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The Big Short (2015)

The Big Short (2015)

An all-star cast juggle dollars, acronyms and lots of shouting in McKay’s smart but heartless film

Director: Adam McKay

Cast: Christian Bale (Michael Burry), Steve Carell (Mark Baum), Ryan Gosling (Jared Vennett), Brad Pitt (Ben Rickert), John Magure (Charlie Geller), Finn Wittrock (Jamie Shipley), Hamish Linklater (Porter Collins), Rafe Spall (Danny Moses), Jeremy Strong (Vinny Daniel), Marisa Tomei (Cynthia Baum), Tracy Letts (Lawrence Fields), Melissa Leo (Georgia Hale), Karen Gillan (Evie)

We all experienced the financial crisis of 2007 but very few of us actually understood it: above all, perhaps, what the hell actually happened and why. That’s what McKay’s film – somewhere between drama, satire, black comedy and tongue-in-cheek infomercial – tries to resolve. Adapting a book by leading financial journalist Michael Lewis, The Big Short charts the whys and wherefores of the collapse, by focusing on the money men who saw the signs of the impending crash and bet against the booming economy.

Those men (and they are all men of course) are played by a series of actors enjoying themselves thoroughly playing larger-than-life characters who it’s never entirely clear if we are supposed to empathise with, sympathise with, cheer on or stand aghast at while they make fortunes from the ruin of others. I’m not sure the film does either though.

Christian Bale is the eccentric hedge fund manager whose analysis predicts the crash and takes eye-watering investment charges that will pay off thousands of times over when the crash comes. Ryan Gosling is a banking executive who understands that analysis and robs in Steve Carrell’s hedge fund manager to similarly invest to cash in (Carrell’s character, for all his misanthropic oddness is the only one truly outraged at the corruption in the system that will lead to the collapse). Brad Pitt is the retired trader roped in for “one more job” by young traders Finn Wittrock and John Magure to make their own bets against the house. They too will eventually realise the huge impact this will have on people – but are powerless to get anyone to listen as they try and warn against the pending disaster.

McKay’s film, with its tightly-controlled but surprisingly effective off-the-cuff feel (it’s stuffed with neatly edited jokes, straight to camera addresses and a constant running commentary from the characters on the accuracy – or otherwise –  of outlandish moments), may sometimes have the air of a slightly smug student film, but what it does well is explain the financials. If you were unsure about what CDOs, AAA ratings, Quants, credit default swops and sup-prime mortgage were before the start, you’ll have a much better idea later. Neat inventions describe this: from narration, to graphics, to Jenga blocks to famous people (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez among others) popping up to glamorously put things in other contexts.

The Big Short does this sort of thing rather well. Sure, it’s got a “lads” feeling to it – there is no “for the girls” equivalent to Margot Robbie in a bath explaining sub-prime mortgages – and the entire dialogue and pace of the film has a frat-house wildness that I suppose does reflect the tone of many of these financial institutions, which were little better than sausage parties. But it presents its ideas nicely and has some good jokes. The verité style McKay goes for is more studied than it natural – and it’s hard not to escape the feeling that the film is very, very pleased with itself, so much so that it’s not a surprise both his follow-up films the dreadful Vice and the shrill Don’t Look Up double down to various degrees on the slightly smug, self-satisfied liberalism here that sees those in power as corrupt, greedy, fools or all three and everyone else as innocent victims.

Where the film is less certain is exactly how it feels about its central characters. In other words, it doesn’t always turn the same critical eye on these people profiting from a disaster that will lead to millions losing their homes (the millions are represented by a single immigrant family). Brad Pitt may reprove his young charges from celebrating gains that will be the losses of millions of others. Steve Carrell gets several lines berating the callous, short-sighted greed of the banks. Christian Bale’s character is appalled by the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationship between banks, investment ratings agencies and insurance companies, all working together to keep artificial profits up. But the film still wants us to celebrate as these plucky outsiders and weirdoes clean out the house and carry home cartloads of cash while the casino burns down.

Basically, the film is all good fun but gives us little to actually care about. It’s highly influenced by the gonzo macho representation of this world Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street gave us, but far less skilled than that film in presenting its players as the childish, amoral vacuums they are. Furthermore, it does far less to really look at the impact of what it’s doing: in fact, it spends so long delighting in how it tells the story, it doesn’t show us what happens. It dwells at the end on abandoned trading floors and closed banks, like the fall of the Roman Empire, but finds no time at any point to hear from a real person who lost their home.

Perhaps because the real impacts are too depressing – and would have made it impossible to feel the triumphal buzz the film wants from seeing its heroes vindicated and the smug assholes we’ve seen from the banks get egg on their face. It might have felt a lot less funny if we had seen even a closing montage of the real victims and the human impact.

It’s where The Big Short falls down and why it feels in the end like a student film made on a huge budget. It nods its head at real mature themes but actually isn’t really interested in them at all.

Thunderball (1965)

The most memorable moment of Thunderball – and it happens in the first few minutes

Director: Terence Young

Cast: Sean Connery (James Bond), Claudine Auger (Domino), Adolfo Celi (Emilio Largo), Luciana Paluzzi (Fiona Volpe), Rik Van Nutter (Felix Leiter), Guy Doleman (Count Lippe), Molly Peters (Patricia Fearing), Martine Beswick (Paula Caplan), Bernard Lee (M), Desmond Llewelyn (Q), Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny), Roland Culver (Home Secretary), Paul Stassino (Francois Derval/Angelo Palazzi)

By 1965 no one bigger than James Bond – and the films had to reflect that. Thunderball had more money spent on it than all the previous Bond films put together. I suppose you can see that on the screen, but it doesn’t change the fact I’ve always found Thunderball one of the most meh of all Bond films. I always fail to get really engaged in it, and it’s stuffed with the sort of high-blown set-pieces where it feels the producers were so pleased at the possibility of doing something, they never stopped to think if there was an actual reason to do it.

Thunderball’s plot is the first example of what would become a pretty standard Bond trope: the swiping of nuclear missiles by criminals to hold the world to ransom (the principle would be repeated again in You Only Live Twice, Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker). In this case it’s Spectre agent Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), who steals a British nuke-carrying jet and demands £100 million ransom to return it. All the 00 agents are scrambled, but of course James Bond (Sean Connery) has the only lead – helped by the fact he was staying at the same health farm where the hijacker was being surgically altered to replace the jet’s pilot. Bond heads to the Bahamas to follow his lead, the pilot’s sister Domino (Claudine Auger) – only to find out she’s Largo’s girl! Will Bond get those missiles in time and dodge sharks, heavies, red-headed femme fatales and deadly street parades?

Well of course. After all, Nobody Does It Better. Thunderball is big, expensive and has several high-octane fights. But it’s also strangely slow and ponderous, takes ages to get started and has the distinct whiff of everyone going through the motions. Compared to Goldfinger and From Russia with Love there is a noticeable lack of spark and wit. All the invention seems to have gone into some of the gadgets – look Bond has a jet pack! – and none into the script which presents a series of plug-and-play characters and a plot set-up that lacks any real sense of quirk.

It also doesn’t help that what feels like vast reams of the film are filmed underwater. The producers were obviously thrilled by the invention of underwater cameras, so were eager to throw as many action sequences down there as possible. Problem is an underwater action sequence is devoid of sound and, due to the breathing apparatus, it’s nearly impossible to see anyone’s face. All this makes for some slow-paced action sequences where it’s rather hard to tell what’s going on and who is on what side.

The score tries to compensate for this by hammering up the musical intensity. Everything in the film is trying desperately to tell you this is thrilling, but you eventually realise all you are really watching are a group of wet-suit clad stuntmen moving slowly around trying to hit each other. All this in a silence only broken by the occasional ‘dead’ character floating away in a burst of despairing oxygen bubbles. Nothing that happens underwater in Thunderball sticks in the mind, for all the money spend on it.

But that’s kind of the case for the whole film. It’s a huge spectacle, but also one of the hardest Bonds to recall. The opening sequence is overshadowed by Bond’s brief escape via jet pack (where does he get it from? How does he find the time to put it on when he’s being chased? Don’t ask) but is still a witty bit of fun as Bond works out that the widow at the Spectre agent’s funeral he’s observing, is in fact the widow in disguise. But the film from here takes a very long time to get going again, with Bond pottering around a health farm. The investigation into the missiles is cursory even by Bond standards, and the only sequence that really stands out is Bond limping bleeding through a street party and using the femme fatale as a human shield.

It’s all very competently, if rather lifelessly, directed and looks great. The sight of Largo’s boat splitting into two and one part zooming away is still impressive. Sharks get a healthy workout – sharks in Bond films are always about twenty seconds away from ripping people apart. But it’s all got an air of duty about it. Its a massive box-ticking exercise. It doesn’t even have a proper ending: Bond and Domino are literally air-lifted away without a word a few seconds after Largo’s death, as if the scriptwriters hit their page count and didn’t bother putting anything else down (future films would not miss up the chance for a bit of double entendre laced shagging while waiting for rescue).

Sean Connery looks like he might have had enough (this was his fourth Bond film in about four years), heading towards the autopilot that would become even more pronounced in You Only Live Twice. There are sparks of the old cheek and charm – and he does the final fight scene with a physical viciousness that I don’t think he displayed in any other film – but his mind is elsewhere. Not much comes from the rest of the cast, almost exclusively made up of European actors all-too-clearly dubbed. Largo is the most non-descript Bond villain on record, Domino a character so forgettable the scriptwriters don’t even remember to have Bond sleep with her. Luciana Paluzzi makes the best impression as the femme fatale Fiona Volpe (although she later claimed she was never taken seriously as an actress again).

Thunderball is reasonably entertaining, but it’s the most missable background playing of all the Bond films. There is nothing in here that really stands out, no moment that dominates the clip shows, nothing that you can put your finger on that makes it really unique. It’s not even terrible like some of the other films. It’s dominated by dull underwater sequences and has a cast of largely forgettable characters. It’s a film made to order but with no love.

Moulin Rouge (1952)

Dancers a go-go in John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (not that one!)

Director: John Huston

Cast: José Ferrer (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec/Comte Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Jane Avril), Suzanne Flon (Myriamme Hyam), Claude Nollier (Comtess de Toulouse-Lautrec), Katherine Kath (La Goule), Muriel Smith (Aicha), Colette Marchand (Marie Charlot), Georges Lannes (Sgt Patou), Theodore Bikel (King Milan IV), Peter Cushing (Marcel de la Voisier), Christopher Lee (Georges Seurat)

John Huston’s biography of Toulouse-Lautrec is less well known than its exclamation marked name-sake. It would be easy to say there is little in common, beyond the name and setting, between Huston’s film and Luhrmann’s operatic jukebox musical. But that’s to overlook the sprightly and confident shooting that Huston gives many of the scenes in the Moulin Rouge, and the mood of depression and corruption that underlies all the glamour of the club. These are two films very much drinking from the same well – even if the aesthetic and style of both are drastically different.

This artist biography focuses mostly on the last decade of Toulouse-Lautrec’s life. Played by José Ferrer (who also does double duty as the artist’s patrician father), it’s an exploration of the self-loathing and depression that drives the artist and funnels itself into his art. Art which is bold, animated with strikingly unique use of colours and movement. It’s all very different from the more timid, self-conscious crippled artist, the growth of whose legs was arrested after an accident in his childhood. Huston’s film front-and-centres Toulouse-Lautrec’s quest for love, but it has enough to say about the rest of its subject’s life.

Similar to his later work on Moby Dick, Huston aimed for a very particular look for his film, inspired by the colours used in the artwork of its subject. Shooting in Technicolour – and much to the objection of that company, who believed all films should showpiece it’s particularly striking bold colours rather than the muted colours Lautrec at times used – he manages to assemble a picture that feels like it completely captures not only the style of the artist, but also captures something of the more grimy and seedy side of the Parisian streets he walked. There is a neat little scene in the middle of the film where Lautrec argues with a printer over mixing his own specialised colours, rather than the more traditional colours he works with. Hard not to see that as a commentary on Huston’s own struggles with Technicolour.

It gives the film though its own very distinctive look, in which Huston uses a number of cinematic approaches that really capture the vibrancy of the Moulin Rouge. The opening scenes, that showcase a flashy can-can dance at the club is shot with immediacy, the camera roving in amongst the dancers, throwing us into the atmosphere and excitement of this ground-breaking night club. Alongside which – within the confines of the Hay’s Code – we get a sense of the sexuality of the nightclub, captured in the tempestuous clashes between the dancers and the pettiness and suddenness of feuds that spring up over every subject matter.

The film doesn’t quite continue all this vibrancy in the rest of its length as it focuses more on Lautrec’s own personal life. José Ferrer, always a distantly patrician actor, is perhaps a little too stilted to really invest us in the emotional pain of a man who didn’t believe he was worth loving. However his commitment to playing the part physically can’t be faulted. To play the diminutive Lautrec, Ferrer wore a contraption that folded his lower legs up behind him (he could only wear it for about 15 minutes before he had to restore the circulation to his legs), wearing this even in scenes he could not be seen full length, so as to get the posture of Lautrec correct. It’s a shame that Ferrer’s slightly reserved manner and precision leaves you feeling like the character is being studied at arms length rather than up-close and personally.

This affects slightly the focus on romance that the film takes – art gets its place, but the style very much looks at these in context of romantic struggles. Lautrec is presented as man convinced of his own ugliness and the barrier of his disability, who could never find a woman who would love him. This drew him, it seems, either towards destructive relationships (in particular with a ‘prostitute’ – not that you would know thanks to the Hays Code – played with an Oscar-nominated richness by Colette Marchand) or to relationships he convinced himself could only be hopeless, platonic obsessions (Suzanne Flon as an art-lover who only the most self-loathing of men couldn’t tell is devoted to Lautrec).

The film interestingly rather misses a sense of fun that you might expect from a nightclub scene. Lautrec is of course miserable for most of his life, self-medicating his physical pain and depression with drink. His parents are either guilty at the accident that crippled him, or frustrated at his choice to spend his life painting the dancers of the Parisian night-life. Huston does get a great sense of the compulsion of the artist – Lautrec is rarely seen not sketching something – and his film is very successful at capturing the loneliness that can accompany art.

If the film does sometimes become a slightly old-fashioned a-to-b story of an artist and his inspiration, it counter-balances this with the flashes of creativity and vibrancy Huston brings to the film. Huston was himself critical of the film in the future, thinking it a missed opportunity – I would suppose due to the general lack of sex in a story set in an environment soaked in it – but working within the limitations he had, it’s a fine piece of work. While you could wish for a slightly more engaging lead performance, it certainly works very effectively to bring its setting and story to life.

Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla the only character this film is truly interested in.

Director: Gareth Edwards

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ford Brody), Ken Watanabe (Dr Ishiro Serizawa), Bryan Cranston (Joe Brody), Elisabeth Olsen (Elle Brody), Juliette Binoche (Sandra Brody), Sally Hawkins (Dr Vivienne Graham), David Strathairn (Admiral William Stenz)

There is a lot of affection out there for Godzilla. I’ve never quite felt it myself, so I guess I was the wrong person to watch this film. This is a film celebrating the legend of a series of films from Japan about a guy in a rubber suit hitting other guys in rubber suits in a set designed to look like a miniature city. Gareth Edwards’ has directed an affectionate homage that at times flirts with being a more interesting film but never really commits to it.

In 1999, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is forced to watch his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) die in front of him in a mysterious accident at the nuclear plant in Japan they work at. Fifteen years later, his now grown-up estranged son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a bomb disposal expert, is called to Japan after Joe trespasses into the exclusion zone. There Ford and Joe discover there is no fall-out at the accident site – and that the accident was actually linked to a series of mighty beasts from prehistoric times who feed off radiation. The beasts are being investigated and monitored by a global organisation called Monarch – and they are starting to stir. Soon cities are at risk and our only chance of survival may be from alpha-predator Godzilla bashing the other monster out of existence.

Godzilla starts with a brilliant human interest story – a husband forced to sacrifice his wife to save hundreds of thousands of others. But around the halfway mark it loses all interest in its human characters, who become mere spectators to the mighty monsters hitting each other. By the final act, your interest in the action will depend on how much you can invest in a huge CGI monster hitting another huge CGI monster. With nary a character in sight, I’m not sure how much I could. 

Gareth Edwards does a good job directing the film. It’s intelligently and imaginatively framed and Edwards shows some wonderful restraint in showing Godzilla himself, gently avoiding showing too much too soon (the monster doesn’t appear full in camera for well over an hour into the film). In fact, Edwards has a lot more interest in showing the perspective of ordinary people watching the rampage, running or simply standing in awe starring upwards at these mighty beasts. It immediately hammers home the scale and awe of these creatures. Edwards often films from the perspective of those on the ground, with the camera craning upwards seeing the colossal beasts.

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t lavish as much attention on the cardboard cut-out characters who are running around beneath the beasts. A fine company of actors are assembled, most of whom are relegated for much of the first half of the film to spouting exposition and the second half of the film to staring upwards in awe. Remember when Edwards made his breakthrough film Monsters? This film, sure, had monsters in it but it was a human interest story about two very different people thrown together after cataclysmic events. Edwards’ film worked because it was above all about people and their problems. Hollywood came calling.

And Hollywood of course missed the point. Edwards is a director who I think has some truly interesting work in him. Watch the scene as Cranston is forced to slam the safety doors on Binoche. This is a scene crammed with more drama, emotional investment and tragedy than the whole of the rest of the runtimes of Godzilla and Edwards’ Rogue One. Both of those films are well-made but derivative bits of geek chic, pandering towards the crowds by giving them parts of what they think they want, homage-stuffed retreads of other films that focus on bashes and toys rather than on people and characters. Edwards is becoming a purveyor of B-movie thrills, well made, but basically empty. 

That’s your Godzilla movie here. Well-made but rubbish. Full of spectacle wonderfully filmed, but fundamentally empty. A film that is careful about what it shows you and when, but is basically lacking any real soul.

Syriana (2005)

George Clooney gets crushed by the corruption of major oil companies in Syriana

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Cast: George Clooney (Bob Barnes), Matt Damon (Bryan Woodman), Jeffrey Wright (Bennett Holiday), Christopher Plummer (Dean Whiting), Nicky Henson (Sydney Hewitt), David Clennon (Donald Farish III), Amanda Peet (Julie Woodman), Peter Gerety (Leland Janus), Chris Cooper (Jimmy Pope), Tim Blake Nelson (Danny Dalton), William Hurt (Stan Goff), Mark Strong (Mussawi), Alexander Siddig (Prince Nasir Al-Subaai), Mazhar Munir (Wasim Ahmed Khan), Nadim Sawalha (Emir Hamed Al-Subaai), Akbar Kurtha (Prince Meshal Al-Subaai)

The more I think about Syriana the more I think Stephen Gaghan was unlucky. If he had made this story today, you can be sure this would have become a ten episode series on HBO or Netflix. Instead, Gaghan made it into a film in the early 2000s. This means the bloated, over expanded plot gets crammed into two short hours at the cost of much of the emotional and political complexity it needs. Without this Syriana is an angry lecture, something that throws some interesting observations at the viewer, but basically resorts more often to shouting at them about how shit the world is. With its interlinking storylines and “serious” content it looks like intelligent filmmaking, but it’s more like a misguided opportunity.

Gaghan’s film follows four plotlines. Bob Barnes (George Clooney) is a CIA field agent, and expert on the Middle East, coming to end of his effectiveness as a field agent, struggling to get his superiors in Washington to understand the complexities of Middle Eastern oil politics. He is ordered to arrange the assassination of the eldest son of the Emir of a Persian Oil Kingdom Prince Nasir Al-Subaai (Alexander Siddig). Nasir is suspected of the States of harbouring terrorist sympathies. In fact he is a passionate reformer, desperate to modernise his country. Nasir is working with Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) a representative of an American energy company, whose son is tragically killed by an electrical fault at one of the Emir’s estates during a business trip. The Kingdom is also being courted by a newly merged US oil company Connex-Killen for exclusive drilling rights – with attorney Bennett Holiday (Jeffrey Wright) tasked to ensure that nothing stands in the way of the merger and the riches that will follow. As these three storylines of political and economic oil matters interweave, migrant oil worker Wasim (Mazhar Munir) struggles to find work in the kingdom, and is slowly wooed by extremists.

Gaghan directs his own script and that might be his first mistake, as he is not a confident or imaginative enough director to craft something truly dramatic and engaging out of this highly researched, technical script. Instead, the script – or rather the research behind the script – drives events at every turn and leads to scenes that feel like they should be intelligent but tend to be actors reciting reams of dialogue and stats at each other. Combined with that, the film has a slightly smug preachy tone to it, desperate to let us know how shady and corrupt the world is and how trapped we are on a continual downward spiral of greed and corruption preventing us from improving and changing the world. It doesn’t always make for compelling viewing.

On top of that the complexity of the narrative is often mistaken for smartness, but often feels rather more like rushed and sudden execution of a story that doesn’t really have time to breath. Frankly the story that Gaghan wants to tell needed 8-10 hours of screen time and he doesn’t get it. Instead he throws everything and the kitchen sink into this sprawling study of oil based corruption. From Washington, to private oil firms, to intelligence agencies, to the cash rich families sitting on top of these oil geysers everyone gets a kicking as part of the same sordid mess that has led to the world being dominated by the rich and the regular guys of the middle east being left adrift and easy picking for extremists.

It feels like it should carry real weight, but it never really does because it’s hard for us to get a handle on what is going on half the time and even less harder to care once you realise the film has sacrificed character and motivation for the drive of putting together its polemical view of the world. The film is stuffed with actors, but its striking how few of the characters they play make an impression. Every part is played by a star – except of course for the inexplicable casting of jobbing 1980s Brit TV actor Nicky Henson as an arrogant oil exec, a casting so outlandishly out of place for an actor you are more likely to see in One Foot in the Grave that I kind of love the film for it – but none of the roles is really much more than a cipher.

That’s not to say there isn’t decent work. Christopher Plummer brings great heft and menace to a law firm Washington bigwig. Jeffrey Wright nailed so well playing this sort of on-the-surface meek functionary who quietly learns (albeit reluctantly) to play the game as well as the loudmouths that he has played the same role several times afterwards. Alexander Siddig owes much of his post DS9 career to his exceptional thoughtful and sympathetic performance as an Arab Prince whose forward-thinking is a disaster for the governments who want to keep using his state as an ATM. 

George Clooney won a generous Oscar (it was surely partly a compensation for not winning anything for Good Night, and Good Luck that year) but gets the meatiest role as Bob Barnes, the tired and cynical CIA agent who slowly begins to question the orders he is given and the world he has been working to build for his masters. His story contains the most actual drama, possibly why it stands out – poor George gets a rough ride here, tortured, arrested, bruised and blooded. It’s pretty straight forward stuff for an actor of his quality (Clooney plays it with a world weary outrage) but it’s also the most memorable storyline of a film straining at every moment to be important. 

It’s quite telling actually that the film’s most memorable speech is put into the mouth of Tim Blake Nelson’s oil executive (“Corruption is why we win!”) a character so lightly sketched out he barely appears other than making that speech. It’s a sign of the weakness of the film: characters serve purposes to the narrative and then disappear. These lightly sketched characters act out a lecture on world politics and economic-energy-driven corruption. Syriana needed room to breath in order to become a drama rather than a lecture. Instead it’s a decent workmanlike movie with ideas that it never manages to really express in a way that will make you care. When it tells you rich businessmen love money and powerful politicians love power you’re likely to basically say “yeah. I know. Tell me something new…”

American Hustle (2013)

Glamour and confidence tricks in David O. Russell’s flashy American Hustle

Director: David O. Russell

Cast: Christian Bale (Irving Rosenfeld), Amy Adams (Sydney Prosser), Bradley Cooper (Richie DiMaso), Jennifer Lawrence (Rosalyn Rosenfeld), Jeremy Renner (Mayor Carmine Polito), Louis CK (Stoddard Thorsen), Jack Huston (Pete Musane), Michael Peña (Paco Hernandez/Sheik), Elisabeth Röhm (Dolly Polito), Shea Whigham (Carl Elway), Alessandro Nivola (Anthony Amada), Robert De Niro (Victor Tellegio)

In 2013, American Hustle was nominated for ten Oscars and won none of them. Somehow, being invited to the big party but not receiving any prizes was strangely fitting for a film about small time grifters forced into a big game way beyond their control. Russell’s film is like a celebration of his strengths and weaknesses as a director: it’s stuffed with some very good (if rather mannered) performances, offers lots of dynamic film making, but is still basically a rather cold and arch film that’s hard to really invest in – rather like a con game in itself.

In 1978, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a small-time grafter, running scams with his partner and lover Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who uses the identity of a young English aristocrat “Lady Edith Greenslly”. Rosenfeld longs to leave his unstable, selfish wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) for Sydney, but fears he will lose all his access to his adopted son. Rosenfeld and Prosser’s career of clever investment frauds is brought to an end when Prosser is caught red-handed by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso forces the pair into his entrapment operation, targeting New Jersey politicians with offers of bribes as part of a Fake Sheik investment. Initially it targets Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), but the operation quickly expands, as the ambitious and impulsive DiMaso constantly follows every connection and the operation expands to dangerous levels, taking in the mafia. Scared, Rosenfeld and Prosser desperately try to play both ends against the middle.

American Hustle is a decent film, which pulls together the sort of capers, turmoil and antics that you would expect from a film about a long con. It throws into the melting pot the vibes of several other films, from The Sting to Goodfellas, and asks us to admire the results. Russell encourages the actors to play it with an edgy verisimilitude that pretty much works as a metaphor for con men. Each performance is an effective display of high-wire character acting work laced with arch, studied tricks. But only rarely do you get a sense of something that’s real.

That’s part of a film that wants to have a cake and eat it as well. It’s striking in the entire story that the most sympathetic character is the initial target, Jeremy Renner’s well-meaning, passionate New Jersey politician, bamboozled into taking a bribe (money he mostly uses in the local community) because he is convinced it’s a crucial part of getting Arab investment. It’s even more striking that the most honest, subdued (and deadly) character is the Mafia kingpin Victor Tellegio, played with chilling menace by an unbilled Robert DeNiro. Nearly everyone else on the side of the entrapment operation is pretty much a selfish prick or verging on the unhinged.

But then that’s part of the point of the film, which throws two people who know what they are doing (Rosenfeld and Prosser) at the mercy of people playing with fire (Roselyn and in particular DiMaso, a permed, tightly-wound powderkeg). This is one hell of a performance from Bradley Cooper – and a sign again after Silver Linings Playbook that Russell and he have a natural understanding. Cooper is a force of nature, a bundle of terrible impulses combined with an utter lack of shame or self-control, who is quite happy to trample over everyone to get what he wants and has no regard whatsoever for the danger he puts himself and others into. Utterly unpredictable, he never sticks to a plan, veers between rage and hysterical laughter and, worst of all, is always convinced he’s right.

It’s DiMaso who spins the operation into dangerous waters with his vaulting ambition to land yet another big fish, recklessly peddling insubstantial, unprepared lies on top of each other – to the terror and horror of practised peddlar of bullshit Rosenfeld, whose whole successful schtick is based on saying “no” and having the mark do all the desperate work. DiMaso’s approach not only puts the operation at risk, it puts lives at risk – not that DiMaso cares, preoccupied as he is with his childish one-upmanship with his boss and a teenage sexual obsession with Prosser.

What chance do the (mostly) small-fish politicians and local figures have, whose lives are placed on the altar of DiMaso’s ambition? It’s no wonder that, late in the film, our conmen heroes start to feel guilt and remorse – none more so than Irving Rosenfeld. Played by Christian Bale with the sort of tricksy, Olivier-ish disguises that he so loves (in this case increased weight, a balding comb-over and a pair of tinged glasses he obsessively fiddles with), Rosenfeld is an operator happy with the level he is working at and incredibly wary of stepping up into the dangerous big leagues. Justifiably convinced of his own professionalism at fleecing money and winning trust, Rosenfeld has no problem with taking money from the selfish but every problem in the world with destroying the life of a fundamentally honest man. Bale’s performance, for all the tricks, manages to successfully build a picture of a selfish man who believes himself in his way to be honest in a way and is just trying to make his way.

That way also involves balancing between two very different women. Amy Adams does decent work as a blowsy fake-aristocrat, sporting a series of tops with neck lines that literally plunge down to her waist, although she is perhaps a little too “nice girl next door” to really convince as the love-em-to-manipulate-them Prosser. She’s not also helped by the script giving her an ill-defined arc of self-doubt linked to pretending to be someone else. Sweet as the genuine love can be her between her and Rosenfeld – and excellent as her chemistry is between Bale and Cooper – it’s the character who remains the least knowable in the film.

Also not helping is the fact that Jennifer Lawrence burns through the film as Rosalyn, the sort of electric, larger-than-life but still very real performance of arrogance, selfishness, dangerous stupidity and greed that marked her out as a major actress. Whether inadvertently putting Rosenfeld’s life at risk through blabbing details she’s half-overheard and half-understood, cleaning the kitchen while singing an aggressive rendition of Live and Let Die or nearly burning the house down because she won’t believe metal can’t go in “the science oven” (aka microwave), Lawrence is the film’s MVP.

Russell’s film showcases all these actors brilliantly, but his overall story remains a little cold and not as clever as it thinks. With a film about conmen you expect a final rugpull – and this film sort of manages one – but the story telling to take us there isn’t quite as articulate and clever as it needs to be in order to be really satisfying. Perhaps it’s the film’s ragged, hip, indie style of telling – or the air that the actors are making a lot of this stuff up as they go with edgy, semi-improvised performances – but the film never really engrosses or engages. For all that we see the inner worlds of Rosenfeld and Prosser, I can’t say I really, truly cared what happened to them. 

Instead Russell focuses on the marshalling of his resources, and cool, slick film-making. He uses expert camera work and editing, mixed with a superbly chosen soundtrack, overlaid with voiceover, sudden transitions, some narrative jumps and a vibrant sense of cool to make a story that finally feels a little too much like a style-over-substance trick – in fact a con game all of its very own, as enjoyable and entertaining as the rest of the film, but when it finishes you realise your pockets are empty.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Waiting for Bike-o: Father and son search in vain in war-torn Rome

Director: Vittorio de Sica
Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani (Antonio Ricci), Enzo Staiola (Bruno Ricci), Lianella Carell (Maria Ricci), Gino Saltamerenda (Baiocco), Vittorio Antonucci (Alfredo Catelli), Giulio Chiari (Beggar), Elena Altieri (Charitable Lady)

Sometimes the simple stories are the best, and I don’t think you can get much simpler than this: Man loses bike. Man searches for bike. Man doesn’t find bike. This film is a perfect little fairy tale, a wonderfully moving family story, perhaps one of the best “father-son” films placed on film. Who could resist the patience and understanding the son has for the father – and who can fail to be moved by the son’s disappointment with the father, or his eventual forgiveness for the father’s failings. Because the father himself is a failure – yes he is a victim of the economic system, but he is also a strangely passive, ineffectual man barely able to help himself.

In post-war, recession-hit Rome, jobs and income are at an absolute premium. Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani, an amateur actor who barely worked again, unable to escape the shadow of this role) is offered a job pasting up Rita Hayworth posters (could there be a bigger contrast between glamour and squalor in the movies?). There is one condition: he must have a bike. With a sign of his later ineffectiveness, Antonio claims he cannot accept the vital job due to pawning the bike. Not standing for this, his wife pawns all the bedding in the house to reclaim the bike. Antonio heads to work but within less than half a day his bike is stolen. Accompanied by his son Bruno, Antonio searches for the next two days through Rome for the bike.

De Sica’s film is the most famous of the films from the neo-realist movement. This movement aimed to make films entirely on location, using only non-professional actors, aiming to present the real world on camera within the framework of the stories told by cinema. De Sica certainly manages to capture the sense of post-war Rome: a parade of dingy streets and untidy squares, with debris and rubbish at almost every turn, weeds punching through steps, and crowds of working class Romans a constant presence.

The beauty of using De Sica’s realism is that we get a real sense of how important this bicycle is – the presence of so many people almost begging for this job means the audience knows that this bike is absolutely crucial. De Sica even teases us – we know the bike is going to get stolen, it’s in the title – by having Antonio leave the bike unattended at least three times before the thing is stolen. Personally, I felt very tense whenever Antonio let that bike out of his sight, practically begging De Sica to allow at least the camera to keep an eye on it. The documenting of poverty before this is beautifully done – not overplayed I hasten to add, but a gentle, uncommented-on present. There is a beautiful shot of the pawnbrokers, where the bedding is deposited – the pawnbroker literally climbs up a mountain of pawned bedding, a quiet visual testimony to the fact that this is a story that has been told several times over away from the movie camera.

The heart of the film, though, is the relationship between Antonio and his son Bruno, both beautifully played. De Sica keeps the visual poetry of this relationship throughout – Bruno is clearly full of love for his father, as his father is for him, but their relationship is not completely easy. At one point Bruno falls in a puddle – Antonio literally doesn’t notice. This is a neat shadowing for their argument later in the film, and Bruno’s tearful reaction to a slap. Later when Antonio fears Bruno drowned after a separation (he’s not!) his despair and panic speaks volumes for his love – but even their reconciliation is undermined by Antonio being sucked back into self-pitying despair, Bruno patiently setting his meal aside to listen (and perform some mental arithmetic) for his father.

The final sequence of the film brings all these themes to the fore brilliantly: Antonio finally considers stealing to replace his long lost bike. Carefully he sends his son away, too ashamed to have his crime witnessed – but like everything else in the film he attempts, Antonio bungles it. As our heroes depart and disappear in the crowd, Antonio is distracted and fighting tears – but Bruno takes his hands in a perfect moment of acceptance and forgiveness.

This is a quest film, very moving but in a way almost a slight of hand. A policeman tells Antonio from the start his search is hopeless – and the audience know it must be hopeless (finding a bike in Rome? Come on!) – but De Sica makes us hope, makes us believe it might be possible. It’s a tribute to how real the characters feel that the viewer is desperate for them to find this precious bike. And a testament to the beauty of the film that they can fail to find it and still be very moved by the film.

Trainspotting (1996)

Another happy day in Edinburgh… Ewen Bremner, Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle define their careers in the mid-1990s phenomenen

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Renton), Ewen Bremner (Spud), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy), Robert Carlyle (Begbie), Kevin McKidd (Tommy), Kelly Macdonald (Diane), Peter Mullan (Mother Superior), Eileen Nicholas (Mrs. Renton), James Cosmo (Mr. Renton), Shirley Henderson (Gail Houston), Stuart McQuarrie (Gav), Irvine Welsh (Mikey)

Surprise, surprise the Drug’s Don’t Work. They just make you worse. Honestly, watching Trainspotting you would have to be a Grade A moron or wilfully missing the point to ever imagine that this film could, in any way what-so-ever, be endorsing the life of heroin addiction. The unbalanced, unreliable, sickly-looking, soul crushingly blank-eyed losers in this film are no-ones idea of an aspiration. The fate of Tommy alone, starting the film as a health freak and ending it as a smacked out, paper thin, wasting AIDS victim could only encourage the truly unbalanced to take up drugs.

You must know the story: Ewan McGregor is our “hero” Renton, a junkie with delusions every so often (the film implies this has occurred multiple times) of going clean, kicking the habit only to find that he is always drawn back in – largely it seems due to his own weak personality. Fellow junkies include Spud (Ewan Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and later (tragically) Tommy (Kevin McKidd). On the edge of their junkie circle (not a user) is psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) who doesn’t need drugs when he can get a high from starting a bar fight. The basic plot is slim in this whipper sharp film where experience is all – Renton goes clean, gets sucked back in, misses prison, goes cold turkey, escapes to London, gets sucked back into a drug deal. That’s basically it. What’s important here is the experience.

This is possibly one of the best films about addiction ever seen (I watched it in a double bill with The Lost Weekend which actually works out as a pretty natural combo). Boyle and screenwriter Andrew Hodge aren’t scared to show that drugs at times can be fun (after all if they didn’t make you feel good part of the time why would you do them?) and they can give colour to life (particularly to the shallow non entities this film centres on). The is even a strange family warmth to Renton and friends getting smacked out in an otherwise disgusting dilapidated drug pit, listening to Sick Boy dissect the Sean Connery Bond films. This is then brilliantly counterbalanced by the appalling lows – from the truly unsettling dead baby, abandoned and unfed in said drug den, to Renton’s appalling cold turkey. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing here is that Danny Boyle directs with such verve and with a gleeful delight for every single shooting and editing trick in the book, but the film never feels like a triumph of style over substance, or as if the tricks are the centre of the director’s attention. Instead throughout the whole film you can tell the heart of the film makers – and therefore the heart of the viewer – is also focused on the story and the characters. So we get a film that crackles with energy, with a sense of youthful vitality (that is vital to understanding its characters), has an attractive anti-society message – but also reminds us that the perils of following this kind of counter culture life can be truly horrifying.

At the centre of this film is Ewan McGregor, who I don’t think has ever found a role that he could seize and bring to life as successfully as he did with this one. McGregor is captivating, managing to skilfully demonstrate without any judgement a man who believes he is strong, but is in fact desperately weak. His performance is so charismatic that you hardly notice that Renton is, actually, a pretty nasty person. High or not he has a barely concealed contempt for nearly everyone around him, his reaction to the baby death is shockingly cold, his treatment of Tommy laced with indifference, his pronouncements to the audience overflow with self-regard and delusion. But you just don’t notice.

What you do notice is that Robert Carlyle’s Begbie is a total nutter. Just like McGregor, I think Carlyle struggled to find a role that matched this one, probably not helped by the string of psychos he was offered by casting directors. Carlyle again actually isn’t in the film that much, but he nails how terrifying total self belief can be when matched with a complete lack of any moral sense. In fact most of the cast have hardly ever been better. Excellent support also comes from Peter Mullan, Eileen Nicholas, James Cosmo, Shirley Henderson and Stuart McQuarrie while Irvine Welsh pops up as low rent dealer.

Electric film making with a heart, I don’t think even Danny Boyle has topped this. There is something strangely perfect about this film – anything more and it might out stay it’s welcome, but every scene has something magic in it, some little touch that stays in the mind – either performance, dialogue, direction or all three. It looks fantastic and seemed to define its era. So fingers crossed for the sequel. No pressure…