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.

The Big Short film posterCREDITS
Director Adam McKay; Writers 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.

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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.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013)

It’s surely the most trailered and hyped-up release of the season. There were few places to turn where Will Ferrell’s Anchorman persona, newscaster Ron Burgundy, has not popped up at some point ever since he announced the return on US late-night TV talkshow Conan well over a year ago. The original film of 2004 has found an ever more committed fan base since being released to DVD and remains familiarly quotable. With the sequel, the setting has moved forward a bit from the mid-1970s to the early-1980s, and from the West coast of San Diego to the Big Apple of New York, meaning all the period references have been overhauled. There are a huge number of additional cameo appearances, and all the core cast have returned. So maybe that explains why the feeling of finally sitting in a cinema to watch this return was so deflating for me. I can’t say it entirely lacks laughs, but it does lack cohesion. I don’t doubt the cast had fun making it, but the experience of watching it is a little wearying, especially for a comedy film that nudges two hours in length.

I don’t in all honesty have much energy for getting into it all in detail. It just felt fairly slipshod, like a series of only barely-linked skits, held together by the character tropes so familiar from the first film. Ron remains a media dinosaur, unable to keep up with social changes that threaten to relegate him to a racist, misogynist relic (and yes, we get a bit of both here, presented within a context of media satire — after a fashion, considering it’s about thirty years late). Paul Rudd’s Brian is a woman-chasing lothario with indifferent success, David Koechner’s Champ is filled with barely-repressed feelings for Ron not to mention very little knowledge of the sports he reports on, and finally there’s Steve Carell’s weatherman Brick, still with a very low IQ but now with an incipient love interest (the well-matched Kristen Wiig, who manages to remain a charming screen presence for all the brief time she’s on). Finally, there’s Ron’s on-again off-again love interest Veronica (Christina Applegate), who basically plays the straight man to all of Ferrell’s comedy stylings.

The film’s central thesis is that news has become a vapid attempt to secure ratings, which is not exactly a groundbreaking idea, but at least it’s put across with some gusto. The bad guy is a blatant mashup of Rupert Murdoch (Australian media mogul) and Richard Branson (blond goatee and an airline) as the owner of the 24-hour television station which recruits Ron and his team, and needless to say, Important Lessons Are Learned by the film’s close, both for Ron, for his friends, and for the mogul. There are good scenes and funny ones too (and I did laugh at the dinner Ron shared with his black female boss and her family, for example), but the individual pleasures all feel so very transitory. Stylistically, it feels like something that will work much better on a TV-sized screen, but here comes across as cheap-looking and rather flat.

Still, it’s a comedy and it has some laughs. It will no doubt make many of its viewers pleased, especially those who’ve come to enjoy these fashionably retro characters. I like the first film, and I liked this one too, just not enough to want to think too hard about it, because every time I do it makes me feel less warmly towards it. Perhaps that’s the key though. Try not to think too hard. It seems to work for Brick.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues film posterCREDITS
Director Adam McKay; Writers Will Ferrell and McKay; Cinematographer Oliver Wood; Starring Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Enfield, London, Monday 23 December 2013.

The Way, Way Back (2013)

Coming of age movies have never been my favourite. You’ll have gleaned that from my seriously underwhelmed review of Mud (2012), a film many others loved. A lot of the same kinds of elements are in place here, but within a comedic framework (rather than Southern gothic), and I have a lot of the same qualms.

If the central character’s arc is familiar — and Liam James plays the browbeaten and sullen teenager Duncan perfectly well — then it’s in the supporting performances where this film is made. Allison Janney is always a delight whenever she appears in any film or TV show, and she’s thankfully on screen for a reasonable amount of time. After a long, awkward opening scene in the car while driving to the beach, in which Steve Carell’s stepdad Trent (or rather, his eyes in a rearview mirror) belittle Duncan as the rest of the family sleeps, Janney’s Betty immediately enlivens things with her embarrassingly drunken mother in the neighbouring Cape Cod beach house.

The main plotline, though, is of Duncan slowly coming to feel comfortable with himself — and with Betty’s curious daughter Susanna (Annasophia Robb) — via a series of small family humiliations. He’s also aided by the discovery of a retro water-based themepark, which is presumably a nostalgic figment in the memories of director-writer team Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, the latter of whom grew up in a Massachusetts seaside community. The themepark becomes like a separate world away from his family and those he knows, where he can start to become the person he’s never been allowed to be under the eye of his hated stepfather. It also allows for the introduction of a range of more permissive and accepting characters, including Sam Rockwell (always a wonderfully enjoyable screen presence) as the overly relaxed park manager Owen, and his put-upon girlfriend Caitlyn (SNL alumna Maya Rudolph), not to mention the director-writer team in supporting roles.

It’s also the site of some of the more dubious elements of the film’s humour, for most of these characters are themselves in need of growing up, and try to inculcate in Duncan some of their borderline-creepy dudebro behaviour — not least in an unnecessary scene ogling attractive teenage girls on the waterslide. Maybe the nostalgic past is not always the safest place, after all.

Nevertheless, despite the sullen central character, the earnest sermonising of the denouement (an ever-present hazard of the genre) and the fetishising of the 80s and all its trappings, there are enough enjoyable central performances to make this film likeable and diverting. The relationship between Duncan and his mother Pam (Toni Collette, making a welcome reappearance after too long away from mainstream cinema) is understated and touching. There’s a lovely scene in which Duncan moodily stalks off from a gathering of adult friends while Pam, remaining, exhibits signs of similar social awkwardness, if expressed in a rather less adolescent way. It’s a little the way I feel around some of these characters, but in the dark of the cinema I at least don’t have to nod and smile when the film wavers. Luckily, for the most part, it remains sunny and likeable.

CREDITS
Directors/Writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Steve Carell; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 1 September 2013.

Despicable Me 2 (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin | Writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio | Starring Steve Carell, Kristin Wiig | Length 98 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Thursday 8 August 2013 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Universal Pictures

I should state up-front that I haven’t seen Despicable Me (2010), the original film of which this is a sequel. I started this blog earlier this year because I had felt for some years that my cinema attendance was slacking off and I missed the enjoyment of the silver screen. I only saw 28 films in the cinema in 2010, and needless to say amongst those few films I didn’t find much space for animated films aimed at children.

That said, this does not of course mean that childrens’ films need lack complexity or characterisation or be totally bereft of interest for adults — some, such as Wreck-It Ralph (2012), even seem predicated on a nostalgic familiarity with the recent past that kids just wouldn’t have. I can’t speak to how well this or any animated film goes down for kids because I don’t tend to hang out with them (and the ones that my friends do have are a bit young to even be watching movies, let alone to be telling me about them over a pint in the pub), but for my part, Despicable Me 2 was a good solid piece of fun candy-coloured entertainment.

The plot won’t win awards but then you hardly expect it to: an evil mastermind plots to take over the world and our protagonist Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) must team up with the Anti-Villain League to stop him. The twist is that Gru is a reformed super-villain himself (I understand his own evil exploits were dealt with in the first film), which is a nice gentle touch suggesting that it is possible (desirable, even) that those who have gone wrong earlier in life deserve a chance at redemption. Still, part of the joke is that even if he is single-handedly raising three cute (adopted) daughters in leafy suburbia, he still glowers like a villain, creeping around hunchbacked and glabrous, while his home is a domineering gothic pile on an otherwise perkily conformist terraced street. Continue reading “Despicable Me 2 (2013)”