Wednesday, December 30, 2015


Today is the rarest of rare posts here at The Establishing Shot. This one has nothing to do with the world of movies or even television. Still, it does concern the world of entertainment. In this case, that world of entertainment is the one that was supplied by my pet cat Smokey Joe. Today, my wife Paige and I had to put him to sleep as it would have been too cruel for him to suffer any longer from his inoperable stomach cancer. Thus today, I’m writing a tribute to him. He was an amazing cat. Beautiful. Sweet as candy. Soft like a pussy willow. Kind of a rascal. And definitely one of the most hilarious and entertaining cats ever to grace the planet.

Smokey Joe, AKA “The Joe” as we often called him, was just a few months shy of his 13th birthday. And up until 4 months ago, his existence was an exemplary one. He was an indoor cat and was always safe. Smokey Joe was never hungry, he was played with constantly, and our grey Burmese was spoiled with more love, wuzzles and wire toys than most cats could ever imagine. And there were three souls who loved his with all their hearts. In addition to my wife and me, our first cat Agent Orange, an orange tabby, loved him from the moment we brought him home to be his little brother. We all lost an immeasurable part of our lives today. And I already feel a physical ache from his departure. I can only imagine what his constant cat companion must feel deep inside.

See, Agent Orange and Smokey Joe were the absolute best of buddies. They never fought, never squabbled, never resented the attention the other one would get at times. Agent Orange was so loving and nurturing of his adopted brother, it was almost like Smokey Joe was his own kin. And Smokey Joe loved Agent Orange right back just as much. He’d call for him to come and play, usually at night when Paige and I were in bed, and their conversation was unlike any they had with us. Their language took on a whole new intimacy and tone in the nocturnal that sounded quite amusing to us. Perhaps they were jawboning over the day, or comparing notes on the brands of Fancy Feast we fed them that day, or maybe, just maybe, they were telling each other how much they loved each other. Or us. All we know is that they had an amazing bond. And they were as close as two animals could ever be.

Smokey Joe also was affectionate with us too, though he was one of those cats that liked you better if you stroked him without looking him in the eye. As he grew older, he started seeking out our petting skills more and more. And even looked us in the eye as if to say, “I love you.” Lots of slow blinks became par for the course with him too, and some feline experts will tell you that is how a cat says “I love you.” I believe that’s true, and sometimes, he loved sitting on the bed and being caressed so much, he almost seemed to enjoy it more than playing with us and his toys. Almost.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Paige Carpenter, Agent Orange and Smokey Joe playing string. (copyright  2004)
We loved him so and he always made us laugh at his antics. Our boys were more fun to watch than any movie or TV show. And sometimes there was a bit of the Dickens to Joe that made him even more hilarious. One time, he jumped up onto the desk to steal the last bite of a toaster pastry from my hand and then moonwalked backwards across the computer keyboard to make his getaway. Hey, give the intrepid little pickpocket some credit for knowing what he wanted and how to escape with style.

Other times, his bellicose and elongated yowls for attention sounded so forlorn and melodramatic, it was as if he was starring in a Telenovela on Univision. My wife and I cracked up every time. He would make us giggle at how he’d paw endlessly at one of those dumb electronic cat toys you mount on the door knob. His amusement at flying birds or a stray little spider played like funny ‘takes’ worthy of Harpo Marx. And Joe loved his powdered chicken treats so much that he would walk around with remnants of the white stuff on his little brown nose. He could’ve been a Studio 54 regular during the 1970’s!

And Joe’s predatory moments, going after movable toys like a spool of string being dragged about by Paige, were like a caricature of a tiger that would make Shere Khan blush. His pupils would get so big it was like he had chocolate chips for eyes. Sometimes, he’d get so excited, his legs would get out of synch with his front paws as he ran. He looked like two guys trying to operate a cow costume. That is how funny The Joe was in all that he did. I’ll bet he knew he was a great comedian.

But in his final months, his stage became one more akin to tragedy than comedy. It was like all the funny parts were cut out of a Charlie Chaplin silent movie, with only those scenes designed to break your heart left in the final cut. He grew more ill and started to slow down. He dropped half his weight. And he curled up in a ball and found refuge against his warm water bottle on his favorite blanket more and more each of his last weeks.

 Still, he would forget about his condition when a toy invited him to play. Or Paige, AKA The Cat Whisperer, talked her magic baby talk to him that made him purr for minutes upon minutes. And he still loved being petted even if we had to do it more gingerly as the bones along his spine started to protrude more due to his weight loss. But he always had an appetite even on his final day. The cancer was just eating up far too much of what he took in. So we had to do the merciful thing.

The day before his last, he seemed to be telling all of us that he was ready to go. He nuzzled deep into Agent Orange’s fur as they had their last great bonding session. He looked soulfully in the eyes of both Paige and me for minutes on end, seeming to want to soothe our pain as well. And on his second to last night, Smokey Joe slept on the bed with us. He hadn’t done that since he was a kitten, but he slept with us as if he was cherishing as much time with us as he could. 

A wonderful vet came today to euthanize Smokey Joe in the comfort of his own home, surrounded by all his loving family members. He slipped into sleep quickly and quietly, and it was all over in an hour. We were shattered of course, but by night’s end, we were laughing about our vivid memories of him, and singing some of the multitude of songs we made up about him. We plan on singing those songs a long time.

Agent Orange was there when Smokey Joe left us this afternoon, but he still was wandering around this evening, clearly a bit perplexed as to where his best friend might be. It was as if our orange tabby was expecting Joe to return. He knows our home just isn’t our home without him. But we’re going to have to get used to the lack of Smokey Joe’s unique and once ubiquitous presence.

Anyone who loves a pet goes through all of this when they leave this world. It’s never easy, almost always tragic, and anyone who has had a pet knows that they are family members. Thanksgiving and Christmas are tailor-made for being together with families, but those two holidays were anything but merry for the four of us this year. Still, I know that Paige, Agent Orange and I are eternally grateful for the almost 13 years we had with Smokey Joe. And I know he felt the same about all the time with the three of us. He was pure joy. And isn’t that what the season is supposed to be all about?


THE REVENANT doesn’t open wide nationally until January 8, but those who’ve seen it recognize the brilliant filmmaking that it is. Oscar experts peg Leonardo DiCaprio as the odds-on-favorite to win Best Actor for it, and since Academy ballots were mailed out today, December 30,  he may finally be in line to win after 5 nominations without a victory. Many voters will no doubt be nominating visionary director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki as well, not to mention many of the other gifted talents responsible for the film's incredible technical prowess. And with such nominations, horror fans can be thankful too as there are many attributes in THE REVENANT that could qualify as those found in frighteners.

The overall sense of dread that runs throughout the film is part and parcel of the very same tone found in the genre. From the very beginning, when the 1823 militaristically run hunting party falls prey to the attacking Native American Arikara Indians, the screen never lets up on an overwhelming sense of terror. Even when there are lulls, and there are but a handful in this venture, the audience is never relieved because of all the violence and tension that fills the screen. In addition to the local hostiles, the competitive hunters in the film are also at each other’s throats. The possibility of bloodletting is a constant. And if man doesn’t turn on man in this story, the elements certainly will. The freezing weather and hazardous mountains are an ever-present villain throughout, like the setting of any haunted house or menacing woods are one finds in the horror genre.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives a physical and intense performance as any he's ever given in THE REVENANT.
Then there are the beasts in those woods. The mountains are filled with too many animals that can rip one’s head off and the film’s protagonist Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds that out the hard way. He’s attacked by a mama Grizzly bear who means to protect her cub from the interloping humans dotting her domain. And when she savages Glass, the scene rivals any attack from any movie with a drooling alien, dreadlocked predator or a 25 foot Great White. 

To say this film puts you on the edge of your seat is like saying that Donald Trump has a gift for controversy. From the very first moment of the film, the tension is as thick as the brush, and danger is as close as any tree branch. Truly, no horror film that opened this year came even close to creating such a relentless sense of angst, unease and terror in its storytelling. It's exquisite torture.

An almost unrecognizable Tom Hardy plays the antagonist Fitzgerald in THE REVENANT. 
THE REVENANT also is a film with a vengeance theme front and center, like so many in the horror genre. Whether it’s Freddy Krueger exacting his revenge on the descendants of those who caused his death, Jason Voorhees annihilating more sex-occupied teen camp counselors, or any one of Vincent Price's movie mad men theatrically offing his persecutors, revenge is always a dish best served cold in horror. And a similar unrelenting ruthlessness fills Glass. Not only has fellow trapper and unapologetic racist John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) killed off Glass’s half-breed son in the story, but he buried Glass alive after he was mauled by that angry bear. He’s one unrepentant, irascible bastard and he definitely has it coming. And come it will in the form of Glass, crawling out of his grave, lumbering through land and water to find him and bring great wrath to his enemy.

Another thing that THE REVENANT has in common with horror movies is an ominous and menacing score. Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner have written taut and dissonant music as desolate as it is frightening. The score reminds one of the very same thing that Paul Thomas Anderson did with the music in his 2007 epic THERE WILL BE BLOOD. He directed his composer Jonny Greenwood to score it like a horror movie because his main character Daniel Plainview was truly a monster. (One in plain view as well, to say the least.)

Director Alejandro Inarritu with his star DiCaprio shooting on location.
DP Lubezki uses a lot of handheld POV shots in his camera work and they echo the way horror films are often shot. Lubezki uses such tactics to put the horrors that befall Glass and the hunting party right in our face. His camera work is constantly moving, picking up the choreography of a large cast running about, performing in-camera stunts and catching all of them, weaving in and out of the death and chaos. It’s a technical marvel that puts most quick-cut actioners to shame. And Lubezki does it all on location in the wilderness. It was probably as harrowing to shoot as it plays on film. It truly is one of cinema's most amazing photographic achievements.

His camera is so close to all that is going on it becomes a veritable character itself. And it takes your breath away. Repeatedly. His work here may just net him his 3rd cinematography Oscar in as many years. That will be an Academy record if it happens, and a most just one as well.

Shots where the camera follows Glass and his injured horse over a cliff, or where it weaves from land to water and back again, have to be seen to be believed. There are numerous effects, both post and in camera too, but Lubezki hides them all with a magician’s grace. But his subjects here aren't glamorous assistants or little white birds. They're deaths, attacks, and more attacks. Sound like a horror film to you? 

THE REVENANT Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki.
And finally, there is no greater theme in the best horror films,  than that which recognizes man as the true monster in the world. In Blake Snyder’s screenwriting books and classes, he identifies man’s greed or selfishness as the great villain which always invites the other monster into the story to wreak havoc. The same is true in THE REVENANT. Sure, there are the land, water, air and wildlife  present as murderous obstacles, but it’s all the various beasts walking upright on two legs that are the most lethal threats here.

There are no true good guys or bad guys in this piece, only pigheaded, violent, and self-interested men who know it’s a kill or be killed world they’ve chosen to contend in. And Glass himself rises out of his own grave to become a single-minded predator stalking his prey. He becomes a monster so unrecognizable, that at the end, he barely recognizes what he's become. That moment may be the scariest one in this film.

THE REVENANT is a movie that will be talked about for years, and its themes about spirituality, bigotry, and the spoiling of our environment will be big parts of the conversation. In addition, its themes of horror, and similarities to the tropes found in genre, will be discussed at great length too, and deservedly so. THE REVENANT is absolutely one of the best films of the year. And easily, one of the most frightening as well.

Friday, December 11, 2015


2015 is coming to a close and we are in the thick of  movie awards season. So, how is the horror genre doing? Unfortunately, no frighteners were called when the Golden Globe nominations were announced Thursday, December 10, but the popular IT FOLLOWS did net a number of Independent Spirit nominations when they were announced on November 24. It's showing up on a lot of critic's lists as one of the best of the year, and it's at the top of the heap here as the best of all 2015 horror movies. Here is my complete list.

IT FOLLOWS was the most effective horror movie of the year, both for its scares and its artistry, and it's writer/director Robert David Mitchell’s masterpiece. Almost nine months since its release, it is still the horror movie that has the most sticking power in 2015. It has a very simple premise: a deadly entity in human form hunts you down to kill you if you have sex with the wrong person. But everything else about the film is rich with nuance and complexity, from the camerawork to the score to the acting. And yes, there is bound to be some moralizing when your monster is a metaphor for STD’s, yet this film doesn’t judge Jay, the teen lead subtly played by Maika Monroe, too harshly. Sure, she's put through the ringer as the entity chases her all over the place, but her character is not a helpless victim, and ultimately she prevails. This is smart, thoughtful and shrewdly calculated storytelling. And it's one of the best entertainments of the year, horror or otherwise.

THE GIFT was the other horror movie that was the sharpest this year is this psychological thriller from writer/director/star Joel Edgerton. He created a small masterpiece about grudges and bullying. The taut story focuses on Edgerton as a loner exacting revenge 20 years later on the guy (Jason Bateman) who made his life a living hell in high school. But who's really the bad guy here? That's what Bateman's wife (Rebecca Hall) wants to know, and her loyalty zig-zags back and forth, as does the audience's. It all crackles with exquisite tension and dark humor, and the three performances are sharp and nervy. Here's hoping that Edgerton shares his gift for writing and directing more in this genre. 

The year’s most misunderstood genre piece was CRIMSON PEAK. It didn’t get a fair shake from critics or audiences. It was sold as a thumping ghost story, heavy with CGI, but in actuality, it was a character-driven Gothic romance. The tony cast of Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska should have clued in moviegoers that Guillermo del Toro was operating on a slyer and more serious level than mere spooks and specters, but they must have been expecting something more obvious and jolting like the boo's in the “Paranormal Activity” series. Thus, this movie tanked. If there is any justice, its eerie art direction will get an Oscar nomination, and the VOD release of the film will create an audience for a stunner that shouldn't have been shunned.  

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT came out way back in January, but Iranian filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour’s black and white thriller bested most everything that came out in all the months after. She created a black and white arthouse film that used the backdrop of an Iranian city to tell of a female vampire who really just wants to enjoy the easygoing life of a teenage girl. Of course, she can't in her condition, and she's not nearly as monstrous as many of the jerky guys preying upon her in such a sexist region. Amirpour made a film that was not only frightening, but was a shrewd feminist commentary as well. 

Another spectacular arthouse ghost story was GOODNIGHT MOMMY It's so good, in fact, it's the official Academy entry from Austria for the year. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala wrote and co-directed this sparse, unsettling tale about the disturbing relationship between a mother who returns home to her isolated lake house after some plastic surgery, and  engages in a battle of wills with her ten-year-old twins Elias and Lukas. They think the excessively bandaged woman ordering them around is an imposter, and they start defying her at every turn. Their fight turns increasingly violent and by the end, you’ll be truly horrified at how their mind games have gotten out of hand. This might be the year’s most disturbing film. And even if you guess the big surprise, the even bigger one is how this film holds you utterly in its thrall the entire time, never letting go, never letting you relax. 

KNOCK KNOCK and THE GREEN INFERNO from horror wunderkind Eli Roth were both great, and he went two-for-two this year with his smart, contemporary and gripping horror stories. Neither film got the respect or box office they deserved, but in years to come, their reputations will only increase. Here, Roth is truly coming into his own as a mature filmmaker. He's always been able to make us squirm in our seats with his graphic violence and dark humor, but here, he's more cerebral, less visceral. And yet, the impact is still placing us firmly on the edge of our seats.

THE GREEN INFERNO came out first and concerns a group of activist college students trying to do some good down in the Amazon. But their naïveté hurls them headlong into an indigenous tribe that would rather eat them than surrender. Sure, it drew comparisons to the cult classic CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST from the early 1980’s, but this film was hardly a B-thriller like that. Instead, this one was a beautifully shot and carefully crafted piece that contained tons of tension, compelling characters, a dozen nuanced performances, and some of the cheekiest political commentary this side of Rachel Maddow.

KNOCK KNOCK also dealt with politics, the sexual kind, and marked a continuation of the strong comeback of Keanu Reeves. Here he plays a well-to-do architect who’s home alone for a weekend, trying to concentrate on getting some work done, when his doorbell rings and two comely women ask him for directions to a party. They're lost, and soon, he's lost in their charms. He invites them in and they become more and more evil in their motives towards him. Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armis play the interlopers and watching them turn for harmless flirts into vicious, calculating attackers is a marvel to see. Roth tightens the screws as effectively here in a well-lit, well-to-do home as he did in the thick, dangerous jungle of THE GREEN INFERNO. Special kudos to Izzo for two outstanding horror performances this year. Here, she's a sexy psycho, and in THE GREEN INFERNO she was 180 degrees different as an earnest ingénue. 

Horror fans were served a delightful treat this past Halloween with the release of EXTRAORDINARY TALES an animated anthology of five of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous tales. “The Fall of the House of Usher”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Tell Tale Heart”, “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” and “The Masque of the Red Death” were each exquisitely animated in this adult cartoon. Each had a different style of animation, but all captured the eeriness, loneliness, and macabre sensibilities of author Poe, the father of modern horror. Especially striking was the use of water color in the "Red Death." Prince Prospero’s kingdom of sinners were painted with soft, sexy colors suggesting the lust of their transgressions. All to make the red-cloaked intruder pop upon his entrance as well. Raul Garcia wrote, produced and directed these marvelously rendered tales of madness and mirth.

Honorable mention must be given to STARRY EYES, a 2015 VOD release from writer/directors Kevin Kolsh and Dennis Widmyer, about a young actress who makes a deal with devilish producers to become a queen of Hollywood. It was wicked satire and a body transformation shocker that had to be seen to be believed. Also standing out this year was the holiday dark comedy KRAMPUS. Michael Dougherty’s dark comedy showcased the shadow of St. Nick and his terrorizing of a family that had lost the Christmas spirit. This farcical horror was as funny as it was fierce.

And for those who prefer their terror  at home on the smaller screen, where the lights can remain on, no horror on TV matched FROM DUSK TILL DAWN: THE SERIES this year. Each episode was sharp, mean, sexy fun. And it starred one of the best ensembles on the tube. In fact, AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL may be getting more press, but for true horror aficionados, Robert Rodriguez’s signature series on his El Rey Network is the one to go gaga over. And thankfully, to the delight of true horror fans everywhere, it was renewed for a third season.

Standouts like these made 2015 a ghoulishly good year. And here's hoping that 2016 holds even more haunts for all of us at the Cineplex and on the TV. 

Monday, December 7, 2015


Original caricature by Jeff York of Sylvester Stallone as the aging Rocky Balboa in CREED (copyright 2015)

You have to understand that I’ve never really loved ROCKY. I merely liked him. To this day, I am still miffed that in 1976 ROCKY was chosen Best Picture at the Oscars over the esteemed ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, NETWORK and TAXI DRIVER. Yet, I freely admit ROCKY is a terrific film, and it certainly resonated more emotionally with the Academy than its tonally cooler competitors did. But none of that, nor its six sequels, prepared me for CREED. And how much I would enjoy it. And revere it too.

Quite simply, one could categorize the film as the 7th Rocky movie. There was ROCKY 1-V, then ROCKY BALBOA, and now CREED, which despite it using the namesake of Rocky’s most famous opponent Apollo Creed, is still a Rocky movie. But it is so much more than just another sequel. Instead, writer/director Ryan Coogler has done something damn near miraculous with it. He’s made a boxing film, let alone another Rocky boxing film, and managed to make it seem utterly fresh, vital, and even important. Coogler pulled off another significant miracle with it too. He coaxed a career best performance out of Sylvester Stallone in his seventh time playing the big palooka, and it may very well net the veteran actor an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor come February.

Lead Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, along with Stallone in support in CREED. 
How did Coogler do it? Well, for starters, he relegates Rocky to a featured role. Granted, a large featured role, but the focus of the film is Adonis Johnson, played with just the right amount of insolence and innocence by Michael B. Jordan. Adonis happens to be the bastard son born from one of Apollo Creed’s dalliances with a mistress. And he both resents the fact that he never got to know his father and was never acknowledged by him, and yet he still idolizes the incredible athlete his dad was in his heyday.

You’ll remember that Apollo Creed dies in ROCKY IV, so here, Adonis must turn to Rocky Balboa to not only stand in as his father figure, but to help him learn to fight like his old man too. The chip on Adonis’ shoulder isn’t too big, so it allows for a very rich and nuanced relationship with Rocky that’s at the heart of the story. Rocky is trying to genuinely mentor the young man, and throughout most of the movie, Rocky’s arc is essentially to help Adonis become a genuine pro.

Jordan with costar Tessa Thompson in CREED.

Adonis also gets a girlfriend in this film, but she’s not window dressing or just ‘the girl’ in the story, as is so often the case in these kinds of things. Instead, Bianca (as played by the wondrous Tessa Thompson) has her own story and her own talents. She’s a jazzy pop singer who writes her own songs and is on the verge of making it in the big time too. She's also dealing with her own demons, as she's starting to lose her hearing, but she's strong, and dealing with it a day at a time. That's a big theme in this movie. Taking things one step at a time. In fact, it's a line uttered more than once here. 

Her boyfriend Adonis takes the relationship slowly, and that's very admirable here, especially my movie standards that generally rush lovers into bed. But he respects her too much to just regard her as something that simple. He admires her beauty and sexiness, yes, but more importantly he is in awe of her talent and her maturity, and it’s amazing how many scenes are about his support and interest in her, about their relationship and not just how she supports his dreams. That’s another minor miracle unto itself here.

Coogler really showcase her music too. Thompson sings throughout and her songs are terrific. In fact, the whole mix of music, from rap to the underscore by Ludwig Goransson, is fantastic. Coogler is also interested in the periphery characters that fill out every scene. There’s an authentic feeling to all of them in this story, from the other boxers and trainers in the gym, to even the extras, like the guys working behind the counter at a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich shop.

The writer and director of FRUITVALE STATION really uses locations well here too, just like he did in his previous film which took place in Oakland. So much of CREED is shot on the street and it gives all of this an utter authenticity. Are there any scenes here shot on a soundstage in this film? It doesn't appear so. Even the big fight at the end is in a huge arena with thousands of extras. It may be special effects enhanced, but it doesn't feel like it.

Writer/Director Ryan Coogler. 
Coogler avoids all the minefield of clichés that mar boxing pictures so often, from someone dying in the ring to big-time losses for the  hero that challenge his standing and soul, to other Herculean obstacles. Instead, this film is very deliberate, practical, and plays realistically on all levels. It's one of the few boxing films, outside of David O. Russell's THE FIGHTER, that seems to be a truly honest and accurate exploration of what's involved in the demanding profession. 

That accuracy starts with the fact that Adonis is a great athlete already. He's not a colossal underdog. That wouldn't be realistic. The lead here is a naturally gifted athlete, a man who's in marvelous shape, and he has the drive and energy to make it as a  successful pugilist. No down-on-his-luck shmuck is he. Adonis' journey simply requires the hard work needed to have such a career. That, and channeling his anger into the ring and not outside it, of course. As Rocky tells him early, his opponent is the man in the mirror. An athlete stops himself. Their opponent doesn't. 

And what Coogler does with the Rocky character is truly the most spectacular part of the film. By now, we all know Rocky Balboa really well. But damn, if Coogler and Stallone don't find some new colors in the old guy. (SPOILER ALERT: The next lines are for those who haven’t read anything about CREED or have yet to see it. You’ve been warned.) It may have seemed maudlin at first to have Rocky come down with cancer this time out, but it deepens his sense of fighting alongside Adonis as he fights for legitimacy. It's a sharp addition to the narrative, and it's handled deftly and sensitively throughout the last third of the film.

Stallone as Rocky Balboa in CREED.
And the scene where Rocky is given the news about his condition by the doctor may very well be the moment that solidifies the Oscar gold for Stallone. It is a weepy one, granted, but Coogler and Stallone give it a quiet stubbornness that is unexpected and utterly admirable. Stallone has been many things in his long career – Rambo, action hero, sullen action hero, engaging interviewee, aging expendable, and strapping body beautiful – but here, all he is is Rocky. And it’s a total, brilliant emersion. This Rocky is older and wiser, yet a man who's lost so much and it shows in every expression, gesture and move that Stallone makes onscreen here. 

Watching this movie, you can't help but feel emotional. It’s both reverential to the legacy of the previous films - Coogler throws in some choice ‘Easter Egg’ bits and references acknowledging the history of 40 years - but it's a very different take on the familiar. It's startling how fresh and effective it is. And it's one of the best films of the year.

Quite simply, CREED bowled me over. Granted, I still think ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN should’ve won Best Picture in 1976, but I won’t be surprised if this great sequel wins a few Oscars this time as well. In fact, I will cheer.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


It’s Thanksgiving and there is quite a lot to be thankful for from this year’s films. In fact, appropriate for today, here are 26 of them:

1.) The Best Actress race this year is plentiful. With esteemed names like Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett, Lily Tomlin, Charlotte Rampling, Charlize Theron, Carey Mulligan and Maggie Smith are all in the mix, as it's clearly been a banner year for female leads.

2.) Alicia Vikander should be on that short list for “Ex Machina”, but no matter, she was a virtual unknown a year ago, and now she’s one of Hollywood’s breakout stars of 2015. And she's considered the supporting actress frontrunner for her role in "The Danish Girl" which opens wide this weekend.

3.) Speaking of “Ex Machina”, writer/director Alex Garland’s sci-fi three-hander garnered great reviews and box office.

4.) So did “The Martian”, and it proves audiences will line up at the Cineplex for sci-fi, even if there are no drooling aliens or toy chains come to life in it.

5.) Jennifer Lawrence was picked by Entertainment Weekly as their “2015 Entertainer of the Year” and she truly is the biggest, most reliable and endlessly exhilarating talent onscreen these days. And she’s pretty darn hilarious off-screen with her candor, self-deprecation, and friendship with Amy Schumer.

6.) And speaking of Amy Schumer, the brilliant comic became a big movie star this year with her funny and touching turn as both actress and writer of “Trainwreck.”

7.) “Inside Out” was one of Pixar/Disney’s best ever animated features. And to think it’s about what goes on in the brain of a young girl borders on the miraculous from sexist Hollywood.

Original caricature of Johnny Depp in BLACK MASS. (copyright 2015)
8.) Johnny Depp returned to greatness with his villainous turn in “Black Mass.”

9.) George Miller aced the reboot of “Mad Max.”

10.) The ubiquitous Tom Hardy shone bright four times this year, in “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “The Revenant” and twice, playing the notorious Kray twins in “Legend.”

11.) Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa was the best action hero this year.

12.) Truth is stranger than fiction and often more dramatic too. Look at all the heralded films based on true stories – “Spotlight”, “Trumbo”, “The Danish Girl”, “The Big Short” …and those are films that just opened in November!

13.) James Bond may be 50 but with the success of “Spectre”, we’ll be seeing a lot more of 007. (And likely, Daniel Craig too, despite rumblings of retirement.)

14.) The Academy’s Governor Awards went to the legendary Debbie Reynolds, Gena Rowlands and Spike Lee. Bravo! (Next year, how about honoring Catherine Deneuve, Donald Sutherland and Kurt Russell?)

Gena Rowlands and Spike Lee
15.) And Spike Lee and Gena Rowlands gave great speeches too. Too bad Reynolds was sick. She would’ve been something accepting her lifetime Oscar for sure.

16.) Chris Pratt lived up to all his hype after last year's "Guardians of the Galaxy." He was the best thing in "Jurassic World."

17.) The horror genre shone bright with the excellent “It Follows”, “The Gift” and “The Green Inferno.”

18.) Joel Edgerton wrote, directed and starred in the aforementioned "The Gift" and excelled in "Black Mass" too. What a year he had!

19.) The ever-versatile Rose Byrne made even her wigs funny in this summer’s hit comedy “Spy.”

20.) Despite being a box office bust, the brilliant summer film “Love & Mercy” is likely to make Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks strong contenders for supporting acting awards this season.

21.) Eddie Redmayne broke the sophomore curse after winning the Oscar for “The Theory of Everything” last year with a sure-to-be-nominated performance this year for “The Danish Girl.”

22.) And composer Alexandre Desplat finally won gold, after eight nominations, with his whimsical, yet haunting score for “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

23.) “Bridge of Spies” was brilliant. So was “Steve Jobs”, even if the former is making money and the latter isn’t. And there was so much brilliance in the effects in “The Walk”, it literally took your breath away.

24.) John Williams was finally chosen as an AFI Lifetime Achievement recipient and is the first below-the-line talent ever to be named. Bravo, maestro!

25.) Oscar Isaac’s star continues to rise this year on film (“Ex Machina”) and TV (“Show Me a Hero” on HBO), and it’s only going to be more prominent with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

26.) And indeed, the return of “Star Wars” is a big Christmas gift for film fans everywhere. It’s already breaking early box office receipts. Now, let’s hope it’s more “Empire Strikes Back” than any of Anakin’s backstory.

The force has really been with movies this year in a lot of significant ways, both critically and financially. Hopefully, Tinsel Town will keep up the terrific output, especially in making smaller and more adult-focused films that give us more and more reasons to go to the Cineplex, and not just stay home and binge-watch Netflix. Thankful indeed, all movie fans should be this Thanksgiving.