Filmsy Reviews: Oscar-bait Edition 2016
Awards season is here, which means there's a ton of new movies out there you'll probably be hearing about for the next couple of months. And because we don't want you to feel left out, we took the task of watching these movies and reviewing them just so you could have conversation fodder. Why worry about critical analysis and making your own biased opinions informed by your subjective taste, when you could use ours instead?
On the first of what will hopefully be a series of articles, I compiled a list of movies "based on true stories". Although I've previously noted my skepticism on the accuracy of these kinds of statements, it nevertheless remains a staple of cinema and an inexhaustible source of material for writers too shy and lazy to make stories from scratch, while at the same time having no remorse distorting said facts at leisure in order to make those stories more easily digestible for audiences.
So without further ado, here are the reviews for "The Big Short", "Concussion", "Spotlight", and "In The Heart of The Sea", all in a handy package and reduced into previously regurgitated talking points. Try one of them at the next social gathering and you'll be the hit of the party. Either that or everyone will think of you as a pedantic weirdo, which is still one step above from where you currently rank on the social ladder.
Just be sure to bring enough chips for everybody, and never ever under any circumstances double dip.
The Big Short (2015)
Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt.
Quick summary: A group of financial experts anticipate the house market collapse and seek to profit from the crisis.
Rating: AAA (actually subprime)
Based on the bestseller by Michael Lewis (who's also the author of Moneyball and The Blind Side), I was actually surprised by all the attention this movie has been getting, but let's not get too tied up on the drama of who deserves to win this or who got snubbed for that because that's a pretty pointless and subjective debate. It's still remarkable that it's been praised in this way, given that it's a movie about such a touchy subject as the 2007 house market collapse, and which takes the unusual approach of narrating it from the perspective of the people who actually saw it coming. However, instead of bringing attention to the issue or doing something to prevent what derived on a worldwide recession of which we may never completely recover, these guys decided to make a buck from it... and now we as an audience are supposed to be rooting for them?
Nevermind the outrage from that implication, though. The greatest fault of this movie is how uneven it is. SNL veteran McKay, whose background is a run of very successful collaborations with Will Ferrell, decided to make The Big Short as some sort of mockumentary-style film: he tells 3 separate stories from the point of view of 4 or 5 groups of different characters, which each take their own approach and barely meet each other during the course of the movie. That in itself is not a bad move, except it's all so disjointed that if someone were to take the different segments and show them separately they would look like completely different movies.
The first story is about an eccentric genius played by Christian Bale, who anticipates the crisis before anyone and takes measures so the hedge fund he runs will not only survive but benefit from the financial bubble burst. He must keep his investors from taking over before this happens, ruining them all. He never actually meets any of the other players on the story, though, because he's also an anti-social recluse who spends most of the time locked in his office, playing loud metal music.
It is then by pure coincidence that a broker played by Ryan Gosling catches wind of what Bale is doing, and decides he wants in on the action too. However, he's laughed off by most firms until he stumbles upon Steve Carell's character, a rageaholic with a tragic past and a strong sense of justice who runs a boutique investment group subsidiary to one of the big groups whose folding unleashed the recession. They get in business together despite Carell and his band of cynical misfits feeling bad about what's coming, while Gosling's character only cares about making the big bucks.
Finally, we have two up and coming whiz kids who also serendipitously find out what's going on and take a similar approach, except they can't actually access the means to make a profit from the collapse without Brad Pitt, who's retired from the business but helps them get the credentials they need and takes them under his wing anyway, for reasons unspecified.
All of that takes place during the first twenty minutes of the film, but we get treated to these characters struggling to achieve their selfish goal for another hundred minutes anyway, as well as cameos from celebrities such as Selena Gomez and chef Anthony Bourdain "explaining" some details we frankly don't even need in order to understand the situation and that are too simple and shallow to be useful anyway. Those moments feel very out of place with the rest of the movie, which can never decide whether it's a drama or a comedy or a satire or a serious exposé. Along with characters breaking the fourth wall out of nowhere for no good reason, they cut short any sort of momentum the movie could have had.
Director: Peter Landesman
Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Albert Brooks.
Quick summary: A doctor is on a crusade to expose brain damage on NFL players, which the league tries to cover up.
Rating: Chronic Tedium Ensues (CTE)
Another light-hearted subject gets tackled by Hollywood (Get it? Get it? Or is your skull too thick?). Based on the writings of Jeanne Marie Laskas, Concussion narrates the efforts of renowned medical expert Dr. Bennet Omalu to reveal the effects on the brain of being constantly hit on the head for a living, because apparently that's a shocking (I did it again!) new development.
Will Smith plays Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant who despite having more degrees than the Queen of England has titles, works as a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh performing autopsies that resemble seances, much to the annoyance of his colleagues. It is there that he stumbles upon a sequence of former NFL stars suffering tragic deaths after unusual behaviors and outbursts of violence. His post-mortem investigation of the athletes leads him to discover a condition caused by brain injuries, which he calls chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). After publishing his study on a medical journal, the NFL tries to bury his investigation and discredit his research. Apparently the league had done their own research and known about this condition for some time, but they'd managed to keep the secret and manipulate the data to appear inconclusive. So in order to remain in business, the NFL does all kinds of shady stuff to Omalu. Their biggest fear is that if the truth comes out, players will not want to fuck up their brains for money... which has never been a concern from the record industry or reality show producers.
In some cases it might be an asset.
Aiding Smith in his efforts is Albert Brooks, who plays his boss at the forensic department, as well as love interest Gugu Mbatha-Raw, but mostly Alec Baldwin, a former NFL doctor who's trying to help out the players in order to rectify his past mistakes. You probably know the rest.
It's not that Concussion is a bad movie, but it just didn't connect with me (I'm the worst). The acting all around is pretty good, despite Will Smith's distracting fake African accent and Baldwin's melodramatic preachiness. One of its strongest points are the former players in their slow descent into depression and manic episodes; David Morse as the first victim of CTE is noteworthy. The real story behind this tragedy and subsequent attempts at cover-up is something more people should be talking about, and for that alone the movie deserves a lot of credit. But I couldn't help but feeling I was being preached on and manipulated into sympathizing with this cause, even when I already did... and I don't even watch football!
Also, cut down the speeches a little bit. I'm all for dialogue-driven movies, but find ways to convey a message other than straight up saying it out loud. Some of those speeches are actually informative and serve their purpose really well, such as the first time Smith explains what CTE is, but after trying to tell me the same thing over and over, I was the one feeling like I'd been hit on the head too many times. Also, the character of Omalu is just a big goody two-shoes perfect Mr. Fancypants who is always on the right and his only flaws are informed, which kinda took me away from the story too.
Overall I do recommend this movie to conscientious football fans, med students, and guys whose dads forced them into auditioning for a team cause it's the manly thing to do.
Director: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Billy Crudup, Stanley Tucci
Quick summary: The Hulk, Batman, Dr. Manhattan and Sabretooth team up to uncover a network of pedophiles.
Rating: Stop the presses! We got a good movie over here!
I don't have much to say about this movie, since I risk going into rants about controversial subjects such as religion and ethics in journalism and I don't want to derail the discussion, and I also want to remain as neutral as possible while reviewing these movies. Suffice it to say this is one of the movies I've liked the most out of the bunch I've seen so far, with great performances from everyone, especially Ruffalo, Keaton (who should've won for Birdman last year) and Tucci.
Spotlight follows a special investigative team at the Boston Globe paper during the early 2000s, when they uncovered that the Catholic church had been playing musical chairs with child molesters. So obviously this is a touchy subject (oh no, you didn't!) but it was handled (hehe) very respectfully while showing the characters to be human beings with flaws and virtues, as opposed to treating them as saints and demons the way Concussion did. Also, as far as I know based on what little experience I have on the subject, it's one of the closest portrayals I've seen of a newsroom in a film in recent years.
While you're at it, also check out Truth, a movie that came out earlier last year about the dealings of bad journalism, or Rather, what happens when even good journalists make glaring mistakes and let their own bias inform their views instead of following the evidence where it leads you. It's a very intriguing story and it has superb acting from Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford, who played that famous reporter on that iconic movie about journalism.
You know? Peter Parker, in Citizen Kane
Okay, I'll just say one possibly controversial thing: raping children is bad, so don't do it. And don't cover for anyone who does that either, that's also bad.
In The Heart of the Sea (2015)
Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Wishaw
Quick summary: a fictional recount of the real story which inspired the novel Moby Dick (or how Thor, Spiderman and the Scarecrow came face to face with a whale version of Jaws)
Rating: Thar It (Kinda) Blows
And finally, this movie didn't get much love from critics or the people who give out the awards, but most of the stuff that Ron Howard has done on previous years has been good so I thought I'd check it out, particularly because I'm fascinated with the themes of the sea and tales of ancient mariners.
The movie actually gets its title from a non-fiction book about the 1820 sinking of the Essex, but based on the fact that Herman Melville is an actual character on this movie, I gathered that the screenwriters were taking a few "creative licenses" and drawing from other material, mostly from their own asses. When they set up the narrative device of the interview with Melville as him gathering material for Moby Dick, I confirmed my suspicions that they weren't exactly striving for accuracy.
In the filmmakers' defense, what we know about the Essex incident is not exactly an inspirational story, nor it gives you that sense of wonder and fascination about the unexplored mysteries hidden below, but the popular elements on it alone are not enough to tell a compelling survivor adventure at high seas, so that makes me wonder what drove them to make the movie in the first place, but I guess the same could be said about many others.
What follows is pretty bizarre, though. The first part of the movie is as boring as the chapters in Moby Dick where the author describes the routine of maritime life on whaling ships in the 19th century, then drama ensues with the rookie captain fighting over everything with the veteran first mate, then there are whales, and then the ship sinks and the survivors are floating adrift. More drama ensues. Also, whaling is like fracking and we must take better care of the environment because if we don't do that we risk being relentlessly hunted across the ocean by a vicious asshole whale who won't settle for sinking your ship, it will also ensure that everyone who was on board said ship dies. For reasons.
No, seriously, that's all in the movie. Makes you wonder why Herman Melville would want to leave that out of his novel. Had it been a badass like Mark Twain or Hemingway hearing that tale, their version of Moby Dick would've been all about hunters becoming prey, Queequeg getting fed up with Ahab's bullshit and taking over, harpooning Ishmael and becoming pirates after they tamed the whale with his mystical powers and using it to sink their competition.
In the Heart of the Sea pretends to be something edgy and gritty. The title itself makes allusions to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", which inspired Apocalypse Now. But instead, it comes across more as bad fan fiction featuring Moby's distant relative
(again, not joking)
Despite all its flaws, which are many, the movie has some redeeming qualities. There are many scenes scattered all around that make me think there is a cut of this movie that makes sense, maybe in some parallel dimension. The acting is decent if unremarkable, and many of the shots at sea are pretty well done and look amazing on the big screen... which you probably won't be able to appreciate unless you have a home theater since it's no longer playing anywhere. Oh, well. I wouldn't say this movie's a sinking ship, but it barely stays afloat.
There you have it. Next time we'll feature even more buzz-worthy movies. There's still plenty of angsty, artsy, Oscar-bait to cover, so watch out for more reviews in the coming weeks.
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