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Best of 2015

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This is just getting ridiculous. My annual lists are getting to become like reverse car releases—more and more disconnected from year attached to the item. So get excited for the Best Films of 2016, coming to you in early June 2017!

  1. Liza, the Fox Fairy – Liza, a rókatündér in the original Hungarian
  2. Spy – Melissa McCarthy + James Bond = better than actual James Bond
  3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – It felt like Star Wars in a way that no movie has since Return of the Jedi
  4. A Second Chance – I would like a second chance to watch this movie…*rimshot* Just kidding, it is horribly depressing!
  5. The Big Short – Our economy and version of capitalism are horribly depressing!
  6. I’ll See You in My Dreams – Great to see a film starring an excellent older actress. Not as depressing as it could have been considering just the plot.
  7. Dope – An original take on a traditional story—like Hustle and Flow
  8. Tangerine – I still do not know why it is called Tangerine
  9. The Wolfpack – A great new documentary from a new documentarian. In some ways her novelty really helped, and in other ways it made for an unsatisfying ending.
  10. A Few Cubic Meters of Love – The single most depressing film of the year, which is saying a lot, considering the competition.

Best Short Film: Kung Fury.

Worst Film: When Animals Dream. The tone of the film was excellent. Nothing else about it was.

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The Big Short

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It’s like someone hit a pinata full of white people who suck at golf.

THE BIG SHORT

Left to right: Rafe Spall plays Danny Moses, Jeremy Strong plays Vinnie Daniel, Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, and Jeffry Griffin plays his assistant Chris in The Big Short from Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises, 2015.

This is an infuriating film, a maddening film. As the final credits rolled I legitimately felt angry. It felt like I had watched Roger and Me for the first time again, except it is 2016 and we should know better than we did in 1989. That is not to say that I did not enjoy the film. Remember, not every great film is an enjoyable one.1

I really appreciated how great Ryan Gosling’s performance was. He made playing a financial tool seem effortless. His confidence elicited laughter and always captured my attention. His character was unique in that he played both sides of the system. As a bank employee he sold shorts on the secondary mortgage market, even though he saw that they would pay out—which would cost his employer Deutsche Bank probably billions of dollars. 2  Assisting the bankruptcy of your employer seem unethical, but was actually less unethical than the banks that sold securities that were overvalued by the falsely impartial ratings organizations and ignored by the underfunded and frequently conflicted watchdog, the SEC. This SEC argument was really under presented, unlike the corruption of the banks. Everyone knows that a Ponzi scheme is an illegal fraud, but what most people ignore is how much of the stock market is based on that same premise.3 The movie does a great job of breaking the fourth wall and having people actually explain things like this well. Margot Robbie in a bathtub was the best at this, particularly since she played an evil, dumb woman in The Wolf of Wall Street, which glamorized the system that allowed/caused the housing market to form a bubble and to collapse.

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Like I said, Margot Robbie getting paid to take a bubble bath (relaxing!) in front of a movie crew (not relaxing!), © 2015 Paramount Pics.

The character who highlights the bailout and the true insidious nature of it was Mark Baum (“The Office’s” Steve Carell). He does a good job of playing someone with a personality disorder. His performance is very consistent, even if he is pretty damn annoying and rude. He is the film’s conscience. The would-be cynic who should know that the market is a fraud built on the backs of the bruised. And he get to make the predictive speech near the end about the banks learning nothing, getting bailed out, continuing to perpetrate frauds, and how the immigrants and the poor will get blamed.4 Since he caught onto this new market of betting against mortgage bonds he has the right to say this, even if it seems unlikely he specifically said it in real life. The one wrinkle, the maddening wrinkle, was that Gosling starts by teasing that he was wrong and that thousands went to jail and the banks were broken up and Congress reinstituted regulation of mortgages. But then he basically goes, “Psych!” And he adds that teachers were blamed too. As unpleasant as it is to address, and as inappropriate as the middle of my review is to address it, we could be looking at the true decline of our American empire. As the war on education grows5 and more people get dumber and more extreme, this leads to worse politicians who do not even try to succeed. In 2016, as a politician, it is better to be right about a failure you caused, than to be part of a solution that actually helps the poor.

The character who actually thought to investigate the quality of mortgage bonds was Dr. Michael Burry—former Batman, Christian Bale. So as the movie progresses his bet keeps failing to pay off, so you root for the full collapse of the US mortgage market so that he gets paid; since you cannot stop the damn collapse of our economy, at least someone who acknowledged the sham of it should profit—not the just the victimizers. There are also two young people, Charlie and Jamie—played by John Magaro and Finn Wittrock, who with the help of Brad Pitt made a killing by realizing that the entire system of betting on huge collections of mortgages6 was phony, even the AAA rated ones. Together the cast won best ensemble from the Screen Actor’s Guild. Bale received (another) Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, but Gosling did not. Bale did a very good job with Burry, perhaps it was his more subtle performance that won over the nominating voters. I expected to find that the producers nominated the more famous, “better” actor Christian Bale and promoted him, but both he and Gosling were offered “For Your Consideration” as supporting actors, while Steve Carell was sacrificed as the Best Actor from an ensemble, which did net him a Golden Globe nomination. Point being, Gosling was the best of the best, despite no Oscar nomination. There were so many great performances by actors in this, which leads me to…

This movie did a poor job of including women in the story—or life itself did. Carell’s character had a wife and she was played by the excellent Marissa Tomei—an excellent wife in The Wrestler and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. And then there is Heighlen Boyd, who more than competently portrayed “Florida Strip Club Dancer,” who owned six houses thanks to subprime mortgages. Compared to The Wolf of Wall Street though, this is the 9 to 5 of financial corruption and wealth movies. Still, kudos to Adam McKay and Charles Randolph for writing such a good script. Kind of. At least it won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. So I am so proud of McKay for growing — even if this was primarily a collection of character studies… And this was Michael Lewis who also wrote the book Moneyball, which made analytics exciting… So maybe McKay still is not very good at crafting a good plot and just relies on well performed characters to carry the weight of the film. The key here was creating more interesting characters than just letting Will Ferrell do whatever he wanted to do. Still, the more I take away from McKay the co-screenwriter, the more credit goes to McKay the director!

****½

1 “Hey, it’s Saturday night, who wants to watch a 5 Star movie?? Alright! Schindler’s List it is!” – no-one, ever.
2 First, shorting stocks is something that everyone should know. Because it was a plot point in Casino Royale, which is one of the top 3 Bond Movies of all-time, so everyone should have seen it. A “short” is an option to sell a stock back to the seller at a fixed price, which pays off when the actual value has dropped below the price the option is set at. Now here is what Jared (Gosling) said in the film, When you come for the payday, I’m gonna rip your eyes out. I’m gonna make a fortune. The good news is Vinnie, you’re not going to care cause you’re gonna make so much money. That’s what I get out of it. Wanna know what you get out of it? You get the ice cream, the hot fudge, the banana and the nuts. Right now I get the sprinkles, and yeah – if this goes through, I get the cherry. But you get the sundae Vinny. You get the sundae.
3 If you own a computer, that computer has a value. If you own 1/100th of a computer, you should have 1/100th of that value. Now here are three points. First, the value of that computer, the true value, not the perceived value, should not change based on who owns it. It either works, or it does not work. Second, there should not be a legal market for betting on whether or not the computer works—adjusting for inflation, this creates literally no value to society. Third, let’s say the 99 other owners sell their interest at almost the same time and people worry that the computer does not work, so the price they get drops and drops. The computer’s functionality actually operates independent of that perception. That is the flaw, or lie, in our stock markets, they do not reflect the actual value of things and thus are just schemes to misrepresent value while brokers gain a commission and the more commissions they get the more bonuses they get.
4 I have a feeling in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.
5 See states like Iowa and Wisconsin who have elected anti-education conservatives who have slashed funding universally and at the university level tried to undercut any field that promotes critical or independent thought.
6 Packs of mortgages are known as CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) and their even more secondary market of collections of CDOs. Margot Robbie does a better job of explaining it. Repacking the crappiest ones as new products gets explained by the wonderful Anthony Bourdain.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2

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**½

Our lives were never ours, they belong to Snow and our deaths do too. But if you kill him, Katniss, all those deaths, they mean something.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the final Hunger Games film.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the final Hunger Games film.

This was the first Hunger Games film I did not see in theaters. Still, I wanted to know how it all wrapped up. It turns out that Mockingjay did not need to be two films and by bifurcating it the characters’ behaviors seem mostly arbitrary. It almost gets 3 stars for overcoming the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch) during the filming. As Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) invades the capital she finally becomes the leader of the rebellion for which she had been cast as the figurehead. Julianne Moore’s President of District 13 has a heel turn once victory is in grasp. The love triangle around Katniss falls apart as Gale–Liam Hemsworth–the one truly decent character throughout the series basically betrays Katniss, and Peeta is still a madman who knows he will kill Katniss if left unguarded. Sound depressing? Well it is. Sound fun? Not really. I kept waiting for Katniss to turn to the sexually adventurous Johanna Mason—the criminally underused Jena Malone, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys—as a burgeoning bisexual woman choosing someone who was reliably different.

Amidst the depressing betrayals and deaths, Katniss moves ever closer to President Snow (Donald Sutherland) so that she may kill him and end the rebellion. But in off screen action the rebels destroy the empire. Generally the look of the film is fine, although it came across as the least realistic of the four films. The low point was the subterranean chase by “mutts”. In the dark at the end of The Hunger Games, those “mutts” looked very threatening. Here, they look fake. Having worse special effects years later with a higher budget is a pet peeve of mine, I call it “X-Men Origins: Wolverining it”, which I addressed in my review of Deadpool.

Finnick (Sam Claflin) fighting some mutts in a sewer, Mockingjay - Part 2 © Lionsgate 2015

Finnick (Sam Claflin) fighting some mutts in a sewer, Mockingjay – Part 2 © Lionsgate 2015.

All told I am glad I watched it so that I knew how the story ended. There is one excellent scene where Katniss makes a difficult moral choice that parallels the training exhibition scene from Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games. Francis Lawrence directed the final three movies, and unfortunately each has been less good than the prior film. In case the tone of this review has been unclear, this is an unspoilable film. Had I known what would happen—most of which is pretty predictable anyways—I think I would have gotten the same things out of it. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more because I would not have been disappointed at lack of surprises.

Epilogue: This was some Harry Potter meets Notting Hill garbrid. Garbrid? Hybage? Hybrid + garbage = ??? At least we know that Peeta does not kill Katniss in the intervening decade.

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox

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Umm…this cartoon was actually a good movie. I put this on because I thought that like most DC cartoons I could ingest it easily and get out an easy review because it is hard to watch enough movies to review for my movielog. This is made even easier by having either read the source material, or seen the jumbo Marvel movie version of it.1  A month ago, I would have set the odds of this being better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice at about .2%.2  So now I will try to explain why I think it is actually better, despite the format, budget, and source material.

Her hero; how noble. Oh, wait! You didn’t stop JFK from getting assassinated or make sure Hitler stayed in art school. You saved your mommy. You missed her… And in a supreme act of selfishness shattered history like a rank amateur, turned the world into a living hell moments away from destruction and I’m the villain?

This story comes from a Geoff Johns crossover centering around the Flash’s greatest nemesis, the Reverse-Flash, Eobard Thawne, aka Professor Zoom. I thought that it was an okay comic book series, with an over-powered Aquaman and unethical Wonder Woman. Removing Superman from the equation is generally an appetizing proposition, but then he always seems to come back. The premise is that Flash (Barry Allen) goes back in time to save his mother from being murdered. By doing so he dooms the Earth to apocalyptic war. At least thanks to Zoom it does. So it is still Earth but everything is a little different. The same is true in the movie: Thomas Wayne is Batman (Bruce dies in the alley instead), Flash never got his powers, his enemies are heroes, the Atom becomes a weapon of mass destruction, and Captain Marvel is Captain Thunder and he is the Captain Planet with six kids saying “Shazam” to form him. Basically, Aquaman and Wonder Woman are way more villainous versions of Batman v Superman’s Batman and Superman.

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Prince Orm (Ocean Master) leading the Atlanteans in an attack in Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox, 2011.

The movie’s animation has the same excellent style and quality as in Justice League: War. But there are a couple of things that this movie has that are just more impressive, specifically the water based weapons of the Atlanteans3, and nuclear explosions. There is only about 90 minutes of storyline here, so it fits perfectly into a cinematic timetable. The movie adds an introductory scene where the Justice League foils an attempted attack on The Flash Museum, masterminded by Zoom and with Zoom’s taunt the whole story makes more sense and feels more satisfying than relying on the reader’s appreciation for the status quo in DC. This desire never gets satisfied as a reader because this came out in 2011 in the 52 DC reboot which rebooted the DC universe. Even the voice acting features a who’s who of returning DC cartoon actors, including Kevin Conroy (THE Batman) with Kevin McKidd voicing Thomas Wayne’s Batman, Nathan Fillion (Hal Jordan/Green Lanten), and Steve Blum (Lex Luthor this time, but Darkseid in War). The newcomers also had some good chops, particularly C. Thomas Howell’s Zoom—I loved him as Foyett in “Criminal Minds”, Cary Elwes’ Aquaman—unrecognizable, but best known from The Princess Bride, and Michael B. Jordan’s boy scout version of Cyborg—star of Creed. They must have spent a fortune on the vocal talent, but it paid off. The cast list of the comics are longer, but in a wise choice certain less crucial characters like Enchantress get written out and have their actions performed by the prime time players. Specifically, instead of Enchantress betraying the heroes and killing Captain Thunder, Wonder Woman uses her lasso of truth to force Captain Thunder to transform. It is both more brutal and more effective.

I guess much of the credit should go to veteran animated comic book adaptation filmmaker Jay Oliva. Of the 10 or so Marvel & DC animated movies he has done, this one is the best. After this he did JL: War, so the improvement must not have been permanent. Still, I am glad he did this one.

****

1 I believe that the Cinematic Marvel Universe has greater ties to their “Ultimates” universe than the traditional one. What I call the traditional one is Earth-616. The “Ultimates” were on Earth-1610. See why I said traditional or just Marvel Universe instead of specifying? To be picky, all of the alternative Earths are part of the same gigantic Marvel Universe, which has a potentially infinite number of Earths. Now the big blockbuster Avengers line of movies take place on Earth-199999, which is called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU for short. And yes, each universe is named for its Earth. I mention this because Marvel’s The Avengers seems closer to Ultimate Avengers: The Movie, than to Earth-616’s Avengers, which I discuss in my “Accuracy in…” for Avengers wave 1 and co. 
2 I watched this before watching Batman v Superman. Yet I am writing this after publishing its review.
3 Aquaman is the king of Atlantis and his subjects are known as Atlanteans.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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Disclaimer: I do not go to, nor usually look at, Rotten Tomatoes.1
Any review at this point is done in the context of the generally strongly negative response that this film has engendered critically. It seems to have infected the popular response to the film too, like anything Justin Bieber does. He could release Kanye West’s new album, in his own voice, and it would be crapped on by the people who prejudge him based on critical consensus. So, if I like it do I overstress how great it is? Do I pile on because I want people to keep reading my reviews? Read on to find out what I eventually decided to do!

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Things are about to get real between Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill), © 2016, WB & DC.

Nobody cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman.

How true is that? People care about Bruce Wayne taking on Lex Luthor. People care about Batman taking on Lex Luthor, or Superman taking on Lex Luthor, but not Clark Kent facing Batman. Man of Steel succeeded in making Clark Kent the real person and Kal-El simply the man he could have been, and Superman is a name other people have for Clark Kent. In this movie most of the world wants Superman, but a select few want to destroy him. The only one who comes close is Lex Luthor, because while even he does not understand it, at least he tries to kill the right Kryptonian—Clark Kent, not Superman.

That attempt by Luthor to kill Superman is the basic crux of the movie (excluding Batman’s and any other potential Justice League member’s side story). That sounds like every Superman movie, right? Well this one is epic in almost every facet. It is too long. Has too long between battles and when the battles happen they are amazing. The dream sequences remind just how good Zack Snyder can be when he dreams—as in Sucker Punch. Scenes try a little too hard to encapsulate who each character is. And Lex Luthor is a little too smart. Oh, and the best parts of the score are Hans Zimmer’s from the last Superman movie—similarly, the co-composer this time is Junkie XL who did the forgettable score to Deadpool, note I reference the score and not the wonderful soundtrack. After those critical thoughts, it is time to address four points that interest me.

    1. This movie made me root for Superman. I do not mean it made me root for him against Lex Luthor, or against General Zod. I mean that when he fought Batman, I was rooting for Superman to win. I am a lifelong Batman fan. Generally I have been indifferent to Superman and mistrustful of people who prefer him to Batman. So for Zack Snyder to get me to go against 30 years of fandom, is a feat in and of itself.
    2. Batman-V-Superman-Turkish-Airlines-Super-Bowl-AdsNext, What does a hero owe society? Not since Daredevil (2004)2 has a superhero film tackled this question so directly. Stan Lee, in Amazing Fantasy #15 posited, “…in this world, with great power there must also come – great responsibility!” Daredevil, like Spider-man, has but a little power, and yet they take on great responsibilities. In Daredevil, Ben Affleck has to block out the cries for help of the masses in order to hook up with Jennifer Garner (Elektra), which is a much more relatable choice than Spider-man’s celibacy. Ben Affleck’s Batman is neither celibate, nor is he always a “hero”, but more on him later. I typed out that Daredevil was “less brave about it”, than Superman, but a similar premise is actually addressed in the film. Acting without fear is not bravery, so an impervious Superman is not a brave hero. But this Superman is dating Lois Lane, and he wants to spend time with her. He wants to save her when her life is threatened, in a way inconsistent with the lives of the average humans’.  How many lives is it okay to let die while Superman cooks Lois dinner? And what kind of entitlement is it to even ask that kind of question? At least medical professionals get paid to save lives, and they can be on/off the clock.
    3. Off screen Batman saves the lives of about twenty trafficking victims. When the Gotham City police arrive they try to open the cage, but the women shut it again. Their savior, their Dark Knight, is so frightening that they fear him more than they feared their captor. Batman’s age and look remind me of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Check back to read my “Accuracy in…” article for my comparison between that as a potential source material for this movie. But that does not have the “Dawn of Justice”, so I will have to compare it to other sources as well. Maybe the formation of the Justice League in that recent War animated movie I reviewed could play a part. And that giant beast fighting our heroes in the preview can probably be connected to Doomsday.
    4. Batman is still Batman. An undercurrent running through many of the reviews are how the heroes can be manipulated, how their acting is not great, and that the tone is unnecessarily dark. I think that the same frustrations some reviewers and audiences had with Man of Steel came from this gut feeling that Superman was not the Superman they remembered and thus not “Superman”.3 Now consider Batman’s cinematic history compared to Superman’s. The last three Batman movies are considered the best three Batman movies, and each is better than any Superman movie. A change to Batman, in addition to Zack Snyder’s Superman, is just too jarring for many people to accept. From a quality standpoint, that is a them problem, not a creative problem—except (hypothetically) financially. Ben Affleck stepping into Bruce Wayne’s shoes following Christian Bale is as challenging as Val Kilmer stepping into Michael Keaton’s.4 Affleck’s Batman uses guns and bullets and not in the G.I. Joe manner of even Michael Keaton. Batman hates guns and killing, but that does not mean he is above it. Just remember, in Batman #1, Batman used guns and killed5 the Joker.

Lastly, forging a connection between those Batman movies and these Superman ones is David S. Goyer. He wrote the stories for the Dark Knight Trilogy, and co-wrote the screenplay for Batman Begins. Then he wrote the stories for Man of Steel and this movie. He (co)wrote the screenplays for each of them too. And I have liked them all. This one I think is the worst of the lot, but it is still a good movie. Put into Marvel terms, this is no Iron Man 2, it is Avengers: Age of Ultron.6 This is the first Goyer story without Christopher Nolan involved in the writing process, and Chris Terrio’s first. Terrio is, at least so far, the only writer on the Justice League movies. I would be more concerned if his last solo script had not netted him the Academy Award for Adapted Screenplay (Argo). But where ever could he look to find some Justice League story to adapt? Hmm…

***

 

1 Wow, a first sentence footnote, right? Well, I want to avoid distracting the reader from arguing with me about Rotten Tomatoes, so just come back to this at the end? Easy to do, since this shows up right after the end of the review!

Rotten Tomatoes is a useful tool, but it is a gravely misunderstood one. First, think of it like this, a movie can be pretty good (6/10) and have a 100% rating, because all of the reviews are positive, which over 100 reviews is 600/1000, or it can have the same number of stars 600/1000 from 100 reviews with only 66 8/10 reviews and 30 2/10 reviews (with 2 4/10 reviews). Which movie is “better”? Which movie should you see, the 100% Fresh, or 66% Fresh? You should see the more polarizing one, with 34%(!!) lower scores on Rotten Tomatoes. Second, audience score is greatly tied to who sees movies and rates them, although the standard for a positive score (3.5/5) is higher for viewers than reviewers. If you pay $12 to see something, are you more or less likely to say you liked it, than if you watched the same thing for free? With beer, almost always the more money a brewery charges, the higher the ratings on Untappd. Most people who rate movies have chosen to see them, and close to the release date they probably paid the full price to do so. Any self selecting audience will tend to validate its own selection (unless it’s a bunch of kvetchs, who like to kvetch, then they will consistently underrate something). Meaning? People say they like the movies they choose to go see, which makes the audience rating unreliable/typically skewed too high. Instead of looking to Rotten Tomatoes, I can just tell you if a movie will be good or not; or more importantly I can tell you if you will like a movie or not. Feel free to ask me, anecdotally I am correct 95% of the time—6 people did not like The Expendables after I recommended it and 2 people did not like Daredevil.
2 Before you say it, shut up. And if you did not like it, then you probably would prefer the less-directed-towards-a-female-audience “Director’s Cut”. Most people I personally know who enjoyed the film are women. Also, when talking about the Netflix show of the same name, I use quotations marks.
3 Meaning, the Superman they think they remembered, because Superman has been a character in 20,000 published works? 200,000? 2,000,000 dreams? In general people associate their introduction to a character with that being the true or right version of that character. For example, the real X-Men team for me are the members of the 1990s cartoon and X-Men (Vol. 2) #1 by Jim Lee and Chris Claremont. Ditto for cartoon Batman. But for Superman some people probably saw George Reeves and others saw Christopher Reeve and others read John Byrne’s mulleted Superman and others have Dean Cain. All of the versions have somethings in common, and many versions have more things in common, but each new Superman is a chance for a new Superman. Unless they are disrespectful to their predecessors, I think they are all valid Supermen.
4 The criticism Kilmer faced was prejudiced by people liking Keaton, and Bale left even bigger boots to fill than Keaton.
5 And he stayed dead forever! HA! HA! HA! HA!
6 This originally read Ant-Man, but I realized Avengers 2 was a better parallel from an action/scale standpoint.