Category Archives: Film

Worried other people might find The Wolf of Wall Street aspirational?

Do you feel uncomfortable with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio’s free market, three-hour long depiction of drugs, sex and 1980s excess? Are you unhappy with what you suspect might be ‘a celebration of greed’? Do dollar bills being used as ticker-tape make you want to puke in a bin – and not because you’ve overdosed on a handful of ‘ludes’?

Dear conscientious one, here are some thoughts to help free you from the terrible burden of worrying about the moral welfare of others. Hopefully, once you’re read them you will feel lighter, more streamline and able to move on to someone who actually deserves your concern. But first…:

  • Have you actually met anyone who has come out of seeing The Wolf of Wall Street and said, “Yes, this is how I want to live”? So far, I have only met people who (like wonderful you) are worried about how other, less wonderful people, might find the film aspirational. Who are these impressionable types with their cotton wool heads and zombie eyes? How are they currently functioning without your guidance?  Maybe you could go and find one, ask them and see how they respond.
  • Try pinpointing the parts of the film that concern you. Perhaps it is the cheery disregard for others in order to become rich? Or the fact that stockbroker Jordan Belfort spends all of his ill-gotten gains on prostitutes and yachts rather than, say, going to the theatre or subscribing to a Save the Whale charity?
  • Next, think about Jordan crawling down his country club steps, overdosing on drugs and dribbling spit. Or what about when he backstabs his friends, gets left by his wife and has a candle stuck up his arse? Do you know anyone who wants to be like this? Do you? Really?
  • You may be concerned that Jordan doesn’t ‘learn’ anything. Perhaps you were looking forward to a scene at the end where he delivers a monologue about ‘the error of his ways’. But lots of popular characters in films learn absolutely zilch. What does Withnail learn about drinking and taking drugs?  Or Hannibal Lecter about the negative effects of eating people? I think the last time we saw him he was on a plane with a lunchbox full of brains.
  • Sometimes it’s a painful film to watch – but is this really a problem? Isn’t it a good thing that you feel uncomfortable when Jordan and his friends start referring to a member of a ‘dwarf-throwing’ group as ‘it’? Or an apprehensive-looking woman has her head shaved for £10,000? Instead of feeling conflicted, why not congratulate yourself for being so right-on?
  • You may have got caught up in the energy, razzamatazz and “doesn’t Scorsese compose beautiful shots” moments which occur directly before the above scenes. But that is your choice. Nobody is forcing you to enjoy depictions of drug taking, objectified women or owning a helicopter. Maybe the film is simply holding up a mirror and asking you – like the crowd of desperate wannabe millionaires in the final shot – to consider just what you are prepared to buy into.
  • Still think wealth and excess are being glamourised? What if they are simply being presented as they appear in real life, with all their bombastic glitz? What if it is just you – and only you – who finds them glamourous? If so, maybe you need someone to educate you about ‘the error of your ways’, possibly through a monologue. And then you can go to the theatre – before relaxing to the music of those whales you saved.

“Oh no, my boyfriend likes Anchorman 2. What should I do?!!!”

You have made a shocking discovery. Your boyfriend, partner, friend or loved one has revealed that they were not only able to tolerate watching a film full of racism, sexism and juvenile humour – Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues – but that they actually enjoyed it. Should you run from the cinema the minute this becomes apparent? Quietly move to another chair so that no one knows you’re together? Loudly deliver a monologue about equality, women and narrative structure every time they laugh?

The answer is: no. Rather than exercise the same throwaway prejudice that Anchorman 2 directs at many of its characters (particularly those who are black and/ or female), I suggest you rise above this and show some compassion. Think of your loved one as a sick person – perhaps someone who has just been run over by a car. Try and understand what it is that they enjoyed about the film. Then, afterwards, with the urgency of a surgeon reconstructing a crushed torso, you can attempt to change their mind and save your relationship. To be honest, it’s your (and their) only hope.

To help you with your task, here are some reasons why someone might enjoy Anchorman 2:

  • Some of the sequences are very funny. Not the one where Will Ferrell’s bumbling news anchor Ron Burgundy repeatedly shouts the word “black” at his new (black) female boss. Nor the one where she subsequently falls in love with him (because who can resist a racist?). But there is a really good shark. And a scorpion. And a bit where someone’s legs disappear while doing the weather.
  • If you’re laughing at some points (see above), it’s easier to forgive others (also, see above).
  • Your loved one has confused non-specific 1970s/80s clothes, set and hairstyles with irony. “Anchorman 2 is a parody of a bygone era, duh!”  they may say. “The point being?” you might reply. “It’s just funny,” they’ll say, unable to really answer because there is no answer.
  • Ron Burgundy is just a clown – albeit a dislikeable one with no redeeming qualities and a cardboard cutout personality. However, some people don’t need their clowns to be identifiable or have any real depth. They just need them to be stupid. And Ron Burgundy is very stupid.
  • Writers Ferrell and Adam Mckay are being avant-garde. You can’t just go up to someone these days and shout the colour of their skin at them. Suggest that there may be good reason for this and your loved one may reply that the film is breaking down barriers in a hilarious but refreshing way in an otherwise PC world where mindless insults can only be delivered anonymously over the internet.
  • Yes, the women characters are bad, but it’s not about them. They might all fight over Ron Burgundy at the end in a way that is the familiar stuff of male fantasies in a male-dominated blar blar blar…but the film is a spoof of other films where this happens. If things are to change, what better way of achieving this than showing the status quo, with no obvious critique, again and again and again and again…

If you’re lucky, you might find that simply listing the reasons above will cause your loved one to dramatically rethink his or her opinion of Anchorman 2. “Am I a sexist racist?” they may nervously type into Google after speaking to you. Later, when other people ask what they think of the film, they will respond, “Some bits were good and some bits weren’t” or “I enjoyed it while I was in there, but I can now see it has problems.” And then you will know that your work is done.

Film: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Everybody loves a Gladiator, so much so that many people probably wish the Roman Empire had never ended. Slaves tearing one another apart? Bring out the popcorn! That’s what The Hunger Games is about – oh, and a ‘strong’ female character called Katniss, who may or may not have been named after a new brand of pet food. Apparently there’s more to her character in the books – which I’m looking forward to reading – but here she’s defined by being good with a weapon (a bow and arrow) and brave; the same traits that male heroes have in pretty much every other action film.

A cross between George Orwell and Simon Cowell’s visions of the future, The Hunger Games films (or at least, the two so far released) can seem like a sanitised version of the far bloodier Battle Royale, while being less subversive than they may at first appear. Yes, there’s a dystopia with a 21st-century twist, revolving around the controlling powers of Reality TV, but ultimately one oppressive totalitarian regime can seem pretty much like another.

Katniss might look nonplussed at the sumptuous outfits she’s made to wear, but we’re still encouraged to enjoy them. In Hunger Games: Catching Fire, at one point she’s even trussed up in a wedding dress like a romcom heroine. But wait! It turns into an equally sumptuous black mocking bird outfit, so that’s OK. While riding around the ring in a chariot she also gets to wear a dress made out of fire. Real fire! How strong and yet stylish is that?! No wonder everyone fancies her. Even old men can’t resist randomly presenting her with roses.

When I was a kid I used to watch a cartoon called Jem and the Holograms in which, through the power of holographic technology (whatever happened to that?), a millionaire teenage pop star transformed herself and her outfit by simply twisting one of her earrings. Katniss, aided by Lenny Kravitz as her fashion designer, at times seems to have the same powers. Thankfully, despite the X Factor-style setting, she never gets to sing. (Singing was Jem’s ‘skill’ and upon recently relistening to her hits I discovered it wasn’t a very good one).

In contrast, wannabe heartthrob Peeta – trapped with some other bloke in a Twilight-style love triangle – seems to have very few skills. His main one appears to be standing in front of Katniss when she is trying to shoot someone. He also enjoys offering to lay down his life, but unfortunately doesn’t get the chance to follow this through. Katniss is just too damn capable. She must feel like she’s been thrown to the lions with a member of One Direction.

With a slow build-up, training sequences and battle to kill or be killed on an island filled with peril, it’s pretty much the same set-up as the first film in the series. However, it’s all undeniably exciting stuff, particularly when the games begin. Will Katniss die a horrible death? Probably not – but it’s what she’ll have to do to survive that we want to see. Cruelty is enjoyable when it’s happening to someone else. Gladiators don’t exist anymore, so we go to the cinema instead. And although The Hunger Games isn’t 1984, it does manage to capture the thrill of watching someone being tested to their limits while looking unusually good in a boiler suit remarkably well.

Film: Gravity

There are only two words to describe George Clooney’s performance in this or, indeed, any film: chaise longue. Wearing a space suit and jetpack, it feels like his character, Matt Kowalski, might swoosh over and offer co-star Sandra Bullock a Nespresso Volluto at any moment. Kowalski is a man so capable that, as he faces a slow and painful death by suffocation, floating into the dark void of space, he is gushing about watching the sun rising over the Ganges. What a guy! He sounds just like my sister whenever she’s been to Glastonbury. How on earth would Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, cope without him? For the rest of the film, we find out.

Dr. Stone is a more developed character and so needs a three word description: mom in space. Despite being hastily established as a brainiac mission specialist she mostly comes across as a hapless everywoman who has inadvertently ended up thousands of feet above the ground as part of her job. She spends a lot of time literally being towed along on a string by Clooney. Later, we learn she is more at home floating around a ship in a utilitarian vest and pants – the uniform of women in space – than flying one.

As with Captain Phillips, the inherently dramatic situation – basically, what would you do if you were trapped alone in space and your ship had been spliced in half – is more interesting than either of the two characters. As Dr. Stone hurtles towards earth in an escape shuttle, it’s only by thinking of her (dead) child that she can pull herself together. It’s not being cleverer or more determined or simply good that makes her succeed, it’s being a mom.

The sound and visuals are the real stars. Barely audible dialogue at the start curtails any popcorn crunching, while cuts between explosions and eerie silence create tension where there might have otherwise been boredom. It’s a very well directed film that captures the feeling of orbiting, weightless, in space, like never before – perhaps so much so that this has overshadowed everything else.

As Sandra Bullock jumps from burning ship to escape pod to flying pieces of debris, you get the feeling she’s in a time loop, perhaps hallucinating, but definitely leading up to a twist. Maybe she’s really dead? However, when it comes it’s not as good as it needs to be, more incidental than anything else. Like a virtual reality ride, a lot of the time it’s not about George Clooney or Sandra Bullock, however wonderful you may think they are, it’s simply about enjoying the experience of plummeting through space.

Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in the Alien films is a far better character. Like Dr. Stone, she starts off as a bit vulnerable – a woman in a male-dominated universe – but goes on a real journey before kicking a load of aliens’ arses and eventually becoming one, Metamorphosis-style, herself. Yes, she also, at times, only wore pants and a vest but, unlike here, it didn’t look like she was a mermaid floating around in a Galaxy advert. If George Clooney had popped up, batted aside a facehugger and offered her a Nespresso, I’m pretty sure she would have told him she’d make her own.

Film: Captain Phillips

“If you enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean you’re going to love this,” is how I would like to start the blog. It would be funny if it was in any way true – but it isn’t. This is a film about modern-day pirating that takes itself much more seriously than that (it’s based upon a real-life story, after all, don’t you know?). However, the plot is hammered home with all the subtlety of swashbuckling sensation Jack Sparrow flying through the air and smashing into the ship’s steel hull. A particularly lumbering sequence at the start establishes that the hero, Captain Phillips, is married (close-up of a wedding ring), a family man (close-up of the children’s portrait) and about to take his massive cargo ship along the pirate-infested Somali coast (close-up of a map, zoom in on the word ‘Somalia’).

Thankfully there’s also Tom Hanks, as Phillips, who gives a compellingly understated performance that far outshines the rest of the cardboard cut-out crew. They chat about the coffee machine and their union in a way that takes realism to new levels of banality. In going for his trademark naturalistic style, it sometimes feels like director Paul Greengrass has bypassed one vital ingredient: characterisation. It’s a relief when the film gives up trying to be Mike Leigh at sea and turns into a taut hostage thriller that gets most of its drama – and it is, at times, very dramatic – from an inherently tense situation.

From the horrible inevitability of the pirates closing in on the ship, to Phillips’ attempts to save his crew and then himself it’s a gripping story that constantly asks you to question what you would do if you were in the same nightmare situation. But whenever there’s a pause in the action it’s difficult to take the chiselled navy seals, lacklustre crew members and inept Somali pirates, with their oddly Americanised sub-titled dialogue, seriously. They just don’t feel real.

One of the most interesting things about the film is that it attempts to show the pirate’s perspective, setting them up as victims of globalisation and poverty in the same way Phillips and his crew are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Barkhad Abdi is hypnotic as their leader Muse, who refers to himself as “Captain” in the same way Phillips does. We are clearly supposed to see them as two sides of the same coin. But if you strip away each gang member’s few defining personality traits (‘the young one,’ ‘the conflicted one,’ ‘the unstable meathead one’) there’s little left underneath.

Maybe Tom Hanks doesn’t really need co-stars. All he had in Castaway was a football, after all (I kept hoping Wilson might float past the lifeboat window, but sadly, no). This time, his Oscar scene comes towards the end when Phillips is finally hit by the shock of what he has been through and caves in. It’s a moving sequence and a great conclusion to an increasingly absorbing film but one that, with more developed supporting characters, could have been even better.

Film: Man of Steel

You know there’s too much 3D in a film when a minor character gets trapped under a crumbling building and you’re desperate for them to escape because you’re not going home until they do. This is the problem with Man of Steel: after the first few scenes – where we see Superman’s family deal with the death of their planet in a more heartfelt way than ever before – there are so many repetitive action sequences that there is little time for anything else.

Gone are the comedy mix-ups at the Daily Planet as supposedly brilliant reporters fail to recognise that, behind a pair of geek chic glasses, mild-mannered Clark Kent is the man flying across their front pages in a slightly too long red cape. Instead, we have a relentless space invasion from Superman’s nemesis General Zod (Michael Shannon), who predictably wants to take over the earth and kill the human race.

While Superman is determined to save hapless individuals in peril, he smashes through so many tower blocks that his death count must be vast. It’s only when he snaps Zod’s neck at the end that he does a wistful look into the mid-distance. Perhaps he’s thinking: how weird, why didn’t repeatedly dragging this bloke’s face down the side of buildings finish him off four hours earlier?

The Superman franchise isn’t great because of Superman; it’s great because of Clark Kent – and we don’t get to see him in his iconic specs until the final scene. This potentially nice twist is offset by the fact that we have to sit through reams of CGI carnage to get to it. The battle to embrace or reject our destiny, to fit in or step outside the status quo, is where the heart of Superman lies – not in the logistics of intergalactic warfare.

Amy Adams’ Lois Lane is vaguely setup as the go-getter journalist we know so well, but ends up a bystander, waiting to fall into Superman’s arms with all of the cold predictability and awkwardness of a wedding first dance. Henry Cavill is convincing as Superman, but doesn’t really get the chance to be anything more than a Christopher Reeve/ Dean Cain look-alike. “He’s really hot,” a female member of the military clumsily quips, as he flies overhead. The actress clearly finds it a painful line to say, not because it isn’t true, but because it’s a self-conscious attempt to create chemistry missing elsewhere.

Film: The Great Gatsby

Sometimes, when I go and visit the BBC, the security people ask me if I’m there “for the audition.” One day I’m going to say yes and see what happens – mainly because I hope to get a string of non-speaking roles in period dramas that will eventually lead to me appearing in a dress made of sequins, glass and gold, dancing on a table in a Baz Luhrmann film. By then the year will be 2057, I’ll be at least 100 years old and I’ll still look better than I ever have before. This is because Baz Luhrmann makes everyone and everything stunningly beautiful.

The Great Gatsby has been pretty much written off as ‘style over substance’ by pretty much everyone who has written off every other Baz Luhrmann film as ‘style over substance’ over the years. However, in this case, it’s true: the film, adapted from F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s novel, is at times so slow it manages to make having an affair seem like one of the most mind numbingly boring things you could possibly do.

When Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby isn’t drawling his catchphrase “old sport” like a record stuck in a gramophone, he is professing his love for Carey Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan in the most lacklustre and dispassionate way imaginable. She feels not so much torn between him and her husband as stuck in a lift with them both, rolling her eyes at the banality of it all. Tobey Maguire, as Nick Carraway – one of the novel’s central characters – hovers on the sidelines like a spare part, the ‘troubled writer’ Luhrmann loves, poised to do a voiceover whenever it is least needed.

Everyone is rich, everyone is glamourous (apart a few grizzled figures who aren’t and pop up sporadically in a post-apocalyptic wasteland) but also tired out by fun and frivolity – and so they tire you out too. Maybe this is the point: Fitzgerald’s novel is famed as a critique of American excess, but when you go and see a film by Luhrmann you expect bombastic visual exuberance paired with a thrilling story of love and passion, not a bunch of nonchalant rich people hanging about, having a chat.

The best scenes are Gatsby’s notorious parties. Some have criticised the use of R&B and hip-hop, rather than the jazz music so intrinsic to the novel’s setting, but since when has Luhrmann been about historical accuracy? What he offers is his world, his vision, his style of filmmaking. When he has a simple story – ones with all the lifts and falls of a classic romance – he’s able to infuse it with additional emotion through music, dance and visuals like no one else. Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rogue! and Romeo + Juliet are all terrific because of this. The Great Gatsby, unfortunately, isn’t.