The Divide (2015)

There have been no shortage of either documentaries or fiction films about the post-2007/8 economic recession and its effects over recent years, though The Divide isn’t specifically concerned with this so much as widening wealth inequality within society generally (which has, if anything, only been exacerbated by 2008 and its fallout). The director Katharine Round, basing the subject of her film around a non-fiction book called The Spirit Level, does use knowledgeable talking heads (including the source book’s authors) to get some context on the issues, but the primary focus is a number of case studies on either side of the Atlantic. Because these interviewees are well-chosen, the film is never boring. These people range from the poorest folks in both countries (most notably a KFC worker in the US South, an former-alcoholic rapper in a grim bit of Scotland, and a prisoner caught by the USA’s “three strikes” rule who is intelligent and reflective but has also been startlingly worn down by the system) to the embattled middle-classes ever striving upwards (there’s a NYC psychologist with a nice apartment in New Jersey, and a very articulate mother living rather against her better convictions in a gated community). Moreover, it has a striking visual style with clean careful framings of its shots, and this visual excellence sets it apart from many documentaries. This style may make it a little easier to listen to some powerful individual testimonies about the effects of endemic poverty and the dangers of being trapped into a cycle of payments and fines, but it doesn’t dilute the anger you are ultimately left with at the end, which very briefly — and not entirely convincingly — suggests action is still possible, and change can happen. One can only hope it is, given some of the lives seen here.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Katharine Round (based on the book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett) | Cinematographer Woody James | Length 78 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Friday 29 April 2016

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The Big Short (2015)

Whatever else came from the Wall Street crash of 2008, it’s certainly been the impetus for plenty of films since then, going right back to my first entry on this blog, Arbitrage (2012), not to mention the following year’s The Wolf of Wall Street — though those are less specifically about 2008, as about the broken culture of high finance. The Big Short certainly gets that culture across well, while digging deeper into the specifics of sub-prime mortages, collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) and the other jargon and terminology, framing it in an easily-digestible way for viewers whose understanding of such matters is fairly shaky (i.e. most of them, presumably). What this means in practice is jittery camerawork with lots of racking of focus and quick zooms, along with the interpolation of awkward cameos purporting to explain the more abstruse concepts, hosted by such figures as Selena Gomez at a gambling table and Margot Robbie (harking back to Wolf again) in a bathtub. The problem is that all of these tropes are largely distracting, while the bulk of the narrative prefers to focus on a few quirky characters whose stories are presumably more interesting, though it’s not clear to me that they were really central to the crisis (basically they’re traders who made a buck from everyone else’s misfortune). So there’s Christian Bale’s doctor with Aspberger’s, a Cassandra-like figure largely separate from the rest of the cast; there’s Steve Carell’s fund manager and his staff; there’s Ryan Gosling’s shark-like trader; and there’s the small garage-based midwestern startup led by John Magaro, who enlist the help of former Wall Street highflyer-turned-environmentalist Brad Pitt. Needless to say, the acting talents on screen — not to mention the comedy chops of director/writer Adam McKay — ensure that the film is never boring. I’m just not certain that this film filled with shouty men in suits is ever very much more than just a snappily entertaining, fitfully amusing digression.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Adam McKay | Writers Adam McKay and Charles Randolph (based on the book by Michael Lewis) | Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd | Starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Brad Pitt | Length 130 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Friday 29 January 2016

The Queen of Versailles (2012)

We’re surely all familiar with pop culture focusing on the lives of the ultra-wealthy, whether reality TV shows or movies that lavish attention on their homes, their cars, their social lives and parties, their style, clothes, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery. There are film genres (the teen film for example) that have almost entirely rededicated themselves to this niche category of existence, because it’s the American Dream writ large: come from humble beginnings, play the capitalist game, rake in unimaginable wealth on the backs of life’s losers (who slide further into poverty and addiction, something not generally acknowledged), and cash in with homes, cars, et al., mi(se)rabile dictu. So it’s a strange thing indeed to be made to feel… what’s this emotion, sympathy (?!)… for one of these blessed people, Jackie Siegel, a 40-something former beauty queen who married David, a property multi-millionaire, now facing hard times after the 2008 sub-prime mortgage stock market crash. The couple had been building the country’s largest mansion in Florida, modelled after that at Versailles, but it was left an empty shell as work came to halt. It’s clear that their money is built on exploitation and hucksterism (time-share properties), and that they’re still on paper phenomenally wealthy, it’s just that suddenly this family of husband, wife and seven children no longer have the cashflow to indulge their every whim. It’s strangely affecting to see Jackie visit a childhood relation in her cramped suburban property, to see the family have to feed their pets personally (pity the unfortunate lizard), or tidying up after themselves — in short, having to deal with all the detritus and maintenance required by their massively oversized lifestyles. Their marriage is put under strain, as is their relationship with their children, their socialite friends, their family and their company. Lauren Greenfield’s film takes all those glitzy surfaces and scratches away at them, not itself wallowing in the family’s misfortune (though we as viewers may do so) but anatomising its footprint and effects. In doing so, it weaves an entertaining and watchable tale that incidentally becomes a treatise on American capitalism in crisis.


© Magnolia Pictures/Evergreen Pictures

FILM REVIEW
Director Lauren Greenfield | Cinematographer Tom Hurwitz | Length 100 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 23 August 2015

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Kenneth Branagh | Writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp (based on characters by Tom Clancy) | Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos | Starring Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh | Length 105 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 12 February 2014 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Paramount Pictures

I remember when Kenneth Branagh used to make serious awards-bothering films. I watched his four-hour version of Hamlet (1996). Twice. I even watched the two-hour cut as well, for some reason losts to the mists of time. I mean, that was almost 20 years ago now, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore, very sensibly having re-focused his talents on fun, hammy roles. There was his wizard in the second Harry Potter film, or his Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn. It would probably be fair to add the Russian oligarch bad guy Viktor that he plays in this film to that list, though what with all his precise financial machinations, it’s a more underplayed role of brooding intensity and clears the way for Chris Pine’s action heroics.

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The cinema of Martin Scorsese quite often deals with self-regarding, testosterone-fuelled men. It’s a place to learn about the contemporary construction of masculinity more than anything else, and this is his latest chapter in that ongoing exploration, placing itself in the milieu of high finance — specifically a “boiler room” stockbroking firm from the late-1980s through the 1990s. This is the domain of self-made man — wise guy, almost — Jordan Belfort, played at full throttle by the still youthful-faced Leonardo DiCaprio, though he at least has the decency to look a little worn by the end. It’s been written up largely as a film of swearing, drugtaking and hedonism, but really it’s another periodic health check for the struggling ideal of the American Dream. It doesn’t preach or moralise, but the message is pretty relentlessly, propulsively, loudly clear for its three hours.

I made the error of looking at the recent 12 Years a Slave somewhat as a film trying to teach us about the evils of slavery — a lesson hardly needed, and certainly not at the heart of the film’s purpose. Likewise, you can’t really wonder if the The Wolf of Wall Street is trying to get across the idea that financial corruption is bad, or if the people involved are morally questionable. There is literally not a single character in the film that has any claim to our sympathies — the closest we get is the FBI agent Patrick (Kyle Chandler), but even he is given to pettiness, and hardly seems enthused by his life. I’d say there’s no one who is likeable, but most of them are likeable enough on their own level, which for most of them is a fairly amoral level. There’s pathos too (or perhaps I mean to say, most are pretty pathetic), but for the majority of the running time you can keep these guys at an arms’ length: they are not like us. They are embodiments of the primal, rampaging id, who have freed themselves from quotidian concerns through their relentless acquisition of wealth. It’s not until near the end, after nearly three hours of their childish petulance, that you get a sense for where it’s all headed — encapsulated by a underplayed final scene (introduced by the real Belfort) which brings Jordan back into something recognisably like our world.

Up to that point, though, things are blackly comic — madcap and slapstick at points — as Belfort struggles to build his wealth after the Wall Street firm where he begins his career goes bust in the 1987 crash. He restarts by trading penny stocks to working-class guys from a dowdy office in New Jersey, moving on to creating and enlarging his own firm with the help of his low-life friends, chief among them the garrulous Donnie (Jonah Hill in horn-rimmed specs and shell suits) and Nicky (P.J. Byrne), called “Rugrat” because of his glaring toupee. He marries a model blonde wife, Naomi (Margot Robbie) and lives a hard-partying lifestyle. The movie can indeed be charted largely by Jordan & co’s ingestion of narcotic substances, starting with a hit of a crack pipe with Donnie near the New Jersey office, before progressing primarily to cocaine (taken in various locations and, er, from various orifices) and Quaaludes. Most of the film is structured around Jordan getting loaded (making money, taking drugs), before the final act charts his rocky comedown — crashing not just from drugs and booze, but financially, maritally and even nautically.

It’s a classic story, and Scorsese really attacks it stylistically with all the tricks learnt from his many decades’ worth of filmmaking. It feels like the kind of free-wheeling spirit of Casino (1995), certainly in the glitziness of the enterprise, which matches that of the characters (or at least, their entitled sense of self-worth). DiCaprio gives a narration from Jordan’s point of view, even addressing himself directly to camera in a few scenes, as he explains his criminal enterprise with scarcely-concealed glee. There are freeze-frames and jump-cuts too, but this isn’t the vacuous-style-for-its-own-sake brand of filmmaking that you get from Scorsese’s latter-day imitators (to take one recent example amongst many, in Pain & Gain), but it adds to the deadening affect of this flamboyant world. Scorsese also reminds us that he is deft at comedy, whether it be the earnest discussions of humiliating excess (the dwarf-throwing that opens the film), or a marvellous sequence when DiCaprio needs to return home but finds himself floored by extra-strength Quaaludes — a scenario which might be done with all the hallucinogenic trippiness of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but which Scorsese films from a fixed vantage point with no gimmicks or trickery, just documenting the physicality of DiCaprio’s performance, and which is all the funnier for it.

As a whole, the film feels a bit like this, like being the sober one at an increasingly riotous party, with people who are fun to be around initially, but whose drunken antics soon become quite draining. There’s no overt judgementalism about the narcotic excess (there are in fact many open proclamations of how enjoyable it is), but then there doesn’t need to be: this film hardly glorifies drug use, given it chooses avatars who are so existentially loathsome. If there’s a more potent criticism it would be that this remains very much a film about boys; there are women, but they are largely seen through the eyes of the (as I hope I’ve made clear, hardly upstanding) male protagonists, and therefore mostly sexualised and ultimately humiliated, although the warping power of money seems to blind everyone in the film to it. But despite this, it still feels fairly effortless as a film, while managing to give a real — and disturbing — sense of malaise, which, as we see in the final scene, is only just out of our reach and beyond our control.


© Paramount Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Martin Scorsese | Writer Terence Winter (based on the memoir by Jordan Belfort) | Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto | Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, P.J. Byrne | Length 179 minutes || Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 27 January 2014

My Rating 4 stars excellent

L’Argent (1928)

There are many film festivals which take place every year, many quite tightly focused on a genre or country, which makes the Fashion in Film Festival one with a rather broader and more malleable purview. This year they based their event around the films of French director Marcel L’Herbier, who had rather an eye for costume design, not least in this late-silent era film.


FESTIVAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Fashion in Film Festival || Director Marcel L’Herbier | Writer Marcel L’Herbier and Arthur Bernède (based on the novel by Émile Zola) | Cinematographer Jules Kruger | Starring Pierre Alcover, Brigitte Helm, Marie Glory (as “Mary Glory”), Henry Victor | Length 166 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), Sunday 19 May 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Pathé

Not unlike the more famous Napoléon (1927) of Abel Gance, L’Argent‘s great length and its place near the end of the silent period of cinema has sometimes marked it out as being some sort of summation of a certain trend in French cinema, often called ‘impressionism’ (though that’s a contentious term). There’s certainly something to that assessment, with its freely moving camera and tight psychological focus on a small number of characters. Its reach may be greater than what it ultimately achieves, but that’s still quite a bit.

I haven’t read the original novel, but by all accounts this is a fairly loose adaptation, updating the original to the contemporary period (which is the kind of thing that even in modern films attracts criticism). At the centre is Saccard (played by Pierre Alcover), very much the image of the gruff fat cat banker, whose Banque Universelle is foundering in the markets. He seizes on a meeting with the naïve Jacques Hamelin (Henry Victor), an aviator with grand plans to drill for oil in Guyana, exploiting him to bolster the B.U.’s position and making advances on his wife Line (Marie Glory) in his absence.

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Arbitrage (2012)

First up, “arbitrage”. According to my learned sources, it’s a matter of taking advantage of price differences between markets to turn a profit. Our protagonist Robert Miller is a rich white man (a derivatives trader, or a hedge fund manager, or whatever; my knowledge of the financial world is incredibly meagre). He has all the problems attendant on great wealth. He has to deal with the potential loss of hundreds of millions of dollars (presumably from said arbitrage), which would jeopardise his company’s sale and make him poorer (though hardly poor in any real terms as experienced by the audiences for this film), his daughter is digging around his dubious accounting practices, and, possibly more importantly — though it’s only a possibility — he has to reconcile himself to the part he played in the death of his mistress (accidental, but still manslaughter). So, he has a lot on his plate.

There are a lot of films with this kind of premise — the fall from grace of a plutocrat. In this film, as in so many, the character played by Richard Gere lives in a gorgeous apartment (though frankly even the poor kid from Harlem has a nice flat) with the best suits, the best art, just all those little touches that make it reek wealth. And there’s no real reason to like or sympathise for this character. And yet Gere manages to make the viewer care — if not actually care whether he loses all his money or not, but perversely to care whether he gets away with the crime of which he’s so manifestly guilty.

So, there’s no real reason for this movie to exist, and whether you see it depends on your tolerance for stories about rich white men and their transgressions. For despite the pedigree of the supporting cast (Susan Sarandon as Miller’s wife, Laetitia Casta as his mistress, Tim Roth as the detective investigating her death, Vanity Fair editor-at-large Graydon Carter’s exemplary head of hair as another trader), this is firmly focused on Gere and all these other actors are merely afforded minor appearances. But the ride itself is well-made and well-played.


© Lionsgate

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Nicholas Jarecki | Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux | Starring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth | Length 107 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 3 March 2013

My Rating 3 stars good