In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a number of notable films have been released with the intent of showcasing the collapse from varying perspectives. J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call depicted the final days of an unnamed Wall Street bank through the eyes of its financial analysts, while Curtis Hanson’s Too Big To Fail showed the meltdown through the US government officials and bank executives who were forced to come together to save the economy. Based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 bestseller, The Big Short focuses on a different group entirely: a select band of Wall Street “outsiders” who saw the credit bubble develop before anyone else did.
It starts with hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who notices a massive spike in subprime mortgage loans and decides that it would be profitable to effectively bet against the housing market through credit default swaps. This catches the attention of hotshot investor Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and after a misplaced phone call from his secretary, day trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell) runs with the idea as well. When Baum and his team dig deeper into how these overrated packaged loans were perpetrated, they uncover a staggering level of fraud that threatens to take down not only the US housing market but the entire world economy as well.
The primary reason that this film flounders comes down to one simple fact: director Adam McKay simply does not know how to handle this material. He has the unenviable task of having to explain macroeconomic theory and terminology while also attempting to get us invested in the motivations of a host of unlikable characters, all while adding a supposed layer of zany self-aware humor into the mix. McKay has proven in the past that he can make us laugh (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) but when he’s tasked to take a complex narrative like this and try to make it funny, he comes across as a woefully incompetent storyteller.
It doesn’t help matters that The Big Short has a surprisingly unpleasant look to it too. From scattershot editing to distracting camera zooms to baffling black-and-white freeze frames, there are off-putting visual choices in just about every scene. Other bizarre touches like the distracting, fake-looking hair on the main actors or the stock footage montages of pop cultural milestones (with the indulgent inclusion of McKay’s own short “The Landlord”) crop up without warning and don’t seem to do much but deter from the main story at hand.
For those interested in learning more about the factors that led to the 2008 financial crisis in a more straight-forward approach, I can’t recommend the 2010 documentary Inside Job highly enough. That film lays out many of the same concepts that are also explored here but does so in a way that values the intelligence of the viewer instead of relying on condescending cameos for clarification. The Big Short had a chance to put a humorous spin on sobering true events but the lack of vision behind it makes it a frustrating miscalculation.
The hype could not have conceivably been higher for the seventh entry in the Star Wars series, the first of a “sequel trilogy” that was launched after Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012. Amid unprecedented pre-order ticket sales and massive expectations from insatiable fans, it almost seemed as if Star Wars: The Force Awakens was doomed to disappoint audiences before it was even released. Despite these circumstances, director J.J. Abrams has tapped into his most formidable skill set of nostalgia commodification and delivered an immensely entertaining blockbuster that should thrill both hardcore loyalists and newcomers alike.
We pick up about 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, where the disappearance of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has driven remnants of the Republic and the Empire, now called the Resistance and the First Order respectively, to find him at all costs. When Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) recovers a portion of a map that leads to Luke, he stores it in a roaming droid unit that finds its way to a parts scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley). After Poe is rescued by a rogue Stormtrooper nicknamed “Finn” (John Boyega), the two travel back to seek out Rey with the First Order and their leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in constant pursuit.
It’s clear that there’s a lot at play here that correlates strongly with the original trilogy but what’s most important is how effective the new material is by comparison. What makes The Force Awakens work so well is that at its foundation, this is a truly character driven movie. The focus is wisely put on the young cast of mostly new faces and rising stars, who provide plenty of personality in their performances and ground their roles in a kind of realism that has previously been lacking in other Star Wars films. The sly bits of fan service and self-referential humor also give things a modern update without alienating the audience or getting too cheeky.
Top-notch special effects have always been a key component to the franchise and the breathtaking visual prowess of The Force Awakens is a testament to how far computer generated effects have come even in the ten years since Revenge of the Sith. This is especially evident in the scenes involving Resistance and First Order spaceships, which move through the air with a kind of nimbleness that can’t be achieved in the same way with miniature models. The X-wing and TIE fighter battles are choreographed at a breakneck pace with thrilling precision and just watching the Millienium Falcon speed through the corridors of a downed Star Destroyer was enough to make me feel like a kid again.
So many filmmakers have tried and failed to capture that feeling in audiences before but Abrams has proven once again how well he can transform the old into something new once more. He and his team have laid the groundwork for an already promising addition to the Star Wars legacy while also leaving unanswered questions and tantalizing cliffhangers for Episode VIII. The already announced writer and director for that film is Rian Johnson, who most recently directed the fantastically imaginative science-fiction film Looper in 2012. Regardless of what he accomplishes in the next chapter, The Force Awakens has already set the bar high for this new trilogy.
Genuine emotional resonance is a rare quality among most modern movies. Unlike technical aspects that are tangible and can be measured more easily, an emotionally satisfying payoff cannot be manufactured in the same way and is a riskier pursuit altogether. More often than not, filmmakers aim for us to care about their characters for just long enough to stay interested in the story that they’re telling but how often do their struggles stay with us after the film is over? For me, Room was a wholly rewarding experience that has grown even more meaningful from the moment that it ended.
Brie Larson has been one of the most outstanding young actresses around and she does her best work yet here as Joy Newsome, a young mother who raises her five-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) within the confines of a single 10×10 room. Once a day, a man they refer to as “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers) comes to visit them and replenish the supplies of their limited living quarters. While the circumstances of their living situation and their relationship to “Old Nick” are best left for viewers to discover on their own, it’s enough to say that Joy is unhappy living in the room and plans an escape with Jack to the outside world.
Every note of Room rings true with a deep sense of emotional intelligence and that starts first at the story level. Adapting from her 2010 best-selling novel of the same name, screenwriter Emma Donoghue unfolds her tragic narrative at a perfect pace and finds just the right words for Joy and Jack to share as we learn about their complex relationship. Because their dialogue has to be filtered through the understanding of a five-year-old, the simple language that they use is often coded with deeper meaning and it allows for a rich subtext to develop within their conversations.
The acting by Larson and Tremblay is flawless and since we’re fast approaching Oscar season, I should mention that both absolutely deserve Academy Award consideration for their work. Not only are they completely believable as mother and son, they are equally convincing as two people dependent on one another to behave normally, despite their incredibly unorthodox living arrangement. The natural rapport between the two actors on screen is evidence of how much thought and detail went into creating these fully fleshed out characters.
All of these tremendous creative forces are anchored with unshakable poise by director Lenny Abrahamson, who was responsible for last year’s off-the-wall dramedy Frank. He clearly knew the challenges that would arise from adapting such difficult material but his ability to do so with such focus and care is the mark of a dedicated and impassioned storyteller. Heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure, Room is not only a beautiful portrait of young motherhood but also a harrowing testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.
Director Ryan Coogler reunites with Michael B. Jordan, the star of his excellent debut Fruitvale Station, for the seventh Rocky film in a franchise that has seen many high and low points in its near forty-year run. While it doesn’t quite manage to reach the heights of the original Rocky, Creed does come closer to any other film in the series to capturing the winning spirit of its predecessor while also blazing a new trail of its own. In lesser hands, this reboot could have come off as cynical and obligatory but Coogler has a genuine, back-to-basics sensibility that proves to be the perfect fit for this boxing saga.
Jordan stars as Adonis “Donnie” Creed, the son of former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, who feels unfulfilled with his undemanding desk job and decides that he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a professional boxer. Against the advice of friends and family, he moves to Philadelphia in hopes of training with the great Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to become a formidable fighter in his own right. With Balboa and a new love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson) in his corner, Creed works his way up to the heavyweight championship with a determination to restore his family’s fighting legacy.
Though Stallone gives a very touching performance as an aging Balboa, it’s clear from the start that this is Jordan’s movie. He not only brings a tremendous ferocity and physicality to the role but he also captures the emotional turmoil of a young man with both unresolved family issues in his past and an uncertain life path in his future. When Donnie spars with himself in the mirror or with a television projection of his father during a previous fight with Rocky, his personal demons come to the forefront and we gain a deeper understanding of his character without the movie needing to explain away his motivations.
Besides the noteworthy casting of Jordan in the title role, the most notable distinction between Creed and its predecessors lies in the look and the feel of the fighting scenes. From an audacious one-take opening scene in a Tijuana boxing club to the climactic final battle, it’s not a stretch to say that this is the best looking entry in the franchise. The nimble camerawork brilliantly mirrors the movements of the fighters and gets us close enough to the action to catch bits of dialogue and body language that would likely otherwise get lost in wide shots of the ring.
Despite all of these unique touches and improvements, what’s frustrating is how little this film chooses to experiment with the basic plot structure of the previous Rocky entries. There’s an almost slavish dedication to the training montages, love story arcs and musical cues of the previous films that make this more closely resemble a remake rather than a reboot or a sequel. Still, there’s plenty of new elements in Creed to inspire a whole new generation of crowds to cheer on a champion.