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Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
22 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Star Wars: The Force Awakens begins with its scrolling catch and hook synopsis that began almost 39 years ago with A New Hope, yet takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, George Lucas' finale to his original trilogy. It's an intro that we have become intimate with over the few decades since the Star Wars universe slid into our galaxy, offering up a wealth of novels, merchandise, and films, most notably the prequels that left the universe feeling a bit starless. Director J.J. Abrams doesn't just continue the familiarity of the introduction, he harkens back to what A New Hope meant. By not only nodding to the original, Abrams interjects his film with an invigorating and exhilarating sense of spectacle and grandeur that fell apart with 1999's The Phantom Menace and its subsequent sequels. There is much of The Force Awakens that feels already established within the Star Wars canon, yet the abundance of novel and creative magic that explodes on screen is done so with a tenderly affectionate eye and delicate touch that turns the old into new and the new into everlasting memories.
Set three decades after the defeat of the Galactic Empire in 1983's Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens tells us that Luke Skywalker has gone into hiding. A new threat known as The First Order has risen to challenge The Resistance, a band of Republic fighters both old and new. Before it's too late, they must find Luke before the powerful Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) discovers the whereabouts of the last Jedi fighter. What the 7th film shows us is the unlikely duo that forms out of survival, one a rogue Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega), the other a lone scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley). The course these two take to escape their own slow demise brings them on a path filled with old faces within a familiar framework, yet casts a light that illuminates an entirely fresh and stupendous story that jogs much needed gusto into a universe we've come to cherish.
While we may feel accustom to what J.J. Abrams shows us, it's done so with unflinching admiration for the mythos and elements of the original, feeling like a poetic and poised cinematic treasure that fans and filmgoers alike have been hoping for. A lone planet rests gently in the background as a shadow laden ship glides over our view point. A young, isolated, sand strewn figure gazes off into her dreams of adventure. A looming battle station obliterates planets in an exhibit of its power. These are all images and ideas we have seen before, but haven't felt any of them like this. There's a power to what unfolds in front of us, a power that rests firmly on cinema and the history of Star Wars, and why shouldn't it; The Force Awakens is neither a spin-off nor a new world, but a continuation of what brought the genre into the mainstream sphere. Abrams imbues his film with vibrancy, vitality and vigor while taking the original out for a walk, knowing exactly what made A New Hope tick in the first place.
X-Wings spin and T-Fighters scream across space as we are once again whisked away to a long, long time ago, and it couldn't feel better to be back. We jump from intimacy and nurture, to chaos and nature as those left fighting attempt to survive life. At the heart of the film are characters entrenched in the motions of life after war, which remains beating even as a new conflict begins. There's an energy that lives amongst our characters that tends to putter out when the battle takes to the sky, though the sheer scope and bombastic nature acts like a tractor beam, pulling us into each frame. It's when the fight hits the floor running that we not only get a clear-cut vision, but we explicitly feel.
Watching our agile scavenger Rey swiftly fight off two thieves on her home planet Jukko, The Force Awakens tells us that it isn't 1977 anymore, giving us the separation from our own gender ostracism that unfortunately liters films in more ways than is reasonably accountable. Early on we bear witness to an assault on a village by Stormtroopers, the only close-up of the many victims being a woman looking down the sights of a blaster. Abrams embraces the notion of strength, courage and command in women that sparked in A New Hope, unfortunately burning to ashes with a profusion of male domineering quips.
Rey is a spirited loner, and when she befriends Finn, it feels like nothing we have seen before within the Star Wars social structure. It adds radiance to the universe that is expanding in front of us, contrasting with the isolation that befalls our antagonist. When Kylo Ren finally captures Rey, he straps her down for interrogation, our view shifting from Daisy's line of sight back to a masculine view point. Extending his arm out, Ren begins to penetrate her mind with the force, diving deep into her cloaked thoughts, and forcing him inside her with an authoritative capacity. It's a scene of uncompromising power that evokes the rape and gender injustices of our current state, while causing Rey to overcome and emerge stronger, becoming a valuable and much needed symbol of our times.
Relative new comer Daisy Ridley brings so much life to Rey that we immediately find solace in her toilsome life on Jukko. She's a woman searching for a means to survive through scavenging, continually coming up with just enough to sustain for another day. We linger on her face as much as possible, a glint of hope resting in her eyes that isn't gone, only left in moratorium. Her youthfulness is juxtaposed with an aged wisdom that is counter balanced with childlike awe, which only mirrors our own face as we witness the development of one of Star Wars most sincere characters coming to life. We first see Rey beneath a cowl and goggles as she tears wreckage from a downed Star Destroyer, a nod to the Republics defeat over the Galactic Empire in Return of the Jedi. When we meet Finn for the first time, he's hidden beneath his Stormtroopers helmet, defending him from the elements, although instead of sand amidst wreckage it's moralistically reprehensible acts. Each character is juxtaposed between one another, their faces playing off each other and their dire scenarios melding into ambition and dreams, despair and damnation. John Boyega lights a fuse to a wick he firmly established in 2011's sleeper Attack the Block, infusing Finn with a bouncing wit and charisma that helps elevate The Force Awakens intermittingly somber tone spurred on by Kylo Ren.
Remaining hidden for the first two acts is Adam Driver, who suffuses Ren with a quiet storm that ranges beneath a narrow black mask, its battle damages indicating a warriors approach. There's an unsettling demeanor that Driver brings, tapping into Ren's instability and anger that emanates from his cloaked figure. As he cries out in torment at feeling unfulfilled as a student, a man and a son, he wields his lightsaber recklessly, flailing about like a child would onto his pillow. It separates Ren from Darth Vader, the Sith he admires and hopes to avenge by hunting Luke Skywalker, largely by establishing him as a tangible threat, placing a moral compass over his anguish.
However, it's when our young pair eventually come face to face with the ghosts of Star Wars past that a sense of nostalgia kicks in that brings waves of deja-vu, but only scantly and done so with sincere authenticity. J.J. Abrams steps up and kicks open the doors to our past to magnificently reveal a new door, one that is promptly jettisoned into space as a new era is ushered in. It's these characters that ground the film, keeping it hovering over our awareness of where it has stemmed from without taking away any magnitude our fellow newcomers have generated. Despite a few rushed corners in the final act, The Force Awakens is a spectacle filled with elegance, vision and depth that reminds us of the purity and magic of cinema.

Knock Knock
Knock Knock (2015)
22 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

If you're Eli Roth, you know a thing or two about pushing boundaries, or buttons, depending on how fragile your moral tolerance is. When Roth exploded onto the scene with Cabin Fever (2002), a skin peeling romp through the backwoods that called to mind the likes of Tobe Hooper, fans of the genre immediately cast a keen eye on the director. It wasn't until Hostel (2005) that the filmmaker began developing a particular flair and vitality, turning towards a style many love to hate. Casting an overtly misogynistic and sophomoric tone over his films, Roth has worked to separate himself from the masses, as well as critical favoritism with a rigid focus on torture, mutilation, and sadism. It's an approach to this subject matter that I have defended countless times, firmly believing that there's more behind sliced tendons, frayed nerves and severed limbs than grotesquery and abuse for the sake of being able to show it.
In the latest entry into the home-invasion thriller genre, Eli Roth has managed to set his buckets of blood and intestines on the back burner for a slower burn that manages a spark or two before fizzling into mediocrity. Shifting focus one too many times, Knock Knock manages thoughtless provocation with its blind view on sobering acts that should turn thought-provoking corners like a skilled home-invader. What it does instead is cut itself time and time again on its many plot devices, bleeding out before it's able to successfully build on its taut story.

Quickly introducing us to Evan (Keanu Reeves), an architect who would appear to have it all; a loving wife, two adoring kids and a puppy named Monkey in a house he designed. Yet it's apparent that Evan and his wife Karen (Ignacia Allamand) don't get the intimate time they crave given her busy schedule as an artist and two children abruptly pouncing them before they can even get dressed. For a couple that's fourteen years into a marriage, it all seems like a dream come true for anyone who grew up with parents that didn't separate, and yet we're placed with a predicament. Left alone for the long weekend to work while his family departs for the beach, Evan is quickly sidetracked by knocks at his door from two innocuous women, Genesis (Lorenzo Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas) that are lost in search of a party in the suburban sprawl of Los Angeles. Soon he finds himself quickly battling more than worker's block as a night of unfaithfulness leads to a treacherous game of cat and mouse with his new house guests.

Quickly ratcheting up suspense, Knock Knock paces itself methodically due in part to Eli Roth's slow hand camera, floating around the house like a prowler after the lights have been turned off. We become familiar with what Evan has designed, a piece of his mind laid out and the inevitable framework for which our cat and mouse maneuver through. Once the pacing of the film breaks away from its Hitchcockian roots, we realize how small our maze is, as our chase inevitably ends short lived, despite an excellent score by Manuel Riveiro backing every false step. It's a redundant exercise that plays out in front of us, where unnecessary footwork takes precedence over dialogue. It's a shame too, since childish antics and games take a front seat to a potential psychological death-match that would have amplified the terror and enhanced the dialogue tenfold.

Eli Roth is a director that isn't afraid to show the most brutal of acts, often laying his pieces out in front for everyone to bear witness to. From diseased skin being shaved off to an Achilles heel being cut like a rubber band all the way to limbs being hacked off, Roth tends to revel in illuminating as much as possible, and with Knock Knock that's no different. Evans home is strewn with photos of his loving family, almost to the point of absurdity. His wife's sculptures stand in the backyard like sentries constructed to stand guard of the house (or keep watch on Evan). Everything that rests within Evan's design has a story, a history or personal memory that exists for us to discover. For fans of Roth's films, it's a motif that is cherished and embraced.

However, there's a moment in the film that happens that carries immense gravity yet is handled like batting eyelashes. Our intruders tie Evan down to his bed, hands and feet splayed out as he awakens from a blow to the back of the head. As Genesis puts on his wife's makeup in a garish fashion, Bel mounts their prey wearing his daughter's school uniform after removing his pants. It's evident that Evan doesn't want to be having sex, yet he utilizes this moment to loosen his restraints. The camera pans back as we view this through the lens of a phone, recording a scene of rape that is dismissed as quickly as it is shown. It's a subject that writers Roth, Nicolas Lopez and Guillermo Amoedo treat flippantly, refusing to handle with any weight or severity that further treats the idea of male rape as an anomaly. It's a device underutilized and mistreated in a film that treats its victim like a perpetrator, when it could and should embrace it as a theme, tackling a substantial and daunting reality head on.

Keanu Reeves manages to carry Evan with gentle, cool warmth that leans sympathetically heavy, sporadically tossing out fits of rage reminiscent of Nicholas Cage from The Wickerman. It brings a level of camp to the screen that feels unintentional, as Reeves borders on laudable all the way to laughable, seamlessly moving between the two once things fall through his fingertips. Lorenzo Izzo and Ana de Armas as Genesis and Bel falter back and forth between commanding and infuriating, scratching at the surface of childishly manipulating. It's a performance that certainly takes dedication, though their character's ferocity and intensity falters in the third act. Given Izzo's relationship to the director, we're lucky her range maneuvers the way it does, as we'll certainly be seeing a lot more of her, which is a lot more than we can say for Rob Zombies collaboration with his wife.

Overall it's a shame the way the story is executed and the suspense handled, which quickly peaks once Genesis and Bel begin wrecking the house with the same abandonment a six year old brings to a moon bounce. For all his praise and affection for cinema and the home-invasion sub-genre, films such as When a Stranger Calls and more recently The Collector have tackled suspense and jet-fueled terror with a better hand. One can't help but wish director Eli Roth would have taken a few tips from single set films such as Rope, or even Das Boot, which induce sweaty palms with grandeur and ease. At the heart of Knock Knock is a topic just waiting to get out, surging with demand that crackles and dances with heat, yet is unable to find a light amidst the ruckus and senseless direction that comes knocking at our doorstep.

Spotlight (2015)
23 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

What do you know? It's a simple question that is asked nonchalantly in the beginning of the film, but a question that holds heavy over us as we begin to question who knows what. In 2001, the Boston Globe began a piece on the countless uncovered molestation cases within the local Catholic Archdiocese. Using the papers Spotlight investigative team, the Globe would go on to expose and reveal the immense corruption that riddled the churches, rocking the foundation of the entire Catholic community. Heading the Spotlight team is Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), who with fellow journalists Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy Robinson) begin unfolding the layers of sexual abuse that have gone ignored and unheeded for almost thirty years. Director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) creates a meditative film with dark roots that builds up a steady pulse, knowing when to pace itself as to keep from exhausting its subject matter. The offices of the Boston Globe lay thick with a soft, pastel hue that harkens a commonality within the paper, prominently citing the latest Red Sox game with no real focus on journalistic content. It's a view that runs parallel to the Catholic Churches flippant behavior, tossing aside anything paramount that might disrupt the nature of things. Howard Shore (A History of Violence) works to emphasize the immediacy within each scene, as he creates what becomes background noise; it's a score that glides rather than soars, which is exactly what our focus needs. We witness what is only important to the story, to what's being investigated as we follow in front of our journalists; when they move the story we move. Unwrapping each layer of the investigation brings a different shade to the Spotlight team, with the sympathetic core stemming from Mark Ruffalo's Mike, who presses matters with an urgent and motivated hand that stands out amongst saltine performances from the rest of the Spotlight team. Ruffalo makes Mike his own, embodying a demeanor and emotion that helps shed light into the heart of the scandals while fidgeting and insisting his way around the city. There's a sense of flaccidness that permeates within the remaining Spotlight team, as findings are read and reports are exclaimed, though the only sense is urgency and necessity. The pace is urgent thanks in part to Tom McArdle (Station Agent), who never quite rests on a scene too long before cutting to the streets, then back to the office. It's an arrangement that spotlights the necessity of bringing this scandal to light, but along the way refuses to shine much focus on the grief, a choice that is both mindful of its perpetrators yet neglectful of its victims. Spotlight is a small film posturing as something bigger, highlighting a momentous period in journalism and the Catholic community that can't quite reach the pinnacle of cinematic storytelling, leaving us knowing a lot yet feeling little.

Creed (2015)
23 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

When Rocky first tapped his gloves up to fight heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, I wasn't even an idea born in the minds of my parents. When Rocky steps back into the ring with Apollo after embarrassingly working at a meat packing plant, I was still six years away from coming into this world. It wasn't until colossal Soviet heavyweight Ivan Drago broke Apollo, shattering Rocky's world that I was conceived, though it would be another nine months until I came out kicking and screaming. Having watched all the films as a kid I continually found myself surrounded by those who favored Rocky IV, which features one of the most iconic beginnings, only to become a sagging punching bag in its remaining acts. Rocky trains high in the mountains and eventually trades unprotected blows with Ivan Drago, Russia's super soldier masquerading as a boxer. It's a big bloated boxing movie that acts as an ode to America and a polished finger to Cold War Russia amidst a time when the boxing sub-genre was starting to wear thin. Among all the training montages, "I will break you!" one liners and inaudible accents, there lies a ferocity that rouses the spirit and sets up the story perfectly, only to trip over its shoes and land chin first on the uppercut of the cinema spirit. When one witnesses Apollo Creed's lifeless body hit the mat, the beast at the heart of Rocky IV loses its claws, ultimately pawing at the screen in an attempt to bring new life into it.
That's where Creed comes in, writer/director Ryan Coogler's second full length feature that once again reunites him with Fruitvale Station actor Michael B. Jordan, who ignited the screen as real life tragedy Oscar Grant III in 2009. Coogler takes the story of Rocky IV and deflates some of the excess muscle and brawn that it carried, focusing on the death of Apollo as the catalyst for his second round with Michael B. Jordan. Creed quickly introduces us to Adonis Johnson, the late son of Apollo, who is duking it in and out of foster care and juvi as a kid only to be introduced and brought home with his biological mother Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad). We learn that Apollo had an affair with Mary who got pregnant and gave birth around the time of his death, only to give him up to foster care being unable to handle the pressures of being a single parent. Flash forward years later in which Adonis has a stable job, a lavish home with his mother, and a budding underground boxing career south of the border living in Los Angeles. Looking to further his interest in boxing and take it to the next level, Adonis moves to Philadelphia in search of Apollo Creed's old friend Rocky Balboa, who he feels can mentor him and train him to the top.
From the moment we see Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson, sitting in a dark, dank basement of an underground ring somewhere in Mexico, there's an intensity that permeates the air. His built physique, clenched jaw and focused gaze reminds us of what a determined and toned actor Jordan is, a blistering powerhouse and cinematic firework that works with a long wick, relishing the slow burn before exploding on screen like a lion protecting his food. You may wonder what Jordan has to protect, having chewed up the screen in the vastly underappreciated Fruitvale Station, and the answer is everything. Stepping into the ring as Creed's offspring and Rocky's trainee, there's a wealth of history that accompanies this role, a history that both Jordan and Coogler can just as easily choke on if handled poorly. When we witness Adonis stare deep into his opponent, he isn't looking at his next fighter but at the core of what fuels him, what drives him to continue hunting and eating.

Working against the hunger that reaches out of Adonis with both gloves on is a remarkably soft, and poised performance by Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa, who seems content at owning an Italian restaurant named after his late wife Adriane. Seeing his steadfast and content nature outside the ring recites a quiet life of devotion and love for what once fueled him. Stallone works with a character he wrote almost forty years ago and a character he directed for four Rocky movies, bringing a vast understanding of his nature that subdues and tames the fiery determination within Adonis. It's a role that Stallone never would have been able to perfect and fall into had he not been the age he is now, firmly understanding the patience and grace that comes with true experience. Near the third act there is a slight role reversal, as Adonis must cut off the gloves he's tied so tight in order to take care of his mentor that works brilliantly at not only developing our characters but showcasing the strength of the actors. Watching two characters from opposite ends of life's vast stage cling to each other for ample footing is cinematic virtuosity with finesse for storytelling. It's something only two actors at the top of their respective game, one rising while the other peaks can truly pull off, allowing us to bear witness to the power of film.
Having worked together before on Fruitvale Station, it's no wonder the chemistry between Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler creates immense substance, exhibiting a kinetic and connective energy that works to shift the film away from the tired genre we've grown accustom to. There's an understanding of the history behind Creed, but also an assured comprehension on where and when to stem from. Never do we see stock footage of Apollo's fall, or the rise of Russian titan Ivan Drago. There is a cherished respect for the previous two films, paying tribute to the fights and foes of the past while also working to carve a path of its own. For anyone who has never seen any of the previous Rocky's, there's enough of a history present that plants us firmly in the frustrations of Adonis, who refutes the name Creed as a symbol of established success of an idol, a term he must forge and carve himself as a no-hoper, as just another eager and fighting soul in the crowd. There are tremendous similarities in Adonis and Coogler's film, as both knowingly emanate and exude a previous life, yet both fight tooth and nail to shed that layer of success that each feel they haven't rightfully earned.
With every sports film comes the inevitable montage, chronicling the lapse training that goes into our fighter as they hone their body and mind. Creeds befitting montage comes variegated against the backdrop of life's morality, as a kaleidoscope of sincerity and growth begin to shift and rise out of Rocky and Adonis, showing us that not all montage's are cut from the same cloth. It's a theme that echoes throughout the entire film as both our characters refuse to embrace the evolution of their own stories; one fighting the past while the other objects the notion of a future. With the help of each other, and for Adonis a budding love interest with local musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson), they begin to realize that boxing has never been a solo act, even with an opponent in the ring.
By the time Martin Scorsese's Aviator came out it marked the second collaboration between the director and Leonardo DiCaprio, helping to establish them as a dynamic force that only grew with each film they created together. If Fruitvale Station and Creed are any indication of the spirit a director and an actor have together than rest assured, this is a dynamite pairing that will alter genres and establish films that dive deeper than we could have imagined. Never quite losing its sight of the almost forty year journey it took from the bottom, Creed never gives up on its own vision, laying out its own footwork that establishes itself as its own entity. Passing this film off as just another Rocky movie, or even just another entry into the sports genre would be a mistake, as Ryan Coogler's second feature length film steps into the ring with a keen eye and tenacity for cinematic charisma that doesn't throw in the towel, even after the credits roll.


American Ultra
23 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes

When a government program coined Ultra, created by disparaged official Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) is set to be terminated by unqualified young hot-shot Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), the life of its sole survivor is about to be turned upside down. Living in a remote town of West Virginia with his long term girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), anxiety riddled stoner Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) costs by on space-ape doodles and nerve-settling joints, hoping to propose once the right time presents itself. With a government force swarming the small town of Liman in order to extract a supposed threat, Mike unknowingly becomes activated, flipping a strangely touching and endearing story into an overblown and frenetic action spoof. Jesse Eisenberg falls prey to the neurotic and fidgety character, bringing his blend of stammering and uncertainty that has befallen him too many times. It's a character he knows how to handle, offering an assured ethos that oddly stumbles into our empathetic hands. Mike handles his drug of choice not as a crutch for a wasted life or for the passing of banality within a backcountry town, but as a means of coping with a crippling anxiety; it's more medicinal than recreational. When hot-headed government official Adrian Yates decides to erase the Ultra program's portfolio and use an unnecessary amount of force doing so, American Ultra turns into a gun-powder loaded fire-drum, more than hinting at the excessive war on drugs the American government has been waging for years. Kristen Stewart plays adequately as a double agent; one part devoted girlfriend, one part AWOL agent. The story of requited love pumps life into a card-board cutout of an action piece, however it's intermittent and with a trivial amount force that can be offered from two characters who only bubble to the surface in between hails of gunfire. Writer Max Landis (Chronicle) and Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) have pieced together a movie that's at once sweet in its nature yet heavy handed in its commentary, running back and forth between spoof and honesty that hinders American Ultra from ever catching its breath.