Hail, Caesar! (2016)

I’ve been on holiday for much of March, hence not posting so much, but I found the time to go and see the latest Coen brothers film twice in that time. Partly this is because since seeing their last film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), I’ve found something new to enjoy and celebrate in their work — an attitude not based on snide self-congratulatory archness, or so it feels to me (perhaps unfairly). However, I went to see it a second time also because the critical response — and my own initial reaction — feels so much like it misses the point of this latest work. Yes, the pacing seems initially quite odd — it has a slowly unfolding stiltedness that treads heavily somewhat like the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s which it pastiches — and yes it’s a light and warm-hearted embrace of the era, but neither is surely a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost a release after the dour depression of Llewyn, but it’s not shallow. There’s a significant subplot that burrows into the contortions Hollywood found itself in during the McCarthy period, as his House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Communist sympathies within the industry. Even if leading man Baird (George Clooney) confronts a cabal of screenwriters (“The Future”), who have kidnapped him for possibly nefarious reasons, with a genial good humour, their presence is still given a voice, and not even a mocking one at that (Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse pops up at one point). It also has a great line in fabulous supporting performances (Josh Brolin is the lead as studio boss Eddie), whether Tilda Swinton’s gossip columnist sisters, Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-like tap dancing showman, Ralph Fiennes’ director or, perhaps best of all, Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie. It’s sweet, and for the Coens it’s played fairly straight, and it’s all the better for that.

Hail, Caesar! film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 8 March 2016, and at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 17 March 2016.

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

In many ways, 2012’s Magic Mike was one of Steven Soderbergh’s most purely enjoyable movies, and its box office success meant that this sequel came along a few years later, with the (retired from directing) Soderbergh on camera and editing, and ditching McConaughey, but otherwise retaining the core male characters under a new director. Reading back over my old review, it seems I was not enamoured of Channing Tatum’s work, but oh how things change in a mere few years. Tatum is a linchpin of modern Hollywood cinema and his every appearance immediately lifts a film’s enjoyability (even if it can’t always save some of them). He has shown himself to be game for a lot of things not traditionally considered the domain of the macho leading man within the Hollywood system, not least of all the demographic-pleasing direction this sequel takes.

For clearly the makers know exactly who’s going to see the film — that much was clear at the double-bill I attended — and so, far more than the first film, there’s a direct attempt to engage with women in the audience. It’s not that the film is therefore sleazy or objectifies the men, but it makes a real effort (sometimes too much) to refocus the story on the lead characters satisfying their audiences. This means that the romantic subplot of the first film is largely ditched in favour of dance setpieces, including one at an all-Black club run by Jada Pinkett Smith, another in which Mike & co. cater to a drunken party of Southern belles presided over by Andie MacDowell (her overacting finally put to good use), all building to the finale of a regional stripping competition in South Carolina where Elizabeth Banks calls the shots. Even more importantly for the audience, Soderbergh has ditched the tepid yellow filter that made the first film so distinctively ugly — this is a world of visual pleasure provided by Mike’s crew, and the camerawork does not get in its way.

A lot of people hailed the female-centric Mad Max: Fury Road in end-of-year polls last year, but for my money (and what little my opinion matters on this topic, which is not very much at all), Magic Mike XXL is the real mainstream movie champion of 2015. (It’s certainly the best performance-based sequel starring Elizabeth Banks.) It knows exactly how generic it is, and exactly how trashy it needs to pitch itself, but it somehow skirts away from the pitfalls of that gamble through sheer good-natured charm and a lot of very tight choreography.

Magic Mike XXL (2015)CREDITS
Director Gregory Jacobs; Writer Reid Carolin; Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodríguez; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Saturday 23 January 2016.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

The Wachowskis are filmmakers with a strong directorial vision, who’ve put some pretty good films together (also, admittedly, some bad ones; I do not intend to make a case for any of the Matrix sequels), so when you see the kind of critical mauling that Jupiter Ascending has been getting from some quarters, well I think that’s as good a recommendation as any to get oneself along to the film in question. Sure, it’s a big confusing mess, but there’s nothing in it that seems to invite the derision it’s been getting, though this may in fact be down to a lot of similar factors to Inherent Vice‘s reception — that the plot is so elaborate that it’s turned some viewers off. But, weirdly, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, this is a much an exercise in evoking the fabric of a lost world (or, here, an imagined universe), which should always be something worth celebrating. It’s no mean feat to try and visualise the textures of such a vast system of planets (think Star Wars) and power factions (think Dune), so if there’s a bit of recycling involved, well that’s to be expected — in fact, one sequence has such an indebtedness to Brazil that Terry Gilliam himself turns up. There’s plenty enough that’s unfamiliar — new experiences and imagery, created jargon for new technology — that as a viewer you feel sympathy for Mila Kunis’s titular heroine Jupiter when, like Vice‘s Doc, she is called on to continually express confusion at what’s happening. It’s refreshing too to see a woman playing the central character for such a big film — she is a lowly Russian cleaner who turns out to be (via some method) the owner of Earth — though Channing Tatum (with quite the silliest facial hair of the season) provides plenty of valuable support as the ‘spliced’ mercenary (think Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps) who has her back. The acting star here though is Eddie Redmayne, who chews up the scenery with such a hammy performance that it goes through badness to being sheer genius, and perfectly matches the tone of the film. Other performers can be uneven, and taken as a whole it doesn’t always hold together perfectly, but as an experience it’s every bit the equal in imagination and scope as any other big budget blockbuster, and as a “space opera” it’s more interesting than any nonsense from 1977.


Jupiter Ascending film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Vue Croydon Grant’s, London, Saturday 14 February 2015.

Three Recent Films about Dudes: Foxcatcher and Whiplash (both 2014) and Ex Machina (2015)

At a certain level, the title of my post is a provocation, because one of these films is not like the others, for several reasons. But let’s start with what unites them which is, yes, that they are all set almost exclusively in the company of men, whether in the sporting world of wrestling (Foxcatcher), the musical world of jazz drumming (Whiplash) or the not-so-futuristic world of tech geniuses (Ex Machina).

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher

In Foxcatcher, Steve Carell’s John du Pont is his own worst enemy, and his mentor status is something that his wealth and privilege allow him to buy. In fact, the wrestler brothers who are nominally the central characters in the film (Channing Tatum’s Mark and Mark Ruffalo’s Dave), take an emotional backseat in the narrative to Steve Carell’s performance, though all three actors do fine work. John “call me Eagle, or Golden Eagle” du Pont has lived a life of wealthy solitude, and it’s this which has bred a desperation to fit in that leads to the film’s tragic denouement and (justly) overshadows everything else. The film’s (and Carell’s) triumph is to imbue a sense of bleak empathy with this most outsider of figures, for all the immeasurable harm he inflicts.

Harm is explicitly what teacher Terence Fletcher (played by J. K. Simmons) wants to inflict on his students in Whiplash, for it’s part of his philosophy of achievement, largely derived from an anecdote about Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker that is mentioned several times in the film. For student Andrew (Miles Teller), it’s a philosophy that appeals to him, being so desperate to distinguish himself from his smarter, richer fellow students at the prestigious academy he attends. The film is largely a psychological battle between these two set over a drum kit and suffused with sweat and blood, much of it filmed in extreme, lascivious close-up (or so it feels). The other students and relationships fall quickly into the background, and you’d be forgiven for imagining there were no more important instruments in any musical ensemble than the drums, but that’s because it’s a story of student and teacher played out as psychological warfare.

J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller in Whiplash

Yet, despite their shared testosterone, these first two films are quite different from the third I want to discuss. They may all dwell on pursuits which are stereotypically masculine, but I’d argue that the first two films are interested more in the nature of obsession. They are both about desperate protagonists who want to succeed at all costs. I don’t know if the sort of monomaniacal focus that these films’ protagonists have is something specifically male (it certainly feels like it can be, sometimes), but if the films don’t pass the Bechdel Test, you imagine it’s because in their deeply-warped worlds, no one is talking about anything else but them.

Ex Machina, though, is very much about men. At first, it feels like it might be a boring male-bonding-in-the-wilderness story, as coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is whisked off to a vast, remote estate to hang out with his company’s founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac), an alpha male bearded heavy-drinking tech genius. But Nathan has something up his sleeve, a project he’s been working on: a robot. Specifically, a female robot, Ava (the currently ubiquitous Alicia Vikander). When I left the film, the first thing I googled was “feminist critique” because it pushes obsessively at something disturbing about gender relations, and being a white male geek (of sorts), I can’t really be sure if it’s enacting a story of emancipation from the male gaze, or the opposite. A little bit of both, I suspect, because unquestionably the female form is literally objectified. Limbs, hair and naked skin are effortlessly transferred and reconfigured, and unselfconsciously put on display. One of the women doesn’t even have the power of speech. The film comes on like a version of the story of Adam and Eve, with Ava the ne plus ultra of feminine duplicity, but she’s as much a constructed figure of patriarchal fear as Rosamund Pike’s Amy in Gone Girl, so I suspect the way you react to Ava will be similar. I’d be offended, except that the men in the film are no paragons either, and they end up as they start, trapped by their own objectifying gaze. Whatever fears of artificial intelligence it may stir up, the film’s triumph is reserved for consciousness.

Whatever else you might say about Ex Machina — and I think there’s a lot that could, and no doubt will, be said — it does at least allow for many different readings. Putting it alongside the other two films is just to point up their conventional qualities: well-crafted, certainly; flawlessly acted, definitely. But whatever the weaknesses of science fiction, I can think of few other genres as willing to pose difficult questions, and to make audiences think. All three films take you on a ride, but with Ex Machina the ride continues after the film ends.


Foxcatcher film posterFoxcatcher (2014)
Director Bennett Miller; Writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman; Cinematographer Greig Fraser; Starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo; Length 134 minutes.
Seen at Odeon West India Quay, London, Sunday 18 January 2015.

 

Whiplash film posterWhiplash (2014)
Director/Writer Damien Chazelle; Cinematographer Sharone Meir; Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Saturday 17 January 2015.

 

 

 

Ex Machina film posterEx Machina (2015)
Director/Writer Alex Garland; Cinematographer Rob Hardy; Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 28 January 2015.

22 Jump Street (2014)

I’m quite sure this film doesn’t need my review, and those who want to see it will go and see it regardless. I myself certainly wasn’t expecting it to be as fun or as silly as the original 2012 reboot of creaky 80s high school detective TV series 21 Jump Street, but I wasn’t expecting it to push through silliness to something quite so generic. Of course, having fun with genre signifiers is part of what it’s playing at, and there’s even a speech by the chief (an enjoyably Ron Swanson-ish turn by Nick Offerman) which could read as a meeting between the filmmakers and the studio about the need to do exactly the same thing in the sequel — a premise which sees this film move to a university for its otherwise identical drug-ring-busting plot, but also allows for the most fun bit of the film which is the end credits sequence imagining further sequels. I feel as audiences we’ve got used to the trope of ‘a film that looks like it was fun to make’ as code for ‘but not fun to watch’ and if it’s not ever entirely tedious (it has a few laughs), it certainly does skirt close to being that. The university setting allows for lots of jokes at the expense of its stars (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) and their age, which is a canny way not to alienate an adolescent audience, I suppose, yet it feels a bit condescending at times, though at least the scenes of deadpan student Mercedes (Jillian Bell) poking fun at Hill’s age are among the film’s funniest, and Mercedes gets to come into her own in the denouement. However, in riffing on audience expectations from this type of film, the filmmakers also spend a lot of time trying to push the cop buddy-film homosociality towards something affecting, but it never comes off as anything more than sophomoric, and the sheen of engaged awareness doesn’t elevate the bromance beyond pseudo-homophobic locker-room crassness. Which is all by way of saying, I didn’t really like it as much as I perhaps expected to, given the fine pedigree of its directors and cast at doing this kind of thing, though at the very least it is certainly aware of exactly what it is doing. And it was probably a lot of fun to make.

22 Jump Street film posterCREDITS
Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller; Writers Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman (based on the TV series 21 Jump Street by Patrick Hansburgh and Stephen J. Cannell); Cinematographer Barry Peterson; Starring Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube, Peter Stormare, Jillian Bell; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 22 June 2014.

White House Down (2013)

As is Hollywood’s wont, there were two films last year which had terrorists take over the White House, hold the President hostage, and then have their plans ruined by John McClane I mean, an undervalued everyman character (where “everyman” is a white male, obviously). I went to see Olympus Has Fallen in the cinema, and that, I realise now, was the wrong choice. White House Down is no less silly, it should be emphasised, and it rips off Die Hard (1988) every bit as comprehensively. However, in every respect (except maybe in the acting chops of its authority figures: Melissa Leo > whoever the hell the VP is here), it proves itself the better of the two films.

It’s difficult even to pinpoint exactly what makes it so much better. Perhaps it helps that here the threat is a loose alliance of ex-military right-wing gun nuts and racists, rather than a generic East Asian terrorist collective (nominally North Korean, but apparently Chinese in the original conception), which immediately disarms the racist connotations of our white heroes’ triumph. Here the racial diversity is instead on the side of the Americans, with a post-Obama Presidential turn by Jamie Foxx, who does his best to capture the requisite gravitas. If he doesn’t always succeed, his looser performance still allows for some lovely moments with our hero Channing Tatum’s politically-savvy teenage daughter Emily (Joey King), not to mention a bit of knockabout humour involving a rocket launcher.

The daughter’s there for a bit of human interest, and the set-up follows a standard generic pattern: as John Cale, Tatum has been a bit of an unreliable dad and now must prove his worth to his daughter, which he does by trying to get a Secret Service job (he doesn’t pass his interview, but not before we’ve had a hint at some backstory with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Carol). When the terrorists attack, father and daughter are separated, giving his resistance to the terrorists a bit of personal motivation (when he overhears the evil mastermind threatening to kill the President, he means to push on with finding his daughter, and has to kick himself to go back and help). His daughter is not totally helpless, it turns out (shades of Jason Statham movies like Safe and Homefront there), but she’s still too young not to need his help. Then again, you only really need to accept these familiar tropes; the fun is in how efficiently they are mobilised, and there’s a relative minimum of sentimental mawkishness.

As you’ll have guessed, there’s nothing startling or new here. If you liked Die Hard and you are fond of this kind of action thriller, then you should really enjoy White House Down. It’s a solid bit of big Hollywood summer entertainment.

White House Down film posterCREDITS
Director Roland Emmerich; Writer James Vanderbilt; Cinematographer Anna Foerster; Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, James Woods, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 7 June 2014.

Magic Mike (2012)

Steven Soderbergh has been a very prolific director over the couple of decades he’s been working, and this film from last year is one of his most satisfying recent efforts. It deals with an understandably favoured milieu among filmmakers — the entertainment industry — but puts enough of a twist on it to make it interesting, eliciting excellent performances from its male leads.

The story is set in Tampa, Florida, amongst a group of male strippers, led by impresario Dallas (played by an impressively toned Matthew McConaughey). The main stage talent is Mike (Channing Tatum), who, to make ends meet and pursue his career goals, works a number of other jobs during the day. On one of them he meets a young man Adam (Alex Pettyfer), whose potential talent he spots, and whom he drags along to the club. These are the bones of the plot, onto which is grafted a number of familiar themes, such as the corrosive effects of drugs and partying, the desire to hit the big time, and the compromises required to achieve one’s dreams.

My main point of comparison is with similar stories in a female setting, specifically Showgirls (1995). The differences in location between Vegas and Tampa seem mostly a matter of scale — there’s a similar dissipated vibe in hypersaturated colours under the burning sun (one in the desert, the other by the beach), though in the Floridian context, Tampa is second city to Miami, which may place it closer as a setting to Reno than Las Vegas. But where Showgirls essays a bleak, bitter tone, Magic Mike is lighter by far. This doesn’t mean the film avoids darkness — Adam in particular succumbs to the usual crutches of success — it’s just that the focus on Mike means that the stripping remains a colourful background to self-betterment, and not the kind of consuming abyss of artistic expression that it plays in Verhoeven’s film.

However, Mike’s story is a fascinating one, that leans heavily on issues of class mobility and the dark side of capitalism in America. He is introduced via his work in a construction company, but the film quickly relocates to his rather more glamorous night-time sideline of stripping at the Xquisite club on the Tampa beachfront. However, it is made clear that Mike’s real dream is to design bespoke furniture, for which he is saving diligently yet cannot make headway with due to his bad credit rating with the bank (all of his income is largely in cash). Mike is clearly attractive and just as obviously successful at what he does, yet he can’t pursue his dreams for petty bureaucratic reasons that draw a clear link between his blue-collar work and his status.

Stylistically, Soderbergh (also acting as cinematographer under an assumed name) heavily uses filters to give a grungy bleached-out look to the beach and outdoor scenes; it’s only when inside at the strip club that the colours become saturated, more akin to one’s expectations of a movie, which only emphasises its constructed unrealness. Alongside this there’s a heavy emphasis on naturalistic dialogue scenes, suffused with pauses, temporising, mumbling, digressions and frustrated attempts at verbal expression — in other words, these aren’t polished movie characters when they’re not onstage.

Strangely for strippers, then, it’s the stage performances where the characters gain the power they lack outside. Though they objectify themselves through displaying their bodies, they still retain control over the means of that expression, largely acting upon the female audience rather than being submissive to them. In either case, it’s clearly an illusory power, and for Adam in particular a dangerously tempting one — when the characters attempt to extend this power beyond the club, they notaby fail (for example, when a sorority party gets out of control, or when Adam’s involvement in drugs threatens to derail his life).

As another in the canon of films about the underside of the American Dream, Magic Mike is a strong entry. Channing Tatum puts in a persuasive performance, which is high praise for me, as I’ve never been a huge fan of him as an actor. It’s also a finely-crafted film by Soderbergh, and I can certainly recommend it wholeheartedly.

Magic Mike film posterFILM REVIEW
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writer Reid Carolin; Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 22 July 2013.