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.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Big Short

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Synopsis: When four outsiders saw what the big banks, media and government refused to, the global collapse of the economy, they had an idea: The Big Short. Their bold investment leads them into the dark underbelly of modern banking where they must question everyone and everything.

Release Date: December 11, 2015

Thoughts: It’s an interesting move that Paramount Pictures decided to release this heavy hitter smack dab in the midst of a busy holiday movie season. That means they think they have a winner on their hands in this true-life tale, a bit of counterprogramming to the more obvious Oscar bait flicks that are being readied for the end of the year. If I’m being honest (and I always am), I’m a bit exhausted with these corporate level endeavors about the failure of big business. Like the wearying The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short isn’t lacking in star-power thanks to producer and star Brad Pitt (World War Z) looping in the likes of Ryan Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), and Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace). Still, I desperately hope it has a snap, purpose, and isn’t just another showcase for big stars saying big things about big problems.

 

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Knight of Cups

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Synopsis: Unknown (and the trailer won’t help you)

Release Date: TBD 2015

Thoughts: Director Terrence Malick doesn’t play the Hollywood game so it’s interesting that his newest film seems quite focused on the California lifestyle of the Tinsel Town elite…or does it? It’s hard to say because plot details are scarce and any attempts at figuring out who Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace) is playing could provide you ample amount of head-scratching time. Though only Malick’s seventh feature film since 1973, his style is instantly recognizable and it’s intriguing to know that it was mostly improvised. People either love or hate Malick; there’s no halfway camp (hello, Tree of Life bashers!) but even in his most obtuse the man knows how to frame a scene to make ordinary images seem extraordinary. Co-starring Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Natalie Portman (Thor), Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment), Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby), and Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop).

The Silver Bullet ~ Exodus: Gods and Kings

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Synopsis: An account of Moses’ hand in leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt.

Release Date:  December 12, 2014

Thoughts:  After March’s Noah and the modest success of films like God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is For Real I’m thinking we’ll look back on 2014 as the year that studios got Biblical.  Coming in right under the wire this December will be Ridley Scott’s (Prometheus) take on the story of Moses as told in the book of Exodus.  With Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace) as the Red Sea parter himself and Joel Edgerton (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) as Pharaoh Ramses (his brother from another mother) joining Scott’s favorite alien hunter Sigourney Weaver (Working Girl), Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3), and Aaron Paul (Need for Speed) for some Egyptian action this looks more in line with the epics from the 50s and 60s.  Scott is certainly a competent filmmaker so hopes are high Exodus: Gods and Kings won’t make as quick a box office exit as Noah did earlier this year.

Movie Review ~ American Hustle

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A con man and his seductive British partner are forced to work for a wild FBI agent who pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.

Stars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Peña, Louis C.K., Robert DeNiro

Director: David O. Russell

Rated: R

Running Length: 138 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Maybe it’s because I saw American Hustle so close in time to seeing Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street that I can’t help thinking that Hustle was really just Scorsese-lite.   All the elements that make-up a classic Scorsese film are present and accounted for here.  You have the West Coast setting of wheelers and dealers all looking for a break no matter how small time it may be.  The familial and familiar relationship that law enforcement has with these crooked folk is grist for the mill of the scheme that screenwriters Russell and Eric Warren Singer lay out.  And you have all the loyalty-testing double crosses (both real and imaginary) that have populated many a Scorsese crime drama for the last four decades.

So why isn’t American Hustle better?  That’s the question I kept asking myself as the movie slogged along for nearly two and a half hours and it’s a question that was left unanswered by the time the credits rolled.  With a talented director who scored so well with 2012’s surprise hit Silver Linings Playbook, a starry and award ready cast gnashing their way through the material, and a mostly true story to pull from this should have been a much more entertaining film.  But it’s not and that’s just the cold hard truth.

There’s enough fault to go around so we’ll go through it step by step.

First off, though Russell has assembled a cast culled largely from his previous projects there’s something to be said about working with your friends because they are right for the roles and simply working with them to have them around for a few months of shooting.  Two of the actors present have won Oscars for working with Russell and another three have been nominated so it’s easy to see why they’d eagerly sign up for another round with Russell.

In the case of Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises), Russell has made the right choice with the actor once again falling whole hog into the character.  With his bloated stomach and comically nutso comb over system, Bale’s puffy Bronx-born hustler Irving is truly a sight to behold.  Though married with an adopted son, he becomes enamored with kindred spirit Sydney (Amy Adams, The Master, Man of Steel) and soon they’re partnered up in the bedroom and in a loan scam that makes them comfortable if not rich.  Bale was better in Out of the Furnace but this performance is nothing to shake a stick at, either.

Adams is a strong actress that seems to appear in no less than four films each year and while I salute her work ethic I’m wondering if she’s not spread perhaps a bit too thin.  The vixeny femme fatale doesn’t sit quite right with her and no amount of plunging necklines can change that.  Side note, Adams wears so many dresses day and night with a neckline that plunges past her navel that if her character needed to go into the witness protection program she’d only have to put on a turtleneck and she’d be incognito.  Her performance winds up feeling governed by great costumes, perfect hair, and a justifiably awful English lilt.  She’s much more effective in her supporting turn in Her, coming out in early January.

I had high hopes for Bradley Cooper after his dynamite turn in Silver Linings Playbook but he dashed those tidings with summer’s grotesque The Hangover Part III and doesn’t quite regain his footing here either.  There’s a lot of showboating going on and you can just feel Cooper’s desire to Brando-ize every single scene he’s in.  The acting reeks out of him, to borrow an oft-repeated phrase from the movie, ‘from the feet up.’

If the movie has a secret weapon it’s most certainly Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) as Bale’s immature wife.   Fresh off her Best Actress win for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence is way too young for the role but otherwise takes the movie by the balls whenever she’s onscreen which isn’t often enough.  Her wise acre grimace and towering head of hair ignites the film in ways that no one else is capable of doing.  Though the buzz is growing on her for an upset win for Best Supporting Actress, it doesn’t make the kind of lasting impression that she did last year but should earn her a place on the shortlist for a nomination.

Rounding out the cast is Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy, Marvel’s The Avengers) as the mayor of New Jersey who unwittingly gets sucked into the abscam scheme Cooper’s federal agent cooks up to catch crooked politicians.  Renner is fine in the role but I can’t for the life of me figure out why Russell casts his children with actors that look at least a decade older than Renner and his wife.  Louis C.K. (Blue Jasmine) is totally out of place as Cooper’s beleaguered superior, Michael Peña (End of Watch) turns up ever so briefly as a Mexican impersonating an Arabian sheik, and if Alessandro Nivola wasn’t doing a Christopher Walken impression in his role then I’ll eat my shoe.

The central plot scheme of the movie is your standard compilation of betrayal and criss-crossing double crosses.  Only in the final fifteen minutes or so does the movie start to resemble something of interest and by that time I was nearly slumped over in my seat.  Though the film has an admirable production design that deftly recreates New York in the late 70’s without being obnoxious and a soundtrack of era favorites, there’s a dullness that really overtakes everything.

This film has been greatly lauded and I just can’t see why.  As a fan of nearly everyone involved I wanted to like this and desperately tried to latch on to something, anything, that would allow me to recommend it to others.  It lands with a thud, though, and for that I have to suggest you temper your expectations if you choose to take it in theatrically.

Movie Review ~ Out of the Furnace

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Rodney Baze mysteriously disappears and law enforcement fails to follow through, his older brother, Russell, takes matters into his own hands to find justice.

Stars: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoë Saldana, Sam Shepard

Director: Scott Cooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: One could be forgiven if one missed the fact that the crime drama Out of the Furnace was released amongst the higher profile films this holiday season.  With so many choices up for consumption in our multiplexes it can be easy to miss these more character driven films that eschew mind numbing special effects in favor of honest performances that work their own kind of magic on an audience.

I myself almost missed the movie, nearly letting it slide to my “Watch at Home” pile that tends to get loaded up around this time of year.  Something drew me to the film, however, and I’m glad I made the effort because with stellar performances, crafty direction, and an overall ominous feeling of danger Out of the Furnace may just find itself on my shortlist for favorite films of 2013.

Christian Bale (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) proves again that he doesn’t need a batsuit or a big budget to show he’s a helluva good actor in his performance as Russell Baze.  A good natured man that keeps a watchful eye over his brother (Casey Affleck, ParaNorman, showing again that the Affleck Talent gets better with age), uncle (Sam Shepard, Mud) and his dying father, all while holding down a job in the town mill.  When a mistake puts Russell in prison for several years, he’s faced with finding new ground in his old life when he returns home.  What could have been another reworking of a tired plotline turns dark when Russell’s brother goes missing and he sets out to find the people responsible.

Don’t think that this is a variance on Death Wish, though, even if the look, feel, and performances seem to be plucked right out of the mid 70’s.  This is a character driven story written by Brad Ingelsby and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) that lets the actors do the heavy lifting in a script that’s relatively light on dialogue if you really sit down and think about it.

Along with Bale and Affleck’s rock solid performances, Woody Harrelson (The Hunger Games) makes for a frightening hick at the center of a ring of bare knuckle fighting and drugs.  Harrelson started out as a dim bulb light comic on Cheers and continues to produce diverse and interesting performances, refusing to be pigeon-holed in one genre.  I wasn’t sure about Willem Dafoe’s (John Carter) greasy loan shark at first, thinking that 10 years ago he would have played Harrelson’s role but something about his duck tailed hair and cheaply fancy clothing rang true.  Forrest Whitaker (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) seems a tad too old for his character but still manages to smooth things out thanks to his smartly restrained instincts.  If there’s a nitpick to pick, I’d say that everyone in the film seemed to be going for a whiskey soaked manner of speaking that came off feeling like everyone was trying to “out gravelly voice” each other.  Whitaker, in particular, sounds just this shade of producing a sound that appears to have originated near his belly button.

This is male heavy film with only Zoe Saldana (Star Trek: Into Darkness) as the lone female with a substantial role (I’d say there are about 4 small female speaking roles in the entire film).  In fact, the movie is so testosterone heavy that even the daintiest of ladies should bring their travel Nair with them in case they were to sprout a mustache during the films running length.

Cooper has assembled all these strong parts into a grim, gritty experience that’s aided by strong location shooting from cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook, The Grey) in a Pennsylvania industrial town and a moody score from Dickon Hinchliffe.  I don’t think Cooper needed an extra shot in the final moments of the film but aside from that the movie is edited to keep things moving without sacrificing the strong work the cast is putting forth.

So if you can find this one in theaters, know that the other blockbuster choices will still be waiting for you in a few weeks and try this one out instead.  Those who warm to smoldering dramas with a hard edge will find a reason to head into Cooper’s Furnace.

The Silver Bullet ~ American Hustle

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Synopsis: The story of a con artist and his partner in crime, who were forced to work with a federal agent to turn the tables on other cons, mobsters, and politicians – namely, the volatile mayor of impoverished Camden, New Jersey.

Release Date:  December 25, 2013

Thoughts: David O. Russell has been very, very good to his actors that are featured in his newest film.  Christian Bale and Amy Adams both were nominated for Oscars for 2010’s The Fighter with Bale (The Dark Knight Rises) walking away with an Oscar for his searing performance.  Same goes for recent Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) who starred with Bradley Cooper (The Hangover Part III) and Robert DeNiro (Being Flynn) in the critically lauded Silver Linings Playbook.  All five actors appear in American Hustle, a 70’s set crime drama that along with November’s 80’s set The Wolf of Wall Street indicate that the holidays are going retro.  Russell is an interesting filmmaker so I’m curious to see what kind of film he can craft from this material…it certainly looks like something right up his alley.