Thursday, January 5, 2017

Thoughts on a Slight Year in Movie Watching Allows "The Lobster" and "Moana" To Somehow Be Reviewed Together

The Lobster will frustrate some and titillate others.
In years past, I'd usually be putting together a top 10 list for last year around this time. That was something that seemed worthwhile back when I saw north of 125-150 titles a year, but now, it doesn't make much sense. I’ve only seen about 30 movies released in 2016 – what kind of credibility could a top 10 list possibly have?

That being said, I'm simply conditioned to do a year in review in my head around this time. And what's amazing is how consistent the make up at the top seems to be in terms of the types of films I rated highly. As with every year, I found myself intrigued by a few idiosyncratic independents that certainly won't be for everybody, but I also gravitated toward a few down-the-middle entertainments that just hit their notes so well that I fell really hard for them. In the past, movies like Spring Breakers (reviewed here), Ex Machina (reviewed here) and The One I Love have represented the former, while undervalued mainstream stuff like Gone Girl (reviewed here), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (reviewed here) and Bridge of Spies have represented the latter. This year, it’s the absurdist, dystopian black comedy The Lobster and Disney’s animated musical Moana representing the two extremes toward the top of the heap.

Written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, The Lobster depicts a society in which newly single adults are rounded up and sequestered in a hotel where they have 45 days to find a new romantic partner. Those who succeed are permitted to move back to society and embrace coupledom; those that fail are turned into an animal of their choosing and released into the world.

The film focuses on David (Colin Farrell, against type and fantastic), a schlub who arrives at the hotel with his brother (a dog) after his wife leaves him. If you think the premise sounds weird, I can tell you the execution is even stranger. The hotel has all kinds of odd rules, including a prohibition of masturbation despite a requirement for unfulfilled sexual stimulation by the service staff. There's also the fact that to be paired off with a mate, you must share a defining characteristic (an unsubtle critique of reductive online dating sites). David had previously connected with his wife over their nearsightedness. Meanwhile, an acquaintance with a limp laments how he can't couple up with a limping women because her limp will heal. In desperation, he periodically bashes his face so he can mimic her chronic nose bleeds. The couple struggles to make things work, and so naturally they are assigned a child to smooth over their relationship issues.

Hotel guests are given an opportunity to extend their stay by hunting rogue singles out in the wilderness. David eventually escapes the hotel and falls in with this group of loners, and he even forms a connection with a nearsighted woman (Rachel Weisz). However, the loners have rules of their own, and romantic connections are forbidden.

I don't want to give much more away here, but I will say that each time you think you know where the film is going, it pivots and does something else. I'm not entirely sure the film holds together the whole way through, as it's busy making so many different observations that it begins to meander and lose focus. However, the dry deadpan remains incredibly enjoyable throughout, and the whole thing is beautifully shot with ace acting from the principles, not to mention a great supporting cast that includes John C. Reilly, Léa Seydoux and Ben Whishaw. Besides, I'm convinced the lack of focus is part of the point. The Lobster serves as a thought-provoking satire of the superficial construct of courting, the societal pressure for coupledom and the insanity of love-induced sublimation, but it leaves plenty of room to poke at the potentially stifling nature of singledom as well. It's a Rorschach test about romantic relationships that's guaranteed to provoke a response, just not any sort of consistent one.

Look at how good the hair looks in Moana. And this is just a screen grab.
Along with this year’s Zootopia, Moana is the latest evidence that Disney Animation Studios has emerged from their early 2000s doldrums to stand alongside sister studio Pixar at the top of the animation heap. Both films will likely land Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, and Zootopia’s got the better chance to win because of its message about xenophobia and tolerance in this time of tremendous political uncertainty. It’s a great film, but for my money, the more traditionally structured Moana is even better.

In many ways, Moana is Disney returning to their formulaic bread and butter. It’s a musical about a princess directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the duo who brought the world Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and The Princess and the Frog. It even features a catchy “I want song,” which is that song in which an unsatisfied Disney protagonist sings about what they want (think “Part of Your World,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” or “When Will My Life Begin”). Well, actually Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is quick to point out she’s not really a princess, but she does have “How Far I’ll Go,” which is as catchy and affirmative as an “I want song” gets. Plus, as the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) points out, “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.”

As Kristen Page-Kirby with the Washington Post points out, that statement is rooted in a legit critique of Disney’s Princess Industrial Complex, which has long used the term princess to describe all of its central females, even the non-princesses, who, to be fair, usually transcend to princessdom by the end credits via hooking up with a royal dude. Unfortunately, this has long been displayed as the crowning achievement a Disney heroine can achieve.

Disney has been subtly introducing more feminist friendly messages into its princess stories. Take Frozen for instance. I initially objected to bits of the film (reviewed here), but having seen it a jillion times now (thanks, Cassie), I realize how deft it was in dealing with all of this stuff. Anna’s part of the story is largely focused on critiquing the ludicrously flimsy romances that typically define these tales, and Elsa (not a princess, but a queen) has way more pressing things to deal with than whether or not she can find a man.

Moana takes things a step further, giving us not only a rare non-white heroine (she’s Pacific Islander), but also the first Disney princess story with absolutely no romantic interest (yes, I know, Merida from Brave, but that’s Pixar not Disney). Instead, Moana’s whole arc is more of a traditional hero’s journey (save the day by restoring some gem to its proper place), something that seems pretty old hat, until you consider how progressive it is to put a female in this type of story. Moana isn’t finding a man, getting saved by one, or serving his needs; she’s finding herself, fighting her own battles and serving her people. In that respect she’s following in the footsteps of Mulan (another non-white heroine, which is interesting) and, well, no one else (and even Mulan had a love interest, albeit not a prince).
Like many of their recent films, Disney goes for the easy "aww"
with an early kid-centered prologue.

Like Tangled, this is basically a two-hander about a girl and the rapscallion who’s begrudgingly helping her, but Maui is more like a selfish version of Aladdin’s Genie than a love interest. It’s probably more accurate to call him a Jack Sparrow-type. He’s a fun and even complex character, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of a running tattoo gag that reminded me of a similar stylistic Greek chorus from Musker and Clements’ Hercules. Plus, Johnson really livens up the film when he’s around and even delivers with Maui’s big musical number “You Welcome” (which, more than any other song in this thing, even the one Lin-Manuel Miranda actually sings, makes crystal clear that the Hamilton mastermind concocted much of the soundtrack).

The film isn’t perfect. At times, it feels like it takes too long to get where it’s going, but that time is well spent and results in making the leads feel more dimensional than typical Disney creations. Compare it to the tonally similar yet tighter Brave (reviewed here), and it becomes evident how much that time adds narratively. Even if it is a bit overlong, the music is fantastic and the animation is outright dazzling. John Musker and Ron Clements are old hands at all of this, but this is their first go around with CGI, and it’s damn impressive how well they carried this thing off. Look at the way water or hair move in this thing. It’s transfixing.

Plotwise, Moana is as formulaic as The Lobster is unconventional, but both films left strong impression on me. Once I get around to seeing more films from last year, both may not remain in my top 10, but they’ll remain close, because they represent truly worthwhile cinema from 2016.
The Lobster A-, Moana A-

Saturday, December 31, 2016

"Trolls" Offers a Zany and Colorful Sugar Fix

Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake bring energy to Trolls.
Trolls was my daughter Cassie's first movie-going experience, so I'll cop to being completely swayed by her reaction. We cuddled the whole time, and she loved it. Thus, I loved it.

But the reality is that this isn't a very good movie. Trolls is entirely targeted at children, and so it doesn't have the strongest sense of plotting, character development or humor. Sure, it's cute, colorful and catchy, but it's mostly a formulaic, derivative mishmash of energized cover songs and zany visualizations in which characters fart glitter and poop cupcakes.

Beyond that though, there is, I think, a troublesome message in here about force-fed happiness and conformity, one that is directly opposed to the more nuanced takes in superior works like Inside Out and The Lego Movie (reviewed here). I'm not trying to be unfair. I like that the film ably gets the point across that it's important to look inward for happiness, and I challenge anyone who watches this thing not to be a little moved by the True Colors musical number. But I can't deny there's a disconnect here.

This is the high fructose corn syrup of the movie world. As with the real thing, it's a good idea not to overindulge on this type of treat, but it still offers a wallop of gratification for those looking for a sugar fix.C+

Friday, September 16, 2016

Live-Action "The Jungle Book" Provides Fresh Take On Old Tale

Jon Favreau's take on The Jungle Book is pretty damn good.
In recent years, Disney has fully committed to remaking their animated films in live action. Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Maleficent, Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass, The Jungle Book and the recently released Pete's Dragon have already come out, and a slew of others, including the hotly-anticipated Emma Watson-led Beauty and the Beast, are in the pipeline.

The strategy makes sense. The six films Disney has already released have garnered upwards of $2.5 billion worldwide. Why attempt to create something new when that kind of lucrative layup is right there for the taking?

I'm generally ambivalent about the concept of remakes, although I'll cop to preferring an artistically legit, non-monetary reason for making one. I prefer remakes that improve upon flawed films in some way (Ocean's 11), bring great stories to a larger audience (e.g. Insomnia, The Departed), or add some new wrinkle or point of view. For all its flaws, Maleficent accomplished that last point, while films like Cinderella and Alice and Wonderland felt like pure cash grabs through and through.

Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book proves itself worthy. The fact that effects have advanced to the point that this world can be believably rendered in "live action" could justify a remake on its own, but the film seals the deal by taking a decidedly modern approach to a story that has long been stuck in antiquated and offensive concepts of racial superiority. As originally conceived by Rudyard Kipling and then reiterated in the 1967 animated version, this story has historically advocated that we all need to be put in our proper place. It's imperialistic propaganda, a creed against social upheaval that simultaneously implies primitive cultures need to adopt Western advancements.

Throughout the film, Mowgli (Neel Sethi) is chastised for utilizing ingenuity to accomplish tasks because "it's not the wolf way" to use such tricks. Seeing the inherent benefits of what Mowgli does, Baloo (Bill Murray) reacts by saying "who cares?" And that's definitely the viewpoint this version hammers home. It follows the "you do you" ideology, suggesting that differences are to be celebrated and that nobody has to fit into predetermined boxes.
It's crazy scary how much of Christopher Walken's actual face the mo-cap
people transferred to King Louie.

From a plot perspective, the most interesting thing this version does occurs at the end. In the original text, Mowgli uses fire to best Shere Khan, achieving supremacy over the animal kingdom by embracing civilization. This results in him being forced to leave the jungle and be with man where he never really fits in anyway. As a result, he becomes a being with no nation.

That's far more tragic than the animated film many of us are most familiar with. In that version, the fire doesn't distance Mowgli from his friends, but he does make the decision to embrace humanity and civilization anyway, because it's what is best for him. In other words, he steps into the predetermined box he belongs in.

Here, Mowgli definitely learns to appreciate his position as man, but, ever the noble savage, he avoids distancing himself from the animals by rejecting fire and avoiding the corruption that comes with civilization. As what is essentially a mouthpiece for Kipling's original vision, Shere Khan (Idris Elba) has spent the entire movie warning against that corruption, and, yet, when Mowgli throws man's red flower away and proves him wrong, he says it's the stupidest thing the mancub could've done. Neither Khan nor Kipling understand the outside the box thinking.

There is so much going on here thematically, that it's hard to believe this is a kids movie. For instance, some could argue that Shere Khan functions as a stand-in for current isolationist politicians that prey on fears related to immigration and race. Others might see allusions to gun control or technology run amok in Mowgli's decision to reject fire and the power and adjoining distance that come with it.

That being said, this isn't some heady experience. Like the animated film, this new version is a ton of fun, and it even offers it's own renditions of "Bear Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You." The vocal performances of both Murray (soulful conman) and Elba (seriously terrifying) are the undeniable highlights of the voice cast, but Ben Kingsley, Christopher Walken and Scarlett Johansson do strong work as Bagheera, King Louie, and Kaa. I particularly appreciate how Walken's interpretation of King Louie as a sort of mob heavy sidesteps the distracting racial controversy surrounding the animated version of the character.

The effects in this thing are ridiculously good most of the time, and this is probably the best use of this technology since Life of Pi (reviewed here) or Avatar. However, there are moments where the cracks show, which are extra noticeable since the other moments around those moments have been so good. Fortunately, Sethi, the one real thing on screen, is up to the task of carrying the movie. His authenticity goes a long way toward selling this whole endeavor as a family experience fully worthy of your time. A-

Fun In Parts, "Suicide Squad" Is Still Spoiled By the Same Old Wanky D/C Plotting and Characterization

Will Smith and Margot Robbie display good chemistry in their second 
film together.

Like several of its main characters, Suicide Squad suffers from some sort of personality disorder. At times, it feels fresh, vibrant, and kinetic, operating with the same type of tongue-in-cheek mania that defined Deadpool. But unlike that incredibly successful Marvel adaptation, this D/C Comics joint fouls up many of the basics of superhero 101. The main bad guy sucks of course (that’s usually the way it goes), and the climax involves the same tired race to stop some doohickey from destroying the world (ditto). But worse than the that, the fights aren’t very dynamic, the logic of the whole thing is a mess, and, the characterization is problematic at best. As a result, the film plays a lot like The Losers, another mediocre team-up film from D/C that basically nobody remembers.

However, while The Losers was a totally innocuous property, Suicide Squad features small roles for Batman and Joker, two of the most popular comic book characters on the planet, and thus it can be sold as a major event to fans. As such, it simultaneously reaps the benefit of a built-in audience and gets crushed under the weight of expectations.

When I say small roles, I'm not kidding. Batman (Ben Affleck) and Flash (Ezra Miller) are inserted into short sequences solely to provide set-up for our antiheros. Joker (Jared Leto) has more to do, but not much -- he's really nothing more than tangential chaos on the margins of the main story. He's an interesting tertiary baddie, but he basically rates less on the importance scale than Yondu did in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Instead, the primary focus of the film is on the titular suicide squad, or rather it's supposed to be. The idea here is that ruthless government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has implanted explosive devices into a gallery of gifted villains, with the aims of forcing them to do the nation's dirty work. It's a familiar concept, but also a good one. Unfortunately, only half the team gets any semblance of development, while the rest serve as little more than set-dressing.

This is comically evident during a finale in which the villain attempts to neutralize our heroes by promising to fulfill their deepest desires. Conflicted mercenary and expert marksman Deadshot (Will Smith), Joker's crazy mol Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), fire-wielding El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the soldier in charge of all these wackos, all have visions of their desires, but the film doesn't even bother investing the time in the other members of the team, including Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and martial arts expert Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a character so extraneous that she doesn't even get an introduction in the opening montage.

Not that it would've meant much. In his introduction, Captain Boomerang is shown to be a shit-bag who turns on his accomplices at the first opportunity, and yet, with no development whatsoever, the script has him go all Han Solo/Jack Sparrow in the end. A similar moment occurs with El Diablo, who is far better realized but still doesn't earn his departing line about the team being his new family. Excepting the bonds Deadshot independently forms with Harley and Flag, none of this camaraderie is earned in even a kinda-sorta way. Consider how much less credible these people feel as a team than the characters of Guardians or The Avengers do.

This all sounds super negative, but the film is a mostly enjoyable watch. It's stylish, has a lively soundtrack and some game performances. Smith and Kinnaman are fine anchors, and although he isn't given the room to deliver an iconic take like his forbearers, Leto is interesting as a thug Joker. Robbie and Davis are the standouts, suggesting distinct shades of villainy and vulnerability, which is a pretty cool thing to say when talking about such a dude-heavy movie and genre. As poorly as the film serves the rest of its cast, it serves these characters pretty well, which is a valuable thing since they are the five most important ones. Still, I wish the second tier characters had been afforded the same level of thought that Marvel affords the likes of Scarlett Witch, Vision or Falcon.

But, of course they weren't, because this isn't Marvel, it's D/C. Like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, this feels like a cool concept sunk by poor characterization and screwy plotting. Of chief concern with that last point -- why the hell is Waller even bothering to utilize such potential security threats when she has access to information that could lead her to more heroic accomplices like Batman, Flash and Aquaman (Jason Mamoa)? I'm going to assume it has something to do with a sadistic impulse to control powerful beings, but, once again, that means the D/C Universe is lazily asking me to just assume character beats it's not actually developing (as they did with Lex in Dawn of Justice). Not exactly the kind of thing I'm thinking about when I hope for consistency in such a cinematic universe. C+

Monday, July 18, 2016

Far From Ruinous, "Ghostbusters" Is a Celebration of a Childhood of Busting Ghosts

Proof of my childhood obsession. I wore this
constantly, usually along with my proton pack.
People have been lobbing unjust grenades at the latest Ghostbusters movie since it was first announced, based partly on the fact that Sony was rebooting the property at all, but also simply because it was going to star women instead of men. The narrative: this film was ruining childhoods and PC culture had gone too far. It's a pretty hilarious fear when you consider this tweet from David Ehrlich, senior film critic at Indie Wire.

Ghostbusters (2016) is finally out in theaters now, which means there's actually a product to judge, as opposed to blind speculation. The film is getting mostly good reviews, but it's hard to say if that's a knee jerk reaction from reviewers keen to knock nostalgia-huggers and misogynists down a peg, or a legitimate reaction to the film itself, which in the here and now isn't so much a movie as it is the locus of a warped culture war.

Based on the finished product, writer/director Paul Feig certainly has a sense of humor about all of it. Early in the film, after they post a video of an encounter with a ghost on the Internet, the leads read some of the comments, including "Ain't no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts." They brush aside the criticism, saying something about the pointlessness of putting stock in what Internet trolls type in the middle of the night (zing!).

But the film also addresses what it's like to be a woman in a man's world in the way it consistently puts the leads up against obstructionist men who seek to delegitimize them. Every female in the film provides them with help in some way, whereas every male functions as hindrance or a road block. Reflecting on it now, it's hard not to consider the way our culture treats women and the victim-blaming that follows sexual assault.

That's all in the subtext, but I don't want to overstep. Questioned credibility and presumed incompetence is an inherent part of a Ghostbusters outing, or really most paranormal-tinged movies in general. Believe me when I say this is a popcorn film first and foremost, and one of my favorite things about it is that the sex of the leads is largely irrelevant. By doing nothing more than modifying a few jokes, this film could easily star the likes of Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Bill Hader, and Craig Robinson instead of Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. The fact that it doesn't isn't an indication of out of control political correctness, it's just the way it is.

It really is amazing how nostalgia manifests itself. Sometimes, there's out-sized excitement when studios bring back beloved properties (e.g. Fuller House, Jurassic World), and other times there's this type of overblown negativity. I remember getting into a conversation with an angry fan just after the release of the first CGI Alvin and the Chipmunks. She was incensed that a movie studio was stomping on the sanctity of her childhood memories, taking something she had loved and denigrating it for monetary gain. I remember arguing that a cartoon about singing chipmunks wasn't exactly a beacon of artistic integrity, that it was always a mediocre property designed with a bottom line to make money and sell merchandise. It's basically processed junk food, but it has been all along - the quality is really no different, the perspective is.
Kate McKinnon is amazing.
Ghostbusters is a bit different in that regard, because it has a deserved reputation as an outright classic. As such, someone could certainly make a legitimate argument that doing a follow up besmirches the original solely for the sake of commerce. At least they could have 30 years ago. The reality is that the franchise itself has already been diluted with oodles of lesser entries -- multiple cartoons, video games and a true sequel -- none of which can hold a candle to the original.

Unsurprisingly, this film doesn't either, but it's not a bad successor by any means. That's mostly because it's very funny, but there's also the refreshing fact that it's preoccupied with being its own thing. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of callbacks and cameos, but when it comes to tone, this one is very different. A laconic edge hangs over the original film, which is tons of fun no doubt, but also carries the same melancholy that defined every Bill Murray/Harold Ramis collaboration.

It's often said that Ramis grounded Dan Aykroyd's fantastical treatment for the first film, and while this one doesn't get as crazy as his original vision, it definitely leans more toward the Aykroyd vibe, which is unsurprising given his status as executive producer. It's still got an air of anarchic mischief (mostly due to the bemused live-wire that is McKinnon who's Holtzman feels like the greatest possible amalgamation of Peter, Egon and Ray), but it's more joyful than cynical, excitably spastic and consumed with an over abundance of technobabble and gadgetry.

While the central players in the original had a blue collar, been-there-done-that vibe, these new characters are fresh-faced and beyond giddy. In terms of plotting, that makes sense (the original takes place over a far longer period of time), but it's more than that. Honestly, I lost count of how many times a character says something like "that was awesome" or "this is so cool," but we're talking multiple dozens.

And it is cool. Whereas the original film played things pretty simple (proton pack to subdue ghosts, traps to capture them, and a resolution featuring one foe), the new one introduces an armory of gadgets, allows for ghosts to be vaporized, not just trapped, and ends with an action-packed slugfest between our heroes and an army of ghosts. Needless to say, the toy possibilities are endless. And that's kind of appropriate given that this film is less an ode to the original film as it is to The Real Ghostbusters cartoon and what it felt like to play Ghostbusters as a kid.

The Times Square throw down is indicative of the different approach here.
Getting more specific on the particulars of the film, I'll say that I'm a big fan of all these funny ladies bouncing off of each other, although I thought the script went over the top with all the scientific speak. I greatly enjoyed Chris Hemsworth's commitment to stupidity, and thought hanging the spine of the film on the fractured friendship between Wiig's Erin and McCarthy's Abby was a smart move, even if the resolution felt formulaic. I liked the way Slimmer and Stay Puft were used, but at the same time I was pretty underwhelmed by the film's inability to introduce new fun adversaries like them.

Speaking of adversaries, the big bad guy ultimately morphs into the ghostbusters logo (a nod to the opening credits of The Real Ghostbusters), but before that I found him to be the weakest part of the film. I guess they weren't exactly going to vilify the environmental protection agency in 2016, so an angry nerd makes sense, especially when you consider how well his arc plays off of the central one involving Erin embracing outsider status.

As far as science fiction antecedents with a debt to Ghostbusters are concerned, this doesn't quite measure up to Men in Black but it's a step above the likes of Evolution. It certainly doesn't trample all over any childhoods, and I say that as someone who's whole childhood was defined by Ghostbusters with a dash of Ninja Turtles, '60s era Batman and Monster Squad thrown in.

Some may not like that a group of women are leading the film, and they may even stoop to suggesting Ramis is rolling over in his grave (more on this in a great essay by his daughter), but screw 'em. This puppy brought back vivid memories of running around the school yard pretending to be ghostbusters with boys and girls, not to mention the original badass girl ghostbuster, Janine. The film is a celebration of what it meant to love Ghostbusters as a kid, and girls should get to play in that sandbox too. I stand by that claim, even though I acknowledge it is nudgingly muddied, at least on the symbolic level, by the image of four females literally shooting the Ghostbusters logo in the nuts at the end of the film (zing!). B

Friday, June 24, 2016

"The Big Short" and "Spotlight" Tackle Uncomfortable Truths Enroute to Screenplay Oscars

The Big Short uses Jenga to explain the unsound structure of CDOs.
Late in The Big Short, Brad Pitt, who gets to play a voice of reason and anger in a landscape of sly schmucks just as he did in 12 Years A Slave and Killing Me Softly, chastises his compatriots, saying, “If we're right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings. People lose pensions. You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here's a number - every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die, did you know that?” It’s a sobering moment, one that is undercut by the character’s willingness to go along with the scheme he's involved with, as well as his assurance that excitement is ok as long as you “just don’t fucking dance.”

That scene perfectly highlights the fact that while the featured players in The Big Short pride themselves on being anti-Wall Street crusaders, they're actually worse than all the amoral scum that started the problem by banking on high risk subprime loans, because they know better and still opt to short the investments. No matter how you slice it, these are men who looked at a terrible situation and decided to profit off of it instead of doing something about it, making the situation 10 times worse in the process. They may have thought they were sticking it to the big banks for screwing the American people, but by trying to profit in the offing, they guaranteed the American people would be left holding the bag. 

The Big Short doesn't shy away from the issue, even while it's courting viewers to root for all these shifty characters. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) opts to leave hedge funds behind because "business kills the part of life that is essential," while the film's smug narrator Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) cops to being a douche, saying “I can feel you judging me. It’s palpable.” Vennett admits he's not the hero of this story, right after which a quick cut to Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), the most incensed of our protagonists, acts as movie code for "here's your hero."
And he is... sort of. He's the lead of the film, the one with a tragic back story that has filled him with anger and made him obsessed with taking on the system. He's hubristically convinced he can hurt the big banks where it counts, but in doing so he fails to account for just how sneaky they can be. When he finally realizes that type of victory is impossible – when he dines with a particularly vile piece of work and learns the banks have responded to the short sales on their collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) by shorting the shorts with synthetic CDOs comprised of credit default swaps – he decides if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. He tells his team to "short everything that man has touched," further adding to the mounting crisis. Later, when he finally opts to sell, the movie asks us to sympathize with Baum, because the banks got bailed out and he rightly predicts that in a few years everyone will just "be blaming immigrants and poor people.”
I don't know how to respond to that -- part of me loves that the film coaxes us to root for these guys, making us complicit in their scheming, only to have us come out the other end incensed and angry at everyone, these characters included. But most of me just wants to take a bath. There’s an ingrained desire in a film like this to have a character to gravitate toward, someone who distances him or herself from all the hustlers and sort of condemns them for what they've done, ala Bud Fox in Wall Street. But ultimately, I think writer/director Adam McKay made the right call avoiding that type of plotting, and that's specifically because it left me so much more outraged as a result. 
Like The Wolf of Wall Street before it, The Big Short employs a flippant dark-comic approach in its depiction of financial corruption, even going so far as to break the fourth wall with multiple celebrity cameos to make the financial terminology easier to understand. The tone works, and so too does the disdainful and cynical mood that is engendered by an ending note that warns CDOs have come back into the current market as "bespoke tranche opportunities," not to mention the ludicrous moment in which the leads are mentioned in the same breath as Robert Redford in All the President's Men.
Dogged investigative journalism unearths a major Church sex
scandal in Spotlight.
That Redford comparison would be far more apt for the characters of Spotlight, which takes a far more serious approach to what is essentially a very similar story. Sure, The Big Short takes aim at the 2008 financial crisis brought on by the U.S. housing bubble, while Spotlight tackles child molestation cover-ups by the Catholic church, but both function as cinematic activism about uncomfortable truths, or, put another way, as dramatized public service announcements about renegades railing against entrenched institutional villainy. The main characters in each film even sit on their scandalous information for an extended period of time, but while analysts in The Big Short do so to reap the financial benefits (and because the banks won't allow the other shoe to drop until they distance themselves a bit from the fallout), the reporters in Spotlight do so to ensure they write a strong story built on evidence so they can truly make a difference and enact change (and because of delays related to the tragedy on September 11).
Spotlight is a procedural set against the backdrop of a unique time in journalism, right when the proliferation of Internet content brought on a whole slew of cost-cutting measures and online poser "journalists" that crippled the previously prestigious and powerful print media. Long-term investigative journalism in which a reporter (or in the case of the Boston Globe's Spotlight team, a whole team of reporters) spent months breaking a huge story by rooting out actual nuggets of verifiable information used to be common practice, but now there's barely enough money to adequately staff breaking news coverage and even less time to properly confirm sources. The Globe's Spotlight team is still doing this type of work, but such opportunities are increasingly few and far between. As such, Spotlight also serves as a love-song to a profession that has fallen on hard times, but that, at its best, can expose corruption and righteously check institutional injustice as the fourth estate.
At the outset of the film, Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), a new editor from outside the city, is brought in to take over the Globe, and immediately the newsroom is whispering about potential layoffs and apprehension over his lack of Boston roots. His first order of business is to question the staff about a column that mentioned 25 defendants have hired lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to bring a civil lawsuit against a catholic priest accused of sexually abusing more than 100 children. The records are sealed, and unlike the rest of the Globe staff, many of whom have ties to the church, Baron, a Jewish outsider unfamiliar with the power and influence the church wields in the city, wonders why. And so he puts the four-man Spotlight crew on the case, all of whom have a different reaction to the case, especially as the number of potential victims continues to grow.
Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) is so shaken by the victims and perpetrators she interviews that she stops going to mass and finds it difficult to talk with her devout grandmother. Meanwhile, Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) is alarmed that the church has a house for "retired" priests right down the block from his family home, and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) is angry, so angry that he wants to publish the information as soon as possible to protect the public. Section editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) wants to wait, mostly to get the story right (he needs to convince a source he has a personal relationship with to confirm information), but also partly because of the shame he feels because he, and anyone who came across this information in the past, deserves some blame for not exposing all of this a long time ago. As Garabedian says, "If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one."
In a story like this, process trumps character, but writer/director Tom McCarthy (who shed light on the less attractive qualities of modern journalism as an actor on season 5 of The Wire) peppers in a series of effective character moments without ever tipping the scales into heavy-handed melodrama. It helps to have such a phenomenal cast giving one lived-in performance after another. Ruffalo and McAdams received nominations for their work, but everyone is on point here, especially Keaton, Schreiber and Tucci. They bring gravitas, authenticity, compassion, and a palpable sense of tenacious professionalism.  
The Big Short and Spotlight are two of 2015's tightly-structured films, and so it should surprise no one that they walked away with the screenplay awards at this year's Oscars. Both cover infuriating systemic treachery, albeit in completely different walks of life and with completely different point of views. If I prefer Best Picture winner Spotlight, it's mostly because it left me entirely satisfied by its well-oiled machinery and the win for the good guys, especially compared to The Big Short, which, by design, left me unsettled and foaming at the mouth.
The Big Short A-, Spotlight A

Thursday, June 16, 2016

"Captain America: Civil War" Does the Warring Super Hero Thing Better Than "Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice"

Both Dawn of Justice and Civil War promise super hero smack downs.
It's pretty hard not to compare Captain America: Civil War and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Not only did they come out within weeks of each other, but they both feature a super hero throw down built around a disagreement over civilian casualties during world saving battles. Furthermore, they both focus on normally squeaky clean, super-powered American icons acting as renegades while traditionally darker billionaires with major tech advancements try to stop them. The big difference is that Civil War features coherent conflict rooted in long-term character development, while Dawn of Justice is an uneven mish-mash of incomprehensible plot turns and motivations, with some nonsensical foreshadowing thrown in.

Before going any further, I should probably list my reviewer baggage in the interest of transparency. Going into these films, I expected to like Civil War more than Dawn of Justice. That’s basically because I have long admired Marvel’s gutsy move to do a slow build with their cinematic universe, while I suspected D/C was rushing theirs in an effort to get to that big Avengers-type money as quickly as possible.

That doesn’t mean I hate D/C. I loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, liked Man of Steel quite a bit, love Ben Affleck, and appreciate the cinematic grandiosity director Zack Snyder is trying to bring to this whole thing. It also doesn’t mean I’m totally in the tank for all things Marvel. They rely far too heavily on macguffins, generally lack compelling villains and tend to prioritize synergistic plotting over artistic identity. Sure they gleefully embrace a lot of genres and develop good characters, but there’s a reason many of their directors have been culled from the television world. Unlike in traditional cinema where individualism and idiosyncrasy is praised, TV values a director’s ability to blend and make his or her episode(s) feel like one piece in a larger puzzle. So too does Marvel.

Given the length of this piece, I think it's best not to go over the plots of the films. If you need a plot refresher, head over to Wikipedia, because otherwise I'm just diving right in to analysis.

The biggest appeal of both these films is the fact that they’re packed with super heroes fighting against each other. You can tell that much simply by looking at the posters, which feature heroes on opposite sides staring at each other intently. And action-wise, both films are pretty great. The central fight of Civil War is amazingly fun, and while nothing in Dawn of Justice is quite up to that level, it totally owns the Batman (Affleck) fights, showcasing both the fluid choreography of the Nolan films and all those wonderful toys of the Tim Burton ones.

Promising a big melee like that is a fun, but dangerous proposition for a film, one that can lead to great action, but muddled narratives. Overcrowding in comic book movies rarely works because it requires too much juggling and doesn’t allow for enough development. Spider-Man 3 and Batman and Robin are great examples, of this, and to an extent, so are the mostly good X-Men movies, which consistently marginalize huge chunks of the team in favor of Wolverine, Magneto and Xavier.

Cap's team operates as rouge agents once the Sarkovia accords are passed.
There’s no doubt Civil War is far more crowded than Dawn of Justice, but while it has four times as many super heroes, it does a better job of servicing their stories. Spider-man (Tom Holland) and Ant-man (Paul Rudd) are ringers for each side (and provided the highlights of the blowout fight), but everybody else has strong motivations rooted in actual character development. Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, the soul and stealth MVP of the MCU) get particularly strong material to play. The same can’t be said of Dawn of Justice, which relegates Superman (Henry Cavill) to a bit player in favor of doing what’s basically a Batman movie on drugs.

Discounting Dawn of Justice’s “blink and you’ll miss ‘em” cameos from Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher), each film actually introduces two new super heroes, one of whom (Batman, Black Panther) is far more central to the story than the other (Spider-man, Wonder Woman).

Batman and Black Panther have similar revenge arcs, and both actors make strong impressions. However, although Batman is basically the main character of Dawn of Justice, he’s very one note, and structuring his about-face around the fact that both he and Superman have mothers named Martha is pretty goddamn stupid. Meanwhile, Black Panther isn’t asked to carry the load of his film, and yet he still feels more dimensional and his turnaround tracks better dramatically.

The inclusion of Spider-man and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in these films is inorganic and reeks of corporate desire to sell toys and advance the universe engines at play. Wonder Woman is kept intentionally mysterious, so Spider-man ends up feeling like more of a character. He’s also a hell of a lot more fun, which helps mitigate issues surrounding his inclusion.

But really, inserting characters into these stories as setups for future films doesn’t bother me all that much. To some degree, these movies are always going to do that, so you just have to hope they can also stand on their own as well. Spider-man and Wonder Woman function fine, and the D/C cameos found in the videos Wonder Woman watches are appropriate teases.

However, sometimes these things go a bit too far, and I’d venture to say Dawn of Justice oversteps when it has Flash come from the future to warn Batman in a dream sequence. I assume Superman will become evil, maybe due to red kryptonite, and this message will tie in with The Justice League somehow, but, as a piece of this movie, it’s just confusing and feels like wasted minutes. In fact, all the Batman dreams feel that way. If all that time dedicated to dream sequences was spent on further developing characters, the film would’ve benefited greatly.

In stories like this, it’s a fait accompli that the main bad guy is going to be sidelined. That’s because narratively speaking, the main bad guy isn’t the main adversary; the other super hero serves that function until the third act at which time the super heroes basically hug and realize they need to join forces to stop the actual bad guy.

To it's credit, Dawn of Justice definitely looks cool.
I fully expected this dynamic going into these movies, but, once again, it’s pretty surprising just how similar the set-ups are. Neither Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) nor Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) are some side threat looking to take over the world; instead both are just interested in coercing super heroes into killing each other.

Their reasoning is what separates the two. Zemo was a Sarvokian special ops type whose family was killed during the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. The movie implies he’s trying to gather a collection of super soldiers for a nefarious purpose, but that’s just a red herring. All he wants is to get revenge on the Avengers, and his whole plan is built around exposing the fact that Bucky Barnes killed Tony Stark’s parents to accomplish that task. The plotting’s not airtight – it’s left unclear how Zemo knew such information existed or how he knew Captain America would react the way he does, but it’s simple and it works.

Meanwhile, Luthor’s motivations are far more complicated. He’s basically a megalomaniacal millionaire driven mad by a grab-bag of shit, including thirst for supremacy, the very existence of metahumans, and daddy issues. If I think hard enough about it, I’d guess his daddy issues caused him to become a cut-throat social climber/innovator, which brought about a sort of hot-shit god complex that was completely obliterated by the existence of meta-humans, chiefly Superman. But that requires a lot of work on my part, while asking very little of the screenplay.

Truth be told, that’s really not a bad arc, and could totally play if given the proper development. But when you’re fitting all your world-building into the margins, it just doesn’t work because it doesn’t have the time too. If you’re going to have a sidelined bad guy, better to have one with streamlined motivations, instead of ambitious overreaching that leads to a crazed Luthor inexplicably gaining access to the information within the Krytonian ship and, even more ridiculously transforming the corpse of Zod (Michael Shannon) into Doomsday.

But that's generally the whole deal with Dawn of Justice, which looks great and gets some things right, but continuously borders on ridiculousness. And it's so far beyond the Doomsday crap, the Martha thing (god, the Martha thing), and the Flash dream sequence. It's also the fact that Batman is gullible as hell, or that he nonsensically abandons his kryptonite spear, or that Superman's super hearing super sucks (not only can he not hone in on his kidnapped mother's location the way he does routinely with Lois (Amy Adams), but he can't even hear a bomb that's like 10 yards away from him).
This meme that references Step Brothers is the perfect takedown of
a major plot point in Dawn of Justice.
Many of Dawn of Justice’s problems are born of D/C’s insistence in taking short-cuts toward a team-up movie instead of laying the proper foundation over a series of films like Marvel did. I can imagine a world in which D/C Comics wasn’t taking short-cuts to The Justice League, but instead decided to make a legit Man of Steel sequel that took place during the 18 months skipped between the two movies, allowing for some development of the Clark and Lois dynamic, as well as the Luthor’s obsession and a hint about his search into metahumans (say for instance, a post-credit sequence indicating he found footage of Wonder Woman).

They could’ve then followed that up with their Wonder Woman movie, which could’ve ended with a post-credit sequence showing Wonder Woman discovering Luthor has her picture. This would’ve effectively laid the seeds for her whole story thread in Dawn of Justice, while also grounding her and Luthor as actual characters worth giving a shit about, not to mention lending further shading (and thus further shit giving) to Lois, Clark and they’re relationship. Then, you could let Dawn of Justice play out as a Batman introduction, while setting up The Justice League.

But no. Instead they decided to bum rush Batman, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor and metahuman concept into one movie all because they wanted their own Avengers without waiting through years of buildup. As a result, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is hit-and-miss entertainment, especially compared to the well-oiled, emotionally involving Captain America: Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War A-, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, B-

For added fun, here's my personal rankings from all these franchises.

Marvel Cinematic Universe
  1. Captain America: The First Avenger A
  2. Iron Man A
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy A- (review)
  4. Captain America: Civil War A-
  5. The Avengers B+ (review)
  6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier B+
  7. Thor B+
  8. Ant-Man B+ (review)
  9. Iron Man 3 B+ (review)
  10. Avengers: Age of Ultron B
  11. Thor: The Dark Ages B-
  12. The Incredible Hulk B-
  13. Iron Man 2 C+

Batman Films
  1. The Dark Knight A+
  2. Batman Begins A
  3. Batman Returns A
  4. The Dark Knight Rises A- (review)
  5. Batman B+
  6. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice B-
  7. Batman Forever C+
  8. Batman and Robin D+

Superman Films
  1. Superman A-
  2. Superman II B+
  3. Man of Steel B+ (review)
  4. Superman Returns B-
  5. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice B-
  6. Superman III D
  7. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace haven’t seen it