The Big Short (US, 2015)

You couldn’t make it up

Michael Lewis’ book The Big Short brilliantly explained how the financial system went tits up because of bankers’ fraudulent behaviour. I was sceptical as to whether a film could do the same especially when it needs to get a return on its $28m budget. It managed a $70m return at the North American box office and that’s an indicator that they’d made an entertaining movie; it’s also pleasing to report that it’s fully in keeping with Lewis’ book and makes no bones about the failure of capitalism.

So great credit to Brad Pitt’s Plan B company for producing it and the talent, Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling – as well as Pitt – who appeared in it and made the film marketable. Unlike Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, which was more interested in physical rather than financial debauchery, The Big Short focuses on the financial machinations of the few who realised that the system would crash because the mortgages it was built on were shit. McKay throws as many techniques he can think of to make it interesting (too fast to see editing, direct speech to camera) to keep our attention through the financial details and he, most of the time, succeeds. It’s also funny because in reality the behaviour of bankers was farcical except of course the outcome was tragic for the many ordinary folk who lost their jobs and homes.

The ending is particularly good: it offers a ‘happy ever after’ where everyone learned their lessons and the miscreants went to jail; this, of course, is appended with an ‘as if’. The real ending is that the poor and migrants are being blamed for the ‘master of the universe’s’ faults and we are highly likely about to suffer another crash, except this time there’s no ammunition in central banks’ armoury (interest rates can’t get any lower). And what will the taxpayer think about bailing out the banks again? Head for the hills bankers!

Advertisements

mother! (US, 2017)

Anything for Him

Blimey!

Maybe I should leave my response to mother! at that.

There’s a lot of merit in being bludgeoned by a film; you know you’re alive. And I’ve no problem with a film that, at its ending, makes you think: “WTF?”. At least I’m thinking.

I like to think I’m pretty cine literate, and fairly literate generally, though religion isn’t my thing so I tend to miss those references. The LA Times insists the film is a religious allegory and it’s an intriguing argument. When I checked out imdb I saw all the characters are archetypes, (Mother, Man, Woman, Cupbearer, Damsel etc.) except for Javier Bardem’s poet (Him); in the film itself the characters are nameless but I can see how the archetypes suggest a religious reading. The title, however, doesn’t capitalise the ‘m’ of mother so that’s confusing.

There are spoilers ahead but it’s possible, such is the brilliance of the film, that spoilers are irrelevant. The film is a visceral experience both visually and through the Dolby 7.1 soundtrack. I’d assumed the latter was new, as I hadn’t noticed their credit before, but the system has been used since 2010 and is ubiquitous in mainstream cinema. I mention it because I think there are more sound close ups in this movie than I’ve ever heard. It’s centred on Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) who’s clearly mentally unstable, like a Poe hero whose senses are hyper thus motivating the intensely detailed soundscape

The horror genre fits the film closest; Lawrence reminded me, in more ways than one, of Deneuve in Repulsion (UK 1965) as she listens to the walls of her home. There are a few frights as characters appear from ‘nowhere’ and make Mother jump. Toward the end, hundreds of characters appear from nowhere in a sensory onslaught that leaves the house, or is it the world?, a battle zone.

The way Aronofsky, Lawrence’s partner, shoots her is like the Dardenne brothers’ shoot the eponymous Rosetta (France-Belgium, 1999) (apparently he uses the same style in The Wrestler, US-France, 2008) with the camera tight on, following her obsessively. It is through Mother’s consciousness we experience the events.

I mention the relationship between the lead and director because it’s an unavoidable issue with this film. The central narrative tension is between Mother, who isn’t literally a mother at the start, and Him, a great poet who has writer’s block. She’s a generation younger than him (mirroring in age Aronofsky and Lawrence), hangs on his every word, and is a ‘domestic goddess’. She does everything for him; when serving dinner he insists on helping and then changes his mind. Some men’s lazy dependence on women is satirised.

Clearly Mother’s devotion is not reciprocated. It is hardly domestic bliss but when Man (Ed Harris) and Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) turn up the cliché ‘all hell starts to break loose’ is entirely accurate. Even I understood the Abel-Cain reference when one of their sons kills the other.

What’s great about the first section of the film is the allegorical nature of the narrative is rooted in believable interactions. Pfeiffer is particularly good a being a guest ‘from hell’ but manages to make her behaviour seem almost reasonable. Even the funeral party manages to appear possible but after the poet manages to produce another masterpiece, it took him nine months, then the wheels come off and the film enters a phantasmagoric realm.

At the party celebrating Him’s new masterpiece, Lawrence looks like a Greek goddess; he calls her a ‘goddess’ and her dress is classical in style. This seems key to me: Mother is his muse and gives him everything. Lawrence may be Aronofsky’s muse but he’s made many cracking films before so he is obviously not reliant upon her. It’s clear (I think) that he is making a film about creativity which may be on the level the LA Times suggests: Him is God and Mother is Earth. It could also be about the more ‘mundane’ level of art.

At this level it shows the artist to be entirely self-centred and our sympathies are certainly with his muse. The idea that great art requires great sacrifice is dramatized but it is the muse that suffers for his art. Although the muse embodies inspiration, it actually exists within the artists so splitting her from him doesn’t make sense: if she suffers, he suffers.

I am in danger of entangling myself in a film that may refuse to be unwound. That’s okay as it’s one of the most original films I’ve seen which is enough reason to see it even if, like many, you think it’s crap.

Deepwater Horizon (Hong Kong-US, 2016)

Disaster movies as reality

During the early 1970s there was a cycle of disaster movies including the Irwin Allen produced The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). In the 21st century disaster movies have moved into reality with Grenfell Tower and Deepwater Horizon reconfigures The Poseidon Adventure. The ’70s films relied on big budgets, all star casts and state of the art special effects for their appeal; Deepwater Horizon was modestly budgeted at $110m with a B-list cast (Wahlberg, Russell, Malkovich and Hudson – who were all great) and superb CGI; however, most importantly, its focus is on the human cost of corporate corruption rather than spectacle.

Mark Wahlberg’s Everyman persona fits his Mike Williams perfectly. We’re introduced to him as a doting family man and if, at first, this might seem padding, getting audiences impatient for the spectacle, its payoff is the ending were we see him suffering PTSD. Unusually for a mainstream film about heroics, rather than just focusing on the physical damage, the psychological cost is not ignored. I wasn’t expecting to shed tears watching a disaster movie.

It’s a pity the film didn’t do well at the (US at least) box office because it has an important message about how capitalism encourages profit above anything else. Malkovich, in villain mode as a BP executive, is suitably slimy and cowardly but also utterly believable. Peter Berg’s direction is skilful and the CGI, for once in my eyes, unimpeachable. The scriptwriters, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, do a great job of making the technical details digestible and the scene where an oil covered sea bird wreaks havoc the control room of a ship succinctly summarises the ecological consequences of the oil spill.

Deepwater Horizon must have been one of the best films released last year.

Arrival (US, 2016)

The arrival of the uncanny

Arrival was one of the few films I saw in the cinema last year when I seemed to be incapable of enjoying movies. Thought-provoking science fiction; what’s not to like? And I enjoyed it even more on a second viewing.

First contact (with aliens) narratives is a staple trope of SF but what Arrival does differently, based on Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, is focus on the mechanics of communication. Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) imaginatively used music to cross boundaries; Arrival, though, deals with how language makes meaning. If that sounds dry, Amy Adams’ linguist protagonist ensures we’re interested. I’m not meaning that Adams’ looks are what grab our attention, it’s her character.

The film also uses memories in a particular way that I can’t describe without spoiling; but it is utterly fascinating. Jeremy Renner’s a fine side-kick playing a physicist also deputised to try and understand the aliens. It is interesting to speculate how different the film might have been if they gender of the roles had been reversed.

Unsurprisingly, governments’ first responses are to wheel out the military; in an increasingly belligerent age I’m sure that would happen if only because they have spent too many years of watching ‘first contact’ movies where it’s necessary to ‘kick the aliens’ assess’ – assuming there is one. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) still has plenty to tell us about humanity.

Arrival, relatively, was a box office hit which surprised me because it’s far more a cerebral film than the popular SF that rely on special effects; though they are great in the film. After a summer where Hollywood’s artistic bankruptcy is threatening its domestic box office, though not the rest of the world’s (yet), it’s heartening that an interesting, medium budget, independent film can still find an audience.

Canadian Denis Villeneuve, who directed, is undoubtedly a talent  (Sicario and Prisoners are both worth seeing) and the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel suddenly becomes an enticing prospect.

The Beguiled (US, 2017)

My eyes were dim

Another low-medium budget US film (after me complaining about their decline) but in spite of the rave reviews, and Cannes recognition, this remake of the Clint Eastwood 1971 version, of Thomas Cullinan’s 1968 novel, did not hit my buttons. I’d be interested to see the earlier version again, directed by testosterone-fuelled Don Siegel, to compare with Sofia Coppola’s adaptation. I remember enjoying the original film but not why I did. Is it the feminine sensibility of the remake that disengaged me? (Hope not).

One problem I had was with the extremely low light levels, many of the interiors are (apparently) only candle lit; I kept nodding off (end of term exhaustion). The cast is great: Kidman and Dunst in particular. I like the way Colin Farrell appeared to be cast against type, at least for the first part of the film. However, I struggled to understand his motivation: was he flirting with the women ‘naturally’ or calculatedly? I couldn’t connect his ‘second part’ melt down (though it was understandable that he was angry) with the charmer of the first part. Was that the script or performance? Either way, Coppola is responsible.

The opening shot looked fake to me. It’s a Southern Gothic forest that appears to be out of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ but it looked stylised. It may have been (mostly or all) real but one of the problems of modern CGI is the plasticity of digital effects (though The Beguiled was shot on film that doesn’t preclude digital manipulation) have corrupted (in my eyes) the contract of film that asserts the pro filmic image is real. Of course special effects have been a part of cinema virtually since its inception, however CGI has lost its ‘wow’ factor through its ability to show anything. I rarely find any ‘visible’ special effect awesome. Most effects are ‘invisible’, such as eradicating a jet’s stream from the sky, but when a scene doesn’t look real it’s easy to think CGI is to blame and so from the first shot of the film I was (slightly) disengaged because I didn’t believe the image. That is, the image’s verisimilitude didn’t convince me. I apologise for the meandering paragraph but CGI has changed the way I watch films and I’m trying to understand how.

At the conclusion of the film, where Southern Gothic was writ largest, I did start to enjoy the movie. Kidman’s a fine actor and her shift between ladylike and malevolence was virtually imperceptible. It’s great to see her getting great roles again.

Hell or High Water (US, 2016)

Trapped by malicious circumstance

As American cinema, at last, sinks into artistic irrelevance it’s a delight to find the possibilities for interesting cinema haven’t completed died over the ‘pond’. I’m guilty of hyperbole here; for years snooty critics, only interested in art for what it says about their ‘cultural competence’ rather than genuine appreciation, have berated Hollywood in particular as being worthless. American cinema has produced, both in the indie and commercial sectors, many great films.

However contemporary Hollywood is, with its belief that franchises are the only game in town, neglecting the medium sized, not to mention small, movie so that 1970s ‘New Hollywood’ seems even longer than 50 years ago. Maybe even the most commercially oriented executives might be sweating over the box office under performances, in North America, of many of this year’s ‘tent pole’ releases; although the international market is baling them out at the moment.

Hell or High Water does hark back to ‘70s Hollywood and it probably just about broke even on its $12m estimated budget. The presence of Jeff Bridges, not entirely convincing in the role of the retiring sheriff, evokes that era’s The Last Picture Show (1970) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974); particularly the latter with the outlaws on the road element. Director David Mackenzie’s insists that the setting, rundown Texas in the main, is an important character and, like its ‘70s forebears, politicises the narrative. Taylor Sheridan’s script ensures we understand that the financial crash of 2008 has damaged the American poor as much as the 1930s Depression.

Chris Pine shows himself to be a fine actor and Ben Foster, playing the older and wilder brother, is equally good. The film combines suspense, mystery (the brothers’ motivations) and humour as well as an excoriating critique of banking in America. I must catch up with Sheridan’s Sicario and David Mackenzie is one of my favourite contemporary directors.

Selma (UK-US, 2014)

On the march

I’ve written about two high profile African-American films recently (Moonlight and Hidden Figures) both of which featured in this year’s Oscars. This was based on merit, however the Academy Awards don’t necessarily deal in merit as the literally scandalous neglect of Selma last year emphasised; it did receive a Best Picture nomination but David Oyelowo’s performance was widely thought to be worthy of at least a Best Actor nomination. I was delighted to catch up with this film that revealed a key moment in recent American history that had been ‘hidden’ from me.

While the events, in 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, are enshrined in Civil Rights history it is a strength of commercial cinema that it can both inform, and remind, millions of people about key moments. I was certainly ignorant and so was enlightened having watching the film and experienced exasperated rage at the ridiculous and violent racism perpetrated against the protestors who simply wanted to be able to exercise their right to vote. Racism is not just in history, unfortunately, as the racist right returns to the fray; Marine Le Pen may be been resoundingly defeated in France but she still got 35% of the vote and in the UK the Conservative party is morphing into UKIP.

Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King is the lynchpin of the film’s success. Entirely convincing as the non violent leader in both his actions and his words. Although director Ava DuVernay (Yes! A high profile African-American female director) had to rewrite King’s speeches for copyright reasons, I still found Oyelowo’s delivery stirring. He was excellent also in A United Kingdom (Czech Republic-UK-US, 2016) that similarly unearthed an anti-racist narrative.

I don’t know about the development history of the film; British scriptwriter Paul Webb had been touting the script for some time. Cloud 8 films is the lead producer, set up by Christian Colson who used to work at Celador, who also produced. Celador made Slumdog Millionaire. Cloud 8 has (assuming Wikipedia is up to date and accurate) a ‘first look’ deal with Pathe, who also produced. Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films represent American involvement. Winfrey appears as Annie Lee Cooper who punched Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma. Winfrey’s obviously a high profile black ‘player’ in the industry and it’s good to see Pitt using his power to get important films made; Plan B was also involved in 12 Years a Slave.

Presumably getting American finance was difficult and British actors Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth (not forgetting Oyelowo) take on the major roles of President Johnson and Governor Wallace (both excellent). If making money is really the prime driver of Hollywood we should expect more African-American films especially given the success of Hidden Figures. Whilst the Fast and Furious franchise has been immensely successful in transcending the white hegemonic audience, very few films are following. Maybe racial politics trumps money.