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Movie Reviews: The Big Short and Macbeth (2015)

The Big Short movie posterThe Big Short

Michael Lewis is one of my favorite non-fiction writers. He’s a phenomenal storyteller and he uses a simple formula. He finds fascinating characters who have managed to get caught up in some of the big stories of our times, and he uses their own personal stories as a window into a wider subject. His book The Big Short is about the weirdos who foresaw the 2008 mortgage-backed securities financial crisis.

If your eyes just glazed over at the phrase “mortgage-backed securities,” then this is the film for you. Writer-director Adam McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph (with a great assist from editor Hank Corwin) pull out all the stops to make this one of the funniest, most illuminating films of the year.

They do this by leaning in to some of the intricacies of the financial elements, stopping down the film for entertaining footnotes, and allowing Ryan Gosling’s character (a “unreliable yet reliable narrator”) to speak directly to camera.

The term for looking at the camera is “barelling” and normally it is an actor sin. But here, it is a plenary indulgence. This is Adam McKay’s most mature work by far, which might not be a compliment considering how excellent his immature films are (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers). But his misfires, like The Other Guys, which tried to meld the Second City aesthetic onto McKay’s anger at corporate malfeasance, never gelled.

The Big Short gels like a felon. Using a British-New-Wave-meets-Martin-Scorsese aesthetic, the camerawork is maybe a tad verité, but the film is never boring. The copious stock footage gives the sweep of history. The realization that the heroes are betting that civilization will fail hits with the ton of bricks that it should.

The final note of the film, which looks into which of the Wall Street fraudsters was ultimately punished for their transgressions, is where I went all in. If you don’t know the answer to this, I won’t spoil it for you, but you need to see this film.


Shakespeare’s plays wallow in blood, but “The Scottish Play” is often cited as the bloodiest. This new version, helmed by Australian director Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders) is appropriately brutal. It is not quite as bleak as the 1971 Macbeth, directed by Roman Polanski, to which it owes a great deal. In this Macbeth, the violence takes on a Phantom-camera-induced hypnotic beauty, even as it revisits again and again in the form of PTSD-like flashbacks.

The first decision the filmmakers make is a fantastic one. The film opens with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth burying their child. This backstory is something that is hinted at in the text of the play, but here it overlays the whole story, providing a sympathetic view of the Macbeths as decent people whose faith in good has been so shaken, they are willing to cross over into evil. They are not unique in their ambition, but they are willing to do “more than will become a man” if necessary. And then they find themselves unable to live with what they’ve done.

I’ve never seen a film or production dramatize this arc better. Credit to the leads Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard (a Frencophone who performs King James’s English admirably). They give us a window into the souls of murderers. And the production design, cinematography and stirring score all contribute to the dark mood of a kingdom creeping in a petty pace from day to day.

Shakespeare at least gave the audience some comedy with the Porter. In Kurzel’s Scotland, there is no levity. But there are always choices us Bardophiles will quibble over. What’s important is the movie makes the big choices right, and maximizes what must have been a meager budget. (No a lot of dollars for Shakespeare movies floating around.) Some parts feel truly epic, especially the way Kurzel & co. bring Birnam Wood to Dunsinane.

I will not spoil how this prophecy comes to pass in the film. Suffice it to say it is cinematic and appropriately infernal. There may be no higher powers in this indifferent universe, this conclusion seems to say, but human beings have it within them to make a hell on earth. And thus again did Shakespeare manage to be untimely ripped from today’s headlines.

Your Wednesday Links: An Honest Set of Movie News Links

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you’d like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

New York Times: Hollywood Is Producing Higher Highs, Lower Lows – This is what comes of leaning on the high-risk/high-reward tentpoles.

The Poster Boys Podcast #12: Star Wars Poster Spectacular – And be sure to check out the collection of artwork on their tumblr.

Hollywood Reporter: Layoffs, Defections: Is The Weinstein Co. For Sale?

WIRED: Don’t Look Now, But Netflix Just Became a Traditional Studio

How Facebook is Stealing Billions of Views

Idiot Joy Showland: The Englishman and the Octopus – A very unique review of the latest Bond movie. NOTE: spoilers!

Jesse Eisenberg in The New Yorker: An Honest Movie Review

Your Weekend Viewing: Moving Film Posters

Movie Posters from whoispablo.

See also…

1.000.000 Frames XII / Movie Posters / Candice Drouet from Really Dim

And here are some practical videos on sound design and props:

Why Props Matter from Rishi Kaneria

Proper credit where it is due: All of the above were encountered at

Your Wednesday Links: ‘Next Stop, Pulp Fiction’ Edition

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you’d like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

SlashFilm: YouTube Red Announced, Will Be Paid Streaming Service – Everyone is asking if this is a Netflix competitor. As currently configured, I don’t see it. Hulu hasn’t had much success with the paying-to-remove-(some)-ads model, so I don’t think YouTube will either. If YouTube eventually develops some must-see paywall exclusive shows, the proposition changes. But this is a terrible name and terrible price for what is currently being offered.

Brendon Marotta asks “Can a presidential candidate be evaluated like a screenplay character?”

Must-See Movies Subway Map

taffy711: Worthwhile 2015 Movies You May Have (Actually) Missed

Steven Levy writing for Medium: “This isn’t The Steve Jobs Story” – Agree with many of Levy’s points about the casual inaccuracy of Sorkin’s approach to the material. That said, it remains a great movie about Sorkin himself and his Ayn Randian worldview: “the asshole genius theory of history,” as I tweeted after seeing it.

FiveThirtyEight: Be Suspicious Of Online Movie Ratings, Especially Fandango’s

The Onion: MPAA Adds New Rating To Warn Audiences Of Films Not Based On Existing Works

Gump: The Red Drum Getaway – A clever Hitchcock / Kubrick mashup video.

“Movies should be judged not like plays, but like visual arts. I want to make every frame a painting.” – Guillermo del Toro, Crimson Peak talkback 30 October 2015

Your Wednesday Links: Of Mars and Cameramen

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you’d like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

WIRED: Ridley Scott directed The Martian for the LOLs

Den of Geek: Cinematographer Roger Deakins on Sicario and Blade Runner 2

Jeff Bridges’ BTS photo album

Vox: Color film was built for white people. Here’s what it did to dark skin.

Movie Phone Super Call – A great new YouTube supercut

iO9: The Summer Movies Of 2015: What Worked and What Didn’t

538: The Subtext Buried In Seven Great Movie Chess Scenes – Also, Nate Silver’s site celebrates to the coming season of quality films

Daily Mail: Chimpanzees become so engrossed in violent videos they ignore tasty treats

Website Review: – added link to Udemy’s After Effects basics tutorial
Free Movie Preview Questionnaire – Added some additional instructions for making your own custom version of the feedback sheet from the Google Doc

Your Weekend Viewing: 3D Printing Meets Animation

Check out this cool Japanese video that uses a mind-boggling amount of plastic sculptures to create a perpetual extrusion of animated effects.

I could definitely see this technique used in conjunction with traditional stop-motion animation. Like you animate something in the computer, but print and photograph it live, to achieve a certain look.

I know I’ve posted a lot of animation-related videos lately, but I like to share cool new visual effects whereever I find them. If you know of some live-action short videos that are making use of cutting-edge techniques, leave a note or a link in the comments.

Happy filmmaking!

Your Weekend Viewing: Tombes & Manèges

Tombes & manèges (2015) from ISART DIGITAL on Vimeo.

Whimsically fun art direction and a cute story. Just the right thing to get you in the mood for Halloween… about a month early. Or perhaps the current M. Night Shyamalan film?

More on the making of the film at Short Film of the Week. It was made by students at a French 3D animation school. That’s right. Believe it or not, it’s all digital. The filmmakers used some clever tricks to give a hand-crafted feel. The lens distortion and softening at the edges, in particular, confused my brain into thinking some of it was shot practically.

What did you think of “Tombes & Manèges”? What are you watching this weekend? Leave a comment below.

Your Weekend Viewing: Master Animator Glen Keane on Storytelling

This VR drawing creates some nifty imagery. I wouldn’t mind seeing a music video using this style… or maybe an animation. Hint, hint, Glen.

I actually had the good fortune to interview Glen Keane once when I was working on some bonus features for Beauty and the Beast. The man truly radiates warmth, and that spirit infuses the Disney Renaissance films like Beast and The Little Mermaid that have gone down as modern classics. It is hard to explain, but after meeting some animators and getting a sense for their personalities, you see it come through in their work.

One of the great things about Glen’s generation of animators was their striving to earn the respect for animation that live action films (and other art forms) have taken for granted. They truly believed that one day an animated film could be nominated for Best Picture. And then they made it happen.

And they are still going.

Your Wednesday Links: European Film Model Under Threat Edition

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you’d like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

Variety: European Film Industry Focuses on Twin Threats: Netflix and Digital Single Market

Two Minute Papers: Deep Neural Network Learns Van Gogh’s Art (YouTube video) – Some filmmaker is going to figure out how to add motion to this technique and makes something visually mindblowing.

The Guardian profiles legendary movie sound guru Skip Lievsay – A nice long exploration of the craft of movie sound. Highly recommended reading!

The Karate Kid: Daniel is the REAL Bully (YouTube video essay)

Your Weekly Listening: The Poster Boys (9: The Criterion Collection) and Peter Bogdanovich interviewed on WTF

FilmDrunk: Regal Cinemas Will Now Search Your Bag When You See A Movie And People Have Mixed Feelings

AskReddit: What’s your favorite movie that most of us wouldn’t have ever heard of? – Similarly, here’s a r/movies thread quantifying unknown and underestimated films by cross-referencing IMdB and Rotten Tomato scores.

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible 5: Rogue Nation

The Mission: Impossible franchise has managed not to wear out its welcome over nearly 20 years. How? I’m not sure. It may just be by spacing them so far apart. (1996, 2000, 2006, 2011, 2015.)

Perhaps realizing that we care more about the actors than the characters, this latest installment provides nearly nothing in the way of character development. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is maybe attracted to sexy double agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson in a strong debut) or maybe he’s closer to computer nerd Benji (Simon Pegg). Just to keep you guessing, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie is constantly imperiling both.

But since I don’t have a big investment (or strong memory) of the characters in this franchise, I don’t really mind if we never learn much about them. I do care that the villain in this chapter, Solomon Lane, is under-heated. Despite a snarling, creepy performance by Sean Harris, his motives are inscrutable. He wants to destroy the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) because why exactly? But then he also needs the IMF’s top agent Hunt to help him get access to some bank accounts. Even though he already has the resources to commit terrorist acts all over the world.

It’s best you never think about it. If the villain had actually been shown to be the master strategist everyone in the film keeps saying he is, then his defeat might’ve been satisfying.

As it is, you’ll have to content yourself with some very nicely-shot and edited set-pieces. Tom Cruise strapped to a plane. Tom Cruise holding his breath for a long time. Tom Cruise riding a motor cycle — WITHOUT! A! HELMET!

It’s funny how no-CG is the new impressive form of action. Between this and Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s crazy to see how popular old-fashioned action has become lately. Most of the set-pieces in the film have good builds – the plane, the opera, the underwater heist. The motorcycle chase, however, while expertly done, doesn’t have the same build to a climax that the other sequences do. It also suffers from Infinite Henchmen Syndrome. I’m pretty sure Hunt takes out more cyclists than there were at the beginning of the scene.

Alec Baldwin is here in the perfunctory uptight government functionary role. Or maybe that was all just a ruse so that he could be given a wildly out-of-left-field speech which rhapsodizes Ethan Hunt as “the embodiment of Destiny itself”. It’s a great moment when that destiny manifests, but like so much else in the film, devoid of meaning on a larger scale.

If a summer blockbuster entertains without condescending to the audience, as this one does, it’s already met a high bar. So I won’t complain. But I do wish there was more to the villain, and more stakes to the characters and the world. What might it be like to live a life where you are never certain if you are seeing your closest friend or your worst enemy in a mask? And what is the metaphorical mask you must don each day just to get by? A franchise isn’t mandated to grow and deepen as it goes along, but it is a mission they can choose to accept.

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