Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens / J.J. Abrams / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: It’s Star Wars!; New cast; Worldbuilding details
Side Effects: Familiar action sequences; Obligation to mythology

With expectations high and saddled with the burden of years of nostalgia and familiarity, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will likely be judged not on its own merits but as an extension of that very nostalgia and familiarity. And how could it not be? How could an audience with so much cultural baggage approach anything in this universe with anything like objectivity? It’s a strange position for a 2015 film to be in, franchise blockbuster or not, but The Force Awakens takes on this challenge by embracing our familiarity itself. Read more…

Spotlight (2015)

Spotlight / Tom McCarthy / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Editorial vision and good sense; Pace; Details of journalism
Side Effects: Lack of emphasis on the individual; Repetitive structure

At one point in Spotlight, the team of Boston Globe reporters investigating sex abuse in the Catholic church decides to “follow the system, not the man.” With a detective’s methodology and singularity of focus, they’ll research the overarching system that allowed rampant abuse to take place rather than scrutinize the psychology of any one offender. Tom McCarthy’s absorbing journalistic procedural could be said to follow the same editorial vision. Read more…

The Mend (2015)

The Mend / John Magary / 2015 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Nervy feel; Assured tone and cinematography
Side Effects: Grotesque, exaggerated behavior; Unsuccessful comedy

With touches of the surreal and a jagged, lurching pulse, The Mend turns what is ostensibly a black sheep comedy into a nervy, altogether unfamiliar experience. Read more…

In Jackson Heights (2015)

In Jackson Heights / Frederick Wiseman / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Structure; Montages; Observational acuteness
Side Effects: Less compelling aesthetically than other Wiseman films

[In Jackson Heights plays at Boston’s MFA from Nov. 18 to Nov. 29.]

Early in Frederick Wiseman’s latest in-depth slice of cinéma vérité, a politician and community organizer praises Jackson Heights, Queens, as “the most diverse community on Earth—literally.” With some 160 languages spoken within a 300 acre plot of city blocks, the neighborhood may indeed be a unique melting pot, the kind of American community exalted by our nation’s ideals but rarely realized. And, as Wiseman shows with characteristic focus and investigative savvy, this diverse and authentic community may be the latest victim of the ever-encroaching pall of gentrification.

In Jackson Heights is stylistically akin to Wiseman’s last two great films, At Berkeley and National Gallery. With each project, the director takes a physical location and crafts an elegant observational portrait, documenting events and figures both important and peripheral and weaving together a mammoth, yet somehow unassuming synecdoche of the space. Whether about a university, an art museum or an urban space, Wiseman’s films capture something of the spirit of a location, revealing its inner workings by observing its outward appearance. Read more…

Steve Jobs (2015)

Steve Jobs / Danny Boyle / 2015 / threestar

Active Ingredients: Performances; Momentum
Side Effects: Constricting structure; Lack of heart



Buoyed by strong performances from actors skilled enough to internalize tricky dialogue from writer Aaron Sorkin, Steve Jobs is a fleet and involving film. Still, with so many words tripping so easily from the lips of every character, it doesn’t have much to say about the man or his times. Read more…

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge of Spies / Steven Spielberg / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Wit and humor; Cast; Old-school style and sensibility
Side Effects: Struggles building momentum; Familiar visual textures

Bridge of Spies is crackerjack entertainment, a witty and simmering slow-boil of a film and a reminder of the beautiful craft that makes Spielberg so special. It’s also likely his best film in a decade.

Bridge of Spies is ostensibly a Cold War thriller, but its thrills are muted and its visual DNA harkens back to an older, pre-war style of filmmaking. Our hero fights with wit and words, not guns and gadgets. In a similar subversion of expectations, the film feels as if it were made in the early 1940s, even though its set some 15 years later. Audience might question the aesthetic wisdom of Spielberg’s classicism against the moral uncertainty of the Cold War, but it’s the perfect choice for this story, unfolding a wealth of exciting contradictions like a secret code printed on a tiny wrapper. Read more…

The Walk (2015)

The Walk / Robert Zemeckis / 2015 / twostar

Active Ingredients: Heist elements; Optimism; Vertiginous height
Side Effects: 3D; Supporting characters; Imprecise psychology

The Walk is a warm-hearted but empty-headed film, an ode to “dreams,” “inspiration” and “beauty” without making those words and emotions come alive.

The deck may have stacked against The Walk from the beginning, burdened with animating the backstory of Philippe Petit—the French tightrope walker who improbably and illegally walked between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, and whose story is told in the documentary Man on Wire—and ascending to its finale. And indeed, director Robert Zemeckis does rely on a lot of shortcuts (narration, oversimplified motivations, elision) to introduce us to its hero, attempt to tell us something about him, and get him to the scene of the crime in New York City. Read more…