January 26, 2016

Steve Jobs (2015)

Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Bridges, Seth Rogan



I'm not totally sure why directors are cranking out Steve Jobs movies faster than re-makes The Hulk and Spiderman, but it being Aaron Sorkin and all, I figured it had to be better than the one starring Ashton Kutcher.

Aaron Sorkin is amazing. That's not an opinion--it's fact. Between The West Wing and The Social Network, and the short-lived The Newsroom, he draws viewers in with intelligent, fast-paced dialogue and multi-dimensional characters you simultaneously love and hate. This movie is rife with his "signature," with continuous motion throughout a dialogue-driven drama through scenes of people walking and talking. He keeps the movie from becoming what could have easily been a simple, boring techie biography by using sharp wit and tension-filled interactions. Of course, that leads to an unbelievable frequency of "run-ins" between people who would obviously not be meeting at that moment, and other dramatic licenses that take away a bit from the realistic feeling of a true biography. And the frequent usage of technical computer language with no further explanation left me feeling like I wish I knew what the people were talking about. It could totally be a personal problem, of course, since this movie is mostly about computers and technology, but it's never fun to feel like you're stupider than the movie you're watching.

Luckily, it being a biography of a person and a company whose products launched all throughout my childhood, I have vivid memories of their products and it was exciting to watch the back story parallel what I remember as a member of the public. For instance, the launch of the iMac. God that thing was cool. Pretty much every school had a computer lab filled with boring, standard PCs and one, bright orange iMac that every student fought over when it came time to play Oregon Trail. By punctuating different points of this story with these iconic moments, the movie keeps engaging an audience who might otherwise be bored with what an asshole Steve Jobs appears to be.

or wearing tight t-shirts
Aaaaaand we're back to Sorkin. This movie reminds me of The Social Network so much in that Sorkin takes an iconic figure, and portrays him in a mostly negative light, yet keeps the audience rooting for him to succeed. (Which is weird, since really, we all know what happens to both Zuckerberg and Jobs in real life.) Sorkin also manages to make the movie succeed, despite someone playing the main role that's sort of dislikable. With The Social Network, it was the deplorable Jesse Eisenberg. Here, it's Michael Fassbender. Not that he is anywhere on par with Eisenberg (who actually succeeded in the role), but I thought Fassbender was an odd choice for the role. Fassbender tends to play more sexually provocative roles that require him to be at least partially nude. Steve Jobs is about as far from being sexually provocative as well, Seth Rogan. So I guess his casting made more sense.

Then we arrive at Kate Winslet. Sigh. I love her. I really do. If I had to make a Top 5 Women in Hollywood list, she would be on it. (Not that kind of Top 5.) But between her stealing my baby name and her appearance in Divergent, she's starting to slip. Here, she plays a former Soviet who inexplicably sticks with Jobs through his tumultuous career. The problem? Her accent is nearly undetectable for the first 10 minutes of the film. It's bizarre. Once it's there, it's spot on--like someone who used to live in the USSR but has lived here long enough for the accent to fade a bit. But still. Kate Winslet is better than an accent that's not consistent throughout. I'm not sure how no one else has seemed to notice it. Then again, the Academy also seems to be overly impressed by pretty people "uglying up" for a movie, so maybe that's why she was nominated.

It's a well done film, as one would expect from the [previously established] amazing Sorkin. But as someone who made that switch from a PC to a Mac, I wonder if I'm the only person who isn't as enamored with Jobs. Many of the criticisms lobbed at him throughout the movie are completely valid, and I've never quite understood his God-like status among so many consumers. (I mean, really, people camp out for days just to be the first to buy new Apple products. They're not giving them away for free, people!) So my tepid reaction to this movie maybe stems from the fact that I wasn't all that interested in the subject to begin with. Well and, you know, the sappy ending.

Final word: It certainly didn't make me like Apple products any more.

January 22, 2016

Beasts of No Nation (2015)

Idris Elba



Years ago, I unwittingly took a political writing class in college. I thought it was a creative writing class. Instead the professor was a member of Amnesty International and we spent every class reading about human rights violations--child soldiers, female genitalia mutilation, you name it. It was brutal. Not because those things are terribly important to learn about, but because I have a reflex that forces me to become numb to atrocities if exposed to them for long period of time. There are only so many stories about 8 year girls having their clitorises sawed off with rusty knives while they scream before your eyes glaze over. 

This movie is like that. It's horrifying. In a good way, of course, It highlights the horrors of war, child soldiers, rape, and I'm sure a number of other things I blocked out five minutes after the movie ended. In all seriousness, living through a civil war and its repercussions is something the vast majority of us have no experience with. We really can't fathom how devastating it is and how bleak and hopeless everyday life is, all the while watching everyone around you die. This movie effectively captures both the broad strokes and the minutia of this all-too-common story, showing it through the eyes of a child. It takes a story that is very hard to stomach and breaks it down into a smaller, more manageable piece by personalizing it to one specific boy.

And that is what makes the movie so good. The entire movie hinges on the acting ability of a child actor, which is always risky. But this kid is up to the challenge. He is what Hushpuppy was to Beasts of the Southern Wild, except this movie is a lot better overall. Between the kid and Idris Elba (who was ROBBED of a Golden Globe, BTW), it almost doesn't matter that the movie is slow. Then again, I don't always mind slow. Beasts of No Nation reminded me of one of my favorite movies, The New World, with its long sequences with no dialogue a hushed narrator. I like the introspective vibe of it. Sometimes, the lack of action makes more of an impact than explosions or killings via machete (though there was plenty of that as well).

Now, I don't want to turn every movie review into a political rant, but I will say that I think this movie should be required watching for anyone lacking in sympathy toward the current plight of Syrian refugees. This is the type of movie people dread watching because it seems heavy and educational--and it is, on both counts. It's perfect awards season bait because if it weren't nominated, it probably wouldn't get very much exposure because of the onerous subject matter. But you know what? It was nominated. And that made me watch it. And I'm glad I did. Now excuse me while I go tweet about how ridiculous it was that Elba didn't get an Oscar nomination for this. I guess the Academy figured Forest Whitaker winning for playing a scary African dictator covered them for all similar roles in the future.

Final word: Not the most original story, but still makes an impact.

January 19, 2016

Creed (2015)

Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone



Whenever I watch sports movies, I always wonder: is the action genuinely good, or is it just because I'm not enough of an expert to know what good form looks like? I can't bear to watch tennis movies because as the only sport I've ever played at a high level, it's painfully easy to recognize how terrible Hollywood actors (and the horrible body doubles they hire) are at it. But basketball and football? Unless someone is terrible awkward, the slow-mo and cut scenes are enough for me to always believe the players are good at what they do.

I wonder this because Michael B. Jordan looks like he can throw a real punch. He is ripped. He is fit. And most importantly, he looks like an actual boxer. Hollywood loves to see physical transformations in actors and this definitely qualifies. Sure, Jordan still embodies the same "tough guy from the streets" role he played on both Parenthood and Fruitvale Station, but now he has the body to match it! ;)

All joking and fawning over his physique aside, he actually does a really fantastic job. Jordan is very good at balancing this tough guy persona with a deeper, sensitive side. He doesn't even look awkward when he cries, which is a really big deal because I don't know the last time I saw someone who wasn't a terrible crier. And even though he's matched with the iconic Rocky Balboa aka Sylvester Stallone, Jordan holds his own and commands the movie as if it were his own. Which it is. Because it's called Creed. But it could've easily gone awry with the nostalgic Rocky montages and music.

Speaking of Sly... he too is believable as an old boxer. Between his accent and his slow speech, it's becoming increasingly easy to buy him as a guy who's been hit to head hundreds of time. That sounds like an insult, but I mean it as a sort of a compliment: Rocky still has a valid and believable place in this movie, despite this being a spin-off with new characters. I mean, it's the SEVENTH Rocky movie and I'm still not sick of his character yet. That's got to be worth something. (Apparently, a Golden Globe.)

Final word: If only real boxing matches were this entertaining.

January 18, 2016

#OscarsStillSoWhite

The Oscar nominations came out last Thursday and they've been on my mind ever since because, in case you hasn't heard, all the acting nominations were for white people. Again. I was asked to share my thoughts on the matter and initially I demurred because I've seen only a tiny fraction of the movies nominated--how could I possibly complain the nominees were unworthy if I didn't have a solid list of people I'd list in their place?

Then I realized: it's not actually my job to list who should be nominated. Sure, I'm a movie critic [of my own volition], but I don't have the time, access, or financial incentive to see the volume of movies that actual critics do. I decide what to watch based on their recommendations, who is cast, and of course, what people on Facebook tell me to do. ;)

I am part of the problem.

On MLK Day, it's important to remember that the establishment (in this case, the Academy and other awarding bodies) isn't just going to give accolades to actors of color simply because they want to be fair and equal. We--the consumers--need to demand they give real thought to these matters because it's always easier to maintain the status quo. And currently, that status quo only includes white actors.

Now, I know all the standard arguments (assuming you're someone who disagrees with what I've said but managed to keep reading):

Actors shouldn't just be nominated because they're diverse! Awards are merit based. Yeah, sure. First of all, anyone who actually believes the best person wins for every category is far too naive. With all the politics of studios campaigning for certain awards, actors rubbing elbows with voting members, and the Academy's occasional attempt to look not racist, the result is far more complex that "people cast votes for the best person or movie."

Then of course, there is the other complicated factor that dramatic movies with all or predominately white casts get far more exposure and promotion than movies with a diverse cast or with a person of color as the lead (with a few exceptions of Hollywood darlings like Denzel or Morgan Freeman). Don't believe me? Watch TV for a day and tell me which movie trailers you see.

That's not the Academy's fault! Studios decide what gets promoted. Hey, guess who runs most studios? (If you didn't guess white people, this whole article is probably going to go right over your head). Studios get to decide a lot of things. Namely, what movies are going to be made and who will produce and direct them. Hey, guess what percentage of movie directors are white? (Answer: 82% in 2013.) The problem isn't just with the Academy and the awards given--it's systemic.

Maybe there just aren't as many minorities who want to be actors or directors or producers.

because there were apparently no available
Asian actresses for this role?
I've actually heard this. Which, to be honest, sent me into a white hot rage for about 48 hours after reading it. I'm not arguing there might be some element of truth to this. Asian culture, for example, heavily looks down upon non-traditional career paths (read: anything other than medical school). That's why every Asian contestant on Chopped or Top Chef constantly talks about how they're on the show to validate their career choice to their parents. But perhaps parents (and actors who currently face huge barriers to success in Hollywood due to their skin color) would feel less apprehensive about careers in acting if they felt more assured that they would be given fair and equal consideration in their work. Or that their potential roles wouldn't be limited to "Kung Fu guy #3." It's like when people argue that only 4% of Fortune 500 company CEOs are women because women don't want to be the boss. It's an argument for another day, but the sentiments both for and against this "logic" are similar. Few people want to enter a field where the deck is already stacked against them.

But even all arguments of sheer volume of whites vs. non-whites aside, are we really expected to believe that the whites who are acting and directing are that much better than the non-whites? Consistently better? This isn't a matter of sheer statistics: just because there are 5 times the number of white actors to non-white actors doesn't make them 5 times more likely to be the best. That's not the way talent works. Don't believe me? Go watch women's professional tennis. In the last 5 years, non-whites won 10 out of 20 Grand Slam titles, despite only 15% of the Top 100 women being minorities.

That's not fair. If there is a standout in the group, he/she will be recognized.

Ok, I admit, most of the titles I referenced in the previous point were won by Serena Williams, who is arguably the greatest female tennis player who ever lived. But it's also like saying, "look at all the non-white actors who have won Oscars! Sidney Poitier! Denzel! Two years ago it was Lupita Nyong'o!" Yeah. All that's proving is you have to be undeniably better than everyone else to get any kind of recognition. And yeah, in theory, this is how awards should work. But then we circle back to the difficulty in landing a noteworthy role that will demand people's attention. Lupita Nyong'o won an award for playing a slave--a role that really, only an African-American person could play. Before that, it was Octavia Spencer for The Help. Again, a role defined by her status as an African-American. I'm not diminishing their ability or success, but my question is, why aren't there more roles that don't make someone's race the defining quality? Do we recognize actors of color who aren't playing roles stereotyped to their culture, race, or history? Why must minorities so often be relegated to supporting or minor roles in movies that would require them to essentially stand on their heads for anyone to notice them?

Besides this guy, and the kid
from Slumdog Millionaire
And lest anyone think this is a black/white issue, I actually think African-Americans have made great strides in recent years in gaining visibility in Hollywood and on TV, much of which can be directly attributed to Tyler Perry (regardless of how you feel about his movies) and Shonda Rhimes alone. But what about Asians? Indians? Latinos? Native Americans? (Seriously, how many can you name off the top of your head? Did you even know this guy's real name, or did you think of him as Kumar?) Where are their leading roles? Where are their accolades? Why was Han killed off in Fast & Furious 6? (No seriously, how could you kill off Han?!?)

I can't say with confidence I've convinced anyone who doesn't believe Hollywood has a diversity problem with a simple blog post. Race is a hot button issue that many people are uncomfortable talking about in regular life, let alone letting the discussion creep into something as frivolous as movie awards. But it's important that white people don't sweep the issue under the rug, and that people of color don't shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes, saying 'big surprise. The Oscars is #StillSoWhite.' Exposure brings about awareness.

So I will leave all the doubters with one final thought, and perhaps a couple of concrete examples of all the ranting I just did: Sylvester Stallone was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Creed. Since he is being recognized, it's obvious the movie didn't slip under the critics' radar. And it was a good enough movie to be considered for awards season. Yet Stallone is the only person nominated from the movie. Sure, he's in it a decent amount, but is he single-handedly carrying the movie? Is he really the only noteworthy performance from the movie? Stallone is literally the only white person in the movie who says more than about 10 lines. Or the fact that Straight Outta Compton, a movie with an almost entirely African-American cast that highlights the racial injustices of society and grossed $161M domestically, managed to have only its screenwriting team nominated--2 white people. Are they the only people responsible for the movie's overwhelming success?

If you don't see something strange about that, well then, you are part of the problem too.

January 14, 2016

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson



I feel like I'm experiencing deja vu because last week I wrote about a sequel that's basically the same as the first, but still enjoyable. To be fair, really all the Mission: Impossible movies are the same. Someone is doing something bad, there is a character you can't decide is on the good side or the bad side, and Tom Cruise runs a lot. So like I said, it's basically the same thing again.

The difference maker in this particular installment is Rebecca Ferguson, who is the most impressive action star I've seen in awhile. She's a complete badass. If I can learn one thing in my life, I've decided it needs to be the move where she basically run-climbs up someone's body to then choke them out with her thighs. I can't imagine that won't come in handy some day.

Though I already said all the Mission Impossibles are basically the same (and they are), this one was a bit more like the original in that it was less predictable than the others. The plot was much more compelling because it wasn't as easy to guess who was going to be the secret bad guy. (There's always a secret bad guy.) This one managed to focus more on plot, actually integrating it with the action instead of just blowing stuff up for fun.

It's also worth noting that I'm fairly convinced Tom Cruise sold his soul to Xenu to look the way he does. I've never personally found him attractive, but how is it possible he still looks like this at his age?!? No wonder Hollywood loves him.


Final word: It may not have won any major awards, but it was better than any other action movie last year.

January 11, 2016

Spy (2015)

Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Jude Law, Rose Byrne, Allison Janney




Melissa McCarthy is one of those people I want to like, no matter how many of her movies completely disappoint me. I believe she has the capacity to be funny--it's just that every director thus far has been determined to only pigeonhole her into this fat, gross, foul-mouthed slob that's funny for about 5 jokes. After that, you're still left with 90 minutes of Tammy.

I expected more of the same from this movie. If you're wondering why I watched it at all, well, you can thank my sheep-like impulse to watch movies nominated for major awards. I even spent a full $6 on it, springing for the HD on Comcast On Demand.

But it was worth it. This is the Melissa McCarthy I've been waiting for. She still goes on the occasional foul-mouthed tirade long enough for you to become bored and tune her out, but she also shows a subtle humorous side I haven't before seen. She is hilarious, and not just dressed in a cat t-shirt. (But seriously, the costume director of this movie needs to be hired more often.)

Though McCarthy earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, the movie is ultimately successful because everyone in it is funny. Well, everyone but Jude Law. He's sort of the sour point of the movie. Between his American accent and fading looks, I felt myself dreading every time he was on screen. (I don't mention his looks just to be rude--it's supposed to play a heartthrob, but he's completely lacking any of his previous charms.)

It's intended to be a sort of Bond spoof, but the action is legitimately good and the plot actually decent. Nothing over the top and ridiculous like Kingsmen. I can only hope this signals a more diverse future for Melissa McCarthy.

Final word: Better than some actual Bond movies.

P.S. The writing has also restored my faith in Paul Feig. He should spend more time writing and less time behind the director's chair.

January 5, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and oh yeah, the new people



People love Star Wars. Like, spend a year of their lives building a replica Millenium Falcon out of LEGOS love it. Seeing as I waited until last week to watch the entire series for the first time, I am clearly not one of those people. So I'm not going to get all emotional about what this film was or wasn't in relation to the other six.

Was it eerily similar to the previous movies? Yes. Do those similarities extend beyond the plot into details like casting a Keira Knightly lookalike (you know, Keira Knightly being Natalie Portman's uncredited body double in the movies and all), putting a rebel in a leather jacket, and recycling every ship already created? Yes, yes, and yes. So it's not the most original movie out there. But for the sixth sequel in a series started almost 40 years ago, it was certainly entertaining enough.

I don't blame J.J. Abrams for the movie's shortcomings, like so many others have. Instead, I choose to focus the bulk of the movie's shortcomings on the casting of Adam Driver. He's terrible. Even with his face covered for the majority of the movie, just knowing it was his bad acting hulking underneath that black cloak was enough to annoy me. I dislike him so much I can't even watch him as a bad guy we're all hoping gets killed. Even Anakin Skywalker didn't annoy me this much, and I sat through 3 movies of his bitching. Ugh.


On the other hand, I know Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have been catching a lot of flack for how old they looked in the movie, but I'm glad they were there. If you're going to make a nostalgic throw-back to the original series, then it should include the original people (assuming they are A. alive, and B. not doing anything better). Without them, this story bridge into new, younger people would've felt sort of forced and unnatural. Like episodes I-III. And kudos for Carrie Fisher responding to the trolls on Twitter who criticized how hold she looked because honestly people, let's see how great you look in 40 years. Sheesh.

In the end, the movie is probably exactly what people wanted, no matter what they say about it. Stray too far from the original (like I don't know, casting a person of color in a main role?!?) and people lose their sh*t; follow the original too closely and people complain it's not different enough. Personally, I love seeing someone--anyone--not related to the freaking Skywalker family incorporated into the movie, but I suppose then Disney couldn't merchandise them quite as well.

TL;DR You can't win 'em all.

Final word: Some new technology beyond BB-8 and a souped up light saber would've been nice, but entertaining nevertheless.