Friday, November 27, 2015

The Big Short

Film: The Big Short

Starring: Christian Bale (American Hustle), Ryan Gosling (Crazy, Stupid, Love) and Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

Director: Adam McKay (Anchorman)

U.S. Release: December 23rd, 2015 (Rated R)

Genre: Drama

Runtime: 130 minutes

With every new 2015 cinematic release, insiders and prognosticators are seeking a standout film to swoop in and take over the Best Picture race. In steps Adam McKay's potential contender, The Big Short, a star-studded examination of the United States' economic meltdown following the 2008 housing market collapse. But in a bit of a twist, McKay isn't known for his dramatic appeal. In fact, the director has built quite the reputation as a comedy guru following his synergetic film-partnership with Will Ferrell in collaborations such as Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers and The Other Guys. Yet, perhaps McKay's humerus touch could be exactly the spark needed to jump-start this Oscar tailspin.

Back in 2005 hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) recognized a dangerous trend in the United States housing market. And when he uses his full contractual authority to go against the wishes of his clients and bet against the power of the highly regarded banking system, word of his antics quietly spreads around Wall Street. While most insiders laugh off the possibility of a structural breakdown, other money managers and investors such as Mark Baum (Steve Carell), Jamie Shipley and Charlie Geller look beneath the surface of the markets and bravely follow in Burry's footsteps.

Adam McKay deserves copious amounts of respect as he achieves the remarkable feat of transforming dull and monotonous source material into a laugh-filled and enjoyable affair. The Big Short succeeds on many levels and, at its finest moments, uses unorthodox narrative techniques to capture the audience's attention and hold it firmly for two plus hours. Be on the lookout for hysterical cameos from rising star and Australian beauty Margot Robbie, Chef extraordinaire Anthony Bourdain and pop-sensation Selena Gomez, all of which cleverly address the film's nauseating banking and mortgage lingo in a spry and comical way. Furthermore, Steve Carell follows up his Oscar nominated turn in Foxcatcher with another exceptional performance. His cynical character is highlighted perfectly through the constant back and forth with bank trader, Jared Vennett, played by a typically charismatic Ryan Gosling. But through all of these impressive turns, it's Christian Bale's supporting work that stands out as the most likely to land in the awards season discussion. All in all The Big Short is a winning drama benefiting from outside-the box storytelling, a sturdy comical undertone and fine acting from its entire cast.

However, despite all of the film's glowing attributes and valiant attempts to withstand such boring source material, the inner workings of the financial and housing markets are an irrefutable turnoff. Industry verbiage and terminology prove to be inescapable as they bog down an otherwise hilarious screenplay and, to varying degrees, wear down the viewer. After repeatedly hearing phrases like "sub-prime mortgages" and "collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)" at nearly every turn for over two hours, disinterest inevitably settles in. Yet, just as The Big Short begins to test its audience's patience, the movie's self-aware director recognizes an urgency to wrap up the story. Hitting a wall is unavoidable, but McKay and company are able to withstand the film's own self-restricting limitations.

We all know a family or families impacted by the irresponsible actions of our banks and lenders during the economic collapse of 2008. The dark realities of this historical blunder are enough to warrant a dramatic retelling of such events. Adam McKay does an admirable job of oversimplifying a complicated situation and the result is an often hysterical and well-acted account of American greed. The Big Short is far from the Oscar frontrunner that many were desiring, but it's still a journey worth taking.

Stars: 3 stars out of 4

Grade: B

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Rapid Reviews: Creed and The Night Before

Once again, Sylvester Stallone finds himself returning to the ring in the legendary roll of cinema's greatest underdog, Rocky Balboa. But this time around, he stays in the corner and never laces up the old gloves, I promise. Instead Rocky's assistance is needed when a new breed of boxing icon Apollo Creed shows up in his restaurant in Ryan Coogler's sophomore feature, Creed.

Michael B. Jordan stands front and center as Adonis Johnson, a child born from a mistress of Apollo who never met his father. And after his mother passes away unexpectedly, Adonis is bounced around the foster care system regularly punished for doing the only thing he knows how to, fighting. He's finally taken in by Apollo's longtime wife and raised with an opportunity to avoid the ring. Yet, his natural instincts can't be ignored as he seeks the guidance of Rocky Balboa to help mold him into a professional fighter.

There are a few spectacular moments peppered throughout Coogler's pet project. We're given an impressive and emotional performance by Stallone and it's a welcome return for the former champ. However, Creed swings and whiffs at its ineffective romance subplot and feels too preachy to land an impactful blow. Ironically, we're force-fed Adonis' repetitive and hollow desires to form his own legacy, all while the film relies on cheaply imitated pieces of the Rocky franchise's past.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+

The last time Jonathan Levine made a movie with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen headlining its cast, he landed atop my best films of 2011 with the unforgettable comedy-drama, 50/50. Almost a handful of years later and the team have decided to sprinkle in some Anthony Mackie in what very well may be the buddy-buddy comedy of the year, The Night Before.

After tragically losing both of his parents on Christmas Eve several years earlier, Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) has relied on the debaucherous company of his best friends Isaac (Rogen) and Chris (Mackie) to help get him through the holiday. However, as they grow older their wild annual antics must come to a close in one final night to remember. Yet, as the trio of friends are individually forced to face the biggest obstacles in their lives, they rediscover their ability to handle anything as long as they have the help of each other.

As expected, The Night Before delivers plenty of laughs and a whimsical holiday cheer. And although the film is obviously plagued by unforgivable situational conveniences and poorly developed subplots. the comedy is stellar enough to sustain the movie's infectious energy. While The Night Before falls well short of Levine's most respected work, it will longtime be remembered for its seasonal appeal and entertaining jokes.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Big Short (NEW) and Midnight Special Trailers

The latest trailer has dropped for Adam McKay's uptempo drama, The Big Short, and it captures the film very well. My review will be up shortly and, spoiler alert, I enjoyed the film. McKay does an excellent job of molding together his comedic nature with a true story of 2008's catastrophic housing market collapse. With an all-star cast of performers including Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, The Big Short has plenty of reasons worth watching.

Although he hasn't penetrated the mainstream yet, filmmaker Jeff Nichols has certainly caught my eye with a pair of recent string of successful offerings. The psychological thriller, Take Shelter, was absolutely hypnotic and the coming-of-age drama, Mud, left a lasting impression. Nichols returns with another early year title, the dramatic sci-fi Midnight Special. The trailer is admittedly odd and difficult to wrap your head around, however I'll give Nichols the benefit of the doubt until he lets me down. Check out the first look in the March 2016 release, Midnight Special, starring a Nichols' regular, Michael Shannon.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Rapid Reviews: Suffragette and Trumbo

Carey Mulligan is one of the most talented actresses in the industry that no one really talks about. While other leading ladies like Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone and Jessica Chastain tend to leave their mark on widely marketed features, Mulligan embraces the challenges of less publicized indie dramas. Her latest work is highlighted in Suffragette, filmmaker Sarah Gavron's depiction of the hardships endured by English women throughout their lengthy quest to achieve the right to vote.

Maud (Mulligan) works ungodly hours for unfair wages as a laundress in early 20th century England. After she discovers a coworker is a suffragette, Maud slowly becomes more involved in the feminist movement. She willingly defies her husband's wishes and Maud risks everything for the greater good of women's rights.

To Suffragette's discredit, the film screams a bias recollection of 1910s England. Both written and directed by women, the film unapologetically portrays every single male character in a negative light somehow. It's difficult to believe that these female warriors didn't receive support from at least a small faction of men. Either way, Carey Mulligan's Oscar-caliber performance and an engaging story do an admirable job of luring the audience. Suffragette hardly separates itself from other decent films of the year, but it's a worthwhile watch in its own right.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

After an epic career as one of television's greatest characters, Breaking Bad's Walter White, Bryan Cranston tackles his first major leading role in a feature film. The remarkable life story of shunned Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, arrives on the big screen by an unlikely filmmaker, Jay Roach. The comedy guru is best known for Austin Powers and Meet the Parents, but he teams up with Cranston in an attempt to reinvent both of their careers.

Following the aftermath of World War II and the fear of communist Russia, Hollywood begins a witch hunt for political radicals working and living in the United States. Acclaimed screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo (Cranston), becomes one of 10 industry insiders held in contempt of congress during a publicized investigation and is forced to serve nearly a year in prison. Upon his release, Dalton and the others continue to be blacklisted by Hollywood until their talents are needed to rejuvenate a creatively inept industry.

Bryan Cranston gives a fully committed performance in Jay Roach's Trumbo, however an outstretched story and artificial drama dilute the experience. Co-star John Goodman injects a burst of energy into the film, as he tends to do, but it's not nearly enough to keep Trumbo from wearing thin. This undeserving Hollywood pariah is entitled to a feature worthy of his legacy, yet Jay Roach's attempt unfortunately falls short.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Ranking the Rocky Series

After 2006's Rocky Balboa, I never imagined the iconic southpaw underdog returning to the big screen. But to Sylvester Stallone's credit, it wasn't even his idea to continue milking the Rocky cow for whatever it has left. I remember sitting in the Ritz Five movie theater back in 2013 and a young first-time filmmaker named Ryan Coogler was participating in a Q&A following his Sundance winning drama, Fruitvale Station. Coogler was asked what he planned to work on next, and he energized the Philly crowd by announcing he wanted to make a spin-off of Rocky. Later this month Coogler's longtime vision becomes a reality with the release of Creed. Therefore, I'm using November's Movie List of the Month to rank the entire Rocky Series (October's List).

#6. Rocky V (1990)

After the fourth installment became the franchise's highest grossing film in 1985, nothing could stop Sylvester Stallone from lacing up his gloves for another go-around. Unfortunately, the result was a disaster of a film with a melodramatic father-son story that proved to be nothing more than financial exploitation of moviegoers. Thankfully, even before the internet's mainstream introduction, word of mouth spread and audiences refused to pay their hard-earned money see a franchise-worst, Rocky V.

#5. Rocky Balboa (2006)

Everyone would agree that Rocky V was no suitable way to end a series. And although it's a little head-scratching that Stallone waited 16 years to put a more proper finishing touch to his Rocky legacy (perhaps the previous film's theatrical flop played a major role as well), it's impossible to deny that Rocky Balboa was a massive step over its predecessor. Even with a ludicrous premise that placed an elderly fighter back in the ring for an exhibition bought against a younger and more finessed boxer, Rocky Balboa was still a worthy inclusion thanks to its humble storytelling and nostalgic appeal. 

#4. Rocky III (1982)

Where the first two installments painted an earnest picture of a strong-willed main character who went from a loan shark's thug to heavyweight champion of the world, Rocky III was more of a spectacle. Bringing in big-named celebrity power like Mr. T. and Hulk Hogan to raise the stakes, the franchise's third installment felt more animated and illegitimate. However, the audience remains engaged as Rocky's pride gets the best of him and, as we all know, sometimes you need to get knocked down in order to get back up again. 

#3. Rocky IV (1985)

In the midst of a Cold War with Soviet Russia, the franchise's fourth film pits Rocky against an unforgettable foe, the steroid creation Ivan Drago. In dramatic fashion we watch as the mammoth Russian fighter dismantles Apollo Creed in an exhibition fight, which ultimately sets up a bout with Rocky. But going against his wife's wishes, the Italian Stallion ventures to Russia and prepares for his toughest opponent yet. As an icon of my childhood and with an energizing 80s soundtrack, Rocky IV is a clear step below the first two films but, otherwise, the best of the rest. 

#2. Rocky II (1979)

All Rocky wanted to do in the series origin was go the distance with the world champion, Apollo Creed. But after a gutsy and prolific showdown with the champ, Rocky steps into the ring against his nemesis for another shot at the title. As a winning follow-up to the first installment, Rocky II continues to show its lead character in a very personable light. He tries to escape the brutality of the boxing, but finally recognizes that he belongs in the ring. Therefore, with his trainer Mickey by his side and with the blessing of his wife, Adrian, Rocky dedicates himself to the fight of a lifetime. One that will eventually set the stage for countless sequels.

#1. Rocky (1976)

Is it even a question? The undisputed champion of the series is 1976's Rocky. The legendary sports film cemented its place in history as a Best Picture winner that took home three statues from the Academy Awards. Perhaps the greatest underdog story ever told, Rocky is every bit as entertaining as it is inspiring. Sylvester Stallone crafts a lovable and good-natured character who effortlessly captures the respect and admiration of the viewer. Whether it's Rocky Balboa's terrible jokes or the up-tempo boxing scenes, this is a top-notch film straight across the board. And while I'm hoping for the best from Ryan Coogler's Creed later this month, Rocky is one champ it will never beat.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Rapid Reviews: Legend and The 33

Brian Helgeland cemented his legacy as a writer the moment he won a screenwriting Oscar for his 1997 crime drama, L.A. Confidential, but that never deterred him from trying to become an accomplished director as well. In 2013 Helgeland broke through with the successful critical and financial sports biopic, 42, which paved the way for his latest cinematic effort, Legend.

Set in London during the 1960s, Tom Hardy stars in a dual role as twin brothers, Ronnie and Reggie Kray, who climb from amateur boxers to notorious gangsters who take control of the city. But when Americans try to work with the Kray's to turn London into the Las Vegas of the Europe, the mental instability of Ronnie puts the sibling's growing empire in jeopardy.

No one can argue against the diverse and well-ranged performances from leading man Tom Hardy. The talented actors work has always stood for itself and he clearly continues to shine as the only real reason worth watching Legend. In a bit of a surprise, Helgeland's muddled story is simply a patchwork of disorganized events and under-developed characters. Emily Browning co-stars as Frances, the wife of the more level-headed twin, Reggie. As the narrator of the story you expect so much more from Frances' character, but in the end she reveals herself as merely a shell of a deeper and more interesting personality. With a celebrated writer in the director's chair, it's baffling to see Helgeland deliver a structurally plagued story. And by film's end, Legend can only stand a showcase for Tom Hardy's fine work.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4.

Grade: C+

Arriving in theaters this weekend is Patricia Riggen's The 33, a real life drama based on the trapped Chilean miners who faced enormous odds while trying to survive a deadly collapse. Starring Antonio Banderas, Juliette Binoche and Lou Diamond Phillips, the melodrama is unspeakably high with this latest true story adaptation.

Despite many safety requests to the company's owner, 33 miners find themselves faced with death after a gold and copper mine traps them 2,300 feet underground. Government officials step in to work as swiftly as possible to rescues these brave men, but their strength, courage and sanity start to waver as food and water begin to run out with each passing day.

I've always enjoyed the fine career work of both Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche. And in all fairness, each of these performers possess a few shining moments in Patricia Riggen's over-dramatized survival flick. However, the constant recycling of facing an obstacle and overcoming the odds only to face another issue, it becomes a very tiresome ordeal. As a result, The 33 massively overextends itself and its more powerful moments become diluted by stereotypical Hollywood dramatization. The film has unjustly received overwhelmingly harsh reviews and, while it's not an awful viewing experience, I must admit that its flaws clearly outweigh its positives.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C+