Best known for directing Will Ferrell larks, director Adam McKay sets his eyes on a work of gravitas by tackling the American housing market collapse through the eyes of a few investing misfits who saw it all coming in the wry dramedy The Big Short (B). Treading familiar territory of big data chic honed to more entertaining effect by the same author’s Moneyball, this film suffers from a paucity of likable protagonists. That’s likely intentional but unfortunately undercuts the film’s sharpness. Steve Carrell, Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling are standouts as guys who hope to strike it rich by betting against America and its institutions. The ultimate story is an important one to tell, and McKay sprinkles in some meta flourishes to ensure viewers can keep up. A civics lesson wrapped in the arch of a paranoid thriller, it’s close encounters of the earned kind. It’s a lot of exposition for the plaintive payoff.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant (B) blends western epic, revenge thriller and Christ allegory to often stunning effect on a blood-drenched American frontier. Leonardo DiCaprio gives new definition to suffering for one’s art as he undergoes a cavalcade of emotional and physical scars in an extremely gory story. In the grunts and groans of passages that feel like a silent movie with music, the expressive actor doesn’t miss a beat. He is a veritable force of nature, even if this isn’t the best use of his talents. Tom Hardy is very effective as the hero’s morally challenged foil. Iñárritu’s direction borders on overlong and overindulgent, but it’s hard to argue with all the lush camera work and scenery chewing when the stakes are this high. The spare dialogue serves to frame what is ultimately a man versus nature and man versus man battle. A little of this onerous oater goes a long way; and despite the palpable effects of all the violence and vistas, it doesn’t tread that much new ground.
Given the film’s depiction of the joys and promises of immigrating from Ireland to New York boroughs just six decades ago, John Crowley’s Brooklyn (B) should be required viewing for a few presidential aspirants. Saoirse Ronan carries the drama on her capable shoulders and shows her character mature right before our eyes; the actress is rather magnificent in coming-of-age mode. Her central character falls head over heels for a working-class Italian suitor (a charming Emory Cohen), and the film’s primary conflict involves this burgeoning love in The States versus the promise of a different life with another man in her homeland (Domhnall Gleeson in an underdeveloped role). The plot really stacks the deck given the mounting successes of life in America, but the overall journey is enjoyable as Ronan’s character pulls considerable empathy. The art direction and costuming are authentic and lush, and what could have devolved quickly into melodrama is lifted in Crowley’s skilled hands. On both sides of the Atlantic, there are women as peers and elders who want to hold our heroine down, and her ability to be resilient and push forward is inspiring.
Check out the trailer for Brooklyn below:
The quartet of Boston Globe investigative journalists portrayed in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (A) are often speed-dining on vending machine snack crackers and black coffee, don’t always match their socks and constantly struggle with defective ballpoint pens. But in the year 2001 as major world news was erupting and traditional newspapers were fighting for their life in the digital era, this ragtag group of reporters cracks open one of the biggest scandals in our century about child abuse in the Catholic Church. Told with verve and urgency and impeccably acted, the film is a love letter to the importance of journalism and a crackling good story. Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton are standouts as they plot out the impact of taking the long game and breaking a scoop. It’s an important work and one of the year’s most vital films.
Hey, kids! There’s a new movie you can recommend to both your dad and your mom, whether they enjoy spy stories of two-for-one BOGO deals. Steven Spielberg’s old-fashioned Cold War-set Bridge of Spies (B+) thrusts a real-life insurance lawyer played by Tom Hanks into a role negotiating the exchange of a Russian spy for two, count ’em two, captive Americans. Mark Rylance is a standout as the aging Eastern operative, and his sequences opposite Hanks are poignant and illuminating. Spielberg excels in pacing and period detail and helping the story surge into escalating stakes. The movie takes shape as more of a drama than a thriller when the most taut moment involves two men with umbrellas chasing each other down a rainy sidewalk, but the creative cadence of a Coen Brothers screenplay allows the words to stimulate intellectual adventure. Plus, Hanks is enjoyable rather than irritating in his latest Everyman role. The film is sturdy and entertaining; and while it breaks no amazing new ground, sometimes a good film by a great director is enough.
A meditative and engaging slow-burn thriller about U.S. operatives infiltrating the drug culture on our Southern border, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (B) unravels its mysteries in small bursts but doesn’t quite achieve the expected heft of its high-minded messages. For a while it is so focused on visuals of topographies such as highways and desert passageways that it could have been directed by Google Earth. Enter FBI agent Emily Blunt who transforms from spy to soldier when she seeks to understand the machinations behind the horror of kidnappings related to drug kingpins. Blunt does an admirable job in a rather inert central role, but the meandering screenplay marginalizes the protagonist a bit before the final act. Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin play the men who call our heroine to action, and they too are effective in their underwritten roles. Del Toro gets to shine in a climactic encounter and embodies the Byzantine traits of warriors in a convoluted and unwinnable drug war. The most engaging sequence of the film showcases a shootout in broad daylight in heavy traffic in which multiple killings don’t even make the nightly news. Viewers may get the feeling that even a highly trained squad with history of infiltrating drug lords is only scratching the surface. The film does very little for the Juarez tourism board. Overall the movie is taut, tense and transportive. It just barely misses the mark of becoming the definitive film on its subject.
Given the amount of frustration most Americans have trying to function when they’ve lost a smartphone, it’s fascinating watching Matt Damon play an astronaut stranded on Mars having to go Full MacGyver, tapping into his brilliant scientific and survival skills to improvise in a world of limited food, oxygen, shelter, technology, human contact and rescue plans. In what is most certainly both Damon’s and director Ridley Scott’s best film in years, The Martian (A) excels as a saga of persistence and problem solving, including narrative flourishes to continually up the stakes in what could have otherwise felt like a long slog to resolution. Scott deftly marshals seamless effects and an impressive supporting cast of characters summoned to kick off global and interplanetary collaboration to bring the hero home. Some of the roles are cast too well given limited screen time (Do we really need Kristen Wiig as stern PR counsel or Sebastian Stan as a NASA scientist with collectively less than a dozen lines?) Damon brings effective swagger and likability to the central role, and the actor’s penchant for working with prestigious directors pays off big time here. Scott does both human drama and outer space adventures well, and this one is one of his best.
Related article: Learn PR tips inspired by Kristen Wiig’s character on the Cookerly PR blog.
Slow and cerebral but definitely worthwhile viewing, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (B) is a fascinating drama about a meek computer engineer (Domhnall Gleeson) lured to the secluded home of the reclusive head of his tech company (Oscar Isaac) to interrogate a gorgeous cyborg (Alicia Vikander) he has created. There’s an air of mystery and oneupsmanship among the central actors and an eerie romantic chemistry between Everyman and A.I. Creation. Deft performances, well integrated effects, moody lighting and interiors and a general atmosphere of foreboding add up to a chilly and austere experience. Many of the themes here have been more vividly explored in superior films, but this heady chess game is an unexpected entry into the sci-fi cyber-canon.
F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton (A-) tells the origin story of rap group N.W.A. with a sense of immediacy that reflects today’s headlines and a genuine gravitas that traces the family tree of the gangsta rap movement with poignancy and panache. Jason Mitchell is the breakout star as charismatic tragic hero Eazy-E, with O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as Ice Cube and Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre also giving outstanding performances as the music group members each put their personal stamp on the sound and the fury of a business born in chaos. Paul Giamatti is also effective as their duplicitous manager. Gray does a strong job coloring in the period details against a backdrop of events such as the L.A. riots and with a singular soundscape that pulses with momentum. He transforms the biopic and its usual tenets into an epic that rings true today with insights about the first amendment, crime and policing in America and finding one’s own voice no matter where you’re from.
The first act of director George Miller’s latest post-apocalyptic epic left me a bit mixed on Max, but as the propulsive parade of vehicular adventure progresses, it became clear that we do indeed need another hero. The adrenaline filled reboot Mad Max: Fury Road (B) is precision tuned in its breakneck stunt work, gloriously specific in its troupe of odd denizens aboard citadel towers and on monster trucks and near operatic in its pacing with few words punctuated by Junkie XL’s thrilling percussion and guitar. Ridin’ dirty in lead acting roles are Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron; and despite their character development coming a bit too little too late, they are strong physical actors for the journey. The film contains unexpected subtext about female empowerment as Theron’s character is delivering the villain’s wives to safe territory, and she is fierce in the role. Sequences with near-impossible odds, such as when Max is fighting with one arm chained to a car door and the other cuffed to a comatose man, showcase Miller’s strong action instincts in their rawest and most entertaining form. Hardy reclaims road warrior-dom from white collar execs and flexes uncanny instincts even when his character is going from one unpleasant challenge to another. Filmed in an orange hue that would make John Boehner envious, it’s a visceral ride into a thunderous domain.