My December ’15 in Review

As you wait with bated breath for my year-end Top 10 list, I figured I’d keep with tradition and share my December in film viewing first. As I scramble to catch up with an unavoidably stacked backlog of interest-piquing 2015 releases, the past month was mostly fruitful in terms of quality as Me, Earl and the Dying Girl stands tall as its only dud, mistaking overly referential self-indulgence for affecting indie quirks. Tokyo Drifter was my first Suzuki, of whom I’m assuredly going to continue to catch up with in the coming months as my much anticipated Criterion trek gets underway via Hulu and the like. Enjoy, and stay tuned for the aforementioned list that should be finalized and posted for your reading pleasure by the end of this coming week.

December

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015)

Few pop cultural entities have harbored as much significance as Star Wars. Barring the innumerable reviews and think pieces the franchise has garnered over the course of six feature films and recently renounced expanded universe, I felt the need to air my thoughts on the most recent canonical entry. Redundancy aside, it’s safe to say that Abrams’ heart and mind were in the right place during the inception and subsequent production of something so simultaneously pandering and satisfactory to those who appreciate George Lucas’ brainchild in a palpable capacity.

Set decades after 1983’s Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens focuses on The First Order’s tyrannical, Empire-esque stranglehold on an oppressed galaxy that’s spearheaded by one of the few remaining practitioners of the force, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). When defecting Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) morally objects to following said regime’s gameplan, his decision to free ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) from Ren’s clutches unexpectedly thrusts him into the company of destitute scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley): a young girl struggling alone to make ends meet, foolishly awaiting the return of the loved ones responsible for her abandonment.

Having just viewed the original trilogy in its entirety roughly a year ago, I’m more or less new admirer of Star Wars as an epitome of longstanding, similarly licensed cinema during this continuing rash of obsessive nostalgia. It’s as much a staple of a more genre-inclined niche as it is an historical juggernaut, spawning a breadth of fanatics that are willing to live or die by the questionable integrity of an increasingly floundering legacy in the wake of ghastly (subject to opinion) prequels. J.J. Abrams has thankfully done the unthinkable in rehashing the allure of this galaxy far, far away, even if he doesn’t reinvent the wheel as he does return the franchise to a desirable form that competently opens the door for expansion.

Furthermore, it’s no secret that The Force Awakens is almost embarrassingly emulative of A New Hope in terms of overarching structure. Ren is the Vader to Rey’s Luke, Starkiller Base a larger iteration of the preceding Death Star(s) and so on – it’s all been discussed and dissected to death following a surprisingly spoiler-free but unsurprisingly record-breaking opening week. Even still, the sheer enthusiasm emitted from series newcomers and the film’s equally giddy sense of self help transcend the weak and stilted trappings of the prequel trilogy. Boyega, Ridley, Driver and the lot are all very much invested in portraying their characters with conviction, of which is particularly important given the series’ adherence to characters and characteristics over that of the overtly thematic. Star Wars has always prided itself on its world-building capabilities and unfettered escapism, and The Force Awakens reinstates this strong suit with aplomb, even as foreseeable nods to its predecessors become increasingly questionable in terms of quality and relevance.

The Force Awakens is merely a retread that thrives thanks to how easily it subverts the low expectations established and sustained from 1999’s The Phantom Menace onward. The action, the charm, the nostalgia – it’s all here and in gleeful abundance as Abrams knowingly employs and borderline exploits the strongest suits of this storied franchise. Key players return with a requisite amount of gusto amid the newcomers’ welcome introduction, and despite the obvious and unavoidable homage paid to legendary predecessors, The Force Awakens is a lively and reinvigorating slice of simple-minded entertainment that does its job and nothing more. It’s a solid chunk of big-budgeted filmmaking that’s aptly self-aware in a way that doesn’t mistake fans’ adoration for weakness, all the while meshing the old with the new in a balanced manner that ensures the earnestness of future installments.

Mission: Impossible – A Retrospective, Should You Choose to Read It

Unlike a bulk of the present deluge of similarly bloated franchises, the Mission: Impossible films have slowly but surely epitomized the trend through evolution of formula throughout nearly two decades. Finding comfort in Tom Cruise as its ageless and unfailingly charismatic centerpiece, each film simultaneously exudes a directorial singularity that many have noted noticeably differentiates them from one another. This has become increasingly appropriate given the semi-meticulous one-off nature of the lot, what with the titular word “Mission” in conjunction with the newer subtitles suggests an almost serialized, episodic nature. No matter which (if any) of them is your preferred series high mark, Mission: Impossible is a rarity in the sense every installment isn’t without its own unique merits in the realms of presentation and scenario.

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Brian De Palma’s inaugural 1996 effort is, needless to say, a far cry from the grandiose set piece-driven mold succeeding it. It’s in essence a by-the-books spy thriller benchmarked by De Palma’s recurring motifs both thematic and visual. Subtler if convoluted exposition segues breezily into the bigger picture quickly enough: IMF dynamo Ethan Hunt – reeling from the tragic loss of his team after a mission gone awry – is framed as part of a mole hunt conducted to sniff out the possessor of the coveted NOC List. Given the immense threat of exposing the identities of the operatives detailed within, a high stakes cat-and-mouse caper ensues as Ethan confides in fellow disavowed ex-IMF agents to uncover the truth.

Although agreeably convoluted in its occasionally noirish execution of many a twist and turn, M:I doesn’t opt for easy answers as a surefire resolution remains appropriately and appealingly out of reach for viewers. Predictability takes a backseat to muddy character allegiances and general tide-turning tendencies, all of which are effective despite the formulaic skeleton that lies beneath the surface. Some of the aforementioned twists are genuinely disorienting, thus solidifying the film as something of a successful and palpably unconventional blockbuster.

Thus brings us to the pivotal, Langley, Virginia-set break-in scene executed entirely in total silence. It’s essentially a masterclass is sustained tension, each moment laced with what could essentially be the ultimate minute misstep whether it’s a sweat droplet on the corner of Ethan’s eyeglasses or a pulled rope’s frequently audible friction. The film’s entire latter third that culminates with a comparably noteworthy train sequence is particularly impressive, and although its particularly ’90s flourishes remain a bit more obviously oppressive in this day and age, Mission: Impossible is still a fine initial foray into what was then a hopeful answer to Pierce Brosnan’s first stint as James Bond the year prior.

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M:I-2 is far and away the least revered or even liked of the franchise, and for good reason. Despite John Woo being of particular renown throughout the realm of Hong Kong action cinema, his English-language track record is spotty and arguably peaked with 1997’s Face/Off, which may or may not be saying a lot depending on who you ask. In the case of M:I-2, the proceedings’ immediate playfulness, bizarre love triangle-as-impetus subplot and especially slow-burning first half don’t play much to Woo’s strengths as a man of literal action in the industry.

While it again employs a rogue ex-operative’s acquisition of a touchy thing for personal gain angle, everything just feels petty, slight as such and not particularly involving outside of the Chimera virus’ effects on the populace should it be weaponized or whatever. It’s when Woo gets to play with his toys during Hunt and the gang’s attempted eradication of said virus that M:I-2 shines via his tangible trademarks. The latter fifty-plus minutes excellently exemplify these strengths, from balletic, clip-emptying gunplay to disarming and knocking an adversary unconscious with a single acrobatic maneuver, not to mention the entirely stellar motorcycle segment to follow that constantly ups itself throughout its duration. This aside, the film as a whole is still considerably weaker than its predecessor and is easily overshadowed by the more modern affectations of Abrams and Bird’s follow-ups.

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In effectively employing one of the better cold opens I’ve seen, Mission: Impossible III – to me – earned bonus points for the sense of stark immediacy lacing its grittiness. It again abides by the series’ one-off mantra in the sense that Mr. Hunt has (attempted to) settle down and quietly exit the game following the acquisition of the love of his life. Although conceptually jarring given the purposefully impersonal touch of the first two films, I happen to appreciate a bit of palpable humanism in my genre efforts if only because I’m a sucker. It further excels in transforming the IMF into a larger tangible entity complete with requisite higher-ups and means for sustaining an appealingly twist-heavy nature.

As the series’ third director, J.J. Abrams at least partially introduces us to what would become his stylistic quirks lacing not one but two franchise reboots and an in-between Spielberg homage/ripoff. Say what you will about his chops, but Abrams’ adherence to frenetic, shaky cam-enhanced bombast aids in producing some seriously excellent action. While a bulk of viewers can do without the potential motion sickness, there’s no denying the appeal of wanton destruction and an increasingly fallible protagonist being bounced around like a plaything during his quest to ensure mere safety of a loved one. Corny, I know, but not without its base-level emotional appeal.

Whereas M:I-2 was more or less a segue between what the franchise began as and what it would become, M:I-3 is both a refining of scope and logical evolution of formula. In employing what’s most accessible to viewers in terms of straitlaced, big-budgeted but non-pandering entertainment, Abrams and his frequent collaborators Alex Kurtzmann and Roberto Orci delivered what was ostensibly the assurance of the franchise’s elongated lifespan. It marked the official and modern adherence to what Ghost Protocol exemplified, and frankly, the hokey unevenness brought about by the involvement of Hunt’s female counterpart is forgivable thanks to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as a better-than-average villain and excellently prioritized narrative intricacies.

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The emergence of 2011’s Ghost Protocol wasn’t as much earth-shattering as it was peculiar given a five-year absence and palpable lack of demand for the series’ continuation. With The Iron Giant and Pixar darling Brad Bird attached to direct, a promising marketing campaign couldn’t quite stifle audience skepticism. Thanks to Cruise’s ability to age backwards and the finesse of the finished product however, the film in question is the undisputed high watermark pre-Rogue Nation, should I be as enamored of it as I assume I will be.

At this point, it’s become apparent that Ethan Hunt has attained his final form as a full-fledged superhero imbued with unparalleled physical dexterity and situational expertise. Even still, he and his team are subjected to many a drawback exacerbated by the details strewn throughout Ghost Protocol‘s ceaselessly arresting set pieces. The narrative formula the film employs to exploit this strong suit is forgivable on account of franchise trappings, what with the Fast & Furious films doing the same to differing degrees of fan service a la cars instead of hi-tech doodads. Brief expository ramblings precede what’s predictably tense but unpredictably executed on account of the film’s apt genre framework, and frankly, convolution is rendered a complete afterthought given how fast and loose key details and players are implemented.

The most glaring flaw Ghost Protocol sports is its entirely non-dynamic central villain. Despite Michael Nyqvist’s Hendricks being the sole impetus driving the (once again) disavowed IMF gang’s cat-and-mouse caper, his screen time is limited and actual presence unintimidating. Herein lies the qualm I have with the film’s long-winded narrative that belies the punchy steadfastness of its crowning attributes, what with the team’s mere inability to simply catch this guy being the driving force behind Ghost Protocol‘s appeal as its duration exceeds the two-hour mark.

A bit of fat could’ve been trimmed in retrospect, however Brad Bird’s first foray into live-action territory possesses enough sheer inventiveness and visceral integrity to combat a majority of negative reception. Ghost Protocol as a whole is a fine example of how to persevere in the face of adversity brought about by sequel overload, and here’s hoping the franchise’s continued adherence to its one-off business model will yield favorable results going forward. The current state of Mission: Impossible‘s values are a far cry from its roots but have ensured longevity through a competent evolution of the formula its nearly perfected in the realm of big-budgeted genre filmmaking.

My May ’13 in Review

A month considerably devoid of theater outings due to nice weather and general laziness, May was still a productive high point for me thanks to my and a friend’s ritualistic movie-watching Sundays – something I hope to make a feature out of here on this blog (witty title permitting). Speaking of features, I’m very much into the idea of tapping into a backlog of films I’ve watched, more specifically one that’ll be responsible for new weekly posts in either an essay, list or typical review format. Again, witty titling permitting, I’d like to broadcast a wider, more unique array of content to my very modest reader base for the sake of your entertainment and my desire to write! Let me know what you think, and full credit will be given to those with ideas I’m fond of! In the meantime, please enjoy my musings on the best films I saw throughout the past 31 days.

Mud 2Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2012)

A subdued Southern Smalltown, USA-infused tale of modest scale, Mud is – if anything – an example of an on-the-rise filmmaker’s continued establishment of himself. Following two boys as their encounter with a hopeful dirt-smeared vagabond almost irreparably alters the course of their lives, Mud is a solid example of well-constructed and engaging if sometimes dull storytelling, admirably sidestepping melodrama but still maintaining a discernible emotional core. It’s not at all breathtaking, but like I said, Nichols is assuredly establishing a name for himself with a third consecutive well-rounded feature. Full review here.

John Dies at the EndJohn Dies at the End (Don Coscarelli, 2012)

At once an unexpectedly layered psychological sci-fi horror buddy comedy (holy genres!), John Dies at the End was and will most likely remain a delight upon a foreseeable re-watch. Front and center is David Wong’s source story about two friends’ increasingly alarming experiences with a synthetic drug known only as “Soy Sauce;” a story so appealingly creative in its bizarre, alternate dimension world-building intricacies that I couldn’t help but be wowed. While also humorous if undeniably flawed, director Coscarelli’s first feature-length film in a decade is a welcome surprise.

Kill ListKill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011)

A frequently brutal and taut character-driven crime thriller laced with intermittent bits of psychological terror, Kill List is shockingly unique despite the narrative’s more familiar base elements. Focusing on a financially strapped contract killer and his “coworker” (for all intents and purposes), a routine string of hits turns into something increasingly obscure as our main man’s sanity becomes compromised – a devastating yet effective latter act twist being expertly implemented to top off the unfortunate degradation. Wheatley’s tonally consistent genre-bending effort, needless to say, will inevitably haunt me long after that first-time viewing.

Star Trek Into Darkness 2Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams, 2013)

With its 2009 predecessor evoking a new found appreciation for a series I never took an interest in, Into Darkness expands upon the soon-to-be trilogy’s stellar blend of plain accessible and honorably true to the universe’s roots. Intelligibly wonderful production values, predictably grand action set pieces, a wholly committed cast of talented performers young and old and a rich, emotionally charged narrative permeate Into Darkness at very frequent intervals, proving that this sequel is another worthy addition to the Star Trek canon. Full review here.

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Other first-time viewings (in alphabetical order):

Blazing Saddles (Brooks, ’74)
Bug (Friedkin, ’06)
The Crow (Proyas, ’94)
The Great Gatsby (Luhrmann, ’13)
Iron Man 3 (Black, ’13)

Total number of films watched (including re-watches): 10

Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams, 2013)

As sometimes opposing sects of sci-fi fandom, the Star Trek and Star Wars universes have birthed a considerable number of die hard and subsequently hard-to-please fans when it comes to handling their respective, longstanding mythologies. While the latter’s prequel trilogy still remains of notoriously questionable quality, J.J. Abrams’ initial Star Trek reboot wowed fans and non-fans alike, tapping into the more accessible side of Gene Roddenberry’s brainchild while offering up enough of a modernistic visceral spectacle for all to enjoy. Needless to say, Mr. Abrams has hopped on the predictably lucrative sequel bandwagon, sating our appetites following a four-year wait with Star Trek Into Darkness – a technically competent moreover highly enjoyable endeavor that capitalizes on the first film’s strengths and then some.

Having already firmly established his and his crew’s sterling if amiably reckless reputation, Captain Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) find themselves demoted, mildly disgraced and redistributed among Starfleet’s best following a disastrous near-death experience prior to a mission’s shoddy completion. Morale remains low and sinks even lower when acts of blatant premeditated terrorism are committed by the mysterious John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), a supposed rogue agent of sorts whose motives are as muddled as his true identity. Promptly reinstated as captain of the USS Enterprise on behalf of unforeseen tragedy, it’s up to Kirk and his crew to wrangle the coldblooded son-of-a-bitch before more harm is done.

Picking back up where the first film (more or less) left off, Into Darkness is immediately and thoroughly engrossing based on its predecessor’s not-so-surprising success story, even if the original television series’ mythos is tapped into a bit more frequently, but not in a wholly alienating sense. As to be expected, there are subtle and not-so-subtle nods to the franchise’s origins, the most noticeable being a quite startling reveal involving Cumberbatch’s ambiguously intentioned if enthralling central villain, of which may or may (probably) not be a surprise for hardcore Trekkies. Even still, the action remains full throttle and more than serviceable in between bouts of spoken – moreover shouted – deliberation between opposing and non-opposing factions on the Enterprise’s quest to bring their man to justice.

As to be expected, the film’s somewhat sprawling narrative sports its fair share of twists and turns, illustrating textbook double crossing and traitorship amid bits of pre-established galaxy-building involving the existence of the Klingons as the civilized beings’ ultimate adversary. Furthermore, it’s these nail-biting instances and Abrams’ apt handling of them that benchmark the proceedings considerably, thanks to both the film’s inherently captivating sci-fi trappings and stellar performances from an all-around dedicated and exceedingly talented cast. After all, who can deny the appeal of a fully suspense-driven sequel that so adequately ups the stakes for literally all involved?

Star Trek Into Darkness, in summary, is a genuinely fine sequel to an equally fine reboot of a beloved franchise. Suspense galore and appropriate series-centric lore do wonders in complementing Abrams’ gorgeous contemporary re-envisioning, thoroughly proving that the first film was far from a fluke. Throw in a generous smattering of emotional gratification, frequently evocative sci-fi imagery and a competently tasteful knack for storytelling of this caliber and you have yourselves one hell of a follow-up effort, plain and simple.

Review: Super 8 (2011)

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Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Starring: Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler

As we all very well know, originality has become increasingly and startlingly scarce in Hollywood. I could conceivably rant about said issue for hours; days even, but in light of all the borrowing and recycling, some individuals have actually harnessed the ability to do so intelligently. With this year’s Super 8, writer/director J.J. Abrams has incorporated an intelligible fondness of Speilberg-esque blockbusters from decades past into a mostly engaging if exceedingly cookie-cutter script that rarely fails to entertain. Intended lack of inspiration aside, the film in question certainly stands tall amidst an ongoing barrage of deafening, gaudy 3D-infused nonsense that has since followed in its footsteps.

Familiarity aside, Super 8 doesn’t aim to be anything more than what Abrams intended for it to be which, sadly enough, is probably what most audiences can appreciate nowadays given its narrative simplicity. Overwhelming as Abrams’ homage may be in several regards, certain intricacies associated with the requisite mystery and suspense-driven elements help make the film stand out among its easily recognizable, big-budget precursors. Equally recognizable recurring themes aside, Abrams does aptly incorporate his own signature creative touches to put an innovative spin on an otherwise run-of-the-mill alien invasion action-thriller.

Focusing more on the strength of human relationships as straightforward tragedy leads to disaster and widespread panic, Abrams prides himself on keeping viewers in the dark in terms of revealing what exactly the central characters are up against. Using a mostly amateur cast of young actors a la The Goonies to amp up the tension, we’re treated to a coming of age tale that explores the importance of friendship and togetherness during a time when these individuals need each other the most. This in mind, Super 8 remains terrifically satisfying from an emotional standpoint and, in conjunction with its spot-on if sometimes laborious pacing, exhibits many an instance of some appropriately loud, fast-paced mayhem along with an intelligent, taut and highly intriguing central storyline.

Given the inexperience of the talent Abrams has employed and my chronic disdain exhibited toward most child actors, Fanning very obviously stands out amongst her fellow youngsters yet all involved manage to thoroughly impress during both the film’s more suspense-driven and much lighter moments. Newcomer Joel Courtney first comes to mind as the male lead, with onscreen father Kyle Chandler and a supporting cast comprised of (mostly) recognizable veterans holding their own as the proceedings glide smoothly along toward Super 8‘s appropriately predictable and gratifying conclusion.

Unsubtle an homage as it most certainly is, Super 8 is easily one the more enjoyable theatrical experiences I’ve had this year. It’s not saying much, but J.J. Abrams’ gleeful throwback to those that inspired it is both emotionally satisfying and an appropriately suspenseful, mildly intelligent blockbuster that isn’t quite a masterpiece yet establishes a name for itself nonetheless. All in all, it’ll definitely be a shame when the film’s overshadowed by an oncoming flood of uninspired disasters, but at least I know I’m grateful to have seen this highly anticipated summer release of mine, even if it didn’t at all surpass my expectations.

Rating: 6/10