Tag: Brad Pitt

Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club (1999)

Hugely popular, I find it widely misunderstood but also a little too in love with its own cleverness

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Edward Norton (The Narrator), Brad Pitt (Tyler Durden), Helena Bonham Carter (Marla Singer), Meat Loaf (Robert Paulson), Jared Leto (Angel Face), Holt McCallany (Mechanic), Zach Grenier (Richard Chessler), Eion Bailey (Ricky), Peter Lacangelo (Lou), Thom Gossom Jnr (Detective Stern)

When Fight Club was made, the studio didn’t get it. You can’t blame them. Studio suits sat down and just couldn’t understand what on earth this primal cry of anger, giving voice to the disillusioned and dispossessed, was going on about. Fight Club was categorically not for them. I’d managed to miss it for decades, so it’s an odd experience watching this angry millennial film for the first time when I’m now exactly the sort of punch-clock office drone its characters despised. I think I missed the boat.

Our narrator (Edward Norton) is cynical, bored and feels his life is going nowhere. Suffering from crippling insomnia, he takes to attending support groups for various terminal illness survivors, releasing his own ennui among the pain there. It’s where he meets fellow ‘suffering tourist’, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter), whom he’s attracted to while resenting her intrusion on his own private therapy. Shortly after he meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a charismatic rebel with whom he founds an underground bare-knuckle fight group for men who can’t express themselves in the modern world. But Durden’s charismatic, anti-corporatist rhetoric tips more and more into radicalism and he starts an affair with Marla. What will our Narrator do?

Sometimes I think Fight Club might be one of the most misunderstood films ever. So many people who have fallen in love with it talk about it being an attack on conformity in our cold modern world. Of its celebration of people leaving the oppressive, mindless 9-5 grind to find something true and real that makes them feel alive. To be fair, Fight Club is partly this. But how do our heroes do this? By starting a cult where the bitter, resentful and inadequate search for meaning through violence and becoming part of a monolithic organisation that bans independent thought. Essentially, it’s a cult movie, exploring what makes people who can’t relate to the monotony of the “real life”, embrace an oppressive set of rules simply because those rules make them feel important.

This misreading by many is a tribute to the brilliance of Fincher’s direction. Fincher’s film is radical, sexy, pulsating and exciting. It’s shot like a mix of music video and experimental feature and crammed with cutting, witty lines that skewer and puncture the ”grown up” ideas that so many find weary and tiresome. It’s a modern Catcher in the Rye and it pours all its functional, dynamically written anti-establishment rhetoric into the mouth of one of the world’s most charismatic stars in Brad Pitt and allows him to let rip.

Fincher’s Fight Club is really, to me, about the intoxicating excitement of anger, of how easy it is to pour your frustrations into actions that are destructive and selfish but which you can invest with a higher meaning. School shooters, incels – many of them see themselves as stars in their own Fight Clubs, as cool anti-establishment rebels who see some higher truth beyond the rest of us. Fight Club is a brilliantly staged exposure of how this mindset is created and how damn attractive it can be.

Because when Pitt lets rip with this mantra on finding truth and purpose, turning your back on Ikea and Starbucks and all the other soulless “stuff” people find important, you want to stand up and cheer with him. You can see that the attraction of forming a secret brotherhood with a series of other similarly frustrated men, who feel emasculated and purposeless in a world where they can’t do something meaningful like fight Nazis or hunt deer. How they could find satisfaction and a sense of masculine validation in punching seven shades of shit out of each other. Because, as the adrenalin and the blood flows, and the teeth go flying, you feel alive.

It’s certainly a lot more fun than trying to actually deal with your problems. Fight Club is really about this sort of toxic, masculine anger and bitterness leads us to fail to deal with our problems. The Narrator needs Durden, because he can’t manage to process his own feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. He can’t deal with ennui – except through a constant stream of cynical, privately spoken, bitter remarks – and when he meets a girl he likes, he can’t cope with that either.

Durden comes into his life straight after Marla does, and Durden does everything with Marla the Narrator can’t. He flirts with, impresses and fucks her. That’s the sort of thing the Narrator (literally) can only dream about doing. The film builds towards the Narrator realising that, by embracing Durden, he is denying himself the possibility of something real with an actual kindred spirit (screwed up as Marla is, she has decency and empathy). Fight Club – much as many of its fans who find the final act “disappointing” don’t want to admit it – is about putting away childish resentments and growing up. Even if the Narrator is culpable for the things Durden does – and only threats to Marla awaken his acknowledgement that he should do something – he recognises the aimless, irresponsible and dangerous anger of Durden is not healthy.

Because Fight Club centralises a group of terrorists who tell themselves they are plucky anarchists who don’t want to hurt anyone – but we know it never stops there. Especially when you have a mesmeric, Hitlerish figure like Durden driving people on. Pitt is superb as this raving id monster, a hypnotic natural leader who delivers rhetorical flourishes with such intense and utter belief he essentially brainwashes a legion of men into following his orders without question – acid burns, bombs and death don’t even make them blink, just even more willing to follow his orders.

Fincher works so hard to make us understand the attraction of all this that sometimes Fight Club – with its flash filtered look set in a nearly perpetual night – is more than a little pleased with its impish menace. It also takes a little too much delight in teasing its infamous twist – it’s a little too delighted with the “ah but when you watch it back” ingeniousness with which it presents a melange of scenes (the twist also makes you realise later just how brainwashed and dangerous the men in this cult must be, once we realise what they saw and how little they reacted to it). Fight Club also, for all its cool lines and winning gags, has an air of pop psychology to it. (I am very willing to overlook its cheap anarcho-socialism as we are very clearly invited to see this as empty nonsense – for all many people watching the film don’t.)

Edward Norton is extremely good in a challenging role, a stunted and bitter dweeb who dreams of being a player and barrels along with ever more dangerous events. He walks a fine line between a sheltered follower and true acolyte, in several moments showing more than a flash of Durden’s ballsy, take-no-chances, sadism-tinged determination when you least expect it. It’s the sort of performance designed to make sense in the whole, not in the moment – and on that score it’s exquisite. He also makes a wonderful pairing with Helena Bonham Carter, exploding her bonnet reputation with a part that’s rough-edged, unpredictable but surprisingly humane and vulnerable.

Is Fight Club a masterpiece? I’m not sure. It’s a very clever, sharp and dynamic piece of film-making designed to pull the wool over your eyes (in more ways than one). But it can also be overly pleased with itself and does such a superb job of getting you to empathise with the deluded and violent that when it gear changes in the final act it never quite lands as it should. It feels like an angry teenager’s idea of the greatest film ever made (and you can’t deny it digs into the same “loner who sees the deeper truth” vibe that helped make The Matrix a phenomenon later that year). It’s Fincher at his young, punk best – and maybe Fight Club got all this out of his system (you can’t believe the same man made this and Curious Case of Benjamin Button), but for me it lives in the shadow of Fincher’s dark and dangerous Seven, a film which explores similar themes but with more humanity and greater depth than Fight Club.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Ageing, romance and sentiment in Fincher’s handsome shaggy dog story

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Brad Pitt (Benjamin Button), Cate Blanchett (Daisy Fuller), Taraji P Henson (Queenie), Julia Ormond (Caroline Button), Jason Flemyng (Thomas Button), Elias Koteas (Monsieur Gateau), Tilda Swinton (Elizabeth Abbott), Mahershala Ali (Tizzy Weathers), Jared Harris (Captain Mike Clark)

As the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 strikes, a baby boy is born. A baby boy unlike any other, with the appearance and illnesses of a very old man. Discarded by his horrified father (Jason Flemyng), the boy is adopted by Queenie (Taraji P Henson), caretaker of a nursing home. There it becomes clear he is growing backwards: the older he gets, the younger he appears. Young Benjamin will eventually grow into Brad Pitt and spend his life watching those around him grow ever older as he grows ever younger. Most joyful, and painful, of all being his childhood friend Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the woman he will love his whole life.

Fincher’s film is a strange beast. A huge technical triumph, that uses cutting edge special effects and astonishing make-up to age – in both directions – Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett throughout the course of the film (both taken from extreme old age to face-lifted youth), it’s also a whimsical shaggy dog story with elements of a fairy tale that does very little with its astonishing concept other than pepper the script with easily digestible homilies about the purity of the simple life, as if screenwriter Eric Roth was still gorging on the same box of chocolates from which he plucked Forrest Gump.

TCCoBB has a lot going for it: you can see why it was coated with technical Oscars. The ageing and deageing special effects are skilfully and even subtly done, the recreation of a host of periods – from the 1910s to the 1990s and beyond – flawlessly detailed. Claudio Miranda’s photography uses a host of film stocks – from sepia, to scratchy home movie footage style, to luscious technicolour beauty – to reflect time and era constantly. The assemblage of the film has been invested with huge care and attention and, despite its great length, Fincher cuts together (with Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall) an episodic film that manages to keep its momentum and drive going.

Also, it’s a far less vomit-inducing spectacle than the manipulative stylings that coat Forrest Gump. This is in part to Brad Pitt’s restrained and contemplative performance in the lead role: Pitt underplays with surprising effectiveness, capturing Benjamin’s “come what may” attitude and eagerness to go with the flow of the opportunities life offers him. He delivers the narration with an authority just the right side of portentous (for all his rather flat, uninteresting voice) and skilfully manages to invest his body with a physicality quite contrary to his physical appearance (his old body moves with a young man’s casualness, while his younger form carries a slightly world-weary hesitancy).

Benjamin’s mantra becomes one of living your life just as suits you best, not as others expect you to and never worrying about leaving it too late to take chances or make changes. Or at least something like that. To be honest, the weakest part by far of TCCoBB is the lightness and breeziness of its thematic impact. I’ve seen this film three times and, other than a slightly charming shaggy dog story, I’m not quite sure what point it is trying to make – other than straining for a star-cross’d romantic sadness.

This feels like a missed opportunity because there is so much that could be explored here. The film is a nearly unique opportunity to explore how much age – either physical or mental – defines us. A chance to see how our perceptions of a person are shaped as much by what they look like or how they sound, as by who they are. What sort of different perspective on humanity might Benjamin have? How might those around him evaluate, their own lives as they see this him getting younger?

Questions such as these are not touched, the film settling for Benjamin’s whimsical, first-do-no-harm philosophy crossed with a sort of saintly non-interference. The closest it gets to dealing with this is in Benjamin’s friendship and later relationship with Daisy. Old/young Benjamin is told off by Daisy’s grandmother for being a dirty old man, when they first met as children (or old man in his case). Later their lives will drift together and apart, until they form a relationship when both are “the same age” physically. But the film shirks really exploring the implications of this – and outright flees the idea of Benjamin as an increasingly younger man in a romantic relationship with an increasingly older Daisy.

Instead, it settles all too often for easy lessons, comforting parables and charming little vignettes. Benjamin grows up cared for by his adopted mother Queenie (an engaging, if straight forward, performance by Taraji P Henson) – but in the sort of 1920s New Orleans where a racial epithet is never even whispered. He travels the world with Jared Harris’ (rather good) salty sea-dog, falling in love briefly with Tilda Swinton’s lonely champion swimmer turned society wife. He reconnects happily with his father (after all it’s much easier to live a life of free choice if you are the heir to a massive button factory empire). Idyllic 1960s love hits Daisy and Benjamin – a brief shot of a cruise missile taking off is the only reference to those troubled times we see.

It’s all very easy, romantically toned, sweet and easily digestible. Even writing it down highlights how these are charming, eccentrically tinged, vignettes. All events and experiences come together with a vague “lessons learned” impact, as old Benjamin regresses into a teenager, a child and then an infant. But it could have been so much more. A real study of what makes us human, a real look at how events and perspectives define us. It isn’t. Heck, other than watching Pitt travel handsomely around the world on a motorbike in a late montage, we don’t really get much of a sense of how being young/old may impact him.

Which isn’t to say it’s not enjoyable. It all proceeds with a great deal of charm and love, much of which has clearly been invested in every inch of its making. The acting from (and chemistry between) Pitt and Blanchett is very effective. But it feels like a slightly missed opportunity, a film that settles for being a warm, reassuring cuddle when it could have sat you down and helped you understand your life. For all its slight air of importance, it’s a crowd-pleasing, if slightly sentimental, film.

12 Monkeys (1995)

12 Monkeys (1995)

A world-ending-virus can only be cured through the power of time-travel in Gilliam’s twisty, paradox time loop

Director: Terry Gilliam

Cast: Bruce Willis (James Cole), Madeleine Stowe (Dr Kathryn Railly), Brad Pitt (Jeffrey Goines), Christopher Plummer (Dr Leland Goines), David Morse (Dr Peters), Jon Seda (Jose), Christopher Meloni (Lt Halperin), Frank Gorshin (Dr Fletcher), Bob Adrian (Geologist), Simon Jones (Zoologist), Carol Florence (Astrophysicist), Bill Raymon (Microbiologist)

2035 and the world is a plastic-coated hell, where what remains of mankind huddle below the Earth in rudimentary, environmentally controlled, airtight refuges. The surface is a dream, now home to a deadly virus that wiped out 99% of the population. That virus was unleashed in Philadelphia in 1996: nothing can stop that. But time travel can help the scientists of 2035 gain a sample of the original pre-mutation virus. They believe it was unleashed by an organisation called “The 12 Monkeys”. Track the organisation in the past and find an original sample of the virus. Easy right?

Wrong. Time travel messes with your mind, making it hard to tell what’s real and what’s not. The travellers are penal “volunteers”. James Cole (Bruce Willis) is selected as he has a photographic memory and a strong memory from 1996 of witnessing a Philadelphia airport shooting, that will help send him back. However, he’s flung back to 1990 and thrown into an asylum, treated by Dr Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and sharing a room with environmentalist Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Rescued and correctly sent to 1996, can Cole convince Railly he’s telling the truth and track Goines who has become the leader of the 12 Monkeys?

12 Monkeys is one of the most intriguing time-travel films ever made – and its future, ripped apart with plague, seems chillingly closer today. It puts a vulnerable, scared person at its centre – and makes him a dangerous, inarticulate Cassandra who reacts with violence when no-one listens him (which they never do). It repeatedly tells us things cannot end well, but still gets us hoping they might anyway. It presents puzzles that provoke debate and stretch the imagination.

Gilliam’s most main-stream film is an eccentric, unsettling, tricksy film that juggles time travel and paradoxes, as well as mental health and the nature of reality. Shot with a Dutch-angle infused oddness – reflecting its hero’s mental unbalance – and scored with a French-inflected whirly-gig musical theme that is reminiscent of the demented street people that pepper the film (and may, or may not, be other unbalanced time travellers), it constantly puts you on edge and unsettles.

This extends to its casting, which takes two Hollywood superstars – Willis and Pitt – and deglamorises them to a shocking degree. As Cole, Willis is shambling, vulnerable, scared and struggling to distinguish between reality and fantasy. An 8-year-old boy when the virus destroyed the world, in a way he’s never grown up. He looks around the world of the past with a wide-eyed wonder (he adores the sun and the feel of the soil beneath his feet) but has the stroppy impulsiveness of a maladjusted teenager. He’s so twitchy and insecure, you start wondering if he is the mentally disturbed man who imagines he’s from the future, that his doctors think he is. It’s Willis’ least-Willis performance ever and one of his finest.

Similarly, Pitt pushes himself as the disturbed, aggressive Goines. Prone to obsessive rambling, that stretches Pitt’s languorous vocal register (he trained for months to improve his vocal range), Pitt’s performance is wide-eyed, unpredictable and unsettlingly dangerous. With a single eye swollen and askew, it’s a performance that plays with being OTT but manages to work because he mostly avoids actorly showing off. Madeline Stowe, by contrast, has the most difficult role as the ‘normal person’, a sceptical psychiatrist becoming more and more convinced Cole is telling the truth.

Of course, despite the film’s efforts to play with reality, the audience are always pretty certain he isn’t wrong about the future. But, with the sight of fellow deranged time travellers, not to mention Willis’ vulnerable performance, that Cole could still be crazy. Even if you are right, doesn’t mean you are sane.

Gilliam’s surrealist future helps with this. Every time Cole is pulled back to 2035, the world becomes ever more deranged. Is his grip on reality eroding, as he is feared it is. Design wise the future is a triumph – but it also seems eerily similar to the 1990 asylum Cole is in. Has the building, and the things in it, been repurposed in 2035? Or, as the scientists of 2035 become ever more surreal (including serenading Cole at one point in a Dennis-Potteresque fantasy), questioning Cole via a circular floating series of TV screens while he sits in a suspended chair, is Cole’s grip on reality gone?

It keeps the tension up in the ‘past’ plotline, even as the things Cole has seen in the future – strange messages on walls, photos, voicemail messages – accumulate. 12 Monkeys is a fascinating time-travel movie, that establishes from the very first moment it is impossible to change the past (something the audience, like the characters, get sucked into forgetting). After all, if the plague was stopped, then time travel would never be invented in the first place. All Cole, and the other travellers, can do is collect information.

But that doesn’t stop the future influencing the past. Goines decides to form the 12 Monkeys based on a conversation with Cole in 1990. Dr Railly becomes fascinated with apocalyptic predictions – writing a book that will influence the man planning viral annihilation in 1996 – only because she meets Cole. And, above all, 2035 Cole’s presence in 1996 leads to that strong childhood memory happening in the first placce. The final reveal of the meaning behind Cole’s recurring memory-dream is the perfect example of a time-loop closing (so much so the scientists in the future bend over backwards, giving Cole a doomed mission, to ensure it happens).

It also explains why he is drawn towards Stowe’s Railly, who resembles (with the exception of her lack of Hitchcock Blonde hair) the woman in his dream. The relationship between Cole and Railly develops into a slightly forced romance (it feels like a script requirement, for all Gilliam’s taking the characters to watch Vertigo to hammer home the obvious contrasts). But when it focuses on two people drawn together for reasons they can’t quite understand (and there are hints of predestination) it just about works. That and the commitment of both actors to the roles.

12 Monkeys is about 15 minutes too long (it’s 1990 section outstays its welcome), especially as the audience is never in doubt that the plague is real (after all this is a movie). But Gilliam keeps us on our toes with how confident we feel in Cole: we’re repeatedly shown he’s violent, inarticulate and impulsive. The final half of the film, where the origins behind events we have been shown or heard in the first half, is fascinating. The tragic turns of the film’s paradoxical temporal loop is brilliantly executed and haunting. Gilliam’s film is quirky, unsettling and a design triumph: but it also tells a fascinating story. It’s his most accessible and crowd-pleasing film.

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.

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis hit the road in Thelma and Louise

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Susan Sarandon (Louise Sawyer), Geena Davis (Thelma Dickinson), Harvey Keitel (Detective Hal Slocumb), Michael Madsen (Jimmy Lennox), Christopher McDonald (Darryl Dickinson), Stephen Tobolowsky (Max), Brad Pitt (JD), Timothy Carhart (Harlan Puckett)

Two people on the run, dodging the police and doing what they can to survive. It’s a well Hollywood has gone back to time and time again. But in most cases the people were either two men, or maybe a man and a woman (romantically involved naturally). It was unheard of to make that most masculine of genres, the outlaw road movie, into one led by women. But that’s what we get here, in a movie that has become iconic in more ways than one, Thelma and Louise.

Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) is a tough, independent-minded waitress. Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) is a shy housewife, whose husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald) is a jerk. With Darryl away for the weekend, Thelma and Louise head off for a weekend away together, to let their hair down and feel a bit of freedom. Unfortunately, disaster happens when Thelma flirts with a sleazy guy in a Texas bar (Harlan Puckett), who tries to rape her in the car park. Louise saves her – but guns the guy down. The two women now find themselves on the run from the law, terrified that no one will believe their side of the story. But as the women find themselves on the road, the experience changes them, with Thelma flourishing in an environment where she can make her own choices and Louise becoming more able to open herself up emotionally. But can they stay ahead of the law?

With a terrific (Oscar-winning) script from first-time writer Callie Khouri, Thelma and Louise offers a dynamic and daring twist on the Hollywood road movie. By placing women at the centre of a story like this, a fascinating new light is shed not only on the law, but also on the culture of the American South. It also gives what would otherwise be familiar situations, a fascinating new light as two underestimated people are forced to prove time-and-time again how ahead of the game they are.

Ridley Scott directs the film with a beautiful, confident flourish. The John Fordian iconography of the West is a gift for a painterly director like Scott, and this film hums with the sort of eye for American iconography that only the outsider can really bring. The film brilliantly captures the dusty wildness of the West as well as the neon-lit grubbiness of working class American bars. It looks beautiful, but also vividly, sometimes terrifyingly real. Scott then, with a great deal of empathy, builds a very humane story around this, with two characters it’s nearly impossible not to root for.

He’s helped immensely by two stunning performances from the women in the lead roles. Susan Sarandon’s is perfect for the brash and gutsy Louise, not least because she’s an actor brilliantly able to suggest a great emotional depth and rawness below the surface. Louise is a women juggling deeper traumas – past experiences (its implied a historic rape) that leave her in no doubt that the justice system will not be interested in hearing about a woman’s suffering. It’s the hard to puncture toughness that softens over the course of the film, as Louise becomes more willing to explore her emotions and allow her vulnerability to show.

Particularly so as the lead between the two is slowly taken over by Geena Davis’ Thelma. This is certainly Davis’ finest work, her Thelma starting as a beaten down housewife, just trying to let her hair down in a bar, into a scared victim, a horny teenager lusting over Brad Pitt’s hunky JD then finally into a road warrior who discovers unimagined determination and resources inside herself, toting guns and robbing stores. It’s the sort of once-in-a-lifetime part Davis seizes upon. She’s sensational and totally believable at every turn.

Placing these two women at the centre of a story like this puts the feminine perspective front-of-centre – and it’s alarming to think how little some things have changed. Can we imagine today that there wouldn’t be policemen and lawyers willing to blame Thelma – or claim she asked for it – for her near rape in a bar? Or that there wouldn’t be a fair crack of the whip in the system for Louise for gunning down an unarmed rapist? On top of that, the majority of the police tracking the two women (with the exception of Harvey Keitel’s decent cop – Keitel is very good in this) find it hard to take “these girls” seriously, finding it hard to imagine them being anything other than a joke.

Mind you the attitudes of men are laid bare at every turn. Thelma’s husband Darryl (a very good performance of selfish patheticness by Christopher McDonald) is a waste of skin, a man who can’t imagine a world where Thelma could be his equal. Timothy Carhart is all charm until Thelma denies him the sex he believes he was due for in exchange for a night if flirting and drunks, and promptly turns extremely nasty. The cops – gun totting with itchy trigger-finger – just seem to be waiting for an excuse to throw the ladies down. Even JD (a star marking early performance by a deeply attractive and charismatic Brad Pitt), who seems so charming – and proves the sort of generous and skilled lover Thelma has never experienced in her life – has no qualms about robbing the ladies of their life savings, leaving them hung out-to-dry.

Many men at the time complained (pathetically) about the presentation of men in this film (as if men haven’t had any films where they were sympathetically placed front and centre), but I think it’s a pretty clear judgement that women are not held to the same standards. Khouri’s script shows time and time again the casual sexism (and sexualisation) the women encounter – to the extent that when they finally confront (and pull guns) on the sexist, aggressive truck driver who has been following them for most of the film, you cheer along with them when they shoot out first his tyres, then his oil tanker. We’ve even had a warm-up with Thelma turning a tough intimidating cop into quivering jelly by taking control of the situation.

But that’s what this film is about – the unexpected taking control. Because this isn’t just a feminist statement because it puts women into a male genre. It does so by showing how few choices these women have in their lives before they take into the road and how liberating it is to be able to make their own choices. Because these characters have had all their choices made by men, from Thelma’s smothering marriage to Louise’s undefined past as a victim. And their futures are as much out of the control, likely to find themselves on death row for shooting a rapist. On top of all that, men continue to see them both as sex objects.

How could you not be moved by this? It’s why the films iconic ending carries such impact. These are women discovering they have the power to make their own choices and their own mistakes. It has an undeniable power to it. It’s a power that runs through the entire film, perfectly shepherded by Scott’s astute and sharp direction, with Davis and Sarandon superb. It will still give you shocking insights today into what life is like for women in a world still dominated by men.

More recently its writer and stars pointed out that the film actually ended up changing very little for women in Hollywood. There was no new wave of daringly different female-led movies, with “women’s drama” still mostly restricted afterwards to family drama and romances. There are still few exciting opportunities for female filmmakers. (And it’s a sign of the times back then that the very idea of a woman directing this feminist film was never even raised as a possibility.) Perhaps that’s why Thelma and Louise remains such an icon, because it’s still such a one-off. Either way, it’s a film that hasn’t aged a day since it was released.

Ad Astra (2019)

Brad Pitt goes out to the stars in Ad Astra

Director: James Gray

Cast: Brad Pitt (Roy McBride), Tommy Lee Jones (H. Clifford McBride), Ruth Negga (Helen Lantos), Liv Tyler (Eve McBride), Donald Sutherland (Colonel Pruitt), John Ortiz (Lt General Rivas

Man has looked up at the stars for as long as we can remember and imagined what lies out there. From Gods to other intelligent life form, every culture has been drawn to imagine beyond the bounds of Earth and dream of finding what is out there. It’s a dream that powers the life of leading US Astronaut H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who in “the near future” led “The Lima Project” to Neptune to try and find intelligent life beyond the Solar System. Now missing 17 years, Clifford’s son Roy (Brad Pitt) has become a leading astronaut, tasked with leading efforts to find his father after a series of devastating power surges damaging the planet and killing thousands are traced back to the Lima. So Roy embarks on an epic voyage, from Earth to mankind’s bases on the Moon and Mars to Neptune in quest of his father.

James Gray’s artfully made film yearns for a moral and thematic depth that it doesn’t quite manage to achieve. Its structure is heavily inspired by Hearts of Darkness, with Marlow and Kurtz twisted into a Son-Father dynamic and many of the stop offs on the way McBride encounters eerily reminiscent of the adventures of Marlow. Is there a longer trek down the river than crossing the Solar System? 

Within this framework, Gray throws in an earnest meditation on the nature of mankind’s yearnings and how our instincts collide between our dreams for an unattainable unknown and the world around us. All of this accompanied by Pitt’s Conradesque voiceover, as McBride muses over his own internal struggles, doubts, inadequacies, frustrations and sorry all bubbling beneath his calmly controlled exterior.

Its Pitt’s film and Ad Astra is a reminder that he is an actor who looks to push himself to his absolute limits. Here he carries the whole film, for long stretches alone, his eyes conveying the cool professionalism and self-control of McBride, along with his own far-more-fragile-than-appears psyche. Carrying burdens of loss and regret, McBride seems to see crises that he encounters in space as relief from his own internal struggles. Whenever the shit hits the fan, McBride is the coolest man in the room (his commanding officers admiringly state his pulse rate never seems to go above about 80 in even the most life-threatening situations) and from tumbling from the outer atmosphere, evading pirates in a moon buggy in space or manually landing a spacecraft, he never fails at his professional duty. Only when confronted with the emotions of his own life is he left with his composure fractured.

Pitt conveys the isolation and pain of McBride extremely well, with acting and expressions so subtle they carry all the more emotional force. It’s a controlled and perfectly judged performance that powers the entire film, and bears a lot of the thematic weight of Gray’s invention. 

Gray’s direction is powered by clear memories of 2001 and Solaris (although I also felt echoes of Danny Boyle’s space horror Sunshine in its fascination with the dread and danger of the vastness of space not to mention Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar). It looks fantastic with a wonderful score, ambitiously grasping for importance.

Episodic as it moves from location to location, Gray’s film creates a convincing world of the future, where mankind has disputed colonies on the moon (space pirates roam between bases, taking hostages like Somalian pirates), space travel is commercialised (by Virgin of course) and people live and die on a far-flung underground base on Mars. While I did briefly think about the enormous cost of all this space travel with its huge fuel consumption and debris of discarded rocket sections (how on earth is this commercially viable?), not to mention the trouble that would be involved in erecting giant neon cowboys on the Moon, it’s convincing.

Gray’s film wants to delve into the mysteries of humanity, and McBride Snr’s entire life has been dedicated to the quest for finding out that we are part of something larger than ourselves, that we are not alone. Gray wonders perhaps if this shark-like desire we have for moving forward, the ruthlessness we display in leaving the past behind in quest for the future, perhaps mars us as a species, prevents us from finding contentment around us and leads to us damaging this world we have been given in our search to make it larger.

But the more Gray’s film closes its grip, the more themes seem to slip through its fingers. The journey is compelling in its creation of a series of worlds, Brad Pitt’s dedicated performance, and the sense of danger and the array of questions that the film throws up. But while 2001 in many ways manages to feel like it is about everything and nothing, so wonderfully engrained is the magical poetry in its soul, here it feels like the film gets less and less engaging the further the journey goes. The destination sadly cannot match the voyage, however beautifully filmed that voyage is.

Instead when the film arrives, we find it becoming more and more bogged down in father-son issues that feel just cheaper and less interesting than the more spiritual and enigmatic concerns the film has for much of the rest of its running time. Not helped by a disengaged performance from Tommy Lee Jones, the more the film heads into this territory the more it seems to lose the depth it aimed for earlier. Late attempts to restore the enigma, mystery and universality don’t succeed to completely restore the feeling that this is classic science-fiction poetry. It’s a shame as Gray’s film as many wonderful moments, beautiful craft in its making and a wonderful performance by Pitt – but it feels in the end as about much less than it could have been. But for all this, there is a magic unknowingness about it that could have it hailed as a classic in years to come.

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood (2019)

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio have fun in Tarantino’s appalling Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Rick Dalton), Brad Pitt (Cliff Booth), Margot Robbie (Sharon Tate), Al Pacino (Marvin Schwarz), Emile Hirsch (Jay Sebring), Margaret Quailey (Pussycat), Timothy Olyphant (James Stacy), Julia Butters (Trudi Fraser), Austin Butler (“Tex” Watson), Dakota Fanning (Squeaky), Bruce Dern (George Spahn), Mike Moh (Bruce Lee), Luke Perry (Wayne Maunder), Damian Lewis (Steve McQueen), Brenda Vaccaro (Mary Alice Schwarz), Nicholas Hammond (Sam Wanamaker)

Spoilers: I’ll discuss the film’s final 40 minutes in detail. I mean when you watch it you can guess where it’s going. But those final moments are truly central to my visceral hatred of this film.

There seems to be three eras of Tarantino movies. The first (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown) saw him work with pulpy themes focused on strong stories and character development. The second (Kill Bill and Grindhouse) saw him indulge his fascination with the B-movie and low-rent TV of his childhood. His third (Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained) sees him making strange revenge fantasies on behalf of other groups. Once Upon a Time is a marriage between his second and third eras. And I hated it. I hated, hated, hated, hated it. I genuinely can’t remember seeing a film I hated more at the cinema (maybe Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). It’s a self-indulgent, tasteless, overlong, smug, unbearable pile of pleased with itself shit. It’s grotesque and it left me feeling dirty.

The plot (such as it is) follows three days in the lives of fictional Hollywood-turned-TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s best friend, chauffeur and personal assistant who can’t get a job in Hollywood due to his terrible reputation. Dalton lives next door to Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). On Feb 8th 1969, Dalton is offered a role in spaghetti westerns and preps for his next episodic TV show. On Feb 9thDalton shoots the pilot of Lancer a new TV western (and a real TV show) as the baddie, suffering a crisis of confidence about his career and talent. Meanwhile Booth does some odd jobs and has an odd encounter with the Manson family. Intercut with this are scenes of Sharon Tate going about her everyday life, including joyfully watching one of her films in the cinema. Finally we join the action after a time jump on August 8thas, after returning from filming in Italy, Dalton and Booth get drunk and high and accidentally waylay the Manson gang on their way to Sharon Tate’s house and – this being now Tarantino’s thing – brutally and bloodily murder the three Manson family killers.

Sigh. I think a question now has to be asked about what Tarantino’s problem is. As I realised where this film was going, my heart sank. This sort of revenge porn is, I’ll be honest, revolting, demeaning, tasteless and, leaving all else aside, not Tarantino’s place. It also demeans and cheapens the actual tragedies that happened to real people. Just as shots of Hitler’s head being machine-gunned to pieces in Inglorious Basterds while Jewish-American paratroopers machine-gunned a room of Nazi’s seemed to be grossly inappropriate, lowered the victims to the level of the killers and cheapened the actual deaths of real people in the Holocaust, making them seem like weak victims (as well as hardly being Tarantino’s place being neither Jewish or having any connection to the Holocaust) so it’s equally tasteless here. He just about gets away with it in Django Unchained, a black revenge thriller from a director who is not black and has littered his scripts with the “n-word” as all these guys were at least fictional people. But here it’s just grotesque.

We pride ourselves now that we have left the Gladiatorial ring behind, or that we no longer gather round on a Bank Holiday weekend to watch a convicted criminal being hung, drawn and quartered. But as I watched the Manson killers being bludgeoned to death, mutilated by a dog, their Glasgow kissed skulls crushed against a mantelpiece and immolated by flame thrower, I thought we’re not that far off. It’s basically a pornographic level of violence, that the film excuses because the Manson killers were bad guys (don’t get me wrong they were) but asking us to take pleasure in killing, is basically what Manson himself asked his followers to do. I find watching this sort of stuff not only feels like it cheapens the actual brutal, tragic murders of an eight-month pregnant Tate and her three friends, but also lowers me the level of the killers themselves. Tarantino’s films increasingly feel like the director himself would be fully on board with that episode of Black Mirror (“White Bear”) – where a killer is tortured everyday by tourists, and then has her mind wiped so she can go through it every single day – being turned into a reality.

In fact Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a worrying voyage into the man’s soul, and what I saw there was partly this muddled vanity and obsession with revenge (I mean who gives him the right to take revenge on behalf of others? Someone please tell me? There is an arrogance to that I find deeply unattractive), partly the tragically boring geeky tedium of the video-store nerd, mixed with a loving regard for white men and a worrying lack of interest (bordering on contempt) for anyone different.

I loathed and despised the final forty minutes of this film, but to be honest the opening two hours are not a lot better. This film is almost three hours long and contains about thirty minutes of plot if that. What it mostly is, is a chance for Tarantino to indulge to a ludicrous degree his obsession with low-rent culture of the 1950s and 1960s. To show off his knowledge of obscure films of the age (he’s heard of The Night They Raided Minsky’s you know…) and recreate in painstaking detail pastiches of the type of TV shows he grew up watching. These sequences seem to go on forever and ever, with the odd good line and decent gag not suddenly making it anything other than increasingly tedious.

What he really, really, really needs is a collaborator to tell him when less is more and certainly when too much is too much. The first two thirds of the film seem to stretch on for an indulgent eternity, and their content reveals more and more of the director’s obsession. White men are idealised and the old-school values of Hollywood, the world of the studio and simpler non-PC times are looked back on with a fussy nostalgia. The film takes every opportunity for Booth and Dalton to lambast hippie culture and the growing anti-establishment of the era, and has every character we meant to like yearning for the good old days.

Bruce Lee appears in the film, here interpreted as a braggart arsehole, showing off to the stunt men, who is humiliated by Cliff in a brawl. It’s a scene that amuses for a second and then makes you uncomfortably realise you are watching the most prominent non-white person in the film being put into his place by a middle-aged white man. It’s got more than a hint of racism to it. And Tarantino claims to be a fan of Bruce Lee! By contrast, while the film brutally murders the Manson killers, James Stacy (played by Timothy Olyphant here) the chiselled white-male star of Lancer, a man later jailed for repeated child molestation, is treated with a laudatory romance. Guess there are different rules for white guys who starred in Tarantino’s favourite shows. Whither the revenge saga where his victims mutilate him eh?

Women don’t get a better deal in this film. Sharon Tate is essentially an elevated extra, although Tarantino gets one lovely sequence out of her watching her latest film – a playful swinging 60s spy caper with Dean Martin – in a cinema and gleefully enjoying both the film and the audience reaction with a childish, delighted grin. But then a lot of the success of this is due to Robbie’s marvellous performance. Tarantino himself does his best to ruin it with his foot fetish, throwing Margot Robbie’s naked feet into virtually every shot. Aside from this, the film shoots and treats Tate like a teenager observing someone they have a crush on, romantically idealising her without ever getting anyway near understanding her or scratching the surface of her personality, instead following her with doe-eyed devotion.

But at least she gets lines. Every other woman in this is either a slut or murderer (or both) from the Manson cult, a shrew (like Booth’s dead wife and Kurt Russell’s stunt manager’s wife) or a bimbo (like Dalton’s eventual Euro-wife). There is no in between. It’s a film for men, written by a man, where the men take centre-stage, and a smugly held up as never doing anything wrong, with the film uncritically indulging their vices as symptoms of their tragedy of being left behind by a more progressive and changing country.

Both Pitt and DiCaprio enjoy swaggering twists on their images. DiCaprio overacts wildly, in an overly mannered performance full of actorly quirks (he has a stammer so we know he’s a sensitive soul deep down!), that riffs on other performances of his and largely involves shouting and swearing. Even scenes of emotional vulnerability carry a method fakeness about them – but then Once Upon a Time is a film with no heart, so it’s not surprising that when one of its characters tries to show one, the film stumbles spectacularly into artificiality. Pitt fares better, with a performance of McQueen like-cool, even if the film seems to believe that even if Cliff did kill his wife (as many believe) it’s fine because she was clearly a bitch.

All of this is shot with a flatness and lack of visual interest that is surprising for Tarantino, usually a much more vibrant director. Maybe he was just echoing the TV styles at the time. Maybe he was saving the fireworks for his orgy of (what he would call) cathartic violence at the end. Maybe it’s just a pretty mundane film. Maybe if Tarantino wasn’t the film-buffs darling, more people would call out his flatness and lack of imagination behind the camera and the soulless flatness of much of the films shooting and pacing. Its mediocrity and smug wallowing in the culture of yesteryear is appalling.

Because Once Upon a Time is a teenager’s film, and worst of all, a teenage bore. It’s got a major crush on Sharon Tate, but barely any interest in her personality. It drones on endlessly about geeky knowledge and old film and television that no one else knows anything about so that it sounds interesting and cool. It takes a childish, immature, sickening delight in fantasising about killing bad people in the most horrific ways it can possible imagine. It thinks it’s really clever and profound, but it’s actually a horrible, horrible film that’s also really tedious and which leaves a deeply unpleasant taste in the mouth, while demeaning the real-life victims of a crime by spinning some ludicrous revenge fantasy around them. It morally offended me after two hours of boring me. I hated it. I hated it. I really, really, really, really hated it. I hated it so very much.

Moneyball (2011)

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill take on maths and baseball (in that order) in Moneyball

Director: Bennett Miller

Cast: Brad Pitt (Billy Beane), Jonah Hill (Peter Brand), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Art Howe), Robin Wright (Sharon), Chris Pratt (Scott Hatteberg), Stephen Bishop (David Justice), Reed Diamond (Mark Shapiro), Brent Jennings (Ron Washington)

Chances are, if I tell you this is a film (a) about baseball and (b) also about sabermetric economics, I’ll lose a lot of you before a single second of the film has rolled. Which would be a shame in this case, as Moneyball is an entertaining, rather affecting yarn that manages to turn subjects that really feel like they should be impossibly dull into a sprightly against-the-odds drama.

In 2002, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) has a problem. The As are struggling to pull together a competitive team for the new season, with their best players having been cherry picked away by the larger (and crucially richer) teams, and the money to buy replacements proving incredibly sparse. But after a chance meeting at the Cleveland Indians with young Harvard economics graduate Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), Beane stumbles across another way of building a team. Realising that if he tries to compete on finances with the bigger teams he will always lose, Beane is persuaded by Brand to research player statistics to unearth players undervalued by the big teams. By focusing on specific playing statistics – crucially their on-base percentage – rather than more showy skills, Beane starts to build a successful team, despite the push-back from the more conservative scouts and coaches at the club.

Yes it’s the backroom side of sports, the boardroom politics and business dealings, that come to the fore in this film. But rather than bore, it actually zings along very effectively due, in no small part, to some cracking trademark rat-a-tat dialogue from Aaron Sorkin (polishing a script by Steven Zallian), which elevates conversations about percentages and statistics into something so entertaining you don’t even notice you barely see any actual playing of baseball. 

But then the film comes into shape because who hasn’t wanted to be the visionary, to be the one who tells a stuffy room of old-timers that they are out of date and hell fire I don’t care what you say we’re going to do it the new way or be damned? Based on Michael Lewis’ book, written in heavy collaboration with Billy Beane, the film may well (as some have claimed) play up the conservative prejudices of the follow-your-gut scout and coaches (in particular its portrayal of coach Art Howe as some sort of lumbering dinosaur) but it does make for some damn fine scenes.

And there is a point in there that these coaches feel – perhaps slightly justifiably – that their experience is being disregarded in favour of burying your nose into an online almanac. Crucially, they are proved right (although the film plays it down) when they identify one of the Beane’s signings in advance as a party-hard troublemaker. The film also shows that, while numbers help recruit the players, what actually makes them perform is Beane’s reluctantly taking on the mantle of man-management: talking to the players, explaining what he is doing and motivating them personally. While it’s a film about pushing the boundaries, it also takes moments to show that we can’t junk everything that’s past to build our future.

Moneyball largely manages to make scenes like this dramatic, which is pretty damn good going

A lot of this comes out of Beane’s own personality. It’s a gift of a part for Brad Pitt, who is excellent, mining the deep vein of loneliness and isolation in Beane, whose past is littered with regrets and mistakes. His own baseball career flamed out after early promise, due to his inability to adapt to a higher level of play (Brand wins Beane’s trust by telling him that, based on statistics, he would have picked him very late in the draft not first). It’s an experience that gives Beane a ready-made scepticism for “gut instinct”, but also explains his own unwillingness to get to know the players who (if he needs to) he’ll need to trade in an instant for the good of the club.

Pitt gives Beane this inner sadness, but also a level of warmth fired by competitive zeal. He’s unable to watch the games (so driven is he to win) and he treats his negotiations with other teams and managers with the sort of no-holds barred testosterone that you’d expect he played with. He’s a passionate man who loses his temper and has no time for fools. But he has a deep love for his daughter (of course!), keeps on good terms with his ex-wife and understands deep down that making life decisions is based on a lot more than money.

This also adds a level of bravery to his decision to fly in the face of decades of baseball knowledge – get this wrong and his head will be on the block. This brings added tensions to heated discussions with scouts, frenzied phone calls to secure at the right price the most statistically advantageous players, and clashes with coaches about how to pick a team that has been selected for very specific skills. It adds a human element and guts to the drama.

With super dialogue, a fine performance from Brad Pitt and some good supporting work from Jonah Hill as the (semi-fictionalised) numbers-guy slowly building in confidence, Moneyball has more than enough to recommend it. Sure not much concession is made to baseball muggles, but there’s more than enough heart and drama here to overcome the lack of explanation of how baseball works and what these percentages actually mean – the fact is it works.

Interview with the Vampire (1994)

Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt bite and flirt in high-minded, but rather camp, Interview with the Vampire

Director: Neil Jordan

Cast: Tom Cruise (Lestat de Lioncourt), Brad Pitt (Louis de Pointe du Lac), Christian Slater (Daniel Molloy), Kirsten Dunst (Claudia), Antonio Banderas (Armand), Stephen Rea (Santiago), Domiziana Giordano (Madeleine), Thandie Newton (Yvette)

Why do vampires constantly keep rearing their ugly heads in films? What is it about them that we seem to find so addictive? Interview with the Vampire is a vampire film that takes a slightly different tone and tries to explore what it might actually be like to live the life of a vampire, the actual psychological impact it might have. It’s just a shame the film also can’t escape the temptation to fall back on the high camp the genre often gets trapped in.

Anyway, the film opens in modern day San Francisco, with young reporter Daniel Molloy (Christian Slater) interviewing a man named Louis (Brad Pitt) who claims to be an ageless vampire from the late 18th century. Louis tells his life story: turned to a vampire by the hedonistic Lestat (Tom Cruise) when he was consumed with grief at the loss of his wife and child. Louis struggles with the morality of taking life, unlike Lestat’s joy in killing. Later they turn a dying girl Claudia (Kirsten Dunst), who over the next 30 years matures psychologically but remains in the body of a 12-year-old. Louis and Claudia slowly begin to fear Lestat’s control and struggle to escape from his shadow.

Interview with the Vampire wants, desperately, to be an intellectual vampire film. A sort of Freudian exploration of the impact of suddenly becoming a creature that can never see daylight, sleeps in a coffin and has an insatiable hunger for human blood. Does it work? Well sort of, I guess. But the problem is most of the depression is carried by Brad Pitt’s Louis and, to put it frankly (as Lestat observes) he’s a whiner. His very human struggle with taking life and his sadness at the loss of his humanity should be engaging, but Louis is not an interesting character. He just mopes around. Rather than being sparked by his predicament, he’s just a boring and frustrating character.

Maybe this is partly Pitt’s performance as well – too withdrawn, too morose. Apparently Pitt hated making the movie (from the long hours of make-up, to the endless night shoots, to the boring character) and it shows in the movie. Pitt just can’t get engaged in the role, his matinee idol looks and rather dull speaking voice combining to make him look like a worse actor than he is. And then Louis keeps banging on and on about how depressed he is. In fact he bangs on so much you start to wonder why everyone – from Tom Cruise’s crazed Lestat, to Antonio Banderas’ ageless vampire – is so obsessed with him.

But then maybe it’s Louis’ looks eh? The film does wallow in the sensuality of sucking on people’s necks, and half the vampires in this seem to be campily metro-sexual. Cruise gives a surprisingly out-there performance of high camp hedonism and preening selfishness, so far out of his expected range that (while not brilliant) it reminds you he is a better actor than he gets credit for. Lestat clearly has a huge crush for Louis, and the orgasmic converting of Louis into a vampire leaves little to the imagination. Later Antonio Banderas as an effeminate, ethereal older vampire also seems to have a huge crush on Louis. The many vampire victims seem to succumb to erotic joy when they are bitten (at least until they die). Sex flows over the whole film, without the film itself ever actually being sexy, and the vampires are all pretty indiscriminate in their tastes.

Unfortunately this all too often tips into pure high camp. Stephen Rea, as a sort of vampire acrobat actor, gives a performance of superb silliness. Banderas lisps and wafts through the picture like a bizarre puff of perfume. Neil Jordan frequently explores the frame with ridiculous overblown action – no less than four times in the picture we watch scenes of operatic fire starting (often with vampires writhing in flamey pain) that suggest Jordan spent too long watching the fire sequence in Gone with the Wind before he made the picture. All the actors (aside from Pitt who barely shows up) dial it up to eleven with their performances, and the long-haired, long finger-nailed vampire representations here are like some sort of odd Halloween dressing up box.

Jordan’s film often trades dark, campy humour in favour of horror or thrills. There are no real jumps or scares in the picture, and the buckets of blood thrown around are more ridiculous than they are disgusting. In fact watching the film, I feel Jordan may have been torn between wanting to do something a little different (a sad vampire film about depression) and having to deliver the blood, guts and gore the genre fans wanted. Certainly, he fails to mine any real poetry from Anne Rice’s source material (although she loved the film, so what do I know) and for all the musings on the tragedies of living a life in the shadow you never really feel that moved by it.

There are however good things. Technically the film is very good. Cruise is surprisingly fun as the colourful Lestat. The film gets stolen by Kirsten Dunst as the physically young, mentally older Claudia, who struggles to find the balance between her teenage blood lust and her later disgust and fury at being trapped forever in the body of a child. But there isn’t enough good stuff among the tosh. Interview with the Vampire is an odd, actually rather bad film that is struggling to be a good one. It has a cast of 1990s heartthrobs who mostly enjoy dressing up and playing at their campy side. But it fails to really be engaging or make someone care about the story it is trying to tell.

Troy (2004)

Brad Pitt sails into history and legend as Achilles in the misunderstood Troy

Director: Wolfgang Petersen

Cast: Brad Pitt (Achilles), Eric Bana (Hector), Orlando Bloom (Paris), Diane Kruger (Helen), Brian Cox (Agamemnon), Peter O’Toole (Priam), Rose Byrne (Briseis), Saffron Burrows (Andromache), Brendan Gleeson (Menelaus), Sean Bean (Odysseus), Julian Glover (Triopas), James Cosmo (Glaucus), John Shrapnel (Nestor), Julie Christie (Thetis), Garrett Hedlund (Patroclus), Vincent Regan (Eudorus), Nigel Terry (Archeptolemus), Trevor Eve (Velior), Tyler Mane (Ajax)

VERSION CONTROL: Some films are just vastly superior as Director’s Cuts. Troy is one. The longer cut of Troy,I can assure you, is a richer, deeper, more enjoyable film. So watch that one. I’m also spoiling The Illiad. For those who worry about such things.

When I was younger I loved the Greek myths. I had two or three books of them and I read them over and over again. I practically grew up knowing the whole story of the siege of Troy in intimate detail. This helped feed my love for sweeping epic films, with big casts, spectacle and themes. So it probably won’t surprise you to hear I love Troy. That I’ve seen it dozens of times. It’s the film I wish had existed when I was a kid, because I would have watched it again and again. I know it’s not perfect, but I can forgive it almost anything. 

In Ancient Greece, a peace treaty has finally been agreed between Sparta’s King Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) and Priam (Peter O’Toole) of Troy. Priam’s sons Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom) are in Sparta to seal the treaty – only for Paris to fall in love with Menelaus’ unloved wife Helen (Diane Kruger). When they elope – despite Hector’s fears for the harm it will cause Troy’s people – Menelaus’ ambitious brother Agamemnon (Brian Cox) sees his chance to cement his hold over the last corner of the Mediterranean by conquering Troy. But to do so he’ll need the help of the greatest warrior in Greece, Achilles (Brad Pitt), who cares only for his legend and hates Agamemnon. 

Directed with an old-fashioned grandeur by Wolfgang Petersen, mixed with an unflinching look at the blood and guts of war, Troy is a grand, cinematic epic that looks fantastic. The production and costume design are spot-on, and there is a great mixture of the “real” and the “special effect” in what you see on screen. It’s also got some cracking battle and fight choreography. The sword fight choreographers worked overtime on this one. The film embraces the grace and style of Achilles – he’s not the largest or strongest, but he has a pace, speed, intelligence and ruthlessness that allows him to duck, sway and constantly be one step ahead of his opponents. It doesn’t shy away from the brutality of his violence, and the camera never forgets the fallen.

It’s a film that understands the impact of war. It makes us care about many of the characters – and frequently shocks us with senseless, sudden deaths, or devotes time to the grief of those they leave behind. Our hero Hector has an almost tortuous-to-watch lengthy build up to his final fight – and then the camera gives us a moment or two when he is fatally wounded to see the light start to go from his eyes before Achilles delivers the killer blow. It’s a film that moves the viewer, that excites us with action while letting us grieve the cost of war.

The script is also a reasonably decent adaptation of elements of Homer, remixed with a modern (God-free) twist – as if this was the “true” story legend has been spun from. The script is put together by Game of Thrones’ David Benioff, and has his recognisable mix of epic scope and noble principles, clashing with realpolitik.

So why was Troy rejected by so many people? Why was it so misunderstood on release? It’s a mis-sold and partly mis-cut story struggling to embrace its own implications. Maybe I’m reading stuff into it, but I feel like this is a different film than the marketing or filmmakers seem to have understood. 

Firstly, Achilles is (at least for the first two thirds) effectively the film’s villain. He has no interest in people, only a sociopathic wish to be remembered as a great warrior. He’s ruthless in combat and slaughters indiscriminately. He’s temperamental and emotionally stunted. Contrast him with Eric Bana’s Hector: a devoted family man, who values the lives of the people of Troy first and foremost. Hector is effectively reimagined from the source material as a very modern man – the audience surrogate, the hero we can relate to, compared to the greedy, rapacious Greeks.

The struggle the film has is its biggest star plays Achilles – and it doesn’t want to compromise his box office appeal. So it tries not to draw too much attention to this contrast, and avoids passing too much judgement on Achilles. So we struggle when Achilles and Hector fight – anyone with any sense is surely rooting for the guy with a wife who just wants to see his kid grow up, rather than the sociopath, even if he is played by a super-star. All the characters hammer home our distress at Hector fighting Achilles, by the fact all of them reckon he’s got no chance. There are moving farewells for Hector with his father, wife and son. Hard to sympathise with Achilles when he slays the film’s most sympathetic character and drags him in the dirt right?

Achilles only starts to develop humanity (and become a modern hero) when he hits rock bottom after killing Hector – and is shamed first by Priam’s humbling, controlled pain (a tour-de-force from Peter O’Toole) then by his slowly developing love for Briseis. From this point , Achilles fights specifically to protect others – and finally puts aside his longing for immortal fame to try and save Briseis from the slaughter of the sack of Troy. The film’s slightly muddled unwillingness to condemn Achilles earlier, and its desire to celebrate him at the end, muddies the water. But there is a clear character arc slowly developing of Achilles becoming a humbler, more humane man.

As Achilles doesn’t look that good opposite Hector, the film turns Agamemnon into a ruthlessly ambitious, vain and greedy tyrant (played with a lip-smacking, roaringly enjoyable style by Brian Cox). Agamemnon (like many of the Greeks) is a modern politician – he wants to fashion the Greek city states into a single nation (sure one under his control, but it’s a more modern idea). The film, however, uses him to make Achilles desire for lasting fame feel more sympathetic. We all hate hypocritical politicians and cowardly bullies, right? And we all prefer the romance of the individual fighter uninterested in worldly affairs, right? Ergo, says the film, if we don’t like Achilles because we prefer Hector, we can also like Achilles a bit more if we don’t like Agamemnon. It’s clever structure in a way – but because the film doesn’t completely commit to it, it gets a bit lost in the telling.

The film’s attitude to Agamemnon is reflected in its favouring of Trojans over Greeks. While the Greek commanders squabble, or engage in political chicanery, the Trojans have an old school nobility. The film is enamoured with Priam. He’s played by Peter O’Toole in his grandest style (and O’Toole, though he can’t resist a bit of ham here and there, is very good). But Priam is in fact a naïve idiot, who makes a mess of everything. He’s incapable of accepting the realities of the world – his decisions lead to disaster at every turn. He may be overtly noble, honest and full of integrity – but like Ned Stark in Game of Throneshe’s completely out of his depth in Agamemnon’s ruthless world. Achilles may call him a “far better king”, but by any modern standard, Priam is in fact a terrible king, who makes all his decisions based on his regard for the Gods, rather than a claim appraisal of the situation.

These two reasons are why the film struggles. The film despises the Greeks but wants us to love Achilles – while at the same time having him kill without compassion, including our main audience surrogate character. It wants us to aspire to the romantic ideals of Priam and the Trojans – even while it demonstrates time and again that these ideas are hopelessly misguided, and completely wrong. It goes part of the way to accepting these contradictions, but it can never quite bring itself to villainise Brad Pitt, or condemn the noble Peter O’Toole.

I like to watch it my own way, balancing these contradictions – and I think if you do that (like watching the TV show The Tudors if you accept what the show can’t: that Henry VIII is the villain) then the film is really rewarding, full of interesting ideas and packed with cracking scenes.

It also allows some wonderful performances. Brad Pitt is, I suppose, an odd choice for Achilles in many ways – and he seems a bit bound in by his 1950s-Hollywood-Epic-Transatlantic accent. But he really looks the part, and I don’t think he’s afraid to let Achilles look bad – and he sells his conversion into a more heroic figure. Eric Bana is terrific as Hector – warm, engaging, hugely admirable. He has a world-weary tiredness to him – while Pitt’s Achilles is as cold as marble, Bana’s Hector looks like he has the cares of the world on his shoulders, tired already of the violence and horror he has had to endure.

There are tonnes of excellent supporting performances. Sean Bean in particular is so good as the wry and infinitely wise Odysseus you will be wishing they had made an Odyssey sequel so you can see more of him. Cox and O’Toole are rather good (bless, they are clearly enjoying themselves) as flip sides of the same coin. Byrne is affecting as gentle Briseis. Brendan Gleeson makes a fiercely bullying Menelaus. I’m not sure Saffron Burrows has ever been better than here. James Cosmo and Nigel Terry shine in smaller roles.

Poor Orlando Bloom struggles with a part that is hugely difficult – Paris is basically a spoilt coward. The film makes great play of Helen (a pretty good Diane Kruger in a near impossible part as the most beautiful woman, like, ever) being attracted to Paris precisely because he’s more of a romantic, and not interested in violence – but he tends to come across more as a thoughtless playboy, who lands everyone in trouble. It’s tricky for Bloom as this is the purpose of the film – and in many ways he’s very good casting for it – but that’s partly because he’s not the most persuasive of actors. He has a slight redemption arc – but I’m not sure Bloom as the presence to really sell it. 

I can’t believe how much I’ve actually written about this– but, for all its faults and its confused structure  I actually rather deeply love it. Maybe it’s tied in too much with my love for Greek myths. Maybe I love these all-star character actor epics. But I think it’s a film that puts a lot at stake for its characters – and really makes you invest in them – and that draws some fine performances from its cast and frames them all in a brilliant vista. It’s crammed with some terrific scenes. It never fails to entertain me. It’s almost a go-to film. I’ve seen it dozens of times and yet it never tires for me. I love it. In many ways it’s one of my filmic (forgive me) Achilles’ heels.