Category Archives: 2015 Movies
Union Furnace (2015)
As an Ohio-based film critic seeking out Ohio-based indies to provide professional reviews for, I had to be asked whether I knew Nicholas Bushman, and the name was completely foreign to me. Bushman was born in Columbus, dropped out of school at 16 to make movies, and has four features and counting to his name. His IMDB bio even declares, “Bushman has announced himself as one of the most promising voices outside of the Hollywood establishment.” Take that, anybody making movies in New York City. I kid but I was excited to discover a new Ohio filmmaker who has found a level of success on his own terms. I watched his 2015 thriller Union Furnace because it was filmed in southern Ohio, and parts of Columbus, and also because my girlfriend’s mother knew some people linked to the movie and had a DVD copy available. It’s a low-budget, scuzzy little thriller that forces the viewer to ask how far they would go for a buck.
Cody (Mike Dwyer, co-writer with Bushman) is a car thief whose life is spiraling out of control. He comes across a mysterious stranger (Seth Hammond as “Lion Mask”) with a tempting proposition that could solve his money woes. Cody agrees to enter into an underground series of betting games. He’s blindfolded, taken to a woodsy location, and finds himself competing with seven other strangers (this includes Keith Freaking David). They’re trapped, staring down a crowd of creepy mask-wearing gamblers, and the implied threat only one will survive.
There are three clear paths to do a movie like Union Furnace: 1) deliver characters worth rooting for through these trials and tribulations or at least characters with secrets who might not be as they seem, 2) deliver really fiendish and degrading games and tests that a viewer can think alongside and imagine what they would do if given a terrible choice of terrible options, and 3) slowly unravel a mystery of who is responsible for the games and what their motivations are. It’s even further disappointing that Union Furnace doesn’t really do any of these. Let’s go path-by-path and analyze where the film’s storytelling shortcomings hamper its development.
It’s really hard to find any interesting character to emotionally engage with here. Perhaps they’re meant to be kept at a surface-level to adopt the perspective of our lead, Cody, as he too is trying to figure out who these people/competitors are over the course of one hellish night. If that’s the case, which I think is cop-out reasoning, then we need more careful attention given to Cody as our protagonist. He’s the main character of the film and the only person we follow before the fateful games, and it feels like he has material that could be utilized to make him a better formed character. He’s in debt, he’s stealing cars from church parking lots, he’s been in trouble before, and he might have a drug addiction. That’s a fine beginning for a desperate character, but what does it add to the overall narrative once the games actually begin? Sadly, too little. I was waiting for the games to have an ironic personal connection to the struggles of Cody, like maybe something relating to renewing an addiction that would make him question his limits. I suppose you could be overly generous and say Cody wanting the money for himself and then thinking of others is a character arc, but that’s too broad and unearned because of the lackluster supporting characters. Too many of these characters get whisked away too quickly to make much of an overall impression. Not having any character to really root for, or emotionally connect with, is a miscalculation considering the other miscalculations in narrative construction.
We’ve seen low-budget thrillers and horror films with similar premises, like Would You Rather and Cheap Thrills and even Saw, that present the audience with a garish game to play along. It’s part of the appeal of these kinds of movies, envisioning yourself onscreen and what you’d do. Take the simple games of Would You Rather that involve harming yourself or harming another person, taking an awful punishment as-is or the potential mystery option that could be worse. Those kinds of scenarios allow for characters to open up for an audience, show us who is selfish, who is squeamish, what their personal morals and ethics can be when tested. The games need to be conversation-starters above all else, and that’s where Union Furnace misses. I looked at the running time and an entire HOUR passes before any of the seven games crosses into being something truly intriguing or stomach-churning. For the majority of the running time, the games are obtuse versions of what feel like childhood schoolyard games. The first game is literally playing a board game. There’s also a game of who cannot speak and even musical chairs. It’s not like these simple games have been given a sharper edge, like the chairs in musical chairs each have a knife propping out from the seat, so lunging and fighting for that coveted seat could turn very precarious (actually, maybe I will write that musical chairs horror film after all). There’s a level of obfuscation that also harms the sinister impact of the games. Some of them are unclear exactly what the contestants should even be aiming for. A late one seems to involve forced sexual contact, and it’s played in a restrained manner out of taste, but by leaving it so unclear it actually minimalizes the impact of its degradation. These games are fairly lame.
And lastly we have the revelations pertaining to our mask-wearing organizers and their betters, and I hope you’re also ready to be disappointed. The ringleader in the lion mask lacks a strong personality or menace to be truly memorable or to keep our attention as a nefarious emcee. Besides Cody, we spend the most time with Lion Mask but do we gain anything? The dialogue is obtuse and later conversations between Cody and Lion Mask feel like they’re holding two separate conversations, talking past one another than learning from the other. Take lines like, “You wandered wide the primrose path and found friends in Night Alley and Circus Surprise City” and, “You know, people are critical because they want to get something off their chest, because they want to put something in their heart.” Huh? There’s not exactly anything that forms into a specific point of view for this character that helps to drive his actions. He’s more or less just a performer revving up his crowd of gamblers. I was hoping we might get more of a history behind the organization and its rumors of traveling from economically distressed small-town to the next small-town, like a deranged carnival sideshow. There isn’t enough here to justify being this vague. The sense of discovering as it pertains to identity and mission are unimportant. I suppose there can be power in the idea of your neighbors possibly being behind dime store Halloween masks, ready and waiting to bet on your life if given the opportunity, but the dramatic potential is much higher if you actually do something with that rather than keep the organization vague.
Being a low-budget thriller, Union Furnace does have technical merits worth bragging about. It’s a professional-looking movie and has some of the best sound I’ve heard from an indie production, which is usually a cumbersome handicap to many smaller movies. The filmmakers use their limitations to their advantage in artistic ways. I was expecting a limited location thriller but the grimy basement-esque dwelling adds a really effective discomfort for everything. The cinematography by Roy Rossovich (Evil Takes Root) makes smart use of lighting to make everything feel even more seemly, so exposed lights, high contrasts, and neon colors bathe the actors, making them feel like they’re in a 1990s music video (Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” came to mind) or a snuff film of the same wallpapered era. This is smart artistic collaboration and taking a potential negative, a lower budget, and finding creative ways to make it more a strength. As a director, Bushman is pretty solid all around. He has a fine command of visual compositions and building mood through select bizarre imagery. There’s a moment where a woman in a flesh-colored mask sings a rendition of the national anthem, and it’s so weird and off-putting that I wished Bushman gave us even more bizarre moments like this. Even just watching the trailers for his other films, I can tell Bushman is a natural director. I’d be curious to watch his other movies like his follow-up Stranger in the Dunes, filmed in North Carolina as a gift for his crew who braved the sub-freezing temps for Union Furnace.
The performances are decent but David (Cloud Atlas) is clearly the titan here. Even getting an actor of David’s caliber for something this low-budget in Ohio is an amazing accomplishment. Watching David command the screen is exciting in such a smaller role; I figured either he was going to die very quickly or go a long way, but I didn’t initially know which. He has a few strong angry outbursts where he feels he’s reached his limit and how much nonsense he’s willing to tolerate. He has an instant magnetism that the other actors simply don’t have (to be fair, he is Keith David). Dwyer (Future Lies), in only his second onscreen acting credit, does a serviceable job as the lead actor, especially at conveying the resignation of his character’s doomed thoughts suffocating him. Katie Keene (Clowntown) was another standout as a single-mother who gets some of the worst of the games. Her shell-shocked horror is some of the most quietly affecting moments.
On the DVD extras, Bushman reveals that he and Dwyer only spent two weeks writing the screenplay for Union Furnace, and I honestly can say they needed more time. I kept waiting for something more, a turn, a twist, taking it to their oppressors, revealing some hidden personal depth that had been lying in plain sight, just something more than what felt so remorselessly rote. If the movie was going for straight nihilism, then the games needed to be fiercer and from the start. If we were meant to engage with the characters, then we needed more time seeing how these games are affecting them other than paranoia and bluster. If the movie was going for a mystery, then the wrong things were kept in secret, like understanding the expectations for the games. If you’re a fan of seedy, low-budget thrillers you may find enough enjoyment from Union Furnace and its technical merits, plus the presence of the great Keith David. I’ll be curious to investigate the other movies of Nicholas Bushman. As a director, I think he’s showcasing skill and potential. As a writer, I’m less sure of that. Still, the man is making his own movies on his own terms and he’s cranking them out every couple of years. He’s making this a career, and I hope that he can continue doing so, as well as hopefully re-evaluating what’s best for a story.
Nate’s Grade: C
Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)
Director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service is my favorite James Bond movie. It’s everything you’d want in a spy thriller while charting its own edgy direction. It’s a combination of Bond and My Fair Lady, and I never knew how brilliant that combination could be until Vaughn got his hands on the graphic novel source material. Newcomer Taron Egerton lays on plenty of star-making charm as a spy-in-training under the guidance of a dapper gentleman brawler Colin Firth. The spy hijinks are fun and stylish but what Vaughn does just about better than any other big-budget filmmaker is pack his movie with payoffs small and large so that the end result is a dizzying rush of audience satisfaction. The action sequences are exhilarating, in particular a frenzied church massacre made to appear as a single take. I never would have thought of the tweedy Firth as an action hero, but he sure plays the part well. There’s also an awesome villainous henchwoman who has blades for legs, and the film makes fine use of this unique killing apparatus. Kingsman explodes with attitude, wit, dark surprises, and knowing nods to its genre forbearers. Vaughn is a filmmaker that has become a trusted brand. He has an innate ability to fully utilize the studio money at his disposal to create daringly entertaining movies that walk to their own stylish beat. This is a cocksure adrenaline shot of entertainment that left me begging for more.
Nate’s Grade: A
Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser (2015)
How bad does bad get? That’s the question with Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser, a sequel 14 years in the making to a one-joke character from an actor now in his 50s. It’s so bad that this movie is a Crackle original, a streaming service that I don’t think people know exists. You can feel every degree of sad desperation while you watch. There are so many scenes that just seem to prattle on indefinitely, varying from one or two angles, as if they only had time to film one take and kept encouraging their actors to just keep throwing things out there in the misplaced hope that somehow somebody would strike gold. It does not happen once. David Spade returns and he’s whisked away Wizard of Oz-style into the past where he watches his beloved girlfriend choose his rival (Mark McGrath) over him. It’s a weird Back to the Future Part 2 alternative timeline and one where McGrath also plays his character’s father in an inexplicable scene where he allows his family to unknowingly jerk him off. I hope that last sentence begins to reveal the true depths of comic despair that is Joe Dirt 2. It’s not that it’s powerfully unfunny, it’s not that the plot is completely inconsequential, it’s not that the jokes end up being weird pop-culture references dating back to the 90s (Buffalo Bill in 2015?), it’s not that Spade looks like he’s fulfilling some deal with the devil, it’s not that the movie has no purpose and no reason to exist, it’s that Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser is like a communal funeral. You watch it and you mourn; for those involved and for your lost time. If you can find a more pointless, depressing, past-its-prime sequel, then I think the seventh seal has been opened, spelling the doom of mankind. I figured Adam Sandler would be responsible somehow.
Nate’s Grade: F
Jem and the Holograms (2015)
Jem and the Holograms was one of the biggest bombs of 2015. It was pulled from theaters after only two weeks in wide release. That practically never happens. What made it so terrible? Well to start with, it seems to have jettisoned everything that fans of the original 80s Saturday morning cartoon might recognize in an attempt to appeal to a new generation. It missed the campy tone of the series, instead inserting lots of unearned serious drama that veers wildly, while trying to set up Jem as an inspirational leader. But really, it just sucks. It sucks a lot. If you’d like to learn more in vivid detail then please continue reading, but for those who desire the truly outrageous, you’ll only find the outrageously bad.
Jerrica (Aubrey Peebles) is a shy performer until her younger sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) uploads a song of hers to YouTube. Within hours, everyone wants to know who “Jem” is, which is just Jerrica donning a pink wig. A shady music exec (Juliette Lewis) snatches the girls up and forms a band with Jerrica’s foster sisters, Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). The girls immediately make a splash but they find themselves fighting against the influences of the industry that wants to tear them apart.
Jem is a very confused movie and it’s a very stupid movie, and its most stupid mistake is completely abandoning any appeal this otherwise out-of-time 80s pop-culture relic might have had with its nostalgic core audience. If you grew up with the cartoon on Saturday mornings, like millions of American kids (including my sister), then you’ll be surprised to discover that the movie version bears little resemblance to its source material. I’m not saying that every property has to be slavish to its origins, and there are certain elements that just will not work as a movie that are unquestioned in the realm of cartoons; however, why even make a Jem movie if it hardly resembles Jem the TV show? That would be like producing a Brady Bunch movie and have them be a ragtag crew aboard a salvage ship in space that comes across a mysterious alien entity (honestly, I’d watch the hell out of that, but I’m not what you’d describe as a “normal” audience). Unless your name is Charlie Kaufman, that’s probably not a route you want to experiment with and purposely turn away your core fanbase. I think the time is right for a silly throwback to the 80s that celebrates and lovingly tweaks the culture of that era. The Jem dynamic was a fantasy alter ego where girls could cut loose. What did the producers of the Jem feature film give us? It’s a pretty bland rags-to-riches story in the era of instant YouTube celebrity and every single moment feels phony, sappy, and calculated. Hell, the “Holograms” of the title aren’t even mentioned until the very end and it’s literally just an incidental stage decoration for the band.
The story is pap to leap from one musical montage to another, and when Jem does try and remind you that these singing sisters are supposed to be, you know, characters with, like, feelings, it uses the full misplaced force of a sledgehammer. The characters are components of a thinly veiled checklist to lure in a wide audience of pre-teen girls. There’s Jerrica who is musically talented but shy. Her sister Kimber is obsessed with sharing everything on the Internet. Then there are the foster sisters of Aja and Shana, giving the unit a diverse ethnicity and little other dimension. These girls are annoyingly one-note, each defined by a key interest. Oh, Kimber records everything and can be pushy. Does she herself have any other hopes, dreams, fears, and conflicts? I can’t even remember between Aja and Shana which was the gearhead and which was the budding fashion designer. Does it even matter? These aren’t characters on screen deserving your attention and empathy; they are the deposits of focus-grouped research and they are ciphers for pre-teen wish-fulfillment fantasy. I’m not going to pretend that the characters on the Jem cartoon could rival the likes of Tolstoy, but at least they felt integrated in an appropriately goofy universe. These ladies feel like placeholders that are waiting to be filled in later. They’re glorified backup performers who occasionally get to quip or cry. They are human beings in a generous sense but they are not characters.
The message of the movie seems to be about finding your voice, and believe it or not Jem becomes a symbol to inspire millions of others, though inspire them to what ends is never specified (modern John Hinckley?). “Jem is anybody who has something they want to express and they need the courage to be heard,” Jerrica proclaims to a sold-out crowd, and it was at this climactic moment that I wanted to vomit. The movie wants to project the success of one poorly written teenager as a movement, giving agency to others, but what exactly did Jem do? She got a recording contract, made some flashy music videos, and then bested the evil record exec and still gets to play with her sister bandmates. Excusing the this-could-be-you aspect of her tale being plucked from obscurity, what exactly is there to inspire anyone? During Jem’s first show, which is crammed with people that are far too old to be rollicking fans of a band of 16-year-old girls, the power goes out while they perform “Youngblood.” What will the girls do? Jerrica gets the crowd to whip out their cell phones to illuminate the small music club, then they direct the crowd into a series of foot stomps for percussion (did the power kill the drums?), and as Jerrica opens her mouth to sing, she sounds EXACTLY like she did from the microphone. Her voice curiously sounds identical to the same voice being run through a sound system and a mixing board. Does nobody in this club take this as strange? There is nothing truly, truly outrageous about these bland performers.
The structure of this movie also drove me mad, compounded by being 118 goddamn minutes long. Why is this movie two measly minutes short of a full two hours? Why is this movie only 39 less minutes than The Revenant? If ever there was a 90-minute movie, it’s Jem and the Holograms. It’s not like the screenplay is filled with so many important plot moments. Before the thirty-minute mark there are two dress-up montages, and the second act break involves the girls upset with Jem because she was forced into a solo career to save their childhood home from being foreclosed. It’s hilariously overwrought and then, I kid you not, less then five minutes later the girls all reconcile and forgive one another. There was still 40 minutes to go at this point! How? There’s even a post-credit scene setting up a sequel with a rival band. Another pointless throughline is Jem’s search for hidden clues left behind by her deceased father. He apparently was building a robot that communicates through music (mostly beat boxing… sigh) and programmed messages for his daughter to grow up and find. Why does the father have to be this obtuse about telling his daughter he loves her? His final fatherly words of wisdom include the eyeroll-inducing cliché, “You were my greatest creation.” Can the guy not write a letter instead of organizing a scavenger hunt guided by a robot that resembles the alien from Earth to Echo? Is this what good parenting looks like?
There’s another aspect of the editing that I want to single out for ridicule. Throughout the film, we’re constantly cutting homemade YouTube footage into scenes to amplify them. This makes sense when it’s a montage of fans talking about their love for Jem, this makes far less sense when the movie uses a guy drumming on his knees to score a silly heist sequence. Yes, the movie outsources moments of its musical score to a musical mélange of online artists, repeatedly inserting them into the action in distracting manners. It’s further proof of the failure of the movie to tie in Internet culture and the democracy of music in any meaningful way. It’s literally background music.
Let’s also talk about the music of Jem and the Holograms, which, dear listener, for the purpose of this review I’m re-listening to. It’s not like the music is awful. In fact it sounds fairly indistinguishable from much of the pop music currently airing on modern radio stations. They even name-check “Quentin Tarantino” in one song, so there’s that. The songs are competent and won’t make your ears bleed but they don’t exactly stand out, which further complicates the illusion of the movie. The fawning praise from online commentators is overdone and unearned. Here’s the deal: if people go crazy over some artist, the reality better meet the hype. If you have a poet who everyone adores, then they better have some breath-taking poetry. If this reality is not met, meaning if the art is qualitatively mediocre or unmemorable, then it takes me immediately out of the movie. I’ll even deconstruct Jem’s rise to fame. Jerrica records a simply acoustic song and sings her tune of sadness, “Alone Out Here.” Immediately after Kimber uploads it, the YouTube likes go through the roof and the next morning she’s a star. The song is pretty and Peebles has a nice voice that conveys emotion well. It’s a nice song, but in no way is it star-making more than any other the thousands of other girls-with-guitars on YouTube. My proof: the total number of views for “Alone Out Here” is… 33,000 (the tune with the most views is what I would call the best, “The Way I Was,” at 132,000). That’s not exactly scintillating numbers speaking to making connections with a larger fanbase. The best song in the movie isn’t even theirs; it’s Marian Hill’s “Got It.”
Jem and he Holograms is the kind of inspirational movie that will inspire nobody, a musical coming-of-age film with terribly and terribly underwritten characters that are a note-note collection of adjectives and different fashions (this one has colored hair, oooo). The music is passable but nothing that justifies the rocket success and intense devotion we witness on screen. The story is so emotionally sappy yet phony, the structure maddeningly padded out and given the idiotic daddy scavenger hunt, and the editing insertion of cutaway clips of YouTube artists drove me mad. After an hour I realized what I was watching: the Josie and the Pussycats movie absent any of the social satire. This movie makes Josie and the Pussycats look like Doctor Strangelove.
Nate’s Grade: D
Have 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 Human Centipede 3 (2015)
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)
Adam 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?
The 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.
Of 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)
Which 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 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)
With 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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