Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Christian Bale’

One of the nice things about our semi-regular trips to the cinema is the opportunity for some proper, high-quality discussion and debate afterwards. Last week, for example, Olinka and I had an interesting talk about the concept of normality and what it really means – should it carry a positive or negative connotation? And then today we emerged from the theatre, this time accompanied by our Contemporary Conflict Consultant (she did an MA in modern geo-politics, or something – we just call her Con-Con).

‘So,’ I said, ‘If you had to choose between being ruled by an idiot or a monster, which would it be?’

‘Neither.’

‘You have to choose!’

‘But they’re both bad!’ said Olinka.

‘Yes, but which is worse?’

‘They’re both worse than each other,’ said Con-Con, who may have an MA but probably wouldn’t last long in a philosophy seminar.

In the end they sort of refused to answer the question, which I thought was telling. The movie to provoke this unusually intense wrangling was Adam McKay’s Vice. Ten or fifteen years ago McKay was well-established as a director of smart, silly comedy films, but since then he has reinvented himself as one of the most ferociously political directors working in the Hollywood mainstream – almost like a non-documentarian analogue to Michael Moore – and has done so to some acclaim. Vice continues this, and is probably his most partisan piece of work to date.

Vice tells the story of the career of Dick Cheney, whom you may or may not recall was the Vice-President of the United States under George W Bush. You may very well not recall; the film suggests this may be part of Cheney’s dark genius. Cheney is played by Christian Bale at his most chameleonic – for most of the film he virtually disappears under layers of prosthetic make-up. We first meet the future Veep in the early sixties as a hard-drinking scumbag, kicked out of college for his bad behaviour. His intimidating wife Lynne (Amy Adams) decrees that Cheney shape up or she will leave him.

From this point on the film rattles through the early part of his political career – an internship in Washington, where he forges a long-lasting alliance with his mentor-cum-ally Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), then a stint as White House chief-of-staff, election as a Congressman, then Secretary of Defence under the first President Bush. A presidential run is contemplated, but Cheney decides against it. However, could a second act in his career be lurking on the horizon…?

Well, of course it is, and – the film posits – Cheney eventually becomes the real power behind the throne as Vice-President to George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), quietly gaining control of key areas such as energy, defence, and foreign policy. Following the September 11th attacks, Cheney and his cohorts see the opportunity to launch the invasion of Iraq they have already been preparing for. Various things follow which I hope you are already familiar with: Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, the destabilisation of the Middle East, the rise of ISIS, and much more. Did I mention that this is at least partly intended as a comedy film?

Doing a bio-pic of someone who is still alive is not entirely unheard of, especially when the person is in the later stages of their life and most likely not going to make any more notable contributions to posterity. What makes Vice somewhat noteworthy is that most biographical films tend to be upbeat, or at least fairly non-judgmental, certainly when their subject is still alive. This film is different. Dick Cheney is presented as, not to put too fine a point on it, a monster, an utterly ruthless sociopath fixated on the acquisition and use of power for its own sake. (Bale notoriously thanked ‘Satan’ for inspiration when he won an award for this role recently.) One key moment in his political development comes when a perplexed Cheney asks Rumsfeld what it is they actually believe in as politicians. Rumsfeld walks off practically screaming with laughter. Cheney, the film suggests, achieves this and facilitates many atrocities through the deployment of tortuous circular logic (America has declared it does use torture; therefore the use of stress positions and waterboarding cannot, by definition, be considered torture) and an Orwellian misuse of language (‘enemy combatant’ rather than ‘prisoner of war’; ‘climate change’, not ‘global warming’). He also makes full use of people’s tendency to ignore big, complex, abstract problems and fixate on whatever’s in front of them, like a reality TV show.

As with The Big Short, McKay’s last film, there is some quite challenging material here, the sort of thing that might make audiences switch off, and so McKay works intensely to keep the film surprising and blackly entertaining. Bale’s performance as Cheney is a masterclass in understated, underplayed menace, but Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell are both essentially off the leash as Rumsfeld and Bush – Rumsfeld emerges as a kind of demented rodent, while the film sticks with the notion that Bush was a clueless figurehead for an administration basically run by Cheney: Rockwell plays him as a hapless, baffled lightweight. Some big performances here, and it does make me wonder about (and, to be honest, eagerly anticipate) the inevitable movie concerning the Trump administration we’re bound to get, probably sooner rather than later. How can any movie do that particular circus justice? One can only hope The Jim Henson Company have kept their diaries free.

Elsewhere the film cheerfully toys with the standard forms of conventional cinema in a way which seemed to me to be very clearly indebted to Monty Python in places – there’s a fake ending at one point, complete with its own credits. You do occasionally get a sense of the film stretching a bit too far for its effects, though – Jesse Plemons’ narrator admits that it’s impossible to know what was going through the Cheneys’ minds as they contemplated Dick becoming the VP, so the film opts to fill the gap by inserting a cod-Shakespearean sketch with the couple considering their options a la Macbeth and his wife.

‘This probably won’t play well with the Republican base’, you may be thinking, and the film indeed seems to anticipate this, including another sketch-like moment where one character complains he’s appearing in a film with a liberal bias and then gets into a fight with someone with an old-fashioned attachment to facts (meanwhile two onlookers ignore the developing brawl as they discuss the latest cool movie trailer to drop). But this seems more like a joke than a serious attempt at redress. One of the film’s most brilliant strokes is to suggest that, despite everything else he’s responsible for, Dick Cheney did have at least one mitigating quality, one moral principle – only to reveal that, in the end, he knowingly abandoned even this. Even so, the film does allow Cheney the last word – Bale-as-Cheney addresses the camera and justifies his actions in a manner that is not only difficult to easily dismiss, but also serves as a reminder that we are all to some extent complicit in the crimes committed in our names.

The disputed election in 2000 and the invasion of Iraq a few years later already feel like something out of the history books, but Vice is also careful to establish the part that Cheney and his generation played in creating the conditions which enabled the current slow-motion disaster in American politics. Trump and Pence appear in archive footage; they actually find footage of Ronald Reagan saying ‘Make America great again’; Cheney’s role in changing the law to allow partisan news services such as Fox News to come into existence is touched upon. There is much that is still timely in this film, even if it feels more like a howl of disbelieving anger than any kind of suggestion as to how to make things better.

This is a ferocious film, very funny, and full of ideas and energy with some terrifically entertaining performances. It’s also quite frightening and more than a bit dispiriting, which makes it an odd package, to say the least. I’m not sure it’s likely to change many minds, but I think it will be an educational experience for many people, and a roller-coaster trip through recent political history. One of the outstanding movies of the year so far.

Read Full Post »

As you may or may not know, I spent most of 2007, 2008, and 2009 in distant foreign countries, pretty much unable to keep up with news (as opposed to today, of course, when I live in the heart of the United Kingdom and actively try to avoid the news). And occasionally, when I would pop home for a visit, this meant that things everyone else took for granted left me completely baffled.

I distinctly recall one conversation, following a series of news reports which left me puzzled. ‘Mother, what’s this credit crunch thing everyone keeps talking about?’

‘Ah, well, yes. It’s about debt. Apparently some banks lent more than they should have and…’ She trailed off. ‘Well, basically it means the economy’s going to collapse.’

‘Oh. What, really?’

‘Yes, it’s to do with… it’s to do with… oh, ask your father.’

I don’t believe I did, though. We consider ourselves so much more developed than our distant ancestors, whose understanding of the forces affecting their lives was supposedly so limited, and yet we blithely wander through life happily conceding that the workings of the global economy – which is really every aspect of every economy, everywhere – are so arcane and complex they’re beyond the ability of normal people to make any sense of. We leave it to the experts, because we believe – and this may largely be the result of the experts themselves telling us so – we have no other option.

Striking a ferocious blow against this orthodoxy is Adam McCay’s The Big Short, a subversive macro-economic comedy drama about the origins of the credit crunch and the financial crisis which we all so casually refer to as though it were an earthquake or a tsunami or some other unavoidable Act of God. It isn’t, it wasn’t, and the film has a damn good try at explaining just why.

TheBigShortCSHeader

The film opens in the mid-2000s, with the banking sector heavily based around the exploitation of bonds based on the housing market: said market being considered utterly rock-solid, the definition of a safe bet. However, free-thinking hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) actually takes the time to check out the underlying mortgages on which the system is founded, and discovers they are deeply suspect. He predicts that the housing market is going to collapse within the next few years and adopts what, in the eyes of his colleagues and superiors, is an insane strategy – investing money based on the assumption that an economic crash is going to happen.

Word of Burry’s activities reaches a number of other traders, primarily the amoral Jared Vennett (Ryan ‘Goosey Goosey’ Gosling) and the professional skeptic Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and they come to realise that Burry seems to be right – a field trip to Florida reveals it’s quite normal for exotic dancers to have upwards of half a dozen mortgages on a handful properties, all of them dependent on a steady stream of refinancing opportunities to function, with the local mortgage lenders happy to brag about the fact they’ll lend money to anybody, any time, regardless of their ability to pay.

Also catching wind of the unbelievable truth are a couple of neophyte traders (John Magaro and Finn Wittrack) and their veteran mentor (Bradley Pitt), whose investigations lead them to the same conclusions, and the same course: trying to ‘short’ the market by effectively investing in its failure…

On paper, The Big Short looks like a movie with a potential taste/tone problem (well, it looks like a film with a number of potential issues, if we’re honest, but we’ll come back to some of the other ones in a bit). This is basically the story of how a motley crew of weirdos, cynics, whizzkids and chancers made vast quantities of money out of a global disaster – so why are we supposed to care about people who are basically profiteers from misery? Shouldn’t they all just be eminently punchable human beings?

Well, the film dodges this bullet rather adroitly, mainly by stressing the characters’ knowledge of the impending collapse’s implications and their own sense of guilt (Brad Pitt procures for himself the speech which makes the situation painfully clear), and there are a number of scenes showing them attempting to raise the alarm on what’s coming, only to be dismissed out of hand. And it’s hardly as if it’s the characters’ fault.

I suspect that if the makers of The Big Short want you to take one thing away from this film, it’s a deeper understanding of the fact that the financial crisis was not some freak, random event, but the result of systematic greed, corruption, stupidity, and fraud in the banking sector, on an almost inconceivable scale. Tens of millions of people around the world lost their jobs, homes, savings, and, yes, lives – because the financial markets engaged in a profit-obsessed conspiracy of active deception and ostrich-minded wilful ignorance. Across the entire world, one – one! – banker did jail time as a result, for a minor offence. And there is every sign of the whole thing starting to happen again. You should be angrier about this.

At first glance, Adam McCay is a very odd choice for a film like this – McCay is normally associated with rather broader, more populist projects, directing the Anchorman films and being one of the writers on Ant-Man – but closer scrutiny of his CV will reveal the closing credits of 2010’s The Other Guys, at which point a offbeat, knockabout comedy appears to be hijacked by the Occupy movement: a five-minute infographic presentation detailing the costs of economic crime accompanies the names of the cast and crew.

Here, McCay does a fine job of turning what could have been a rather dry and worthy story into something with some life and energy. In addition to extracting winning performances from a strong cast and marshalling a not-especially straightforward story, he gives the film a really subversive, tongue-in-cheek edge. Early on, the number of references to sub-prime mortgages, credit default swaps, and so on, starts to rack up, and Gosling’s narrator correctly guesses the viewer may be beginning to feel a bit confused and/or stupid. Never mind, he says: ‘Here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.’

And, lo, the rising Antipodean star duly appears, covered in suds, to deliver a quick (and somewhat profane) expository info-dump, direct to camera. It’s a very funny scene and a brilliant conceit, and one which the film repeats several times with different celebrities. (I have to say that I’m still baffled about much of the finer detail, to the point where I’m actually reading the book the film is based on in an attempt to make sense of it all.) The Big Short‘s willingness to break the conventional rules of film storytelling gives it an anarchic feel and a sense of fun that suit its anti-establishment, crowd-pleasing mission statement.

In the end, though, I think The Big Short may prove just a bit too radical to do well in the awards season, considering it’ll be in contention with more traditional pieces of film-making. But in the end, though, I think this isn’t just a good film made with style, but an important one, too, that uncovers a number of uncomfortable truths about the way we live now. Calling it essential viewing is probably overstating things – but not, I would say, by much.

Read Full Post »

We have had a few weeks the like of which are such as to make one want to declare a moratorium on death itself. The emperor of maladies has taken a heavy toll, and we are all left saddened and diminished and perhaps a little more conscious of the dark.

One feels obliged to make some gesture of remembrance, but one is horribly spoilt for choice at the moment. I could revisit Galaxy Quest or Toxic Avenger IV with equal justification. But instead I am going to take another look at Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige, which is notable for what turned out to be one of the final acting roles for David Bowie.

the-prestige-2006

I would be lying if I said I was among the many people left feeling desolated by Bowie’s recent death, but I understand the magnitutde of his achievements and his presence in popular culture, not just as a musician but also as a film actor. Perhaps inevitably, the two seemed to feed into one another – Bowie’s most celebrated screen appearance, playing the alien visitor Thomas Newton in the film I should really be reviewing, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, surely owes a lot to the Ziggy Stardust persona he had created a few years earlier. Nolan himself said that no-one else could possibly have played Bowie’s role in this film, and from a certain point of view it is easy to understand why.

The Prestige is based on a novel by the underrated British writer Christopher Priest, and – not unusually for a Nolan production – it takes a while for its actual subject matter to become clear. The narrative is complex and oblique, with flashbacks within flashbacks, sections of apparently unreliable narration, and large quantities of smoke and mirrors. But this is only as it should be, for the film is about stage magic and its practitioners, and the differences between them and the makers of genuine wizardry.

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play Angier and Borden, two young men at the beginnings of careers as magicians in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London. Angier is aristocratic and a born showman, but a somewhat indifferent student of the craft – the lower-born Borden is a brilliant instinctive magician, but lacks his rival’s charisma. Tragedy strikes when Angier’s wife dies in an accident on stage, an accident Borden may have been responsible for. And thus begins a terrible feud.

The rivals begin by sabotaging each others’ performances, until Borden premieres an incredible new illusion he calls the Transported Man. Angier’s determination to outdo his enemy leads him to incredible lengths in search of the secret of how the illusion is performed, and his obsession drives away those closest to him – his assistant (Scarlett Johansson) and advisor (Michael Caine). Notes stolen from Borden lead him on a long journey to the heart of America, in search of the reclusive genius Nikola Tesla, whom Angier believes can build a machine that will end the conflict between the two men forever…

Tesla is, of course, played by Bowie, and – somewhat contrary to the great man’s reputation – a rather subdued and understated performance it is too. Nothing wrong with that, of course, for it’s entirely appropriate for the film. Quite how historically accurate a portrait of Tesla this is, is a good question – probably not very, if we’re honest. But Tesla’s role in the film is to be an enigma, an individual on the border between reality and myth, an irresistibly charismatic person who still is not really fully understood – and, as I say, it’s very understandable that Nolan should have wanted to secure David Bowie’s services for the role. It’s a small but crucial part, and one which is essential to the development of The Prestige‘s narrative.

I believe I read a review once which cried foul with regard to this film’s final act, suggesting that by introducing, in the form of Tesla’s miraculous machine, a strong element of SF or fantasy into what had previously been a relatively ‘straight’ drama, Nolan was in some way cheating, moving the goal posts. I can kind of see where this attitude is coming from – this is a film about real-world magic, after all, carefully constructed to show the audience all the facts they need to understand what’s going on, while making equally sure they’re not aware of this until after the end of the story. Introducing an arbitrary and fantastical plot device, as the film does, arguably renders all that work moot.

But on the other hand, the film seems to be entirely aware of this potential pitfall and works extremely hard to circumvent it: the revelation of the machine and just what it does is painstakingly foreshadowed from the very first second of the movie, and the facts are woven into the narrative of the film with the greatest skill. In its ability to construct a confoundingly clever puzzle-box narrative that only yields up all its secrets on the second or third viewing, The Prestige definitely anticipates Inception, although The Prestige may be even subtler and more devious.

It’s certainly an ambiguous film, too: while Angier, as the film goes on, increasingly comes to resemble the villain of the piece, he is never completely unsympathetic no matter what he does. In the same way, there is always a certain distance with Borden, too – this is someone capable of some very harsh actions. Nolan, as usual, secures a first-rate cast for these roles, although the cast list in general does provide evidence for the ‘superheroes are taking over Hollywood’ argument. It’s true that Hugh Jackman doesn’t have quite the same acting clout as Christian Bale, but he still gives one of his best performances here, while Michael Caine of course provides immaculate support. The female characters, if I’m honest, feel a little thin and underserved, but this is not the fault of Johansson or Rebecca Hall.

The Prestige is a film about identity and reality, and the extent to which these things are artificial and can be manipulated – several cast members play multiple versions of themselves, for instance. It suggests that people are delighted by the pretence of magic, but (rightfully) terrified by the real thing – that illusion is more often than not just a comfort. It’s a complex, dense film, full of deceptively subtle ideas, but one that couples them to a compelling story with some unforgettably shocking images and moments. For many years now, Christopher Nolan has seemed incapable of making a film which is anything less than deeply impressive, and while this is not one of his most famous or financially successful ones, it is still head and shoulders above most other movies. Bowie’s role may be small, but it is crucial to the film’s success – perhaps only something of a footnote to an acting career which was itself only a secondary enterprise, but still a very distinguished one.

Read Full Post »

I turned up to see Ridley Scott’s new-style biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings in keen expectation of an energetically bad movie. As chance would have it, I happened to see it at the Blackpool branch of Odeon. This will be my final visit to this particular cinema, and I must confess the occasion was not without a degree of emotion – I have been watching films there for over fifteen years, on and off, and the place did play a small but significant role in keeping me sane during what I suppose I should call my wilderness years. Not having been there for a while, I was somewhat dismayed to find the cinema showing every sign of struggling – no sign of a ticket desk at all, with punters obliged to use the concessions counter, tickets themselves going for insanely low prices, and no allocated seating either. I was saddened, to be honest.

The first film I saw there was Payback, starring Mel Gibson back when he was acceptable, and Exodus is if nothing else rather better than that. Although, to be honest, my enjoyment of the film was given a unexpected spin by the fact I’d unwittingly turned up to a subtitled showing. The subtitling was rather zealously done, with every vocalisation from every performer painstakingly committed to the screen – a lot of (sigh), (exhale), (incoherent scream), and so on. As a result of this I can be very certain when I tell you that the defining sound of Exodus is ‘indistinct shouting’.

exodus_gods_and_kings_ver7

Based on the book of the same name by some guys in Babylon, this is the stirring tale of stuff going on in ancient Egypt and the surrounding area. Pharaoh Seti (John Turturro in a brave choice of hat) is in charge, though he does a lot of delegating to his son Ramses (Joel Edgerton, sadly looking not unlike Ricky Gervais in drag) and adopted son Moses (Christian Bale, looking not unlike Christian Bale with a beard). Seti secretly thinks Moses is a safer bet as a future leader, partly because the self-regarding Ramses spends much of his spare time stroking his python, but this is not to be. Especially not when Moses discovers his secret heritage as a member of the Hebrew slave underclass.

A life-long atheist, Moses isn’t interested, but when Ramses ascends the throne it forms a good enough pretext for the new boss to have Moses exiled. Moses does not seem to take this very personally and trades in being a top Egyptian court official and general for shepherding and being a loving family man. However, one day he receives a bang on the head and finds himself confronted with the vision of a burning bush and a surly ten-year-old boy (Issac Andrews), who is actually God. God tells Moses to go and get the Hebrews out of Egypt toot-sweet, and – not without a degree of justified grumbling – Moses heads off to get on with the job…

Well, I will be astounded if Exodus wins any major awards, but I did not find it to be quite the artistic failure or absurd fiasco some of the reviews I’ve seen suggested. Then again, I am the kind of person for whom the word ‘absurd’ does not necessarily carry wholly negative connotations, and parts of this movie are definitely absurd. We are spared the climactic sword-fight between Moses and Pharaoh on the bed of the Red Sea, though it’s a close thing, but one of the final scenes of the film is set in a cave up Mount Sinai, with Moses hard at work with hammer and chisel on some stone tablets, God fixing the pair of them some drinks, and the duo idly bickering about the Ten Commandments. If that’s not the most ridiculous scene to appear in a serious film this year, I don’t know what is.

It’s certainly an odd choice for a film which must, on some level, have hoped to tap into a religiously-motivated audience for some of its ticket sales. Then again, there are plenty of others – the film is specifically dated to 1300 BCE, not BC, and there’s a half-hearted attempt at providing a rational explanation for all the apparently miraculous events that occur. As I mentioned, Moses gets a crack on the head before his first meeting with God, and even he admits he sounds like a delusional person. Ewen Bremner comes on as a Scottish-Egyptian clever-clogs who explains the Plagues as a quasi-scientifically based series of events.

To be honest the whole Plagues sequence is the closest the film comes to toppling over into Monty Python silliness, although it also includes some fun CGI crocodiles and frogs: the various Egyptian characters initially react with annoyance and exasperation rather than anything more serious, at least until God sends in the Angel of Death to slay all the first-born. This is a rather effective and well-mounted sequence.

On the other hand, it doesn’t exactly present God in the most flattering light: the Almighty comes across as rather petulant and unpredictably bad-tempered. Having packed Moses off to lead the Hebrews in their struggle for freedom, He then turns up to give our hero a rollocking for taking too long about it. ‘They’ve been slaves here for 400 years! Why are you in such a hurry now?’ cries Moses paraphrastically. ‘Just am,’ sniffs God, and brings on the CGI carnage.

Oh well. I suppose you shouldn’t expect very much more from a film which presents the revelation of Moses’ Hebrew roots as some sort of unexpected plot twist – it often seems to have little idea who its target audience is, or indeed what it’s fundamentally about. Is it about the relationship between the heroic Moses and the resentful, lesser Ramses, two men who grew up together but forced into conflict? (Shades of Ben-Hur – not to mention Gladiator, in places.) Is it about Moses coming to terms with being a Hebrew? Or is it about an atheist who finds himself forced into faith? The film plays with all of these things and more, but usually just settles for another show-stopping CGI sequence.

This being a Ridley Scott film, of course, he at least gives good epic – Scott throws in a pretty big battle just to get things warmed up, and never spares the spectacle. I know that in the past I’ve criticised him for being much more interested in arty, beautiful visuals than in actually telling a coherent story, but he keeps everything under control here, and events – while frequently a bit bonkers – are always easy to follow.

There is a lot to enjoy in Exodus: Gods and Kings, provided you don’t take any of it too seriously and are prepared to engage with the film on its own terms. It’s never dull and it always looks good, even bits of it are silly, it squanders some of its most capable cast members, and it doesn’t seem to really have much idea of what it’s actually supposed to be about. Whatever it is, it’s vague, and rather loud: indistinct shouting, indeed.

 

Read Full Post »

There are some film-makers whose fondest dream is to oversee a franchise of billion-grossing summer blockbusters and, basically, retire to their own solid gold private island. Others seek gold of a different kind – they are the ones more interested in credibility, critical acclaim, and the odd gong. The very lucky ones amongst this latter group find their way into what I call the Gong Club: that elite group who, it seems to me, are permanently under observation by the people who decide the awards shortlists.

Tom Hanks has been in the Gong Club for a couple of decades now; others, like Judi Dench, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, and so on, are similarly long-term members. A recent addition to their ranks seems to be the writer and director David O Russell – 2010’s The Fighter did terribly well, 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook landed a Royal Flush of the acting Oscar nominations, and his new movie American Hustle is generating serious buzz for this year’s awards.

amhustle

Various familiar faces from his previous movies show up here, starting with Christian Bale. Bale plays late-70s con man Irving Rosenfeld, who embarks on a breathless romance with ex-dancer Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). They are initially very successful in persuading people to simply give them money as non-refundable application fees for non-existent savings opportunities, but this particular good thing comes to an end when they are busted by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper).

However, Richie offers them a deal: if they help him entrap and arrest enough corrupt businessmen and politicians, he will let them go free. Irving and Sydney have serious misgivings, but eventually realise they don’t have much choice. And so begins a frankly bizarre sting operation, involving a fake sheikh, millions of dollars of the FBI’s money, the mayor of New Jersey (played by Jeremy Renner), and Irving’s loose-cannon wife (Jennifer Lawrence)…

American Hustle has, for the most part, received extremely positive notices, and I can sort of see why: it does bear more than a passing resemblance to several other very respectable films. The true-life con-job angle, not to mention the late 70s setting, inevitably recalls the very successful Argo (and, indeed, Ben Affleck was attached to this project as director for a while), while another major focus of the plot – the lives and relationships of people caught up in criminality of different kinds – brings with it a definite whiff of Scorsese (Russell’s deft handling of a classic pop and rock soundtrack adds to this).

And in many ways American Hustle lives up to the standards of the films it is trying to imitate. This is a big, ambitious movie with a lot going on in it, and Russell marshals the various strands of the story with considerable skill – it works both as a caper comedy-thriller and a serious drama, if never quite both at the same time. The cast is largely made up of very talented performers really going for it with meaty, rounded parts, and there are many great moments, some visually arresting, some funny, some surprisingly gripping – a brief cameo from a thankfully on-form Robert de Niro is genuinely chilling.

On the other hand, I couldn’t quite shake the impression that this is a film going for it just a little too much, just a little too often. A 70s setting is a well-worn backdrop for a certain kind of American movie, and here the trappings appear to be getting a little out of control. At the start of the film, we meet the main characters and their defining features – Bale (insanely elaborate comb-over), Cooper (ostentatious perm), Adams (wardrobe slashed to the navel and beyond), Renner (gargantuan quiff) and Lawrence (huge hair). All of these things were just a bit too OTT to be completely credible, for me; the film seemed to be waving them in my face somehow. There’s quite a serious scene developing the relationship between Adams and Cooper, but both of them have their hair in curlers throughout, which inevitably undercuts it. Some of the performers also occasionally give the impression of getting stuck into their roles with a bit too much relish, as well – their characters are frequently as grotesque and unlikely as their personal grooming.

Perhaps there’s a touch of this in the plotting, too: as I said, it’s a sign of the film’s ambition that it sets out to fuse a fairly complex thriller plotline with an ensemble character drama, but I even got a sense of wild abandonment on the part of the film-makers here as well – an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, with moments of comedy, romance, and drama piling up on top of each other as the story continues.

This is an enjoyable film, but not really one notable for its sense of restraint. I found watching it to be not entirely unlike my visit to the breakfast buffet of a major Las Vegas casino hotel several years ago – there’s nothing wrong with eating eggs and bacon, nor with eating waffles, nor with eating cowboy biscuits, or sausages, or pancakes. Eating large quantities of all of them in one sitting, on the other hand, is likely to produce distinct and not always pleasant sensations. So it is with American Hustle‘s let’s-do-everything-and-do-it-A-LOT approach. At least this time I don’t have myself to blame for it. A good film, I think, but not really disciplined enough to make the best use of its various assets.

Read Full Post »

There are keenly-anticipated films, and then there are films with a genuine buzz around them, and then there are films people are desperately excited to see. And then there’s The Dark Knight Rises.

The first breathlessly agitated articles about Christopher Nolan’s final Batman movie started appearing nearly eighteen months ago – I should know, I wrote one of them myself. Even four months ago, respectable magazines were writing articles on the movie discussing the serious issue that some people were worried the antagonist’s dialogue might be completely unintelligible. Even in a perfect world, this film would still have received virtually blanket media coverage on its opening weekend.

This, of course, is usually a recipe for crushing disappointment, as many people who went to one of the midnight showings of Prometheus would happily tell you (and, judging from what I’ve seen, would do so at great length). Nevertheless, some kind of minor miracle has been achieved, because The Dark Knight Rises is… satisfying. I know that sounds like damnation by the faintest of praise, but it really isn’t. Thinking about this film the word I come back to time and time again is ‘satisfying’, and I think this is not something to be underestimated.

Ten years ago, a mysterious organisation calling itself the League of Shadows attempted to recruit vengeance-hungry orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) to become one of its elite assassins. Wayne broke away from the League and transformed himself into the masked vigilante and defender of Gotham City, Batman, killing his former mentor.

Eight years ago, Batman’s attempts to save Gotham were critically imperilled when the city’s heroic DA was driven mad and went on a killing spree before ultimately dying. To protect the dead man’s reputation and his work, Batman framed himself for the man’s actions.

No one has seen Batman since that night, and Bruce Wayne has become a crippled, embittered recluse. But Gotham is, it seems, a much more hopeful city. Dark forces are gathering, however – morally-ambiguous jewel thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is amongst the least of them, but quick to catch Wayne’s attention. Much, much more of a threat is the masked mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy), another former member of the League of Shadows, who’s in town pursuing a machiavellian scheme of his own. Even if Batman returns to confront Bane, does he still have the ability to defeat him? And is Bane simply just following orders in expectation of getting a paycheck…?

One can understand the reluctance of Christopher Nolan and his team to make this final return to the world of Batman, given their massive achievements with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and the less-than-stellar record of many third instalments in series. Just making a good movie would have been a significant success; making one as good as this is a stellar achievement.

The Dark Knight Rises has the same virtues as Nolan’s other movies: effortless technical grace and polish, a very intelligent script, strength in depth in the cast list, and the overall sense that while this may be a major studio production, that doesn’t mean the film has to assume the audience is composed entirely of morons. One has to commend DC for giving Nolan the latitude to make the film he wanted to make (completely free of the stereoscopic scourge, as well), even if this means letting him do some slightly surprising things to the characters and setting.

This is not to say that Nolan cuts loose entirely from the existing Batman mythology, as many characters from the previous movies return, and a number of iconic scenes from the most famous Batman comics are brought – here it comes again – very satisfyingly to the screen. Impressively, he even manages to largely rehabilitate Catwoman, following the number done upon her reputation by Pitof and Halle Berry – although Anne Hathaway doesn’t have quite the obvious intelligence or wit to completely nail the character.

The film’s powerhouse performance and most memorable creation is, however, Tom Hardy’s Bane. Following a possibly-dodgy start to his career playing the Picard clone in Nemesis, Hardy has been steadily popping up in recent films, always threatening to give a magnetic, movie-stealing performance. Here I would say that finally happens. Hardy’s physical presence is imposing, but his vocal performance is even more remarkable, giving the character an almost-Shakespearean delivery without making him feel corny or hammy. I’d say there’s quite a big difference between the comics Bane and Nolan and Hardy’s version, but if anything the film-makers have improved on the original this time.

(As to whether there are any surprise appearances in this film from other notable Batman villains, either from the earlier movies or new to this one – well, the film-makers have decided to keep quiet about this, which seems to me to be an eminently sensible plan and an example I will be following.)

I could spend quite a long time going through all the things which are great about this movie, even just the performances: Michael Caine as Alfred, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an idealistic young cop, Tom Conti in a cameo role I’d better not spoil. Hans Zimmer’s score is rousing stuff, if perhaps a bit too fortissimo in places: some of the dialogue gets a little drowned out. Nolan also feels much more comfortable integrating comic relief into the story, something which occasionally felt a bit awkward in the past.

One of the most striking elements of this film which I do feel deserves a fuller mention is the level of its social commentary. All of the Nolan Batman films have had interesting things to say about the difference between law and justice and the real consequences of someone like Batman operating, but there’s a long sequence towards the end of this film which seems to me to be saying very sharp and unusual things about current politics and economics. Throughout the film the people in the firing line are stockbrokers and bankers and businessmen, who are nevertheless not presented tremendously sympathetically. (This is clearly a film fully aware of the economic realities of life in 2012 and how this has shaped people’s attitudes.) Bane’s organisation basically presents itself as the militant wing of the Occupy movement, intent on bringing about some degree of social justice and redistribution of wealth – but, as this is Bane’s organisation, we know that they are in the wrong. Even the ‘morally flexible’ Catwoman realises this. And yet the film refuses to offer easy answers or pat solutions: it’s mature enough to suggest, as these films always have, that the world is a complex place which does not lend itself to such things.

Lots of stuff blows up, too, of course, orchestrated with Nolan’s customary verve. Perhaps the great achievement of this series has been the way in which it has blended intelligent themes and characterisation with the demands of a blockbuster superhero movie (I notice a cliche developing: the hunt for a clean, renewable energy source is a crucial plot point here, as it was in The Avengers, and a couple of movies prior to that – and, while we’re on the subject, watching The Dark Knight Rises back to back with The World is Not Enough might prove an illuminating experience in some respects).

I imagine one of the pleasures to be had when returning to this film will be to admire Nolan’s legerdemain in setting up the conclusion. All the elements are there, in plain view (sometimes jarringly so), and yet come the end of the film he manages to arrange them in a manner which is both ingenious, quite moving, and – yet again – very satisfying as a genuine end to the story (suffice to say, Batman does something he’s never done before). The real trick is that the film presents something which is very definitely a proper ending, but still makes you want to revisit this world and see what happens next to the characters: but it would be brave of a director to attempt to follow in Nolan’s footsteps so closely, and brave of DC to let them try.

However, however, however. The Dark Knight Rises is cleverly written, strongly acted, flawlessly realised and directed with indisputable virtuosity – but for all of this it is still quite a difficult film to honestly connect with – for all of its many satisfactions, the overall impression I got was of a vast, intricate, high-powered, precision-tooled machine: a phenomenal piece of engineering but quite hard to engage with emotionally for an extended period of time.

I suppose this has been true to some degree of all the Christopher Nolan films that I’ve seen – perhaps the sheer scope of his imagination and ambition prevents them from having a genuine human centre. Even so, Christopher Nolan is still arguably the most exciting director working in the world today, and if he finds a way to invest his movies with authentic heart a place amongst the all-time greats is his to be had. The Dark Knight Rises is proof enough of that – Nolan has made a terrific film on so many levels, and one which deserves to be remembered as that and that alone.

Read Full Post »

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 20th 2003:

[Following a review of Far From Heaven.]

Well, after all that rich cinematic fare I was in the mood for something a bit less demanding. So what should fit the bill better than a sci-fi action thriller starring someone like Wales’ own Christian Bale? Pleasingly, just such a movie happened along in the shape of Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium.

In the future, society has been reshaped to include the maximum possible number of cliches from old SF movies. All emotion has been outlawed and the population exists in a permanent drugged stupor, rather like Vulcans on valium. Enforcing this new regime are the implausibly named Grammaton Clerics, foremost amongst whose number is the fanatically calm John Preston (Christian Bale, king of the dodgy accent). Preston is shocked (or would be, were it not illegal) to learn that his partner Errol Partridge (Sean Bean, slumming it) is secretly breaking the law and getting all teary and emotional over poems by Yeats (his transgressions no doubt caused by the stress of having such a stupid name), but being a dedicated servant of the state does his duty, letting Sean Bean get an early bath and have a long talk with his agent about the quality of the scripts he gets sent. Bean’s replacement is the ambitious Brandt, played by Taye Diggs from Chicago. But Preston inevitably finds himself questioning the values of the state, particularly after meeting hardened offender Mary (Emily Watson, really slumming it). Can he meet the challenge of bringing about a change in the system? And can Christian Bale meet the challenge of portraying more than one emotion in the same film?

Let’s talk about the good things in Equilibrium first. It’s rather well directed, for one thing, with a good deal of style. The production designs have a sort of brutalist grandeur even if they don’t quite manage to avoid cliche. Some of the action sequences are rather well put together, too. And, fair’s fair, Bale does a pretty reasonable job of portraying a man experiencing an emotional awakening (even if he is, inevitably, more convincing before than after).

But that really is all the film has going for it. Apart from this, what’s not cliched is silly, and what’s not silly is cliched. The list of films Equilibrium rips off seems to roll on forever: Logan’s Run. THX-1138. Fahrenheit 451. Metropolis. 1984. Demolition Man. The Matrix (there’s the most blatant knock-off in history of the lobby sequence from The Matrix, which is saying something). Being derivative isn’t necessarily a crime, but Equilibrium fails to fuse all its influences together in such a way as to establish an identity of its own.

The only even slightly original element to the script is the new martial art of ‘Gun-kata’, which supposedly involves using statistical analysis to predict where the bullets are going to be in a gunfight so the exponent can arrange to be elsewhere at the time. This idea strikes me as a bit bobbins, and the fact that on-screen the practitioners just seem to be vogueing with a gun in each hand does not help its credibility.

Credibility is one of Equilibrium‘s problems throughout, to be honest. Apart from characters with silly names, the script’s attempts to be moving and make serious points are torpedoed by a lack of subtlety (Preston finally turns against the system when it orders him to shoot a cute little puppy!) and some very dubious casting (at one point Bale beats up TV comedian Brian Conley – not that this is a bad thing, of course). The cast, which includes David Hemmings and (all too briefly) Lassie award laureate Sean Pertwee, do their best, but some things can’t be polished. And quite why the supposedly unemotional character played by Taye Diggs spent most of the movie grinning like a loon I could not tell you.

I didn’t really have great hopes for this film going in, but I would have settled for a cheerfully dumb, well-put-together, mid-budget actioneer (something like Bale’s last film, Reign of Fire). But Equilibrium‘s pretensions to worthiness, and its meandering, poorly-paced script, stop it from being even this. It aspires to have a message about the importance of emotions and compassion – but, ironically, I suspect the audience will find it very difficult to care either way.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »