Friday, January 29, 2016

SPOTLIGHT


In 2002 a small investigative unit on the Boston Globe published a series of articles in which they proved that the Catholic Church has systematically covered up hundreds of cases of child sex abuse by dozens of priests over decades. The story helped create an outpouring of testimony that exposed just how global the scandal truly was - with abuse and cover-ups in many American parishes, but also in most every other country. For that reason alone, this film is an important one.

But in focussing on the Spotlight team, and the scandal in Boston, the movie is saying about the kinds of community where all the institutions act as a closed shop of mutual self-interest and authority cannot be questioned.  To that end, I could see strong parallels to how the scandal played out in Boston and Ireland. Because what was worse than the abuse, was the way in which the Church used all the levers of power - police, law, press - to suppress the story and silence the victims.  In doing so, the initial crime was massively accelerated as priests were left in the community to continue offending.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

LEGEND


2015 was the year of Krays films and the one I anticipated was LEGEND, starring as it did Tom Hardy and both Ronnie and Reggie, beloved 1960s East End gangsters who infiltrated the highest levels of English society until they finally got banged up.  But I'm sad to say that the movie is boring to the point of switching off, bar a few good set pieces.  Unlike most critics I don't think it's the fault of Hardy.  Some have called his portrayal of Ronnie - a heavily doped up, heavy drinking, violent paranoid schizophrenic - too broad.  On the contrary, from the books I've read and documentaries I've watched, Hardy seems to get Ronnie just right. He loved his brother. He loved being a gangster. He loved the protection his aristo lover gave him.  But he was very very sick and almost impossible to control. I think there's no doubt that Reggie would have had a long and successful career as a criminal if it weren't for his brother running around with impossibly ambitious American schemes and generally running successful ventures into the ground.  And then, of course, there were the murders. That Hardy also manages to portray Reggie is a testament to his skill at essaying a subtler but still menacing character who was unfailingly loyal to his brother, even at the expense of his tragically doomed wife Frances, 

No, the problem with LEGEND isn't Tom Hardy, it's the script and direction and overall conception of the movie, all of which are down to Brian Helgeland, the man behind the risible Russell Crowe ROBIN HOOD remake. If ever there was a movie crying out for Guy Ritchie to direct it, it's a Kray biopic.  Ritchie's a director who gets the mythologising of the East End, having done so much of itself.  Ritchie's a director who might have gone beyond merely calling his movie LEGEND and actually investigating how smart the Krays were at creating their own legends, and then manipulating both the East and West End into fearing and respecting them. The Krays sold their own legend and were masters of the media well before modern reality stars. Their story was far more than just a soupy love triangle.  And haven't we moved beyond that simplistic good woman falls for bad gangster, believes his promises and is betrayed stuff that we saw in the Godfather? To be sure, the story of Frances is sad, and to some conspiratorial, but it's in no way the most interesting thing about the Krays.  I'm far more interested in how they took out the Richardsons, kept ahead of the cops, basically got immunity from press investigation by virtue of Ron sleeping with a Lord, and weren't ever really taken down but rather self-destructed.  It's only to be expected that these two profoundly self-involved and self-aggrandizing men would destroy anyone in their both, Frances included. Moreover, it's profoundly dishonest to portray Reg as a kind of good boy pulled back in by a psycho brother.  He was brutal too, just in a more controlled manner.

So the Krays is a bad film containing a pair of very good performances. And it's all the fault of a writer-director who chose to focus on the banal and familiar rather than on what really what made the Krays unique, frightening and powerful - and on really investigating how they themselves worked the legend that Helgeland is now trapped inside.

LEGEND has a running time of 132 minutes and is rated R. 

THE BIG SHORT


We here at the blog formerly known as Movie Reviews For Greedy Capitalist Bastards have often taken a rather contemptuous tone with movies covering the financial sector.  Too often they have unintentionally glamourised the very profession they purported to condemn. And with very few exceptions they have failed to show the reality of what to many of us is life in financial services.  Away from the yachts and the blow and the strippers of cinema, most bankers are just insecure over-achievers, suckered into aligning their self-worth with a big-name brand, running on a treadmill where the big bonus is never as much as the next guy, increasingly doing twenty hour days, working weekends and trapped in a one percent bubble.  There was systematic fraud in the last crisis and plenty of people new their was a gigantic conflict of interest. But a lot of junior bankers were just people trapped in a complex system trying to do optimise their profit and impress their boss.

The only films I've seen successfully portray the reality of a financial bubble and endemic fraud are the documentary ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM and more recently, MARGIN CALL - a fictionalised retelling of the fall of Lehman Brothers. What I particularly liked about that film was the contrast between the knowingly fraudulent men at the top and the basically well-intentioned underlings underneath. It captured perfectly the moral corrosion that occurs when good people are surrounded by a cocoon of people telling them, it's okay, we all know it's wrong, but everybody's doing it and you'd be an idiot not to. No-one thinks they're the villain, right?  This leads me to my main conclusion from the financial crisis.  Regulators and governments should do more to legislate against wrongdoing and then prosecute when it occurs, but they won't, because the same self-interest and conflicts of interest that cause the bubbles also cloud their judgment. So if you want a sound financial system, heck a sound government, it relies on all of us to be the better people.  There's no way a regulator in a job earning a tenth of the banker he's hired to regulate will keep up with the banker massively incentivised to exploit every loophole.  We need more righteous anger and more willingness to do the right thing.

And this is the tone that suffuses Adam McKay's fictionalised adaptation of Michael Lewis' book about the sub-prime crisis, The Big Short. It wasn't obvious to me why this book should become a feature film rather than a documentary.  I would've thought that the ENRON treatment would serve the complex material best.  But once I saw the movie I realised that this was exactly the right choice. Because we, the ordinary tax-paying public, the voters, need to feel outraged by what went down, what's still going down.  And we need fictionalised characters who can express that anger and outrage rather than just measured talking heads calmly telling us what happened.

McKay does this by focussing on four sets of people who realised that the US housing market and credit boom of the 2000s was a house of cards.  The first is the a classic socially awkward but super-smart geek hedge fund manager called Dr Michael Burry played by Christian Bale. He just follows the numbers.  He can already see that ordinary mortgage-payers are starting to get into trouble as the Fed started to raise interest rates. And he figured that once all those super-cheap teaser rates ran out in 2007, even more would get into trouble - that their mortgages would go bad, that all those bonds sold on the back of those mortgages would go bad, and that all those other bets upon bets upon bets upon those mortgages would go bad too.  And so the Ordinary Joe who took a mortgage who couldn't really afford because some broker mis-sold him was going to end up foreclosed upon and in a kind of butterfly-tsunami effect it was going to really hurt some big banks. But even Dr Burry didn't predict that it would eventually take down the entire financial system until the governments stepped in to stop the rot.

So Dr Burry wants to bet against the housing market at a time when everyone - from ordinary home-owners up to the heads of the major banks believed it could ever go up.  It was such an improbable bet to everyone else that there wasn't even a way for him to bet against the housing market, so Burry got a bank to invent one.  If he was right, he'd win big, but in the meantime, Burry, and anyone else who took the bet, would have to pay to keep the bet running.

A few others twigged on to Burry's idea.  A slick-talking salesman called Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) realised what Burry was doing and replicated it. He sold the bet against the housing market to a small hedge fund run by Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), who literally went door to door in Florida to confirm that the housing market really was teetering on the brink before investing big.  And finally, two crazy-lucky kids just out of grad school realised the bet was running and tried to get in on the action helped by an ex-trader with access to the big trades (Brad Pitt). So you've got Burry, Vennett, Baum and the kids, pitted against the housing market and everyone who had a vested interest in keeping it propped up - and that was basically everyone from the Fed to the major banks to the rating agencies to the people who'd put their life savings into the mortgages.  That was the Big Short or Bet.

The resulting film is one that captures the grim reality of banks.  The schmoozy slick salesman as epitomised by Vennett. The socially awkward quants as epitomised by Burry.  The super-driven permanently rude and angry deal-men as epitomised by Baum. And the young kids who just want to get rich so damn much they forget their are real people somewhere underneath all the trades.  There aren't strippers except to satirise the early 80s and as examples of people who got mortgages they couldn't afford.  You may have idolised Gordon Gekko but no-one in their right mind could idolise these guys (unless they idolise Gosling's character because even with a bad brunette 'fro, well it's Gosling.)  And while everyone hates bankers these days, it's far more emotionally affecting to see Steve Carrell's character - Mark Baum - as greedy a capitalist bastard as ever there was - get angry because the game is rigged beyond anything even he could believe.  That's what this story is. It's the people on the inside falling out of love with Wall Street. All except Vennett maybe.  Because capitalism, to those of us who loved it, was the ability to win big, but it was never about rigging the game. It was the potential to lose big too.  But it turns out we weren't in a capitalist system after all, but a corrupt late Empire oligarchy.  We still are. 

THE BIG SHORT has a running time of 130 minutes and is rated R.  It is on global release.

Monday, January 11, 2016

SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE


SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE is a romantic comedy from first time director Leslye Headland. She also wrote the piss-poor rom-com ABOUT LAST NIGHT but seems to have done far better when not shackled with the pressure of adapting David Mamet. That said, this movie definitely drinks deep from the well of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY and has all the basic cultural conservatism of all those so-called transgressive Judd Apatow comedies that basically end up with the romantic leads, well, getting together in wedded bliss. 


STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON is a well-acted, well-directed but highly selective biopic that takes many of us down a path of music nostalgia and puts west coast gangsta rap back in its context of the Rodney King riots and law enforcement outrage.  Produced by Ice Cube and Dr Dre, the movie ungenerously foregrounds their contributions to the iconic rap group NWA at the expense of Arabian Prince and MC Ren.  Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) is portrayed as a kind of musical genius but one soon brought under the sway of evil white businessman Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who has understandably sued the film's producers for his unflattering portrayal as a scheming dishonest money man eager to cut Ice Cube out of the action. As for Cube, he's played by the rappers own son O'Shea Jackson Jr who as well as looking the part brings so much energy and conviction to the part he steals the movie.  In a sense, this becomes his movie, as he realises he's being stiffed out of royalties, leaves the group, records his own diss record and achieves success.  Meanwhile, Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) almost blends into the background in a role so manicured as to become bland. He becomes the dutiful son and the voice of conscience trying to get Eazy-E to see what Heller's doing.  It's okay for Apple to say Dre's sorry for his abuse of women during this period but it's also profoundly dishonest not to show it. Still, the basic underlying misogyny can't be totally airbrushed out of the film. Women exist as groupies, light-skinned and pretty if in the foreground.   When the band's about to reconcile, Eazy-E tragically dies of HIV, and the movie goes all syrupy. But there are no deathbed tears for the women he infected. 

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS - Some thoughts

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is not a movie that I can review with any kind of objectivity. STAR WARS is the universe that I grew up in and escaped to as a kid. It's beyond emotional - it's part of me.  And so factors that others might find negative in this new movie - the fan-service, the derivative plot - well, to me that's just coming home. So rather than a review, here are some thoughts on the new film.

The power of the original Star Wars trilogy was its appeal to bored small-town kids.  You too might just be whisked off into an adventure. In the words of Bowie, you could be a Hero. And the film was cast in those terms - mythic terms of dark versus light.  These were the stories of cowboys and Indians, superheroes and supervillains, but it was also subversive.   It was set in a lived-in world of beaten up spacecraft and mechanical failures.  It's vision was a Utopian one.  There was a mysterious Force that united us all, and it could tempt us to the dark side.  But this was a world in which the bad guy could be redeemed. Where a band of friend could outwit a totalitarian power.  The original trilogy fought the political battles of the seventies.  This was a galaxy in which a human might fight alongside a Mon Calamari with equal respect and where the pilot who blew up the second Death Star was black.  It was a world in which the Princess who needed rescuing could pick up a blaster and rescue herself just fine. And if she was put in a slave's bikini she could use her shackles to strangle her oppressor.