Thursday, December 31, 2015

Arrested Development

SNL alumnae Tina Fey and Amy Poehler take a stand for feminism to prove that women can behave just as badly as men in 'Pitch Perfect' director Jason Moore's 'Sisters,' the feminine answer to such party classics as 'National Lampoon's Animal House,' 'Dazed and Confused' and 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High.'  Since their days co-anchoring 'Weekend Update' on SNL, I've been a fan of the comedic duo's unique brand of kooky humor.  I even watch the 'Golden Globes' (which I usually don't) if they happen to be hosting. 
'Sisters' is an R-rated adult comedy about two unlikely sisters (one blonde, one brunette, not looking at all alike) who decided to throw a monster of a party at the home they grew up in after discovering their parents have put the house up for sale.  These thirty-something siblings invited all their high school acquaintances except for Maya Rudolph for a night of misbehavior and debauchery, because what the hell why not, right?  And believe it or not, the usually straight-laced Tina Fey turned out to be the more irresponsible of the sisters, acting even more immature than her teenage daughter Haley (Madison Davenport).  Sorry Amy. 
Like all such movies, 'Sisters' is full of wacky and weird characters.  The movie is well represented by current and former SNL members including Maya Rudolph, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Moynihan and (remember her?) Rachel Dratch, whose character reminds me of her former SNL alter ego Debbie Downer.  Other invitees include John Leguizamo, Ike Barinholtz and WWE's John Cena, who plays a muscle-bound drug dealer brought in to spice up the party with his goods.  While 'Sisters' isn't consistently funny and misses the mark often, it has a beating heart and the chemistry between Fey and Poehler never flags.  Well, I reached a new milestone with my 60th - and final - post of the year.  Thanks for visiting and come back in 2016.

Grade: B+

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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Geeks of Wall Street

‘The Big Short’ is 'Anchorman' director Adam McKay’s first movie not featuring Will Ferrell, and it also happens to be his best by far - with all due respect to Mr. Ferrell.  Trying to make the 2008 economic crisis brought about by the collapse of the housing market into a black comedy can be quite a challenge, considering that it shattered the lives of so many people.  Yet somehow McKay and the movie’s ensemble cast led by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt managed to pull it off brilliantly.
Adapted from the 2011 non-fiction bestseller by Michael Lewis with the same title, TBS is the (somewhat) true story of how a disparate group of renegade investors went against the grain and bet against the then “rock solid” housing market.  As early as 2005, a neurologist-turned-hedge fund manager named Michael Burry (Bale) foresaw the subprime mortgage crisis and created the “credit default swap” market, betting that people won’t be able to pay off their mortgages in a couple of years because banks were approving loans at an alarming rate to people who have no business owning homes, like the stripper who owned 5 houses (and a condo) in the movie.  A few other savvy and like-minded investors soon caught on, like Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and a couple of enterprising young "Wolves of Wall Street" in Charlie Geller and Jamie Shipley, who needed an assist from retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get them in on the “deal of the century.”  But the best performance award has to go to Steve Carell, whose Mark Baum was a sheer revelation.  The steady progression of Baum's disgust and despair the deeper he delved into the corrupt financial credit system is a true reflection of the resentment bitterly felt by so many Americans who lost their homes and pension funds in the aftermath.
Razor sharp, whip smart and bitingly funny, TBS is tragicomedy at its very best.  The film often resembles a docudrama and routinely commits cardinal sins, such as taking the hammer to the “fourth wall” by having Gosling’s character look directly at the camera to address the audience on many occasions.  Along the way the movie also recruits experts and non-experts alike including respected University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler, TV celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, sexy Australian actress Margot Robbie and cutie-pie pop star Selena Gomez to explain the finer points of economics as the crisis unfolds, making such esoteric terms as “Collateralized Debt Obligations” (CDO’s) accessible to the layperson, all in fourth wall-breaking style.  Don't miss it.

Grade: A
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The Inconvenient Truth

The man who first brought Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) to national awareness is the subject of Will Smith’s latest biopic and sports drama ‘Concussion.’  As a long-time San Diego Chargers fan, CTE hit particularly close to my heart in 2012 when it claimed Hall-of-Famer and former Linebacker Junior Seau, one of the best at his position.  The risks of long term brain damage undertaken by these gridiron warriors serve as a constant reminder that our collective national addiction to American Football exacts a steep price.
Smith delivered one of his most sympathetic and nuanced performances as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian (now American) forensic pathologist who went to great lengths studying the effects of a sport based on repeated concussions to the head.  Alarmed and deeply disturbed by what he discovered after the premature deaths of ex-NFL players including Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Andre Waters, he found a sympathetic ear in Doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a former team doctor of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and embarked on a personal crusade to speak for these psychologically tormented former players.  In so doing the full wrath of the multi-billion dollar money-making machine of the NFL and fans were brought to bear upon him and his allies, because it wasn’t simply about money and reparations to the players.  The future viability of the League and its ability to recruit talent were being threatened.
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To the credit of writer/director Peter Landesman, ‘Concussion’ avoided polemics and treaded lightly around the controversial issue of playing football.  We are not being asked to consider the risks of letting our kids play football and risk long term brain damage or suicidal tendencies; that is beyond the scope of this movie and not its intent.  Unlike the far-reaching effects of its protagonist, which included not only reparations to ex-players and their families but also implementation of the league’s current Concussion Protocol, the movie’s aim is a much more modest one: the humanistic portrayal of one man’s uphill struggle to speak for the few who can’t speak (or at times even think) for themselves.
Grade: A-
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Monday, December 21, 2015

May the Force Awaken

It's finally here!  The Star Wars saga continues in J.J. Abrams’s ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ the seventh episode of the beloved and super popular fantasy-in-space opera George Lucas started seemingly so long ago.  As members of its fandom, Star Wars defines who we are and makes us proud to embrace the inner geek in all of us because it is cool to be a Star Wars fan.  With a box office gross of $238 million in North America and well over $500 million worldwide on its opening weekend, TFA proves once again that SW is a global phenomenon with no equal.
While Abrams gave the Star Trek franchise an extreme makeover with sometimes mixed results, he approached his new project with the care and reverence of a devout fanboy who’s terrified of straying too far from the original material.  Playing it safe is the right thing to do because: (1) he would have been crucified by angry SW lynch mobs, I mean fans, had he taken too many risks they didn’t like, and (2) he can’t go wrong staying true to the “spirit” of the original trilogy.  If by so doing TFA looks a bit familiar and feels like a rehash of Episode IV in its parallel plot lines and characters, then so be it because that was the intention in the first place.
Fans love SW for its plentiful action, colorful characters and simple black-and-white world-building with a dash of dysfunctional Shakespearean family melodrama, all of which TFA delivers in spades.  While we may miss the old (or young, rather) Luke, Leia, Han and Vader we’ve known, a new generation of heroes and villain has capably picked up the standard in Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren.  With the background thus set in this long-awaited new chapter, the future looks bright indeed for the most popular “science fiction” franchise of all time.
Grade: A- 
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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Kramped for the holidays

Christmas-themed horror movies are a rarity, perhaps because they seem so out-of-place during what’s generally regarded to be “the most wonderful time of the year.”  It is also the holiest of religious holidays, notwithstanding the fact that Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25.  Nonetheless, once in a while we get the likes of ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night,’ ‘Black Christmas’ and ‘Krampus’ during this most joyous of occasions.
At least ‘Krampus’ is based on traditional European (Austro-Bavarian to be precise) folklore and mythology.  If you’re unfamiliar (or haven’t seen the 'Venture Bros.' episode below) with the character, think Krampus as a deformed “evil Santa” of sorts who punishes bad children, just as Saint Nicholas rewards good children with gifts.  Portrayed as a hairy daemonic creature with horns and cloven hooves, Krampus is known to carry chains and bundled birch branches (ruten), the better to lash misbehaving children with.  Krampus finally gets his own feature length movie, and all things considered  it isn’t bad.
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With a comedic cast including Adam Scott, Toni Collette and David Koechner, ‘Krampus’ is a light-hearted, oft-funny horror comedy in the tradition of ‘Gremlins,’ ‘House’ and ‘The Frighteners.’  It is particularly sharp in its satire of family dysfunction, and the film's opening credits sequence depicting rampaging holiday shoppers in slow-mo set to Bing Crosby's "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" was simply classic.  For what it lacked in truly scary moments, the movie made up in sheer PG-13 rated family fun.  Come to think of it, that’s what Christmas is all about isn’t it?
Grade: B+ 
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Apollo's Creed

The legacy of Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) lives on in ‘Creed,’ the seventh film in the popular boxing franchise which began back in 1976 featuring the underdog Italian-American human punching bag (because he seldom takes the “guard” stance in the ring and too often leaves his head unprotected) Rocky Balboa.  Rocky is now 69 and well into his twilight years, so he reluctantly plays the role of Mr. Miyagi to Michael B. Jordan’s Ralph Macchio, imparting his learned wisdom and experience to the young but talented misbegotten offspring of his late former adversary-turned-close friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).
It turned out that, just before his cockiness got him killed by Ivan Drago’s 1,850-psi punch in ‘Rocky IV,’ Apollo cheated on his wife and sired a bastard son who took on the last name of his real mother.  Adonis Johnson, now a strapping young lad in his early twenties, has shown a particular talent in following in his dad’s footsteps while holding down a nice yuppie job at a financial firm in LA.  A self-trained amateur boxer bored with life and not challenged enough while beating down hapless opponents in Mexico, he gave up his well paying white collar job without batting an eye and moved to Philly in search of the legendary Rocky (now a restaurateur) to take him to the next level and realize his full pugilistic potential.
When you come down to it, ‘Creed’ is as formulaic and predictable as any of its predecessors, and yet it still somehow manages to seem fresh and new.   There’s a natural chemistry between Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis and Stallone’s Rocky, and the screenplay co-written by director Ryan Coogler (who previously collaborated with Jordan on the excellent ‘Fruitvale Station’) dispensed with the cheesiness of prior ‘Rocky’ movies in favor of a grittier and more realistic feel.  ‘Creed’ is about emerging from the shadows of your forebears and establishing your own legacy, and in that it succeeded by a knock-out.
Grade: A-
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