Monday, December 28, 2015

The Big Short

Tonight I saw The Big Short, starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell.

The housing bubble was building for years, but no one saw it coming. No one, that is, except for a few industry outliers who found a way to bet on it.

Michael Burry (Bale) was a hedge fund manager who simply did the math. He was someone who looked for cracks in the system and understood numbers on a primal level. He called it years before it happened and he was right.

Mark Baum (Carell) is a money manager furious with the world. He's just lost his brother to suicide and as he works through that tragedy in therapy, he discovers that his job in the financial industry has a lot to do with who he has become. Baum listens to the right person and also believes the bubble will burst. He invests wisely as a result.

Financial stories are not typically compelling, but told here in talking-to-the-camera fashion (which shouldn't work, but for some reason does) it becomes riveting. It's flashy and fast and full of f-bombs, but I promise if you see it, you won't get bored.

Bale is so faithful to the actual man he's portraying, he actually borrowed his clothes for the film. And Carell, a comic genius with the skill to bring heavy drama at a moment's notice, also does not disappoint.

The Oscars may come calling for these actors—perhaps even the movie itself. I wouldn't be surprised or sad if they did.


Friday, December 25, 2015


Today I saw Concussion, starring Will Smith and Albert Brooks.

The NFL is a huge, successful organization based on America's Favorite sport. The more interested the public becomes about football, the more money the institution makes, so it's in their best interest to deliver high-intensity, exciting games.

Years ago, Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith), a leading neuropathologist in Pittsburgh recognized a brain pattern in former NFL players who had passed. He pursued and personally funded the study of this pattern, as he'd never seen it before, and determined that it was caused by repeated blows to the head. Concussions.

The condition, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), causes its victims devastating symptoms such as dementia, depression, paranoia and memory loss. Many of those who were labeled with the affliction after death had committed suicide.

This film tells the story of how Dr. Omalu discovered CTE, and the resistance he met from the NFL once he went public with his findings. Though he had nothing against the sport, he did hope they would acknowledge the dangers their players are put in each time they take to the field. They refused to—and to say any more would spoil the film.

So, for non-sports folks like myself: Why should you see this?

Smith's performance, for one, is nothing short of impressive. He disappears into the accent and you forget you're watching The Fresh Prince.

The visceral way in which the filmmakers tell the story is (although gory) very powerful, as you truly grasp the science behind what's going on because they show it to you.

And, well, if you are a football fan... you should see this too. And then think about all of the money you're pouring into an institution that would rather profit from the talent they hire than preserve the health and sanity of those very individuals.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Danish Girl

This morning I saw The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.

Einar Wegener (Redmayne) and his wife Gerda (Vikander) were a happy couple living a Bohemian life in Denmark in the 1920s. Both gifted painters, they shared a deep bond of not only love, but art.

One day, Gerda was in need of a live, female model for one of her paintings and her husband stood in for the absent woman. This act changed both of their lives significantly.

Einar discovered a special feeling when he put on the woman's stockings, and volunteered to continue acting as a female model whenever his wife was in need. This soon became a game for both of them—him developing an alter ego, Lili, and making appearances at events and parties around town.

Gerda was surprisingly supportive of this ruse and even encouraged it. Her paintings of Lili were very successful in the industry and Einar was happier when he was behaving like a girl.

Of course, over time, Einar decided he could no longer be Einar. He truly felt inside that he was a woman and the only moments where he felt comfortable were those he had acting as Lili. Gerda accepted this eventuality and they moved to Paris, preserving their unconventional marriage throughout his quest to fully transition to female.

A few years later they met a doctor that said he could perform a series of operations to make Lili fully female and Eniar was enthusiastic about having them. Gerda stood by his/her side for the duration.

This film does an incredible job, through the genius of Eddie Redmayne, of exposing how it may feel for transgender persons discovering their true selves. There are many long looks in the mirror; several examinations of one's own human body; countless instances of touching the sensual fabric of women's apparel. Though none of us who aren't transgender could ever truly 'know how it feels' to be trapped in the wrong body, this film gives us at least a compass that directs us toward the feelings of those who do. Redmayne shows total discomfort in his own skin, and the discovery of his new self is frankly ... inspiring.

As the first person to have gender reassignment surgery, Elbe remains a hero to the transgender community to this day. Gerda did eventually divorce Einar and remarry, but stayed by Lili's side to the end.

The pair's story is told beautifully here, with award-bait performances and classy writing, capturing the right notes for today's progressive world.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

This morning I saw The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.

I'm a big fan of The Hunger Games book series, and I loved the first two film adaptations, but the Mockingjay installments unfortunately leave a lot to be desired.

In this final curtain call, the boy who stole the heart of Katniss (Lawrence), Peeta (Hutcherson), has been brainwashed by the Big Bad Government and instead of wanting to live out his days with her, he wants to kill her. Of course, she still wants him and realizes that he doesn't have control of his mind.

He eventually comes back to the correct side of the war ... kinda. He has spontaneous, violent outbursts aimed at her from time to time, but for the most part behaves himself. They, along with their team of allies, set out to take back the world (and kill President Snow).

Donald Sutherland, as the hated leader, seems to be having a grand time in this one; less evil and more 'mad scientist' in spirit. It would be hard for anyone to think of him claiming victory when he's so jovial and Katniss is so serious.

So—what's wrong with the film?

#1 The pace. It's painfully slow for the first hour. I actually went and got a cup of coffee and when I came back they were still on the same scene.

#2 Wasted talent. Jennifer Lawrence is a gifted, sparkling superstar. She doesn't have much to do here except look sad. Look mad. Look tired.

#3 Anticlimactic action. Of course we know what's coming, but that's not what ruins it. The battle scenes just don't have the magic of the first two films. They're silly.

So—is there any reason to see it?

If you're a completist like me, it's your civic duty to sit through it. Also, it's Philip Seymour Hoffman's last film and just his mere presence—alive and breathing brilliance—is a gift.


Sunday, December 13, 2015


This morning I saw Spotlight, starring Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton.

When Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrived at The Boston Globe, he thought it could do better. He urged his "Spotlight" team of investigative reporters to pursue a story about a priest accused of multiple counts of sexual abuse. They were hesitant because of their relationship with the church and the fact that the majority of their readership was Catholic. He told them to do it anyway.

Reporter Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo) enthusiastically accepted the challenge. He visits the lawyer that represents several of the church's victims and quickly realizes that they're only scratching the surface. His boss, Robby (Keaton), is supportive, but cautious.

As the investigation continues, they are met with several roadblocks: the interference of the church; the lack of cooperation from a key lawyer; records that are sealed. They work day in and day out to overcome these obstacles, getting to a place where they're almost ready to reveal their findings and then 9/11 happens. The exposé has to be put on hold.

Of course, those who remember the headlines in early 2002 know that they did in fact get to tell their story, and it did instigate a shake-up in the Catholic church.

Though I remember the articles and knew the ending before going in, I was glued to my seat for the duration of the film, riveted by every scene. Like the legendary All the President's Men, following the footsteps of the reporters in what feels like real time really gets the blood pumping. With each new fact they reveal, you wonder what will come next and who or what will stand in their way from sharing it.

The acting is superb—especially Ruffalo, who is so believable as a quirky East Boston journalist, it's hard to remember he was ever The Hulk.

I'll be stunned if this isn't an Oscar favorite come awards season.


Saturday, December 12, 2015


Today I saw Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane.

Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) was a successful screenwriter until his politics got in the way. A man of integrity, he stood by his beliefs instead of his riches and was ultimately blacklisted for being a communist.

After a brief sentence in prison, Trumbo had to find a way to feed his family so he returned to his only true skill: writing. He wrote screenplays like Roman Holiday under a pen name and countless other less prestigious titles. He never stopped writing and he also helped other blacklisted friends find 'underground' work.

Though it's a simple, well-documented true story, Cranston injects the late writer with such life it's almost as if he's still with us today. Always a pleasure to watch, Diane Lane is also perfect as his loyal wife, Cleo. The supporting cast is unsurprisingly impressive as well; among them: Helen Mirren, Elle Fanning, Louis C.K. and John Goodman.

So, why should anyone that's not obsessed with writers or communists go see this? Because at the end of the day it's about the very timely topic of endangered civil liberties. The decisions we're making as Americans today will determine our country's future. Films like this remind us that making the wrong decisions can be of great moral cost.


Saturday, December 05, 2015


Tonight I saw Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen.

Ailish (Ronan) is a girl who feels she doesn't have a future in Ireland. With the help of her sister and the church, she gets a Visa to work in America and sets sail on the long, lonely journey.

Once she arrives in Brooklyn, New York, she doesn't immediately fit in—she's too shy at the department store where she works, she's too innocent to be part of the girls' club in her boarding house, and she's too plain to get noticed by any Irish fellows.

After a devastating spell of homesickness, a kind priest enrolls her in night school and she begins to come out of her shell, attending the local dances. It's there she meets Tony (Cohen), an Italian plumber with eyes only for her.

They fall in love easily and enjoy the bliss of mutual infatuation until tragedy strikes back in Ireland and Ailish is forced to choose between her life in the U.S. and home in County Wexford.

As someone obsessed with Irish culture, I perhaps had expectations that were too high for this film. I thought we'd see more of Ireland, get to know Ailish's family a bit better and learn why she was so set on making a new life across the pond. Instead, after the initial scenes, we only catch glimpses of her former life and become quite attached to her new one.

Though the acting is superb all around, I can't say I felt much pain for any of the characters. Though sad and bad things do happen, when we arrive at them we're still just observers; not invested.

I was pleased with the ending, so that's something to applaud, and the story undoubtedly mirrors many true-life situations of that era and those cultures. Go see it if you're in the mood for something simple, wrapped up in a nice bow.


Tuesday, December 01, 2015


Tonight I saw Room, starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay.

Joy (Larson) was a victim of a kidnapping when she was a teenager. She's been kept prisoner by her captor ever since, and produced a son, Jack (Tremblay), with him.

When we meet Joy and Jack, it's Jack's 5th birthday and the pair are celebrating by baking a cake from scratch. Jack is disappointed there are no candles to blow out, but his mother explains that she can only ask for so much.

After a series of "visits" from the captor, Joy decides it's time to try to make a move to escape, and Jack will have to be her ticket out. That's as much as I can tell you without spoiling the film. So, instead, I'll talk about the brilliant performances from Brie Larson, who is a certain bet for an Oscar nod, and Jacob Tremblay, who may just score a nomination of his own.

Brie as Joy perfectly exemplifies a tortured soul, though she doesn't let her son see it. She compartmentalizes like anyone who has been traumatized and saves her grief for the future, when she's emotionally allowed to show it.

The young Jacob Tremblay displays an equal mix of innocence and anger about his situation as Jack. The moment Joy tells him that there is indeed a world like the one they see on their television is something sure to be studied by future child actors.

The supporting characters are minimal but impactful—Joan Allen as Grandma and William H. Macy as Grandpa. The guilty parents who couldn't protect their own.

The screenplay is also to credit for such a realistic, awful sequence of events. Anyone who has watched television interviews with real-life survivors of such horrors only gets a glimpse of the layers of emotion they're working through when the bright interview lights are shining upon them. Here the writer peels back those layers and lets us experience each one.

I'm not ashamed to say that I sobbed uncontrollably more than once during this film. I hope it gets the recognition it deserves come awards season.