The Big Short

A new review from the desk of The Movie Snob.

The Big Short  (B+).  This movie is entertaining and infuriating and unnerving at the same time.  It’s sort of an educational movie in that it tries to explain, at least in broad outline, what caused the housing bubble and the following economic crash in 2007.  (Greed, stupidity, and lack of oversight all seem to have played large roles.)  When the jargon starts to get too complicated, director Adam McKay lightens the mood by pausing and bringing in Margot Robbie (Z for Zachariah) and Selena Gomez (Spring Breakers) to explain and simplify things for us.  But the movie is mainly entertaining because it focuses on a handful of financial outsiders and oddballs who figured out not only that the bubble was bound to burst (and even roughly when it would happen) but also how to cash in when it did.  These characters are well played by Christian Bale (American Hustle), Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine), Brad Pitt (Troy), and especially Steve Carell (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) as a tightly wound money guy who starts out thinking that the whole world is full of crooks and frauds and eventually realizes he still wasn’t cynical enough.  It’s not at all what I would have expected from McKay, director of Talladega Nights and Anchorman 2.  All in all, it’s a solid movie, but one that left me a little angry and a little nervous about the future.

The Best Movies I Saw in 2014, by The Movie Snob

Welcome to The Movie Snob’s “Best of 2014” column.  I will look back over the 71 movies I saw in the theater last year and tell you which movies you need to see if you haven’t already done so.  As happens every year, some of the movies mentioned will be releases from the previous year (2013), just because I didn’t get around to seeing them until 2014.

Movie of the Year.  I gave out seven “A-“ grades this year, which seems like a pretty high number for a tough grader like me.  It’s tough to single one out, but I’m going to go with Fury, an intense WWII combat movie starring Brad Pitt as a seasoned tank commander in the vanguard of the final American charge to Berlin.  It had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.  Not for the squeamish, to be sure, but it’s a great adventure if you have the stomach for it.

Runners-Up.  I’m going to pick two this year.  One is a sentimental little movie called St. Vincent, starring a decidedly unsentimental Bill Murray as a cantankerous and boozy geezer who just might have a heart of gold.  Maybe.  The other is Jersey Boys, a biopic about the rise of pop music sensations Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  I think it was considered a bit of an underperformer, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  Hands down, my pick for this category is Edge of Tomorrow, a twisty time-travel/sci-fi story starring Tom Cruise and the delightful Emily Blunt.  This movie totally underperformed at the box office, and it deserved much better.  They’re trying to re-brand it on DVD by essentially renaming it “Live. Die. Repeat.,” so don’t be confused when you rush down to the Redbox to rent it.  As runner-up in this category, I’ll give a nod to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which I thought was the best movie in the Hobbit trilogy.  For lack of anywhere else to put it, I will also recommend Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the biblical patriarch himself.  As long as you don’t insist on a literal retelling of the Genesis story, you should like it fine.

Best Animated Movie.  I think it was a 2013 release, but Frozen was the best of the few animated features I saw in 2014.  Enough said; Elsa doesn’t need any promotion from me.

Best Comedy.  This is always a tough category.  I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel quite a bit, but it is hardly a straight comedy.  The same goes for the Woody Allen flick Magic in the Moonlight, which is a bit of a romantic comedy but has a little philosophical steel to it.  As for the new movies I saw that were straight comedies (e.g., 22 Jump Street, Neighbors)—forget about them.  They were terrible.

Best Documentary.  For sci-fi geeks like me, it would be hard to beat Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about a visionary science-fiction movie that never got made.  I also enjoyed Tim’s Vermeer, about an inventor who tries to figure out how Vermeer painted such awesome paintings, and Life Itself, a biopic about my late colleague Roger Ebert.  Particle Fever, about the superconducting supercollider in Europe, was also interesting and enjoyable.

Best Drama.  Well, the two best dramas I saw last year were foreign films, so I’ll save them for that category.  Instead, I’ll give this honor to a 2013 release, Philomena (which was apparently an American-British-French co-production).  It’s a sad movie, based on a true story about an Irish woman trying to find her son, who was taken away from her and adopted out decades earlier because she was an unwed mother.  Judi Dench is great in it, but then she’s always great, pretty much.  I also liked The Fault in Our Stars pretty well.

Best Foreign Film.  The Polish film Ida was one of my absolute favorite films of the year.  It’s a beautiful movie about a young woman—an aspiring nun—in 1960s Poland who must learn about her family’s mysterious and tragic past before she can decide how to move forward with her own life.  Close behind is The Past, a French/Iranian movie about some Iranians in Paris who are trying to sort out their very complicated domestic relations and move on with their lives.  And I’ll mention a third very good foreign film, the Swedish movie We Are the Best!, about a trio of teenaged girls who try to form a punk band in 1982.

Best Science-Fiction MovieEdge of Tomorrow is the clear winner here, but I already used it for Best Action/Adventure Flick.  Setting that film aside, I would pick Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as intrepid astronauts trying to find a new home for humanity as Earth gradually becomes uninhabitable.  I also recommend the goofy Guardians of the Galaxy as a fun romp through space.  With a talking raccoon.

Honorable Mentions.  Here’s where I dump the best of the rest—movies that are worth your time and attention when you’re looking for something to “stream” on your fancy television.  In the drama category, consider The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.  Based on the trailers for the recently released Unbroken, the two movies have a lot in common, but The Railway Man also has Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.  I also recommend Heaven Is For Real, based on the true story of a little boy’s account of a near-death experience.  Begin Again is a nice little story about music and musicians, and it has Keira Knightley in it.  I also enjoyed the similar movies Tracks and Wild, based on true stories about women hiking alone through the wilderness.  The Hundred-Foot Journey is a pleasant dramedy, while The Skeleton Twins is a rather darker look at family, and specifically sibling, dysfunction.  For your Amy Adams fix, watch the current Tim Burton release Big Eyes.  If action is more your cup of tea, check out Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, the truly original Snowpiercer, or the more familiar comforts of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  And if you can handle a truly cheesy B-movie, give Pompeii a try.  Kiefer Sutherland makes a truly ridiculous evil ancient Roman senator, let me tell you.

And a few more oldies.  Thanks to the Magnolia Theater, I enjoyed several other classic movies in re-release that I had never seen before.  Robert Altman’s Nashville is an interesting slice of 1970s Americana.  The French Connection is a cop movie starring Gene Hackman that stands the test of time.  For an old-fashioned nail-biter, see Sorcerer, starring Roy Scheider.  I liked the old comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe.  I enjoyed Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston as a corrupt cop in a dystopian future America, and Scarface, starring Al Pacino as a ruthless Cuban crime lord.  Double Indemnity is a solid film noir, and Harold and Maude is . . . well, it’s kind of hard to describe, but if you like quirky you should give it a try.

Happy New Year!

Fury

New from The Movie Snob.

Fury  (A-).  It is April 1945, and the American army is driving deep into the heart of Nazi Germany.  But the Germans are continuing their desperate resistance, and military and civilian casualties are piling up at a sickening rate.  In Fury, we join the five-man crew of an American tank (nicknamed Fury), and we get a grounds-eye view of the final days of the war.  Brad Pitt (12 Years a Slave) plays the savvy sergeant in command, and Logan Lerman (Noah) plays Norman, the green recruit who has been plucked out of a clerk assignment to become the tank’s assistant driver.  There is mud and gore aplenty as Fury chugs along from one battlefield to the next, and we see how the war coarsens Norman as it has already brutalized the rest of the crew.  The battle sequences are truly top-notch, especially a pitched battle at close range between three American tanks and one far superior German tank. A scene in which the Americans conquer a German town is also fascinating as we watch to see if the Americans will treat the vanquished as badly as the Nazis did.  Director David Ayer (End of Watch) is definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on, as only a few “Hollywoodized” and unbelievable moments mar this intense film.  Rated R for strong sequences of war violence, some grisly images, and language throughout.

World War Z – a concurring opinion

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

World War Z  (B).  Zombie-apocalypse movies come and go, but not many can boast the star power of Brad Pitt (Burn After Reading).  For that matter, not many zombie movies also serve double-duty as big wet kisses to the U.N., but this one does.  Pitt plays a retired U.N troubleshooter who gets called back into active duty when a standard zombie plague threatens the survival of mankind.  He jets all over the world, searching for some way to defeat or at least defend against the ravenous undead.  Needless to say, he has lots of narrow escapes from creepy zombies along the way.  I thought it was an enjoyable movie, although it was almost spoiled by one scene in which the human defenders act so ridiculously stupidly that I would’ve thrown my popcorn at the screen if I had had any popcorn.  (For The Borg Queen’s review of this movie, click here.)

World War Z

The Borg Queen steps outside her comfort zone.

World War Z – B

I am not a fan of scary movies, and I absolutely loathe zombie movies.  So, I’m not sure what possessed me to see World War Z.  This movie centers on a United Nations employee (Brad Pitt) who is traveling the world trying to find a cure for a pandemic of unknown origins that is causing people to turn into zombies.  One bite, and you’re a zombie seconds later.  The movie wastes no time getting straight into the action and it’s a roller coaster ride all the way to the end.  I was constantly on the edge of my seat (or, under it sometimes) and engaged with the film.  The movie has its fair share of scares and, thankfully, is not gory.  The camera work, especially in the action sequences, is too shaky for my taste, making it hard to see what is actually taking place at times.  I also heard some people grumbling outside the theater about the movie being different from the book upon which the film is based.  So, I guess if you’ve read the book, be open to differences.  Overall, though, this movie is a fun night out.

Moneyball

A new review from Movie Man Mike.

Moneyball (B+).  Baseball is such a game of numbers and statistics, and this film takes the numbers to a new level.  I gained a real appreciation for baseball and for what Billy Beane tried to accomplish—to level the playing field and overcome the inequities in payrolls between ball clubs.  While I don’t follow baseball closely, I suspect that if all teams adopt the approach he championed, then the financial inequities are still there.  Nevertheless, the story is a perfect story of how the little guy triumphs now and then.  Brad Pitt gives a convincing performance as Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland A’s.   Jonah Hill is perfect as the egg-head, whiz-kid who runs all the numbers on the players and challenges the old ways of recruiting players.    One of the weaknesses in this story, in my opinion, is that Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the coach of the Oakland A’s, is relegated to more of a background role.  I would have liked to have seen more direct evidence of the conflict and attitude he had with the new system.  It’s there, but it’s almost secondary because the story is presented through the eyes of Billy Beane.  I have to wonder if there was concern about changing the story from “the Billy Beane story” into the “Art Howe story.”  In any event, a very entertaining film and worth watching (even if you don’t follow baseball).

Moneyball

DVD review from Nick at Nite

Moneyball

Not the best baseball movie I have ever seen.  The best is either Bull Durham or The Natural.  I’d watch either repeatedly.  Moneyball not so much.  I’ve read the book.  It was engrossing.  Every baseball fan should read the book.  The movie – well – I got bored.  The book is an interesting blue print for making the Oakland A’s, the Red Sox, the Rangers, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays so successful (the A’s have fallen on hard times again).  I digress.  Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are an interesting odd couple.  The muscled (Pitt) and the out of shape (Hill prior to whatever brilliant diet he is on) trying to piece together a baseball lineup after the departure of the roided up Giambi and his mates.  They have little money so they must ignore their baseball scouts and put together a team based on what the statistics tell them.  It is a movie for nerds.  Baseball nerds.  I give it a “B.”  I do not give it a Golden Globe or an Oscar.