Sunday, January 31, 2016

Rooney Mara is my Queen.


Film review: THE BIG SHORT (Adam McKay, 2015)

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 was quite the talking point. People became bankrupt; many lost their jobs and their homes. The haphazard behaviour of bankers cost many people’s livelihoods and the developed world has never fully recovered. Adam McKay, famed for directing entertaining comedies such as Anchorman and The Other Guys, steps into the realms of the big boys with the multi Oscar-nominated The Big Short, an adaptation of The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by financial journalist Michael Lewis.

My favourite film critic Mark Kermode has a trope he often enlists in film reviews, known as ‘Meg Ryan as an airplane pilot’ (an allusion to Courage Under Fire), whenever he comes across a piece of casting in a film that nobody would buy in real life because the actor is too glamorous or mis-suited to the role. Well, going by that benchmark, there are three Meg Ryan as airplane pilots in The Big Short, with mis-casting so shockingly woeful, these proverbial helicopters would easily crash into each other.

Firstly, Ryan Gosling as a smarmy banker, complete with brunette hair-dye and poor treatment of his Yes-man of an assistant, does not ring true in the least. In films such as Crazy, Stupid, Love and The Notebook, dishy Gosling was in his element playing the dreamy heart-throb. Even in grittier, violent movies such as Drive or Only God Forgives, Gosling is able to transcend his good looks and lends credibility to the role of guys who will travel through the road to hell, laced with good intentions, trying to do what they believe is right. But in The Big Short, as the know-it-all smug Deutsche Bank employee Jared Vennett who spots a loophole in the fragile housing market that he can capitalise on to his gains, he does not convince, and no amount of dark hair or sharp suits will make him a credible banker.

Then we’ve got Christian Bale. Somehow, miraculously recipient of an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Michael Burry (although Jennifer Lawrence is on four Oscar nominations now, so, there’s no accounting for taste), a former doctor-come-number cruncher who runs his own asset management company, Bale reaches his intense peaks of American Psycho and The Fighter, but nowhere near the same level of credibility. As his eyes dart around at you (one of his eyes is a glass eye, although I never worked out which) in an attempt to convey Burry’s inability to relate to other people, I couldn’t help but feel faintly embarrassed. The heavy metal music and frenetic drumming that his character has a penchant for are all components in the novel, but by retaining them all in The Big Short for Bale, they do nothing other than illustrate how mis-suited he is to the role. As he is photographed lying on the ground, notes strewn across the floor, I never buy the frame as anything other than an over-cherographed scene of MOVIE STAR Christian Bale, surrounded by some finance notes.

Brad Pitt completes the Holy Trinity of awkward casing. He, like Gosling, has to overcome the hurdle of having to transcend his good looks, and his role in The Big Short is as misanthropic eco-aware Ben Rickett, who, having worked there previously, despises everything Wall Street stands for, but begrudgingly uses his reputation to get a seat at the table for The Brownfield Trust, a small investment firm run by yuppies played by Finn Wittrock and John Magaro. These two lads who a
re not particularly likeable in their roles but at least one of the film’s few believable elements, in their earnest, callow enthusiasm, and their interactions with each other as they stumble upon the mess of sub-prime lending are some of the slightly more nuanced elements of The Big Short's shambles of a screenplay. In one scene, Pitt's character lectures Wittrock and Magaro for being excited that their bets against the housing market are coming in, because whilst it's good news for them, it's awful news for many others. This is certainly true, but having handsome Brad Pitt playing morose with nothing but an unconvincing wig deliver it definitely dampens the strength of the message significantly.

Of the A-list poster-billed cast, only Steve Carell escapes with any pride in tact. His character is angry and has a very personal score to settle with the finance world, having a brother who worked there who suicided years previously. Carrell balances the pathos that this loss causes his character, along with amusing comedy of his raging tirades and general poor social etiquette, so that when his character is disgusted by the amoral people in finance and the little caution they throw to the wind when dealing with other people’s lives, we, too, share his disgust. The crew who work for him, which includes Rafe Spall, are also a semi-honourable bunch, amidst all the other wankers, and the camaraderie and fraternity between them, and the way they look out for Carell’s character, was one of the few elements of The Big Short I enjoyed.

Many critics have commended The Big Short’s irreverent take on the subject and off-the-wall execution. Admittedly, there are some effective scenes; the use of Gorillaz’s Feel Good Inc was nostalgic heaven, and the use of pop culture references to depict the passing of time certainly sits quite well. But mostly, the machine-gun, rat-tat-tat, not staying with any scene for too long, breaking the fourth wall and making Family Guy-style cutaways film ultimately gave me a headache.

I love Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez as much as the next person. But to enlist them to dumb down the subprime mortgage crisis to me, when I hold an Economics degree from the University of Bath, was the wrong side of off-kilter, and downright patronising. Margot Robbie, covered in bubbles, tells us that whenever we hear the word ‘sub-prime loan’, we should think ‘shit’. Well, in that vein, whenever someone mentions The Big Short, you should think, The Big Sh


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

THE REVENANT (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015)

if this review reads a little awkward, it's because I've shoe-horned Taylor Swift references throughout. just so you get the same feeling of unnecessary bits of indulgence feels like when you read the review of a film that featured plenty of unnecessary indulgence.

A group of fur trappers, including the fearless and distinguished Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) have just fled from attack by the Native American Arikara Indians from which who’s land they had been occupying. Due to his extensive experience in fur trapping, Glass has influence over the route the hunting party will take to get home, which is resented by a fellow member of his group, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), who taunts Glass about his son, who is half Indian, cruelly naming him a ‘halfbreed’. 

One morning, when he’s out hunting alone, Glass is brutally attacked by a bear. She tosses him about, scratches her claws into him and presses her entire body weight against his skull, then saunters off. Just as you think Glass is out of the woods, however, the bear comes back, goes in harder, and leaves him on the edge of death. Never in your wildest dreams would you expect anyone to survive such a vicious mauling.

The rest of Glass’ group find him and try their best to piece him back together with their limited resources, but there’s no denying that on a journey in treacherous terrain, he’s slowing them down. The decent captain of the group, Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), finding himself incapable of committing a mercy-killing, offers a monetary reward to any of the team who will stay by Glass’ side until he passes away. Glass’ son, Hawk, and a soft-hearted young man named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) who during the siege at the start of the film had almost been killed by the Native Indians, and Fitzgerald himself volunteer.

Unsurprisingly, give the bad blood between Glass and Fitzgerald and Fitz's disdain for Glass’ son which he hasn’t bothered to hide, this doesn’t lead to a happily ever after. Fitzgerald kills Hawk in front of Glass’ own eyes and then tricks Bridger into leaving Glass for dead. But, through sheer force of will, Glass survives, with the sole raison d’être of hunting Fitzgerald down and making him pay for the murder of his son.

Alejandro González Iñárritu won the Oscar for Best Director last year at the Oscars, as well as picking up Best Picture for Birdman, his cheeky satire on actors and their craft, which pretty much crowned him Hollywood’s Golden Boy and allowed him carte blanche with which to do whatever he fancied for his next picture. Unfortunately, The Revenant isn’t half as fun to watch as Birdman. It isn’t even 0.0000001%.

This is certainly through no fault of the performers. Much has been made of how much Leonardo DiCaprio suffered to play Hugh Glass (we could wryly note that this is because the cast and crew don’t miss an opportunity to tell us so at any possible opportunity), but even if you were to strip away all of the mud, blood and physical unpleasantness he had to endure, it is still a masterclass in physical theatre.

DiCaprio isn’t given many lines in The Revenant, and when so much is conveyed through his body language, it is of paramount important he gets it right. As he lies on his makeshift deathbed, refusing to give in, determined to survive, we feel the same. When the bear attacks Glass, we flinch as if the attack is happening to us. DiCaprio (and the very convincing makeup staff) are that credible.

Tom Hardy also excels in the villainous role. With a sneer and sarcastic mumble mouth, you know he is trouble when he walks in. John Fitzgerald has regard for nobody but himself, and with that, no conscience. Of course, this isn’t the first time Tom Hardy has played a baddie who’s speech you struggle to comprehend, being cast as Bane in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. But here he is far less cartoonish. Fitzgerald is the antagonist, but with his wild, darting eyes, Hardy injects pathos into this dislikable character. It is because Fitzgerald is so pitiable that he is so terrifying.

Other standout performers include Domhnall Gleeson, aka Bill Weasley. The red-haired Irishman seemed to be ubiquitous in 2015, appearing in Brooklyn, Ex Machina and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Those three movies and The Revenant, have all been Oscar-nominated, although the man himself hasn’t been. I’d argue that his performance as the honest Captain in The Revenant is deserving of a nomination. He excels at depicting Captain Henry’s balancing act between being an authoritative figure who is also compassionate, but will bar his teeth when needs be. Incidentally, the raw display of masculinity from Gleeson when the Captain furiously discovers Fitzgerald lied to him about Glass is a thing to behold; Domhnall has never been sexier. Finally, English actor Will Poulter delivers a poetic, sweet performance, acting as a perfect foil to Hardy’s mercenary.

For all of the outstanding performances from the committed cast, they are let down by the sheer narcissism of the director, who evidently let that Best Director Oscar get to his head. The Revenant was a difficult shoot and a difficult picture to make. Of this I have no illusions. And to the film’s credit, it contains some handsome scenes.

The scene at the beginning where the fur hunters come under attack is beautifully shot, with the hyperkinetic camera busily trying to capture flying spears hitting their targets from every angle. But at some point, and this will vary depending on the attention span of the viewer, but for me it was just before the hour mark, it becomes blatantly clear that Iñárritu has made a film for himself rather than the audience.

Long, needless shots punctuate dramatic scenes to bloat up the running time in a manner so laborious that it makes Terrence Malick look like Michael Bay. In one late combative scene, blood flies from a character onto the camera and rather than shake it off to make the scene look more polished, AGI leaves it there, as a reminder of what an EXCELLENT director he is and how AUTHENTIC the shoot was. 

With a running time of 2 hours and 36 minutes, The Revenant is the longest of the eight Best Picture nominees this year, and boy do those 156 minutes drag on. As the screen was lathered with brazen Oscar-begging misery porn in the form of Leo’s cracked skin, gory detail of his bear wounds or an unsavoury sexual assault on one of the Pawnee women, I was reminded of Ricky Gervais’ comment to Steve Carrell about The Office US v UK: it’s quality, not quantity.

Other aspects of the film don’t sit well with me either. The score, by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner, sound like a bizarre melange of noises rather than anything mellifluous. Proponents of The Revenant will argue that they contribute to the frosty frontier setting of the film, but I know these sparse atonal sounds all too well, and rarely do the signify a film that I’ll enjoy.

And sadly, due to the pretentious direction, The Revenant ends up being, lamentably, much less than the sum of its parts. Leo will finally take home the Oscar at the end of February, and in addition to it being long overdue, he deserves it on the strength of his wonderful work. It’s just a shame that film itself, which plays out to be a clunkier, less emotionally engaging, more Oscar-thirsty version of Gladiator, doesn’t match the quality of his performance.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Bar review: LOWLANDER GRAND CAFE (Covent Garden)

One for the Belgian beer connoisseurs out there, Lowlander, a trendy pub with a wide range of beers from around the world, specialising in Belgian ones. 15 beers are available on tap and a wide variety come in bottles, meaning even beer-phobics will certainly find something they'll enjoy tasting. I cannot recommend the banana beer, pictured above, enough!

It's a bit more packed and congested than your typical pub, so after you've had a few you have to be careful not to tread on anyone's toes when navigating the pub. It's also a bit more expensive than usual. But in my opinion, the little extra is worth the money, for the experience of drinking in unusual glasses, like the one pictured below!

Grade: B+

Saturday, January 09, 2016

2016 Golden Globe predictions.

I'd planned on doing more blogging during this movie awards season, but I am the worst procrastinator in the world. I've actually done a decent job this year keeping afloat of seeing all Best Picture contenders, so there's still time (quick FYI: I'm championing Carol this year). Once the Oscar nominations get announced, I'll try my darndest to analyse each category like I did once upon a time. But for now, Golden Globe predictions for the awards tonight!

Picture – Spotlight
Director – Todd Haynes (a girl can dream!)
Picture, Comedy – The Martian
Screenplay – Spotlight
Actor, Drama – Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Actor, Musical/Comedy – Matt Damon, The Martian 
Actress, Drama – Brie Larson, Room 
Actress, Musical/Comedy – Maggie Smith, The Lady in the Van
Supporting Actress – Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina (or Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs. Difficult to call as AV is a double-nominee and they may not want her to leave empty-handed).
Supporting Actor – Sylvester Stallone, Creed 
Animated- Inside Out
Score – Carol
Song – See You Again

These are all fairly standard predictions, bar Haynes for director. But he deserves to win; much of the beauty of Carol was thanks to his direction, and I'm praying the star f_ckers at the Golden Globes recognise that!