The Big Short

I went to see this with an air of reluctance, expecting it to be worthy and dull. A topic Hollywood feels compelled to make a movie about and will be very earnest in telling you just how bad these people were. But it turned out to be a lot more fun than one has a right to expect when having mortgage bonds, credit default swaps and CDOs, explained to us. Director McKay realised this stuff was the antithesis of any decent movie narrative so just decided to throw every director tricksy thing from the past 20 years at it: a chef explaining collective bonds, direct to camera dialogue, an animated drawing of a testicle, textual description on screen. None of it is particularly new, and many will find it irritating, but it works by breaking up the heavy duty economics lecture, and having a knowing playfulness throughout. See the scene above, with Gosling being an ironic parody of a Wall Street guy “I smell money”.
By an odd coincidence, I had started watching The Step Brothers earlier in the day, and turned it off after 20 minutes finding it crass and unfunny. Only after I’d seen the Big Short did I find out it was by the same director, Adam McKay. Apart from Ron Burgundy, he has made all the Will Ferrell movies you don’t like. If you were asked to name the director to make the telling film about the banking collapse, and could suggest one every ten seconds continuously over 24 hours, we’d probably be a few weeks into the process before you stumbled upon Adam McKay, half in jokey desperation to make this nightmare game end. He would seem the least likely candidate to make the film about the 2008 crash.
And yet he may have just been the perfect choice. In choosing to play it as a light comedy he shows how ludicrous the whole thing was, and how ridiculous these men are. But that these ridiculous men still controlled our lives and caused a global collapse is the biggest indictment of all on the system. It is a better political statement than making All The Presidents Men – the Wall Street version. It’s an odd Oscar choice, and won’t stand a chance against the more strident The Revenant, but in many ways it is a more thoughtful film.

The Assassin

Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s tale of a 7th Century Chinese assassin won many fans and was in a lot of best films of the year for 2015 (being an art house release it’s only just got around to being shown here). Within the first twenty minutes, it’s easy to see why. At times this feels less like watching a movie and more like wandering around an art gallery admiring masterpieces. Each scene is painstakingly constructed, the use of colour, structure, objects and framing all give each one a painting like quality. “Chinese woman bathing” “Princess with zither” “Rural scene” – you can imagine the guidance notes next to each in the gallery. Unlike the two previous films on here (Revenant and Hateful Eight) the beauty of the cinematography here is not in capturing the landscape, but in assembling a set of miniatures. Hou is as much curator as he is director.
This approach is rewarding to behold, but not without its problems. Having so carefully crafted each scene, we need to linger on each one. This means that meaningful silences which last about 30 seconds beyond that which is entirely comfortable are the norm. The gentle pace that demands we admire every scene goddammit, sacrifices any tension. By the time the climax comes, one doesn’t really care. It also meant that it felt a lot longer than it’s 1hr 45 minutes running time. Characterisation isn’t strong either, we get lots of meaningful allegories but the various plot threads are subsumed to the overall artful.
Martin Amis (I can’t believe I’ve referenced him twice now within a few reviews) quoted Anthony Burgess, stating “Anthony Burgess said there are two kinds of writers, A-writers and B-writers. A-writers are storytellers, B-writers are users of language.” Maybe the same is true of film makers – those who are concerned with narrative (A – directors) and those who foreground the imagery (B – directors). This should be seen as a continuum, not a dichotomy. Many great film makers will blend elements of both. Hou is certainly towards the B director end of this scale. There is narrative there, but its role is always secondary.

The Revenant

There is much to admire in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s tale of 1820s fur trappers and survival. Not least is the authenticity of the experience. It feels so cold they should hand out blankets as you enter. And the portrayal of native americans and the conditions of the early traders is captured without any modern gloss. This is what it felt and looked like one imagines. The cinematography is beautiful, at times it is like being immersed in a Tom Thompson painting. All this combines to make the first 40 minutes a genuine cinematic experience that captures all that is good about sitting in a darkened room with strangers watching made up shit on a giant screen.

The opening scene has been compared in terms of its visceral, immersive quality to that of Saving Private Ryan. But this also highlights a criticism too – after that bombshell of an opening, there is something of a anti-climactic feel. At times Revenant felt like a cricket test match – you could pop out, do some shopping, come back and nothing much had happened. The equivalent of “they’re following on” being “Di Caprio is being cold in a river”.

In the Battle of Cold, Long, Historical films, the Revenant is generally deemed to have been the victor over the Hateful 8. But my preference lies with Tarantino’s flawed masterpiece. The Revenant is earnest to an embarrassing degree at times. “Look, we mean it, man”, it declares with every Oscar beseeching grimace from Leo. “Respect us, admire us” it pleads, in the same way that Inarritu’s previous film “Birdman” really, really wanted you to think it was clever. Tarantino’s film by contrast says “fuck you, I’m having a blast here anyway.” And it is this neediness of the Revenant that ultimately left me cold. Or colder anyway.

The Hateful Eight

Tarantino has a lot in common with Martin Amis I feel. Both were lauded for stylistic panache early in their career, they have their devotees, and their detractors, not least being accusations of sexism (they are both very ‘male’ artists). Both have seen a gradual decline in popularity. For Amis this decline reached its nadir with Lionel Asbo. It wasn’t that the book incited controversy but far worse, apathy. Finally people, even fans who had stuck with him decided this was one retreat to the usual themes too many.

The Hateful Eight was beginning to look like Tarantino’s Lionel Asbo moment. The response from many critics and erstwhile fans was “a Tarantino film too far”. A collective shoulder shrug seemed to greet its release. So I wasn’t expecting much. But Hateful Eight is no Lionel Asbo. Sure, many of the Tarantino trademarks are in evidence: cinematic in-jokes, lengthy dialogue, the stock actors (Jackson, Roth, Russell), a love of cartoonish violence. But these are tools Tarantino still knows how to deploy successfully, not crutches he has resorted to when he has become devoid of ideas.

Hateful Eight can be seen as belonging to the new wave of beautifully shot Westerns – Slow West, Salvation, Bone Tomahawk. Of course with Tarantino it also has references to many other genres. The Thing, Carrie and Soldier Blue all resonate through it. Much has been made of its length, with many decrying it boring, but there is sufficient action and intrigue in this tale of 9 strangers trapped in a mountain cabin. The deaths come along pretty quickly, and the violence is amongst the most extreme, but also the most wildly comical that Tarantino has put on film. Jennifer Jason Leigh is superb, offering the best gags, but also a captivating presence when she is out of focus and off centre.

Perhaps Amis is the wrong comparison, in this week, Bowie might be more appropriate. The Hateful Eight is maybe no Low, but it is no Tonight either. Maybe it’s a Scary Monsters, and that is high praise.

In the Heart of the Sea

There is an odd surface quality to Ron Howard’s recounting of the tale of the whaleship Essex, which famously inspired Moby Dick. It is a fantastical tale in itself, but Howard directly adds in the Moby Dick literary weight in the mix, by having the tale retold to Melville. Moby Dick certainly has its detractors, but it is undeniably a book of depth and substance. It seems strange that with such a rich list of ingredients, something so based entirely on the surface should have been constructed. It’s like taking port, lard, venison and aged stilton and somehow managing to bake a light, airy souffle.

Sometimes this surface quality adds to the film – the colouring of Nantucket recalls the artificial, but nonetheless artful sets of 1950s epics. But the CGI whaling scenes do not generate the sense of peril and substance. You do not feel the oppressive claustrophobia and seafaring griminess that, say, Master and Commander generated. Hemsworth does a decent job at standing on ship decks and shouting, but he’s all together too rugged a hero. “Why doesn’t he just wrestle the whale or blast it with a bazooka?” your genre addled brain demands. Caught between Jaws, Mutiny on the Bounty, Alive and Moby Dick itself the film never quite finds its own footing, like a greenhorn destined to be shark fodder. It’s a reasonable Sunday afternoon watch, but then so was the TV movie, The Whale.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

In Germany there is a black and white 1963 British film called Dinner for One, which is shown across most of the major TV stations, every New Year’s Eve. Up to half the German population watch it, every year. It is quite pointless to review Dinner for One in isolation, as just any other film. Indeed, what it is like as a film is almost irrelevant. It is part of the cultural fabric of Germany, its lines are well known, shorthand pieces of social glue that are shared by all.

The same is true of the Force Awakens to some extent. It is more than the film. It is also about the joy of cinema itself. With this reboot much more than the prequels we have cross generational excitement. Parents have raised children on the original films and both are equally excited to see the new version.

But even so it was important that they didn’t blow it. And Abrams is the ideal candidate for not blowing it. He may not give you an innovative vision, but he does know how to handle this stuff with love and care. In Rey the audience finally (after the abysmal missteps of the prequels) gets the hero they deserve. Feisty, likeable and with a cool steampunk, graphic novel look she is a direct descendant in tone from the well delineated characters of the original. Finn is a good foil, and the use of old characters treads just the right side of nostalgia. Maybe the whole thing does have a feel of being produced by focus group, but it bundles along decently enough. The point is not whether it’s a great film on its own, but whether it is good enough to sustain the social momentum. And it is.

You could criticise this film – I mean, another death star type thing gets blown up? Come up with a different ending, FFS. But it would be churlish to do so. Incidentally, the 40 Star Wars Plot Holes are not plot holes, they’re plot devices used in nearly all films. I’m not in love with Star Wars the way the 9 year old me was, but you’d have to hate cinema not to be warmed by the sight of so many people across all generations and cultures queuing up to see a film. And I don’t. Hate cinema that is.