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
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).
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.
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 (2014) || Seen at Odeon West India Quay, London, Sunday 18 January 2015 || Director Bennett Miller | Writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman | Cinematographer Greig Fraser | Starring Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo | Length 134 minutes
Whiplash (2014) || Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Saturday 17 January 2015 || Director/Writer Damien Chazelle | Cinematographer Sharone Meir | Starring Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons | Length 106 minutes
Ex Machina (2015) || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 28 January 2015 || Director/Writer Alex Garland | Cinematographer Rob Hardy | Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac | Length 108 minutes
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Adam McKay | Writers Will Ferrell and Adam 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 || My Rating worth seeing
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.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || 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 || My Rating likeable
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.
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 good
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)”→