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Posts Tagged ‘Ryan Gosling’

As I write, a human being has not walked on the Moon in my lifetime – which already constitutes rather more years than I am entirely comfortable with – and it seems to me that the longer that elapses, the greater the incomprehension of our descendants will be. As I’ve said before, I think the most remarkable achievement of our existence on this planet has been the fact that we have left it; I’ve also been known to wonder just why it is that decades have elapsed without the first Apollo landing being the subject of a movie. There have been movies about failed Apollo missions; there has even been a movie about an entirely fictitious Apollo mission. But nothing about the one that everyone knows and perhaps remembers.

We may return to the possible reasons for this later, but for the moment we can at least relax in the knowledge that someone has finally done an Apollo 11 movie – well, sort of. The director is Damien Chazelle, who after the success of La La Land could probably have written his own ticket and done anything he had a mind to. He has chosen to make First Man, reuniting with Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong.

The film opens in 1961, with Armstrong working as a civilian test pilot for NASA, although his attempts to cope with a family tragedy cause others to doubt his capacity to do the job. When the space programme advertises for astronauts, both Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) see it as a chance for a new start. Armstrong makes it onto the programme, his engineering background standing him in good stead, but the risks of both the Gemini and Apollo programmes prove greater than imagined and place an increasing strain on their relationship. (Various figures who will be familiar to space geeks appear – most prominently Jason Clarke as Ed White.) Eventually, however – and I’m pretty sure this doesn’t constitute a spoiler – the preparations have been made and Armstrong is selected to command the mission that will put a man on the moon – accompanying him will be fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Cory Stoll).

I make the joke about spoilers almost as a matter of course, but it is the case that everybody knows how this particular story turns out – for all the film’s inclusion of scenes in which Janet Armstrong insists her husband explain to his children that he may not return from the lunar surface, and NASA higher-ups sign off on the text that will be released should something unfortunate happen and Armstrong and Aldrin not make it back, there’s never any real doubt in the viewer’s mind that Apollo 11 is going to be a success. Of course, First Man isn’t alone in having this particular problem, as it exists for many true-life dramas based on famous historical events. One way to approach this issue is to play the hell out of the story as a conventional narrative and hope that the audience is swept along sufficiently to forget their existing knowledge – I did once hear about someone so caught up in the romance between Kate and Leo that they were genuinely shocked when the Titanic started sinking. Or, you can just treat the movie as an opportunity to do a grand retelling of famous events and hopefully inform the audience of a few interesting facts that they weren’t previously aware of.

Chazelle, coming off the back of the breezily crowd-pleasing La La Land, could easily have gone for either of those approaches, but instead he has chosen a different path – one that seems almost calculated to be at odds with audience expectations, both of him and this particular story. It’s not a grand, glossy drama, but more of an introspective character piece. This may have cost the film some business – not least because of the decision not to indulge in (literal) flag-waving jingoism, which drew a predictably petty response from the occupant of the White House – but it does seem to me to be justified. Every profile of Neil Armstrong that I’ve ever read emphasised that this was a man who wore his position at the heart of a truly epochal event extremely lightly – he was not a flamboyant or demonstrative man in any way. A film as resolutely ‘quiet’ and unglamourised as First Man is, for much of its duration at least, seems therefore to be entirely fitting.

There are scenes which do a fine job of capturing the essentially dry and pragmatic nature of the man, helped by an excellent performance from Gosling – the previously-mentioned one where he talks to his sons, but does so in a manner more suggestive of a man addressing a press conference than talking to his children. And another, at a genuine press conference, where Armstrong is asked what, if anything, he would like to take to the Moon with him. ‘More fuel,’ comes the response.

That said, however, my only real issue with the film is connected to this – and, what d’you know, it turns out it is possible to spoil First Man after all, so I must be careful. It seems that Chazelle can’t resist inserting some kind of emotional arc into his film, and he does so here. It put me rather in mind of Gravity, appropriately enough – just as that film worked so well because Sandra Bullock’s isolation in space was a metaphor for her emotional state, so First Man suggests that Armstrong’s whole demeanour, and indeed his career as an astronaut, was on some level  a coping mechanism for dealing with an emotional trauma he suffered some years earlier. Is there any basis to this, or is it just a convenient conceit about which to build the story? I’m not sure, but I suspect the latter.

In any case, this is still an evocative and extremely well-made film, very strong on the claustrophobic hazards of the early days of space flight. For the most part it eschews conventional ‘pretty’ special effects in favour of a more impressionistic approach, the astronauts’ view of what is happening around them – clanks and rattles and roars and judders. Chazelle’s main way of persuading the audience this is the 1960s is to film many of the scenes so they resemble – in picture quality at least – home movie footage from the period. He also evokes the world of the astronauts using many of the images and ideas we have seen in other films set in this milieu – barbecues on Floridian lawns, the men with crew-cuts in buttoned-down shirts, the wives constituting their own exclusive sorority (Claire Foy is very good, but still doesn’t get a huge amount to do). It is wholly convincing in its strange ordinariness, and then when the final mission is in progress, the sudden explosion of the image into pristine 75mm IMAX is breath-taking. The actual Moon landing sequence is exceptionally good (even if I have to report my concerns that I suspect the whole thing was faked in a studio – maybe Chazelle got his hands on Kubrick’s original notes, who knows).

The Apollo landings have become the stuff of popular culture, maybe even folklore, so it is a commendably unexpected choice for Chazelle to make a movie which isn’t just a by-the-numbers retelling of the story, but something with its own style and feel to it, something which perhaps does demand the audience work a little harder than they might expect to. It’s still a beautiful, impressive film, even if it doesn’t have the brilliant accessibility or energy to it which both his previous films possessed.  I suspect First Man is one of those movies which will look better and better as time goes by, even if it isn’t quite a hit on its initial release.

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In all my years of going to the cinema, I have seen an enormous variety of Dicks. I have seen disturbingly malformed Dicks. I have seen insignificant and forgettable Dicks. I have seen the occasional moderately impressive Dick. But, I feel it must be said, currently showing on a screen near you is what’s almost certainly the biggest Dick in the history of cinema, Denis Villeneuve’s very expensive and equally lengthy Blade Runner 2049. (I use ‘Dick’ in this case to mean a film derived from a novel or short story by the SF writer Philip K Dick, and also to facilitate some very cheap double entendres.)

It is doubtless time for gasps and glares as I once again reveal that I’m lukewarm at best about the original 1982 Blade Runner. What can I say, maybe it was the circumstances in which I first saw it, which was split in two at either end of a school day when I was 14, after it showed in the graveyard slot on TV. Subsequent viewings didn’t do much to make me reassess the movie, either, not least because in the meantime I read the source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which has that atmosphere of quotidian weirdness which for me is quintessentially Phildickian, and which is nearly always the first thing that disappears when Hollywood gets their hands on one of the master’s works.

At least this means I have not spent the last couple of weeks having kittens about the prospect of having one of my very favourite films smeared by an incompetent reimagining (sometimes it feels like all my favourite things have already been screwed up over the last few years, anyway; hey ho) – I know several people who have been in this unenviable position. Given the way the last couple of Alien prequels worked out, I suppose they had a point, but then I was never much of an Alien fan either.

Anyway, off we went to the cinema on the first day of release for Blade Runner 2049 (yes, I missed the first 2047 sequels too, ha ha). The obligatory (and rather dauntingly detailed) prefatory captions fill in the somewhat complicated goings on which have occurred since the first film, which was set (somewhat quaintly, these days) in 2019, but basically things are much the same: the environment and society are going to hell in a handbasket, and everyone has become somewhat reliant on synthetic people known as replicants. The Wallace Corporation, which manufactures the replicants, has naturally become immensely wealthy as a result, but their use is controlled and unauthorised models are hunted down and ‘retired’ (i.e. violently terminated) by specialist cops known as blade runners.

Our hero is KD/3:6-7 (Ryan Goosey-Goosey Gosling), a blade runner who is himself a replicant (presumably from a production run where the eyes didn’t quite turn out symmetrical, but I digress). During a routine case, K stumbles upon evidence of something almost unbelievable – the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth. The supposed inability of replicants to reproduce themselves is one of the things that enables the uneasy settlement between the synthetics and natural people, and K’s boss (Robin Wright) is very clear that K is to make very certain the now-grown replicant offspring is found and made to disappear, even as the head of the Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto) and his factotum (Sylvia Hoeks) take an interest of their own in the investigation. One of the few leads that K has is a connection between the mother and another, long-since-vanished blade runner, named Rick Deckard…

Yes, as you’re doubtless already aware, Harrison Ford does indeed reprise his role from the original movie (he’s not the only one to do so, but he gets most screen-time). That said, he doesn’t show up until quite late on, and when he does it is as a fragile, largely passive figure, only ever waiting to be found, or interviewed, or rescued. The focus is only ever on Gosling as K (even so, this is possibly not the vehicle for the star that some of his fans may be hoping for – a couple of vocally keen Gosling devotees were sitting in the row behind us, but left halfway through the film), and the actor is customarily good in the role.

That said, this is a notably accomplished movie in most departments, with Villeneuve handling a reasonably complex SF narrative with same kind of skill he showed with Arrival last year, and a hugely impressive piece of scoring and sound design from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The combination of striking images and music is quite immersive, and (I suspect) will not disappoint fans of the original film.

And it faithfully continues the themes and ideas of the original film. The most recent trailer doing the rounds makes Blade Runner 2049 look rather like a non-stop action blockbuster, but this is not really the impression given by the actual movie. Instead, it is a combination of thriller and dystopian SF, handling some very Phildickian ideas to do with the nature of what it means to be human, the whole concept of authenticity, and the ethics of treating people as property. One expression of this comes in the form of K’s girlfriend (Ana de Armas), who is a self-aware hologram, and the film’s treatment of their slightly unusual relationship. (We agreed this element of the film clearly owed a huge debt to Spike Jonze’s Her.) Again, the SF content is handled deftly and reasonably subtly.

I can really find very few grounds on which to criticise Blade Runner 2049: it may even impel me to go back and give the original movie yet another chance. And yet I still find this film easier to admire than to genuinely like, and I’m wondering why – it doesn’t seem to be quite as in love with its own stylish prettiness as the typical Ridley Scott film, certainly. I think in the end it is because the new film, while extremely clever in the way it manipulates story threads from the original and also audience expectations, doesn’t really apply the same degree of intelligence to the ideas at the heart of the story. The plot has various twists and turns, some of them properly startling, but the film itself has no genuinely surprising new ideas to offer.

But, hey, Blade Runner 2049 is a big-budget Hollywood SF movie, so you have to manage your expectations accordingly. This is an extremely good-looking and well-made film which develops its inheritance of ideas and characters ingeniously and convincingly, even if it never quite finds the spark it would need to become something really special. Denis Villeneuve made the most impressive SF film of 2016; it looks like he’s in with a very good chance of repeating that feat this year, too.

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Making a bad movie is easy. Hmmm, well, now I think on it that isn’t actually true: making a bad movie is still a real achievement. Making a good movie is a hugely impressive accomplishment. Making one great movie (or any other work of art) in your life is something that the overwhelmingly vast majority of people do not do. And as for making more than one great movie back to back…

Which brings us to Damien Chazelle and his new film La La Land, the buzz about which has attained a deafening volume, helped considerably by a historic trawl at the Golden Globes the other night. Chazelle came to prominence with the brilliant Whiplash, one of my favourite films of 2015, a lean and intensely focused drama. When I found out he was following it up with a full-scale reinvention of the classic Hollywood musical, my response was essentially one of dubiety, which if nothing else only goes to show how good my radar is. So, to the question you’re no doubt dying to hear the answer to (NB: irony) – is La La Land as wonderful as all the proper critics have been shouting? Well, put it this way – this is a film it’s almost impossible not to like (and I’m tempted to say that I tried).

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Hmmm. The movie opens with a lavish statement of intent, as the drivers of cars stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam erupt into a full-scale song and dance routine of quite startling ambition and complexity. As a technical achievement it’s enormously impressive, and I understand some screenings (not mine) have had audiences spontaneously bursting into applause just for this opening number, but I have to say it didn’t really connect with me, being a bit short on the old objective correlative – they are people stuck in traffic. They have no reason to be happily singing and dancing about other than because the structure of the film demands it. (Full disclosure: when the song is reprised at the end of the film, I found myself reacting very positively to it anyway, and it is extremely hummable.)

The next song, another upbeat number about a girly night out, isn’t quite a case of more of the same, but it did put me ominously in mind of Mamma Mia! and how I usually feel while watching it: namely, as if I’ve arrived at a party much later than everyone else and am two or three drinks behind them all. Also, I feared the film-makers had slipped up badly by including familiar classics on the soundtrack (Take On Me and Tainted Love), which the new compositions would struggle to compete with. However, as the plot proceeded I found it all becoming rather more agreeable: it concerns Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Seb (Ryan Gosling), a musician on a somewhat quixotic quest to save jazz music from extinction. After a couple of non-cute non-meets, they finally hit it off. He inspires her to write a play; she inspires him to begin to take his career more seriously. But even in a Hollywood musical set in Los Angeles, is a happy ending a dead cert…?

Whiplash was, of course, a film about jazz; it’s fairly clear that Chazelle has a thing for this style of music, for La La Land is a jazz musical. Or, to be more exact, it’s a completely original jazz musical, with no basis on a pre-existing show or other property. I suspect many people would have rated the chances of someone catching Bigfoot on the White House lawn as being rather higher than an original jazz musical turning out to be such a critical darling, but it just goes to show – you never can tell.

Not that it’s conspicuously jazzy all the way through – the songs that are getting all the attention (City of Stars and Audition) could probably have come out of any first-rate Broadway show. There weren’t really as many songs as I was expecting, to be honest, but this isn’t really a problem as the script is witty and engaging even when the leads aren’t singing. I almost hesitate to say this, but in some ways La La Land sort of resembles a musical as written by Woody Allen (my hesitation is because when Woody Allen actually made a musical it was almost unwatchably bad) – there is some zingy dialogue and, of course, a fascination with how relationships begin and then prosper or end. There are also, obviously, elements drawn from the classic Hollywood musical of yore – a particular influence seems to have been Singin’ in the Rain, which was of course another original screen musical. There’s a bit near the end of La La Land which appears to me to be explicitly referencing the Broadway Melody segment of the Gene Kelly movie.

In the end, though, this is absolutely a reinvention of the classic musical for the smartphone age, and a film with genuine qualities all of its own. It is almost irresistibly romantic, with all the ambiguities you might associate with that, and evokes better than any other film I can recall that moment when you find yourself on the verge of falling in love, with that sense of excitement and endless, immanent possibilities. It also has a lovely wistful, bittersweet quality that gives it real heft and may explain why many people have responded to it so strongly.

Personally I usually go for musicals which aren’t afraid to deal with serious and unexpected topics through the medium of a good old fashioned song and dance routine, and I’m still not sure that La La Land quite qualifies as anything more than an extremely accomplished romantic comedy. Nevertheless, the film seems to have acquired almost unstoppable momentum heading into awards season – it’s the kind of film the Academy usually takes to its heart, and I fully expect it to demolish all opposition at the Oscars this year. And I can’t really object, for this is an almost indecently endearing film.

 

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It’s a funny old world in the movies, where people can end up with CVs that at first glance look very odd. For example, that of writer-director-actor Shane Black, possibly not the most famous guy in the business but still someone worth keeping track of. Possibly best known as the writer of the first couple of Lethal Weapon movies, as well as various other overblown Hollywood action films, he also pops up as an actor in Predator, The Hunt for Red October, and RoboCop 3. He also has a respectable career as a director, with his name on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3, one of the most financially successful movies of all time.

However, the world being as it is, Black apparently finds it necessary to apologise for some of his creative choices on Iron Man 3, even though the film came out years ago: such is the frothing outrage of some of the comic book fans he offended and (one presumes) the importance the studios attach to keeping this section of the audience onside. It must be particularly galling, given that Black’s latest round of media appearances is, in theory at least, to promote his new film The Nice Guys. As I believe I mentioned, it’s a funny old world sometimes.

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The Nice Guys is set in late-70s Los Angeles. Russell Crowe plays Jack Healey, a philosophically-inclined professional leg-breaker with a soft spot he tries very hard to ignore. Healey is hired by a young runaway named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) to warn off Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a morally-bankrupt private detective who is looking for her. However, after making his point to March somewhat forcefully, Healey comes to realise that Amelia may be in more danger than she realises, and promptly decides to hire March himself in order to start looking for her again. March himself is understandably not keen on this arrangement, but his teenage daughter (Angourie Rice), who is in many ways the brains of the outfit, persuades him to take it on.

What follows is a convoluted, drolly preposterous story concerned with the Los Angeles smog, the adult movie industry, the Department of Justice, and many other elements which don’t obviously go together. There is a sense in which this is another pastiche of the classic Raymond Chandler private eye story, albeit heavily updated – the story initially seems a bit baffling, and I’m still not entirely sure how all of the bits connect up. However, by the final act everything has sorted itself out, more or less. That said, Black’s pedigree as a creator of first-rate action movies is also on display, and the film is punctuated by a number of superbly orchestrated fight scenes and chase sequences – there’s a fight between Crowe and Keith David which is as good as anything I can remember seeing on screen in recent years.

Even these moments are flavoured by a vein of humour, frequently very dark, sometimes quite broad. Black combines the elements of thriller, action, and comedy with great dexterity. The script on this occasion is co-written with Anthony Bagarozzi, but tonally this feels very similar to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Perhaps this time the film is a little deeper and more complex – there’s an element of historical irony going on, while you could probably have a pretty good post-film discussion over whether its ending is happy or actually rather downbeat.

There’s a level of complexity to the characters, too, rather more than what you’d expect from this kind of film, and perhaps shows the difference that hiring star actors can make to what might otherwise be quite a generic piece of work. The counterweight to The Nice Guys’ absurd comedy is the depth of characterisation provided by Crowe and Gosling – I’ve never been a huge fan of Crowe in the past, but he is enormously charismatic and likeable here, making his character’s ethical struggle quite clear without ever indulging in histrionics. Gosling gives a slightly more comedic performance, but not by much, while Angourie Rice can expect to be offered all kinds of dodgy projects on the strength of her performance here. But all the performances are good: perhaps the most noteworthy being a rare appearance by Kim Basinger.

The subject matter of this film may mean it’s not for everyone – in particular, the level of violence is definitely at the top end of a 15, and may be more than some people will be comfortable with (I expect I’m just desensitised myself). But this aside, I enjoyed The Nice Guys enormously, because it is a smart, funny, extremely confident film made by a director who knows how to do this sort of thing as well as anyone else in the business. Well worth checking out.

 

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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.

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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.

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This early in the New Year, most cinemas are knee-deep either in highbrow Christmas blockbusters still hanging in there, or earnest, serious-minded Oscar contenders trying to build up some momentum ahead of the coming gong season. However, on the principle some people won’t be interested in either of those things, a few unrepentantly basic genre movies have snuck out, as usual. Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad certainly qualifies as one of them, despite the fact that the size of the budget and the calibre of the cast might indicate otherwise.

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This is one of those movies with no discernible ambition to do anything new; its success or failure has nothing to do with innovation and everything to do with the polished assembly of parts you have probably seen before (many times before, in some cases). It’s 1949 and the rising power in the L.A. underworld is a ruthless ex-boxer turned gang boss, Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn). He has the town in his pocket, thinks he owns enough judges and policemen to make him untouchable, deals ruthlessly with his rivals, and so on.

However, the chief of the LAPD (Nick Nolte) is not about to roll over to this guy and assigns stone-faced veteran cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin doing his Tommy Lee Jones impression again) to bring him down – using whatever tactics the job may require, none of that due process foolishness involved. In a slightly surprising development, O’Mara lets his heavily pregnant wife choose the other members of the team, which may explain why one of them appears to be a wild west gunslinger who’s wandered into the wrong film. O’Mara’s second in command is high-living maverick Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), who has a special connection to the case, mainly because he’s knocking off Cohen’s girlfriend (Emma Stone).

And you can probably write the rest for yourself: the Gangster Squad gets off to a shaky start, but soon gets the mob’s attention, things go back and forth for a while, the Squad member who’s basically been walking around with a bullseye on his face all film gets killed in a stakes-raising development, and so on. It is, to be blunt, very formulaic and highly derivative, most obviously from The Untouchables.

Having said that, just because something is formulaic that doesn’t mean it’s incompetent, and the reason cliches exist is because they actually work. Gangster Squad is a professionally assembled film, it looks polished, the characters have something of the coolness they’re clearly supposed to (they all wear fedoras – except the cowboy, who wears a stetson – and smoke like chimneys), and with a cast like this the performances are obviously going to be decent. The action scenes, which are frequent, are well-choreographed, and the plot does grip to some extent even though you nearly always know roughly what’s going to happen.

On the other hand, it would be nice for a film in this kind of hard-boiled genre to go beyond the basic requirements of the form – for instance, it’s such a relentlessly blokey film. There are two proper female characters, O’Mara’s wife and Wooters’ girlfriend. The wife spends most of the film in either the kitchen or the bathroom, tearfully asking her husband not to go off to fight (obviously he doesn’t listen to her, or there’d be no movie). Emma Stone as the girlfriend doesn’t spend the whole movie in bed, but her role is largely decorative and a real waste of her talents. Both roles are secondary to those of the men, and we never really get a sense of them as people in their own right.

Then again, it is 1949, and this is a movie aimed full-bloodedly at a male demographic. Gangster Squad has had its release date shoved back by four months to allow a major sequence to be reshot – the original featured a gunfight in a cinema, which for obvious reasons you can’t really put in an entertainment-minded movie these days. From watching this film, I can deduce that it is considered inappropriate to show people firing guns in a moviehouse, but perfectly okay to depict dozens of people being blown away by submachine guns in any other urban environment. What a curious and somewhat counterintuitive world it is we live in.

This is still a savagely violent film in places – someone gets literally ripped in half very early on – but the director seems, rather slyly, to have front-loaded it to some extent: a lot of the really intensely nasty stuff happens very early on, giving you an instant impression that this is an extremely violent movie, an impression which lingers even after the film calms down a bit. It’s not quite as graphic as it seemed at the time, now I consider it, but this is still a really strong 15 and definitely not for the squeamish.

This isn’t actually a bad film, and perhaps the fact I’ve never really been a particular fan of gangster movies is a factor in my indifference to it. It’s solid enough genre stuff, but the best thing about it is probably the late-40s art direction and costuming. But from the talent involved, you’d be forgiven for expecting something rather more striking.

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Having just discussed Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, I was half-expecting The Ides of March, directed by George Clooney, to have Soderbergh involved with it in some capacity as well. The two have, after all, a lot of history together, most notably with Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, but also with less commercial movies such as Solaris. But no, Clooney and Soderbergh appear to have parted company (amicably one hopes), and the only noticeable crossover of personnel between Contagion and The Ides of March is the presence of Jennifer Ehle, who plays a small but significant role in both films.

In addition to co-producing, co-writing, and directing the movie, George Clooney also appears as Mike Morris – not the former UK breakfast TV host, nor indeed the peerless Doctor Who critic and commentator, but a Democratic candidate for his party’s presidential nomination. Morris is looking good for the White House (and it must be said that Clooney is supremely plausible in the role). This is partly due to his strong team, which is led by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Perhaps even more crucial is the presence of brilliant media analyst and political operator Steve Meyers, who is the main character of the story. Meyers is played by Ryan Gosling (who’s having a pretty good few months, what with this and that movie about driving where he plays the driver who drives a lot, the name of which escapes me).

Morris’ candidacy for the Presidency is looking as assured as something of that nature can, but a crucial primary is looming (on the date of the title). Then Meyers is startled to receive a job offer from their chief opponent’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), his relationship with a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) unexpectedly brings a shocking secret to light, and as the polls unexpectedly start to shift against them Morris’ refusal to engage in the traditional political horse-trading begins to look naive rather than principled. With all his certainties crumbling Meyer is forced to ask himself exactly what his true priorities are…

Fans of The West Wing should run to see The Ides of March (possibly carrying on a complex dialogue with each other as they go), as this film operates in a very similar narrative space – the dialogue doesn’t crackle quite as much as Aaron Sorkin’s, but the dizzyingly swift pace, convoluted plot and strong characterisations should all seem very familiar. That said, there’s another sense in which this is a very different kind of story indeed – there was something almost Capraesque about The West Wing’s wide-eyed positivity about the political system and the people who work in it: no-one was really self-serving or anything but a very decent human being. The Ides of March starts off in a broadly similar vein , but the story of the film is the story of masks slipping in extremis and the true nature of the characters becoming clear: and I tell you, folks, it ain’t pretty.

That said, the film takes care not to get too worked up about this – from the very first scene, it’s made clear that for all his idealism, Meyers is a ruthless operator not above playing dirty (in a mild sort of way). On the other hand, for a film with – to put it mildly – a somewhat cynical view of the political animal, it’s notable that The Ides of March doesn’t actually have a villain. Giamatti’s character is just a little more obviously ruthless and goal-oriented than the rest.

As a British viewer I obviously watched this with a certain sense of detachment, but enough of the story is universal in nature for it to remain a very satisfying film. I wonder why we in this country can’t produce similarly satisfying political dramas more consistently? It can’t all be down to American hegemony. Perhaps the very nature of the American system lends itself more readily to this kind of narrative intensity.         

One of the stories doing the rounds about this film is that Clooney and company first started work on it in 2008, but basically parked the project as they realised their audience wouldn’t be interested in such a jaded view of politicians in the year of Obama. Putting aside the question of why they’ve decided to make it now, it seems to me that this is another movie springing from the Clinton era. You may recall a number of key films from the mid-to-late 90s which cast the President of the US in such unlikely roles as romantic lead, gritty terrorist-basher, and jet-piloting alien exterminator, all surely products of the enormous positivity of key Hollywood figures towards Bill Clinton. Fifteen years on, here is a movie – not the first of its kind, of course – which concentrates on the darker side. Quite how many personal foibles are we prepared to overlook, if the right candidate comes along? Can a principled man really succeed in modern politics? We’re left to decide for ourselves how much of Morris’ persona is an act – Clooney has less screen time than you may be expecting.

That said, he’s very good whenever he does appear, as is everyone else: this is a very strongly-written and uniformly well-played drama, which grips from the start and has some very powerful and moving moments along the way – along with a few lighter moments, of course. Overall it’s an impressive package. If, like Contagion, it ultimately seems to be lamenting things which lie beyond anyone’s power to change, then so be it – sometimes it’s for the best that we remind ourselves of uncomfortable truths, especially if in doing means making movies as good as this one.

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