January is a month of cold weather, new year resolutions and catching up with films released in the latter part of the bygone year. It is also the month of the much-anticipated Academy Awards nominations, and a sleuth of other award shows where Hollywood practices a yearly ritual of congratulating itself.
January was a good and productive month in every respect for me. In terms of film, I managed to watch a total of 14 (more than my usual of 10 or 11) with a very high average score of 3.61 out of 5. January was also the first time in about two years that I felt compelled to give a film a perfect score (La La Land), while a couple of others received 4 out 5. This month came my discovery of SyFy’s series “The Expanse“, which is easily the best first season to a science fiction show since Battlestar Galactica.
Without further ado, below is the compendium of short reviews for films in the order in which they were watched. At the bottom you will find my impressions on The Expanse.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) [3.5/5]
With the Marvel Universe dominating the box office every year, it is commendable that they are still making gargantuan films with compelling and even surprising storylines. It is no wonder why this entry in the Marvel universe won over quite a few critics and fans alike. The clash between heroes is, after all, epic and violent yet surprisingly personal, pitting the rebellious casanova-like charm of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man against the straight-laced and dutiful Captain America, played by Chris Evans.
LOUDER THAN BOMBS (2016) [4/5]
A touching drama about a father and his sons years after their mother’s suicide. Louder than Bombs is a visceral character study that feels real and plausible, with characters that are complex and unpredictable in very human ways. The acting is top-notch and the direction is artful enough to let the story speak for itself. I simply can’t wait for Joachim Trier’s next project.
PASSENGERS (2016) [2.5/5]
In the midst of all the wasted film, there is a story worth telling and pursuing in Passengers. It seems, however, that every single element, from the director, to lackluster performances by A-listers conspired against its success. If anything, this film demonstrates that no matter the size of the budget and the size of an actor’s charisma, a story still needs to be told well for it all to work. A huge disappointment.
WE ARE THE BEST! (2014) [3.5/5]
A charming Scandinavian movie about three punkish teenage girls who form a band almost by mistake. The film excels at character-building, creating three very distinct and unique characters filled with the complexities and contradictions of youth.
LA LA LAND (2016) [5/5]
♦ Candidate to the Blog of Big Ideas’ Top 250 films ♦
The perfect modern musical and the best film I’ve seen in 2 or 3 years. A cinematic spectacle that will make you fall in love with the magic of Hollywood once again. My full review here.
ST VINCENT (2014) [ 3.5/5 ]
A charming dramedy about recapturing our joy for life and letting love and friendship conquer all obstacles. At the center of it all is a small-framed little boy and a drunken veteran played by none other than Bill Murray, in yet another compelling turn. Though I’d not describe it as touching, it certainly has its share of warm-hearted moments.
DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016) [3/5]
For most of its duration, Deepwater Horizon is a heart-pounding thriller of great effectiveness. Though there are some superficial attempts at hashing out characters that we can care about, the film feels perfunctory in its realization, as if it came out of the hands of a very capable director whose heart was not in it.
JACKIE (2016) [ 4/5 ]
Pablo Larrain’s Jackie is a beautifully directed and exquisitely acted film about the minutes, hours and days that Jackie Kennedy spent in the public eye after the tragic murder of JFK. It is Natalie Portman’s at her very best in a performance-centric film that rivals her Oscar-winning turn in Aronofski’s Black Swan. If anyone knows my admiration for her performance back then, you would do well to believe that Portman is, once again, as much a spectacle in Jackie as she was then. A full review upcoming.
TAKING CHANCE (2009) [3/5]
Though it is certainly well-intentioned, Taking Chance fails to gain any momentum and, with that, fails to convince us of the emotional journey its lead seems to be going through. Its hollow direction and unremarkable script lend themselves to the criticism of making a piece of cinema that feels less effective about the merits of serving one’s country, and more about the shortcomings of patriotism.
THE INFILTRATOR (2016) [3.5/5]
Led by a first-grade ensemble cast with the always compelling Bryan Cranston, the film offers an in-depth look into one of United States’ most successful sting operations against the Colombian cartel in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the film is too concerned with the details and intricacies of the operation rather than spending more time and effort to give life to its characters.
CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (2016) [3.5/5]
The film is a difficult one to review because, on occasion, it does everything well. However, the script is thematically inconsistent, lacking the kind of focus that would allow us to quickly decipher what it is all truly about. At the end, I believe it is about the lengths a father and husband was willing to go to deal with the serious mental issues of his wife. In between, there are comments about American consumerism, the merits of a minimalistic and environmental conscious lifestyle, a criticism of the American education system, and the lack of physical and survival skills found in common people.
BIG EYES (2014) [ 3/5 ]
Unlike any other Tim Burton project, Big Eyes has the greater purpose of contributing to social commentary by showcasing the terrible injustices a brilliant artist had to go through simply because she was a woman in man’s world. To think this could apply to one of 20th century’s most famous painters is a stark reminder of how recent and impactful the gains of feminism have been.
Despite its commendable purpose, this biopic fails to ever gain momentum, simply telling the tale, without truly ever diving deeply into the psyche of all of its players.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) [ 4/5 ]
A deeply moving film about finding purpose and gaining some (albeit not all) appreciation for life after unimaginable tragedy. As it has been said in many other reviews, Casey Affleck’s turn as Lee Chandler is the kind of nuanced and heart-breaking performance that is both achingly realistic and unforgettable. Even if it excels at building characters out of actors, the film doesn’t quite know how to match its humanity with a cinematic experience that would take greater advantage of certain climatic moments in the storytelling. Regardless, the film is one of best of 2016.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR [4/5]
Given the current political climate in the USA and the rest lf the world, A Most Violent Year feels timely in the way that it deals with power, and how choosing the righteous path can still prove as economically fruitful as bending one’s moral standing to make another buck. Both Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are impressive as a wealthy married couple whose love for each other is almost evenly matched to the disdain that both feel for each other when their backs are against the wall.
THE EXPANSE (2015) [ 4.5 /5 ]
January ended with a bang when I discovered the first season of SkyFy’s The Expanse. This is a show adapted from a series of science fiction novels and molded after Battlestar Galactica. The series is brought to life with the right kind of ambition to match its thematic and universe-building scale. It boasts a fully fleshed out and complex futuristic world, compelling and complex characters, political and social intrigue, and enough mystery and twists to keep audiences engaged and addicted. In its short history, it has already been compared to Game of Thrones and the aforementioned Battlestar Galactice with good reason.
The second season, which premiered this past Wednesday is a must watch.
Other posts coming in February: A full review of “Jackie” and a preview to the 2017 Academy Awards