The Big Short (2016)

★★★★

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The Big Short PosterDirector: Adam McKay

Release Date: December 23rd, 2015 (US); January 22nd, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama

Starring: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt

The Big Short recalls the audacious actions of “a few outsiders and weirdos”, a group of like-minded money men who managed to accurately predict the 2008 global financial crash years in advance. Sure, it may not sound like the most enthralling venture, but it is. Adam McKay’s outing finds its footing somewhere between the maniacal antics of The Wolf of Wall Street and J.C. Chandor’s sobering Margin Call, lined with humour and born out of blood-boiling truth. Warning: it is a piece wholeheartedly set in its ways — if you are on the side of the bankers, this ain’t for you (nor, frankly, is decency).

Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, real life hedge fund supremo and heavy metal lover. Eccentric, his brain scorched by numbers and spreadsheets (the film is based on a book by Moneyball author Michael Lewis and it shows), Burry spots a flaw in the structure of the American housing market and, since nobody will take his findings seriously, he opts to invest in said market’s eventual collapse. “This is Wall Street Dr. Burry. If you offer us free money, we’re going to take it,” says one Goldman Sachs representative with glee in her heart and cash in her eyes.

Following an industry-driven family tragedy, Mark Baum has more emotional investment that anyone in Burry’s prediction. Coaxed on by a prowling vendetta against the world, Steve Carell is terrific in the role (there’s not a bum note generally, but Carell is the stand out). You really get the sense this is a guy who wholly detests the fraudulent system, and you feel a shared sense of injustice. However, Baum’s attempt to profit from the system’s downfall — and by proxy the plight of millions of innocent livelihoods — eats away at him, this internal struggle projected with weariness by Carell’s bruised eyes.

Ryan Gosling offers his two (million) cents as the sort of guy who practices catchy lines under his breath in preparation for important meetings — this sets up a hilarious money smelling quip. Gosling is financial trader Jared Vennett, a dick, but a dick with a point. Another Burry believer, he often breaks the fourth wall to explain what’s going on, funding his smarmy exterior in the process. The straight-to-camera dialogue works because the film is relentlessly preaching to us anyway. He and Baum work together but are opposing forces in personality terms: Baum amusingly no-sells Vennett’s macho demeanour while Vennett takes no notice, only interested in his rising bank balance.

Of the four headline names, Brad Pitt has the quietest role: Ben Rickert, having been chewed up and spat out by the banking industry, now abides by a pseudo-apocalyptic philosophy (“Seeds are gonna be the new currency”). Rickert is cajoled by understudies Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Whittrock) and subsequently returns to the field as their unshowy mentor, won over by Burry’s cataclysmic pattern. The presence of Pitt affords some weight to an arc that might have otherwise felt inconsequential given its unoriginal through line — it gets caught in the shadow of the other two, more prominent narrative strands.

McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph’s screenplay admirably juggles all of these hefty personalities, men collectively singing from the same ledger, without homogenising them. Nor does the script hold its protagonists to some sort of impenetrable moral standard — after all, irrespective of their true target, these guys are actively seeking to profit from the misfortune of both rich bankers and struggling Americans. McKay and Randolph frequently add layers to the plot, though when the film threatens to go beyond our intellectual comprehension it is saved by offbeat explanatory segments (chartered by the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez playing themselves).

It is abundantly clear who the villains are and the film knows that. But The Big Short also recognised the need to remind us of the primary culprits and does so by throwing around masses of Wall Street jargon, creating a divide between the folk who speak said language on a daily basis and everybody else. These are people who deviously undercut their customers and then guffaw about doing so in the safety of luxury afterwards — Max Greenfield and Billy Magnussen play the worst on-screen offenders, two mortgage brokers painted with broad strokes by necessity. They believe the joke is on everyone else when it’s obviously on them.

There are plenty of other jokes too, gags inspired by wit and executed with piercing zest (McKay and Randolph even manage to take a jab at artistic licence by openly owning up to small bouts of fabrication). This overarching smartness does alienate one small story section, namely the jarring appearance of a soon-to-be ailing homeowner. The film is too clever for something so blunt, especially given its tendency to avoid emotional manipulation elsewhere. You might argue the scene puts a face on the economic turmoil, but having lived through the crisis the audience will already be thoroughly aware of the consequences. It does at least serve up an eerie visual of a housing wasteland that evokes Chernobyl connotations.

Hank Corwin’s editing encourages a rampant effervescence that is more or less employed throughout; from an opening montage that outlines the inception of the disaster, to various images of music videos, celebrities, models, and cash spliced together — all symbols of corporate America, of the new American Dream sold by capitalism, a false dream. The choppiness can be a bit disorienting but it does induce urgency and even a degree of mess, fitting since it reflects the impending financial calamity.

As characters debate the legitimacy of Burry’s predictions the camera wanders freely between their faces, upholding both the kinetic energy of the fast-moving industry and said industry’s unpredictable nature. When all the desks have been cleared and all the cheques resentfully written, The Big Short unveils its prognosis: that those involved, the guilty bankers eventually given legal clearance, were either blindly stupid or corrupted by immorality. It is a sombre conclusion but one we always knew was coming. Having laughed a lot, you’ll leave angry — and you’re supposed to.

The Big Short - Steve Carell & Ryan Gosling

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

The Place Beyond the Pines (2013)

★★★★

The Place Beyond the Pines PosterDirector: Derek Cianfrance

Release Date: April 12th, 2013 (UK); April 19th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes

The film that almost instantly springs to mind when watching The Place Beyond the Pines is Drive. Ryan Gosling stars in both, and in both he plays an outsider, a semi-vagrant. The Driver is a suave customer on the surface; he steers people away from danger in his glossy 1973 Malibu. Luke Glanton, on the other hand, trundles towards peril atop a motorcycle, common sense not in tow. For him it’s either a spherical cage of imminent perpetual risk or a bank robbery. Unlike Drive, Derek Cianfrance’s ambitious picture widens its berth to include a host of other characters. The result is an end product that is nowhere near as chiselled as the 2011 indie, at times detrimentally so, but one that should absolutely be applauded for its scope.

Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) is a stunt motorcyclist who travels from state fair to state fair earning a wage. Upon rekindling his relationship with a previous beau, Romina (Eva Mendes), the marauder ventures into a life of crime. That’s where he encounters Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a police officer whose moral head space is struggling under the weight of a corrupt department.

Primarily, this is the story of two people and the incessant reverberations of their actions. We meet Luke from the off, and follow him as he strolls into a bowl of hell. His job, as a stunt motorcyclist, perfectly embodies his unconventional lifestyle. The quiet, edgy nomad is someone for hire and when we first meet Luke his already dirty attire fields smatterings of blood. Instantly we feel detached, yet the revelation that he has a son enshrouds our lead with some semblance of humanity. A church scene that pits a worn out Luke as a self-realised squanderer is powerful. The constant circle of danger that flares throughout the film — the cage, his annually reloading lifestyle — succumbs to a strive for rehabilitation.

Director Derek Cianfrance then violently cuts from intense, loud robberies to sweet family days out. It works. The desperation in Luke becomes apparent; here is a character whom we’re not necessarily encouraged to get behind, nor is he somebody tarred with pitch black strokes. His criminal exploits are stark but they’re not isolated, a notion that vividly rears during a home altercation. As he, Romina — Eva Mendes is an amiable foil for Gosling, but her character suffers from a lack of clear definition — and their child are having a family photo taken, Luke relays his instructions to the taker: “Just capture the mood… the bike’s part of the family.” It is one of his few moments of solemn happiness.

On the surface, Avery Cross is different animal. He is a do-gooder, a fresh faced police officer. Avery spends his days protecting people from the likes of Luke Glanton. However, the reverberations of an incident leave him shaken, more or less infecting Avery with the same ceaseless moral dilemma prominent in the mind of his criminal counterpart. Work also becomes his escape, and his workplace is one wrought with wrongfulness too. (“But that’s the job” is a phrase of resignation constantly thrown around). This is where the film runs into its first problem. Avery is part of a crooked police department led by the viciously enrapturing Ray Liotta, but we don’t really believe it. Is the whole division corrupt? The virtuous cop’s aversion to corruption paints him with a gloss of goodness but we’re left to ponder why he is the only impartial officer.

This is the first in a chain of coincidence that ends with a major bang, though by then we’re willing to forgive. Whereas the corruption layer is a similarly fortuitous addition installed by Cianfrance and co-writers Ben Coccio and Darius Marder, it is one that rings less true, less authentic than the rest. In a sense, the director’s ambition suffers a tad as it becomes warped by sheer scope, but it shouldn’t be shot down as a result. Somewhere approaching the midpoint, the director unleashes quite the narrative swerve. The sequence is unexpected but ultimately rewarded because it endeavours to further the story, adding depth in the process. Regardless, the move signals the inception of a stunningly constructed piece of cinema.

Ryan Gosling’s work as Luke might be his best to date. The star manages to balance a controlled ferocity originating from struggle and toil, with a slice of unorthodox compassion. The Place Beyond the Pines does occasionally resemble Drive — a film whose slickness helped to paper over any cracks, a luxury not afforded here — but it is more rugged, and by proxy so is Gosling’s portrayal of Luke. As Avery, Bradley Cooper contributes with equal effort. It is true that his character follows a more recognisable and perhaps, therefore, more relatable path, but Cooper ensures there’s nothing generic about the police officer; in fact the further along we go, the meatier his role gets. Dane DeHaan’s performance is another worth singling out for praise, his stock on a seemingly unending rise.

Other factors are complimentary too. For instance, we get the raspy echoes of Bruce Springsteen rather than the melancholic waves of Kavinsky. At these points the outing hints at Scoot Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, a sentiment that gains more weight in tandem with Sean Bobbitt’s crackling cinematography. The camera stalks characters, firmly placing us amongst the people on display and invoking another degree of personableness. It’s guerrilla filmmaking finely executed.

Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to his uncompromising hit Blue Valentine retains the same empathetic tendencies as said flick, but ambitiously rolls them out over a vaster blanket. The story presents two sides of the same coin, both engaging and effective. There are dips conjured by happenstance, but nothing catastrophic. Rather, we’re attracted to Cianfrance’s portrait of life, work, consequence and connection, and it’s a well-founded attraction.

The Place Beyond the Pines - Gosling

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Focus Features

Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God Forgives PosterDirector: Nicolas Winding Refn

Release Date: July 19th, 2013 (US limited); August 2nd, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas

When Gareth Evans’ The Raid hit cinemas a few years ago, the film brought with it an urgent sense of bludgeoning violence and hard-hitting combat. Unflinching and at times eye-scrunching, The Raid was also heralded as a bloody masterstroke. The fights were astoundingly well choreographed and, though it wasn’t the most prominent element, the story meant something. Rightly, Evans’ film felt the accommodating brunt of financial and critical adulation, ushering forth a sequel.

Only God Forgives is the antithesis of all things great about The Raid. It fails to yield any semblance of narrative, instead opting to parade a bunch of hateful characters throughout a maze of disorientating sequences. And it is brutal, gratuitously so. The unsubstantiated violence is the worst part.

Julian (Ryan Gosling) runs a Muay Thai club in Bangkok, but uses it as a veil to cover his successful drug smuggling business. After his brother is savagely murdered, Julian finds himself caught up in a storm of hate and vengeance. His spiteful mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), having made the trip to Thailand on the back of her son’s death, orders Julian to seek out his brother’s killer and attain revenge, a demand the American expatriate isn’t too overjoyed about.

Unlike in his previous disparately blood-fuelled outings Valhalla Rising and Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn follows a half-fulfilled mantra here; one that pits grisly style over any form of substance other than the red stuff. The chain of grotesqueness begins almost before the opening credits, as we see murder compensate for more murder. Whereas the likes of both Valhalla Rising and Drive relayed a method to their differing levels of violent outburst — a curious soul and a pulsating beat, respectively — Only God Forgives squanders any opportunity to inject a sense of purpose. Essentially, it is violence for the sake of violence. There is no prevailing message. At one point Kristin Scott Thomas’ character despicably murmurs, “I’m sure he had his reasons,” when she catches wind of a particularly awful revelation. I’m sure Refn has his reasons too, but they are few and far between here.

When the film is not painfully boring it is an uncomfortable watch for all the wrong reasons — certainly, it’s not distressing in an adrenaline-driven way. This is partially due to the uncompromising and baseless brutalities on show, but it is also down to the palette of characters present before us. Either we hate them — and we hate most of them — or they are treated woefully. The females either represent a gaping hole searing through the heart of humanity (in the case of Crystal), or they’re token prostitutes (in the case of everyone else). Refn is painting just one picture that seeks to represent just one slice of humankind, which is fine. But must that picture really be as degrading to women as this is?

The guys aren’t let off lightly either. Ryan Gosling plays Julian, perhaps the least reprehensible of the lot. He has something of a moral backbone, one that stops short of unjust killing. (We’re into that territory, where murder must be separated into unjust and “ach, well maybe he deserved it”). Instead Julian funds his tumultuous conscience by running a drug smuggling operation and, more or less, employing a woman to be his puppet. The character stuffiness does absolutely nothing for Gosling. He’s trapped in a body too similar to the driver in Drive: emotionless, straight-backed but this time without that unorthodox charisma. Despite portraying genuine evil Kristin Scott Thomas is at least afforded the ability to be the only fluid person stuck among a meandering rabble of perceived luminaries. Crystal is a horrible person but she does move in a three-dimensional manner. The rest could pass for robots.

Refn’s customary art house injection arrives by way of the film’s visual appeal. Only God Forgives tries to manifest as a nifty, slick-looking film and cinematographer Larry Smith actually performs commendably. It does look good. Vogue photo shoots also look good, which is exactly what this is — a 90-minute photo op with a Halloween theme set in Thailand. The camera constantly looms around with precision, latching onto folk who are often standing as if giving prior notice; poised, posing and ready for their cover shot. Superficiality reigns supreme, a notion backed up the incessant air of boredom disguised as arty silence.

Aside from the early gore fest, the picture’s opening thirty minutes are bereft of any intrigue, subsequently setting the desolate tone moving forward. Ryan Gosling stares blankly into space. Characters walk so slowly. The violence might be gratuitous, but this carry on is borderline self-indulgent. Even the ambient music — an element Refn often gets spot on — is a little underwhelming. It certainly doesn’t make staring at wallpaper any more interesting. (Though staring at wallpaper might be more interesting than Only God Forgives.)

Nicolas Winding Refn tries to combine the successful strands of two previous outings — Valhalla Rising’s disconcerting climate and Drive’s brute force — yet ends up with the worst possible result. If we are taking this outing as a primary source, attributing Refn with a bleak view of humankind is probably fair. We’re all unmerciful maniacs.

Apparently only God forgives. Well hopefully God won’t see this, else we’ll be living in a world without forgiveness.

Only God Forgives - Kristin Scott Thomas

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Radius-TWC, Lionsgate

Seduced and Abandoned (2013)

★★

Director: James Toback

Release Date: November 8th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Documentary

Relaxing in royalty. Swapping stories with A-list film stars. Soaking in the baking sunshine of Cannes. All in a decent days work for director James Toback and his cohort Alec Baldwin. Yet, the subject matter of Seduced and Abandoned (as the title may hint at) is the harshness of the film industry.

Don’t call me Shirley.

The thing is, this is most likely all just a part of the act. Toback and Baldwin probably aren’t really being serious here. And if that’s the case, then Seduced and Abandoned is a pretty entertaining, but wholly depth-deprived traipse around the world of cinema (and more). However if the duo are being genuine in their plight to finance an exotic thriller; in their quest to unearth the financial backing difficulties; in their attempts to convey film as a purely short-term industry — all of this as a means towards highlighting their own battles against adversity — then the duo themselves have a problem. And that problem has nothing to do with money-men or hesitant co-stars.

The documentary follows director James Toback and actor Alex Baldwin around the 2012 Cannes Film Festival as they simultaneously attempt to successfully pitch a far-fetched film idea at a variety of industry heads, whilst also using said time with their colleagues to discuss the trials and tribulations of the business (and just about anything else really). Less than a minute into proceedings and we’re already swimming around the less-than-serious territory as the pair talk about divorce while a scene from The Getaway blares in the foreground. Ho Ho Ho. This is astutely followed by a bout of reverent back-patting as the words “I trust you” ring out several times. I certainly hope Neve Campbell doesn’t trust them — the duo’s proclamation not to exclude her from their potential film in the heat of pressure from higher-ups (or “throw her under the bus”) wanes fairly quickly. In all fairness, they don’t Tippex her out completely, and being downgraded from a major to a minor role isn’t all that bad really, is it? Well done for avoiding that bus Neve. Hey, wait! Watch out for that… car.

It’s obvious early on that Toback and Baldwin aren’t totally sincere in their attempts to make this all-promising film. The numerous interviews asking script-readers about scripts, money-men about money and actors about acting as part of their exotic-romance-fantasy project are all probably genuine in an informative sense; in attempting to uncover the structures in place and barriers surrounding film-making. However, the meetings which play out on screen are most certainly not whole-hearted and true in a ‘coming soon to a screen near you’ notion. There’s nothing plausible about them. Toback wears sunglasses indoors and in the presence of greats such as Bernardo Bertolucci for goodness sake: who would take the guy seriously? In a semi-satirical context therefore, the film is quite entertaining, albeit devoid of any stinging backbone.

Having said that, although primarily ironic in its presentation, Seduced and Abandoned does raise one or two thought-provoking idiosyncrasies. During their discussions with big movie stars and important head-honchos — people like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain are featured — an interesting ‘big film vs. small film’ sentiment develops. This holds an even greater degree of reverence in the backdrop of the Cannes Film Festival, as festivals are renowned for generally hailing the more microscopic, art-house, independent and often international productions. Cannes itself, for instance, has awarded its highest honour to films such as Blue is the Warmest Colour (France), Amour (Austria) and The Tree of Life (USA) recently. None of these films were massive box-office draws and two are courtesy of European cinema rather than American or British, yet they all gained the Cannes Palme d’Or. Toback and Baldwin explore the issue of marketability versus story as they speak to investors (what will make us the most money as opposed to what will engage the audience?) and examine an ever evolving audience demand to see a cast of stars instead of just one during cinema trips. It is in these conversations that the documentary delivers, although deliveries are too few and far between.

Toback and Baldwin spend a portion of the film laughing and joking with Ryan Gosling who tells a number of hardship-filled stories about moving to Los Angeles as an inexperienced actor, and the difficulties in getting ahead of everyone else who had the same aspirations as he did. Bearing in mind Gosling is arguably the biggest movie star on the planet at the moment, his recollections tread on hallowed turf for the most part, essentially compounding the hypothetical, humorous approach taken by Toback and Baldwin over a serious one. That being said, Gosling is actually very funny.

While the grandiose music trumpets through the credits, you are left in no doubt regarding Seduced and Abandoned‘s intentions, instead wondering just how much the film really has to say about the industry it may or may not thrive in. It’s quite entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking, but in all honesty it doesn’t say an awful lot. The big versus small comparison is intriguing, however Francis Ford Coppola’s words ring true when it comes to everything else: “The other stuff isn’t important.”