Thursday, February 29, 2024

Best of 2023, #7: Dumb Money

I loved Michael Lewis’s book “The Big Short” and I loved Adam McCay’s movie of it even more. I had it as my favorite movie of that year. But I had to keep reminding myself: shorters are assholes, and we shouldn’t be celebrating these guys.

In fact, between the Big Short book coming out and the movie coming out, I wrote a screenplay-for-hire where the villain had elements of the main characters in the book. I then was surprised when they turned the book into a movie and somehow convincingly portrayed the shorters as heroes. The movie worked wonderfully well: I kept forgetting how much I would hate these guys in real life.

But it was great to see this movie about the actual underdogs of the stock market, the “dumb money”, mounting a coup and pulling off the ultimate dream: squeezing the shorters. This was the feel-good movie of the year. We root for these scrappy investors, cheer when they pull off their squeeze, howl with indignation when the system screws them over and then breathe a big sigh of relief when they still pull off a bit of a win.

Everybody in The Big Short ended up a billionaire at the end of the movie, profiting off of America’s misery. Nobody in this movie makes out like that, but some of them do okay.

Ultimately, the movie comes down to a fascinating dilemma: the squeezers find that their portfolios have shot up as a result of the squeeze, but they don’t want to sell because they want to make a point, even if they lose everything. Ultimately some sell, but some, like America Ferrara’s character, decide to die on their hill. We, as viewers, can’t decide which they should do. That’s a great dilemma I’ve never seen on screen before. Ferrara got deservedly nominated for Barbie but she was also great in this.

It’s interesting that this movie came out the same year as Lewis’s new book, “Going Infinite”. In this case, the public turned on Lewis for the first time for being overly-admiring of his “maverick” subject. Everybody read the new one and simply pitied Lewis for getting duped by Sam Bankman-Fried. Lewis insisted on seeing SBF as another one of his patented rule-breaking geniuses, whereas everybody else, even if they just read Lewis’s book, could see he was merely a petty crook.

It got so bad that Lewis was featured on the great podcast “Behind the Bastards”. Robert Evans skewered Lewis quite effectively. He points out that Lewis loves it when SBF does Zoom meetings while playing video games, as if that’s a sign of his genius, but Evans points out that everybody in Gen Z does that, and Lewis just didn’t know any young people.

So this movie was the perfect movie for “the year that everybody turned on Michael Lewis.” The Big Short is great, but everybody who sees it should be forced to watch this right after.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Best of 2023, #8: Asteroid City

My affection for this movie (which I haven’t seen on any other year end lists) was increased by how I saw it. I was vacationing for a week in Stratford, Ontario with my family and my wife’s parents. On a night when the kids were with their grandparents, Betsy and I came across a storefront that billed itself as North America’s smallest movie theater and they were showing this movie. We couldn’t resist. We bought our refreshments, and were shepherded into a 12-seat movie house. There was a curtain that parted to reveal the screen, but it was still slightly blocking the edges of the screen. Normally, that would have been annoying, but it was perfect for a Wes Anderson movie. It was a very pleasant evening.

I think Anderson’s most underrated quality as a director is his work with actors. Some find the performances in his movies mannered, but I think that the actors actually do spectacular work, all while staying within a certain deadpan tone. I feel for his characters, even when the characters are reluctant to feel things on the surface themselves. There’s a reason he attracts such stellar casts. This movie stars, among others, Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie and Jeff Goldblum, and they’re all very entertaining. You don’t attract that level of talent if you don’t know what you’re doing.

One of my favorite working actors is Maya Hawke (who’s also great in Maestro). She’s so tremendously appealing in this movie. I wish Hollywood would do more with her.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Best of 2023, #9: American Fiction

This is definitely the sort of movie where giving it a Best Picture nomination does it no favors. It’s a sly, funny dramedy, but a modest one. It’s nice for Jeffrey Wright to finally get a nomination, but it would be odd if he won for this, and the same with Sterling K. Brown. They’re great actors who will hopefully eventually win for meatier roles.

The movie kept reminding me of the worst-titled movie of all time, The 40 Year Old Version. I liked that movie slightly better, but they’re both good. Both have a similar skewering of white gatekeepers hungry for stories of black suffering, while making life miserable for black authors looking to tell more complex stories. I wish that movie had had some of this movie’s acclaim.

It was amusing watching this movie with my wife, who has actually served on literary award committees and kept blowing her top, saying “That’s not how awards committees work!” I think everybody says that when they unexpectedly see their profession onscreen.

The whole movie essentially builds to one very deadpan, very funny joke, when the two black authors don’t want to give the award to the parody-of-black-misery novel, but the three white authors on the committee outvote them, and justify it by saying, “We really need to listen to black voices right now.” A great example of a joke that’s entirely serious for everyone onscreen.

The movie ends in a meta way by acknowledging the tension between how it should end and how it would end. Every writer grapples with this. In real life, people avoid conflict, and things rarely climax satisfactorily. When we force things to climax, we know that we’re bending out characters out of shape. This movie cleverly has it all, giving us the good (which is to say, realistic) ending, the better (more dramatic) ending and the best (tragic) ending, then lets us choose, knowing that our choice might implicate us as being no better than the gatekeepers the film pillories.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Best of 2023, #10: Maestro

Some thoughts:
  • I thought I was going to dislike this movie because of the make-up, which looked terrible in ads, but in the actual movie, it was fine and I forgot all about it.
  • But I kept asking “Why the 4:3 aspect ratio?” What did it mean? What was Cooper trying to say with the black bars on the sides of the screen? I can’t imagine.  I have no problem watching old movies and TV with the black bars, but I can’t figure out why any modern movie would do it.  
  • At times, this movie was quite beautiful, but there were other times I was frustrated that the camera wasn’t where I wanted it to be. Again, as with the aspect ratio, I found myself taken out of it.
  • I kept comparing the movie to Tar, which ultimately was a better movie. Conducting is a fairly silly-looking job, especially for a viewer like me who isn’t into classical music, but Blanchett did a better job selling me on its not-silliness than Cooper did.
  • Ultimately, there’s not as much drama as there could be, but I’m not sure if that’s a problem. According to the movie, Leonard Bernstein had various problems in his life and marriage, but ultimately was a pretty happy, successful guy who managed to basically get away with having it all. It’s to Cooper’s credit that he doesn’t fall into “tortured homosexual” cliches, and captures a certain joie de vivre in Bernstein’s voice in every phase of his life. Cooper’s Bernstein is a happy family man who also sleeps with men, not because of some dark compulsion but simply because it’s fun. If he was more tortured, maybe he would actually win the Oscar, but it’s probably to his credit that he won’t.
  • Carey Mulligan as Bernstein’s wife gets more drama than he does, as she eventually dies of cancer. She’s excellent, and there’s more of a case to be made that she should win, but it’s probably not her year either.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Not on the List: Spider-Man: Preposition the Spider-Verse Part 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, and Nimona

Continuing our look at the movies that didn’t make the “Best of 2023” list:

Spider-Man: Preposition the Spider-Verse Part 2 (That’s the only way I can tell this trilogy apart. I always forget the actual prepositions)

This was better than the first one, and retconned away one of the things I liked the least about that one (by retroactively explaining where Miles’s spider came from), but I still disliked this movie. We watched it in the theater when my daughter was away at summer camp, thinking she wouldn’t want to see it, but when she was home and it was streaming she asked to watch it for family movie time. I never beg out of family movie time, no matter how disinterested I am in the movie, but this time I left the room. I just couldn’t sit through this movie again.

As I watched it the first time, knowing that the movie was only part 1, I knew it could just end at any time, and indeed I wanted it to end many times. The first place I thought, “Is it going to end here?” is when they went to India. Only later did I realize that that was only about an hour in to an interminable almost-3 hour movie. Later in the list, we’ll be looking at another part 1 that was also too long, but was a thousand times better than this movie.

And more importantly, I still hated the visuals, which I thought were just as headache-inducing as the first movie. That brings me to another movie that didn’t make the list…

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

This was a similar situation. My wife took my son to this movie, and loved it, so when it came out on streaming, she insisted we all watch it for family movie time. I can’t see why. The whole time, I was thinking, “Isn’t this just a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie?” It had big names involved, but I didn’t feel that they rose above the source material.

Most importantly, I just really dislike the current animation style. I liked Mitchells vs. the Machines with its mix of 3-D and 2-D, but I dislike all the movies that have tried to recreate that magic.

That brings us to Nimona, a very well written movie which almost made the list, but again, I wasn’t crazy about the animation style. I think that in future years, people will look back on animated movies made around this time and they’ll be so dated.

Okay, enough of the movies that didn’t make the list. Next week, let’s start in on the top ten.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Best of 2023: Not on the list: Ant Man 3, Guardians of the Galaxy 3 and The Marvels

None of these movies were terrible. My whole family saw Ant-Man 3 and The Marvels in the theater and we all enjoyed them. The worst knock against Ant-Man 3 was the CGI on Modok’s face, which was terrible. The Marvels had an exceedingly unmemorable villain, but was a lot of fun in its admirably-brief runtime.

I think that The Marvels wouldn’t have been the megaflop it was if they had just, once the movie was in the can, changed its name to Captain Marvel 2. Lots of Marvel movies have guest-stars that take up a lot of screentime, so it wouldn’t have been weird for Ms. Marvel and Monica Rambeau to have such big roles. The movie flopped because so many people didn’t watch (or didn’t finish) the Ms. Marvel series on Disney + (which was moderately entertaining) and felt that they wouldn’t be prepared to see a movie in which she co-starred. (And bizarrely, the marketing seemed to imply that the Marvels name applied to Monica Rambeau as well, who in the comics had the “Captain Marvel” role for a while, but never has had a “Marvel” name in the MCU.) The first Captain Marvel made a billion dollars and if they had just said, “that’s the only thing you need to have seen, come on out for Captain Marvel 2!” it would have at least made its money back.

My least favorite of the three was the one that was best received by the general public, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. I intended to take my family to this one, but we were too busy the first weekend, and then I kept hearing that it was inappropriate for children. I tested out seeing it without them and I agreed. All of the gruesome animal experimentation was totally inappropriate for families. What on earth is Marvel thinking? The movie was pretty good for adults, but I’m glad I didn’t take my family, which made it a big disappointment.

So a mediocre year for Marvel. Time to right the ship. Due to the strikes, they’re mostly taking the next year off, so let’s see how they’re doing when they return.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Introduction to Best of 2023, and Not on the List: John Wick 4

Welcome to the Best (Hollywood) Movies of 2023 List! Sometimes, I’ve included world cinema on this list, but this year I decided to stick to Hollywood, which means that the wonderful Anatomy of a Fall did not make the list. As always, I’ll start with the movies I wish I’d seen: Past Lives, Zone of Interest, Wonka, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, No Hard Feelings, Wish, Elementals, and The Boy and the Heron. So don’t expect to see those either.

I will now begin with a few days of movies that I did see but didn’t make the list, and, as always, try to glean some writing advice from them:

Not on the List: John Wick Chapter 4

One movie I greatly enjoyed this year and almost made the list was John Wick Chapter 4. Ultimately it didn’t because, like so many movies this year, including some that made the list, it was too ridiculously long.

I’ve been saying throughout the year that I should move to Hollywood and get a job as the “Cut 20 Minutes Out Guy”. I could get rich, just taking the finished edits and cutting 20 minutes out just before release. (I would also have loved to take my scissors to Indiana Jones 5, another movie that didn’t make the list.)

But there was another problem as well, which speaks to one of the pitfalls of relying on irony.

Major spoilers for the movie! Stop reading here if you haven’t seen this fun movie yet.

So this movie, and this series, ends when John Wick is shot and killed in a duel with a blind assassin.

But here’s the problem: If the whole series comes down to a gun duel with a blind man, there’s only one way it can end. If our hero easily shoots and kills a blind man, that’s lame and anti-climactic. We’d say “Of course he beat the blind man in a duel!” The only way the story works is if the blind man kills him. But it’s not good to have a story that only works one way. Irony is great but it shouldn’t be the only non-lame option.

(And can we talk about how weird it was that this movie lifted characters wholesale from two other movies? Didn’t Donny Yen already play a blind assassin in Rogue One? I kept thinking, “They wouldn’t hire the same actor to play the same character? Am I just racist and I can’t tell Asian actors apart?”  Nope, it was the same actor playing the same character. And the radio DJ is lifted straight from The Warriors! I guess these were homages? Some borrowing is too wholesale to count as homage.)