Tuesday’s Reviews – The Big Short (2015)

Christian Bale, films, meh, review, Steve Carell

The problem with awards season is that you can never be sure is something’s worth watching or not. There is so much nonsense written about everything that it’s impossible to tell what’s fact and what’s just bollocks. Look at Joy; it’s been lauded as one of the greatest films of the year but I was bored out of my fucking mind. Obviously, the praise was mostly down to J Law and her inability to put a foot wrong in the eyes of the people who matter. Another name that is constantly getting attention at this time of year is Christian Bale. Yes, everyone’s favourite Welsh psychopath is constantly being recognised for his acting prowess but I remain unconvinced that he deserves the attention. I mean he wasn’t even the stand-out in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and he was fucking Batman! Still, everything about his latest film The Big Short seems like it should be a no brainer. It has a great cast, a script co-written and directed by Adam McKay (Will Ferrell’s writing partner) and based on the real-life story of the people who made a fortune out of the 2008 financial crisis.

The Big Short is the story of the financial wizards who predicted that subprime mortgage bonds woud collapse and bet against them. It all starts with Michael Burry, the social awkward and eccentric hedge fund manager who runs the numbers and realises what’s going to happen, He decides to earn his client’s a whopping payout by betting against the loans. Of course, nobody believes Burry and every bank he approaches with his plan happily goes along thanks to their belief in the system.

Burry gets the attention of other financially minded people who start to figure out that he’s stumbled onto something big. Trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and pessimistic hedge fun manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) join forces to put their own stake into the credit default swap game. Finally, two young investors who managed to make a large profit from their garage start-up decide they want to play with the big boys and, with the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), also become involved,

There is a lot of important information being tossed around during The Big Short and it refuses to assume an existing knowledge from its audience. McKay and co try to downplay the seriousness of financial dealings by bringing out celebrity cameos to explain key definitions. Margot Robbie appears in her bath to explain what subprime loans are. Part of me loved McKay’s approach to such a serious subject matter and it is, by far, the funniest film you’ll probably ever see about the market crash.

Then there’s the part of me that couldn’t help but feel it was a very smug and self-important production. Like McKay is making such a big point about downplaying this piece of recent history that it becomes too much. It’s a film that doesn’t know which side of the fence it falls on. There is the one hand that wants to embrace the sexy side of market trading and celebrating how intelligent and amazing people like Burry are. Then there is the socially correct stance of anti-banks, anti-big money. Is it a cutting condemnation of a flawed system or a darkly comic celebration of the rebellious outsiders of the financial world who just don’t give a fuck?

In terms of styling and approach I did like The Big Short but I think, in it’s attempt to make a very depressing subject fun, it spread itself a little too thin. It’s a huge disappointment. Especially when you bring together such an amazing cast and don’t give them anything really meaty to work with. There is nobody in this ensemble cast who excels. Christian Bale has started to take himself so seriously that every role he plays nowadays seems to be verging on parody; Steve Carell is just one note; and Ryan Gosling isn’t even trying. There was so much potential that just didn’t end up working its way into the final product.

The problem with The Big Short is that listening to the cast and crew talking about McKay’s desires for the movie is more inspiring than anything you watch during it. Listening to him discuss why and how he wanted to tell the story made me want to like it more but I just found it lacking. It relies on the belief that people hate big banks so much that they are willing to watch rich investors make a shit load of money off working people’s misfortunes and think it’s a win.

The film has a few moments where it tries to backtrack and show sympathy for the little people who are being affected by all of this double dealing but it just comes across as too little too late. You have a couple of moments where people seem to recognise that real people will get hurt by the bubble bursting and Brad Pitt’s character has a rather limp and incredibly redundant moral speech really near the end. This film is never more pathetic than the rare moments when it tries to remind you of the human cost of the big money deals going down.

When it comes down to it, McKay doesn’t find the masses of people who lost their homes and their money dramatically compelling enough here. The real turning point in the narrative is the moment when Burry is finally able to show people that he was right. That he saw something they didn’t. The real emotional crux of this movie is that the rich, misunderstood man finally becomes richer and more understood.

TBT – Batman Begins (2005)

anniversary, Batman, Christian Bale, Christopher Nolan, comic book, DC, film, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, review
This week marks the 10thanniversary of the film that launched one of the most popular film franchises of all time. 2005 was the first time since 1989 that it was OK to be a film fan who also loves Batman. Batman Beginsset the trend that has plagued Hollywood ever since: the dark comic book reboot. Batman had already been the star of 4 films since in the 16 years prior to the release of Christopher Nolan came along and each subsequent movie had made the supposed dark knight more of a laughing stock. The hero, first created by Bob Kane in 1939, was patiently waiting for the chance to show what he could really do and Nolan and co-writer David S Goyer knew the only way to go was to be super-serious . Nolan’s film was the dark comic book movie that Tim Burton wished he could have made in 1989 and it was a refreshing change. Of course, now it’s just par for the course but Batman Begins was a revelation in 2005. It was fucking exciting.

Batman Beginsstarts a afresh with Batman’s origin and assumes that its audience knows fuck all about the motivation behind Bruce Wayne’s double life. Drawing a lot of inspiration from classic storyline Batman: Year One, Nolan introduces us to the tragedy that shattered Bruce’s childhood and the path he took to give it a positive conclusion. Batman Beginsalmost tries to remove the comic book traces from one of the most popular superheroes as Nolan makes his Gotham City a very realistic pit of poverty, crime and greed. Of course, the Batman myth is never going to be a plausible one but Nolan came the closest to make it happen. His re-imagining of the journey from orphaned young boy to night-time vigilante has such depth that it almost felt like the obvious reaction to your parents murder was dressing up in a cape.
Nolan’s greatest success with the first film in his Dark Knight trilogy was how subtle he was. Batman Beginsforgoes the superhero staple of relying too heavily on action sequences. Nolan places more of a focus on story and character. The film is as much of a success in terms of drama as it does in sheer entertainment. The final act contains the obligatory good vs bad showdown but there is a distinct lack of high-tech action on display. The action sequences use CGI sparingly yet still offer enough visual spectacles to keep explosion nerds more than happy. It has all of the elements you need for a comic book movie but without the blinding sheen that Joel Schumacher dripped over his efforts. It’s understated, it’s held back, and it’s bloody good.
The film features the type of jumpy narrative that Nolan had used so effectively in his previous film Mementoas we piece together Bruce’s past. We first meet the grown Wayne (Christian Bale) after he was arrested trying to steal a crate of his company’s goods. After being visited by the mysterious Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce treks to the mountain-top retreat of the League of Shadows, an organisation that promises to help him on his path for vengeance. Although, this assistance comes at too large a price, as the League’s leader, Ra’s al Ghul, wants Bruce to help him destroy the city his parents helped build.
Returning alone, Bruce sets out on a more righteous path by defending the people of Gotham from mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and his dangerous ally Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy). Crane’s alter ego, the Scarecrow, is planning to tear Gotham apart using his own brand of hallucinogenic drug. Working alongside police sergeant James Gordan (Gary Oldman) and scientist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce must stop Crane whilst still keeping his identity a secret.
When it comes down to it, Batman Beginsis the only film of the trilogy in which Batman himself really shines. Christian Bale, growly voice aside, did a great job at getting to the real heart of the character. Considering the film is all about Batman’s origin, the actual murder of Bruce’s parents is fairly perfunctory. It has been dealt with so many times that Nolan gets it out of the way as efficiently as possible. Instead he focuses on the emotional and psychological resonance of that one moment. We see the young Bruce being comforted by a young Jim Gordan and the college-aged Bruce determined to make his parent’s killer pay. This is richer and deeper depiction of Bruce Wayne than we have been treated to yet.
My number one main quibble with Batman Beginsis the romance that Nolan clumsily inserts into the narrative. I’m not saying that romance and Batman shouldn’t go hand-in-hand but I don’t think it works here. That’s partly thanks to the complete lack of chemistry between Bale and Katie Holmes, who plays his childhood friend Rachel Dawes. On the whole though, the romance just feels like a misstep in a story that is about one man’s struggle to work out who he is. It seems unnecessary and drags the already bloated plot out even further. It is a long film, after all, and does take some time to get going. Nolan never really loses his audience but there is a lot that could have been cut to streamline the process. The lack of Katie Holmes could have done a great deal in his favour.
Although, the rest of the cast do a pretty sterling job and, with supporting cast of the likes of Gary Oldman, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, Nolan’s work is treated with respect and care. None of them necessarily get a great deal to do but each bring what emotional depth to the narrative as possible. The performances, though not major, are reliable and memorable enough that you want to see more from them in the future. Of course, it is the bad guys that usually stick in your mind in these sorts of films and Batman Begins is no different. Cillian Murphy is both terrifying and comical in his portrayal of the freak Scarecrow. He’s still one of my favourite parts of the trilogy and I’m still upset he didn’t get bigger roles in the sequels.

Batman Beginsis not the best example of a comic book film that you will ever see. Nor is it, in the minds of most people, the greatest in its own trilogy. However, it was undoubtedly an important film at the time and, despite a few missteps here and there, it was the reboot that the Dark Knight desperately needed in Hollywood. It made Christian Bale the true A lister than he is to this day and it showed the world that the director of Mementowas truly a great director. Just think where we would be without it.

American Hustle (2013)

Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, con, Jennifer Lawrence

I’m not entirely sure whether or not I like David O. Russell. The celebrated writer and director has garnered quite a reputation for himself over the past four years thanks to his award-winning films The Fighter(2010) and Silver Lining’s Playbook(2012). Regular readers will know that I wasn’t exactly wowed by Russell’s supposed reinvention of the rom-com but I couldn’t deny it was of a much greater calibre than the usual Nicholas Sparks adaptation. However, with the still questionable talents of Bradley Cooper in the lead role I could never completely get on board with it. Regardless, the cast list and costume department had got me suitably interested in American Hustle for me to get over my apprehension.

The phrase “some of this actually happened” flashes up on a pre-movie title card before David O. Russell’s, mostly fictitious, account of the FBI’s Abscam sting of the 70s and 80s really gets into gear. It is a desperate and fleeting attempt from the director to place his shaggy dog tale into some semblance of reality. Although some of the salient facts are there for us to see behind all of the wigs and cleavage: an FBI agent bringing a conman on board to investigate corrupt politicians using a fake Arab sheik and some dodgy deals.
After that pinch of truth has been sprinkled over the narrative Russell abandons this recipe for something a bit more experimental and goes off-kilter with his hustle movie. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a petty con artist and the owner of a chain of dry cleaners, is forced by Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an FBI agent keen to make a name for himself, to use his skills to assist in entrapping some big names; starting with the Mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito, (a very Elvis looking Jeremy Renner) who gets caught up in the mess whilst trying to reinvigorate New Jersey.
Richie sets up his operation after catching Irving in mid hustle whilst he and his partner, in both business and pleasure, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) attempt to con the undercover agent out of $5000. Sydney, an ex-stripper who has taken on the identity of a British aristocrat with banking connections, helps Irving dupe the desperate out of their money in return for imaginary loans. Irving is left to decide between helping the FBI and leaving his lover to face jail time. The couple must try and overcome this problem as well as the pesky issue of Irving’s unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and adopted son. Rosalyn threatens to not only ruin the pair’s happiness but also the careful planning of Richie’s operation.
If this all seems like a lot to take in then it’s because the story is ultimately secondary to Russell’s rag-tag bunch of characters. At a running time of 129 minutes, the film is about half an hour too long. There are entire scenes and plot-lines that add nothing but the opportunity for the actors to really ramp up the drama and emotion. There is a spectacular scene towards the end of the film when Lawrence spends a good few minutes cleaning her house whilst angrily joining in with ‘Live and Let Die’. It is a scene that critics the world over have highlighted, quite correctly, as evidence of her increasing skill but ultimately the whole scene just feels out of place.

Then we have the clutter of side-characters that have little effect on the plot and distract from the main points. Louis C.K. turns up as Richie’s disapproving boss but, after showing a great deal of promise, is completely wasted and sidelined. There is a moment when, in a fit of anger, Richie attacks his superior with a phone but this, like pretty much every complication that arises, ends up having no real consequences. There is a moment of confrontation but the incident of violence is shrugged off and forgotten about. You get the idea that, once the basic Abscam story was written down, Russel and co-writer Eric Warren Singer just stopped caring too much about what happened.

 American Hustle is a somewhat confused film that can’t quite decide what it’s trying to be. It is part con movie, part mob thriller, and part romantic-comedy, with lashings of Scorsese and hints of Boogie Nights and GoodFellas. Of course, this melting pot of genres would work well if any of the individual elements were well-crafted in their own right. As it happens, the con aspect spreads pretty thin over the whole, the mob threat ends up being fairly underwhelming, and the comedy mainly comes from a focus on crazy hair and even crazier characters.
For Russell, American Hustle is about the ensemble having fun in the era of 70s disco excess. An ensemble fronted, of course by, the larger than life Irving; a character who offers Christian Bale the chance to further remove himself from the role of Batman by digging his teeth into the unappealing conman. Bale embraces the character and does an incredible job slowly getting to the heart of the ruthless conman caught up in a world where appearance is everything. An idea only highlighter by the opening scene when Irving, with an impressive paunch, glues, combs and sprays bits of wig and hair into an incredibly intricate comb-over. We are dealing with a man, and a film, who is concerned not just with professional disguises but personal ones too.
Something his hustling partner turned lover Sydney knows all about. Amy Adams spends the majority of the film keeping up her faux British accent for Sydney’s alter ego Lady Edith. With every film role Adams continues to prove that she is one of the most accomplished and important actresses working at the moment. She brings a vulnerability to the tough exterior of the overwhelmed Sydney and she certainly pulls off the ridiculous costumes and hair of the time of disco. She is by far and away the stand-out character and performer in the entire film and continually outclasses the less accomplished members of the ensemble.
Unfortunately, one of those cast members happens to be the usually faultless Jennifer Lawrence who sort of loses her way as Irving’s unhinged young wife. It’s not that Lawrence is awful here but she has lost a great deal of the subtlety and care that made some of her best performances so great. After winning an academy award for the psychologically scarred Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence amps up the crazy to almost unstoppable proportions. Perhaps, like the characters being portrayed, gets confused by the excesses of 1970s New York. Lawrence gives this her all and gives the same dramatic performance that has littered her fantastic career but there can be no denying that she is fairly far from her greatest performance. Of course, it doesn’t help that she is continually outclasses by the superb Adams.
Still there can be no denying that I am a massive fan of Lawrence no matter what she does and she definitely fared better than her Silver Linings Playbook co-star Bradley Cooper. Cooper isn’t exactly a subtle actor and is it pretty telling that the only two nominations he has received have come from him playing larger than life and mentally unstable characters. He charges into this operation in a desperate attempt to prove his worth and spends his time violently overreacting or suppressing exclamations of glee to be included in such an accomplished cast. He is distracting and horribly sticks out alongside his co-stars. I’m still yet to be convinced that Cooper can add anything to a film other than a face most people seem to enjoy.
American Hustle is hardly a terrible film but it certainly ends up delivering a lot less than it promises. Like its leading man, American Hustle is far too concerned with the outer appearance to really worry about what’s going on underneath. Perhaps a little less time sorting out its toupee and more time working on the narrative and Russell would have had an undeniable example of perfection. This film almost makes up for its flaws thanks to its unfailing energy, dazzling aesthetics and up-for-anything cast but the narrative is too undefined, meandering and fairly repetitive. The script is not as funny as it should be and the plot lacks the detailed focus that is required of a truly great conman film. No matter what I think of Russell as a whole, there can be no denying that this isn’t the high calibre that he is capable of when he is at his best.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Anne Hathaway, Batman, Christian Bale, Christopher Nolan, comic book, DC, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, review, Tom Hardy
The final instalment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy had a huge benchmark to reach as it was, without a doubt, the most anticipated film of this year. Particularly after the amazing success of 2008’s The Dark Knight which was a hit with both audiences and critics alike. The hype surrounding Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker has given The Dark Knight a better reputation than it really deserves. Ledger’s Joker aside, the film lacks a great deal of what made the first film so fucking awesome. The Harvey Dent/Two-Face storyline is as much of a fucking joke as the Spider-Man/Venom storyline in Toby Maguire 3. Then you have the annoying Rachel/Harvey/Bruce love triangle thing and a fucking stupid ending. Why was necessary for Harvey to be the good guy? Why not allow Gordon (a strong symbol of honesty, lawfulness and justice… also hotness) to step forward as Gotham’s White Knight? Yes, there were stand-out pieces (the sequence on the two boats is unforgettable) and great visual effects but I was certainly not one of the people who went into the third film predisposed to see only the Heath Ledger shaped hole.

In the four years between Ledger’s shock death in 2008 and the release of The Dark Knight Rises the rumour mill went into overdrive about who would be Batman’s next foil. (In a potential villain Fuck, Marry Kill, I’d definitely have fucked Neil Patrick Harris as the Riddler and killed Angelina Jolie’s catwoman). Nolan’s decision to make the material more realistic is both a blessing and a curse. It had taken the series in a wonderful new direction but had also limited the number of existing supporting characters that would fit the bill. Seriously, what the fuck could he have done to rewrite the likes of Man-Bat or Clayface into his gritty, gangster underworld? Ultimately though, there was only ever going to be one choice: Bane.
It’s fair to say that the Joker has always been the quintessential Batman nemesis. He is the Other to Batman’s crime fighting vigilante: a force for chaos acting against Bruce Wayne’s desire for order. On the other hand, Bane is the all important “big guy” when it comes to villains: the man who broke the Bat. A friend of mine came out of his first viewing of The Dark Knight Rises and insisted that Bane could never have been as terrifying as The Joker was. I could understand where he was coming from, Ledger and Nolan created a highly intelligent psychopath who made up for his lack of strength with his deadly mind games… and a pencil.
I also politely disagree. Bane is a fucking mountain. I sat throughout TDKR absolutely sure that Bane would definitely be able to punch through my skull without any trouble. He feeds off pain and gives the people of Gotham just enough rope to hang themselves with. He’s clever and has the strength to back it up. Tom Hardy did a great job with the character and certainly stands up next to the much-loved Joker. Well perhaps if we could hear him a little better.
Yes, we now find ourselves back in the all too familiar position that we found ourselves in with Michael Fassbender’s Magneto a year ago. Much has been made of the issues surrounding the recording of Hardy’s dialogue and there are multiple schools of thought. I neither know nor give much of a shit about what happened. All I can say for sure is that in the second and third viewings it gets a whole lot easier to figure out what the masked terror is shouting about. Although, a conversation between the mumbling Bane and the raspy Batman certainly makes for an interesting exchange.
The aspect of The Dark Knightthat was so compelling were the moments that the Joker and Batman got the chance to interact and play off each other. Unfortunately, Hardy and Bale share very little screen time in TDKR and that basically consists of the two beating the shit out of each other. The action sequences are, surprisingly, not the stand out sequences of the film. This is not to say that they are bad but I find myself preferring the more intimate moments where the main cast interact one-on-one.
Christian Bale and the usual suspects are all as good as they have been in previous instalments and they are joined by the equally wonderful Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle and Joseph Gordon Levitt as a young police officer, John Blake. It is the moments in which we see Gordon wrestle with his conscience and Alfred terrified for the young boy he watched grow up that provide the best moments. Thankfully, the cast are all more than up for the task at hand.
Although, I freely admit I was initially horrified when it was announced that Hathaway had been cast as Catwoman, Brokeback Mountain aside, I had seen very little evidence that she was worth her high reputation and the emotional scars from her attempt to sound like she was from Yorkshire in One Day still ran deep. Even I have to admit, she was a fucking badass in the end. Her eventual realisation that the coming storm may not be the blessing she first thought is played with an amazing subtlety. She also handled the action sequences remarkably well, which is more than I can say about the lovely Marion Cotillard who joined the cast as Miranda Tate.

The Dark Knight Rises is not a perfect film, the plot is not necessarily as strong as one might have expected, there are several annoying plot-holes and Bane’s plan does not feel quite as important as it should do. Then again this is a film, as the title suggests, about Batman’s struggle to get back to his position as protector. The journey Bruce must undertake from crippled, shut-away to the Dark Knight is captivating and there are plenty of old faces along the way to please any fan of the series. As an end to the trilogy, it does everything that it needed to do and was, as we all expected, highly entertaining. I, as I’m sure most viewers did, went out of the cinema feeling more than happy with the final chapter of this raspy-voiced Batman’s story.