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Baby Driver – Review

8 Jul

It seems like I’ve been having great luck with movies recently, and the trend just keeps on going. I’ve been really looking forward to Baby Driver since I first saw the trailer for it. Writer and director Edgar Wright is best known for his Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy which consists of Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz, and The World’s End, all starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. He was also the director of Simon Pegg’s and Jessica Stevenson’s cult tv show Spaced. This looked like a bit of a departure from what he normally does, but it also looked like it still had that frenetic yet controlled style he employs. Let’s just say Baby Driver takes everything great about Wright’s work and enhances it to whole new levels to create one of the greatest action films you’ll see all year.

Despite getting into an accident as a child, losing both his parents, and suffering from a permanent “hum in the drum” as a result, Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the best escape driver in the entire underworld. Doc (Kevin Spacey), a major thief in the criminal underworld, is lucky to have him on as a permanent member of the team, despite other employees finding his constant state of listening to music and lack of any kind of vocal interaction unnerving. After one particular job goes wrong, Baby finds some comfort in an unassuming waitress named Debora (Lily James). Their relationship seems to be growing fast, but Baby is soon coerced back into the business by Doc and forced onto a crew consisting of his long time partners Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his wifeDarling (Eiza González), but also the sadistic Bats (Jamie Foxx), who threatens everything Baby stands for just for the hell of it. With this job closing in, Baby starts making plans to betray the team and make his escape with Debora, but it won’t be easy to escape the eyes of his brothers in arms and he’ll have to fight them with everything he’s got to truly escape.

Baby Driver is a lot of things. It’s a drama, it’s a dark comedy, it’s a gangster flick, it’s a heist movie, but more than anything else it’s an action film. This movie has more energy than any action movie I’ve seen in a long time and you can tell that everything that Edgar Wright is as an artist and a film maker went in to making this movie as great as it possibly can be. The car chases and various escape sequences are exhilarating, and the fact that the stunt work and various crashes and last ditch escapes were done in camera and not using computer generated effects makes the whole experience all the more worthwhile. The first car chase had me hooked, but the ride was far from being over and it just got more exciting from there. This is a good time to bring the editing up. If this film doesn’t get recognized for its editing at the Oscars, then I really don’t know what I’ll do. Wright puts this entire film to Baby’s various soundtracks, and when I say that every scene moves in time with the music, it’s no exaggeration. The best way to describe this film would be to use the word “precision.” We’ve all had that conversation about what song would work in what kind of scene. Well Edgar Wright and his team took that idea to the limit and created a whole new way to watch a movie.

With movies like Baby Driver that immediately combust with such high energy, it’s usually inevitable that the middle of the movie will slow down to an almost unbearable crawl for characters and other kinds of motivations to be built on. Somehow, someway, Edgar Wright found the perfect formula to expedite this whole process while still making it easy to care about the characters. Jamie Foxx’s character is introduced somewhere around the end of the first act and beginning of the second act which doesn’t slow the movie down even a little bit. In fact, Foxx is so excellent in his performance of Bats that the movie found another burst of energy with his arrival. Time is also given to Ansel Elgort and Lily James and their budding romance. This is where the movie stumbles ever so slightly. The tough guy talk didn’t need to carry over from the crime scenes to the romance scenes. It just didn’t fit very well and the attitude was just a little bit to much in these moments. If it was toned down a little more I think these scenes would have hit the mark a little bit better. When the third act begins, however, all mistakes are forgotten and my eyes were glued to the screen while the action never ceased to let up.

I feel like there’s something of a stigma around action movies that say films in this genre can rarely be called works of art. Much like horror films as of late, there’s been a cool trend of more artistic action films, and Baby Driver falls firmly into that place. Wright and his team know how to make a film look great and sound great while also thrilling audiences with off the wall action sequences and entertaining characters. When the lights came up in the theater, it was almost hard to finds words to properly elucidate the originality and technique of the film I just watched. Edgar Wright isn’t just a good film maker. He’s clearly an excellent one and an auteur in his own right. I’ve been taught by many people that film is a visual art, where the story should be shown more than it should be told. This movie takes it another step and uses music to help tell its story in a way I haven’t seen in a movie before. When music isn’t playing, it felt weird. This was a risky thing to do. It would be very easy to mess up a movie where music is constantly playing, but this one pulled it off with such finesse.

In case I haven’t made my point perfectly clear already, Baby Driver was fantastic and easily is and will remain one of the best movies of the year. It’s action is shot beautifully with excellent stunt work and precision driving, the soundtrack knocks the second Guardians movie into next week, and the editing is some of the best I’ve seen in years. This takes action films somewhere new and unique, even though the story is less than totally unheard of. I can’t say this film is style over substance, because the two work tandem so well. It would be a sin to miss this movie, so get to it as soon as you can.

Final Grade: A+

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Margin Call – Review

30 Jun

Many economists believe that the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 is the worst of its kind since the Great Depression. I don’t find that too hard to believe, but I’m just as much an economist as I am Elvis Presley. In 2015, an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ best selling book, The Big Short, was released, and it told the story of how this all happened using a comedic edge to help unravel the proceedings. Before this movie, however, was J.C. Chandor’s debut film from 2011 called Margin Call. Unlike The Big ShortMargin Call tells a fictionalized account surrounding one corporation while also using very little to no humor to tell its story. I’m not faulting The Big Short at all, in fact, I loved that movie. Margin Call is, however, a much sterner look at the inner workings and failures that made this crisis happen while also being an intriguing and intelligent film.

On Wall Street, a company is facing a day of massive layoffs, much to the chagrin of its employees. Amongst these employees looking down the barrel of a loaded corporate gun is Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), a junior risk analyst who has the potential to be something even greater. After seeing his boss, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), get fired, he is given a USB drive by Dale to investigate with the ominous warning to “be careful.” What Peter finds is something that will destroy the company if it is ignored. The calvary is called in which includes the Head of Trading Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), his boss Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), and all the other higher ups until CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons) arrives. What’s discovered is that the historical volatility of the company, which measures the risk of investments, is stretched incredibly thin and that if assets decrease by a certain amount, the company will go bankrupt. Thus begins the war of morals that takes places in the boardrooms on Wall Street about wether or not to sell these worthless shares or take the hit and lose a fortune.

One of my biggest fears with movies like this is if I’m going to be able to fully understand what’s going on. I haven’t the slightest idea about the ins and outs of Wall Street and trading and the stock market. Luckily for me, Margin Call had an excellent screenplay that deserves a lot of praise. The way the dialogue is set up and the way the actors are delivering their lines helps make a lot of the more technical stuff clear, but it never feels like I’m being talked down to. There’s scenes where stuff is explained, but it never stops sounding like Wall Street traders are having a discussion. When this movie isn’t in financial mode, it dives deeper into its drama and the characters. This isn’t a robotic film that shows these employees just as money hungry thieves that just so happen to be operating in the gray areas of the law. These characters are written as human beings, for better or for worse, and they’re all very memorable with all their faults and achievements.

One of the first things I noticed about this film is its all star cast of really fantastic actors. Zachary Quinto is one of the main driving forces of the entire plot and he sells his role with ease. Alongside him is the always excellent Kevin Spacey in yet another performance where he just commands the screen. He gives two speeches in this movie and while they are cinematic, they also feel natural. Another standout performance is Jeremy Irons in a role that’s the closest thing this movie has to a villain. There’s something about Irons that makes him the perfect choice to play the most reprehensible people. The way he carries himself in this movie is something I’ve seen before in real life. It’s this uncompromising and in your face smug confidence that contrasts his actual lack of important knowledge and human empathy. Probably my favorite performance in Margin Call goes to Paul Bettany, who like Irons, has a lot of confidence but it wavers ever so slightly as the story progresses until we see the real weakness behind people as rich and powerful as these characters.

While the characters in this movie are all top notch and the performers play them very well, this is also where the movie runs into a fault. In the beginning of the film, Stanley Tucci’s character is introduced, and he’s great. Unfortunately, after this beginning scene he’s not in it again until the end, and when he does finally return he doesn’t get a whole bunch to do except deliver a great monologue. After the monologue, he just falls into place with the rest of the cast. Other than underutilizing Tucci’s character, the balance of the cast and how much they are used is done very well. There’s a lot of people in this movie all with unique characterizations, so seeing them all balanced so well was a relief. It’s not rare to walk out of a movie thinking how unevenly represented all of the characters were. I’m looking at you Free Fire.

To put it simply, Margin Call was an excellent movie. After it was over, I had to really push myself to think of a couple negatives. That being said, it isn’t a perfect movie, but it is one of the most intriguing films about Wall Street and financial crises that can be found out there in the zeitgeist. There’s a great cast performing a really interesting story about a company that’s failing, but it’s also a strong tale of morality and the humanity of the people making these decisions. I say definitely give this movie a watch.

Final Grade: A-

Elvis & Nixon – Review

3 May

Of all the historic photographs held in the National Archives, you might be surprised that the most requested picture of all time is of Elvis Presley shaking Richard Nixon’s hand in the Oval Office. The King of Rock n Roll and one of the most notorious presidents in American history sure make quite the duo. What’s even stranger is that there are no records to give the reason why these two American icons met in the first place. That brings us to Liza Johnson’s Elvis & Nixon, a pretty absurd comedy that offers a pretty hilarious fictionalized account and possibly reason behind the whole meeting. What I really love about this movie is that it knows what it is, and it also gives leaves some time between the absurdity to offer some interesting themes surrounding celebrity and a person’s real identity.

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In 1970, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) still has his status as one of the biggest superstars in the world, even though his impact on the entertainment industry has declined since his earlier days. Meanwhile, President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) has held the presidential office for a little over a year and has his sights set on re-election. After seeing the troubles plaguing the youth of the nation, Elvis decides that he hasn’t been doing enough to make the next generations of Americans safe and prosperous. This line of thinking leads to his decision that it’s time for him to be given a federal badge and be appointed a “federal agent at large.” Armed with his golden pistols and trusty entourage (Jerry Schilling and Johnny Knoxville), Presley makes his way to Washington D.C. for what he believes will be a monumental meeting with the president of the United States.

I’ve explained this movie to some people who haven’t heard of it, and the looks on their faces as I’m talking makes me feel like I have three heads. Elvis & Nixon is, without a doubt, completely absurd. That being said, however, a lot of the events surrounding these two cultural icons are even more absurd than most of the things in this movie. There’s a part of me that believes their secret meeting might have gone a little something like it does in the movie because we all live in such a crazy world anyway. This is where I give a lot of credit to the screenwriters (one of whom happens to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, himself, Cary Elwes). The story that they’ve constructed is very silly, but there is a lot of really snappy dialogue and an understated, yet very present, grounding in reality.

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When Elvis & Nixon takes a break from the over the top scenarios and barrage of witty banter, there is time to look at the characters for who they truly are. That, I believe, is the real point to this movie. What we have are two people that couldn’t have been different from each other, and having never met one another have their own judgmental opinions of the other. It’s interesting to see the interaction when they finally do meet and the real people behind what the media has created for them is revealed. There’s one excellent scene in the movie where Elvis says when regular people walk into a room they are recognized for who they are, but when he walks into a room he is only recognized by the preconceived notions and memories that his fame created. This idea of separating a celebrity from their works to see them as a person is a pretty timeless theme and it’s handled surprisingly intelligently in this film.

Besides the premise, the two main actors were the big reason why I was excited about this movie and they did not disappoint. Michael Shannon may not look a lot like Elvis, but he seems to have mastered all of the movements and swagger of the King, and even sounds a lot like him at times. The best part of Shannon’s performance is that he never makes it over the top. He brings a subtlety to the performance that feels real, and it reminds me why he is one of my favorite actors. Speaking of my favorite actors, Kevin Spacey is hilarious as Richard Nixon. He has all the same subtlety as Shannon, and never turns Nixon into a caricature. I was concerned that Spacey would just come across as Frank Underwood from House of Cards, but he really does step away from that president and become Nixon.

What’s great about Elvis & Nixon is that it never tries to come across as more than it is. What this film is is a sometimes over the top satire of a time period, celebrity, and even politics, but done so in the most unpretentious of ways. There’s some real humanity amongst all of the jokes and absurdity, and the actors play their roles with real skill. Elvis & Nixon won’t go down as a classic or even a movie that’s going to be really remembered and discussed, but that’s ok. This is still a really good and fun movie that is well worth anyone’s time.

Horrible Bosses – Review

21 Aug

Everyone has to work. It’s a sad fact of life, but it’s something that every adult has to face on a  daily basis. Some jobs are better than others, but most jobs have that one boss, manager, or supervisor that really gets under your skin. In that way, Horrible Bosses is one of the most relatable comedies out there. With an all star cast and an excellent premise, you’d think that you really couldn’t go wrong… and you’d be right.

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Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), and Dale (Charlie Day) are three friends who all have something in common. They each have good jobs that are made into a living hell by their bosses. David Harkin (Kevin Spacey) mentally abuses Nick to no end, Julia (Jennifer Aniston) sexually harasses the recently engaged Dale, and Bobby (Colin Farrell) is running Kurt’s place of employment into the dirt. Their drunken solution: to kill each other’s bosses. Knowing they can’t do this alone, the recruit “Motherfucker” Jones (Jamie Foxx) to be their murder consultant, and soon enough a plan involving triple homicide is underway.

I first saw this a year ago and thought it was a riot, and I was worried that it would lose some of its luster during a second viewing, but I was mistaken. It takes a lot for a comedy to impress me. I’m sick of seeing formulaic rehashes involving the same jokes, characters, and situations. Make no mistake, Horrible Bosses is not the most original comedy to ever be made, but the premise is so great and the chemistry between all of the characters is what really gives this movie the kick that it needs.

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I can’t talk about Horrible Bosses and not rave about the cast. Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day are all funny on their own, but their chemistry and banter is, to me, what really makes the movie. You can tell that these actors enjoy working with each other and this makes their friendships believable. Kevin Spacey takes his role very seriously, and is great to watch, while Aniston and Farrell are almost unrecognizable as the other two hellish bosses. When I say this is perfect casting, this is perfect casting.

Now, the story really teeters on the line of dark comedy, but never really reaches it. As it is, I enjoy the comedy and laughed consistently throughout the movie, but it would have been interesting to see a darker story play out and question your laughter at times. This is murder we’re talking about after all. That being said, the movie does take some crazy turns that I like, but I wish it went a little farther than it did instead of playing it safe. One deleted scene that I saw featured a very graphic scene that was still really funny and I wish that it made it into the movie.

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In short, Horrible Bosses is one of the funnier movies that has been released in the past five years. In a time where comedies have become so formulaic and have touched on a lot of the same themes, it was refreshing to see one that strayed off the beaten path and relished in its originality and absurdity. Not all of this movie is fresh, but that really doesn’t kill the entire movie. I laughed all the way through thanks to the chemistry of the actors, the really great dialogue, and just the insanity of it all. I just wish that it took the idea a little further.

L.A. Confidential – Review

15 Jan

Many people will argue that the golden age of Hollywood was between the late 1930s all the way up to the end of the 1950s. Genres were created and perfected in ways that have not been seen since then. Few films have tried and truly succeeded in recreating this image of these perfect years, but one film equally praises and criticizes. That film is L.A. Confidential, a detective story where good guys are just as corrupt as bad guys and everything is kept off the record, on the q.t., and very hush hush.

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1953. Los Angeles. To outsiders, it seems like a paradise just waiting to be explored. To its residents, it is a den of lust, corruption, and violence. After a bloody massacre at the Nite Owl café, three police officers’ lives and problems become tangled as each tries to solve the case for their own particular gains. They are: by the book Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), celebrity hound Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), and the violent Bud White (Russell Crowe). Alliances are formed and torn apart as betrayal and greed worm their ways through the characters and, especially, when a few characters fall for a beautiful call girl, Lynn (Kim Basinger), who just might be the biggest connection to the case that these detectives have.

L.A. Confidential is more about the characters and the themes than it is about solving the actual mystery. I don’t want to say that the actual crime is pushed to the back burner, because it is visited time and again, especially towards the end, but this isn’t what the viewer is really paying attention to. First and foremost they are learning the characters and their motives, and then learning how their motives affect one another. Then the themes come to mind: corruption, greed, and a strange sense of dark nostalgia. These themes blend with the characters and shape their personalities to make a complex and adult character driven story.

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In order for these characters to be so memorable, the performances had to match their complexities. Thankfully, there is a very talented cast to support this movie. Kevin Spacey stands out as Vincennes. He’s a likable Hollywood dirt ball who just so happens to be a policeman and he plays the part very well with quick one liners that can quickly change to brooding seriousness.  Guy Pearce plays Exley, one of the most complicated characters of the film, perfectly straightforward. Russell Crowe is the weakest of the three, sometimes falling into to the pitfall of cliché, which isn’t necessarily his fault. Finally, Kim Basinger, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, is just fine but nothing really special. It doesn’t really have “Academy Award” written on the performance.

These characters would be nothing without the intelligent, borderline genius, screenplay. While the story itself kind of takes a place off to the side it still can’t be denied that it’s fantastic. It is pulp crime at its finest with a deep mystery filled with lies and violence. The dialogue is very personal and every line feels necessary. The other Academy Award that was honored to this movie was for Best Adapted Screenplay, which I feel is very well deserved.

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L.A. Confidential is a fantastic ride into the depths of crime of 1950s Los Angeles. The writing, complex story, and characters are all fantastic and supported by the magnificent performances. I loved this movie from beginning to end, not once getting bored throughout the entire two hours and fifteen minutes it was on. IF you live crime fiction and noir films then this is the film to boost your spirits.

Casino Jack – Review

28 May

Every now and again, a movie is made that deeply criticizes our government and calls out those responsible for certain crimes and schemes. It makes me wonder just how great our “great nation” actually is. Casino Jack is one of these movies, and while I felt contempt towards the multiple characters in the film, I also laughed at the brilliant yet not always subtle satire.

Jack Abramoff (Kevin Spacey) was one of, if not the, most influential lobbyists in Washington, and he only gets bigger when his associate, Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), proposes the idea of cheating a Native American casino out of money. As their profits rise and another casino wants to make a deal, mistakes begin to be made when the bring pseudo-mobster Adam Kidan (Jon Lovitz) into the mix as a business partner. What comes next is Abramoff’s sharp decline in power and respect, ultimately ending his political career.

The choice to make this film into a comedy is a good choice. It keeps the mood light and the politics easy to understand, as long as you know a little bit about the government and its workings. Kevin  Spacey gives a realistic performance (no surprise there) and makes Abramoff almost sympathetic, which is not an easy task. I really enjoyed seeing Barry Pepper not play a soldier or a man stricken by the plight of war. I didn’t know exactly how he would be in a film like this, but he was really good. Jon Lovitz provided this film with its biggest laughs and stole every scene he was in.

When a movie makes you think, than it is doing something that  all movies should, but not all succeed in. When Casino Jack ended, I was really happy with it, but I was also confused and angry about how people, especially in positions of power, can so easily get away with schemes like the one that Abramoff was involved in. If our government can’t even control its lobbyists, who are in a strangely authentic position of power, than how can the people of the country know what is really going on behind the walls of the senate.

I’d like to see more films with the same style as Casino Jack, the dry comedic political satire. There were parts where the comedy reminded me of the comedy used in The Informant, which  was a movie only I seemed to really enjoy. It’s a good way of telling a complicated and potentially devastating story, as Jack Abramoff’s potential future in politics and possibly even his whole life is in shambles by the end of this movie. We never feel that same devastation because of the light hearted tone of the movie. This isn’t to say it’s never dramatic. Of course it is, but it never turns from a comedy to a straight on drama.

Casino Jack is not for everyone, as the mixed reviews from critics and audiences have come to show. If you have absolutely no interest in politics, then you would have no interest in this movie. The real kicker is that this is a true story, and not made up by some screen writer in his apartment. Sure its a dramatization and some of it is probably fictionalized, but the core of the story really happened. Casino Jack is a movie that will make you laugh, wonder, and criticize all at the same time.

On a side note, director George Hickenlooper, died before the movie could be released which to me is a really sad thing. Kudos to you Mr. Hickenlooper for making your last movie a really enjoyable one.