Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Entourage (2015) [R] ***+

A film review by James Berardinelli for on June 3, 2015.

If nothing else, Entourage (the movie) can be considered a faithful follow-up to Entourage (the TV series). That's good news for anyone who enjoyed the series up to the end and not-so-good news for those who lost interest along the way or never were interested in the first place. As with Sex and the City, HBO saw an opportunity to extend a brand from the small screen to the big screen and jumped at it with gusto. Unlike Sex and the City, however, Entourage lacks the large, passionate fan base that would make such a transition a slam-dunk success.

Entourage, like Sex and the City, is for the true believers. Anyone else need not bother. Narratively, the film is a bore, rivaling Aloha for this summer's film with the least compelling storyline. There are some amusing moments but, like the TV series, Entourage is more interested in getting chuckles than guffaws. Maybe we should be thankful - at least the comedy isn't embarrassingly over-the-top. The movie features no well-written female characters and seems more interested in cramming as many cameos as possible into its 106 minutes, than focusing on the five main actors who kept the series afloat.

In order to provide some latitude for forward movement, Entourage has to undo some of what occurred in the final episode of the TV series, which aired four years ago. To that end, the marriage of Vince (Adrian Grenier) and Sophia is over before the honeymoon finishes. Eric (Kevin Connolly) has severed all romantic ties with his baby mama Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui), although the two remain friends. Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) is still rich but has lost a few pounds. And Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) remains on the lookout for that elusive big break. Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven) has returned from his self-imposed exile, with the blessing of Mrs. Gold (Perrey Reeves), to run a studio.

From these jumping-off points, Entourage goes essentially nowhere. The main storyline chronicles how Vince, having been given control of a major motion picture (called Hyde) by Ari, makes his directorial debut and goes over budget, creating worries about whether he has crafted a monster failure. Meanwhile, Eric and Sloan are doing a will they/won't they reunion dance. Turtle is pursuing a relationship with MMA star Ronda Rousey and Johnny continues his attempts to further his acting career. Ari discovers that running a studio isn't great for his stress management, especially when a major financial stakeholder (Billy Bob Thornton) sends his undiscriminating son (Haley Joel Osment) to Hollywood to oversee post-production of Hyde.

A lot of the material focuses on how movies get made. The process, purportedly presented from a cynic's perspective, is greatly sanitized. Much of what transpires during the course of Entourage, including a bevy of insider's jokes, will appeal more to those who work in and around the industry than the average movie-goer, who is less concerned about how movies get made than with the final product.

As was true in the series, Ari provides a much needed jolt of energy to a too laid-back production. Piven's manic performance proves that the focus of the film should have been on his character. Of the main quartet, only Kevin Dillon keeps us awake when he's on-screen. Adrien Grenier, Kevin Connolly, and Jerry Ferrara hardly register. Haley Joel Osment, unrecognizable from his famous child self, does a credible job portraying a creepy and loathsome twit.

Director Doug Ellin knows these characters, having shepherded them for 96 episodes over eight seasons, so it's no surprise that they act and talk like they did in the series. The problem is that, with all the inconsequential banter, pointless subplots, and meandering narrative, Entourage has a decidedly exclusive feel to it. It is designed for a small group of viewers and remains unconcerned about whether anyone outside the bubble will have a good time. Maybe that's the right approach since it's doubtful anyone but an Entourage fan would bother to see the movie in the first place. If they did, they likely wouldn't find the experience welcoming or enjoyable. [Berardinelli’s rating: ** out of 4 stars]

Blogger's comment: After watching Entourage the film, we binge-watched all eight seasons (96 episodes) of the TV series, over the course of two months, and then watched the film again. We appreciated it much more, knowing the backstory, and if there is ever an Entourage sequel, we'll definitely be in line to watch it. Blogger's rating: **** out of 5 stars.

Labels: comedy, filmmaking

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Big Short (2015) [R] *****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on Dec. 21, 2015.

Against all odds, The Big Short works. In fact, works is an understatement for what director Adam McKay has achieved with his improbable adaptation of Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book about the 2008 global financial crisis. Writing in Vanity Fair’s December 2015 issue, Lewis says the following: My job, as I saw it, was to make the reader badly want to know about credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. This, in turn, became McKay’s obligation when he made the movie. And one of the major reasons The Big Short succeeds is because McKay does this. Using gallows humor, likable protagonists, and a variety of nonstandard filmmaking techniques (like having characters address the audience directly), McKay maintains a high level of energy for more than two hours and dares us to become bored.

The Big Short merges narrative elements with a pseudo-documentary exhumation of what happened during the years leading up to the 2008 collapse. The characters are all either real-life people who told their stories to Lewis or slightly fictionalized versions (with the names changed to protect the guilty). The film is both instructive and highly entertaining. McKay goes out of his way to inform viewers about the underlying causes of the instability but he does so with tongue-in-cheek irreverence. One device he employs is to hijack celebrities to provide explanations. Margot Robbie gives a lesson while enjoying a bubble bath. (Admittedly, it’s tough to concentrate on what she’s saying). Celebrity chef Anthony Bordain uses a fish stew analogy. And Selena Gomez plays blackjack.

This is more in McKay’s wheelhouse than one might initially assume. The former SNL writer has previously directed a handful of features - all comedies (including Anchorman and its sequel). That background is an asset for The Big Short. The comedic edge gives the film greater resonance. Not only does it leaven the heavier material but it impels the narrative with a natural momentum.  The snarky tone will appeal to those who have always been distrustful of Wall Street’s business practices. McKay in no way uses this for humorous sport, however; there’s a deep current of anger and outrage underlying the comedy.

The Big Short cherry picks characters from the book - not every person profiled by Lewis makes it to the screen. The focus is on five individuals: Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially awkward financial genius; Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a broker with a conscience; Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a rapacious investor out to make a killing; and the duo of Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), a couple of amateurs who see the opportunity of a lifetime. Burry is the first one to identify the dangers inherent in the way Wall Street is overvaluing bonds backed by sub-prime mortgages. As early as 2005, he is sounding the alarm bell but no one is listening. So he turns this into an investment opportunity by shorting the bonds - essentially betting that the housing market will collapse. Vennett reaches the same conclusion and discusses it with Baum who, after a private investigation, agrees with him. Geller and Shipley are in the right place at the right time and, acting under the advice of ex-broker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), get a seat at the big boys’ table.

Christian Bale, who is no stranger to radical appearance changes, de-glamorizes himself in order to portray Burry. Bale adopts some of Burry’s mannerisms and idiosyncrasies (such as his preference for always being barefoot) and believably conveys the sometimes off-putting personality of a man afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome. Not to be outdone, Steve Carell submerges his physicality and personality, although by nature Baum isn’t as compelling an individual as Burry. While Bale and Carell have the most screen time, a host of other big-name players make appearances including Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Marisa Tomei, and Mark Strong.

This is the second unorthodox feature adaptation of one of Lewis’ books and is fundamentally more successful than Moneyball. It was possible to fashion the 2011 movie into a slightly off-kilter bio-pic. The Big Short, because of the necessity of educating viewers about a variety of terms and processes, necessitated a different approach. McKay (along with his co-screenwriter, Charles Randolph) found the sweet spot. As a result, The Big Short works not only on a narrative level but as a teaching device, and it achieves the latter without seeming to talk down to an audience. There have been other movies about stock market corruption. Most, like Wall Street and J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call (also about 2008), view the situation through the lens of a thriller. McKay, like Martin Scorsese in The Wolf of Wall Street, illustrates that comedy can be an effective tool in telling a story like this, provided it’s used with scalpel-like precision. The cuts made by The Big Short are deep and devastating in what they reveal about how 2008 happened and, tellingly, how little has changed since then. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** ½ out of 4 stars]

Labels: biography, comedy, crime, drama, finance

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Everest (2015) [PG-13] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for on Sept. 18, 2015

Mount Everest has been conquered. Since the day in 1953 when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to stand atop the summit, thousands have successfully climbed the mountain. Their reasons for making the ascent are as varied as the climbers themselves but often have to do with proving something (to themselves or others), fulfilling a dream, or inflating an ego.  Sometimes more than one of those things. On May 11, 1996, however, the dream became a nightmare from which eight climbers didn't awaken. Directed with powerful verisimilitude by Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur, Everest provides a condensed, partially fictionalized chronology of how the mountain became executioner and tomb for five of those eight people.

Everest is more disaster film than adventure yarn, although it relies heavily on the man-versus-nature aspect of the situation. Unfortunately, as is often the case with productions that focus on the struggle to survive against impossible odds, the human elements are often shortchanged. In this case, character development is neglected in favor of awe-inspiring views. There are times when we feel like we're on the mountain. Unfortunately, our companions - the men and women populating the screen - are never more than half-formed.

(The events chronicled in Everest were previously depicted in a 1998 documentary of the same name. David Brashears, whose images comprised the earlier account, is a minor character in this movie. Comparing the two - to the extent it's fair to compare fiction and non-fiction - there's little doubt that the documentary is the better film both in terms of its visuals and its immediacy.)

Everest opens with a sluggish first act characterized by the introduction of too many underdeveloped characters. For the most part, they are identified by a defining trait or two. New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) is the leader of the expedition. He has a loving, pregnant wife (Kiera Knightley) waiting at home for his return. His clients include Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a wealthy Texan in a troubled marriage; Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly), a writer; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a postman who has scrimped and saved to afford the trip; and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), a woman who has previously achieved six of the Seven Summits. Also headed for the mountain is Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), the leader of a rival climbing group. Everest takes an inordinate amount of time to get the pieces in place. However, once the group departs base camp and begins the ascent, the film sloughs off its slow pace and transforms into a gripping tale of survival, life, and death.

The movie's final two-thirds detail the torturous difficulties encountered by the climbers as they strive to reach the so-called Death Zone and what happens to them on the descent when a blizzard sweeps in. There are several deaths, one seemingly impossible survival, and a harrowing helicopter rescue. The screenplay, credited to William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, tries to tweak the audience's emotions by introducing some sentimentality but these efforts are largely ineffective. The mountain dominates everything, including the existences of those who made foolish decisions in attempting to surmount it.

Everest's triumph lies in its ability to convey the difficulties and dangers of the journey. Climbing the mountain, which stands at more than 29,000 feet in height, is no pleasure jaunt. Through a combination of on-location footage, digital chicanery, and in-studio filming, Kormakur is able to replicate the climb with startling effectiveness. The big screen is helpful in amplifying Everest's majesty - the visuals won't be as impressive viewed on a television or (worse) a tablet and/or phone. The 3-D, on the other hand, although not detrimental, isn't used to good effect.  It's simply there, an unnecessary add-on that does little beyond inflate the ticket price. Too bad it's not available in 2-D IMAX. That would be the preferred format.

Everest boasts an impressive cast but, aside from Josh Brolin and Jason Clarke, no one is tasked with giving an Oscar-worthy performance. Character-actor Clarke doesn't overwhelm with a memorable performance but his role is central and he has enough screen time that we're likely to remember him. Brolin, on the other hand, brings energy to a thinly-written role. Everyone else does what they're asked to do - Kiera Knightley, Emily Watson (as Rob's business partner), Jake Gyllenhaal, and John Hawkes. Sam Worthington (as a climber involved in the rescue effort) and Robin Wright (as Beck's wife) are superfluous. Everest may be many things but it's not a showcase for the respected actors who appear in it.

Everest is a different animal from a garden-variety disaster movie. Although some of the beats are the same, the symphony is darker and more haunting. The true story aspect is one reason; the lack of reliance on genre tropes and clich├ęs is another. Everest is not replete with hard-to-believe acts of heroism, annoying kids, and plucky pets. It also doesn't feature an unnecessary human bad guy; the mountain is sufficiently implacable adversary. And, if Everest serves no other purpose, it functions admirably as a deterrent to answering the age-old question of Why [climb the mountain]? with a glib Because it's there. [Berardinelli’s rating: *** out of 4 stars]

Blogger’s comment: Films made in 1997, 1998 and 2015 all take us along for doomed expeditions up the tallest peak in the Himalayas in May 1996. The story has also been told in at least five books by survivors, most famously in journalist Jon Krakauer's 1997 best-seller Into Thin Air, which is the primary basis for the screenplay of 2015's Everest.

Labels: adventure, biography, drama, history, thriller, tragedy