The young author sub-genre has become an awards season cottage industry. We’ve seen recent stories about J.M. Barrie, Jane Austin, P.L. Travers, Beatrix Potter, Ernest Hemingway, and a whole assortment of the Beats. Even in 2017 there have been stories about a young J.D. Salinger (Rebel in the Rye), the creator of Wonder Woman (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women), and soon Charles Dickens (The Man Who Invented Christmas). We seem to relish watching the formation of brilliance, or at least watching a recognizable creative voice find their flights of inspiration. Goodbye Christopher Robin is meant to be another in the tradition of young author movies served up on a platter for season-ending awards and recognition. Goodbye Christopher Robin is so serious, clumsy, and tacky in final execution that it enters awards bait self-parody.
Alan Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is coming to terms with his PTSD after his experience sin WWI and trying to re-enter the literary and theatrical world of London. He finds inspiration through the imaginative play dates with his young son, Christopher Robin a.k.a. “Billy Moon,” and in time the formation of Winnie the Pooh’s world. The book is met with immediate success and Alan and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), are all too ready to ride the wave of fame. Christopher is raised by his kindly nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald). Eventually, Christopher grows to resent his parents, the public’s assumption about himself, and the very name of Pooh itself, so much so that he volunteers to go to war as a means of just escaping the overbearing attention of the spotlight.
The opening act of this movie is the best part, and it’s all pre-Pooh. It also helps that it focuses more on Alan Milne rather than his son, who will take a far larger role later. Milne is already a slightly prickly character who doesn’t exactly fit in with the British upper class. He’s also trying to process his PTSD and return to some semblance of a normal life. He’s also struggling artistically, and this is where the film is at its most interesting because it has the most focus. We get to really delve into the triggers and emotional state of a character in a way that feels engaging. We spend time establishing a person, a trauma, and how it impacts his relationships. It’s not the most singularly compelling drama but it’s still more effective than what regrettably follows.
Where things start to go irreversibly downhill is the exact emergence of Pooh. While Milne is spending more time with the son he doesn’t fully know how to relate to, he’s also pumping his boy for ideas during their play for a children’s story. We get the expected but still lazy moments of all the little signifiers in their lives that connect with future characters. Then one Pooh gets published it becomes an international best seller and the movie just zooms through plot. It goes from releasing the book to everyone in the world loving it literally in a minute of screen time. The Milne family, and especially Christopher Robin, can’t go anywhere without being recognized and hounded by fans. This is also where the film makes a sharp turn and reveals Alan and Daphne Milne to be really terrible parents. As soon as success appears, they’re actively exploiting their child at every opportunity, including such stunts as a radio station also listening in to father wishing his son a happy birthday over the telephone. If there’s a chance they can sell more books, get extra publicity, or simply parlay their fame into something, they take it, and often Christopher Robin is left home alone with his nanny while mom and dad lap it up. Rarely have you seen childhood neglect made to appear so strangely whimsical.
Even this abrupt plot turn could have worked as an interesting and unexpected portrayal of a literary family that lost the “family” sensibility once fame and fortune arrived. Unfortunately, this is not really a movie about consequences being felt because we’ve got to speedily move onto the next plot point in order to fulfill the formula. After Olive has her big speech about how the Milnes have been mistreating Christopher Robin, it’s literally two scenes later where Alan comes to agree. Lot of internal turmoil there, huh. Christopher Robin’s life gets so bad he’s practically begging to go to war. Even his fate during the war is something the film doesn’t leave unanswered for long. Why dwell on the consequences of decades of bad parenting when we can still careen into a feel-good ending that will attempt to poorly wipe clean the slate? Everything is resolved so rapidly and without larger incident that rarely does the story have time to register. We’re never going to feel great insights into these characters if the film doesn’t give us time. Who cares about hardships and betrayals if they’re just going to be erased in the next scene or if some life lesson will be ham-fistedly learned, but not earned, in short succession?
This is not a subtle movie by any means. The second half of Goodbye Christopher Robin is all about how the boy’s life is awful and how much he dislikes the spotlight. The father comes up with the solution of sending Christopher Robin to a boys’ home way out in the country. As soon as dad leaves, the boys instantly start bullying and harassing Christopher Robin, literally throwing him down flights of stairs while chanting insults. Dear reader, the next part astounded me. It is during the shot of him being pushed down the stairs that the movie uses this sequence as a transition device. By the time Christopher Robin stumbles to the bottom of the stairs he is now a teenager. It’s as if he has been falling down the stairs for a hellish decade. Then there’s the moment where dad sees his son off to war at the train station. As he looks back, for a brief moment it’s not teenage Christopher Robin boarding that train but young child Christopher Robin. I laughed out loud at this moment. It’s too earnest and too clumsy not to.
The acting cannot save this movie. Gleeson (The Revenant) gets to be that kind of aloof where the actor pronounces words with great care. His acting style is a bit too removed and opaque to really feel much for his character, especially when he cedes the spotlight to his neglected and exploited son. Robbie (Suicide Squad) is just completely wasted. She might be the film’s biggest villain and her disapproving stares look like they should be accompanied by cartoon steam coming out of her ears. Macdonald (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) fares the best mostly due to her genuinely appealing nature. It also doesn’t help matters when it appears that our young Christopher Robin, newcomer Will Tilston, was hired for his toothy grin and dimples. This is not an especially good child performance. It’s powerfully winsome but in an overly cloying manner. It was hard for me to work up much empathy for Christopher Robin because the performance kept left me cold.
Goodbye Christopher Robin is a feel-good movie that made me feel like checking my watch. It’s tonally off with its mixture of sentiment and indifference, zooms through important plot points rather than dwell on the impact of decisions, and looks for any opportunity to bludgeon an audience rather than deliver something genuine and subtle. If you’re a major fan of Winnie the Pooh perhaps you’ll get something out of it knowing its author was a terrible parent. This wasn’t a movie that made me feel authentic emotions. It felt too clumsy, too mechanical, and ultimately too miscalculated. The only awards this might be contending for at the end of the year are not the kind it’s going to want.
Nate’s Grade: C-
An inspiring true-life story that still manages to stay grounded on its own terms, Stronger is an emotionally affecting movie buoyed by two sensational performances. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff Bauman, an ordinary guy who is present at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and loses his legs in the attack. He was there to support his on-again off-again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). Needless to say, his whole world changes and he has to adjust to a new life, a new identity, and the hardships placed upon others within his family sphere, especially Erin. This is a very solid meat and potatoes kind of drama. It’s not flashy or inventive but it has serious human drama and it treats it as such. I was on the verge of tears for a solid thirty minutes. Gyllenhaal delivers yet another Oscar-worthy performance, burrowing into an average screw-up thrust into the national limelight. Everyone tells him he’s a hero, but he doesn’t feel it. Everyone wants a piece of him and his doting mother (Miranda Richardson) often blurs the line between pride in her son and exploitation. The colorful, coarse, dysfunctional family dynamic will remind many of 2010’s The Fighter. I greatly appreciated that even after the terrorist attack Jake is not canonized. He’s no saint just because something terrible happened to him. Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) takes great care to keep the movie grounded even as it hits the standard inspirational notes, finding moments of grace in unexpected places and people. The backbone of Stronger is the thoroughly moving relationship between Jake and Erin. They have exchanges of both ferocious anger and deep tenderness. A post-amputation sex scene between them is so intimately filmed by Green that you almost feel like you’re intruding. Maslany (Orphan Black) can break your heart or make it melt just with an expression. The non-verbal acting in this movie is truly exceptional. Stronger is a strongly developed drama with characters that earn every one of your hard-fought tears.
Nate’s Grade: B+
In 1973, tennis player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was the number one player in the world, but to many she was still only just a woman playing a man’s game. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was a retired tennis player trying his hand at being a family man. He’s restless and eager to prove something. He’s a natural hustler and so he sees female tennis players fighting for equal pay as his opportunity at a comeback. Riggs wants to prove a point about the inferiority of female athletes. He will play and beat any female tennis pro. He embraces the term of being a male chauvinist and becomes a lightning rod. Men around the world cluck about their biological superiority in athleticism. Billie Jean King feel the full pressure to prove him wrong and make a stand for the women’s movement.
I was pleasantly surprised at the degree of depth given to the characters in Battle of the Sexes, turning what could have been a light-hearted and sprightly throwback to a sports novelty into something a bit deeper and more meaningful, a thoughtful character piece on this climactic conversion of sports, celebrity, and feminism that still resonates.
Billie Jean King is the number one women’s tennis player in the world at age 29. She’s also deeply in the closet and Battle of the Sexes gives considerable attention to this internal conflict of self. The film successfully makes you feel her yearning and unrestrained attraction to hair stylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). The directors film their first interaction in extreme close-up, which forces them together tighter and allows us to see every little tremor of nerves play across Stone’s face. Her affair with Marilyn coasts on that combination of guilt and compulsion, the push and pull of what she desires and what she can have. Sponsors would not take kindly to an openly gay tennis star. Billie Jean King is struggling with her concept of who she is versus the expectations of others and society. By stepping up to Riggs’ challenge, she is fighting for her own sense of agency. She feels the intense pressure to perform with the credibility of women’s sports placed upon her shoulders. She’s fighting for equal pay and fair treatment, but what happens to that mission if she fails against a 55-year-old oaf? Billie Jean King comes across as a compelling specimen, feisty and independent but also hampered by what those around her would think over her feelings for another woman.
Stone delivers a far more layered and emotionally engaging performance here than in her Oscar-winning turn in La La Land. Hers is a character trying to become comfortable in her own skin. Riggs is the showboat while Billie Jean King is not comfortable in the spotlight. Stone displays the grit and tenacity as well as the vulnerability and complexity of her character’s self doubts and internal struggles. Her scenes with Marilyn have a vitality to them that is absent throughout the rest of the movie, allowing the audience to understand how that burgeoning romance unlocks something within her, something that she might not even fully comprehend. When she does win the big match, Stone seeks solitude and just cries her eyes out, finally able to let her guard down, acknowledge the toll of the moment, the relief of not letting down the women’s movement, and the sheer elation of rising to the occasion. It’s a moment where Billie Jean King feels her most free, where she’s sobbing by herself. Once that’s done she has to collect herself and get back in front of the cameras, adopting her shield once again to face the outside world.
And then there was Bobby Riggs, 55 years old at the time and languishing on the seniors’ tennis circuit and desperately missing the spotlight. The movie finds notes to make him more of a character rather than simply a misogynistic antagonist, and whether that shaded portrayal is deserved is another question. Riggs is fully convinced of his physical capabilities and that he can beat the stars of the women’s tour. These are women fighting for equality and equal pay but Bobby, and he’s certainly not alone, believe that the sexes are inherently unequal when it comes to physical competition. For him, it’s a way to prove his skills and send a message as well, but more so, as presented in the film, it seems like it’s the spotlight that he misses most. He’s enviously licking his lips at the tournament prize purses on the tennis circuit now, even the women’s prizes. He can make more money than he’s ever earned in his pro career. He can still contend, he can still prove something, and the money and stage has never been bigger. He’s getting far more attention at 55 than he ever received during his pro tennis career where he won four Grand Slam titles (he was the number one player for three years). Carell (The Big Short) is well suited to play broad characters that get even bigger with attention. He’s soaking up every moment as if he’s finally getting what he feels is long overdue, and every hammy PR stunt only magnifies the intensity of that attention. He’s a huckster who gleefully adopts the moniker of a misogynist. At 55, Bobby Riggs has found himself in the biggest spotlight with waves of adoring fans and he doesn’t want to give it up.
You know who else comes across really well in this movie is Billie Jean’s husband, Larry King (not to be confused with the TV host of the same name). It’s not a film that props up the husband as the focal point of someone else’s story; there are more important aspects than how Billie Jean’s lesbianism affects him. However, he is still an important person in Billie Jean’s life and he is processing a form of loss. His relationship with her cannot stay the same, but Larry recognizes what she needs and chooses to be supportive rather than vindictive. He cares enough to put her needs ahead of his own, and that only increased my empathy for him. A marriage pulled in multiple directions is ripe for examination, and it’s rare to maintain sympathy for all of the participants and this movie does.
By the time that seismic tennis battle comes about, the directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) smartly refrain from lots of edits and angles, instead preferring a standard TV shot to better immerse the audience. The camera angle allows for the entire tennis court to be displayed, and we’ll watch sets play out in long takes with the two athletes running up and down the court. This allows us better understand and appreciate the strategy of both players, and it also probably makes the special effects budget happy as they don’t have to do much to cover the presence of the stand-ins playing the game instead of our movie stars. Even though I knew how the match would end, I was glued to the screen because of everything the match represented. By forgoing the quick cuts and multiple angles that can jazz up the excitement of a tennis presentation, the film is able to carefully illustrate Billie Jean King’s strategy and skill. She intended to run Bobby Riggs up and down the court and exhaust him. Letting the tennis game play out in a wider presentation also better serves the sense of payoff. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for, as were the 50 million Americans that tuned in. When she does win, I couldn’t get enough of the montage of chagrined male faces twisting in pained grimaces as this lady proved to be the superior player. You could give me a whole movie of pained reaction shots from misogynists and I would be ecstatic.
It’s also hard to ignore the parallels Battle of the Sexes makes with our current climate. 44 years later, women are still fighting tooth and nail for equality and credibility without qualifiers. Serena Williams is not just the greatest female tennis player of all time; she’s also the greatest tennis player, period. Women’s sports are often seen as lesser in comparison to the men, and abhorrent pay discrepancies are still a reality. Look at the U.S. women’s soccer team, which won the World Cup in 2015, only earning a small fraction of the U.S. men’s team, who finished fifteenth out of a group of sixteen. The casual sexism and lowered expectations extend beyond the realm of sports, as the 2016 presidential election serves as a powerful reminder of the obstacles professional women face in modern society. It’s easy to view Battle of the Sexes through the lens of the 2016 election: a very capable woman who just wanted to do her job is lambasted by an inferior opponent coasting on puffed-up bravado, masculinity, sensationalism, and the sense that the established order of white males is losing something divinely theirs. I’ll admit that channeling this analogue does provide the ending with even more uplift.
Battle of the Sexes is an engrossing story with big personalities, big conflicts, and big stakes, and it feels just as socially resonant forty years later. The messaging can be a bit heavy-handed at time, as Bill Pullman’s character seems to be a composite of all male chauvinism personified, but it’s still easy to get swept along with its sunny cinematography, 1970s period soundtrack, and feel-good story that remembers to always be entertaining. The characters have more depth than I was expecting, and the actors bring extra layers and shades to their roles, making Bobby Riggs a better rounded character than he might have been in real life. Battle of the Sexes is a timely crowd pleaser that doesn’t lose sight of its characters in the guise of its message. By the end of the film, I was cheering, moved, and nicely satisfied, and what more could you ask for?
Nate’s Grade: B+
Something akin to an art house exploitation film, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is a pressure cooker about the horror of institutional racism, but it’s also a limited drama that lacks any sense of catharsis for an audience. Set among a hellish series of days in 1967, the film follows the events at the Algiers Motel, where Detroit police officers killed three innocent black men in their pursuit of what they believed to be a sniper. An all-white jury then acquitted the officers. Will Poulter (We’re the Millers) plays the lead racist cop and instigator, the man who tries using every effort to get a confession. His bad decisions lead to further bad decisions and miscommunication and then cold-blooded murder. It takes a solid 45 minutes to establish the various supporting characters, the fragile tinderbox that is Detroit during a series of riots, and getting everyone to the fateful motel. Afterwards, it’s like a real-time thriller that’s extremely harrowing to watch. It’s very intense and very well made by Bigelow and her go-to screenwriter Mark Boal (Zero Dark Thirty). Like Get Out, it turns the day-to-day black American experience into a grueling horror film. I was squirming in my seat and felt nauseated throughout much of the movie. I wanted to scream at the screen and tell people to stop or run away. However, it’s a movie with a lower ceiling, whose chief goal is to provoke primal outrage, which it easily achieves, but it feels like there’s little else on the artistic agenda. The characterization can be fairly one-note, especially with the racist cops who stew over white women hanging around virile black males. It’s victims and victimizers and we get precious little else. Your blood will boil, as it should, but will you remember the characters and their lives, their personalities, or mostly the cruel injustices they endured? It’s an intense, arty, exploitation film, and I can perfectly understand if certain audience members have no desire to ever watch this movie. It’s not so much escapism as a scorching reminder about how far race relations have come and have yet to go in this country. Detroit is a movie with plenty of merits but I think it’s the least of the three major Bigelow-Boal collaborations.
Nate’s Grade: B
After the end of 2012’s Red Tails, I said to myself that those men of history deserved a better movie. By the end of Hidden Figures I was thinking the same thing for the unheralded African-American women of NASA in the 1960s Space Race. It’s an inherently engrossing story that the public knows precious little about, and the biggest problem with director/co-writer Theodore Melfi’s (St. Vincent) film is that is rarely breaks free from its formula for feel-good mass appeal. Rather than allowing us to absorb the complexities of the three women featured (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae) the movie wants us to just know about their struggles over injustice and inequality. That’s a fine starting point but rarely do these women become fully fleshed out. They’re kept as symbols, put-upon figures, and less as people. That allows them to have their Big Acting Moments where they uncork a snappy retort to institutional prejudice that is the kind of stuff meant for Oscar clip packages. Henson is given the most significant part but even her math genius feels like a crude Hollywood extrapolation of a stereotypical movie nerd. Monae was the one who left me most impressed with her feisty attitude and swagger. It’s all a pleasing and moderately entertaining package but the presentation and artistically stilted character development hinder the movie’s message. I would have preferred a documentary on the same subject, something that would allow further depth as well as the direct testimony of those women involved. I believe Henson’s character is still alive and in her 90s, so there’s no time to waste. Hidden Figures is a safe yet still appealing biopic that hits some of the right notes but lacks greater ambition. Not all films have to try and redefine their genre, but when you’re giving the titular hidden figures of history their much-deserved spotlight, maybe a little more effort is deserving and necessitated.
Nate’s Grade: B
As I watched War Dogs, the darkly comic true-life story of war graft, gunrunning, and bro-tastic bravado, I kept wishing to copy and paste other characters into what was an interesting plot. A pair of neophytes was awarded military arms contracts from the Pentagon during the Iraq War, and their schemes to skirt U.S. laws to import guns across borders, illegal and faulty munitions, and uneasily work as a go-between with a client (Bradley Cooper) on the U.S. terrorism watch list are filled with perplexing yet juicy details. The biggest problem is that the two main characters, played by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, are so powerfully archetypal to the point of unrelenting blandness. We have the naïve everyman pulled into a life of big bucks, big risk, and big power only to have it all come crashing down. Hill’s character is the loud, uncouth part we’ve come to expect from the Oscar-nominated actor, and I defy anyone to tell me anything about Teller’s character other than occupation and his relationship to other people. These parts are so thinly drawn that I didn’t care about them once they finally got into deep trouble. I believe that director/co-writer Todd Phillips, he of The Hangover series, has the right qualifications to make a flinty neo-noir thriller, but War Dogs is more his half-hearted version of a glib Scorsese movie, or a David O. Russell version of a Scorsese movie. The voice over narration is dull and doesn’t help illuminate Teller’s character at all, and the other stylistic flourishes, from pointless inter-titles to a non-linear plot, add up to very little. Half of the movie’s scant jokes are the ongoing sound of Hill’s off-putting wheeze of a laugh. I’m not kidding, after an hour the movie still treats his laugh like it’s a potent punchline. There is entertainment value to be gleaned from War Dogs chiefly from its larger-then-life story and the intriguing, shadowy world of war profiteers. It’s a movie that made me wish I had read the magazine article it’s based upon instead, which would have also been shorter.
Nate’s Grade: C
In the mid 1980s, Pablo Escobar and his cartel were responsible for billions of dollars worth of narcotics filtering into the United States. It’s the kind of work that can fill up Robert Mazur’s (Bryan Cranston) career. He works as a Florida Customs agent but his specialty is going undercover for his assignments. He’s called out of retirement with the promise of striking high in the ranks of Escobar’s ring of lieutenants. Mazur’s partner, Emir (John Leguizamo), uses an unreliable informant to start the new identity, and so Mazur poses as a money laundering expert who offers his sundry services to the Colombian cartel. After blurting out that he has a fiancé in lieu of accepting a prostitute’s services as a very 80s way of saying “thank you,” the agency must now provide him with a fake wife, played by rookie agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger). The two have to rely upon one another in a world of criminals and murderers who would have no gutting them.
My main feeling once The Infiltrator had come to its natural conclusion was that everything about this movie should have been better. It’s a terrific premise as we follow the undercover travails of a man trying to stay one step ahead and keep his dual lives separated, invariably having them bleed into one another especially as danger escalates and his cover may be blown. Then you add an untrained partner and the conflict magnifies from there. Then you have Mazur work his way up the food chain to the major lieutenants of Pablo Escobar. This movie should be exploding with dramatic irony, weighty decisions, and magnificent suspense, but it’s really not. So why not?
One reason is that the movie whiffs with its modest ambitions, namely in its shallow character study of Mazur and the lingering effects of pretending to be a very bad man. Going undercover has to be one of the most stressful jobs in law enforcement, and living two different lives has to have a noticeable psychological impact, eating away at our protagonist and affecting his relationships and sense of self. That doesn’t happen with The Infiltrator as the few glimpses we get of Mazur’s home life are mostly harmless check-ins. A red light is installed in his home to mean a secret special phone line. You would assume that some family situation has to draw out conflict from this scenario, maybe Mazur’s little girl answering the phone before he can reach it. Nothing of consequence happens with daddy’s special red light phone. The family, absent anything important to do but wait at home, becomes a drag on the narrative and doesn’t even fulfill what you would assume would be its primary service: contrast. In the world of The Infiltrator, sex, money, and drugs are rampant, but our protagonist is unaffected. He remains the same character from the beginning of the story to the end. We don’t really learn more about him other than he is skilled at going undercover. We don’t see any particular toll on him psychologically. We don’t feel the threat of what he’s going through because the movie doesn’t pretend it matters enough.
Going undercover with the Medellin Cartel should provide endless suspense scenarios. This movie should be rife with conflict, and yet it consistently finds deflating, coincidental outs to save its characters. As a good screenwriting rue of thumb, it’s acceptable to use coincidence to put your character into greater danger. It’s not a smart idea to use coincidence to save your character from danger. Example: in Donnie Brasco, a man approaches Johnny Depp’s character and clearly refers to him by his agency name, implying working together with the FBI. That’s a good use of coincidence. With The Infiltrator, Mazur’s secret recording in his briefcase is discovered by a mid-level cartel operative, for once it feels like Mazur is vulnerable. Then the movie quickly dispatches with this guy for a rash explanation and so he takes his secret to his grave. There’s another moment where Emir’s informant is about to squeal to some very bad people, with Emir in the room sweating bullets, and he too is wiped out before sharing his privileged information. The movie is filled with these frustrating solutions just when it seems like tensions is developed. The entire appeal of the undercover mob movie is the twists and turns to hide the real identity and make it out alive. I’m genuinely dumbfounded how much of this movie just skates by with little regard to drawing out effective tension.
I think I can crystallize just how poorly The Infiltrator handles its many threads of conflict with one great example. Kathy and Robert Mazur are fake getting married according o their cover stories, so what else does a fake bride-to-be do but seek out her fake husband’s tuxedo that he wore decades prior upon his real wedding to his real wife? Why does Robert need to wear the exact same tuxedo? Can his office not afford to rent a new one that likely more accurately represents his fitting size? Even if this cost-cutting measure was plausible, why must Kathy be the one to pick it up, and from Mrs. Mazur? It’s contrived and forced conflict to shove these two characters together, so that Mrs. Mazur can ask pointedly, “Are you sleeping with him?” Rather than say nothing, or dismiss the assertion, Kathy provides what has to be the most irritating and obfuscating answer: “I think you know the answer to that.” Does she? The film seems to think there is a simmering sexual tension between Kathy and Robert Mazur, but it never materializes. I guess we’re just supposed to assume a sexual tension. This scene is a pristine example of characters operating at a sub-level of intelligence because the movie wants to force contrived drama when there is already plenty of organic drama being ignored.
The last third of the movie is built around the relationship that Mazur and Kathy form with Robert Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt). With an actor of Bratt’s stature, you’d be lead to assume his character will have a significant amount of screen time; however, The Infiltrator also boasts blink-and-you’ll-miss-them performances from Amy Ryan and Jason Isaacs, so maybe not. Bratt’s character is a family man and we’re treated to several scenes with him and his wife. It’s meant to engender sympathy so that when the end comes around we can feel some conflicted emotions. Except this is another area where the screenplay cannot live up to its aims. At no point did I feel sympathy for this mobster. He’s a “family man” and we even see him with his daughter… in one scene who asks to sleep over at a friend’s. Robert preaches about the importance of trust and family in that typical way that all thinly veiled mobsters do in movies, and he even cooks, which is another personality trait I’m sure we’ve never seen in a film about mobsters. The entire last act is predicated on our undercover duo feeling guilt over setting up Robert and his family in an eventual sting, and this guilt feels entirely manufactured.
Cranston (Trumbo) is the real draw here and it’s easy enough to see how alluring the undercover gig is for an actor of immense talents. In the opening scene we get a sense of Mazur on the job, digging deep into a seedy drug dealer lounging in a bowling alley and making passes at the waitresses. It’s a meaty introduction that whets your appetites for the different personalities that Cranston will have to draw from on his next assignment. Cranston is routinely entertaining to watch but I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed at what the film was asking him to do and what I fully know he’s capable of delivering. It’s like hiring a world famous chef and asking him to fix your plumbing. The other actors don’t distinguish themselves in their fleeting scenes except for Kruger (Inglorious Basterds) and Joseph Gilgun (TV’s Preacher) as a convict that Mazur likes to have pose as his driver/muscle. In the case of both actors, you wish that more had been made with their dynamic to the mission.
The Infiltrator is based on a true story and I assume that what I see on screen closely echoes Mazur’s real exploits and predicaments, but somewhere along the way the filmmakers lost track on what made this story tick. The psychological aspects are barely touched upon, the family conflicts are given careless lip service, the suspense sequences are clipped, under developed, and often solved by convenient coincidence, and the characters are too shallow to grow out from their stock roles. I know these are real human beings for the most part but they don’t feel anything more than genre archetypes. The Infiltrator does enough at a serviceable level of entertainment that it might pass some viewers’ lower threshold to fill an empty two-hour window. With all of its ready-made suspense possibilities and internal and external conflicts, this real-life story should be far more compelling than the one we’re given, which settles too often. It’s a genre movie masquerading as a character study except it’s blown its cover.
Nate’s Grade: C
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-
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.