Money Monster

Money Monster (2016) on IMDb

Directed by Jodie Foster; stars Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Christopher Denham, Caitriona Balfe. Cert 15.  99 mins.

As director, Jodie Foster has had a rather patchy career that started with Little Man Tate in 1991. This was followed four years later with the comedy Home for the Holidays. Both films received mixed reviews and Foster’s skills as director faltered on several levels. Foster herself may have realised that, at this point in her career, directing was not her forte and subsequently waited 16 years before directing and starring alongside Mel Gibson in The Beaver. Dealing as it does with depression, not an easy subject to tackle, Foster maintains credibility and focus throughout, drawing a compelling, forceful performance from co-star Gibson. Alternating her acting roles Foster went on to direct one episode of Netflix political drama House of Cards and two episodes of Orange is the Only Black. 

In her fourth film as director Foster pulls out all the stops to deliver an engaging, well-crafted, tense thriller that deals with corrupt financial trading and how this affects investors. Money Monster is a TV show hosted by charismatic financial wizard Lee Gates (Clooney). Gates clowns around on set before dishing out investing tips to impressionable viewers eager to find the next big deal. When one of his tips goes bad, leading to the loss of $800m in one day, Lee insincerely jokes that some of his investors got their ‘asses-smacked’.

Cue down-on-his-luck Kyle Budwell (O’Connell) who gains access to the set and hijacks the show. Kyle, having lost his life savings investing in Gates dodgy deal, wants answers as to why the supposedly rock-solid deal went bad. Instructing Gates to wear a suicide vest Kyle airs his grievances live on air as producer Patty Fenn (Roberts) struggles to maintain control.

While Roberts and Clooney lead the movie it is an inspired choice to cast rising star Jack O’Connell as Kyle Budwell. Derby born O’Connell came to prominence as James Cook in TV series Skins which led to him being cast as a violent teenager moved to an adult prison in Starred Up proving his survival instincts. Surviving was the theme of his next movie ’71 where, as a young rookie soldier, he is deserted on the streets of war-torn Belfast. In both films O’Connell gives stand-out performances not to be misses and it was no surprise that the actor received the EE Rising Star award at the 2015 BAFTA ceremony.

O’Connell’s Kyle rages against the machine determined to get answers and expose a rigged system. It is a stance he knows could end badly. All he wants are answers. As usual with hostage dramas the police locate and bring in Kyle’s pregnant girlfriend, a plot devise that at first appears cliched develops against all expectation and had the guy next to me yelling ‘Oh, my God’ at the screen! Kyle’s emergence onto crowded sidewalks recalls that of Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) whilst the media background is reminiscent of, though no match for, Lumet’s Network (1967).

Foster’s film doesn’t doubt that money rules our lives but is an uneasy reminder of how little we know of what goes on behind the scenes. Entertaining and well worth seeing.

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Our Kind Of Traitor

Our Kind of Traitor (2016) on IMDb

Director: Susanna White; stars Ewan McGregor, Damian Lewis, Stellan Skarsgard. Cert 15. 107 mins.

Dima, a money launderer for Russian gangsters enlists College lecturer, Perry Makepiece and girlfriend Gail, a lawyer, to pass details of these transactions to MI6.  Dima fears for his family’s safety and in return for information wants to ensure safe passage for himself and his family to London. Perry and Gail find themselves drawn into Dima’s elaborate plot as intermediaries between duplicious MI6 Agent Hector and Dima.

There have been numerous film and television adaptations of John Le Carre’s novels, the most recent being The Night Manager (BBC), A Most Wanted Man and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Susanna White’s thriller, Our Kind  Of Traitor being the latest big screen adaptation. Le Carre’s novels are both complex and detailed and one problem of adapting them into a two hour movie is that justice isn’t given to nuances and character development. This is why the six-part BBC adaptation of The Night Manager worked so well as the extended running time allowed for the gradual development and relationships between characters to emerge. Serialised dramas, unlike feature films, are able to more closely follow the trajectory of the novel, enabling plot points, laced with elements of surprise, to be subtly developed.

While director Susanna White effectively maintains the tension throughout the film, especially during the escape sequence, overall development of the plot is unengaging, cliched and bland. What is expected of espionage thrillers is a fair amount of double-dealing, subterfuge and surprising plot twists but here events are as predictable as a warning note slipped under the door. Actions meant to surprise lose their shock potential as they are too obvious and the giveaway mobile phone call from the hideout is both weak and unimaginative.

Perry Makepiece is far too gullible and unbelievable as the college professor drawn into Dima’s plans and credibility is stretched when his educated, lawyer girlfriend Gail willingly becomes entangled in the plot. What saves the movie from being totally mundane are the two central performances from Stellan Skarsgard as Dima, the Russian money launderer and Damien Lewis’ duplicious MI6 agent, Hector. Dima and Hector are credible, resourceful characters whom Skarsgard and Lewis endow with depth and complexity of character. Ewan McGregor’s performance appears laboured and lacks conviction, possibly too much globe-trotting with sidekick Charlie Boorman! Makepiece comes across as a lame duck rather than the hero of the piece.

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is allowed free reign and delivers some lush photography, especially the climatic showdown in the French Alps that has overtones of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Overall one of the lesser LeCarre cinematic adaptations.

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Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) on IMDb

Director: Stephen Frears; Starring: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Christian McKay, Nina Arianda. PG cert, 110 mins

Florence Foster Jenkins is a delicious comedy based on the life story of the New York heiress and socialite who lived with the belief that she was a great opera singer. Jenkins performances sold out faster than a Justin Bieber concert and her recorded works became instant collectors items. Not a bad record for a woman whose voice often resembled a wolf howling at the moon. Florence’s fame spread because of her commitment to her music that brought her joy and a purpose for living. It was a pleasure she wanted to share and nurture and, being a wealthy woman, Florence provided financial supported to struggling musicians and the theatre, whose patrons indulged her passion.

Stephen Frears poignant film depicts Florence as a tragi-comic character caught up in her own delusion and effectively draws out the humour within the tragedy. Florence epitomises a 1940’s ‘X-Factor’ hopeful, believing she has the voice of an angel, with her supporters shouting enthusiastic encouragement from the wings. Florence’s delusion becomes clear as she is unable to discern how bad her singing is when listening to her recorded voice. Perhaps her hearing is as poor as many elderly patrons who support her!

Streep gives Florence warmth and heart, playing this dumpy songstress as a flirtatious schoolgirl forever seeking her moment in the spotlight. An accomplished singer in her own right Streep is note perfect hitting all the wrong notes. It is a remarkable display on how to act well while appearing terrible.

Hugh Grant is perfect as Florence’s second husband St. Clair. Gone are the awkward, stuttering utterances so familiar in many of his previous characters. Devoted to Florence he effectively shields his wife from all negative comment, reviews and gossip. He sails through each scene with wit and charm, reminiscent of Cary Grant in the screwball comedies of the thirties. The affection between Florence and St. Clair dispels any notion that he is a gold-digger, even though the relationship is sexless.

Simon Helberg, best known as Howard in The Big Bang Theory, ramps up the humour as Cosme McMoon. Employed to accompany Florence on piano McMoon’s surprised expressions on first hearing Florence’s off-key tones had me aching with laughter. Cosme is young, soft-spoken, effeminate and charming and it is through him that we learn of Florence and St. Clair’s unconventional relationship.

This is a sweet, charming movie that gently ushers you into Florence’s happy world that will leave a smile on your face.

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Eye In The Sky

Eye in the Sky (2015) on IMDb

Directed by Gavin Hood. Stars Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Iain Glen, Monica Dolan, Phoebe Fox. 102 mins.

Col. Katherine Powell, a military officer in command of an operation to take out militants planning a terrorist attack finds the mission compromised when a nine-year old girl is seen playing in the ‘kill zone’.

Director Gavin Hood effectively builds the tension as the dispute over when to engage escalates to the highest level of US and British Government. Skilfully the film explores the moral, political and personal implications of modern warfare involving drone strikes. The movie is very well paced and events happen almost in real time.

A flawless cast, led by Helen Mirren as Powell, ably supported by Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson. This was Rickman’s last on-screen role and it is fitting that he flawlessly delivers the last, and best line of dialogue, in the movie. Having moved on from Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul delivers one of his best performances as conflicted flight operative Steve Watts. He has to launch the ‘seek and destroy’ missile thousands of miles away from the combat zone and ultimately decides to halt the mission and throw the rule book at Powell. Following his superb performance as the hijacker in Captain Phillips, Barkhad Abdi is convincing here as agent Jama Farah, facing the enemy on the ground while operating futuristic drones in the form of robotic humming birds and flying bugs. (Do these things actually exist?)

The tension is eased in part by Iain Glen’s UK Foreign Secretary, caught with a stomach bug, and forced to take a life-or-death call while on the loo in his hotel room. Similarly the US Secretary of State insists the Brits stop interupting his game of ping pong with the Chinese and just get on with it.

Guy Hibbert’s intelligent, dialogue heavy script does not distract from the action or the increasing tension as the issue surrounding collateral damage leads to heated debate between military personnel and politicians. A rare drama that explores the physical effects of war and its consequences.

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Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! (2016) on IMDb

Written and Directed by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen. With Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johannsen, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Veronica Osorio. 106 mins.

The latest Coen brothers movie, set in 1950’s Hollywood, follows a day in the life of studio fixer Eddie Mannix, who receives a ransom demand following the abduction of top studio star Baird Whitlock. The film is not so much a thriller as an homage to the golden era of Hollywood, epitomised by carefully crafted scenes that could have been edited from films of the period. Most affecting is Scarlett Johannsen as Esther Williams look-a-like DeeAnna Moran in a Busby Berkeley-inspired water ballet; Channing Tatum displays incredible versatility as dancing, singing, toe-tapping ‘Kelly-esque’ sailor Burt Gurney. George Clooney gloriously parodies himself as studio star Baird Whitlock, cast as a Roman centurion in the studios prestige picture, Hail, Caesar! – a pastiche of the overblown religious epics of the day.

What is clear is that writer/directors the Coen brothers have invested much thought and inspiration in interpreting scenes that are both entertaining, humorous and a joy to watch. Cinephiles will derive much pleasure in cross-referencing scenes and characters to other movies. In depicting Hollywood’s golden age, the Coen’s provide insight into a film industry that exhibited total control over the means of production. The studios at the time had an army of writers, directors, technicians and stars who laboured long and hard to deliver the movies audiences craved, many of which have stood the test of time and have come to be regarded cinema classics.

It is appropriate then that Hail, Caesar! is so well cast with an ensemble that resembles the cream of Hollywood’s most talented actors. Alongside the impeccable Clooney, Brolin, Johannsen and Tatum are Alden Ehrenreich, both charming and naive as lasso twirling, rodeo rider Hobie Doyle. Frances McDormand cameos as a hilarious, chain-smoking editor C.C Calhoun whose necktie becomes entangled in the editing machine, almost choking her. It is regrettable that there are so few scenes featuring the wonderful Tilda Swinton in a dual-role as gossip columnists Thora and Thessally Thacker. Such scenes could have livened up proceedings and given the film some much needed madcap humour.

The problem with the movie is that the overarching plot involving the kidnap and subsequent ransom demand for Baird Whitlock is banal and rather tedious, resulting in the action dragging along at a snail’s pace. Not to give too much away this plot is devised around political anarchists intent on sabotaging the capitalist ideals of both the movie studio and western society. Who is behind this is not too difficult to work out and at length the plot does appear rather clumsy and not too original.

From the preview trailer and positive reviews, I desperately wanted to enjoy Hail, Caesar! but was left with the opinion that it could have been much better. Enjoyable in part but lacks that extra sparkle.

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Reflecting on The Oscars 2016

The 88th Academy Awards Ceremony may well be remembered as one of the most controversial of recent years but, given host Chris Rock’s performance of a lifetime, be regarded as one of the best.

As usual, here in the UK its difficult to talk about all the nominees and winners given that it has not been possible to see them all. That said there were several surprises, some certainties and a few shocks. The latter being that neither sci-fi epics The Martian or Star Wars: The Force Awakens received a single award (unless in some obscure category!) The other shocking fact is that composer Ennio Morricone, receiving the Original Score Oscar for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, has never received an Oscar before. This, a composer with over 500 composer credits to his name that include some of the most memorable in cinema history: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Days of Heaven, The Mission, The Untouchables. Then again the Academy has a history of overlooking the greats: Hitchcock, Kirk Douglas, Orson Welles, Marilyn Monroe, Fred Astaire, Richard Burton to name a few.

The surprise of the evening was that Academy voters were so unanimous in their praise for  George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road which garnered six statuettes including sound mixing, sound editing, production design, editing and costume. This is the kind of movie the academy normally overlooks, going for the more prestigious projects. Fury Road was undoubtedly one of the highlights on cinema screens last summer and a film that I believe had great appeal whatever your age. Its depiction of a dystopian future was just a little too believable for comfort. My only disappointment was that both sound mixing and effects went to Fury Road as I considered the sound mix in The Revenant to be far superior.

I was also disappointed that Liz Garbus’ wonderful documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? while nominated, failed to receive any awards at both the BAFTAs and the Oscars.

But then enough of the also rans and onto the winners (though I admit that all the nominees are also winners!). Of course, Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking cinematography on The Revenant outshone its fellow nominees. In both the original and adapted screenplays it was the catholic child abuse scandal in Spotlight and the financial crisis of The Big Short that received the nod. The Big Short excelled here in attempting to explain a dull, lifeless subject in a humorous and down to earth manner. What I find difficult to accept is that voters opted for Mark Rylance over Christian Bale or Mark Ruffalo for supporting actor. As I have stated in previous reviews I don’t see the brilliance of Rylance’s performance other than his quiet, laboured and contemplative demeanour. Compare this to the brash, manic, off the wall personification of Bale’s financial genius in The Big Short or Ruffalo’s measured, balanced investigative reporter in Spotlight. Ruffalo could easily have been billed a lead actor in Spotlight given the amount of screen time he has.

It was good to see Alicia Vikander named Best Supporting Actress for The Danish Girl. The difficulty of this role is that the supporting actor realises the focus is constantly on Eddie Redmayne’s transgender character but Vikander eloquently established Gerda’s understanding and pain. The only other stand-out performance in this category was Kate Winslet who had already received the BAFTA as Joanna Hoffman in Steve Jobs. In all her roles Winslet is usually recognised as herself but what I loved about her role in Steve Jobs was that I was part way into the movie before I realised she was the actress behind the character.

The Academy followed BAFTA in awarding Best Actress to Brie Larson for Room. This was a difficult one to call given that all the nominees were so accomplished and gave such brilliant performances in their respective parts. Personally I found Larson’s performance overshadowed in Room by the brilliance of young Jacob Tremblay as her son Jack who stole every scene he appeared in.

It was a little disappointing to see Spotlight receive the Best Picture Oscar over The Revenant, but then academy voters tend to prefer issue based dramas. But of course the night belonged to Leonardo diCaprio, receiving his first Oscar for The Revenant. This award is so long overdue for an actor who, throughout his career has excelled in every role he has had. It can only be hoped that this is the first of many Oscars that will adorn his mantle as he has been, and will remain for many years to come, at the top of his game. A very well deserved, and popular, win.

Thank you also to Alejandro Inarritu who, in his acceptance speech for Best Director of The Revenant, stated that the colour of one’s skin will one day be as insignificant as the length of one’s hair (or in my case lack of!) This being a reference to the boycott of the ceremony by several black actors in the ‘Oscars so white’ controversy. Black host Chris Rock faced this head on while presenting the show, taking a swipe a Jada Pinkett-Smith stating that her boycotting the Oscars was like him boycotting Rihanna’s panties. He wasn’t invited. He went on the lambast her husband Will Smith’s lack of appearance on the nominee list for Concussion, saying “It’s not fair… I get it. It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20m for Wild Wild West.”

Surely this is a protest that can so easily backfire. The academy, through a voting process that has stood for many years, nominated those actors that academy members deemed worthy of an award. I’m certain many black actors were among these nominees but did not receive sufficient votes to make the short-list. Most likely, as has already been reported, next year will see both black and white faces amongst the nominees. Surely those black faces will wonder whether they are there because of their talent or to fill the quota of black faces to make the Academy Awards appear more inclusive. I know one thing, I would not like to be a black actor nominated next year!!

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Deadpool (2016) on IMDb

Director: Tim Miller. Stars Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller, Karan Soni, Ed Skrein, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapicic. 108 mins.

Deadpool is not your normal superhero movie as is obvious as soon as the opening titles begin. Cast and crew credits are replaced with amusing descriptors. Star Ryan Reynolds is billed as ‘God’s Perfect Idiot’, director Tim Miller ‘An Overpaid Tool’ and the writers ‘The Real Heroes Here’! Once the action begins it is clear that lycra-clad Wade Wilson is no superhero but more an anti-hero determined to avenge those responsible for subjecting him to a rogue experiment. This experiment has left Wilson with new abilities and a twisted sense of humour while robbing him of his boyish good looks.

Script-wise the movie is little more than a verbal onslaught of witty, profanity laden asides focused on sex and masturbation. Star Ryan Reynolds is visually appealing in tight, figure hugging lycra and is both cheeky and irreverent as Deadpool. For once the promotional material didn’t lie in pronouncing him a ‘bad ass, smart ass, nice ass’. The latter features in close-up more than once! Reynolds delivers fast-paced one-liners loaded with self-deprecating digs at the pantheon of Marvel superheroes, Wolverine in particular. Apart from Reynolds there are no recognisable stars here, apart from Morena Baccarin. Nicholas Hoult look-a-like Ed Skrein is an appealing adversary as the sexy, mutilating Ajax.

This is a high-octane, violent movie not without its flaws. The repetitive humour that is initially appealing wears thin mid-way through. This is a basic, underdeveloped plot that gives nothing new whilst the violence/sfx underwhelm. That said this is a film that, with its quick-fire humour, will entertain young adults but have little appeal to the older, more discerning viewer – unless you have a liking for Ryan Reynolds hot ass!

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The Revenant

The Revenant (2015) on IMDb


Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnalll Gleeson, Lukas Haas. 156 mins.

The latest film from acclaimed Mexican writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu is a gruelling battle of survival in the American frontier of the 1820’s. The film is inspired by the true-life experience of tracker Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose primary concern is the wellbeing of his half-caste son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Given his superior knowledge of the territory Glass leads a disparate band of fur traders in search of valuable pelts. After a horrific bear attack he is believed fatally wounded and subsequently left for dead. Surviving against tremendous odds Glass is forced to battle hunger and the elements, travelling across a frozen wasteland in search of revenge against the man who betrayed him. Director Iñárritu is no stranger to individuals battling for survival having pushed boundaries with his first feature Amorres Perros, focused on battling urban gangs involved in illegal dog fighting. Subsequently feted by Hollywood his multi-layered 2003 film, 21 Grams, focused on mathematician Paul Rivers, faced with his own mortality while battling cancer and finding unexpected redemption. Reworking these themes the director transposed the drama to the seedier side of Barcelona where an ailing father (Javier Bardem) battles illness to provide for his children in the extraordinarily accomplished Biutiful (2010). Unlike his previous films The Revenant is a western-epic that reworks the genre in a style reminiscent of the great John Ford westerns of the 1940’s only Ford’s grand vistas of Monument Valley have been replaced by the harsh, winter-struck American wilderness.

Throughout the focus is firmly on Glass and his struggle for survival, a gruelling, sustained performance from DiCaprio who throws every ounce of his talent, and endurance, at the part – then gives more. I have long-admired DiCaprio’s talent – so convincing his portrayal of Arnie Grape that I believed the producers had been daring enough to cast an autistic actor. Of course this was Leo immersing himself in the part, as he would subsequently do in numerous roles from Romeo (Romeo & Juliet) to challenging DeNiro in This Boy’s Life then later portraying J Edgar, Gatsby and Howard Hughes. Throughout this time the boy matured, giving outstanding performances in Scorcese’s Gangs of New York and The Departed to personifying the greed and corruption as The Wolf of Wall Street. Scanning the actor’s filmography it appears a criminal oversight that he has still to be recognised with an Academy Award. That said this may just be his year. Hollywood loves a survivor and especially one that can survive one of the most challenging film shoots in the history of cinema.

The Revenant IS DiCaprio’s movie. Regular readers will know that I hold the acting talents of our own Tom Hardy in exceptionally high regard but I have to say that here even Hardy’s talent is overshadowed by DiCaprio’s brilliance. Were this a heavyweight match between Leo the Lion and the Welsh Dragon I have to say the Lion is the champion. Of course, that’s not to say that Hardy is bad. On the contrary, as Glass’ nemesis Fitzgerald he oozes malice and treachery as he cites what it takes to survive. Having previously been partially scalped by the Sioux, Fitzgerald’s primary concern is to save his own skin.

The Revenant is not only an engaging drama. Visually cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki captures the essence and brutality of the ever changing landscape. The camera weaves effortlessly across frost-encrusted plains before soaring to a high-angle extreme long shot to visually depict the sheer isolation of Glass, a dot on the landscape. The film is also a joy to the ears as the sound mixing immerses the viewer into the movie making it not only a visual but a sensory experience. With over 60 credits to the sound department alone much effort has been made to ensure the film sounds as good as it looks. The renegades travel through the bleak terrain winding through towering clusters of narrow trees that gently bend in the breeze. The subtle crack of the bark on the soundtrack caused me to look round more than once in the cinema as did the crackling of the gently melting stressed ice.

The Revenant may be a little far-fetched at times but the film does engage throughout it lengthy 156 minutes. Worth the admission for DiCaprio and the flawless visuals.

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The Big Short

The Big Short (2015) on IMDb

Director: Adam McKay; stars Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Steve Carrell, Marisa Tomei. 130 mins.

The Big Short is one of three movies hotly tipped to be awarded Best Film at tonight’s 69th BAFTA Film Awards. Adam McKay’s movie explores events leading up to the 2008 financial collapse that is told through three separate but parallel narratives. Unconventional Scion Capital fund manager, Michael Burry, attired in shorts, bare-footed with a Supercuts haircut, has determined that the US housing market is set to implode. He proceeds to bet millions of dollars against the housing market, which the banks are happy to accept given that a housing crash has never happened. Jared Vennett at Deutchebank cashes in on Burry’s beliefs and, through a wrongly dialled number, alerts financial expert Mark Baum to the mortgage scandal.

Explaining the financial crisis is akin to simplifying the theory of relativity. So complex, detailed and tightly sealed within layers of acronyms and financial speak this is a subject viewed as complicated and dry by most people. Writer/Director McKay addresses this problem early on, alerting his audience to this very fact which ensures that financial institutions can operate with little challenge or regulation. However the director doesn’t allow this fact to discourage him, employing intermittent sequences to explain, in simplified form, how the banks were operating. This works to some degree and is effective in bringing a little levity and humour to proceedings. Anyone having seen Charles Ferguson’s Oscar winning documentary Inside Job (2011) will know how complicated and difficult to explain the crisis is.

One thing this movie is not short of is talent. As outsider and financial genius Michael Barry, Christian Bale once again proves his amazing versatility in portraying Barry’s unconventional style and manic behaviour. Steve Carrell excels as the complex idealist  Baum and Brad Pitt gives a good turn as disillusioned financier Ben Rickert. There cannot be a man, woman or animal on the planet that fails to fall for the charm of Ryan Gosling. Gosling’s Jared Vennett states at the end of the film that he is not the hero of the story, which no one is given they succeed at the cost of others. But Gosling’s anti-hero narrator, self-assured and perfectly coifurred, oozes brash charm that doesn’t fail to engage.

More accessible that Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes (2014) this is a film that engages and entertains. The film’s stellar cast will undoubtedly attract a wider audience than Ferguson’s 2011 documentary, which will be no bad thing in that a greater number will be informed about the sub-prime mortgage scandal. I’m not sure if this will be enough to garner The Big Short Best Film BAFTA – for what it’s worth, my money is on The Revenant!

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Trumbo (2015) on IMDb

Director: Jay Roach. Stars Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Michael Stuhlbarg, David James Elliott, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Richard Portnow, Roger Bart, Elle Fanning, Dean O’Gorman, Christian Berkel. 124 mins.

Dalton Trumbo is not a name many people, outside the film industry, will recognise. When the credits role audiences generally note the name of the stars and director but pay little attention to the multitude of cinematographers, writers, editors, sound engineers, graphics designers and other technicians involved in the movie. Take a look at most reviews, even this one, and note the limited information below the title that details only the director, stars and running time! Well, no one wants to read the full cast and crew – it is readily available on iMDB. But I digress!

In the mid-1940’s Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter. As stated above, you may not know the name but you will have heard his dialogue in movies such as Kitty Foyle (1940), A Guy Named Joe (1943), Mission To Moscow (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). Still a little obscure? Then how about Gun Crazy (1950), Roman Holiday (1953), The Brave One (1956), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Spartacus (1958) and Papillon (1973). The Brave One was awarded Best Screenplay Oscar for writer Richard Rich, whom no-one knew to be Trumbo. The latter movies, from 1950 onwards, were all  written by Trumbo under various pseudonyms after he was blacklisted following his branding as a communist by the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC). The Hollywood 10, writers and directors including Trumbo, were subsequently jailed for contempt after refusing to testify to Congress, citing the first amendment on free speech as their defence.

Jay Roach’s biopic, Trumbo, is based on the book by Bruce Cook that has been adapted by John McNamara. (After what I’ve just said I must acknowledge the writers of the novel and screenplay!) McNamara’s screenplay is a slow build that takes a while to gain momentum. I did find the first half of the movie devoid of feeling, but then events gather pace following Trumbo’s release from prison and his subsequent work while blacklisted.

Bryan Cranston, (Breaking Bad‘s Walter White), personifies the chain-smoking, mild-mannered, workaholic Dalton Trumbo in what is a measured performance that allows an understanding of the man and essence of his character. It is an amusing sight to see how this unconventional writer works, writing and editing scenes while sitting in the bathtub. I did wonder whether he kept topping up the hot water or did the cold water aid his creative flow? Trumbo was never a man lost for words and it is fitting that in the climatic scene of the movie he denounces HUAC as having utterly failed in its aims and objectives, pointing out that it’s only success being the destruction of so many lives and families. An earlier scene sees Trumbo’s showdown with ‘Big Daddy’ John Wayne, then President of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Wayne has just made a speech denouncing communists as a threat to the American way of life that had been fought for by the brave troops during World War II. Trumbo, in front of newsmen and the Hollywood elite, after telling of his own and fellow writers military service, reminds Wayne that he was on a movie set throughout the war, wearing make-up and playing with toy guns. “If you are going to hit me” says Trumbo calmly, “please let me remove my glasses first” to a barrage of flash bulbs all around.

The hovering spectre at the feast is gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, brilliantly portrayed by an imperious Helen Mirren who seems to miraculously appear on screen. You can almost feel the vitriolic bile oozing from her pores as she attempts to control all around her. An accomplished cast portray giants from Hollywood’s golden era, Michael Stuhlbarg as a conflicted Edward G. Robinson, David James Elliott as a not-too convincing John Wayne look-a-like, Louis C.K. as Trumbo’s co-writer Arlen Hird and Richard Portnow as Louis B. Mayer. Diane Lane is superb, as Trumbo’s long-suffering wife, Cleo. Lane’s portrayal is both measured and reserved, never overly-emotional, and yet her anguish and pain is there to see. Another stand-out moment is the sudden appearance of Dean O’Gorman as a young Kirk Douglas. The resemblance here is remarkable and Dean, while surrounded by such remarkable talent, manages to emote the star quality and charisma of his character.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who award the Oscar’s, have always loved movies about Hollywood – Sunset Boulevard, The Player, Singin’ In The Rain, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Artist, to name a few. So it is no surprise that Bryan Cranston has been nominated for a best actor Oscar. In this case it may be the Academy’s way of atoning  the sins of it’s not too glorious past. A movie that reminds us that Hollywood was not always so great but also that, in Trumbo’s case, where there is a will, there is a way.

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