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2015

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Screenwriter Diablo Cody made a big splash with the clever Juno, and showed real growth with the acid Young Adult. But that was a while ago.  Now she has penned this trite stinker, in the mold of so many dramadies about the travails of rich families as they negotiate the perilous path of monied suburbia. In this case, the major disturbance comes in the form of Ricki, a talentless front woman for a cover band who has come home to her estranged family to chew with her mouth open and say dirty words.

But hey, it’s Meryl Streep, so we’re okay, right? Right?

No. Streep is just terrible, whether slumming as the hip cast-off or leading the lamest cover band ever. She’s in-authentically grungy and gratuitously down-to-earth and when she visits her estranged family, led by the kind ex-husband (Kevin Kline), it is cringe-inducing, not because of the fish-out-of-water stuff (this is the kind of movie where the denizens of the tony enclave practically say, “Well, I never!”), but because there’s not a word of it that feels real.  Kline has, of course, remarried a protective earth mother type who raised the abandoned children while Ricki honed her craft covering Tom Petty.  Ricki also abandoned a a nice son about to get married to the most stuck-up bitch imaginable; a fragile daughter who has had a breakdown because her marriage of three seconds failed (you’d think she’d been a captive of Boko Haram, so extreme is her distress); and a son straight out of gay central casting (he is furious because Ricki called his gayness a phase and voted for W . . . twice!)

All of which would be humdrum but bearable twaddle save for the fact that Ricki and her shit band play about 7 numbers in this picture, including a version of Wooly Boolie so bad we could have won the war on terror years ago had it been utilized at Guantanamo.  Worse, Ricki’s version of Springsteen’s My Love Will Not Let You Down starts more like a Quarterflash tune and ends with your head in a bucket.

After August: Osage County and this, I am not saying Streep is at that Pacino point, where she thinks she can just fart in a bottle and call it potpourri. But she’s on notice.

Rick Springfield, who plays the lead guitarist for the Flash and Ricki’s love interest, deserved better.

 

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In the hullabaloo about the dearth of people of color represented as Oscar nominees, Creed was identified by some as a glaring omission, not only for director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) but actor Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, The Fantastic Four). Sylvester Stallone was also awarded a nomination for best supporting actor and the critics scored the film a 94% on rottentomatoes.

Everyone appears to have lost their fool mind. The movie – which chronicles the son of Apollo Creed as he vies for the title – veers between the deathly dull and the ludicrous. There are four – count ‘em, four! – montage scenes of Jordan training, one of which has him being chased down a Philly street in slo-mo by kids on dirt bikes and trikes, howling outside the window of Rocky, who looks embarrassed by the spectacle.  It’s one of the most bizarre images I’ve seen in a mainstream movie. You really have to see it to believe it. There are also some dizzying fight scenes. That’s all of the recommendations.

Jordan is given the thankless role of the young up-and-comer, plagued by the relationship he never had with his father. Except, he’s a rich kid, plucked from a group home by his mother (Phylicia Rashad) and well-ensconced at Smith Barney or some such firm. It is on the weekend he laces up and goes to Tijuana to box. Why? Who the hell knows? As played by Jordan, Adonis Creed is a medium cool dullard, drawn to Philadelphia to train with Rocky by sheer ennui. He doesn’t seem to care much, so why should we?

When he gets there, he finds ole’ Rock shambling about a restaurant. Rocky won’t train him, but then relents, and then Rocky doesn’t want Adonis to take the big fight prematurely, but then relents, and then Rocky gets cancer and won’t get treatment, but then relents. All this relenting is done in that same barely articulable monotone Stallone has honed over the years. I guess I can see how the protestors at the Oscars felt. If you’re gonna’ award Stallone for this phone in performance, how about all of us for the larger piece of shit?

Along the way, we get such gems as Rocky putting Adonis in front of a mirror, counseling, “That’s the toughest opponent you’re ever going to have to face.” There’s also a unpersuasive love story between Adonis and a Lisa Bonet look-alike – they emit as much spark as siblings.

Stinkeroo.

It says a lot that director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin can hold your attention to a picture consisting solely of conversation. Yes, Sorkin and David Fincher did the same thing in The Social Network, but there, the characters were developing before your very eyes, and things were happening – a revolutionary product was being developed, friendships and rivalries were being established, complaints were being lodged, people were being screwed, and litigation was ongoing. Here, we meet Steve Jobs pretty much fully formed, at the peak of his first rise, as he launches the product that will result in his first fall, and he has already established the defining templates and themes for most of his relationships. He converses with his early collaborator and colleague (a surprisingly forceful Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak), another colleague (Michael Stuhlbarg), his loyal lieutenant (Kate Winslet) his ex-girlfriend and mother of his child (Katherine Waterston), his CEO (Jeff Daniels) and his daughter (various actresses). With the exception of a few short flashbacks, we repeat these conversations at different points in Jobs’ life, and while the effect is pronounced with regard to the relationship between Jobs and his daughter, the rest is pretty much the same conversation (certainly, with Wozniak, Waterston and Winslet), and it takes all of the gifts Boyle and Sorkin can muster to maintain interest. That’s said, mine was maintained, and as Jobs, a man so driven and disconnected that he can freely renounce his paternity of a little girl to her face, Fassbender is in total control. There is a wonderfully written scene with Jobs and longtime friend and co-worker Stuhlbarg that demonstrates the wit of Sorkin while exhibiting the unique remove and iciness of Jobs. Jobs says “I don’t want people to dislike me. I’m indifferent to whether they dislike me”, Stuhlbarg tells Jobs he’s always disliked him, and Jobs responds “Really? I’ve always liked you a lot. That’s too bad.”

As with The Social Network, Sorkin has also shorn his dialogue of the cutesy, easy patter that often plagues his work (I counted one Sorkinism – where Fassbender smarmily asks Winslet why they haven’t slept together – and that was it). The film clicks and moves, but it does not pause to celebrate its own cleverness. Still, there is not a lot of meat on this bone.  I didn’t learn a great deal more about Jobs from conversation to conversation, nor was I made privy to his genius, unless that genius is solely derived from drive and calculation.

 

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This is a beautiful film, filled with moments of despair, joy, and connection that occur not only between a mother and child, but between older parents and their grown up girl. As in the headlines, Brie Larson plays a woman who has been abducted as a teen and secreted away in the specially constructed back shed/room of her abductor’s suburban Ohio home. He visits regularly to rape her, an encounter she must endure without resistance because she has fathered his child, a little boy (Jacob Tremblay) who must stay hidden in the closet during these visits. When he leaves, she does her level best to raise the boy, who knows nothing of the world around him, a fact she must remedy when she concocts a plan for escape. When the boy is introduced to the world, it plays like a bird pushed out of the nest. You are utterly terrified for him. When he and his mother are back in her childhood home with her grandmother (Joan Allen), your fear becomes concern, at his acclimation and the mental health of his mother, who now has to tend to her long suppressed issues.

This is a film about connection, the rigor of parenthood, and the limits of love and blood. Larson’s determination, Tremblay’s resistance, Allen’s long-suffering courage, all feel immediate and real. There isn’t a hint of melodrama, which is rare thing given its true crime genesis. Larson is mesmerizing, the perfect balance of drive and fragility, and Tremblay delivers one of the most moving child performances I’ve ever seen. William Macy has a small role as Larson’s father, who has divorced Allen and who, in a painfully poignant scene, cannot bring himself to look at the boy, for all he sees if the product of his daughter’s tormentor. It missteps only once – Larson gives an interview to a journalist whose questions are so tasteless that it feels false – but even in this error, the filmmakers show Larson as flawed (you can see in her eyes that she knows she screwed up in agreeing to the exclusive) when in lesser hands we would have seen her resolute, rising against the opportunist reporter in righteous indignation.  One of the best of the year, and the failure of the academy to nominate Tremblay as supporting actor continues the real prejudice of those old fogies at Oscars, against the young.

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Adam McKay’s The Big Short is ingenious, economical, and expert in translating a difficult subject – the mortgage crisis of 2008 – for non-expert viewers.  McKay makes what could be an arcane and tedious topic move, and his use of characters and celebrities to directly address and instruct the audience is particularly effective. The film is also wildly entertaining, and for the most part, well paced. In adapting Michael Lewis’s book, McKay alternates between keeping a sense of humor and paying appropriate deference to the deadly serious nature of the crash, revealing the seeming lunacy of modern finance and inherent flaws in our system. As we cover the prescient characters who foresaw the collapse of the mortgage market, and created a new financial instrument to short it to their advantage, the film builds to a depressing climax that is educational and even moving.

But one has to remember, McKay tacked on tedious moral lessons about our financial system in, of all things, the moronic buddy comedy The Other Guys. So after watching Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg engage in their crazy hijinx, we received a sermon on the ponzi scheme that is Wall Street, though blessedly, only during the credits.  McKay did the same thing for campaign finance reform in the Ferrell/Zach Galifinakis comedy The Campaign, but his jeremiads actually crept into the film, and I’ll bet dollars to donuts he considers Anchorman 2 a modern Network.  Anybody who had to append morality epilogues to these light stinkers clearly was itching for more serious fare.

Unfortunately, when McKay got it, he made a riveting, rip-roaring, true life story, and then . . . he choked. A moral fable was not enough.  McKay wanted a moral scolding.  So, every representative of the establishment – bankers, investors, an SEC investigator, a bond rating company analyst, two Florida real estate brokers, the financial reporter – are to a person grotesque cartoons. As depicted by McKay, they might as well be spit-roasting the homeless. Worse, every single one of our hedge fund manager protagonists, all of whom made a shit ton of money off of the collapse, is presented as a tortured, morally conflicted hero. Profiteer Brad Pitt scolds two characters by reminding them that when unemployment rises 1%, 40,000 people die. They are chastened, though I doubt chastened enough to do much about it. Christian Bale, who made billions for his firm betting on the economy to fail, closes his shop with an email to investors that bemoans the cruelty of the market. And the third genius, Steve Carell, literally apes Christ on the cross as he weighs whether to sell. He is urged to do so by his staff as they call him from the steps of a church! And yes, he too cashes in, but only after much soul searching and many, many lectures. And after all that, McKay adds a coda where he warns us that it is all happening again, no one went to jail for it the last time, and so, we are not absolved.

It was all right there, the deed done with, if not a scalpel, a stiletto.  But McKay couldn’t trust his own narrative and so, he used a butcher knife. The ensuing bludgeoning is gonna’ pay off with an Oscar tomorrow night, followed by, I am sure, a sermon much like the one that kneecapped his own movie.

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The first half of this biopic whizzes by, introducing the three main characters (NWA founders Easy E, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre) as young pop visionaries who see the future and impact of gangsta’ rap. They rise against the backdrop of racially-charged LA, and director F. Gary Gray gives each their own space and voice. We invest in them individually and collectively, while rooting for their success as they navigate fame, the music industry, the violence of their environment and financial and professional jealousies. Gray also skillfully juxtaposes the raw anger of their music with the brutality of Compton. It’s good, involving fun.  The second half, however, is slower, and the path is well-worn. Excess takes its toll, “the man” (i.e., manager Jerry Heller, the record company, cops and the government) does what he does, and it sure gets lonely at the top.

Overall, this is an entertaining and competent if overlong film. It’s also filled with factual inaccuracies, to be expected when rich men collaborate on the telling of their own rise (and Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are mega-rich). A few, however, are problematic. Gray obviously wants to set a time of rampant police brutality and oppression, so he has Dre arrested for simply talking back to a thuggish Compton cop. All well and good, except Dre was actually arrested for . . . unpaid parking tickets! Ha ha ha. Not very gangsta’.

Similarly, there is a scene where the Detroit police, led by a Bull Connoresque whitey and his phalanx of all-white cops, chase NWA off the stage and beat them viciously, throwing them one by one into a van for processing, for playing “Fuck the Police.”  In fact, while NWA was arrested in Detroit, it wasn’t at the venue, nor were they beaten. Instead, later that evening, they were safely ensconced in their hotel when they went to the lobby to meet some girls.  There the cops took them in with little fanfare, and no body blows.

Oh well.  They still had attitude.

In the opening scene, Michael Shannon, a rising Florida real estate broker, walks out of a house where he has just attempted to evict a man. The tenant has blown his brains out in the bathroom. Shannon cares not a whit; he has the lives of many more good, hard-working, decent Frank Capraesque archetypes to ruin, and there are only so many hours in a day. This is the most subtle part of 99 Homes. I get the sense they show this picture to Bernie Sanders volunteers to get them jacked up before they go door-to-door.

Shannon soon moves to the house of Andrew Garfield, a construction worker who is behind on payments for his childhood home, which he shares with his mother (Laura Dern) and son. Garfield gets the boot through the collusion of the courts, the sheriff and indeed, modern American capitalism, but fate brings him back to Shannon, who sees something in the lad. Soon, Garfield is working for Shannon, evicting a passel of George Baileys and making serious bank. But what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? Yup. It’s that kind of movie, a bludgeon, without a hint of nuance or depth. It’s also repetitive (if you want a “how to” on evictions, this is your flick, because we see scads of them) and unwittingly undermines its message. Garfield is a pretty stupid poor person and an even dumber rich person; he equivocates and Hamlets through the entire picture, so much so that you actually feel bad for the devil Shannon in having to negotiate the soul of this dimwit.  Also, director Ramin Bahrani obviously knows squat about the Florida police.  The film ends with an extended scene where a man resisting eviction fires a rifle out his window at the cops numerous times and yet, miraculously, they don’t shoot him.  Poppycock.

Shannon is the only reason to see the movie; he does his level-best to give real estate Satan some heft and depth, and he is one of the most interesting actors around.

Naturally, the movie was adored by the critics (“makes you understand how this poisonous financial ecosystem thrives” – David Edelstein; “nails the predicament in which so many working-class folks now find themselves. Although they cling to the American dream, for many of them it has become a nightmare” – Calvin Wilson), who – as everyone in the know knows – have for years been in the pocket of the anti-eviction lobby.