Capsule Movie Reviews Vol.2016.15

Published by marco on

These are my notes to remember what I watched and kinda what I thought about it. I’ve recently transferred my reviews to IMDb and made the list of over 900 ratings publicly available. I’ve included the individual ratings with my notes for each movie. These ratings are not absolutely comparable to each other—I rate the film on how well it suited me for the genre and my mood. YMMV.

The Hateful Eight (2015) — 8/10

Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russel are two bounty hunters who meet on a road in the middle of nowhere. Jackson has 3 corpses worth $8,000 and Russell has a woman in tow worth $10,000. They are grizzled beyond belief, in glorious HD-detail. They are also cruel beyond belief. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Daisy Domergue, who shakes off what looks for all the world like a broken nose suffered from Russell’s elbow and is thus made scarier than both of the others.

Tarantino’s reputation makes you concentrate on all the details: i.e. the quasi-holy light shining down in the middle of the stagecoach. I like the rope line from the main house to the barn. I wonder if Kurt Russell is getting flashbacks to The Thing. This is classic Tarantino: all dialogue, exposition and more like a play than an action movie. Samuel Jackson is chewing the hell out of the scenery and it’s wonderful. Bizarrely, the fourth chapter starts with a voice-over explaining the next scene. It’s ham-fisted and must be deliberate. Domergue (Leigh) and John Ruth (Russell) are still acting more like husband and wife than prisoner and bounty hunter.

But things are not as they seem and machinations follow machinations. Now Tarantino’s rolled us back one day to show the lead-up to the climax that came 2/3 of the way into the movie. A slew of new characters show up that were only mentioned in the initial 4 chapters. Channing Tatum shows up.

This movie was beautifully shot, framed, lit. It was beautiful. The score was great—Ennio Morricone, who else for a Western? And Roy Orbison for the credits. Tarantino has a nice touch. I read through the Wikipedia article and wasn’t really surprised to see how badly some people misinterpreted the movie. The article continually refers to the hanging at the end as a “lynching”. The hanging was performed by the sheriff on a criminal in his county with a bounty on her head. It was a legal act, not an extralegal one. The woman got what was coming to her, just like any man. It was not a misogynistic film—absolutely everyone in the movie suffered and died, without exception.

The Big Short (2015) — 10/10

This is a documentary. It’s somewhat embellished, but the core is correct. It makes the real story of how America works palatable for the people that need to hear it. The cast is quite a roster of names: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo. Jeremy Strong as Vinnie is also really good. Obviously some things are exaggerated—like the stripper with five houses and a condo is not the average home-owner, but the guy with the kid making his rent is—but the story is, on the whole, told well and with enough detail to actually make the point.

“Ok. Bear will trade with anybody.” was a nice touch. Mark Baum (Carell) and Vinnie visit Standard & Poors (a rating agency) to meet with Melissa Leo. She’s wearing cataract glasses and looks blind. Subtle.

There are a lot of good lines in here:

Vennett: The banks smell that their foot’s on fire and they think the steak’s done.
Baum: That’s not stupidity; that’s fraud.
Vennett: Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife’s brother arrested.”

They broadside everyone who was at fault: devious upper-level types who knew exactly what they were doing, low-level idiots who are just riding a wave of free money to their own personal success, the journalists who refused to cover the apocalypse that affected millions, all to preserve their own personal comfort—hell everyone who looked away saying “I’ve got mine Jack”—the ratings agencies for selling ratings, the SEC for doing fuck-all, the revolving door between finance and regulation.

It’s nice how they show the guys betting against a market and then having to wait it out because the system was much more fraudulent than even their cynicism allowed for (except Vennett). They’re forced to consider the possibility that they’re wrong, that their math is wrong, because the system will not acknowledge that it is utterly ruined.

The guys from Brown Capital figure out that they can short the AA tranches because no-one believes that those will fail.

“The payoff is 200 to 1. But they’re all taking the ratings at face value. So they’re charging pennies on the dollar against the AAs.”

When they start celebrating like Bear Bros, Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert says,

“Do you have any idea what you just did?

“You just bet against the American economy.

“Which means, which means … If we’re right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings, people lose pensions. You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here’s a number − every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die, did you know that?”

There are so many good scenes here for a finance geek: Mark Baum learning about synthetic CDOs is a revelation—Steve Carell is fantastic … they’re all fantastic. The descriptions are pretty accurate—that’s really how it worked. If you don’t understand a word and you think it’s bullshit, then you’ve guessed correctly. If you understand what they’re talking about, you know why—but it’s still bullshit.

Baum walks away from his dinner meeting with the CDO manager and tells his crew:

“Short everything that guy has touched. I want an extra 50 billion in swaps.”

As they leave the securitization conference in Vegas, the Brown guys take a cab, the CDO manager takes a limo and Baum’s crew have a hired car. The lady from the SEC is shown kissing her friend from Goldman.

“Look at the TABX. You can see that the CDOs are worth zero! So you know what they’re doing right? They’re selling their dog-shit CDOs, then they go to another bank and short the shit they just fucking sold! Right now, every bank in town is unloading these shit bonds onto unsuspecting customers. And they won’t devalue them until they get them off their books. This level of criminality is unprecedented, even on fucking Wall Street. (Emphasis in original.)”

Gosling’s Vennett is awesome: “And Caesar wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” That quote’s seen some hard riding over the last century or so, and he misuses the shit out it, crediting the wrong speaker, but damn does it sound cool.

Professor Burry (Bale) gets a call from Goldman—having waiting days for them to accurately mark his positions—and they want to talk. He tells them right off the bat,

“Yeah, I think you mean that you’ve secured a net short position yourselves. So you’re free to mark my swaps accurately for once because it’s now in your interest to do so.”

Mark Baum, when he hears about the bailout (that will also save JP Morgan, the bank that owes him all of his money from his short positions) and realizes his profit will come from that money:

Mark: They knew the taxpayers would bail them out. They weren’t being stupid. They just didn’t care.
Vinnie: Right, ‘cause they’re fucking crooks. But … at least we’re going to see some of them going to jail. Right? I mean, they’re gonna have to break up the banks. I mean, the party’s over, right?”

Oh Vinnie. Still not cynical enough. The stock market just hit an all-time high after the election of Donald Trump. Interest rates have been at or around 0% for eight years. Bond markets are useless. Austerity rules. Vinnie was right, the party was over, but only for the 99%. The 1%’s party rages on.

Nice touch: Zeppelin’s When the Levee Breaks over the credits.

Is this movie told from the viewpoint of guys who made a killing on the misery of others? Yes. Is it honest about doing this? Yes. Is it the only way to get people to pay attention to boring shit that killed the economy exactly because people weren’t paying attention? Probably. And I doubt it worked. Watch it with someone who knows what the fuck happened so you don’t miss anything. Pause and discuss. Highly recommended.

Bridge of Spies (2015) — 7/10

Lost a star for the schmaltzy ending. Fucking Spielberg. Also how much does that guy hate Germans? Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the script and it shows: the first half was well-paced and had some really uplifting dialogue. The speech before the Supreme Court was very good. Then Spielberg’s hatred of the Germans and the Russians took over.

The movie looks great. The U2 crashing scene was classic Spielberg. Tom Hanks was very, very good and made the most of a well-written and heroic role. Mark Rylance as Abel was also very good, inspiring a grudging respect from Donovan (if no-one else). The rest of the people were not very nice, on both sides. Just the one hero, slogging against everyone else: his own government, a judge who couldn’t care less about the Constitution or justice, his own wife who wants him to betray all of his principles for the purported safety of his family.

Donovan would apparently go on to help negotiate the release of thousands of captives after the Bay of Pigs invasion—yet another act of aggression that American history chooses to perceive as having been wholly instigated and carried out by the Soviets. It could have been a bit shorter in the second half, tighter.

Super 8 (2011) — 7/10

At first I suspected that this movie was written and directed by Steven Spielberg, but it makes much more sense as an homage to Spielberg by J.J. Abrams. It’s about a group of kids making a movie in the desert. They stumble upon an air-force train that crashes in a spectacular way. Something escapes. The town is terrorized.

Joe’s best friend Charles is a total tool and a bully. Joe and Alice grow close. This is the formula on which Stranger Things was based. This is done pretty well and is a fun, young-adventure movie. The action escalates until the entire town is a war zone, covered in flattened and burning houses and streets filled with tanks with misfiring weapons.

The creature marauds the town, collecting engine and electronics and people. It looks kind of like a spider. It had been a captive of the U.S. government for decades. The government would not let it repair its ship and leave. Now it’s finally free—freed by a sympathetic scientist—and it’s trying to rebuild its ship. The creature looks terrifying but it’s just sick of being locked up, it’s hungry and it wants to go home. This is E.T., ammirite?

Minus one point for Hollywood being so addicted to overly schmaltzy endings. I know that it’s required of these movies, but J.J. you don’t have to be that true to the formula.

The Master (2012) — 7/10

Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, an alcoholic ex-Navy man who, after bouncing around a few places (and killing a man with his homemade hooch), meets up with Philip Seymour Thomas’s “Master”. The “Master” is the spiritual leader of a very Dianetics-like religion/cult that purports to help people understand their current lives (and cure medical ailments) by helping them discover and relive past lives. Quell is especially susceptible as he’s nearly without guile. Both Hoffman and Phoenix put in amazing performances. Amy Adams is also very, very good. It’s nice to see a very young Rami Malek (from Mr. Robot), but he isn’t given very much to do.

Phoenix, though, his mouth twisted, his whole body twisted, his bizarre mannerisms—a bravura performance. He is terrifyingly odd as Freddie Quell. Hoffman is over-the-top at times and Svengali-like at others. His “Master” is an odd man, a nerd, the theater-guy at school, smarter than most of the other kids, but not all. He inspires those beneath him, but no-one above—and he knows it.

Quell fights to become one of the true members of “The Cause”, but he succumbs in the end to his free spirit, dumb as he is. He tries to return to the fold but is rejected by Adams first, harshly, and then the Master himself, with an odd, odd song.

The Master is, of course, a hypocrite who believes enough of his own bullshit to be able to sell it to people with money. Adams is more complex in her hypocrisy: she seems to have bought into the movement 100% but … there’s that scene in the bathroom where they both acknowledge their animal natures (his, at the very least). It’s a nicely paced movie with great performances and some interesting ideas … but, I couldn’t tell you why you should see it. For every great scene, there were two or three that made you feel bad for the performers. except for the scene of Freddie’s first session with The Master. That was brilliant.

The Last House on the Left (1972) — 6/10

Wes Craven wrote and directed this zany horror movie about a couple of girls who head into the big city for a concert. When trying to buy pot from a guy, he traps them with the crew he runs with. These people are almost comically reprehensible—two guys and a girl (just like the sequel). The jocular, upbeat music doesn’t help set a very scary mood. The stuff that happens is definitely horrific, but the music is ludicrous. It’s also very visceral because it feels so unstaged—kind of like I Spit on Your Grave.

The plot of the original is very similar to the remake from 2009, but it’s dirtier. It looks more “real” because the lake that she tries to escape in is covered in slime. I actually guessed that the movie was made for about $80,000 and it was. No shit, there’s a long scene where the cops try to get a ride into town after running out of gas (I know, right?) and they spend long minutes haggling a ride from a snaggle-toothed lady in a chicken truck (in Connecticut, no less), all accompanied by zany, Benny-Hill–like music.

Other scenes, like when the killers are at the house, all squeezed onto the bed of the girl that they think they’ve killed, are rawer, better. Better because it’s so strange, the newer version feels far too polished. It was good too, but I see why this became a cult classic. The end is so-so, segueing into some snappy credits music, as expected.

Nightcrawler (2014) — 9/10

This is a movie about a scrap-thief with a very odd personality. He is nearly unfailingly polite, but he feels…off. Gyllenhall looks ethereal—he’s lost weight, so his expressive eyes stand out even more than usual. He kind of looks like Jared Leto in some scenes. He’s positively vulpine. He speaks in stilted tones, in full sentences, with an almost emotionless tone, and he’s very forward. E.g. when a competitor offers to cut him in on his business, Louis responds, “Thank you for offering me the position, but working for myself is more in line with my skills and career goals.” Who talks like that?

He’s stealing to make ends meet when he stumbles upon the scene of an accident and discovers the world of freelance crime-scene filming. He steals a high-end bicycle (Cervélo) and hocks it for a camera.

He’s got a knack for it and sells his close-up, gory footage to Rene Russo’s Nina Romina, a news director of a local news show. She’s definitely from the school of “If it bleeds, it leads”. She tells him exactly what he needs to do to sell more footage. I fear he will take this entirely the wrong way. I fear that he will start to make the news, rather than find it.

So far, so good. He’s just teamed up with Russo’s rapacious and uncaring news producer to deliver high-quality and lushly gory footage. He’s doing well enough to upgrade his car and equipment significantly. But then, it begins—he gets to an accident scene first…and modifies it. This is only the beginning. Louis Bloom is a sociopath and almost no-one notices because the whole culture is off the rails. He’s not above sabotaging his rival’s van or pressuring Russo into sex in exchange for an exclusive on his video content.

Bloom moves on to setting up an incident that he deliberately orchestrates for mayhem. He calls in a police report that leads to a massacre in a noodle shop. He sets it up like a film shoot. A spectacular car chase ensues; he and his partner capture everything. He finishes the evening by setting up his partner to die in the shootout (said partner was trying to get a bigger cut). “I can’t jeopardize my company’s success to retain a non-trustworthy employee.”

He’s just a little bit off the spectrum. But he’s really good at orchestrating the news. He’s good at getting the raw meat that the public craves. Back at the office, he’s gladhanding with all of the people at the office, seemingly unaffected by his partner’s deathmurder. Recommended.

Harold & Maude (1971) — 7/10

This is an offbeat, oddball and very dark comedy about a young man from a very rich family. He isn’t happy. He is positively morose. Morbid even. He stage-manages his own suicide in many ways. It’s utterly unclear how old he is, but he seems to be at least 18. His mother ignores him, for the most part. He’s been morbid for as long as she can remember.

She uses a computer dating service (this is 1971, remember) and fills out the form for him, barely noticing that she’s answering the questions for herself, not Harold. Harold barely listens and instead acts out shooting himself in the forehead in a spectacular way. He likes to visit funerals. This is where he meets Maude, an eccentric little free spirit of 80 years. She steals cars whenever it suits her. Fast ones.

Harold’s first date appears and the mother interviews her (of course). The young lady has the most interesting dress—there is a bowl of ice cream depicted in grand style on the front. Harold waves through the window and then scurries off to a platform in the backyard where he sets up his own self-immolation.

Instead Harold hits it off with Maude. They visit a demolition site. They picnic at a scrap yard. Sites of destruction and decay. Harold risks being drafted, but he and Maude put on a show to fake her murder so that his uncle is too disgusted with him to let him into the Army. Harold is getting more confident. Harold defies mother and marries Maude. Maude agrees, but then takes a bunch of pills…she’s done with this world, but not in a sad way. Harold is devastated, mourns and drives all over hell and yonder with his Jaguar-hurse. He drives it right the hell off a cliff, landing on the roof in the surf. The ultimate suicide.

But it’s just another fake…and Harold walks off into the sunset, playing the banjo, which Maude had encouraged him to play.

Groovy soundtrack. Unique film. Unique script. Pretty good (appropriate) soundtrack. Well-shot. Recommended.

The Virgin Spring (1960) — 7/10

This Swedish film was directed by Ingmar Bergman and stars Max von Sydow. It’s about a home in the countryside (in the 13th century?) with a farmer’s family. The mother indulges one daughter, who is a wheedling little princess. Another young woman Ingeri also lives in the household, barefoot and pregnant and shunned. The father Töre also indulges the girl Karin, letting her get away with murder—sleeping late, doing nothing, lying to get out of trouble with the church. You know, all of the good stuff that the blond-haired, blue-eyed people get away with.

Karin sets off for church in finery, on a pretty horse, while pregnant Ingeri plods along behind on a nag, in woolen rags, invited but shunned. Karin of course thinks she’s doing Ingeri the greatest favor by getting her off the farm for a while. The girl is described on IMDb as “kind but pampered”, but I hate her so much. She’s so privileged, living in a world of privilege, with her whole family and servants as support. That’s the setup anyway.

She takes this innocence on the road, flashing her privileged baby-blues at everyone and expecting the world to serve her. The world greets her as you would expect: she is set upon by a couple of thieves who rape her and then beat her to death. Ingeri bears witness but can do nothing to stop them. The three make their way to Karin’s house (unbeknownst to them). They are invited in to stay the night. As a token of their appreciation for their hosts’ generosity, the leader presents the mother with her daughter’s torn and soiled dress. Mama stays cool, accepts the gift and says she must go speak with her husband.

The twist that makes this (older) version different from the two versions of Last House on the Left is that in this case it’s not two girlfriends who suffer together, but one princess and one servant—and the servant feels great guilt because she’d prayed to Odin for him to kill Karin. And then it happened and she’s wracked with guilt that she willed it. Töre forgives her and then, being Swedish, takes a good birchwood sauna before he embarks on his plan for revenge the next morning. Ingeri sits idly in the doorway while he flagellates his naked body with birch branches. She stares off into the distance in exactly the manner you’d expect for a Bergman film.

The murderers aren’t nearly as cagey in this film and Töre relatively easily overpowers and kills them (one by knife and one by fire). The younger member is very young and is given mercy (after Töre throws him into a wall). The movie is very nicely framed and staged, in black and white. Von Sydow is very good as Töre.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) — 6/10

This movie was muddled from the start. We knew we weren’t going to know any of the characters, but they could have been better about introducing them. Instead, people fly in and out of the scenes as if we’re supposed to care about them. What was Forrest Whittaker doing? I don’t know. Apparently he was an awesome terrorist/warrior.

Felicity Jones was OK as the main character, but not particularly memorable. There was no reason given for why she became so central to the Rebel Alliance other than that she was the daughter of a high-ranking Empire official. She didn’t seem to have any particular skill-set that others didn’t also have, in spades.

The two most memorable characters were Chirrut and Baze, played by Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang, respectively. When you look them up in IMDb, you see the problem with this movie: Chirrut has a last name and it has a diacritical mark on it. This is the kind of movie where the scriptwriters cared more about a last name that no-one ever saw or heard than about how the characters felt on-screen. These details are phenomenal to have when the characters are fully fleshed-out; when they’re as thin as they are in this movie, then it’s more a sign that the scriptwriters were distracted, focused on the wrong things.

Riz Ahmed as Bodhi and Mads Mikkelsen were also fine, but weren’t given very much to work with. The story centers on finally explaining to all the world—in 150 minutes—how the death-star plans were actually captured from Scarif and how they ended up in Artoo’s head. Thank goodness. I guess we can die now. I couldn’t help feeling that this is more fan service. Just like Leia showing up in all of her CGI-generated glory for 1 second at the end (to deposit the “tape” in Artoo’s head).

I like the look and feel of the Star Wars world. It’s not that difficult to suspend belief and believe that they still use physical switches and plugs and giant cables and so on, rather than the highly digitalized and miniaturized world that we occupy.

The film feels very much as if it was filmed during WWII but with high-tech space stuff. Even the battle scenes are very visceral and have air support, anti-aircraft, tank units, grenades, etc. Only the planet-girding shield is exotic, but it’s also taken out in a very straightforward manner: by crashing giant destroyers into it using what amount to rebel tugboats.

The story uses these throwback features to introduce tension: e.g. when Bodhi must drag a communications cable back to the ship across a battle zone. If he only had WiFi, he could have stayed in the safety of his ship. But I don’t mind when they do that: it heightens the story and tension. The whole movie really was a WWII movie in sci-fi clothes: they cross enemy lines to steal plans, they plan an assassination of a high-ranking figure, there are fleets of ships, they fight on beaches with palm trees, grenades and machine-gun nests, it goes on and on.

The tie-ins to the other movies were fine, helping us stitch this film into the other seven films, but some scenes were really way too much fan-service. Those with Darth Vader, for example. It was cool that James Earl Jones is still alive to provide the voice, though. It was neat to discover that the Death Star can move through hyperspace as well. I guess that makes sense, since it needs to get near planets in order to blast them to smithereens. I’d just never thought about it. I loved The Force Awakens but this movie left me a bit flat: man does not live by effects alone. Maybe a second viewing will change my mind, but I doubt it.