Archive | December, 2015

The Big Short

25 Dec

The 2008 economic meltdown, that mega-shitstorm triggered by avarice, complacency and cronyism that left the taxpaying public with a mop and bucket even as many lost their homes and jobs, was no laughing matter, but it gets a sharp-witted rewind anyway in Adam McKay’s “The Big Short.”

122415i The Big ShortBack in 2010, Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job” made a point of big money’s deep connections to the White House, regulatory agencies and academia. Who ran Capital Hill didn’t matter; red and blue allegiances were irrelevant as long as the talk on the table was about more green. McKay’s “Short” homes in on the gamblers who profited from that giant economic sucking sound, those who were alert to the rigging of the system and rampant neglect and, in the end, opted to hedge it. You could call them visionaries or vultures and both would be true; the film, however, paints them as more accidental heroes, opportunists and scientists who saw the sky falling and, when no one took them too seriously, put their money where their mouth was.

McKay’s best known for the “Anchorman” comedies, so tackling serious material from author Michael Lewis (the guy responsible for “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side”) about the inner workings of complex financial instruments might seem like a stretch. But McKay’s sense of satire and lightness in the face of darkness pays off nicely – not always mind you, but enough, and it helps tremendously that he’s blessed with an A-list ensemble who clearly went deep in preparation for their roles. Continue reading

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The Hateful Eight

24 Dec

Samuel L. Jackson in "The Hateful Eight." (Courtesy Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company)

What’s ultimately served up is Tarantino channeling Tarantino with men of swagger caught in a mean situation waxing about righteousness and the universe in pulpy poetic verse as tensions rise. It’s what you’d expect and hope for in a Tarantino film, but by the edgy auteur’s barometer (he’s helmed eight movies to date), it’s a lesser cut.

What holds “Eight” in check mostly is its overindulgence, lack of nuance and the fact Q.T. has been to every corner of this room before — and I don’t mean “Four Rooms.” From “Kill Bill, Volume I” onward, Tarantino’s been busy reshaping the revenge flick while paying homage the quirky genres of the ‘70s, namely the cheesy b-roll (“Kill Bill” and “Grindhouse”), the Spaghetti Western (“Django Unchained”) and the chopsocky silliness of kung fu flicks re-cut with lethal seriousness for the “Kill Bill” series.  Continue reading

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

20 Dec

The resurrection of the cherished franchise that defined blockbuster and captured the imagination of generations owes much to Michael J. Fox – tags more apt than “The Force Awakens” could be “Family Ties” or “Back to the Future.” It’s a game go by J.J. Abrams, who rebooted the “Star Trek” franchise with aplomb, and here systematically atones for the missteps creator George Lucas made with his prequel trilogy. Gone are the mass millions of digitized droid warriors and CGI-rendered spectacles such as Jar Jar Binks. Thanks to some tireless plot weaving by Abrams and cowriters Lawrence Kasdan (who penned the best of all the “Star Wars” to date, “The Empire Strikes Back”) and Michael Arndt (“Little Miss Sunshine”), the old-school magic and wonderment is back in the galaxy, because they’ve worked in Han Solo (a refreshed Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), now General Leia. Even the notion of Luke Skywalker floats out there, but all that comes in pieces carefully littered throughout, and pleasingly so.

121615i The Force AwakensLike the first theatrically released chapter back in 1977, we begin on a dusty, barren planet – this one called Jakku, and more junkyard than outpost. Time-wise we’re about 30 years out from “Return of the Jedi,” and a Resistance fighter (Oscar Isaac, showing some comic flair) and his beeping beach ball of a droid (the adorable BB-8, who’s been getting all the prerelease press) possess a secret hologram map to deliver to Resistance HQ. The info will allegedly guide the holder to Skywalker so the object of the title can be achieved and the Evil Empire – now known as the First Order – can be weakened and its tyrannical chains cast off. But before any of that happens Jakku is assailed by Imperial Stormtroopers, and BB-8 and the map fall in with a scrappy scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley, showing the resolve of Katniss Everdeen) who’s pretty good at hand-to-hand and has a mysterious childhood that spills back to her in ghostly shards.  Continue reading

Macbeth

12 Dec

The ambitions of Justin Kurzel are similar to – and misguided like – the protagonist of his cinematic retelling of “Macbeth.” Best known for “The Snowtown Murders” (2011), a bloody coming-of-age drama based on true events, Kurzel seeks to ascend to a throne held by Welles, Polanski and Kurosawa, and he guts the bard to do it.

121115i MacbethThat’s not to say “Macbeth” is all a mess. It offers a rapturous staging of the battle of Ellon, righteous in its fury, and boasts two of the best and most interesting actors working in film today, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. But Fassbender, so alive with spit and rage in “12 Years a Slave,” feels muted here, lacking the enunciating articulation that Kenneth Branagh rebranded as the standard when as a young man he ingeniously resurrected “Henry V” in 1989. There’s a dull detachment that one could attribute to the amount of blood spilled at Ellon. The three scribes (a scribe for every witch) who adapt Shakespeare’s timeless tale of tragedy, avarice and madness (Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie) imbue Macbeth with a son, who is gone before he even speaks during the opening carnage.

Perhaps this is the reason for the man’s descent into madness, which somehow becomes twisted into a paranoid ascent to the kingship of Scotland? It’s a novel idea that doesn’t get played out thoroughly enough, as much of the film falls into a bloody stupor with Fassbender looking far away and Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth, wide-eyed and teary, not quite driven by the blood guilt and insanity tradition has mandated. The film finds its liveliness mostly as Macbeth’s adversaries plot to undo him and the cruel murderous doings he does – burning a family at the stake or gutting his long trusted ally, Duncan (David Thewlis) with extreme prejudice – spurs their thirst for revenge.

For all the slick film-school craft Kurzel layer into the project, it’s sad that the bard’s snappy poetic language is unceremoniously culled. It’s there in pen, but falls limp from the tongue, sotto voce at times. Clearly Kurosawa, transposing the tragedy to feudal Japan with “Throne of Blood” (1957), took artistic liberties, but he had Shakespeare in his bones (he adapted several other of the bard’s plays to his samurai setting). Here, the merriment and rage conveyed in word is lost, and the tortured soul driven by prophecy and hubris feels less like it’s portraying a timeless human condition and more like an Enron plot to drive revenue.