Gangster Squad

The Big Short

My primary motivation in going to the movies is entertainment; but every now and then you learn something. I typically avoid movies that cover mundane industries/topics with which I’m not familiar, but occasionally movies can be entertaining AND insightful. The Big Short chronicles the 2008 economic crisis that occurred after the housing market “bubble” burst and several financial institutions collapsed. I don’t understand the finer points of banking, investing, or real estate – but writer/director Adam McKay (The Other Guys, Step Brothers) crafted an immensely informative, funny, and entertaining docudrama that wasn’t as inaccessible as I initially thought.

There were only a handful of people who foresaw the housing crisis, a few “weirdos” and outsiders who knew what no one else did. Christian Bale (Exodus: Gods and Kings) stars as Dr. Michael Burry, an offbeat hedge fund manager who took a closer look at the housing market and discovered that the industry was being propped up by risky sub-prime mortgages made to undesirable prospective home buyers. He predicted that eventually these people would default on their mortgages and the industry would collapse with devastating repercussions. He then bet against the housing market, making the rounds to several financial institutions that were all too happy to take his money.

The film is narrated by Jared Venett (Ryan Gosling, Gangster Squad); a fast-talking Wall Streeter whose suspicions are aroused when he gets wind of what Burry is doing and wants in. A misdialed phone number leads him to Mark Baum (Steve Carell, Foxcatcher), an irascible hedge fund manager working under the umbrella of Morgan Stanley. He’s initially skeptical, but after independently researching the housing market himself, he follows Vennett’s lead and bets against the market as well. Dr. Burry predicts that it will take about 5 years for the bubble to burst, and his inkling is spot on. He’s so far ahead of the prevailing wisdom at the time that it nearly costs him his job – but he never falters in his conviction. Rounding out the prescient bunch are small-time investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro, Unbroken) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock, Noah), who stumble across Vennett’s inside scoop by happenstance.

The Big Short was a humorous, yet appropriately sobering depiction of the financial crisis. McKay deftly incorporated levity in his storytelling, making the nuanced material much more palatable to the audience. By using humor and splicing the film with actual pop culture moments from the time period, he made the subject matter accessible, breaking the “fourth wall” throughout the film. One of the highlights was his use of celebrity cameo appearances to explain particularly complex financial concepts. Actress Margot Robbie, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, and singer Selena Gomez hilariously interjected timely explanations, effectively breaking up the underlying monotony.

In addition to a strong script and effective storytelling, the film was bolstered by brilliant performances – particularly from Steve Carell and Christian Bale. Carell’s range is incredible. The intonation of his voice was completely different, and I was extremely impressed. Between this and his work in 2014’s Foxcatcher, Carell is showing that his abilities far transcend the comedic realm. Bale was nearly as impressive, and the entire cast was superb. Unlike other films depicting the same events, The Big Short was uniquely refreshing in its pairing of humor with crisis. I never felt that McKay was making light of a tragedy, and it takes considerable skill to execute that technique. The Big Short took a mundane, confusing topic and made it lively and accessible, which was no small feat. It was definitely one of the better movies of 2015. Grade: A

300: Rise of An Empire

I’ve commented numerous times that Hollywood studios love a sequel, whether it’s warranted or not. For example, bad sequels typically involve a re-tread of the original, a la The Hangover 2. Which leads me to 300: Rise of An Empire. 2006’s 300 was an exhilarating depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae, replete with amazing imagery and strong performances. One would think a sequel would logically pick up where the original left off, but the makers of 300: Rise of An Empire had something different in mind, much to my disappointment.

Writer Zack Snyder (Man of Steel) uses this sequel to tell a parallel storyline overlapping the same time period as the original movie. This seems like a cumbersome storytelling technique, but there was potential for it to be interesting. Snyder reveals Xerxes’ (Rodrigo Santoro, The Last Stand)backstory, providing a glimpse of him before he became the ruthless villain who mercilessly defeated Leonidas. Xerxes’ father Darius was king of Persia, decimating Greek troops through relentless warfare. During one fateful battle, he was killed by the bow of Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton, Gangster Squad), a fearless Athenian determined to unite all of Greece. Upon witnessing his father’s demise, Xerxes became hell-bent on exacting revenge upon Themistocles and any city-state that threatened Persia.

Enter Artemisia (Eva Green, Casino Royale), a fierce Persian warrior who harbors a venomous hatred for Greece. It was Greeks who raped and pillaged her childhood home, viciously marring her childhood and deeply sowing a seed of revenge that would come to define her. Left for dead, she was taken in by an older Persian warrior who trained her in battle. She displayed a natural ferocity and skill, becoming a formidable fighter. By the time she came of age, Artemisia had earned the favor of ill-fated King Darius. She was placed in command of the Persian army, though she served at Xerxes’ pleasure.

The movie is told largely from Themistocles’ perspective, as he tries to defeat Persia with the help of Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey, The Purge), Leonidas’ widow. She is reluctant to provide Spartan soldiers for battle, though Themistocles must amass a sizeable army to compete with the Persians. Eventually she lends the manpower, and Themistocles leads the charge against Persia, not to avenge Leonidas, but to unite Greece in defeat of a common enemy.

I don’t know how or why Zack Snyder allowed such a decline in quality between the original 300 and this sequel, but most aspects of the movie, which I viewed in 3D, disappointed me. The special effects were visually entertaining, but they became trite and felt gimmicky after a while. For example, it’s fine to use slow-mo effects to add emphasis, but overuse of the technique lessens the impact and the device becomes trite. The adversarial positioning of Themistocles and Artemisia was effective from a character standpoint, and they had excellent chemistry. One particular scene where they engaged in a rough romp was awkwardly entertaining, but ultimately the movie was not satisfying. Don’t waste your time. Grade: C

World War Z

The heartthrobs of yesteryear have still got it.  I said it last year about Denzel Washington in Safe House, and I’ll reiterate the point here with Brad Pitt (Killing Them Softly), who scores the highest grossing debut weekend of his career with World War Z.  Although Pitt has aged nicely since he first came on the scene in Thelma & Louise, it’s not really about his looks here.  He’s our leading man, but I think he’s shying away from the types of roles that characterized his earlier career.  The  zombie storyline of World War Z is a familiar one, as television shows like The Walking Dead have become increasingly popular. The movie’s action was immediate and relentless, and I found myself quite literally on the edge of my seat.

The film begins with an introduction to Gerry Lane, a former UN employee who left the organization to spend more time with his wife (Mireille Enos, The Killing, Gangster Squad) and daughters.  Within five minutes of meeting the family, the horror begins on a routine drive to school through downtown Philadelphia.  While sitting in an unusual traffic jam, Gerry and his family notice that there is an unseen commotion swelling behind them.  Something weird is going on.  In this age of terror attacks, one can never be too careful, and this early scene was authentically unsettling.

A passing police officer gives Gerry an ominous warning to remain in his vehicle, and no sooner than he turns to leave, an out of control truck flattens him instantly.  Gerry barely has time to process what has happened before nearby pedestrians begin to run from an unknown horror.  As they flee, he turns to see a man convulsing and contorting his body in ungodly positions.  He has a wild, diseased look in his eyes, and it is clear that this “person” is not of this world.  It’s the zombie apocalypse!

The movie chronicles the zombie outbreak as it affects the entire planet, with each continent facing population extinction.  Torn between remaining with his family and returning to his old job to help figure everything out, Gerry eventually decides that if he wants to help his family, he must resolve to help humanity first.  Apocalyptic tales fascinate me, as they reveal much about the human psyche.  When the constraints of traditional society and civilization are stripped, we see man return to his most base instincts of survival, with Darwinism prevailing.  The immediacy of the zombie threat and the prospect of death created an especially terrifying climate, and the panic and fear were palpable.  Pitt was an ideal protagonist: brave, resourceful and facing some tough odds – everything you’d want in a hero.

If there were any criticism to be had, it would be that things just sort of happened.  There wasn’t a lot of character development, because it simply wasn’t that type of movie.  There is a singular catastrophic event central to the plot, and everything else happens in furtherance of that plot.  I didn’t read the book, so if the movie fell short in its interpretation; I wouldn’t know.  Overall it was very good, and if you’re one of those folks who occasionally doze off during movies, rest assured – it won’t happen here.  Grade: A –

Pain & Gain

The trailer for Pain & Gain looked like my kind of movie, just the type of exciting, cool flick that cinephiles can expect this time of year as we gear up for the action-packed summer blockbusters.  I’m a fan of Mark Wahlberg, who is no stranger to playing the badass antihero (see The Departed and Contraband), and I liked the premise.  It promised to tell the true-life tale of an ambitious young bodybuilder who went from rags to riches, breaking a few laws along the way.   I was entertained at various times throughout the movie, but by the time the credits rolled I had an underwhelmed feeling.

Wahlberg stars as Daniel Lugo, a convicted murderer who took the lives of two innocent people in 1995 during a botched robbery.  The movie opens by introducing us to Lugo, an ambitious meathead with a voracious appetite for his version of the American Dream.  Lugo was inspired by the fictional exploits of the likes of Tony Montana and Michael Corleone, and (stupidly) aspired to be like them.  One would think that Scarface in particular would be a cautionary tale, considering that he ended up laying dead in a fountain looking like a piece of Swiss cheese – but don’t tell that to Daniel Lugo.

Lugo worked at a Florida gym, where he perfected his body and his designs on untold riches.  Accompanying him was friend Adrian (Anthony Mackie, Gangster Squad), a fellow bodybuilder with similar ambitions of greatness.  Eventually Lugo hatches a plan to kidnap and extort Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub, Hemingway & Gellhorn), a wealthy client for whom he acts as personal trainer.  Kershaw has several assets that Lugo can liquidate if he compels Victor to turn them over.  Daniel and Adrian recruit a third man for their plot, a convict named Paul Doyle (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) who has served time in federal prison.  Doyle is a humorously devout Christian who found Jesus in jail.  Perversely ironic, he has no problem jibing his Christian ideals with a criminal lifestyle.  Once the three stooges have the plan in motion, they bungle their way through, eventually getting their hands on millions of dollars.  Eventually things begin to go south with Kershaw and the gang decides they need to do another job.  Their greed eventually gets the best of them, leading them to the robbery and murder of a wealthy couple that belonged to their gym.

The movie began to lose me about a third of the way through, when I couldn’t tell if it was taking itself seriously or not.  There were several implausible scenes, including one where Kershaw seems to be invincible.  I did research after the fact, and it turns out that these farfetched things actually happened.  I can’t fault director Michael Bay (Transformers) for telling it like it is, but I can fault him for the way he chose to depict these real-life events.  The three principal characters were portrayed as funny and likeable, and so I liked them.  But by the time the movie concludes, the viewer realizes that these funny guys did a horrible thing.  Because they were depicted so comically initially, I’m not sure that the severity of their actions adequately resonated with viewers.  I enjoyed the laughs, and Wahlberg was his usual cool, badass self – but I was left with too many conflicting elements, from an emotional perspective.  I don’t attribute this to any particular depth of storytelling, but rather to a muddled approach by director Michael Bay.

Grade: C+

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

The Place Beyond the Pines

I adore Ryan Gosling.  I think his choices are shrewd and artful, and the camera loves him.  I can rattle off several of his movies that I think are truly superb, and now you can add one more to the list. In The Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling gives a stirring performance that permeates quietly before a shocking culmination.

The movie begins with an introduction to Luke Glanton (Gosling, Gangster Squad), a motorcycle stunt rider who performs in a traveling carnival.  Director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) immediately drew the audience in with a taut opening sequence, as Luke performs a dangerous three-man stunt in a steel cage without batting an eyelash.  We see immediately that he is a thrilling character, dangerous and effortlessly cool.  I was reminded of Gosling’s turn in Drive, which also began with a riveting introduction to the main character in his element.  Before he leaves for his next city, he is visited by Romina (Eva Mendes, The Other Guys), an old flame.  Ro wears a pained expression, and their interaction is cautious and awkward as he drives her home.  He tells Ro that he will be leaving town soon, but he later stops by spontaneously one last time before hitting the road.  Ro isn’t home, but her mother answers the door holding an infant, which turns out to be his son Jason.

Luke is upset that Ro didn’t tell him about his son, although he hadn’t kept in contact with her since his last visit.  He immediately feels a sense of responsibility and decides to stick around town, quitting the carnival.  He shifts gears and wants to be a provider, though he is totally unequipped and unprepared for fatherhood.  The fact that Ro is in a relationship with a new man (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards) and surrogate father to Jason only adds to Luke’s feelings of inadequacy and emasculation.  Soon he meets Robin, a friendly swindler who easily convinces him to knock off a bank for a quick, small score.  In a brazen daytime robbery, Luke rides his motorcycle up to the bank door and surprises unsuspecting tellers in a daring heist.  He makes his exit quickly, zipping through traffic at a harrowing clip to rendezvous with Robin.  These moments when Gosling (or his stunt double) weaved his way through traffic and the pine trees of the forest on his motorcycle were amazing.

Eventually Luke crosses paths with Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook) an ambitious Schenectady cop who is privy to larger corruption within the department.  The movie shifts at the midway point, and we begin to see life through Avery’s eyes.  Despite the varied perspectives, the film never felt unfocused.  As we examine the aftermath of their interaction, a parallel storyline emerges, as Luke’s fate and that of his infant son become inextricably tied to Avery Cross, who also has a baby boy.  As the movie unfolds, a haunting context emerges, giving more resonance to Gosling’s character, even when he is not on screen.

From Blue Valentine to Drive, Gosling always strikes the right note and draws the viewer in to his characters’ emotions.  His portrayal was authentic, and I never doubted the performance.  There was a fateful air of sadness that hung over the movie, and Luke was a sympathetic character despite his criminal leanings.  Luke’s energy was palpable, and Gosling was magnetic in every scene.  The Place Beyond the Pines was a poignant, electrifying movie that explored the themes of fatherhood and manhood in a stirring and powerful way.  The camera loves Ryan Gosling, and you will too. Grade: A.