On November 4, 2018, Americans reset their clocks back one hour as daylight saving time 2018 ended at 2:00 AM. What if daylight saving time were a movie?
HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) was a surprise joy for me, providing a compelling story that defies the usual crime movie tropes and shows small town America in a gritty but non-patronizing way. It’s been compared to NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but for me it’s more Elmore Leonard than Cormac McCarthy.
Starring Chris Pine in a subdued role where he can show off some real acting, as well as Jeff Bridges at his Jeff Bridges best, the movie is about two brothers robbing a string of banks in small towns in rural Texas. They seem like amateur crooks, which they are because they’re only doing it because they need the money for a specific purpose, which is to save their ranch, and while they may be amateurs, they’re far more clever in their technique than they seem to be. Jeff Bridges plays a Texas ranger who glimpses the truth behind the crimes and is hot on the brothers’ trail. All three men were what they were their whole lives up until this point, but they’re on a special mission now, and they are going to risk everything for it. The movie delivers clear stakes that include redemption for the brothers and one last big win for the ranger before he enters the frightening idleness of retirement.
The setting is as compelling as the story, taking place in a part of Texas where if you rob a bank, the customers are likely to be carrying more guns than the guards. The locals are handled perfectly, big talkers and gun toters but without the usual positive or negative patronizing. The result is a very deep suspension of disbelief in a perfectly rendered small-town America in which people struggle to get by, in which the banks are foreclosing on thousands of failing homes and farms. This background conflict brings a Robin Hood aspect to the brothers’ mission, a poetic justice that they’re sticking it to the bank that’s sticking it to their family. The story builds to a powerful and realistic climax and, for me, ended on a perfect note.
Overall, I went into it expecting big drama with a side of sap but got an intelligent story about taking a personal stand based on love or loyalty, and risking everything for it.
Based on the book by Michael Lewis, THE BIG SHORT (2015) brings together solid direction, a stellar cast, and a powerful script to tell the story of the 2008 housing crisis that nearly crashed the world economy. The story focuses on several investors–a socially awkward doctor who reads numbers so well he can predict market trends, a rogue investor group led by a misanthrope, and two brilliant young investors looking for a big trade that will get them a seat at the big boys’ table–as they predict the crash and seek to cash in on it.
This is a complicated topic made simple through good storytelling. Basically, mortgages were aggregated as new investment products with high rates of return. As time went on, higher-risk loans were packaged with them, then very risky loans. Over time, few knew what was even in these products, which kept getting AAA credit ratings by agencies under financial pressure to do so. Then spinoff products began to arise around these products, resulting in say $10 billion becoming $100 billion, without anything justifying it other than the illusion there was value there. The SEC did nothing about it because they were underfunded, and the people who worked there wanted lucrative jobs when they got out of government. When higher-rate clauses in a wave of adjustable rate mortgages began to kick in in 2007, massive defaults cracked the system, which led to its unwinding and crash while revealing just how rotten and corrupt the entire market was.
The investors who saw this coming were modern-day Cassandras. As nobody has ever shorted the housing market, the banks create products just for them, thinking they’re crazy and that they’re making easy money. As everybody had a vested interest in keeping the illusion of stability going, the market kept rising and the AAA ratings held, even as the default rate kept rising. Finally, the system broke, big banks and investment firms were going down or in trouble, and millions of people lost everything. Not the banks, though, which got their bailouts, paid out huge bonuses to their executives, and years later went right back to the same highly risky investment products that got us into that mess.
THE BIG SHORT is a terrific movie that respects the intelligence of its audience, is cynical rather than preachy, and functions as a dark comedy about how the global economy nearly imploded out of sheer greed and willful ignorance. One thing is certain: If somebody can make a buck making a mistake and pass off its consequences to the public, they will do it again and again, and even romanticize the mistake as being brilliant and brave.
TERRIFIED (2019) is an Agentinian horror film about a haunting growing across three homes in a suburban neighborhood. The characterization isn’t very deep, characters often make really bad decisions even when they know better, and the subtitle translation is frequently awkward, but on the other hand, it all comes together and it’s a hell of a lot of scary fun. I caught it on Shudder.
The film reveals the bizarre goings-on at the homes, which range from creepy noises to bringing back the dead to horrific murder. Stymied by these events, a cop brings in three paranormal experts to stay in the homes and investigate the phenomenon. They make remarkable discoveries, but these creatures do not wish to be studied. They want to destroy.
The real star of the movie is some seriously creepy set pieces, including a crazy sequence involving a resurrected boy. Some great scares are offered, but they’re done through powerful reveals rather than cheap jump scares. I love the trope of scientists investigating the paranormal, though their dialogue comes across as weird, which might be due to the translation from Spanish.
Overall, TERRIFIED is a lot of fun, I give it a very strong B+.
THE CURED (2017) is a zombie movie that examines what happens to the infected after they’re cured. The society that cured them doesn’t really want them, while the cured themselves remember every horrific act they did while they were rabid and murderous. It stands alongside other stories like IN THE FLESH, which examine the zombie apocalypse from a fresh angle and therefore try to bring a bit more heart and brains to the genre.
The story begins with Senan and Connor, ready to be released from a quarantine center in Ireland. The outbreak is over, though Ireland has been devastated. Around 75% of the infected were cured, while the remaining 25% are resistant to the vaccine and locked up in government facilities. During the outbreak, Senan and Connor hunted as part of the same pack, giving them a familial bond. Released into the general public, they face government control and rampant fear and prejudice among the uninfected survivors. Senan tries to reestablish an older familiar bond with Abbie, his brother’s wife (played by the wonderful Ellen Paige), and child, though he ends up entangled in Connor’s spreading terrorist organization fighting for cured rights.
This is a movie that’s more thoughtful and ambitious than your typical zombie tale, hitting themes of how far a society will go out of fear, and how far victims of prejudice will go before they start fighting back. I liked but didn’t love it. It hits all the right notes emotionally, and there’s even a little zombie action, though it’s all a bit dour and sluggish. I think what was missing for me was protagonist character agency–Senan doesn’t really do anything, things happen to him, Connor appears to have way too much agency as a villain, and Abbie, who could have been the face of prejudice against the cured, is one of the good guys from the start. The result is a story focused on plot and ideas, albeit interesting, rather than character, which would have gotten me to invest in the story more. It also might have been more powerful if it was a little less neat and had focused on how the cured dealt with the memories of their horrific acts, offering us more flashbacks to the chaos.
Overall, THE CURED is a good movie, ambitious and thoughtful for a zombie film, and offering something different in a crowded genre, though I felt like it could have offered more.
One of my favorite forms of procrastination is to lose myself in a good civilization-building strategy game, and Northgard is currently my top pick to turn off my brain for an hour or two. In this game, you control a clan of Vikings that is settling on a new continent and competing with other clans doing the same. While winning the game is satisfying, simply surviving this brutal game is its own form of victory.
You start out with a few settlers foraging for food. Build a scout camp, and you can assign a worker to reveal more map tiles. Build a wood camp to get wood, or your people will freeze. Build farms, fishing huts, and hunting camps, or they’ll starve. Build mines, so you can improve all your buildings. Build markets and trading posts, so you can sustain your buildings and buy things. Build mender’s huts, so you can heal your wounded and stave off plague. Build towers and train different types of warriors, or wolves, draugr (Norse zombies), and other players will mercilessly tear you to shreds. Stock up on everything because winter is coming, maybe even a blizzard, which will rapidly deplete your supplies. Did I mention everything in this game is trying to kill you? This new continent is wonderful, but it really doesn’t want you there.
The game is easy to learn and play but difficult to get good at, as you have to precisely manage your resources, from manpower to basic necessities to land. Each land tile on the map holds only so many buildings you need to build to grow and survive, so your clan is under constant pressure to expand. Plus you’ll keep finding map tiles you really want, which offer fertile land or iron or stone or easy ability to defend. This pressure to grab land puts you into natural conflict with the other players, who will be raiding you anyway but are now fighting with you over important resources they need. It’s a brilliant part of the game. Speaking of wars, the other players will all have a specialized skill their clan possesses, such as the Raven clan, which hires mercenaries to attack your coastal provinces and plunder them, or Wolf, which earns happiness for having a big army and gold for every one of your warriors they kill.
If you’re into gaming and enjoy strategic civ-building games, check it out. I highly recommend it as a really fun and challenging game in the tradition of games like Rise of Nations.