Birds of Prey And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Release: Friday, February 7, 2020

→Theater

Written by: Christina Hodson

Directed by: Cathy Yan

Above all else Birds of Prey And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is an expression of personality. It’s loud and ridiculous in almost every way, but it’s also really fun and that’s just enough for me to declare DC is off to a good start in the new decade.

Unlike several entries in DCEU’s troubled past the Harley Quinn standalone movie is an extremely colorful adventure. You might have heard it being described as the female Deadpool, and as far as style points are concerned that’s an accurate comparison (think lots of fourth-wall breaks, tape-rewinds and fruity language). Plot-wise I’d say this bears more resemblance to John Wick: Chapter 3Oddly enough the two movies actually do share stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski in common, who was called upon to punch up Birds of Prey‘s action bits.

A lively animated opening title sequence brings us up to speed on what’s going on in the world of Harley Quinn. When The Joker finally calls it quits on their relationship Harley (a.k.a. Harleen Quinzel, a.a.k.a. Margot Robbie) does what any normal person does and throws a pity party — an epic one. One that involves a radical haircut (sort of), adopting a pet hyena and driving an 18-wheeler into the Acme chemical plant, where she and Joker made their special little pact to be together 4eva. For her this is much-needed closure, until she realizes this has actually opened up new problems. See the thing is, all the years she’s been with Mr. J she’s basically been given carte blanche to do whatever to whomever. Now she’s “updated her status” in a very public way and soon Gotham’s finest scumbags are lining up to give the formerly untouchable Cupid of Crime her comeuppance.

At the top of the list of Harley haters is the obnoxious crime boss Roman Sionis, played by Ewan McGregor in the hammiest performance of his career. It’s pretty OTT but apparently effective because I sure ended up hating this evil carnival barker-looking mofo. And Chris Messina as well, who plays Victor Zsasz, Sionis’ right-hand man and possibly more besides, with a more realistic creepy menace. Sionis (a.k.a. Black Mask) imagines himself the next best thing to the Joker, ruling Gotham’s underworld with an iron fist and the best mercenary pals ill-gotten money can buy. He’s a misogynistic sleaze with whom the Bad Gurl has racked up an impressive list of grievances — including, but not limited to, having the balls to interrupt him one time mid-sentence. More inconveniently, more recently and more relevant to the plot (such that it is), she’s the one who crippled his driver, prompting Sionis to “promote” his nightclub singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to the position.

As far as that plot is concerned, Sionis/Black Mask is lusting after some precious diamond, inside which lies an encrypted key to the Bertinelli crime family fortune, who we see meet a grisly end in a brief flashback of some importance. The diamond just so happens to have fallen into the hands of Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), an orphaned girl and expert pickpocket. In an attempt to literally save face, Harley offers to recover it for Sionis. Knowing how much she likes a good fight the well-connected gangster sends every mutantly muscular mercenary in the metropolis after Cassandra, placing a half-million-dollar bounty on her head (ergo, John Wick 3 but with hair ties).

Though this is clearly the Margot Robbie show, Basco, the young Korean-Filipino actor playing Cassandra, does well to stand out in an ensemble of established talent. Her prickly personality makes for a difficult character to love but crucially her flaws make her human and give her room to grow (whether that’s into Batgirl, we shall see). For now, the way she brings out a softer side in Harley makes her more than a plot device linking the two main arcs. She also fits snugly under the film’s thematic umbrella. While the jaded teen is fighting for her physical freedom, each in this quintet are seeking emancipation of a kind, whether that’s Detective Montoya un-cuffing herself from a sexist work environment, Dinah Lance/Black Canary shaking the shackles of her greasy boss and his goons or Helena Bertinelli, a.k.a. Huntress (a disappointingly under-used Mary Elizabeth Winstead) channeling childhood trauma and a lot of anger into a new identity.

Birds of Prey is director Cathy Yan’s second feature film and her first major Hollywood production. She directs from a screenplay provided by Bumblebee scripter Christina Hodson who adapts characters from the comic originally created by Jordan Gorfinkel and Chuck Dixon in 1996. Together Yan and Hodson build a scrappy team-up movie about a collection of seemingly random individuals reluctantly united against a common enemy. Their story more closely resembles an obstacle course that characters must navigate rather than a focused, concept-driven narrative. While we get enough of a feel for the supporting characters to make the thawing of the ice around these relationships rewarding, it’s Robbie’s passionate portrayal that leaves a lasting impression. Her interactions with everyone else is what makes this movie uniquely entertaining. It’s not high art but I had a great time with it nonetheless.

She’s the class cut-up

Recommendation: Margot Robbie, Margot Robbie, Margot Robbie, Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Margot Robbie, Margot Robbie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 109 mins.

Quoted: “Do you know what a harlequin is? A harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master. No one gives two bleep-bloopers who we are beyond that.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed  written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

Release: Friday, July 26, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is among the biggest names in the biz today and in his ninth and apparently penultimate film he’s relying on clout more than ever to get mass audiences invested in something that he takes as seriously as Jules does Ezekiel 25:17 — and that’s cinematic history. Yawn if you must, but with QT you can safely assume you’re going to be getting something with a little personality. With Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood he’s reminding us of how great the Golden Age was, those good old days when original narratives and marquee names were actually worth a damn. More specifically, he’s harkening back to an era when creative collaboration meant even stunt doubles had a say in what would happen in a particular scene.

Sure, this grand paean to how it used to be is kind of predictable from a guy who rejected film school and yet still obsesses over just about every technical, romantic aspect of filmmaking — he’s one of those loud voices decrying digital projection and remember how he rolled out The Hateful Eight as a “roadshow” presentation, replete with intermission and everything? Hollywood is both his home and his Alma Mater, the place where he took in more films as a kid than any human being might reasonably be asked to view in a lifetime, constantly observing, absorbing, studying in his own way.

However, the way he carries out his long-gestating passion project proves a little less predictable. Dare I say it’s even . . . wholesome? Maybe I shouldn’t get too carried away.

In Once Upon a Time (the title an obvious homage to Italian director Sergio Leone, father of the so-called spaghetti western and a huge influence on Tarantino) he trades out buckets of blood for buckets of nostalgia. The surprisingly gentle, more meditative approach finds the gorehound putting the clamps on his violent tendencies, creating a more good-natured, less bloody affair that isn’t propelled by a single narrative objective as much as it is a mood, a feeling of uncertainty brought about by change. Indeed, Once Upon a Time is a different cinematic beast, chiefly in that it isn’t very beastly, not in comparison to his last three outings, a string of ultra-violent, in-your-face western/revenge thrillers beginning with the Nazi-slaying Inglourious Basterds (2008) and culminating in what is arguably his ugliest and most deliberately nasty The Hateful Eight (2015).

The timeline spans just a couple of days but a TRT that approaches three hours, coupled with extraordinary period-specific detail, make it feel like a tapestry that covers much more ground. Set in 1969, at the crusted edges of what was once Golden, the story mostly concerns the career tailspin of fictional TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as well as the relationship he shares with his stunt-double, driver and all-around gopher Cliff Booth (a briefly shirtless Brad Pitt — contractually obligated, I’m quite sure). Their friendship takes center stage as the two professionals are forced to negotiate rapid change. This was a time when people like Cliff had more creative input in productions, where actors and their doubles were attached at the hip working on multiple projects together. Today freelancing has opened up myriad opportunities, thereby eroding that closeness and this is just one aspect of the modern industry the filmmaker clearly laments.

I mentioned earlier how big a deal the name is. Nowhere is his status as Big Time Filmmaker more apparent than in the cast he is graced with here. It’s an embarrassment of riches Tarantino somehow manages to allocate just the right way. I just named DiCaprio and Pitt and that’s only two of the three principles. Famous faces are everywhere, in bit parts and in more extensive supporting roles. Australian rep Margot Robbie joins them in a tangential role as American tragicon Sharon Tate, who moves in next door to Rick on Cielo Drive with her famous director husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), setting up the much-talked about arc that puts a wholly unexpected spin on one of the darkest chapters to unfold in 1960s Tinseltown.

Elsewhere, Al Pacino plays a hot-shot agent named Marvin Schwarz (that’s SchWARz, by the way, not SchwarTZ) channelling — yes, still — Tony Montana. He’s here to present a gut-check for the sensitive actor, reaching out to Rick with an offer to take part in an Italian Western. Rick’s appreciative of Marv’s offer but outside his presence he’s inconsolable, confiding in Cliff that he believes this is a sign that his career is well and truly over. Cliff, however, would like him to reconsider, because hey, he’s Rick “f-word” Dalton, and Cliff can’t get any work until Rick does because of vicious rumors circulating the old mill about the stunt man having murdered his wife some years back. Ergo, we go to Italy, right?

Bruce Dern is in it briefly as George Spahn, the owner of Spahn Movie Ranch, the site where many westerns were once filmed, now overrun by a cult of hippies who turn out to be not exactly all about peace and love. While we’re at it, it isn’t just in the way he handles the Tate/Polanski angle where QT shows restraint (and paradoxically absolutely no mercy, if only toward those “damn hippies.”) A sidebar shows Cliff making a brief visit to the Ranch after dropping off a scantily clad hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and while he’s there he’d like to check in with his old friend and the now-blind owner to ensure he’s not being taken advantage of by these layabouts. It’s a scene pregnant with tension, a stand-off from a western wherein long, cold stares precipitate a sudden and brief outburst of violence. But Tarantino feels nothing but contempt for those brainwashed by Manson’s Helter Skelter bullshit, turning the tables on them and converting what should have been another grisly murder into something resembling a farce.

Then there are bit parts snatched up by the likes of “intrinsically 60s” Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator/Cliff’s former boss, and a highly entertaining Mike Moh doing a bold impression of famed martial arts actor Bruce Lee; Timothy Olyphant is a co-star on one of Rick’s late-career shows; Damon Harriman, for the second time this year plays Charles Manson (albeit in a cameo here while his other appearance was in the second season of Mindhunter — it must be those eyes); and Luke Perry in what turns out to be his final screen appearance (he passed away in March). Tarantino also makes a brilliant discovery in newcomer Julia Butters, who plays a precocious child actor who takes Rick to school in on-set professionalism. All of these characters add little considerations to the world Tarantino is reconstructing — resurrecting — and while some arcs leave more to be desired they each contribute something of value.

The pacing of the film no doubt languishes. It’s not his most action-packed film ever. In fact, save for that controversial house call, it’s his least. Yet because Tarantino is so obsessively compelled to detail environments and lives it might just be his most insightful. Not a scene feels wasted or unnecessary, maybe a little indulgent in length at times, but excisable — I’m not convinced. The rich mise en scène steals you away to a decade long since buried underneath modern multiplexes touting the latest CGI spectacles, and I particularly enjoyed the little meta moments he provides, such as clips from Dalton’s most popular gig Bounty Law, or when Robbie’s Tate decides to check out a matinee showing of her new movie The Wrecking Crew at the old Bruin Theatre — the latter a nod to QT himself attempting to check out True Romance (a movie which he wrote but did not direct) when he was a young pup.

All of these details add up to the very antithesis of the movie I had anticipated when it was first announced. Once Upon a Time is proof that you can indeed teach an old reservoir dog new tricks. Or, rather, Tarantino has taught himself some new tricks and empathy looks good on him. He’s successfully created a modern fairytale out of Old Hollywood. It’s a surprising movie, one full of surprising moves but still imbued with that irascible energy of his. It’s one hell of a good time.

Margot Robbie puts her best foot forward as Sharon Tate

Recommendation: It’s a film full of intrigue for those up for a little history lesson as far as the industry and some of the early ingredients that formed the QT soup are concerned, while reports of “less violence!” and “more sympathy!” can only be a good thing in terms of attracting a broader audience.

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Suicide Squad

'Suicide Squad' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 5, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: David Ayer

Directed by: David Ayer

Sigh.

Suicide Squad is neither a disaster nor a revelation. It’s just really, really uneventful and in that way, crushingly disappointing.

Let me grab a calculator and get back to you, because the math really doesn’t add up. I don’t quite know how you commit the cardinal sin of moviemaking with this cast, these characters, and this competent a director. When considering the myriad ways in which this utterly routine action adventure manages to bore and underwhelm, the difference between what we might have imagined and what we ultimately get kind of becomes this scintillating mystery. What the hell happened here? What could this have actually been? (In fairness, it could have been worse.) Would Suicide Squad have been better off with a less restrictive MPAA rating?

It’s been some time since so much potential has been squandered this efficiently. This callously. Not since this 2013 debacle have I left a theater feeling so utterly deflated and unmotivated to stand in line for another event picture anytime soon. The main culprit is an exceptionally shoddy story, one seemingly cobbled together by crayon-wielding first graders. It’s shocking Ayer turns out to be that first grader. He kicks things off with brief introductions to the cadre of miscreants before randomly launching into a perfunctory doomsday plot involving Midway City and some bullshit concerning Cara Delevingne-shaped meta-humans drenched in bad CGI. From the word ‘go’ the production reeks of unpreparedness, disorganization, even chaos.

Hashtag awkward. Hashtag clumsy. Hashtag done-with-this-summer-of-movies.

In the beginning everyone’s hanging out at the famed Belle Reve Penitentiary, doing hard time for various crimes. The first two we immediately recognize to be our ringleaders: Will Smith‘s Floyd Lawton, a.k.a. Deadshot, is seen getting his punching bag on (in preparation for that big action scene later!) and Margot Robbie‘s gleefully unhinged Harley Quinn, formerly known as psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel, inhabits her super-secure steel cage like a PG-13-friendly Hannibal Lecter. We meet the others as well but for insultingly brief periods, time enough I guess to prove the film’s disinterest in the ‘Squad’ part of its title. There’s the pyrokinetic ex-gangster Chato Santano, a.k.a. El Diablo  (Jay Hernandez); a boomerang-wielding guy named . . . Boomerang (Jai Courtney); a surly man with a scaly skin condition who dwells in city sewers, appropriately called Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). They’re joined also by a mercenary named Slipknot (Adam Beach) and Japanese warrior Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

Our little ruffians are kept under the thumb of intelligence operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), an antihero of a different breed with her considerable lack of compassion and morally-dubious methods of wielding governmental power. She’s a high-ranking official who will do whatever it takes to prevent World War Three from breaking out. Or something like that. Anyway, she’s a pretty bad egg whose motives become increasingly suspect, a trend that neatly paralleled my own suspicions. Waller enlists the help of Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinneman) to keep all her disposable, criminal pee-ons in line. When Flagg reads them the riot act that’s our cue to get ready for action. Hooray — it’s the Suicide Squad and now shit is going down!

Only, nothing does. With writing that lacks inspiration or a strong reference point — or any point, period — getting excited becomes an unreasonable challenge. The bleakness of the world in which this non-drama occurs bleeds over into the experience itself, but bleakness is less of an issue. I say let this thing be dour — this isn’t Marvel. But along with that bleakness comes the joylessness. With joylessness, a sense of aimlessness. Few of the members of Suicide Squad are stoked about undertaking a mission that will very likely get them killed, and if random gunfire doesn’t do it a frustrated Waller will if they so happen to fail or step out of line. That psychology may ring true to the comics but the cast wear their broken hearts on their sleeves a bit too much while, ironically, no one outside of Robbie’s freewheeling Harley and Jared Leto’s not-half-bad Joker seem to have that same muscle invested in any of this.

As the movie shuffles begrudgingly onward, alarming amounts of material fail to materialize, leaving Ayer’s efforts to introduce this infamously savage group to the world-at-large to disintegrate like used toilet paper. Unconvincing sob stories are stapled on to a few characters who lurk in the background behind Deadshot and Harley Quinn, but this isn’t enough to justify an excess of shots designed to show why this idea should work. (Here’s a radical 21st Century concept: show, don’t tell.) All those precious moments going to waste watching the film’s most interesting character (by far) out-act her colleagues might have been better spent doing something else. Something other than trying to convince us that the movie knows what it is doing with such damaged cargo.

With all of that in mind, damages really come down to a (granted, rather large) misjudgment of plot substance, and a lack of personality to give us a reason to get over that issue. The DCEU’s Guardians of the Galaxy this is not. Even still, there are some really great performances to take away, namely those of the volatile core of Robbie, Smith, Davis and Leto. The former seem to be heating up since their days working on Focus, while the latter have some fun tossing a shitload of ham around. Davis overshoots her goal of becoming the film’s Surprisingly Evil Element while Leto lets out his inner psycho in a turn that recalls vintage Jack Nicholson while wisely skimping on Heath Ledger inflections.

The Suicide Squad Joker is actually really good. He’s a nasty son of a bitch and his twisted romantic subplot with Harley Quinn is the most compelling. Too bad Leto’s commitment is virtually all for naught. As has been widely reported, many of his scenes were cut. Leto’s response to a question concerning his lack of screen time late in the film is especially damning. Even he wants to know what the Joker was doing for so long without visual confirmation of his scheming ways. His absence is microcosmic of a larger problem. I’m not sure anyone, not even the studio, rumored to have played a hand in production delays and re-shoots, knew what kind of gem they were holding in their hands.

Suicide Squad is not a bad film but it is frustratingly mediocre and that’s enough to drive me crazy.

Jared Leto as the new Joker in 'Suicide Squad'

Recommendation: Suicide Squad suffers from a lack of plot mechanization. What is the purpose? Why are we here? Why can’t the story be about something more interesting? For the longest time, the story never seems to be going anywhere. The pacing is choppier than damn it and not much of David Ayer’s directorial touch can be found here (ya know, other than the hordes of heavily armed, well-built people parading around a war-zone). I don’t really know what to say, other than this film basically sums up the year we have had so far when it comes to big event pictures. Mostly disappointment. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “Love your perfume! What is that, Stench of Death?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.variety.com 

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot' movie poster

Release: Wednesday, March 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Robert Carlock

Directed by: Glenn Ficarra; John Requa

The civilian translation of this film’s odd title applies to this strange concoction in more ways than I’m sure the filmmakers intended. I left the picture feeling more confused about American relations with the Middle East than I did entering it. Perhaps that’s the point? There’s also the pressing question of what Tina Fey is doing in a war film (oh, that’s right — this is a war comedy).

The latter is the lesser issue, as it is interesting seeing the former SNL Weekend Update star (and in this reviewer’s opinion, Amy Poehler’s better half) adapting to more serious material. Fey disciplines herself enough to seem 75% believable as Kim Barker, a TV producer (in reality she was a writer for the Chicago Tribune) who one day decides to volunteer as a war correspondent in Afghanistan in an effort to induce some excitement into her otherwise monotonous life. In New York. I’ll pause now to let you ponder the irony of that sentiment. In effect she becomes one of an elite few female embedded reporters in the region, often putting herself in harm’s way to get video footage she hopes will sell back in the States.

The 25% that does not work so well manifests as a combination of Fey’s inexperience in the genre and the film’s complete lack of focus. Schizophrenically it oscillates from championing 21st Century notions of ’embracing the suck’ and ‘living in the moment’ to somberly reminding the viewer of the devastating effects of war. A graphic scene towards the end feels like a clip from an altogether different movie as we watch a convoy fall victim to a short-range missile attack. When she’s not out in the field Fey’s still-adjusting-Barker is avoiding sexual advances from her international colleagues as well as a randy Afghan politician played for some reason by Alfred Molina. As she navigates her own personal minefield, soldiers are elsewhere in the background, maneuvering around actual ones. It’s an odd experience.

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa adapt Barker’s memoir ‘The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.’ In it, Barker assumed a humorous tone as she relayed the oftentimes clunky process of assimilating to a part of the world where sanitation is a major issue, women have alarmingly few rights and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) litter the arid landscape. The story is fundamentally about orienting one’s self in an entirely disorienting environment but it also contends with a variety of other issues that play upon the psyche such as the presence (or lack thereof) of female reporters in this field — Australian correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) rounds out the numbers here — and how those who have had a lot of exposure to this kind of reality begin to view it as a normal routine, a psychological state not even Barker is immune to.

The assignment originally called for a three-month stay in Kabul. As she continues building her portfolio — candid interviews with soldiers voicing their opinion on the effectiveness of Operation Enduring Freedom; a chat with Afghan women who tampered with an American-installed water well in their village because they preferred to walk to the river as it offered them an opportunity to socialize with one another — Barker finds it increasingly more difficult to leave, to dispense with the chaos. (Plus, the parties in Kabul seem really, really fun.)

Generally speaking this is a sympathetic and optimistic portrait of the American presence in the Middle East. It offers viewers a closer look at the realities facing troops in one of the most hostile regions on earth while filtering it through the perspective of an inexperienced female reporter from Manhattan. It’s all too easy to make judgments about Barker’s presence — Billy Bob Thornton’s gruff General Hollanek immediately takes a disliking to her given her choice of brightly-colored travel luggage — but one of the advantages of the film hop-skip-and-jumping around its many themes is that we don’t spend much time focusing on the negatives.

However that’s one of the few advantages. More often than not WTF fails to settle into a comfortable rhythm, its meandering plot stringing together a series of skits without having much of a unifier to hold it all together. Fey is meant to be that element but the film spends so much time trying to address all of these societal issues she gets lost in the (Taliban) shuffle. Additionally, strange casting choices distract — the aforementioned Molina as a high-profile politician actually works fairly well once you get used to seeing the man in this setting and the Connecticut-born Christopher Abbott as Fahim, a friendly local Barker manages to bond with quickly. There are other questionable strategies that attempt to pull the focus back to Barker, though I’m unsure if forcing a potential romantic interest in the form of Martin Freeman’s Scottish reporter Iain MacKelpie was the best way to do it.

All in all, you could endure worse missions than Fey sticking out like a sore thumb in a film that has a difficult time finding its identity. There is quite a lot wrong with the production, there’s no denying it. The film has something to say but it’s such a shame it can’t express itself as clearly as it needs to.

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 9.00.46 PM

Recommendation: Though Whiskey Tango Foxtrot never devolves into a SNAFU, it should still provide a more potent watch than what results given its ability to put us right there in the moment but for what it’s worth, Tina Fey makes up for a lot even though she’s out of her element here. The experience is certainly one you will remember but perhaps not always for the right reasons. Should make for a good rental if nothing else.

Rated: R

Running Time: 112 mins.

Quoted: “Oh, that sucks. That sucks for women.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Big Short

The Big Short movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 23, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Adam McKay; Charles Randolph 

Directed by: Adam McKay

When it was announced Adam McKay would be putting his comedic muse Will Ferrell in time out so he could make a film not only steeped in but specifically commenting on the 2008 financial crisis (and the events that precipitated it), I knew there could only be two possible outcomes.

This was boom or bust. The Big Short was either going to be an exciting new direction for the guy who gave us a NASCAR driver with two first names and the Channel 4 News Team    . . . or it was going to be an unbearable misfire, proving the limitations of a director who likes to keep things casual.

It turns out I was wrong. There was actually a third option, a middle ground — the dreaded ‘it was just okay’ territory where you’re not sure whether what you’ve just watched is something you’re going to care about by the time you get to your car. But The Big Short lingers in the mind for at least that long because you just can’t shake the weirdness. It is a weird experience; I mean, really weird. Not in a Rocky Horror Picture Show or Guillermo Del Toro kind of way, where weirdness is beneficial, even a signature.

It’s a film in which weirdness is just off-putting. Events are rooted very much in dramatic realism but tonally McKay prefers going for that whole meta ‘breaking the fourth wall’ thing that made Scorsese’s commentary on the wealth of Wall Street a couple of years ago oh so much fun. He douses character dialogue and interaction with an arrogance that would make Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby proud. And, okay, even Jordan Belfort. Key players are more caricatures than characters and they’re this way because McKay doesn’t want to be lecturing audiences with characters who aren’t fun and in that way, relatable.

It’s a film where strippers lament having to pay multiple mortgages and Ryan Gosling can almost pull off the fake tan and hairstyle á la Bradley Cooper in American Hustle. Christian Bale doesn’t have the gut or the really bad wig this time around though.

Working from a script written by Charles Randolph and himself, one based upon Michael Lewis’ 2010 book of the same name, McKay zeroes in on three groups of finance geeks who predict the destabilization and eventual collapse of the national and global economy several years in advance, paying special attention to the precarious state of subprime mortgage loans. The borrowing of money was an issue further compounded by big banks’ frivolous selling of what are known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), ways of bundling together poor loans in a package those banks would sell to their investors as a way of transferring any responsibility of debt repayment.

Those key players probably could use some sort of introduction. There’s the eccentric Dr. Michael Burry (Bale) who is first seen in the film doing his homework on the health of the housing market in 2005. He’s the guy who realizes he too could profit immensely off of the blindness (or is it just ignorance?) of suits who don’t realize how faulty their investments actually are. He also doesn’t wear shoes in his office and blares loud music whenever he’s crunching numbers.

Sometime later a slithery, opportunistic investor named Jared Vennett (Gosling) catches wind of Burry’s idea and, realizing just how right he is, wants in. Vennett smells blood in the water and taps stock traders like Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to join in on the action. Carell colors Baum as a self-righteous, idealistic man who’s cynical so far beyond his years the question has to be asked: what are you still doing here on Wall Street? His wife Cynthia (Marisa Tomei) repeatedly tells him he shouldn’t try to fix every problem in the world. Baum experiences a crisis of conscience when he realizes how much money there is to be made off of the greedy bankers’ investments, and also realizing the parallels between that reality and the white collar crimes that have been perpetrated to create this entire mess.

There are also two young hot shots who discover the credit bubble and are eager to gain from it. Otherwise . . . it’s back to living at home with mom! Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are seeking a way to establish their own names so they enlist the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) — this is the wizened old fool who has been sickened by corporate greed and has sworn off of the trade — to help them short up (a.k.a. buy bonds cheap now to sell them for profit later) several high profile accounts.

I know, doesn’t this movie sound like so much fun? It is a credit to McKay and his entire crew that The Big Short maintains any semblance of energy whatsoever, as the story becomes far more bogged down by industry jargon than by the emotions this still raw subject matter is liable to generate in viewers.

Setting aside the inherent complexities of the story, The Big Short is just too much. It’s information overload, and on top of that it’s a whole lot of opinion flying in from all directions. Gosling’s character is entirely condescending and annoying — even more so than the dictionary definitions we must read occasionally on screen (McKay knows most people would be lost without them). Carell is a nervous wreck who challenges his own Michael Scott for most grating characters he’s ever played. Performances are otherwise, for the most part, not all that notable.

Somewhere buried deep inside this hodgepodge of statistics, dramatic license and comedic interplay there is genius. McKay embraces a challenging story with confidence that can’t be ignored, but just as unavoidable is the fact his dramedy is about as strange a concoction as I had presumed it would be, what with a cast that it is essentially split 50-50 in terms of comedic and dramatic talent. If you want to talk about big bailouts, The Big Short definitely benefits from its high-profile personnel.

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Recommendation: An odd and mostly unsatisfying blend of comedy and dramatic realism, The Big Short could very well divide the Adam McKay faithful as it doesn’t quite offer the memorably quotable scripts from times past, but it does suggest the man can do more than just provide a couple of comedians a line-o-rama for 90-plus minutes. Fact-based story is ultimately bogged down by jargon and dizzying editing that makes the whole thing kind of a headache. Disappointing. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 130 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife’s brother arrested.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is strictly prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Focus

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Release: Friday, February 27, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Glenn Ficarra; John Requa

Directed by: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

The scent of expensive colognes and perfumes robbing the theater of breathable air undoubtedly seduced me into thinking the new Will Smith movie was better than it really is.

To focus on the negatives in a film that is this much fun is to largely ignore the art of the con, though. As Smith’s Nicky Spurgeon explains nonchalantly, deceit is created by drawing attention away from the action and centering it around something that, at the time, seems significant. That sentiment so easily can backfire in a film that plays it so casually like this one does; in a film that twists and turns until the very last minute, leaving the less hypnotized to question whether the directing tandem actually have an answer to it all or if they’re just making this up on the spot.

Again, logic matters less when compared to sheer entertainment value. The Fresh Prince seems refreshed playing a middle-aged male model alongside the rapidly rising young Margot Robbie, herself representative of Australian beauty. With a pair like this front-and-center, can I please be forgiven for temporarily writing this off as a 90-minute advertisement for Glamour or Vanity Fair? Magazines are indeed falling to the wayside in an industry hell-bent on revolutionizing itself, so why shouldn’t they try their hand in repackaging themselves in celluloid form? This is a great-looking cast enveloped by exotic locations and expensive, even if not believably costly situations. Toss in the audience-supplied bottle of Chanel No. 5, and voila.

Focus comes down to a complicated con between a world-weary pro and his apparent understudy, a pair who have up until the film’s final third been playing chess with one another’s wit and checkmating when it comes to unforced sexual tension. They meet in a night club where Jess (Margot Robbie) attempts to pull one over on Nicky, but is spurned by his advanced skill set. From there it’s a matter of one-upmanship between the pair as they fall into an ambiguous (er, or is that underdeveloped?) romance. Not that the feeling of mutual attraction is to be doubted but the intent behind the attraction sort of is. However, nothing is as apparent as Nicky’s love for the assorted fruits of the rich life, as evidenced in an exceptionally exciting sequence during the Super Bowl in New Orleans. The scene functions to expose Nicky’s true character: he has a major problem with saying no to exceeding what’s already excessive. It’s microcosmic of the trickery that lays ahead of us.

Will Smith hasn’t played a character this engaging since the days when he proudly sat upon a crashed alien craft and, chiefing on a Cuban, greeted its extraterrestrial operator with that famous smile of his and a sarcastic “welcome to Earth.” Nicky Spurgeon is often a lunatic but a calculating lunatic and his ‘partner’ in crime, while perhaps not evenly-matched in terms of recklessness, certainly is with her steely-eyed intensity. And I might be biased, but she’s also better-looking. Robbie is sweet on the outside but internally there burns a desire to settle an unwritten score, to take whatever it is that Nicky has and make it her own.

Scams range from casual pickpocketing to betting millions on the jersey number assigned to a random player on the sidelines during the aforementioned big football game, to tricking an Australian racing club owner into purchasing a bogus piece of equipment for three million Euro in order to allow another team, owned by the shady Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), the win. But when you think you’ve figured it all out, the script — and this really would have been easier to predict if I was focused on said plot and not on Jess’ revealing wardrobe — flips the dynamic between the two grifters, leaving us to wonder if there is to be an actual winner and a loser and whether it’s just going to be money lost in the exchange.

There is also a final reveal that comes close to burning Focus‘s reputation for being a non-stop joy ride. It’s one twist too many, one cliché too many and one development that’s nowhere near as delusory as the directors would have us believe given the convoluted network of scams and heists we patiently have sat through. Regardless of the risk involved in the long con, it’s not enough to dissolve the chemistry between Smith and Robbie. The two work from a pretty hastily-written screenplay and yet bubble over with charm and a natural ease with one another. Plus it’s just a lot of fun to see them screw over people deserving of it.

Focus isn’t a film to think about, unless of course your goal is to make your brain hurt from failed attempts at rationalizing plot holes that render the story as swiss cheese. It’ll make you think, but don’t con yourself. It’s a fun getaway but not much more. Not that it needed to be.

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3-0Recommendation: With more twists than a Coney Island roller coaster, this glamorous little romp starts to lose focus (or effectiveness, either way you want to look at it) over time but the performances and high spirit are too great to bring the ride to a grinding halt. A perfectly acceptable Saturday night diversion for anyone looking to see Will Smith back to form and Margot Robbie for another solid lead performance. Theatrical attendance not required, unless you just want to choke on perfume. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “Where are the black people?!”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Wolf of Wall Street

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Release: Christmas Day 2013

[Theater]

Hand over the ‘ludes, dude, and no one gets hurt!

One of this generation’s most gifted actors teams up once again with the legendary Marty Scorsese with the hopes of stirring up yet another potent cocktail — this time, a film set in the 1980s in the immediate wake of the stock market crash, with Leo playing the part of the profusely wealthy and ambitious Jordan Belfort. With a collection of powerful films already fading in their rearview (The Departed, Shutter Island, The Aviator), this dynamic duo of actor-director is found in 2013 wanting to steer in a slightly different direction — into the neighborhood of genuine comedy and away from the effective but familiar drama.

Leo may be pushing forty but you’d never guess it based on this role. Scorsese’s latest sees him binging on cocaine, alcohol and pills in amounts and in situations that make National Lampoon’s Animal House look like study hall. If blowing coke off strippers and swallowing pills the size of walnuts were his job, he’d be the. . .oh, who am I kidding?! It WAS his job. The job description of a 1980s stock broker at Stratton-Oakmont might have read something like: “Drug addict, womanizer, thief/cheater/manipulator, with a burning desire to out-nasty and out-live the next greedy son-of-a-bitch in line.”

Indeed, Jordan’s first impressions of life on Wall Street fit that profile to a T. As he’s being brought in for his first day at his first brokerage firm, the notion that employees (like him) are “lower than pond scum” is flaunted by the higher-ups; the high-pressure intensity gets drilled into his head as a sergeant would intimidate a fresh set of boot camp trainees. As one might imagine, this particularly cut-throat industry doesn’t allow for a great amount of respect and decency amongst colleagues.

Scorsese and DiCaprio take that concept and run wild with it, conjuring up scene-after-scene of unbridled debauchery and mouth-watering imagery that will cause many viewers to question whether this is a mirror of reality or simply a visual predilection toward the young, rich and powerful.

While it may seem that Leo et al are getting high off of the fact that they are playing characters living in the fast lane, the real impact of this gargantuan (read: party) movie comes from the director’s ability to remain relatively neutral towards the subject. While DiCaprio pulls a Heath Ledger Joker as he dives headfirst into this substantially nasty role — one which audiences are likely to be at least temporarily enamored by — Scorsese is hard at work behind the camera, making sure that this elegant portrayal is captured in raw detail. Not only that, but, contrary to some of the events that go on here, he’s taking great pains to ensure that his characters are very much still grounded in the real world. This outing may not appear to be as dark and brooding as some of his other works, but then again, the misleadingly upbeat and comedic tone is rather intentional.

Also on board to help with Scorsese’s ambitious film is an ensemble cast threatening to erase the memory of what David O. Russell, Lee Daniels, Steve McQueen and heck, why not — even Ridley Scott — had going on for them in each of their respective 2013 efforts. For starters, Jonah Hill — who plays Jordan’s right-hand man, the greasy and hauntingly white-teeth-possessing Donnie Azoff — steps his game up notably in a supporting role that’s likely to garner him an Oscar nom. While he still holds onto many of the spasmodic breakdowns and childish rants that have characterized his on-screen persona over the last decade, the material this time around boosts him to another level entirely. Put up against a man of Leo’s stature, and Hill is not overshadowed like a great many are going to presume he will be.

Then start throwing in the likes of Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Jon Favreau, Jean Dejurdin and Margot Robbie and the party seems to naturally take on the life Scorsese was probably seeking prior to principal photography. The best news of all is that not only does the cast look phenomenal, it turns in work that essentially gives birth to the hectic pace of this film. McConaughey’s Mark Hanna, one of the first Wall Street heavyweights that a young and then-naïve Jordan Belfort runs into at his first place of employment, is primarily responsible for awakening the beast that dwelled within this handsome, upstart stockbroker. He’s not quite as striking as he has been this year in things like Mud and the recent Dallas Buyers Club, but he suits the moment perfectly and in limited screen time winds up leaving one of the greater impressions upon Jordan’s future and thus the film.

The Wolf is a film where first impressions are pretty important, but what lurks underneath the surface is far more significant. It doesn’t appear to be a brutal film, as it quickly gathers a vibrant, giddy and at times hilarious energy from the very opening shot; yet, the sum totality of the experience is brutal. Brutality manifests itself in the physical as much as it does in the verbal. It would probably be the most accurate usage of the phrase “handsome devil” to describe Leo’s character in this film, because in many instances, that’s just what he is: the devil. What he says and does sometimes is simply unforgivable and at other times, even unthinkable. Ditto that for Donnie Azoff, though he’s not as likely to sucker-punch his own wife in the stomach.

To put it simply, The Wolf is going to go down as one of the most divergent undertakings Marty has ever been a part of — an avenue that is likely to pay off come the Oscars. At the very least, it’s one of (if not) the largest and most intelligently and fervently crafted pieces of the year. The fact that it passes by with the brevity of a 90-minute flick says something about the talent behind the camera as well as that of those who are put in front of it. Not to mention, the brilliant writing of one Terence Winter, who’s responsible for episodes of The Sopranos as well as Boardwalk Empire.

I’m already going through post-movie withdrawal. . .will someone pass the damn ‘ludes already?!

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4-5Recommendation: The Wolf of Wall Street offers up so many reasons for why we go to the movies. It’s not only an absurd amount of fun, there’s a fascinating yet troubling story to be told, as well as beautiful people, fantastic performances and a host of gorgeous locations to feast the eyes upon. Scorsese has been in the film business for awhile and yet, for whatever it’s worth, this is a sign that the man is not done yet. Not even close. Despite the lengthy run time, most audiences should find something they will love about this masterpiece.

Rated: R (for rude and risqué)

Running Time: 179 mins.

Quoted:  “I’ll tell you what, I’m never eating at Benihana again. I don’t care whose birthday it is.”

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