Thursday, March 23, 2017

Gold (2016) Review

The problem with "Gold" is that it takes you into an esoteric world (in this case, let's call it "large-scale multi-national gold mining?") without making us care about the intricacies of the topic. Instead, it follows the template laid out in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" (and that Martin Scorsese bludgeoned to death in "Wolf of Wall Street") of showering the viewer in capitalism porn: Shots of people getting rowdier as visual cues (i.e. graphs going upwards, the stock exchange ringing) show them getting richer and richer. This is a shame because Stephen Gaghan masterfully wove story threads in an Altmanesque manner to tell the story of the global oil crisis.

Without that effort to make the economics of an economics film engaging ("Big Short" is a better example of this), there's little reason to care about this story. It's just some schlub who looks an awful lot like Christian Bale's character in "American Hustle" (another better film with which this one shares suspicious stylistic similarities) on a lucky streak.

In the second half, some twists emerge, including one big blind-siding whopper that is very likely what catapulted the real life story out of obscurity and led to the existence of this film, but by then it's too little too late and there's not really any foreshadowing that makes the big reveal interesting.

What's even more frustrating is that what could have made the film palatable was right there in the script. The story is framed around a mysterious interview that McConaughey's character has with either his lawyer or the FBI but this narrative device is employed extremely half-heartedly.

Despite the film's grandiose ambitions, the film is only memorable in the end for a smattering of striking images that don't lead up to more than the sum of their parts: The "Apocalypse Now" allusion of a man coming to terms with his demons in the Southeast Asian jungle, the contrast between the sweetness of Bryce Dallas Howard and the raw ugliness of McConaughey (I'm presuming he gained weight for this part), and the odd homoerotic gaze from McConaughey shows to Edgar Ramirez's character.

If there's a film to be told about David Walsh, Stephen Gaghan's approach isn't the way to best do it justice.

Finding Dory (2016) Review

For its grandiose reputation as a creative mecca, even Pixar has been unable to resist the Faustian bargain of a sequel every now and then. While Ellen DeGeneres' popularity and the Best Picture Oscar nomination for "Toy Story 3" made a sequel inevitable, it shouldn't be discounted that Dory (DeGeneres) was deservedly a breakout character in her own right when she debuted thirteen years ago as Marlon's (Albert Brooks) memory-addled sidekick. The circuitous dialogue resulting from Dory's short-term memory loss makes for the kind of back-and- forth of an updated Abbott and Costello routine. Similarly, Dory's chipper attitude in the face of her (presupposed) inability to accomplish anything outside a 30-second window makes her a spunky can-do everyman.

The challenge coming for "Finding Dory" is similar to nearly every TV spin-off from Gomer Pyle to Joey: Can a comic relief character carry his or her own storyline? In this case, yes: It turns out there's a lot of depth to Dory when you factor in the potential that her memory could resurface and, indeed, that's the route we go down.

Dory begins to experience flashbacks that take her, Nemo, and a reluctant Marlon (taking each other for granted is a theme here) all the way to a Seaworld-like aquarium in California where Dory, Nemo, and Marlin find themselves in and out of various rooms and fish tanks. Lack of opposable limbs or bodies larger than three inches be damned, this is the Pixar universe and pesky human contraptions like doors are no match for you if you have determination and some crafty friends to help. These include a beluga whale (Ty Burrell) with echolocation, a near-sighted whale shark (Kaitlin Olson), and a curmudgeon of an octopus whose congruence with voice actor Ed O'Neill's screen persona makes him the film's breakout character.

If you're someone with a deep-seated love for aquariums and Jacques Cousteau like me, there's an enchantment in the animation that you would never get from the renderings of toys, ants, superheroes, or dystopian garbage piles that Pixar has previously done. There's also the added bonus of the biological accuracy and the clever ways in which these traits are ingrained in their characters. Yes, octopi could can change color and have dangerous levels of dexterity. Do not let them near your steering wheel.

High-quality animated flicks typically come with moral parables and the original one here is the way that people with disabilities can contribute to society and are capable of surprise. Although Dory couldn't really navigate the freeways of California, it all feels surprisingly organic here.

As far as sequels go, "Finding Dory" makes its case well as unique and fresh enough to justify its existence.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"Special Correspondents" (2016) and Ricky Gervais's curious lowered bar in the filmic world

If there's one thing most people can agree on, it's that Ricky Gervais is a comic genius when it comes to making TV. The breadth of influence from his melancholy character creations on "The Office" and "Extras" has been seen all over the TV landscape.
What's curious is that a lot of this innovation is absent in Ricky Gervais's films. "Ghost Town", "Invention of Lying" and this film basically work through the age-old comic method of character and opposing concept like (off the top of my head) guy who wishes to grow up meets adulthood ("Big" or "13 on 30" in reverse), president wielding extraordinary power meets small-town politics ("Welcome to Mooseport"), thoughtless man with no appreciation for present meets eternal present ("Groundhog Day"), or powerless man meets eternal power ("Bruce Almighty") "Ghost Town" is a case of a guy who wishes to be left alone being forced to deal with the dead on top of the living people he wishes to avoid. "Invention of Lying" is a case of man without influence gets power over gullible society. "Special Correspondents" is a case of lazy news reporters meeting real news.
With the exception of "Invention of Lying" (which lends itself to home-run-hitting dialogue), none of these have the depth in their premise that could reach the same comic heights. As is, it's a decent film that works at the lower degree of difficulty set in by its script. The quieter moments of character development, though somewhat sitcom-llke, tend to work and the characters hit their notes.
Ricky Gervais is a news reporter who has accepted he's a schlub in life (much like his "Invention of Lying" character at the start) despite somehow managing to snag Vera Farminga as a wife. Gervais digs relatively deep although the tone of the supporting cast (Vera Farmiga is pretty arch, America Ferrera is "Latino comical" in a way that mirrors Sofia Vergara's "Modern Family" role) and the film's plot would pick a fight with any sense of pathos. Still, Gervais is likable and kind of sweet and his chemistry with love interest (though the two have an admirably platonic vibe).
Why Gervais is so stifled when he apparently has directorial control and is credited as a writer on these films is hard to figure out, but the film is what it is.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Big Eyes (2014) Review

"Big Eyes" tells the real-life story of painter Margaret Keane and how she was trapped by a marriage in the worst way: Stripped of her name and artistic identity through her husband's lies. Tim Burton previously made one of the best films about the artistic struggle with "Ed Wood" and he touches upon similar themes here. Like how "Ed Wood" flips the traditional artistic biopic formula on its head, "Big Eyes" is cleverly inverted here. Instead of portraying the joy of art, the film takes on the trappings of being a great artist: That if art is intertwined with the aspects of your identity, you can lose it at any moment.

The film is a departure from Tim Burton's usual Gothic style but it has shadings of the characters he's drawn to in both Walter and Amy. What originally unites them together is perhaps where many Tim Burton characters might finish their filmic journey: Outsiders to the mainstream who have found a partner-in-crime that could move them closer to the center of societal acceptance and, ultimately, societal success.

But as they say, "Happily ever after fails" (In this case, I'm specifically thinking of  Don Henley
who followed  that line with "We've been poisoned by these fairy tales") and what's left is the trappings of a psychological thriller. This ends up being a more adult conflict than  his way, this is a much more adult work than say "Corpse Bride" or "Alice in Wonderland."

The film is egregiously mislabelled as a comedy by organizations such as the Golden Globes (and Netflix). The closest it comes to comedic is Walter Keane's sense of self-delusion. That characterization, however, is an important plot point, and ignoring that is a sign that perhaps Burton's reputation prevents the film from being taken as seriously as it should.

The film is also further evidence that Christophe Waltz is one of the most fascinating actors of today. He is mostly consigned to villains but can make something out of practically everything he's handed.  It's hard to fathom that this remarkable actor was toiling in the German film industry for years before being discovered. He's well-known for his roles in Quentin Tarantino films but I can't emphasize how much fans of this actor should check this film out: By requiring him to turn from a sympathetic artist in the first act to a devious villain, few films have tested his range as such.

Additionally, check out the real life story.

Our Brand is Crisis (2015) Review

"Our Brand is Crisis" was supposed to be a realization of director David Gordon Green's potential with big-budget projects (his film "George Washington" launched his career as an indie darling that culminated only in "Pineapple Express" and not too much since then). Unfortunately, this film saw its pre-release hype dissipate by the time it hit theaters for reasons I can't easily pin down with a few minutes of googling.

What I can say is that it's a definite shame this film didn't make it into the conversation for Oscar or gross more than $7 million domestically, because it's a richly textured film with a well-paced sense of adventure and exoticism.

The film revolves around the rivalry between two ace political strategists (Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton) working different sides of a Bolivian election with the cultural sensitivity of two seasoned board game players competing in a heated contest of Risk.

Bob Thornton's character is based on James Carville (between this, Saturday Night Live, and Documentary Now, he seems to be a standard part of any impressionist's repertoire). Bullock channels a slightly darker version of her frazzled but endearing rom-com persona in a part that was originally scripted for a male character and she steals the show.

A supporting cast of Scoot McNairy, Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan and Ann Dowd adds a cadre of characters with varying degrees of seriousness that makes for some memorable bantered dialogue. It's perhaps in keeping with the film's commentary on geopolitical ethno- centrism that the presidential candidatate (Joaquim de Almeida) is the least interesting character in the entourage. There is, however, a relationship that Sandra Bullock's character develops with a local teenager that comes closest to providing the film's protagonist with a moral awakening.

The film successfully threads the needle of thought-provoking without being overly preachy, even if
the resolution is slightly less profound than it thinks it is.