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Film Review: Sing StreetFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 10 May 2016

I liked Sing Street pretty much from the word go and only went on to like it more from that point onwards. As this musical comedy/drama eased into its period 1980s Ireland setting, I totally fell for its romantic, almost old-fashioned view of the world: John Carney’s film believes that creativity has a purpose no matter how tough circumstances might be, and that expressing oneself can lead to great things – not necessarily in terms of financial success or wish fulfilment, but in self-discovery. Show the rest of this post…

With a cast of mostly little-known actors, Carney’s film tells the story of Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), who is forced to move from his expensive private school to a gritty state school in order for his parents to save money. Things get off to a pretty bad start, but when Conor finds the mysterious and beautiful Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing on the steps outside school, he manages to charm her the way his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) tells him will be successful – by telling her he’s in a band. From there, Conor has to gather together a disparate group of kids – most of whom are poor but talented – to form a rock band. Raphina, who stars in the band’s videos, becomes Conor’s muse, and the songs he writes reflect their burgeoning relationship.

What a good-natured, uplifting film this is; and not in the cheesy sense, either. I found Sing Street to be a joyous experience, successfully combining a fairly traditional coming-of-age story with the quirks of a musical. As Conor, Walsh-Peelo is fantastic, effortlessly conveying the feeling of first love and the joy of discovering expression through music. Lucy Boynton is just as good opposite him, and the two share an increasingly irresistible chemistry that becomes the heart of the film. In fact all of the young cast do a great job, from the members of Conor’s makeshift band to the local bully, bringing spark and laughs to Carney’s witty script. The setting feels real: Carney establishes that these are mostly poor families, and that these kids have a lot to deal with, but watching them get by in each other’s company is rewarding.

Then we have the musical side of things, which I felt complemented the story beautifully. This is not your traditional song-and-dance musical – though Carney does briefly indulge in a well-staged (and sensibly hallucinatory) number – but instead weaves the songs into its narrative. Not all of the original numbers in here are masterpieces, but they are strong enough that they help carry the narrative along. They work because the characters making them are believable and likeable.

Carney wisely allows the adults in the film to take a back seat to his impressive young cast, and through them the film blossoms. Sing Street works as a coming- of-age drama, a romance, a musical, and more, all of which feeds into its pleasingly upbeat, inspirational message. When I got out of the cinema I immediately wanted to see it again.


Film Review: Captain America: Civil WarFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 25 Apr 2016

For a while, Captain America: Civil War and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice were scheduled to release on the same day. In the end, DC blinked first and moved Zack Snyder’s film to March, where it opened to lavish box office figures and mostly poor reviews. 2016′s second superhero smackdown comes courtesy of Marvel Studios, and is the third film in the Captain America series, although in reality it also functions as a sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron. Show the rest of this post…

Anthony and Joe Russo, the sibling directors of the second Captain America film, Winter Soldier, return here after being rewarded for their work by being handed the reins to Marvel’s ultimate, two-part cinematic showdown, Avengers: Infinity War, which begins next year. This project feels like a rehearsal for that one, in that it gathers together a huge amount of larger-than-life characters, most of whom we’ve seen on screen already. The Russo’s job – as it was Joss Whedon’s before them – is to cram a whole load of stuff into a cohesive, entertaining film. On this evidence, Marvel may have put their gargantuan series in two pairs of safe hands.


This film adapts a much-liked storyline from the comics, updating it for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) are pitted against each other by a moral quandary. In this version, the divisive factor is the Sokovia Accords, a document signed by 117 countries which calls for the Avengers to be brought under the stewardship of the United Nations. Various elements of plot are introduced or resurrected in order to establish the basic setup: Iron Man wants to sign, and Captain America does not. After the scene is set, following on from an action-packed introduction, the film enters a protracted period of calm, taking its time to establish the plot strands that will come together in the final third. And, of course, a massive punch-up between two teams of five superheroes.


The problem all directors and screenwriters must get around with Marvel films is how to fit all the constituent elements together in a way that not only makes sense, but is entertaining and feels like it’s going somewhere. Inevitably, some of the pieces are served better than others, but what the Russo brothers have done – and indeed the screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – is carefully pick and choose their moments. As directors, the Russos clearly have a flair for action – that much was clear in the previous Cap film – and that flair is ramped up here, but the action is not the only positive. They also seem able to tap into that now-familiar Marvel tone – one of complete seriousness interspersed with tongue-in-cheek silliness. It’s that lightness of touch that many feel separates these films from their murkier DC equivalents. Civil War’s tone lies somewhere between the more considered parts of Winter Soldier and the free-wheeling fun of the Avengers films. When the main players are on screen, the film tends to be more serious (Tony Stark’s quick wit is mostly reined in here) but it allows itself a sense of fun, too, primarily when the supporting cast are assembled. The central showdown, for instance, comes after that rather long establishing section. Just as the film is beginning to feel too heavy for its own good, along come Paul Rudd (as Ant Man) and Tom Holland as the new Spiderman (both great), and their presence acts as a catalyst for the film to throw off its shackles and become deliriously entertaining. Just don’t think too hard about the mechanics of what’s going on – the film even makes a joke (through Spiderman) about how silly it all is.

Where the film struggles a little is in defining the allegiances and enmities running through its massive cast of characters. It does a fairly decent, if not entirely convincing, job of building a conflict between its two central players, and actually there is some depth in the film’s discussion of responsibility and guilt. The rest of the cast are competing for screen time and, when the fighting starts, the motivations of some of the minor players are thinly sketched at best. Tom Holland is great as the new Spiderman (something I really didn’t expect to be saying, given how well covered the character has been) but his introduction is a weak structural element. The other main new addition to the cast is Chadwick Boseman as Blank Panther, whose storyline is central to the setup of the film, and who handles his role well. The rest of supporting cast are all on good form, even if most of them are reduced to action sidekicks in this narrative. Sebastian Stan has a difficult role as the Winter Soldier, aka Steve Rogers’ old war buddy, but makes it work – particularly through one great line of dialogue. The development of characters such as Scarlett Witch and Vision, for instance, will have to wait until the next Avengers film.


As a whole, Civil War is a success. Though it has flaws in its structure and struggles to make all of its characters feel vital, it nevertheless provides a romping action adventure with enough depth and heart to make it feel like an essential part of this ongoing mythology. Thankfully, Marvel has thought about how to vary its action sequences up – nothing falls from the sky and no cities explode in the final third – and the drama in Civil War comes not just from clashing fists, but from an interesting conflict of opinions. It even manages to introduce two new heroes, one of whom the cinema-going audience probably thought it was sick of, and as a bonus has Daniel Bruhl as an underdeveloped but effective third-party villain. In the 2016 battle for superhero supremacy, Marvel has unquestionably delivered the knock-out blow.



Film Review: The DivideFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Temoor Iqbal on 22 Apr 2016

“The health of our democracies, our societies and their people, is truly dependent on greater equality.” So ends The Spirit Level, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s seminal text on inequality. Mental and physical health, the authors argue, suffer most in those economies that have the largest relative equality gaps between the richest 20% and the poorest 20%. Show the rest of this post…

The text, published in 2009, has influenced much of this decade’s political and sociological thinking, but there is a feeling that its message, in its arch, statistical formulation, has not reached a wide enough audience to enter into everyday consciousness.

Enter director Katharine Round, a self-confessed arithmophile who found herself captivated by what The Sprit Level’s charts and graphs revealed about social inequality in the developed west. As she pored over them, however, she began to look beyond the figures. “It struck me that every point on those graphs represented millions of ordinary lives – the charts had a human meaning beyond a mere statistical correlation.” And so, The Divide came into being – a documentary about the personal, human side of inequality, and the micro side of the macro issues the book covers. As Round herself put it: “I wanted to tell the story through the voice of lived experience – not just statistics, but real people.”

The film follows seven people in the US and UK who are affected by the vast inequality these two nations boast. Most are in unsurprising situations – a care worker who wishes it wasn’t such a constant uphill battle to make ends meet, a KFC server and single mother saddened by the decline of her neighbourhood, and a Wall Street investor convinced that his wealth is fair reward for his superior intellect and capacity for hard work. These vignettes are touching, infuriating and, at times, warmly comic, but they do little to explore the issue of inequality and don’t really touch on the significance of the scale of wealth difference. Indeed, Leah – the aforementioned mother working at KFC – comes across as the film’s main subject, in spite of offering little that relates to its stated objective. This is a tough thing to say, as she’s a brilliant personality – engaging in front of the camera, witty and incredibly moving. You just can’t shake the feeling that these traits captivated the filmmakers a little too much, leading things a little bit astray at times.

Much more interesting, situationally speaking, are relatively well-off psychologist Alden and housewife Jen. Both, in different ways, demonstrate the extraordinary layering of wealth divisions in the US, emphasising that when top-to-bottom inequality is so unutterably massive, even those who would seem infinitely rich to most people around the world still struggle hugely. Alden wakes at 6am every day to exercise (his tame jogging overlaid with his own motivational tripe about ‘pushing the limits’ is by far the film’s funniest moment), then sees patients one after another non-stop, before heading home and more or less straight to bed. The exercise, if it can be called that, is to guard against the dreaded possibility of falling ill – he cannot afford a sick day, and studiously avoids public transport for the same reason. He spends very little time with his family, deciding that the best thing he can do for them is work himself to the bone to provide a certain lifestyle – at one point we join him and his wife as they check out houses in a gated community.

This brings us to Jen, who is living the gated community ‘dream’. This seems a level of opulence beyond the reckoning (or desire) even of most people in the developed world. And yet, she is subjected to constant reminders that her wealth might be enough to have bought a house there, but it is not nearly enough to live the gated community lifestyle – a lifestyle that sees people spend $10,000 on golf carts, which are converted with special kits to look like BMWs. Insulted for driving a car that isn’t brand new, for mowing her own lawn, and for having kids who look different to most of her neighbours’ kids (this isn’t clearly explained – we’re told her kids are blonde-haired and blue-eyed, but the implication is left hanging), Jen is constantly made to feel unwelcome. The coup de grâce comes when she reveals that a group of the richest people in the gated area, which is already guarded 24/7 by an armed security officer, is planning to request a second internal gate, creating their own gated community within a gated community.

It is this seeming insanity – this sense of the futility of social ‘progress’ and the non-existence of social mobility – that really drives home the film’s point about inequality. It is an unsubtle reminder of quite how mind-blowing the scale of inequality is in two countries that are considered wealthy, successful and developed places. Of course, this isn’t the only context we’re given – the seven stories are broken up with illuminating talking heads, including the ever-present Noam Chomsky and, much more enlighteningly, Sir Alan Budd. The latter advised the Thatcher administration on monetary policy, and thus had more than a small hand in setting the neo-liberal economic agenda that fosters and drives inequality to greater and greater extremes to this day. Fascinatingly, and to his immense credit, he offers no attempt to justify this legacy, and instead apologises for the terrible results (not least the elephant in the room – the 2008 financial crisis), which he convincingly claims to be consequences that he, at least, genuinely did not foresee.

Ultimately, The Divide is enraging for all the right reasons. It could be criticised for wandering a little astray at times, but this is simply a result of Round sticking to her guns and telling human stories, not statistical ones. That is not to say the film is devoid of context, but rather that it is pleasingly unfettered by its own agenda. Certainly, it will appeal more to those of a particular political persuasion, but I’m sure those on the other side of the debate would enjoy picking it apa rt almost as much as the rest of us would enjoy agreeing with and learning from it. It might even go so far as to touch a nerve with those too hardened to be convinced by statistics.


Film Review: ZootropolisFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 21 Mar 2016

Zootropolis, Disney’s latest animated feature (known as Zootopia in the US and some other territories) is set in a world in which animals have learned to live together in peace – predator and prey no longer have any enmity. Show the rest of this post…

This is best exemplified by the city of Zootopia, a huge metropolis divided into regions to support all animal life.

It is in Zootopia that Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit from a small outlying settlement, wishes to pursue her long-held dream of becoming a police officer. But she quickly realises that although the different species may no longer be eating one another, prejudice still exists, and her fellow mammals are still capable of cruelty. There has never been a bunny police officer, and Judy is determined to be the first, despite protestations from her superiors. When Judy reaches Zootopia, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), the head of the ZPD (Zootopia Police Department) is less than enthused by her presence. Judy struggles to be taken seriously and is denied meaningful case work though, inevitably, winds up embroiled in a case involving disappearing mammals, to which a fox by the name of Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) seems to be tangentially connected.

The film blends its family-friendly messages of inclusion and equality into an inventive storyline and imaginative setting in a way that only the most hard-hearted of viewers could fail to connect with. Zootopia is a visual treat, brimming with detail, and feels like a fleshed-out setting for the action. It’s also filled with charming characters, from the main cast to the numerous supporting roles, and has good fun with the traits of its animals, particularly in a great sequence mid-way through involving sloths. Ginnifer Goodwin gives Judy the requisite balance of determination and vulnerability, and Bateman is coolly funny as Nick. They are a winning double act and, once they are united, help to pick up the pace from the film’s slightly generic and overly sugary first act.

Ultimately, what separates Zootropolis from other family animations with similarly tried-and-tested themes is its sincerity and charming world. The voice cast are all on enjoyable form, and the storyline, once it kicks into gear, is not simply a vehicle for the message of the film, but an enjoyable caper in its own right, full of motion and invention. I must’ve been enjoying it because by the time the fil m’s intensely cheesy theme song, performed by Shakira in the form of an animated gazelle, began to play for a second time over the closing credits, I was practically singing along.


SXSW Film Review: Don’t Think TwiceFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews, SXSW
By Sam Bathe on 14 Mar 2016

In the follow-up to 2012’s acclaimed Sleekwalk With Me, writer/director/star Mike Birbiglia again focuses on what he knowns best, comedians. Show the rest of this post…

Birbiglia’s sharp Don’t Think Twice follows a tight-knit New York improv troupe, forever on the cusp of something big but it never quite comes off. That is until for one of them, it finally does.

After scoring a role on ‘Weekend Live’ (essentially SNL), one of the group is suddenly propelled into stardom. No longer able to make their week shows, while he tries to take the whole gang along for the ride, it eventually causes them to doubt if they’re make it after all, and the troupe is at risk of closing up shop, for good.

The success of Don’t Think Twice would always be defined the characters’ on-screen charisma, and the relationships in the troupe are effortless and naturalistic.

You wouldn’t have guessed a couple of the gang hadn’t done improv before but they absolutely nail it. Mike Birbiglia, Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard are all fantastic, especially as tensions creep to the surface when six turns into five.

Though a few of the lines are improvised, even the bulk of the improv sequences were scripted by Birbiglia who writes with a real flow. The film still feels like things are off the cuff, constructed in a way that is true to the improv process. And behind the camera it’s a more mature effort too, as in-amongst the mayhem of the troupe, Birbiglia still allows each character arc room to breathe.

Don’t Think Twice c ould have been an indulgent and egotistical mess but instead it’s a thoughtful and honest look at success, reminding us all that sometimes, it’s OK to give up on your dreams.


SXSW Film Review: Midnight SpecialFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews, SXSW
By Sam Bathe on 13 Mar 2016

Midnight Special opens with a bang. Two men speeding down quiet country roads in the dead of night, with a young kid in the back reading comic books by torchlight and wearing strange goggles on his head. It’s the sort of confident introduction makes a cult classic, and Jeff Nichol’s latest has the potential to become just that. Show the rest of this post…

Roy (Shannon) has just broken his eight-year-old son, Alton (Lieberher), out of a religious cult in rural Texas, now on the on the road with his childhood friend Lucas (Edgerton), a state trooper gone rogue. They have to get Alton to an unknown location on a specific date for an other-worldly event but that’s all we’re told, and with a number of strange happenings along the way, it’s sure not going to be easy.

On their tail is cult leader, Calvin Meyer (Shepard), or moreover his two goons played by the brilliant Bill Camp and Scott Haze, willing to stop at nothing to get him back. While back at the ranch, expert Paul Sevier interviews the cult about Alton and discovers the boy might have supernatural powers, so the FBI too join the chase.

Sci-fi is a hard nut to crack, but in his first studio picture, lauded indie filmmaker Jeff Nichols has made one of the most refreshingly original thrillers in recently memory. Nichols is clearly influenced by classics like E.T., but Midnight Special creates such iconic imagery, he makes it his own. Starting off with just three people on the run and only teasing the wider story, Nichols invests the audience in the characters before the wild goose chase really kicks off. The three plot strands share the limelight as more is slowly revealed about Alton’s powers, escalating to a series of thrilling climaxes, shoot outs and car chases.

As on Mud, Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, Nichols’ genius is setting is all against wholly relatable characters. From Shannon’s brooding father, to Driver’s quirky FBI specialist, to Camp’s devilish cult hitman, and of course young actor Jaeden Lieberher as Alton, the ensemble cast translate Nichol’s vision with passion and verve, sucking you in with such ease.

Genre filmmaking is usually hard but Jeff Nichols makes it look easy. This is an  encapsulating, original and thrilling film, inspired by classics but with a personality that is wholly its own. It seems Jeff Nichols can put no foot wrong, and long may it continue.


SXSW Film Review: Miss StevensFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews, SXSW
By Sam Bathe on 13 Mar 2016

Inspired by co-written/director Julia Hart’s time as a teacher, Miss Stevens is a fantastically funny, touching and heartfelt coming-of-age comedy about a school trip to the state drama competition. Show the rest of this post…

Played by the brilliant Lily Rabe, Miss Stevens never quite has it all together. Frustrated with aspects of her life, she’s not the perfect, preppy teacher you expect as a kid, her car’s filthy, and she still hasn’t found the right guy, but she loves her job and throws everything into it.

When the state drama competition comes around, she offers to chaperone three kids upstate to compete. Margot (Reinhart) is the perfect student, top of the class and getting ready for college, Sam (Quintal) is eccentric, billowing out his lines in the car, in the hallway, whenever he gets a spare minute, but Billy (Chalamet) comes with a warning from the principal. Though brilliant on stage, life at home is hard, and Billy acts out when things get frustrating, forcing Miss Stevens to stretch the boundaries of her work if she wants to bring him around.

Miss Stevens is a powerful and thoroughly entertaining film that depicts the messiness of teaching, and that most of the formative interaction teachers have with students happens outside of the classroom. The film stays on the right side of the line between a teacher and a student, but it certainly feels like an authentic portrayal of an elder who has to blur the lines of their responsibility to do the job.

Great credit must go to co-writers Julia Hart and Jordan Horowitz for creating such fully fleshed-out characters. From the word go, you whole-heartedly believe in their emotions, their actions, their beliefs and each character has such a great arc throughout the movie. From Miss Stevens who must break down her facade in order to rebuild the core within, to Margot who learns how to deal with everything not always going to plan. These are living, breathing people you care about until the end.

In his professional acting debut, YouTube personality Anthony Quintal is brilliant, as are Timothée Chalamet and Lili Reinhart, though it’s Lily Rabe’s remarkable turn that steals the show. So powerful and yet so fragile, Rabe’s tender performance embodies everything that is so good about the movie.

Miss Stevens is a feel-good, coming-of-age comedy that is refreshingly honest and whose characters exist in the real world. This is  the sort of movie film festivals were made for, consistently funny and written and directed with real class. And for first-time filmmaker Julia Hart, it’s a remarkable achievement.


Film Review: The WitchFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 8 Mar 2016

The title is purposefully ambiguous. Just who is the ‘witch’ in Robert Eggers’ directorial debut? Is it Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), under whose watch an infant goes missing; is it her younger sister Mercy; or is there really something wicked in those unnervingly empty woods? Show the rest of this post…

Set in New England at some point preceding the Salem witch trials, this taut horror stars Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie as William and Katherine, devout Christian settlers who, in the opening scene, are exiled from a settlement for only vaguely established reasons. They set up a homestead in the dreary fields outside a wood, and shortly afterwards their infant son goes missing from under the watch of their eldest daughter Thomasin.

William is a particularly pious man, caring and devoted to his family, but also strangely ineffective in his position as patriarch. Ineson plays him with gravelly voiced gravitas. His wife, Katherine, distraught by the loss of their child, begins to doubt her own children, particularly Thomasin – perhaps even her own faith. The resulting drama – the film carries the subtitle ‘A New England folktale’ – sees Eggers patiently allow the family to combust, every now and again treating us to flashes of the otherworldly.

The film’s dialogue is delivered with the vocabulary and syntax of the time, which lends an air of believability – and also of strangeness – to proceedings. Although Thomasin is the protagonist, we are given reason to doubt all members of the family, including William, whose unwavering faith casts doubts over his ability to think clearly, and in particular the younger siblings Mercy and Jonas, who spend an awful lot of time with the homestead’s only black goat, mischievously named ‘Black Phillip’. The only sibling withheld from suspicion is god-fearing Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), whose fate inspires greater levels of panic in the family.

Eggers’ film is more concerned with the issues of faith, family and coming of age than it is with actual witchcraft, although he cannot resist giving us a few flashes of some pretty disturbing imagery. What, ultimately, do these elements tell us? And what is meant by the evocative conclusion? That conclusion is preceded by a brilliant scene in which the camera lingers on Thomasin during a particularly sinister conversation.

That conclusion is welcome, because the mid-section of the film is a tad uneven. One melodramatic scene, played like an homage to the Exorcist, doesn’t quite hit hard enough, and is preceded by a series of dramatic movements that don’t quite come off, in which William’s paranoia causes him to rapidly shift allegiances. I also found the score a tad too pushy; although Mark Korven has created a mostly wonderful soundscape that complements the drama, there are occasions when it simply ramps up the volume for a cheap scare, which seems at odds with the film’s patient approach.

Whether or not you find The Witch’s treatment of the supernatural frustrating (you could argue that some elements simplify its tackling of the issue of religion) will depend on how you look at it. In the end, it’s perhaps more of a genre piece than it initially appears to be. Regardless, it’s a well  played, pleasingly sinister film. Not outright scary for most of its runtime, and not perhaps what many fans of mainstream horror will be expecting, but it has the power to disturb.


Film Review: YouthFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 26 Jan 2016

What a delight Youth is – gorgeous, thoughtful, profoundly cinematic. Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has followed up his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty with this study of age and art, which unlike its predecessor is shot in English. Show the rest of this post…

Youth feels like the work of a talented director relaxing into a subject – in fact, a series of subjects – but not in an indulgent or lazy sense. It has a calm beauty in it.

Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger, a retired composer taking a break at a luxury Swiss sanatorium. His old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a much-admired director, is also at the retreat, accompanied by a team of youthful screenwriters collaborating on his next project, which frustratingly none of them can think of an ending for. Fred is described by his doctor as “apathetic”; he seems to accept the process of ageing more quietly than Mick, who still wants to produce art. Fred is retired, and will not compose again, even despite a visit from a royal emissary (Alex Macqueen) who tries his best to draw Fred out of retirement. The rest of the characters – and there are many – flit in and out of the narrative. Most prominently they include Rachel Weisz as Fred’s daughter Lena and Paul Dano as deep thinking but tormented Hollywood A-lister, Jimmy Tree.

Most obviously, the film ruminates on age – indeed, Fred and Mick spend time walking together talking about it – but it also meditates on emotion, communication and understanding. Fred and Mick are in some ways similar, but both have their own ways of thinking that may be flawed. Meanwhile, Jimmy watches the inhabitants of the film’s luxury resort setting (much as we do), and tries to understand them. Sorrentino allows the viewer to float through the resort, almost as if we were inhabitants ourselves, and to contemplate what it all means. Many of the supporting characters are enigmatic, uninhibited by backstory or exposition, and much like in real life, the background they provide is somehow integral to the whole.

The wonderfully talented cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, who has shot many of Sorrentino’s films, understands the way his director wants to tell his story; the two are in harmony throughout. On a simple visual level, the film is stunning to look at. The composition of shots throughout is not only beautiful, but meaningful. Witness, for example, the way numerous shots in water contort and contract our perceptions; or the way the camera focuses more and more closely on an increasingly heated conversation between Mike and one of his old stars (a terrifying Jane Fonda). In one subtly moving scene, Mike uses a telescope to illustrate to one of his young screenwriters how our perceptions change as we get older. It feels lazy to compare Sorrentino’s style to Fellini, because so many have done it before, but the comparison is apt, and complimentary.

As in The Great Beauty, Sorrentino uses music beautifully. Sometimes it enters scenes in the form of live music being performed at the retreat; at other times refrains we’ve heard before re-enter the narrative. The film’s conclusion features an Oscar-nominated piece of original music by David Lang, which helps bring the film to its rousing, overwhelming crescendo.

In the absence of Sorrentino’s regular leading man Toni Servillo, Michael Caine gives an excellent performance. He has said that he considers this the best performance of his career. That will be debated over time, but it is certainly one of his best. Opposite him, Keitel is also on top form, and the supporting cast, in particular Weisz and Dano, provide depth and texture to Sorrentino’s rich tapestry.

At first some of the dialogue feels a little forced, as if Sorrentino (who also wrote the film) wanted to cram every line with a meaningful little nugget. The script soon settles into itself, however, and there is some great writing in here. Only a recurring gag about Fred and Mike wondering what it would’ve been like to have slept with a mutual acquaintance from their past feels like a wrong note; though, to Sorrentino’s credit, even this seemingly throwaway detail is given a satisfactory conclusion. In general, the film balances drama, tragedy and comedy with deft precision; some of the cutaways and musical interludes are perfectly pitched. One mad nightmare sequence makes up for the fact that a certain cameo feels unnecessarily like stunt casting.

In the first act, the film feels a tad overstuffed, as if there are too many characters crammed in, but actually as the film meanders through its carefully constructed narrative, the supporting characters blend into something bizarrely beautiful. There are memorable moments throughout, from Lena’s heartbreaking single-take emotional outburst to Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea) giving Jimmy an intellectual dressing down in the moonlight. Sorrentino’s screenplay is so well structured that, by the time we reach the final act, each piece seems to be playing its own small but invaluable part; reflecting the film’s own orchestral climax.

Does Sorrentino attempt to tackle too much  in this film? Possibly, though I would rather see a director experimenting with too many ideas than scraping the barrel with too few. Youth is a rich and rewarding experience.


Film Review: The Big ShortFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 18 Jan 2016

In the best possible sense, The Big Short is a film that will make you angry. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis, Adam McKay’s comic drama details the events preceding the 2008 financial crisis with scabrous wit, bringing together a small bunch of “weirdos” who saw the crisis coming and, in their own ways, profited from it. In other words, it’s a comedy about crisis. Show the rest of this post…

The title refers to a method of betting against the housing market which, despite being touted as a booming industry in the period preceding the crash, was actually built on a swamp of bad debt. This is a bet first taken by Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and later by other groups including a unit of Morgan Stanley headed up by Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and a pair of youthful investors backed up by retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt, also one of the film’s producers).

McKay’s film finds a delicate balance between being slavish to the details while remaining remarkably fleet-footed. There are plenty of scenes in which characters stand around explaining to each other – indeed, often to the camera as well – what the jargon they’re using really means, and these are both welcome and funny. Characters frequently break the fourth wall to make comic quips or get us up to speed on difficult subjects, and this freewheeling sense of fun pervades the film. At no point does the serious subject matter – and the film is deadly serious underneath its comic exterior – ever feel at odds with the jovial tone. In fact, McKay – along with his co-writer Charles Randolph and his actors – have succeeded in achieving what the best politically motivated satire can do: The Big Short is playful, yes, but also furiously angry. Its political points hit harder because it’s funny. On a regular basis, the audience is jolted out of its laughter by the sudden realisation that we’re laughing at a bunch of scandalously well-paid crooks.

McKay is a director best known for his numerous collaborations with Will Ferrell (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, The Other Guys) but in the absence of his regular leading man, he’s made the best film of his career. The Big Short takes the rigour of something like Margin Call and combines it with the excess of The Wolf of Wall Street (both films about the crash) and manages to blend the two together with craft, wit and righteous fury. Martin Scorsese’s film was accused by some of being flippant towards its subject matter, but actually had a crushingly poignant endnote despite its indulgences. What’s great about The Big Short is that it achieves a level of open-mouthed disgust, combined with genuinely funny moments, pretty much from beginning to end.

Yes, this does mean that grouchy Mark Baum (a partly fictionalised version of a real person) in some ways comes to represent the audience’s position of outrage – often spelling out the pretty obvious – but Steve Carell’s excellent performance bridges the gap between this world and ours. Ryan Gosling is also on great form as sleazy trader Jared Vennett, and Christian Bale too as Burry, a heavy-metal obsessed and socially awkward numbers whizz. The supporting cast, who are too numerous to mention here, are on top of their game. There’s a great scene involving two real estate crooks which feels like a comic deleted scene from last year’s 99 Homes, also a post-crash diatribe. Only Marisa Tomei feels wasted as Baum’s wife; like The Wolf of Wall Street, this film depicts a very male world, and as such the women can’t help feeling a little bolted on.

The ‘heroes’ in this story are at best morally ambiguous. We cheer for them because, in their own way, they are fighting the duplicity of the banking machine, but they remain defined, in a sense, by greed. The film is smart enough not to make saints of them, convincingly portraying the idea that the system is so deeply flawed and so massive, so shot-through with, in Vennett’s words, “greed and stupidity”, that individual morality becomes practically irrelevant.

How many comedies inspire this sort of discussion? The Big Short feels like, dare I say it, an important film. It’s directed with palpable anger and verve by Adam McKay, although I have to admit I felt it was a little over-directed at times. There are a lot of visual ticks in the film – extreme close ups, freeze-frames, montages and so on – most of which are great, but which do start to get a little tiresome. At times I wanted the camera to stay still a little more, but in general McKay’s tricks convey the sense of a fast-moving industry too insular to really look at itself. You could also argue there’s very little characterisation in the film, and the small attempts at establishing depth feel a tad perfuncto ry. But it would be unforgivable to end on a sour note for what will surely be one of the year’s most memorable and provocative comedies. It’ll make you angry, but in a good way.


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