DON’T LOOK UP (2021)

December 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. What happens if Chicken Little was right, and the sky really is falling? Writer-director, and Oscar winner, Adam McKay proved with THE BIG SHORT (2015) and VICE (2018) what occurs when he turns his unique commentary towards a target. Two questions remain. Is political or social satire just too easy these days? Has insanity permeated our globe to the degree that pointing out the lunacy has become ho-hum? McKay wrote the script from journalist David Sirota’s story, and it’s even more extreme than his previous work, and likely meant as a wake-up call to all of us.

Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence stars as Kate Dibiasky, a student (with a Carl Sagan figurine on her desk) who discovers a large comet speeding towards earth. Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio stars as her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy, and we can see on his face what his calculations mean. The two head to Washington DC to inform the President of their findings. President Orlean (a nod for movie buffs) is played by Oscar winner Meryl Streep, and her Chief of Staff is Jonah Hill, who also happens to be her son. President Orlean is too concerned about her slipping rating in popularity polls to pay much heed to the scientists, opening the way for Jonah Hill to be the most Jonah Hill he’s ever been. It’s an outrageous scene … yet … it feels all too possible.

Dibiasky and Mindy are so shocked and frustrated at the blow-off, they decide to take the story to the media. Appearing on the vacuous and highly-rated morning talk show, “The Rip”, they are guided to “Keep it light. Keep it fun” while on the air with the entirely too-upbeat co-hosts played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry. At this point, Dibiasky is unable to control her frustration. This results in her becoming a social media meme, while Dr. Mindy becomes the “hot” astronomer – labeled an AILF. This is an obvious take on Dr. Fauci’s popularity during the pandemic. Other opportunities for Mindy includes getting closer with Blanchett’s talk show host, despite his wife (Melanie Lynskey) taking care of the home front.

Obviously most of these characters are a bit cartoonish, but that’s the point. Once the media pressures the President into taking action, an ARMAGEDDON type mission is planned, only to be scratched at the last moment and replaced by a more profitable option. Peter Isherwell (Oscar winner Mark Rylance as a blend of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk) is a tech billionaire and President Orlean supporter, and his plan involves mining the meteor for precious metals while also saving the planet.

Although Dibiasky has dropped out of the ‘spread the word’ campaign, she’s still tracking the approaching asteroid via her diet app as she hangs with a philosophical stoner played by Timothy Chalamet. It started as 6 months and 14 days, and we only get periodic updates on how much time remains. Instead, the focus is on the bumbling antics of those involved and the zany reactions of the general public. We even get President Orlean with a speech from the deck of a battleship in yet another dig at past politicians. Pop star Arianna Grande shifts her celebrity support from manatees to a hit duet with Kid Cudi entitled “Just Look Up”, while Himesh Patel plays an opportunistic reporter-boyfriend. Also, Rob Morgan is excellent in his role as supportive scientist Dr. Oglethorpe, and Ron Perelman goes a bit off the rails as the pilot on the first mission.

It’s an incredible cast and what a joy to see DiCaprio in a role so far removed from his usual characters. He even gets a NETWORK scene here, and overall he makes us understand how serious the science is, and how easily someone can go off track. Jennifer Lawrence gets the film’s best recurring gag, while Jonah Hill fits right in as the impetuous benefactor of nepotism. With the abundance of tooth veneers flashed by a multitude of characters, we can assume the film’s dental budget was sky high.

McKay uses the oncoming meteor as a stand-in for the global warming issue, and his tendency to lean heavily left does shine through. However, it’s crucial to note that no one, no thing, no organization, and no affiliation is safe during this one. Whereas ARMAGEDDON took pride and patriotism of blue collar folks and turned them into heroes, McKay examines the other side which is all about feelings, discussions, social media, and popularity. He blends Kubrick’s DR STRANGELOVE with Judge’s IDIOCRACY (which has proven much too accurate), and delivers a disaster movie that uses an asteroid to point out the real danger … which is ourselves. Is it too much? Too silly? Too angry? Too long? Simply playing to the home crowd? It’s likely to be criticized for not being smart enough or clever enough, but seriously, have you looked around at society lately? McKay delivers loads of comedy here, and maybe by laughing at ourselves, we can find a way to improve things. His final scene is more grounded than the rest of the film, and quite touching on its own. Stay tuned for the credit scenes.

Opening in theaters on December 10, 2021 and streaming on Netflix beginning December 24, 2021

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CRISIS (2021)

February 25, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The best thrillers often interweave multiple story lines to create a complex web of detail for viewers to unwind. Writer-director Nicholas Jarecki (ARBITRAGE, 2012) serves up three story lines, all related to the current Opioid crisis. Although the film looks great and has a deep cast, we’ve seen most of this before and no new insight is provided in regards to the struggle. Instead, it’s really standard thriller fare that never goes deep enough into any of the characters to make us care.

Armie Hammer (along with the recent personal baggage attached to him) stars as Jake Kelly, a DEA Agent who has worked undercover in hopes of exposing the Armenian-Canadian-American drug traffickers responsible for a significant portion of opioids crossing the border. Hammer spends the entire movie with an intensely furrowed brow that would likely inspire distrust amongst any potential drug syndicates.

In storyline number 2, Evangeline Lilly (Wasp in the ANT-MAN movies) is Claire Reimann, an architect and recovering drug addict, who is out for vengeance when her beloved high school athlete son is found dead with drugs in his system. The third segment features Oscar winner Gary Oldman (DARKEST HOUR, 2017) as Dr. Tyrone Brower, a science professor at a private Detroit university. He runs a drug-testing lab and faces a moral dilemma when questionable lab results for “the first non-addictive painkiller” puts people at risk, not to mention funding for his work.

Any one of these actors or stories could carry the weight of a movie, but when combined, they succeed only in crushing the entertainment value and tension level. Oldman’s story is easily the most interesting. It addresses how Big Pharma gets new drugs rubber-stamped by funding otherwise cash-strapped labs and schools. There is also the skepticism involved with the drug-producer’s influence over the supposedly independent FDA, and on top of all that, there is the ethical concerns of everyone putting the almighty dollar ahead of safety.

Director Jarecki (the brother of Andrew Jarecki who directed the superb 2003 documentary CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS) kicks off the movie with a beautifully filmed, albeit brief, chase scene through the snowy Canadian forest. In fact, the camera work throughout is fine. It’s really the overloaded script that prevents any of the stories or characters from clicking. Mr. Oldman seems to sense that he needs to overcome the lack of complexity in his story, and because of the effort, loses his usual reserved cerebral approach for which he’s known.

Supporting work is provided by Greg Kinnear as the Dean willing to sacrifice ethics and friendship for money, Michelle Rodriguez as the DEA supervisor in a budget crunch, and Lily-Rose Depp as Jake’s strung out sister. Also contributing are Indira Varma, John Ralston, Martin Donovan, Mia Kirshner, Kid Cudi, Michael Aronov, Luke Evans, and Veronica Ferres. The weakest link here is director Jarecki himself, who for some reason, thought he could play Jake’s partner … a role that would have benefited from a more refined actor.

The horrific effects of the Opioid crisis are known to most, and the film plays like a Wikipedia explanation for anyone who doesn’t read or watch the news. Certainly not helping is the “Miami Vice” type score that accompanies many scenes, and the choppy editing that causes many scenes to fail. Better movies in this genre would include THE INSIDER (1999, ironically directed by “Miami Vice” creator Michael Mann) and Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC (2000). The obstacles faced by whistleblowers, the importance of funding to academia, budgetary concerns for law enforcement, the tragic impact of drugs on families, and the systemic corruption that has fueled the epidemic … all of these are touched on. It’s just that it all seems too obvious. If somehow you didn’t already know, the money-hungry don’t play fair – whether they be drug dealers or drug companies.

The film will hit theaters on February 26, 2021 and Digital and On Demand March 5, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER