Movie Reviews - 2015 postsFriday January 08, 2016
Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
What’s your favorite moment? Mine is the lightsaber lying in the snow and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) trying to beckon it with the Force, and struggling, and confused by the struggling, but finally the lightsaber breaks free and flies towards him—and, whoops, past him—and into the hand of Rey (Daisy Ridley), who stares at it in wonder, and then takes up the Jedi pose as the music wells. I had tears in my eyes after that.
And I knew it was going to happen. That’s the thing. It was totally telegraphed. But still. Tears.
A lot of the movie was totally telegraphed. Certainly (and again, please accept this spoiler alert) the death of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) at the hands of his son, Kylo Ren, on the walkway over the giant chasm in the heart of the Starkiller Base, which is like the Death Star to the 100th power, as all of the principle characters, and I mean all of them, Chewie and Rey and Finn (John Boyega), watch in horror. That scene did nothing for me. Although, I have to admit, after Han is cut by the lightsaber but before he falls forever into the void, I liked it when he caresses his son’s cheek. It’s not only a tender gesture but a kind of exquisite revenge. Kylo, after all, is fighting to stay on the dark side, and, for him, love hurts. “I want to be free of this pain,” he says, right before he sticks it in. So Han, in a way, sticks it back.
But most of my favorite moments in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” involve Rey. Ridley lights up the screen with the force of her face, and the humanity in it. I think I’ve got a crush.
Here’s the problem everyone’s identified: She’s a bit of a quick study. What’s the first time we see Luke Skywalker summon anything with the power of the Force? Is it his lightsaber in the snow, as he hangs upside down in the wampa’s cave in “The Empire Strikes Back”? That’s after how much training and how many months/years? Rey, she does it after, what, a day or two? And with no training? And with a Jedi master also trying to summon it away from her? But I get why Disney and writer-director J.J. Abrams went this route. Our attention spans are shorter than they were a long time ago, in movie theaters far, far away.
Rey of New Hope
So Rey is the key to it all. She’s the awakening of the title, the ray of hope, the big question mark. “Who’s the girl?” they keep asking in the movie. “Yeah, who is she?” we keep asking after the movie. Is she a Skywalker? Luke’s daughter? Probably not. If I had to guess, I’d guess Kenobi. She avoids detection in the Starkiller Base the way Obi-wan did in the Death Star.
Here’s what we know about her:
- She’s a scavenger on the desert planet Jakku.
- Apparently she was abandoned there as a child, and she’s been living hand-to-mouth ever since.
- At the same time, she wants/needs to go back to Jakku, because she feels ... her family is coming back? Is that right? So is she deluded or far-seeing? Deluded, I think. I think that’s why Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) later tells her, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, it’s ahead.”
I do hope there’s not much of a connection to the Skywalkers. The “Star Wars” universe collapses in on itself way too often; way too many roads lead back to Anakin. I’d rather this one didn’t. Plus, if it was Luke, then he was the one who abandoned her. Which would be a total dick move.
Instead, he simply abandons the galaxy. First he saves it (in “The Return of the Jedi”); then, at some point, he trains young Jedis/Padowans but Kylo Ren, son of Han and Leia, turns to the Dark Side, like his grandfather (Darth Vader, yo), and slaughters the rest of the students. We see a flash of the massacre when Rey touches Luke’s lightsaber in Maz’s cantina basement. This is why Luke leaves to a distant part of the galaxy. And that’s why the Empire strikes back (this time as the “First Order”), and we get our oppressive regime again along with our embattled underdogs again. It’s as if the Ewoks never danced.
So it’s odd that Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), this movie’s Emperor, is desperate to find the map to Luke, hidden in the droid BB8. “If Skywalker returns,” he says, “a new Jedi will rise.” Really? Didn’t he already try that? And didn’t it lead to a massacre? So what are you afraid of?
But that’s the plot device that drives the movie, and, yeah, the movie is similar to “Star Wars IV: A New Hope.” Way similar. Intel is hidden in a droid (BB8), who winds up on a desert planet and is befriended by an orphan who is powerful in the Force (Rey), along with a dude who keeps trying to get away from the Rebellion even as he keeps returning to it (Finn). We’ve seen this story before. There’s just so many similarities it’s not worth going into.
It’s also not the first time J.J. Abrams has copied off of George Lucas’ paper (see: “Star Trek” in 2009). Not to mention Steven Spielberg’s (see: “Super 8” in 2011). Do you know “Direct the movie you want to see”? Well, Abrams directs the movies he wanted to see when he was 13.
So why does it work?
One word: personality. The new characters are fun, and the actors who play them exude charm and humanity. Plus the dialogue works. Imagine that: the dialogue. In a Star Wars movie. Take that, prequels!
Finn tries to lead Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) off the First Order’s ship.
Finn (sotto voce): OK, stay calm, stay calm.
Poe: I am calm.
Finn: I’m talking to myself.
Han to Chewie on an ice planet: Oh really, you’re cold?
Finn to Capt. Phasma: I’m in charge! I’m in charge!
Han: Bring it down.
But you know who gets short shrift here? Leia. Again.
After “Jedi,” anyone with a mind went, “Wait, weren’t they twins? So why is it all about Luke? Why is Leia in a bikini and chained to Jabba the Hutt when she too has the power of the Force?” Rey, in this movie, is a way to restore some (gender) balance to the Force. Which she does. But Leia still gets short shrift. She’s a general now, rather than a mere princess, but what does she really do? Has a few scenes with Han. Nags him a bit. About their son. Even this is wrong. Somehow it’s up to Han to turn Kylo Ren around when it’s from Leia that he inherited the Force, and it’s Leia’s father he’s obsessed with. So why doesn’t she go after him? Probably because we’d rather see Han/Harrison in action than Leia/Carrie. But from their perspective it makes no sense.
I’ll still take it. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is what the Star Wars universe is supposed to be: fun. We get desert planets, forest planets, ice planets, water planets. The good guys win, the bad guys stay in power (for the next movie), and my man Luke makes an appearance at the 11th hour and 59th minute. Better, they give us new blood: Rey and Finn and BB8 and Poe, and you’re confident these guys will carry the mantle. You hope the filmmakers realize that. You hope the sequels won’t be so derivative. You hope Abrams and Disney know that the belonging we seek is not behind us, it’s ahead.
Movie Review: The Big Short (2015)
“The Big Short” is the important, eat-your-vegetables movie that goes down like an ice cream sundae. It’s got big stars, zips, is fun. It shows us Margot Robbie in a bathtub, talking directly to the camera and using the word “fuck.” True, the actual quote is “Now fuck off,” but feel free to extrapolate.
It also concerns one of the most earthshaking events in our lifetime: the global financial meltdown of 2007-08. Before the closing title credits we get some of the numbers: $5 trillion lost, 8 million jobs lost, 6 million homes lost. And that’s just in America. So why did it happen?
For more than a decade, easy money was made (in mortgage-backed securities) in a way that seemed risk-free, so the powers-that-be kept upping the ante until it was no longer risk-free. Until it sank the world economy.
It also happened because regulation was nowhere. Regulation (in the form of the SEC and ratings agencies, such as Moody’s and S&P) was in bed with Wall Street. Sometimes literally, as the movie suggests.
It also happened because you and I let it happen; because we’re perpetually distracted.
Country club/stripper club
There’s a great early line about Lewis Ranieri, a bond trader with Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment firm, in the 1980s:
He changed your life more than Michael Jordan, the iPod and YouTube put together.
This is how things used to work. Banks loaned you money for a house, you paid it back with interest, end of story. Wall Street wasn’t interested because each mortgage was small potatoes and required too much work to figure out the risk-factor of the individual homeowner. It was Ranieri’s genius to take a bunch of mortgages, cut them up, and bundle them together as mortgage-backed securities, which minimized risk and turned small potatoes into big ones. Suddenly, bankers went from the country club to the stripper club, and your mortgage was no longer held by the bank but by ... I don’t even really know. I guess the investment firm? No, the investors? Apologies in advance if/when I use the incorrect nomenclature. I’m sure, throughout, I’ll be talking about this stuff like someone talking up the number of “points” a baseball team scores.
But I understand this much: Because there was risk-free money to be made, the banks kept expanding to whom they would loan money, and the terms of those loans; and in the end we got subprime mortgages.
We get a sense of that expansion when Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and his hedge-fund team travel to Florida in 2005 to investigate whether they should short (bet against) the housing market. They meet an exotic dancer who owns/is flipping five houses, and two douchebag brokers making a killing by selling homes to people who can’t afford them. Our hedge-fund guys also meet the future: neighborhoods abandoned by people unable to pay their mortgages when the adjustable rates go up.
“The Big Short” follows four main storylines:
- Michael Burry M.D. (Christian Bale), whose lack of social skills is offset by his math skills. He sees the looming disaster first when the internet bust of 2001 doesn’t correlate to a dip in Silicon Valley housing prices; in fact, they go up.
- Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who follows Burry’s coattails from inside Wall Street but can’t get many others to sign on. Conventional wisdom says a bet against the housing market is a sucker’s bet.
- Mark Baum’s team, which gets involved because of: 1) a wrong number; 2) Baum’s desire to stick it to Wall Street.
- Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock): Two Colorado garage hedge-fund guys who follow Burry’s lead, and, with a reluctant neighbor/mentor, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), try to cash in.
Bale is wonderfully off, Gosling a sharp sword. Carrell is grasping, empathetic and the movie’s moral center, while Pitt shows us a quieter morality. He’s a man who left Wall Street long ago; he’s trying to cleanse himself. Behind the bushy beard and longish hair, Pitt barely moves a facial muscle; he acts with his eyes. He sees the looming disaster and knows it’s a double-edged sword. They all do. They know that in sticking it to Wall Street, everyone suffers.
There’s a nice early scene when Burry visits Goldman Sachs, and lets the suits in the conference room know he wants to bet against the real estate market by buying credit default swaps. $5 million? they suggest. $100 million, he answers. They can’t believe their luck. As he leaves, you see them all laughing and high-fiving one another. Then he goes to Deutsche Bank and others and does the same. He winds up betting against the housing market to the tune of $1.3 billion.
Here’s the question the movie doesn’t answer: How much did these credit default swaps, and subsequent ones, help sink the system? I.e., how less bad would it have been if these guys hadn’t gotten skin in the game?
Writer-director Adam McKay, mostly known for Will Ferrell comedies (“Talladega Nights,” “The Other Guys,” “Anchorman”), keeps us both entertained and informed. He intercuts with relevant quotes (“It ain’t what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” – Mark Twain), and cuts away from the action to have stars (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain) explain the more complicated details of the financial system. Characters constantly break the fourth wall, particularly Gosling’s Vennett.
I could’ve done without the star interludes, to be honest. Robbie in a bathtub was more distracting than informative, and having Selena Gomez, all of 23, explain CDOs was just annoying.
But the script, written with Charles Randolph (“The Interpreter”), from the book by Michael Lewis, is super sharp:
- “It’s like 2+2 = fish.”
- “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I'll have my wife's brother arrested.”
- “The truth is like poetry, and most people hate poetry.”
I thrilled at the intelligence of this movie. I can see myself watching it again and again.
One of my favorite exchanges is during the Florida trip, when the douchebag brokers keep talking up the dupes to whom they sell subprime mortgages. Baum, confused, talks sotto voce with his team:
Baum: I don't get it. Why are they confessing?
Moses: They're not confessing.
Collins: They're bragging.
In America, every braggart is confessing; you just need to listen.
Movie Review: Entourage (2015)
This is the first line we hear. It comes from Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon), as the boys of the title (Drama, E, Turtle) are taking a speed boat to a yacht, where movie star Vince (Adrian Grenier) is partying with bikini-clad and/or topless starlets:
I may have to jerk it before we even get there!
Believe it or not, that's as classy as it gets. That's its high point in class.
Last summer, “Entourage” got slammed for being horribly misogynistic—for showing slinky women humping stars and their hangers on without showing them as fully developed characters—but it’s actually worse than that. Because the more we see of a woman, the worse she is.
Take the tribulations of E (Kevin Connolly). Please. Longtime girlfriend Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is pregnant with his child, but she broke it off with him for sleeping with ... I forget. Some relation. In the past. Anyway, he’s now humping some blonde starlet (Sabina Gadecki), who texts him, “I want your cock”; but then she breaks it off with him a minute later. I forget why. That night, he meets a nice brunette and bangs her in Turtle’s room. The next day, just as Sloan is saying she’s ready to make it work again, Blondie texts him that she’s pregnant. Oops. At the restaurant where they’re supposed to meet, Brunette shows up and confesses she’s got an STD. Oops again.
Punchline? They’re roommates, and messing with him because he had the temerity to sleep with both of them on the same day: Blondie in the morning when they were dating, and Brunette 12 hours later after Blondie broke up with him. They’re getting back at E for ... um ... what exactly?
Meanwhile, the better female characters from the TV show—Ari’s wife, Shauna, Dana Gordon—are given zilch to do.
The main plot point is Vince’s latest movie, “Hyde,” which he’s also directing. So far, he’s spent $100 million but needs more. So the moneyman, Texas yahoo Larsen McCredle (Billy Bob Thornton), sends his yahoo-er son, Travis (Haley Joel Osment), to LA to see if it’s worth it. He says it’s not. He says Johnny, who has a supporting role, has to go; then he says Vince has to go. His recommendation, in other words, is to throw away the star of the film and eat the $100 million and start over. That’s like getting rid of Johnny Depp in a Johnny Depp movie. Why would he ever suggest such a thing? Because, it turns out, Vince is schtupping Emily Ratajkowski, the girl from the “Blurred Lines” video, and Travis wants to bone her, too.
So our boys win by meeting someone even douchier than they are.
God, maybe this thing is even more insulting to men.
“Hyde,” of course, winds up critically acclaimed, grosses $450 worldwide, and Drama wins a Golden Globe for best supporting actor. At the podium he shouts “Victory!” his catchphrase from “Viking Quest,” the bad 1990s-era TV show he starred in. That’s our merciful end.
“Entourage,” in contrast, was critically maligned (20% from top critics on RT) and died at the box office ($32 mil, despite debuting in more than 3,000 theaters). In terms of TV adaptations, if you adjust for inflation, it’s 66th out of 84, behind such humdingers as “My Favorite Martian,” “The Nude Bomb” and “A Very Brady Sequel.’
Here’s the bright side.
One, Turtle is always wearing a Yankees cap, so it’s nice to associate those bastards with this shitty movie.
Two, the people here, the stars and players of L.A., are so shallow and pointless that it may help us take at least one step toward curing our long, international, nightmarish obsession with celebrity.
Three, the ride is most assuredly over.
Movie Review: In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
After it’s over, when we’re back in Nantucket, 1821, the merchants that sent the men of the Essex out to sea in search of whale oil are about to hold an inquiry into its sinking; and the two men who were at odds for much of the voyage, Capt. George Pollard (Benjamin Walker, reminding me of a young Colin Firth) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, AKA Thor), are asked to lie. They’re asked to lie twice, actually. The merchants want them to lie about the cannibalism for obvious reasons, but they also want them to lie about the white whale. Don’t say at the edge of the earth there’s a monster that sinks ships. That would be ... bad for business.
Chase, who would have been captain of the Essex if not for his lowly birth, and who is offered a captaincy if only he’ll go along with this plan, is stunned that they don’t want to hear the truth; and he admonishes the men who, in his words, want to “whitewash the truth for profit.” And he walks out the door and into another life.
In the audience, long fed up with the film, I thought, “Hey, that’s a good description of Hollywood, isn’t it? We whitewash the truth for profit.” But movies do this a lot: chastise characters for doing the very thing the movies do. I should make a list.
That said, Ron Howard, who’s directed some very good movies (“Splash,” “Parenthood,” “Apollo 13,” “The Missing”), and screenwriter Charles Leavitt, who’s written one (“Blood Diamond”; otherwise, it’s “K-PAX,” “The Express,” and the like), do attempt some kind of verisimilitude. They go places most mainstream movies won’t; they attempt to remind us how long ago 1820 was in terms of attitudes about class.
I just wish it worked better.
Stuck at sea
It’s an odd mix of storytelling methods:
- It sprawls like a 19th century novel.
- It looks at times, like a 1940s film. Some of the shots gave me the same vibe I got with Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse”: like the director was trying to imitate John Ford.
- It includes the unpalatable truths of a post-Hays code film.
- Plus CGI whales.
The movie focuses on the main characters (which is good) but they’re not interesting characters (which is bad). Pollard has a line to Chase near the end: “You were born to do this job, I was just born into it.” But it comes too late; and it’s obvious to us from the get-go.
I admire that Howard refrains from demonizing Pollard and making a hero of Chase; unfortunately, in his restraint, he makes them both rather unlikeable. So we’re stuck at sea with two unlikeable characters, along with a host of others who look interesting but don’t have much to do. Cillian Murphy is on board as Matthew Joy; and he seems an early version of an alcoholic, but to what end? Does it matter if he picks up the bottle again? There’s a fucking white whale out there, remember. Frank Dillane does a good job as Henry Coffin, nephew to Pollard, and thus more privileged than the other men, while Joseph Mawle’s Benjamin looks like a seafaring man from the 19th century. Glancing at Mawle’s CV, in fact, one wonders if he ever gets out of that century. But his character isn’t given much to do, either.
Or The Whale
Here’s the framing device: The last survivor of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson in 1850, Tom Holland in the 1810s), tells the story to Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw), who will, of course, use it to write the great American novel, “Moby Dick.” So occasionally we cut back to this pair: interrupting the story for the storytellers. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s necessary. (No matter what they told you in writing class, kids, cannibalism is better told than shown.) But we don’t get much of a sense of the younger Nickerson. He’s like the other crewmembers: just younger and greener.
It was fun when the whale showed up. I was like, “Hey, this is a revenge flick!” But it’s a revenge flick that focuses on the bad guys, whom we’re somehow supposed to somehow care about. I didn't.
Bad title, too.
Movie Review: Sicario (2015)
We get quiet interludes throughout, otherworldly, overhead shots that make the desert landscape around the U.S.-Mexican border seem like the moon. It seems like another world. Which it is. That’s the point that director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (everything) seem to be making. That’s what FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is finding out. She’s not in Kansas anymore.
Kate is our eyes and ears here. She’s our main character, the most important person to the story—or so we assume in the beginning. But “Sicario” is good at upending tropes. We may, for example, be learning everything along with Kate, and rooting for her, but she’s not the most important person to the story. You could argue she’s not even our main character.
You could argue she’s the least important person to the story.
In the dark
The movie opens in Chandler, Ariz., as an FBI SWAT team, led by Kate and Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), crash through the wall of a bleached-out house in their armor-plated HUMVEE, sending sprawling a Mexican dude watching TV. For a second you think, “Wow, that’s excessive.” Then Kate and Reggie are shot at. They discover bodies in the wall, 41 total, heads wrapped in smeared, bloodied plastic. In a shed out back, an IED is tripped and two officers die. It’s a warning from the filmmakers: our notion of “excessive” will keep changing.
In a conference room, we meet Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the man heading a task force to take down cartel leader Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino). Wearing flip flops, Matt sizes up Kate and Reggie and ultimately opts to put Kate on his team. He seems pleased with her background and gumption. Too pleased? There’s something off about his reaction. He seems effusive and dismissive at the same time.
So Kate goes from the smartest in the class to the dumbest, with the teacher showing no interest in helping her catch up. Why is she there? What’s her purpose? Who’s running things anyway? DOD? CIA? The men around her are Delta Force, brawny, bearded combat veterans who share a history, a shorthand, a breezy, ball-busting attitude. The two outsiders are Kate and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a quiet Columbian who has nightmares, cold eyes, and a tragic past.
The first op is an incursion into Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, to extract Diaz’s brother, Guillermo (Edgar Arreola), from prison. The team has a fleet of black SUVs and cooperation from the Juarez police—as much as it can be trusted. Juarez, we find, is virtually lawless. Mutilated bodies hang from overpasses and sporadic automatic weapons fire is heard in the distance. The difficulty with the extradition, Kate is told, is on the way back, at the border-crossing; and indeed, instead of the clear path they’ve been given throughout, they’re stuck in traffic on the bridge. Everyone’s suddenly alert, wary. A gunfight breaks out, but we never really know if the gangbangers were gunning for Matt’s team or each other. We remain, like Kate, in the dark.
She’s interested in process, in building a case, and objects to Matt’s extralegal methods. Guillermo is tortured by Alejandro, laundered money is seized, a corrupt American cop beaten. “This is the future, Kate,” Matt says to her. At one point, he and Reggie have this exchange:
Reggie (to Kate): You OK?
Matt: She’s alright.
Reggie: I didn’t ask you.
Matt: And yet I answered.
What’s Matt’s goal? To make enough noise on the U.S. side so Diaz will go see his boss on the Mexican side. “Then we’ll know where his boss is,” he says.
But it’s more than He’s playing the long game. He’s doing with the drug trade what we did in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in ’54 and Chile in ’73.
In the beginning, we’re told that “sicario” means hitman in Mexico, so throughout we’re wondering who the title character is. Kate? Or the Mexican cop with the wife and kid and drinking problem that we keep cutting back to? Do their paths cross? Does he take her out or she him?
Neither. It’s after a tunnel between Mexico and the U.S. is found (so much for your giant wall, Mr. Trump), during an op in the dark with night goggles, that all of our tropes are upended.
Kate and Reggie, bringing up the rear, exchange gunfire with a narco, and Kate takes him down. She’s pissed. You finally feel she’s fed up and taking control of a chaotic, lawless situation. On the Mexican side, she finds Alejandro with a gun on our Mexican cop, who’s delivering drugs, and she yells at Alejandro, “Move away from him right now!”
And Alejandro shoots her in the chest.
She’s wearing body armor so she doesn’t die. But as he stands over her, he says, with a modicum of heat, “Don’t ever point a weapon at me again.” Then he moves forward with Silvio to take out the cartel leader, while she returns to the U.S., where the rest of the team is waiting. In her anger, she attacks Matt.
And he decks her.
That’s when we get the rest of the story.
Why is she along? Because any CIA operation on U.S. soil needs FBI cover. What is the mission? To send Alejandro through the tunnel to get the leader of the cartel, who killed his wife and daughter. He’s the sicario. More, he’s part of the Medellin cartel that held power in the early 1990s. The CIA is working with him to restore the Columbians to power, so they can return some sense of order to the border. It’s “providing a measure of order that we can control,” Matt says. It regime change.
And Kate? Our hero? She’s a dupe, a stooge. There’s hardly a moment in the movie where she’s not out of her element. She goes into the bank when she shouldn’t, takes home a local corrupt cop who tries to kill her, and winds up signing an exonerating paper for the CIA at gunpoint. “You look like a little girl when you’re scared,” Alejandro tells her at the end. He urges her to leave the area. “You are not a wolf. And this is the land of wolves now.”
“Sicario” is a stunning movie: visually, dramatically, ethically. How true is it? I’m sure liberties were taken. The larger truth is about how thin our veneer of civilization is, and how brutal things can be—and are, somewhere, right now. Most movies are wish-fulfillment fantasy. We leave the theater thinking we’re stronger, braver, better-looking than we are. Not here. I left thinking I was like Kate, and the world was full of wolves.