entries on this list.

And as another disclaimer, I have not seen every movie released this year. The biggest I have missed, perhaps, is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is NOT a 2015 release despite claiming it is on Wikipedia. It’s doesn’t get a wide release until Jan. 9, and as such, I will not be able to review it in time for this year, which sucks, but it’s Inarritu’s own fault. So sorry if a movie deserved to be on this list but couldn’t be. I’m only human.

Before we get into my top 10, I want to start by announcing my special prize for the year. For those of you that don’t know, the special prize is a honorary recognition I give to a limited-release film that was not heard about or seen by many moviegoers, but deserves just as much recognition, if not more so, than most of the movies on my list. Last year, that honor went to the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself. This year, it goes to Bill Pohlad’s music biopic Love and Mercy, which tells the wonderful yet heartbreaking story about Beach Boy’s singer Brian Wilson, his battle with mental illness, and his overcoming of drug abuse and childhood trauma. Pohlad, who also served as a producer for The Tree of Life and 12 Years A Slave, debuts as a strong filmmaker all his own, not only understanding and implementing the visual art of storytelling, but also accurately appealing to the aesthetics of this complicated and personal biography. Actors Paul Dano and John Cusack are exemplary at portraying Wilson at different points of his life, and do well at showing how much this talented musician struggled with himself at any time period of his life. A small-budget summer release that squeaked by unnoticed by most, but is just as deserving to be seen as any wide-release blockbuster out there. Four stars.

10) Creed

Creed lives and exists in the shadows of its predecessors, but just like it’s main hero, it breaks away from the mold and builds a legacy all of its own. Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s (Sylvester Stallone) rival, Apollo Creed. When he decides to step into the ring himself, he enlists in the help of the Italian stallion to train him and become a fighter all his own. Writer-director Ryan Coogler, who is most known for 2013’s Fruitvale Station, approached this not as a sequel to a popular franchise, but rather as an intimate, personal story about one fighter’s deep aspirations. Jordan and Stallone demonstrate great chemistry with each other, even challenging the dynamic between Rocky and Mick in the original film. A hot-blooded sports drama through and through, let alone one of the best Rocky films, if you can call it that. Three and a half stars.

9) Avengers: Age of Ultron

A summer blockbuster that aims to outdo the original and misses it only by a hair, which is not a bad thing. The Avengers team up this time to take on the wickedly manipulative artificial intelligence Ultron (James Spader), who was created by Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to protect the Earth from super human threats. When Ultron goes rogue and become obsessed with human extinction, it’s up to the Avengers to stop him. Spader as Ultron is the best super villain performance I’ve seen in a Marvel movie to date. He doesn’t behave or talk like other androids. He is fluid and life-like, chaotic and radical in his thinking, acting more like a psychotic child rather than a logically driven A.I. Everything else in the movie lives up to the expectations you had from the first movie. The action is unique, visually complex, and eye-popping. The story is layered and intelligent, with characters bouncing witty and thought-provoking dialogue off of each other in perfect dynamics. The people over at Marvel continue to surprise me and make me believe in its cinematic universe. Let’s hope they can keep this up for the next 11 movies. Three and a half stars.

8) Concussion

A provocative sports drama that refuses everything we love about sports. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a brilliant pathologist who, after performing an autopsy on a notable football player, discovers a lethal disease that is caused by repetitive physical trauma to the brain. Now teaming up with doctors and scientists to defend his findings, he prepares to take on the NFL and reveal the problems the league has been hiding for a long time. There are many people who will not want to see this movie due to their love and commitment for the sport. Yet, it is these same people that need to see this movie the most. Writer-director Peter Landesman, who was previously criticized for his 2013 political thriller Parkland, finds his niche here in a story that not many people knew about, or maybe didn’t want to know about. Smith is exemplary as Omalu, and from the movie’s most bravura scenes to its most tender, he hits every emotional note spot-on, all while not breaking his Nigerian accent. An unconventional, nail-biting thriller that demands to be seen and heard. Three and a half stars.

7) Mad Max: Fury Road

Never before has a movie broken so many many rules and get away with it. On a desolate and deprived planet Earth, former patrol officer Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is on the run from the tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). When he gets caught up in a conflict involving Joe, road warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and all of Joe’s wives, he needs to team up with them to escape the desert and free the women from Joe’s cruelty and control. There is no plot in this movie, only the resemblance of one. The plot, however, is not what matters. What matters is the spectacular, eye-popping action and explosions, and even a few moments of softly implied feminism in the picture. Hardy replaces Mel Gibson’s role well with hardened machismo and stiffness to his gesture and voice. Theron demonstrates great versatility, being firm and uncompromising in one moment, and emotionally exhausted and stricken in another. A film that’s politically driven and female empowering, all while being ridiculous and absurd in the most gleeful of ways. Three and a half stars. 

6) Paper Towns

The second of John Green’s novels to be adapted to film, with the first being last year’s The Fault In Our Stars. Quintin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) is a regular high school student with regular friends, regular parents, regular life, and regular post-graduation plans. The one thing that isn’t regular in Q’s life is Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), the girl on his block that he’s been in love with since they were kids. One day, after Margo completely vanishes, Q discovers clues Margo left behind for him to discover. Now convinced that Margo wants him to find her, Q starts piecing all of the clues together to find out where she has gone to convince her to come home.

It’s hard to look at this movie and not relate it to our own experiences in high school, in first love, in friendship, and in self-discovery. Wolff plays his role convincingly without overdoing it, portraying all of the joy, excitement, angst, ambition, and confusion a teenager has during his high school years. The supporting cast is just as essential in making John Green’s ordinary characters extraordinary. A genuine, funny, and passionate film that delves into both the truths and fantasies of growing up. Three and a half stars. 

5) Straight Outta Compton

One of the most compelling films I’ve seen this year. Straight Outta Compton follows the story of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Eazy E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and how these five men grew up in the streets and eventually formed the iconic hip-hop group N.W.A. The parallels this movie draws on is ingenious, and director F. Gary Gray is exemplary in realizing the African-American struggle in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. What’s most captivating is the fact that the movie isn’t pro-police or anti-police or pro-gangs or anti-gangs. It shows the ugliness of every side of Compton, whether it exists on a badge or on a bandana. A great film that sets out not to show who’s right or wrong, but simply what is. Four stars.

Note: While among the year’s best, it’s important to note that ‘Straight Outta Compton’ deserves every syllable of its R rating and then some. F-words fly out like bullets from an uzi. Nude and scantily-clad women flock to rappers in herds, and in some cases engage in explicit sexual acts in public. Police and gang members also equally engage in very violent confrontations. This is your warning. If you hate hip-hop, you will hate ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ 

4) Sicario

A permanent, chilling, and disturbing portrait that remains with you long after you’ve left the movie theater. FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is recruited for a special op with CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who tells Kate they’re going to bring down the Mexican cartel. As Kate digs deeper into the pursuit of its leader, she soon discovers secrets darker than any drug lord or government official can hide from her. This is a nearly perfect film in which all of the elements form together into an excellent scope of filmmaking. The cast is brilliant and could catch your attention just by reading their lines. Director Dennis Villeneuve evokes a sense of hopelessness and desperation from its setting. The cinematography by Roger Deakins captures the aesthetic perfectly, while editor Joe Walker cuts skillfully in between angles and shots to help construct coherent ideas in the viewer’s minds. Sicario is Spanish for hitman. I don’t know what disturbs me more: knowing who the Sicario is, or who are the people that he’s hunting. Four stars.

3) Spotlight 

A necessary film that makes you think about the people that you don’t normally think about, the problems that you don’t think exist, and the secrets that you don’t think are being hidden behind prayers and confession booths. Based on the Boston Globe story on the 1990 Church abuse scandal, Spotlight follows the investigative reporting team that discovered that the Catholic church was covering up for priests that had sexually abused children at their parishes. When they find out how big the problem really is, they work to get to the bottom of the story and hold the people accountable for the grave sins they’ve committed. Featuring an all star cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schrieber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci, Spotlight is a movie that uses its actors not as the foundation for its story, but as the catalysts to show how urgent this epidemic really is. Writer-director Tom McCarthy, who was raised Catholic, juggles this behind-the-scenes story with real people’s traumas and emotions in mind, resulting in a portrait that is genuine, astounding, mind-blowing, and heartbreaking all at once. Not the best film of the year, but easily the most important. Four stars.

2) Inside Out

Another colorful Pixar masterpiece that uses reality as its springboard for creation and fantasy. The emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) make up 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), who just recently moved with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. As Riley goes through the changes in her life, her emotions go through a roller coaster of an adventure to make Riley’s life a happy, sad, fearful, disgusted, and angry one. The animation reaches out to you in vivid detail through its vibrant colors and ambitious landscapes, creating a beautiful universe in Riley’s expansive mind. What’s most meaningful, however, is its story. Writer-director Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up) uses the human psyche as his narrative playground, telling a thoughtful story on the emotions we experience and how they all make up who were are. Like the wacky emotions in Riley’s curious little head, Inside Out is a uniquely original force to be reckoned with. Four stars.

1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Are you really that surprised? Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a sheer blast of nostalgia, meaningful and joyous from it’s opening scroll credits to when John William’s score crescendos in the last shot. Taking place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars: The Force Awakens follows a new group of misfits as they suddenly get tangled into this intergalactic conflict involving heroes and villains both old and new. J.J. Abrams revitalizes George Lucas’ cherished sci-fi series for a new age, updating it with creative and interesting characters that makes this a strong story on its own, not just a strong Star Wars story. The cast is exemplary, with newcomer Daisy Ridley shining the most out of the whole group. We’ve seen an updated Star Wars for a modern audience before, and that was in the lopsided and disappointing prequel trilogy. Now we have The Force Awakens, and it’s so good that it’s eligible to compete with the original. Four stars.

Honorable mentions go to the smirkingly funny and genuine Trainwreck, the thought-provoking sci-fi drama Ex Machina, the intelligent and maddening The Big Short, and the disgusting yet wickedly genius western The Hateful Eight. All of those deserved a placement on this list, but unfortunately, did not deserve it as much as others. They are still among the year’s best.

Thank you to my readers for experiencing 2015 for me. I look forward to the changes we will go through in 2016, as I do with the movies.

– David Dunn

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“MAD MAX: FURY ROAD” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

A lovely day and a flaming guitar. 

I’ve never seen a movie break as many rules as Mad Max: Fury Road does and get away with it. I’ve never seen a movie so loud, obnoxious and over-the-top that still manages to impress me by the time the end credits roll. Previous movies have done the same thing Fury Road has done and failed spectacularly. Transformers. Resident Evil. Underworld. G.I. Joe. Fast and Furious. All of those films are every bit as explosive and stupid as Mad Max: Fury Road is, and yet I don’t love them as much as I do Mad Max. Why is that?

I think its because the movie knows its just that: a movie. It knows that it’s loud, obstinate and stupidly explosive. It knows that its a blockbuster of exceedingly epic proportions that shakes the theater so much, it makes viewers shat in their pants. And more than anything else, it knows it is an action movie, with all of the fun and flaws alike bundled with it.

So what does a director like George Miller decide to do with that, knowing this is the fourth film in his own franchise? Fix the mistakes that are present in all of his predecessors?

No. Instead, he decided to embrace them, like a soldier throwing himself onto a hot grenade.

The end result is exactly how it sounds: bloody awesome.

The plot (if you can call it that) follows Max Rockatansky (this time portrayed by Tom Hardy) after the events of Road Warrior and before Beyond Thunderdome. In this desolate landscape called planet Earth, Max is a survivor of Nuclear war, traveling dry and sandy deserts in silence and solitude. Everyone else around him is either dead or has signed up in the mad crusade of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a tyrannical warlord who has idolized himself as a god and has labeled everyone under him as his followers. Considering he has control over the only water source over hundreds of miles, the survivors have little choice but to submit to him.

One of these followers is Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a fierce female warrior who is charged with transporting Joe’s water to a nearby town with her small battalion. Little to Joe’s knowledge, however, Furiosa is transporting something else: all of Joe’s wives. Now on the hunt from Joe and all of his maniacal followers, Furiosa needs to team up with Max to escape the desert landscape and free the wives that have been under Joe’s cruel control for so long.

Is the plot as stupid as it sounds? The answer is no, because the film really doesn’t have a plot, only the resemblance of one. The narrative is a weakness all of the films in the series share with each other. While other science-fiction movies have a rich amount of lore and backstory behind them, Mad Max doesn’t have as much to boast about in its own series. Really, as far as story goes, all of the Mad Max movies are kind of weak in narrative scope. Here’s the plot for all of them: a guy is trying to survive against a homicidal maniac in a deserted landscape. That’s it. It’s a big case of “what you see is what you get.”

Here’s where Mad Max: Fury Road is different though: there’s a lot to see. Even though the plot is about as thick as a studio pitch, Miller displays this meager plot in spectacular, stunning, eye-popping action and explosions, and even a few soft moments of short dialogue exchanges between characters.

The stunts are unlike anything you’ve seen in any of the previous movies. The most destruction you found in Mad Max and Mad Max 2 was cars exploding and toppling over into deep sand dunes and rocky road pavements. In this movie, vehicular manslaughter is the least of the destruction found in the film. In one of the first action sequences, an entire armada of Joe’s fleet follows Furiosa into a giant sand storm of extremely windy proportions. In another scene, gang members viciously chase Furiosa’s truck in a tightly-cornered crevice of mountains. In another, a flunkie gets blinded by gunfire, puts cloth around his bleeding eyes, then fires blindly at Max and his gang like a crack-happy trigger maniac. For crying out loud, there’s one underling in the film that uses a guitar flamethrower.

Yes. That’s right. A guitar flamethrower.

It’s obvious that the film is ridiculous and absurd in the most gleeful of ways. Yet, what I like so much is that in between all of the over-the-top and in-your-face action, there’s actually a purpose and a reason for actors being in the movie. Yes ladies and gentlemen: this is an action movie that has actual acting in it. Hardy replaces Mel Gibson’s role with hardened machismo and stiffness to his gesture, and while Max is still mostly a flat character, Hardy portrays him with a sort of intrigue to him that makes you curious about his history, even though we already know most of it. Theron, however, impresses me the most. She’s incredibly versatile in the film, being a firm and uncompromising action heroine in one moment, and an emotionally exhausted and stricken survivor in another. She’s honestly the real lead in the film, with Max being more of a supporting character to Furosia’s rebellion against Immortan Joe. The film is really empowering to females, and that’s an incredibly rare thing, especially for an action movie.

By now, you’ve hopefully gotten the idea of what the movie is like and whether you’d be interested in this sort of thing or not. The film definitely has its flaws, but by God, the movie is just so freaking entertaining. I can’t sum up the film any better than that. Now go get your movie ticket. There’s a flaming guitar that you need to see.

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“THIS MEANS WAR” Review (✫1/2)

Spy vs Spy in the most imbecilic way possible.

I hate formula movies.  I hate em, I hate em, I hate em.  They are predictable, repetitive, and annoying in nature, deafening and forgettable by default.  It doesn’t matter what genre its from: if it follows the formula, premise, or plot-line of another film, it is automatically doomed for failure.  You’ve never heard of Mac and Me because it isn’t E.T., and you don’t remember The Mummy because it isn’t Indiana Jones.  Why on earth, then, would we remember this when we already have movies like Rush Hour, Lethal Weapon, and Men In Black?

This Means War is one of those movies that follows its formula so strictly, it treats its premise like its their only chance of survival.  Imagine the movie like the sinking Titanic, and the small plank of wood (the formula) is the actor’s only hope of survival.  Director McG should have actually seen Titanic though: the plank of wood didn’t have the strength to support its two leads.  What makes McG think that here it would support three?

This Means War follows the story of two CIA agents: partners, allies, goody-goody beer buddies.  FDR (Chris Pine) is an active womanizer who is always on the lookout for new jailbait.  Tuck (Tom Hardy) is his less-lucky friend who is divorced, has a son, and struggles to even find a date.  Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) is a bold, intelligent, and beautiful product-testing agent who struggles to find love.  Oh boy.

These are our characters: one of them a pleasure-seeking playboy and the other two romantically hopeless until they discover online dating.  And when Tuck arranges for a date online with the beautiful, yet oblivious, Lauren, their date leads to another coincidence encounter that could only happen in a movie: FDR, who just happened to be looking for a video in the rental store when he ran into Lauren.  From there, you can predict what the movie is: a spy-romantic-action-“comedy” about two expert CIA agents fighting over the same girl.

Har har har, hee hee hee.  How original.  Hasn’t this been done before?  How many times have we seen movies, television shows, novels, and even comic books about competing love interests?  I’m all for the buddy-cop-turns-rivalrous-romance gag, but the material in the story must be funny and/or clever in order for it to back up its lack of originality.

Expect none of that humor, wit, or emotion in this movie.  This Means War is mind-numbing, a sterile, unfunny, and idiotic film that tries to win us over with confidence and charisma, but instead rubs us off with immaturity and annoyance.  There’s no reason to care for these characters.  The emotion is artificial.  All of the jokes are unfunny, and they dilute to topics as silly and insignificant as alcohol in a baby’s bottle, or sex jokes involving Cheetos.  No, that was not a typo.  Think of how many jokes you can make about a small, orange, stubby-shaped object.  I’ll bet Chester was happy to hear about the product placement, though.

The greatest hinderance of this movie is its writing, where every single line of dialogue carries over its insincerity and its dependency on its paper-thin premise.  The dialogue is so shockingly dumbfounded that I wanted to rub my fingernails on the chalkboard owned to whoever taught these screenwriters how to write.  The smartest lines of dialogue in the film include something like “What do you do when you don’t know what to do?” or “You have the intelligence of a fifteen year old boy!”.  Well, at least we’re on the same page here.

The only redeeming factor of this movie is the cast, who at times deliver their lines with whimsicality and good humor.  Even then though, their roles are wasted.  Their characters are so stupid, half-witted, and immature that they could only be artificial.  Take, for instance, Reese Witherspoon’s character.  How is it that a woman like her gets all of these advances and radical emotional changes from both of these guys, yet she continues to remain so clueless and oblivious like she’s out on a first date?  Explosions go off and these guys go kung-fu on each other and you still think they’re just travel agents?  Sorry, I’m not buying that.

Do I really need to elaborate any more here?  I’ve already said why This Means War is terrible, and I hope my point is made.  The chemistry is flat, plastic, and unbelievable, the dialogue, even more so.  The plot is stock, unoriginal, and lifeless.  The visual effects are so bad, you can see the CG on a car when it goes flying from an explosion.  The villains, especially, are extremely lackluster and uninspired.  What is more stock, for instance, than a Russian baddie trying to get revenge at two secret agents who killed his brother?

This, from the same guy who gave us We Are Marshall.  What happened to McG?  He was so great with that film, filling it with so much life and emotion.  Terminator Salvation, preposterous as it may be, was also darkly atmospheric and marginally entertaining.  Now, he’s here scraping the bottom of the barrel with This Means War, giving us no sanctuary from conventionalism, but instead, wooden planks to float on it.  Let it sink, McG.  Please.  Let it sink.

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