How do you make a happy movie in America without being jumped on? Either America has forgotten how to make uplifting films so deeply that a work like La La Land is, despite its uplifting façade, only a symptom of this malaise, or we have forgotten how to critically appraise such films without competing for the deepest and hardest cuts. Or maybe both.
Yesterday, we got the first fantastic trailer for Whiplash director Damien Chazelle’s new Los Angeles-set musical La La Land. It looks great and I can’t wait to see it. Ryan Gosling stars as a jazz pianist who falls for an aspiring actress, played by Emma Stone, in the City of Angels. There’s lots of singing and dancing and it is just not something that we really see anymore.
I’m excited because this is the next film from Chazelle, who blew me away with Whiplash. So stop what you’re doing and watch this right now. Lionsgate is planning to release Chazelle’s La La Land in select theaters starting December 2nd this year, with a wide release soon after.
Continuing our search for the Best Movie of all time, we come to 2011. Marching backwards to near the dawn of the decade, we saw some brave and creative work coming out of Hollywood. The Artist, a silent black and white film, swept five of the top awards at the Oscars including best picture, best director, and best actor. However, I did not see it as a brilliant work so much as a bit of nostalgia to feed to an industry which is extremely narcissistic.
Plenty of others could have made this list including three great Marvel properties (Captain America – The First Avenger, X-Men – First Class, and Thor) which set things running for the current spate of superhero films which we are all enjoying. We also had the end of the canonical Harry Potter franchise with The Deathly Hallows Part 2 even though Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is trying to recapture that magic later this year. And I can’t forget Super 8, Melancholia, Moneyball, Source Code, The Intouchables, and The Help just to name a few. It was a good year, but let’s take a look at my top 3.
From start to finish, many of 2015’s biggest news stories were centered around violence and terror threats and they showed a general sense of fear. The year began with a targeted terror strike in Paris and closed out with another planned attack in San Bernandino, California, proving that threats around the globe remain an issue for all.
However, much of the world found a place of solace at the theater amidst the fear and violence. 2015 featured a variety of films that showed the triumph of the spirit in the face of adversity, bigotry, and evil. Movies like: Southpaw, The Good Dinosaur, Joy, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Room, Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Revenant, The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Inside Out.
As fun and epic as the continuations of Mad Max, Star Wars, and Avengers were, there was not enough to set them apart and leave a lasting legacy. Leonardo Dicaprio deserved an Oscar for what Innaritu put him through in The Revenant, but the movie itself though stark and piercing didn’t create the effect in viewers that you expect from the best. The Martian was alternatively hilarious and harrowing, and Room ripped my heart out and slowly put it back together again, but there were a lot of really good movies in 2015. I keep coming back to three films from the year that will have some staying power. Here are my top 3 films of the year. Continue reading 2015 – Best Movie Bracket
The Nice Guys is to LA crime stories what Deadpool is to superhero flicks: at once a celebration and a send-up. That’s just the kind of storytelling moviegoers have come to expect from Shane Black, who directed the film and co-wrote it. Black has a history of blending irreverence and violence going all the way back to his legendary script for Lethal Weapon (1987). However, Black didn’t become a name until the release of Iron Man 3, which saw a lukewarm reaction from fans.
Several years before that Marvel film, Black made his directorial debut, with the black comedy/noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is great. In many ways, The Nice Guys feels like a spiritual successor to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. With twisty detective plots, style to spare, comedy as black as night, and a plethora of interesting characters, the films would make for a great double feature, and they showcase exactly where Black’s directorial strengths lie. Is this a family film? No way. Does it include scenes that some may find painful to watch? You bet. Will you be entertained? Thoroughly.
When I think of the collapse of the housing market and the beginning of the Great Recession, I don’t immediately think of a comedy. Millions of hard working Americans losing their homes and pensions and having to bear the burden of a government sponsored bailout makes me think of a hard-hitting and moving drama. Well, The Big Short is both of those. It is more than a comedy, but it is also tremendously entertaining even while it made me really mad and sad.
Adam McKay took the directorial chair in this adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book. McKay has previously been known for a number of Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman, The Other Guys and Step Brothers which kind of explains the tone of the film. Lewis has been responsible for writing a number of books that have made it to the big screen despite their traditionally dry subject matter, think Moneyball (another Brad Pitt Project) and to a lesser extent The Blind Side.
The Big Short is set in the years leading up to the financial meltdown of 2008 and tells the story of a handful of investors who saw it coming. Bitter humor (primarily delivered by an excellent narrator in Ryan Gosling) guides us through an educational journey that ultimately ends in tragedy (for everyone but our protagonists). The housing market is usually a rock-solid investment. But these guys read the signs and started suspecting that it was a skyscraper built on sand and it was getting ready to collapse. The “experts” of the day told them that it was impossible, That it couldn’t happen.
What was their argument? Because it never has. But they had no clue how blinded they had become by their own greed and self-interest. They continued giving loans to people, no matter if they’re qualified. And not just any loans but sub-prime adjustable rate mortgage loans. In some ways, it’s a horror story: We were all affected by the illegal and fraudulent activity that led to this downfall, and most of the culprits received no punishment (in fact many used the bailout money to give themselves substantial bonuses).
The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him. – Leo Tolstoy, 1897
Despite its ominous and (let’s be honest) boring subject matter. The film is so entertaining, I had to go back and see it a second time. It sports a star-studded cast (Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale) effortlessly operating at the top of their game. McKay uses a multitude of techniques to tell the story. There are plenty of fourth-wall breaking moments and monologues, my favorite being Anthony Bourdain using a cooking metaphor to explain the disgusting product that is a Collateralized Debt Obligation. There are jump cuts, slow motion, foreshadowing and flash backs. The filmmakers use any and all tricks to explain a complicated mess of financial underhandedness in order to help the audience understand, because as our narrator tells us, “Mortgage backed securities, subprime loans, tranches… Pretty confusing right? Does it make you feel bored? Or stupid? Well, it’s supposed to. Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or even better, for you to leave them the f*** alone.” The banks, mortgage brokers, the credit ratings agencies and the government manipulated people in the nation and world into investing in worthless packages of bonds, and it behooves the director and writer, Adam McKay, to use all cinematic tricks to explain and untangle the financial corruption. The miracle is that the film deciphers the economic melt-down well while entertaining its audience.
It would probably be a good time to compare this film to two other recent films which addressed similar issues but in very different ways. First you have the over the top Martin Scorsese film, Wolf of Wall Street. That film became known for the number of F-bombs it dropped while attempting to make the world of investing look cool. Then there was the Oscar winning documentary by Charles Ferguson, Inside Job. It had a cool narrator in Matt Damon, but you almost needed a degree in Finance to follow along as they explained the crisis and spoke to experts. I feel like Adam McKay sought to walk a like between these too films, it is not over the top in an attempt to be cool, nor is it preachy and heavy handed. It reminds me of a heist movie in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven, the casino gets taken for all it’s worth, but in the end the house still wins.
I’ll let you watch the movie for yourself to get to know the awesome characters that McKay develops for us. As a middle-class worker, I could not have less in common with these guys, but dang it if I didn’t feel myself rooting for and empathizing with them. We’ve got a socially backward fund manager who blasts death metal in his office. The two young guys who started on their own fund while they were still in college. Knowing that they are out of their league, they call in the investing giant turned reclusive doomsday-prepper. Then there’s the hedge-fund manager (and his team) with a bad attitude toward banks.
I already mentioned that our tour guide is played by Ryan Gosling, he is a subprime specialist at Deutsche Bank who is certain things will crash. He’s slicker than a used car salesman, but convincing and hilarious. It’s difficult to root for them when that means rooting against the economy and your own wallet. But McKay uses their formidable talents and personalities in such a way that makes it nearly impossible not to.