The Big Short

the-big-short-movie-posterWhat Jesse said:

You need to watch The Big Short. Fantastic movie about the 2008 economic meltdown that manages to infuse just enough humour to balance the insanity of the world being on the brink of economic disaster. Christian Bale is amazing in it. Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell… awesome. My favourite scene involves an odd discussion between Carell’s character and a ‘dancer’ about real estate. So much cringe.

Mike’s verdict:

At first I couldn’t understand why Jesse cared to watch a film about banking. Sure, it’s got some notable people but it’s still about banking!  Then it all became clear – his favourite dreamy Brad is in this.  Funny how Jesse mentioned all those other notables but left out Brad Pitt again.  At least in this one Pitt’s role is fairly subdued; and he’s actually believable as the jaded banker turned rich hippy who hates the game but will play it again anyway if you just ask him. Classic Pitt.

This film is an odd format.  It starts out almost feeling like a documentary, but only partially. It flips back and forth between wanting to be a history lesson, indicting the banking industry for its lack of humanity, and a funny story about tangentially connected funny characters who have no respect for the forth wall. And it kind of works.

With such a complicated subject as the basis of the plot, there would inevitably need to be some means of clarifying exposition – and the writers decided to take the easy road: pause the movie and give the explanation.  It works, because as jarring as these moments are, they are handled brilliantly by the characters who not only break the fourth wall but also introduce unrelated cameos from celebrities being themselves.

Jesse is right about Christian Bale; his character is so believable that by the end I felt like I knew him – his awkwardness is completely authentic without being over the top. Steve Carrel’s angry jerk who just cares too much has a rocky start, but eventually becomes a highlight as well.

It’s not all good though: the narrative is choppy at times, making it hard to follow the connections as they as developed.  A number of scenes feel like they happen in the wrong order, but not in an intentional way.  And then there are the magical Jenga blocks that go from tower to pile to tower again without any help.

The discussion with the ‘dancer’ isn’t nearly as interesting as Jesse suggests.  The only cringing on my part was at how forced the scene felt – it doesn’t fit into this film at all and I suspect Jesse has other reasons for enjoying it…

About the halfway point I realized the biggest issue with this film:  I was much less interested in the story or characters than I was in trying to understand the mechanics of the financial crisis. How come all these people saw the problem, independently, years ahead of time, but nobody did anything to stop it?  How does debt become an investment? How do banks even keep their multi-level fraud schemes straight?  The social math is just fascinating.  But this movie won’t answer those questions – it feels like it will, but it won’t because it’s not a documentary. It’s entertainment.

And it is entertaining, but nonetheless disappointing because of everything that it won’t explain.

At the end, I still don’t understand the housing crisis at all; however I am now also very concerned about water.

6/10 – because it failed to live up to my unreasonable expectations.


Sing Street

singstreetWhat Jesse said:

You need to watch Sing Street. Just saw it and it is awesome. Homage to the mid-80s. Was made last year and it’s set in Ireland. Dublin. Awesome scene where main character’s (15 year old kid) older [brother] is educating him and their father on the power of the “music video” and the world-changing awesomeness of Duran Duran.

Mike’s verdict:

That grammar-free stream of consciousness mess is all Jesse saw fit to give me. No hint at a plot. No indication of thematic direction. Not even a genre! So it was with a tremendous amount of faith in Jesse’s judgement that I sat down to watch Sing Street.  And minutes in the film it became clear why Jesse had avoided telling me about the story: it’s just another boy-comes-of-age film.

You know the story; you’ve seen it many times: an adolescent boy struggles with a tough but caring home life, a bully at his new school, and an abusive authority figure, all while trying to make sense of a girl – and of course he finds himself in the process.

<sigh> This movie has been done to death.

But nevermind all that; you should watch Sing Street anyway because it is fantastic.  I don’t know where or when Jesse watched this film, but I do know exactly at which points he cheered, laughed, shook his head in dismay, and cringed – because there are moments that are universal to every teen boy.  Details may differ, situations are exaggerated, and the results are unlikely, but the feelings are spot-on.

This film is hopeful all the way through, in a sense that many of this genre fail to be. It doesn’t need overwhelming hardship to make its point. The protagonist struggles meaningfully but realistically, and over comes his life in ways that most boys can only do in day-dreams. Yet as the credits roll, the viewer is left with the sense that while the hero has managed to win in the first chapter of his life, there is still very real potential for disaster to come in the next. Struggle is balance with success, tipping only slightly under the weight of the unknown future.

The story is helped along well by reliable acting – perhaps not surprisingly all the school-age boys are very believable as school-age boys. Even the cleverer bits of dialog seem natural. It’s also supplemented by light symbolism that subtly adds dept: “You can’t put rabbits on the bed and not expect them to shit on your bed.” is surely an apt metaphor for life.

The backdrop to all this is a soundtrack that aggressively makes itself a part of the narrative when its needed, or slips subtly into ambiance when its not. There is a deliberate contrast between songs used in their original 80s glory, followed by quiet piano arrangements that feel timeless. It’s easy to forget that this is a contemporary film.  That is, at least until you realize that it understands the 80s music revolution far better than anyone in the 80s ever could have.

Sing Street is a thoughtful and original take on a very over-done genre. But most importantly, its enjoyable – it uses only the cliches that it needs to lay the foundation, and then layers a tapestry of commercial and original music that revives the 80s perfectly. Jesse absolutely got this one right.

10/10

p.s. It’s definitely worth sitting through the short credits to hear the last bit of music.


Snowpiercer

snowpiercer-posterWhat Jesse said:

Watch Snowpiercer. Do it now.

Mike’s verdict:

I got a copy of this movie years before Jesse recommended it to me, but I never got around to watching it. For some reason I ended up forgetting what it was about or why I found it interesting in the first place. I actually believed that it was a foreign film with subtitles. If Jesse hadn’t recommended it, I’d probably never have watched it at all.

I’m glad that I finally did; given Jesse’s sparse review though I could easily have forgotten about it again. Since he didn’t elaborate on why I should watch Snowpiercer, I will have to assume that he recognized the film for what it truly is: a review of some of the most enduring themes in the history of political philosophy.

I suspect that many people will walk away from this film thinking it is a commentary on economic inequality – something along the lines of the 21st century protest movements that hope to up-end the so-called ‘One Percent’. Certainly, inequality is a major factor here – economic divide is the source of the film’s main conflict. But Snowpiercer isn’t about economic inequality – it’s about the rationale for maintaining that inequality.

The train here should be looked at as a metaphor (thinly veiled) for a society – everything
humanity needs ,thought not necessarily everything it wants, is within the train, while exiting means stepping into the cold, harsh reality of nature. But just as there are consequences to joining any social contract built to protect humankind, living on the train requires sacrifices to maintain balance. Economic classes develop both from the balance and in support of the balance. The upper-class in the front needs the idea of the poor in the back as much as it needs to physically oppress them. Moreover, the poor need to believe in the possibility of revolution just to maintain meaning in their lives. The train is an intricately designed state; meant to allow the human race to continue living safe from the dangers of nature, even if some lives will be more comfortable than others. The point is not to make every person’s life good, but to maintain a balance that will keep humanity in existence, hopefully until nature itself is less brutal.

The architects of this state understood that classes would be necessary, what each class would require to maintain it’s end of the balance, and how to manipulate both sides to facilitate that balance. The philosopher kings control the state through invisible hands that direct the people; deciding where sacrifices are necessary and building mythologies to make these sacrifices palatable. In the back of the train, the mythology is built on the great revolutionary uprisings that are never successful but close enough to give hope. In the front, people are taught to respect and revere the balance – ‘everyone has their place’.

It almost works. And it like it. Snowpiercer is a contemporary exploration of the social contract, continuing the work developed through Hobbs, Locke and of course Rousseau. That said, their are definitely flaws in this film. Leaving aside arguments against it’s philosophical commentary (that would be a whole other kind of blog), Snowpiercer has some pretty annoying holes: Where does the ‘flammable’ industrial waste / narcotic actually come from? What sort of witchcraft powers the train? Why does the train even need to keep moving? Many of the details seem needlessly implausible.

Even so, the acting is good, the story avoids being too obvious, and the ending was nicely
ambiguous. Jesse got it right, well, I assume.

7/10


Slow West

SlowWest.jpgWhat Jesse said:

Yo, I got another one fer ya. This one is called Slow West and it stars Michael Fassbender and some kid named Kodi Smit-McPhee, who, turns out, I’ve already seen in another great movie – The Road.  Anyway, this is kind of a weird love story about a pasty-faced lovesick kid (Kodi) who travels from Scotland to the badlands of 19th century America in search of his massive crush, a girl named Rose.  The kid is uber naive and idealistic about his quest so you know he’s in trouble as soon as you see him in the New World.  Throw in some crazy bounty hunters and a jaded gunslinger with an agenda and you got yourself a pretty quirky twist on the old western genre.  I really enjoyed this one so cancel your plans for the Pokemon Go hunt and go see this movie right now. Go.

Mike’s verdict:

Apparently I took a while getting around to watching this one – as evidenced by Jesse’s outdated reference to a game that I was too old for even a decade ago when anyone cared about Pokemon.  Part of the delay was life – I was busy doing non-movie-related activities. But I was also very skeptical about this movie.  I’m not a fan of westerns generally and the idea that Jesse might have uncovered a good one seemed pretty remote.

Thankfully, this isn’t really a western, or at least it doesn’t feel like one.  It does tick all the western boxes: dusty plains, wooden buildings, people riding horses, everyone has a gun, nobody can aim a gun, the good guy looks just like the bad guys, nobody is ever in a hurry, it rarely rains but when it does everyone just gets wet, etc. Yet somehow this film feels less like western and more like fantasy.  I can’t quite place it, but the atmosphere doesn’t feel like it’s intended to be part of our reality – it has the same once-upon-a-timeness as the beginning of Stardust. You can sort of relate to the characters, but their reality is clearly askew.  This is particularly strong at the start, before the film shifts to the New World, but it continues right through to the end.  That said, it’s doesn’t feel completely foreign in the way that Cowboys & Aliens does.

The whole thing gives off a slight awkwardness that I enjoyed, and also left me constantly guessing where it was going to take me.  In the end, the basic result is pretty obvious – you can predict how Jay’s quest to find Rose is going to turn out just from the interaction between the two characters in the first five minutes. But this is definitely one of those movies that is more about the details of the absurd journey, than the details of the absurd ending.

Aside from some minor gruesomeness near the end, Slow West is fairly easy to watch, has a nice unrushed – but not too slow – pace and is packed with dry humour that you need to pay attention to notice (ha, salt in the wound!).  It’s like an easy-listening radio station during ‘the cool DJ’s’ shift – nothing overly special, but a fine way to spend a few hours.

8/10


The Advocate

What Jesse said:

The Advocate. Interesting story about when Europe still prosecuted animals for crimes committed. Colin Firth stars as the poor lawyer assigned to represent the animals… Odd little flick. Good times.
…you’re welcome.

Mike’s verdict:

Right off the bat, I almost didn’t watch this film because I couldn’t find it. Turns out Jesse gave me the North American release title, but two decades on the only sources I could find were under the original British title: The Hour of the Pig.  I don’t much like either title.  But back to the review.

This movie starts slowly, and never really picks up.  Until about three-quarters of the way through I was actually worried that I wouldn’t even have anything interesting to say about it. On the surface, it’s a pretty standard early 90s period drama.  Colin Firth does a fine job of reciting his lines, the set is sufficiently gritty, and there is a nice cross-section of characters – but the narrative doesn’t really grab, or give the viewer anything particularly interesting to fixate on.  If it wasn’t for the odd concept of a pig being put on trial, I might have lost interest entirely.

But by the time the credits were rolling I’d realized that there is actually a subtle undercurrent that makes the film a sort of minimalist black comedy.  And it has a message: Humanity is completely absurd.

With hindsight, I realize that I should have noticed the ridiculousness right away: it’s a film set in 15th-century France full of English actors, speaking with English accidents.  But it actually took a fantastically impassioned speech by Donald Pleasence‘s character for me to notice that the film was trying to portray just how silly society is. We try so hard to be ‘civilized’ and ‘logical’ and adhered to ideas of ‘reason’; yet we do idiotic things like accuse strangers of witchcraft and pretend that animals can commit murder.

I like the message, and I like the way that it sneaks up. But overall I still can’t say that The Hour of the Pig (or The Advocate, if you like) is a good movie – because it isn’t: nice idea, poor execution (no pun intended). Besides, the role of the unjustly accused pig obviously should have been a portrayed by goat.

5/10


The VVitch

What Jesse said:

Got another one for you. Awesome movie by a dude named Robert Eggers. Amazing slow burn thriller named The VVitch. Shot in Ontario!

BTW I visited the Salem Witch Museum when I lived there. Creepy shit.

This guy is from New England and really seems to understand all the folklore. The movie reflects this. Just a great story about people living under really strict religious/ideological mindset. Great movie. Oh yeah, one more thing…Black Phillip. BP is one bad MF! Black Phillip Black Phillip Black Phillip….

Mike’s verdict:

I’m actually of two minds about this film, but let’s get one thing out of the way up front – Black Philip is seriously creepy. Even thinking about him now makes me uncomfortable. To be honest, making a black goat seem creepy is not an accomplishment for any film-maker, but where it lacks originality it certainly makes up the difference in effectiveness.

Of course, while Philip is probably the most creepy part of the film, he’s definitely not the only thing that’s creepy; The VVitch has a consistent anxiety that effortlessly reinforces itself.  I had a constant expectation that something (probably a witch) was going to suddenly and unpleasantly present itself, and that feeling didn’t let up at all until the credits were rolling.

Yet for much of the film, the anxiety is self-imposed.  The classic “spooky” elements of the movie actually take quite a long time to come about.  I was surprised at how long it took to see anything truly, visually intense, given that the psychological intensity begins almost immediately. Actually, at one point I began to question whether or not there really would be a witch and – spoiler alert – I’m still not certain that there even is one. But the climax of the whole story is unquestionably eerie and either way, Jesse’s right about the slow burn thriller.

But where the atmosphere works, much of the characters do not. So much just not believable; the characters’ responses and interaction don’t feel like they conform to the basics of the human condition. Everyone is constantly overreacting or under-reacting (will somebody please discipline those children!), to the point that watching verges on labourious.  The only thing that limits this tedium is a deliberate hurry to the plot which is clearly intended to provide fast relief for the viewer.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work. I understand that irrational belief is a necessary component of any story set in the midst of witch hysteria, but usually we get a stable post to lean on – one character that is rational and has the potential to overcome the blind fear of everyone around them. This film doesn’t have that character – everyone is equally consumed by their fears – and it makes for an awkward uncertainty about where the whole thing is going.

Maybe uncertainty is the point?  Maybe I’m supposed to be wondering what it all means at the end?  But I don’t feel like that was the point – I feel like there was a previous episode that is necessary for the finale to make sense.

Then again, maybe my real issue is simply that between Ralph Ineson speaking like he has a mouth full of blueberries, and everyone else whispering their lines, I missed the bits that pull it all together.

6.5/10


Ridicule

220px-Ridicule_posterWhat Jesse said:

[Unfortunately, I can’t remember what Jesse said about Ridicule.  He definitely liked it, and he was very indignant at my hesitation to spend an evening trying to keep up with subtitles. But at some point over the last year, while I was coming up with excuses to avoid watching the film, I managed to misplace the email with his thoughts. Oops.  Maybe he’ll send it to me again later so I can update this.  Update: Jesse re-sent his thoughts!]

Ridicule: I really enjoyed this French-language movie about the triumph of style over substance, or, how being witty and socially adept was the primary concern of bored French aristocracy in the 1700’s. Some pretty funny moments and amazing cinematography.

Mike’s verdict:

I am really not a fan of subtitles – for two important reasons. The first reason is everything that I miss while I am reading. Dialog in a film is usually important, obviously, but the visual is even more so – in fact, if it wasn’t crucial we’d all still be listening to radio. For me, the opportunity cost of subtitles is simply too high for anything other than documentaries.  The second reason is that subtitles are regularly plagued by errors. Unless written directly by the film writers, subtitles tend to introduce changes to the meaning of dialog, and often these changes are significant.

This is why I put off watching Ridicule, and as it turns out, I was right. Both of my concerns became reality during a painful hour and forty-five minutes.

Ridicule is supposedly about wit in late 18th century France.  I don’t know anything about 18th century France, but Jesse will agree that I know all about wit.  Wit is complicated.  Wit is precise.  It requires a high level of intelligence and vocabulary from both speaker and listener.  Most importantly, for a phrase to be considered witty, there needs to be agreement on the meaning of the words.  There can’t be ambiguity in any of it, unless the ambiguity is intentional.

And therein lies the problem. I have no idea if any of the characters are witty in French, but if they are then that wit was completely lost in the translation of the subtitles I had to read.

Not only was the subtitled dialog distinctly lacking in wit, I even found it incredibly difficult to follow the story. Actually, that’s an understatement – I literally have no idea what the plot was about.  An old man gets peed on. Some people flounder around a swamp to catch fish by hand. Someone steals a shoe and throws it in a fireplace. A guy hangs himself. All the while, people claim to be witty.  That’s all I got.

Maybe Ridicule makes sense to people who can make sense of French.  But it did not make sense to me, and I think the subtitles might have been written by this guy.

1/10