Winter break filled with quality movies

December is perhaps the meatiest time of the year for quality film releases, as crowd-pleasing blockbusters and Oscar-bait movies dominate the marquee. The Sunflower doesn’t publish during that time, but I still saw a few of the more notable winter break films and I’ve written short reviews of each.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

I probably don’t need to write this. Not only did “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” come out more than a month ago, but everyone who wanted to see it already has, likely multiple times. 

Still, for those who have avoided it until now (all two of you), I just want to let you know that the hype wasn’t a mistake; “Star Wars” is back and honestly better than ever.

“The Force Awakens” takes place about 30 years after 1983’s “Return of the Jedi,” mixing the now-mythical original trilogy characters with a trio of new protagonists that have all justifiably captured the hearts of, well, everyone I know.

Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are remarkably lovable, a trio of heroes more diverse and arguably more interesting than the series ever. It helps that Ridley, Boyega and Isaac are, frankly, much better actors than young Mark Hamill or (ugh) Hayden Christensen.

The flaws are minor, but notable. One character (a CGI alien voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) steers too close to awkward prequel trilogy territory, and many major plot elements directly mirror essentials from the original trilogy. It makes sense in most cases, but it does make the story predictable.

Even so, “The Force Awakens” somehow manages to make “Star Wars” worth caring about again, and that’s a heck of an achievement.

“The Hateful Eight”

Quentin Tarantino has emerged with his eighth film (as the opening credits so helpfully remind us), a violent, comedic “whodunit” set almost entirely inside a Wyoming bar in the Old West. If you’ve ever seen a Tarantino film before, you know exactly what to expect and whether or not you want to see it.

The ensemble cast includes Tarantino favorites Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen and Tim Roth. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Dern and Channing Tatum get in on the antics, as well, and all of them are, as expected, incredible.

“The Hateful Eight” is occasionally hilarious in the ways Tarantino’s films usually are, but it stumbles in the exact same ways they usually do. 

Tarantino’s fascination with the N-word continues, as the film is set in a time when it was more socially acceptable to use. The script wields it like a machine gun, firing it off at every opportunity, often as a cheap punch line, usually without any tact.

It’s also three hours long, as has become the norm with his films. He takes every scene to its logical limit and then tacks on a few more minutes. I get that it’s a stylistic choice, but you could cut 45 minutes out without losing any substance.

It’s not Tarantino’s best by any means, but if you like his work, it’s more of that.


A journalism nerd’s wet dream, “Spotlight” tells the true story of the Boston Globe investigative team that helped expose the Catholic Church’s widespread, systemic pedophilia problem in the early 2000s.

The excellent cast is highlighted by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo. McAdams, in particular, puts forth an Oscar-worthy performance as a reporter who has to stay composed and respectful as she interviews victims and perpetrators of injustice.

The main thing you need to understand going into “Spotlight” is that the investigative journalism process isn’t full of car chases and gunfights. It’s a film about a dozen or so people talking to each other in a handful of different locations, with occasional breaks to watch journalists sift through legal documents.

This means that, aside from a couple of standout scenes, “Spotlight” doesn’t push any melodramatic buttons. This is commendable, as any increased dramatization would have been disrespectful to the real people who were affected by these sexual abuse scandals.

Still, everyone involved showed up and did a heck of a job here. I don’t think “Spotlight” is remarkably better than most awards-season biopics, but it’s absolutely worth seeing if you have any investment in the story it tells.