Month: January 2016

Carol

carolCarol is a beautiful, lavish, sensual and moving love story set in the 1950s New York. It opens with a scene in a restaurant where two women are interrupted by the friend of one of them. We don’t know what’s going in the scene, yet right off the bat there’s a strange sense of intimacy between the two, and a feeling that their conversation is important. This subtle, nuanced play of emotions and mood is what’s ultimately the movie’s greatest pleasure, along with the gorgeous cinematography and period re-creation and some truly fabulous clothes.

The movie follows a slow-burn romance between Therese, a 20-something department store clerk (Rooney Mara), and Carol (Cate Blanchett), a wealthy elegant woman who is about to leave her loveless marriage. Therese has a boyfriend, but it seems to be the kind of relationship where the guy is keen on the girl, and the girl just goes along with it because she’s too aimless and indecisive to say no. Therese and Carol are immediately drawn to each other, though the younger woman doesn’t seem to understand the nature of her attraction at first, and they go from having a casual dinner to visiting each other’s homes to embarking on a road trip together. What complicates their situation is Carol’s bitter husband, who still loves her and wants her back despite being aware of her preferences, and the custody of Carol’s young daughter, which is in jeopardy because of the social mores of the day.

There are some twists and turns to the story but the movie is really all about the two central characters and their burgeoning relationship and both leads are simply amazing here. I’ve liked Rooney Mara and her enchanting, unsmiling intensity since her brief appearance in The Social Network, and she’s fantastic here as a young girl who’s figuring out what she wants in life. Cate Blanchett… well I think she’s basically a goddess as an actress and fashion icon and this is a role that’s tailor-made for her. She conveys emotion with a slightest gesture or glance and takes the viewer into the heart and mind of her character, while at the same time remaining something of a mystery that makes her even more fascinating to watch. And she looks like million dollars in those 50s clothes. I want her red coat even though I’d probably never wear quite as well.


There’s also a brief cameo by Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney fame! I can’t wait to see these ladies later this year.

The Big Short

the-big-short-steve-carell-ryan-goslingDespite its bland boring title and a subject matter that doesn’t interest me in the least, this was probably the funniest movie about how greed, stupidity and self-interest ruin the world and nobody can do a bloody thing about it. It’s amazing how much I enjoyed it considering that half of the time I had no idea what on earth the characters were going on about. I have two siblings in finance but when a conversation turns to banking or economy it’s like my brain gets glazed over and all I can hear is, blah blah blah equity blah blah blah blah credit blah blah loans. The film makers were obviously perfectly aware of how dull banking is to an average person, and they do try to explain the jargon in very amusing ways (including Margot Robbie in a bathtub with a glass of bubbly), but while I got the general gist of things most of the nitty-gritty details sailed right over my head. What ultimately kept me interested was the film’s energy and humour and the eccentric cast of characters played by an impressive ensemble.

The story centres on the global financial crisis of 2008, and the industry insiders who foresaw what the media, government and big banks would not see – the collapse of the US housing market – and decided to profit from it. They include Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an antisocial hedge fund manager who blasts death metal in his office while wearing flip-flops; Mark Baum (Steve Carell), an abrasive, intense, no-bullshit moral crusader who’s got nothing but contempt for the Wall Street; a couple of young college buddies who want to play in the big league of banking; and Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a slick cynical trader. As the movie plunges deeper into the world of banking and you get to meet all sorts of smug, insufferable, corrupt characters who rule it, you do root for our heroes to rub their faces into dirt and get rich at their expense. But at the same time, the film reminds you that this triumph would come at the expense of millions of ordinary people who lose their jobs, homes and even lives in the wake of the crisis, and the characters’ complete disillusionment with the system. The one scene that stuck in my mind the most was when Vennett points out to Baum and his team that as much as they act like cynical, hardened people, deep down they still believe in the system, and to see that belief and idealism utterly crushed by the end of the movie was quite heartbreaking.

While the final sombre scenes left me feeling depressed and disgusted, the rest of the film is quite often hilarious, even if sometimes it feels like it’s trying too hard to make banking fuuuuuuun, with the frenetic pop culture collages and touches that make it look like it’s aping The Wolf of Wall Street too much. As mentioned before, Steve Carrell’s character probably has the most pathos and he’s fantastic here; it’s also fun to watch Christian Bale in the role that trades so well on his essential strangeness. I liked Brad Pitt as well in his glamour-free turn as a mentor to the two young friends, but has anyone noticed how this is the second film he’s produced where he also appears as the voice of decency and morals? His character here is almost the same as in 12 Years a Slave.

The Revenant

revenant-the-2015-001-di-caprio-looking-skyard-in-wild-snow

Based on a true story, The Revenant is a grim, bloody, yet beautifully shot story of revenge and endurance that ultimately left me cold (no pun intended). It was still worth seeing on the big screen because of the exquisite scenery and cinematography, and I’ve just never seen a frontier story quite like it, portrayed quite so graphically. There was one scene involving a horse that reminded me of a similar scene I’ve read in a book once, which I dismissed at the time as implausible bullshit; turns out that yes it is actually a realistic scenario and you get to see it in all its intestinal glory.

The story is fairly minimalist – Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fur trapper in 19th century America, survives a horrific attack by an enraged mama bear, and is left for dead by the men entrusted with his care, including John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a first-rate scumbag who inadvertently ends up killing Glass’ half-Native American son. This provides Glass with a thirst for revenge which keeps him pushing through the limits of exhaustion as he drags his shredded body across the stark icy wilderness. The bear attack by the way to me was another proof that while special effects are now good enough to make a grizzly bear look 100% realistic, they still can’t quite make CGI animals move in a 100% believable fashion. This bear was probably the most realistic-looking animal I’ve seen in a film, but its movements were still just too smooth and fluid, so to me the horror of the attack was diminished.

I’m sure I’m going to be in a minority on this, but I didn’t think that DiCaprio’s turn here was all that. He’s one of the few remaining genuine movie stars around and he’s enormously talented, but I just think that his particular talents are best used when playing driven, charismatic characters like his double whammy of The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street from couple of years ago. Here he’s required to be suffering and stoic and there’s a lot of Acting happening that could finally bag him an Oscar, but he doesn’t give Glass much in a way of personality and the character remains essentially a blank. I didn’t feel like the movie gave me any reasons to care for the guy other than just the plain fact of bad things happening to him, and that he’s somewhat less terrible towards the Native Americans than the rest of the white settlers. When you’re watching a revenge story and don’t particularly give a damn about the main character or his emotional reasons, that’s a problem. I did enjoy the supporting cast; Tom Hardy is such a charismatic evil bastard here that even though I’ve missed a third of his dialogue because of his thick accent I didn’t mind because he’s so much fun to watch. And Domhnall Gleeson (I really need to find out how to pronounce his first name) is very sympathetic as Captain Andrew Henry, a city boy who’s heading the trapping expedition, and proves that his bit of hammy acting in recent Star Wars was surely a hiccup in what’s so far a pretty solid resume.

Despite the lack of emotional investment, the movie was still an immersive, visceral experience. You can practically feel the snow crunch under your feet and the arrows whoosh by your face (and into the necks of trappers), and the film is full of awe-inspiring imagery that showcases nature at its most savage and beautiful.  And if Leo ends up winning that Oscar, oh well he’s given enough great performances in the past, so I can’t hate on that really.

Music I got recently

unnamed1Sarah Blasko Eternal Return

Sarah Blasko’s musical output over the years has been remarkably consistent and she’s not about to trip over with her fifth album – this one a tad more pop orientated and synth-heavy, with 80s flavour to some of the songs. Quality listen and solid songwriting from start to finish. I can’t say I’ve ever been emotionally moved by her music – even at her most confessional there’s just something chilly and distant about it all – but there’s definitely something very beguiling about her and her raspy-yet-ethereal voice.

GTBPPackshotJohn Grant Grey Tickles, Black Pressure

I loved Queen of Denmark, Grant’s outstanding solo release from 2010, but for some reason skipped over the follow-up. I’m glad I got acquainted with this most excellent third album. It’s got some of the same gorgeous guitar/piano balladry from his debut, plus experimental electronic weirdness. Some songs are outright funky! Nothing on it is as affecting and emotional as the first two tracks on Queen of Denmark, but Grant’s smooth baritone is just wonderful to listen to and his lyrics are so good and off-the-wall bizarre here they’re worth sitting down with the booklet to make sure you don’t miss anything. They go from touching to acerbic to self-deprecating to hilarious; how about this bit of character assassination which demonstrates why it’s never a good idea to have a bad break-up with a musician:

You and Hitler oughta get together
You oughta learn to knit and wear matching sweaters

On coming to terms with being HIV-positive:

I can’t believe I missed New York during the 70s,
I could have gotten a head start in the world of disease
I’m sure that I would have contracted every single solitary thing

however…

There are children who have cancer,
And so all bets are off
Cause I can’t compete with that

And then on another song he namechecks:

Rachmaninoff, Skriabin, Prokofiev,
Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Vysotsky and Lev

which warmed my little Russian heart. Most of these names are pretty famous, but Vysotsky? Respect.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – further impressions

starwarsI went and saw The Force Awakens again. My first reaction was incredibly mixed bordering on negative, but then I found that some of the better elements got stuck in my head in a way a merely mediocre movie simply wouldn’t manage. So I wanted to find out if this was a movie with huge massive problems I could still really like (like Prometheus), or whether its good aspects are ultimately overwhelmed by the flaws. After watching it again I think it’s definitely the former, because otherwise this giant post wouldn’t happen, but I also got a better idea of why so many things about it feel unsatisfying, particularly in the light of some discussions on the internets that sprung up after the movie’s release.

SPOILERS!

SPOILERS!

SPOILERS!

MASSIVE SPOILERS AHOY!

Whatever else you can say about the movie, it’s immensely fun and likeable. Even its weakest sequence – the part with the pirate gangs and tentacle monsters which frankly belongs in some cheesy sci-fi B-movie – is still watchable. Most of the humour is great and feels organic, though there are a couple of instances when it gets too Joss Whedon-esque (you got a boyfriend? A cute boyfriend?) and feels out of place. It’s got a warm human feel to it that is almost completely absent from the prequels and the characters actually feel like real people rather than actors reciting clunky dialogue at each other.

The sequence on Jakku which is basically A Day in the Life of Rey is just wonderful and so elegantly shot, with the gorgeous desert scenery and the eerie husks of massive ships looming in the background. I like the small touches like the shot of a desert flower in Rey’s home. In fact, the entire first 30-40 minutes of the film, right until the moment Rey and Finn run into Han and Chewie, are fantastic, with great introductions to the new characters and fun action scenes.

The problem with Rey
Don’t get me wrong, I love Rey after the second viewing. I still think that Daisy Ridley’s acting is a tad wonky in places, but damn if she doesn’t bring truckloads of charm, energy and wide-eyed enthusiasm to the role and the camera lurves her. Whoever designed her costume is a genius – it’s both practical and gracefully feminine, with the drapes that bring to mind Grecian tunics. She is a smart, scrappy survivor with a heart of gold and the above-mentioned sequence put me in her corner straight away. So what are the problems?

Personally I hate it when a movie doesn’t trust the viewers to like a character and goes out of its way to remind you how awesome and likeable they are. Like when, in Jurassic World, the movie wants to beat you over the head with just how great Chris Pratt’s character is and even has those bland kids comment out loud on his awesomeness. Likewise, when Han Solo remarks, girl knows her stuff near the end of the movie after Rey once again does something clever, I felt like the movie is trying way too hard to be a cheerleader for its character.

I’ve seen plenty of discussions on whether or not Rey is an impossibly perfect Mary Sue character, and whether this reaction is simply about sexism and men being uncomfortable with a strong capable female character. While sexism is very real, I think it’s worth wondering why this particular capable female character sparked the controversy. I kinda feel like what people are reacting to is that, with Rey, they’re simultaneously trying to do the “strong kickass heroine doing awesome stuff” story and the coming-of-age, “young person on a journey” type of story that they did with Luke in the original trilogy. The big difference is that while Luke’s story is total wish-fulfillment, there’s a sense of build-up throughout the first movie which culminates with Luke blowing up the Death Star, and that’s really the only big amazing thing he does in the entire movie. Whereas Rey starts doing amazing things in the first quarter of the film and then never stops. The only arc she has in this movie is about her letting go of hope that whoever dropped her off at Planet Boring was going to come back, and embracing her future. That moment when Luke’s lightsaber lands in her hands and she accepts it is clearly meant to be important, especially in the light of an earlier scene where she touches the lightsaber and runs away scared by the vision. But because we’ve already seen her tap into the Force when she was a captive, this moment simply doesn’t have the impact it was meant to have. Likewise, I can’t really tell when the moment she gives up on her futile hope happens – she’s given a pep talk and then a bunch of stuff happens fast and then she’s leaving on the ship.

You could argue of course that what they’re doing with Rey is setting up a mystery that will be revealed in the next movie, which will also explain why she’s such a natural with the Force. While that could be the case, I just much prefer to see a character truly learn things, instead of being taunted with a mystery box that may cause thousands of discussions before the next release, but which is essentially a one-shot weapon. What’s going to be left after the mystery is revealed? And if Rey can already feel the Force, where’s the challenge and struggle? I sure hope there’ll be some serious struggle in the next movie where Rey royally screws up somehow and might even need help and saving. Which would probably make some people howl with indignation at how this strong female character got reduced to someone who needs to be saved by a man or whatever.

The death scene
I had thought that Han Solo’s death felt weirdly lackluster the first time around, but seeing the movie again, the death scene itself is actually pretty damn great. I still feel like I didn’t get enough sense of the father/son relationship to really care about it, but in terms of what the scene means to the characters individually, it works; I did feel how desperate Han is to get his son back and how desperate Kylo Ren is to prove that he’s cut out for the dark side. I also liked the visual cue with the light going out right when Kylo finally makes up his mind. The big problem is the aftermath and I can’t believe how badly it’s screwed up here. The secret to a big emotional death is the reaction and grief of the other characters; more often than not it’s what triggers the viewer’s own emotions. When Gandalf dies in The Fellowship of the Ring, we have Frodo’s reaction and the massive group bawling; here, it just gets lost in a shuffle because millions of things happen right after, and when the movie does pause for some grieving and hugging, it happens between Rey and Leia who never even met before so their shared grief makes little sense.

I was in Hitler’s Youth
Finn is a fun character and probably the closest thing the movie has to an everyman. He’s not particularly brave, not particularly gifted at anything, he lies to impress a girl, he just wants to run the hell away from the First Order. Which is all good stuff. What does make the character ring a tad false though is that his personality doesn’t gel at all with his background where he supposedly was taken away from his parents and raised to be a follower. He comes off more like a very recent recruit who, after his first taste of violence, goes oh shit I’m out of here. Maybe there’s a whole backstory on why he’s so different from your average stormtrooper but we never get to see it. His background could potentially have been a source of conflict or tension, but nope all the other characters are totally cool with his past and no one questions his sincerity.

Kylo Ren
The Force Awakens overall is safe as hell, so I appreciated the off-the-wall casting choice and general direction for his character which feels like the film’s only bold move. Revealing that your main villain looks like a young pasty nerd underneath that scary mask is not going to go down well with the part of the audience who just want an intimidating badass villain they see in the opening sequence (a woman behind me actually said what the hell out loud when they showed his face). And yes he is pretty effective as a sort of Darth Vader MkII, but I’m glad there was a hell lot more to the character than that. I do think though that at the moment the new series lacks a strong Just Plain Evil villain in the mold of Palpatine. I don’t think Kylo’s going to be it despite what he’s done, and the rest of the villains are rather underwhelming so far.

Fine fine J.J. Abrams and co, you sure know how to make viewers feel invested in your characters, just please come up with a better storyline for the next film and no more giant planet-destroying weapons, ever.