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First Man (2018)

Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.

Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.

What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.

Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.

I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.

As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.

First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.

Nate;s Grade: B-

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

It’s confession time, dear reader. I do not love Blade Runner. In fact I find it to be overrated and then some. I’ll freely admit that it’s been an extremely influential science fiction work and its noir-soaked depiction of a cyber punk future has been the starting point for cinematic storytelling in that vein for decades. It’s got merits but I find the real merits to be its amazing use of production design, special effects, and the establishment of an overall atmosphere. It has some big ideas, yes, but it doesn’t know what to do with them, neglecting them for a slapdash story with some so-so acting. Rutger Hauer’s soulful yet doomed replicant should have been our central perspective. I wish I enjoyed the film more but I cannot attach myself without nagging reservation, and that’s not even accounting Ridley Scott’s numerous re-edits and the harebrained idea to imply that Harrison Ford was really a replicant after all even though that runs counter to the logic and themes of the film and Scott had to splice in unused unicorn footage from a movie he shot years later, thus proving this new twist ending was never part of anyone’s original story conceit. Anyway, what I’m saying is that the 1982 Blade Runner was not going to be an impossible hurdle to clear as far as I was concerned. The sequel 35 years in the making, Blade Runner 2049, is a better and more accomplished film experience and film story than the original, and it’s also one of the best, most visionary movies of the year.

Set in 2049, replicants have been shuttered and replaced with a new breed of android slave labor controlled by the enigmatic Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). He’s after a very special kind of replicant, one that will lead to even greater success, allowing mankind to reach further out into the stars. Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner who finds himself looking for this same special kind of replicant. He must find it before Niander does and K’s journey of self takes him right to the doorstep of retired blade runner, Deckard (Ford).

Apologies for the frustratingly vague plot synopsis above, but I’m trying to keep things as relatively spoiler-free as possible because I think that will improve the overall viewing experience. In an age where trailers and TV advertisements tell us everything about a movie in a zealous attempt to get our butts in seats, I was genuinely surprised at significant plot beats the 2049 advertising had successfully and deliberately kept under wraps. There are intriguing plot turns and character moments that I want to leave the reader to discover on their own. It will be worth the wait.

Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) has created a filmgoing experience that immerses you in feeling. Every set, every little corner, every minor character goes toward enriching this world and making it feel real, like we’re just dropping in for a visit. He builds off the iconography from Scott in the first film and creates a future that is hypnotic and eerily beautiful, aided by the greatest living cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Seriously, if Deakins finally doesn’t win his long overdue Oscar for this, then the Academy is just never going to favor him. The visual landscapes of this movie are jaw dropping and the use of lighting is gorgeous. There’s a late sequence set in an irradiated Las Vegas where an orange fog hovers over the empty landscape of earthly pleasures. There’s a hiding sequence that takes place in a casino showroom, with holographic dancers and even Elvis fritzing in and out, static movements and bursts of sound that make for a dream-like encounter. Another wonderful hypnotic sequence is a threesome between K, a prostitute, and a virtual intelligence (V.I.) named Joi (Ana de Armas). Reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Her, the sequence has one woman literally folded over another as hands caress, mouths kiss, and the whole sequence has an alluring disconnect during the acts of physical intimacy. This is a gorgeous movie to simply take in and appreciate the sumptuous visual brilliance. Villeneuve has quickly become one of the best big screen visual artists we have today.

What separates 2049 and makes it better than the original is that here is a film that takes big ideas and knows what to do with them. This is an intelligent film that finds time to develop its ideas and to linger with them. This is a long movie (2 hours 43 minutes, the longest film so far of 2017) and one that many will decry as boring. That’s because Villeneuve and screenwriters Michael Green (Alien: Covenant) and Hampton Fancher (Blade Runner) commit to allowing the movie time to breathe, and scenes can take on an elegant life of their own becoming something of stunning power. Take for instance a scene where K visits the woman in charge of creating the false memories for replicants. Because of an autoimmune disorder, her life is behind glass, but she gets to create her own world to thrive in, and we watch her fine-tune the memory of a child’s birthday party while K asks her questions over her work. He has questions over the validity of memories, and this opens up a deep discussion over the concept of self, authenticity, and ownership over memory, all while still being character-based. It’s lovely. It’s like somebody saw the potential of the original Blade Runner and added the missing poetry.

2049 is driven by a central mystery but it’s also an exciting action movie. The sequences are few and far between but when they do happen they too luxuriate in the extra ordinary. The way the replicants are able to move again brings up that visual disconnect that can be so pleasing. A replicant-on-replicant fight is like a sci-fi superhero brawl. Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks is our chief antagonist, Niander’s muscle on the outside. She might not have the languid magnetism of Daryl Hannah or playful philosophy of Hauer but she more than makes for a memorable and impressive physical force. The action and chase sequences are minimal, but when they do pop up Villeneuve doesn’t put the rest of the movie on pause. The characters are still important, the story is still important, and Deakins’ visual arrangements are still vastly important. 2049 is a movie at its best when it’s still and meditative, savoring the moment, but it can also quicken your pulse when called.

Gosling (La La Land) is uniquely suited for this character, another in the legacy of Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe. His taciturn nature is essential to his character. This is a man going from day to day. His only emotional attachment is to Joi, the V.I. projection, and even that relationship is called into question knowing she is a product meant to serve. This relationship is given a healthy dose of ambiguity so that an audience never fully knows whether Joi genuinely cares or is just following the dictates of her programming. Gosling provides a quiet yet impactful turn as a man searching for answers. In the opening scene, Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2) plays an older replicant that K must “retire.” Bautista says the difference between them is one of faith, as he has seen a miracle, and this allows him to believe in something greater. This opening interaction lays the foundation for K’s character arc, as he searches for his own faith. It’s not necessarily a spiritual faith per se but definitely a belief in a renewed hope.

Another aspect lovingly recreated is the trance-inducing synth score from Vangelis, this time cranked up all the way to eleven by composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Walfisch (It). It comes in like waves, blaring loudly to the point that you swear you can hear the theater’s speakers rattling. It’s omnipresent and oppressive and it’s so freaking loud. I challenge anybody to fall asleep in the theater and actually stay asleep.

Blade Runner 2049 is one of those rare sequels that not only justify its existence but also improve upon its predecessor (again, not the biggest fan of Scott’s movie). It’s reverent to the older film and its film legacy while still charting a path all its own that it can stand upon. It takes a far more interesting narrative perspective to jump forward, possibly serving as a corrective to the original. I was fully engaged from the start as it challenged and entertained me to its concluding image of snowfall (oh no, spoilers!). This is a long movie but your patience pays off and then some. This is a deeper dive into the themes of author Phillip K. Dick and a better development of them. See it on as big a screen as possible, make sure to get your bathroom visits out of the way before it starts, and prepare for your eardrums to bleed from Zimmer’s blaring tones. Villeneuve has created a thoughtful, mature, exciting, and absorbing work of art that will stand the test of time. It won’t be as monumentally influential as the original Blade Runner but it is the better movie, and right now, in 2017, that’s a much more important factor for me as a viewer.

Nate’s Grade: A

La La Land (2016)

1I understand that the year 2016 has been, charitably put, unkind to many people and why we all could use a little escapism around this time of year. Writer/director Damien Chazelle made a big Oscar splash with 2014’s Whiplash to make his passion project, a sincere musical that recreates the style of classic Hollywood. La La Land is a stylistic throwback that has enchanted critics and seems destined to compete for some of the biggest awards this season. Just imagine how much better it would be if it was great.

Chazelle and company certainly knows how to make an impression. The opening number transforms an L.A. traffic jam into a full-blown song-and-dance explosion, with commuters exiting their cars and coalescing into a teaming mass of jubilation on the freeway. It’s a moment that is sincere and full of energy and promise. The brightly colored commuters come together in long unbroken shots with a widescreen camera that dives and dips and leaves plenty of space for the audience to appreciate the dancing. This is a movie that wants you to see all of the rainbow-colored performers while they strut their stuff. It’s here that we’re introduced to Mia (Emma Stone), a part-time barista and struggling wannabe actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club at a historic site. These two dreamers resist each other but of course destiny has another plan. A highlight is a flirty sequence set atop a Hollywood Hillside overlooking the purplish dawn. Mia and Sebastian sing how beautiful this scenic view would be if only they were with someone they loved, playfully antagonizing the other into a dancer’s rivalry. The dancing is mischievous and fun and performed in wide angles to soak in the movements. It’s easy to get caught up in Chazelle’s early swell, a transporting experience that extols the virtues of classical musicals by the likes of Vincent Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and especially Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Chazelle fills out his frame like a painter. There’s an infectious love for Old Hollywood that tries to alchemize its influences into something new and old, and for a good while Chazelle is able to maintain this fizzy, effervescent experience and remind you of the soothing joys of a good movie musical told with finesse and brio.

la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-1Then after about forty-five minutes the fizz gets a little staler and that’s when I felt the gnawing emptiness underneath all the Old Hollywood homage. It reminded me of 2011’s Best Picture winner, The Artist, as a movie that is more affectionate imitation than genuine substance. As I wrote in my review for The Artist: “The entire affair has such a slight feel to it; the movie is a confection, a sweet treat that melts away instantly after viewing. If you strip away all the old Hollywood nostalgia, there is very little substance here.” It’s all mimicry of the highest order but Chazelle hasn’t put enough authentic feeling into his imitation. There’s a fealty to the sources of his inspiration that Chazelle is replicating, and his screen pops with coded visual reminders (look, it’s Gosling leaning off a street lamp), but it fetishizes the inspirations rather than building from them. Quentin Tarantino is transparent about his outré influences but he doesn’t forget to tell an engaging story too. It’s in the movie’s dispiriting second half that it becomes all too clear just how little substance there is to our lovers as well as the industry satire. This is miles away from Singin’ in the Rain, folks (my favorite film musical, for the record) and more the same old broadsides about the industry: they’re shallow, they’re inconsiderate, they swallow up the dreamers, they “worship everything and value nothing,” as Sebastian put it. It’s not like the movie is telling you anything you haven’t heard before, and that’s fine but it limits any impact. It also seems to exist in a universe where minorities are mere background players to prop up the dazzling lives of the beautiful white leads. Imagine the enjoyment if some of that snappy industry satire was reserved for its less progressive casting practices. Can you imagine this kind of movie starring Tessa Thompson (Creed)?

Affection can only go so far because eventually the gravity of your characters, their relationship, their goals and dreams and relatability will need to kick in, and it doesn’t. I think this is because the first forty-five minutes are the typical rom-com story of the boy getting the girl. It’s the portion where the movie weaves its old Hollywood spell and courts us too, and it’s fun. And like bad relationships, once it has you La La Land feels like it has to do less work. Chazelle has to manufacture a series of pity problems (more below) to push his lovers apart and question whether these two star-crossed kids might make it after all. If the beginning half is the swirling romance that reverently celebrates old Hollywood, the second half is the attempt to “ground” the film in a sense of realism. It feels too late tonally to switch gears and it undercuts the first half. It might sound contradictory but if La La Land was just going to be a trifle then I wish it went all-in rather than half-heartedly trying an “edge” of harsh reality to mix the sour with the sweet. Just because the movie sets up the dreams of its characters, puts them together, and says not so fast doesn’t mean that Chazelle has properly set up this nascent melancholy.

lalaland_01Mia and Sebastian are not particularly strong characters. The unified star power of the lead actors is enough to disguise this fact for a majority of the movie and maybe for some the entirety. They don’t have anything of import to say beyond their dreams and their jobs that are presently in the way of achieving said dreams. I couldn’t tell you anything else about these characters. For Mia and Sebastian, the world is divided into those who are pure and those who are impure, the real artists and the phonies, and the dichotomy will rankle anyone who has interacted with more than their share of hipster. Sebastian is a music snob who wants to impress upon the world the importance of jazz even as it shrugs indifferently. Nobody gets it, man. He’ll fight the good fight no matter what because Sebastian’s fight is Chazelle’s: taking outdated material and exporting value to a new generation. The characters serve the plot and exist to entwine and then be dutifully pulled apart. It’s hard to invest in the characters when they won’t show who they are and why they should be together. Maybe that’s the point ultimately, a rich meta commentary on how attenuated the central courtships in movies themselves are, or the fleeting relationship between film and audience, or maybe I’m just hoofing as hard as the leads to insert more meaning here.

The second half paddles into what my friend Ben Bailey affectionately termed White People Problems: The Musical. I won’t fully concur but the conflicts are too forced and the characters become whiney. Sebastian rejoins a pop band where he doesn’t feel 100 percent creatively fulfilled because he isn’t performing “true jazz.” The band is also popular and this causes friction because he has “sold out” on his dream, as if toiling during for any period of time is giving up. I guess you must be single-minded or it doesn’t count. Their combined egos won’t allow for different variations of success. La La Land pretends to endorse the dreamers but does it really? The only dreamers who seem to count are Mia and Sebastian. What happened to Mia’s lively group of roommates and friends from the beginning party? What about the nebbish screenwriter the movie mocks for an easy laugh? There are no significant supporting characters in this movie; the universe belongs to Mia and Sebastian. They’re not as insufferable as the characters from Rent but it’s definitely a detriment. Look at the characters in Fame, a group of hungry teenagers who came from all walks of life and circumstances to try and achieve their titular dream of stardom.

The limitations of its doe-eyed leads present some issues. Stone (Birdman) is smashing in the movie but part of that is because, aside from some song-and-dance choreography, the movie asks very little of her other than to be cute, a trait Stone has in natural abundance. There are two standout scenes for the actress. The first is an audition where she pretends to be a mistress getting the “sorry, I can’t do this” phone call from the man she thought had loved her. The sheer variety of emotions that Stone is so able to quickly convey on her face, in her tremulous eyes, and posture are remarkable. Of course the problem is that she’s too objectively good to keep getting blithely rejected by cold-hearted casting agents. The second is a musical showcase where Stone belts out a story about how her aunt inspired her to be a thespian. Stone is effortlessly captivating but she deserves better than to be foil to a grumbly Gosling. I feel that Gosling is one of those actors who can be amazingly talented when plugged into the right role and with the right director (see: Half Nelson, The Believer, The Big Short). He has an easygoing charm that all-too easily morphs into smarm without the right guidance or motivation on his part. Sebastian feels like a scowling grump who wants to bludgeon the world with his point of view. It feels more like he’s in it for submission. Gosling’s performance left me wanting someone else to play his part. They were so strong on screen in Crazy, Stupid, Love but that sizzling chemistry of old is gone here. They feel inert together, amplified by Gosling’s antiseptic performance. They’re both rather limited singers, very thin of voice, and that does hurt a musical. The songs by composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are exceptionally milquetoast. They’re all slight renditions on the same blandly pleasant tune. They evaporated from my memory by the time the end credits started rolling. Moana has nothing to fear come Oscar time from these at-best competent compositions.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Chazelle’s anodyne musical is brimming with appreciation and adoration for the world of classic Hollywood, and that alone will be effectively transporting for many film critics and select audiences bred on a diet of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. La La Land is an airy confection but one that dissipates all too easily after viewing thanks to the limited characters, the limited singing, the limited dancing, the limited songs, and the lack of overall substance independent from imitation. It has its lovely moments and Stone is an ingénue worth loving, though not as much her slim character, a dreamer who dreams the dreams of a dreamer. The breezy and bubbly first half doesn’t really mesh with the second half. I think it’s telling that Mia and Sebastian’s “love theme” is a sad plaintive piano trinkle. As the characters get more sullen and sour, the fizzy fun fades away and it starts to feel like a New Year’s Eve hangover that left you addled and warm but only in a vaguely ephemeral sense. If it leaves you toe tapping and giddy, I’m glad. I’m already mentally prepared for it to practically sweep the Oscars, as they do love celebrating their own importance. La La Land is a movie musical that is stuck looking backward that it loses its own footing.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Nice Guys (2016)

nice-guys-poster-600x889Ever since I heard about its production, and especially after watching the first trailer, I have been intensely anticipating The Nice Guys, mostly because of my fervent and undying love for 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. That gem was writer/director Shane Black’s manic and deliriously entertaining comedy noir that reinvigorated star Robert Downey Jr.’s career. The Nice Guys looked very much like a spiritual successor or predecessor given its swanky 1970s setting. While an enjoyable and funny caper, there is a significant gap between KKBB’s genius and the altogether amusing though lesser escapades of The Nice Guys. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to have had my expectations too high, to be hoping for another magical onscreen alchemy like KKBB. Whatever the case, I was slightly let down by The Nice Guys around the time I realized that the best jokes were in the trailer. They are admittedly great jokes but what was left too often hit lower registers of funny. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe have great chemistry together and Gosling especially showcases a talent for physical comedy that has been underutilized. When the movie finds ways to undercut detective movie tropes, like Gosling cutting his hand badly after a failed attempt to break into a locked window, that is when it feels most alive and fun. The action elements don’t feel as significantly connected, like a bunch of washout villains like a hitman named John Boy who has no memorable personality. The shaggy dog mystery has some entertaining detours but once again the real draw is the comic interplay of the two male leads and Black’s razor-sharp dialogue. The man perfected the buddy cop interplay at some point, and often the casual conversations and one-liners are more highlights than the set pieces. The Nice Guys is a funny, smart, and diverting detective action-comedy that is a solid effort from everyone involved. It’s just that I was hoping for a touch of the divine again and had to come back to Earth.

Nate’s Grade: B

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 Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

MV5BMjc1OTEwNjU4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzUzNDIwOQ@@._V1_SX214_Ambitious filmmaking is welcome, but usually ambition leads somewhere, which is the main problem with co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance’s unwieldy 140-minute multi-generational crime drama, The Place Beyond the Pines. First we watch Luke (Ryan Gosling) as a traveling motorcyclist enter a life of crime to support his infant son. Next the focus shifts to Avery (Bradley Cooper) as a cop with a conscience running into corruption on the force. Last, we jump ahead into the future and watch the dramatic irony unfold as the children of Avery and Luke interact, waiting for them to learn their paternal connection. I believe Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) and his team was attempting to tell a meditative, searching drama about children paying for the sins of their fathers, the lingering fallout of bad decisions and moral compromises. Except that’s not this film. By the end of the movie, while some secrets have been laid bare, there really aren’t any significant consequences. The film does an excellent job of maintaining a sense of dread, but it doesn’t come to anything larger or thought provoking. The entire structure of this film is geared toward a tragic accumulation, but it just doesn’t materialize. That’s a shame because it’s got great acting through and through, though I have grown weary of Gosling’s taciturn antihero routine that seems like a rut now. Avery’s portion of the plot was the most interesting and anxiety-inducing, but I found the movie interesting at every turn. The characters are given pockets of nuance and ambiguity as they traverse similar paths of desperation and conciliation. The Place Beyond the Pines is a perfectly good movie, albeit disjointed, that cannot amount to the larger thematic impact it yearns for.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Only God Forgives (2013)

220px-Only_God_Forgives_posterOnly God Forgives is an apt title for a movie that is replete with such suffering and brutality. Here is a movie that thinks wanton bloodshed and depravity is the same as character depth, and the fact that it’s from Nicolas Winding Refn, the writer/director of Drive might not be as surprising as you’d believe. I enjoyed 2011’s Drive but I wasn’t as taken with it as other critics, my chief complaint being a groping pretentiousness that confused emptiness as contemplation. I see the same issue with Only God Forgives, a grisly morality play that’s simplistic and overwrought at the same time. Once again Ryan Gosling plays a man of few words, so few that I counted he only says eight by the 28-minute mark (at this pace, he’ll dissolve into the background by 2015). Gosling’s brother was killed after the creep raped and murdered a 16-year-old prostitute in Thailand. Gosling’s ferocious mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) demands retribution on the Thai police, but Gosling has his reservations. What ensues is a string of glossy gore, tedious reprisals, and nonsensical plotting, including numerous karaoke sequences with the Thai cops. The movie’s emphasis is almost entirely on a hellish atmosphere, lots of lurid reds and harsh lighting, providing style but minimal substance. The characters are all detestable and unengaging, the story is awash in dreary and ponderous plotting, and the movie just reeks of pretension, every frame oozing with Important Symbolism (catch the emphasis on hands and wombs yet?). Only God Forgives would be forgivable if all of its admirable style and mood had some greater purpose. It’s a grueling movie to endure but the hardest part is getting through all the tedium thanks to the near-mute characters and a script overdosing on torture. At this rate, Refn’s next film will just be 90 minutes of Gosling punching a baby. Silently, of course.

Nate’s Grade: C

Gangster Squad (2013)

1912It’s hard to mention the action thriller Gangster Squad without a passing reference to the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting in the summer of 2012, the reason for the film’s five-month delay and reshot action sequence. Gone is a shootout at the movies and now we have a confrontation in the streets of Chinatown. I wish they hadn’t stopped there. If given the opportunity, and remember they did have an additional five months, I would have scrapped Gangster Squad almost completely and started fresh.

In 1949, former boxer Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has seized control of Los Angeles organized crime. His influence extends even into a police, which forces Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) to go to desperate measures. He asks Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) to assemble a team of enforcers to fight back. They won’t have badges but they will be pushed to use whatever means necessary to carry out their mission, which means blurring the line between what is considered lawful. O’Mara assembles a super group of former officers and one of them, Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) gets into even deeper danger when he starts seeing Mickey Cohen’s main squeeze, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone).

This movie is like if The Untouchables and L.A. Confidential had an illegitimate child and then abandoned it in a sewer where degenerate hobos raised it. Gangster Squad rips off other gangster movies with liberal abandon that I can’t even begin to list the lifts. I’d be less offended if I felt that the movie had more on its mind than just replicating the tone and look of noir cinema. Actually, it feels more like what they want to replicate is the tone or style of the video game L.A. Noir.

90345_galThe main problem is that Gangster Squad really only has the skeletal outline of a plot. It’s missing any essential character and plot development. Here, I’ll summarize the barebones plot for you: Mickey Cohen is a bad guy. O’Mara forms a team. They have a montage taking out bad guys. Mickey takes out one of them. They have a showdown. That, ladies and gents, is it. There really aren’t any scenes that diverge from those scant descriptions. It felt like only five minutes passed from one of O’Mara’s guys getting killed (and just like The Untouchables, it’s the nerdy one) to them descending on Cohen’s headquarters and duking it out. Why does the film introduce the conflict of Wooters seeing Cohen’s girl if he never finds out? There isn’t even one scene presented to take advantage of this conflict. It just ends up being another half-baked plotline. It feels like the only development we get with Gangster Squad is through montages. What is also apparent is that O’Mara and his team really don’t have anything resembling the faintest notion of a plan. We watch them take out some bad guys via fights and shootouts but there’s no higher plotting to it. You get a sense that these former cops are just playing it by ear, looking for a fight every night. It’s hard to imagine that these people, even with their law enforcement and war experience, could be effective in the long term. Without any formative organization or greater planning, these guys just seem like dull bruisers bouncing from fight to fight with no sense of direction.

Then there’s the paucity of character work, relying solely on genre archetypes to do its work for the movie. O’Mara is the determined family man but his team can best be described by one-word classifications: The Black Guy (Anthony Mackie), The Nerdy Guy (Giovanni Ribisi), The Mexican Guy (Michael Pena), The Young Guy (Gosling), The Old Guy (Robert Patrick). That’s about it, though I suppose they do have different weapon preferences meant to supply all that missing characterization. Oh look, Officer Harris (Mackie) brings a knife to gunfights. That’s pretty much the beginning and end of his character. Wooters is so lackadaisical he feels like he’s on drugs, and Gosling’s soft-spoken, mealy-mouthed line delivery only adds to the effect. It feels like Gosling, in a stretch to find something interesting out of the mundane, said to himself, “I wonder if I could give a whole performance where I only speak under a certain vocal register.” Then there’s the woefully miscast Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) as the femme fatale/mol to Mickey. I love Stone as an actress, but man-eater she is not and sultry seductress doesn’t fit her well either. Perhaps with the aid of a sharper script and a greater depth of character she could rise to the challenge. At no point does Gangster Squad really even attempt to make these people multi-dimensional.  They never reflect on the moral turpitude of their own vigilante justice or the ramifications of their actions. There’s no room for ambiguity here.

90346_galFinally, we must speak of Mr. Sean Penn (Milk). The man’s actorly gumbo goes into campy overdrive. In these rare circumstances, you aren’t watching Sean Penn Esteemed Actor so much as Sean Penn Human Vortex of Overacting. Normally I would criticize Penn for going over the top but over the course of 110 minutes, he single-handedly becomes the only entertaining thing in the movie. He’s chewing scenery up a storm, yes, but at least he’s channeling the pulpy silliness of the whole movie. I came to enjoy his antics and outbursts and thus became more empathetic of Mickey Cohen and his efforts than I did with O’Mara. Such is the danger screenwriters run when they spend more time crafting an interesting villain than a hero.

Gangster Squad is what happens when a movie is sold on title and genre elements. To be fair, it’s a bang-up title. The plot is half-baked at best, really only serving as a thin outline of a gangster movie, but instead of adding complexity and intrigue and characterization, they just ran with it. The actors are either camping it up or out of their element, the action and shootouts are pretty mundane, and the story is just uninvolving, even for fans of film noir like myself. It’s a good-looking film from a technical standpoint, but that’s as far as I’ll go in my recommendation (it could be an odd pairing with Milk considering the two shared actors). It feels like it just wants the setting elements of film noir, the atmosphere, and then figures just having good guys and bad guys shoot it out will suffice. That glossy, high-sheen period look just seems like a cool façade, and a cool façade seems like the only ambition of Gangster Squad. I can’t really recall any signature action sequence, snappy quote, plot development, or peculiarity worthy of remembering. It may be one of the most forgettable gangster movies Hollywood has produced.

Nate’s Grade: C

Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)

Crazy, Stupid, Love was sold as being a smart, urbane romantic comedy for adults, and this is accurate to some degree. It’s certainly worlds better than anything Katherine Heigl has been inflicting upon the public. At the same time, this film exists entirely within that familiar universe known as Movie World. It polishes old genre clichés, but in the end they’re still clichés. The movie follows playboy Jacob (Ryan Gosling) coaching Cal (Steve Carell), a divorced dad, on how to get back his mojo and seduce women in a modern world. Along the way, Jacob falls for the cute Hannah (Emma Stone), Cal’s teenage son (Jonah Bobo) is hopelessly in love with his 17-year-old babysitter (America’s Next Top Model contestant Analeigh Tipton), and the babysitter is secretly crushing on Cal. There are passing moments of awkward but recognizable reality, especially the free-falling nature of divorce, but they are eventually smothered by the gloss of rom-com schitck. Because this exists in Movie World, every character, including a one-night stand (Marissa Tomei), will pop back up because every character is related to everyone else in this tiny fishbowl. That also means that contrivances and misunderstandings will culminate in a comic clash. Oh, and don’t forget the grand public pronouncements of love. This is the only movie I can ever recall where the dissemination of child pornography is treated like a payoff or as something to cheer (naked babysitter pics are passed along). Huh? Crazy, Stupid, Love is a fitfully entertaining movie but don’t let the pretensions of maturity fool you, this is strict rom-com stuff.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Ides of March (2011)

The Ides of March is that rare political thriller that pulls the curtain away to come to the stolid conclusion that our entire political system is incontrovertibly stuck in the muck. This is a deeply cynical movie that posits that politicos are just about spinning truth, cutting backroom deals, attaining power and influence, and living to fight another day. Even the ones who champion integrity have plenty of salacious skeletons in their closet. So while Ides of March is in one way a liberal reductive fantasy, casting co-writer and director George Clooney as an Obama-style change agent, and Clooney can assert all the rabble-rousing missing from the current occupant of the White House, it still sticks to its deep-seated cynicism. There is nobody that looks good by the film’s end. Ryan Gosling stars as a magnetic campaign director trying to push his guy over the top by winning the all-important Ohio Democratic primary. As the primary gets closer and the race gets tighter, Gosling has to cover up potential scandals while skillfully using his intimate knowledge of them for opportunistic deal making. The film moves at a great clip, the dialogue is intelligent, the characters are rich and ambiguous, and every one of the sterling thespians gets at least one big scene to stretch their acting muscles. The film has plenty of intriguing twists and turns, as the pieces all fall into play for one final power play. If you’re a fan of smart political thrillers, then do not beware The Ides of March.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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