Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Money Monster

Director: Jodie Foster
Starring: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O' Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Emily Meade
Running Time: 99 min
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

In Jodie Foster's Money Monster, George Clooney plays the smarmy host of an over-the-top investing show in the vain of Jim Cramer's "Mad Money," but far worse and much more ridiculous. Within the film's first few minutes, it's abundantly clear that any viewer taking serious financial advice from this guy is of questionable judgment to say the least. But when such a viewer is allegedly screwed over by one of the show's "picks of the millennium," he makes his presence known in the network's studio with an explosive device and suddenly the show's a lot less ridiculous. If the film's opening scenes are purely set-up, then all the action that follows, unfolding in "real time" as the perpetrator takes an entire studio hostage on live TV,  are reminiscent of exciting of 90's thrillers like Nick of Time or Mad City (with which this shares a similar plot). This compares favorably to both, mainly because it's more skillfully made and doesn't go exactly where you'd expect, cleverly flipping the script to shift our allegiances and make a timely statement about media consumption that surely resonates stronger now than it would have in that decade.

The biggest hurdle the movie overcomes is the unusual casting of Clooney as slick, oily TV host. Luckily, this does only end up being an issue of casting since his performance overcomes it. He's tremendous in this as the situation escalates. And boy does it ever escalate, as Foster milks the most it can out of its single location premise and the chess game tenuously unfolding on national television between the host and a very unexpected guest. It's not damning with faint praise to say it's the best film she's directed since it's also a challenging one, requiring her to juggle a lot of balls in the air while simultaneously keeping a firm grip on tone. Could something similar actually happen? Given the current socio-political climate, it wouldn't be a stretch to say in some respects we're already there, with the line separating news and entertainment fuzzier than ever before.

Lee Gates (Clooney) is the flamboyant host of TV's "Money Monster," offering what he hypes as valuable advice to Wall Street investors as to which stocks they should buy and sell, and when. With a format more closely resembling a bad variety show, Gates raps, dances and dresses in crazy costumes while bloviating about the week's picks. All this chaos is controlled by his total pro of a director, Patty Finn (Julia Roberts), who not only has the daunting task of keeping things moving, but must constantly accommodate the needs of her egotistical host, who frequently goes off on tangents just to hear himself talk and shake things up. But when one of his "can't miss" stocks, IBS Clear Capital, tanks, disgruntled, working-class investor Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) sneaks into the studio as a delivery man, taking the crew hostage and holding Gates at gunpoint on camera.

With Kyle equipping the host with an explosive vest set to go off whenever he chooses to release his handheld trigger, it's up to Patty to keep cameras rolling and make sure the suddenly humbled and fearful Gates keeps Kyle talking long enough for them to survive. As police Captain Powell (Giancarlo Esposito) and an antsy hostage negotiator close in, Kyle demands answers to how he and other investors were wiped out by IBS, and he's not appreciating the canned ones given to him on-air by the company's PR director Diane Lester (Caitrona Balfe) on behalf of missing CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West). There's more to this story and it's up to Gates and Patty to find out what, and the threat of an on-air massacre broadcasting live for the world to see is quickly becoming a very real possibility.

The pacing here is tremendous, with each passing minute containing its fair share of surprises as both men become increasingly desperate and irrational about their expectations of how this could be resolved, if at all. Clooney just might be our most likable star so seeing him as lying, conniving TV host is undeniably off-putting at first, but once it's clear what the situation is and the perilous danger Gates finds himself in, we're off to the races. It works for the actor that his character never quite buys into the persona either, and the longer he's on air with the volatile Kyle, the more he starts dropping his guard. This is where the casting of Clooney works magnificently, as the interaction he has with his uninvited guest changes with each new bit of information about him he uncovers.

Gates slowly undergoes this epiphany in front of a national TV audience that doesn't seem the slightest bit forced under Foster's direction, but rather a natural progression resulting from the predicament he's in. With lives on the line, the show becomes a truth serum of sorts and with each new revelation comes shades of complexity and doubt as to whether Kyle's necessarily wrong, even as his actions are. What's happening proves itself to be bigger than both of them so it's only fitting it plays itself out on the biggest stage of all.

If Clooney's nuanced performance invisibly guides us across the film's more treacherous narrative waters, just as much credit goes to Julia Roberts, who does it all through a headset, her interplay with him crucial to keeping the tension high. Some of the best scenes involve Patty trying to keep Gates from doing something stupid while simultaneously directing a live TV show that thrives on chaos for ratings. The running joke is that she seems more competent at handling this tenuous situation than the law enforcement professionals actually tasked with the job. Until the final act, there's very little involvement from them at all and what's sure to be a disappointment for Breaking Bad fans, Giancarlo Esposito isn't given much to work with in an underwritten, perfunctory walk-on. He can't be faulted for failing to leave a lasting impression in a role clearly not written to, even if it's a relief that this cinematic hostage situation depends more on the psychology of the participants than police intervention.

The film contains two legitimately jaw-dropping scenes certain to grab viewers' attention and hold it. The first involves the shocking appearance of someone important in Kyle's life while the second is an unusual appeal to the public by Gates. Both come from a script that proves to be smarter than expected, even going so far as to give Balfe's corporate character a believable moral awakening on par with the two leads. While the plot ties together a little too neatly in the end with all the characters converging in one of those big, showy scenes where everything's spelled out with expository information, at least this time there's a reasonable excuse: They're on live TV. Considering all the crazy events that occur in Money Monster, it's a credit to the underlying truth behind them and the intensity generated by the actors, that we rarely stop to question it.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Shallows

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge
Running Time: 86 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Over the past couple of years, "Shark Week" has morphed into what could be considered a national holiday. With it now comes an onslaught of shark-related programming, shark documentaries and "so bad, they're bad" Sharknado movies. It only seems that the next logical step would be a single location shark thriller, except for the fact that we already had  a pretty good one with 2003's Open Water, an underappreciated gem in which a married scuba-diving couple out at sea fight for their lives in shark-infested waters. But from the start, it's clear The Shallows isn't going to be THAT type of a psychological thriller. For one, it has a budget. For two, it stars Blake Lively. You don't put a young, big name, popular actress in the lead to get ripped limb by limb by a great white. The highest praise you can give Jaume Collet-Serra's film is that it has its moments where you think he might actually be going there. Of course, we know better, but none of that takes away from the entertainment or enjoyment of it all, as the suspense is skillfully escalates throughout even some of the more credibility-straining sections.

A snake may be able to swallow Jon Voight's villain whole in Anaconda but don't necessarily expect a similar fate for our heroine here, and while this does a surprisingly credible job putting her in perilous danger, it never feels that laughably ridiculous. Lively, who first surprised us with the extent of her acting capabilities in The Town (and to a lesser degree, Savages), is asked to carry this entire project on her shoulders and proves herself more than equipped at handling that responsibility. If you don't like the lead in this, chances are you won't like the movie and its problems will only be amplified. Luckily, that shouldn't be an issue for most and there's enough else that works about the familiar situation and skillful execution to recommend it, including the shark.         

Following the death of her mother, medical student Nancy Adam (Lively) takes a vacation to a secluded beach in Mexico, the same one her mom visited while she was pregnant with her. She's dropped off at the beach by a friendly local and in between an emotionally strained video-chat with her sister (Sedona Legge) and dad (Brett Cullen) back home, she gets in some surfing with a couple of guys, at least until the discovery (and foul smell) of a large, dead humpback whale floating nearby. Pretty soon, the murderer makes itself known, a great white shark that takes a bite out of her leg, forcing her to swim to the closest rock to slow the bleeding and attempt to treat a very serious wound.

Nancy will spend an indefinite amount of time stranded on this rock, with only a seagull for company, as the great white circles below, itching to finish what he started. With the shore suddenly further than ever and swimming becoming an impossibility due to her injury, Nancy must fight for her life as the shark claims more victims and she battles the elements, as well as her deteriorating physical condition. The real battle takes place inside herself, as she must summon up the wits, strength, resourcefulness and courage to come out of this alive and return home. In one piece.

More exciting than it has any right being, the stripped down story is aided not only by Lively's intensely physical performance (a full-fledged endurance test for the actress), but how little we see of the shark. Sound familiar? Obviously, Jaws comes to mind and while that film's malfunctioning shark famously and accidently resulted in seeing far less of it than intended, this movie holds him off intentionally to recreate that same feeling of escalating tension and dread. While Jaws was mechanical and the result of practical effects, this one is entirely rendered with CGI, and it's a testament to how little we see of it that such information is hardly noteworthy.

The shark's occasional appearances are genuinely well placed and scary, with Collet-Serra picking his spots well. But since the bulk of the running time is spent with Blake on this rock, the bigger challenge is holding our interest with a protagonist cut off from the outside world. Steven The Seagull may as well be this film's version of Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away. As a device, it's not relied on quite as much but he effectively serves his function as a sounding board for the audience to gain insight into Nancy's state of mind through a one-way dialogue. Cleverly, a Go Pro camera also serves that purpose with her video confessionals, even as the script arguably travels a bridge too far in terms of its impact on the story's resolution.

While it's doubtful a shark would continuously circle its prey like a serial killer for days at a time and likely has better things to do, The Shallows isn't really meant to be hold up to close logical scrutiny in that regard. Many of the events that occur are preposterous when taken purely at face value, but what makes it work is the tight, compact execution of it all and Lively's believability as a young woman at a crossroads who's suddenly thrust into an increasingly unbelievable situation. Even as the script sometimes tests plausibility, Lively doesn't and it wouldn't be a surprise to find out she put a lot of physical preparation into the role, or has previous surfing experience based on scenes where it's abundantly clear a stuntperson wasn't involved.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the premise that's grazed upon but mostly left unexplored is the danger of this young woman traveling alone in a country where she knows no one and speaks very little of the language. An argument could be made that if this didn't happen, something else just as awful was easily destined to. But they'll have to save that for the sequel. The biggest jump to be made is that anyone could survive a shark attack like this so it's a credit to the filmmakers that you rarely notice they're holding much back for a PG-13, infrequently shying away from the horror of the situation as its main character is put through the ringer. By the time it's over, viewers will feel spent enough to relate.      

Sunday, November 20, 2016

My Top 10 Films of 2011

*Note: The following is part of the continuing "10 FOR 10" series in celebration of ten years of Jeremy The Critic, in which my choices for the top 10 films of each year from 2006-2015 are revealed. Just a reminder that movies must have a U.S. release date of that particular year in order to qualify.

Previous Posts:


Unbeknownst to me until recently, more than a few critics considered 2011 to be a landmark year for movies. While I wouldn't go that far, it is actually a very strong one that ends up supplying the highest quality of films in this 10 For 10 series since '07. The only disclaimer I'd add is that if you're looking for uplifting, inspirational entertainment, you're out of luck. All these films except maybe the eventual Best Picture winner are dramatically heavy, including the action-oriented top pick, which veers considerably from anyone's definition of a traditional "action movie." More crowded than anticipated, this ends up being the only year that was so jam-packed I actually have leftover write-ups for films that didn't make the cut that could at some point see the light. And this time, there are actually TWO entries in the Top 10 for a pair of unreviewed films, one of which (We Need To Talk About Kevin) I watched in preparation for this post and ended up placing the highest of any new watch to date. The second, Contagion, was partially reviewed but unfinished, so that paragraph below largely reflects my original thoughts on it.

Perhaps no film looks better to me in hindsight than Bennett Miller's Moneyball, to the point that it was a serious threat to run away with the top spot if the competition wasn't so overpowering. When it comes to sports movies, baseball always seems to fair the best as there's just something about our National Pastime that translates better cinematically than nearly all other sports. Field of Dreams, The Natural, Major League, Bull Durham, The Sandlot, The Bad News Bears, Eight Men Out, Cobb, The Rookie. The list goes on and on and Moneyball joins it, becoming one of the few to present an entirely cerebral view of the game without sacrificing any of the emotion.

From the start, I pretty much knew it would boil down to Drive and Young Adult for the top spot, and while it could have easily come down to a coin flip on certain days, the overall experience of Refn's film has proven longer lasting. In a battle between the director-driven film and the writer-driven one, it makes sense that directing would triumph, even as Jason Reitman's Young Adult remains, to this day, the most criminally underrated release of 2011. But it may not have been helped coming out in a year loaded with thought-provoking dramas like the sprawling, meditative The Tree of Life, director George Clooney's smart, twisty (and still very timely) political thriller The Ides of March and Kenneth Lonergan's infamously long-delayed Margaret, which somehow still surpassed the unreasonable expectations for it.

The Artist ranks alongside Slumdog Millionaire as one of the most tolerable and rewatchable of recent Best picture winners while the NC-17 rated sex addiction drama Shame lost a real dogfight for the last slot that could have just as easily been occupied by Joe Wright's teen assassin actioner Hanna or the mesmerizing Martha Marcy May Marlene, a film I had a rare reversal of opinion on after initially dismissing. Other respectable titles missing the cut include: Warrior, Melancholia, Take Shelter, The Help, Hugo, 50/50, Win Win, Margin Call, Hesher, Source Code and The Beaver

It seems as if the sheer amount of movies released within the calendar year increased, or at least feels like it, as the gap between critics and audiences' tastes also grows wider than ever. Forget about being on the same page, they're no longer even reading the same book. If nothing, else the year provided a fascinating case study of how easy it is for dark human dramas to dominate lists like this, as depressing as that thought is for some. At their best, they just tend to feel the biggest in scope and most important by zeroing in on the issues that universally hit closest to home. In that respect, 2011 was a banner year.

10. Contagion

"With Contagion, Steven Soderbergh has crafts a form of dramatic entertainment I secretly hoped would come around again. It's comparable to a modern-day 70's disaster movie featuring ridiculously famous but exceptionally well cast actors. Only it doesn't feel like a disaster movie so much as pure horror. And apparently someone forgot to tell Soderbergh it's only supposed to be dumb fun. And yet, in a strangely dark way it is, while also managing to be scary and intensely realistic. Rarely does a moment pass when you're not questioning the possibility of something similar happening. While this performed moderately well at the box office when it was released late last year, it did get lost in the awards shuffle, failing to really catch fire. It's tough to warmly wrap your arms around a disease procedural or tell your friends you can't wait to see the new pandemic movie on Friday. And that's a shame since it's probably Soderbergh's most assured film in years, his cold, clinical style working like it never has before. Plus, it finally gives Gwyneth Paltrow's head a worthy follow-up to its work in Se7en."

9. The Ides of March

 "...the revelations in the film aren't shocking per se (though one blew me out of my seat), but instead meticulously constructed and executed, like a chess game with its pieces moving across the board. And all the players are perfectly utilized.(Clooney) deserves the praise, streamlining a complicated narrative into a clean, concise cinematic experience free of any excess fat. Consider it the Michael Clayton of political thrillers, right down to its chilling final image. If that film marked the turning point for Clooney as an actor then this is his as a director, easily surpassing all his three previous efforts behind the camera which were solid, but dry. There's nothing dry or slight about this. Here's a movie with something important to say. The political system may be broken but those engulfed in it shouldn't look further than the mirror to determine what's most in need of fixing." - 3/15/12

8. We Need To Talk About Kevin

"From the start, we know something's not right and have a pretty good idea exactly what. But the best option is to surrender and let director Lynn Ramsey take us there, which she does, employing seamless transitions between the past and present to show the creation of a monster who eventually evolves into a 15-year-old (deviously played by Ezra Miller) on the cusp of committing an unspeakable crime.  But this is no traditional horror movie. It cuts too close to the bone for that, with an eccentric, free-spirited mother named Eva (Tilda Swinton at her iciest) unwittingly setting events in motion by having a child she's neither motivated nor emotionally prepared enough to raise. Swinton knows to play her as terrible mother who isn't a terrible person, just severely lacking in self-awareness. With her milquetoast husband (John C. Reilly) oblivious of the psychological carnage happening right under his nose, mother and child take turns hurting one another, with Kevin always having the upper hand.  It all seems so effortless, a muted confluence of scenes and images all leading to one tragically predetermined outcome Eva refuses to entertain. Ramsey dares to show it as it would happen, something that probably wouldn't be tolerated by the PC police just a few years later. Luckily, she pulls it off in time. Of course, we're left with the big question: Who's to blame? While a lesser film would have tried to answer that, this one knows there's more than enough of that to go around. "   

7. Margaret

"Multiple storylines and sub-plots are juggled effortlessly, with everything always returning to Lisa and the accident's aftermath for those directly or indirectly involved. But for Lisa, everything is always about her, and it's a credit to the writing and Paquin that we don't judge her for it and at times even empathize with her self-centeredness. She's in over her head and the more she does to make things better, the deeper the hole she digs. Whether it's calling a bad boy classmate (Kieran Culkin) over to lose to her virginity, stringing along her would-be boyfriend (John Gallagher Jr.), hitting on her geometry teacher (Matt Damon), or meddling in the bus driver and victim's lives to absolve her conscience, Paquin makes it all seem somehow refreshingly human and relatable. She's not altogether a detestable character so much as a confused one, making it excusable for us to go from hating to loving Lisa (or vice versa) within the confines of a single scene." - 8/25/12

6. The Descendants

"The Hawaii we're presented with here isn't one we've been made aware of before, at least in movies. The opening voiceover even let's us know that much. It's more depressing than exotic, so unlike the vacation destination we've seen on postcards that it doesn't even register as the same place. If only Hawaiian locals only went to the beach all day, rode waves and had drinks with little umbrellas in them like we we've been told they do for years. This is the first time it hasn't been depicted as pure paradise and in doing so Payne fittingly humanizes this film's setting as much his characters, showing real flaws and imperfections that somehow lead to a greater appreciation of both. While people who live in paradise still have problems, they're hopefully not as big as the ones plaguing real estate lawyer Matt King, played by George Clooney in a dialed down performance sure to net him another Oscar nomination."12/11/11

5. The Artist

"The exact moment when The Artist becomes really interesting arrives when silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) puts down a glass and it actually makes a sound. Until then, it's the first noise we hear other than the film's bouncy musical score. Then his dog Jack (Uggie) barks. Actresses walk by giggling. Valentin screams in frustration but he can't make a sound as the whole sequence plays out like a scene from The Twilight Zone. This nightmare quickly becomes reality for Valentin as Kinograph Studios' boss Al Zimmer (John Goodman) announces that the advent of "talkies" have led to them halting production on silent films and his services are no longer needed. Watching, it's hard not to think of actors being replaced by computer graphics and motion capture in an age of 3D technology, older actresses being marginalized in an industry that worships youth and, of course, the current economic crisis. Despite the old fashioned approach, it's surprising just how fresh and relevant it all seems, and while it's frequently funny, it's also a bit deeper than you'd expect." - 2/23/12

4. The Tree of Life

"Less a film than a symphony, interpretation and analysis is fun, but futile considering each individual will bring however much or little of themselves they want to it.  What it all means could be summed up as "everything," but that still doesn't even really touch it. We're born into this world, make connections with different people that can be fleeting or not, and then we leave it, never pausing to consider whether there's a universal scheme in place hurling us toward our inevitable destination. We've seen movies try to tackle the topic but this is the first to make sure it's felt completely. Similar to a collage of dreams or memories, everything is presented in a non-linear format rather than in a traditional narrative structure. Scenes flow freely to form emotions rather than necessarily tell a story, which is sort of a first. Almost embarrassingly messy and over-ambitious, it's a little early to judge its worth as a true masterpiece, but this does feel like something monumentally important that needs to be talked about for a while to come." - 7/5/11

3. Moneyball

"Director Bennett Millers' handling of the material is tremendous in how he visually simplifies what could have been a dense watch for non-sports fans, with the playing scenes only bolstered by Mychael Danna's anthemic score. At 2 hours and 13 minutes the film arguably could have used a snip or trim, but it's difficult to feel that way while watching. If anything, it's so level-headed and straightforward it's biggest problem may be that it's the type of film easier to respect than love. Time will have to tell. When Beane says "it's easy to be romantic about baseball" we expect nothing less than an easy, inspirational conclusion. Instead we get one that leaves you considering what constitutes "winning" and wondering whether Beane could have been toppled by the very approach he helped popularize. When the title card appears on screen revealing what became of him since that '02 season, I heard audible gasps of shock from the audience, perhaps a testament to how few still know what he accomplished in a sport primarily concerned with who won the last game." - 9/26/11

2. Young Adult

"It seems every year people like to say a certain film ' hits the zeitgeist.' The term is so casually thrown around it may as well mean nothing. But here's one that hits dead center, targeting our culture's current obsession with nostalgia and convincing ourselves that things were better back when we thought we were better, whenever that was. Like the celebrities we simultaneously despise and idolize, Mavis functions as the mirror in which we view ourselves at our worst and it isn't pretty. But it's honest. We expect certain things in films and a likable protagonist is one of them. And if they're not, they at least need to experience growth of some sort. While it might be a stretch to say she achieves none, it sure isn't much. Instead she's given a final act "pep talk" that further feeds her narcissistic delusion. It's clear her road to recovery will be a marathon rather than a sprint, if there's even recovery at all. And yet, that's strangely reassuring. This isn't a coming-of-age story but instead a vicious, bracingly blunt character study that goes for the jugular, creating some cringe-worthy moments that only sting that much more because they feel real." - 12/27/11

1. Drive

"This is exactly the kind of movie you can picture Quentin Tarantino kicking himself for not attempting. Could he do it as well?  Possibly, but he'd have to curb his penchant for having his characters talk about how cool it is they're in it rather than building tension and suspense. This is the result when the right director, cast and material all come together at once, and it's poor box office performance isn't a huge surprise given the polarizing risks Refn takes. It's just too challenging, representing the type of film mainstream audiences have been programmed to hate after being weened on truckloads of generic Hollywood garbage each year. Now when something's finally done right, it feels wrong, if only for daring to be different. Drawing from a myriad of influences that suggest it was transported from another era, Drive still feels wholly authentic and original, proving that action and violence mean little without an investment in the characters." - 10/5/11

My Top 10 Films of 2011
1. Drive (dir. Nicholas Winding Refn)
2. Young Adult (dir. Jason Reitman)
3. Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller)
4. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)
5. The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius)
6. The Descendants (dir. Alexander Payne)
7. Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
8. We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynn Ramsey) 
9. The Ides of March (dir. George Clooney)
10. Contagion (dir. Steven Soderbergh)