Oscars 2016 Recap – The Big Short Review

The Big Short provides a wry look at the financial crisis that’s both entertaining and educational.

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Christian Bale as socially awkward Michael Burry. Copyright 2015 Paramount Pictures.

With The Big Short, director Adam McKay’s heritage as a comedy helmsman is clear, never taking himself too seriously despite a thoroughly depressing subject. For a story that could have been enormously hard going, there’s a lightness of touch throughout that makes The Big Short a joy to watch, if a little hard to follow, complemented by an ensemble cast of heavyweight performers.

Documenting the run up to the 2007-2008 financial crisis, The Big Short is a fictionalised account of a few individuals who predicted the crash and sought to cash in on their foresight. The events are fast paced and wordy, with regular breaks in the fourth wall to ensure you’re keeping up with the jargon-heavy dialogue. Indeed, from the erratic cinematography to the constant cutaways, The Big Short walks the line between documentary and drama. There’s a sense of both Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job and Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street, admittedly with fewer orgies and more Collateralised Debt Obligations than the latter.

The Big Short is focussed around a small number of characters, with independent but inter-connected stories, and as such the central cast hold the film together. Both Steve Carell and Christian Bale are deserving of particular praise, playing outside of type in the film’s two most complex roles. They are supported by an effectively smug performance from Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt in what amounts to an extended but welcome cameo. As the film weaves between their individual narratives, no one outstays their welcome and the pacing maintains excitement in a topic that you may have otherwise dismissed as interminably dull.

What is never quite clear, however, is if these canny investors are more interested in making themselves rich or teaching a lesson to the corrupt system, and indeed the film itself doesn’t seem very sure if it wants to be a fun romp through a topical backdrop, or a damning indictment of capitalist greed. This results in a somewhat inconsistent tone and a sharp left turn in the film’s final moments, as everything becomes quite serious once the housing market tumbles. It’s a reflective denouement that feels necessary, but could have been handled in a more fitting manner.

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Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling. Copyright 2015 Paramount Pictures.

However, in dealing with these hugely complex issues, The Big Short doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions. The picture takes a nuanced and surprisingly in-depth approach to the financial crisis, doing its best to explain the complexities in simple terms. It’s probably best to brush up on a basic overview of the real events if you want to come away with a full understanding of what happened, but the script makes a valiant effort to introduce beginners. Although McKay’s comedic style does much to elevate this heavy material to something highly watchable, the documentary-style footage can be distracting at times. His camera work is often reminiscent of TV comedies The Office or Parks and Recreation, incessantly zooming and dropping out of focus in a faux-amateur manner, which was usually more distracting than immersive.

Nevertheless, The Big Short is a film that’s much easier to like than it is to criticise. It points an accusing finger at the banking classes, and will leave you feeling rightly outraged at the greed and carelessness of a system that brought the world to its knees and got away with it. Underpinning all this are some excellent performances and a genuinely funny script. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why the economy is in the state it is, or who was to blame, The Big Short is essential viewing. It’s fun, clever, and above all, important.

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Oscars 2016 Recap – Mad Max: Fury Road Review

Mad Max: Fury Road is a modern classic of the action genre. Unashamedly bombastic from beginning to end, George Miller effortlessly blends the old-school with the state-of-the-art.

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Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky. Copyright 2015 Warner Bros. Ent.

The original Mad Max may have been released in 1979, but it was the 1981 sequel that rightfully secured its place as a pop culture phenomenon. Anyone familiar with Mad Max 2, or The Road Warrior as it is alternatively known, will remember the seminal, climactic chase involving an oil tanker and a bunch of leather-clad bastards in pursuit. If you’re wondering what Mad Max: Fury Road is like, it’s basically that, but extended over two hours.

And that’s a wonderful thing. Decades since the misjudged Mad Max 3: Beyond the Thunderdome, director George Miller has returned to the Australian action franchise that made his name, and he delivers with aplomb. Mel Gibson has been replaced by Tom Hardy as the eponymous Max, but the violent, visceral world around him remains unchanged. Set in a post-apocalyptic Australian desert, Fury Road tells a familiar tale of one man’s fight for survival and, eventually, redemption, in a world gone to hell. But this is really only half the story. Max may have his name in the title, but it’s Charlize Theron’s Furiosa who takes the front seat for much of the film, providing most of the substance both narratively and emotionally. Although Furiosa has a lot more to say and do than Hardy’s half-mute protagonist, it is to the latter’s credit that he provides a powerful screen presence despite his limited role. These two leads give effective, world-weary performances, saying as much in their actions as their words.

Ostensibly, Fury Road is composed of a single, extended car chase, with occasional lulls and highs in the action. But it is a mistake to consider the film in such simplified terms. Yes, the action rarely relents, and you’re likely to emerge exhausted when it’s all over, but there’s more going on behind the crashes and explosions. The main characters all feel refreshingly complex, despite their cartoonish exteriors; they give the impression of real and lived-in people, and there isn’t any need for clunky exposition to tell you. Fury Road is a visual experience, but this shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of development. The plot may be lightweight, but it serves the action and characters admirably. It’s an action film, first and foremost, but you don’t need to leave your brain at the door.

Essential to its success is the fact that Fury Road feels real. There is a constant sense of physicality throughout that allows you to connect with the events on screen. It’s an insane, exaggerated world, but the gritty façade keeps everything grounded and engaging. Certainly, it is a tribute to Miller’s talents that he was so seamlessly able to blend physical stunts with visual effects, with the film a sure shoe-in for awards recognition in this regard.

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Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa. Copyright 2015 Warner Bros. Ent.

It must come as something of a wake-up call to the Hollywood establishment that a 70-year old man,  whose most successful films include Babe and Happy Feet, was able to make the best action film of 2015. There is a palpable lack of complacency throughout the picture; an abundance of on-location shooting and intricate set design, practical stunts and effects, and human characters with motivations that feel believable and multi-faceted. You feel that there was a desire to do something different, as the frame rate purposefully stutters and the camera manoeuvres unconventionally through the action. Not all of these artistic flairs are necessarily successful, the colour palate is distractingly over-saturated, for example, but they all amount to a bolder and more interesting film than could have been.

Mad Max: Fury Road is, in a word, spectacular, and should be seen on the largest screen possible. Considering its lack of pretension as anything more than an action film, it was pleasing to a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars this year. Considering the usual predictability of the awards, I would be more than happy to see it win, if anything for a little variety. Alas, such an outcome is unlikely, as the category is full of worthy and more conventional Oscar material. Fury Road’s most obvious talents lay in the technical realms, and this is where it should yield the most results.

The fourth Mad Max may not be the most thought provoking work of 2015, but it succeeds magnificently on its own terms and demonstrates the huge cinematic potential of the action genre. I would still rank it below its aged predecessor, Mad Max 2, which probably has greater depth despite its humble origins. However, this is a more than worthy sequel, invigorating a franchise most would have considered, at best, moribund. There’s still life in the old, mad dog yet, and I can’t wait to see more.

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Oscars 2016 Recap: Bridge of Spies Review

As part of my Oscars 2016 season, I’ll be reviewing some of the most popular nominees of 2015, weighing up their chances to win big at the awards this year. For the first entry, a review of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

Bridge of Spies is a tense, captivating experience with a stellar lead cast and some beautiful set-pieces. Maybe Spielberg has set himself to autopilot, but he remains a master of suspense.

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Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks. Copyright 2015 Dreamworks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The opening ten minutes or so of Bridge of Spies is undoubtedly its stand out sequence. Hardly a word is spoken as a group of FBI agents stalk their prey, Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), moving through the crowded subways and peaceful parks of circa-1957 Brooklyn. Nothing on screen is obviously amiss, but there is a pervasive feeling of unease cutting through the atmosphere. It’s a scene that might feel inane in less competent hands, but the technical prowess of 69 year-old Steven Spielberg remains evident. Within the first few frames, it is clear that atmosphere serves as the key to this film; from the snowy back streets of East Berlin, to an air force base in Pakistan, Bridge of Spies feels authentic to its cold war backdrop, helping to create a thoroughly believable world.

The picture’s greatest strength however, is in its emphasis on character; there is little time spent on the technicalities of international espionage, or the American criminal justice system. Fundamentally, it’s a human tale, the story of individuals who are both out of place and out of depth in an unforgiving world. The cast is primarily held together by its two leads; Tom Hanks is excellent as James B Donovan, an insurance lawyer unexpectedly thrown into the world of espionage and international negotiations when he is called upon to defend an exposed Soviet spy. However, particular praise must go to Mark Rylance, who gives a sympathetic and understated portrayal of the accused spy, Rudolf Abel. It’s a performance that casually moves from vulnerability, to stoicism, to humour, and does so in a restrained, quiet manner, which has thankfully been recognised with a supporting actor nomination at the Academy Awards.

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Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Copyright 2015 Dreamworks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The story revolves around the 1960 U2 crisis, blending real history with cinematic embellishments to heighten the stakes. It all makes for an enjoyable and rewarding cold-war thriller, although it’s difficult to shake a sense of rigidity in Spielberg’s style. As with much of the director’s work since the turn of the century, there appears to be an aversion to taking any real risks. Bridge of Spies won’t leave you guessing, and the film’s final few moments fall into by-the-numbers Spielbergian sentimentality. It’s beautifully shot, superbly-acted, and the story is competently told, but the opening sequence of the film promises a style that doesn’t quite deliver.

Bridge of Spies has been produced with a masterful level of craft. Spielberg and his collaborators, including usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and featuring the Coen Brothers on script-duty, have fashioned an entertaining and character-driven story. John Williams is notably missing from the roll-call, with Thomas Newman serving as an able replacement, but otherwise its business as usual for the aged auteur. When the credits roll, there simply isn’t much food for thought. The history is depicted semi-faithfully, while the final few sequences create a palpable air of tension, but it’s difficult to find yourself engaging on an emotional level. Despite its few nominations, Bridge of Spies is unlikely to make waves at the Oscars. Perhaps not Spielberg’s best, but for taut spy cinema done properly, look no further.

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