With: Laurent Ponsot, Jay McInerney, Jef Levy, Maureen Downey, Rajat Parr, Arthur Sarkissian, Corie Brown, Don Cornwell, David Fredston, Bill Koch, Brad Goldstein, Jim Wynne, Jerome Mooney, Vincent Verdiramo, Jason Hernandez
In the US in the early 2000’s, a young Indonesian wine collector named Rudy Kurniawan began making a name for himself. Apparently blessed with an incredible palate, and supported by a wealthy family background (he once boasted his annual allowance was a million dollars), Kurniawan bought huge amounts of fine and rare wines, and became a friend to several serious wine collectors, such as TV director Jef Levy, and retired businessman Bill Koch. His knowledge and appreciation of wine brought him a degree of fame that stood him in good stead when he began selling his own wines in the middle of the decade. Through the auction firm, Acker, Merral & Condit, in 2006 alone, wines from Kurniawan’s personal collection sold for over $35 million. But in 2008, he attracted the attention of Laurent Ponsot, the head of Domaine Ponsot, a burgundy producer who spotted that a number of wines that Kurniawan was selling were fakes. Ponsot travelled to the US and had the sale stopped, and while he decided to meet Kurniawan to assess his culpability, it was Bill Koch who began an investigation into Kurniawan’s background…
The old saying, You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time, could be an appropriate tagline for Sour Grapes, touching as it does on the gullibility of many of the people Kurniawan defrauded thanks to his superior knowledge of wine. Kurniawan’s ability to name-drop famous rare wines – and state that he’d drunk some of them – never failed to impress, even when he mentioned a number of vintages that one of his “marks” had failed to buy in twenty-five years. Another saying springs to mind as well: If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably isn’t. But all this happened in the wake of the boom years of the Nineties, when money was no object, and wine collectors thought nothing of paying tens of thousands of dollars for a single bottle. With such a culture of excess, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Kurniawan fared as well as he did, and the movie paints a compelling portrait of the symbiosis that was fostered: each side used each other for their own ends and personal gains.
As well as providing a great deal of subdued social commentary, Rothwell and Atlas have gone about telling Kurniawan’s fraudulent behaviour in a way that mimics a detective story. With his origins and his background shrouded in secrecy, the directing duo tease out clues at various stages and there are moments that wouldn’t feel out of place in a true crime show. Featuring interviews with the likes of Brad Goldstein, who mounted an investigation at Koch’s request, and Brown, who was the first journalist to question Kurniawan’s conspicuous wealth, the movie hits its stride once Ponsot becomes involved. A genial Frenchman with a wry sense of humour, Ponsot is the man who cries foul publicly, and then befriends Kurniawan in order to see if he’s another victim or the man responsible. It’s a moment where life outwits fiction, and in doing so, the movie veers off into a weird alternate reality that culminates in Levy declaring Kurniawan incapable of any wrongdoing. Rothwell and Atlas make sure to present as many different points of view as possible, and even acknowledge doubts that were expressed as to Kurniawan being a lone counterfeiter, but this is a fairly straightforward case that’s told in a fairly straightforward manner using a mix of interviews, contemporary footage (in which Kurniawan features a lot), and restagings of key events that emphasise just how different things were only a decade ago.
Rating: 7/10 – an absorbing movie for the most part, Sour Grapes still has to work hard to find the victims in what Kurniawan did, and more importantly, his motivation for doing it; an excellent case of Buyer Beware, there’s a measure of humour to be found when we discover that Kurniawan did most of his counterfeiting in the kitchen of his home in Arcadia, California, and a sense of amazement when the potential source, and scale, of his wealth is revealed late on.
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Bill Camp, Joshua Harto, Timothy Simons, Craig T. Nelson, Macon Blair, Adam LeFevre, Frank Wood, Michael Landes, Bhavesh Patel, Rachael Taylor, Stacy Keach, Bruce Greenwood
Kenny Wells (McConaughey) is a struggling businessman trying to keep his father’s company, Washoe Mining, afloat. Working out of the bar where his girlfriend, Kay (Howard) works, Kenny’s efforts are proving fruitless. One night he has a dream of finding gold in the jungles of Indonesia. Inspired by this, and the recollection of having met a geologist, Michael Acosta (Ramírez), who works in the region, Kenny reaches out to Acosta and convinces him to go into partnership with him. Michael will find a drilling site, and Kenny will put up the funding (using every last penny he can muster). The gamble pays off handsomely: gold is discovered, and when the news reaches the outside world, there’s no shortage of people and companies willing to invest in the newly revitalised Washoe Mining.
The company makes billions overnight, trading high on the Stock Exchange. But soon, word reaches Kenny and his team that the gold find in Indonesia is a fraud. The gold hasn’t been mined, but is river gold, not of the same calibre and nowhere near as valuable. Also, Michael has disappeared, along with $164 million that he’s accrued by dumping stock over the past few months. The FBI become involved, and their investigation, led by Agent Jennings (Kebbell), has one all-important question to ask: was Kenny a part of the fraud or not?
Using the 1993 Bre-X mining scandal as the basis for its story, Gold is a cautionary tale of desperation leading to blind greed as everyone buys into the gold find and sees multiple dollar signs everywhere – and without looking too closely to see if it was all above aboard. In this version, the movie makes it clear: the signs were there but no one wanted to look at them. The message then is “be careful what you wish for”, or more appropriately perhaps, “all that glitters is not gold”. However, this message is all but buried by the movie’s focus on Kenny and his struggle to avoid failure. Kenny is not one of Life’s winners, and even when he does achieve success it’s short-lived. He’s a loser, grabbing at a last chance to honour his father’s legacy. This is all well and good, but in terms of the movie and the story it’s trying to tell, it’s not that compelling. Thanks to the combination of Patrick Massett and John Zinman’s drawn-out screenplay and Stephen Gaghan’s static direction, Gold doesn’t trade in any expected highs and lows, but instead, maintains an even keel throughout its two hour running time.
This leaves the cast, and the audience, with little to connect with. McConaughey gives a committed performance, putting on weight, shaving back his hairline, and adopting crooked teeth, but does his appearance add depth or nuance to the character? Sadly, the answer is no. The rest of the cast, even Ramirez, are left stranded by the script’s focus on Kenny, and they operate as satellites around his ever decreasing orbit. And no one is memorable enough to stand out. The bulk of the movie is set in 1988, but this doesn’t add anything either, and Gaghan’s efforts to add tension to the movie’s latter half also fall short of succeeding. Gold could have been about a combination of avarice and hubris bringing about one man’s particular downfall. Instead it comes across as a weak-minded morality tale where no one and everyone is to blame, and the only consequence to it all is a last-minute “twist” that undermines everything that’s gone before.
Rating: 5/10 – lacklustre in both design and execution, Gold benefits from some stunning location photography (with Thailand standing in for Indonesia), and a well chosen soundtrack, but otherwise fails to impress; a missed opportunity then, and a movie that doesn’t make much of an impact thanks to its undeveloped potential.
Cast: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Dennis Boutsikaris, Emily Meade, Condola Rashad, Aaron Yoo
Lee Gates (Clooney) is the host of TV show, Money Monster. Gates acts as an advisor for anyone looking to invest their money in stocks and shares, but he does so in a hyped-up, devil-may-care fashion that makes him seem sharp and ahead of the game. From the opening dance routines to his frequently ad hoc approach to any scripted segments, Gates talks and behaves as if he can’t ever be wrong. As he gears up to present the latest edition of the show, Gates is expecting to interview Walt Camby (West), the CEO of IBIS Clear Capital, an investment company whose main trading algorithm has developed a glitch and “lost” $800 million, leaving some of their investors high and dry. But Camby is off the grid, and his chief communications officer, Diane Lester (Balfe), is left to field Gates’s questions.
Once on air, the show is interrupted by a delivery man (O’Connell) who appears on set and reveals he has a gun. He forces Gates to put on a vest that’s crammed with C4, and threatens to detonate the explosives unless he gets some answers as to why IBIS’ algorithm went so badly wrong. The delivery man, whose name is Kyle Budwell, is appalled that Gates, and everyone else, is just accepting Camby’s line that it was all just a glitch. Why, he asks, isn’t anyone asking how it could have happened, and why is everyone not as angry as he is, especially as Gates, on a previous edition of the show, told his viewers that investing in IBIS was safer than investing in savings bonds.
The police are quick to arrive, and the show is allowed to carry on broadcasting live. Gates’s producer, Patty Fenn (Roberts), is stuck in the unenviable position of having to keep both Gates and Kyle calm, and to keep the on-set camera and sound team from being hurt as well. Soon the police – and Gates – learn that Kyle inherited $60,000 when his mother died and he invested it all in IBIS shares; now he has virtually nothing except a job that pays fourteen dollars an hour and a pregnant girlfriend, Molly (Meade). Meanwhile, Diane begins to suspect that all isn’t as it seems at IBIS when her senior colleagues prove less than helpful as she tries to piece together what happened to make the company lose so much money in one hit. And as she begins to work out what happened, so too does Patty and Gates. As the mounting evidence points to fraud on a massive scale, Camby resurfaces, and he and Gates and Kyle find themselves on a collision course to reveal the truth.
If you’re thinking that Money Monster sounds like a fast-paced financial thriller where Wall Street is the bad guy, and Clooney portrays a champion for the little guy who exposes fraud and corruption wherever they rear their ugly heads, then you’re going to be disappointed. It is a financial thriller, that much is true, but the pacing is a little haphazard, and any tension inherent in the material is worn down by director Jodie Foster’s unwillingness to have the movie edited appropriately (and it’s not as if her editor, Matt Chessé, hasn’t any experience in this area – he’s worked on both World War Z (2013) and Quantum of Solace (2008) before now). This is best expressed in a horribly lengthy sequence that sees Gates and Kyle walk from the TV studios to Federal Hall, surrounded by armed police and baying crowds. With precious little happening apart from Clooney looking anxious and O’Connell looking like he can’t work out what’s going on, the sequence comes to a contrived end long after you’ve begun hoping that they’ll get there already.
With the movie’s thriller elements lacking energy or defined purpose, there’s the small matter of the McGuffin, the $800 million. Such is the muddled approach to the story as a whole, that the script – by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Rouf – never really decides if it’s important or not. That Camby is behind its disappearance is never in doubt, but Kyle’s motivations for challenging its public perception as a glitch manage to change from scene to scene. One minute he wants the money back so all the investors who’ve lost out can be remunerated, the next he wants an explanation as to how the money could have vanished in the first place, and then he’s looking for an admission of guilt. With the script unable to decide what Kyle wants, it leaves O’Connell adrift and having to do the best he can with a character who keeps telling Gates he’s not stupid, but who is then outed by his girlfriend as being exactly that (and when she does, it’s harsh).
Clooney is left stranded a lot of the time, especially in the twenty minutes or so after Kyle’s arrival on set. But when Gates is given stuff to do – argue about the state of his life against Kyle’s, plead with the public to buy IBIS shares in order to save his life – he’s stuck with dialogue that feels and sounds clunky and unconvincing. Clooney is a very good actor, but not even he can do anything with lines such as, “We take care of each other. It’s in our DNA. Not because an equation tells you to do it, but because it’s the right thing to do.” Roberts is likewise hampered by a role that requires her to be too many things at once: TV producer, hostage negotiator, amateur detective, and grudging friend (to Gates). She does her best but in the end has to coast along with the vagaries of the script like everyone else.
The script tries to make the apparent complacency of ordinary investors as much to blame for financial disasters as it does the banks, the investment companies and the government, an argument that sounds edgy but is quickly shelved once Camby’s apparent perfidy is placed front and centre, and there are some Gosh No! moments when Kyle trots out a few financial conspiracy theories, but on the whole this is a movie with a script that doesn’t know exactly what it wants to say, and sadly, a director who doesn’t quite know how to get it into better shape. There are stretches where Money Monster is quite listless, content to cruise along in neutral and wait until the next plot development hoves into view. What that means for the viewer though, is a movie that never grips as it should, and never engages consistently with its audience.
Rating: 5/10 – only moderately rewarding, Money Monster lacks discernible energy and stumbles around trying too hard to be an efficient thriller (without quite knowing how to be one); a disappointment then given the talent involved, this could have been a lot more interesting, and a lot more entertaining, if it hadn’t been so rambling in its approach and its execution.
Cast: Pat O’Brien, Claire Trevor, Herbert Marshall, Ray Collins, Wallace Ford, Dean Harens, Damian O’Flynn, Erskine Sanford, Mary Ware
Suggested by the wonderfully titled short story, Madman’s Holiday by Fredric Brown, Crack-Up is, on face value, yet another cheap throwaway movie made by RKO in the post-war years, and of little interest to anyone who isn’t a fan of Pat O’Brien, Claire Trevor or Herbert Marshall. But look more closely and you’ll find a neat little thriller, still modest by the standards of the day, but with an approach to the material that makes it a fascinating piece to watch.
O’Brien is noted art critic and curator George Steele. When the movie begins we see him desperately trying to break into a museum late one evening. He appears drunk and he’s violent towards the policeman who tries to stop him. Once inside the museum the policeman manages to knock him unconscious. When he comes to he’s surrounded by Barton and some of the other museum trustees, as well as Terry, a visiting Englishman called Traybin (Marshall), and a police lieutenant called Cochrane (Ford). When Steele starts talking about being involved in a train crash earlier, it’s Cochrane who breaks the bad news: there hasn’t been a train crash (and his mother isn’t in the hospital). Certain there has been a crash, Steele allows himself to be pacified by one of the trustees, Dr Lowell (Collins). Lowell asks Steele if he can remember anything before the so-called crash, and though his mind is obviously disturbed, Steele recounts events from earlier in the day.
He gives a lecture at the museum, and is particularly interested in debunking the idea that art and culture are the exclusive properties of the rich and prosperous. He wants to see art made more available to the general public, an idea that worries the museum’s director, Barton (Sanford). When Steele goes further, and voices his plan to allow the public to see paintings being x-rayed so as to see how some artists have painted over an existing work, Barton is incensed and tells Steele he will do his best to block the idea and ensure it never happens.
Unperturbed by Barton’s waspish attitude, Steele hooks up with an old flame, Terry Cordell (Trevor) and they go for a drink together. Steele receives a call that tells him his mother is sick in hospital. He heads straight for the train station where he boards the first available train north. But as the train approaches one of its stops, Steele sees another train that he’s convinced will crash headlong into his. The other train gets nearer and nearer, and beyond that Steele can’t remember anything else, and certainly not breaking into the museum. With Traybin intervening to stop Cochrane from arresting Steele for assaulting the policeman, and with the trustees all wanting the whole affair being kept out of the press, Steele is allowed to go home.
But you can’t keep a confused art critic down and soon Steele is determined to find out what happened to him. He makes the same journey by train and learns enough to know that there’s something suspicious going on at the museum, and that it has something to do with a painting by Gainsborough that was recently lost at sea. With Terry’s aid he begins to piece together the fragments of a conspiracy that brings together the museum, a collection of old masters, and his own unwitting involvement.
There’s something undeniably charming about Crack-Up, with its murky lighting and frazzled hero, its well-oiled narrative and pleasing performances. For modern audiences it’ll prove too familiar perhaps, but if viewed with the eyes and ears of a contemporary viewer, there’s a lot that won’t seem as predictable or commonplace as it would do today. And a large part of the movie’s charm is the freshness the script – by John Paxton, Ben Bengal and Ray Spencer – brings to its central mystery: did George Steele experience a train crash, and if he didn’t, then why does he think he did? And as the story unfolds there are enough twists and turns to keep things lighhhearted and playful.
This is largely due to Irving Reis’s exemplary direction. Reis was a director who by 1946 had made a number of low budget thrillers including three featuring The Falcon. But while the projects he worked on were largely prosaic and uninspiring, Reis himself didn’t see it that way, and he worked hard to elevate the material he had to work with. This can be evidenced by the way in which Crack-Up is structured – there are breaks in the narrative where the viewer could convince him- or herself that they’ve missed something (just as Steele does) – and the way in which Steele is never able to fully convince himself that his sanity is as secure as he’d like it to be (he’s not quite the tortured hero of other film noirs, but his insecurity is a definite plus).
Reis is aided by strong performances from O’Brien and Trevor, with the latter given the chance to be more than just a piece of attractive window dressing to pose beside the lead actor. While O’Brien is steadfast and determined (while remaining unsure deep down), Trevor is angry and tenacious, refusing to believe her man is of unsound mind, and willing to support him no matter what. It’s a tough, unwavering performance, and Trevor, who was always an actress capable of far more than she was usually asked to provide, here makes Terry the equal of any of the male characters, and someone who the audience can identify with and be sympathetic towards. As the urbane Traybin, Marshall plays to type and uses his sleepy-eyed features to good effect, drawling his way through the material with a casual deference that balances O’Brien’s gruffer, more aggressive portrayal.
For fans of the genre (and the era) there are cameos from the likes of Edward Gargan (an arcade cop), Eddie Parks (a drunk in the same arcade), and Gertrude Astor (a nagging wife), and there’s an above average score by Leigh Harline that includes a couple of unsettling motifs that are used during some of the more intense sequences. It all builds to a satisfactory climax, with the villain – and their accomplice – proving not quite as obvious as usual (though, again, fans of the genre may think otherwise). It all adds up to a surprisingly rewarding film noir, and a movie well worth checking out if you get the opportunity.
Rating: 7/10 – an unassuming, modest little thriller that features a robust script, adroit performances, and assured, confident direction, Crack-Up is a movie that goes some way to proving that not all post-war mysteries were derivative and/or bland; not just for fans, this is a welcome addition to the genre that doesn’t settle for being second best or tired and predictable.
Cast: Josh Duhamel, Alice Eve, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Malin Akerman, Byung-hun Lee, Julia Stiles, Glen Powell, Marcus Lyle Brown
Released as a Lionsgate Premiere (rough translation: not good enough to be shown in cinemas), Misconduct is an early contender for Worst Movie of 2016. It’s ostensibly a thriller but veers off in so many different directions in an effort to be interesting that in the end it’s just a jumbled mess. There’s not even the germ of a good idea here, the script by Simon Boyes and Adam Mason resorting to cliché after cliché and line after line of awful dialogue in its efforts to appear somehow less than the sum of its parts (or the parts of its sum even).
It’s a movie where everybody is up to no good. Sadly, the audience knows this right from the start, so any “revelations” or twists and turns have the effect of inducing a headache rather than any surprises. The storyline tries to be convoluted in an attempt to mystify anyone unfortunate enough to watch Misconduct, and the basic plot – Hopkins’ pharmaceutical CO is accused of deliberately falsifying bad test results – struggles even to be relevant within the movie’s own structure. Once a badly attached blackmail plot is added to the mix, it gives the movie carte blanche to be as stupid as it wants, a move it takes full advantage of.
As well as the blackmail plot – instigated by Hopkins’ unbalanced girlfriend (played by Akerman) and involving Duhamel’s ambitious attorney – Misconduct features a dire attempt at adding depth to two of the characters’ lives, Duhamel and his moody, depressed wife Eve, by having them recovering from the loss of a child during pregnancy. Why this subplot is even present is a mystery the movie never answers, along with the presence of Lee as a corporate-sponsored assassin who for some inexplicable reason is dying from some unstated disease (again you have to ask yourself why any of this has been included).
There’s more, but as the movie continues piling absurdity on top of absurdity, the unlucky viewer will find themselves wondering if this is intended more as a parody than a thriller, and will be laughing accordingly, but if it is then no one informed the cast, who struggle through scene after scene with resolutely straight faces and a grim determination to get through it all and reach the end with a degree of integrity still intact. Duhamel is a capable actor, but here he’s as wooden as a fence post and spends most of his screen time looking petulant, or as if there’s a bad smell under his nose (there is, and it’s coming from the script). Matching him for petulance, and using staring off into space a lot as a character trait, Eve gives probably the worst performance of her career so far, as she tries to distance herself from everyone and everything connected with the movie.
Akerman is a poor femme fatale, her attempt to seduce Duhamel having all the allure of a drunken one-night stand with someone you hope doesn’t give you their number the next morning. As mentioned above, Lee is the assassin who’s close to death, and he sleepwalks through his role making supposedly “deep” comments and trying to appear above it all by refusing to acknowledge that this is one acting gig his agent should be apologising for profusely. And then there’s Stiles, an actress who really should be given better roles than the one she has here, a Kidnap and Response expert who gets to shout at Hopkins a lot and look suitably badass (and that’s basically it).
You get the picture: Misconduct has its fair share of bad performances to match its bad script and wayward direction – Shimasawa, making his first feature, gives an approximation of what a director should be doing – but then there’s Hopkins and Pacino, two Oscar winners now content (like De Niro) to throw away their talent and make terrible movie after terrible movie. Hopkins has the larger amount of screen time, but phones in his performance, and falls back on the kind of aloof, manipulative, all-knowing characterisation he’s played way too often in recent years. When you’ve got Hopkins in a movie and he’s playing a powerful businessman you just know in advance that he’s not going to be putting much effort in, and that’s exactly the case here. Amazingly though, Pacino is worse, his law firm boss coming across as a pale imitation of his role in The Devil’s Advocate (1997). He’s also upstaged by his own hair, which in one scene, looks like the worst comb-back in history. Why either of them took on their roles is the one abiding mystery the movie cannot solve.
From starting out as a legal thriller – you get the idea the movie might just be about bringing Hopkins’ fraudulent CO to justice, and the hunt for the evidence to prove his negligence – it soon descends into a welter of murder and violence and betrayal on all sides, as the script decides it needs to be more punchy than in its earlier scenes. It leads to one of the movie’s more absurd scenes where Duhamel, having gouged his stomach escaping from the police, buys some glue in a convenience store and uses it to close his wound. And of course, he then runs around as if it had never happened. Lazy, lazy, lazy.
There is an attempt at providing a central murder mystery to keep the audience intrigued, but regular viewers of this kind of movie will spot the culprit from a mile off. But this is in keeping with the movie’s inability to come up with anything new or unpredictable, and again, regular viewers of this kind of star-happy dross will have resigned themselves to the movie’s inevitable outcome(s) long before they reach the end. The makers probably didn’t intend the title Misconduct to be so relevant to its own content and execution, but in one respect they can be applauded: they made sure the movie certainly lived up to it.
Rating: 3/10 – with only its standard, by-the-numbers production effort propping it up in the ratings stakes, Misconduct is a woeful, massively disappointing movie that falls down each and every time it tries to be interesting; with awful dialogue and some truly atrocious performances, it’s a movie that defies explanation as to its existence, and ranks as one of the worst “corporate/legal thrillers” in recent memory.
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Hamish Linklater, Adepero Oduye, Byron Mann
It seems a little odd now that next year, 2017, will see the tenth anniversary of the collapse of the US housing market. Thanks to the greed of the Wall Street banks, in the US alone, eight million people lost their jobs and six million people lost their homes. It was a national scandal. But how did it all come about? Well, it’s fairly complicated, but The Big Short does a good job of explaining it all.
Adapted from the book by Michael Lewis, the movie looks at the people who first realised that the US housing market was a timebomb waiting to happen. It begins with a hedge fund manager, Dr Michael Burry (Bale). He had been analysing mortgage lending practices and discovered that mortgages were being sold at an alarming, and unchecked rate. With increasing defaults at the lower end of the market, a collapse was inevitable, and Burry predicted it would happen in 2007. Burry then approaches several of the big name banks, including Goldman Sachs, and persuades them to let him take out credit default swaps, an insurance against the collapse happening. If it does, they pay him a major return on his premiums.
Burry’s actions attract the attention of a trader at Goldman Sachs, Jared Vennett (Gosling). At first, like everyone else, Vennett thinks that Burry’s idea is completely ridiculous. But he does what Burry did and digs a little deeper, until he too sees the likelihood of the collapse happening. He attempts to do what Burry has done using his own funds but a misplaced phone call ends up putting him in touch with Mark Baum (Carell), another hedge fund manager. Baum and his small team begin to create their own credit default swaps.
In addition, two young investors, Charlie Geller (Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Wittrock) hear about the default credit swaps, and with the aid of industry veteran Ben Rickert (Pitt), they too manage to raise their own swaps. Burry faces the ire of his bosses at the company where he works (who can’t see that the housing market could collapse – because it’s never happened before) because of the size of the premiums he’s paying, while Baum’s investigation into the pending collapse begins to show the enormous effect it will have on the public, as well as the financial system. The sheer size and scope of the fallout, they realise, won’t just affect the US economy, but the global economy as well.
As Baum and his team look further into the reasons why the collapse will occur, they discover that the banks and mortgage lenders are complicit in keeping the status quo, preferring to get rich off of short term investments instead of long term ones. And they also discover the existence of CDO’s (collateralized debt obligations), groups of poor loans that are packaged together and given incorrect ratings in order that they can be sold on. These packages are essentially worthless but are being used to a) prop up the already wobbly housing market, and b) to further ensure quick, easy profits for the banks.
But it all proves to be too much and too late. In 2007 the markets defaulted and the collapse began in earnest. The ripple effect of foreclosure after foreclosure began to cripple the banks, and many closed for business, owing billions of dollars (the movie states that $5 trillion was lost in total). But – and here’s the irony – Burry, Baum, Vennett, Geller and Shipley all profited from the collapse. Their credit default swaps allowed them to make millions off of the back of everyone else’s misery. The movie acknowledges this around halfway through, and while up til then the viewer might be regarding these guys as the heroes of the story, by the end it’s doubtful you’ll see them in the same light. When Burry leaves his office once his company’s credit default swaps have been honoured you see the amount they’ve made written on a board: $2.69 billion.
By focusing on the people who warned the system what was going to happen, and who benefitted from it in the long run, The Big Short is able to show us what was happening on the inside, and how pervasive the fraud related to mortgage lending was. It’s a morality tale where no one gets off lightly. Geller and Shipley, once they realise the effect the collapse will have on ordinary people they try and warn their friends and families, but they’ve made no effort to warn anyone else during the whole time. Baum approaches one of the Ratings agencies, to see how they can justify giving approval ratings to the CDO’s, only to be told that if they didn’t the banks would take their business elsewhere; and yet Baum doesn’t warn anyone outside his own team about what this means. And Burry sits back in his office and watches it all unfold with the view that he’s just doing his job.
That the US financial institutions of the time were amoral in their approach to protecting their clients is something we’ve long been aware of, but the point The Big Short makes with absolute clarity is that everyone was too busy getting rich to even care. What makes matters worse is that the banks weren’t even worried; they knew that the government – the people, if you like – would have to bail them out if anything did go wrong. It’s this nasty, reprehensible lack of responsibility, and the extent of it, that really comes across, and even though Baum in particular bemoans the industry’s fraudulent activities, it still remains that few efforts were made to avoid the collapse when it was known about and accurately predicted.
As the movie’s anti-heroes, Bale is on nervous, Asperger’s-type form as Burry, supposedly with a glass eye (the left one), and working with absolute certainty that his projections are correct. Burry is a character that comes across as indifferent to anyone around him, and dismissive of others when challenged, but Bale makes him into a weary financial warrior, determined to make a profit for his investors at the expense of millions of ordinary non-investors. He’s likeable enough but some viewers may find him cold and distant. Carell plays Baum as the script – by McKay and Charles Randolph – has set him up: as the tale’s sole source of any conscience. With an unflattering wig perched on his head to add to his woes, Carell looks crestfallen and morose throughout, as if the weight of the (financial) world was all on his shoulders alone. It’s less of a performance than an extended mope-athon, and aside from a few moments of outrage, Baum looks and sounds like someone who’s got inside the cookie jar, has stuffed them all in his mouth, and only then discovered that he doesn’t like the flavour.
In support, Gosling sports a hideous hairstyle and struts around breaking the fourth wall with undisguised glee (as do several other characters), while Pitt buries himself beneath another odd wig and a scruffy beard. Magaro and Shipley adequately put across the eagerness and the excitement of being in on what could be termed an “industry secret”, and their scenes together are eloquent for how they go from earnest and enthusiastic to demoralised and dismayed. The rest of the cast do well with sometimes sketchily written characters, though Mann comes in towards the end as an investment manager that the banks use to create synthetic CDO’s (even worse than the real thing) and who is scarily unconcerned about the consequences of what he’s doing.
McKay – better known for his work with Will Ferrell – has made a movie that exposes the indolence and the greed at the heart of Wall Street during the last decade, and he’s done it with no small amount of style. When something complicated needs explaining, instead of getting one of the characters to explain it, the movie is effectively paused while a celebrity does so in terms that the average viewer can understand (which leads to the surreal moment when Selena Gomez explains what synthetic CDO’s are). With the intricacies of the financial jargon overcome, McKay looks to emphasise the human cost of the banks’ endeavours and does so with a pointed, judgmental approach that can be hugely effective.
The Big Short may not be everyone’s idea of a movie to crack open a few beers with, or indeed one that could be enjoyable, but there’s much to warrant giving it a try, and if you pay attention to what’s being said, there’s a lot to be understood about what went wrong in 2007 and why it was inevitable. As a cautionary tale it’s perhaps a little too late in the telling, but it does leave the viewer with one very clear warning right at the end: beware of “bespoke tranche opportunities”. They’re the new version of CDO’s and the banks are pushing them with all the gusto did in the past.
Rating: 8/10 – well focused on both the financial and human sides of the crisis, The Big Short is a scary look at a situation that nearly caused a global financial meltdown, and why it came about; fascinating and horrific on a continually WtF? level, the movie is at its best when its skewering the antipathy and the greed of the banks and their seemingly pathological determination to screw over everybody for the sake of a quick buck.
Good (really good) comedies are thin on the ground these days, and although the latest from Jared Hess – Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Nacho Libre (2006) – does look a little rough around the edges, there’s enough potential seen in the trailer to warrant a good degree of anticipation. The movie’s tale of religious oneupmanship and archaeological fraud is certainly ripe for laughs, and the presence of Rockwell in the title role bodes well, but this will be down to Hess and whether or not his script (co-written by his wife Jerusha) is as finely crafted as Napoleon Dynamite was, and if it can steer clear of being more farce than parody. If so, then with a bit of (divine?) luck it could be a breath of fresh air in an otherwise currently stale genre.
Cast: Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Craig T. Nelson, Alison Brie, T.I. “Tip” Harris, Edwina Findlay, Ariana Neal, Paul Ben-Victor, John Mayer, Greg Germann, Ron Funchkes
Hedge fund manager James King (Ferrell) has it all: a beautiful home, a beautiful fiancee (Brie), a recent promotion to partner in his future father-in-law Martin’s firm, and all the money he needs for a dream lifestyle. But it all comes crashing down when he’s arrested for embezzlement. In court, the judge sentences him to ten years in San Quentin, but allows him thirty days to get his affairs in order. In the wake of this, Alissa dumps him, Martin vows to find the person really responsible for the embezzlement, and James faces the prospect of prison by trying to run away to Mexico. But when he bumps into Darnell Lewis, who runs the car wash business at his place of work, he makes the assumption that Darnell has been in prison because he’s black. Asking for Darnell’s help in surviving on the inside, Darnell agrees to help him for $30,000.
Darnell does his best to toughen up James and prepare him for prison life, but James proves a less than able pupil. In the end Darnell decides James needs to be protected on the inside and hooks him up with his cousin, Russell (Harris), who has his own gang, the Crenshaw Kings. James makes a good impression on Russell but Russell decides he needs protection from a white gang instead and sends him to see the Allegiance of Whites gang, but the meeting ends in disaster, and both he and Darnell barely escape with their lives. At this point, Darnell realises that James really is innocent, and together they look for the real crook. But finding and keeping the evidence to convict that person proves to be another matter entirely.
Whatever your feeling about mismatched buddy comedies, or indeed any movie starring Will Ferrell or Kevin Hart, chances are that this will appeal to a broad audience base, and entertain accordingly. If the movie lapses too often into the kind of farcical schtick that seems to underpin this particular comedy sub-genre, then it shouldn’t be a surprise that it lacks even the requisite number of belly laughs. This isn’t to say that Get Hard isn’t funny – it definitely has its moments – but what holds it back is that it doesn’t try hard enough to make its intended audience really laugh out loud (though a couple of one-liners come close). What it does is present situation after situation that allows Ferrell to trot out his idiot man-child persona one more time, and with little or no variation from any other comedy he’s made in the last ten years. James is a role tailor-made for him, but the problem is that it doesn’t stretch Ferrell as an actor, and for large stretches he coasts along in the role, hitting his mark but without any appreciable effort.
It’s the same for Hart, giving us the same manic portrayal he’s given us in Ride Along (2014), The Wedding Ringer(2015) and others. With nothing to shake up the performance, it looks tired already. Add to that an increasingly bizarre series of situations where James has to “man up” – including giving a blow job to a stranger, easily the movie’s most uncomfortably plotted moment – and a criminal plot that has all the originality of of a photocopy, Get Hard is lazy, opportunistic and, at times, unbelievably crass.
Rating: 4/10 – not the absolute worst way to spend ninety-four minutes of your time, but certainly not the best either, Get Hard wastes the talents of its two stars, and plays it all by numbers; save your money and wait for it to become available for free in whichever way you can access it.
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, David Warshofsky, Daisy Bevan, Omiros Poulakis
Athens, 1962. Rydal Keener is an American working as a tour guide. He meets an American couple on holiday there, Chester and Colette McFarland (Mortensen, Dunst). They invite him to dinner and he accepts, mainly because he’s attracted to Colette. Later, after dropping them off at their hotel, Rydal discovers Colette has left a bracelet behind in the taxi. He decides to return it. Meanwhile, the McFarland’s have another visitor, a private detective named Vittorio (Warshofsky). It transpires that Chester has defrauded several people in an investment scam, and it’s this money that is allowing the McFarlands to travel around Europe. Vittorio and Chester scuffle and the private detective is killed. As he attempts to get Vittorio back to his own room in the hotel, he’s discovered by Rydal. Chester convinces Rydal that the man is merely out cold from drinking too much, and together they get him into his room.
Chester convinces Rydal that he and Colette need to leave Athens as soon as possible, but their passports are being kept by the hotel. Seeing a way of scamming some money out of Chester, Rydal agrees to help them; it also gives him a chance to be nearer to Colette. He arranges for new passports to be given to them in Crete, where they all travel to next. Without identification papers they’re forced to wait on the quayside for the next day’s bus to Chania. While they are there, Colette visits Rydal in his room while Chester is sleeping. Back on the bus, Colette panics when she sees photos of her and Chester in a newspaper and thinks they’ve been spotted. At a rest stop, Colette gets off the bus and the two men chase after her. They walk on and eventually reach the ruins of Knossos.
Rain causes them to seek shelter in the ruins. Chester lures Rydal down into the lower levels and knocks him unconscious. When Colette realises what he’s done they argue and she falls to her death from some steps. Chester flees, leaving Rydal to come to the next morning and be seen by a group of schoolgirls and their teacher as he leaves. Rydal hurries to catch up with Chester, who has collected the new passports and is heading back to Athens on a ship. There is a confrontation between the two where each tries to outwit and out-threaten the other, but both come to realise that they are bound together by their actions over the past couple of days, and would find it easy to implicate the other if either informed the police. But when they get to Athens airport, Rydal finds that Chester has one more trick up his sleeve.
Adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith, The Two Faces of January is a ponderous, though well acted drama that never quite gets off the ground, despite an intriguing storyline and some glorious location photography. As written and directed by Amini – something he’d been working on for around fifteen years – there is a distance between the audience and the main characters that stops them from ever becoming likeable or sympathetic. We never get to really know them either. Chester is a cheat but it’s just accepted that he’s a cheat; there’s no back story to explain why. Colette is aware of his duplicity and has obviously chosen to stay with him but we never find out why either. It’s confusing as well when their previous happiness is so quickly overturned by the arrival of Rydal in their lives: does she really love Chester or is she too a fraud? And Rydal’s past, with his father issues and need for independence, is also glossed over, with the questions, “Why Athens?” and “Why a tour guide?” completely unanswered.
There is one clear motivation that drives them all however: escape. But it’s clumsily used as a device to keep the narrative and the characters moving, and while Amini uses it to show how each is trying to escape themselves (and more so than the authorities), this is also clumsily done. What we’re left with as a result is a mini-travelogue where it seems that the characters are constantly outwitting each other – or appear to be – but in actuality aren’t doing anything of the sort. Chester imagines all sorts of deviousness in Rydal’s behaviour (and Isaac’s performance goes a long way to suggesting this, even though it’s not true), and he’s continually on his guard for some new twist. But ultimately he’s the author of his own downfall, and has no one to blame but himself for what happens.
Amini never reconciles Rydal’s willingness to keep in with the McFarlands, even after he knows what they’ve done, and while his attraction for Colette is an understandable reason in itself, there are moments where he’s making decisions about carrying on but we never find out what his reasons are. It ends up being a problem for the narrative when it just feels that if he didn’t, the plot (and the movie) would grind to a halt.
In adapting Highsmith’s novel, Amini has jettisoned the homo-erotic subplot between Chester and Rydal in favour of a more conventional love triangle approach, and in doing so he robs the movie of a potential, and valuable, source of tension. For otherwise, the movie plods along looking good but feeling empty, its characters relying heavily on plot contrivances such as Rydal just happening to know someone who can provide forged passports, and Colette getting so easily frightened and leaving the bus.
As Chester, Mortensen puts in a good performance but even he can’t reconcile the character’s initial fearfulness and vulnerability with the more callous character he becomes. Dunst has a couple of emotional scenes that show off her skills as an actress, but again she can’t reconcile Colette’s initial happiness with her husband with the antipathy she shows toward him once they leave Athens (she already knows they’re on the run, why should this make her feel any different? And this is before she learns of Vittorio’s death). Rounding off the trio, Isaac portrays Rydal as a conspiring victim, unsure of himself as he gets in deeper and looking for a way out, even though he can’t see one. It’s a confident performance, not as conflicted as Mortensen and Dunst’s, but unfortunately, still a little shy of being satisfactory.
With the scenery providing a welcome (and thankful) distraction from the unwieldy and undercooked melodramatics, the movie adds a particularly awkward scene at a customs hall where Chester and Rydal act so suspiciously it’s a wonder they aren’t picked out of their respective queues sooner. And the denouement, included to add some much needed excitement, is so poorly edited that any sense of vitality is diminished quite rapidly. There’s a great movie to be had from Highsmith’s novel, but alas, this isn’t it, and for that, Amini is the only one to blame.
Rating: 5/10 – with its cast unable to elevate the material or make up for Amini’s lack of directorial control, The Two Faces of January fails to provide any tension or mystery; plodding, and with a weak resolution, the movie looks great throughout but offers little that’s arresting to occupy the viewer’s time.
Cast: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Erica Leerhsen, Jeremy Shamos, Catherine McCormack
Berlin, 1928. British magician Stanley Crawford (Firth) astounds audiences as Chinese illusionist Wei Ling Soo, making elephants disappear and appearing to materialise himself out of thin air. After another successful show, the arrogant, rude-minded Stanley is met by his old friend from childhood Howard Burkan (McBurney). Burkan is also a magician, and he comes with a proposal: for Stanley to travel with him to the Côte d’Azur and expose a young American woman who is posing as a medium and exploiting Burkan’s friends, the Catledges. Stanley, who abhors fake mediums and enjoys exposing them, agrees to go.
At the Catledges, Stanley is introduced to the young woman in question, Sophie Baker (Stone), and her mother (Harden). He pretends to be a businessman called Taplinger but he is unable to restrain his skepticism, and although he does his best to hide his true identity, Sophie proves adept at “receiving” clues as to who he really is. Still convinced she’s a fraud, he observes her during a séance but is unable to detect any trickery. The next day, Sophie reveals she knows who Stanley is, and she warns him that she really has a gift, and that he shouldn’t doubt her. But Stanley is becoming increasingly besotted with her, and while he has some lingering doubts, he finds himself spending more and more time with her, despite Sophie being wooed by Brice Catledge (Linklater).
Stanley takes Sophie to see his Aunt Vanessa (Atkins). Sophie asks to hold a piece of Vanessa’s jewellery, and when she does, she reveals information about an affair that Vanessa had, and which Sophie couldn’t possibly have any knowledge of. Now convinced that Sophie has a gift, he determines to hold a press conference where he will admit that his previous disbelief has been overturned. The results of a further séance reinforces Stanley’s change of mind and heart. Later, at a ball, Sophie asks him if he has any other feelings about her, but Stanley is baffled by her questions, and she leaves, disappointed. Things come to a head when Aunt Vanessa is involved in a car crash, and Stanley finds himself praying for her survival on the operating table. Will he embrace his newfound regard for the unseen, or will his skepticism return in the face of such a calamity?
This year’s annual movie offering from Woody Allen follows on from the sublime Blue Jasmine, and in comparison with that movie, Magic in the Moonlight is more Woody-lite than anything more substantial. It’s a whimsical tale for the most part, anchored by a Scrooge-like performance by Firth that at times skirts perilously close to complete misanthropy, but which is rescued by the sheer pomposity of the character and his outlook on Life. Crawford’s petulant skepticism and sarcastic attitude verges on the unpalatable throughout, but thanks to Firth, and Allen’s skill as a writer, he has just enough hidden vulnerability for the audience to connect with. However, for large stretches of the movie he’s deliberately insufferable, and it’s difficult to understand what on earth Sophie could see in him (opposites do attract, but here it’s a little too extraordinary).
With its lead character so defiantly unlikeable for so much of the time, it falls to Stone to put some warmth and heart into the proceedings. As the good-natured ingénue, Sophie, Stone is affecting, appealing, effortlessly lively, and the complete antithesis to Stanley, her winning smile and wide-eyed features both endearing and captivating. It’s a more extrovert performance, but with a degree of subtlety that is best seen when Sophie enquires after Stanley’s feelings for her. Her earnest entreaties, and her reaction to Stanley’s dismissal of the notion that he has a romantic interest in her, is cleverly done, and mesmerising to watch.
However, two good central performances aside, this is still a movie that trundles from one scene to the next without requiring much of a response from the audience, or indeed, any real investment in the plot or the characters. The plotting is predictable, and the theme of science versus religion (or at least, the paranormal) is handled with Allen’s usual surety, but there’s still something lacking, a spark, perhaps, that stops the movie from being either memorable or touching. The outcome is never in doubt, and while Allen pulls a dubious sleight-of-hand to get there – as well as twisting Stanley’s arm mercilessly towards the very end – a less conventional conclusion would have made all the difference. (And how many more times will Allen trot out the old May-December romance we’ve seen so often in the past?)
The supporting cast – Atkins aside – have little to do except make up the numbers, and if no other characters stand out as much then it’s no one’s fault but Allen’s, his less than absorbing approach, and lightweight direction failing to lift the admittedly unsubstantial material. That said, there are some delicious lines of dialogue here and there (as you’d expect, even in Allen’s lesser works), and the South of France is beautifully lensed by Darius Khondji, the colours (of the surrounding countryside in particular) popping and flaring in a way that hasn’t been seen in any of Allen’s previous work. There’s the usual round up of jazz favourites from the Twenties and Thirties, but not all the compositions fit in this time, and Alisa Lepselter’s editing often leaves scenes hanging around just those few frames longer than necessary. It all adds up to a Woody Allen movie that feels like a stopgap before the next really good project.
Rating: 6/10 – there’s just enough here to keep audiences occupied, but Magic in the Moonlight isn’t the romantic comedy delight of say, Midnight in Paris (2011); with a curmudgeonly central character holding it back, the movie ends up feeling like a magician’s parlour trick, but one where everybody knows how the trick is done.