Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Big Short

**** out of ****

If there is an ambitious film that overcomes the heavy weight it carries, it comes from a very unexpected source: Adam McKay – director of Anchorman and Talladega Nights - has directed a solid film about the financial meltdown of 2008 and it’s one of the most original films I’ve seen this year.

Focusing on people who saw the rotten landscape of unchecked bad mortgages and fraudulent activity that would eventually lead to a mass crisis, the movie shows how foresight and no ability to prevent disaster still opens a shameful window for profitable opportunity.

McKay trades in the standard-issue polished American comedy movie aesthetic for handheld realism –yet he doesn’t trade in his humor for anything. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film have so much fun breaking the fourth wall.

Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, many other accomplished actors, fresh newcomers and brilliantly utilized celebrity cameos (McKay’s Funny or Die staple) provide this film with energetic humor and sobering tragedy. I’m glad I didn’t hold out longer on this one. It’s among the best of 2015.

The Danish GIrl

*** out of ****

Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl is another ambitious end-of-2015 release that has a redundant amount of beauty and emotion but doesn’t manage to be as interesting as it could be. The story of the first-known person to have a sex-change operation provokes endless questions, but sticks to the simple emotional struggle of the lead character (played by Eddie Redmayne) and a wife (played by Alicia Vikander) who is uncertain of how to deal with a husband who is fading away.

Redmayne’s preoccupation with finding challenging roles has led him to a lot of movies that I didn’t enjoy despite his talents. The Danish Girl is a good one with a moving score by Alexandre Desplat and Hooper’s perfectly-composed wide-angle shots (through cinematographer Danny Cohen), but after watching the entire first season of The Knick, I’ve come to expect more from period dramas that deal with social changes alongside medical breakthroughs.

Ex Machina

***1/2 out of ****

I know that Ex-Machina must be a good movie because I saw it last April and it has taken me this long to find words for it. The film wasn't ultimately as satisfying as I hoped, but it didn't leave my system. When a movie leaves a mark, it must be doing something right.

The setup to the story is almost like that of classic sci-fi horror fiction as a learned protagonist is summoned to the large estate of a reclusive eccentric scientist who will reveal a secret breakthrough, which, in some way, will ensnare the hero.

In this modern tale, the hero is a computer programmer (Domhnaal Gleeson) working for a software giant, whose founder (Oscar Isaac) has selected him to fly out to his private estate where a subterranean facility run entirely on high-security automation with minimal personnel - right out of a Michael Crichton novel - houses the first artificially intelligent being (Alicia Vikander).   

The programmer is tasked with engaging in conversations with this being, which is made to look like a beautiful woman, in order to evaluate her mind as genuine consciousness. However, his attraction to her is so strong, he becomes suspicious that she has been designed to distract his objectivity.  
Through collaborations with Danny Boyle on films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, Alex Garland's writing has made a positive impact on otherwise outlandish material. He even escalated Pete Travis' exploitively violent Dredd to unexpected heights by giving its world a lot of unique character. However, he also has a tendency to resort to genre expectations when concluding most of his stories. My only problem with Ex Machina, -Garland's directorial debut - is that it does this, even though it thankfully never sheds its hypnotic tone.

Garland is still astoundingly inventive when it comes to putting compelling ideas in movies and this film's concept of simulating consciousness is something I'm sure many sci-fi authors have entertained, but it is made to work with this film's wonderfully designed atmosphere gorgeously. 

I have a nagging feeling that this film may pass the test of time in big ways, but until then, I will regard this movie as something incredibly close to greatness. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Revenant

***1/2 out of ****

If Tarantino intended The Hateful Eight to show everyone what they’d be losing by retiring traditional cinematic techniques, then Alejandro González Iñárritu (fresh after making Birdman) is clearly on a roll showing everyone what is to be gained in using the newest digital cameras while utilizing the best CGI available to create hypnotizing immersive environments more real than you’ve ever seen on the big screen.

The Revenant is a breathtakingly visceral experience portraying the old American frontier as an unforgiving place in a time of greed, carnage and desperate survival conditions. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki continue their collaborative production of unbelievably long takes with the most magical looking of natural lighting.

Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of a hunter working while trying to protect his half-Pawnee son (Forrest Goodluck) gives the kind of performance that seems more like a sport than the complex emoting normally honored in the profession of acting. What he does is clearly a physically strenuous ordeal that could ruin a human being. He deserves high praise but it’s almost unfair to compare his work to the other great performances of the year –including his co-star Tom Hardy who does some of the finest acting of his career in this film.

The film's story of fur trappers ambushed by natives collaborating with French trappers and the endurance of DiCaprio’s character after he’s left for dead is blessedly more of a rich spectacle than a narrative experience. This movie reminded me of the perfectly stewed atmosphere in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, the spiritual struggles of Terrence Malick’s The New World, the mad poetry of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and the masochism of Mel Gibson’s Apolcalypto.

If that last comparison seems less impressive, it’s because the film does fall short in its last-minute claim that it is a revenge story. Everything leading up to its clichéd climax feels bigger than the final scene’s straightforward verbal exchanges and surface-level messages. This is a movie that borders on greatness and demands to be seen on a huge screen –if you can stomach its deliberately punishing characteristics.

Monday, January 11, 2016


*** out of ****

Joy tells a potentially banal story about the inventor of the self-wringing Miracle Mop, Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence). It escalates the nature of the material through auteur David O. Russell’s taste for rapid dialogue and a dreamlike energy that kept me engaged until the final act lost its surreal touch and the ending scene awkwardly exists out of obligation to tell a complete story. The Super 35mm cinematography and the various music choices help to capture Mangano’s blue-collar suburban life in a grand context, and the performances are full of that spontaneity we so rarely get from movies.

Aside from her third go-round with this eccentric director, Lawrence has completed her star-making work with The Hunger Games series. I am excited to see that she is collaborating with Amy Schumer on a comedy film, which could be the kind of radical move needed to refresh her already impressive career.


*** out of ****

In Todd HaynesCarol, a gorgeously realized drama is captured on Super 16mm film through the photographic eye of the underrated cinematographer, Ed Lachman. The film’s style and nostalgia are the driving forces in telling a love story between a wealthy middle-aged married woman (Cate Blanchett) and a young struggling photographer (Rooney Mara).

The film is based on a novel from the time of the story’s 1950s setting, which makes its journey from taboo literature to prestige cinema quite significant. For me, the film falls short in two important areas: Blanchett’s character is too steeped in anxiety for me to understand her passion in the relationship and Carter Burwell’s score is too gloomy for this film’s hidden optimism.