Movie Review ~ The Big Short

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Four outsiders in the world of high-finance who predicted the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s decide to take on the big banks for their lack of foresight and greed.

Stars: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Brad Pitt, Rafe Spall, Tracy Letts, John Magaro, Jeremy Strong, Byron Mann, Finn Wittrock, Hamish Linklater

Director: Adam McKay

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Want to do something nice for your stockbroker this holiday weekend?  Ask them to accompany you to a screening of The Big Short, pay their way in, and then when it’s over ask them to explain the film to you.  Yes, this true story of the bursting of the housing market bubble is a dense watch and would benefit from studying a textbook beforehand…but at the same times it’s a riotously funny and routinely ribald comedy more entertaining than it has any right to be.

Though I’m not normally a fan of director Adam McKay (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), he’s turned in his most timely and mature work to date, juggling multiple storylines and characters over several years without ever losing the thread of what a tremendous disaster this downfall was to the economy.  Adapted by McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph from the book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short is big on market-savvy terms, facts, and figures but short on overall time to explain everything along the way.

Following four distinct sets of characters of various stature that overlap throughout the years, it’s a movie you have to buckle up and into from the beginning.  I was worried early on that I was going to wind up emerging as a true dumb dumb, never truly grasping the enormity of the situation or how things got as bad as it did.  Thankfully, McKay’s script had the foresight to predict this and employs a clever means to explain things in terms that the average Joe (me!) can understand.  I won’t spoil some of this surprisingly adept tactics for you, but I will say that it involves celebrities playing themselves breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to us.

McKay was lucky to gather the high-caliber cast he did.  It’s mostly a boys club here with the likes of Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Ryan Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines), Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace), and Brad Pitt (World War Z) taking on roles of those involved to varying degrees of seeing a problem on the horizon and then deliberately setting up the market to fail so they can profit.  Moral quandaries are few with only Carell standing up for the littler guy, gaining a conscience that stands him apart from his cut-throat colleagues.

In the supporting department, Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers) is appreciated as always as Carell’s wife and even the usually campy Melissa Leo (Olympus Has Fallen) channels her natural tendency to overplay things into a dandy of a cameo as a Wall Street player conducting a meeting from behind some Mr. Magoo-ish optometrist shades.  Strong turns from Rafe Spall (Prometheus), Hamish Linklater (Magic in the Moonlight), and Finn Wittrock (Unbroken) round out a uniformly strong ensemble.

Though it deals with events that led to the ruin of many (mostly middle to lower class households), the film is surprisingly engaging and entertaining.  It feels like the movie that The Wolf of Wall Street thought it was behind all of the showboating performances and excessive running time.  The Big Short is still too long at 130 minutes but unlike Wolf, it gives the audience someone (anyone) to relate to.

The market is slowly building itself up again but if the final moments of the film are any indication, this is a problem that isn’t totally vanquished…making the movie ultimately a cautionary tale of unfettered greed and unregulated ambition.

Movie Review ~ Sisters

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two sisters decide to throw one last house party before their parents sell their family home.

Stars: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, John Leguizamo, Dianne Wiest, John Cena, James Brolin

Director: Jason Moore

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  We all love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, right?  I mean, through their celebrated time at Saturday Night Live to their post-late night days with 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, both have shown themselves to be fun-loving ladies that work well with others.  There’s nothing like it when Fey and Poehler team up, though, so Sisters should have been a slam dunk, right?

If the end result is less of a slam dunk and more of a two-pointer, it’s at least better than their last pairing, the tepid Baby Mama from 2008.  That film was highly anticipated but came off feeling like we were watching an extended SNL sketch with Fey playing her usual nerd-ish but noble lady and Poehler going big as a white trash pseudo-surrogate.  In the ensuing years, Poehler and Fey have been reunited on several small screen occasions leading up to successfully hosting the Golden Globes three times, ruling over the festivities with their sly observances.

And now we have another attempt at striking it rich on the big screen and while Sisters is markedly better than Baby Mama, it still winds up falling short of the packaged potential of its stars.  This time, there seemed to be some real thought put into the piece, with Fey and Poehler wisely playing against type in bringing friend (and former SNL writer) Paula Pell’s sorta biographical screenplay to life.

When Maura and Kate’s parents (Dianne Wiest, Parenthood and James Brolin, The 33) decide to sell the Florida home of their youth and move into a retirement complex, the sisters are tasked with cleaning out their room before the new family moves in.  Maura (Poehler, Inside Out) is the responsible one, the sister that never got into trouble and was an eternal sober cab for her hard partying sister Kate (Fey, Admission).  Upset with their parents for listing the lot without telling them, they decide to host one big party for their friends before they have to pack it in and move on with their lives.  Kate promises to abstain from booze so Maura can let loose but as the night goes on the sisters find themselves plunked back into old habits, not always of their own free will.

The film takes a while to get going and it mostly coasts along nicely.  There’s a charming romantic subplot with Maura romancing a hunky neighbor (Ike Barinholtz, heretofore not hunky) and it gives Poehler some nice moments, comedic and otherwise.  Barinholtz should get some props here for dealing with a fairly nasty gross-out gag, one of several that occur during the night of increasing debauchery.

Director Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect) knows when to let his stars do their thing but manages to keep control of the wild party that takes up the latter half of the film.  Balancing a host of comedic players (like Horatio Sanz as that guy we all hate at parties and Maya Rudolph as a bitchy rival) with some third act emotional resonance is no easy task but Sisters earns its stripes thanks to its game cast and willingness to “go there” for laughs.

Boldly opening the same weekend as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Sisters is marketing itself as that other movie you can see after your Star Wars fix is complete.  It’s clever #YouCanSeeBoth campaign works in its good-natured favor and audiences should see both films during their theatrical run.

Movie Review ~ Daddy’s Home

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A mild-mannered radio executive strives to become the best stepdad to his wife’s two children, but complications ensue when their freewheeling and freeloading real father arrives, forcing him to compete for the affection of the kids.

Stars: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, Thomas Haden Church, Hannibal Buress

Director: Sean Anders

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  The last time stars Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg teamed up was in 2010’s The Other Guys, a better than average twist to the cop/buddy movie that played nicely into the strengths of its leads.  Neither actor was required to travel too far out of their comfort zone and instead of it coming off as lazy, it felt like a cohesive mix of actors putting a shine on characters they could play in their sleep.

For a time there was talk of a sequel to The Other Guys and while that still could happen sometime in the future, Ferrell and Wahlberg must have been itching to work together again and signed on for Daddy’s Home in the hopes of reclaiming some of that good will directed toward them in their previous collaboration.  Well…this Daddy has issues and it never rises above a mediocre comedy irresponsibly trying to lure families into ponying up their holiday dough to see this unpleasant gunk.

Ferrell (The Campaign) is a benign lump of good-nature as man trying to be the best stepdad he can be to his two new stepchildren.  Unable to have children due to an unfortunate dental accident (just one of the precious few inspired bits the film has to offer), he’s the superman of stepfathers whether staying on top of school activities or making sure the kids are fed.

That Ferrell’s character has been met, wooed, and wed his wife (Linda Cardellini, Avengers: Age of Ultron) without ever meeting the father of her children seems pretty hard to swallow…but it’s a paltry oversight of a set-up for the first time old dad (Wahlberg, Ted) meets new dad after he decides to enter back into their lives, causing a host of troubles along the way.  Wahlberg is the motorcycle riding tough guy with pecs that pop mighty unhappy his wife has moved on without him…so unhappy that he spends the majority of the movie trying to ruin Ferrell’s career and relationship with his new family.

It’s here the movie starts to rack up a host of losing points in my book.  The plot reads like the logline of a domestic thriller from the ‘90s and Wahlberg comes off as a middle-aged version of the crazed psycho he played in 1996’s Fear.  Ferrell and Wahlberg engage in a battle of the dads to see who can come away with the most affection, resorting to buying love rather than trying to earn it.  The ruse for hoots results in a genuine discomfort in the viewer as we watch all of this nastiness play out in front of the children.

Co-written by director Sean Anders (who also penned We’re the Millers), it’s a cheap looking film too…with special effects that appear like first passes inserted as placeholders.  Anders and his co-writers don’t bother to flesh out any character other than Ferrell and Wahlberg, leaving Cardellini in the dust and wasting valuable time on irksome supporting characters like Thomas Haden Church (We Bought a Zoo, looking more and more like that vein on your neck that bulges when you get angry) and the completely useless Hannibal Buress (Sleepwalk with Me).  Buress gained notoriety recently for unknowingly igniting the Bill Cosby scandal during his comedy act…he should be more proud of that than anything he’s doing here.

Are there a few laughs to be had?  Sure…and I laughed at them.  However, I kept coming back to fact that the movie relies on laughs that come at the expense not just of manly pride but the respect of the impressionable minds both men should be trying to be role models for.

Movie Review ~ The Hateful Eight

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In post-Civil War Wyoming, bounty hunters try to find shelter during a blizzard but get involved in a plot of betrayal and deception. Will they survive?

Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, Walton Goggins, Channing Tatum

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 187 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s hard to believe that as prolific as Quentin Tarantino has become, The Hateful Eight is only the eighth feature film released by the man with the manic energy and mad love for all things cinema.  Starting off strong with Reservoir Dogs in 1992 before hitting the mega big time with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has developed a definite style that he can reign in when he wants or let loose in most outrageous ways.

Last represented in 2013 with Django Unchained (which netted him his second Oscar for Best Screenplay), The Hateful Eight almost never saw the light of day as early script leaks frustrated the director.  Thankfully, Tarantino’s got good friends and they encouraged him not to be deterred by internet trolls and make the film as he intended.  Tweaking his script and gathering a most impressive line-up of stars, Tarantino has another winner on his hands and one that shows both sides of his cinematic calling card.

In a bloody mash-up of Agatha Christie mysteries and the snowy sci-fi classic The Thing, The Hateful Eight takes place primarily on one set, a haberdashery where strangers gather to wait out a blistering blizzard…but one (or more) of them aren’t who they claim to be.  Tarantino has crafted another memorable set of characters from bounty hunters John Ruth (Kurt Russell, Furious 7) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, RoboCop) to retired General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern, Nebraska) to newly minted sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, American Ultra).  Ruth has chained himself to Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Spectacular Now), a wanted woman that faces the hangman’s noose once they arrive in Red Rock, Wyoming.  Also factoring into the mix is aloof gunsman Joe Gage (Michael Madsen, Die Another Day), Bob (Demian Bichir, A Better Life), and Oswaldo (Tim Roth, Selma).

How these people end up in the haberdashery are told through a framing device that divides the film into a half dozen or so sections.  Each section arrives via a title card that announces the chapter and gives the audience a clue as to what’s coming up.  This being Tarantino, he’s not afraid to go a little out of order so he can keep the mystery hidden a little longer.

For a film taking place in largely one location, it never feels stagey or cagey.  Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson (an Oscar winner for Hugo) make the small outpost look massive, the perfect place for a killer to hide out.  The performances are typically larger than life, with Russell going full John Wayne on his line readings and Jackson being…well…Jackson.  Goggins is an actor I can usually take or leave (mostly leave) but his goofy look and delivery mesh nicely with Madsen’s cool gunslinger and Bichir’s man of few words Mexican.  There’s a lot of buzz around Leigh’s performance and with good reason, the actress has several dynamite scenes that you’ll have to wait some time for…but when they arrive they’re the stuff Oscar nominations are made of.

Tarantino and The Weinstein Company are taking a unique approach to its release of The Hateful Eight.  Tarantino filmed the movie in “glorious 70MM” and several cities are playing host to a Road Show version of the film, complete with an overture and intermission.  If you can find this version, make sure to catch it because it gives you a full movie-going experience, recapturing the way movies were released back in the heyday of moviemaking that Tarantino pines so longingly for.  It’s also an opportunity to hear the great Ennio Morricone’s haunting score during the overture.  It’s crazy Morricone has never won an Oscar and his work here might finally right that wrong (though he’ll have stiff competition from John Williams with Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

At 187 minutes the movie is a commitment and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t get a little snoozy during the first half.  It feels as long as it is…but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  When it does let loose, it becomes a graphic cornucopia of blood and brain matter and one character ends the film covered head to toe in gore.  The wait for this is most certainly worth it, especially when the strings are being pulled by so many talented contributors.