There are tough choices to be made as a trio of interesting films are opening in a cineplex near you. I’ll see and review at least one of the follow:
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood–
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Seeing the impending collapse of the housing market, hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) creates a fund that bets against the massive mortgage funds sold by the biggest banks called a credit default swap market. Believing they will rack up huge fees and never have to pay off his investment, many major banks agree to the fund. Meanwhile, investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears about Burry’s fund and begins finding his own investors for the credit swap market. A chance wrong number phone call catches the interest of stock trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and he invests millions with Vennett. Two young investors, Jamie Shipley and Charlie Geller (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock), see a prospectus for Vennett’s fund and approach friend and retired trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them get in on the growing market betting on the failure of mortgage funds. Through greed, manipulation and lax regulation, the American economy and millions of home owners, retirees and small investors were about to lose trillions of dollars while a select few were reaping huge profits from their misfortune.
“The Big Short” is not a film for someone with a short attention span. The labyrinthine collection of funds, abbreviations and acronyms for various packaged mortgage debt is dizzying but essential to having a grasp on what’s going on in the film and why it led to the meltdown of the world economy. Director/co-writer Adam McKay (best known for his work with Will Ferrell) and writer Charles Randolph have done their best to explain what happened in the simplest terms and using Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez as themselves explaining the more complicated concepts directly to the camera in ways the audience can understand. It is a brilliant way to take a hugely complex issue and turn it into somewhat understandable nuggets with humor and a fair amount of rage.
The main cast is broken up into three segments with Bale’s Burry starting things off by figuring out the mortgage market was a house of cards with a time bomb ticking away at its base. Gosling and Carell get involved once the debt market is opened. Magaro, Wittrock and Pitt bring up the rear. While the three groups never interact, they are all dancing in the same financial ballet. The entire cast is pretty brilliant with Gosling and Bale delivering standout performances. Gosling is a slimy Wall Street investor with a slick pitch, spray tan and an utter disdain for his assistants. He berates them when they say anything during his sales pitch. He’s the boss from Hell that still manages to inspire loyalty. Bale has probably the most difficult role as he plays Michael Burry as if he was on the autism spectrum. In the film, Burry displays obsessive behavior, often staying up for days at a time, working in his office with loud heavy metal music playing through speakers or in his earbuds. His ability to focus on the intricacies of subprime mortgages and wade through mountains of reports allows him to see what others cannot. Bale makes subtle decisions with the character that keep Burry from turning into some kind of “Rain Man” caricature. While Burry clearly is wired differently from most others he doesn’t come off as someone who is completely out of place.
If there is any part of “The Big Short” that struck me wrong it was Steve Carell’s Mark Baum. Due to a personal tragedy, Baum is a constant ball of anger and frustration who can’t keep his opinion to himself. He has an investment firm with three other people and works directly with one of the major banks. It seems unlikely he could keep any of these business arrangements considering how quickly he flies off the handle. Carell does the best he can with the part and despite my finding his character grating, Baum is still one of the more sympathetic figures in the movie as his frustration at the impending collapse is based on his revulsion at how the system is so thoroughly corrupt; however, that doesn’t stop him from profiting from the suffering of others. Carell is also wearing an odd wig that looks like it doesn’t quite fit. I found his hair to be a distraction.
“The Big Short” is rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity. There are two scenes involving strippers. Foul language is common throughout the film.
Much like a liquid medicine that has a flavor added so your first impression is pleasant then once you swallow the bitterness causes you to shiver, “The Big Short” wraps its message of utter contempt for the banking industry and those who oversee it in a humorous package. There are some decent laugh-out-loud moments in the film. Once you reach the end, that shiver begins to run down your back as you realize the sins of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s are probably being committed again as you read this. There’s a saying about learning from history otherwise we are doomed to repeat it, making “The Big Short” required viewing for anyone with a mortgage.
“The Big Short” gets four stars out of five.
The Hateful Eight
Eight people are waiting out a blizzard at a store/way station called Minnie’s Haberdashery in the mountains of Wyoming in the late 1800’s. John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a bounty hunter who has Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) manacled to his wrist. She is on her way to Red Rock to be hanged. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is also a bounty hunter with three dead outlaws strapped to the top of a stagecoach he was sharing with Ruth and Domergue. Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) was picked up walking through the snow by that same stage coach. He claims his horse broke its leg as he was riding to Red Rock to be sworn in as sheriff but both Ruth and Warren have their doubts about his story due to his family history. Arriving at the store to wait out the storm, they find Oswoldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who identifies himself as the hangman for the territory, Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy on his way to visit his mother for the holidays, General Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Confederate general who is on his way to visit his son’s grave, and Bob (Demian Bichir), the Mexican handyman who is watching the store for the Minnie and her husband Sweet Dave while they go visit family on the other side of the mountain. Ruth is not the trusting type and suspects one or more of the people at the store are working with Daisy to kill him and set her free. Despite his reservations, Ruth enters an agreement with Warren working together to make sure Daisy meets her maker at the end of a rope.
I saw the much hyped 70mm version of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” The things you won’t get in the regular version that will play in most theatres is an overture before the film, some alternate versions of some scenes due to the way they will look on smaller screens and an intermission. What you may miss most is the intermission as even the shorter cut is still two hours and 47 minutes. “The Hateful Eight” is filled with beautiful scenery, long tracking shots of characters crossing the one large room in which most of the action takes place and buckets of blood with chunks of flesh added for realism. It is an orgy of set and costume design as well as special effects provided by Greg Nicotero, the man behind the zombies of “The Walking Dead.” And despite all the cursing and racial epithets, the script is something akin to poetry as Tarantino has structured each bit of dialog to be like a verse of a song, providing both information and entertainment. We learn a great deal about most of the characters in “The Hateful Eight” and often times we are taught in a humorous way. And, as with all Tarantino films, there are homages to the westerns of the past that shaped the director’s vision in his youth and, of course, he uses a soundtrack done by Ennio Morricone, the man behind the music for Spaghetti western auteur Sergio Leone. This is probably the most “Quentin Tarantino” movie the director has ever made. Why then was I not that impressed.
Probably the biggest issue was the length. At just over three hours (overture and intermission included), “The Hateful Eight” is a film that takes its sweet time getting moving. Early on we get long views of snow-covered mountains and trees. There is a shot of a statue depicting Christ on the cross that agonizingly slowly pulls out to show us a stagecoach approaching the camera (this includes the opening credits but it still felt leaden). Later, there long dialog scenes that last an eternity. While I praised the script earlier, there are a lot of scenes that are unnecessarily long with Tarantino showing off how he can make his characters say awful things to one another, so much so that after a while it fails to have much impact.
The ending of the film I also found disappointing. After investing one-eighth of a day in watching these characters dance around each other and then endure an orgy of blood and viscera, the movie staggers to a conclusion that fails to deliver any kind of meaningful emotional payoff. It lays there like a fish out of water, the life slowly oozing from it as it gasps for a last breath. Tarantino asks a great deal from his audience in “The Hateful Eight” and he puts on, for the most part, quite a show; however, when he should have put forth his best effort, he seems to have done just barely enough to get to the closing credits. It’s like being on a plane for 18 hours thinking when you land you’ll be on the other side of the world but finding out you’ve just been circling your home airport. You’ve spent an awfully long time traveling but discover it really wasn’t worth the trip.
“The Hateful Eight” is rated R for strong bloody violence, some graphic nudity, language and violent sexual content. It’s a Tarantino film so the bloody violence is a given. I won’t give specifics as not to spoil it for you but there are numerous shootings with various degrees of bloodiness and goriness. Some limbs get separated from bodies at times as well as one head. One character is punched numerous times producing a great deal of blood. There is a scene showing a naked man walking through snow and there is full frontal nudity. A sex act is shown and graphically described. Foul language is common.
Tarantino has been interviewed numerous times in the run-up to the release of “The Hateful Eight” and has described in glowing terms how much better film is than digital photography. In the past, Tarantino has called digital projection “TV in public.” Having seen this film in 70mm widescreen, I would point out to the director I could see the graininess of the film. The print I saw already had nicks and scratches in it during what was only its fifth screening. Using a lens that hasn’t been on a camera since Charlton Heston’s “Ben Hur” was filmed is great for nostalgia but doesn’t really do anything to advance the art of filmmaking.
Tarantino loves old movies so much he bought a theatre in Los Angeles, CA and programs only the films he thinks should be seen and remembered. That’s great if you’re a rich director and need a hobby. As a moviegoer, I want directors to push the envelope and use all the tools science and industry gives them to create images and stories I’ve never seen before. While “The Hateful Eight” is a beautifully shot and impeccably designed movie, it lacks an emotional connection that Tarantino should be a master at creating by now. His desire to show just how good of a moviemaker he is has gotten in the way of connecting his story to his audience. It was nice to look at but I didn’t want to live there.
“The Hateful Eight” gets three stars out of five.
No new movies are opening this week so it will be two weeks when I review my next film and that is the horror movie, “The Forest.”
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From a Biblical hero to a legend of comedy, this week’s movies run the gamut. In one, God is a central character while the other features no references to God at all. Each has their merits and one is far more uplifting than the other.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Moses (Christian Bale) grows up in the palace of Seti (John Turturro), Egypt’s Pharaoh, along with Seti’s son Ramses (Joel Edgerton). Moses and Ramses are cousins but have grown up together as close as brothers. Seti’s seer reads the entrails of a goat and sees a new leader emerging as one hero saves the life of another hero. This concerns Ramses as he and Moses are about to go to war with the Hittite army camped at their boarder. During the fight, Moses saves Ramses life. Seti wants Rameses to go to the slave labor camp and investigate conditions there. Moses offers to go in his place as inspecting a slave camp is beneath the future leader of Egypt. During his visit, Moses notices the overseer of the camp, Viceroy Hegep (Ben Mendelsohn), is living in luxury fit for a king and warns Hegep he may be arrested for stealing from the Pharaoh. During his inspection of the camp, he meets with the leadership of the enslaved Hebrews. One of them, Nun (Ben Kingsley), pushes Moses to the point of anger. He later gets a note to Moses to meet him at his home. Curious, Moses shows up and Nun tells him the true story of his birth, his being put in the basket and set adrift in the river and the sister of the Pharaoh finding him and raising him as her own. Two spies also hear the story and pass it along to Hegep. Sometime later, Seti dies and Rameses becomes Pharaoh. Hegep then approaches Ramses and tells him the story. Ramses threatens to cut the arm off of Moses’s nanny who is actually his sister and Moses admits the story is true. Moses is then sent into exile in the wilderness where he stumbles upon a village and meets Zipporah (Maria Valverde) and her father. Moses becomes a member of the community and marries Zipporah. The couple has a child and Moses settles into the life of a husband, father and sheepherder. One night, three sheep begin running up the nearby mountain. Moses chases after them despite being told God forbids anyone from climbing the mountain. A storm breaks out and causes a mud and rockslide, burying Moses up to his face. While buried, he sees a young boy named Malak (Isaac Andrews) standing in front of a bush burning with a blue flame but not being consumed by the fire. Malak is wise beyond his years and Moses realizes it is God. Malak tells Moses he needs to go back and free the Hebrews. Telling Zipporah of this, she thinks he was hallucinating due to his injuries. Moses heads back to the city despite Zipporah and his son’s objections and begins an insurrection, training the Hebrews how to fight, with the goal of setting his people free.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” takes some liberties with the biblical tale on which it is based. Some events are truncated, others are excised all together and still more are created out of whole cloth. If you approach the film as a reverent retelling of the Bible story or a modernization of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic “The Ten Commandments” you’ll be sorely disappointed. Much of the approximately 140 minute running time is spent looking at the scenery of Spain where much of the film was shot and Joel Edgerton wearing too much eyeliner. The film only really comes alive during the opening battle scene, the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. Much of this is thanks to the talented computer artists who made the crocodiles that attack every boat on the Nile and each other to turn the water to blood, who created the hordes of lice, flies, frogs and locusts, and who caused the massive hail storm that batters the ancient city. Otherwise, the movie is a bit of a dull slog with the power struggle between Moses and Ramses about as interesting as watching a modern political debate.
The combination of overly stretched story and dull dialog makes “Exodus: Gods and Kings” rather emotionless. While the production hits many of the expected story points and takes an interesting look at God’s and Moses’ conversations, it does so with such a detached point of view that it makes the film feel more like an uninteresting documentary. Forgive my personal injection of opinion but these films should engender wonder and awe in the audience. While the movie is visually stunning much of the time it never actually stuns the heart. Filmmaker Ridley Scott seems to be satisfied to let the audience create their own warm feelings about the characters and the story and doesn’t sense a requirement to crank up the wonder factor. The parting of the Red Sea is impressive, especially when it comes crashing back on the Egyptian army, but everything before and after that does nothing to excite our souls. I’m not looking for a film that causes a revival to break out in the theatre. I’m just looking for something that stirs the soul and takes advantage of what should have been an uplifting story. “Exodus: Gods and Kings” doesn’t do that.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is rated PG-13 for violence including battle sequences and intense images. The opening battle scene shows people and horses being shot with arrows. There are also numerous stabbings with swords but none of it is gory. There are many dead animals in various states or decay in the film. We see numerous lambs slaughtered but again, it isn’t gory. We get a look at a piece of goat entrails but it looks more like a chicken liver. One of the plagues is boils and that is somewhat gross. There are no language issues.
The recent crop of Biblical or faith-based movies has been a mixed bag of quality. “Son of God,” while reverent, looked cheap and smacked of an effort to cash in on the success of the History Channel special from which it was edited. “Noah” turned the reluctant shipbuilder into something of a psychopath. “Heaven is For Real” was a sweet story that still managed to upset some religious groups. “Left Behind” is possibly the worst movie I’ve ever seen. While “Exodus: Gods and Kings” isn’t as bad as “Left Behind” it also isn’t as good as “Heaven is For Real.” It should have been much better.
“Exodus: Gods and Kings” gets three stars out of five.
Andre Allen (Chris Rock) started his career as a standup comedian. Becoming hugely successful, he starred in a series of comedy films where he was dressed in a bear costume and was playing a police officer named Hammy. The Hammy films were huge successes and made Allen very rich. His life became a whirlwind of TV appearances, commercial endorsements, family and friends asking for money, drugs and alcohol. He was dating reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) who helped him get clean. Allen and Long are about to be married in a wedding that will be filmed as part of her reality show on Bravo. Wanting to branch out from comedy, Allen is out promoting a drama he stars in about the Haitian slave uprising. Despite his desire to move on to something more serious, people constantly ask him when he will make the next Hammy movie. Tagging along is New York Times reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) who is doing a profile of Allen. At first closed off and protective, Allen eventually warms up to Brown as she refuses to put up with his obfuscations and sound bite answers and asks why he isn’t funny anymore. He begins to tell her about his struggles with drugs and alcohol, his efforts to get sober and his daily struggle with substance abuse. She tells him she is also in recovery. Brown follows Allen all day as he picks up his wedding tux, finds out the wedding rings have been changed without his knowledge due to the reality show people, does numerous interviews about the new film with satellite radio hosts and begins to worry the film will be a flop. Along the way, secrets are shared and discovered, old friends remind Allen of his roots and lists of top five hip-hop artists are shared.
If “Top Five” has a weakness, it is that it lacks any real story. The film follows the characters as they go through a series of ups and downs over the course of a day. We see some resolutions to the various issues and problems that are brought up along the way and are introduced to the concept of fame and the price one must pay to acquire it. It is about as close as a fictional film can get to being a documentary about celebrity and what that now means in a world where being a housewife in New Jersey can make you famous. It is at times hilarious, depressing, honest, painful and joyous. Despite its lack of story, it is worth your time.
Chris Rock is essentially playing himself. While he does continue to perform standup, Rock has appeared in some movies that he admits were done just for the paycheck. “Top Five” is his attempt to make something he can be proud of and that isn’t just comedy. Rock not only stars but wrote and directed the movie. His directing style is a bit jumpy with frequent camera angle changes for scenes that might have been more effective if they had been shot from only one perspective. Still, “Top Five” is a very moving, funny and serious film. The main character is going through a crisis involving his self-worth. He thinks he can’t be funny since he isn’t drinking anymore and worries he will be forgotten if he attempts a comedy comeback and fails. He’s marrying the reality TV star because he feels he owes it to her, not because he truly loves her. He feels guilty because he’s leaving his old friends behind him when they helped him get his start. Andre Allen is a man being pulled in a thousand different directions and he’s close to breaking apart. While he puts up a veneer of confidence with a healthy dose of arrogance, Allen is concerned his career might be over. Meanwhile, Rosario Dawson’s Chelsea Brown is going through a certain bit of crisis herself. Brown is the single mother of a 10-year old girl and also lives with her mom. She hasn’t had the best luck with men and during her evening with Andre makes a discovery about her current boyfriend that ends their relationship. Brown uses fake names to write puff pieces but uses her own name for the stories she is proud of. Her pen names, she has a couple, come back to bite her late in the film. Brown is just trying to make her way in the world and would like a companion to join her on the journey. Both characters are finding the things they thought would make them happy come up a bit short. It’s a story most of us can relate to even if we aren’t famous comedians.
While “Top Five” isn’t funny throughout, it does manage to cause some serious laughs. Rock is primarily the straight man for most of the film and lets his numerous comedy friends carry most of the humor load. The number of comedians or comic actors in the film is staggering. Some may only be on screen for a few seconds while others play major roles. Still others provide a laugh or two then are gone for the rest of the picture. Some of the comedians who appear include Cedric the Entertainer, Tracy Morgan, J.B. Smoove, Michael Che, Jay Pharaoh, Anders Holm, Kevin Hart, Sherri Shephard, Adam Sandler, Doug Stanhope, Bruce Bruce, Whoopi Goldberg, Brian Regan and Jerry Seinfeld. Seinfeld makes a particularly strong impression as he “makes it rain” during Andre Allen’s bachelor party. The sheer number of comedians, both up and coming and legendary, must have made it a fun set to work on. While I’m sure the film was shot on a tight schedule (and on a budget of just $10-million), there are probably a couple of hours of funny material plus outtakes that ended up on the cutting room floor. When the DVD comes out, I’ll be looking for that edited material as a bonus feature. The presence of so many of Rock’s friends and colleagues must have made the often chaotic experience of making a movie just a little bit better. The comradery shows in the finished product.
“Top Five” is rated R for language throughout, crude humor, nudity, some drug use and strong sexual content. There are a couple of sex scenes in the film. One is used mostly for comedic effect. We see several women topless and the naked behind of man. There is some talk of sex outside of these scenes. There is a scene where pot is showed being rolled up and smoked. There is also discussion of using cocaine. Foul language is prevalent throughout the film.
While it certainly could have been funnier “Top Five” works as a comedy and a drama, following a man as he discovers what it is he truly wants in life. The editing is a bit jumpy and the acting is occasionally amateurish, but overall the film works to make us laugh and think a bit. It is a rare feat that those two goals are achieved in one film. “Top Five” is well worth your time.
“Top Five” gets four stars out of five.
This week, a musical orphan, a half-ling and a museum full of magic would love to entertain you during the holidays. I’ll review one or more of these films next week.
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”
“Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb”
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