LA LA LAND (2016)

December 10, 2016

la-la-land Greetings again from the darkness. Is this a nostalgic throwback to the movie musicals of Stanley Donen and Fred Astaire, or is it a contemporary film designed to revitalize the movie musical genre in an era dominated by superheroes and sci-fi? However you might choose to label writer/director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to Whiplash (2014), it’s clearly one of the best and most entertaining movies of the year.

While the opening credits are still rolling (“Presented in CinemaScope” being the first gag), the film kicks off with its only large scale (think Busby Berkeley on a L.A. freeway rather than in a swimming pool) musical production, “Another Day of Sun”. It’s also the first of 3 less-than-warm-and-fuzzy “meetings” between the two lead characters before they finally click.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling light up the screen with the same incredible chemistry they displayed in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011). Mia (Ms. Stone) is a struggling actress-wannabe working behind the counter at the Warner Brothers studio coffee shop. Sebastian (Mr. Gosling) is a pianist committed to the traditions of jazz music … even as he toils in a club playing mainstream tunes for folks who aren’t even listening.

As their relationship develops, we are treated to a tap dance number in the Mulholland Drive moonlight. Soon, Sebastian (either a brooding Gene Kelly or a dancing James Dean) is forced to make a choice between finding a way to open his own jazz club or compromising his integrity by making lots of money joining a “hot” band (led by John Legend), while Mia is focusing on auditions and her writing (which leads to a disastrous one-woman show).

Director Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren create a look in line with Singin’ in the Rain, but a tone more suited to A Star is Born. There is no shortage of romance and music, but it’s equally balanced with melancholy, foolish dreams, and shattered hopes. While it’s an homage to old Hollywood, Los Angeles and movie musicals, it seems to gracefully swing between past and present – and reality and fantasy.

Mia has a bedroom wall mural of Ingrid Bergman, while Sebastian treasures his piano stool that once belonged to Hoagy Carmichael … two more examples of past and present intertwined. Ms. Stone and Mr. Gosling possess solid (not exceptional) singing voices, which aids in having the songs tell their story. Ms. Stone is quite a talent, and especially stands out in her audition scenes … we feel her pouring her heart out to casting agents who may or may not even be paying attention. It’s remarkable work from her.

Supporting work is provided by Rosemarie DeWitt (as Sebastian’s sister), JK Simmons (as a club owner and Sebastian’s boss), Finn Wittrock (as Mia’s boyfriend) and Damon Gupton. Also in supporting roles would be the Griffith Observatory (after a Rebel Without a Cause viewing), the Los Angeles scene, and the Warner Brothers lot.

The “What Could Have Been” ending sequence is top notch filmmaking in all aspects, and perfectly caps a movie that drips with nostalgia … while also being touching, funny, and downright fun. Watching this film is much like going through the ups and downs of a relationship, and rather than a fairy tale, it’s a painful jab at “the one who got away”. It deserves to be seen on the big screen – enjoy the full palette of colors and the full spectrum of emotions (love and heartbreak, frustration, anger, and utter joy). This is one to tell your friends about … don’t wait for them to tell you.

watch the trailer:

 

 

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THE BIG SHORT (2015)

December 24, 2015

big short Greetings again from the darkness. Since there are so few subjects more hilarious than the 2008 financial crisis, let’s get the writer/director of Anchorman and Step Brothers to adapt the Michael Lewis best-selling book. OK, so it’s improbable that was the thought process, but kudos to whomever was responsible for bringing Adam McKay to the project. Before you go assuming it’s a poor fit, it should be noted that McKay is also one of the creative minds behind “Funny or Die”, a site filled with political and social satire. It’s that satirical approach that makes this explanation of what went wrong so accessible to the masses. Make no mistake … this is entertaining and educational and thought-provoking and nauseating and infuriating and funny and disheartening.

If the film were described as a tutorial on MBS (Mortgage-backed Securities), CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligations), Credit Default Swaps, Tranches, Bond Ratings, and Sub-Prime ARMs, most people’s eyes would glaze over and they would keep skimming for showtimes of other new movie releases. In truth, it is those things – and so much more. This is the story of how the housing market collapsed leading the government to the massive bailout that saved some of our largest financial institutions … and how a small group of people recognized what was happening and literally bet against the U.S. economy. It follows the bread crumbs to re-assemble the slow process of spotting the fault in the analysis that lead to massive corruption that finally crossed over into systematic fraud … and does so by using creative presentation approaches like a Bond Rating game of Jenga, and celebrity snippets for definitions and examples.

Ryan Gosling stars as Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippmann), a slick Deutsche Bank trader who acts as our guide through the muck of shorting securitized mortgages, while simultaneously working the system for his personal benefit. He works with Mark Baum (a character based on Steve Eisman, played by Steve Carell) who manages FrontPoint Partners, and Baum’s team played by Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong (whom you might remember as Lee Harvey Oswald in Parkland). While this is going on, there are two other similar story lines we are following. The first is Christian Bale playing hedge fund manager and savant analyst Dr. Michael Burry at Scion Hedge Fund. Burry is often cited as the first to recognize the impending collapse and invest against the market. Finally, we have the “garage band” investment company based on Cornwall Capital run by (names changed) Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Gellar (John Magaro) with a big boost from former trader Ben Rickert (played by Brad Pitt in a role based on Ben Hockett). The stellar cast is rounded out by Marisa Tomei as Baum’s concerned wife, Tracy Letts as the head of Scion, Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen who play cocky and clueless subprime mortgage brokers, and Melissa Leo who plays a Standard & Poor’s employee.

It’s difficult to tell this story without casting blame, and few escape the wrath of Lewis, McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph. Those absorbing shots to the bow include: the Federal Reserve, the SEC, Rating Agencies, big Banks and Investment firms, Fund Managers, Traders, Realtors, and Mortgage Brokers. Companies specifically named include JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, WAMU, Option One, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and The Wall Street Journal. The point made is that the problem goes/went beyond greed, and is/was truly system-wide, with each segment protecting themselves and their turf. Somehow the name Barney Frank is not mentioned, and FNMA and FHLMC escape mostly unscathed, while CRA lending requirements are not discussed.  It’s not politically correct (and not mentioned here) to question why so many borrowers who couldn’t pay their rent regularly accepted loans that they knowingly couldn’t afford to repay. But that’s a topic for another time.

With full disclosure, I will admit to having been in the mortgage business for 18 years. Though I was never involved with subprime loans, I will always disagree with the stance that the industry and institutions were not aware of the risk and impending collapse. It was common knowledge that “no doc” loans were absurd, and the adjustable rate schedules and prepayment penalties for subprime (and some conventional) loans were beyond impractical and more like homicidal (from a lending perspective). In the film, Baum interviews an exotic dancer who owns multiple homes … all loans made with minimal documentation due to the cash basis of her business. The terms of the loans set her, and other similar borrowers, up for financial ruin … right along with the housing sector and economy. The subprime mortgage brokers portrayed by Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen may seem cartoonish, but Baum’s confusion with their “confession” versus “bragging” is spot on. There were many just like these two clowns who considered themselves “rock stars”, when in fact, there were really “bartenders who now own a boat”.  These weren’t the type to question whether the loans made sense … only how many could they close to pad their 5 and 6 figure per month income levels.  Of course, in defense of these morons, it was the banks and lenders who designed the loan programs to “feed the machine” with more and by necessity, higher risk loans … to the point where it was no longer possible to spread the risk wide enough for protection. Hence, the collapse.

By the end of the movie, you should expect to have a headache and feel quite cynical towards the system. Despite the humor interjected by quick-hit segments from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdoin, the seriousness of the topics is more than bubble baths, blackjack and fish stew. The film leaves us angry and nauseous from what happened in 2008, but more importantly questioning … Has anything changed? Have we learned anything? These answers are likely to cause a more sickening reaction than looking back seven years.

A recommended Economic Movie Marathon would include: Inside Job (2010 documentary from Charles Ferguson), Margin Call (2011, JC Chandor), The Big Short (2015, Adam McKay), and 99 Homes (2015, Ramin Bahrani)

watch the trailer:

 


MY ALL AMERICAN (2015)

November 13, 2015

my all american Greetings again from the darkness. I’m a University of Texas alumnus and have vivid childhood memories of Freddie Steinmark the player, followed by Freddie Steinmark the tragedy, and finally Freddie Steinmark the inspiration. His legacy remains an active part of the Longhorns football program today via the stadium scoreboard dedication and the locker room tribute that is part of every game day in Austin. This is the directorial debut of Angelo Pizzo, who is known for writing two other inspirational sports movies: Hoosiers and Rudy.

It’s difficult not to cringe when the film opens in 2010 with a reporter interviewing legendary and elderly former coach Darrell Royal, who is dementia-stricken and forgetful … until he starts speaking of Freddie. The cringe-inducing part isn’t Coach Royal’s dementia (of which we fans were all aware), but rather the amateurish make-up applied to Aaron Eckhart in an attempt to age him into the 85 year old icon. Fortunately this segment is brief, and we are soon enough picking up a high school aged Freddie as he practices and works out ferociously with his dad in hopes of fulfilling his dream of playing football at Notre Dame.

Finn Wittrock (“American Horror Story”) plays Freddie, and captures the intensity, ambition and goodness of the young man who would galvanize the Longhorns program and end up making quite an impression on those Notre Dame coaches, but for much more than his play on the field. Burned into my memory (and that of anyone who witnessed it) is the shot of Freddie on crutches at the 1970 Cotton Bowl.

Director Pizzo offers some breath-taking aerial shots of Austin and Memorial Stadium (digitally altered to reflect the late 1960’s), and some impressive sequences of football practices and games. Football fans will have fun spotting former players making appearances including Case McCoy (as Razorback Bill Montgomery), Hays McEachern, Danny Lester, and Luke Poehlmann. You will also note Juston Street plays his father James (mimicking the game face), and Jordan Shipley plays my all-time favorite Longhorn receiver, Cotton Speyrer. Nostalgia flows as the game announcers call some of the greatest college players of the era: Ted Koy, Steve Worster, Jim Bertelsen, Steve Owens, and Chuck Dicus.

“The Game of the Century” is the centerpiece game of the movie, and we actually get a clip of President Richard Nixon arriving to the Texas-Arkansas game of 1969. It turned out to be Freddie’s final football game, but more aptly, a continuation of his influence. However, this is just as much the story of Freddie the individual as it is Freddie the football player. His determination, zest for life and incredible courage are the message here … not tackles and interceptions. Even his relationship with his high school and college sweetheart Linda (Sarah Bolger) seems the stuff of which dreams are made.

In addition to this film, there have been three books written about Steinmark: in 1971 Freddie worked with Blackie Sherrod on an autobiography called “I Play to Win”; in 2011, Jim Dent wrote “Courage Beyond the Game”; and just this year, the University of Texas published a new biography entitled “Freddie Steinmark: Faith, Family, Football” by Bower Yousse (a former friend and teammate). It should also be noted that Steinmark’s battle against cancer inspired Congress to pass the National Cancer Act of 1971, beginning the war on cancer and spurring a jump in cancer research that continues to this day.

It’s a football movie, but also a tearjerker. It’s a profile of an over-achiever, but also the story of a young man who inspired a team, a university and a nation. Every time you think the story is a bit corny, or that Freddie is too good to be true, just remind yourself that despite the cynicism permeating society today, Freddie Steinmark was flesh and blood, with a heart and soul and mentality that refused to surrender.

a picture of Freddie Steinmark:

freddie

 


UNBROKEN (2014)

December 27, 2014

 

unbroken Greetings again from the darkness. Louis Zamperini was a true American hero and his life story is epic and legendary. The son of Italian immigrants, young Louie easily found trouble, and only the efforts of his older brother and a local police officer allowed him to discover inner strength through his talent for distance running. As a 19 year old, Louie ran in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and later enlisted in the Air Force and served as a bombardier during WWII. After a horrible plane crash, he spent a grueling 47 days adrift at sea in a life raft, until rescued/captured by the Japanese. Zamperini served as a Prisoner of War, where he was subjected to immense physical and psychological torture, until the war finally ended.

Zamperini’s story has long deserved to be made into a movie, and it has bounced around Hollywood since 1957. However, it wasn’t until Laura Hillenbrand’s biography on Zamperini became a best seller in 2010 that the film version was given the go-ahead. With screenplay credits for Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, and William Nicholson, cinematography from the great Roger Deakins (the first Air Force battle sequence is breath-taking), and a score from Alexandre Desplat, it was a bit surprising when Angelina Jolie was named director. After all, she only had one previous credit as a director, and that film (In the Land of Blood and Honey, 2011) was nowhere near the scope of this project.

Given the true life inspirational story and the truly heroic events of its featured character, the film can best be labeled a mild disappointment. It is extremely impressive to look at, but somehow lacking in emotion … despite some excruciatingly uncomfortable moments. The film strives for the level of historic epic, yet its conventional tone and approach leave us wondering what’s missing. The single most effective and emotional moment occurs in a short clip of the real Louis Zamperini running as an Olympic torch bearer at age 80 for the 1998 Olympics (in Japan!).

Jack O’Connell pours everything he has into capturing the spirit of Zamperini, and he is certainly an actor to keep an eye on. Japanese rock star Miyaki plays “The Bird” Watanabe, a sadistic POW camp commander who brutalized Zamperini, but Miyaki lacks the chops to pull off this crucial role – going a bit heavy on the posturing. The film uses the line “If you can take it, you can make it” as its rallying cry, but too many gaps are left for the audience to bridge as we watch Louie go from a punk kid to a war hero with almost mystical courage and perseverance. Other supporting work comes from Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney and CJ Valleroy (as young Louie).

unbroken2 On paper, all the pieces are in place for an Oscar contender, and the film may very well play well with voters. My preference would have been to have the real life Louis Zamperini more involved … through either narration or interviews. He spent the second half of his life as a motivational speaker and story-teller, and would have added an incredible element to the film. Unfortunately, Mr. Zamperini (pictured left) died 4 months prior to the release of the film so he never saw the finished product. It’s likely he died knowing that his legacy is part of American history and that he did in fact “make it”.