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!

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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.

I Am Not Your Negro (Switzerland-France -Belgium-US, 2016)

Plus ça change

This superb documentary on James Baldwin, who died in 1987, is timely in the light of the neo Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville earlier this month. Baldwin was an important figure in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He refused to align himself with the radical Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, NAACP (which he deemed middle class) or Malcolm X but, through his articulate arguments and his feted novels, offered an intellectual perspective on racism. Raoul Peck’s film intermingles archive footage, much of it of Baldwin speaking for himself, with Samuel L. Jackson’s (beautiful) voice over speaking Baldwin’s words.

The film uses the unfinished Remember This House as its starting point. Here Baldwin was trying to come to terms with the deaths of King, X and Medger Evers who was murdered by white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith; it took 30 years for Beckwith to be convicted. Whilst this may seem to be dilatory justice the American judicial system, as the Black Lives Matter campaign illustrates, is still highly reluctant to convict when the victim is black. One of the most notorious incidents in recent years is Trayvon Martin, shot in the chest by a vigilant, George Zimmerman, who was unbelievably found ‘not guilty’ of murder. Peck intersperses the film with examples such as Martin’s to illustrate that racism is still destroying lives. At Charlottesville, social media footage shows, a supremacist shouted “Nigger” and then fired a gun at protestors; the police did not intervene.

During the 1960s it must have seemed that, through the Civil Rights protests (see Selma for example), things were going to get better for minorities. However, what has become clear, although there have been improvements in equality with the abolition of Jim Crow laws, racism is still endemic (see 13th) and the increased profile of neo Nazis is symptomatic of this. In the film there is footage of 1960s racist protests which include banners emblazoned with the swastika . I’m not sure what is most shocking, the neo Nazis of today or those of the ’60s, just 20 years after the end of the war in which Americans had died fighting against fascism.

Baldwin’s sophisticated analysis of racism, including much on cinema from his book The Devil Finds Work (1976), concludes with the statement that black people know more about whites than whites do about black because white people don’t see blacks as people. Whites are the ones who invented the ‘nigger’ and, Baldwin asks, what is it about white people that led them to do this? What is their problem?

 

Love (France-Belguim, 2015)

You don’t know what you’re doing

Gaspar Noé does provocation more that any other director I know; even Lars von Trier. Love is a hardcore art movie that focuses on the consequences of Murphy’s (Karl Glusman) ‘sleeping around’. Like the musical, pornographic films use the narrative as a frame on which to hang the sex scenes; the story takes us from one routine to another. Although Love is pornographic it’s not pornography because the sex is necessary to the investigation of the male, or some male’s, psyche. It’s motivated by the narrative not the other way around.

The other reason it’s not pornography is, despite the sex being totally explicit and ‘real’, the relationship between the characters is always important. The sex is an expression of the characters’ feeling for one another.

I didn’t see the film in 3D (it’s on Netflix) and was also part of its provocation; one shot included an ejaculating penis with semen flying at the audience. There are various ways of responding to this: disgust being one, laughter another. But it also is a point of view shot from a female perspective that puts many of the males in the audience in a position they’ve never experienced but may expect their partners to be placed.

Noé’s humour is also apparent in the jokey references to naming a child Gaspar and Noé is a character played by  himself. The funniest moment, for me, is the ending when Murphy tells Omi (Klara Kristin) that, “I’ll love you to the end.” At the moment ‘The End’ title appears. It’s funny until you realise how cruel that humour is.

At first I was irritated by Murphy, who self-regardingly blames his penis for his misdemeanours, but as the film progresses he becomes more sympathetic. Hilariously when he’s arrested in Paris for assaulting Noé he finds the investigating officer invites him for a drink to discuss sexual desire and relationships.

It’s telling, perhaps, that I’m reluctant to state too clearly my feelings about the film as in its graphic depictions of sex, and laying bare the tortured/pathetic (delete as applicable) male psyche, its revelation of what’s usually in the private sphere are maybe too truthful for me to share in the public sphere of this blog.

Dheepan (France, 2015)

What’s it all about?

I was enjoying Dheepan‘s representation of migrants on a French estate dominated by drug dealers until the end. Director Jacques Audiard seemed to be drawing parallels between the outsider status of both and the precariousness of drug dealers’ existence being not entirely dissimilar to the Tamil Tiger’s civil war. At the start of the film we see Dheepan escaping Sri Lanka at the end of the war, the Tigers having been defeated. He is thrown together with a woman, Yalini, who we meet trying to find an orphan child to complete their ersatz family.

Most of the film portrays the ‘family’s’ integration, of sorts, into French society and gives a powerful perspective from the outsider’s view. When one of the drug dealers explains to Dheepan, who’s the caretaker on the estate he’s living in, that he’s not from around here and he’s brought in because he has no connections, the film seems to be showing the two group’s similarity: neither belongs to where they are. Similarly, Yalini finds herself looking after a debilitated old man whose son is the local ‘drug lord’, Brahim. Vincent Rottier is sympathetic as Brahim but not sentimentalised. That fact that Jesuthasan Antonythasan, playing Dheepan, was actually a Tiger adds to the realism.

However, at the climax of the film this social realism is replaced by a ‘worm turns’ thriller narrative as Dheepan’s Tamil Tiger is reignited by an encounter with ‘the Colonel’ who, dementedly, is determined to continue fighting, and anger at a shoot out on the estate. It’s interesting to mix two seemingly unrelated genres although I didn’t find it convincing. And as to the ending… (won’t spoil) but it’s so far fetched that I don’t believe Audiard believes it either. Even if it’s not meant to be true but a fantasy I still don’t find it convincing. I was more interested in Yalini’s story anyway for her oppression was greater than Dheepan’s.