Category Archives: Jesse gets it mostly right

War Dogs

war dogsNote: This is the first part of a review double-header!  Jesse sent two recommendations in a single shot so I’m reviewing them at the same time.  Click here for the other review.

What Jesse said:

Two movies for you to watch: War Dogs, and Manchester by the Sea. Very different but excellent flicks. War Dogs is so absurd it will make you laugh and then wonder if the grownups really are in charge… also, it was funny ’cause it’s true (based on a real case). Manchester by the Sea was a pretty intense slow burn. Casey Affleck plays the main character. Watch out for the BAHS-ton accents. Family drama.

Mike’s verdict:

When does telling the truth ever help anyone?

This is not my kind of movie and I knew it right from the beginning. A ‘true story’ about arms dealers, Afghanistan, and the US government – it’s going to be fairly predictable and I have no doubt about Jesse’s ‘absurd’ label.  Indeed, guns, drugs, war, and banking movies are always the same kind of absurd: someone essentially good makes a series of obviously terrible decisions for the good of family or to get a friend out of a jam, or to just be comfortable for once in their life.  This movie fits the pattern perfectly and it means that there are no surprises as the plot develops.

Granted, that doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining.  The kid from all the Shailene Woodley movies is okay as the naive ‘good guy’ just trying to get ahead. But I initially had trouble accepting him in the role because the life he starts with doesn’t seem that bad.  Jonah Hill is definitely effective as the unsavory partner. He seemed very similar to the character he played in The Wolf of Wall Street, but without the excess.  I can’t say that I liked either character very much; certainly not enough to be on their side.  I knew things would go poorly for them and I didn’t care.

On the other hand, Bradley Cooper‘s role is intriguing.  It’s a fairly small role in terms of screen-time, but he manages to steal the show.  I’d like to see a prequel about him that sets up the Albanian connection and perhaps presents a clearer justification for his involvement in the subsequent scheme.

In most other ways, this movie was entertaining enough to continue watching, but not so interesting that I would be upset if I was interrupted mid-viewing and had to stop watching.  This last thought explains how it is that I managed to watch three quarters of the film before it finally dawned on me that I had actually already watched it once before.  It must have been on the second or third leg of a really long flight because I obviously slept through most of it the first time.

In any case, I did not fall asleep during the second viewing and I was reasonable entertained all the way through.  I even enjoyed the sparse but well chosen music.  There’s always a danger with this type of movie to use overly aggressive music to reinforce themes, but that wasn’t the case here.

Overall,  War Dogs isn’t a great movie, but it isn’t a bad one either.  I was entertained and I think that’s all I would ask of it.

6/10

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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.


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


These Final Hours

What Jesse said:

Got another Aussie gem fee ya. I want you to check out These Final Hours. I’ve never heard of any of these actors so I had no idea what to expect from this low-budget flick. Familiar premise but I found it a lot of fun and thought-provoking. Check it out.

Mike’s verdict:

This is the first movie in a long time that I’ve had trouble starting a review for. I’ve been thinking it over for a few days, trying to come up with something to say but I keep drawing a blank. The trouble is that this film is really quite generic. It’s not bad exactly, and it’s not totally uninteresting; but there’s nothing specifically novel about it. It’s kind of the Australian movie equivalent of Nickelback – all the right elements are technically there, but there’s no spark of life.

I’m generally a fan of the apocalypse genre when it’s done right and I don’t care much about why the world is ending, as long as there’s a good story surrounding the characters. There has to be a thin layer of anxious suspense, or consistent hilarity, that keeps me interested in the people. And of course it helps if the people have an interesting goal that takes them through increasingly unlikely settings before they arrive at the oasis they’re invariably running to.

This films lacks all of those criteria.  The main characters are mostly sympathetic (technically) but I never really felt invested in them, and the plot lacks any significant depth. I do wonder if this might be different for viewers in Australia who, presumably, would be more familiar with the actors. To me, they’re just generic dramatic action movie stand-ins who haven’t had a chance to develop a unique style of their own yet, but at least a few of them are apparently recognizable in the southern hemisphere.

I must admit that I strongly disagree with Jesse’s assessment of it being a low-budget film – at a reported $2.5 million (Australian) it’s definitely not Hollywood, but it’s not an art school project either.  The cinematography is actually quite well done; I was never distracted by it. Of course that doesn’t fix the overly familiar story line and forgettable characters.

If there is one saving grace, it’s that Jesse was mostly right about the though-provoking nature of the film.  About halfway through I came to the realization that there is a subtle undercurrent present in most apocalypse films which is brought to the forefront in this one; namely, the insinuation that, given the knowledge of certain death and sufficient time to react to it, humanity will destroy itself before the apocalypse actually happens.

For some reason, suicide, rioting and general mayhem are regularly assumed to be the most immediate reaction to news that the world will be destroyed tomorrow. While I generally take a dim view of human nature, I’m not sure that I agree with this assessment. Certainly there will be pockets of individuals who decide to kill the boss that passed them up for a promotion, and a significant spike in drunk driving accidents. I’m even willing to accept the odd suicide as well. But I don’t think that average people will be anywhere near as quick to kill their families or themselves as we’ve portrayed them to be. I think people will be so focused on finding ways to ignore the inevitable and in such a state of denial that when the end does come they will miss it.

In considering the spectrum of reactions presented in this film, I realize that film in general has done a poor job of predicting pre-apocalypse behaviour and this is one more example of that. It’s too bad too; the intention of These Final Hours is obviously to provoke discussion on this behaviour and it would have been nice if the film hadn’t presented such melodramatic examples.

Overall, this movie gets a 5/10. The film is thought-provoking in its misunderstanding of people, but not particularly interesting as a movie.


The Fault in Our Stars

What Jesse said:

So I get dragged out to watch a chickflick with the wife and as it turns out… not a bad movie. It’s called The Fault in Our Stars and it stars Shailene Woodley who I thought was fantastic in 2013’s The Spectacular Now. The movie has a decent balance of funny and sad moments and the performances are pretty tight. Go watch it.

Mike’s verdict:

Subsequent discussions have left me with the distinct impression that Jesse was not so much “dragged” to this movie, and he thinks more of it than the ‘not a bad movie’ comment suggests. I mostly agree with him – it’s not a bad movie. It’s not a great movie either.

Woodley does an ‘okay’ (you’ll get the pun later) job here, and she definitely fits better in this movie than in the universally mis-casted Divergent. (There’s no review of Divergent because Jesse still refuses to admit that he was first in line to see it.) But there’s nothing remarkable about this film. It’s the kind of movie that my mother recommends to me because she caught most of it on TV on a Sunday afternoon in between trips to the laundry room.  Some things happen to two kids who only know each other because they both picked the short straw when life was handing out healthy bodies. And those things teach the kids about life.

In one sentence: this movie is The Spectacular Now for kids with cancer. But where The Spectacular Now felt real, this one just feels like a movie. Yes, the kids are plain but everything else is Hollywood – every character is good or bad, every problem is simple or impossible. There’s not enough grayzone.

I really liked Willem Dafoe in this though – his character was by far the most interesting and he was completely believable as the cranky old man trying to escape humanity. I haven’t read the book, but I’m willing to bet that Peter Van Houten is better developed in it, and I’m disappointed the writers of the film didn’t take him further.

One thing that really bothered me was the poorly chosen ending. By about half way through the story you realize that there is exactly one way the story has to come to a close, and unfortunately director Josh Boone failed to notice it. Maybe he thought it would be too obvious. I think he just didn’t fully understand the message.

Either way, The Fault in Our Stars is adequately entertaining, non-controversial and benign, but you’re going to forget about it as soon you turn it off.

5/10

p.s. If you’re curious, Woodley didn’t let Miles Teller ride her coat-tails into this movie – they must have been having an off week.


Oldboy (2013)

What Jesse said:

Oldboy was just “icky” kinda like Happiness.

Mike’s verdict:

Oldboy is the Spike Lee remake of Chan-wook Park‘s Oldeuboi, which I’ve previously reviewed. I did not find it icky, nor is it anything even remotely like Happiness.

I gave the original film an 8/10 because I thought that it managed to break through the language barrier well and was entertaining. But looking back I mostly remember it being a little slow, so that likely set the stage for my expectations with the remake. Not surprisingly, the fancy-Hollywood-Spike-Lee version, complete with Samuel L. Jackson, was in no sense slow. This film has all the action and tension that come standard with a Lee film, and it does a very good job of keeping the best aspects of the original. There’s even a rather lengthy homage to some ridiculous scenes in the original that betrays the film’s Korean roots. Without having viewed the original, this particular set of fight scenes will probably feel out of place. But anyone that did watch Oldeuboi first will appreciate them.

There are also a few gruesome scenes that come standard with any Lee film. I covered my eyes for them – I much prefer the Korean style of allowing the viewer to use his imagination to fill in the blanks.

My biggest complaint with the original was that I thought the final twist was too obvious and I worried that this would be the case again. Clearly, I had no hope of being surprised by the remake so I tried to keep this in mind while I was watching. As it turned out, my fear was unwarranted. I think that Lee did a much better job of hiding the twist. Had I not known all along what was happening, I don’t think I would have guessed before the big reveal.

The acting was sound, the settings kept the feel of the original really well, and this version is definitely more accessible to people in North America.

8/10 like the original.