And later, Troy

troyHa ha, this one’s more terrible than I remember, even here in its apparently ‘definitive’ Directors Cut. Its almost as much a farce as Life of Brian, it is so over-sincere in its attempt to make something Shakespearean of the hammy dialogue, wooden acting (and I’m not talking about that horse) and the ‘what-were-they-thinking’ casting which makes some of Oliver Stone’s casting decisions for Alexander look absolutely inspired.

The film was obviously in trouble when the film-makers opted for Hollywood’s usual ‘how do we fix this?’ by ditching the original score by Gabriel Yared, and then hiring James Horner to write a whole-new score, giving him just four weeks. Horner demonstrated his professionalism by somehow writing and recording a serviceable score but its clear he had little time and likely little enthusiasm for the project (I always thought Horner preferred character-based, intimate dramas and wrote better scores for such films). He must have known Troy was in trouble and that his music could never be good enough to fix it in what time he had. The irony that studios think replacement scores can somehow fix broken films when studios otherwise seem to have such little appreciation for film scoring never ceases to amaze me. Yared apparently spent over a year on his score- I heard it years ago on a bootleg and it shows that he was invested in it; it’s quite sophisticated and rather better than Horner’s effort (to be fair to Horner, had he been given a year his score would have been much better too).I would love to watch Troy with Yared’s original score but that will never happen.

To be fair to the film, its clear it was made with the best of intentions and certainly has some obvious ambition; at times it looks quite spectacular but the whole thing is undermined by its fumbling script which has all the beats of the familiar story but saddles them with hokey speeches and one-dimensional characters that leave the actors with nothing to play off. Diane Kruger’s Helen is the weakest point of the film and yet she’s supposed to be its backbone, the narrative drive behind everything that happens- she has no charisma, no character, but its hardly Kruger’s fault. She’s a much better actress than this but even she cannot feign chemistry with the quite vapid Orlando Bloom playing Paris. Brad Pitt’s Achilles makes a game attempt at saving the film (it should have been his film, its clear) but even his frowns and sulks are of insufficient weight to bring the pathos this film needs. I remain quite sympathetic for Eric Bana, he’s the best thing in this quite disastrous film.

Returning to the music score, perhaps the film would have been better served had it been given Eric Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” at the end as we see Troy burning. At least the film might have then been saying something, if only about a better movie.

Legends of the Fall and the Shelf of Shame

legends7Well, another post in the Shelf of Shame series, this time concerning my Blu-ray edition of Legends of the Fall, a film I thoroughly enjoyed at the cinema back in 1995, and subsequently watched several times on DVD, but which I hadn’t seen since, even upon upgrading to the Blu-ray edition, which remained unwatched since I bought it (near as I can tell, sometime in 2013). One of the most sobering things about this Shelf of Shame series is the realisation of how many discs I have that I have watched only once, if at all,  and also regards just how much time is flying past and how much of a waste of money that collection on the shelves might possibly be, in hindsight.

Can we judge the worth of a DVD or Blu-ray or 4K UHD by how many times we have watched it? Is that fair or misguided? Does £20 spent on Alien on UHD suddenly become more palatable had the disc been watched five times? Should the monetary expenditure be more reason to watch less ‘new’ stuff and instead return more often to rewatching old favourites? Of course its not just films on disc, I could just as easily be remarking upon CDs and books, all the objects we accumulate.

I’m horrified that its been several years since I bought Legends of the Fall on Blu-ray and that I hadn’t watched it: for one thing, where indeed have all those years gone? On the other hand, one has to consider the worth of spending as much money as I have on discs if they are going to just sit there unwatched. I suppose a related inquiry would be, those films we enjoy and even love, how many times can we, and should we, return to them? I always feel its rather strange when someone says they only ever watch films once, but maybe they have a point. For my part though, I cannot imagine that: films are things I cannot help but return to, if I enjoy them. Even if this Shelf of Shame series would suggest some failure at that.

Its also very true that the only reason why I finally reached for this Blu-ray disc and actually watched it, was the release of the complete score on Intrada’s recent CD that arrived a few days ago. Listening to the score was a reminder of just how much I loved the film when I first saw it and of course that wonderful period from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s when James Horner’s scores were such a soundtrack to my life. I know there are many naysayers regarding Horner’s music in film-music circles, but for fans such as myself who were there pretty much at the beginning of his career, that period of Horner’s career is akin to people looking back to when The Beatles were making music.

legends2It is often true that rewatching films can offer a sense of perspective, looking at it from the vantage point of someone in 2020, older and (possibly) wiser, and naturally offering an inevitable giddy rush of nostalgia. Watching Legends of the Fall last night was a bewitching experience of impressions: the sense of tumultuous David Lean epic, huge breathtaking landscapes dwarfing the humans in nearly every frame. The great cast: a young Brad Pitt in one of his first leading roles, Anthony Hopkins, Aidan Quinn, Karin Lombard, who I recall appeared in a few films at the time (its funny how faces seem to appear in a number of films at a certain time that seem to then disappear- in her case, rather than disappear she simply moved to a successful series of tv roles I never saw). Of course there is the hauntingly beautiful Julia Ormond stealing the film from everyone around her with a wonderful performance. While watching the film I couldn’t help but imagine what a more ‘adult’ Star Wars prequel trilogy could have been, had it centred Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side around some Legends of the Fall-like doomed love story with Ormond as the object of his ill-fated affection (I could certainly more easily imagine a passionate and feisty Ormond as the mother of Leia and Luke than Natalie Portman). Above all else in the film, there is also that sweeping, overwhelming James Horner score that dominates the film in a way that scores really don’t anymore.

The funny thing was, even though it may have been ten or fifteen years or more since I last saw the film, I could still remember some of the lines just before they were spoken, and yet other moments came as quite a surprise, elements that I had quite forgotten. The film remains something of an oddity; even in 1995 when I first saw it, it seemed a film at odds with contemporary Hollywood; this is a film about myth, and legend. Its clearly not intended to be a true tale, its so larger than life its more a piece of modern myth-making, a tale of the early-20th century more in line with Sergio Leone’s filmography (as much a late-period Western as Once Upon A Time in America is a realistic gangster movie).

legends3That thought suggests a tantalising what-if: imagine what Sergio Leone could have done fashioning Legends of the Fall into one of his typical three or four-hour epics. It has all the elements of his films; a male-dominated list of characters with a chiefly male-dominated worldview, epic landscapes, huge battles scenes with hundreds of extras, a sense of larger-than-life fantasy, of Pure Cinema. With Leone at the helm, it would have certainly benefited from a better climactic gunfight- Leone was a master of them, turning them into operatic ballets of violence, whereas the one Legends of the Fall has ultimately feels clumsy, overwrought, relying on slow-motion to add gravitas and James Horner’s dramatic scoring.

legends1The story of Legends of the Fall is quite simple but unrelentingly dark when one considers it: I’ve always thought of the film as an overwhelmingly depressing piece (depressing in a good way, if that’s possible, like the grim denouements of so many Film Noir). At its very simplest, a beautiful young woman, Susannah (Julia Ormond), enters the lives of the Ludlow family living in the Montana wilderness, and destroys them, before finally blowing her own brains out from the guilt and sense of unfulfilment.

The film describes Tristan as the rock against which all the others broke themselves against, but that’s missing the point that Susannah is almost like a snake entering the Ludlow Eden in the films beginning. Admittedly she intends none of this, she’s just being true to her nature- beautiful and kind, but she’s finding her place in the world where she becomes an unhappy catalyst of doom. Its funny how Tristan later considers that he may be damned, and has pulled everyone he knows into this damnation, but that could just as easily have been a monologue of guilt spoken by Susannah.

But isn’t Legends of the Fall great? Sure, its not perfect, and it rushes things (a conscious decision of director Edward Zwick, who preferred to pace it as a stream-of-consciousness, of a tale spoken to someone over a campfire and consequently sweeping the narrative forwards with little reflection). But its a hell of a movie- that’s MOVIE in great big capital letters, full of passion and epic moments- yeah, Pure Cinema in the Sergio Leone vein, a win-win in my book.

Curious fact I hadn’t realised before: the novella the film was based on was written by Jim Harrison, who was also the author of the short story Revenge that was turned into a Tony Scott film from 1990 that I later discovered on VHS rental and seems largely forgotten now but which I really liked. It featured a beautifully haunting score by Jack Nitzche which is one of my most treasured CDs. In retrospect, both films share common themes so the connection is not surprising, but I hadn’t been aware of it before. You learn something new all the time (really must read that Jim Harrison novella that inspired Legends of the Fall).

Back to the Stars: Ad Astra 4K UHD

ad1Returning to Ad Astra, a few months after its cinema release back in September, was a surprisingly rewarding experience. I’m always curious about returning to films like this when their disc releases come out, and more so regards this film than some. I really had mixed feelings about the film when I first saw it, and while my reservations remain, particularly towards its ending, I have to confess I enjoyed the film much more second time around. Diminished expectations and all that.

First things first though, I have to say, this film looks absolutely gorgeous on 4K UHD, indeed much, much better than it did back in the cinema. I’d possibly forgotten how beautiful the film’s cinematography was, but certainly the tired projection quality/old screens of my Cineworld (currently getting a refurb as I type this so hopefully soon rectified) can’t match sitting a few feet away from my 55″ OLED. There is a lovely filmic quality to the very detailed image, a nice amount of (but not overpowering) grain, some subtle HDR and beautiful colour range- its a great addition to the format and a reminder that sometimes its worth paying a premium. So it looks pretty. But what about the film?

Well, Brad Pitt’s subdued performance is certainly  more nuanced than I remembered, and his interior monologues via voiceover are not as distracting as I thought first time around. I do think the nods in the narrative towards Apocalypse Now are too on the nose and in practice proves an awkward fit for a science fiction film (the journey up the river in Coppola’s film isn’t a convincing analogue for a space odyssey across the solar system).  For one thing, a 79-day journey from Mars to Neptune that manages to fit in flybys of both Jupiter and Saturn seems an incredibly fortuitous piece of planetary alignment, but hey, as John Brosnan said, ‘Its only a movie’ so I should maybe cut the film a break (the less said about Space Pirates and mad Space Baboons the better).

ad2What I really like about the film, and something I wish it had focused on more, was its nihilistic approach to humanity in the universe. The void is vast and inhuman, a silent expanse that defies comprehension, and it is hinted several times during the film that the immensity of space and time can easily damage the human psyche.  Its why the characters have to submit to periodic evaluations and why one of the pilots of the Cepheus seems to suffer a breakdown during a tense emergency arriving at Mars. Its frustrating when the films logic then appears to breakdown, as that same burned-out pilot is immediately passed out for a further flight to Neptune when he really should be grounded. I found the conceit that space travel breaks people, even the smartest and fittest, if only because we really don’t ‘belong’ Out There, was a great subject and indeed a fitting enough explanation for Tommy Lee Jones going all Colonel Kurtz out at Neptune but not really developed enough.

Its frustrating because one of the things so interesting (and infuriating for some viewers) about First Man was its rather detached, cold-fish portrayal of Neil Armstrong. The voyage to the moon is all business for Armstrong in that film, and he seems to shut down emotionally throughout, but its how he seemed to deal with it. As laymen we always want to know what it felt like to stand on the surface of the moon and look back on the Earth, but sending engineers/test-pilots to the moon instead of poets means that NASA failed to really answer that question, frustrating our need to really empathise with the event, understand its magnitude. Indeed, it possibly frustrated Armstrong for the rest of his life trying to articulate it. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, what must it do to a human to look up and see the Earth, the place where anything that ever happened in all the history books, and where any man or woman who ever lived spent their lives, every place or person we ever heard of, encompassed in that small blue globe lost in the totality of the inky blackness around it?  Can the fragile psyche of a human really comprehend it without snapping or finding God (or both), or perhaps shrugging it off as an engineering achievement?

Ad Astra perhaps gets too obsessed with the intimate (cold-fish Roy McBride’s relationship with his long-lost father) instead of really sufficiently dealing with the Infinite. I liked its suggestion that we are truly alone, that there is no life Out There. His father Clifford McBride seems to break at the realisation that there is nothing for him to find, no answers, no solutions, just empty silence and dead worlds. Roy finds solace in returning to Earth and realising that what he have, through relationships with loved ones etc, should be enough: Love Conquers All I guess, but its clearly a revelation lost on Clifford, who coolly states he never once thought about the wife or child he left behind.

Well, Ad Astra is a flawed film, not as intelligent as it pretends to be or as fulfilling as it could have been. The finale of the film, when Roy finally meets his father, is the weakest part of the whole piece. As I think I mentioned with my earlier review, I actually think the film needed to be longer, that we needed more time with Clifford and Roy out at Neptune, the loneliest humans there has ever been, and how each of them deal with that in their own way. Maybe that would have been too much of an intellectual exercise for a Hollywood sci-fi movie, I don’t know, but in any case as it stands the film fails to realise both the emotional and intellectual wallop that it aims for. It seems to suggest that the answers for the human experience lie in Inner Space rather than Outer Space, that the universe is cold and lifeless and ignorant of every one of us: its not that we don’t matter, its that we need to matter to each other. Maybe that’s a stretch, or maybe its just that the film fumbles that answer.

But at least it seems to ask the question. There’s a lot of good in Ad Astra and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it again. I’ll just be filling in the blanks with what I think it means and what it could have been, while considering just what a masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey really was.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

once2

The mutt steals the picture. Sure, Brad may be the coolest actor on the planet, the sense of calm, old-school cool that he just exudes in this film is just a wonder to behold, frankly, how effortless it seems to be… (and how that compares with the more introverted lead in Ad Astra) and Leo again shows how he can still surprise as he gets older…  but those guys can’t stop pit bull Sayuri (who plays Brandy, Brad’s pet dog in the film) from stealing the film from them. They should have put her name above the credits, it would have been an in-joke worthy of the director.

Somehow I managed to avoid any spoilers for this film- other than knowing that it was set in Hollywood and involved the murder of actress Sharon Tate, I knew nothing. Turned out I knew less than I thought. This really wasn’t the film I’d expected it to be. Is it even a film? With all due respect to Mr Tarantino, I feel the need to describe this as more as an experience than a film. For much of its running time hardly anything, dramatically at least, seems to be happening- certainly anything like a plot or the traditional three-act structure films usually have seems to be missing. And yet I can’t say I noticed, except about just over an hour in when I glanced at the digital counter on the dash of my Blu-ray player and wondered when something was going to happen. Turned out I had to wait for another hour for that.

I’m exaggerating of course. Or am I? Not that I minded, because I found it all pretty enthralling nonetheless. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an incredibly evocative film, creating an amazingly convincing sense of time and place through a combination of superb art direction, cinematography and sound design (typically of Tarantino, it boasts a wonderful soundtrack of songs). Its so atmospheric that I can’t help but allude to Blade Runner, and how over the years part of the pleasure of watching that film was just being immersed in this incredibly convincing future world- in the case of this film, its a sense of being thrown back to 1969 and its long-lost Hollywood. I’m pretty certain that I’ll re-watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood not for the jokes or the (sparse but powerful) action, or even the great performances, but rather just to soak it all up again, wallow in that sense of a time and place. Its an escape, just as it was when visiting the LA of 2019 envisioned by Ridley all those years ago. LA 2019, and LA 1969- the more things stay the same.

once1It may, of course, alienate those in the audience who prefer, say, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the high-octane, in-your-face, twist-and-turns and shocks and surprises that his past films are so famous for. This slow, rather sad and reflective film is unmistakably Tarantino- there’s still plenty of the ornate dialogue and self-knowing humour, but it all seems balanced by some new, maturer perspective. Its more a film about movie myths, the power of them, the nostalgia of pop-culture and how fragile fame and fortune can be. The relentless march of time and change and sensing your best years are behind you.

It turns out that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a Golden Age fairy tale, leaving the real world behind as it turns towards its finale. It leaves us finally revealed to be less a film, more some strange otherworldly dream, tricking us through the power of nostalgia and what we have grown to expect from a Tarantino picture. Its quite a sleight of hand by Tarantino, and really quite magical. I was really quite enthralled by the whole thing. I’m not sure it was actually a proper film, at least in the conventional sense. More a love letter for movie lovers and fans of the old television Western era then, and none the worse for that.

Ad Astra

asastra1Ad Astra is really two different movies, and I liked one of them, and didn’t care much for the other. The one is a homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and perhaps also Contact– it  wonderfully uses cinema as a visual medium to show us the immensity of the cosmos, and our place in it. It shows us a cosmos wholly indifferent to the human race and how the very immensity of it can challenge our sanity, our sense of reason. It asks the question ‘is there life Out There?’ and suggests a possible answer, and examines what that might mean to us, our place and importance in the immensity of space and time.

The second film is about pirates on the moon and carnivorous apes running amok on deserted space stations, and boys looking for their fathers when their fathers aren’t interested.  Its a Captain Nemo In Space film about as hokey as it was in The Black Hole.

If you can sense there’s a dichotomy there then you can understand my very mixed feelings about this film. We don’t get enough serious science fiction films, and we don’t get serious money and talent invested on space sagas in which we travel into the depths of space with real-space physics and no sound depicted in space (oh God I’m so thrilled at just that alone). Films like 2001 and Interstellar and Solaris are very rare, and even the rather flawed ones like Event Horizon or Sunshine are to be applauded, just for existing.  I’m thankful we even have Ad Astra, and kudos to 20th Century Fox bankrolling it, taking a risk on it. So much about Ad Astra is perfect, so much of it is so damned exhilarating, that it just feels so incredibly frustrating too.

When I saw advance word describing the film as Apocalypse Now meets 2001, I thought it was a bit of a wheeze, maybe a shorthand way, as Internet writers and YouTube reviewers often have it, in describing its sense of a journey across the solar system. I didn’t understand that this film literally is Apocalypse Now meets 2001. I suppose to be more charitable, I should describe it as Heart of Darkness meets 2001, but director James Gray is too on the nose with a narration that is so indebted to Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic that it feels like they should have had Martin Sheen voice it. Surely they could have dropped it, or most of it. Initially its interesting but it becomes far too indulgent and distracting.

adastra3Its also far too obvious, almost as bad as the clumsy narration that Blade Runner had, its so relentlessly describing whats happening and why and what Brad Pitt’s internal thoughts are about everything around him. Coppola’s film had a narration that was perfect, but that’s such a rarity and you have to be careful going there, especially if your basic narrative is also so indebted to its source. It was so obvious, I half-expected Tommy Lee Jones to mutter “The horror! The horror!” as he stared up at the stars. It shouldn’t have been so literal, and it also backs the film into the same quandary that drove Coppola nearly mad making Apocalypse Now– when we finally reach Kurtz, whats the revelation? Whats the endpoint, the grand insight that the previous few hours of film have been leading to? If you’re building up the mystery, you have to have a suitable answer, even if its just wrapped around another question. Gray ends Ad Astra with a mind-numbing revelation akin to ‘home is where the heart is’, and almost even that hoary chestnut ‘love conquers all’ – that’s fine, but helplessly anticlimactic after all the build-up.  Perhaps Ad Astra is too measured, too collected to really warrant the comparisons to Coppola’s hallucinatory trip up the river. Perhaps it needed more product placement, a way of ramming home its suggestion of commercialisation dumbing down what space is, what it means- we can’t have Coppola’s drugs in space, but maybe more Coca Cola would serve the same purpose in showing the inanity humanity brings to the void. What on Earth, I wonder, would a Terry Gilliam-directed Ad Astra be like?

There are some wonderful moments in Ad Astra, but some damningly awkward ones too, and no matter how strange and huge the grand canvas the film shows us, its also depressingly small and human-scaled too. I suppose that may be deliberate, a message in itself, but it also suggests a lack of confidence or a reluctant nod to the mass audience that perhaps thought that what Arrival really lacked was gunfights and action. A research station sending out a mayday message is devoid of bodies/signs of crew, because the sense of ensuing mystery serves the plot, maybe, but later when Brad Pitt finds his destination, its corridors are full of cadavers floating in zero g, presumably for decades. Even a crazy man would have jettisoned the dead into space, right? I mean, air is limited and its full of putrefaction and decay? That’s beyond unhealthy, its beyond stupid.

adastra2There is an awful lot to appreciate in Ad Astra, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again at home in 4K (in January next year, I guess) and possibly enjoying it more with reduced expectations. Its a remarkable achievement that it was made for something just a little north of $80 million (by all accounts) as it looks rather bigger. Some of the world-building and art direction is truly amazing, and it feels very grounded most of the time. The cast is great, and Donald Sutherland in a rather short role leaves such a real mark on the film, he perhaps should have been on the journey longer. The cinematography is quite exquisite, and the majority of the visual effects flawless. The music score is perhaps functional at best- it works, but its surprisingly subdued in the audio mix, unless that was an issue at my screening.

The film runs just under two hours, which is refreshing for some perhaps, but I thought it a little short, I think it would have benefited by more time and less narration- less concise, more obtuse, that kind of thing. Dwelt a little longer on the empty spaces between worlds rather than Space Monkeys and Space Pirates, but that was possibly a more intellectual exercise than 20th Century Fox was willing to make.

Killing Them Softly (2012)

k12016.69: Killing Them Softly (Film Four HD)

There’s a relentless melancholy running throughout Killing Them Softly that I can only assume comes from director Andrew Dominik, who previously directed the brilliant The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, one of my favourite films of the last twenty years, with which it shares a similar sense of doom and finality. Curiously Killing Them Softly also alludes to the financial crisis spotlighted in The Big Short which I watched a few weeks ago- everybody, it seems, is suffering hard times, even the  mobsters and organised crime. There is a running commentary in the background concerning the financial crisis, the fracturing code of conduct of crime bosses being compared to the fracturing code of conduct of financial bosses and the political elite. Juxtaposed with the urban decay of the streets of America (and in this film the locations are as much a character as any actor), there is a feel of the End Of Times, of things falling apart. Things just ain’t what they used to be and never will be.

After two small-time criminals hired by an aggrieved crime boss/crooked business man to hit the popular (albeit illegal) card game of mafia man Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), killer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to track down the two criminals and the rogue boss who hired them, bringing stability and the crime-world’s particular sense of justice into play. Jackie discovers he knows one of the three targets and prefers a distant, businesslike approach compared to anything as personal as ‘offing’ someone you know, so hires in a fellow gun for hire, Mickey (James Gandolfini) to assist him. Unfortunately when Mickey turns up, Jackie realises Mickey is all washed-up and worn out by his own troubles, and gets distracted looking after him before Jackie is forced to finish the contract alone after all. Trattman, though a genuinely innocent victim this time, has previous form regards his card games getting ‘hit’, as he engineered one some years ago to get out of money trouble and later admitted to it when drunk. Lightning having struck twice, Trattman joins Jackies’ hitlist. You’ve got to have standards, after all.

Killing Them Softly is an indie film posing as a Tarantino flick- there’s nothing wrong with that, but the film may suffer from viewers expecting the Goodfellas-cum-Pulp Fiction that the trailer promises and finding out its something else. Maybe that’s a problem the marketing boys have to answer for? The casting of heavyweights like Pitt and Gandolfini probably doesn’t help regards that, but they are very, very good. Pitt brings his screen persona and shadow of past roles to inform the larger-than-life  rep that Jackie carries around with him as an infamous enforcer. Gandolfini has a roguish swagger to the troubled soul of end-of-the-line Mickey (Gandolfini is so good he almost steals the movie in this, one of his last roles, a poignant reminder of what we lost with his untimely passing).

k2Carefully, the film refuses to paint these bad guys as heroes, counter to what the casting would suggest. They are villains, bad people- Pitt has an air of calm authority, of almost respectability, and is rather disarmingly likeable until the film suddenly switches to brutal violence and he reminds us he really isn’t a nice guy at all. It rather makes the violence in the film quite shocking and very effective.

The film is really more a good character piece than mafia thriller, a story of people having very little real control of their lives and seeing what little control they did have slipping through their fingers. It’s a broken world, and the center cannot hold- yes it’s a dark modern film noir and eerily effective as such.I really quite liked it.

 

The Big Short (2015)

big1.jpg2016.65: The Big Short (Amazon VOD)

The world is a cesspit of lies and corruption, fraud and criminal activity in the financial markets aided and abetted by the political elite who themselves profit from the status quo, and the governing bodies that instead of policing the system sit back and allow things to spiral into financial apocalypse. It sounds like an over-the-top Oliver Stone movie, but instead its the premise of The Big Short, a riveting film that has the form of a factual comedy drama akin to The Wolf of Wall Street but is in reality more of a horror movie.

I can’t say I understood much of it, no matter how often the film breaks the fourth wall to stop and explain in layman’s terms the terminology (mortgage bonds, collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps) being used by the bankers and investors in the film. Maybe that’s the point- in the film, it’s alleged that even the bankers themselves didn’t really understand what was going on, they just thought the party would never end. It is all smoke and mirrors, tricks and lies. Maybe it would make more sense on second viewing but I must confess there were a few moments it all seemed to be going way over my head. As it is, it remains a thrilling, fascinating ride that is all the more terrifying because it is all based on recent events that we all witnessed and to some extent have suffered by.

The strong cast (Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling) are all great and no doubt their names attract viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in a tragi-comedy about financial collapse. Maybe a more serious, 1970’s-style investigative drama like Spotlight would have served to make a more daunting film- instead this comedy is more about the elite partying into the apocalypse with our protagonists caught in the chaos and disorder, our witnesses and conscience (at least Carell’s character- Carell is brilliant as the Worlds Angry Man left mutely stunned when he discovers he was right all along).

One of my problems with The Wolf of Wall Street was chiefly that, entertaining as Scorsese made its tale of excess and corruption in Wall Street, there wasn’t enough of a reality-check; coverage of the real losers in its tale of financial whizzkids getting rich at the expense of others. He seemed to be fascinated by the big houses, fast cars and beautiful women- yeah, the exciting and entertaining stuff, sure, but I just thought he owed us more social commentary, more balance. I think we get that in The Big Short because as the apocalypse looms it is clear who is really going to suffer- and it isn’t those engineering the global meltdown. At the end of the film there is a depressing summary of what happened post-meltdown, who was held accountable and what has been done to ensure it cannot happen again (in America at least). Pretty much no-one and nothing, it seems.

Let’s just hope we don’t get a sequel in ten/twenty years time.

Fight Club (1999)

fight1.jpg
“The things you own end up owning you” – I think he’s seen my DVD/Blu-ray collection…

Oh boy- Fight Club is 17 years old this year. That’s really scary. I remember seeing it at the cinema, it was an amazing experience. I came out thinking I had just seen something new, something important. But 17 years ago? Where have all those years gone?

What is perhaps scarier is that it must be eight years or more since I last watched it. A film as good as Fight Club deserves to be watched at least once a year. Which raises a question: which films deserve to be re-watched at least once a year? If nothing else, re-watching really great films every year helps give a sense of perspective. You realise how bland current stuff is when you are constantly re-watching the really good stuff. So which films are that good they deserve to be re-watched every year;  Jaws? Citizen Kane? Ben-Hur? The Godfather? Fight Club? Well, Fight Club might be a contentious one. I’m a fan of the film and count it within my fifty great films list but it always had its detractors from Day One. God knows this film has it’s haters.

So anyway, I’ve now watched my previously never-watched blu-ray copy (yep, its one of those) of Fight Club. Now, I remember it being a good film, indeed a very good film, but really this thing just blew me away. Its funny and yes its violent and it’s full of both juvenile and insightful politicising and it’s dark and visually astonishing. I mean really, it’s so cleverly constructed/art-directed and filmed- anarchy and the decay of society has never looked so beautiful and horrible. Its like a work of art, of counter-culture. Or maybe it’s the very thing that it screams against. Its product (the irony of my disc copy being a ’10th Anniversary edition” not lost on me).

This dark, subversive satire is as sharp and brutal now as it was back in 1999- perhaps even more so, as the world we live in now is arguably much worse than the one in which Fight Club was originally made and set in. Yes, the film is a document of the world on the eve of the new millennium, but there’s nothing more telling that Fight Club is a pre-9/11 film than the finale with those skyscrapers being blown up and collapsing. There’s all kinds of things happening and being said in Fight Club that seems to have added meaning now. It almost feels like watching  different film, like it’s been loaded with all sort of additional baggage since 1999, there’s so many more reasons to flinch and mutter WTF? as the ways society and the world has worsened since 1999 informs the film.  And thats just above all the anti-consumerism stuff that’s as pertinent now as it ever was, particularly as the gap between the rich and the poor in society widens (“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact”).

This film has such great dialogue- whether you agree with its commentary or not, Fight Club must be the most quotable film outside of a Tarantino flick. The cast is brilliant. Pitt and Norton have never been better, and Helena Bonham Carter a revelation. She’s great in this.

There is such a raw energy to the film. Yes it’s a mainstream Hollywood film starring Hollywood A-listers directed by a major director for a major studio, but it feels like an indie, like guerilla film-making on some higher level than we’re used to. Some of the shots are as audacious as ever, some of the CGI a bit more dated than I expected, but on the whole it remains a spellbinding piece of work. Afterwards the question inevitably lingers, whatever happened to David Fincher? He never made anything as bold as this again. Well, not yet, anyway- I guess there is always hope.

The Counsellor: The Extended Cut (2013)

counselorRidley Scott’s The Counsellor is as divisive a film as his previous film, Prometheus. Is he deliberately antagonising his audience, subverting our expectations with his  films now? Prometheus was supposed to be an Alien prequel, and was, in a way, albeit spinning off in some other direction and ultimately not really being the Alien movie fans seemed to want.  The Counsellor, made from a screenplay by literary darling Cormac McCarthy (The Road, No Country For Old Men) and featuring a tremendous cast including  Michael Fassbender, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt in a tale of greed and drug trafficking, seemed to be prime thriller material- and yet it is hardly a thriller at all, more interested in long monologues regarding observations on greed, where it leads and responsibility for our crimes, than action sequences.

For myself, I quite enjoyed the film, choosing to watch the Extended Cut rather than the theatrical that apparently so infuriated cinemagoers. How much more superior the Extended Cut is over the theatrical, or even what those differences are, I cannot say. I can however state that The Counsellor is a fascinating art-house movie in the guise of a traditional thriller. There is action, and very brutal action at that, including one of the most gruesome and memorable murder sequences I have ever seen, but all of that is simply incidental to the lengthy monologues and sometimes poetic observations verbalised by the characters. What doesn’t help is that, other than Penélope Cruz ‘s character, every character in this film seems thoroughly unredeemable and unsympathetic. It’s faithful to the films theme but does rather hinder audience empathy with the film. We just don’t care for anyone other than Cruz (who is wonderful by the way, full of sensuality and warmth here) and things don’t end well for her either, so whilst avoiding spoilers, don’t expect a happy conclusion here. Its a frankly nihilistic film from beginning to end. Does that sound hard to stomach over two and a half hours? It evidently proved to be for cinemagoers watching the two hour version, and this Extended Cut is surely just more of it.

counselor2

The title character (played to perfection by the dependable as ever Michael Fassbender) is an utterly unlikeable hero, known only as The Counsellor in reference to his dubious trade representing criminals. He seems to have it made from the start; handsome, wealthy and in an exciting relationship with a stunningly beautiful and sensual woman (Cruz) – admit it, you hate him already, I did, especially when it is abundantly clear that even when he apparently has it all, it isn’t enough. He wants more, hence his slide into the drug trafficking of his clients. When things go awry and he and his associates are unwittingly put in the frame, retribution follows but we hardly care. We have little if any empathy for any of them. Its honest and faithful to the point of the film- we simply aren’t meant to like any of them- but it does rather undermine the movie in the traditional sense of rooting for people.  In that respect, I often felt like I was watching a coldly analytical Stanley Kubrick film. It really doesn’t feel like a Hollywood movie.

Indeed  its so refreshingly different to what I expected, and wonderfully, unrelentingly dark, that I rather fell in love with it anyway. It may prove to be one of those films that gets re-evaluated in the future, and becomes widely considered a success after all (another Blade Runner, perhaps?). Kudos to 20th Century Fox for letting Scott make the film he clearly wanted to, as it must have been tempting to rip it apart and make it more, well, traditionally positive – although maybe the theatrical cut was Scott’s way of compromising his intentions somewhat. I won’t know unless I try watching that version but I hardly see the point.

One of Scott’s better movies. Or maybe I’m wide of the mark and it really is as terrible as people make out? If you’ve seen it, do let me know what you think.