The Big Short

The-Big-Short-Poster-2015

If you saw the Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg 2010 comedy The Other Guys, you may have noticed something a little bit “off” about the end credits. While the feature was a typical over-the-top comedy (Ferrell and Wahlberg play “odd couple” partners who inadvertently solve a major case despite plenty of hijinks along the way), the end credits took a surprisingly serious turn with facts and figures from the 2008 financial crisis. After the fun and lightheartedness of the film itself, the end credits splashed a dose of cold water on the whole thing. It was clear that the people behind the film were justifiably outraged about the crisis and the fact that no one in the financial industry suffered any consequences for their creation of the whole mess. It felt like a message to the audience – if you thought this comedy was outrageous and unbelievable, just look at how nuts the real world is. So for those who saw The Other Guys, it probably wasn’t that surprising that Adam McKay, the director of that movie and other acclaimed comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, was tackling a dramatization of Michael Lewis’ 2010 book The Big Short.

Essentially, the film is about a select group of financial outsiders who realize that the mortgage-backed securities market is destined to crash (like a Jenga game, which the film uses as a nice visual metaphor) and decide to place big bets to make a fortune off of the disaster. The outsiders are played by Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling, among others. And yes, these are the heroes of the film.

In arguably the film’s most important scene, Brad chastises our “heroes” after they confirm their suspicions that the whole real estate market is being run by idiots. They giddily jump up and down on the floor, until they are reminded (by Brad, the only unambiguously good man in the movie, of course) that what they are celebrating is the collapse of the American economy. That sobers their celebration pretty quickly.

That’s the scene that stuck out for me from The Big Short. Are these characters heroes? It’s nice that they’re outraged and indignant about the reckless greed of Wall Street, but they profit off that very arrogance and recklessness. At the end of the film, only two groups emerge unscathed: the Wall Street firms that are bailed out after brokering the whole mess in the first place, and our heroes, who vastly multiply their bank accounts.

The Big Short tackles the same themes as The Wolf of Wall Street, but whereas Scorsese’s film felt like a chocolate sundae this one is a steaming helping of broccoli. Its frustration with the financial system is its greatest strength, but the heavy-handedness with which it tells the tale leaves the film feeling a bit like an after-school special.

Grade: B-

Side note: I have to commend The Big Short for characters breaking the fourth wall to address that some events that play out onscreen didn’t actually happen, but make for better drama. A refreshing acknowledgement to take the film, although based on facts, with a grain of salt.

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The Place Beyond the Pines

The-Place-Beyond-The-Pines

Ryan Gosling is following the “Leonardo DiCaprio career plan”: star in a hugely successful romance (Titanic in Leo’s case; The Notebook in Gosling’s) follow up with a couple mediocre flicks with critics writing off your career as being nothing more than a pretty face for your female fans to idolize (The Beach, The Man in the Iron Mask for DiCaprio; Stay, Fracture for Gosling) and then reinvent yourself as critically-acclaimed “thinking man’s” action hero (Gangs of New York, Inception, The Departed for DiCaprio; Drive, The Place Beyond the Pines, and hopefully the upcoming Only God Forgives for Gosling). It’s an interesting transformation to note.

To clarify, The Place Beyond the Pines isn’t an action movie. Ryan Gosling’s character simply acts as if he is the star of one, forgetting (or ignoring) that such a role in the real world has consequences. To that effect, a central theme running through the film is roles and appearances, and how often it is that the two don’t mesh up. Gosling’s character is misguided (he does rob banks by motorcycle) but his intention – to be there to support his family – is noble. The role he covets is a loving father-figure. The appearance he gives is that of a thrill-seeking ne’er-do-well and criminal. Likewise, Bradley Cooper’s character covets power and prestige, eyeing the role of Attorney General. His appearance is that of a heroic cop and family man, masking the unsavoury methods he used to get there and the disastrous effect it had on his marriage and son. It’s heavy stuff.

The actions of the two leads cause consequences that ripple throughout the film’s carefully realized world. Unfortunately, it can be a bit artificial and forced – especially when the third part of the story relies on the chance meeting of two characters. I’m not saying such a coincidence couldn’t happen, but in the context of a film like this, you can clearly see the director’s strings – which distracts a bit from the message. That, and the mysteriously forever young characters (the film jumps forward quite a few years into the future…where most of the major players haven’t aged at all), hurts it a bit.

Flawed, but fascinating.

Grade: B+

Sidenote: It does feature a score that is my favourite of the year so far – take a listen for yourself.

The Ides of March

For the political-minded, the biggest enemy of democracy is apathy. The clear unpartisan message of the last decade is urging young citizens to vote. Campaign managers and political leaders wring their hands over the indifference of a large section of the electorate, while governments struggle to streamline the voting process to make it as simple and convenient as possible in an effort to increase voter turnout. These efforts are merely a band-aid or smoke screen that do little to address why our citizens, and especially our youth, are apathetic. While The Ides of March might not provide solutions to the problem, it certainly provides an explanation for it.

Idealistic campaign press secretary Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) has found the rarest thing in politics: a candidate – Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) – he actually believes in. Morris embodies the perfect political hopeful – he’s resolute to run a clean campaign without mud-slinging attack ads, will not compromise his values to negotiate an important endorsement from a senator (Jeffrey Wright), and genuinely wants America to reclaim its status as a world leader by cutting its dependency on foreign oil and focusing on renewable energy sources. Myers is convinced that if Morris makes it to the Oval Office, the country will be changed for the better.

Of course, nothing in politics is ever that simple, or at least, that’s what The Ides of March would have us believe. Myers is asked to meet with the campaign manager for the other side (Paul Giamatti) who asks him to do the unthinkable: switch sides and work for the other candidate. That’s where things start to unravel, and Myers sees the real – dirty – side of politics.

One of the difficulties I’ve always had while watching political movies is getting involved in the stakes of the action. The scenes of political insiders agonizing over a drop in the polls always seems inconsequential and less than thrilling. And then when these films introduce a political “fixer” – generally an interchangeable term for “hit-man” – to up the entertainment factor, things just become preposterous. The Ides of March is able to handle this problem well – never getting too bogged down in the banal details of how the primaries work while maintaining believability (with thrills!) in a realistic fashion.

Though I may be outing myself as moviegoer of less than average intelligence, the impact of two pivotal sequences in the film were lessened when I didn’t understand exactly who the characters were talking about, or what was happening. The first sequence has to do with a revelation about George Clooney’s character. Throughout most of the film (to my recollection) he’s referred to as Mike Morris, or Morris. However, in this pivotal scene, Gosling refers to him as the Governor. Not Governor Morris. Not Mike. Just “Governor.” It pains me to admit it, but I didn’t know exactly who Gosling was referring to (is this a character we haven’t been introduced to yet? Is this the guy who they’re trying to get the endorsement from?). Unfortunately, the surprise of the scene was lost on me.

Another sequence that seemed similarly glossed over – yet pivotal – to the film is when Gosling (apparently) loses his cell phone. I say apparently because there’s a scene where he picks up a cell phone from a hotel room and then listens to all the voice messages he missed. Once again, I have no recollection of the film ever presenting the information to the audience that Gosling lost his cell phone or why he discovers it in a hotel room. Eh, what can you do.

The Ides of March doesn’t break any new ground in the political thriller genre. The twists are about what you’d expect, and the lesson is pretty much the same (politics is a soul-sucking and vindictive venture). As for my predictions – I still think this could be nominated for Best Picture. But it ain’t gonna win.

Grade: B-

Sidenote: As for why the film may explain the apathy of democratic societies, look at the political films we have that feature idealistic and young individuals who love the political process. These are the people who vote with pride in every election, get out and volunteer for a political candidate, and end up (in the movies) broken and soulless by cynicism. If only we had electronic voting, that would sure fix things…

Shooting fish in a barrel: Award Movies of 2011

It’s about that time again – the lead-up to awards season when all the best movies of the year come out. And it’s fairly easy to predict which films will be nominees, much like its easy to predict what summer movies will top the box office (i.e. Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, the last Harry Potter). Below is what I think will be the films that will be talked about ad nauseum in the coming months (and they may be talked about ad nauseum here too).

The Ides of March

It’s a political film (just in time for the 2012 election) so it’s timely. It stars George Clooney (who did double-duty directing as well), Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, etc. This one, I’m predicting, will be nominated in a lot of categories.

The Skin I Live In

Expect this one to be nominated for Best Foreign Language film, and while that category is always tricky to predict who will be the winner, renowned director Pedro Almodovar is known for his well-recieved films (the four films he’s shown at Cannes, including this one, have all be nominated for the Palme d’Or).

Margin Call

It’s about the financial crisis and it stars Kevin Spacey. It’s a shoe-in.

My Week with Marilyn

May not garner nominations for the bigger awards, but I expect Michelle Williams will be nominated as Best Actress for her portrayal of Marilyn Monroe.

J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood. Leonardo DiCaprio. Biopic. Well, this one will be nominated for everything.

The Descendants

Another George Clooney movie – this time from a favorite director of mine – Alexander Payne. The brains behind Election, About Schmidt, and Sideways, Payne has never made a bad movie. While it might not garner many nominations, at least a nod in the writing (or directing) categories would be nice.

A Dangerous Method

A David Cronenberg period drama about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Exploding heads are doubtful, but award nominations (Best Actor, Best Supporting) are a sure bet.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Based on a John le Carre novel (Best Adapted Screenplay nom – check) starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, and John Hurt (Best Supporting/Best Actor nominations in there somewhere) and a spy thriller plot. Probably a Best Picture nomination too – it has a good title.

Young Adult

It’s by Jason Reitman – who has directed four films with three of them being nominated for Best Picture. I think it’s safe to say he’ll be continuing the streak with this one, and Charlize Theron may just end up being nominated for Best Actress again.

The Iron Lady

The Weinstein Company always picks films that are often heavily-nominated and go on to win the big prize (The King’s Speech). This year round it’s Meryl Streep (Best Actress nomination- another notch on her belt) as Margaret Thatcher. Best Screenplay and Picture nominations? I would think so.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Tom Hanks stars in this adaptation of a Jonathan Safran Foer novel regarding a little boy’s attempts to come to terms with his father’s death on September 11th. Best Picture nominee? It could be a contender.

I also think Drive (Best Original Score nomination – I hope so) and Contagion (maybe a nod to director Steven Soderbergh?) could have a spattering of nominations as well. Just none of the big awards. Those are saved for the films mentioned above.

My predictions for Best Picture Nominees:

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Ides of March

Young Adult

The Iron Lady

A Dangerous Method

J. Edgar

And if last year’s winner is anything to judge by, this year’s winner will be a film that takes place in the past, is rather stuffy and has a muted, dreary set design, generates an inordinate amount of buzz during awards season, and then is never spoken, nor thought about ever again. So, The Iron Lady will win Best Picture.

Drive

The new Ryan Gosling film Drive is a lesson in stylish excess. An art film masquerading as a action vehicle, the majority of Drive seems inspired in equal part by arty European gangster classics like Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai, Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name,” and the graphic violence of torture porn. It’s an eclectic mix, and somehow, it works.

Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a quiet car mechanic who works part-time as Hollywood stuntman and moonlights as a getaway driver. The opening sequence places us right in the middle of one his “jobs” – a robbery with two unreliable thieves who presumably killed someone. But it’s not exactly a “getaway” in the typical sense. Driver does his best to avoid the police as much as possible, driving the speed limit, pulling into alleyways and under bridges, and parking in crowded public places. It’s masterful and suspenseful filmmaking that is far more entertaining than the typical cops-chase-car-cops-crash dynamic of other similar films.

The world of Drive is populated with typical stock characters of the heist-gone-wrong genre: the older best friend and mentor (Bryan Cranston, who can do no wrong), a shady mob boss (Albert Brooks) and his volatile associate (an underused Ron Perlman), and the girl the hero is willing to risk it all for (Carey Mulligan). Names aren’t really important in this film, and neither is the plot. It’s a formula we’ve seen done countless times before, except this film makes it seem unique based on the rituals, and quiet charisma, of its lead character.

It was interesting seeing this film with an audience that probably expected what the trailer promised: something akin to a Jason Statham action flick with Ryan Gosling in the lead role. Instead, three-quarters of the film is meandering with sequences of sparse exchanges between Driver and his romantic interest – scenes that will probably be characterized as “slow” -punctuated by brief, jarring scenes of brutal and graphic violence. The audience cheered at the sections when characters get stabbed or killed; the quieter sequences were watched with an almost palpable trepidation that the film would have no action as promised.

It’s a polarizing experience – if you enjoy heist-gone-wrong films and can stomach brutal (I emphasize brutal – think Eastern Promises-style violence) then you’ll probably find a lot to love about the film. However, if art films are off-putting and sequences of minimal dialogue coupled with inexpressive performances aren’t your idea of entertainment, it may be best to wait to rent this one. In my opinion, it’s a fresh and stylish take on an well-worn genre with a great soundtrack and a glimpse of what could be our generation’s Clint Eastwood – that old Mickey Mouse Club kid Gosling.

Grade: B+

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Well, it's half right.

When the credits rolled on Crazy, Stupid, Love I noticed that it credited two directors – Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. That’s when I understood the wildly different tonal shifts, multiple (unnecessary) subplots, and why Crazy, Stupid, Love feels like three different movies in one.

Cal (Steve Carell) and wife Emily (Julianne Moore) are getting a divorce. She’s slept with a colleague at work (Kevin Bacon in a meatless role) and she wants out. Cal is heartbroken. He’s moves out of the house and into a small apartment, spending his nights at a nameless club where he drinks vodka-cranberries and grumbles about his wife’s affair for the entire bar to hear. He’s in a sad state of affairs – and so is the movie at this point.

Enter Jacob (Ryan Gosling) the sympathetic womanizer (do these people exist in the real world?) who takes Cal under his wing to give him a make-over and regain the confidence that he’s lost. Gosling is without a doubt the strongest part of the film as Jacob, exuding charisma and charm effortlessly while also showing tenderness and vulnerability in quieter scenes. He’s a fully-fleshed out character in a film of half-cooked ones.

That’s the biggest problem of Crazy, Stupid, Love – it loves all of its characters so much that it doesn’t realize that the film would be better if it cut a few…or four. There’s the seventeen year-old babysitter of the family who is given way too much screen time harboring a secret crush on Cal, which leads to a queasy and uncomfortable subplot (having seen David Schwimmer’s sexual predator film Trust a few days before certainly didn’t help matters). There’s David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon), the man Emily has an affair with, who’s given a handful of scenes to smile and laugh at her before the obligatory confrontation scene with Cal. Then there’s Cal and Emily’s son Robbie (Jonah Bobo), who spends the film  waxing philosophically about soul mates and true love and urges his Dad to “fight” for his mother if she really means something to him. I don’t think he has a scene without mentioning “love” or some variation thereof – he’s a little too sweet.

There’s a great movie itching to claw its way out of this one. Crazy, Stupid, Love has its moments of brilliance (such as rumbling jungle music accompanying Ryan Gosling – to show what a stud he is) and there’s a fantastic climatic scene that eschews our expectations of the “Grand Romantic Moment”  and gathers all the characters together for conflict and a surprising revelation. There’s also poignancy, anchored by a strong performance by Steve Carell in the film’s third act where he’s tried to make things right and has only succeeded in making them worse. He has a powerful scene with Ryan Gosling where he utters a single sentence that breaks his former mentor. It’s just too bad that all these great moments had to be bogged down by awful subplots, one-note characters, and a meandering storyline that oftentimes will ignore the main thread (Cal and Emily’s crumbling marriage) in favor of creating new ones (Robbie loves his babysitter, Gosling falls for Emma Stone). A few more months in the editing room would’ve done this film wonders.

Crazy, Stupid, Love is unsure about what it wants to be. It’s sold as a simple romantic comedy, but it’s more complex than that. It has a plot line that seems like a Hitch clone. It has emotionally poignant and affecting moments, but it also has that Ryan Gosling jungle music. In short, it needs more confidence in what it’s trying to say. And it may help if it wasn’t directed by two different people – one who thought they were making a comedy and another who thought they were making a drama.

Grade: C+

Side note: I know that I haven’t mentioned Emma Stone that much in this review. Yes, she is in the movie. Unfortunately most of the arc of her story has been told in the trailer (i.e. she ends up seeing Gosling’s abs) and she isn’t in the film all that much (ten minutes, tops). Just be aware that even though she’s featured prominently in the advertising for the film, her role is mostly a glorified cameo.