The Big Short. Directed by Adam McKay. The Big Short is one of those movies I’m fine with seeing in the movie theater, but I don’t expect that I’ll want to see it again, at least not any time soon. It’s not as though it’s a poorly constructed film – it has excellent editing by Hank Corwin, a number of interesting performances (those given by Christian Bale, Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro [who also pops up in this year’s Carol], Adepero Oduye, Tracy Letts and Billy Magnussen [also in Bridge of Spies]), as well as amusing uses of rock, hip-hop, rap and other forms of popular music on the soundtrack – but it’s also a long movie (130 min) filled with information that’s difficult to digest. Banking is not a witty topic, and the financial meltdown of 2008, which serves as the film’s subject, is hardly humorous even when the screenplay calls for jokes. No matter the aggressive cleverness of the screenplay, which is constantly being hurled at the audience, I couldn’t understand most of the terminology (does this bode ill for whenever I eventually have to deal with bills and banking?). Then there is the question of how much to attribute my poor review to three of the film’s major players in the Wall Street banking world: Steve Carell (OK but overwrought/histrionic at times), Brad Pitt (boring) and Ryan Gosling (super-smug, rarely as funny he’s supposed to be). These considerations could make or break how a viewer ultimately feels about the film, and I err on the side of not-so-great. There’s nothing criminally wrong with those three performances, but they’re not especially impressive. I expect more out of a big-time Oscar contender.
Danny Collins. Directed by Dan Fogelman. Just in time for the Golden Globes, I watched Al Pacino’s nominated lead role in Danny Collins on the Saturday night before the ceremony. The tale of an approximately 65-to-70-year-old pop singer who abandoned his singer-songwriter roots to take the easy way out as a commercial star, Danny Collins is not strictly “comedy,” nor does it have enough musical performances in it to qualify for the “musical” part of the award title, but overall the film is not as terrible as I thought it would be. The script is filled with clichés, but the acting by Pacino, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale and Christopher Plummer keeps the film afloat. (Jennifer Garner, however, is not given anything to do as Cannavale’s wife but look concerned and frown a lot.) They are the kinds of actors who can make even a mediocre, tired film idea something entertaining, and without doubt there is entertainment value in seeing Al Pacino bounce around a stage and warble a Neil Diamond/Barry Manilow-type song called “Hey, Baby Doll.” Danny Collins is not a movie that I plan on seeing again, but it was easy to digest, much like a pretty but forgettable pop tune. Besides, it wasn’t the absolute worst of 2015. I mean, it wasn’t Aloha. Nothing could be lower than that.
The End of the Tour. Directed by James Ponsoldt. As a 23-year-old woman who has read a couple of David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction essays but not Infinite Jest or any of his other prose works, I have a limited understanding of his writing talent. I am also aware that The End of the Tour is not supposed to be a biopic; it is a highly subjective view of Wallace based on his interactions with writer David Lipsky, a journalist who trailed after Wallace for the last week of his Infinite Jest book tour, writing a cover story about the events for Rolling Stone. Everything about Wallace is seen through Lipsky’s eyes, so who but Wallace’s closest family, friends and colleagues know whether the picture drawn by Ponsoldt – or by Lipsky in his interviewing and eventual writing – is accurate? What I do know is that Jason Segel’s performance as “pleasantly unpleasant” Wallace is very good, even if I never completely forgot that I was watching Segel play Wallace, and Eisenberg is decent as Lipsky (“unpleasantly pleasant,” to quote A.O. Scott’s reversal of one character’s description of Wallace), who cannot really come to terms with Wallace’s ideas about loneliness, personal interaction, art, pop culture/entertainment, celebrity, addictions and many other larger-than-life themes. (By the way, did you see the essay that Jesse Eisenberg wrote for The New Yorker in November? It’s hilarious, and by that I mean ridiculous.) I appreciate the work put into the film, in particular the dialogue in Donald Margulies’ screenplay and the casting of cameos for Joan Cusack as a chipper book-tour liaison and Becky Ann Baker (a “Freaks and Geeks” reunion!) as a Minneapolis bookstore owner, but I also don’t really feel much after having seen The End of the Tour. It is inessential filmmaking. If anything, it makes me curious about delving back into reading David Foster Wallace, but I think I probably would have eventually done that anyway, with or without this film. And I certainly didn’t need to be told that Jason Segel is a “good,” or perhaps I should say “serious,” actor; anyone who has seen “Freaks and Geeks” is well aware of that fact. Part of me thinks that even if David Foster Wallace would be horrified by the idea of his life being turned into a film of any kind, maybe he wouldn’t be quite so bothered by the casting of Jason Segel – his appeal is that he’s more of a regular guy than a Hollywood star – but that still doesn’t completely justify the making of the movie.
P.S. Unless I’m forgetting something, I don’t think it was mentioned either at the beginning or the end of the film that David Lipsky’s profile of David Foster Wallace was never actually published in Rolling Stone. Some viewers will know that already, though; I suppose we’re expected to infer from the early scene showing Lipsky pulling the boxes of tapes and tape recorders out of a closet that the interviews have been buried for a long time, but Ponsoldt doesn’t specify the fact that Rolling Stone rejected the piece and it could just mean that Lipsky hadn’t thought about the event in a while.
P.P.S. If you really want to read the best warts-and-all piece about David Foster Wallace that I know, spend some time on the New Yorker essay “The Unfinished” by D.T. Max, which was published in March 2009.
45 Years. Directed by Andrew Haigh. As a couple who receive devastating news about the husband’s former lover which tears their world apart on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay give two of the finest performances of the year and reaffirm that impactful acting has no age limit or expiration date. Although the Academy Award nomination for Rampling (her first ever in a fifty-year career!) is a lovely honor, it is still fairly shocking to me that Rampling and Courtenay were overlooked by the BAFTAs, given the tremendous contributions of these two actors to this year in British film. On the strength of these two brilliant performers, and also because of some striking cinematography by Lol Crawley and a nice (though small-ish) supporting role for Geraldine James, 45 Years is a must-see. Acting that powerful should not be ignored. The only real issue I have with the film is the dialogue; some lines are so on the nose (there is a scene in which Rampling says, as though it is supposed to be quite a normal and casual thing to say in polite conversation with her husband, “Funny how we forget the things that make us happy.”) that they ring false, even when the sentiments make sense in the context of the character(s). Andrew Haigh could stand to watch some Bergman films and learn how to do that element well, because words are just as important as visuals – Rampling and Courtenay can convey so much with glances and little motions, but convincing dialogue means more.
The Hateful Eight. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. After all the effort I made in the last few months to see every Tarantino movie from Reservoir Dogs to Django Unchained (and in chronological order too), I’m glad I was able to see The Hateful Eight on the big screen, which includes the audience experience (laughter, so much laughter!) and the amazingly sinister original score by Ennio Morricone, the sound of which makes the opening credits extremely effective (although I wish the score had been used to a greater extent in the film; it only seemed to appear in outdoor scenes, of which there were too few). I should say at this point that, despite living in NYC, I didn’t see The Hateful Eight in 70mm; considering that most of the film takes place either in a stagecoach or in an equally claustrophobic cabin, though, I don’t feel like I missed too much. That being said, I was disappointed by The Hateful Eight. I’m not opposed to period pieces or Westerns – Tarantino succeeded at making an intriguing antebellum spaghetti Western out of Django Unchained three years ago – but the pacing is abysmal and the combination of confined spaces and very few characters makes the whole movie as stifling as a stage production with a minimum of sets. It helps slightly that there are some enjoyable performances accomplished by the small cast, particularly from Walton Goggins (a multilayered performance as a racist sheriff who somehow manages to win the audience over with his goofiness and many funny lines), Tim Roth (despite being very Christoph Waltz-lite), Michael Madsen (who can communicate so much with just a slow blink of his ice-blue eyes and a gruff sigh, like in his character’s first scene) and Bruce Dern (a living legend – how in the world has he never won an Oscar?), but also some performances that don’t work as well as I would have liked. I agree with A.O. Scott’s opinion that Tarantino didn’t completely know what to do with Samuel L. Jackson’s character, a bounty hunter whose narrative motivations are muddled; Kurt Russell toes the line between tolerable and annoying as the bounty hunter (it’s a popular profession for Tarantino) bringing murderess Jennifer Jason Leigh to justice; and Leigh herself (an actress I have never cared for) has some memorable glares of hatred as the wanted killer who is chained to Russell – at one point her face is coated in a mask of blood like Sissy Spacek in Carrie – but I never felt like I got enough from Leigh, either in dialogue or in character development. In general too much of The Hateful Eight is stagnant, weighted down by a sluggish story and lacking in either substantial background for the characters or motivations that make sufficient sense. By the time the film reaches its bloody climax, you’ll be exhausted but you won’t feel satisfied.
P.S. Why didn’t Tarantino include the complete cast list and character names in the end credits? Or was it just that so many people were standing up and blocking my view that I couldn’t see?