You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Saturday, 23 January 2016


Okay, so I have a problem with The Revenant. It’s not the same issue I had with Argo back in 2012 (a decent retro thriller, not a Best Picture) or even with The Theory of Everything or American Sniper last year (good performances, not much else — also by no means indispensable). The matter with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s latest is, for me, is its lack of matter. 

Set amid the snowy Great Plains circa 1823, the film initially follows a party of fur trappers fleeing across the mountains in the wake of a bloody and chaotic massacre by Arikara warriors. When their guide, the guarded Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), is mauled by a grizzly, Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) assigns two men – the self-interested John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and a then greenhorn Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) – to stay and tend to him until he passes. 

Fitzgerald, however, is not about to risk his life for a dying man and decides to put Glass out of his misery. When Glass’ half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), tries to intervene, Fitzgerald kills him as Glass looks on, horrified and helpless. Half-buried and left for dead, Glass crawls out of his own grave and embarks on a trek across hostile, inhospitable territory to claim Fitzgerald’s life. 

The majority of critics seem to have been swept away by Iñárritu’s tale of vengeance and survival – it currently holds an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes and has been nominated for twelve Oscars – but I found myself strangely unmoved.  

The Revenant’s shoot is already well on its way to becoming legend: shooting in sub-zero temperatures in twelve different locations, three different countries, with all natural light is certainly impressive, but it doesn’t in itself make for a better film. Van Gogh’s contribution to Post-Impressionism was not improved one iota by his having cut off his own era.

DiCaprio doesn’t act so much as endure; endure greasy furs, freezing waters, and a diet that Bear Grylls would baulk at (still-steaming bison liver or frozen bone marrow, anyone?). If DiCaprio walks away with the Oscar this year, as seems to be the likely outcome, it will be an award won with graft - blood and spit, teeth gritted, eyes rolling - as opposed to craft.  If the best acting is reacting, what else can you do in the face of ordeals such as these? The film's final shot of him, streamy-eyed and desperate, is the closest I've seen to an outright onscreen plea for acknowledgement. 

Hardy, meanwhile, is in full-on gruff and stare-y mode as the semi-scalped Fitzgerald, but it's neither he nor the omnipresent Gleeson's best film this year. This isn’t even either's best Best Picture candidate.

Based on a true story (though each of the words in that phrase are open to differing degrees of interpretation), Glass’ struggle against the forces of nature lends itself to spectacle — flaming arrows soaring overhead, a horse taking a tumble off a cliff —  but The Revenant isn’t content to leave it there. With its repeated cutaways to bare pines and pale skies, it feels like the film is attempting to offer some obscure commentary about nature’s indifference to man, but the impassivity of wood and stone is less than entirely compelling. 

There’s an assumption of profundity – that some grand statement is being made about mankind’s place in the universe – but The Revenant is too caught up in its survivalist trappings (pun semi-intended) to commit to making a definite statement.

The film avoids the cliche of treating the natives as noble savages — this isn’t Little Big Man — and a frenetic sequence where the camp is beset by armed braves, Iñárritu’s camera darting from one muddy conflict to the next, has a purity of vision. Repeated visions of Glass’ dead wife and a single shot of a comet blazing to earth suggest some religious subtext, and indeed Glass himself is born/reborn multiple times; from the grave, from a makeshift sweat lodge, from the literal belly of a beast, but the film lacks the thematic framework to support this reading. 

Perhaps the natives represent a brutal sort of honour, Fitz stands for base pragmatism, and Glass must walk a path between the two — what he wants and what is right —  but again that could just be my projecting. 

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography has a chilly radiance and majesty, making the most of the film’s natural palette of whites, browns, and greens, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's ominous ambient score rising above the biting wind, and Iñárritu’s direction is superlatively competent, but The Revenant is not a film characterised by its artistry. Also, lacking, the opportunities for humour afforded to Birdman, it can't help but come across as incredibly self-serious.

What do we learn from The Revenant then? We learn that leaving your weapon lodged in your opponent’s calf leaves you open to getting it back blade first and that films universally described as “visceral” and “immersive” often have little else to say. The Revenant is all sinew and no heart; a period cod-Malick Death Wish with illusions of grandeur. Let’s just hope the Academy come to their collective senses and see fit to award Spotlight; otherwise the next mission of vengeance might not be cinematic but it may well be cinema-related (which is to say I intend to bitch about it online).

The Revenant gets a 7 out of 10.

Sunday, 17 January 2016


Few film series have taken the beating in their time that Rocky has. After a triumphant first bout that launched Sylvester Stallone into the big-time, the series steadily descended into cheesy self-parody. After the judge’s decision of Rocky IV — great villain, hilarious overuse of musical montages — and the knockdown loss of Rocky V — which ended with the Italian Stallion beating some ginger lout in a street brawl — Rocky Balboa allowed the former champ (both the title character and Stallone himself) to make a semi-graceful exit. Now, nine years on, Stallone returns to the role that first made his name; if only to hand the franchise over to the next generation.

Creed opens thirteen years after the death of the legendary Apollo. His illegitimate son, Adonis Johnson, is serving time in juvie; that is until his father’s widow, Mary Anne (Phyllicia Rashad), arrives and offers him a new life, one where he’ll no longer have to fight to survive. Fighting, though, is more than just a means of survival to Adonis: it’s a way of life. In the present day, the now adult Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) quits his job at a respectable finance company and heads out to Philadelphia looking for the long-retired Rocky, the man who was ringside the night Apollo died. Donnie’s aim: to receive training and become a champion in his own right.

The film’s premise is well-worn and one that could easily descend into hokiness. Ever since the first Expendables film made landfall back in 2005, Stallone has been steadily milking us for our nostalgia dollars at the cost of any artistic credibility he once had. However, in the hands of up-and-coming filmmaker Ryan Coogler, Creed is, stylistically a least, a much different creature from the film’s that preceded. Where Rocky had its slurring protagonist laying smackdowns on slabs of slaughterhouse beef to the tune of Survivor, Creed replaces dramatic brute force with speed, agility, and surprising pathos in dealing with its parallel themes of coming in and going out.

Creed finds Rocky dealing with the ongoing despair of losing everyone he cares about. Living alone and pushing seventy, all he wants to do is quietly run his restaurant and visit the graves of his wife and recently deceased brother-in-law. Stallone totally sells the weariness of the former Italian Stallion, a man whose sheer tenacity made him a champion but who has more or less put himself out to pasture. Diagnosed with non-Hogkin's lymphoma, he’s resigned to laying down and dying until Donnie gives him a reason to fight. A sort of meathead Mr. Miyagi, Stallone has certainly come a long way since he first laced up the gloves forty years ago and Creed just wouldn’t be the same without the sense of history he brings to the role.

That being said, Creed is all about the rising star for whom Stallone dignifiedly makes way — this is the first film in the franchise he didn’t script himself. Whereas Rocky was very much a rags-to-riches story, Creed is all about one man’s struggle to live up to a legend. Jordan brings an understated focus and determination to Donnie, whose laid-back demeanour conceals serious abandonment issues. Donnie may drive a Mustang and come from a mansion, but he’s no less worthy a fighter, and the film simply finds its dramatic mileage elsewhere. His relationship with gigging alt R&B artist Bianca (Tessa Thompson), for instance, is grounded in simplicity.

Having previously worked with Jordan in his directorial debut, Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler proves here that he also has an eye for action. His kinetic approach — camera tightly tracking each combatant’s footwork, getting in close for every flash-bang exchange — imbues each match with a power and fluidity that make for exhilarating viewing. Maryse Alberti’s cinematography brings a crispness and polish worthy of an ESPN title match, plunging into the utter blackness backstage as a burst of flame signifies the arrival of Creed’s final opponent, light heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlon (real-life professional boxer Tony Bellew).

After the elegiac overtones of 2006’s Rocky Balboa, Creed signifies a rebirth for the franchise. Essentially a soft reboot in the manner of the new Star Wars or Mad Max, the film throws away the worst of what's come before while doing justice to the very best. The result is a slicker, tighter experience that any the series has given us before; one that, like the title characters, earns it stripes. While its previously declining pedigree may have held it back from the Best Picture race, Creed is a powerful piece of cinema in its own right. When Donnie sums up his whole motivation for fighting in a single sentence, or Bill Conti’s iconic theme starts up, manly tears are a distinct possibility.

Creed gets an 8.0 out of 10

Saturday, 16 January 2016

MACBETH (2015)

What do you think is the greatest Shakespeare adaptation ever committed to celluloid? Perhaps you favor the expressionistic majesty and revelry of Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, or maybe the jazzy, black-and-white sophistication of Joss Whedon’s contemporary Much Ado. For all the promise of its conception, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth does not stand among their exalted ranks.

A resolutely period piece staged among the misty bluffs and pale yellow gorse of the Scottish Highlands, the film begins with blood as two warring, jerkin-clad clans tear into each other with sword and teeth. The action cuts back and forth between epic slow-mo and chaotic real-time – the thunder of footfall as the factions clash is like the diving rain. This juxtaposition of the mythic and the actual, thanks to Chris Dickens’ sturdy editing, immediately suggests a thesis: that these larger-than-life events – the fate of nations, rise and fall of kings – are lit by the forgotten funeral pyres of men, women, and children.

Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), meanwhile, stands still amid the carnage that throngs around him, staring out at the Weird Sisters, the Witches that will lead him on to regicide and tyranny. Unlike in, say, the Rupert Goold adaptation, which starred Patrick Stewart and in which they desired vengeance – Fassbender is the last of the Professor X/Magneto duos to star in The Scottish Play – their motivation here is utterly unfathomable, as are the origins of the weird tribal scars that mark their faces. The dead children here belong to Macbeth and his wife (Marion Cotillard), whose ambition it is suggested is born of some grief-stricken instinct.

Strange then that the film is otherwise so muted: Fassbender’s Macbeth, rather than some theatrical monster, is a weak, easily manipulated warrior who, once the crown is upon his head, quickly lapses into paranoia and distraction. Where he is feverish and increasingly impulsive, all sickly grins, Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is pale and icy – her sea-green eyes flash with annoyance or swell with tears as she dwells upon her loss. From Macbeth’s own weapon-adorned shack to the opulent seaside castle he comes to inhabit, and even upon the remote and craggy bluffs, the film’s reserve provides the feeling of a chamber piece.

Dun and desolate, Macbeth’s supporting cast – David Thewslis’ meek yet authoritative Duncan, Paddy Considine’s darkly watchful Banquo, Sean Harris’ coiled Macduff – are equally able but uninspired. Jed Kurzel’s warlike score provides as certain charge to proceedings and Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography brings a gritty clarity to brackish sprays of blood and hellish images of forests aflame. The film loses the poetry amidst the dour pseudo-realism of Medieval Scotland. The depth of meaning in Shakespeare’s text, reworked by Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, and Michael Lesslie, quietly slips away.

A somewhat flat study of a brutal world where suffering perpetuates itself down through the generations, Kurzel’s Macbeth may be too bleak a reading of an ultimately hopeful tragedy – a not unforeseeable outcome from the director of Snowtown. Where Welles, Polanski, or Kurosawa offered insight, this is merely texture; a Macbeth that lacks not only significance but also the sound and fury that might make the most of its quick-burning runtime.

Macbeth gets a 6.5 out of 10



We take a lot for granted out in the world. It’s full of space and objects, enough so that we can overlook just how much “thingness” there is to our everyday existence. Imagine a world then of only ten feet by ten feet, a world where every item has a sense of permanency to it: Bed, Wardrobe, Skylight. It's in this confined universe that five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has lived every day, slept every night, unaware of anything else — Room is the only world he has ever known.

Adapted from Emma Donoghue’s Booker shortlisted novel, Room is a minor masterpiece in microcosm. The film quickly establishes the minutiae that makes up the routine between him and Ma (Short Term 12’s Brie Larson): running “track”, back and forth between two walls; skewering egg shells on string to make mobiles; or just watching TV. At night, though, Old Nick (Deadwood’s Sean Bridgers) comes calling. Only he knows the number to open Door.

As directed by Frank’s Lenny Abrahamson, Room starts off a study in microcosm and mythology. Jack’s starry-eyed voice-over creates a sense of wonder at odds with the mottled brown walls, the ugly wear and tear of their environment. Ma clearly adores him, but she has off days, days of frustration and depression. How many more birthdays can Jack spend in this nutshell (even if he does count himself a king of infinite space)? The only option is escape.

Room is, after all, also about survival. Jack is understandably unwilling to accept Ma’s changing story about the nature of reality. The film is so grounded in Room and Jack’s embracing of its limitations that its second act gear shift feels tense; not just because of the likelihood of discovery by their guarded captor but in the disorienting scale and Space that lies beyond Room. It’s impossible to imagine what the equivalent might be for us.

Tremblay turns in an utterly convincing performance as Jack. Neither cloying nor obnoxious as his angelic features and Samson hair might suggest, he embodies instead both naivety and resilience: coddle and presumptuous, but with enough elasticity in him to bounce back. While Jack is arguably the lead, Brie Larson’s traumatised Ma — otherwise known as Joy Newsome — is no less remarkable; desperately trying, but layered in guilt, anger, and grief.

Their reintegration into society is not a seamless one. Luckily then, there is also grandma, Nancy (three-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen), warm if timid, and her new beau, the shaggy, easygoing Leo (Canadian actor Tom McCamus). William H. Macy is largely sidelined as Grandpa Robert, unable to deal with the sight of his ill-begotten grandchild, but he makes the most of his brief screen-time; craggy, industrious, and silently heartbroken.

Room’s first half is extraordinary in its presentation of a tight, self-contained world, but it becomes when it dares to take the lid off that box. It’s only once we step outside that we see Jack and Ma’s surroundings in more than just cross-section. Donoghue’s script and Abrahamson’s direction crystallizes the potential for joy and tragedy in the smallest moments; your first present or lick from a dog. Room, simply put, is life.

Room gets 9 out of 10

Saturday, 9 January 2016


Say what you want about his handling of race1 or his cribbing from other filmmakers2, but one thing's certain about Quentin Tarantino: love him or hate him3, he’s one hell of a showman.

That’s perhaps never been clearer than with the recent hubbub surrounding the screening of The Hateful Eight.4 Not only is it not being shown at several notable UK cinema chains, including Cineworld5, but the Odeon Leicester Square6 is currently being dominated by an Ultra Panavision 70 “Roadshow” version of the film, which includes an interlude scored by illustrious film composer Ennio Morricone7, a twenty-minute intermission8, and a program.9

Running a potentially bum-numbing 187 minutes all in, the program puts this format of The Hateful Eight — apparently Tarantino’s preferred10 — in a pantheon that includes the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Gone with the Wind, and Cleopatra.11 In any case, it’s the sort of film-going experience I've not seen in my lifetime and one perfectly suited to the grandiose theatrical style of the film at hand.

Opening amid the snow and sunlight of 1870s Wyoming12, The Hateful Eight takes its time in drawing together its characters. The natural beauty13 contrasts with the (exquisitely snappy) human ugliness that is to unfold. First, we have John Ruth AKA The Hangman (a wonderfully whiskery and belligerent Kurt Russell)14, and his prisoner, the leering, foul-mouthed Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh)15, making their way across the landscape in a stagecoach that John Wayne himself would have been proud to be shot at in.16

Shortly they are joined by one Major Marquis Warren (a sharp-dressed, sharp-eyed Samuel L. Jackson), a fellow bounty-hunter and former Union Officer with a bounty of his own to collect.17 If that weren’t enough they18 are also joined by Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins)19, a rambling, vaguely goofy ex-militiaman and supposed Sheriff of Red Rock, their shared destination. Desperate to get out of the encroaching blizzard, the coach’s occupants — and driver — seek refuge at Minnie’s Haberdashery, an isolated stopover.

It’s here we finally encounter20 the other four that make up the title group: Bob The Mexican (Demián Bichir channeling Eli Wallach)21; the impeccably mannered, improbably named Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth, reunited with Tarantino after twenty-three years)22; “Cow Puncher” Joe Gage (Michael Madsen)23; and, last but not least, Confederate General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers (a wonderfully tetchy Bruce Dern).

Once the full bunch are neatly confined to the Haberdashery24 for the duration, The Hateful Eight begins smoothly switching gears, transitioning from a history-driven commentary on some classic Western subjects — namely the Civil War and atrocities committed during which25 — to a parlor-room murder mystery26 to a bloody climax that enjoyably apes much of Tarantino’s past work27; even if the whole thing never quite narratively pays off.28

Past glories and familiar pleasures these may be (including the ad absurdum bandying of a certain racial slur), but the film feels vitally alive. It’s just a shame when that the finely-tuned mechanism begins to wind down and character agendas come to fore the focus swings inexorably away from verbiage and towards violence.29 While the film’s title is obviously a homage to John Sturges’ iconic men-on-a-mission movie30, this is Tarantino at his broadest and most literary: Murder on the Orient Express meets Elmore Leonard with a healthy dose of Grand Guignol.31

Jackson continues to be the perfect cinematic embodiment of wily indignation — his hackles go up, nostrils flare, eyes widen, and you know someone is getting trampled.32 Warrens’ gleefully nasty monologue to the unrepentently bigoted Sanford about his outrageous33 treatment of a would-be headhunter is spellbinding; the camera pedestals up to crotch level as Dern’s eyes reflect dawning horror. “Starting to see pictures, ain't ya?”

Meanwhile, Russell’s interrogative, unexpectedly sentimental Ruth stirs the pot34 while Leigh adds a spiteful spice to the stew35, and the rest of the cast bubble along nicely, popping to the surface as the script demands. While it's become a cliche to say this of settings, Minnie’s Haberdashery is a character in its own right: wide, expansive, full of nooks, corners, and potential murder weapons36 — the sort of space, if you have to be indoors, that lends itself to the widescreen format.37

In the end, though, The Hateful Eight boils down to wit and blood (often in tandem)38 and a few under-cooked notions about racial relations in Reconstruction Era America.39 Self-indulgent? Certainly.40 Revisionist? Undoubtedly. But with apparently only two films left till self-imposed retirement, it’s hard to think how Tarantino will top this magnificently abominable spectacle.

The Hateful Eight gets an 8 out of 10


1 As two of the foremost debaters of race politics in modern cinema it’s a shame — if perhaps somewhat inevitable — that Tarantino and Spike Lee should be permanently at loggerheads. Maybe Samuel L. Jackson could arrange a sit-down.
2 Working my way through the Godard collection has reminded me just how much he owes to the likes of Vivre Sa Vie, from which Mia Wallace’s speech in Pulp Fiction about comfortable silences is lifted almost wholesale. There’s also, in the case of The Hateful Eight, Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence and Robert Altman’s Mr. & Mrs. Miller (as two other wintry Western); the latter of which I owe a debt to Rob Daniel at Electric Shadows ( for pointing out.
3 I kind of have mixed feelings about him personally. He’s a loudmouth and a braggart, but he’s generally pretty with it; the worst you could accuse him is being a purveyor of insensitive cine-literate schlock. I sorta comes down to what The Dude says about Walter in The Big Lebowski: “You’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole.”
4 A troubled production from the off, The Hateful Eight was actually canned for a bit after the script leaked. Tarantino only decided to go ahead with it after a promising staged reading, though he did revise the ending a bit; more on which later.
5 After Cineworld put out a general statement to this effect — “"Sadly we haven't been able to come to an agreement with the distributor which means it won't be shown at Cineworld” — the distributors in question, Entertainment Film, actually released their own press statement, which put the blame squarely at Cineworld’s door and, in a hilariously ballsy move, apologized to Unlimited card-holders for the inconvenience.
6 The apparent bone of contention between the two was apparently that Cineworld wanted the roadshow version screened at Picturehouse Central — which seats 344 — instead of Odeon Leicester Square — which seats 1,680 and was packed out at the screening I attended. There’s may be more to the story than this, but, if not, way to through your toys out the pram, Cineworld.
7 Which includes unused excerpts from his score for John Carpenter’s The Thing (strangely appropriate given the parallels). In any case, it proves an inspired choice: the evocative use of strings creates a genuine sense of dread straight from the overture. Glad that Tarantino and Morricone were able to kiss and make up after the former swore never to work with the latter again. It couldn’t have hurt that The Hateful Eight is refreshingly light on the anachronistic soundtrack; only a touch of Roy Orbison and The White Stripes to leaven the mood.
8 Which was nice. I got ice cream.
9 And only £20 a ticket. Given going to any screening at the OLS will set you back £15, it’s well worth the few extra quid, if just for the augmented experience.
10 While I respect a filmmaker with strong ideas about how their films should be viewed, I’ll confess to having been tempted to write this review as though I’d only watched The Hateful Eight on my phone… as an illegal download… on the Tube… in vertical… and then Tweet it at him. I may yet.
11 Or, as the program puts it, “pays homage to and recreates the grand film exhibition style popularized in the 1950s and ‘60s and that brought audiences to theaters with the promise of a special event.”
12 The version of the screenplay that’s available online for Oscar consideration ( puts it “six or eight or twelve years after the Civil War”, which puts The Hateful Eight at least a decade and a bit after the events of Django Unchained; more on this later.
13 The opening shots — where the uneven snow drifts mirror the broken clouds overhead and snow piles up beneath a stone-hewn roadside crucifix — are breathtaking. Come Oscar time cinematographer Robert Richardson’s gonna likely find himself facing off against Emmanuel Lubezki for the similarly snowy The Revenant. Given Lubezki shot in twelve countries, freezing conditions, using all-natural light, while The Hateful Eight was shot largely in a slightly chilly cabin in Colorado, it could make for an awkward night if Richardson walks away with the trophy. Still, at least the venue will be heated.
14 Russell’s casting would seem to be another callback to The Thing, which, along with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino cites the film’s key influences.
15 Along with her moving vocal performance as the painfully insecure Lisa in Anomalisa (Charlie Kauffman’s upcoming stop-motion animation), 2016 may be the year that Leigh starts getting the public recognition she deserves after years of sterling supporting roles.
16 The cinematic slaughtering of Native Americans may be the least problematic part of Wayne’s legacy. For more on exactly how Duke was a louse watch Trumbo. Watch Trumbo regardless. It's got Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo via Foghorn Leghorn and is generally a lot of fun.
17 Major Marquis Warren is just the latest in the pantheon of great screen presences that have come about courtesy of Jackson-Tarantino. His first appearance here, sat sidesaddle astride a stack of three frozen corpses, is the stuff actor’s dreams are made of. Jackson even gets an obscure little callback (perhaps unintentional) to Pulp Fiction when, with Tim Roth present, he asks someone to be calm. The fact that Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs is kicking around makes it all the more meta. Throw in the fact that Marquis’ sartorial choices — yellow lapels, red tie — vaguely recall Jamie Foxx’s powder blue suit in Django — which The Hateful Eight was initially conceived of as a sequel to — and that’s more or less “a bingo”.
18 “They” also includes the stage driver O.B. (James Parks). Given he’s not a member of the titular octet every time he ventures out into the snow I was sure he wasn’t coming back.
19 Who is finally starting to be recognised as a major player after years of first-grade work on TV; most recently as silver-tongued career criminal Boyd Crowder in Justified. Presumably the fact that Justified was inspired by Elmore Leonard who was a notable influence on Tarantino’s style gave Goggins some useful preparation.
20 After the better part of an hour of travel mainly given over to conversations ranging from Civil War atrocities to correspondence with the late President Lincoln.
21 Brilliantly/bizarrely, Bichir apparently taught himself to play piano in order to do justice to a scene where Bob painstakingly single-fingers out Silent Night on the piano. Admittedly it’s an important moment.
22 As a delightfully smarmy supposed hangman pontificating on the need for dispassion in dispensing justice, Roth is something of a scene-stealer; making the most of a supporting role clearly written for Christoph Waltz, who, one supposes, was busy making Spectre. Let’s hope the presumed difference in pay compensates for the definite artistic gulf.
23 Who, as time passes, increasingly resembles Mickey Rourke. All the more impressive, Madsen did it without decades of cumulative plastic surgery.
24 Having given us the lie of the land upon their arrival — and indeed, staked them out — it’s a shame that the film never returns to such exotic locales as “the outside privvy” and “the barn”.
25 While very much “on the side” of Warren, Tarantino’s script doesn’t dismisses his counterpoint— Lost Causer Mannix —outright. Burning black settlements in rejection of unconditional surrender is certainly an atrocity, but Marquis certainly isn’t on the side of the angels. Even Sandy Smithers gets some feeble pathos when he plaintively enquires about the fate of his lost son.
26 The Hateful Eight has been called Agatha Christie with guns, but the film never invests in its clues. Who dropped the jelly bean? Why is the door latch broken? When the answers do come about it’s neat, but that’s about it.
27 Let’s just say it’s not the first time someone has ever been gut-shot. Or the last that we're likely see Red Apple tobacco.
28 Returning from the interval to find Tarantino himself narrating another look at the previous scene is a touch disconcerting. Then again, elegance and simplicity have been falling on the list of Tarantino’s narrative concerns. They likely now sit somewhere below “chapter headings”.
29 The mistrust and tension that’s present straight from start means it was always likely that x or y might catch a bullet. I just occasionally found myself wishing it all meant a bit more. Then again, I didn’t complain when the eponymous beastie was chowing down indiscriminately in The Thing, so maybe it’s a human agency thing.
30 And true enough, each of the eight claims to be on a mission: Ruth is taking Domergue to hang; Warren is cashing in corpses; Mannix is en route to his signing in; Bob is manning the store till the owners return; Mowbray is returning to duty as the Red Rock hangman; Gage is heading to visit his mother on the other side of the mountain; and Smithers is going to commemorate his son. Their real agendas are quite another matter to unpick.
31 Heads detonate, blood is vomited (in gouts). Effects gurus Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero certainly earned their salt on this one.
32 As the film’s gun-toting sleuth — pistolero Poirot, Magnum-wielding Marple, etc., etc. — he’s definitely got no compunction about dealing justice before all the facts are in. As he says to Ruth the Hangman — so called ‘cause he always brings his bounty in alive — “Nobody said [the job’s] supposed to be that hard, either!”
33 Morally and just, you know, generally.
34 The other Western Russell’s in this year, Bone Tomahawk, promises to be even more explicitly gory. My review should be winging its way shortly to one site or another.
35 Tarantino revealed to Christopher Nolan (of all people) that he wrote a draft of the screenplay from Daisy’s POV alone, just to justify all the brutal shit he puts her through.
36 I kept waiting for someone to get spiked with that hammer they keep using to nail up the front door. Spoiler alert: no one does. :(
37 I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space if I had Tarantino to film it. When he suddenly cuts to a tracking shot from above the ceiling, looking down at the characters through the loose boards, there’s a release of tension I didn’t realise was present.
38 I refer you to the previous footnote when I quote Ruth in saying, “Now, Daisy, I want us to work out a signal system of communication. When I elbow you real hard in the face, that means: shut up.” In this case, the punctuation came before the sentence.
39 There’s a half-baked commentary on racial harmony in there somewhere. With the bandits having already taken out Minnie’s idyllic Little House on the Prairie/United Colors of Benetton-style former occupants (including a cheery, if out-of-place Zoe Bell), black and white can only come together — notably while dying — to string up someone worse. Who that’s meant to be, though, who knows.
40 Much like this review you may think.

Monday, 4 January 2016


Sorry it's been so long since I last published - it's been a busy couple of months. I'm trying out a new thing as part of this double bill. The first review has footnotes; the second does not. Let me know which style you prefer and I'll stick to it from hereon out.


REVIEW: Spotlight

As a drama about child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, Tom McCarthy’s latest, Spotlight, has a lot to do with second chances. For those involved in the story, namely the titular investigative at the Boston Globe, it’s a second chance to take on an injustice that had gone undiscussed for more than a quarter of a century.1 For McCarthy it’s also a chance to once more touch upon a grand modern theme — the decline of print journalism — that the fifth season of The Wire arguably shortchanged in favor of personal axe-grinding on the part of show-runner David Simon.2

While the cover-up would seem to have been something of an open secret for many years, it wasn’t until the arrival of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber)3 in 2001 that the Globe deigned to really look into the allegations. A New York Jew with no skin in the game, so to speak4, the soft-spoken Baron seizes upon a small column as catalyst for an in-depth Spotlight investigation. Against an organization that thinks in centuries, though, it’s understandably an uphill struggle.

Led by the shrewd, craggy veteran, Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton)5, the team is comprised of well-meaning pain-in-the-ass Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo)6, the tireless Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), family man Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James); and, off to one side, the sceptical, even oppositional supervisor Ben Bradlee (John Slattery). All lapsed Catholics to one degree or another,7 they’ve spent their lives in close proximity to the Church and its representatives. but even they aren’t prepared for the level of deliberate blindness they must confront.

This can be seen in the guise of two lawyers, litigators to be precise: the amiable Eric MacLeish (an engagingly slimy Billy Crudup), who seems to have made negotiating under-the-table settlements with the Church into something of a cottage industry8, and would-be ally Mitchell Garabedian (an intense, shout-y Stanley Tucci)9, who refuses to even let them take notes. In a city where the judge might well inquire what parish you belong to, he has every reason to be paranoid.

Within the broader scope of these systemic abuses, Spotlight also singles out heart-rending individual stories. There’s the hard-knocks former Southie kid, shortly to become father, who was abused when at his most vulnerable, and a bashful gay man who relates how a priest convinced him to play strip poker — “Of course I lost”, he says with a sad little smile. These are the stories that, up until the Boston Globe’s investigation, were largely ignored. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one”, says Garabedian, and the paper bares some culpability in this.10

With its crisp yet faded cinematography from Masanobu "Masa" Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook, Warrior), Howard Score’s solemn piano score, and masterful performances, Spotlight deftly handles complex moral and social issues. The note that Carroll sticks on the fridge — a warning to his kids about the pedophile down the street — over time gets buried beneath layers of pictures, menus, shopping lists; all the detritus of everyday life. As images go, it’s a sober, considered one, utterly fitting with the film that surrounds it.

A lot of great cinema has leaped from the wellspring of investigative journalism. There is something inherently dramatic about the search for The Truth (or at least a truth), especially when it goes hand-in-hand with important real-world issues. The best of the genre manage to balance the scope and complexity of the case – case and point: All the President’s Men’s handling of the Watergate scandal in – with the more basic human element. Spotlight is just such a film.

Spotlight gets 9 out of 10

1 The film opens at a police station circa 1976 where representatives of the Church, in conjunction with an Assistant DA, are participating in hushing up one such incident. “I guess the Father was ‘helping out’”, a stocky old-timer wryly comments to a redheaded rookie as a likely sex offender is ushered into the back of a snow-frosted black sedan and away from prosecution. It's a scene whose cinematography and corruption would feel equally at home in Black Mass.
2 In it McCarthy, also an actor, played Scott Templeton, a self-righteous fabulist whose largely concocted stories earn him career advancement and even a Pulitzer Prize.
3 Wonderfully understated in mutton-chops and wire-frame specs.
4 As Spotlight team member Carroll says, “The new editor of the Boston Globe is an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball” — and why shouldn’t he be?
5 A small but well-crafted character may seem like a step back after his extravagant leading man performance in Birdman — which I would argue deserved the Oscar over Eddie Redmayne’s technically brilliant but strangely unaffected Stephen Hawking — but it’s great just to see him acting again. Next up, Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian (or not, as one might hope).
6 Who continues to prove himself the most dependable character actor of his generation: Zodiac, The Kids Are All Right, Shutter Island, Foxcatcher, Infinitely Polar Bear. Twitchy and impassioned, and again sporting an unflattering barnet, nobody does relatably tortured humanity quite like him.
7 One of Spotlight’s most emotionally raw moments comes when Rezendes, angry and frustrated, reveals the hope he had held of eventually returning to the Church — a reminder that, for all its culpability and wrongdoing, of the comfort and security the institution represents to many people.
8 Though the film is wise enough to give these dealings another dimension.
9 Cagey and hostile, Garabedian would be immensely unlikable were it not for the plain-dealing bluntness Tucci helps to make borderline endearing. 
10 Truth, meanwhile, fails as a film about journalism precisely because it fails to hold its journalists to a higher standard. By taking investigatory shortcuts the 60 Minutes team blew their investigation into the allegations that President George Bush had gone AWOL from the Texas National Guard and, as such, essentially let him off the hook. The film prefers to focus on corporate interference and the half-baked notion they may have been set up, and can’t help but feel evasive for it.

REVIEW: The Big Short

You wouldn't think the recent global financial crisis would be the stuff of comedy, but, directed and co-written by frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) and with an all-star cast, including Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, and Ryan Gosling, The Big Short makes for a highly entertaining (and instructive) study of greed, fraud, and the three groups of people who sought to profit from the meltdown before it happened. 

When hedge fund manager and former medical doctor Michael Burry, Phd. (a yet-again transformed Bale) discovers that America’s booming housing market is built on a bedrock of bad loans, he decides to bet against it through a series of credit default swaps — a whole new type of deal that will compensate him if and when the number of mortgage owners defaulting hits critical mass and the whole thing collapses. Since no one else can foresee that happening, the banks are all-too eager to take his money.

As a result, shark-like investor Jared Vennett (a dark-eyed, oh-so-slick Gosling) can smell money in the water and, seeing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity get seriously rich, ropes in trader Mark Baum (a fuming Carrell) and his team into putting up the cash. Ignorance may be bliss, but they’re using the knowledge to beat the market while there’s still a market to beat.

From Gosling’s slick opening narration about the birth of modern banking — and frequent breaking of the fourth wall throughout the film’s two-hour-ten-minute run-time (“I never hung out with these guys. I had fashion friends” — to its use of of handy popup definitions for financial jargon and celebrity info-dumps (see: Margot Robbie explaining subprime mortgages from a bubble bath), The Big Short manages to convey the highly convoluted information necessary to tell it story in a form that’s not only bearable but fascinating.

It's all the more impressive that this mockumentary style doesn’t detract from the drama, but instead serves to heighten it, making it perfectly clear the exact stakes at play

It takes a guy with a glass eye and a Supercuts haircut to figure out that the bubble — which as Michael’s boss snarkily notes, as a bubble, no one can see — is about to burst. Characterized by distracted mutters and the occasional crooked smile, Michael may be superior and uncommunicative, but he’s also the only one checking the numbers, the only one who sees the situation can’t last.

Nobody that is except Carrell's Mark.

A cynical man made angry by tragedy, Mark interrupts a support meting to rant about the corruption he sees every day. A rogue element, work at a bank but not for a bank, his team — including comically dour Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, and Rafe Spall as an optimistic foodie — initially think it sounds simultaneously too good to believe and too terrible to comprehend.

Cutaways to clouds moving over Wall Street and shake your money-maker music videos may seem like distractions, but they lend to the air of distraction that suffuses The Big Short. Mark realizes that the world economy might collapse over sushi with a smirking shit in an expensive suit — the red lighting and ambient Sweet Child of Mine only lending to the surreal nightmarishness of the situation. There’s a definite “final days of the Roman Empire” feel to the Securities Forum that takes place at Caesar’s Palace and, for all the technical jargon, the money, it seems, is definitely dumb.

Frat bro mortgage lenders who target cash rich strippers looking to invest in property and leave the income section blank; credit rating agencies scared to refuse to give the bank’s the credit ratings they desire; and finance journalists refusing to support on the situation for fear of what they might lose -  the whole system is rigged and the whole things about to come tumbling down.

There are no obvious heroes here. Even the “little guys” — two plucky young investors from Boulder, Jamie (Finn Witrock) and Charlie (John Magaro) — are ultimately out for a buck. The first guys to undercut the AA tranche — don’t worry, this will make a surprising amount of sense — their mentor, retired banker turned self-sufficient farmer farmer Ben Rickert (cameo-ing producer Brad Pitt) solemnly reminds them, it’s ordinary people who will pay the price here. The film offers up the sobering statistic that when employment goes up 1% 40,000 people die.

Making a recce down the Florida, the team find whole upmarket communities abandoned, floors littered with bills; the only ones left behind are those trying to scrape out a living amidst the devastation — like the guy who discovers his landlord is a) defaulting and b) possibly a literal dog.

The Big Short connects abstract financial issues to real lives, real stakes. It’s a very masculine world, one populated by absent husbands and fathers — Marisa Tomei appears briefly as Mark’s wife, Melissa Leo as an (ironically) near-blind ratings agency rep  — where everyone knows enough to think they’re smart, to think they’ve got it made, and no one can see that the sky is falling in.

At best willfully naive, worse negligent, or worst outright crooks — encouraging people to buy, buy, buy even as stock goes into free-fall — the film is a desperate plea for intelligence and awareness; that we listen to Chicken Little.

As the maxim  says, “The truth is like poetry, and most people fucking hate poetry”; The Big Short simply gives it a rhythm.  When it comes to turning a dry, stats-driven narrative into an A-Grade dramedy, this is Moneyball standard stuff. Btw, if you’re looking for a stock tip, Michael Burry is now investing exclusively in water — and if that doesn’t fill you with fear, you haven’t been paying attention.

The Big Short gets 8.5 out of 10