Big Short, The (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Based on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis, “The Big Short” offers a witty, funny, intelligent, consistently shocking, and educational experience about the global financial crisis in 2007-2008 and the persons, mostly hedge fund managers, who are able to see through the fog and bet against the housing market before the bubble burst. Although there are numerous fiscal terms and acronyms that might as well have been in hieroglyphics or alien language, the screenplay by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay ensures that the information can be digested by laymen.
Explanations are often done through humor using cameos. Particularly memorable is the appearance of Selena Gomez and Dr. Richard Thaler, an economist, as they explain the term “synthetic C.D.O.” (collateralized debt obligations) at a blackjack table in Las Vegas. Notice that as information is slowly broken down, the initially amusing scenario at the table quickly turns horrifying. The volatile energy of the film maintains the forward momentum of the material and so, despite the business talk, not once does it get stale or boring. On the contrary, by the end of the picture, I wanted to know more about how things worked in that realm.
Performances are top-notch all around. Christian Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, a man who has an eye for details and numbers despite having one glass eye. He creates a character who is very intelligent and socially awkward but not one who is inaccessible. Accessibility is absolutely necessary because there are a handful of moments when we must feel the pressure he feels as his clients and co-workers begin to express their anger and frustrations on top of his own.
Ryan Gosling, who plays a trader named Jared Vennett, creates yet another charismatic, smooth talker—which is not all that different from some of his other roles. However, Gosling is so entertaining, full of verve, and so quick on his feet that we tend to overlook the familiar and look forward to how his character will respond to increasingly stressful situations.
But the best performance in the film belongs to Steve Carell, a hot-tempered hedge fund manager who begins to question the lack of morality in his line of work. Most memorable is his breakdown in a Las Vegas restaurant as he comes face-to-face with a businessman named Mr. Chau (Byron Mann) who is very proud of the fact that he is a cheat, to say the least. With every close-up employed, the tension is amplified to the point where it is almost unbearable to stay on that table. Mr. Chau is an excellent symbol of capitalist greed and it is the correct decision have him in one scene only.
“The Big Short” takes an insular topic and makes it relatively easy to understand using simple language and analogies. Equally important, it is able to summon the anger from the viewers so that we are more mindful of not only the next potential housing bubble on the horizon but also where we put our money and where we sign our names.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Things have never been better for Alexander’s family: His dad (Steve Carell) just snagged an interview for a video game company, his mom (Jennifer Garner) is up for a big promotion, his elder brother (Dylan Minnette) received news that everyone is voting for him and his girlfriend as prom king and queen, and his elder sister (Kerris Dorsey) is playing the lead on a school musical.
Alexander (Ed Oxenbould), on the other hand, had gum stuck on his hair moments after waking up, almost set the science lab on fire, and received news that no one plans to attend his twelfth birthday party. So, at the stroke of midnight, he makes a wish: for his family to know how it feels like to have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
Based on the children’s book by Judith Viorst and screenplay by Rob Lieber, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” could have gone very wrong. In the wrong hands, its priorities would likely have been on consistent slapstick humor—the more bodily fluids the better—rather than a balance of that and real emotions of a twelve-year-old who feels marginalized, invisible, like he doesn’t matter. Thus, the picture is a bit of a nice surprise, one that the whole family can enjoy.
The material commands an energy that works actively to lure us in. None of the characters are fully developed but because a series of unfortunate events are stacked together like pancakes, sometimes without a breather, we come to a state where we wonder and look forward what will happen next. I was curious as to what point the day would finally turn around for the family. I was surprised in that with some of the negative turn of events, there is a silver lining to them. Or perhaps it is simply my unwavering optimism reflected from the screen.
Although the lead character wishes for his family to have a bad day, we still root for him. When he realizes that maybe his wish really did come true, he genuinely feels bad. There are plenty of so-called children’s movies out there, not dissimilar to this film, where a boy or girl relishes—even temporarily—the misery of his or her family. Here, Alexander feels guilt almost immediately but there is nothing he can do to undo his wish. Instead, the screenplay makes him an active participant in supporting his family to get through the day.
The Coopers are not written to be especially annoying. On the contrary, even though they have their odd traits individually as well as a group, they are the kind of family you want to be around or be a part of. Many family movies struggle to find the fine line between exaggerating the characters and exasperating the audience. Although the film is harmless fun, it does what it aims to accomplish.
★★ / ★★★★
Director Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” is a strange crime-drama, one that is based on a true story, in that it chooses to tell its story in a muted manner rather than through an expected, hyperbolic lens. Though credit must be given for having taken a risk, what results is a movie that is the opposite of interesting or entertaining. Its languorous pacing does not help to jolt us into paying more attention. Halfway through, I found myself at the edge of boredom despite a curious performance by Steve Carell.
Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) gets a call from John du Pont (Carell), a wrestling enthusiast and heir of one of the wealthiest families in the nation. Mark, who won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics, hopes to participate in the event once again in 1988 and the plan is to be trained by his brother, David (Mark Ruffalo), also a renowned wrestler. du Pont offers to get him where he needs to be and the ambitious athlete, tired of standing in his brother’s shadow, seizes the opportunity. A bizarre symbiosis is created as Mark becomes estranged from David.
I found Carell’s makeup so distracting, it took away from an otherwise near magnetic performance. It is clear that the actor can deliver dramatically, even though many of us regard him as a comedian, so why is it necessary to make him look like the real person he tries to portray? The gimmick does not work because if one were to look closely, one would conclude that the makeup looks different from one scene to other. When it comes to dramas, I tend to focus on the characters’ faces in order to capture their essence and understand who they are underneath their behaviors. Here, we are constantly confronted by the makeup. It is not like we ever forget that Carell is in there somewhere.
Based on the first twenty minutes, the relationship between Mark and David is worth looking into. While understandable that they must spend time apart during a significant chunk of the picture’s running time, when they do get back together, the fascination is no longer there. Their relationship is reduced to a sibling rivalry, at least from Mark’s point of view, and I never felt their closeness, who they are outside of the sport.
The cinematography’s muted colors prove soporific. Combine this with a script commanding a silent, muffled energy and characters who mumble a lot, it becomes a real challenge to sit through its one-hundred-thirty-minute running time. By the final act, I felt unmoved by its life-or-death event. In fact, I just felt glad that it finally happened because it indicates that the film is coming to a close.
Halfway through the movie, I wondered if the story of “Foxcatcher” is one even worth telling. With so many movies about scarred but ambitious men who have issues with their mother easily available out there, what makes this one so special? For some, I suppose, it may be considered as an achievement to create one of the most tonally flat works to come out in recent memory.
Despicable Me 2 (2013)
★ / ★★★★
There is no reason for this film to have been made.
Directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, “Despicable Me 2” has a plot but no story—certainly none that is worth telling. The basic set-up is this: Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) is kidnapped by Lucy (Kristen Wiig), a secret agent for the Anti-Villain League, because a secret lab in the Arctic, containing a dangerous serum, is suddenly whisked away. Since Gru is a former villain, the league hopes that Gru will lend his expertise to sniff out the person responsible. The pool is narrowed down to a group of store owners in a mall.
The picture overloads on cute. It seems as though the writers, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, thought of scenes that pass as “adorable” and came up with situations—does not matter if they do not fit within the context of the plot—revolving around the “Aww” moment. I did not fall for it. There is no cleverness in the writing. Much of it is forced. The jokes are either infantile of falls completely flat. No amount of bright colors can cover the inner deadness being paraded on the screen.
Perhaps the approach is appealing to children—and there is nothing wrong with that. But I think children deserve better than this fluff. There is no great lesson to be learned here. It could have been about fatherhood and how difficult it can be to be a single parent. Quite frankly, I found it ridiculous and embarrassing that the screenplay settles for the lowest hanging fruit: a so-called romance between Gru and Lucy. Five- or six-year-old kids could care less about that. And why should the older audiences care when the relationship has no depth or meaning?
It is not even imaginative enough to create an interesting villain. The reveal of his or her identity is no surprise at all. It is kept a “secret” for so long that when the third act comes around, no one cares any longer. Further, the motivation is not clear and so the endgame has no form. Certain characters change sides for no good reason. The next thing you know, the script has tried every trick in the book but none of it has worked.
The lack of ambition and ingenuity that went into this sequel is shocking. I understand that the point is to make a lot of money because a lot of people liked the predecessor, but the least the filmmakers could have done was to try to hide it by actually making something that was worth everyone’s time. Supporting this picture is rewarding laziness.
Way Way Back, The (2013)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Just before arriving at their summer beach house, Trent (Steve Carell) asks Duncan (Liam James) to rate himself between one and ten. The fifteen-year-old refuses to entertain the man he does not get along with but is forced to provide an answer eventually. Duncan assigns himself a six while Trent says he is a mere three. The boy is hurt by the assessment he did not ask for and so he remains quiet in the back of the 1970 Buick station wagon. This is only one of the many ways that Trent exerts his power over the teenager and Duncan already knows it is going to be a very long summer in Cape Cod.
Many of us have seen movies about young adults who learn something about themselves while working with a group of colorful people during the summer. One of the most memorable in the past five years is Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland,” balancing amusement and heart so effortlessly that it feels like a true product of the ‘80s. “The Way Way Back” contains elements that are familiar, but small touches in the writing and direction by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash allow it stand above the sub-genre. I think that those who remember being a teenager and feeling trapped will find themselves investing in the film.
Credit to Allison Jones for casting the right actors. James embodies such an unhappy protagonist not only through his dejected facial expressions but also in his posturing—how Duncan’s back is hunched just a little, the lack of spring in his step, and how he looks so isolated even when surrounded by very energetic people. Speaking of energy, Allison Janney as the next door neighbor is a complete riot. She reminds me of my aunts who effortlessly light up the room during family gatherings. Even when Janney is not in the frame, her laughter is so recognizable that my eyes desperately search for her.
The most subtle performance, however, is delivered by Sam Rockwell, the manager of a water park where Duncan is eventually invited to work. Owen is worthy of our attention because his mind seems to be all over the place but immediately he is able to recognize the sadness in Duncan. Rockwell is smart to play the role as both an older brother and a father figure since Duncan does not have either. In one scene, Rockwell effortlessly switches between being a guide and a friend without pushing so hard or resting on quirks that we are reminded of watching a performance. As a result, the relationship between Owen and Duncan is believable, sweet, and true.
One of the reasons why the material does not come across as tawdry is because some relationships are acknowledged but never really delved into. Duncan develops a crush on Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the girl next door, but what they share is more tender than romantic. Also, the mother-son relationship feels a bit distant but there is no arc designed to push them into understanding each other a little bit better. The screenplay is right to focus on Duncan learning to feel comfortable with who he is by working at the water park. Sometimes he is forced into uncomfortable situations but through them we see him grow just a little bit, that he can be vulnerable without us having to feel sorry for him all the time.
The best coming-of-age movies exude a love for their subjects and “The Way Way Back” embraces such a quality. When I see great work like this, I get frustrated that so many teen movies these days rely on the subject of sex to elicit easy laughs. This one chooses to take a more thoughtful approach: the protagonist’s contentment hinging on being accepted—whether he be a six or a three.
Dinner for Schmucks (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Tim (Paul Rudd) wanted to be a more powerful executive in the company he worked for. But in order to become one of them, his boss (Bruce Greenwood) invited Tim to attend a dinner party in which the company men were required to bring an idiot with whom they could make fun of as they enjoyed their meal. Plagued by thoughts about why his girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) wouldn’t accept his marriage proposal, Tim accidentally ran over Barry (Steve Carell), an IRS agent who had a penchant for collecting dead mice and putting them in a box for display. Desperate to impress his girlfriend, he invited Barry to attend the mean-spirited dinner. Based on Francis Veber’s “Le dîner de cons,” “Dinner for Schmucks” committed an unforgivable sin: It was a comedy that was devoid of humor. Forty minutes into the picture, I stopped and wondered why not once did I laugh at the craziness that was happening on screen. There was a lot of yelling, particularly between Tim and Barry, but Jay Roach, the director, had mistaken screaming for energy. Instead of exploring the relationship between the pathetic Barry and the even more pathetic Tim, the movie spent more time with unnecessary distractions. Worse, the distractions were supposed to be amusing. There was Lucy Punch as Tim’s insane one night stand from a few years ago. Her character was taken out of a horrible pornographic film. Jemaine Clement as the vain French artist made me feel uncomfortable and seeing him made me wish he put on a shirt. Even Ron Livingston and Zach Galifianakis’ appearances as Tim and Barry’s rivals, respectively, were uninspired. Each scene was like watching a bad sitcom that lasted for almost two hours. I kept waiting for the film to slow down and take the time for Tim to realize that what he was doing to Barry was not only wrong, that his actions said a lot about himself. In an early scene, he told his girlfriend that there was a version of him that she didn’t know and she should find a way to deal with it. But maybe there was a version of him that he himself wasn’t aware of. There were times when I thought Rudd was miscast. When he was supposed to summon a bit of darkness and malicious intent, it didn’t quite work. He remained harmless and adorable. The lack of focus in terms of the relationship between Tim and Barry ultimately felt forced when Tim’s conscience was finally at the forefront. I couldn’t help but feel that “Dinner for Schmucks” was supposed to be a man and his blind ambition to further his career so that he could live the so-called American Dream. The gags should have been secondary and, more importantly, the humor should have had range.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
Cal (Steve Carell) and Emily (Julianne Moore) were deciding what to order in a restaurant. Cal wanted crème brûlée. Emily wanted a divorce. Top to it off, she admitted that she had slept with one of her co-workers (Kevin Bacon). Almost immediately, Cal moved out of the house while his kids, Robbie (Jonah Bobo) and Molly (Joey Kind), stayed with their mother. Having no one to talk to about how he felt about the separation and how quickly it happened, Cal went to a bar to meet women. Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a posh womanizer, saw something in Cal that made him want to help the sad sack, starting with his wardrobe. “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” written by Dan Fogelman, could have been an enjoyable romantic comedy if it had been severely trimmed. With a running time of almost two hours, the fat was heavy and uninteresting. The weakest portion of the film was its core. That is, the dissolution of Emily and Cal’s marriage. It was difficult for me to care about their separation for two reasons. 1) We didn’t yet know them when the news was thrown on our lap and 2) The sad parts, just when they were about to hit their peaks, were interrupted by comedy. For instance, while on the way home as Emily attempted to explain why she wanted a divorce, Cal decided to exit the car while it was moving. It was supposed to be funny but I didn’t laugh. I just felt sorry for him because he wasn’t equipped in terms of how to properly the digest the information he was given. He would rather jump out of the car than deal with the problem. What kept the project afloat were the energetic supporting characters. They were the ones who consistently made me laugh. Robbie, a thirteen-year-old, had a gigantic crush on Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), his seventeen-year-old babysitter. His public proclamations of his feelings toward her were downright embarrassing but sweet. Jessica wasn’t able to reciprocate due to their age difference and, more interestingly, she lusted over Cal, who was probably three times her age. I also loved watching the scenes between Hannah (Emma Stone), a law student, and Jacob. They shared intense chemistry so their scenes, which ranged from silly to sexy, felt effortless. It made me wish that the center of the movie was young love and how crazy, stupid, silly, naive it all was. While Cal’s wardrobe make-over and various attempts to get women into bed were necessary elements so that Cal would eventually realize his value as a father, as a husband, and as a man, they took up too much time. I wanted to know more about Emily and how her decision affected who she was as a strong woman with a career and as a mother. It wasn’t the actors’ fault. They did the most with what they were given. The problem was the script. It was reluctant to really delve into the pain of separation so it settled with spoon-feeding us so-called funny skit-like scenarios that not only did not flow together, they also consistently crossed the line between simple coincidences and forceful twists. “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” will appeal to those who like their comedies very light and cutesy. And that’s okay. But for those who like to watch characters who make decisions that make sense, they should keep walking.
Despicable Me (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), a supervillain resembling Penguin from Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns,” felt pressure to top Vector’s (Jason Segel) recent accomplishment–stealing a pyramid in Egypt. So Gru came up with a brilliant idea: steal the moon. Unfortunately, he did not have enough money to create a rocket that would launch him to outer space. An opportunity disguised as three orphans named Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) knocked on Gru’s door and slowly he began to realize that perhaps having a family was more important than being known as the world’s most famous supervillain. Although “Despicable Me” did not have anything particularly new to offer to its genre, like most successful animated films, its simplicity worked to its advantage. The humor was obvious, we knew exactly where the story was going and it was easy to relate to it because it played on the inner child within all of us. It was the small details in animation referencing to pop culture not at all dissimilar to the “Austin Powers” franchise and tiny tweaks to the typical storyline that elevated this movie to the next level. Its cuteness was constantly on overdrive especially the scenes with Agnes’ big eyes combined with her hilarious one-liners and Gru’s sometimes unintelligible minions (Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud, Jemaine Clement). The action sequences were silly but inspired (my favorite was when Gru was finally successful at entering Vector’s lair), the psychological explanations involving Gru’s motivations brought a silly grin on my face, and even the will-he-or-will-he-not-make-it scene involving a ballet recital was strangely involving. What completely did not work for me, however, were the dance sequences. Those were unnecessary because they felt cheap, out-of-place and lame. Since the material was already over-the-top, being more over-the-top hindered its momentum and I would have preferred more jokes even if they involved a little bit of slapstick. “Despicable Me,” directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, is a harmless but entertaining movie full of charm and fiery creativity. The picture reached its peak when we were allowed to reenter a child’s sense of wonder–a quality that, unfortunately, most of us have lost. Gru may be a supervillain with a penchant for making kids happy one minute and then taking away their source of happiness the next, but he is far from despicable and definitely more lovable.
Ghost Town (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
This movie wouldn’t have drowned in mediocrity if it had spent less time trying to be funny and actually tried to propel the story forward. Greg Kinnear is a fine actor but it’s too bad he wasn’t given a lot to do. Most of the time, we see his character just moping around the streets with other dead people and annoying Ricky Gervais. As for Gervais, he really did surprise me because I thought he was more obnoxious-funny prior to watching this film. He convinced me that he can do awkward-funny (almost or just as good as Steve Carell) and subtle-funny. (That overly sensitive gag reflex bit was hilarious!) I haven’t seen Téa Leoni in a lot of movies, but I really liked her here as the wife that couldn’t quite move on due to the recent death of her husband. What’s nice is that she doesn’t know that she can’t let go because she’s her denial runs deeply. Still, I felt like this picture could’ve been so much more–more daring, more original, and definitely funnier. To me, a sign of a film that is running out of ideas is when it results to slapstick, especially in formula comedies. And I felt offended when Gervais’ character was making fun of Chinese names. I’m not Chinese but I still found offense to it even though it’s supposed to be just for fun. There was no reason for those jokes to be in the movie at all. If David Koepp, the director, had added more edge–perhaps some darkly comedic moments or showing us ghosts that are covered in blood and guts, this would’ve been a far superior film. Instead, it was too safe and too ordinary for a ghost story.
Smiley Face (2007)
★★ / ★★★★
This movie is a smogasboard of cameos ranging from the most familiar names and faces–Adam Brody, John Krasinski, John Cho–to those whose faces are familiar but their names give us a hard time recalling–Jayma Mays, Marion Ross, Rick Hoffman. But this movie would’ve been a complete mess without Anna Faris. She once again proved to me–twice to this year along with “The House Bunny”–that she can elevate an average movie into a pretty good one. For me, Faris is like Steve Carell: both can stand in one place and not do anything but they never fail to make me laugh out loud. I was shocked when I found out that Gregg Araki directed this stoner comedy. It’s the complete opposite of the moody, serious, and masterful “Mysterious Skin.” What I like about this film is that it’s so random and pointless to the point where it got me thinking. I know it may sound weird but I thought this picture had something to say about the way we live our lives; how random it is, how things don’t quite go the way we expect them to be. When such disappointments happen, we may feel angry or sad or both, but by the end of the day, we should just be thankful that we’re alive–that we are able to feel these emotions and (possibly) learn from our experiences. Araki really shows his talent during some silent but exquisite scenes, especially that one scene when Faris was sitting on the beach, facing the wind and the sand as the sun sets. I’m really glad that a friend recommended this to me (he’s a big Anna Faris fan) because I decided not to add this movie to my Netflix upon its release since the premise sounded lame. Yes, it’s stupid and can go in a million different directions, but I learned to embrace its positives. It’s funny, the performances are pretty good (especially Faris), and strangely thoughtful.