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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

I have to confess that I do occasionally have a problem remembering which of the McDonagh brothers (John Michael and Martin) is which. Which one of them wrote and directed In Bruges? Which one did Calgary? Or Seven Psychopaths? Or The Guard? Luckily this is a less serious issue than it could be, as no matter which McDonough is responsible, the films themselves are almost always witty, thoughtful, and provocative in a good way. And so it proves with Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, yet another film which finds itself almost uncannily positioned to comment on and possibly take advantage of the unusual moment in which the United States finds itself.

The film opens just outside the small town of the title, and finds Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced woman with a teenage son, being struck by a moment of inspiration when she sees three long-disused billboards near her home. Some months earlier, her teenage daughter was raped and murdered, and there has been no word from the police department about this for a very long time. Incensed by the lack of progress, or indeed communication, Mildred rents the boards and puts up a set of messages highlighting the apparent inertia of the cops, in particular the police chief, Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

Willoughby, a basically decent man, is frustrated and irritated by this, but he has deeper personal problems to deal with and is inclined to be understanding. However, one of his men, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is somewhat less inclined to show empathy. Dixon is a little bit dim and more than a little bit bigoted, and happy to use any means necessary to get Mildred off the police’s case. Neither side seems willing to consider moderating their position, and with Willoughby stuck in the middle, it seems that only a further tragedy stands any chance of bringing resolution to the situation…

This is another case of a film proving slightly tricky to review, mainly because there is a significant plot element that doesn’t feature in the trailer, presumably because McDonagh wants it held back as a surprise for the viewer (despite the fact it’s established very early on in the story). The trailer, more to the point, seems to be pitching Three Billboards as a kind of offbeat, somewhat Coenish black comedy. And I’m really not sure that this does the movie justice at all.

There are certainly moments of comedy here, and the film is shot through with darkness of the most uncomfortable kind, but this does not feel like a film really setting out to amuse the audience. It would be equally easy to describe it as simply being the story of a woman setting out to confront the forces of male establishment prejudice, but I don’t think that this is what the film is truly about, either.

Certainly, it touches on elements of racism and bigotry, not to mention police brutality, but there’s almost a sense in which the film can’t pass a potential issue without trying to be provocative about it, from homophobia to child abuse in the Catholic Church. But touching on a subject doesn’t mean the film’s actually about that thing, and if anything, Three Billboards seems to me to be a deeply serious film about a number of things, one of them being anger and guilt. (McDonagh himself has said the film is about rage.) It seems to me that the film is suggesting that Mildred is provoking and sustaining fury as a coping method to help her deal with her own issues of grief and regret: McDormand’s performance, a masterclass of intensity and quiet stillness, certainly seems to suggest as much, as do the numerous striking moments in which the film pauses to become almost lyrically meditative.

If the film does have a message for the United States today, it is a more complex and (perhaps) less easily digestible one than the simple platitude that prejudice is bad. Mildred is an essentially good person, the film makes clear, but a good person whom events transform into an implacable righteous avenger. The problem is that a righteous avenger can be just as destructive a force as a thuggish, reactionary brute like Rockwell’s character, if neither of them is prepared to compromise. And so it transpires – neither side refuses to show any consideration for the other. Mistakes are made. Misunderstandings occur. People caught in the crossfire are the ones who suffer.

It seems to me that here McDonagh is creating a parable about the modern United States, which (as far as many observers can tell) is currently as divided and factionalised as it has been in living memory. The tendency towards unthinking demonisation of the opposition, and a lack of basic kindness and decency – these are other things that (again, it seems to me) Three Billboards is about, but they could surely equally be said about the culture wars taking place in America currently. If the film ultimately suggests that there is hope for some kind of rapprochement and a new kind of unity, then it is couched in the most unsettling terms – then again, there are few films which conclude on such a finely judged note of ambiguity and ambivalence as this one.

McDormand and Rockwell are both really excellent (in an example of just the kind of inflexible ideological puritanism that the film appears to be warning against, it has been suggested that Rockwell should not receive any awards for his performance in this film, as it is apparently morally wrong to reward someone for playing a racist), but so is Woody Harrelson, who has perhaps suffered for having a somewhat smaller role than either of the others. Then again, this is a film stuffed with classy, well-judged performances. The only very mild issue is with Abbie Cornish’s appearance as Harrelson’s wife – I think it’s probably a good performance, but the fact that it’s impossible to work out what kind of accent Cornish is attempting is inevitably a bit distracting.

There are plenty of laughs in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, but I think this is a very serious film that has the nerve to try and tackle some big subjects, both emotional and topical. As a result it includes a lot of a material which I suspect many viewers will find off-putting. This really is a drama, and one that goes to some extremely dark and potentially upsetting places. But it’s also a highly intelligent and very humane film, even if the notes of optimism it eventually strikes are inevitably somewhat muted. Most likely one of the films of the year.

 

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Another week, another film about the Second World War – on this occasion it is Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, a based-on-fact drama about the first days of Winston Churchill as the British Prime Minister in 1940 (not to be confused with the bobbins Timur Bekmambetov alien invasion movie of the same name from a few years back). We seem to be in the midst of a bunch of these at the moment – last year, after all, there was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which concerned itself with almost exactly the same period of history, and a film about Winston Churchill directed by Jonathon Teplitzky, starring Brian Cox as Churchill himself, the name of which momentarily escapes me. Is there a particular reason for this particular spate of films on the same subject? Well, maybe: we shall come to that, probably.

I would imagine (or hope) that the events covered by Darkest Hour are already known to most people, in the UK at least. It is May 1940, and the position of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has become untenable following his role in attempting to appease Hitler the previous year. The obvious candidate to succeed him, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), is unacceptable to the Labour Party, who will be a part of the new government; the only man for them is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), widely considered a self-serving maverick whose main loyalty is to himself.

The King (Ben Mendelsohn) is duly persuaded to ask Churchill to form a government, and he of course agrees, having been angling for the job all his adult life. But it begins to look like a poisoned chalice, as the forces of Nazi Germany invade Belgium and the Netherlands, France begins to crumble, and the British army finds itself in full retreat towards the French coast, with no realistic prospect of escape…

Given the situation, and with the United States unwilling to involve itself in a European war, the wise old heads of the war cabinet are in no doubt as to what the situation requires: a negotiated peace, responding to the peace overtures which Hitler’s Italian allies are already making. To do otherwise would be to expose Britain to the most terrible danger. If Churchill refuses to listen, then he has to be removed from office and replaced by someone more pragmatic. Faced with opposition both at home and abroad, is he really justified in sticking to his principles?

There are, obviously, many things one can say about the less palatable aspects of Winston Churchill, and his many utterances which would (hopefully) be career-ending nowadays. This is a man who at various points in his life was a racist, a keen advocate of the use of chemical weapons and also a cheerleader for eugenics. Yet this is also a figure who seems to transcend easy categorisation: unreconstructed old brute he may have been, but his is the example that seems to prove that one man can shape the course of history – as the popular legend has it, it was Churchill alone who kept Britain defiant and fighting, standing alone against the Nazi tyranny, almost as an act of will.

The notion of plucky little Britain going it alone against the rest of the world has become somewhat more loaded in the last eighteen months of so, and I wonder if this isn’t to some degree responsible for the recent surge in movies about the British bulldog spirit (and so on). Personally I think these are dangerous parallels to draw, but everyone in this particular area is in the process of mythmaking no matter what they happen to believe, so I suppose it is inescapable.

Certainly, Darkest Hour sticks close to the popular legend for most of its length – Churchill can be a bit inappropriate at times, but is generally lovably so, and is (of course) purveyor of a nice line in scathing wit, and possessor of a mighty oratorical talent. No real surprises there, then.

What’s slightly more unexpected is Churchill’s resemblance to a famous actor-director from New Cross. Three and a half hours in make-up every morning leaves Gary Oldman looking astonishingly like Gary Oldman under heavy prosthetics, and the fact he honestly doesn’t look very much like Churchill is a bit distracting. He is on full throttle here, though, and while his turn seemed to me to be somewhat awkwardly pitched between an acting performance and an act of impersonation, he certainly keeps the film very watchable, which is just as well: he’s in the vast majority of scenes. He’s particularly good when it comes to the aspects of Churchill we’re less used to seeing – the film often focuses on his vulnerability, his self-doubt, and his occasional bouts of depression.

Not that the support isn’t good too: apart from Pickup and Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas plays Lady Churchill and is pretty good in what isn’t a terribly big part, and Lily James plays Churchill’s secretary – it does rather seem that James’ part owes its prominence to the need to have a major character who is both female and under forty, if only for the sake of the poster.

And for the most part the film tells the story rather well, working as both a wartime drama and a political thriller. It’s not quite so well told that you completely forget how it’s all going to turn out, but it does summon up the desperate atmosphere of the time very effectively, not to mention the various pressures on Churchill.

The real question, of course, is that of why Churchill was so implacable in his will to keep Britain fighting the Nazis when victory seemed impossible and a negotiated peace of some kind was a distinct possibility. Where did he find his conviction and resolve? Why did he hold this particular belief with quite such strength? This is the reason why we remember him as a national hero and key figure in British history, after all.

And, to be honest, Darkest Hour fluffs this most crucial issue. It does offer an explanation, but it’s one that reeks of the Hollywood script unit and doesn’t remotely ring true to history. Its proposition – that Churchill was simply embodying the will of the British people – feels rather too smug and convenient, to say nothing of the fact that the very phrase ‘the will of the people’ has become rather loaded and subject to misuse of late.

In the end, this is the problem with Darkest Hour: the film is well-directed and well staged, although some may find it a little dry and stagey (most of the action consists of middle-aged men arguing in cramped rooms), but it is ultimately telling a story that most people will already be at least partly familiar with. We all know what happened and when, but the real question is why events took the turn that they did. The film does not have a convincing answer to this question.

I mean, it’s not what you’d call a bad film, and the performances are very good – it is the kind of film that wins awards, simply because of the subject matter, and you can see why Oldman would take it on – you’re infinitely more likely to win an Oscar playing Churchill than you are Commissioner Gordon, after all. But it doesn’t have anything new to bring to its material, and doesn’t offer any real psychological insights into its subject. Worth seeing, if you like this sort of thing, but unlikely to go down in history as a classic by any means.

 

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January is the month for a detox, apparently, and if you’re going to detoxify you might as well go all the way. As I barely drink alcohol and don’t indulge in recreational chemicals, in my case this mainly consists of cutting down on the doughnuts and trying to be a bit more open to serious and improving films, should any happen along.

As luck would have it, currently enjoying a UK cinema release is Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between (Arabic title: Bar Bahar), which came out elsewhere a couple of years ago (no, it has nothing to do with The Inbetweeners). Whatever you think of the seismic shift currently under way, or not, in the entertainment industry, with feminist and diverse cinema moving, or not, to a much a more prominent position, the fact remains that if you make a feminist drama in Arabic and Hebrew about the lives of young Palestinian women, you’re not going to be challenging the stellar conflict franchise for either box office returns or access to the swankiest cinema screens. Ele hakhayim, as we say down the local art house cinema.

Nevertheless, a foreign-language drama about young Palestenian women  is what In Between is. The film opens with a young bride having what looks like a rather painful leg-waxing while receiving some unreconstructed advice from her mother as to the discharge of her wifely duties, and one immediately expects something slow and serious and a bit worthy. But no, for the titles kick in, with lurid font and a rock song, and at once we find ourselves out for the night with Layla (Mouna Hawa), a criminal lawyer, and Salma (Sana Jammelieh), an aspiring DJ, two young women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv, which may or may not be the capital of Israel (there’s never a very stable genius around when you need one). Drugs and liquor are much in evidence, for while Layla is a Muslim and Salma a Christian, neither of them is what you’d call observant.

Their other flatmate is getting married (she’s the one getting waxed at the top of the film), and her place is taken by her cousin Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a religious Muslim studying at university. There is inevitably a little bit of tension between Nour and the others to begin with, but they grow closer as time goes by and they get on with their lives: Layla begins a relationship, but is her new boyfriend really deep down as liberal and progressive as he affects to be? Salma also finds romance, but this is clearly going to be much more problematic as it is with another woman, and her parents are still trying to arrange a husband for her in the time-honoured manner. Nour, on the other hand, is already engaged to a devout and traditional man, but finds herself beginning to chafe at his controlling tendencies. Is happiness on the cards for any of them?

They don’t show British comedies in Japanese cinemas, nor most of the quirkier kind of American film. (In exactly the same way, you’re much more likely to see a samurai flick or monster movie from Japan in a British cinema, than anything less generic.) I wonder the extent to which this skews different nations’ perceptions of each other. It may be that they make knockabout comedies and horror films by the dozen across the Middle East, it’s just they never get a British release simply because they’re subtitled foreign films: the only films from this region which make it into cinemas tend to be serious ones about social issues, likely to appeal to a certain kind of highly-educated liberal and progressive audience. And so it is with In Between.

The thing about this film is that, joking apart, its focus is personal rather than political. I rather doubt that anyone coming to this film with no knowledge of Israel and its society (a visiting extraterrestrial, say, or a very stable genius) would honestly leave it feeling well-informed about the situation in the country.  There is a reference at one point to the unlikely possibility of ‘peace breaking out’, while another scene sees the workers in the kitchen of a swanky restaurant ordered not to speak Arabic as it will supposedly upset the diners (the subtitling tends to obscure the fact that different languages are spoken). It isn’t really as if the problems faced by the characters in this film derive specifically from the fact they are Palestinian, either, simply that they are young women.

In Between is very much of a piece with other recent films like Wadjda and Mustang, in that they are basically about the rights of young women in traditional societies. As a result, the trajectory of the plot is essentially downbeat: no matter how contented the trio may seem to be at the start of the film, you just know that they are in for a beating, emotionally if not physically. So it proves – what starts off feeling not unlike an aspirational slice-of-life drama suddenly erupts into a scene of brutal sexual violence which is amongst the most uncomfortable to watch that I can recall seeing. The other plotlines are less extreme but not exactly cheerful.

Of course, there is a sense in which many people only go to this kind of film in order to feel good about their own sense of moral outrage – I’m sure that most people going in to see a film like this will be entirely aware of its general tone – and the fact that it is therefore perhaps a little predictable is not necessarily a problem. As I’ve said in the past, a lack of originality isn’t necessarily a serious problem for a film, provided it is made with skill and commitment, and In Between certainly feels like a project the film-makers felt passionately about. The storytelling is capable and the performances affecting: the film certainly succeeds in drawing the emotional responses it is aiming for.

Chances are that you’ll either be interested in seeing In Between or you won’t, and that your decision will most likely be made on the basis of criteria not connected to its quality as an actual movie. Nevertheless, this is a superior example of this kind of film, accessible and affecting and with real merit as a piece of movie-making.

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A couple of months ago I was out and about squiring a beautiful young lady around town (stand down, it’s not what you think) when we found ourselves in the balcony of the cinema about to watch Murder on the Orient Express. After I had issued the usual instruction for her to behave herself in the dark, we found ourselves watching the first trailer for Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, prominently featuring Kevin Spacey in a key role. ‘That,’ I predicted, ‘is going to have problems,’ for the initial allegations of misconduct against Spacey were already in general circulation.

The very next day I switched on my laptop to discover that reshoots were already in progress, and that Spacey’s performance was being excised from the film and replaced by one from Christopher Plummer – just one more element in a career which is enjoying a virtually Christopher Lee-esque Indian Summer. I suppose that in the end this is a very shrewd decision on the part of Scott and the other producers – they get to look like they’re taking a stand against abusive behaviour, there’s no risk of the film being boycotted by outraged activists, and it is another source of publicity for the film, which is always welcome, after all. (Yes, I know, I’m a cynical old beast.)

Having said that, I wonder if Plummer is also under retainer to film new versions of Spacey’s scenes  from American Beauty? Or is that more in Ben Affleck’s line nowadays? It’s the logical next step, surely, and the technology is very nearly there. Who’s going to replace Spacey in The Usual Suspects? Or Seven? Or Superman Returns? I must confess that this updated version of damnatio memoriae (for this is surely really what we’re on the verge of) leaves me a little uneasy. I can’t help thinking that in the end this is all still really just about the bottom line.

On the other hand, this is a very appropriate sentiment for a film like All the Money in the World, a retelling of the true story of the Getty kidnapping case of 1973, something so jam packed with grotesque and garish twists that I’m rather surprised it’s never been the subject of a high-profile movie before.

The movie doesn’t hang about and opens with the kidnapping in Rome of Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer – no relation), sixteen year old grandson of oil tycoon John Paul Getty (Plummer, currently at least). At this point in history, Getty Senior was not just the richest man in the world, but the richest man in the history of the world, famously single-minded in his pursuit of wealth and quite staggeringly tight-fisted – the movie suggests he washed his own socks in hotels to avoid paying the laundry, and installed a payphone in his home so his guests could make personal calls while visiting him. (He also appears to have believed himself to be the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian.)  Paul Jr’s mother Abigail (Michelle Williams, who’s having a busy time of it currently) goes to her father-in-law for the ransom money the kidnappers are demanding, expecting him – as you would – to be sympathetic to the plight of his favourite grandchild, especially given he has – wait for it – all the money in the world.

But no. Getty refuses to pay – it’s not quite a case of it being not the money but the principle, as the principle involved is his never giving any money away if he can help it. Paying Paul Jr’s ransom will just encourage people to go about kidnapping his other thirteen grandchildren and making inroads into his personal fortune. No cash. All he can offer are the services of his security operative Fletcher Chase (Marky Mark Wahlberg), whom he instructs to investigate the case and retrieve Paul Jr intact, if possible, with the minimum possible outlay of funds…

As I say, what follows is a fascinating and at times barely credible tale, which initially seems like a race to the bottom between the kidnappers and the Italian police as they compete to be the most inept and cack-handed. That said, I found a rather queasy sense of tension persisted, because there was one thing I did know about the Getty kidnapping – the criminals’ threat to return the boy to his family in installments, via the postal service. What I suppose we must call the film’s Reservoir Dogs moment duly arrives, and is possibly not quite as grisly as it feels, but it’s still certainly not one for the squeamish.

Then again, there’s a sense in which the film is all about a certain kind of brutality, that of people who believe that every single thing has a price tag on it (the insights into the deeply dysfunctional Getty coterie suggest it’s also saying something about how having too much money really screws you up). Principally these are Getty himself and the kidnappers, both of whom have very strong ideas about what Paul Jr’s freedom is worth. Caught in the middle is Abigail Getty, whose problems mainly arise from the fact that nobody believes that a member of the world’s richest family doesn’t have access to any funds. Williams is very good in the role, which still feels a little bit underwritten – the same could really be said of Wahlberg, who gets a nice moment of moral outrage near the end but mostly just stands around looking stern. Also caught in the middle and making a rather good impression is Romain Duris as a kidnapper with a conscience, who almost becomes Paul Jr’s protector against the more brutal parties who become involved.

All this said, however, the person most likely to come away from All the Money in the World with a gong is Christopher Plummer. It is, I suspect, a source of considerable relief to Ridley Scott that most of the scenes featuring Getty take place indoors with a handful of other characters, thus keeping the cost of replacing them down (in the film’s only big location sequence featuring the character, Spacey apparently still appears in the wide shot) – the fact that Getty plays a relatively minor role in the story has also helped them out. I have seen reports that Plummer really contributes not much more than an extended cameo, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way: he dominates the movie, even though he is absent from the screen for quite long stretches as the story unfolds.

The kidnappers remain a fairly anonymous bunch, Duris’ character excepted, and the movie definitely reserves its most severe approbation for Getty himself, for the tycoon is depicted as nothing less than an icy, ruthless monster – ‘evil’ is not an overstatement. Some of his manoeuvres towards the end of the story are quite breathtaking in their calculating selfishness. Of course, what we’re seeing here is a bunch of very rich Hollywood producers asserting how awful rich people can be, but the script and Plummer’s performance are both good enough to make you forget about this while you’re watching it.

Long-term visitors may recall that I’m not an unconditional fan of Ridley Scott’s work, and while I have generally warmed up to his more recent films, he’s still very capable of underwhelming me. All the Money in the World, however, is as effective and slick as the best of his films. It’s very much the Hollywood version of history – the chronology of events is outrageously tweaked to serve the story – and, I suspect, the depiction of Italy is not the sort to fill the Italian Tourist Board with delight, but this is a very engaging and well-made film. I’m not sure it says anything profound about wealth or values, but it’s still a classy piece of entertainment.

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‘Someone,’ whispered the minion behind the counter at Oxford’s most prestigious coffeeshop-stroke-cinema, his voice trembling with incredulity, ‘has used his free ticket card to see The Greatest Showman eight times.’ I’m not entirely sure why he felt the need to share this with me, although it is surely quite a noteworthy occurrence; personally I suspect I could quite happily get to the other end of my life without watching The Greatest Showman even once. But there you go, it’s a Holiday Season movie, and these are almost by definition undemanding fare unlikely to provoke any sort of strong reaction, unless of course you’re an adherent of Jediism.

Now, of course, we’re into January and the sudden switch to serious and challenging awards-season movies is almost enough to give a person whiplash. Seizing the New Year pole position for 2018, in the UK at least, is Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, which may well do very well when the shiny things are handed out. With the exception of Battle of the Sexes, it’s hard to think of a movie which is better positioned to benefit from the fact that Hollywood is currently in post-Weinstein mea culpa mode.

This is the true story (for the usual movie value of ‘true’, anyway) of Molly Bloom, a one-time top skiing prospect who found herself forced to a retire following a catastrophic wipe-out during qualifying for the 2002 Winter Olympics. (Through the wonders of cinema, Jessica Chastain plays Bloom from her early twenties to her her mid-thirties.) Having endured pushy parenting from her father (Kevin Costner) all her life, Molly rebels a bit and goes off to Los Angeles for a year before law school.

Of course, she never makes it to law school (somewhat ironically, as things turn out) – in true over-achiever style, she ends up responsible for administering a celebrity poker game where she picks up thousands of dollars in tips every week. Underappreciated and mistreated by some of the men involved, she relocates to New York and sets up her own game, and is soon earning millions as an ‘events manager’. But how long can she hang onto her integrity and keep out of the clutches of organised criminals?

The answer to this may be suggested by the fact that the story of Molly’s party-planning career is intercut with her attempts to avoid going to jail a couple of years later, after she is arrested as part of an FBI swoop against the Russian mafia. Idris Elba plays her defence lawyer and gets to look exasperated a lot as she refuses to compromise on her principles by dishing the dirt on her players in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

This is Aaron Sorkin’s first film as director, but there’s a good chance you will know him from his work as a scriptwriter over the last couple of decades: he wrote A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs, amongst other films, as well as creating the TV series The West Wing. He writes and directs here in very much the way you might expect, which is to say no concessions are made to anyone who isn’t especially quick on the uptake: the movie opens with a sequence depicting a key moment from Molly Bloom’s life, in the course of which we are also bombarded with information about medical conditions of the spine, interesting trivia about skiing, the architecture of the Pyramids, and much else besides. Information overload does seem a distinct possibility for a while.

After a while, though, you get kind of habituated to it and Sorkin does his usual trick of giving you a bit of a lesson without it being very obvious – the chewy bits of actual new knowledge being obscured by his trademark razor-sharp dialogue, well put across by Chastain and Elba, who are both very good (so is Costner, in what’s not much more than a cameo). It’s undoubtedly a fascinating story, and Sorkin has deftly shaped it into a satisfying narrative: this movie is redolent of talent and class in every department – significant, but also very entertaining.

That said, I can’t help but suspect that Sorkin is trying to pull a little bit of a fast one, or at least being rather selective. No-one’s going to get criticised for making a film about a strong, confident woman, and especially not at the moment, but it seems to me that he perhaps overdoes it a very tiny bit in depicting Molly Bloom as such an aspirational figure of impeccable integrity – the fact she genuinely was a drug-addicted racketeer, at least towards the end of her time in poker, is gently but diligently finessed away. It seems to me that much of the appeal of this film comes from the insights it gives into a world of conspicuous opulence and luxury, to the point of actual decadence, and the lives of celebrities who can cheerfully gamble away hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single evening. The success of the LA game is largely derived from the presence of ‘Player X’, a famous movie star and apparently not a very nice person. Michael Cera is in the role of X, and publicity for the film stresses he is a composite of several other very well-known actors (all of whom were clearly uncharacteristically reticent about appearing in this high-profile movie), but you can’t help but wonder.

You also can’t help but notice that, for all that this is supposedly a film about a woman’s ability to fight her own corner and make her own way in the world, despite the attempts of various repellent men to control and belittle her, it still has no reservations about – what the hell, I’m going to use the word – exploiting the fact that Jessica Chastain is an extremely attractive woman. The only other place I have seen such systematic deployment of the image of a beautiful woman in horn-rimmed specs displaying eye-popping decolletage is on certain fairly specialist websites. No doubt the film-makers would say they are simply reflecting how Bloom was required to present herself in her milieu, but there’s presenting it and then there’s enjoying the view, and Molly’s Game seems to be doing the latter.

One could even take exception to the fact that – and I have to tread carefully here, for fear of revealing major spoilers – even though here we have a film with a powerful central female character, and a generally feminist outlook, the dramatic arc of the piece is resolved in terms of the lead’s relationship with one of the men in her life: it is he who has ultimately had the greatest influence upon her.

Or it may just be that I am focusing too much on the gender politics of a film which is primarily intended to be just a classy, slick, smart piece of entertainment. I doubt it, though, for Molly’s Game‘s array of repugnant men, by turns grasping, needy, and contemptible, and smart, competent, beautiful women seems just a bit too measured for this to be wholly accidental. It is, as I hope I’ve made clear, an extremely well-made and very entertaining film, and an impressive debut for Sorkin as a director, and in the current climate I expect it will do well when the awards are handed out. But if you view it as a serious film about important issues in the world today, then I think it rings just a little bit hollow.

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Dearie me, here we are again at the end of another year, with everything that it entails: the adverts start a little bit earlier every year, the sentimentality becomes a little bit more glutinous, the doublethink just a little more bemusing. (Yeah, I should say: this is probably going to get extremely cynical, even by the normal standards of this blog. What can I say? So it goes.)

But, you know, let’s do something a bit different and try a Christmas movie for a change. I mean, it’s not as if there aren’t any Christmas films that I have time for: I like It’s A Wonderful Life (well, who doesn’t?). I like Die Hard. I like Brazil. So, there’s every chance that I could end up liking this new film, always assuming it includes one or other of an attempted suicide, blood-sodden gun battles, or delusional insanity as a happy ending. So here’s hoping.

Well, anyway, the new film is Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, a fictionalised account of a period in the life of Charles Dickens (you know, I’m starting to think those blood-sodden gun battles may not appear). Dan Stevens plays Dickens himself, who at the start of the film is making his first tour of the USA, where he is greatly feted. Quite what this sequence is doing here I have no idea, for it contributes nothing to the story; I imagine it is present only to try and sell the movie to America.

Things get underway in earnest some time later, towards the back end of 1843. Dickens finds himself financially embarrassed and in need of a hit, after a number of flops in a row. So he resolves to write a book for the Christmas market which will solve all his problems. But whatever will he write about? Well, there’s a doddery old waiter at the Garrick Club called Marley, he sees a grim-faced old man muttering ‘humbug’ at a funeral, he overhears his new maid telling the Dickenslings a fairy story about ghosts, and so on.

Still, it’s a tough old gig writing a novel in only about six weeks (apparently – although some of us do manage it every November), and things get a bit fraught between Dickens and his family, especially his feckless old dad (Jonathan Pryce) with whom he has Issues. (Hey! Jonathan Pryce was in Brazil, that’s a good sign.) There is also the problem that Dickens can’t come up with a happy ending – is Tiny Tim marked for death???

Hum, well. The Man Who Invented Christmas is clearly a film which has something to say about the Real Meaning of Christmas. Well, let me just stop you there, The Man Who Invented Christmas, not least because (need it even be said?) Charles Dickens did not actually invent Christmas, Christmas not being that kind of discrete, specific concept, but instead a syncretised religious and cultural event which has existed in various forms and under different names for thousands of years, with roots in traditions as widely-flung as Egyptian and Norse mythology. (Glad we got that sorted out.) The film suggests the Real Meaning of Christmas is something to do with our better selves and redemption and kindness and generosity and all that sort of thing. My experience is that this is what many people like to to tell themselves Christmas is all about, before surrendering to the warm glow of self-satisfaction this idea gives them and spending several hundred pounds on a giant TV, which they proceed to fall asleep in front of after consuming enough alcohol to power a small outboard motor. Personally, even if I had invented Christmas, I would not necessarily rush to take the credit for it.

You know what, I’m starting to think I’m not the best person to give this film an objective review. Never mind, let’s press on. The basic idea of this film is not that different from Shakespeare in Love, although in this case Dickens in Debt would obviously be a better title. There’s a lot of slightly strained humour as we see Dickens pacing about his study, trying to think of a name for his protagonist, muttering things like ‘Scrunge? Scrank?’ It is a fairly well-documented phenomenon that, while films require good writing, films primarily about the act of writing are rarely good. This film’s crack at the problem of how to make writing a novel cinematically interesting is to have the various characters from A Christmas Carol materialise and talk to Dickens.

This does at least enable what’s indisputably the best thing in the movie, which is the appearance of Christopher Plummer as Scrooge. (Plummer has been having a bit of a Christopher Lee-type Indian Summer in his career for some years now.) You really want to see Plummer play Scrooge properly, and not engage in the underpowered ‘comic’ banter with Stevens that he is assigned here. There is, I suppose, something mildly amusing about the idea of Charles Dickens being followed around and annoyed by the cast of one of his novels, but it’s not exactly fall-off-your-seat funny, and it’s hardly a convincing depiction of the creative process.

In fact, this is one of those comedy dramas which isn’t that funny and isn’t especially dramatic, either – they have a stab at some kind of psychological insight, by suggesting that Dickens can’t bear to see Scrooge redeemed until the author has himself worked through his various daddy issues, but it feels a little bit contrived. (One wonders what Simon Callow, a noted Dickens authority who appears in a supporting role, made of the script.) Certainly there is little sense of any real darkness or complexity to the Dickens of this film.

The thing about a really good Christmas movie is that it does work hard to earn the happy-feel-good conclusion by going to somewhere genuinely dark and troubled on the way. This one doesn’t – it’s just slightly insipid all the way through, dramatically inert, almost aggressively bland.

You can almost imagine the thought process that led to this movie being made – no-one does costume drama quite like the British film industry, and those are a good bet at this time of year. But, as there have been nearly thirty movie or TV versions of A Christmas Carol already, including ones where Scrooge has been played by a skunk, a smurf, and Michael Caine, obviously the edict was to do something different. This is a competent film in its own way, I suppose, but I just came away wishing they’d done a proper adaptation of the book, so Plummer could have played Scrooge properly. As it is, this is soft in the middle and runny round the edges, and generally about as appetising as that sounds.

 

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Yet more proof, perhaps, that in Hollywood nobody knows anything. The various tribes of American cinema (in the form of George Clooney, his regular collaborator Grant Heslov, and the Coen brothers) have come together, and the resulting script has been filmed as Suburbicon, with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore in the leading roles. With such a gallimaufry of talent both in front of and behind the camera, you would confidently expect the movie to be both a popular smash and a contender for critical recognition too.

And yet, of course, things have not quite turned out that way. Apparently this is the least financially successful film of Matt Damon’s career, a genuine bomb at the box office, and not exactly loved by people who comment on films for a living, either. The natural question to ask is: what went wrong with Suburbicon?

The movie is set in the late 1950s in Suburbicon itself, which is a model community just entering its second decade of existence. It advertises itself as a virtually perfect place to live, a paradise of white picket fences and social harmony. However, the town is rocked by a series of unexpected events – the arrival of its first African-American family, and a brutal murder.

This occurs one night when thugs break into the home of mild-mannered local businessman Gardner Lodge (Damon) and take him, his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her sister Margaret (Moore again), and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe) prisoner. The family are drugged into unconsciousness, and when they awake it is clear that Lodge’s wife is not going to recover.

In the aftermath of the killing, Lodge and Margaret inform Nicky that she will be staying with them while everyone gets over the traumatic events which have just taken place. Nicky is a little unsure of what to make of it all, and his concerns become extreme when he is taken to the police station so Lodge and Margaret can view a line-up of suspects – only for them to confidently assert that the killers are not present, when they very plainly are…

The fact that the Coens are co-credited with Clooney and Heslov on the script for Suburbicon inevitably gives the impression that the four of them spent some time recently round at George’s place, possibly having a barbecue while they tossed ideas for the story back and forth. This is another one of those things which is not as you might expect, for apparently Suburbicon is based on a script they wrote over thirty years ago and then put to one side.

One wonders why, for this movie still has a certain Coeniness about it – saying that Clooney is attempting a pastiche of their style is probably overstating it, but it has that kind of slightly off-kilter quality that many of their films possess, as well as the way in which a thriller plotline is combined with the blackest of comedy.

Still, you can’t help wondering which bits of the story are original Coen, and which were inserted by Clooney and Heslov. I say ‘original’, but this would still have been an obvious pastiche even if the brothers had stuck with it – there are all kinds of subtle references to the kind of dark suspense stories that people like Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith were telling half a century ago. The notion of something very unpleasant incubating behind the all-American facade of small town life inevitably recalls Blue Velvet, too.

One thing you can certainly say about Suburbicon is that the plotting of the main story is up to scratch, in its closing stages at least. The film threatens to become a kind of black farce as the bodies pile up, but this never feels forced or contrived. The performances are also strong – Noah Jupe is particularly good as Nicky, who’s the viewpoint character for much of the movie. I’m not entirely sure why it was necessary for Julianne Moore to play both sisters, but she is customarily good, as is Damon. There’s an impressive appearance, in what’s really little more than an extended cameo, from Oscar Isaacs – an able young actor who might do quite well for himself if he could only find a lead role in a high-profile franchise.

Much of Suburbicon is clever and inventive and very well made, and yet I can still understand why this film has failed to find an audience: it left something of a sour taste in my mouth as well, despite all its positive elements. I think this is mainly because the B-story of the film represents a serious tonal misjudgement – if I had to bet money on it, I would say this was the main addition to the script made by Clooney and Heslov.

It concerns the Mayers, the first African-Americans in Suburbicon, and their treatment by the rest of the town. This is almost cartoonishly ghastly, with mobs assembling outside their house every night to jeer and shout abuse, the town council paying to have high fences built around their property, local shops basically refusing to serve them, and so on. Now, I am sure that this sort of thing really happened in America in the late 50s, and I am by no means saying that it should not be depicted and reflected upon in films set in this period. But I’m not sure juxtaposing scenes of naturalistic drama about appalling racial abuse with a blackly comic suspense thriller entertainment really serves either project especially well.

When coupled to a few loaded references to how ‘diverse’ Suburbicon is – it contains white families from places as far apart as Ohio and New York! – you’re forced to conclude that Clooney’s thesis isn’t just that nasty things happen under the surface of suburbia, it’s that nasty things happen as a result of a society being insufficiently diverse – not just racism, but murder. For me that’s a big stretch, not least because there’s nothing in the film to support the notion. (Quite why some apparently normal characters should develop into such sociopathic murderers is not a question which the film answers, but that’s a possible flaw in the script, nothing more.)

I have a lot of time for George Clooney and generally find myself in agreement with many of the currently unfashionable ideas he often attempts to smuggle into his films, as both an actor and director. But on this occasion he just seems to be trying too hard to make a rather suspect point. As the blackest of comic suspense thrillers, there was a lot about Suburbicon that I admired and enjoyed, but as an attempt to make some kind of social commentary about America, either now or in the 1950s, it badly misfires. Still just about worth watching, I would say, even if it’s not the film it wants to be or the one you might be hoping for.

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