Hail, Caesar!

Posted on February 4, 2016 at 5:59 pm

Copyright Mike Zoss Productions
Copyright Mike Zoss Productions 2016
The Coen brothers love old movies, and not just the classics. I remember reading an interview where they discussed their affection for “With Six You Get Eggroll,” which even Doris Day’s most fervent fans do not consider one of her best. With “Hail, Caesar!” they pay loving tribute to the final years of the golden era of the Hollywood studios, in part because it gives them a chance to tell a story about change, and choice, responsibility and irresponsibility, and in part because it gives them a chance to play studio heads themselves, overseeing not just one movie but five. And as Orson Welles said, that’s “the biggest electric train set any boy ever had.”

There really was an Eddie Mannix, the MGM executive who had various titles but who was pretty much a full-time fixer. Whether it was a starlet’s nude photos or a male star’s casting couch encounter with a male director, his job was to keep it out of the courts and especially out of the gossip columns and scandal magazines with names like “Confidential.” This was accomplished with bribes, intimidation, and trading of favors. A reputation would be saved by giving the reporter exclusive access or even a juicy story about a lesser star who could be sacrificed to save the day for someone the studio considered a major asset.

The Eddie Mannix played by Josh Brolin works at a studio called Capitol Pictures, but the issue of capital will arise as well. Eddie is under so much stress he goes to confession every day. He is responsible for keeping the entire studio running smoothly, and that begins before dawn, where he extracts an actress from a compromising situation (paying off the cops), and continues on the studio lot. There he assigns an amiable singing cowboy star named Hobie Doyle (a winning Alden Ehrenreich) to put on a dinner jacket and take over the lead in a high-prestige drawing room drama, even though he’s “a dust guy” and his dialog in previous films was pretty much limited to whistling for his horse, Whitey, and “Hold on, there, partner.” Cleaning him up and putting him in a dinner jacket is not a problem, but the intricate drama he is thrown into requires tricky lines like “Would that t’were so simple,” preceded by a mirthless laugh.

Mannix visits the set of a big-budget musical and sees a water ballet out of Busby Berkeley’s wildest dreams. But the star is pregnant but not married (a career-killer in those days). She’s played by Scarlett Johansson with enough wit and brio to power the massive flume of water that lifts her mermaid character up into the sky.

The biggest studio production is the epic “Hail, Caesar,” about a Roman centurion who becomes a follower of Jesus (oddly similar to the upcoming “Risen”). It stars the studio’s most valuable actor, with the manly name of Baird Whitlock (a wickedly funny George Clooney). Mannix thinks his biggest problem is going to be making sure that the movie does not offend anyone in the audience, and in a hilarious scene, he consults with a focus group of clergy, or tries to. But then a real problem arises. Baird Whitlock is kidnapped and being held for ransom by a group that calls itself “The Future.” They are a group led by the most improbable of 20th century scholars, accurately quoted if not accurately portrayed, and supported by…well, no more spoilers here.

It’s flat-out funny, whether you know the history or not, and I left wishing for a quadruple feature that would include all of the films we see in production (well, maybe not the other “Hail, Caesar”). What keeps it buoyant, even effervescent, is the pure affection for films and filmmaking in every one of what in the pre-digital days we used to call frames. (We see them up close and personal in a hilarious scene with Frances McDormand as an old-school film editor.) The movie touches lightly on issues of story-telling and the inherent chaos and frustration of trying to balance art and commerce, plus the skills and needs of a large group of people. But the love story here is between Mannix, as a stand-in for the writer/directors, and the movies.

Parents should know that this film includes kidnapping, out-of-wedlock pregnancy and paternity issues, some sexual references, drinking and references to alcoholism, and smoking.

Family discussion: Which real-life characters inspired this movie? Should Eddie take the job offer?

If you like this, try: some of the movies that inspired this one like “Million Dollar Mermaid,” “Anchors Aweigh,” “My Pal Trigger,” and “The Robe”

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Comedy Satire
the-big-short_0-300x186.jpg

The Big Short

Posted on December 10, 2015 at 6:16 pm

A
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity
Profanity: Constant very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Fraud, corruption, economic upheavals
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 11, 2015
Date Released to DVD: March 15, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B0177ZM3LO
Copyright 2015 Plan B Entertainment
Copyright 2015 Plan B Entertainment

Director Adam McKay is so obsessed with the 2008 financial meltdown that he inserted a series of charts and graphs and statistics about it over the closing credits of the silly buddy-cop comedy, The Other Guys. Yes, there was a villain played by Steve Coogan who was up to some financial jiggery pokery, but only the most careful viewers of that film could have deduced that what McKay, best known for raunchy Will Ferrell slob comedies, secretly yearned for, as Michael Caine might say, was to blow the bloody doors off the Wall Street bankers who treated the American economy like a bull treats a china shop.

We’ve had sober documentaries like The Flaw and Oscar-winner Inside Job and the superb drama Margin Call, all outstanding, insightful, and illuminating and essential companion pieces to this movie. But “The Big Short” has several advantages in telling the story. First, by giving us someone to root for, however imperfect the heroes of this story are, it keeps us emotionally connected to the story. Second, because it is in most respects a comedy, McKay has a wider range of tricks on hand to make us understand what happened. This fierce, fiery rant of a film is going to make you understand that the people we entrusted with our economic stability were truly despicable and truly stupid. It is funny and infuriating and then funny again and then, when he tells you that the bad guys went to jail and the big banks were broken up — no, just kidding, they weren’t — it is monumentally infuriating.

I’ll add a footnote below to give my own very short explanation of what happened.* (And one thing they got wrong.** Pretty much everything else is literally right on the money.) Or, you could listen to Margot Robbie talk you through it, as she sips champagne in a bubble bath. Yes, McKay knows what gets people’s attention and he uses Robbie and other celebrities to come in and explain the parts that the bankers intentionally did their best to obfuscate, using words guaranteed to put everyone to sleep so they could pick our pockets a little while longer. Ryan Gosling also serves as a guide, playing a real-life insider who saw that the mortgage-backed securities were going to tumble down like a Jenga tower.

The real-life acronym used by the bankers during this period was IBGYBG, which stood for “I’ll be gone; you’ll be gone,” meaning that if they could just keep passing the hot potato of economic Armageddon going around the circle a couple more times to collect the fees, they could get out before it all came tumbling down. And many of them did. As Michael Lewis notes in the the book that inspired this film (subtitled The Doomsday Machine), and, if you don’t remember anything else, remember this: the heroes of his book, the small group that bet against the bankers, made fortunes. But so did the people who lost that bet. Everyone on both sides of these deals made a lot of money. Everyone else across the country lost a lot of money, jobs, and homes.

As noted, Lewis’ book and McKay’s movie (the Oscar-winning script is co-written with Charles Randolph of the underrated “Love and Other Drugs”) wisely allow us to enter the story via the scrappy little group of misfit toys who figure out that the game is cooked, that it can’t stay that way, and that there has to be a way to bet against the other side. This grown-up Bad News Bears bunch (two of them barely qualifying as grown-ups) have a couple of things going for them. First, they are skeptics. Actually, they are cynics. They assume everyone is lying to them and just about everyone is cheating them. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who insists on being called Dr. Michael Burry (he’s a neurologist-turned investment manager) and Mark Baum (Steve Carell) are both men who were already inclined to be skeptics and then faced terrible pain and loss that disabused them of the sense that life was fair. Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro), two young partners literally running an investment firm out of a garage, had made almost $30 million finding unseen risks but were so naive about Wall Street that they did not know what the requirements were for being able to trade as an institution and not as an individual. These guys were all outsiders. (All names are fictional except for Burry.)

The second thing they had going for them was that they were not just willing to do their homework; they insisted on it. While the money gusher was going, no one else wanted to check the math (and no one was getting paid to do so). But, in some of the most entertaining moments of this riotously entertaining film, these guys who did not believe what they were told, went to check it out. Burry unpacked the securities to examine each of the hundreds of mortgages they contained to see if they were as secure as promised. They were not. Baum’s colleagues (Rafe Spall and Hamish Linklater) went to Florida to see the homes that were mortgaged. They were abandoned. Baum’s guys spoke to the mortgage brokers who happily explained that they preferred to give mortgages to people who had no possible means of paying them. (Max Greenfield is superbly sleazy in this role.) “They’re not confessing,” one of Baum’s partners says in amazement. “They’re bragging.”

By the time a stripper explains to Baum that she has mortgages on five houses and a condo and has been assured she can refinance when her adjustable rate jumps up, he begins to see the potential in betting that these securities will fall as people like this cannot pay the mortgages. When he goes to a convention of financial types working in this field (Byron Mann is almost deliciously corrupt as the arrogant and ethically vacant Mr. Chau), he knows he is right.

At the same convention, Shipley and Geller are jubilant when they are able to make a big bet against the bankers. And then they get a reality reminder from their their mentor, played by co-producer Brad Pitt. He could not take the corruption of Wall Street any more and left for a life somewhere between disaster prepper and artisanal farmer, wearing a face mask when he goes to town and urging everyone to get colonics. He met the young investor when they were walking their dogs. He reminds Shipley and Geller not to be so happy. When they win big, it will be because the economy is collapsing, causing real, devastating pain.

This is an outstanding film, with sensational performances by a brilliant ensemble cast. It is one of the best of the year and the most important as well.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong and crude language, vulgar sexual references, strippers, nudity, and extreme widespread fraud and corruption.

Family discussion: What made just these men able to see what so many other people did not? How did they verify their analysis? Will it happen again?

If you like this, try: the book by Michael Lewis and documentaries about the financial meltdown including “The Flaw” and “Inside Job” as well as feature films “99 Homes” and “Margin Call”

*Here’s what happened, without the jargon or the bubble bath. As you see at the beginning of the movie, Lewis Ranieri, now one of the wealthiest people in the world, came up with the idea of essentially crowd-funding mortgages. He took lots and lots of mortgages, bundled them into bonds, and let big institutional investors, like pension funds, buy them. It was a great investment for them because pension funds need a safe and secure source of income to pay retirees and these were safe and secure — much more than stocks — because people almost never defaulted on their mortgages and because so many mortgages were bundled up together that even if some did default it would have almost no impact. These bundles of mortgages were so popular that the banks ran out of safe and secure mortgages to put into bonds. And so, they started pushing mortgage brokers to issue more mortgages, and that meant giving mortgages to people who would not otherwise have qualified. (Some people will tell you that the government was at fault for pushing home ownership on people who could not afford it. They are wrong. Most of the pressure was coming from people who wanted to buy mortgages, not people who wanted to buy houses.) So, the formerly safe and secure bonds started filling up with less and less safe and secure mortgages. And the people responsible for differentiating the risk of the bonds, including the rating agencies, decided to just keep rating and selling the new, less secure securities as though they were exactly the same as the earlier ones. All of the “formulas” (sometimes called “algorithms” or “models”) used to justify this were bunk. Imagine it this way: there’s a vineyard that makes superior wine that everyone wants to buy and there are strong legal and economic incentives to buy it. But you only have so many grapes, so you start watering it down, still selling it at the same price, and getting the people who rate wine to continue to give it the same rating. Then you run out of water so you start blending it with turpentine, and all of your projections show that it is just as good and will still sell just as well so you price it that way and assume there is no risk.

Here’s the important part: everyone at every part of this conveyer belt of increasingly risky securities all being treated as though they were not risky was being paid based on the number of transactions, not the quality of the transactions, a sort of very big, very expensive game of tag, where there was never any “it” until finally “it” was everyone.

**Actually, because of the immense lobbying power of the bankers (see 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown) the SEC had no authority to regulate these mortgage-backed securities. The agency that should have had jurisdiction was the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. When then-Chairman Brooksley Born suggested that they might look into some kind of oversight, Congress and the then-Treasury Secretary made sure she could not. Also, there are post-employment restrictions that prevent SEC staff from going to work for the people they supervise.

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Based on a book Based on a true story Comedy Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Satire

Mortdecai

Posted on January 23, 2015 at 9:36 am

Copyright Lionsgate 2015
Copyright Lionsgate 2015

There’s a lot of noise in “Mortdecai” but what I remember most is the silences where everything pauses for a moment to allow the audience to laugh without drowning out the next witty riposte. Nope, just crickets, as there was no laughter, just grim resolve on the part of those of us professionally obligated to stick it out through the bitter end.

“Mortdecai” is based on series of 1970’s comic novels by Kyril Bonfignioli about an art dealer with connections to the upper class and the criminal underground, which provide him with many opportunities for mischief. I’m sure they are all high-spirited and merry and racy and fun, but by the evidence of this film they are also dated, overly precious, and not susceptible to translation into film. Perhaps it was possible decades ago and in print rather than on screen to find it funny when someone is repeatedly shot and injured, often accidentally by his employer, or when someone else is shot and killed. But not now and not like this.

Maybe gag reflexes brought on by Mortdecai’s mustache and widespread barfing brought on by tampering with a sumptuous buffet can be funny when left to the imagination. Not likely, but clever writing might just make it possible as our imaginations are very good at filtering descriptions according to our comfort levels. It’s another thing entirely when it is unavoidably seen and heard. Cue the crickets.

Over the past few years, with the exception of a brief appearance in “Into the Woods” Johnny Depp has made one catastrophically bad movie after another. As proof of the adage that no good deed goes unpunished, the success of his offbeat, fey Captain Jack Sparrow, initially objected to by the studio execs who were very unhappy with the early footage, has given Depp license to go way over the top with quirks and twitches in films like “The Lone Ranger” and “Tusk.” As I noted in my review, in “Transcendence” his performance was so robotic when he was playing a human that it hardly made a difference when he turned into a computer. Here, as the title character, a caricature of a pukka sahib colonial twit/Brit, embodies the fatal combination of profound unpleasantness with the expectation of being seen as irresistibly adorable not just by the other characters but by the audience.

Paul Bettany provides the film’s only bright moments as Jock Strapp, Mordecai’s Swiss army knife of a sidekick, as adept at ironing his lordship’s handkerchiefs as he is at hand-to-hand combat, getaway car driving, anticipating that Lady Mortdecai (Gwyneth Paltrow, looking like the cover of Town and Country in very fetching riding gear) will want the guest room made up for her husband as soon as she sees his new mustache, and bedding many, many, many ladies. Ewan McGregor does his valiant best but is wasted as the Oxbridge-educated MI5 official (and former classmate of Mortdecai, with a crush on Lady M). Director David Koepp, whose “Premium Rush” was a nifty little thriller with unexpected freshness and wit, has stumbled here with a film that is badly conceived in every way, like its title character imagining itself as clever and endearing when in reality it is dull and repellent.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong and crude language, drinking and comic drunkenness, sexual references and situations, some crude, bodily function humor, comic peril and violence including guns, with characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: What was the best way to resolve the issue of the mustache? Who should have the Goya painting?

If you like this, try: The Mortdecai Trilogy and the Austin Powers films

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Based on a book Comedy Crime Satire

Dear White People

Posted on October 16, 2014 at 5:25 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, sexual content and drug use
Profanity: Very strong language including racist terms
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 17, 2014
Date Released to DVD: February 2, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00OMCCJIS

dear white people2Before I turn to whitesplaining this film, I will begin by suggesting that you read what Aisha Harris at Slate and what my friends and fellow critics Travis Hopson and Stephen Boone have to say first. If I did not have enough humility before seeing the film about my ability to provide some insight into a movie about racism, the best evidence of the power of the film’s message is that I have more now — and that I recognize it might still not be be enough. I liked the film very much and want to encourage people to see it, so I am going to weigh in with some thoughts and hope that if they come across as disrespectful or ignorant, it will lead to some good conversations and, I hope, to greater understanding.

The focus is on four African-American students at an Ivy League school called Winchester University. Sam White (a biting but layered performance by standout Tessa Thompson) is the host of “Dear White People,” a controversial radio program with stinging, provocative commentary along the lines of “Dear white people: The official number of black friends you are required to have has now been raised to two. And your weed man does not count.” Coco (Teyonah Parris) is an ambitious woman who wants to be selected for a new reality TV series, even if that means creating a fabricated backstory and becoming more confrontational. Troy (Brandon P Bell) is the handsome, accomplished BMOC (and son of the dean) who says he has never experienced prejudice and is under a lot of pressure from his father to succeed. And Lionel (Tyler James Williams) is something of a loner because he feels he does not fit in with any of the rigid categories of the campus hierarchical taxonomy. He is invited by the editor of the school newspaper to go undercover to write about race relations at the school.

Each of these characters’ identities and conflicts is represented in their hair. Sam has tight, controlled coils. Coco has long, straight hair. Troy’s hair is cut very close to the bone. And Lionel’s hair is a marvel of untamed frizz that seems to be a character of its own. Each of the characters will face challenges to his or her carefully constructed identity, and all will be reflected in changes of hairstyle.

The dorm that had previously been all-black is now integrated following a race-blind room assignment policy. Sam takes on Troy in an election for head of house, never anticipating that she might win. But she does. This leads to some changes, including a confrontation with the arrogant frat-bro Kurt (Kyle Gallner), son of the white President of the university and leader of the school’s prestigious humor publication. Kurt is the kind of guy who expects to be allowed to eat wherever he likes, even if he is not a member of the house. He also explains that we live in a post-racial world because Obama is President. And he thinks it is a great idea to plan a “ghetto” party, with white students dressing up as gangsta caricatures.

Just to remind us that, while the movie may have a heightened sensibility for satirical purposes, it is not outside the realm of reality, the closing credits feature a sobering series of photos from real “ghetto” parties held on campuses across the country.

It is refreshing, provocative, and powerfully topical, respecting and updating the tradition of “School Daze” and “Higher Learning.” It deals not only with questions of race but with broader questions of gender, class, identity, and the way we construct our personas, especially in our late teens and early 20’s. Writer/director Justin Simien has created a sharp satire with an unexpectedly tender heart.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language including racial epithets, sexual references and situations, drinking, drug use, and tense confrontations about race, class, and gender.

Family discussion: Where do the people in this movie get their ideas about race, gender, and class? Which character surprised you the most and why? Do you agree with what Sam said about racism?

If you like this, try: “School Daze” and “Higher Learning”

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Comedy Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Gender and Diversity GLBTQ and Diversity Race and Diversity Satire School
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