Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Starring
Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis
Director
J.J. Abrams

Resurrect a beloved name and attempt to relaunch a franchise? No sweat. Extreme pressure was riding on co-writer/director J.J. Abrams’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Expectations are more than high for the film, and while this sequel doesn’t quite recapture the glory of the old days, if often comes very close.

“The Force Awakens” is both a retread and a callback to “A New Hope.” Rey (Daisey Ridley) follows in the footsteps of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill): she’s an orphaned scavenger on a desert planet, Jakku, and she’s torn between her home and exploring the galaxy. Her life changes when she meets the adorable BB-8, a droid hiding a secret for the best damn Resistance pilot in the sky, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). A conflicted Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) crosses paths with both Poe and Rey, but most of “The Force Awakens” is about those two, as well as the pair of recognizable faces they team up with along the way: Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

Even before Han and Chewie appear – and what a wonderful reveal it is – “The Force Awakens” is undeniably a “Star Wars” movie. The film recaptures the spirit of the original trilogy, as it should. The tangible environments, practical creatures and stakes are “Star Wars” through and through, but more than that, it’s the sense of joy, pain and adventure that Abrams and his co-writers, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, bring to this sequel that makes it “Star Wars.” This series has always been about friendship and family, and “The Force Awakens” doesn’t forget that, even if some of the relationships aren’t very well defined.

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Movie Review: “In the Heart of the Sea”

Starring
Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw
Director
Ron Howard

Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” might be one of the most boring literary classics ever published, yet that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from going back to the source material time and time again. Though Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea” technically isn’t an adaptation of “Moby Dick,” it is based on the non-fiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick about the real-life events that inspired Melville’s seafaring adventure. Sadly, that doesn’t make it any less dull. A well-intentioned cross between the nautical drama of “Master and Commander” and the against-all-odds survival elements of “Unbroken,” “In the Heart of the Sea” is an instantly forgettable movie that completely wastes the talents of Howard and his cast.

The year is 1850, and author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) has traveled to Nantucket to visit Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last surviving crew member of the Essex whaling ship, to find out if the rumors that it was capsized by a giant sperm whale 30 years earlier are true. Melville hopes to use the story as inspiration for his next novel, and although Nickerson is hesitant about disclosing any details of the harrowing event, he reluctantly agrees when his wife (an underused Michelle Fairley) reminds him that they desperately need the money Melville has offered in exchange for his time.

Curiously, the focus of Nickerson’s tale isn’t himself, but rather Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), a master whaler assigned to serve as the first mate on the Essex’s upcoming voyage under the leadership of the less experienced Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), who hasn’t earned his position through hard work like Chase, but through family ties to the whaling company that controls most of Nantucket’s economy. Though the two men immediately butt heads, particularly after Pollard’s rash decision to sail directly into a storm nearly gets the entire crew killed, they have much bigger problems to worry about when they find their usual hunting waters devoid of whales. Upon hearing gossip of large herds for the taking off the coast of South America, the Essex crew sails into uncharted waters in search of glory, only to encounter a mammoth, alabaster sperm whale that destroys their vessel, leaving the men stranded at sea in a struggle for survival.

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Movie Review: “The Big Short”

Starring
Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Marisa Tomei
Director
Adam McKay

The housing market crash of 2008 was no joke, which is why it might come as somewhat of a surprise that “The Big Short” is directed by the same man responsible for goofball comedies like “Anchorman,” “Step Brothers” and “Talladega Nights.” Though Adam McKay isn’t the first person you’d think of to direct a (mostly) serious movie about the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, he’s clearly passionate about the material – both the real-life events and the book on which the film is based – because it shows in the final product. “The Big Short” isn’t quite as hard-hitting as J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call,” the underseen 2011 drama that offers a different perspective of the same events, but it’s a nonetheless effective examination of a nationwide disaster so ridiculous that it’s difficult not to laugh.

Adapted from “Moneyball” author Michael Lewis’ bestselling book of the same name, “The Big Short” follows a group of investment bankers through the years 2005-2008 as they predicted what many thought was impossible – the always-sturdy housing market collapsing – and then did the unthinkable by betting against (or shorting) the big banks to profit off their greed. The first to make his move is financial guru Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially awkward hedge fund manager who discovers a worrying pattern in defaulted subprime mortgages (which make up the mortgage bonds that the banks trade on) and invests more than a billion dollars of his investors’ money into credit default swaps, i.e. insurance against the failure of those bonds, which didn’t even exist at the time.

Everyone on Wall Street thinks he’s crazy, except for hotshot Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who sees a potential gold mine in Burry’s theory and convinces short-tempered, nihilistic hedge funder Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his tight-knit team (Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall and Hamish Linklater) to go into business with him, despite the fact that Mark hates everything that guys like Jared stand for. Word of Vennett’s proposal also reaches small-time investors Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who request help from their mentor, former banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), in getting them a seat at the big boys table.

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Movie Review: “Krampus”

Starring
Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Emjay Anthony, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell
Director
Michael Dougherty

It’s been eight long years since Mike Dougherty’s directorial debut, the excellent horror anthology “Trick ‘r Treat,” and he’s back to once again raise hell on the holidays with his sophomore effort. “Krampus” is a darkly funny Christmas film that features some solid laughs, playful set pieces and a fantastic use of practical effects.

Max (Emjay Anthony) loves Christmas. His family, however, doesn’t exactly share his excitement for the holidays: Max’s dad, Tom (Adam Scott), works too much; his mother, Sarah (Toni Collette), is a worrying control freak; and the rest of his family is constantly bickering and fighting. After Max tears apart his letter to Santa, asking for his family to be happy again, Krampus – an evil spirit who’s sort of like the anti-Santa Claus – comes to town. At its side is a horde of minions, including evil gingerbread men, a bloodthirsty teddy bear and a monstrous jack-in-the-box. If they hope to survive the night, Max’s family must put aside their problems and fight back.

The villains are the highlight of “Krampus.” Dougherty’s handmade approach to the film is exciting to watch. There’s a huge reliant on practical effects, making these monsters all the funnier, scarier and more believable. There’s very little noticeable CGI in the movie, with the exception of the comical gingerbread men.

But as fantastical as the story is, the threat in “Krampus” feels real. The first kill in the movie is unsettling, and as much as this family bickers, the audience cares when they’re attacked or mutilated. The actors, especially the young ones, bring a real sense of fear and sadness to the film. It also helps that Dougherty has a great handle of tension. When Max’s sister, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen), is running from Krampus, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, it’s wonderfully timed.

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Movie Review: “Macbeth”

Starring
Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis
Director
Justin Kurzel

Some lucky high school kids are going to watch director Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth” during class someday. If you find William Shakespeare’s language difficult to interpret, Kurzel helps you wash it down with some stunningly nightmarish imagery, stirring performances and a surprising amount of levity.

Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is a battered and scarred soldier. A thane of Scotland, he hears of a prophecy from three witches that he will one day rule his land as its king. The character is haunted by the start of the film, after he and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) lose a child, but his madness grows and grows over the course of the story. At the insistence of his domineering yet loving wife, he murders the King of Scotland, taking over the throne.

Kurzel and the film’s three screenwriters, Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, have turned Shakespeare’s play into a horror movie of sorts. They dive under the skin of the characters, making their pain, past and present, collide in an explosive fashion. It goes without saying that Shakespeare did that as well, but Kurzel and the writers have crafted both a faithful and modern adaptation, although one that’s not too modern.

The battle sequences rely more on mood than hack-and-slash action. This isn’t “300,” for example, as Kurzel is more focused on how the violence affects Macbeth than showing heads flying in the air. There are these fantastic moments in which Kurzel and his DP Adam Arkpaw use slow-motion, not to amp up the action, but to heighten the reaction shots of Macbeth. The battle sequences are impressive on a technical level, but how the director tackles the interior conflicts is just as powerful, if not more so.

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