Movie Reviews

“Love and Mercy,” a Music Biopic that Really Sings

By Ryan Anderson (@randerson_ryan)

Biographical movies are a dime-a-dozen, and there’s certainly no shortage of biographical films about musicians, either, but the unconventional structure and strong performances make “Love and Mercy,” a look at the life and times of Brian Wilson, one of the better entries into the canon.

It’s a wise decision to start the movie with a selection of Beach Boys’ songs, to remind and/or inform the audience how popular they were and how many memorable songs they cut. The rest of the film then uses John Cusack, as older Wilson, and Paul Dano, as younger Wilson, to depict everything from Wilson’s time in the band, his orchestration of the famed “Pet Sounds” album–which Rolling Stone declared the second-best album in history in 2003– his poisonous relationship with his odious father, his struggles with “hearing voices” in his head, falling for Melinda Ledbetter as an older man, and her battle to extract him from under the influence of the warped Dr. Eugene Landy.

Wilson is clearly a tortured musical genius. The scenes of him putting together the revolutionary “Pet Sounds”  with a group of musicians are an extraordinary look inside the process of a musician, and they’re juxtaposed with his vicious, abusive father. Unfortunately for Wilson, he trades one domineering man for another, as Landy is just as shady and manipulative as his old man. The younger Wilson eventually goes totally off the deep end, which is how the older Wilson eventually comes under the spell of Landy. (more…)

“The Big Short” Dives into a Worldwide Financial Meltdown–with Laughs

By Ryan Anderson (@randerson_ryan)

“The Big Short,” now in theaters, follows Oscar Wilde’s dictum that if you’re going to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.

If “The Big Short,” named one of the top 10 films of 2015 by the American Film Institute, didn’t make us laugh at the avarice and carelessness of those in the financial industry who brought on the most recent economic meltdown, we’d weep, or riot in the streets like the French Revolution.

This is a genuinely angry film, which has been nominated for most outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture by SAG, mad at the people who drove the country off a cliff, faced no real consequences, and now are essentially back to their old tricks.

Adapted from the Michael Lewis book of the same title–Lewis also had “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side” flourish on the big screen–we follow the few individuals who realized how insane the system had become and bet against, or shorted, the housing market. They understood that giving credit to people who didn’t deserve it so they could buy homes they couldn’t afford created an unsustainable bubble that was bound to burst, and when it did, it took the world economy with it. (more…)

“Black Sea” Goes Deep and Dark

By Ryan Anderson (@randerson_ryan)

Black Sea,” released earlier this year, is a resolutely old-fashioned thriller that hearkens back to the many quality submarine films of the past and adroitly adds tenets of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

The setup is cleverly simple. Robinson (Jude Law) has spent his life on subs, both as a member of the British Navy and as a leader of salvage crews, but he’s unceremoniously sacked by his company; he’s told he’s redundant in their modern corporate culture. Depressed, he goes to drown his sorrows in a nearby pub, where a friend informs him of a get-rich scheme. Apparently, there’s a sunken German submarine in the Black Sea with millions in Nazi gold just waiting to be plucked by a crew with the will and the ability.

Robinson rounds up a rough crew of sailors who are just as down on their luck as he; the crew is half Russian and half British, which immediately leads to enmity and distrust. And, when Robinson informs them each man gets an equal share of however much gold they recover, slowly the men begin to work the math–the fewer men onboard, the larger my share. Some of these rogues even begin plotting the untimely demise of their fellow crew members. The corrosive effects of greed added to the psychological travails of being locked in a tiny, dilapidated sub deep under the sea lead to problems, as one might surmise. (more…)

“Creed,” Surprisingly, has a Deft Touch

by Ryan Anderson (@randerson_ryan)

I’m as surprised to be writing this as you all are to be reading it, but, here goes: the umpteenth iteration of the “Rocky” series, in theaters now, is actually, (gulp), good, and–wait for it–Sylvester Stallone may be worthy of an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

Is this bizarro world? No, Ryan Coogler, director, Stallone, as an aged Rocky Balboa, naturally, Michael B. Jordan, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson Creed, and Tessa Thompson, Bianca, combine to make “Creed” a sincere, compelling drama.

Jordan’s Creed is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, who battled Balboa so memorably in the original “Rocky” films, and, though he wants to make it on his own in boxing without using his father’s name, he does travel from California to Philadelphia to coax Balboa into training him. Balboa, wasting away in his restaurant, has been out of the fight game for years, but he feels compelled to assist the young lad when he discovers he’s Apollo Creed’s son. He goes about building a raw, angry, and talented young Creed into a legitimate contender, while the training pugilist falls in love with a neighbor, Bianca, a musician with progressive hearing loss.

The main characters are three-dimensional, and Coogler takes his time with the film, so their relationships develop organically according to their natures, not to serve plot contrivances.
I haven’t seen a performance this good and human from Stallone since his emotional role in 1997’s “Cop Land,” and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him nominated for an acting Oscar for only the second time in his career–the original “Rocky” was the other. Let’s face it, he’s mostly been an overgrown cartoon meathead in most of his films; one could certainly argue Stallone’s only legitimately good acting performances are in “Rocky,” “Cop Land,” and “Creed.” But, while Mark Twain told us politicians, prostitutes, and old buildings become respectable with age, we now may need to add Stallone to that list–he’s downright venerable in “Creed.” He underplays with aplomb, embodying heart, grief, and guilt. (more…)

Silverman Proves She’s No Clown in “I Smile Back”

by Ryan Anderson (@randerson_ryan)

With “I Smile Back,” Sarah Silverman joins the likes of Robin Williams and other standup comics who proved their alacrity with serious material in movies.

Laney (Silverman) is a despicable, self-loathing housewife who engages in repeated acts of debasement to punish herself for wrongdoing. Despite a devoted, loving husband, Bruce (Josh Charles), and two sweet children, Laney follows a spiral of self-destruction aided and abetted by drugs, alcohol, and adultery after she stops taking her prescribed Lithium.

The movie itself is a grim, harrowing tale of addiction and upper-middle class ennui, and it provides no real illumination. We’re led to believe Laney’s problems may stem at least in part from her father abandoning the family when she was nine; in the final act, she goes to see him for the first time since he left, discovering he has a wife and a young daughter. (more…)

“The Night Before” Supplies Impudent Laughs Before Lapsing into Traditional Christmas Sentiment

by Ryan Anderson (@randerson_ryan)

“The Night Before,” now in theaters, is very funny for much of its running time before undercutting its own subversiveness with a traditional, cliched, happy ending.

But, before reaching its treacly conclusion, “The Night Before” threatens to join dark, irreverent holiday classics like “Bad Santa.”

The parents of Ethan Miller (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) both are killed in a car accident when he’s a teenager, but his best friends, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie), ride to his rescue by taking him out for an evening of debauchery to take his mind off the tragedy and prevent Christmas from being ruined for him. Naturally, it becomes a tradition, as the three venture out in New York City every Christmas Eve for misrule that would make Caligula blush.

Alas, 14 years after their first Christmas Eve of merriment, the tradition is set to end, as two of the three grow into adulthood and responsibility. Isaac and his wife are about to have a baby, and Chris has become a major football star (with the aid of steroids). They no longer wish to engage in the risque ritual, even though Ethan remains in a state of arrested development–he’s just lost the love of his life because he refused to meet her parents, he’s a penniless singer/songwriter who makes music no one ever hears, and Chris and Isaac remain his only real family.