Archive for March, 2016

Trumbo_(2015_film)_posterTrumbo (2015)

Starring- Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Dean O’Gorman, Stephen Root, Roger Bart, David James Elliott, Peter Mackenzie, John Getz, Christian Berkel

Director- Jay Roach

R- language including some sexual references

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0dZ_2ICpJE

An account of the life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) after he was blacklisted as a communist and sentenced to prison after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Five stars out of ten. I don’t know how to say it any more eloquently. Trumbo is really, really, really fine. It did not make me cringe, and it did not engage me. It’s cut and pasted from a long assembly line of Hollywood biopics. It tells this potentially interesting and controversial story in the least interesting and controversial way possible, all the life drained out of it on its way through the awards circuit wringer.

It certainly has the appearance of a film made solely to win awards. It hits absolutely every imaginable beat — a historical biopic; a story about brave Hollywood screenwriters saving the world from tyranny and oppression; a light, fuzzy tone carefully balancing humor and broad pathos for maximum “nobody hates it” appeal; those little scenes that seem to exist mainly to allow the (very talented) Bryan Cranston to show off his range for the Oscar clip show. Whenever it runs into a narrative roadblock that might force it to make an original decision, it defaults to formula, bending the story whatever way it needs to in order to make it fit.

There’s a minor recurring theme in Trumbo. While blacklisted, the protagonist will be given someone else’s screenplay to secretly improve, and the characters will say something along the lines of: “It’s no good, but there’s a story in there!” And that’s more or less the way I feel about the film itself.

A lot of the criticism of this film has centered on its treatment of Dalton Trumbo and how his edges have been sanded off in favor of something more palatable and tritely inspiring. There was a time when I was prepared to say that the film’s disinclination toward exploring its protagonist’s worldview is generally irrelevant in the larger scheme of things — the issue at hand isn’t communism but whether we, as Americans, have the right to be communists and to express that viewpoint without fear of reprisal from our government. To some extent, that’s true of how the film approaches the subject, but as it takes shape in my mind, I’m beginning to think it’d have something much more interesting to say if it portrayed Trumbo as something other than a sainted victim-hero.

I don’t know all that much about the guy. Surely, he had his vices and virtues the same as the rest of us. Nevertheless, he was an open and rather vocal supporter of the Soviet Union in the early post-WWII world; that alone is pretty unsavory, given what the country was up to at that point in time. And it means he likely was much more interesting than the somewhat blandly heroic revolutionary we see here.

So, imagine a Dalton Trumbo biopic that takes a few more risks and explores its questions with more nuance. There have been plenty of movies condemning McCarthyism, there will be plenty more, and believe me, I’m one hundred percent all right with that. But here, we’ve got a story about a complicated writer with questionable beliefs who arguably didn’t use his freedom of speech for good. And imagine the film that really works with that — one that doesn’t quite allow you to like Trumbo, but that allows him to be right. As has been said over and over again, we didn’t need the First Amendment because of speech everybody likes; we need it because of speech everybody hates. How much more intriguing might Trumbo be if its protagonist had sometimes troubling ideas and wasn’t always likable but was, in this particular instance, right? What if the movie forced us to identify and side with a character and politics we dislike?

Instead, the movie shoots for a fairly tame oppressed vs. oppressors narrative. It’s fun in spite of itself when it’s fully tapped into its revolutionary undercurrents — I generally think Joe McCarthy was an authoritarian blowhard and find the very idea of a Hollywood political blacklist appalling, so I’m not going to pretend that this movie didn’t have me cheering here and there. But it’s been done a million times, and Trumbo isn’t doing anything new.

It isn’t even executing its formula particularly well. This is threatening to become my catchphrase, but this movie has no idea what story it’s telling — what the arc is, what’s changing, how any given scene is important to the larger whole. Fortunately, it misses the worst biopic trap in deciding not to tell Dalton Trumbo’s entire story, instead honing in on the relevant portion of his life. But even there, it comes off as an unfocused collection of countless other films’ emotional beats. There’s the freedom of speech grandstanding, there’s a moment where the film questions whether Trumbo is trying to destroy the blacklist, and it ends on — feel free to say it with me — “overworked dad ignores his family, alienates his friends, and learns a very important lesson about what’s really meaningful in life.” Seriously, guys? In a movie about blacklisted screenwriters?

It’s watchable mainly because of the performances, in particular Cranston, whose take on the character deserves a better movie — while the script hand-waves all of it away, Cranston imbues Trumbo with just enough self-importance to keep you unsure whether his motives are primarily self-aggrandizing. And you could do worse than filling out the edges with Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Elle Fanning, Alan Tudyk and Michael Stuhlbarg. The only awkwardness comes where you’d expect it to — since the film is set in Hollywood during a key phase in its evolution, some of the actors have to play, well, actors, people who left a detailed record of their appearance, voice, and mannerisms. Dean O’Gorman is decent as Kirk Douglas; David James Elliott as John Wayne, not so much. (The only Edward G. Robinson film I’ve seen is Double Indemnity, and only once, a few years ago, so I can’t comment on him.)

Despite my prolonged criticism, I suppose I could have had a worse time with Trumbo. It gets most of the surface-level stuff right; it’s underneath that problems begin to emerge. It’s ultimately too noticeably not-good for me to recommend it.

The_Good_Dinosaur_posterThe Good Dinosaur (2015)

Starring- Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Marcus Scribner, Maleah Padilla, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, A.J. Buckley, Steve Zahn, Mandy Freund, Steven Clay Hunter

Director- Peter Sohn

PG- peril, action and thematic elements

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-RgquKVTPE

The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs never struck Earth. Cut to millions of years later, and dinosaurs are now the first intelligent creatures on the planet — growing crops, raising livestock, and building things. Arlo (voice of Raymond Ochoa), a young apatosaurus, lives on a farm with his parents and siblings. Each of the youngsters looks forward to someday earning the right to add their footprints to their parents’ on the silo their father built. For Arlo, there’s just one problem — not only is he the smallest and weakest of the group, he’s also terrified of everything under the sun. Soon, he’s the only one who has yet to make a mark on the silo, so his father gives him a task that will allow him to earn it — stand watch over the silo to capture and kill the pest that keeps crawling inside and eating their food stores. 

Arlo does as he’s told and successfully catches the critter in the trap — only to find that it’s a feral human child (voice of Jack Bright). He’s unable to kill it, which kicks off a series of events that end up with Arlo in the river and carried off to faraway lands, with only the human child for company. Arlo names the boy Spot, and the two of them set off on a long journey back to the farm.

It’s around sixty degrees and sunny today, which means I’m in a tremendous mood and possibly would have liked whatever movie I happened to watch this morning. Maybe that explains the way I feel right now.

It’s also possible that Pixar has shifted everyone’s expectations too high — quite natural given what a surprisingly intellectual and multilayered film the studio’s other 2015 offering, Inside Out, was. Maybe that explains the comparatively lukewarm reviews this movie received.

Either way, I guess I’m going to be the guy defending The Good Dinosaur. Well, perhaps not defending it so much as arguing that it isn’t so far off the Pixar standard as others have said. It’s just simpler — more closely related to early Pixar than WALL-E, Up, and Inside Out-era Pixar. It isn’t richly emotional, but it’s nevertheless quite fun. People seem to like A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc. just fine, and I don’t think The Good Dinosaur is much worse than those films.

I’ll give its critics this month — yes, it’s somewhat formulaic, and yes, it’s thoroughly predictable. I don’t think the first of those two is really a problem, for reasons I’ll explain later on. The latter, however, does hurt the film a bit. It’s predictability is less a result of its formula and more the result of the movie abandoning all subtlety every time it begins to set something up for payoffs later on. Every time a scene appears to be otherwise unnecessary, all you have to do is take a guess what might happen later on that would make that scene retroactively emotional; you’ll almost definitely have it right. If you pay close attention to how Arlo is established as a character and what the film is doing to express his arc, it’s very easy to completely roadmap the film.

But here’s the thing — blunt and cheesy though it may be, The Good Dinosaur’s story works. It isn’t the first Pixar movie to have suffered an extremely troubled production (and may, in fact, have gone through the worst of the bunch), but it’s the first where those internal conflicts don’t show up on the screen at all. If I hadn’t gone into the movie knowing how much the studio struggled to crack this story, I’d never have guessed. It feels confident and whole. I always knew what each scene was trying to accomplish and how it tied into the ones that came before and after. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It’s thematically simplistic, but I never felt as though it was wandering off-track. It feels like one vision, clearly expressed and unwavering.

It might not be subtle, and it might be shamelessly manipulative in places, but The Good Dinosaur is absolutely the result of Pixar’s unbreakable storytelling know-how. I understood each of the characters’ personalities and their relationships with one another, I understood their motives, I understood what the events of the story meant to them. Its message is pure kids’ movie simplicity — don’t let fear control you — but you’d be surprised how difficult it is to express “overcoming fear” as a comprehensible character arc in a visual medium. Fear is such a subjective thing, very internal and rooted in complexity. I’m not going to say The Good Dinosaur completely nails it, but it gets impressively close.

But I enjoyed nothing about this story so much as its world-building. Somehow, I had the wrong idea going into this — that the asteroid missing Earth was more an excuse to put dinosaurs and humans together in a movie. But the scientific angle is actually critical to the world the film is creating. The asteroid misses, dinosaurs don’t go extinct — what happens now? It time-jumps a few million years and imagines dinosaurs were the first species to evolve human intelligence and were watching from a position of superiority as the not-quite-as-intelligent early humans began to emerge. It’s a really neat idea, and the film goes the whole way with it. It imagines how intelligent dinosaurs might have survived, what they might have built, how they might have built it, how they might have interacted with one another. Every now and then, there’s a minor slip-up, but it’s the sort of thing only people like me will notice — when a movie builds an interesting world, I get really invested in it and examine absolutely every detail, thus noticing the one or two things the filmmakers didn’t think as hard about (Arlo’s family farm has fences that appear to be made with sticks and twine, and I’m not sure how apatosaurus physiology might accomplish that — seriously, this is how insignificant the stuff I notice is).

The overall effect of it is something very unique — it’s a dinosaur Western. Seriously, if those two words in combination don’t sell you on this movie, nothing ever will. You’ve got farmers like Arlo’s family, working on a traditional homestead; there are T-rexes that make a living herding longhorns; there are velociraptor outlaws. It gives the movie a tone that I never stopped thinking was pretty cool.

It’s the animation that’s a bit of a mixed bag. To be clear — with The Good Dinosaur, Pixar has, as ever, continued bettering its techniques. This is not a matter of the film not being technically impressive; it’s a matter of the aesthetic, in my opinion, just not working.

On one hand, The Good Dinosaur is one of the most visually resplendent animated movies ever made. This is true mainly of the environments. This movie made my jaw drop — the scenery on display may be as close to photo-real as animation will ever get. There are shots in this movie that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing; you can see a few of them in the trailer above. There’s a shot of rushing water early in the film that absolutely astonished me; it looked like a real river, one that I could reach out and touch. What Pixar has done here is absolutely amazing, and its animators deserve a big thumbs-up for it.

The issue is the strange decision to populate that photo-real environment with deliberately cartoony characters — simplistic designs with exaggerated features and movements and squishy, vaguely clay-like texture. The realistic environments and the cartoonish characters are perfectly fine on their own, but mixed together, they look odd. I can conceive of a reason for this choice — they wanted to make a movie with recognizable dinosaurs but had to account for millions of years of physical evolution in addition to the evolution of their minds. I would guess that they went with the exaggerated designs as an answer to that question. Nevertheless, I would suggest that they should have split the difference. The middle ground, I think, would be keeping the cartoonish designs and adding more realistic textures. That way, all the elements at least look like they belong in the same universe.

In any case, I still think this movie’s getting a bad rap it doesn’t deserve — mainly because we’re fresh off one stretch of Pixar sequel mediocrity and are about to enter a period lasting through 2019 where we’ll only get one original film. There was too much riding on The Good Dinosaur for it to be only okay. Fortunately, I think it’s quite a bit better than okay, and I’m not sure why it’s been greeted with such a collective sigh. It’s fun, funny, and heartfelt enough to keep you involved. It’s lesser Pixar, but it isn’t altogether off the mark.

Carol_film_posterCarol (2015)

Starring- Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Paulson, John Magaro

Director- Todd Haynes

R- a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H4z7Px68ywk

In 1950s America, young toy store clerk and aspiring photographer Therese (Rooney Mara) becomes attracted to older, wealthy socialite Carol (Cate Blanchett). The film follows them as they begin a relationship with one another under the noses of their friends and families.

Remember, in my review of Room, when I said 2015 was really making a great last-minute argument for itself as a year in movies? 2015 is really making a great last-minute argument for itself as a year in movies.

Carol is a fantastic film to watch but a difficult one to review. It compels you by its very existence and cannot easily be reduced to its functional components. That isn’t to suggest that there’s no method behind it, but its tendency toward judicious silence, visual storytelling, and pure performance make it difficult to distill the film to what does and doesn’t work. It’s a film that traffics in emotions, similar to those drawn by music and poetry; there’s science and precision behind it, but it’s subtle and, above all, subjective.

Naturally, not everyone will love Carol — that’s true of any film, but more so here. It’s not an inscrutable work heavy on abstraction and symbolism; it’s no Ingmar Bergan movie. But it relies heavily upon its audience’s ability to attend to visual cues and discern the particulars of every twitch of the actors’ facial expressions.

It’s a movie that feels performed rather than written, as though the script were crafted as a  vehicle for those on set, riddled with gaps meant to be filled by actors, directors, editors, and cinematographers. It places enormous faith in the team behind it, because if any one person failed to show up, there goes the movie.

As such, I couldn’t better admire the sheer craftsmanship on display here, at every conceivable effort. Carol is a delicate house of cards, and none of the hundreds of hands upon it ever stray for too long. It’s well directed, well shot, and even well-lit despite the time it took for me to get adjusted to the color shading (done well or not, that’s almost always something I object to at first and either come to appreciate or not; fortunately, Carol wound up in the former position).

It’s the acting that’s most praiseworthy — that, and whatever director Todd Haynes did to manage these performances so carefully. Carol doesn’t provide a lot of context or history for these characters; it simply introduces them and then slowly endears them to one another without ever giving a literal, detailed explanation for many of the wants and needs driving it. It’s all about Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and what the way they look at each other — plus the on-screen circumstances that drive those looks. Blanchett once again proves that she’s one of our best; I’m completely out of ways to describe how good she is, so just pretend that a multi-paragraph rave was written here. And if this performance isn’t the fulfillment of the promise Mara has shown since first making a name for herself a few years ago, I don’t know what will be.

I’m actually a bit curious how collaborative the actor/director relationship was on this set — if Haynes stepped aside and Blanchett and Mara are just that good, or if he micromanaged absolutely everything that happened in absolutely every scene. Probably, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Either way, I can’t think of any recent film that’s felt so wholly inhabited — no one on-screen ever really stops performing. The camera glides over gestures and facial expressions, even when the characters in question are not the center of attention, and makes certain we see what someone else is thinking about what’s being said and done in the scene. And those who are the center of attention have the entire world on their shoulders. Carol communicates so much in the way its characters move, in a subtle shift of physical position, in the way they orient themselves relative to the other characters, in the way they look into each other’s eyes or away.

Without the script filling us in, the film needs to show us everything; it needs to be present visually. Without the strict level of control it maintains over its emotional state, the whole thing would collapse. That it succeeds, and then some, is an absolute marvel. It’s all the proof anyone needs that, contrary to the way they’re often treated, film and literature are very different narrative art forms — if I transcribed Carol to the page, no one would read it, not without significant changes. Film is visual, and Carol uses that to the maximum extent.

And I appreciate what it is on the story level, in that it refrains from being an emotionally charged persecution narrative — restraint that’s especially laudable given its setting. Not that there’s anything wrong with tackling this subject from a political and cultural point of view, but you know you haven’t made progress when that’s the only kind of story people tell about you. Progress is made when a character can exist independently of his or her group membership, when that sort of thing is purely incidental. So, Carol is refreshing in that it’s a story about the relationship itself that isn’t self-consciously trying to take on anything more or less. It understands the social context well enough to allow the larger cultural problems to hang over it and influence the way characters behave and the things that motivate them, but it isn’t unduly focused on any of them. Normally, such films are about the way the relationship impacts the society; Carol is about how the society impacts the relationship, alongside a thousand other things that impact the relationship. There’s something moving about the smallness of scale on display here, the sense of normalcy the film applies, the way it takes this relationship seriously, the way it isn’t telling the story to fit a specific political narrative.

All it wants to do is get to the emotional core of things, and it does so beautifully. Carol builds you up and tears you down and breaks your heart and mends it. It relies on such intuitive methods of storytelling that it simply will not engage all the people all the time, but that’s all right. For those who can find it, nothing will mar the gentle beauty contained within.

Pee-wee's_Big_Holiday_posterPee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016)

Starring- Paul Reubens, Joe Manganiello, Jessica Pohly, Stephanie Beatriz, Alia Shawkat, Patrick Egan, Hal Landon Jr., Darryl Stephens, Dionne Gipson, Anthony Alabi, Sonya Eddy, Diane Salinger, Brad William Henke, Leo Fitzpatrick, Christopher Heyerdahl

Director- John Lee

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Quo-Oen1wkY

It’s been almost thirty years since we last saw Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens), and he hasn’t changed one bit — he’s still a big kid who lives alone in his kitschy house full of Rube Goldberg contraptions, in the same small, vaguely 50s town. He’s tending the counter at the local diner one day when in walks True Blood and Magic Mike actor Joe Manganiello. It turns out they have a surprising amount in common, and they quickly become friends. Taking pity on Pee-wee’s safe, stagnant life, Joe invites him to his birthday party in five days in New York but insists that, if he comes, he has to road trip it. So Pee-wee hits the road and faces one misadventure after another on his way to the Big Apple.

Netflix’s second attempt at running its own franchise isn’t quite there yet, but it’s a step in the right direction after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday isn’t a great movie; honestly, it’s barely even a good one; but it largely captures the spirit of the original and wouldn’t make for a bad family movie night.

Granted, I might not be the guy to ask. The charms of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure are mostly lost on me. I appreciate it for what it is but don’t have much interest in revisiting it. I’m kind of in the same place with Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.

It’s subjective, mostly. Neither film has much — if any — plot; it’s just a premise followed by a bunch of semi-related sketches. I can enjoy that under the right circumstances, but it isn’t my favorite. More significantly, I suspect there’s a circle of hell where you spend an eternity listening to Pee-wee Herman yell at you. I’ve never had much interest in this character or in the original movie.

As such, it’s significant for me that Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is slavishly devoted to its predecessor (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, I mean — I didn’t even know there was another movie until today, and that seems to go for most people). And this might be a problem for fans as well. You won’t get anything particularly new out of this one. The setup is similar, the scenery is similar, the tone is similar. It’s the same movie with different jokes and sketches.

On the plus side, there’s no cynical modernization going on here; if anything, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday feels even more old-fashioned than the original. The original had a sinister darkness just beneath the surface, giving it a slightly subversive atmosphere; this one is consistently bright and cheery and doesn’t often venture far out of kids’ movie territory. On the downside… Well, why bother? It’s an inferior version of a movie that already exists.

I wouldn’t say that its flaws, by comparison to the original, are really all that dramatic. Part of it may simply be that Pee-wee Herman isn’t aging well as a concept; he’s one of those characters that’s inextricably tied to a certain time and place. But this sequel also has the feeling of somewhat timid franchising — dipping its toes into the pool, gently reviving a beloved property from years past and presenting it to modern audiences with a sheepish grin, quietly asking if they actually want more of this. It seems half-committed somehow, mainly in that it feels very low-budget — I’m not a huge fan of the visuals (I get that haphazard effects are part of this film’s world, but there’s charm in a goofy, physics-defying practical effect that doesn’t exist in obvious green screen work), and very few of the actors, other than Paul Reubens, appear to care at all about this movie. Some of them seem embarrassed to be in a movie this silly and feel as though they’re constantly glancing off-camera, waiting for the director to rescue them. Others seem less embarrassed but clearly aren’t accustomed to playing things this broad and over-the-top; their performances are all over the place, big and loud without finding the character underneath. And a small few seem as though they’re just plain bad actors — awkward, stilted delivery, stumbling in and out of realism and absurdism, trying hard not to look at the camera. And there are, of course, good actors who strike the perfect note (Patrick Egan, in a short role as a salesman of goofy novelty items, finds the right balance between broad, cheesy acting and character). But for the most part, it doesn’t seem as though this cast was vetted all that thoroughly or tested against Reubens to see if they’d have any chemistry.

That said — if it’s a retread, at least it’s a lively and entertaining retread. That’s part of what was missing from Netflix’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel — after half an hour or so, the joy drained out of it, and apart from the elaborate kung fu sequences, it became a fairly generic action movie. While it doesn’t spend much time figuring out the larger whole, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is nevertheless admirably imaginative on a scene-to-scene basis — the various adventures Pee-wee has during his journey always feel fresh, centered on new jokes and ideas, each one totally bizarre in its own unique way. The humor is pretty strong, too, for the most part. Not all of it works, especially early on — the first fifteen minutes or so had me worried because all of the punchlines were too obvious; it seemed as though the movie had completely run out of jokes to tell. Fortunately, it picks up steam once Pee-wee’s journey begins and holds a pretty decent rhythm from there forward.

In short, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday isn’t anywhere near great, but I laughed just often enough to justify the price of admission. Which was free, admittedly, but you know what I mean. If you have a Netflix account, it’s worth a watch; if you don’t, I wouldn’t recommend that you get one solely to see it.

The_Big_Short_teaser_posterThe Big Short (2015)

Starring- Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo

Director- Adam McKay

R- pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgqG3ITMv1Q

Loosely based on the true story of several groups of outsiders who foresaw the 2008 housing market collapse, some of whom positioned themselves to profit from it while others attempted to warn the public before it was too late.

I trust, Mr. McKay, that you will reimburse me for the giant hole I just punched through my wall.

I can think of many better films released in 2015 — truth be told, for me, it runs neck and neck with The Revenant as this year’s least memorable Best Picture nominee — but none that were even a fraction as enraging. I left The Big Short absolutely seething. It took hours to come down from the level of pure outrage I reached during the film’s final reel.

If nothing else, The Big Short is very good at taking things you already know and sequencing them so you have the context to grasp exactly how much worse they were in real time than our six-years-removed memory of them.

It’s a complicated subject, so even those of us who have some understanding of exactly what happened might have difficulty connecting every dot and weaving it into the larger picture. Money here, numbers there, government there, Wall Street there, corruption over there — it’s hard for us, in our minds, to mix all these things together so they’re all fully motivated and comprehensible in their full complexity. I suspect not many of us have the knowledge or experience to be able to do that, and I just as strongly suspect we’d all be much angrier if we did.

That’s The Big Short’s bread and butter — capturing this complicated situation on the ground level, showing its progression, defining the motivations of the various parties involved, capturing the connections between political and financial corruption, showing the weak points that were exploited, seeding it with hints of the widespread and devastating effect upon the American public, and bringing it all together into one beautifully infuriating whole. The effect is not only context for important issues but pretty solid drama — one thing after another, a situation gradually ratcheting up into disaster, a mystery slowly revealing itself.

That’s the alchemic achievement of The Big Short — that it successfully makes the world of high finance extremely entertaining. That’s at least in part because it also successfully makes that world understandable — well, as understandable as such a thing can be. I understood most of it, despite having no head whatsoever for money or numbers, which is a testament to how surprisingly watchable it is.

A lot of the credit for that goes to Adam McKay, who made The Big Short not a great movie but at least a really entertaining and fairly thorough Wall Street explainer for all the rubes like me. That’s mainly because he completely does away with any pretense of subtlety and just plain explains it. It’d be a problem anywhere else, but McKay applies his trademark sense of humor to the proceedings and makes those long-winded, heavy-handed explanations as fun as possible.

For starters, the movie doesn’t really have a fourth wall, so characters regularly look at the camera and say, “Yeah, that was really hard to follow; here’s what happened just now.” McKay sometimes takes that a step further. Early on, a character stops the movie to proclaim that all of this is boring, “so instead, here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it all.” And the movie cuts to…Margot Robbie, in a bubble bath, explaining high finance. A number of celebrities show up to give the audience a crash course on the topic at hand, some of whom almost certainly have no idea what they’re talking about. It seems as though a lot of people found this approach condescending and annoying; personally, I thought it was very funny.

McKay also uses that fourth wall strictly for humorous effect — there’s a moment when characters take a break from the plot to explain that the scene they’re in was entirely made up because the way it happened in real life was boring. He also turns it to brutal, incisive effect near the end — The Big Short ends up being an extremely angry and cynical film, turning bitterly sarcastic, delivering the news that absolutely nothing was done to prevent this from happening again like a punch in the face, and offering no solutions other than finding a way to stop sociopaths from being sociopaths. I like movies that try to answer their questions but won’t criticize The Big Short for failing to do so until I come up with an answer of my own. Or literally anyone else comes up with an answer. Anyone.

McKay definitely gave The Big Short a voice unlike any other movie of its type, but I think his direction may also be its Achilles’ heel as well. He’s built his career on movies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, so The Big Short is well out of his comfort zone — and I think it shows. I love that McKay responded to the complex subject with humor, but the direction doesn’t seem to trust that it will be enough. This movie is directed within an inch of its life; even by comparison to a lot of action movies, it’s constantly throwing stuff at you. Shaky, handheld camerawork; quick, sharp edits, including a lot of jump cuts; aggressive close-ups and deliberately unattractive framing; a strange tendency for a shot to suddenly pause and then resume, often for no immediately discernible reason; scenes cut together, smashing back and forth between lines of dialogue until they become disorienting; the occasional graphic flashing up on the screen. Stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff. The gracelessness of it all is clearly intentional, but I don’t think it does the movie any favors.

There are script problems, too, mainly that the movie is so committed to functioning as an explainer that it runs out of excuses not to be a documentary. It’s much more interested in clarity than in telling the story. A lot of its narrative decisions seem arbitrary — why did it make the Ryan Gosling character the narrator, when he seems to have the least presence in the overall film and the smallest connections to the other characters? It also leaves the film’s attempts at interpersonal drama hackneyed and awkward (it keeps trying to shoehorn in a textbook tragic history for the Steve Carell character but develops it in fits and starts and in largely meaningless ways). It never really develops a theme or emotional arc either — throughout, it seeds this idea of America being corrupt at every level (I know this because the movie basically comes out and says it near the end), but it never really brings that to any kind of point. What relationship do the characters have with the themes? That’s the important question, and the answer, as far as I can tell after one viewing, appears to be none.

I liked The Big Short; few movies have left me anywhere near as fired up. It doesn’t appear to have any significant intent other than to enrage you, and on that level, mission frigging accomplished. But I’m not surprised how much of it I’ve forgotten only a day after seeing it. Its strengths as a sort of narrative, partly fictional documentary are pronounced, but its weaknesses as a film are enough that I’m not sure I could recommend it to someone who’s already an expert on what happened in 2008. But for people like me who could stand to have it arranged in a digestible package — and a fun, funny one as well — it’s solid viewing.

10_Cloverfield_Lane10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

Starring- John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr.

Director- Dan Trachtenberg

PG-13- thematic material including frightening sequences of threat with some violence, and brief language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saHzng8fxLs

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is walking out on a bad relationship when she wrecks her car in the middle of nowhere. When she wakes up, she’s locked in an underground bunker with two men, Howard (John Goodman) and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Howard, the paranoiac who built the place, claims to have saved Michelle’s life and tells her the world above them has ended — some kind of chemical attack that poisoned the air. Emmett, the contractor Howard hired to help with construction, doesn’t seem to have any idea what happened. Michelle isn’t sure what to make of their story, but since Howard has the keys and won’t allow anyone to go outside for fear of letting in the poisoned air, she finds herself left with no choice but to go along with them and make the best of her new life underground. But questions remain, and as strange things happen both in and out of the bunker, Michelle begins to wonder how much of Howard’s story is sheer paranoia, how much of it is actually true, and how much of it just might be a sinister lie.

10 Cloverfield Lane is the surprise of the year in more ways than one — a movie produced in complete secret and announced only a month or so before its theatrical release. And fortunately, one of those surprises is that it’s actually good — a fun, tightly wound, and appropriately mysterious little closed-room thriller.

Given the extent to which it values its secrecy, I’ll endeavor not to suggest anything beyond the plot description above, with the exception of whether or not it’s connected to Cloverfield. If, for whatever reason, you’d rather not know that, now’s the time to stop reading.

There’s no connection. Whether that’s a good idea or a bad one remains to be seen — at the moment, my feelings are mixed. Part of me likes the idea of Cloverfield being repurposed as a cinematic Twilight Zone, a collection of unrelated stories about creepy, supernatural events. I dislike the cynical franchising that I suspect motivates it, but I also see the utility — now, all a filmmaker who wants to make an original horror movie or thriller or small-scale science fiction has to do is hand it to J.J. Abrams, slap the word Cloverfield somewhere in the title, and release wide. I’m aware that a tiny closed-room thriller like this would never have played where I could see it if not for that one word in the title, so I suppose I’m grateful. I just wish we lived in a world where it could be released on its own without having to create a franchise out of thin air.

Either way, the fact that it isn’t connected to its predecessor is probably good news for me because I absolutely despise Cloverfield. It ranks very highly on the all-time list of movies everyone else likes that I hate. I don’t just dislike it; I find it almost unwatchable. So it’s fortunate, for me, that not only does it lack any story connection to the original, it’s stylistically dissimilar as well. The original was a sprawling, found-footage view of a giant monster attack; 10 Cloverfield Lane is small and contained, with a tiny cast, a set consisting almost exclusively of three or four rooms, and no in-universe cameras.

It’s proof that sometimes, all you need to do is lock three talented actors in a room and let them do their thing. As with everyone else who appeared in Short Term 12, John Gallagher Jr. will always have me in his corner, so it’s telling that he’s probably the least interesting in 10 Cloverfield Lane — no fault of his own, really; Emmett is simply the least textured of the three, defined mainly in terms of what he represents for Michelle and, by extension, the audience. Still, it’s an interesting progression for Gallagher, from his witty, self-assured social worker in Short Term 12 to a nervous blue-collar goofball.

For the most part, it’s the John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead show, and that’s one I’d happily pay to see. Winstead is so commanding in this; I was very invested in Michelle as a character by the time the movie ended, and I mainly credit Winstead for that. The opening scene is wordless apart from a brief phone call, and the rest of the movie is in the bunker; as such, we don’t know much about Michelle or who she was before all of this. The script from that point on only supplies so much; it’s Winstead who finds the character underneath everything. I suppose I shouldn’t discuss the particulars of Michelle’s arc, so I’ll just say that the film takes her through a lot of emotional states to a lot of different places. Winstead always nails it. There’s a Katniss Everdeen quality to the character; you’re throwing your fist in the air every time she claims some small victory. That she manages to remain the most compelling character on-screen in the face of John Goodman — and in a story where she is, by necessity, largely a passive figure — is a real testament to how good Winstead is in this.

Because Goodman absolutely kills it here. It’s a combination of a great performance and a great character — the script gives Goodman a lot to work with. The paranoid doomsday survivalist is hardly a new character in fiction, but 10 Cloverfield Lane lends the archetype far more nuance than usual. Normally, movies tend to use this character in such a dichotomous way — he can be paranoid, in which case he will also be evil and wrong; or he can be right, in which case he’ll prove surprisingly wise and trustworthy. Howard lives somewhere in the middle, the way real people do. And it isn’t a spoiler to say that — from the beginning, it’s clear that he defies simplistic classification. Unsurprisingly, the movie doesn’t let us know whether or not he’s right until the climax, but it spends the majority of its run-time dropping enough hints in either direction that both outcomes remain a tangible possibility, regardless of Howard’s behavior up to that point.

From the moment he’s introduced, it’s clear he isn’t trustworthy. Even if he’s right, he’s still obviously paranoid. Even if he’s wrong, he’s far from harmless. While the film is mysterious about some of the physical details surrounding the character, it occurs to me, in retrospect, that the script is completely up front about Howard — everything that happens later is a logical extension of what happened before. He’s a bit of a fanatic. He has no self-awareness or social graces. He has an explosive temper but is capable of kindness, clumsily expressed. Fundamentally, he means well. But he’s entitled, childish, and unstable — not an idiot, though. The only question is how he’ll get pushed and in what direction, if events will heighten his positive characteristics or continue to degrade his mental state. He’s a fascinating guy, and Goodman embodies him really well. He makes you want to trust the character but refuses to let you do so. It’s a great performance.

To an extent, that’s all the movie really needs — explosive, well-defined personalities locked in an enclosed space as tensions gradually increase. And for the most part, that’s what 10 Cloverfield Lane banks on. Its script, on its own, is more of a mixed bag. It does a lot right — a lot of what’s interesting about Howard starts on the page; Goodman couldn’t have brought out that nuance if the writers had allowed Howard to be the stereotype he easily could have been. It also does a good job managing its central mysteries — offering new clues when they’re needed, throwing wrenches in the works to further heighten the situation, keeping you questioning everything you see and trying to put the pieces together. With a mystery-driven film like this, there will always be controversy about whether or not the ending lives up to what came before, whether it resolves its questions in an interesting way. Me personally, I liked 10 Cloverfield Lane’s ending. I went in expecting a certain tone and plot approach, and the ending delivered on that. And regardless of whether the solution to its puzzle is satisfying, it’s final reel is tense, edge-of-your-seat stuff, and I had a great time watching it.

But it strikes me that the story runs a bit thinner throughout the rest of the film. It struggles to figure out its themes and character arcs, clumsily introducing, in dialogue, largely unrelated issues in the characters’ lives and then walking them through outlines of character arcs that lack substantive detail in between the major beats. As a result, the movie periodically reaches a point where it feels like it’s just spinning its wheels. It’s a good movie with greatness lingering over it just outside of the frame, always reaching but, frustratingly, never quite grasping.

I’m still pretty satisfied with what I got, though. Considering it’s a surprise entry in a franchise I abhor, it’s an excellent time at the movies. And regardless of the potential cynicism behind its involvement in that franchise, I’m quite happy to see such a small, contained, and unique little film finding an audience nationwide. Hopefully, its success will bring more (conceptually) original genre flicks out of the shadows.

file_601511_spectre-posterSpectre (2015)

Starring- Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen

Director- Sam Mendes

PG-13- intense sequences of action and violence, some disturbing images, sensuality and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GqClqvlObY

Following posthumous instructions from the previous M, James Bond (Daniel Craig) pursues the terrorist organization SPECTRE and its mysterious leader (Christoph Waltz) while agents at home attempt to prevent the government and its allies from shuttering the 007 program in favor of a worldwide surveillance system.

I’d probably have to watch Quantum of Solace again, but as of right now, I’m comfortable saying Spectre is the worst of the Daniel Craig Bond movies. It feels like the sequel too many — the previous films were emotionally intense with a heightened scale, whereas the fourth iteration of our current James Bond is mostly a movie where Bond hits stuff until he runs out of stuff to hit.

Granted, that’s not exactly true in the literal sense — Spectre does represent another step in this Bond’s character arc; the groundwork being laid is readily apparent and not too difficult to unpack. It simply feels less than that because of how ineffective it is in that regard.

If what I’ve read is accurate, Craig hasn’t signed onto another one of these yet, though it’s clear the studio would like him to. That anxiety — that there might be more sequels in this Bond universe, but they aren’t guaranteed — is a dark cloud hanging over Spectre. It’s a phenomenon that’s become increasingly common in the age of the film franchise — the movie presenting itself as the grand finale while also leaving the door open for it not to be. Film studios now find themselves in a constant race against box office receipts and their actors’ contracts. They would love it if they could keep making the exact same movie until the end of time and, at least from a storytelling standpoint, seemingly plan to do exactly that. It isn’t until one of the other parties in this eternal game of chicken blinks that the filmmakers begin trying to bring their story to a satisfying conclusion.

All of this is speculative, of course, but it would go a long way toward explaining movies like Spectre — the ones that seem like a by-the-numbers continuation of a franchise that plans to go on forever, then suddenly take on the importance of the third act to a story you didn’t realize was being told. Because it wasn’t.

The ideal way to watch Spectre seems to be this: Start the movie; watch it until all the plot twists and reveals happen; turn it off; watch the other three movies in order while pretending their stories are secretly about something that isn’t happening anywhere on or even adjacent to the screen; try to derive some emotional satisfaction from that; and then start Spectrefrom the beginning and watch the entire thing over again.

It wants to be a convincing finale if that’s what it ends up being, but it’s also prepared to act as though it was simply another entry in a much longer series. The end result of that compromise is a movie that spends most of its run-time retroactively weaving its predecessors into a larger story and then using the space of one film to build them into one villain we’ve never met before, make the stakes personal despite building its key relationships exclusively through after-the-fact exposition, and sell this seemingly inconsequential storyline as the moment to which the entire series had secretly been building (despite the complete lack of prior evidence that this was the case). It gives you an emotionally muted film that spends so much time trying to spruce up the other movies that it can’t attend to its own needs.

As such, everything that was ever interesting about this series is drained right out of Spectre. Our new, more psychological James Bond goes from being stoic in a character sense to stoic in an action hero sense; the film’s biggest reveal doesn’t land because of how dispassionate the main character seems throughout. The villain has neither presence nor meaning; he’s barely in the movie, for starters, and Christoph Waltz is mostly playing him as Hans Landa without the dark humor. His motivations are extremely basic and uninteresting. His secret organization, SPECTRE, couldn’t possibly be more boring; so much mystery surrounds it, but I never cared to learn the answers. The thematic commentary on the surveillance state feels entirely obligatory, something it must do because it is A Post-War on Terror Action Movie. I’m not sure what the takeaway is — widespread surveillance is bad; instead, we should rely on super-irresponsible secret agents with questionable moral compasses and no particularly significant higher authority who occasionally use surveillance tools in order to get the job done. Yeah, it’s not particularly convincing.

And unlike previous films in the series — most notably Skyfall — I wasn’t even able to enjoy Spectre on the physical level, for its visuals or for the construction of its action sequences. The action here is pretty standard stuff — car chases, hand-to-hand combat, gun battles, etc. Nothing you haven’t seen before. Only the plane chase and, briefly, the opening scene land with any kind of punch. Visually, the absence of Roger Deakins is very strongly felt. The presentation here is fairly generic, with almost no images that stand out in my memory — and certainly nothing close to the sheer beauty of Skyfall. 

Spectre is one of those movies where the most I’m able to say in its favor is that it isn’t actively horrible in any respect; it just constantly feels like it isn’t going the distance. It’s a fairly routine actioner with occasional flashes of inspiration it doesn’t want to commit to. As I’ve said in the past, the worst sin a movie can commit in my book isn’t being terrible but being uninteresting. And I watched most of Spectre with my eyes glazed over.