REVIEW: “The Big Short”


You have to admit it takes a special talent to take collateralized debt obligations, subprime loans, and mortgage-backed securities and make something truly entertaining out of it. Yet that is exactly what Will Ferrell wingman turned partisan filmmaker Adam McKay has done with “The Big Short”, a strangely fun, fascinating and occasionally troublesome financial dramedy.

The movie is based on a book by Michael Lewis which chronicled the events leading up to the 2008 banking crisis. McKay sticks close to the book putting his sites on the easiest of targets – wealthy white-collar brokers and bankers.  To no surprise there were plenty of people ready to buy into the film without hesitation. Of course in reality it wasn’t as black-and-white and there were far more people for McKay to blame who conveniently get a pass.


But enough of that. The entertainment is found in the snappy, whip-smart script by McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph. Interestingly the writing is also the source of some unfortunate frustration. “The Big Short” is jam-packed with Wall Street jargon and financial lingo that left my head spinning. The dialogue is dense and there is narration aplenty. The writing ends up being a double-edged sword – utterly captivating yet sometimes numbing for those who aren’t in the know.

The film follows three groups, each vaguely connected by the impending crisis. Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, an introverted hedge fund manager and the first person to notice the housing market is about to blow. The barefooted, cargo short-wearing Burry takes a big chunk of investor’s capital and bets billions of dollars on the market failing. Bale is the right guy for such an eccentric character but he disappears from the screen far too often.

Steve Carell plays Mark Baum, an angry and cynical money manager who doesn’t trust the banks or the current system. He and his team are convinced by Ryan Gosling’s Deutsche Bank wheeler-dealer Jared Vennett to go in together and bet against the banks. For Vennett it’s a chance to make some easy money. For Baum it’s an opportunity to stick it to the financial world and twist the knife by taking their money. Carell probably gets the most screen time and fills it with a fairly one-note performance. He’s perpetually angry and always shouting. Think Michael Scott with less humor and a really sour attitude.

The third group features two young whiz kid investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who turned $110,000 to $30 million out of their Boulder, Colorado garage. They move to New York and get a whiff of the looming crash. Seeing dollar signs they convince a disillusioned securities trader named Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to use his connections to get them in the game before the bottom falls out of the market.


McKay bounces back-and-forth between these packs of financial wolves as they each try to position themselves for the biggest payoff. Again, the narration is aplenty often breaking the fourth wall. And in a weird attempt at mixing cleverness with humor, we get brief lessons on Wall Street terminology from celebrities playing themselves. Margot Robbie in a bubble bath talking about mortgage funds, Selina Gomez at a blackjack table explaining Synthetic CDOs, etc. It’s amusing but a bit distracting.

As “The Big Short” winds its way to its inevitable ending I felt exhausted. Trying to keep up with all of the fast market talk and financial blather wore me down. And there’s so much emphasis on it that the movie comes off as overstuffed and missing the human element which would have given it a more powerful punch. And McKay’s selective storytelling and convenient omissions keep the film from having the sting of authenticity it should. Still I admit to being mesmerized by the all business back-and-forths and how well the cast sells it even if I didn’t always understand what the heck they were saying.



Denzel Day #5 : “The Bone Collector” (1999)


Over a span of three months each Wednesday will be Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony offers me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington.

“The Bone Collector” is without a doubt one of the oddest films in Denzel Washington’s filmography. Not because of anything it does intentionally. But because of its peculiar mixture of intriguing premise, conventional genre beats, great performances, and certain story angles too preposterous to fully digest.

Based on Jeffery Deaver’s 1997 novel, “The Bone Collector” is a crime thriller that has a lot of things going for it. It starts with the cast, specifically Denzel Washington. He plays Lincoln Rhyme, a brilliant NYPD forensics expert who is left paralyzed after an accident at an active crime scene. Four years pass and a depressed Lincoln is bed-ridden in his New York apartment and dependent upon his loyal around-the-clock nurse Thelma (played by Queen Latifah).


Unhappy with his quality of life, Lincoln tries to convince a doctor friend to help him end his life. But he regains a spark for life after a police colleague (Ed O’Neill) seeks his help in profiling a murder. A beat cop named Amelia Donaghy (Angelina Jolie) was the first officer on the scene and discovered the carefully staged murder. Lincoln is instantly drawn to her instincts and demands she helps on the case if he is to help them find the killer.

Here’s the first instance of things getting a little goofy. The NYPD sets up shop in Lincoln’s Manhattan apartment, complete with high-tech forensic gear, laboratory equipment and an entire task force to man it all. Who knew it was so easy? The only stick-in-the-mud is Michael Rooker’s character. He plays your prototypical contrarian police captain who is either on an ego trip or has an axe to grind. We never really know because his motives are as clear as a glass of muddy water.

Director Phillip Noyce (who also made the highly acclaimed thriller “Dead Calm”) moves things along at an odd pace. It’s so lethargic that I began to wonder if it was some kind of subversive style choice. But you quickly realize it’s just a slow-moving, by-the-books whodunit where a killer comes up with creative and grisly ways of killing his victims while leaving clues for the heroes to piece together. Pretty familiar stuff.


All of that is really a shame because (again) the performances from top to bottom are really good. Both Washington and Jolie really elevate the material and make their characters interesting. But they need more depth, especially Jolie’s Amelia who came across as more of a sketch than fully fleshed out. O’Neill, Queen Latifah, and Luis Guzman each offer good supporting turns.

Ultimately “The Bone Collector” ends up squandering it’s interesting premise and strong casting. It’s never boring and I always enjoy watching great performers do their thing. But the film is lined with too much silliness, too many contrivances, and a lack of originality that keeps it from setting itself apart from the many other thrillers of its kind which were so popular at the time.



REVIEW: “Blinded By the Light”


Despite the odd and rather corny vibe put off by its trailer, “Blinded By the Light” from co-writer and director Gurinder Chadha in anything but that. In fact it doesn’t take long to see that Chadha has deeper and more personal interests and she uses her unique cinematic canvas to explore a variety of heartfelt themes. It doesn’t always make sense, but it makes for good and at times heart-warming entertainment.

“Blinded By the Light” is inspired by the memoirs of British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor. Published in 2007 as “Greetings from Bury Park”, Manzoor shared his trials growing up the son of Pakistani immigrants in the struggling industrial town of Luton, UK. He also shares how the music of Bruce Springsteen inspired him not only to write, but to be willing to fight for his dreams. Manzoor also has co-writing credit for the film.

The movie could be called part musical, part family drama, part coming-of-age story. But it also offers keen perspectives on racism, economic hardships, and cultural tradition among other things. The film is set in 1987 and focuses on Javed (played by vibrant newcomer Viveik Kalra), a genuinely good and kind-hearted 16-year-old with aspirations of becoming a writer. He has kept a diary since he was ten and writes poems as well. All he lacks is confidence in himself and encouragement to follow his dream.


Unfortunately this all clashes with the ideas of his father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), a bitter and hardworking traditionalist who has been ground down by his low-wage GM factory job. Partly consumed by making ends meet and partly by cultural tradition, Malik thinks Javed’s life should be firmly dedicated to his parents and sisters. And since writing doesn’t bring in money to support them, deems it to be a waste of time.

Malik could have easily been made the villain here but Chadha takes a smarter approach and gives the character more complexity and depth. He genuinely loves his family and is burdened by the guilt of not providing for them the way he had hoped. In many ways Malik is strapped down by his culture which doesn’t allow his children the breathing room to be themselves. At the same time that very culture is inherently valuable to who this family is. Chadha’s film seeks out that delicate balance in between.

Javid finds that much needed inspiration in (of all things) the music of Bruce Springsteen. With lyrics about hard times and breaking loose, Springsteen’s songs speak to Javid and to his feelings of isolation and frustration. Yet they also offer hope and a belief in a better life. It’s a cathartic escape from his unfulfilling home life and the ugliness of society that he and his family routinely witness.

But once again Chadha adds an interesting and unexpected layer. Once Javid is introduced to The Boss by the only other Pakistani student in his school (Aaron Phagura), he has to make sure his inspiration doesn’t turn to obsession. And will the prodding of his plain-speaking literature teacher (Haley Atwell) and social activist girlfriend (Nell Williams) be enough to help him find his own distinct voice?


A total of twelve Springsteen songs find their way into the film along with 80’s tunes by Cutting Crew, A-Ha, and Pet Shop Boys. Some simply play through the headphones of Javid’s Sony Walkman (I had one. They were the best thing since sliced bread). Others weirdly play out like an MTV music video with words fading in and out as Javid walks the streets. Then you get a couple of sequences that are full-fledged musical numbers. They’re utterly preposterous yet they work in an oddly satisfying way.

But what makes Chadha’s movie stand out the most is its depiction of the 1980’s. Not simply by soaking it in pop culture, but by painting a realistic and at times unflinching portrait of the decade. The racist presence of the National Front and the rising economic struggles are vividly realized although glossily explored. This allows the film to herald Springsteen’s music (deservedly or not) as an powerful counter voice and probably more insightful than it really is. This also feeds into the peculiar political lean of the film which thankfully isn’t overbearing and more importantly doesn’t smother the characters.

“Blinded By the Light” is a strange brew of ‘feel good’ entertainment, touching character drama, and social commentary. The music will strike a chord with Springsteen fans which I admittedly am not (except for those grand two years of ’84 and ’85). People teeming with progressive political fervor may find things to nibble on. Me, I was there for the characters, their stories, and their attempts at navigating the world they live in. That is where “Blinded By the Light” shines brightest.



REVIEW: “Booksmart”


I’ve steadily grown more and more convinced that most of Hollywood is only interested in one particular depiction of the teenaged experience. You know, the one featuring a collection of dense, potty-mouthed teens marked by obsessions with sex, booze, and and endless supply of dumb decision-making. We get these movies all of the time. Some are more dramatic; some are straight comedies. But they all paint teens with a broad and rather boring brush.

Thankfully there have been a few anomalies – movies like “Eighth Grade” and “Lady Bird” that are both authentic and insightful. I was hoping “Booksmart” was one such welcomed aberration. Sadly it’s not and a couple of really good scenes can’t shift the balance from the overload of tired and rehashed teen movie clichés this film revels in.


“Booksmart” is a left coast teen comedy that is sure to play well within a couple of specific groups. Many who are deeply invested in progressive ideology will love it despite it having nothing particularly profound to say (its politics are mostly found in weird name drops and shallow lip service to a handful of popular social issues). And fans of raunchy comedies will get plenty of what they like, much to the detriment of the film as a whole.

The story revolves around two smart but pretentious high school seniors. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are life-long best friends who have spent their school days with their noses buried in textbooks and looking down on fellow students. But on the eve of graduation they’re hit with with a shocking revelation – you can have fun and make good grades at the same time.

So the two set out to cram years of missed social opportunities into one night of partying and rule breaking (so much for book-smarts nurturing any kind of discernment and good judgement). What follows is a relentless series of eye-rolling antics ranging from low-brow raunch to all-out absurdity. There are a couple of emotionally strong moments but unfortunately they’re stuck within a mire of teen movie tropes and stereotypes.

It’s made more frustrating because the performances are generally good. Dever is the standout and while her character doesn’t always make sense she gives a believable and at times affecting performance. Feldstein is fine but too often she seems stuck in high gear. And then you have the sizable supporting cast playing an assortment of run-of-the-mill teen character types, many of them dialed up to 10. Some are fairly entertaining but none are especially compelling.


Most of the issues can be tracked to the writing and direction. The screenplay was put together by a team of four writers whose apparent aspirations to be “Superbad 2.0” overtakes the meaningful story at the film’s core. And first-time director Olivia Wilde never seems to know when to pull back the reins to allow her characters room to breathe. And when we do get a deeper character moment, it’s often over in a snap and we’re quickly ushered back into the film’s manic comedy whirlwind.

“Booksmart” frames itself as a fresh take on the coming-of-age story, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I had seen these stories and certainly these characters before (or at least variations of them). Dever shines and there are a few lines of witty dialogue, but nothing here is particularly eye-opening or original. It’s your standard raunchy teen comedy full of stock characters and caricatures. It tosses out some good ideas but rarely explores them. It also portrays a linear portrait of teenaged life in America that will certainly resonate with some yet be utterly otherworldly for others. Yet another instance of “Booksmart” being unable to strike a much needed balance.



REVIEW: “Brightburn”


So here’s a story I bet you’ve never heard. Something from space crashes down near the property of a hard-working farm family. In the wreckage the couple finds a baby boy who they take in as their own. As the child grows up it is revealed that the boy possesses an assortment of superpowers. Sound familiar?

The new film “Brightburn” essentially takes the Superman origin story, changes the characters, and adds a pretty big ‘what if’ element to it. What if the child grew up and used his powers for evil instead of good. “Brightburn” takes that premise, runs with it, and (most importantly) sticks to it which is a key reason why the movie works as well as it does.


“Brightburn” has been touted as a James Gunn production, written by Mark and Brian Gunn, and directed by Gunn collaborator David Yarovesky. The story follows Tori and Kyle Breyer (played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), a couple who have struggled with their farm and with having children. That’s why they saw the arrival of Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) to be such a blessing.

Ten years prior a meteor fell near their home. Inside was a baby who the Breyers adopted and named Brandon. But as years pass he begins to notice he’s different than other kids. And with the discovery these newfound superpowers comes a troubling turn in Brandon’s psyche. Tori and Kyle desperately try to keep their son’s secret and keep him on the right path. But can they shield him from the dark forces that are pulling him towards evil?

The unique central premise of “Brightburn” drives the film from beginning to end. It’s a cool subversion of the superhero genre although it’s nothing too deep. Instead, at its core it’s a straight supernatural horror movie. And not just another tame jump-scare thriller that we get by the dozens these days. Yes, there are a few sudden loud bumps but there is also some delightful old-school Raimi-esque gore that I wasn’t expecting. And by keeping it focused on and revolving around the film’s central conceit, it never loses its freshness.


But there is one big frustration that unfortunately had a big effect on my experience with “Brightburn”. This turns out to be one those examples of a trailer revealing too much and killing the suspense in some of the film’s biggest scenes. If you’ve seen the trailer you already know the fate of several characters. Knowing ultimately undermines the impact of what should have been big some of the movie’s big moments. It’s hard to figure out how that should effect a review score but it certainly effected my viewing experience.

And that’s a real bummer because there is so much I like about “Brightburn”. The performances are good, the pacing is crisp, end it sees its concept through to the end, finishing up in what I think is a very intriguing place. It’s truly a fun alternative take on the superhero genre. Just make sure you stay away from the trailers. Their impact on the movie had me pulling out my hair.



REVIEW: “The Best of Enemies” (2019)


File this one under ‘too crazy not to be true’. The deep personal friendship between outspoken civil rights activist Ann Atwater and Ku Klux Klan leader turned fellow civil rights activist C.P. Ellis is as inspiring as it is extraordinary. The new drama “The Best of Enemies” tells their remarkable story which is nothing short of improbable.

The film is based on Osha Gray Davidson’s 1996 book The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South. It marks the feature film debut for Robin Bissell who directs and wrote the screenplay. Bissell spent a ton of time with Atwater learning from her experiences and getting valuable input. The two became close with Atwater giving Bissell’s script her enthusiastic stamp of approval. Sadly she would pass away in June of 2016.


The film is driven by two equally big yet equally fabulous performances. Taraji P. Henson loses herself playing Atwater, a single mother raising her children in the powder keg that was 1971 Durham, North Carolina. A notorious fireball (even earning herself the nickname Roughhouse Annie), she was an ardent community organizer and the face of a local hard-working activist group.

C.P. Ellis is played by the always fiercely committed Sam Rockwell. In Bissell’s telling Ellis runs a small full service gas station (he was actually a college maintenance man) which barely offers enough income to support his wife and kids. But people around town mostly know him as the president of Durham’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. This earns him the respect of the prejudiced white community, understandably draws the ire of the black community, and sets him up as a puppet for opportunistic local politicians.

A suspicious fire at a black elementary school pushes integration to the forefront of local conversation. The white supremacists see it as segregation’s last stand and they have a stacked City Council to back them. The outspoken Atwater leads the other side who are willing to defend their children and their rights regardless of the cost. As the threat of violence intensifies Bill Riddick (a pitch-perfect Babou Ceesay), a lawyer and organizer from Raleigh, is brought in to mediate a 10-day “Save Our Schools” community summit to find a public resolution. I bet you can guess who he chooses as his co-chairs?

Bissell’s script tees up several big scenes especially for Henson. They certainly come across as attention-getters but it helps that Henson knocks it out of the park. She’s also given some meaty monologues which not only highlights the performance, but shows Bissell’s smart handling of dialogue. Sure they can be a bit on-the-nose, but they always feel genuine and in tune with the characters and story.

The second half shifts more of its focus to Ellis and not because of some racially insensitive preference of the filmmaker (I’ve actually seen that intimated). Ellis’ transformation is not only key to where the story is going but true to the real-life relationship at the film’s center. Bissell doesn’t sugarcoat Ellis’ deep-rooted prejudice, but he does give Ellis some emotional complexities and personal insecurities which paint him as more than your run-of-the-mill stereotype. Rockwell is superb.


Other strengths of the film – I like how it captures the early seventies southern setting complete with its boiling racial tensions. The ugliness of white supremacy and the powerful influence the Klan still brandished is captured and conveyed in a palpable way. I also can’t say enough about the supporting cast. Ceesay, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, Bruce McGill, and John Gallagher, Jr. all deliver. My only real beefs – There are second half stretches where we simply don’t get enough of Henson. And at just over 130 minutes couldn’t a little more time be given to the personal side of Ellis and Atwater’s budding friendship?

It’s pretty easy to predict some of the reactions “The Best of Enemies” is sure to provoke. Expect plenty of critical snark and quick dismissals along with the inevitable “white savior” tag (I’m sorry, but if the film has a true “savior” its Bill Riddick). Sadly, for some it doesn’t matter how much truth is in the storytelling. Unless the film is blistering, brash and screaming at the top of its lungs it won’t penetrate those looking at this subject matter through their own specific prism. That’s a shame because the harsh labels and strange readings can’t keep this from being a thoughtful and worthwhile picture. And boy is there room for its message, especially in today’s far-from-colorblind society.