Victoria Jelinek


The Big Short

the-big-short-movie-posters-001.jpg~originalFour outsiders foresaw the global collapse of the economy years before 2008. Something big banks, the media, and governments refused to consider. So these four made a bold investment – The Big Short – that led to huge profits for each of them even as they had to negotiate the dark underbelly of modern banking in order to get the boon.
There are three things that made me skeptical about watching this film: the lingo, the bizarre identifying traits for each of the main characters, and the concern that those who watch this film are those who already know about the perverse exploitation that constitutes modern banking.

The lingo is hard to understand for those of us outside of the banking world. However, Director McKay breaks the fourth wall down and introduces celebrity cameos to directly address the audience with colorful and cogent explanations of terms, which does help and also amuses.

McKay is best known for comedic fare, such as Anchorman and The Campaign, but one can see that even in the silly humor of these films, there’s a sly intelligence underling and animating them. And he infuses the script for The Big Short with a profanely witty dialogue.

While arguably he creates the character’s bizarre defining traits to show the types of brazen personalities that thrive in this environment, I believe it’s more evidence of his humor in the midst of sobering material. Bale lacks any social grace, rocks out to heavy metal music to get his brain up to speed, and sports a glass eye. Gosling is a typical douchebag banker, spray tanned, arrogant, and slick. Pitt is the former banker gone rogue, all shaggy, bearded, talking about intestinal health and the need to prepare for the end of the world. These are humorous elements that make these men characters, but don’t be fooled for a minute that any of it’s silly or distracting. There is committed and accomplished acting going on. These performances are what make The Big Short especially enjoyable. Carrell, however, is the heart of the film, delivering another impressive turn after surprising audiences and critics alike with his performance in last year’s Foxcatcher.

The ensemble cast superbly conveys the angry, pessimistic conviction driving this film, which is the argument that major banks all engaged in fraudulent, criminal activity leading to the 2008 collapse, and governments bailed them out at the expense of “the average Joe.” And there’s no reason big banks wouldn’t do it again – why shouldn’t they? We’re the assholes who let them get away with financial murder. Which brings me to the third concern I had before watching The Big Short. That those attracted to watching this movie will already be those who understand the situation. It won’t reach the folks who refuse to see what went on and continues to go on in large banking and global politics. Well, so be it. At least there are smart films created by thoughtful and critical people, for some of us to enjoy.

 

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World War Z

World-War-Z-NewPosterAn unexpected outbreak of a zombie plague leaves the world in shreds. Former UN worker Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) and his family receive refuge on a governmental ship safely anchored at sea in exchange for Gerry traveling around the globe to find a cure.

Adapted from the grim book written by Max Brooks (son of Mel), we journey around the globe with Gerry, a family man who once ran operations for the UN in countries were most mortals wouldn’t survive a day. With governmental and military infrastructures in disarray, and entire countries experiencing radio silence, Gerry, alone, must trace the origin of the outbreak. Most apocalyptic blockbusters open by teasing the audience about what’s to come, but this one hits the ground running, with an entire city (Philadelphia) being overrun before you’ve settled comfortably in your seat. The opening scene – in which Director Marc Forster keeps the monsters practically unseen, creating an unnerving sense of the chaos — also sets the pace for the rest of the film, in which millions of people die, but scarcely a drop of blood is seen. Horror fans longing for large scale carnage will likely come away unsatisfied, but I appreciated the lack of gore. And the film is scary due to horrifying imagery, such as when the zombies go after prey, swarming like angry locust, screeching and chomping their teeth.

I watched this movie because I’d read about the development and production debacle involved in its making, and was curious to see how it ended up. Granted, it’s arguably bland, few of the characters are memorable, and the ending feels abrupt and flat-footed, but it’s also slick, taut, and holds together nicely. It’s certainly not the disaster many predicted it would be during its distressing birthing. In fact, despite costing an enormous amount of money for Paramount to make (a purported 230 million), it doubled this expenditure in worldwide box office sales alone…

 



Oscars 2014

academy-awards-filmstrip-logoI was told when I worked at a talent and literary agency in Hollywood many years ago that the formation of the Oscar awards was a cynical endeavor. The legend went that there had been a rash of sordid incidents in Hollywood in the 1920’s involving starlets and wannabes who came to Los Angeles from all over the US, and so the Oscars were set up by the big bosses of the day as a way to create a nobler image of Hollywood and garner some good press. I’m not sure this tale is true, but I don’t dismiss its possibility outright. What is certainly true is that because of the prestige and positive exposure of the Academy Awards, studios spend millions of dollars and hire publicists to promote their films during “the Oscar season.” This practice has generated accusations that the Oscars are influenced more by marketing, than by quality. In 2009, William Friedkin, himself an Academy Award winning film director and former producer of the ceremony, described the Oscars as, “the greatest promotion scheme that any industry ever devised for itself.”

Despite its potentially disreputable origins and many criticisms of the event, the Oscars are still a grandiose affair I love. Speaking of grand, I’m going to make my predictions about the Best Picture category, and then wait with bated breath to see if I’m correct. I think that the Oscar will go to 12 Years a Slave or The Wolf of Wall Street. My reasoning is that the Academy will not award Steve McQueen Best Director, given his age and his competition in this category, and unless they award Chiwetel Ejiofor Best Actor, they will not want to appear racist by overlooking this film in the major categories (racism is still a hot subject in the US). Moreover, Brad Pitt’s production company produced it, and there have been some bad press and disappointed expectations regarding his costly movie World War Z, so the industry might want to generate some positive feelings. If it is, indeed, 12 Years a Slave, a movie I found beautiful to look at, but too didactic and self-conscious, it won’t be the first time nepotism and guilt won the day (I remember sitting open mouthed when Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture in 1999). If it’s The Wolf of Wall Street, then it will be in an effort at atonement for the fact that Scorsese has never won the Best Picture award, despite his films Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. Best Director, yes, but never Best Picture. Moreover, Leonardo di Caprio has never won an Oscar, so he may get the Best Actor win, but if he doesn’t, there could be the desire to create a balance with the Best Picture. Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Wolf of Wall Street, but I don’t think it deserves Best Picture. I can live with this win, however.

I’ll be gutted if American Hustle wins. Talk about nepotism and a popularity contest. Writer/Director David O’Russell has delivered fine films, such as The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, but this isn’t as good as it’s touted to be. Sure, the actors are charismatic and capable, the production design is entertaining, the soundtrack is nostalgic, and there are fun costumes, as well as a lot of time devoted to amusing hairstyles, but there’s little point or suspense to this film.

I’ll also be upset if Philomena wins either Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay. Sure, it’s harrowing subject matter (see my thoughts on 12 Years a Slave and the appearance of being sympathetic), the acting is brilliant, the humor is good, but this shouldn’t be confused with the Best Picture or the Best Adapted Screenplay. The Former ‘cause there are more comprehensively great films this year in the category. The second, for the same reason, and because there is a storyline introduced and dropped rather clumsily that should eliminate it from this honor: the scene is the one in which Philomena and Martin meet her son’s adopted sister, who came with him from the convent. Mary (Mare Cunningham) states they did not have a happy childhood, and suggests cruelty on the part of their adopted father, but this is not developed. She claims that Philomena’s son never mentioned or considered their origin, Ireland, or his biological mother, a fact that is later completely discredited. I was left with many questions about Mary’s motives for lying, and the inclusion of this scene in the film, and believe that without developing these provocative storylines introduced here (which the film did not) this scene should have been cut. Its insertion niggled me, and I suspect its inclusion is a clumsy attempt to create a sense of ‘jeopardy” before the third act. But I digress.

Captain Phillips was suspenseful and well shot, but not the Best Picture in my opinion. Nor is Her. Relevant, and a great concept, but not the Best Picture. And I think that despite Spike Jonze’s contacts and cult status in the biz, even the Academy won’t give this film the win. Gravity is beautiful and has lofty existential themes that I find incredibly interesting, but if this wins it will be because the Academy doesn’t want to seem as though it didn’t get it. It’s more likely Alfonso Cuaron will get Best Directing (though I hope Alexander Payne gets it). I’ll be happily surprised if either Dallas Buyer’s Club or Nebraska wins Best Picture (though, as mentioned, I’m fine with the atonement and ‘career honor’ motivations prompting Scorsese’s film to win). If neither Dallas Buyers Club nor Nebraska win the Best Picture, then I hope to god that they win Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay, respectively – they deserve it (see my notes on Philomena), or that one of them gets the Best Actor win.

It would be too lengthy a piece to cover the race for Best Actor and Best Actress, or Best Supporting Actor and Actress. Suffice it to say that the competition is thick (please let it be Matthew McConaughey or Bruce Dern! Please let it be Judi Dench or Cate Blanchett!) But, again, it’s worth remembering that members of the Academy choose the winners – these are fallible folks who work, or have worked, in the industry of movies.  Similar to the rest of the big honors, the acting prizes have been criticized for not recognizing superior performances so much as being given for personal popularity, sentimental reasons, atonement for past mistakes, or as a “career honor” in order to recognize a distinguished nominee’s entire cannon of work…watch it all with a grain of salt, and enjoy the fete.



12 Years a Slave

12-Years-a-Slave-Movie-PosterCirca 1841. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living with his family in Saratoga N.Y., earning his living as a violinist. He is lured to Washington DC by two entertainers promising work. After a night of drinking with them, Northup wakes up in chains and is sold into slavery. Following Solomon’s kidnapping, he’s owned by different plantation owners. The first offers him some responsibility, some kindness, and a violin, and consequently might be the most brutal of Northrup’s owners. It is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), however, who is the most colorfully cruel. Fassbender introduces Epps as a sadistic drunk, but he becomes a more complex character as the tense relationship with his wife (Sarah Paulson) and his self-loathing are revealed and manifested in his obsessive affection for a young slave girl.

12 Years a Slave is an absorbing film – intelligent and starkly severe. In line with director Steve McQueen’s background as a fine artist, it is also beautiful. Practically every shot could be a still photograph or a painting. There is gorgeous metaphorical imagery in contrast with the violent and physical reality for the slaves. And, as is evidenced in his previous films, McQueen does not shy from human physicality, with scenes, here, of beating, lovemaking, and working, which are visceral, humiliating, and horrifying. This adaptation could have been a feel-good film, a survivor-who-beats-the-odds sort-of-thing, but it’s not, which is appreciated. From the ‘get-go’ this film is despair incarnate that does not make you feel like crying by its conclusion, but, rather, leaves you stupefied.

This is not a common evocation today. I applaud McQueen’s effort, and I value the skill of his refined and remote approach while dealing with potentially incendiary subject matter. But it is for the same reasons that 12 Years a Slave is being heralded as a masterpiece – its ‘objective’ gaze, its aesthetic, its treatment of the subject matter- that I have issue with…the film feels self-conscious, contrived, and didactic. What feels fresh and authentic about this film is its cast: the hero, Chiwetel Ejiofor, his tormentor, Michael Fassbender, the cruel wife, Sarah Paulson, the hideous slave broker, Paul Giamatti, and even Brad Pitt’s Canadian abolitionist (though I swear he begins the scenes he’s in with a southern U.S. accent and ends with a northern one).



The Pregnancy Diaries – 16

 “A tree’s a tree. How many more do you need to look at?” Ronald Reagan

Watched Terrence Malick’s last film The Tree this week. Malick has taken his time with his films, working on this one for decades. He’s ‘only’ made seven films in a 35-year career, but his films Badlands and Days of Heaven are two of the most beautifully filmed movies of all time and this one is gorgeous, too. It’s lightly existential…a great film to watch when you’re in the mood to consider your life, your family, and the world you live in without delving too deeply into any of it…

That said, the film opens with the loss of one of the sons and the mothers consequent grief. I had a hard time getting through it because I can’t imagine losing a child and the actress’ portrayal of her sorrow was palpable. I kept wondering about my strong opinion that one should watch EVERY film a director one likes makes in order to watch their development and understand their cannon of films in context; maybe this isn’t necessary for me anymore now that I don’t work in film; it certainly doesn’t seem necessary to watch a film about the loss of a child when I’m pregnant.

The film is about three boys growing up in the 1950’s with their mother, a free spirit, and their father, a ‘hard ass’ who is sometimes affectionate (played by Brad Pitt). The story considers the origins and meaning of life, and death, in general and as it pertains to the boys’ lives and experiences. The film premiered in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it won a Palme d’Or, and was met with rave reviews from critics but was actually booed at the screening (a tough reaction particularly as the filmmakers and actors are present). Depending on whom you speak to, the sci-fi meets surrealist themes and imagery were seen as both imaginative and independently minded, or pretentious and boring. I found that the fragmented and non-linear narrative actually is how memories are remembered, and as it’s a story told in the present about the past, this seems appropriate and interesting.  There is an argument for it’s being indulgent and meandering. However, in a world of films that appeal to the lowest common denominator and rely on frenetic images and action, this nicely paced, philosophically light film is refreshing.

But maybe hold off until you’re not pregnant or haven’t just had a child and your hormones aren’t blasting through your body. It’s entirely conceivable that you have a stronger stomach than me, but if not, maybe hold off watching other films that deal with child loss or neglect, too, such as Trainspotting again, or Rabbit Hole.



The Tree of Life
June 17, 2011, 10:21 am
Filed under: Published film reviews | Tags: , , , ,

This is a film about three boys growing up in the 1950’s with their mother, a free spirit, and their father, a ‘hard ass’ who is alternately affectionate (played by Brad Pitt). The story considers the origins and meaning of life, and death, in general and as it pertains to the boys’ lives and experiences.

The film premiered in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it won a Palme d’Or, and was met with rave reviews from critics but was actually booed at the screening (a tough reaction particularly as the filmmakers and actors are present). Depending on who you speak to, the sci-fi meets surrealist themes and imagery were seen as either imaginative and independently minded, or pretentious and boring. This reviewer finds that the fragmented and non-linear narrative actually is how memories are remembered, and as it’s a story told in the present about the past, this seems appropriate and interesting.  That said, there is an argument for its being indulgent and meandering. However, in a world of films that appeal to the lowest common denominator and rely on frenetic images and action, this nicely paced, philosophically-light film is refreshing.

Malick has taken his time with his films, working on this one for decades and ‘only’ having made seven films in a 35-year career, but his films Badlands and Days of Heaven are two of the most beautifully filmed movies of all time and this one is gorgeous, too. Lightly existential, this is a great film to watch when you’re in the mood to consider your life, your family, and the world you live in without delving too deeply into any of it.