Tag Archives: 4.5 stars

Way late review: Margin Call

September 2008. Feels like it’s been about ten years since then yet it’s only been a little over three years. Margin Call does its best to capture a 24-hour period at a fictitious investment bank during that dark economic reality.

From the start the tone is ominous. The soundtrack is dark and menacing. An army of HR consultants marches through the floor of the investment bank. The worker bees are alarmed and rightfully so. More than half of them are going home without jobs to return to tomorrow. One of those hit by the layoff is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a risk analyst who was close to breaking open what we now know was one of the horrible truths behind the financial crisis. Investment banks were leveraged beyond reason but that was OK because the math added up – until it didn’t. As Dale leaves the building with an escort, he hands over a thumb drive to his co-worker, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto). Dale tells Peter to “be careful”. Peter digs into the numbers and starts plugging away. He cracks the code and stares at numbers that show his employer soon losing more money than the firm is worth. the matter is quickly escalated up the food chain. The moments are intense, as the soundtrack never lightens the mood and every character realizes what is at stake, not just for them personally or even as a bank but for the entire US economy, if not world economy.

The cast is stacked. As The Company Men taught me, you can still make a miserable movie with top notch talent. Margin Call doesn’t disappoint. Everyone is on top of their game and no one hams it up, not even Kevin Spacey who plays a sales manager. In fact, this may be one of Kevin Spacey’s best performances in years. Instead of playing the smarmy know-it-all boss, Spacey takes on a multi-dimensional character.

The film is dialogue heavy, not quite at Glengarry Glenn Ross levels though. There are moments where points are being made through conversations between two characters, but never so much so that it feels forced. Writer and director, J.C. Chandor, does a good job of mixing up the scenery, which is a big challenge in a film that revolves around a 24-hour period of time and in a single location. He gives his characters reasons to move beyond the office building and makes good use of that variety.

The tone never changes throughout, for better or worse. It’s a slow burn of a film. Certain characters seem to grow the 24 hour time span while others start a new path in their life that is likely to be filled with regret. The ending is as sad and poignant as one can imagine without resorting to cheap plot twists. Margin Call serves as an admirable tale for our times.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Rocky Balboa

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Rocky: The Undisputed Collection

It only took about 16 years for Hollywood execs to burn Rocky V from their memories in order to allow Sylvester Stallone one last Rocky film – Rocky Balboa. Unfortunately for Stallone this meant he was just about 60 years old. As if making one last Rocky film wasn’t hard enough.

The boxing world has changed since our favorite underdog champion left the ring. Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is destroying the competition. In fact, he’s destroying it with too much efficiency. Boxing fans and critics alike don’t think highly of Dixon. His attitude is beyond arrogant. There are claims that the young champ only enters fights he knows he can win. Everyone questions Dixon’s heart. No one seems to question his physical abilities.

Enter Rocky. Long retired from boxing we learn that he’s lost Adrian to cancer a few years earlier. Balboa is crushed by this loss but carries on with his life. He runs a restaurant named after his late wife. He also attempts to keep a relationship with his son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), who has grown up, has a job where he wears a suit to work everyday and resents being in his dad’s shadow. And, of course, Paulie (Burt Young) is still around with his cigars, drinking and sour yet somehow always entertaining attitude.

On the anniversary of Adrian’s death, Rocky stumbles into the old bar he would hang out at. There he meets Marie, or “Little Marie” as Rocky knew her in the first film. Little Marie was the young girl Rocky walked home in the first movie and was left at the girl’s doorstep with a “Screw you Creep-o!” Marie bar tends and Rocky strikes up a friendship with her. He becomes a father figure of sorts for her son, “Steps”. In previous films, Stallone would have used these new characters as plot devices. Instead of plot devices we get a feel for the genuine friendship Marie, her son and Rocky develop. And it’s clear that Rocky longs for friendship as he misses the love of his life and struggles to maintain a relationship with his only child.

In the midst of all this day-to-day getting on with life, there is an interest by the media in comparing Mason Dixon to boxers of the past. ESPN runs a special where boxing experts discuss how they think an in-prime Rocky would do against the current heavyweight champ. The verdict is deafening to Dixon. All but one expert feels that Rocky would win the bout. To make matters worse, a computer simulation of the fight shows Rocky crushing Dixon. This causes Dixon to seek advice from his old trainer, who was pushed out by Dixon’s entourage once Dixon became successful. It’s in this moment that we see a softer side of Dixon, which is maybe the only problem I had with the film. We see this humbled young man go to his mentor and seek honest advice. Dixon is almost too likeable in this scene, which makes his transformation back to the egotistical punk he becomes later hard to process.

All this talk of boxing and the glory days of boxing has Rocky itching to get back in the ring. Nothing big, just some local fights. The board doesn’t want to approve Rocky for readmission even though the former champ has cleared all the medical tests. After a passionate speech by Balboa the board concedes. It doesn’t take long for Dixon’s promoters to pick up on this news. They’re after a Rocky Balboa vs. Mason Dixon fight in Vegas. They convince both fighters it’s a good idea and the date for an exhibition in Vegas is set.

In probably one of the more emotionally honest moments since the original, Robert and Rocky have it out. All that pent up frustration from both of them in regards to their relationship (or lack thereof) is fair game, including a defiant Rocky pleading with his son to stop making excuses for why his life is the way it is. The message sinks in for Robert and he finds himself supporting his dad in training for the big fight.

Yes, there is the typical training montage. And then the fight is on. The current champ can’t stop talking trash. The cinematography of the fight scenes has never been better. It’s all believable even when taking into consideration Stallone’s age. The ending is satisfying. It’s a sweet farewell to a character we’ve seen battle both in and out of the ring over thirty years.

Somehow Stallone managed to pull off the biggest Rocky upset of all by making Rocky Balboa a very good movie. In fact, I would argue it is second only to the original. An amazing feat.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. See more reviews here.

Way late review: Moneyball

Baseball, America’s past time. That is not what the movie Moneyball (based on the best selling book of the same name by one of my favorite authors, Michael Lewis) is about. Nor is it about sabermetrics, the analysis of baseball metrics that overcomes the subjective with the objective. True, baseball and sabermetrics are key to the story of Moneyball but at the heart is Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt). The struggle of a once can’t miss pro baseball prospect to make sense of the game he was supposed to have dominated in his playing days.

The Oakland A’s lose to the New York Yankees in the 2001 postseason. Worse, they are set to lose at least three big name players to free agency. Beane pleads with the team’s owner owner to up the budget. The A’s are a small market team. They do not have the luxury of $100M+ per year to spend on players. They have less, far less. Try under $40M. In what is a great scene, Beane meets with his staff. They’re analyzing their options, desperately seeking replacements for their star players. The talk is so subjective it’s funny. Comments on potential candidates range from speculation about what makes so-and-so a good player on the field to the status of that player’s love life and what it says about his ability to win. The look on the general manager’s face turns from subtle frustration to total disbelief. He points out that there is no point in trying to beat the Yankees, Red Sox, and other big market teams at their game. The A’s can’t compete. They don’t have the budget. Plain and simple. This leaves Beane’s staff flummoxed. Beane is no better off.

Beane meets with the Cleveland Indians. After a peculiar meeting discussing trades, he sets his sights on Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a recent Yale graduate and lowly worker bee for Cleveland. Brand doesn’t so much care about baseball as he does about the metrics he believes everyone else is missing that could change the way major league baseball teams are assembled. The Oakland A’s general manager takes Brand away from the Indians after he calls the economist major and asks if Brand would have drafted Beane as a high school prospect. Brand stumbles around until Beane drags it out of him – Brand wouldn’t have drafted Beane in the first round and definitely wouldn’t have given him a signing bonus. Brand would’ve taken the well hyped prospect in the ninth round. This seems to convince Beane that the young economist graduate is onto something, which is telling. Throughout Moneyball we’re shown flashbacks to a young up-and-coming Billy Beane who all the pro scouts love. He can’t seem to reconcile how badly those scouts missed on him (and so many other prospects over the years) and how he isn’t going to fall into the exact same trap. He places his hope in Brand’s controversial allegiance to the Bill James invented sabermetrics. Turns out James’ ideas were not highly respected within mainstream baseball and Moneyball goes on to show how unconventional those ideas could be when implemented in real life by the Oakland A’s.

While Billy Beane is a calm figure in all situations we sense that he’s only moments away from self-imploding. He can’t watch an A’s game, not even on TV. He struggles to tune the game in on the radio. He’s aloof with his players, never getting close as to avoid the awkwardness that arises when moves need to be made. Never mind the fact that Beane was once a player and could probably relate better than most in the front office with the players. Even in his personal life we see Beane as appearing calm but never comfortable. In one scene he sits and waits for his daughter in his ex-wife’s home. The ex-wife and her new husband try to strike up some small talk. It’s awkward and clear that Beane is doing his best to hold back his true feelings in that moment. He plays a passive aggressive game with his ex and her husband when he learns that his 12-year old daughter now has a cell phone.

There is a point in the film where the GM goes “all in” with his plan. The drama is not so much on the field as the A’s struggle early in the season and many call into question management’s wisdom in replacing star players with has-beens and no names. The real drama is that of Billy Beane and his struggle to reconcile the contrasts of his days as a golden prospect who turned out to be a bust, his new role as baseball’s contrarian general manager, and his superstition (never attending games for fear he brings bad luck). Brad Pitt’s performance is so finely nuanced that it’s easy to forget we’re watching one of the biggest names in Hollywood perform.

If there is anything bringing Moneyball down it is the second act where the Oakland A’s turn things around. That act drags on a bit too long, bringing too much focus to the on the field play which is not a strength of the movie. There are some special moments and scenes as we watch the team start to put it all together and go on a historic win streak but the overall length detracts.

Watching Billy Beane struggle, even after he experiences a wild amount of success, makes Moneyball a special film. Most would have had the Oakland A’s GM triumphantly proclaiming his loyalty for his team and ended it in a great David vs. Goliath story. Instead we get Billy Beane the always appearing calm figure who is never quite sure what to make of this game of baseball. Even in success he is unsure. His final decision to stick with the underdog feels like it’s filled with doubt. As if Beane’s decision to stick with the A’s or go with the incredible offer from the Red Sox is lose-lose. To Billy Beane, there is no sure thing. The obvious first appeal of anything cannot be trusted.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Wait, I thought Tim Burton killed the Ape franchise with his 2001 rendition of the classic. He didn’t succeed. I’m thankful he didn’t because Rise of the Planet of the Apes is close to a perfect sci-fi action flick.

Rather than focus on the human protaganist, Rise takes a fresh approach by making the genetically enhanced, lab born ape, Caesar (Andy Serkis) the center of attention. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a genetic scientist desperately searching for a cure to Alzheimer’s disease. His search is personal, as Will’s dad, Charles (John Lithgow), suffers from the disease. Right away we learn that Will is on to something, as an ape known as “Green Eyes” shows greatly improved intelligence as a result of the proposed cure, ALZ-112. Things turn sour as Green Eyes goes crazy, wrecks havoc on the lab and is shot. The other apes are put down as the company fears ALZ-112 is deeply flawed. Unbeknownst to Will and his co-workers, Green Eyes flipped out trying to protect her newborn. Rather than put the chimp down, Will sneaks him home.

Will quickly learns that Caesar is not an ordinary chimp. Caesar shows signs of incredible intelligence. This leads Will to eventually give his dad ALZ-112 he smuggles from the company. Charles returns to his normal self while Caesar continues to exhibit extraordinary acumen. As years pass Caesar desires to get out of the house, to enjoy life like the children he observes from his attic window. Will takes Caesar to the Redwoods but Caesar soon realizes that he is treated more like a pet than a human. Will breaks down and shows Caesar the building where Caesar was born and his mom died. This moment ultimately leads to Caesar’s descent. He realizes he’s not human yet he’s not just an ape.

Meanwhile, Will notices that his dad’s disease is back with a vengeance. It’s so bad that Charles goes outside one morning, hops in a neighbors running car, and proceeds to smash it into the cars parked in the front and back. The neighbor comes out and freaks out. He yells and gets in Charles’ face. Caesar observes this from the attic window and takes action. This is Caesar’s ticket to the ape sanctuary where Will promises Caesar he’ll be back home soon.

It’s at this point in the film that the ape sanctuary turns into a prison film. Caesar is the new kid on the block. He’s never been around other apes. He doesn’t completely understand apes who are not intelligent like he is. The lessons for him are rough. Caesar is homesick and more confused than ever. The fact that all of this is completely believable with computer animated apes is astonishing. After hearing and reading interviews with cast and production crew members, I’m convinced now more than ever that Andy Serkis should be nominated for a best actor award. His performance mixed with the technology take this movie to new heights.

The ape sanctuary has some of my favorite moments in the film and one of its worst. If Rise is guilty of anything it’s of some over the top archetypes. The most obvious example is Tom Felton playing one of the sanctuary workers. Felton’s performance is so absurd that by the time he utters a famous line from the original movie I simply rolled my eyes. It was completely expected, as Felton proved he was nothing more than the sinister prison guard.

The movie zooms past at an exhilarating speed. There is no time for exposition. The storytelling is precise. Every small moment has a purpose. For example, Caesar draws the attic window on the wall of his cell at the sanctuary only to erase it once he decides he’s going to lead an ape rebellion. Charles’ struggle to play a piano song prior to ALZ-112 and then gracefully playing a composition afterwards. The use of green eyes to show that an ape has been exposed to the cure. All these are small ways that tell the story rather than spend precious time better spent elsewhere.

While Caesar works overtime to put together his plans, Will works overtime to find a new cure for Alzheimer’s and convinces his boss that it’s time to reopen the project. The boss buys in once he learns that Will’s dad showed great improvements for a period of time and Caesar showed increased intelligence. The prospects of a drug that makes you smarter is too much to resist. Will’s boss wants research on apes to return and to go full throttle.

Eventually the big pay off happens. Some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in a long time take place. Awesome action set pieces. One brilliant call back to the original movie. So much good action in the end that we forget that we’re rooting for the end of mankind as we know it.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes may not get a lot of love on people’s top films of 2011 but it should. It’s one of those rare sci-fi action films that is so well paced and executed that you forget the challenge it overcame, following a long line of predecessors, many of which weren’t all that good and some that were simply awful.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.


Way late review: Hanna

Hanna is part Bourne, part modern day fairy tale. It is more interested in sights, sounds, and odd characters than intricate plot development. The narrative holds together just as long as you don’t spend too much time thinking about the details.

Straight from the movie synopsis: Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) is a teenager raised and trained by her father (Eric Bana), an ex-CIA operative, to become a highly skilled assassin. But when she’s sent on a deadly mission across Europe, Hanna takes to an English family and starts longing for a normal life.

The fairy tale elements of Hanna are important, as we have characters on the screen who make no sense otherwise. Take Cate Blanchett playing the role of the wicked witch…errr…Marissa, a CIA official. Then there is Marissa’s chosen henchman, Isaacs (Tom Hollander), sporting a 70’s track suit, slick backed blond hair and playing the part of the wolf. Isaacs even yells out from his car, “Run little piggy!” as he hunts down Hanna’s father. The final act of the movie is set in a run down Brothers Grimm theme park. If the veiled hints and references to a fairy tale were missed before, it’s hard to ignore by the last scenes of the movie.

Unlike modern day fairy tales told in cute animated flicks, Hanna never loses its grit or grasp of reality. Even while the Chemical Brothers soundtrack pumps noisy electronic tunes and the cinematography flashes (literally at times) with colorful action set pieces. The actors never break out of their character, which keeps the near perfect tone throughout. Those who need to be over the top (Blanchett and Hollander) are and those who need to be less so are just that (Ronan and Bana). There is never a sense of anyone ironically winking at the camera. The action is real and so are the stakes, even when the characters do seem straight out of the pages of children’s tales written long ago.

Hanna was entertaining throughout, avoiding the temptation to add unwieldy plot twists and characters (I’m looking at you Harry Potter). The tone of the film hit me just right. The experimentation within the action genre was a great success. While not a fan of sequels in general, I wouldn’t mind seeing Hanna 2.

 ★★★★½ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.