This Side of Insanity

Couple of very interesting and watchable films that touch on the topic of mental health.   Two very different protagonists, two very compelling  examinations on the sometimes finer line that can exist between us, and them.

Hello, My Name is Doris (2015)

Hello Doris

This movie, I thought, was a rather novel take on the formula of “the mentally ill person is the sanest person in the room.”  Sally Field’s character, while certainly functional and able to hold down a job, lives a life no one would envy and is clearly not the sane person in the room.  However, she is extremely sympathetic and engenders a strong feeling of compassion from the audience.   She is one of the older employees in a youth oriented office environment, has been taking care of her elderly mother until her death, and has limited social interaction outside work, although she does have a close, and reassuringly nonjudgmental, friend played by Tyne Daly.

The movie opens with Doris at her mother’s funeral.  Almost immediately the facets of her mental disorders are uncovered and manifest in loneliness and extreme hoarding.  The home that Doris shared with her mother is overflowing with clutter.   The lack of supportive family environment is shown to be a contributing factor.  Doris’ only sibling is an overbearing brother with a selfish and impatient spouse, who reveals her true colors almost in the same moment when she is trying to be pleasant.   It is completely sane and understandable that Doris avoids them and spends as little time with them as possible.  DNA does not necessarily a family make.

Meanwhile, at work, a new young executive smiles at her in the elevator and Doris is instantly transported into a world where the 20something man is secretly harboring feelings for the 65 year old woman, and unlike the family situation, here you wish Doris would wake up and realize how out of touch with reality her imaginings are.   This is emphatically not a remake of Harold and Maude, which was a strange but mutual relationship that ended on a very affirming note (and one of the greatest films of all time).   In this case, although a curious friendship develops between the two, it is not romantic except inside Doris’ head.

The way in which Doris slowly comes to terms with her own mental challenges is written and crafted in a realistic and believable way, with the help of a very patient and understanding therapist.  None of us can confront our emotional baggage and mental hangups, simply because other people say we should – we can only move forward when (and if) we are ready to take that step.  Despite a somewhat weighty underlying message, the movie is by and large the opposite of bleak:  it is endearing and humorous, light and bright, with consistent brilliant delivery from Sally Field.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

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Like other movies that touch on or dive into this topic, there are those moments where the mentally ill person is indeed, seemingly the most sane one in the room, and other moments where the dividing line between sanity and insanity couldn’t be more sharp or bright.  The movie opens with Pat’s mother arranging for his release from the facility where he has been institutionalized for 9 months.  He is seen pretending to take his medication, and the impression you’re supposed to have is that he doesn’t belong there.  It doesn’t take long for the audience to appreciate that he actually is not functioning all that well.   Thus, the movie starts off with a restrained quality containing a spark that only hinted at the development that was to come later.

A variety of triggers would release Pat’s intense reactions, such as when he woke his parents up in the middle of the night to rail against the invisible enemy that was his own mind as he fiercely raved on about the shortcomings of Hemingway classic “Farewell to Arms”  and everything that the book stood for.   Where the movie dropped all pretense that it wasn’t going to take hold of your soul was the scene where Pat arrives at his therapist’s office, hears Stevie Wonders’ “My Cherie Amour” played over the PA for him and flips out.  Leaving aside the somewhat questionable ethics of this therapist in deliberately provoking his patient, the song’s wistful and beautiful melody that has always stood on its own,  becomes downright mesmerizing and chilling, one of those movie moments that you can’t shake off.  It’s even more remarkable how it was used considering the audience doesn’t yet know the reason Pat was so affected.   Not long after we experience that torture with Pat, his budding friendship with Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence,  punctures the absurdity of such emotional intensity in the way she tells him it’s a song and he’ll have to get over it.   The character development is slow and rewarding; by this time, you’re in it with them, and the weaving together of what everyone has on the line creates a movie with emotional impact.   Getting DeNiro to contribute his magic as Pat Sr. was also a stroke of casting genius.

Bradley Cooper redeemed himself a thousand percent in my eyes.  If I were him I would burn all existing copies of “Aloha” and keep this film at the top of my resume. The one odd note to me was the seeming promotion of medication compliance in a movie that featured refreshingly strong personalities that almost don’t exist in today’s medicated society.  But maybe I get the wrong takeaway.  Wouldn’t be the first time.

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Bridge of Spies (2015)

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RB score: 10/10

Bridge of Spies is an A+ project.  Based on the well known 1962 event with the official exchange of a captured US Air Force pilot with a captured Soviet spy, this is a work so anchored in the brilliant collaboration that is Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as James Donovan, the attorney, that the Oscar actually eluded both for the simple reason that both are such masters of their craft,  audiences and Academy alike have taken this mastery for granted.  There is no other explanation.  I’d go so far as to say there’s no other actor who could have done what Hanks did with that role, and no other director who could have matched Spielberg’s execution.

British stage actor Mark Rylance did take home the Oscar for his supporting performance, as Abel, the Russian spy.  Rylance doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time, but his exceptionally skilled and understated portrayal commands your attention whenever he is on screen.

The movie opens in late 50s/early 60s Brooklyn, NY.  The viewer is immediately placed into a scene where Spielberg’s architecture captures all the details flawlessly.  You notice the period cars, the judicious use of color and lighting, the sounds, the people.  A side street, a few cars, and Spielberg takes the audience to the exact time and place where they need to be.  The mesmerizing level of attention to detail is present in every setting throughout the movie.

In general, having any knowledge of the true events will add to audience enjoyment.  It’s true here as well; and this film is also completely watchable on a standalone basis.

There is a scene in the jail, when Donovan is conferring with Abel, and the music of Shostakovich is playing on a portable cassette player.  It’s typical Spielberg-crafted setting,  with no detail left unattended.  For a moment, the beauty of the music fills the room.  Then Abel shuts it off, as he says, musingly:  “A very great artist, Shostakovich.”  Here , even if the viewer is not familiar with the composer Dmitri Shostakovich, or the significance of his works, the scene works as a moment in time where the Russian is acknowledging the artistry of his countryman, perhaps also subtly reminding the audience how the arts and music bridge gaps of understanding among people rather than driving them apart, as do politics and war.    Yet the scene has other, deeper dimensions, that are not overtly explained.  If you have some familiarity with the composer, and some of the debate that exists over the meanings he may or may not have tried to convey to an audience without the Communist party understanding in the same way – if you can muster an appreciation for the desperate tension that was felt by people in that time and space, then this scene hits you with an additional layer of impact. Shostakovich wrote his 5th symphony, (highly recommended listening) in 1937 under some duress and it was received with a standing ovation.

Musically it’s clear there was something going on.

In Bridge of Spies, there is always more going on.  How subtle for Abel to comment, “and they care for you!?” to Jonathan Powers,  referencing the false coin with the cyanide laced pin.  He’s got a point.  Outside of what you can say about the differing systems, when it comes down to an individual level, do either of them care?

For those interested some fascinating backstory on the subplot involving Fred Pryor, the American student who was made part of the capture:   http://michigantoday.umich.edu/the-spy-who-never-was/

My own theory is that Spielberg, not the type to leave important details unattended, was respecting the wishes of the real Fred Pryor by not contacting him.  Still, choosing to live a life away from sensationalism, should not necessarily mean foregoing the courtesy of a phone call, since Spielberg did elect to use his real name.

It’s a great film achievement and not to be missed.  Easily the best picture of the year, regardless of the slings and arrows of Academy voting.  Not only Best Picture, but Director for Spielberg and Best Actor for Tom Hanks.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

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RB score:  8/10

Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton, played by Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi, are lifelong best friends who headline their own magic show at Bally’s Las Vegas.  We first meet them as lonely, bullied middle school students.  They become friends after Burt receives a magic kit as a birthday present from his mom, who works around the clock as a single parent to support her son.  Burt and Anton become bonded as amateur magicians, and soon discover that their ability to do magic tricks buys them social acceptance at school.  Years later, they have been able to parlay their hobby into a lucrative career.  They’re wowing audiences in Las Vegas, they’re living the high life.  What can possibly go wrong?

A few things, as it turns out.  Complacency sets in.  While Anton retains a sense of humbleness and appreciation for what they have, Burt eventually starts to believe in his own hype, becoming an arrogant, self-important womanizer.  The act relies on having an attractive female assistant, and the current assistant, Nicole, becomes exasperated with the backstage animosity and quits.  Apparently, this was getting to be a pattern.  Anton reminds Burt that this was the second Nicole to quit in the last month alone.  Unfazed, Burt presses one of the technical staffers into service as their newest “Nicole” – a smart young woman named Jane, played by Olivia Wilde.  Jane finds herself squeezed into the previous Nicole’s tight stage leotard and blonde wig, as she fairly ad-libs through a performance and snubs Burt’s advances.

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However,  adding Jane to the act doesn’t address the other problems between Burt and Anton, or the increasing staleness of their routine.   Soon, ticket sales start to lag.  We see many empty seats in the once-packed auditorium, and the audience members are mostly elderly.  Burt and Anton are called into the office of Bally’s owner Doug Munny, played by the late James Gandolfini, in true Vegas-mobster style.  Munny tells the duo that they have to update their act if they expect to stay employed.  He wants them to bring in a younger demographic.  Do we expect Money… er, I mean, Munny…to be anything other than a mercenary?  They weren’t terribly subtle with the character’s last name.

At the same time, street performer Steve Gray, played by Jim Carrey, is making a splash with his cable show and large internet following.  Burt and Anton scoff at first, but their boss, who only sees dollar signs, is impressed.  Gray’s act primarily consists of self-mutilation in various forms, and audiences love it.  People cry, even vomit, but they always applaud.

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE

 

Little bit of a jab here at reality-show brand of entertainment and the audiences who love them.  The technique – the prompting of audience self-reflection – works in the sense of inviting that self-check, and it’s uncontroversial.  Those who most need that self check will not perform one.  When taken to the extreme as it was in “The Big Short” (another Carell vehicle) it is downright alienating.  Here, it’s one of many understated devices that ride underneath the film’s main themes.  I like it as a film device, I have no faith in it as a means to affect human beliefs and behaviors.  There I think you need facts.  Education.

As Steve Gray enjoys more success, Burt is forced to vacate his posh Bally’s suite, and Anton, who was badly injured in a stunt where he and Burt were trying desperately to compete with Gray, has taken up philanthropic efforts, distributing free magic kits to starving children in Cambodia.  Burt had first gone to Jane’s apartment looking for a place to stay for a while, but he behaved so obnoxiously that Jane threw him out, and he moved into a seedy off strip motel.  Comedian Brad Garrett turns up in a small role as Burt’s lecturing accountant, who of course, Burt never listened to, with the result that Burt’s now got nothing.  No savings.

Burt finds work entertaining at a senior citizens’ living facility, where evidently, many of the old time Vegas entertainers live out their retirements.  There, Burt becomes acquainted with his childhood idol, magician Rance Holloway, played by Alan Arkin, who helps Burt regain a semblance of humility and rekindles a sense of connection he used to feel for both his audiences and his craft.  Jane turns up at the retirement home to visit her grandmother, and Burt discovers to his chagrin, that she has gone to work for Steve.

Eventually, Anton returns from overseas,  Jane tires of Gray’s extremism and the three reconnect and decide to work together.  At this point, I suppose the movie could have simply wound up being the contrived and predictable vehicle some critics complained about.  But damn it, in order to say that, you have to ignore what actually happens!  And even though spoilers abound, I don’t give them as a policy.  Suffice to say that this is one of those endings where I have to remind myself to close my jaw, several times over.

There are two things that I think really alienated the critic ranks.  One, a common complaint was predictability.  Critics thought it all too predictable.  In a sense, I see what they’re getting at; if the viewer focuses on the top notes – basically, the friendship, the love interest, the treatment of elderly by society – the story elements are not terribly original and in that sense, predictable.  But this movie uses those top notes almost as a smokescreen – much like the magicians do to the magic show audience at the end.  The layers underneath the basic storyline contain numerous blink-and-you-ll-miss-it elements that question everything  depicted in the movie.  Why did Burt’s mom work on her son’s birthday, leaving him home alone and loney, with a boxed birthday cake?  Not, as one critic said, because Burt was neglected.  His mom was a single working parent and was forced to work a double shift that day – that’s an indirect slam at American corporate culture.  Blink and you’ll miss it.  When Anton decides to do something redeeming (reminding the audience of the normal, human side of these characters) he takes magic kits to impoverished children who need food and clean drinking water.  It’s a reminder that magic is all that Anton really knows anything about, but also a satirical look at misguided philanthropy.  There is a quick cut to a girl biting the corner of one of the kits – blink and you’ll miss it.

The second thing I think really riled critics was the ending.  It is a disturbing ending, and if you just laugh at the comedy, you’re not alone, several writers did.  But this is not a funny ending, and the juxtaposition of the upbeat 70s disco-era song, Pilot’s “Magic”, played as the lead characters, who, God help us, we THOUGHT we understood – are doing nameless things to the audience while the happy music plays on –  is one of the most brilliant film devices I’ve ever seen.  I didn’t say I LIKED it, I’m just impressed as all get out by the creativity that was used.   If you try to reconcile this movie’s ending with what were supposed to be the “predictable” elements;  the trio finding success again, the triumphant return to the stage – well, that bit is the only predictable aspect, and it’s secondary to the jaw dropping conclusion.   It is certainly not predictable that they’d do what they did, and it’s so jarring that it’s frankly easier to just conclude that the writers did a bad job, that it’s all out of character and a major flaw.

The thing is, it isn’t out of character.  What do any of us know about performers and what drives them, or what they think of the audiences or of mass intellect… or what people are willing to do for money and fame? Even more subtle than that, the viewer might recall that not only Anton and Burt were bulled as schoolchildren, but so was Jane!  Are the abused predisposed to grow up into something less than human?  I sure hope not, but again, blink and you’ll miss it!  The final sequence is really brilliantly done, and on top of that, it actually builds as the soundtrack plays.  I’ve replayed the Youtube clip over and over.

See it, you won’t be bored, that’s for sure.

8/10, the 2 points aren’t deducted out of agreement with the critics, but I do think the writing could have been nuanced a bit more in the direction of not giving the critics easy pickings to complain about.

 

 

 

 

Big Eyes (2014)

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RB score:  10/10

“Big Eyes” is a somewhat unusual and fascinating project, that details the true events that transpired in the life of painter Margaret Keane, played by Amy Adams, a look-alike of the artist as a young woman.  Margaret’s life work was claimed as his own by her then-husband, Walter Keane, played by Christoph Waltz in another stroke of brilliant casting.. The theme is established with the opening, a sunny scene of a California suburb in the late 1950s, as a reporter’s voice, who provides brief, succinct and unobtrusive narration, tells us that “The 50s were a great time…. If you were a man.” The settings were marvelous, from the homes, to the clothes, to the cars. Margaret is fleeing her American-dream existence, escaping an abusive husband with her little daughter and whatever she can throw into a suitcase. Notably, her paintings are mostly what she takes with her.

From there Margaret finds a job in San Francisco, painting children’s furniture in a factory. She continues to work on her craft and meets her second husband at an art exhibit. He is all waffling charm and very gracious to both Margaret and her daughter, and even with the wisdom of modern day hind sight the viewer will appreciate how a young woman on her own would be caught under the spell of a such a manipulator, especially given the stigma endured by divorced women at the time.

When Walter discovers, quite by accident, that there exists a true market for Margaret’s paintings, he gets to work maximizing the opportunity, while letting art buyers assume the paintings are his.  The audience watches as Margaret does nothing to dispel the lies, smiling demurely in the background as she watches her husband take all credit, accepting his explanation that buyers would be deterred from purchasing paintings of a female artist. Walter’s talent for self promotion and Margaret’s talent for producing art that appealed to a wide audience combines to bring the couple great financial reward.  Soon the three are seen living in a beautiful mansion where they entertain celebrities.  Actually, Walter entertained, Margaret sat alone in a small studio painting for 16 hours a day.  Only Margaret’s daughter is aware of the truth, but then she has been since the beginning – a very affecting part of the story.

The character of Walter is both baffling and universal. There is nowhere in life you can go and not encounter someone very much like him. To complicate the portrayal, most anyone can find elements of their own relationships over the years they’d like to do differently. Flashes of self doubt make us question how we conducted ourselves or how we treated someone. For the Walter Keanes of the world, the delusion is full time, never carried out in flashes with later regret.  Never any desire to learn from mistakes, mend fences, or strive to be a better person.

Director Burton accomplishes the Walter character progression with such finesse that the viewer, even knowing full well they are watching a scoundrel, is still taken aback at what the disordered personality type is capable of, and how certain behaviors, certain boundaries, are not necessarily crossed immediately but in degrees and over time.

Margaret eventually found vindication and a renewed lease on life, and as of this writing, still paints today, although she is in her late 80s.  The movie is thoroughly engrossing and so superbly well crafted, you cannot help but be drawn in from the opening until the end, which without giving spoilers, provides some interesting and satisfying closure.

Free Movie Marathon

It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable three months of free movies that is about to expire, thanks to RB switching television providers and scoring the free movie trial as well as a free year of Netflix.  To that end, I’d like to share a few nuggets of gold that shone among a lot of gravel that I sorted through, and if truth be told, well I enjoyed a bit of gravel too.  But let’s start out with gold:

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Too Big To Fail (2012)  This HBO project is excellent, and the only non-theatrical release movie that I watched.  If “The Big Short” was a big disappointment, “Too Big To Fail” succeeded for the same subject matter and on every level where the big-box movie did not.    For one thing, the movie does a much better job of explaining the catastrophe in the American financial sector, the roots of which started a lot earlier than the year that gets all the attention, 2008.  The viewer is engaged while processing a lot of high level information, and the engagement is most assuredly enhanced by superb direction, writing, and editing.   You will be drawn in from the beginning and enjoy every minute.  This ride has overpowered engines in the form of a top notch ensemble cast headed by William Hurt and James Woods.  Tons of familiar faces  in delicious roles – if this is a fast ride, you’ll feel the wind in your face as the scenery flies by, as most of them have little screen time.  Having the talents of Tony Shalhoub, Cynthia Nixon, Evan Handler, Paul Giamatti and  Bill Pullman, among others, raises the impact level even more.  See it while it’s on HBO!

 

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The Rewrite (2014)  If there were ever 2 actors who embody the concept of easygoing charm, it has to be Hugh Grant and Marisa Tomei, even more so together as costars on an interesting sort of back-to-school concept.    Grant plays a once-successful screenwriter named Keith Michaels, who, unable to sell a script takes a job arranged for him through his agent’s connections, teaching a screenwriting class at Binghamton University on the east coast. To say he’s not looking forward to the career change is the height of understatement as he leaves Los Angeles for upstate New York with a mixture of resignation and dread.   Tomei is single mom Holly Carpenter, with 2 daughters and 2 jobs, who also attends school part time. As the two characters become friends amidst a series of bad decisions made by Keith, the movie’s extensive use of dialogue lets the viewer engage with the emotional connection being formed between Keith and Holly.  The movie has lots of comic elements but is really more of a character study and even a mood piece in certain places, thanks to some mesmerizing photography and a graciously inviting soundtrack.   For lovers of dialogue-driven movies, “The Rewrite” is a dream come true, complete with characters who quote Shakespeare.  The solid supporting players include J.K. Simmons as Keith’s new boss, the always dependable Allison Janney as the department head, and Chris Elliott as a fellow faculty member.  It is also an excellent companion piece to “Liberal Arts” from 2012, also reviewed on this blog.  If you enjoy one, you will certainly enjoy the other.

 

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Paradise (2013)   Ah, but here is where I fear the viewer might find more gravel than gold.   Julianne Hough and Russell Brand failed to win critical acclaim in this imperfect but nevertheless interesting and largely watchable project.  RB is predisposed to liking any movie with a Las Vegas backdrop, and is not blind to the movie’s weaknesses.  It’s just that I feel the stronger elements outweigh the problem areas.  Hough’s character, named Lamb, is raised by conservative, religious parents in a small town where the church dominates all aspects of society.  After Lamb survives a plane crash, she scandalizes the congregation and her parents by voicing disbelief in a God that put her through months of agonizing surgeries.  These opening scenes are hilariously done and the good comic timing continues as Lamb sets out for the land of sin, Las Vegas, in order to partake of forbidden pleasures.  Money is not an object – there was a pretty large settlement from the plane crash.  Russell Brand was surprisingly endearing in his role as the not-so-sleazy William, a bartender who befriends Lamb.   Together with an acerbic lounge singer played by Octavia Spencer, this extremely unlikely trio sets out together for a night on the town.   A major strength of  “Paradise” is capturing the essence of human friendships, often forged due to circumstances and often a replacement for a less than ideal family structure.  In a city like Las Vegas, those who work for a living amongst rich tourists are deftly portrayed by Spencer and Brand.  The movie’s framing device where Lamb is a product of her upbringing, alone in Sin City, works well on the whole however there are few scenes that do seem to lose their sparkle and I think this is the major flaw.    It shouldn’t deter anyone who might otherwise enjoy this film – the character of Lamb in particular has more depth and integrity than what appears at the beginning, and there was a key moment where the movie veered towards a cheesy interaction between Lamb and William, and then veered cleanly away – avoiding a cliche and cementing the integrity of both characters.  It’s really quite enjoyable to watch, you just have to approach with a different frame of mind than you would for “Too Big To Fail”.

 

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In Good Company (2004)   Dennis Quaid, in an exquisitely underplayed performance as Dan Foreman, a 51 year old ad executive being replaced by a young upstart, carries this somewhat reflective charmer of a movie, on his experienced and capable shoulders.  Dan is happily married with two daughters, a contented family man with an unshakeable inner core.  His coping mechanism after the workplace shakeups consists primarily of stark honesty, and is overall enthralling to watch.  Rampant ageism was becoming evident in the American workplace in the early 2000s but relatively unexplored in movies. While the concept of aging out of a job isn’t original, and the gradual takeover of corporate culture has been the subject of many a film, “In Good Company” takes a less dramatic turn and relies more on humor to communicate its messages.  I was impressed with much more than the dialogue and comic timing, though – the cast also conveys a lot through the use of nonverbal cues and body language. Scenes from the workplace with all of the competing agendas were especially spot on.   The new kid on the block, Carter Duryea, is played by Topher Grace, who imbues enough humility into the character to lend some added texture, keeping the formula from ever being stale.   Scarlett Johannson appears as Dan’s oldest daughter, a freshman at NYU and eventually who becomes involved with Carter.  These developing relationships and how they impacted each other are the backdrop of the story but I think the strongest messages have to do with how people, even those closest to us, are not always what they seem to be, or how we want them to be.  The audience appreciates that while Dan and his wife are the real thing, his children may grow up to be individuals in their own right – and that’s OK.  My favorite example, though, is the character Morty, played by David Paymer.  We see how Morty is ridiculed by a coworker for being a sycophant, and so, we judge him the same way.  But as the movie progresses, Morty’s minor role takes on the significance of a different perspective – is it possible he’s a genuine nice person whose outlook pays off in the long run? You decide…  as you enjoy a movie that glisters and is gold.

 

 

The Big Short (2015)

 

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RB Score:  1/10

Given the subject matter of this film, I wanted to like it, in the worst way.  And in addition to its Best Picture nomination, Director McKay is up for an Oscar as well.   Hollywood pretentiousness aside, this steaming pile has no business being anywhere near awards discussions.

McKay’s talent is satire.  He did a good job with the likes of Anchorman, but he even then he could have used a better editor.  In The Big Short, he clearly wants to be taken more seriously, and he has certainly gotten that with multiple award nominations.  Yet, the movie does not succeed as either a comedy, or as a dramatic treatment.   Every once in a while you have to come right out and say that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.  The fact that so many critics are salivating over this garbage is proof that Mike Judge’s 2006 film, Idiocracy, is becoming reality.

The subject matter of this film is important and no less relevant today than it has been for the last couple of decades.  However, there are absolutely no revelations to be had from this script.  The film’s premise is that an oddball character, Dr. Michael Burry (who works in finance, not medicine) has figured out something about the mortgage market that no one else has.  McKay and company lost me right there, because it wasn’t that everyone else in America was somehow blind to what was going on.  It was more than nothing was done about it.  There was a lot of water-cooler conversation about adjustable rate mortgages, and the bundling of bad loans.  People were asking the questions about what would happen when the loans obviously couldn’t be repaid.   The real question, which certainly could be addressed in a movie, is why all these bad loans were allowed to happen. in the first place, especially following on the heels of other financial disasters.

Having arrived at the conclusions he did, Burry and the other characters and their intersecting associations, become fixated on how they can make money from an impending market collapse.   Yet we are supposed to sympathize with them.

Given the strong cast, there are moments of enjoyment to be had from the performances.  Pictured above, Ryan Gosling plays a slick Wall Street trader type,  Steve Carrel plays a fund manager in a perpetual state of outrage,  Brad Pitt is a semi-retired eccentric former financier, and Christian Bale is Dr. Burry.  Sadly, the good moments are overshadowed by excessive use of gimmickry, including multiple voiceovers, that cloud any sense of a coherent point of view; loud jarring cuts to the metal music that Dr. Burry listens to, presumably to help him concentrate, and the completely irritating use of cameo appearances where the person speaks directly to the audience to explain financial terms in the most condescending way possible.  If you need a naked blonde model in a bubble bath to explain finance to you, then this is your film.

By implying that the audience won’t understand that rather simple concepts used in this movie, unless they are introduced by a celebrity using bad analogies, the film insults the audience.  If you’re still not clear that you’re being insulted, why else does Margot Robbie tell you to fuck off after she’s done favoring you with her pearls of wisdom?

And how about that camera work.   All the out of focus quick pans, with the camera lurching around, made me seriously question whether the camera operator was on quaaludes.   I  had to close my eyes for parts of this movie to avoid throwing up.   Incredibly for all this fast pacing, the movie also dragged in places.

We’ve all seen dull movies, or slow paced movies.  Good movies can also be slow paced.  I have never seen a movie that was both dull and fast paced, with camera work that literally made me nauseous at several points.

The Big Short’s biggest fail is that it unintentionally undermines its own themes.   It purports to be a champion of the working class, of everyday folk.  Yet, the most sympathetic characters in this film are the entitled, one-dimensional lead characters who are about to make their fortunes, from the collapse of other peoples’ dreams, jobs, homes and lives.  Yes, these are the film’s good guys. While marketing itself as a hard-hitting Wall Street expose, it comes across instead as a weak Wolf of Wall Street wannabe.  I didn’t care for WWS but at least, it was a bit more watchable.  After seeing The Big Short, and again, literally trying not to be sick, I walked out of the theatre to my car thinking I had just wasted two hours of a too-short weekend.

 

She’s Funny That Way (2014)

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RB Score:   9/10

Peter Bogdanovich reportedly had this in the works for well over a decade before its limited release with cast changes along the way.  The final product boasts a plethora of talented performers, is smart and funny, and is a joy to watch from the opening credits all the way to the end.

I can understand, somewhat, why the audience will be necessarily limited.  There are no special effects, it’s very much in the style of a stage play and very dialogue-driven.   It’s a throwback to the screwball comedies of old – think French farce, but set in New York, with crazy intersecting relationships and the inevitable colliding of worlds.  Bogdanovich assembled an exquisitely adept ensemble of players to bring his script to the screen,  with a consistent level of pacing that complements the expertly constructed dialogue.

Imogen Poots plays a gorgeous call girl, Isabella, aka Glowstick, who is telling her story to a reporter (although it comes across like therapy) as the movie opens.  This conversation provides the narration for the film.   Isabella only works as a call girl to support herself while pursuing her dream, being an actress.  She lives in a working class neighborhood with her dysfunctional parents, in lesser roles but played with comedic perfection by Cybill Shepherd and Richard Lewis.  When director Arnold Albertson (Owen Wilson) is in New York working on his Broadway play, he checks in at his hotel and calls his favorite escort service, run by a low key but acerbic madam named Vicky (Debi Mazar).   Arnold, we discover, has an old-school romantic nature and likes to take the lady of the night out for a nice dinner, followed by a carriage ride in Central Park. After they spend the night together, he  offers her 30K if she will never do this again.

Of course it’s more complicated than that.  Isabella has a onetime client, a crazy but harmless old judge (Austin Pendleton)  who is obsessed with her, and Arnold has a wife named Delta, played by Kathryn Hahn.  Delta is also an actress, appearing in her husband’s play and will be arriving the next day.   Meanwhile, the lead actor, Seth, played by the versatile Rhys Ifans, checks into the same hotel and observes Isabella as she is leaving Arnold’s suite.  The next day, Isabella auditions for a role in the play and nails the reading with Delta, as Seth looks on knowingly.   One of the other actors attached to this project, and Arnold’s assistant, is dating a therapist, Jane, played by the always dependable Jennifer Aniston, who is hilariously lacking as a therapist, and we soon learn, only has clients because her mother, also a therapist, is in rehab and referred all her clients to her daughter.  One session with Jane, the audience can surmise without being told, is probably enough to send most normal people into therapy.  Jane’s boyfriend Joshua, a boy-next-door nice guy, played by Will Forte. is treated poorly by Jane, and thus we are inclined to be forgiving when he is smitten with Isabella at the audition and asks her out to dinner.

The only reason for the point deduction is that much of the hilarity  that ensues at this point, stems from the improbable scenario of almost all the characters in the film somehow all show up at the same Italian restaurant, at the same time, for dinner.  In New York City, really?  Jane is there with her client, the Judge, who sees the object of his affection, Isabella, and knocks over his water glass repeatedly, explaining distractedly that he’s very thirsty.  Jane also sees her boyfriend, at the same table with Isabella.  And of course Arnold and Delta couldn’t think of anyplace else to have dinner.  There’s also a private investigator hiding behind yet another menu.

I mentioned above that the various players are very adept performers – it’s really hard to find the right adjectives and adverbs to do them justice.  Consider Cybill Shepherd, in her small role as Isabella’s mom.  In a quick flashback scene where Isabella is describing her home life, we see the parents quarreling.  I don’t know how Shepherd does it, but when the husband says “Shut Up!” and she counters with “YOU shut up!”  there’s just something about the way her voice goes up just the right amount, and delivers the line with just the right amount of emphasis, that the effect is quite enthralling.  She can trade lines with the best, and has that instinctive sense of satire that fleshes out her roles as a higher comedy form.

The style of this movie has been compared to “Some Like It Hot” and even Woody Allen, but I think it’s more closely related to the comedic style of Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers in the  Pink Panther series of films.   This feeling might have something to do with the fact that Bogdanovich started working on this script in the 80s.  Maybe the 70s brand of creativity was still part of his mindset.

Jennifer Aniston, always shines in any ensemble she’s in.  She also has a knack that extends beyond the concept of comic timing, where she excels.  Aniston is a performer of integrity; she plays every character exactly as they seem to be written.   Because of that faithfulness to the source material, she reliably contributes a level of quality to the whole.

Owen Wilson is most suited to roles where he has a lot of dialogue, and he positively sparkles here.  Apparently, the late John Ritter was first envisioned as the lead; Bogdanovich did some revision to allow for more dialogue and less of the physical comedy that was Ritter’s trademark.  I’d have loved to see Ritter in this movie, he came across as a genuine person as well as performer.   Wilson’s Arnold is more subdued than we would have seen from Ritter, but he also interacts with the others in ways that elevate an already good script.

Rhys Ifans gives Seth additional dimension, pursuing Delta with sincere emotion that cuts through the character’s smarmy and manipulative nature.  Kathryn Hahn demonstrates her considerable skill in having Delta be similarly multifaceted.  Intense, vulnerable and wacky all at the same time.

With so much talent, good writing and even some interesting cameo appearances,  (including Tatum O’Neal and Quentin Tarantino) “She’s Funny That Way” is a welcome and delightful addition to the modern movie landscape.