Lazer Team (2016)

1427914472_lt_trailer_poster-1What makes a disappointing comedy? It’s a question I kept thinking about while watching the sci-fi comedy Lazer Team from the online comedy collective better known as Rooster Teeth, responsible for the longest running online Web series, Red vs. Blue. These are people who know how to be funny. They have a fine resume of shorts to prove their comedy bonafides, but what was it about their first foray into features that diminished their funny? I’ll try my best to provide a critical autopsy for the case subject of Lazer Team, a disjointed and disappointing buddy comedy that died on screen.

A concerned alien species has sent a warning to Earth. A hostile alien race is heading toward our planet with the intent to conquer, pitting their champion fighter against a champion from Earth. This gladiatorial showdown inspires Earth’s military and scientists to train a select warrior (Alan Ritchson) from birth for this mission. The problem is that the wrong people get hold of that alien technology. Disrespected sheriff Hagan (Burnie Burns), his old high school has been pal Herman (Colton Dunn), redneck moron Woody (Gavin Free), and insufferable quarterback Zach (Michael Jones) come across a downed alien ship that they happened to knock out of the sky with drunken fireworks. Each of the foursome puts on a piece of the alien armor, which attaches permanently. Herman gets a pair of super fast boots, Woody a helmet that instantly makes him smarter and British, Zach an arm canon, and Hagan a retractable shield. The bickering idiots are forced to work together over the fate of the planet, and the warring alien species has sent a few of its parasitic infantry to retrieve the special suit.

Rooster-Teeth-Lazer-Team-World-Premiere-1To be fair, Lazer Team is not an atrocious comedy that singes your eyeballs with pain, something along the likes of InAPPropriate Comedy or any Friedberg/Seltzer suckfest. You can tell that the Rooster Teeth squad understands the tenets of comedy and what makes for a good joke, which is what makes their final product all the more baffling. For my pal George Bailey, there’s nothing worse than a bad comedy (his worst film for 2015 was Mortdecai). A comedy has one job to do and that is to make people laugh. This should be obvious but you’d be surprised at how often this principle seems to get lost. Rarely does a larger budget make a comedy funnier, a lesson learned the hard way over and over again with Hollywood. With Rooster Teeth’s first movie, they wanted to make a throwback to the sci-fi buddy comedies of the 80s. They raised almost two and a half million dollars via the crowd-source site Indiegogo, a record until Broken Lizard’s Super Troopers 2. It feels odd to say that what amounts to a meager budget by most productions could be at fault for the ultimate disappointment, but I think it leads into the chief problem of the movie: prioritizing the action over the humor.

It’s not uncommon for the comedy to get obliterated by the action in action-comedies, but from a comedy collective I was hoping for more emphasis on the ha-ha and less on the kablooey. Lazer Team has a solid comic premise that pays homage to a pastiche of 80s inspirations and pop-culture. I wanted to laugh. I think I even compelled myself to give it some pity laughs, but after 40 or so minutes a realization could no longer be ignored, and that was that Lazer Team just wasn’t that funny. The enthusiasm of its key cast members and their amiable nature go a long way to disguise the threadbare nature of too many of their first-draft jokes. The foursome never stretches beyond the entrenched lines of their formulaic archetypes. You come to expect specific jokes delivered from them, assigned by type in a way that reminds me of TV’s The Big Bang Theory. The character will rarely surprise you, which is also because their character arcs are so transparent. Hagan will atone for his failure to act and protect Herman while Herman will learn to move on from a past misfortune. Zach will learn to be less selfish. Woody will… well he doesn’t so much have an arc because he’s instantly made smarter thanks to the lien tech. The expected is a deathblow for comedy; if you can anticipate the joke, it’s rarely funny. Lazer Team so rarely subverts your expectations, playing things too safe.

Lazer-Team-01-27-16The central conflict of four losers learning to work together as a team to save the world is rife with comic possibilities, even with the locked-in archetypes, but there’s far more attention spent on the sci-fi action and special effects. It’s a low budget film but there are plenty of action set pieces and special effects, many done in-house by the Rooster Teeth team. The effects range in effectiveness but are generally passable and even impressive at turns, especially with properly calibrated expectations. The problem is that the action sequences that are eating up so much creative space aren’t remotely memorable. There’s one car chase in the middle of the film where it feels like the guys have found a tone that works, one where the action incorporates the comedy and they work. For a fleeting moment I thought, “Maybe the whole movie will resemble this new shift.” The other problem is that it feels like the Rooster Teeth squad was stuck with how to get this story to feature-length. Structurally, this thing sure feels padded with additional set pieces that lurch and fail to justify the added time, especially the ex-wife cabin sequence.

The acting foursome is the best aspect of the movie and their amiable interaction is the one thing that Lazer Team has that got me through to the end. These actors know how to sell jokes, when to mug, and their amped-up enthusiasm helps sell the lesser material. I wish this foursome had a better script. Imagine something more low-key in concept that involved less explosions and more emphasis on utilizing their comic talents? I wish less time had been spent on Jones’ obnoxious egotistical quarterback and more on Free’s redneck-turned-British genius, a setup that seems to have far more potential than just being an expositional device. The slobs vs. snobs approach only gets the movie so far, and after that we have to care about the characters, and I just didn’t. Because of how one-note the characters are it’s hard to care about them. After your good will depletes with the actors, you’re left with a bunch of running around but little funny.

Lazer Team is a movie that’s hard to hate, especially if this kind of genre comedy is a favorite launching ground for jokes. It’s nowhere near as wretched as The Watch but it can’t come close to the sci-fi comedies that influenced the Rooster Teeth creative unit. What’s even more frustrating is that these guys have the talent to tell an original and hilarious movie and are creative enough to engineer some fun sci-fi set pieces. They have the talent and expertise to do better than this, to do better than Lazer Team, a movie that is too safe, too predictable, too padded, too formulaic, and just not funny enough. I demand more from people who specialize in comedy.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Boy (2016)

286527-1The scariest thing about The Boy is how much potential it wastes, foolishly abandoning a horror direction that was eerie, supernatural, and with one leg rooted in a psychological breakdown, and instead cheerfully dives headfirst into an unwanted new direction of cheap campy thrills. I haven’t seen a decent movie unravel with this high-speed velocity and tone-shift since Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, an intelligent sci-fi vision that decided, hey, let’s just make the entire final act a slasher movie in space. The Boy is about an American nanny who travels abroad to care for an elderly couple’s young son Brahms, a son who happens to be a porcelain doll. There are rules to be followed and consequences if they are disobeyed. I liked that our heroine (Lauren Cohan, The Walking Dead) doesn’t try and ignore what she’s seeing for a majority of the movie and instead embraces the unusual circumstances, testing Brahms and discovering more. It kept the film moving in more engaging directions rather than denying the obvious and padding out its run time. I wish that the script opened up more about the domestic violence that haunts our heroine, literally and figuratively, but for a solid hour I was fairly entertained by the supernatural parlor games and lead performance by Cohan. Then the last act occurred, which just swiped away all the good will. I groaned aloud when the shift happened. I won’t go into detail but suffice to say it feels distinctly like two different movies clumsily grafted onto one another at the behest of exec. What once could be excused or forgiven in a supernatural realm cannot when trying to ground the story in reality, and it only unleashes a horde of nagging questions that don’t add up, especially concerning Brahm’s parents and the implications of its ending. The Boy is a cautionary tale about leaving well enough alone, understanding the strengths of your spooky story and tone, and committing to the best idea rather than one that “surprises” while laying waste to your larger story.

Nate’s Grade: C

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)

Michael Bay is the kind of filmmaker that naturally attracts negative attention and derision, so when he fast-tracked a movie about the Benghazi embassy attacks, and in a presidential election year too, there were plenty that cried foul. Bay’s not exactly known as the subtlest filmmaker, and many feared a Benghazi movie under his guidance would only reaffirm the worst. 13 Hours: the Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (a subtitle that never appears in the movie, by the way) is a surprisingly serious and generally apolitical action movie that reaffirms the strengths and weaknesses of Bay as a filmmaker.

On September 11, 2012, an armed mob stormed an American outpost in Benghazi, an attack that left four Americans dead. After Libya had toppled its decades-long autocrat, a power vacuum emerged and militants filled its place. An unclassified CIA annex in Benghazi was established to track the possible sale of munitions from the old regime. The CIA chief, Bob (David Constabile), has been forced to hire a security team of former Army Rangers and Navy Seals to protect his agents. Jack Silva (John Krasinski) is a family man reuniting with his old pal Tyrone “Rone” Woods (James Badge Dale), the head of the hired security team. The other guys (Pablo Schreiber, David Denman, Dominic Fumusa, Max Martini) welcome Jack, explaining the rising tensions in Benghazi and how they’re generally frustrated by the CIA know-it-all attitudes. They’re wary of the State department outpost for Ambassador Chris Stevens (Matt Letscher), wary of the security detail watching him, and wary of the Libyan local forces providing assistance. Flash forward to the night of the attack and Rone and his team are stymied in their early attempts to rescue the ambassador. Afterwards, the focal point of the fight shifts to that very CIA annex and one hellish night of intense combat.

michael-bay-s-13-hours-the-secret-soldiers-of-benghaziThis is Bay’s return to the realm of more “serious filmmaking,” a world he hasn’t considered since 2001’s lackluster Pearl Harbor, and while the standard Bay elements of boom are present and accounted for, the drama doesn’t stack up to the action. First, the good news is that the action in 13 Hours is often thrilling, beautifully staged and photographed by Dion Beebe (Collateral), and unlike Bay’s Transformers films, easy enough to follow along. It’s a chaotic incident where plans and communication are broken down, but Bay is able to keep the geography and the immediate and secondary goals of each action sequence clear. While the storming of the embassy isn’t quite as nerve-racking as Argo, it’s still plenty thrilling and communicates the fog of war and dawning horror of those trapped on the inside. The centerpiece is the attack on the CIA annex, which both sides anticipate and prepare for. It establishes the geography of the field of combat, the different access points, and the most likely ambushes. From there, it’s our outnumbered professionals versus a horde of armed Libyans, a standoff reminiscent in classic Hollywood action cinema. Over the course of those titular 13 hours, our security force faces wave after wave of attacks, each once becoming more sophisticated and bringing heavier firepower. Bay’s camera captures the explosions and gunfire in his usual balletic decadence. Say what you will about the man and his jingoistic tendencies, but he’s an ace visual stylist who bathes a sheen of popcorn entertainment to visceral struggle. When the action is heated, that’s when 13 Hours packs its most powerful punch.

Unfortunately, there are lulls in between the fighting, and it’s during these moments that we realize how poorly written our characters are. With the battle looming ahead, the mitigated character development emphasizes easy clichés we’ve come to expect, like the family man who needs to realize his family should come first, etc. These six guys are little more than stock characters on the screen, differentiated more by appearance and the occasional reading material than any significant personality differences. The dialogue is also rather clunky, falling too often upon tough guy speak to make up the difference. The way I was able to separate them in my head was through the actors’ previous roles (“There’s Pornstash, there’s Roy from The Office, there’s the guy from The Pacific who was the bad guy in Iron Man 3, and boy did Jim from The Office get buff”). Krasinski (Aloha) is the audience’s entry point into this world and given the most attention, so he’s ostensibly our main protagonist. He’s a strong presence to anchor the film despite the character’s shortcomings. I enjoyed watching Krasinski in such a different sort or role and started thinking about he and his wife, Emily Blunt, must have traded workout regiment advice. “Jim from The Office” with a six-pack is a surprising sight.

There’s a strange defining conflict for the first hour of the movie, namely Bay and Hogan narrowing personal clashes down to a slobs vs. snobs mentality of war. Bay has a history of fetishizing machismo and military hardware, so it should be no surprise that his movie lionizes the beefy, strapping military men serving as security. They’re placed against the eggheads of the CIA, who take every moment to remind our burly, bearded security guys that they were educated at Ivy League schools and know so much more about the Middle East. They often sound haughty when they’re scolding the security force for interfering even when it’s clear they’re saving their lives. The perspective aligns with the idea that the military-experienced, no-nonsense men of action are being ignored and looked down upon by the CIA ninnies who look at them as unnecessary babysitters. Naturally, with the hindsight of history, we know the concerns of Rone and his guys will be vindicated and the CIA snobs will be grateful they had these blue-collar American heroes. The entire role of Bob is to condescend and ignore our guys and their warnings. Bob even says early in his introduction that he’s on the brink of retirement and they won’t ruin it for him. Until the attack on September 11, we’re stuck with this reductive class warfare clash.

Another interesting aspect is that the movie makes use of its audience’s relative ignorance when it comes to the specific people involved in the Benghazi firefight. I doubt that many people know the names of the four victims excluding Ambassador Stevens. Because of that uncertainty we don’t know which of our six security characters will live, and the screenplay seems to know this, which is why it takes time to present each of the six with some sort of looming tragic back-story. We have multiple characters sending loving messages to their young children, learning they’re wife is pregnant, and making all sorts of “final” decisions, the kind that set up these characters in most movies for an early demise (if you write your girl during war or talk about your post-retirement plans, you’re guaranteed to die). I was slightly amused that the movie established each character to have a moment where it potentially sets up this tragic outcome.

One of my big questions walking into Bay’s Benghazi movie was exactly whose version of events was the story going to follow. After eight congressional investigations, and a prominent Republican slipping by admitting one of the guiding purposes is to tarnish Hilary Clinton as a presidential candidate, I was worried that the movie was going to be a hacky, manipulative promotion of propaganda. There’s a reason that eight congressional investigations, including one that has lasted longer than Watergate, don’t seem to satisfy those calling for blood: they keep coming to the same inconvenient conclusions, namely that there was no stand down order, no conspiracy, no cover-up. There’s been a flurry of rightwing fury brewed over stoking unfounded rumors of conspiracy with Benghazi; it’s a fundraising industry unto itself for politicians. Therefore, I was initially worried that the movie was going to reinforce a version of events that eight (and counting?) congressional committees have refuted. I was relieved then that Bay’s movie keeps its focus pretty much squared on the heroism of the security team. In a way it reminded me of Black Hawk Down as it strived to recreate a series of harrowing life-and-death events with its focus more on the brotherhood and bravery of the ones in harm’s way rather than the broader political context. There is the infamous “stand down” order; however, it’s played almost incidentally, as Bob is trying to process all the chaos unfolding and the best recourse. As presented, it doesn’t sound like “stand down and let them die,” and more, “wait and let me think for a minute.” The fight to get air support from Italy doesn’t mention the fact that those Italian fighter jets sitting on the runway were not combat ready and were for flight training. There’s only one other passing dialogue exchange that touches the political, when the guys recount that the news is telling them it was a protest, which they scoff at and then let it go. That’s it. I imagine the audience that would be most excited for a Benghazi movie will be deflated. For everyone else, the sidestepping of politics lets the movie stand on its own better.

An article from Vox.com raises the issue of whether any movie about Benghazi can possibly be apolitical. It appears like the topic of Benghazi has been so cravenly politicized that any rendition of the events of that fateful day will reinforce or contradict some narrative, be it the security contractors, the CIA, the politicians on both sides of the aisle. And the absence of what others declare with certainty will only make those same people cry “cover-up.” It’s a shame that this topic is so radioactive that an objective approach celebrating the courage of those involved, mourning the loss of life, and asking for better from those in power seems impossible given the current divisive political environment. Did it have to come to this? Bay’s Benghazi is easily his most restrained movie in his bombastic career, paying reverence to the people who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The action is well staged and often visually striking, but Bay wants this movie to be more than a series of escalating action sequences. You feel he wants this to be his version of a Zero Dark Thirty-style thriller. Except it’s not. You watch the movie and sense there’s a more intelligent, nuanced, and ambiguous movie here that can make cogent points about foreign policy and the state of the Middle East. This is an action movie where the good guys shoot the relatively faceless bad guys. 13 Hours is an acceptable action movie but that’s all it ever asserts to be. Is that enough after all?

Nate’s Grade: B-

Carol (2015)

carol-posterHave you ever watched a movie that was so understated you wanted to jump into the onscreen world and push the characters around? That’s exactly how I felt with Carol, an unrequited lesbian romance set against the closeted and intolerant era of 1950s America. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a rich wife who meets Therese (Rooney Mara), a department store employee who assists with her Christmas shopping. They are both drawn to one another in the strange way that love works, and their possible relationship could jeopardize Carol’s custody of her young child. Because of the time period, so much of this romantic liaison is internalized and thus we get longing looks, small gestures that are meant to speak volumes, and plenty of starting and stopping, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks. I don’t have an issue with unrequited romances but Carol is one that feels like its entire world, painstakingly recreated, has been placed under glass for study. There’s no passion evident throughout the movie and I was left wondering what exactly Therese saw in Carol and vice versa. Neither woman has a particularly strong personality, though that could be a side effect of having to live publicly as a different person. I couldn’t get into them as characters and so felt little interest in seeing them together, which made the constant circling and nervous indecision even more belabored. Blanchett and Mara are quite good and director Todd Haynes (I’m Not There) handles the material with respectful subtlety, I just wish that Carol could have shaken off some of that subtlety and given me a better reason to care about these women. It’s understated to death.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Forest (2016)

The_Forest_PosterThe Forrest is an initially promising horror-thriller that abandons every interesting possibility with every turn, becoming another interchangeably shortsighted and mediocre movie that only manages to scare an audience with how bad it becomes.

Sara (Natalie Dormer) is investigating the disappearance of her twin sister, Jess (also Dormer). Jess was working as a teacher in Tokyo when she visited the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mt. Fuji. This forest is nicknamed the “suicide forest” because of its reputation for being a favored location for Japanese citizens to kill themselves. Sara tracks down her sister to her campsite in the forest, with the help of a guide (Yukiyoshi Ozawa) and Aiden (Taylor Kinney), a journalist interested in writing her story. The guide stresses they must stay on the path at all costs and not trust the sounds they hear. There are plenty of unhappy spirits inside and they’re looking for permanent company.

The problem with dumb characters behaving stupidly is that it obliterates any investment the audience has in them, which is highly important in the horror and thriller genre. If you don’t care about the characters then you don’t care what happens next to them. With The Forest, we have characters that are wildly veering in the logistics of their decision-making that it becomes nigh impossible to care about what befalls them. They break the rules fairly early about staying on the path but the knowledge that everything they see is only a ghostly manifestation should register more. I understand that when you’re in the middle of a fraught experience that perhaps fear can cloud the mind, but perhaps you should start second-guessing things like lost Japanese schoolgirls miraculously finding you in the woods, or the fact that your childhood home is recreated in Japan. It’s scary, sure, but shouldn’t these characters no better? Also, the second-guessing of what is real causes Sara to view Aiden with great suspicion, except when she remarkable forgets. We’ll have a scene where she runs away from him out of paranoid fear, and then the next scene they’re back hiking through the woods together. It starts to feel like no two scenes connect or build off one another and The Forest is just an aimless sprint through random spooky genre grist that keep scaring our dimwitted characters.

The-Forest-4-600x400There’s so much that is left unexplained, but not in some tantalizing way meant to provoke a greater sense of realism through ambiguity, but because the screenplay just can’t be bothered. The premise of The Forest is great and the setting should be mined for all the unsettling dread that it could manage. The little details of this unique place sink in, like the lines of rope and string that lead off to, presumably, suicide victims hoping to lead others to their fateful resting places. There’s something so brilliantly creepy about this place, and every length of rope that ventures deep into the woods has its own story and its own larger significance, symbolizing a life taken. Why does The Forest so rarely make use of the unique details of its setting? This location could have been any patch of woods with your standard unhappy ghosts to roam. That’s the biggest failure of the movie, wasting the potential of its special location and making it indistinguishable from hundreds of other cheap horror settings.

Let’s talk about some of those scares as well. The Forest abandons the unsettling atmosphere of its setting and the possibility of the fraying psychology of its character (coherent unraveling, I should say) for what amount to a relentless assault of cheap jump scares. The jump scare is the bottom of the barrel, utilizing sudden appearance to startle. It is ultimately empty and any movie that relies on a diet heavy on jump scares is essentially admitting that it could not build a tense environment on its own. It is admitting defeat, and that is what The Forest admits when it relies on a jump scare, I kid you not, like every five minutes. Oh no, something suddenly popped up and Sara jolted out of a dream. Oh no, something suddenly popped up and flew at the camera and Sara jolted out of a dream. Repeat as needed to pad the running time. It’s tiresome and leads to diminishing returns. The only way jump scares work is when they are unexpected. If you start to anticipate them then they lose all of their power and relevance.

920x920As the movie continued running in one direction and then suddenly running in another, I was reminded of 2014’s Occulus. I wasn’t completely taken with that horror movie but it is far better than The Forest. The premise of Occulus involves a brother and sister trying to prove a cursed mirror is responsible for a history of murder. The mirror would play with the minds of its victims by putting them in false settings and scenarios, thus creating illusions to trick them into deadly behavior. The difficult part of Occulus was that you couldn’t trust what you were watching, which either forced the audience to pay more attention or to just give up and wait for the eventual reveals. The Forest is similar in that a good portion of its running time is a series of hallucinogenic tangents. Are there really maggots crawling under Sara’s skin? Is that water in the creek running the wrong way? It becomes frustrating when the characters don’t respond with nearly enough skepticism, especially when they’re fooled again and again. Occulus, while purposely hard to follow, was worth watching and ultimately felt well developed. The Forest feels lost in the woods.

Unless you’re a sucker for the kind of genre, there’s nothing that The Forest does well enough to warrant a theatrical viewing. It’s so frustrating because there are elements and potential there and the movie just continues to not care, falling back on the same-old same-old cheap jump scares and indistinguishable hackneyed genre tropes, losing sight of the inherent awe and fright of its special location. Dormer (HBO’s Game of Thrones) gives a suitably spooked performance but does little to stand out among the scenery. If you’re contemplating watching The Forest, just watch Occulus instead and be grateful.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Human Centipede 3 (2015)

MV5BMzU1OTUyNjE1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjc4NjI1NTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Sometimes as a critic I seek out the worst of the worst so you don’t have to, America. And you really owe me big time for sitting through all 100 torturous minutes of the regretful-in-every-aspect horror… “comedy,” Human Centipede 3: Final Sequence. I’ll confess that horror is a genre I’ve grown to enjoy and I genuinely liked the first Centipede film, finding its premise near ingenious and that writer/director Tom Six developed his horror grotesquerie in a way that turned it into an accessible survival thriller with some gonzo edges. The sequel was pretty repulsive and the third film, with the hopeful promise of being the “final sequence,” is even worse. This is a horrifying endurance test not unlike Tom Green’s abysmal lone directorial affront, Freddy Got Fingered. It is that bad. Scenes just seem to go on and on and exist for no purpose. It’s like Dieter Laser was just told to do whatever he wanted as long as he yelled as loud as he could and based his performance after the Looney Tunes cast. It’s cheap vulgarity masquerading as edgy provocation; it’s transparently lazy and insufferable. It’s not funny no matter how weird or loud or garish or bloody or dumb it gets. The premise is basically an insane prison warden (Laser) is going to create his own human centipede, the biggest ever, linking over 100 inmates. Ignoring the escalation of all the Centipede sequels, it’s a facile plot device and it doesn’t even happen until the very end. Until that awful reveal, you will have to endure, no a better word is survive, extended “comedy” bits like Laser sticking his tongue out and roaring in orgasm while his secretary (Bree Olsen) is forced to felate him while others are in the room. The movie is trying so hard to be shocking and irreverent that you can see all the pained efforts. It’s tedious and boring. Human Centipede 3 is 100 minutes of pathetic flop sweat that could more or less end with the throwaway punchline, “The Aristocrats!”

Nate’s Grade: F

The Big Short (2015)

3463_the-big-short_8FFAAdam McKay is not exactly the kind of name you associate with a prestige picture that’s building serious Oscar heat. McKay is best known as the director and co-writer of Will Ferrell’s best movies, from Anchorman and its sequel to Talladega Nights and the underrated 2010 buddy cop movie, The Other Guys. If you stuck through the closing credits for Guys, you were treated to an animated education lesson on the size of Wall Street’s greed and accountability in regards to the 2008 financial crisis. It was impassioned, angry, and an interesting note to end an otherwise goofy comedy. The Big Short is based upon Michael Lewis’ (Moneyball) best-selling book and it’s a disaster movie where the biggest disaster is the world economy. The movie McKay co-adapted and directed is bristling with intelligence, indignation, and a clear purpose. He wants to make you very angry, and by the end if you’re not, you haven’t been paying enough attention.

In the wake of the financial collapse in 2008, the fallout was so tremendous that many people felt nobody could have seen this coming. There were a few and they made out like bandits while trying to warn others about the impending doom. In the early 2000s, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a hedgefund manager who sees warning signs that the housing market is a bubble ready to burst. He sees the toxicity of the majority sub-prime mortgages wrapped together and sold as a seemingly safe security, a CDO (collateralized debt obligation). His bosses think he’s mad and they’re furious when they discover Burry has gone from bank to bank making big bets against the housing market. The banks are eager to take what they believe to be easy money from a sucker. How could the housing market burst? Other Wall Street investors take notice of Burry, notably Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who pitches the plan to “short” the housing market. Nobody takes him seriously except Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his small team who works for Goldman Sachs. Baum is curious how something so large could go unnoticed, so he and his team fly to Florida and Vegas to investigate the realities of the market and what they find does not match the rosy cheerleading from Wall Street. A pair of wannabe traders (Finn Witrock, John Magaro) stumbles across Burry’s analysis and try to make their own bets, except they need a bigger name to make the trades. They reach out to an ex-Wall Street trader (Brad Pitt) who agrees to shepherd them on this quixotic quest. Are these men righteous defenders of fraud or just people trying to get their own cut of the pie?

bigshortbale900The brilliance of The Big Short lies in its accessibility and the virulent passion that McKay has for the subject matter. The movie is structured like a heist and an underdog story, suckering in the audience to root for the upstarts trying to fleece the big banks and profit off their greed and stupidity. For the first 90 minutes or so, the film comes across like a caper and we follow our group of misfits as they fight against the conventional wisdom that the housing market could never topple. These guys see the signs and the risks that others could not or would not see, especially since the flow of money was rich and the good times could be shared, which lead to collusion from the very same agencies designed to regulate and enforce the financial laws. For those 90 minutes the movie flies by on its sense of whimsy and are-we-getting-away-with-this good fortune, putting our band of misfits in position to win big on the losses of the ignorant and fraudulent. And then, in one swift move, it all comes down and you’re reminded, rather indignantly by Pitt’s character, that what they are benefiting from is the meltdown of the U.S. housing market and by extension the American economy. What once felt like a celebratory caper now starts to feel queasy, and it’s in the last act that The Big Short reminds you just how awful the events of the 2008 financial crisis were and how these guys did nothing more than benefit from mass misery. These are not heroes, though Mark Baum is given plenty of moral grandstanding moments that present him as the closest thing we have in the picture. These were a bunch of guys who got rich betting on a lot of other people’s bad bets, bets that almost destroyed the world’s economic systems. The concluding half hour feels like a sudden stop after a sugar rush, where you’re left to question your decision-making but also come to terms with the reality of what seemed like a fun time. McKay lures his audience in with the guise of a heist/underdog story, appealing and accessible avenues of cinema, and then serves the cold hard medicine in the concluding moments.

McKay is admirably trying to educate and advocate while he entertains, but he truly wants the audience to understand why they should be sharpening their pitchforks. At several points, characters will break the fourth wall and talk directly into the camera, admitting that certain events didn’t happen exactly as we saw, or occasionally they’ll remind us that what we watched was exactly how it happened. It’s a measure that isn’t overplayed and helps juice the spirits of the movie, becoming something of a confidant in the schemes with the onscreen participants. When things gets a little hard to understand with the mountain of Wall Street lingo, McKay will cut to celebrity cameos to help explain the more arcane instruments of the financial system. Margot Robbie luxuriates in a bubble bath and explains sub-prime mortgages, Anthony Bourdain explains CDOs, and Selena Gomez, in a rather cogent analogy, explains synthetic CDOs as an endless chain of side bets being made off one hand of blackjack. The movie goes pretty fast and a viewer might experience information overload but McKay knows when to slow things down and provide a well-timed assist so that his learned audience will see the true extent of the corruption and greed rampant in how Wall Street handled its business.

big-shortOf the three storylines, I found Mark Baum and his team easily the most interesting and I think McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph (The Interpreter) agreed, which is why he’s the biggest part of the movie. Burry gets things started but he recedes into the background after the first act, and that’s where Baum and his financial team step into the spotlight to further explore how unstable the housing market just might be. I think this is Carell’s best dramatic performance to date (I wasn’t wowed by Foxcatcher). He’s playing perhaps one of the angriest people seen on screen but that’s because he has a moral center and the bad business practices, let alone the sociopathic greed of his “peers,” constantly enrage him. He’s something like a flabbergasted crusading journalist who keeps shaking his head in stupefying revulsion at just how deep this whole thing goes. Having Baum as our entry into the moral morass of Wall Street allows the audience to feel a sense of ethical superiority, and then like Pitt’s character, it can all go away with one perfectly articulated retort. There’s a moment where Baum is lambasting a mortgage ratings officer (Melissa Leo, her only scene too) after she admits that if they don’t rate bad mortgages as good, the banks will just go to their competitor, and then she accuses Baum of being a hypocrite. His reason for the office visit is not his outrage at the fraud but the fact that this fraud is holding up his winnings. He’s not the crusader he may wish to be. Bale (American Hustle) and Gosling (Only God Forgives) are perfectly cast and provide strong supporting work in small doses spread throughout. Pitt is in 12 Years a Slave producer mode where he knows he needs to appear in the movie to better sell it to audiences, and so he’s here and rather unremarkable. There is a bevy of familiar faces (Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Max Greenfield, Karen Gillan) appearing in small moments as if everybody in Hollywood wanted to get in on McKay’s party.

There is one annoying misstep in the movie and it occurs about halfway and it’s made to stretch out the stakes in a haphazard manner. The Big Short is a disaster movie where the audience knows exactly when the disaster is coming, and yet there’s a section in the middle where the characters are all left in doubt whether their big bets will pay off because of the ratings fraud. Burry is threatened with losing his job. It’s silly because we know the economy is going to crash in 2008, but the movie throws out a weak obstacle that, hey, maybe it won’t crash. It reminds me of the Hinderberg movie from the 1970s. There were several moments where it looked like that zeppelin full of hydrogen was going to go up in flames… except students of history know that moment is fated in New Jersey, so all the close calls were foolish fake-outs for a major event that was well anticipated. We all know the economy is going down so there’s no need for the manufactured doubts.

McKay and company want to wake up a fairly apathetic general public about the crimes and negligence of the Wall Street robber barons that risked the world’s economy and then managed to skip out on the tab. The tones can juggle wildly, and I’d credit McKay’s background in comedy for his ability to maintain a reliable and firm comic footing for the film without losing the significance of his message. It’s hard to nail down a genre for the movie; it’s a dark comedy, a drama, a true crime picture, and a wake-up call. You have moments that feel like a heist flick and moments that feel like a sickening journalistic expose. It’s got highs, lows, laughs, groans, and plenty of human emotions, though the most prominent would be disgust and disbelief. The Big Short is advocacy populism as pop-entertainment, and it succeeds ably. It’s an economics lesson for the public. At the end of the movie, the closing text informs us about “bespoke tranches,” which are investment opportunities that banks are flocking to ($5 billion in 2013 to $20 billion in 2014). It’s just another name for CDOs. Unless an informed public demands action from the system, it seems that Wall Street is doomed to repeat its same high-risk mistakes and that same vulnerable public is doomed to clean up the mess.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Revenant (2015)

revenant-leoWhich do you value more, verisimilitude or narrative? If you’re looking for an intense, immersive filmgoing experience that’s just as harrowing as it is beautiful, then perhaps The Revenant is your movie. If you are looking for characters and a story to engage with, then maybe it won’t be. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass who was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions. He miraculously survives and tracks down those who betrayed him for some frontier justice Under the unyielding vision of director Alejandro Gonzalez Innarito (Birdman), the movie opens up its scary world with an exhilarating sense of detail. Inarritu favors lots of natural light and long, gorgeous tracking shots, which creates a spellbinding sense of realism. The attacks and escapes and moment-to-moment survival communicate the remarkable dangers of this natural world. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is flawless, using light and camera placement to stunning effect. However, The Revenant (meaning a person who has come back from the dead) is a series of beautifully rendered moments delicately stretched over a ponderous running time of 157 minutes. There’s just not enough plot events to fill that running time, so to compensate Inarritu gives way to some Terrence Malick (Tree of Life) impulses that try for philosophical poetry but miss. DiCaprio is getting plenty of plaudits for his demanding role, and he’s quite good and visceral (and no, he does not get raped by a bear). I was more impressed with Tom Hardy, who plays the target of Glass’ fury. Hardy imbues depth into his antagonist, and while you won’t exactly be rooting for him to get away you can see the guy as more pragmatist than mustache-twirling rogue. He even has an interesting back-story surviving being scalped that informs his decision-making. Much of the film is watching Glass endure physical hardship after physical hardship, which may grow wearying for many audience members, especially those most squeamish. When it’s firing, The Revenant is a magnificent and stunningly realized survival thriller with sprinkles of engaging human drama. The problem is that there isn’t enough to go around for its running time.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Concussion (2015)

concussion2015Concussion wants to be a hard-hitting drama exposing the dangers of repetitive head trauma in football and the lengths of the cover-ups and collusion within the NFL, except that movie already exists and is the Frontline documentary League of Denial that was too controversial to air on ESPN. Concussion, in comparison, is an adequate but hopelessly underwhelming film on the Nigerian-born Dr. Omalu (Will Smith) who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of deceased NFL players. The resistance and denials are soft-pedaled, though the movie treats them with heightened dramatic stakes that are unearned. There’s one threatening anonymous  phone call but for the most part it feels like Dr. Omalu is just being ignored, and “being ignored” is a hard thing to turn into outstanding dramatic stakes at the movies. The movie doesn’t let the NFL completely off the hook but its critiques have been softened by studio interference (as revealed through the Sony email hack). As a straightforward drama, Concussion is easy to watch and Smith gives an authentic performance that doesn’t have to go to histrionic lengths to communicate his internal struggle. There’s a nice subplot with Omalu courting his eventual wife played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin are strong supporting players. David Morse gets a show-stopping part to show off his acting skills. By the end, it all feels just a little too nice, a little too polished, and a little too easy, both in how it presents a complicated medical discovery and its implications but also the NFL’s response. For an awards-season drama that’s meant to shock and inform, being “easy” is the wrong call.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Note: “League of Denial” is currently available on Netflix streaming and I encourage people to check it out.

Where to Invade Next (2015)

where-to-invade-next-posterWith agitator-in-chief Michael Moore at the helm and that provocative title, you’d think this was Moore’s critique of the United States’ foreign policy in the Middle East. That’s what I thought too. I was surprised to find that Moore’s doc is really a rather gentle and optimistic examination of policies abroad that America should consider appropriating. Moore travels from country to country under the guise of “invading” them and taking their best ideas back to the mainland. It’s really a travelogue of the world and various ideas that give exception to the belief of American exceptionalism. In Italy workers get eight weeks paid vacation. In France, students get gourmet lunches. In Slovenia, there is free college tuition even to foreign students. In Portugal, they’ve decriminalized drugs and watched their crime rates drop thanks to an emphasis on treatment over punishment. Moore is still cherry-picking his facts (Italy’s high unemployment rate, Slovenia’s small population, etc.) and ignoring the multitude of cultural and government variables that allow these good ideas to flourish in their native lands, but he raises enough good points worth consideration. The humor of the enterprise is often forced and eye roll-inducing, with Moore playing baffled interviewer who just can’t fathom how these people live. The best segment is strangely slotted in the middle of the film where Moore travels to Germany. The sins of the past, namely the Third Reich and the Holocaust, are purposely remembered in monuments and education policy. It’s important not to forget the mistakes of the past. Moore then wonders what the U.S. would be like if we acknowledged the darker moments of the past instead of finding ways to excuse them (see: D’Souza’s doc and the worst film of 2014, America: Imagine a World Without Her). Ignoring uncomfortable realities is counter-productive, and Moore’s doc is all about accepting and implementing the good ideas of others to better our own country. The extra irony is that Moore himself is ignoring realities that conflict with his rosy message. Where to Invade Next feels like an extended segment of one of Moore’s old TV shows. It’s a bit rambling and dull and the whole framing device is too facile, but its simple mission of trying new things is laudable.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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