The Best and Worst of 2015


The Best and Worst of 2015

By Danny Minton

1) The Revenant (in theaters January 8). As I was sitting in the theater about to watch Alejandro’s Iñárritu’s latest starring Leonardo DiCaprio, I was overhearing many critics discussing their anticipation for seeing “the bear scene,” but aside from those few minutes of buzz and a trailer that gives nothing away, I had no idea what was going to hit me over the next two and a half hours. According to Webster’s, revenant is defined as “one that returns after death or a long absence.” This is very fitting since the story revolves around sweet Leo, a fur trapper in the early 1800’s who is mauled by a bear (in one of the fiercest visual sequences I’ve ever seen), forced to watch his son get killed in front of him by fellow trapper Tom Hardy (who was supposed to be taking care of him), and then left for dead in the cold, harsh wilderness. His only desire for survival is to seek revenge, and he has to overcome the worst of challenges to do so. It’s a film like you’ve never seen before. The beautiful camera work makes you feel like you are a part of the party following along watching everything take place. You will experience moments where your mind will think you are in danger and not just in a comfortable theater seat watching a movie. I walked out of the theater in a daze, like I had just lived through a treacherous adventure and was blessed enough to come out alive.

Mad Max

2) Mad Max: Fury Road (on Blu-ray and DVD). The best simple description I’ve heard of this 4th installment of the Mad Max franchise is “a two hour car chase” and that it is. But it is so much more complex than your imagination could take you with that synopsis. While a prominent character, Tom Hardy’s Max takes a back seat as he tries to aid Charlize Theron’s Furiosa who is attempting to steal a tyrant’s harem from him and must face his full wrath as he tries to chase them down. It is a wild, crazy ride that takes you into writer/director George Miller’s twisted imagination. If you haven’t seen this one yet, make sure to turn out the lights, put away your phones, and turn the volume up to 10.


3) The Martian (on Blu-ray and DVD January 12). Based on Andy Weir’s addictive novel, The Martian places Matt Damon as an astronaut who is stuck on Mars when his crew believes he died during an evacuation. It is a smart thrill-ride with attitude and a great sense of humor, all put together under the masterful hand of director Ridley Scott (Gladiator). The most amazing accomplishment from this film is how close it was able to stay to the novel while not leaving anything major out.

Big Short

4) The Big Short (in theaters now). Michael Lewis’s book about the housing bubble collapse is cleverly told here by Anchorman director Adam McKay and a huge talented cast including Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt. In a sarcastically humorous fashion the story is presented in a manner that allows you to easily understand how everything happened, while at the same time better understand why we should be incredibly angry about it all. The performances are off the charts great and the screenplay is easily the best of the year.


5) Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (in theaters now, duh). While heavily anticipated, this newest introduction to the Star Wars universe had a lot of folks worried until opening day. After all, the prequels were also almost equally anticipated and now they are almost unfairly looked upon with disgust. Well fortunately JJ Abrams pulled off a whopper of a feat by giving fans the movie they wanted with only minor quibbles. It is now bound to be the biggest film of all time and there is a new hope that our precious franchise is, at least for the time being, saved.


6) Joy (in theaters now). It seems odd that the story of Joy Mangano, queen of home shopping, would make for such a fascinating movie, but under the hands of David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and with star Jennifer Lawrence in the titular role, the movie comes off as an inspirational, thrilling movie, with style coming out of its pores. If even half as much drama took place in real life, then this is the kind of tale a hero is born from. My heart, mind and soul were fully engaged and I had a smile on my face from start to finish.

Hunting Ground

7) The Hunting Ground (on Blu-ray and DVD now). This incredibly important documentary by Kirby Dick (The Invisible War) looks at the astronomical amount of sexual assault that occurs on college campuses and the coverups employed by the universities where they occur. This is a film that every parent sending their son/daughter to college should watch and take to heart. It’s an issue that most of us weren’t even aware of before this movie and one for which all of us should be fighting for accountability and change.


8) Dope (on Blu-ray and DVD now). This comedy focusses on a young black nerd living in a tough Los Angeles neighborhood who is attempting to get into Harvard while at the same time dealing with a drug situation he has been forced into while being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I love it when a film like this has the power to sneak up on you and not only engage and entertain, but change your perspective as well. It not only provides some of the biggest laughs of the year, but forces you to rethink some age-old stereotypes as well.


9) Kingsman: The Secret Service (on Blu-ray and DVD now). Newcomer Taron Egerton leads a fantastic cast including Colin Firth, Samuel L Jackson and Michael Caine in this extreme action film from director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) about a secret British spy agency that tries to foil a plot that would wreak havoc on the planet. It is an entertainingly super-violent action flick with a biting sense of humor, and one of the most fun times I had at the theater this year.

Ex Machina

10) Ex Machina (on Blu-ray and DVD now). In this weirdly wonderful sci-fi story, eccentric billionaire techie Oscar Issac hires fellow Force Awakens star Domhall Gleeson to examine his new female robot (The Danish Girl’s Alicia Vikander) to test the extent of her artificial intelligence. It is an uncomfortable yet exciting and oddly sexy thriller.

Honorable Mention: Creed, Inside Out, Love and Mercy, Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, Room, Slow West, Spy, Steve Jobs, Straight Outta Compton, Where to Invade Next

The Worst

1) Mortdecai. Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ewan McGregor turn in arguably their worst performances with this simply awful movie about a shady art dealer trying to recover a stolen painting. It’s sad to see a movie that is both over-the-top and phoned-in.

2) Aloha. Director Cameron Crowe misses badly with this romantic comedy starring Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams and Bill Murray that is neither romantic nor funny.

3) Hot Pursuit. Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara star in this road trip disaster that should have seen both actresses firing their agents.

4) The Pixels. This Adam Sandler film with a budget so badly wants to be Ghostbusters, but while the cast is decent, the writing makes as little sense as its plot about aliens attacking Earth with 80s Atari games.

5) The Seventh Son. Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore star in this nonsensical fantasy film which proves that sometimes Hollywood likes to throw away a lot of money. Wish they could throw some my way. I’d settle for a small fraction.

New in Home Entertainment – December 22, 2015

war room

New in Home Entertainment

December 22, 2015

War Room
Rated PG for thematic elements throughout
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
From the makers of the smash faith-based films Fireproof and Courageous comes their biggest film yet, War Room, which focuses on a 30-something couple who are having troubles with their marriage and careers when a wise old woman enters their lives to teach them the power of prayer. Overall, the film still has the same big problem as the other films mentioned: it’s a Christian film built for Christians to watch. I can’t see anyone outside of the faith that would get anything out of the message. In addition, there is so much cheese here that it gets distracting. Whether its the 50-something actress playing a senior citizen like she studied under Tyler Perry, or the weird jump rope contest at the end of the film, there are some quirks that keep this film from being a really great movie. That being said, the script here is much more focused than their other scripts and the acting isn’t as lousy as what we’ve seen in the past. But all of this doesn’t matter. The audience aimed for here went to see the movie in droves (it made $68 million at the box office) and I’m sure that the blu-rays will end up in tons of stockings this year as well, in spite of what any “critic” has to say about it. B-

Rated PG for fantasy action violence, language and some thematic material
Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D
One of this year’s biggest disappointments at the box office was Pan from director Joe Wright. This prequel to the Peter Pan story features Peter and Captain Hook teaming up to fight the ominous Blackbeard, played here by Hugh Jackman. As you’d expect the production is fantastic and there are some really incredible set pieces, but the script is a bit too unconventional and there are some rather bizarre idiosyncrasies that distract from what could have been a really good film. I especially had problems with the inclusion of modern songs, sung or chanted by the cast throughout the film. It’s an artsy touch that should have been rethought. But even with its peculiarities, I still found the film enjoyable and can tell you that it’s worth the rental. B-

Wolf Totem
Rated PG-13 for disturbing images and violence involving animals and for brief sexuality
Available on DVD and Blu-ray/Blu-ray 3D combo
In Mandarin with English subtitles
Director Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Bear) is a master at telling stories with animals and here he presents a famous Chinese novel about a group of nomadic Mongolians, industrialized Chinese and a pack of wolves who all struggle to find their place in a rapidly changing world. What drove me to want to watch the film though wasn’t the subject or the director, but rather the fantastic score which is one of the last pieces of music composed and conducted by the late James Horner. The film is surely beautiful to look at and while Annaud lays it on way too thick with the Earth day message, there is real artistry at play here and there are some incredibly majestic moments to be taken in when the sights and sounds come together. B

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Force Awakens

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
Starring Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Bodega and Adam Driver
Directed by J.J. Abrams (Star Trek)
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence

     There is so much secrecy surrounding this highly anticipated project that I feel like a spy writing this review. At first they announced that NO ONE would see it before the opening and you can just imagine the smile on my face when I opened the email that contained my invite to see – even if it was just two days early. So that being said, I will be very limited in my divulging of major plot points and I will not be lying out any spoilers that could ruin your experience should you be one of the millions of Americans watching this over the next week.

     As the scroll begins and the words following STAR WARS: Episode VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS appears amongst one of the most famous fanfares ever written, we learn that Luke Skywalker has gone missing and the Rebellion, lead by General Leia, is desperate to locate him. We learn that a map to his location is being given to them by an old friend. Similar to A New Hope, this message is given to a BB8 Droid (this generation’s R2 unit) and we are off to the races.

     What’s amazing is that the plot is rather simple and while there are secrets throughout, especially since we’ve not been allowed any information other than quick glimpses, the story is not extremely complex and makes a lot of sense given our prior knowledge of the original trilogy. That being said, the two-plus hour long movie flies by due to a masterful hand at pacing.

     You can tell from the beginning that this film is about the passing of the baton to a new generation of characters. Han, Leia and Luke make way for Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who will be the new most popular heroes and villain in fictiondom. Props go to the casting of this film as they put together a fantastic crew of talented young actors. I’m especially pleased with Ridley, who is largely unknown and playing the role of a lifetime like she’s been a movie star for years.

     The original Star Wars films essentially created our understanding of what special effects can add to a film and so it is important that the filmmakers should be at the top of the game in this regard. When Episodes 1-3 came out there was great disappointment due to the fact that it actually looked green-screened. While I’m sure that was enough of that on board here, it doesn’t actually look like it. The production design looks authentic and organic without being scaled down.

     Another important part of the production is the music and at the age of 83 John Williams has given us yet another marvelous score full of playfulness and adventure. And if you really want to provide your own spoilers during the film, listen for the little motifs within the new themes. With this score you not only get a beautiful listen but a great deal of foreshadowing as well.

     I’m not completely complaint-free here. I think there is a major lack of originality when it comes to having yet another death star-like creation within the Starkiller Base. While the base is a subplot, it still feels like a throwback to Episodes 4 and 6 and yes it does provide for some pretty spectacular effects, but I’m pretty sure they could have come up with something different and cooler. In this regard, the Empire (here called The First Order) is employing the very definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again hoping for different results.

     The question I anticipate getting more than any other is if it is child-appropriate. I guess that depends on the child. My five-year-old is going to love it. There are some pretty violent moments (no worse than anything in the first six films) and it is pretty dark at times. I can see kids of all ages experiencing a roller coaster of emotion ranging from fright to sorrow, but overall I think kids and adults alike are going to eat this thing up and come back for seconds and thirds, probably in the same weekend, if they can score tickets. A-

New in Home Entertainment – December 15, 2015

ted 2

New in Home Entertainment

December 15, 2015

Ted 2
Rated R for crude and sexual content, pervasive language, and some drug use
Available one DVD and Blu-ray
Seth MacFarlane’s fowl-mouthed teddy bear is back with Mark Wahlberg and this time Ted is trying to prove to the courts that he should have the same rights as a person in order that he can stay married to his human wife. While any social commentary is largely missed and many of the jokes land with a thud, the film does provide a ton of laughter amidst the disgusting sense of humor that you’d expect from the sequel. Once again, the cast looks like they are having a blast while filming, and we get to at least smile while watching them enjoy themselves. B-

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, and brief partial nudity
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
In this latest installment of the Mission Impossible franchise, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt finds his agency on the verge of extinction while at the same time trying to take down a huge international crime ring known as the Syndicate. I really hate promoting Cruise, simply because every dollar the man makes means we are supporting a different crime syndicate in Scientology, but I can’t deny that this is a really good film. In a year where 007 really missed the mark with Spectre, this American knock-off gave us the Bond film we didn’t get in the fall. A-

Jellyfish Eyes: Criterion Edition
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
This Japanese import from Criterion is possibly one of the weirdest films I’ve ever seen. If you’ve ever been subjected to your child’s Pokeman cartoons, or any of its copycats, imagine that but come to life. Here a group of elementary school kids in Japan all have a cell-phone controlled battle pet called a F.R.I.E.N.D. and a secret agency is trying to control the world through these creatures. The film’s budget was very low but you wouldn’t know it from the special effects utilized. The eye candy doesn’t take your mind off of the fact that the film is just too strange to be palatable and the unfortunate result is pure, unadulterated annoyance, followed by a huge headache. C-


New in Home Entertainment – December 1, 2015


New in Home Entertainment

December 1, 2015

Rated R for horror violence and gore, language including sexual references, and some drug use
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Twisting the horror sub-genre once again is Cooties, a film about grade schoolers who eat tainted chicken and become zombies. The cast, including Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson and Alison Pill as school teachers trying to survive the epidemic, add a surprising amount of credibility and skill to what would normally be a cheesy b-movie. Unfortunately, the cleverness wears off as you get tired of little children meeting their demise in horrible yet funny ways. Ultimately the film is a comedy more than a horror film and the comedy gets too thin long before the third act. C

Fear the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season
Rated TV-MA
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
We are starting out December with a lot of zombies apparently. This spin-off to the uber-popular AMC series The Walking Dead moves us to sunny Los Angeles as the outbreak is just getting started and a new cast of characters are struggling to survive the scourge we all know is coming. While not quite as riveting or violent as the The Walking Dead, this show works. The writing is strong and they got some terrific actors to tell the story. The smartest part of all is that the movie is not about zombies. It’s about people put into an impossible scenario and we around the fishbowl get to watch what they do. I can’t wait to see what comes next. A-

The Stanford Prison Experiment
Rated R for language including abusive behavior and some sexual references
Available on DVD (Blu-ray will be released on January 12)
Based on one of the craziest true stories you’ve ever heard of, this movie follows an experiment where a psychology professor at Stanford (Billy Crudup) places a group of men in a made-up prison, half as prisoners, half as guards, just to see what happens. It’s an amazing and sickening display of the abuse of power, even in a made-up scenario. The movie itself is incredibly uncomfortable to watch and yet you can’t take your eyes off it. I never want to watch it again, but it is definitely worth experiencing one time. A-