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.

American Hustle; Philomena

Mom Under Cover sets the record straight.

I liked American Hustle more than The Movie Snob.  I would give it an A and totally understand why it won the Golden Globe for best comedy/musical.  I found the opening scene a microcosm of the entire movie and a comment about life.  Christian Bale (who underwent quite a physical transformation from his Batman days) is putting the finishing touches on his elaborate comb-over as he prepares to leave for the day.  The things we do to feel comfortable going out in the world are a little bit of a con job.  How much of it do we believe?  How much are we really fooling others?  In some ways, we are all conning each other and ourselves—just as these characters do.  Sometimes we want to believe the façade we see even though clues abound.  Bradley Cooper’s complete and utter confusion when he realizes Amy Adams’ character is not British is a good example.  Cooper has the finesse to be totally believable as the FBI agent who thinks slightly higher of himself than he ought. J. Law rocks the ‘70s hair and makeup.  The crazy schemes are a wacky laugh-out-loud romp.

Another good movie I saw recently was Philomena. B+.  Judi Dench and Steve Coogan bring life to a real woman’s story about being forced by nuns to give her son up for adoption as an unwed, teenager mother.  Stephen Frears (The Queen; High Fidelity) directed a well-paced, heartwarming tale in the style of an odd-couple buddy movie.  The Catholic Church is scrutinized and found wanting for its treatment of young girls and their fatherless infants.  You will leave the theater googling to find out how much is true (hint:  all of it).  Seeing the real Philomena at the Golden Globes was a kick.

 

American Hustle

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

American Hustle (B).  Here’s the much-anticipated new movie from director David O. Russell, whose films The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook I liked a lot.  He unites four of the main cast members from those movies for this fictionalized tale about the “Abscam” scandal of the late 1970s–Christian Bale and Amy Adams plays a couple of small-time con artists, and Bradley Cooper plays a loose-cannon FBI agent who traps them into helping him set up a sting operation that gets increasingly crazy as it goes along.  Current It Girl Jennifer Lawrence plays Bale’s wife, and she’s more than a bit of a loose cannon herself.  There’s a lot to like about the film.  It’s got a lot of energy, and the actors and actresses are at the top of their games.  But I didn’t love it, or like it as much as Russell’s last two films.  I think I just don’t like movies about con games.  Most of the time I get totally confused and have no idea what’s going on.  The con games going on in American Hustle aren’t as complicated as some, so I think I basically followed what was going on, but the movie just didn’t grab me.  Still, it’s a decent flick, and it apparently got seven Golden Globe nominations, so by all means, check it out and see what you think.

The Dark Knight Rises

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

The Dark Knight Rises  (C).  I think I may be just about over the whole superhero thing.  I remember liking the two previous Batman movies well enough, but for some reason it felt like a chore to drag myself to this two-hour-and-forty-five-minute spectacle.  I finally got around to it yesterday, and, as my grade reflects, I wasn’t blown away.  When the movie begins, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, Reign of Fire) has been in virtual seclusion for eight years, and Gotham City has enjoyed a long period of respite from supervillainy.  That vacation from reality ends when the city is conquered and sealed off from the outside world by a muscle-bound freak named Bane (Tom Hardy, Inception) and his band of thugs.  Secondary villain Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, Get Smart) is much less destructive but much nicer to look at.  For me, the whole thing was too much.  Subplots involving congressmen and control of Wayne Enterprises were too complicated for me to want to try to follow.  The film drags for a while after Bane conquers the city and seems to defeat Batman, and we get umpteen different versions of a particular bit of backstory that I could not have cared less about.  Some parts were quite unbelievable, even for a comic-book movie.   I hope they let Batman enjoy a lengthy retirement before the next reboot, but I’m not counting on it….

The Movie Snob’s 2010 Year in Review!

Welcome to The Movie Snob’s annual list of the best movies of the year. As usual, if I saw a movie in the theater in 2010, I may include it in this column even if it was technically a 2009 release. For the record, I saw 58 movies at the theater in 2010, and these are the ones you should try to see if you haven’t seen them yet.

Movie of the Year. This was not a tough decision — the year’s highlight for me was The Social Network, the popular and critically acclaimed dramatization of the invention of Facebook. It’s an engrossing story about how a bunch of greedy nerds built an empire — and then sued the pants off each other. I just saw a news item that the Winklevoss twins are trying to undo their $65 million settlement because they think they’re entitled to even more. Or maybe they’re just trying to lay the groundwork for a sequel.

Runner Up. It didn’t do so well at the box office, but I thought Never Let Me Go was an excellent adaption of a phenomenal book. I can’t say much about the plot, but it’s a sad tale set in a dystopian alternative reality. Thought-provoking without being (in my opinion) preachy. Put it in your Netflix queue. Wait — read the book first. Then put it in your Netflix queue.

Best Action/Adventure Flick. Will I lose my license to critique if I pick the remake of Clash of the Titans? As a kid, I loved the original, and I enjoyed the remake enough to see it twice in the theater — NOT the 3D version, which was brutally panned by the critics. It’s just good, stupid fun with mythology. Oh, I should mention Inception, because it was a fun, roller-coaster ride of a movie, even though I didn’t know what was going on half the time. And even though I’ll look like an idiot for preferring Clash of the Titans. Alice in Wonderland was pretty good too, and Alice’s duel with the Jabberwocky at the end was pretty action-y, so I’ll mention it in this category too.

Best Animated Movie. Unlike 2009, 2010 featured a bumper crop in this category. I’d give top honors to Toy Story 3, which had more exciting action and adventure than anything in the preceding category. But the quirky Fantastic Mr. Fox was also excellent, if a little offbeat. I also liked The Princess and the Frog quite a bit. But in addition to those films, I’d also recommend Megamind, Despicable Me, and How to Train Your Dragon as being well worth your time.

Best Comedy. I’m always hard-pressed to label any comedy “good,” much less recommend it as worth seeing. But I really, really liked a little-seen movie called City Island, starring Andy Garcia as an ordinary, blue-collar guy — a prison guard no less — who starts taking acting lessons on the sly. His wife thinks he’s having an affair; his teenage kids are complete mysteries to him; and then he inexplicably volunteers to take an ex-convict into his home. The plot clicks along very nicely, and I just enjoyed the heck out of it. The few other comedies I saw were wretched and don’t deserve a mention.

Best Documentary. I’ll go with the Johnny Depp-narrated When You’re Strange, which is about the short, strange career of the rock band The Doors. Nipping at its heels are the space documentary Hubble 3D (narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, I believe), and nature documentary Oceans (narrated by Pierce Brosnan).

Best Drama. Lots of strong contenders in this category this year. Maybe it’s just because I saw it very recently, but I’ll pick The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, and Amy Adams. It’s just a solid boxing movie with an underdog hero you can’t help rooting for. Too cliched for your taste? I understand. Turn the clock back and go with An Education, a dark tale about a bright but naive British girl on the verge of womanhood who gets seduced by a sleazy cad. Or stay closer to home with the even darker Winter’s Bone, about a courageous teenage girl (Jennifer Lawrence, in her breakout performance) who has to stand up to her seriously dangerous, meth-cooking relatives in the Missouri Ozarks if she wants to save her family’s farm. One last honorable mention: I really liked The Young Victoria. You don’t have to be an Anglophile to empathize with a spirited young woman born into the straitjacket of royalty.

Best Foreign Film. I would like to pick The Concert, a moving melodrama about a blacklisted Soviet music conductor who schemes his way into a comeback concert. I really enjoyed it at the time. But it did resort to an unpleasant Jewish stereotype to get a cheap laugh once or twice, and I have a hard time recommending it unreservedly. I also really enjoyed Kisses, an Irish movie about a couple of poor kids with bad home situations who decide to empty their piggy banks and run away from home. Honorable mention to the Italian movie Mid-August Lunch, which is a short, sweet little movie about a basically decent guy who is strapped for cash and agrees to take in a few elderly women for the weekend while their own children go away on holiday.

Honorable Mentions. I’ve already mentioned most of the worthwhile films of the year as honorable mentions in the specific categories above, but I can rattle off a few more that are worth a look. Michael Douglas turns in a good performance in Solitary Man. He plays a shallow, Gordon Gekko-like character, but on a much smaller scale. I didn’t see the Wall Street sequel, but this movie had to be much better than that. I liked The Kids Are All Right, about a very unusual family situation that develops when a couple of kids being raised by lesbians look for and find their sperm-donor father. Although it’s not the action movie it was purported to be, I liked The American, starring George Clooney as a world-weary hit man. (Be warned, it’s got some pretty graphic sex scenes in it.) Ben Affleck’s latest movie, The Town, is an entertaining film about a gang of Boston bank robbers. And still in current release you can catch Natalie Portman as a ballerina who’s not-so-slowly losing her marbles in Black Swan.

First Seen on Video This Year. Just one movie I simply must mention: The Big Lebowski. How did I miss seeing this movie? I found it completely ludicrous and utterly hilarious. OK, one more — The King of Kong, about a nice guy who just wants to compete fair and square for the title of Donkey Kong champion of the universe. I defy you not to get hooked on this movie.

So that’s my 2010 in a nutshell. Thanks for reading, and please post a comment!

The Fighter

New review from The Movie Snob

The Fighter (B+). Mark Wahlberg (I Heart Huckabees) stars in this based-on-a-true-story movie about Mickey Ward, a boxer from the blue-collar Boston suburb of Lowell, Mass. Ward has grown up in the shadow of his older brother, Dickey (Christian Bale, Reign of Fire), who never fulfilled his potential as a boxer and has now descended into crack addiction. Worse, Dickey and the boys’ mother Alice (Melissa Leo, Everybody’s Fine) are terrible managers for Mickey and get him into fights he can’t possibly win. But then Mickey starts dating a tough bargirl named Charlene (Amy Adams, redeeming herself from Leap Year) who teaches him to stand up for himself, and he has a shot at building a real boxing career. It’s not the most original story, but the plot does throw a couple of minor curveballs to keep it interesting. And the acting is fine all the way around, especially Bale as the drug-addled and semi-crazy Dickey.

Public Enemies

Movie Man Mike provides a new movie review

Public Enemies (B). For a two-and-a-half-hour film, I wouldn’t expect to find myself wanting more when it was over, but I did want more. Maybe not more footage, but more story. Backstory, to be precise. This is the story of John Dillinger, who is played by Johnny Depp. The action in this film is solid. The film is loaded with big-name actors, but it’s the background of the characters depicted that’s missing. You don’t get much of a sense of the characters’ history, motivation, or personality from the portions of the stories told. Also, I didn’t get a good feel for how much time the story occurred over, whether it was a matter of months or years. One weakness in my view was Christian Bale’s character. Bale plays FBI Agent Melvin Purvis, whose job it is to hunt down Dillinger. Unfortunately, Bale seems to be stuck in “Batman” mode. He’s still got that whispered growl he used as the caped crusader. I’m not sure what’s up with that. Anyway, the film was entertaining, but one that I wished I had waited to see as a rental.