Cinema review: The Big Short - high stakes drama and remorse
Reviewed this week are The Big Short, The Assassin, Ride Along 2, Our Brand is Crisis and The 5th Wave.
The Big Short
For all the Inside Jobs or Margin Calls Hollywood serves us, we're still not done revising the calamitous economic crash of 10 years ago. Indeed in this country films like The Guarantee told of the shifty corporate goings on that led to financial ruin for the ordinary man. Despite providing an autopsy of the machinations of the disaster, the dearth of human morals is still hard to swallow.
The Big Short is the latest and snazziest of the sub-genre, and sees Anchorman director Adam McKay line up a fine all-star cast to remove the fourth wall and unveil the seediness of US banking to Oscar-nominated effect. Michael Lewis's 2010 book provides the real-life source material.
Narrating is Wall Street wolf Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) who happens upon a theory by brilliant hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale); the US housing market is set to pop and purchasing "shorts" against the market will equal a huge payday when it does.
Vennett approaches hedge fund manager Michael Baum (Steve Carell) and convinces him to move on the potentially lucrative gamble. Meanwhile, two young up and comers also look to get in on the action with help from Brad Pitt's beardy retired bankman. If you're sketchy on subprimes and CODs, cameo asides from Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain give dummies' guides to the jargon. These and the snappy pace make for a lively, if slightly smug, crash course. McKay, however, balances the laughs with high-stakes drama and remorse.
If we take it that making a feature film is a little like baking an elaborate cake, you'd imagine then that the cast would be the flavour, the cinematography is the icing, and the editing might be the oven temperature. The batter would surely therefore be the story, the fundamental building block upon which the entire recipe will either stand firm or collapse.
On the back of The Assassin, you'd also have to assume that lauded Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien wouldn't win many bake-offs. While extremely deft at presentation - The Assassin's enigmatic visuals and breeze-blown pace are undeniably striking - he drops the ball when it comes to telling its tale of combat and honour in 8th Century China.
As an exercise in "wuxia" (a genre of Chinese period martial arts adventure), it very much looks and sounds the part. Shu Qi (inset) is still waters running deep as Yinniang, a deadly hitlady of few words who is set a test by her doubting mistress. To prove her worth, Yinniang is assigned to take out her cousin and former fiancé, now a powerful military leader back in the region where she herself originated.
The brief action scenes are the only punctuation between lots and lots of beautiful, meditative atmospherics and mood shots that are in no hurry to go anywhere. Similarly, the colour palette that Cannes-winner Hou works off - metallic blues, golds and deep terracottas - is magical to behold. If only we had a clue what was going on in the glacial, disjointed plot which is treated as an incidental.
Now showing at IFI
Ride Along 2
I've said it before but in this context I feel it's important to repeat that to me comedy is the most subjective of all genres. It's important to repeat because whilst to me Ride Along 2, indeed the entire oeuvre of Kevin Hart (inset), is as funny as having verrucas burnt off, I do appreciate that there are people out there who get a laugh out of it. With that in mind I tried to watch the film with the most open heart I could muster. And I'm fairly sure that this comedy is objectively, as well as subjectively, just not that funny.
Back in 2014 Ride Along was a surprise hit that saw James (Ice Cube) a detective in Atlanta team up with his sister's boyfriend Ben (Hart) to become an unlikely crime solving duo. Over $130m at the box office later and guess what, there's a sequel. Ben is now a rookie cop about to marry Ice Cube's sister Angela (Tika Sumpter) and his first muckup delivers a drug dealer's flash drive which in turn delivers Ken Jeong as super hacker AJ who is based in Miami. Keen to prove himself Ben badgers James into letting him come along on the trip to Florida where a bigger story will emerge, with a lot of excuses to show women in bikinis.
In Miami they rub up against a tough but cute cop (Olivia Munn) investigating the murder of a local politician. Surprise surprise their initial antipathy wanes and they end up working together, with AJ, to investigate a drug baron impersonating a pillar of the community (Benjamin Bratt who looks great).
Tim Story directs what feels like an utterly contrived attempt to cash in on the success of the first Ride Along movie, which for the contextual record did not amuse me either. What emerges is a kind of mongrel between the Naked Gun and Beverly Hills Cop when both of those were scraping the bottom of the sequel barrel. Ice Cube especially should know better. However, if you liked the first Ride Along film, if you think someone eating hair-covered nachos out of a bin or Kevin Hart having fights with a wedding planner is funny, you will like this. It is actually fairly suitable for young kids who like gaming and silly humour, there isn't much in the way of sex, language or drugs.
Our Brand Is Crisis
Jane Bodine (Sandra Bullock) is a campaign strategist with a long and colourful history as the go-to person for US presidential hopefuls. After a particularly wanton episode on her last trail, she's gone into hiding, kicked the booze and taken up pottery.
When approached by former colleagues to take on one last job - to help get a Bolivian industrialist (Joaquim de Almeida) elected to the top office in La Paz - she cannot resist after hearing her old nemesis Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton) is mentoring the leading rival. Candy looks to be in full control as his earthier, Morales-like frontrunner dominates the polls. To get her man up in public favour, Jane will have to roll up her sleeves and fight dirty.
There is some fun in the way director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Manglehorn) and writer Peter Straughan (here basing things loosely on the 2002 Bolivian elections) concoct a satirical look at grubby US operators interfering in developing-world politics. However, they can't seem to be able to decide if that is this film's point or if it's primarily about one such Yankee growing a conscience and finding redemption.
In terms of the latter, it very much feels like another witty Sandra Bullock screen outing, and the sturdy actress does apply her usual vim and vigour to the part. Thornton is suitably fork-tongued, and those acquainted with the Bolivian capital will enjoy the scenes shot there (most was filmed in New Orleans). But there's an underwhelming feeling about Our Brand Is Crisis. It putters along at a fine tempo, has a few chuckles and a decent character arc, but is ultimately pedestrian in its structure while never really revealing anything we didn't already know about why North Americans are so often reviled by their southern counterparts.
The 5th Wave
Liev Schreiber, like Julianne Moore up until recently, is one of those good actors who can make poor choices. So whilst Schreiber gives a small but perfectly formed performance in the excellent Spotlight this month he also pops up, giving a good enough performance, in the less excellent The 5th Wave. His role however is small enough in this story of a heroine called Cassie (Chloe Moretz) in a post-apocalyptic world.
Life in middle class America is good for Cassie and her happy family until the day aliens, swiftly named The Others, park their spaceships over cities. The first wave of their assault on Planet Earth is to halt all machinery. The second is to cause natural disasters, the third is disease and thereby leaving few enough inhabitants to face the fourth and fifth waves. Cassie's father (Ron Livingston) hangs on for a while but ultimately she and her brother Sam (Zackary Arthur) are orphaned.
Separated from her little bro by a rather predictable event Cassie has to work her way back to him and help defeat the baddies. This, how the future of the world depends on young people and the love triangle involving our feisty heroine all feel a bit too familiar. The dialogue is weak, the effects cheap and overall it feels derivative and unoriginal. Neither especially gory nor scary it is suitable for a tween audience who might enjoy it. Indeed the sequel clearly hangs on just how much they do.
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