Monday 25 January 2016

Film: 'The Big Short'

A serious subject for sure - the origins and effects of the worldwide financial crash of 2008 (though here only from the American angle) - and very much a high-powered 'yakety-yak' film, i.e. virtually 100% of the 'action' being verbal. It's expected to pick up a sheaf of awards in the upcoming ceremonies and I think it might deserve at least something.
If you see this film referred to as a 'comedy' - and there certainly are some amusing asides and one-liners - don't let that sidetrack you from its having a dark tone which points up the fragility and vulnerability of claims of economic stability.

I can't help making comparisons with another financial 'talkie' film, 'Glengarry Glen Ross' of 1994 (significantly extended for the screen from the original stage play) which fizzed along at great pace, always involving, managing to keep me engrossed all the way through and leaving me practically out of breath by the close. 'The Big Short' didn't quite make it to that standard but there is a roughly equivalent high level of testosterone-fuelled energy. Of course, this new film is about money dealings on a national and international scale, whereas 'G.G.R.' was completely localised within one commercial firm.

I'm afraid the technicalities of all these financial transactions didn't take longer than a few minutes to completely lose me. But what do I know? I was an accountant for only 25 years! However, the terminology is American-speak, so words and phrases particular to that country will probably be called something else in Britain. Even so, I can't say that even if I'd known the terms it would have been much clearer to me. 

There are some big names in the cast. Christian Bale, whose own story (a wise-brain who foresees the inevitable sorry outcome) is somewhat set apart from the hustle and bustle of the centrally depicted, over-heated arguments. I gather that the questionable issue is something akin to pyramid selling, though with home mortgages as the building bricks. It's only a matter of time before individuals and financial institutions become aware of what's going on, and general nervousness spreads like a forest fire before the whole caboodle gets incinerated.
Then in the central roles there's Steve Carrell, (very ably once again playing serious after his impressive 'Foxcatcher'), Ryan Gosling, Rafe Spall - and Brad Pitt (who's also one of the executive producers) in a slightly more marginal part.
There's quite a bit of talking to camera by various cast members which works rather effectively.
The few women taking their short turns on screen are peripheral figures, nearly all seen just once and then gone.

There are very few scenes longer than two minutes. In fact much of the film looks like a pop video - fleeting images that hardly have time to register. It's all busy-busy-busy, never less than interesting, notwithstanding the fact that I was lost from the discussions for much of the time.
However, the conclusion, of which we all know, carries a terrific punch - namely showing how those responsible for this folly were baled out by the government (as also happened in the U.K.), whose largesse they could use to financially further reward themselves for their 'success' in escaping justice and avoiding gaol, while those who suffered most by losing jobs and homes, were the poorest and most vulnerable. And at the close there's the warning that it's all bound to happen again. In fact the seeds of a repeat scenario are sprouting again right now.

Adam McKay (director of the two 'Anchorman' films) manages this film capably in very flashy style, which befits the Las Vegas gambling milieu it parallels.  
I have a feeling that my opinion of this may well rise in time. I can't say for sure, whereas for 'Glengarry' I knew it was a superior film from the first time I saw it, and having seen it several times since, it doesn't pall. 
If I give that '94 film an '8', then my rating for 'The Big Short' is.......................6.5.

Monday 18 January 2016

Film: 'The Danish Girl'

Although good, I found watching this a rather exhausting experience, so relentless is it in its intensity, with no real let-ups. In fact, the first time I looked at my watch I'd thought that by then it must be approaching its conclusion, only to find it was only just past halfway through.

There's no doubt that the film belongs to Eddie Redmayne and I would take nothing at all away from his astonishing performance. When last year he deservedly won awards all round for 'The Theory of Everything' we all knew the path his role as Stephen Hawking was going to take. For this one he's nominated as Best Actor for both BAFTAs and Oscars, and it's a much more widely ranged and subtly nuanced role - as well as being a far lesser known true story too. He'll probably get the BAFTA, but the loud buzz for the other is that it's Leo's turn for going through hell in his part in 'The Revenant', which I'm yet to see.

This story starts in 1926 Copenhagen with married artists Einer Wegener (Redmayne) and Gerte (Alicia Vikander - 'Ex Machina'), he being the more compliant of the pair, she more spiky and liable to fly off the handle. I knew nothing at all of the story except what I'd read beforehand. Although from the outset he is heterosexual, I'd have thought that it would have been his own self-awakening as to his feelings for feminine attire that would be the catalyst, rather than the actuality of her encouraging him, first by getting him to pose as a female model for her painting, and then encouraging him to go the full distance wearing dress and make-up and accompanying her, as a 'game', to a dance as a woman friend in the new identity of Lili Elbe. Of course she has no idea that the stirring up of these latent feelings in him would grow so powerfully and so quickly until he can't control his dressing as female - and he not only has no wish to stop but eventually wants to go the entire way and have his body surgically transformed. Despite his new-found personality, time and again, even in woman's clothes, he declares his love for his wife. One does wonder if her patience can last out, it being as much a trial for her as for him while she supports him in his seeking help for his feelings from a brutally (though not entirely) unsympathetic psychiatric profession - merely a reflection of the times, of course. 

Also in the cast is.....guess who? Yes, it's our old-young friend, Ben Whishaw, yet again - who surely must have a clause in a unique contract with the British Film Institute that he is to appear in every single British film. There can be no other possible explanation! Having said that, he's still as good as he always is.
Then there's also the incresaingly familiar face of hottie Matthias Schoenarts ('Far from the Madding Crowd', 'Suite Francaise' - as well as the upcoming 'A Bigger Splash', to which I'm especially looking forward).

Director Tom Hooper ('Les Miserables', 'The King's Speech') brings it all together satisfactorily enough but there's very little light and shade in the proceedings. Although Redmayne's character and that of his screen wife do exhibit a range of emotions I felt the film's storyline itself was almost stiflingly one track, such that it did wear me down pretty quickly.. 
The film's selling point is, naturally. the central performance of Redmayne as a transexual, which will probably be seen in years to come as a pioneering role. However, in the final analysis, I felt that his appearance transcended the rest of the film itself......................6.5.

Wednesday 13 January 2016

Film: 'Joy'

If I'd paid more attention to the reviews I wouldn't have gone thinking that this was going to be a light-hearted, breezy comedy. I knew it was based on a true story (but how many films are not, these days?) though I was also misled by the film's optimistic title which, in fact, is simply the name of the lead character, Joy Mangano, played by Jennifer Lawrence.
She is the inventor of the 'Miracle Mop', a device which can be rinsed without getting ones hands wet and dirty. The film follows her fight to achieve recognition as well as her due fair payment for the product.
However, the first third or so of the film sets the scene by revealing her domestic situation, living in the same large house as her mother, grandmother and her own infant daughter. Her former husband, divorced from her two years previously, lives in the basement. Then her twice-divorced father, in the form of Robert de Niro, comes round without warning, to move in as well. 

There are indeed some laughs in this first section, arising from the abrasive exchanges between the various family members who have uneasy relationships with each other. But then, after an accident involving being cut by small shards of broken glass while cleaning up, Joy invents the mop and tries to find a market for it, meeting on the way, influential industrial big-wig Bradley Cooper who invests faith in her and the product. Before this point has been reached, however, nearly all humour has been vanquished and it becomes very serious, especially when Joy finds that her trust in various people who indicated they could help her, is found to have been misplaced. Indeed, she finds that she has been taken for a ride and income which should have accrued to her has been siphoned off in other directions. She, meanwhile, in order to get her product off the ground, has had to re-mortgage her house and is up to her neck in debt. 

I'm not going to blame the film for my own mistaken expectations, but I did find it increasingly heavy-going as it progressed. De Niro himself, well to the fore after his first appearance near the film's start, has less and less to do as the film moves on until he's hardly present at all. Jennifer Lawrence herself is as fine as she usually is, and so is Bradley Cooper, in a rather smaller role than we are used to seeing him in. 
David O. Russell is the director and joint writer of this venture, he who also guided Lawrence and Cooper in 'Silver Linings Playbook' as well as both again in 'American Hustle'. I don't think this latest came up to the level of either of those two, but it was still fair enough.

Go if you wish, but if you do I'd advise you to be wiser as to the type of film it is than I was........................6.

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Film: 'The Hateful Eight'

Quentin Tarantino's eighth film - of an ultimate ten, if he's to be believed. This one is stretched way beyond the point it needs to be, and is every bit as gory-grisly as any of his previous films, especially in the final hour of this 2 hour 53 minute film. Mind you, this was the 'shorter' version which I saw. In case you think that that might leave you feeling short-changed there is another print doing the rounds at 20 minutes longer still.

Set a short time after the American Civil War, the film takes its time to really get started. The first two screen-headed 'chapters' introduce us to four of the characters. In an oncoming blizzard a stagecoach containing bounty hunter Kurt Russell has Jennifer Jason Leigh as his prisoner who is being taken to a small town to face justice. The coach picks up another bounty hunter, a Major (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as the incoming new sheriff (Walton Goggins, a name I didn't know but one to watch) of the town to where Russell is taking Leigh to be delivered up - to be hanged. To wait out the snowstorm the coach stops at an isolated haberdashery store where is found the remainder already there who are to comprise the 'eight' of the title, including Michael Madsen, Tim Roth (with exaggerated lah-di-dah English accent) and Bruce Dern as an aged General in the recent war. But - and this is the crux of the film - is everybody really who they say they are?

My main criticism is in the long preamble before the story starts in earnest, well over half an hour into an already too long film. If the purpose of this extended opening was to furnish us with information which would explain later actions or motivations, even in hindsight, it took way too long to do so and, in any case, there's a lot of extraneous stuff there. 
After the shelter of the store has been reached the scene rarely shifts outside again for the remainder of the film, except for a couple of briefish flashbacks and one or two short action sequences.
The real tension only starts about half way through the film when questions start to be asked about exactly who each of these people really are. It does become interesting, actually very absorbing, as the audience is no wiser about the truth of everybody's identity than the characters themselves are. 
Being directed and written by who it is, it hardly needs saying that tensions are only broken through blood-lettings, almost entirely with guns - and some of it is very graphic indeed, some of the victims of the bullets' targets surviving to continue their confrontations even whilst bleeding heavily.

It's all very handsomely shot in Panavision's widescreen, now rarely-used, 'letter-box' format, with the opening snowbound scenes particularly impressive, and all set to a suitably ominously-sounding Ennio Morricone score. 

I haven't actively disliked any of Tarantino's films. This one is not, I think, one of his best, being over-indulgent, lacking discipline and, crucially, being needlessly over-long. But when it eventually does get going it did draw me in and from then on I wasn't at all bored, though some of that alertness was having to steel myself against witnessing yet more gore, usually arriving suddenly and sometimes not quite as expected. 
But on the whole, I derived more entertainment from it than I do for most films.....................................7.

Monday 11 January 2016

Film: 'Sisters'

A jumble of a comedy, this - and that very much seems to be the consensus. Some of it works - including a couple of very funny moments, though no more than that. But a lot of it misfires, some of that being the too rapid repartee which is lost in indecipherability, or is simply not amusing at all when it's clear that it's intended to be. In fact through a lot of this film I thought it was too self-knowing for its own good, and it shows. There are few more effective ways to kill a comedy than to act it as if its funny.

Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are the titular unmarried siblings, now with their respective own homes. They are shocked by the sudden news that their parents (Josh Brolin and Dianne Wiest) have decided to sell their house, the very place in which they grew up, with all their memories and artifacts within, including the one-time shared girls' bedroom kept in the state in which they left it. They decide to mark the house's changing of owner by holding the mother of all parties in their parents' absence, to which they invite all and sundry - virtually unlimited booze and, later, drugs being available - plus bedrooms. Eventual result - mayhem. So far so predictable. If the film intended to make at least one of the loud-mouthed invitees as irritating and unfunny on screen as he would have been in reality, it succeeded very well.

I didn't know Amy Poehler at all and Tina Fey is a name I'm only familiar with through being mentioned in our more recent news programmes for her political sketches. The other name I recognised is John Leguizamo in a bit part, reflecting, I suppose, his decline into low-level celebrity status. Mention must also be made of (mmmm mmmm!) stud, Ike Barinholz, a new name who really lit my fire.

Much of the humour is heavily sexual, and a lot of the vocabulary reflects the same, coming from virtually all the participants. But its success is patchy. The 'plot' is simple enough, though the whole thing finishes with completely foreseeable and cringe-making tying- up of loose ends.

Director Jason Moore achieves about the same level of laughs with me as he did with his 2012 'Pitch Perfect', so it would not be inappropriate to rate this film with approximately (in fact, one step lower) than I gave that particular film. So................................5.5.

Monday 4 January 2016

Film: 'In the Heart of the Sea'

Had to drag myself along to see this one. Having seen the trailer enough times to cause substantial irritation, the subject matter itself (whaling - in this case to obtain their oil), I find far from engrossing - in fact rather repugnant. Here I automatically sided with the great white whales - and one whale in particular which kept 'stalking' the whalers (well, wouldn't you be miffed if you had to go around with a harpoon stuck in your back?) - rather than identifying with the crew with whom one was, presumably, meant to sympathise. But even aside from that I found that, despite the spectacular effects (there seems to be absolutely no limit now on the images that can be created), and despite several sequences of high drama (all set, invariably, to busy orchestral chugga-chuggas to hold ones interest), it all felt curiously functional and only distantly-involving.

Ron Howard's film, 'based' on a true story (as every second film these days seems to be), is framed and interrupted by ageing old salt, Brendan Gleason, recounting to Hermann Melville (Ben Whishaw - yes, he again!) his experiences 30 years previously in 1820 as cabin boy and general dogsbody on a whaling ship at the age of 14 (Tom Holland, looking at times startlingly like the young Jamie Bell in 'Billy Elliott', such that I half-expected a demonstration of twinkle-toed, terpsichoreal skills). It hardly needs saying that Melville uses information in the account to furnish his 'Moby Dick'. 
Among the ship's crew the most recognisable name to me was Cillian Murphy. 
There's plenty of action - on ship, on small boats and in the sea itself. The crew's motivation changes halfway through the film from whale-hunting just to their plain survival, the whale having scuppered their main means of 'transport'. Many in the audience will recognise in the men's fate considerable echoes of Coleridge's epic poem 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'.
Being a heavily male-dominated film there are no women's roles of real substance, and the couple that there are only appear on shore prior to the sailing and briefly at the end. 

I didn't find this a particularly satisfying film. If it had been a subject I could have warmed to my verdict might have been different, but apart from some truly remarkable visuals (we expect nothing less these days - and I saw it in 2D while I believe there is also a 3D version at certain venues), it's not a film I can honestly describe as being one that I 'enjoyed'..........................4.