The Big Short

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Of the myriad types of movies that can be made about Wall Street, it seems like you can either go the Wolf of Wall Street route—bright, energetic, lots of swearing—or you can go the Margin Call route—darkly serious, brooding, lots of swearing—although, interestingly, it seems like Adam McKay’s latest feature, The Big Short, melds the two approaches—with surprisingly positive results.

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The Martian 

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With The Martian, director Ridley Scott has finally found a story worthy of his filmmaking talent. Matt Damon stars as Mark Watney, Mars’s most optimistic botanist, who is abandoned on the planet by his fellow astronauts, believing him dead. Isolated, wounded, rapidly depleting his supplies, and unable to contact Earth, Watney is faced with an impossible task: he has to MacGyver together a plan for survival on a planet with no food or oxygen–all in a way that doesn’t feel hopelessly contrived. And boy, does he rise to the occasion! Damon’s superb performance and Scott’s expert handling of the subject material make The Martian not just one of the best films of 2015, but the most fun movie-going experience I’ve had all year.

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Afterschool: Never Forget

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In all of our lives, we must constantly deal with the omnipresent question of what is real and what is fake. Never has this clash of realities been more relevant than with the dawning of the internet. It’s a tool that presents us with unlimited power and knowledge, but also in that comes the herculean task of deciphering it all. In the hands of a young person, this can be both crushing and mind altering at times.

Antonio Campos in his 2008 film, Afterschool, presents us with this struggle in the form of his protagonist Robert, a young boy sent off by his family to a wealthy New England boarding school. During his time there he preoccupies himself with what he calls “little clips of things that seem real”. In his mundane life, he sees these videos of violence and sex as a portal through which he can glimpse something authentic. In many ways, they alter his young mind’s understanding of what is real in the first place.

While filming some stock footage in one of his school’s hallways for his video class he discovers something far realer than he could have ever expected when he discovers the two most popular girls in school as they suffer a horrible reaction to rat poison laced cocaine and die right in front of his eyes, one bleeding out in his very arms.

This tragedy obviously causes quite a few ripples throughout the school. As much as everyone is torn up about their deaths, what truly seems to bother everyone is how lost they are in actually understanding and dealing with these girl’s untimely demise. Most of all the reaction of the school and, in particular, its principle, Mr. Burke, deftly played by Michael Stuhlbarg, seems most perplexing and cold.

Mr. Burke recognizing Robert’s position in the school’s video class gives him the responsibility of making the memorial video for the girls, in the hopes that it would help him deal with their graphic deaths. Along with this the school pushes everyone to go see the school counselor and talk about how they feel, then in most cases get handed a prescription for whatever pill will handle the symptoms of their internal traumas without actually addressing it. Robert as the one to first find the girls is sent to speak to Mr. Virgil. He is obviously quite out of sorts with the whole ordeal. He talks about the videos and the violent porn he watches and how he finds a reality in them that’s fascinating. An authenticity that’s missing from his own life where, as Mr. Virgil tells him, the school had been told about the dead girl’s drug problem and did nothing to help them, in the interest of keeping their rich parent’s money and support going.

Once Robert finished putting the video together for the memorial, he shows it to Mr. Burke who asks, “Was that serious Robert? That was the worst thing I’ve ever seen”. The video wasn’t quite what the school had hoped for. With no music, shaky camera work, and the raw sense of reality that Robert has been searching for through countless Youtube searches. It didn’t try to provide the false sugar coated narrative the school hoped everyone would guzzle down. Instead of idolizing these girls with cheap condolences and ignoring the elephant in the room that they are responsible for allowing things to escalate so far into tragedy, Robert’s video portrayed the reality of that elephant and all its unsightly blemishes. The school and those around him wouldn’t stand for this, though. They aren’t interested in the truth they’re just interested in the most convenient reality where they print “Never Forget” all over the memorial stage and paint it as just another forgettable tragedy. Nothing to learn here, just move on, take another pill. Robert does and so does everyone else, just like Mr. Burke and Virgil reminds Robert, “It’s everyone’s fault” “It’s no one’s fault”, forget.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Kingsman: The Secret Service

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I was watching Kingsman: The Secret Service a while back and I remember thinking, “Damn, this feels a lot like Kick-Ass.” Turns out, I surprised myself with my homing missile-like powers of observation because, as I discovered after the fact, Kingsman and Kick-Ass were both helmed by director Matthew Vaughn, also the man behind X-Men: First Class.

Kingsman is incredibly loosely based adaptation of a comic series simply titled The Secret Service, created by Mark Miller and Dave Gibbons. Kick-Ass, lest we forget, was also based on a comic series co-written by Miller as well, which is fine, in as much as we know, more or less, what to expect as far as Vaughn’s stylistic sensibilities are concerned.

The film is a throwback to a number of genres, chiefly the spy-thriller of yester-year, though part of the problem is that it’s trying to keep too many balls in the air at once. Part coming-of-age drama, part action comedy, and part spy thriller, the tone is all over the place like the results of a darts tournament for the blind. Perhaps the best illustration for this claim can be found within the first ten minutes of the film: the opening scene depicts a daring rescue mission, complete with blaring rock music and exploding typography loudly proclaiming the title; the second scene depicts a grieving widow soberly being given news of her husband’s death; and the third presents a Kick-Ass-esque action sequence with weirdly timed a presented comedic elements.

Screenwriting tip: the first few minutes of the movie are vital when it comes to setting the tone. It sets up what the audience comes to expect from the film, so that you can either go ahead with building your dramatic tension, or subvert the audiences’ expectations later on. Kingsman doesn’t know what it wants to be—and it shows— as it flits disconcertingly between largely unconnected aspects of the story. What am I supposed to be feeling, movie? You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Talking of story, I can’t seem to wrap my head around some of the more fantastical elements of the plot, mostly because the mostly sober interactions between Firth and his protégé, played by Taron Egerton, keep body slamming to tone back down again. The plot largely centers on a lot of nonsense involving Samuel L. Jackson as some sort of tech-geek cum eco-terrorist wanting to kill everybody, but in a more practical sense, it’s just a largely vestigial framework around which a bunch of contrived action sequences are strung like glimmering Christmas lights.

Frankly, it feels like writers Vaughn and Jane Goldman came up with all the big, showy set pieces, knocked off for lunch, and never came back. Significantly less attention has been afforded to the details of the plot, and it seems like no one really knew or cared how the characters got from point A to point B as long as some people got shot along the way. Sometimes it’s the little things that take me out of a story, as was the case here. From the jaw-dropping stupidity of the villain’s master plan to the way in which none of the cadets reacted in the slightest once they discovered that their training entailed killing them off in order to determine who among them was the most capable, my reaction was generally the same eye-roll and inward sigh of frustration.

But I can occasionally get behind a stupid premise if the idea is done with passion—the Roger Moore era James Bond movies spring to mind—but what I simply can’t abide is attempted humor that just isn’t funny. Nothing is more tortuous to sit though than a film that thinks it’s funny when it isn’t. Kingsman, unfortunately, is one of these movies. It really just drove me up the wall when joke after joke, obvious remark after obvious remark, kept falling flat. And Samuel L. Jackson’s lisp? I bet that was much funnier in the writing room, wasn’t it, guys?

Kingsman subscribes to that incredibly lowbrow, groan-inducing, lowest-common-denominator kind of humor that permeates shows like Family Guy, and I know I sound pretentious as hell right now, but the fact is that I wouldn’t have a qualm if Kingsman had actually made me laugh. But it didn’t. And now we’re here.

Some computer-generated special effects that scream, “Our budget dried up faster that we’d hoped,” certainly didn’t improve matters but, in truth, I had checked out long before that.

The bubblegum-pop infused, blood-lusty action sequences of Kick-Ass are here, but they’re stretched over a hollow, token framework of a story that has far too many plot holes and logical dead-ends for my liking. More than entertain me, Kingsman: The Secret Service just made me weary.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Blackhat

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As you may or may not be aware, the term “blackhat” is 1337 H4X0R speak for an operative that infiltrates a secure network in attempt to steal stuff or generally just spread alarm and discord. How apropos then, that the actual film in question is basically akin to cinematic terrorism, perpetrated by the known insurgent Michael Mann.

I can picture Mann sitting alone in his smoke-filled office at four o’clock in the morning, half-empty bottle of whiskey on his desk, racking his brain, trying to figure out what the kids are into these days. Apparently, he arrived at “computers” and presumably by extension “hacking,” but significantly less thought was afforded to whether or not those particular thematic elements are entertaining to watch. Say will you will about the virtues of real-life computer coding, but an associate of mine assures me that it’s not a terribly engaging enterprise for whatever spectators may be around.

Let me not mince words here: Blackhat is a dull, plodding, downright arduous film to sit through. Mann, once the king of the high-impact action movie, seems to be pitifully floundering these days. Gone are the days of colorful and exciting films like Heat, Collateral, and Thief, only to be replaced by this absolute slog of a film. Mann was trying to do the whole rebooted 007-franchise thing: all sleek exteriors and muted colors, offset by dazzling set pieces and engaging action sequences. But the visual style aside, the Bond series fills its world full of interesting characters and actual moments of humanity and levity—you know, like the things and actual human being might experience. Blackhat, alternatively, consists entirely of a collection of lifeless characters humorlessly grumbling their way through a miasma of unconnected motivations, betrayals, and obfuscations, strung together with a paper-thin chain of nearly unwatchable gunfights made all the more excruciating by camerawork that looks like it was done on a middle-schooler’s iPhone.

Maybe it was just the shitty writing and wholly uninspired plot, but Blackhat really drove home how inadequate an actor Chris Hemsworth actually is. Bored monotone and inexpressive grumbling seem to the order of the day, and not only for old Thor. Every single person in this fiasco seemed like they had just come round from a chemical-induced coma for the duration of the picture, from Viola Davis to Wang Leehom. Somewhere along the line, I remember having one of those little dissociative moments that you get sometimes; I was watching myself watching the movie, and I remember thinking, “I will never get these two hours of my life back.”

And I’ve seen some bad writing in my time—I’ve seen some abortively bad writing, I’ll tell you now. But the word-vomit that must have constituted the final draft of the script, written by Mann and Morgan Davis Foehl (Click, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry), has got to be some of the absolute worst. Aside from the blatantly unlikable and senselessly hostile protagonist, the majority of the inter-character dynamics might have been written by someone who has literally never interacted with another living human being. It’s just sad, really, because I know Mann can do better than this. I just want to grab him by the lapels and shake some sense into him, preferably while shouting, “Come on, man! You’re better than this!”

I know the critique is basically just adding to the cacophony of negative press that’s surrounding the film already, but I really can’t stress enough how much of a farce this production really turned out to be. Hopefully the film won’t torpedo Mann’s reputation too much, because I genuinely believe that he’s got much greater ability than he’s exhibited here, but, it must be said, Blackhat is pretty much a write-off.

Rating: 1 out of 5

American Sniper

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Now, I’ve seen a good number of movies in my time, and I fully admit that I’m probably a little jaded, but I can’t be the only one frustrated by the insurmountable arduousness of this whole Oscar season in general and American Sniper specifically. The professional news sources will tell you that Mr. Eastwood’s latest opus has broken all kinds of box office records and has made more money that God at this point; but after having put quite a bit of thought into my review of the film, I honestly couldn’t tell you why. It irks me that original and imaginative movies like Birdman only end up raking in a fraction of the cash that something like American Sniper does, but that’s people for you—forever loath to get out of their tiny comfort zones.

Clint Eastwood is a very old man—he’s eighty-four, according to Wikipedia—and it seems to me that a lot of his later work, and American Sniper specifically, is mired in a lot of really uncomfortable old-world machismo and outdated nationalism which manifests itself and a weirdly earnest “us vs. them” mentality that seems singularly out of place in this Web 2.0 world. Eastwood’s actual technical direction isn’t as much at fault as the writing is, which usually what it comes down to with these kinds of things. Weirdly, a lot of the special effects in the film look laughably fake, and I’m reminded specifically of one sequence in which Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller are trying to have a serious exchange, but they’re very clearly handling a fake Fisher-Price baby; and I’m sitting in the theater all the while, barely stifling laughter.

Cooper, playing real-life American sniper Chris Kyle (whose biography inspired the film), does a pretty fair job, though as I mentioned before, a lot of the problems I found with the movie stem from the protagonist coming across as a bit of a bully and more than a little dense, which proved problematic as the film progressed, as Cooper’s was of course the character the audience was meant to identify with. Cooper is joined by a host of more or less low-key actors, who all give serviceable performances, though playing the gritty, emotionally detached soldier is probably one of the easier jobs as far as acting goes.

This particular review will probably be a little more subjective than normal—you know, since usually my reviews are models of level-headedness and non-partisanship—but the problem that one runs into a lot of the time with character driven films like American Sniper is that the success of the movie lives or dies on whether or not the audience can connect to the protagonist. I had the same problem with David O. Russell’s 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook, also starring Cooper. It wasn’t a terrible movie, per se, but the fact that I found the main character almost totally un-relatable was what killed it for me, and I think the same idea applies to this film as well.

Apart from having a rather dull protagonist, the film mostly consists of a series of factual events from the life of Chris Kyle, occasionally spiced up with some classic Hollywood sensationalism. While the aforementioned nationalistic pride is certainly there, I think the Eastwood may have missed an opportunity to make a broader connection in the form of Kyle’s role in a much larger and increasingly ambiguously defined conflict. It’s pretty obvious the American Sniper wants to be something like The Hurt Locker, but the fact that if writer Jason Hall had entertained even for a moment the idea that his writing ability is on par with that of someone like Oscar-winner Mark Boal, then he’s got another thing coming.

Despite the earth-shattering commercial success of the film, I mostly found it pretty lacking. Maybe that’s my inborn desire to be contrary about everything speaking, but I really feel that the majority has really missed the mark on this one. I’ve seen good war movies, and I’ve seen bad war movies, and I’ve seen shocking war movies, and I’ve seen emotional war movies, but American Spectrum falls right off the spectrum, right into the pit where the downright bland and mediocre war movies reside, hopefully never to see the light of day again.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Selma

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Jesus Christ! You can’t even walk down the street this winter without tripping over an Oscar-baitey biopic with every alternate step. I mean, honestly—have you noticed that four of the eight best picture nods this year are biopics? Not that anyone gives a shit about the Oscars, obviously, but the point I’m laboriously trying to drive home is that I think we could all do with a bit of escapism that isn’t mired in a bloody-minded scramble for awards. But whatever. Selma, then.

Ava DuVernay, responsible for a few critical darlings including the Ebert-praised 2011 drama I Will Follow, directs the project. Generally speaking, there’s not too much to find fault with as far as technical execution is concerned, and the few yet surprisingly engaging action sequences are well presented and appropriately weighty. I was a bit suspect of the mixing of real-life documentary black-and-white style footage and the slick 2014 present-day footage; the intention was obviously to add to the immersion and remind the audience that Selma was based on real-life events, but in reality I found the juxtaposition quite jarring.

Written by mysterious entity calling himself Paul Webb and incorporating some contributions from DuVernay herself (for which she is not credited) Selma tells the story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s attempts to secure the voting rights for the black population of Selma, Alabama circa 1965. The film is Webb’s only screenwriting credit, and the Internet remains reluctant to divulge much of his biographical information. Be that as it may, the film is functional if unchallenging, and serves more to document the facts of the Selma campaign rather than to tell an enduring story. When you get right down to it, what we’ve got here is basically a run of the mill “good vs. evil” story with a slight change of outfit. What is the message that we’re supposed to take away from this, exactly? That racism is bad? Thanks, Selma, but at this point that’s kind of up there with “the Nazis were dicks.”

I’m kind of getting down on a mostly decent film, and I think it’s because I disapprove of the intention behind it. The posters for Selma, instead of boldly proclaiming the film’s title, might as well read “OSCAR BAIT: HANDLE WITH CARE.” It’s pandering, mostly, and for that I find myself ill disposed towards it. It’s an open palm, groping blindly for a hint of gold come February. The cynic in me is fully expecting Selma to win best picture, but the truth is that essentially anything else deserves to win more. The film is so safe and committee-designed and virtually incapable of offending or challenging anyone that I can hardly say that it adds to the culture of cinema in any way aside from the mostly serviceable technical execution.

For what it’s worth, David Oyelowo is a fine actor, and plays Dr. King with admirable aplomb, though generally his role is restricted to making sweeping speeches and proselytizing—all tailor-made for maximum poignancy, naturally.

The bottom line is that Selma is just okay. That might sound like an inelegant summation coming from a guy who just spent five paragraphs shouting into a void, but all in all it’s an exceedingly safe movie that just happened to hit the theaters in a year so rife with sociopolitical tension. It’s watchable, to be sure, but fundamentally insubstantial, and I resent it for it’s award-hungry intentions.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5