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Captain Canada's Movie Rodeo

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, returning to  The X-Files  in 2016 (Image © Netflix) 

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, returning to The X-Files in 2016 (Image © Netflix) 

At the end of the day, I guess 2015 wasn’t all that bad for the movies. When the time came for Drunk Monkeys editors and writers to kick in their top 10 lists for the year, coming up with one for movies wasn’t too difficult. The dust cleared, and there were still a couple of titles left over from the field of contenders that I used to build my list. Nonetheless, 2015 felt oddly flat in a lot of ways. Heavyweight triumphs from the likes of The Hateful 8 and The Force Awakens certainly brought the year to a satisfying conclusion. Still, I’ve felt strangely underwhelmed by what I’ve seen, over the course of the past year.

And I suspect that television is partially to blame for that. If that is the case, then that’s fucking stupid. Most of all, it’s unfair to either medium.

As far as 2016 goes, I think we’re in for a potentially good year with film. I can see at least fifteen, twenty films for the coming year that I’m willing to get excited about. Throw in the sleeper hits, and there is enough possibility on the table to stay optimistic until spring.

I just can’t let television lead me to feel as though movies are somehow lacking these days.

I hear arguments like that all the time. I think that’s fairly dumb. It’s also unfair to both films and television shows. In spite of their obvious similarities, I think there are still enough significant differences between them that a serious comparison is unreasonable. If nothing else, film has to accomplish much more with a lot less, particularly in terms of running time. A 10-13 episode season has considerably more control and flexibility than a 2-3 hour film.

But as this golden age of television continues to fly closer and closer to the sun (it’s even possible that it will fly right through the fucker), we look at film as some kind of mildly brain-damaged, well-meaning, but ultimately pitiable cousin. Film certainly seems to feel that desperation to compete. As usual, their solution is a little stupid. There will come a time in which these bigger-goddammit-make-it-fucking-bigger blockbusters will paint themselves into a corner. How do you top the greatest spectacle of all time? Immersive 3D? Some really neat additions to the water supply? You tell me. Some people already think the bottom is beginning to drop out with the superhero genre. Meanwhile, television seems to break new ground every other week. You absolutely cannot say that there is nothing on for you right now. You’re either lying, haven’t addressed all of your options, or you really are that fussy.

I’ve watched so much amazing television this year, I think it’s actually started to interfere with my ability to enjoy films on their own merits. I don’t know why that might be the case. However, since I’m reflecting on the fact that 2015 was not a bad year for film by any means, and yet I feel disenchanted anyway, I have to wonder why that’s the case.

Stop being so awesome, television.

I mean, fuck.

Or I can just get back to appreciating film and television as two separate options for telling an interesting story. That could totally be a thing. 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): B+

John Boyega and Oscar Isaac in  Star Wars: The Force Awakens  (Image © Lucasfilm). 

John Boyega and Oscar Isaac in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Image © Lucasfilm). 

A lot of people are calling Star Wars: The Force Awakens the best Star Wars movie since the original trilogy. I’m certainly not going to argue with that. The other major consensus has The Force Awakens being the movie that finally sets the franchise back on the right track. I can agree with that, too. Along with co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, J.J. Abrams has essentially created a really exciting Star Wars cover song. It’s not going to win points for originality, but with so many different elements in this film being handled so well, it doesn’t really matter.

The Force Awakens gives us a fairly straightforward, yet thrilling backdrop. In terms of new faces, Daisy Ridley as Rey, and John Boyega as Finn, are as great as this film saga has ever been at creating engaging, exciting characters. The Force Awakens is a big winner for diversity in casting. It emphasizes the notion of what can happen, when a major franchise is willing to take advantage of the opportunity to prove that anyone can be the hero, or the villain (such as Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma).

However, a diverse cast means very little, if the rest of the movie is garbage. The Force Awakens plays it safe, taking the best of this universe, and creating something that is likely to enthrall most fans and cynics. Chances are, one element or another in the movie will annoy you. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I can’t really delve into the small list of things about The Force Awakens that continued to bother me, long after my third viewing. All I can really say that is at the moment, I’m not sold on Adam Driver as a worthwhile Star Wars villain. We’ll see what Episode VIII has to offer on that front.

It’s pretty obvious that J.J. has wanted to make a Star Wars movie for most of his life. His own love for these characters and settings enables him to capture so much of what most fans have always professed to love about these movies. You may not be thrilled with how the veteran characters are handled (although Harrison Ford, returning as Han Solo, gives one of his best performances in quite some time), but ultimately, it’s about the new generation. These movies are not done with your long-time favorites by a long shot. However, the movie endeavors to leave you with a sense of optimism about Rey as the hero who will lead the battle against the galaxy’s forces of darkness. On that front, The Force Awakens establishes itself in formidable fashion. Both Rey and Finn (and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron) are wonderful additions. However, when the dust settles, Daisy Ridley as Rey is the hero who will serve as the essential foundation of the new trilogy.

There is no question that The Force Awakens gets more right than not. At the end of the movie, it is impossible to not be excited about Episode VIII in 2017.

The Hateful Eight (2015): A-

 Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight might just be the most loathsome story the man has ever told. The characters, ranging from bounty hunters, to ailing Civil War generals, to murderers and thieves, are not a terribly pleasant group. I would go so far as to say there isn’t a sympathetic member to be found in the whole wretched, wild bunch. Their individual back stories suggest a variety of lifetimes spent in the company of one horrible or desperate act after another. These stories are largely just window dressing that contrives to bring everyone together for a long couple of days at a snow-battered cabin in the Wyoming wilderness. Tarantino doesn’t seem to be interested in doing much more than putting all of these characters through as much hell as possible.

And you know what? That’s fine. When the style is this much fun, it’s hard to get mad at the lack of substance. Furthermore, whether or not you consider this character-driven post-Civil War epic to be anything more than just Tarantino wanting to outdo his past examples of blood, guts, and mayhem, that’s entirely up to you.

The Hateful Eight is pretty much nothing more complex than horrific men (and one woman) interacting with each other. The plot twists and character arcs are significantly less important here, than they have been with any other film Tarantino to date. However, the motivations of the bounty hunters played by Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson, are still compelling. Same goes for Walton Goggins as the supposed new sheriff of nearby Red Rock. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Demián Bichir, and Michael Madsen complete the eight. Everyone in the cast contributes something to Tarantino’s desire to create the most visually severe bloodbath of his career. At the end of the day, even if you don’t feel like there’s much of a point to all this, you’re still going to get sucked in. If you missed out on the 70mm roadshow screenings (which I was lucky to see), don’t worry about it. The Hateful Eight packs memorable dialog, Robert Richardson’s flawless cinematography, and the legendary Ennio Morricone’s distinctive score into a genre piece that never slows down. It roars forward, guns blazing, and it does not make any apologies for its cruelty or potential faults. Sometimes, Tarantino seemingly settles for straightforward entertainment. There is certainly something sickly entertaining about this brutal western. Barring that, it will still leave an impression on you, one way or the other.

Creed (2015): B-

 When the Oscars roll around, don’t be surprised if Sylvester Stallone scores a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. It would seem that no matter what is going on with career, the man is capable of turning to Rocky to good effect. 2006’s Rocky Balboa was a small Christmas miracle, in the sense that it was actually pretty good. It redeemed the character and Stallone’s career to the extent that the thought of a seventh movie gave me a slight sensation of dread. Even with a director as promising as Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), I couldn’t say anything good coming out of the story of Apollo Creed’s son Adonis.

Throw Rocky into this story, too? Set him as Adonis’ trainer? Even after a very good trailer dropped, it was hard to be optimistic. The saga of Rocky Balboa ended on a near-impossible high note. Why screw with that?

I’m glad they did. Creed is a thrilling, surprisingly even-handed continuation of Rocky’s various struggles. At the same time, Coogler deftly juggles, establishes, and nurtures Adonis Creed as a credible, engaging character. While drawing influence from the gritty desperation and fantastic odds that defined the hero’s journey in the first film, Coogler simultaneously sets up Adonis as a unique entity. Coogler builds on the foundation of the series’ past installments, and then works with Michael B. Jordan’s exceptional performance to create something that stands on its own terms and ideals. Creed is an impressive achievement on every possible level. It battles against the notion that this story didn’t really need to be told, and it firmly places itself within the franchise as something essential. It is also without question Jordan’s best performance to date. After consistently strong turns in one project after another, it would finally seem as though Jordan has something to call his own. Hopefully, if there is another film (isn’t there always?), Stallone will come back. Regardless of whether or not he does, if this story does continue, we’ve got a significant talent in Jordan to stand at the center.

A Face in the Crowd (1957): A-

Andy Griffith in  A Face in the Crowd  (Image © Warner Bros.) 

Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd (Image © Warner Bros.) 

 Elia Kazan’s film (from a short story/screenplay by Budd Schulberg) is scary stuff.              The film is nearly sixty years old. All of the principle players are dead. Yet A Face in the Crowd, in which an amiable, shucks-I’m-just-a-country-boy singer/troublemaker (Andy Griffith) becomes a monstrous (in every possible way), frighteningly popular television figure, remains one of the most potent social commentaries ever committed to film.

Naturally, there are minor anachronisms to be found throughout the rise and fall of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes. However, these anachronisms pale in comparison to how accurately the movie suggests what television would be capable of. At the time in which A Face in the Crowd was released, television was still a relatively new invention. It stands to reason that some people still saw it as a fad. You can also make the leap to assuming that a lot of people still didn’t fully appreciate what the medium would be capable of. A Face in the Crowd understands what television was already capable of all too well. Supported by a pitch-perfect, unforgettable, surprisingly complex performance from Andy Griffith, A Face in the Crowd offers haunting, accurate commentary on the nature of media manipulation. Look around Facebook. It’s not going to be hard to find the real-life descendants of the fictional “Lonesome” Rhodes. You can certainly find media manipulation examples and tactics that gives this 1957 film a sense of 2010s urgency.

Beyond that, A Face in the Crowd is just a well-made, well-acted film from one of the most influential directors of all time. Kazan was a master at capturing corruption, the fever of a crowd, whose mania is reaching the point of a savage no return. His distinctive filmmaking style complements the believable performances from Griffith, Patricia Neal (as Rhodes’ long-suffering manager/embittered love interest), and a weirdly young-looking Walter Matthau. All of this rolls into a decidedly claustrophobic viewing experience. No matter where you are in the world, you’re not going to be completely comfortable with your surroundings. Pair this up with the Billy Wilder/Kirk Douglas classic Ace in the Hole, and realize with horror how little things have changed.

Tangerine (2015): A   

Ever since Starlet completely stunned me with its characterizations and dialog, I’ve been wondering when Sean S. Baker was going to make another movie. Tangerine is not only one of the funniest, most sincere depictions of life on the unhappy fringes of Hollywood, but it’s a whirlwind monument to minimalist filmmaking. Baker (with co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch) uses a diverse, fantastic cast, the strength of the script, and endlessly sharp, creative camera work to create one of the best films of last year.

Tangerine gets much of its strength from the performances. In telling a story about transgendered sex workers dealing with the various elements of their lives on Christmas Eve, Tangerine goes the apparently bold route of actually casting transgendered leads. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor are brilliant in their respective roles. They lend realism and credibility to the story, but they also take full advantage of the script’s attention to character and personality. They create characters who are absolutely vital to the energy and style of the film.

Tangerine features a number of other characters, drifting or roaring across the sun-stroked landscape of Hollywood. James Ransone, Mickey O’Hagan, and Karren Karagulian all bring interesting character-driven touches to this story. If you really know your character actors, you’ll also notice Clu Gulager as a taxi cab passenger.

Tangerine celebrates organic weirdness. That weirdness is not from the transgendered characters in the story. It’s from the way everything crashes into each other in a weird, constant city. Baker has not only created a sweet, effortlessly believable film. He has also created a fitting tribute to a unique, endlessly surreal city.