Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Big Short

The Big Short (2015)

Starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell
Directed by Adam McKay


The global financial crash of 2008, and the forensic detail of its causes and consequences, is potentially the least likely prospective subject for an engaging mainstream film. Ever. Let alone a funny one.  Certainly, big money movies can play well, but have tended to be about the people rather than the event.  From the era-defining Faustian melodrama of Oliver Stone's 80s masterpiece "Wall Street" to the insanely amusing hedonism of Martin Scorsese's "Wolf" thereof, it's always tended to be that the focus has been on individuals in a larger story, rather than the story itself.  Enter Michael Lewis, the author and ex-Wall Street bond trader who has perfected the art, over the years since his hysterical memoir "Liar's Poker", of writing books which are populated by distinctive, memorable real-life characters, but which manage to get to the heart of the overall picture.  Taking in subjects as widespread as professional baseball scouting ("Moneyball") to eccentric tech entrepreneurship ("The New New Thing"), but often returning to finance ("Flash Boys", "Boomerang") Lewis' books convey often highly complex or technical details in a manner easy to understand, making the narratives read like novels. Thus "The Big Short",  Lewis' gripping tale of how a disparate bunch of people similarly predicted the puncturing of the  sub-prime housing bubble in the late naughties and sought to profit from it, was ripe for the telling. 

And what a tall tale it is.

The film's director, Adam McKay, having brought us the "Anchorman" films, and "Step Brothers", big dumb, fun - but often extremely funny films - was understandably a strange choice to helm this sort of a film, with a deeply serious and affecting underlying commodity. But anyone who saw his 2010 cop-buddy movie "The Other Guys", which starred Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, might have been prepared to expect the director's cynical and comic eye, particularly in light of that film's closing credit sequence. McKay brings an unexpected freshness and humour to this history and story, and has really crafted an extraordinary motion picture from a deeply complex and perplexing narrative (aided by Lewis' lucid text). But with a curiously comfortable sense of humour.

By necessity, the cast of characters is a mismatched ensemble, because the main players in the story flew up from all across America, albeit that they had a roughly similar idea at roughly the same time. Chief is probably Steve Carell (playing Mark Baum - think that name has been changed from reality), who is a premier actor, not just a comedian (as stated previously herein) as the guy who figures it all out, makes a lot of money, but still ends up feeling hurt and betrayed at the end of things  due to the sheer maliciousness of the big banks (and we sympathise with his pain and utter dejected state at the film's climax ). Ryan Gosling is mesmeric and charming as Bond flogger Jared Vennett, who slowly comes to realise the magnitude of the situation. There's a brilliant scene in which he demonstrates the unfolding situation to Baum and his crew using Jenga blocks... a fragile foundation indeed! But he's just trying to sell them a trade. And Christian Bale, as highly eccentric money manager Michael Burry, who predicts the collapse years in advance and has to ride out a world of losses on his books before the position finally turns good, is fantastic. There's alot of good support too from the likes of Brad Pitt, in a smaller role, making every character feel genuine and concerned.


Above all, this is a detective film, and as such, it's totally compelling. We, the audience, might know or understand nothing about the history of this crash, even as we felt its influence. And the traders in the film don't understand what's happening either.  One of the best scenes is when the gang head down to Florida to burn some shoe leather, and discover that countless people are over mortgaged.  Their shock is palpable - as is ours watching.  How did this happen?  How did the authorities not see this coming? How could the world economy be destroyed? Two smarmy mortgage brokers they meet laugh unconcernedly and joke about how big their boats are going to be. It's nonsensical, and disturbing ; but illustrative of the thinking which lay behind the whole farrago. One of the most striking scenes involves a meeting with one of the Ratings Agencies - who assured everyone the Mortgage Backed Securities / Collateralized Debt Obligations were sound - in which the lady admits that they had absolutely NO IDEA what was in them and therefore what they were talking about.  It's a real head-scratcher... Even more so because they are still trotted out as authorities by the media today. They're charlatans and criminals. 

Mackay directs with an impressive vigour, and a restrained sense of equal parts disbelief, cynicism, anger and mockery. His use of time-lapse to show the passing of time between archive footage of the initial invention of the dubious, fragile financial instruments and the present day is brilliant (even including a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of Sasha Baron-Cohen in Ali G get up which just yells "stupidity"!)  And despite bringing the audience to the mid naughties, the film feels like a period piece, and not just because of the size of the mobile phones, but because of the mindset.  The employment of music is inspired - "Money Maker" by Ludacris, an awesome choral version of Nirvana's "Lithium" performed by The Polyphonic Spree, "Feel Good Inc" by Gorillaz all play key parts in underscoring the drama. Stylistically, it's reminiscent of a very restrained "Natural Born Killers" at times.

So this is a film about the unlikeliest of topics, but one which is unexpectedly brilliant. It has a crackling funny script, a stellar cast, and above all its prime accomplishment is to remain amusing and interesting - and informative. 

"It ain't what you know that gets you into trouble, it's what you know for sure just ain't so."  - Mark Twain. 

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

The Witch

The Witch (2015)

Starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Ineson
Written and Directed by Robert Eggers 

"The Witch - A New England Folktale" is a haunting, mesmerising, and deeply memorable film,  telling the story of a devout family in 1630s New England who set out from the Calvinist community where they live to forge an independent life for themselves, before things start to go awry with their idealistic plan.  This self-imposed exile is due to the excessive piety of the patriarch William (Ralph Ineson), but it's clear from the outset that the rest of the family follow out of obedience rather than conviction; a tiny shake of the head "no" from eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) when the decision is made hints at the discord and anguish to come.  We can't even see her face fully at this point, but her dread drips off her. It is unbearably powerful.  The early, unexplained disappearance of the family's baby son Samuel whilst under Thomasin's care is ostensibly her fault, but as viewers we are asked if what we saw was actually what happened, or just what we thought we saw.  As the miserable curses and misfortunes pile up upon our protagonists, the viewer is constantly asked to judge whether this is a real, supernatural story, or if it's all going on in the mind.  And is it the mind of one of the main characters, or are we simply projecting our own expectations onto the story, as all the best films invite us to do?  Eggers tantalisingly shows the Witch more than once, but in different forms, and to different characters.  As such, it's gripping, challenging, deeply atmospheric, and thought-provoking throughout.

The film is not uneventful or remotely boring, even if it may feel slow at times.  Something happens in every scene - but it feels gradual, each scene purposely building. This is by no means a bad thing, because it means important things aren't trumpeted with loud shocks and scares - they just happen; it's deliberate.  The family's new home is at the edge of a wood, which the children are repeatedly warned to avoid. Eggers doesn't suddenly delve his camera into the unknown, but a repeated series of slow zooms towards it imply a gradual, creeping sense of wariness at the unknown forces which may or may not be therein.  The landscape is very much a character in the film.  It's empty, and unyielding, an un-tamed New England and a failing potential paradise.  When William and son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) head into the forbidden zone of this forest early on, hoping to find animals caught in the traps previously set, darkness slowly creeps in around them, and their efforts to trap and kill come up frustratingly short.  Trying to shoot a stray hare William is injured by his own musket... whilst the hare stares un-nervingly back at them.  It could easily be seen as a casual moment, a simple misfire, but the staring hare moots something... the animals and the woods have a power which is going to come to bear on the family.  It's just this sort of unspecified menace which makes the film so effective, because everything is suggested, and nothing is certain.

Crucially, in a small-scale piece like this, the actors have to be first rate, and they absolutely are.  Ineson, Kate Dickie as grief-stricken wife Katherine, and Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson as the young twins Jonas and Mercy are all outstanding (I was genuinely surprised to find that the twins weren't actually related, as young actors often are). Young Harvey is remarkably strong as the uncertain child on the cusp of manhood, grappling with the seduction and responsibilities entailed.  But take these words down now, in permanent marker:  Anya Taylor-Joy is a megastar of the future.  She's nothing short of phenomenal in this role.  Everything about her performance grabs the viewer from the first minute and it "relenteth not" (to borrow the vernacular).  As the story progresses the character seems to change visibly , physically and emotionally.  She starts off looking suitably drab, as one would expect of a Puritan girl, but in her increasing desperation to prove her innocence she seems to become more adult with every passing scene.  There are, for example, a couple of instances in which her  brother casts furtive glances at her breasts.  It's never meant to imply overt sexiness, but it just shows something a young, confused boy is going to feel.  The unexpected power of the film is that it never overstates any kind of sexual conflict between the girl and her family or her Mother or Father... it just makes the viewer peripherally aware of it. There is conflict and distrust of another sort. The film is about Thomasin's torment, and the question of her culpability in the events unfolding looms large, but is left open... to a point.  The Witch herself represents sex, but also decay and misery, and degradation; Thomasin seems to carry that conflict with her through the film.  Ultimately though, Taylor-Joy's performance is as gripping as it is unsettling. Just magnificent.

There have been observations of similarities between this film and "The Babadook" ( QV). There is certainly common ground in the notion of a horror existing solely in the mind and creating terror for a child, but the films are markedly different.  There are obvious thematic parallels too with something like "The Blair Witch Project" but "The Witch" eschews the sensationalist nonsense of that film, opting for atmospherics over obvious cheap shocks.  Appropriately, given its subtitle, there is clearly a deep knowledge of "witch culture" behind the script, evident in the nuances; the suckling of animals, or the overtly sexualised presence, for example, of the seemingly innocent creatures around the farm. Malcolm Gaskill's great book "Witchfinders" recounts many of these stories and shows how much fact and hearsay are easily blurred.  The film foreshadows too, in the latter parts of the story, the ideas of paranoia and mistrust central to Arthur Miller's "The Crucible". A witch hunt erupts here in miniature.

A strange thing happened to me before going in to see this.  For some reason, I had imagined that the film was shot in black and white.  Something in the back of my head said "Puritan era psychological horror... obviously going to be B&W".  I had a recollection of seeing the trailer several times, and stills from it, and had somehow remembered them all as being monochrome.  This was obviously a spurious assumption, and I've struggled to work out why I would have carried such a bogus thought into the cinema.  It's possibly due to the mid-17th Century setting, and my fondness for "A Field in England", Ben Wheatley's massively compelling English Civil War character face-off (also QV) that made me think a film set at this time must be similarly depicted.  Of course the film is in colour, which set me real as soon as it started, and drew me into it.  But it's a purposefully very drab, dry palette, with only the occasional, shocking stain of brightness.  The red cloak of The Witch herself, and the occasional horrible  splash of blood is sparingly used, but all the more jarring for it. The cinematography is wonderful though, creating such a vivid picture of the harsh landscape in which the characters find themselves.  There's a recurring movement of the camera which is unsettling as it is powerful.  The effect is deeply unsettling, but simultaneously it conveys a sense of observing something we shouldn't be seeing.  Mark Korven's creepy, discordant score adds to the mood.  Unease pervades all before it.

Films occasionally worm their way into consciousness, but it's rare that one stays there, and lingers in the brain for days on end. "The Witch" has done just that. It's distinctive, but strangely redemptive. It's really well worth catching, whenever you can.