Tag: Kyle Chandler

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Greed is Good? Scorsese’s masterpiece is a heady deconstruction of the excess of white collar criminals

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jordon Belfort), Jonah Hill (Donnie Azoff), Margot Robbie (Naomi Lapaglia), Kyle Chandler (FBI Agent Patrick Denham), Rob Reiner (Max Belfort), Jon Bernthal (Brad Brodnick), Matthew McConaughey (Mark Hanna), Jon Favreau (Manny Riskin), Jean Dujardin (Jean-Jacques Saurel), Joanna Lumley (Aunt Emma), Cristin Milioti (Teresa Patrillo), Christine Eberle (Leah Belfort), Kenneth Choi (Chester Ming), Brian Sacca (Robbie Feinberg), Henry Zebrowski (Alden Kupferberg)

All The Wolf of Wall Street is really missing is an early freeze frame of a coke-fuelled banker slamming the phone down on a closed deal and a wistful voiceover from Jordan Belfort: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be Wall Street trader”. If Goodfellas was Scorsese’s exploration of the attractions – and dangers – of a life in blue collar crime, then The Wolf of Wall Street is its white collar companion piece. The fact that so many viewers find the behaviour of Belfort morally outrageous in a way that no one ever objects about Henry Hill is, for me, an indication of how much we loath these masters-of-the-universe. For all their faults, we’d still rather see a violent criminal as one of us.

Based on Jordan Belfort’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) autobiography, The Wolf of Wall Street follows his time building a dodgy trading empire and a large fortune. Not that he can remember most of it, as he seems to be on a permanent intoxicated binge of drinks, hookers and every drug you can ever imagine (and some you can’t). The FBI catches up with him eventually, but Belfort learns precious little from his experiences. Other than, perhaps, that so long as you are rich and white in America, you can basically get away with anything.

That’s perhaps the key to Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese may not shy away from the delicious dark comedy of Belfort’s life of excess, but it doesn’t blind him to the shallow awfulness of the man or his unthinking, instinctive greed and self-obsession. You would need to be a pretty shallow person to look at Belfort’s greed, moral emptiness and self-destructive binges and want to ape him. If you think watching DiCaprio literally paralytic on quaaludes is the life you want, frankly there is something wrong with you.

What perhaps made some feel Wolf of Wall Street was oddly in love with Belfort is its electric pace. The film is a brilliant reminder of Scorsese’s faultless understanding of pace. Or one who matches unparalleled cinematic skill with the rambunctious energy of a first-timer allowed to play with his movie toys for the first time. Brilliantly assembled, this is a superb collection of cinematic techniques, from jump cuts to fluid transitions that power through a series of increasingly bacchanalian parties and isn’t afraid to admit that, in the moment, this stuff can be fun (rather like getting the best table in Goodfellas) but ultimately self-destructive. (After all, few know the dangers of drugs like Scorsese.)

At the centre of this whirlwind is a stunning performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. With his still youthful, charismatic handsomeness, DiCaprio only needed to tweak his screen persona to provoke the sort of perverted idolatry Belfort receives from his co-workers. But he goes above and beyond in his transformation in this role. He makes Belfort simultaneously oddly childlike and revoltingly corrupted, someone whom we enjoy spending time with while finding repulsive. He rips through Belfort’s trademark, drug-fuelled motivational speeches, monologues of insanely eye-popping intensity, explosions of off-the-chain wildness. At other times he’ll sulk and whine like a spoilt child. DiCaprio struts across the screen with an unpredictable physicality – his embodying of the physical effects of mind-altering drugs is hilarious and horrifying –in possibly his finest ever performance.

DiCaprio is the raw energy source that helps power the rest of the film. Scorsese matches him blow-by-blow with this dynamic expose of white-collar corruption. Using Belfort as a narrator – which serves to further expose his shallowness, greed and utter inability to learn any sustained messages from the depths he plummets to – the entire film is all about how the flip side of the American Dream tacitly promotes and encourages this sort of behaviour.

Belfort is the rash the system has come out as. In a highly effective early cameo, McConaughey plays Belfort’s first mentor, a coke-fuelled hedonist hooked on the buzz of closing deals, who pushes Belfort towards a career of success (including introducing a brilliant breathing exercise – improvised by McConaughey based on his own warm-up exercises – that becomes a mantra in the film). DiCaprio’s eyes have already lit up at watching a deal closing. Drugs and sex are just an attempt for Belfort to replicate the buzz of the real addiction: money.

Scorsese recognises that we don’t need to know the details of Belfort’s illegal dealings. (In his voiceover Belfort literally tells us it doesn’t matter, all that does is the shitload of cash they were bringing in.) We learn enough about the huge mark-ups (50% of the deal’s value) he can make from selling penny stocks (trades of small public companies) and “pump and dump” tactics to know it’s wrong. I will admit the film does little to show the victims – but then Belfort never cares either, proudly stating at one point he has no guilt fleecing his clients out of cash, because he knows how to spend it, better than they do.

It all pours into a hedonistic, alpha-male environment where the air is as littered with fucks (the film held a record for most use of the word) as the floors and desks of Belfort’s offices are during his hooker-filled end-of-week parties. Wolf of Wall Street is also an expose of toxic alpha-maledom. Bullying, abuse and screaming are ripe, women are basically commodities traded as easily as shares. The only exceptions are those allowed into the boys’ club as either surrogate-male fellow traders or trophies to adorn the arm. Margot Robbie (superb in a star-making role) plays Belfort’s glamourous wife, who knows she needs to use her physical assets to make her way in this world.

The film rips along through a party-deal-party structure. Belfort goes from wowing his fellow penny stock traders by making $2k in two minutes to wrapping the trading floor of his fake-old-school Wall Street firm around his finger in excess filled speeches. He also goes from a charming party animal to an incoherent, rambling, deeply unpleasant and dangerous drunk and drug addict. But crucially, he learns nothing . There is no life-and-soul shattering payback like Henry Hill undergoes. Fault, guilt and consequences roll off his rich, spoilt back. He ends the film still winning the adulation of would-be millionaires, his conscience (if it exists) untroubled by any impact his actions have had on others.

Perhaps Scorsese could have allowed more space to victims – and to Kyle Chandler’s dutiful and dedicated FBI agent who brings him down (our final shot of this character stresses his humble, low-paid status – echoing back to his confession to at times regretting leaving a trading career for a law one). But that’s to criticise the film for not being obvious enough. Of course parties are fun. But each party becomes wilder, more orgiastic and uncomfortable as the film goes on. But if we didn’t understand the fun, we couldn’t understand how people get hooked on this adrenalin fuelled life.

Wolf of Wall Street though is a warning to the curious – if you are smart enough to look. Belfort’s soulless, horrible life is not one to aspire to, and his moral emptiness not one to wish to have. It’s a funny film, but it’s also a dark one. DiCaprio is brilliant beyond belief, Jonah Hill funny and pathetic as his best friend, Margot Robbie becomes a star and Scorsese rips through the film with the energy, passion and dynamism of a much younger director. An outstanding tentpole film in his CV.

The Midnight Sky (2020)

The Midnight Sky (2020)

Dystopian end-of-the-world drama gets dull and dreary in this misfire

Director: George Clooney

Cast: George Clooney (Augustine Lofthouse), Felicity Jones (Dr “Sully” Sullivan), David Oyelowo (Commander Adewole), Kyle Chandler (Mitchell), Demián Bichir (Sanchez), Tiffany Boone (Maya), Caoilinn Springall (Iris), Ethan Peck (Augustine), Sophie Rundle (Jean)

The world has been evacuated after an unspecified radiological disaster, with the survivors bound for K-23, a newly discovered moon of Jupiter capable of supporting life. The only person left on Earth is Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney), suffering from a terminal illness. He remains behind at an arctic base to warn returning space missions. The returning mission Aether – crewed by Jones, Oyelowo, Chandler, Bichir and Boone – are en route, but to make contact with them Lofthouse must travel across the arctic to a back-up transmitter, accompanied by a mysterious wordless child called Iris (Caoilinn Springall) who seems to have been left behind during the evacuation.

The Midnight Sky is the largest, most technically ambitious film Clooney has directed. Did the focus on the technical aspects mean he took his eye off other elements? Even the ones his previous films have been strong on: dialogue and character. The Midnight Sky looks great and has some impressive effects. But it is a dull film, lacking pace or energy, populated by paper-thin characters and often feeling like a Frankenstein-like stitching together of elements of other, much better, films.

It splits its focus between two story lines: one a survivalist two-hander between Clooney and child actress Caroilinn Springall; the other a “journey home against the odds” space mission. The first carries a little more interest, if only because Clooney manages to brilliantly convey loneliness, isolation, sadness and how terminal illness increases the effects of all of these. There is also emotional depth from his growing bond with Iris: the two of them playfully flicking peas at each other over dinner and his protecting her from the dangers outside. This is shot in some stunning Iceland vistas and shows a competent selection of various traditional survivalist set-ups during the struggle to complete the journey. It’s not exactly original, but at least it holds the interest.

That interest isn’t found in the space scenes – although the lack of originality is. How did Clooney fail to notice that he assembled a terrific cast of actors, but then failed to give them so much as a whisper of a character to play between them. This crew are terminally unengaging 2-D characters, whose dialogue echoes tropes of other films. Despite the dangers they encounter while navigating a course to Earth (that inevitably takes them through uncharted meteor storms), we are never really given a reason to really care about these characters (all the sad mooning over holograms of the families they left behind doesn’t actually make us feel like we know them).

The sense of nothing we are seeing here actually feeling new is key, and the main problem with the whole film. Countless other films have covered world-ending events. Clooney’s battle to cross the arctic and survive carries more than an echo of The Revenant by way of The Road. The struggles in space have lashings of Gravity with an Interstellarvibe. And those are just for starters. Even the final narrative twist (which you can probably see coming) echoes other film twists. For all the handsomeness of the film, it never feels fresh, always more of a tribute remix of other superior films that you should probably just consider rewatching instead.

That’s Clooney’s main failing here. As if he was so focused on getting the technical elements spot on, he never checked if the patient had a pulse. The Midnight Sky, knitted together from the offcuts of other films, has only the vaguest of heartbeats. Nothing is original and virtually no character in it ever feels either fully-formed or someone we care about. Others, all too obviously, serve as nothing but narrative devices. There are some wonderful shots and a lovely score from Alexandre Desplat. But narratively, the film often feels too cold, distant and emotionally dead. It ends up feeling far, far longer than its two-hour run time.

Argo (2012)

John Goodman and Alan Arkin say hoorah for Hollywood in Ben Affleck’s middle-brow, over-praised award-winner Argo

Director: Ben Affleck

Cast: Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Victor Garber (Ken Taylor), Kyle Chandler (Hamilton Jordan), Tate Donovan (Robert Anders), Clea DuVall (Cora Amburn-Lijek), Christopher Denham (Mark Lijek), Scoot McNairy (Joe Stafford), Kate Bische (Kathy Stafford), Rory Cochrane (Lee Schartz), Taylor Schilling (Christine Mendez)

There is an art to telling a “true story”. Apollo 13 is a masterclass in turning a story everyone knows into edge-of-the-seat tension. For many people, Argo does a similar trick. It doesn’t for me. I can’t understand the praise for this middle-brow, conventional movie other than that its smoothly made blandness makes it easy to watch. I got so annoyed when re-watching it I threw my slipper down in anger, like the middle-class rebel I clearly am.

Anyway, the film kicks off with the US embassy in Tehran being stormed on 4th November 1979. While the embassy staff are taken hostage, six embassy officials escape and find shelter with the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). But how to get them out of the country safely? CIA extraction officer Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with the “best bad plan we’ve got” – set up a fake Hollywood production company, finance a fake movie, fly to Tehran, then fly the fugitives out on Canadian passports, passing them off as the movie’s crew on a scouting mission. The cover film is sci-fi epic Argo, and with producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and famous make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) on board to give the project realism, the mission is on.

Argo won itself a lot of friends on the way to its Oscar for Best Picture. Why? Because this is a very easy-to-swallow, middle-of-the-road film that successfully turns an American foreign policy disaster into a charming heist movie with a happy ending. It faithfully follows the pattern of all heist movies: the crazy idea, pulling together the perfect team, the difficult rehearsal, the weak link who pulls it out of the bag at a crucial moment even the panicked “we do it anyway!” ending as the best-laid-plans need to be partially improvised on the fly.

In fact, for all its desperate attempts to look like a smart, political, 70s-style piece of cinema making, The Sting is by far and away the 1970s film it most resembles, for all it wants you to think it’s The China Syndrome by way of All the President’s Men. The film starts with an inspired story-board montage of the way Western interference in Iranian politics from 1953-1979 effectively ruined the country. But that’s as good as it gets politically. After that, any further attempt to engage with either Iran or America’s foreign policy gets completely abandoned. It becomes a simplistic rescue story stuffed full of uncomplicated goodies and baddies.

Hollywood of course loved it. Why wouldn’t it? There’s only one thing Hollywood loves more than a film that takes good-natured insider pot-shots at itself. And that’s a film where Hollywood saves the day. Argo does both. It’s a celebration of how Hollywood may be shallow, but when push comes to shove it delivers. Alan Arkin (Oscar-nominated for a role he could play standing on his head) coasts as a (fictional) old-school producer, selling the film’s mediocre punchlines about the Golden Globes, WGA and the uselessness of directors. Argo has a real “slap-on-the-back” air to it, the sort of gentle roast you might get from a guest speaker at an end-of-year party.

But of course you want to know: why did I threw my slipper? Quite frankly, Argo is a con. It starts with a burst of documentary-style realism, charting the attack on the embassy. The film uses a range of different film stocks, including home-movie style footage and newsreel material. It gives an impression of complete factual reality. But, like the movie, that’s just an impression. None of the footage we see is from the time period. It’s all glossily re-created to give the idea that we are watching something snatched from the headlines.

It’s probably the last time the film touches reality. Because from there Argo is a “true” story only in the broadest sense. Almost every single specific in the film is invented or repackaged. Most crucially, the film presents all this as a CIA operation from top-to-bottom. In reality, it was a Canadian operation, with the CIA providing assistance. Not the impression you get here. Even worse the end even has the team at Langley smugly smacking each other on the back and saying they’ll give the Canadians the credit for National Security reasons. Ouch. Not content with that, it also falsely accuses the Brits and New Zealanders of leaving the fugitives hanging out to dry. Ouch again.

I don’t mind most of the film’s other myriad inventions. Its fine to hugely expand the Hollywood stuff, as it’s fun. I don’t care that Mendez (who was Hispanic by the way – but I guess Affleck with a beard is the next best thing) was only in Tehran for 36 hours not the several days he is in this film. Building a bit of tension at the airport passport control – until that weak link proves his worth by talking fluently through the made-up film’s plot – is classic heist cinema. It’s cliched but its fine.

What really, really bugs me is that Affleck and team obviously decided the real story wasn’t exciting enough so – while poking fun at the shallowness of Hollywood – turned this story into exactly the sort of shallow adventure-fantasy that’s Hollywood’s bread-and-butter. In real life, there were nerves at the airport, and a delay to the flight. And there is a lot of old-school-conspiracy-thriller-tension that could have been created with that – if the film really was the sort of The Parallax View style thriller it wants you to think it is.

But that’s not bombastic enough for Affleck et al. Instead the ending is ludicrously overblown, stuffed with problems to overcome. The mission is off-then-on-again (this convoluted resolution requires a real-life childless man to have two kids at school). Then the Iranians work out something is up, and tear through the airport, guns waving in a race to stop the flight. Police cars race onto the runaway as the plane carrying our heroes takes off. And then I threw my slipper.

I threw it because it makes no sense. If the Iranian secret service knew about the extraction, they wouldn’t run through the airport. They’d RADIO THE CONTROL TOWER and stop the plane taking off. They’d scramble jets to bring the plane back while it was still in Iranian airspace. They certainly wouldn’t race cars onto the runaway – and I’m not sure a civilian plane would take off with an armoured car just underneath its wing. Nothing like this happened, or would happen. Its reality filtered through the tired cliches of Hollywood movies. It doesn’t even feel true.

Argo starts trying to comment on world affairs, but then focuses overwhelmingly on a minor victory in the middle of a disaster. The Iranian hostage crisis was a national humiliation that lasted years. But in this film, Affleck shows he learnt something from Pearl Harbor just like that film’s celebration of the Doolittle raid, this uses a small success to excuse a disaster. We even get Jimmy Carter bragging in voiceover that the crisis was resolved without resorting military force: the only reason for that was because the military strike Carter himself ordered was so ineptly planned it had to be humiliatingly cancelled mid-mission.

Argo doesn’t care. It’s a cuddly story about Hollywood saving the day, that starts with a critical eye and turns into a cheerleader for Carter’s disastrous policy in Iran. The hostage crisis is a tough story it doesn’t want to talk about (a brief scene of some hostages undergoing a mock execution only reminds us that the film can’t be bothered to talk about them). It repackages disaster as triumph and pretends to be a cleverer, richer film than it is. It apes 1970s conspiracy thrillers and political films but is only a faint shadow of them. Garlanded with awards, it’s competent-at-best.

King Kong (2005)

Naomi Watts and a mo-cap Andy Serkis bring to life Peter Jackson’s dream in King Kong

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Naomi Watts (Ann Darrow), Jack Black (Carl Denham), Adrien Brody (Jack Driscoll), Thomas Kretschmann (Captain Englehorn), Colin Hanks (Preston), Jamie Bell (Jimmy), Andy Serkis (Kong/Lumpy), Evan Parke (Ben Hayes), Kyle Chandler (Bruce Baxter), John Sumner (Herb), Lobo Chan (Choy), Craig Hall (Mike)

In the late 90s Peter Jackson was working hard on putting together the plans for his dream project. It was a complex project, with unprecedented special effects demands, a huge cast, a demanding shoot and a big budget. However, plans fell through, so Jackson decided to move his attention to that Lord of the Rings trilogy idea he had been banging around instead. Hot of the success of that little escapade, he delivered at last his dream: a huge remake of King Kong.

Carl Denham (Jack Black) is a ruthless film director, desperate to make the big epic that will dwarf all others. Pulling together a team including playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and vaudeville dancer Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), he heads out on a ship for location shooting on the mysterious Skull Island. Arriving on the Island, they find that the savage natives aren’t the only dangers on an Island that has bypassed evolution. The crew find themselves hunted by dinosaurs, huge creepy-crawlies and other horrors all while they try to find and rescue Ann from the Island’s Alpha – a huge gorilla, King Kong (famously motion-captured by Andy Serkis). Led by Jack, who has fallen in love with Ann, dangers surround the crew – but is mankind, and the ambitious Carl, the real danger?

Time and public perception has not always been kind to Jackson’s labour of love. Perhaps coloured by the generally negative reception to his Hobbit films (which are a mess), perhaps also by the film being more of a gentle, sentimental film mixed with cartoon-splatter horror rather than the monster-mash B movie later Kong films have been, it’s generally remembered as a bit of a disaster. This is far from fair. Yes it’s overlong (hugely so at well over three hours – nearly twice as long as the original) and over-indulgent but it’s also quite a sweet, if rather tonally mixed, film that more or less manages to keep an audience entertained.

Unlike later films which have enjoyed Kong (or Godzilla) most when he smashes things – even if he is often the film’s hero or at least anti-hero – this Kong film is perhaps at its most contented when it is finding the humanity in the ape. As a 9-year old, Jackson talks about crying when Kong fell dead from the Empire State Building – and it is this engaging giant that he wants to bring to life here. Using Serkis – cementing his reputation here as the whizz of motion capture – to have a human literally inside the Gorilla, giving real expressions and genuine character to a giant ape was deliberate. The film’s most heart-felt – and quietest – moments both involve moments of gentle play or innocence from the Gorilla, either starring at a beautiful sunset (which he does both on the island and on the Empire State) or playfully slipping and sliding on a Central Park frozen lake, this is a monster that Jackson sees as a misunderstand soul, that bond he felt at 9 brought to the screen.

That’s the key between the bond that Ann feels with this beast who starts as potential killer, becomes protector, friend and finally a sort of romantic interest of a kind. Well played by Naomi Watts, Ann Darrow herself is a damaged soul, a bright-eyed, naïve dreamer with a dose of realism slowly entering her soul, who wants to entertain people but also to make her immediate world a better, warmer place. It’s natural that such a person would start to feel a deep bond with Kong, to learn to appreciate his gentleness and protectiveness, to put herself at risk to try and save his life. It’s a huge development of the character from scream-queen, and positions Ann (or tries to) as a more pro-active force in her own story.

And the ape responds to this, slowly revealing his own true nature as a potentially gentle giant, albeit one who is prepared to rip a few T-Rex’s apart to protect his love. He certainly ends up feeling more of an ideal partner for Ann than the other men in the film. Adrien Brody’s Jack Driscoll is a determined, principled and brave man but there is a touch of inadequacy to him, a surrendering of responsibility and a lack of proactivity in his make-up. While the early love story between the two characters is sensitively drawn, it tellingly can’t survive the events of Skull Island – at least not in the same way.

Mind you Driscoll is better than Denham, who is transformed in this film to a soulless monster interested only in his own greed for fame and power. Jack Black delivers what the script demands – even if the film is pushing on the edge of his range. As Black’s stock has fallen, so perhaps as some of the film’s – and the perception of his performance here. It doesn’t help that the idea of the ruthless film director seems to be a common trope for film director’s to explore (and interesting psychological question there!) so the character’s shallow lack of regard for anyone else, coupled with his fierce ambition to be the greatest showman around start to grate after a while. It’s a character lacking any depth.

But then that’s the case for most of the rest of the cast as well, who struggle to make room in a film that is overloaded with events and action to the detriment of its overall impact. Jackson’s heart may really lie in the quiet moments between beauty and beast – but he also loves an action scene. And King Kong has too many of these. Much of the middle hour of the film is given over to a never-ending parade of events on Skull Island, that after a while seize to have any real impact. As nameless crew members are crushed by boulders, or stampeding dinosaurs, or savaged by giant insects, or have their heads caved in by savage islanders (not surprisingly these H Rider Haggard style savages, with their lust for human sacrifice, drew more than a little criticism – and it hasn’t aged well) you start to feel your interest sagging. Kong’s brawl with three savage T-Rex’s is perfectly made in every respect, except for the fact it goes on forever.

Ambition lies behind every frame (all of them beautiful by the way) of this huge three hour epic monster picture – but it gets all so much that it buries the story. Like Kong himself, it touches the heavens only to fall tragically to Earth, trying to protect the thing it loves. Jackson wants to protect Kong from being just seen as a massive ape that hits things – but loses his way at times when Kong does little more than exactly that. It is still an intelligent and heartfelt film – but it struggles as well with being an uncontrolled play in the sandbox.

First Man (2018)

Ryan Gosling as an unreadable Neil Armstrong in the engrossing but cold First Man

Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Ryan Gosling (Neil Armstrong), Claire Foy (Janet Armstrong), Jason Clarke (Ed White), Kyle Chandler (Deke Slayton), Corey Stoll (Buzz Aldrin), Pablo Schreiber (Jim Lovell), Christopher Abbott (David Scott), Patrick Fugit (Elliot See), Lukas Haas (Michael Collins), Shea Whigham (Gus Grissom), Brian d’Arcy James (Joseph Walker), Cory Michael Smith (Roger Chaffee), Ciaran Hinds (Robert R Gilruth)

About halfway through this film, it struck me: Neil Armstrong is a not particularly interesting man who experienced the most interesting thing ever. It’s a problem that First Man, an otherwise exemplary film, struggles with: Armstrong himself, put bluntly, is unknowable, undefinable and, in the end, an enigma I’m not sure there is much to unwrap. Which is not to detract one iota from Armstrong’s amazing achievements, or his legendary calmness under pressure or his courage and perseverance. It just doesn’t always make for good storytelling.

First Man charts the years 1961-1969. During these years of professional triumph, Armstrong has success as test pilot, an astronaut on the Gemini programme (including command of Gemini 8, carrying out the first docking in space then saving his own life and the life of his pilot with his quick thinking when the mission nearly encounters disaster) and then the Apollo programme and his own first steps upon the moon. But Armstrong’s life is dogged by loss and tragedy, first his five-year old daughter to cancer, then a string of friends in accidents during the hazardous early days of the NASA space programme, including the deaths of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in the Apollo 1 fire. Armstrong becomes a man burdened with these losses.

There is very little to fault in the making of First Man – in fact it’s further evidence that Chazelle is a gifted filmmaker with a glittering future of great movies ahead. There are two things this film absolutely nails: the supreme majesty and awe of space and the terrifyingly rickety nature of the spacecraft we send men up into it in. 

Helped hugely by a superb score by Justin Hurwitz, which makes extensive and beautiful use of a theremin, the film captures the sense of mankind’s smallness, our vulnerability, in the face of the overwhelming vastness of space. Mixing goose-bump inducing wailing solos with orchestral sweep, and encapsulating the feeling of how small and lonely man in space is, the score goes a long way to match up with the visuals in creating a sense of space. The Oscar-winning visual effects – mixing computer graphics with some ingenious practical effects – never intrude but bring out the gritty reality of tin cans in space. 

Chazelle also really understands the impact of being so far beyond anything we can imagine, and his moon landing sequence is a thing of beauty. He expertly uses a number of close ups in the confined, claustrophobic campaign and largely eschews exterior shots (most of which only use the perspective of the crew’s view from the tiny windows, or of the cameras mounted on the side of the spacecraft). The moon landing follows suit, as we are thrown in alongside Armstrong and Aldrin as the lunar landing module takes its place on the moon – until the hatch opens with a whoosh of air (and sound) escaping the picture. And with that whoosh, the camera flies out of the hatch and switches – in an astonishing visual trick – from wide screen to IMAX shot to give us our first view of the vastness of space filling the frame. Suddenly, space fills the entire screen and the shocking beauty of the moon is a beautiful touch. We get as close as we can visually to experiencing the switch for Armstrong from confined spaces and beeping switches to vast panoramas and all-consuming silence.

And we really feel the switch, because Chazelle has so completely immersed us into the dangers and insecurities of the space programme. The spacecraft are repeatedly shown as alarmingly shaky, screwed together (the camera frequently pans along lines of bolts inside the cabins), thin, tiny, vulnerable capsules that shake, groan, whine and seem barely able to survive the stresses and strains they are put under. Any doubts about the risks the astronauts are under are dispelled in the opening sequence when Armstrong’s X-15 rocket twice bounces off the atmosphere and the internal cockpit around him glows orange under the extreme heat. But it’s the same on every flight we see – these craft don’t look safe enough for a short hop to the Isle of Wight, let alone hundreds of thousands of miles to the moon and back.

And that’s clear as well from the danger that lurks around every corner of the space programme. Death is a constant companion for these pilots and can come at any time. Armstrong himself escapes only due to a combination of luck and skill. When luck disappears, death follows swiftly for many of his co-pilots. Off-screen crashes claim the lives of three of his friends. Chazelle sensitively handles the horrifying Apollo 1 fire (news reaches Armstrong of the death of several friends, including his closest Ed White, while wining and dining politicians at the White House), and the terrible cost of this tragedy hangs over every single second of the moon programme. Fate or chance at any moment could claim lives. This grim air of mortality hangs over the whole film, a melancholic reminder of the cost of going further and faster to expand mankind’s horizons.

This grief also runs through Armstrong’s life and shapes him into the man he becomes. The death of Armstrong’s daughter at the start of the film sets the tone – the shocking loss of a child at such a young age is tangible – and it seems (in the film) as if this was the moment that led to Armstrong hardening himself against the world. He weeps uncontrollably at the death of his daughter, but later deaths are met with stoic coolness. Armstrong in this film is a cool enigma, who by the end of the film treats concerned questions from his children about whether he will return alive from the moon mission with the same detachment he shows at the official NASA press conference. “We have every confidence in the mission” he tells these two pre-teens, “Any further questions?”

It’s the film’s main problem that in making Armstrong such an unreadable man, who buttons up and represses all emotion, that it also drains some of the drama and human interest from the story. While you can respect Armstrong’s professionalism and coolness under pressure, his icy unrelatability makes him hard to really root for over the course of two hours. The film also strangely only sketches in the vaguest of personalities for the other astronauts (Aldrin gets the most screentime, but is presented as an arrogant, insensitive blowhard) so we hardly feel the loss of the deaths. Its part of the attitude towards Armstrong as a man chiselled from marble, so lofty that the film doesn’t dare to really delve inside his own inner world or feelings but builds a careful front around him to avoid analysis.

It’s not helped by Ryan Gosling, whose skill for blankness makes him somewhat miscast here. Try as he might, he can’t suggest a deeper world of emotional torment below the calm surface, no matter how soulful his eyes. It’s a role you feel needed a British actor, who could really understand this culture of repressed stiff-upper-lipness. Indeed Claire Foy fares much better as his patient, loyal wife who holds her composure (more or less) for the whole film under the same pressures of grief as Armstrong. Gosling just can’t communicate this inner depth, and his blankness eventually begins to crush the film and our investment in its lead character.

First Man in almost every other respect is a great piece of film-making and another sign of Chazelle’s brilliance. But it’s never as dramatic as you feel it should be. Armstrong’s life doesn’t carry enough event outside his moon landing experience, and the film can’t make an emotional connection with the man, for all the loss and suffering it shows for him. For a film that is so close to so perfect on space and the Apollo programme it’s a shame – but makes this more a brilliant dramatized documentary than perhaps a drama.

Manchester By the Sea (2016)

Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck deal with terrible burdens in Manchester By the Sea

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Cast: Casey Affleck (Lee Chandler), Lucas Hedges (Patrick Chandler), Michelle Williams (Randi), Kyle Chandler (Joe Chandler), Gretchen Mol (Elisa Chandler), CJ Wilson (George), Tate Donovan (Hockey coach), Kara Hayward (Silvie), Anna Baryshnikov (Sandy), Heather Burns (Jill), Matthew Broderick (Jeffrey)

There are many films that front and centre the catharsis of overcoming grief. You know the sort of thing: the feel-good story of someone dealing with the impact of crushing events to emerge renewed and with a certain level of acceptance for the hand that life has dealt them. It’s rare to have a film that takes a very different approach – for it to tackle grief and the impact it has as a never-ending burden on your life, like a companion that will stay with you forever but which you must accept will colour every moment for the rest of your life.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a quiet, inexpressive handyman in Boston who seems to be barely keeping under control a temper that explodes in the odd unprovoked barfight. Content to let his life drift away in a dead-end, poorly paid, job, Lee is summoned back to his family’s home in Manchester by the Sea, a coastal town in Massachusetts, after the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) from a heart condition. Much to his surprise, he discovers that Joe has named him as the guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). But Lee has no intention of remaining in this forced parental role – or of staying in Manchester by the Sea, his former home until he suffered an unbearably tragic loss for which he blames himself.

Manchester by the Sea seems ripe for setting up as a conventional tale of grief. All the ingredients are there: the man who is thrown together with a young teenager, the terrible tragic background event that he can never forget, the bottled up emotions that seem to be crying out for a big “cathartic” moment where all those emotions can be let out, a possible father-son relationship developing that can lead to Lee re-engaging fully with the world… It’s a testament the film’s courage that it avoids nearly all of these completely. Instead it offers a picture of life’s tragedy that feels human, studied, earned and above all real.

For starters, Lee is consumed with grief – and is unable to move on from it. This becomes much easier for the viewer to understand once we are introduced to the reason for his tragic mood halfway through – although hints have been dropped in flashbacks that are brilliantly woven (seemingly at random, but in fact with great thought and planning) throughout the film, where he has a wife and three young children. Saying that, the horror of what actually happened – and the gut wrenching sense of personal responsibility that Lee feels – are truly chilling. Is it any wonder with all of this that Lee can’t or won’t (or both) allow himself to move on?  That he clearly believes grief is his “sentence” for his “crime”, which has so shaped his entire life? No it really isn’t.

Lonergan’s film (and his brilliant script, one of the sharpest, tenderest and most humane modern film scripts you will read, with all the depth of a fabulous novel) explores wonderfully the contours of this human situation. There are no easy answers, no real relief and no simple emotional release. Instead this film shows that grief and guilt – certainly on this scale – never go away, that although you allow yourself moments of happiness, the shadow of the past never really leaves.

This makes the story sound incredibly bleak, when in fact it really isn’t. Among the many triumphs of Lonergan’s film is how funny this is. This humour is not always black (though it is tinged in places) but comes from Lonergan’s Mike Leigh or Alan Bennettish ability to neatly observe some of the absurdities of human interaction and everyday conversation. He understands that the mundanity of the everyday can carry huge emotional and comedic force for people, because it stems from situations we can all (to certain degrees) experience and understand. It’s those moments of recognition as Lee and Patrick struggle to get on, or when Lee is brought low by sudden memories that really speak to the viewer, which make this such a profound and often engaging viewing experience. Not to mention that Lee’s often blunt plain speaking frequently raises a chuckle, not least due to Patrick’s often exasperated plea as to why he can’t be “normal”.

But then Lee isn’t normal – he’s carefully suppressed his inner feelings as a protection measure to stop him from exploding in self-destructive guilt. It’s a performance from Casey Affleck that might just be one for the ages: a surly, buttoned-down man of low-key aggression and impatience which covers a deep and abiding sense of guilt and shame that he can’t seem to put behind him. He’s superb, and the performance is all the more admirable for the bravery of how Affleck does not fall back on actorly tricks and emoting. Instead his performance throbs with unspoken pain.

Affleck is one of several superb performances. Lucas Hedges is a revelation as a son who can’t articulate his feelings about his father’s death and his resentment and pain around it. Hedges and Affleck spark off each other with great effect, with scenes that alternate between hilarity and raw pain. Michelle Williams is also sublime in a carefully underused part as Lee’s ex-wife. Williams shares one particular beautiful scene with Affleck – one tinged with fabulous notes of sadness and regret – that is nearly worth the price of admission alone. But no one puts a foot wrong here.

Lonergan’s film is a beautiful, heartfelt, funny and intensely moving piece of cinema. Beautifully filmed, with a sublime score (part classics, part new compositions by Lesley Barber) it never lies to the audience, never sentimentalises, but leaves you moved and enthralled. It’s so rare to see a film that feels so very trueto the difficulties and complexities of real life. A great film.

Carol (2015)

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in a moving dance of love and romance

Director: Todd Haynes

Cast: Cate Blanchett (Carol Aird), Rooney Mara (Therese Belivet), Sarah Paulson (Abby Gerhard), Kyle Chandler (Harge Aird), Jake Lacy (Richard Semco), John Magaro (Dannie McElroy), Cory Michael Smith (Tommy Tucker), Carrie Brownstein (Genevieve Cantrell)

It’s the way of things that gay love-stories in Hollywood are invariably relegated to a sub plot – often one that has a certain tragical element to it. This is not the case here in Todd Haynes’ superlative romance, which places a lesbian love story at its centre, sensitively building the characters and romantic journey between them.

Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a lost department store worker, drifting through life. One Christmas, working on the toy stall, she recommends a toy for the daughter of socialite Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). A spark of attraction between the two is immediately apparent, and Carol invites Therese first to dinner, then to spend an evening together and finally a Christmas road trip across America, during which their attraction grows and deepens into a flourishing love.

This wonderful love story, almost a twist on Brief Encounter, is a brilliantly done, extremely engrossing and moving romantic film, a film that manages the rare feat in Hollywood movies of not making a homosexual relationship something that requires narrative punishment. Haynes’ luscious 1950s filming style, stressing the aesthetics and manners of the era, combines brilliantly with a subtly murky photography style that darkens and lightens at different points to create an immersive fairy-tale quality. It’s a perfect tapestry for a deeply caring and sensitive story, anchored by a superb script and wonderful performances.

It has now got to the point where it is axiomatic to say Cate Blanchett gives a wonderful performance – she is, after all, one of the best actresses in the world right now. She is quite simply perfectly cast as Carol, her features having the flexibility to appear both cold and distant and soft and caring, a switch she is able to make with the slightest of gestures. Her patrician manner is deconstructed brilliantly. Her character is initially established as an almost predatory figure, a determined and manipulative woman; it’s only over the course of the film that this persona is slowly taken apart, revealing waves of emotion and pain from years of denial, loneliness and a sense of being trapped. Each scene slowly prompts us to reassess and reevaluate her character, and Blanchett handles this journey with astounding skill, revealing a hinterland of pained, self-doubting isolation and desperation to experience real love behind her cool and confident exterior. It’s a performance of phenomenal skill and emotional force.

It’s matched brilliantly by Rooney Mara as the object of Carol’s affections – and it must be said at the very least a co-lead of the film. Therese is a woman sleepwalking through life when we first see her, trotting through the motions of her interactions with others – a clear void in her, waiting for something to happen to her, but clearly with no idea of what that might be. Similar to Blanchett, Mara’s gentle and sensitive exterior deepens over the course of the film as she becomes more assertive to those around her, more of a determiner of what she wants from her own life. Mara’s soulful eyes and gentle face make her a perfect audience surrogate, creating a character whose feelings, doubts, anxieties and growing confidence we become immersed in. The film is in many ways her story, and Mara’s expressive gentleness is vital to our investment in the story.

The road trip at the heart of the movie’s plot is a charming, lyrical dance between two people juggling an unspoken attraction: one of them on the edge of all times of saying it, the other drawn towards an attraction she is still trying to understand and express. Haynes perfectly captures the small playful moments of first love that pepper these scenes, the camera intimately placed to make us part of this growing partnership of equal minds and hearts. Slowly they grow physically closer – both in their ease of body language, and through their slow progress towards sharing hotel rooms and finally (in an achingly romantic scene) a bed.

It’s a film about romantic longing between two people, the instant attraction. Therese’s first glance of Carol is across a crowded room, with the camera panning past Carol in a POV shot and then returning to her, before cutting back to Therese, now seemingly alive with an attraction she doesn’t quite understand. The Brief Encounter structure of the film is established with the film opening with Carol and Therese’s (possible) last meeting in a dinner. We see their interrupted conversation leading to Carol’s departure, leaving after touching a hand on Therese’s shoulder – the camera lingering on Therese’s back and her unseen reaction (and contrasting it with a meaningless similar touch from a male friend). When this scene is replayed later, we see it more from Carol’s perspective – and her pulsating emotion and longing.

The reason these scenes work so well is that the film continually shows Carol and Therese struggling to hide their growing attraction in plain sight, to maintain the balance between expressing their feeling and keeping a plausible deniability. This feeling grows because the film has the patience to take its time with building this relationship– and because we are aware of Therese’s feelings earlier than she is.

The film’s sensitivity extends to the sympathy it feels for all its characters. As useless as many of the men in the story are, they are confused, distressed or lonely rather than malicious or cruel. Carol’s husband Harge could have been a bullying monster, but he actually comes across as a frustrated and deeply hurt man, who understands on some level his wife’s sexual preferences, but is unable to fully comprehend the implications of this. On paper it’s a thankless part, but Kyle Chandler is superb, his Mad Men features perfectly suited to the role of floundering masculine figure. Many of Therese’s would-be suitors are similarly drawn reasonably sympathetically, however laddy, over-keen or dull they may be – Haynes’ film has an understanding that they are products of their time. In a lovely scene Therese talks about homosexuality with one of her male suitors, who can barely countenance its existence, as if she was talking about the man in the moon.

Haynes’s mastery of the aesthetics of the material is present throughout. Haynes increases the feelings of being trapped or surrounded by a number of shots through windows, using mirrors, from the other side of doors – divides that stress the characters’ sense of being trapped and enclosed in their lives. He also carries across just a small teasing touch of the melodrama of 1950s films – though I would argue this is no way a melodramatic film – with a gun making a deliberately misleading appearance, and a few beats that briefly suggest the film is heading in an entirely different direction.

Carol is a wonderful, soulful and entrancing film. It’s about two people showing each other hidden depths about themselves, uncovering truths and building each other’s capacity for love and ability to admit and understand their feelings. It makes this a tender and endearing film, with two characters whose fates we become completely involved with. It also avoids passing any form of judgement over any of the characters. Filled with subtle moments, open to interpretations (even their first meeting is full of code, from the recommendation of a non-gender-conforming train set to Carol’s gloves left invitingly on the counter) that constantly ask us to review how open we feel the characters are being with themselves and others. With brilliant performances by Mara and Blanchett (backed by Chandler and a very sensitive performance from Sarah Paulson as Carol’s former lover), this wonderful film is both profoundly moving and very uplifting.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Zero Dark Thirty tries to raise questions and views, but dodges many of them

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Cast: Jessica Chastain (Maya), Jason Clarke (Dan), Jennifer Ehle (Jessica), Mark Strong (George), Kyle Chandler (Joseph Bradley), James Gandolfini (CIA Director), Stephen Dillane (National Security Advisor), Harold Perrineau (Jack), Mark Duplass (Steve), John Barrowman (Jeremy), Joel Edgerton (Patrick), Chris Pratt (Justin)

Zero Dark Thirty is a deeply troubling film: a journalistic investigation into the hunt for Bin Laden, shot with an action thriller film ethos. It wears its factual accuracy and research with an ostentatious pride on its sleeve, but ducks out of making any judgement on the issues it presents, as if afraid to pollute the events it displays with editorialising. But some events demand discussion and a point of view: as one critic said, you wouldn’t make a film about slavery that focuses on the cotton output. Similarly, a film that drives us towards the killing of the vile Bin Laden should also challenge us more about the methods used to capture him, the extent to which we “became what we hunted”.

And I don’t buy that the film is challenging us to recognise this ourselves. It starts with recordings from the 9/11 flights (a moment which made me feel uneasy to say the least and many family members were also unhappy with), its lead character Maya is caught up in two bombings and an assassination attempt, her best friend (well played by Jennifer Ehle) is killed in a suicide bombing. All of this, along with the film’s omission of any exploration of the terrorists themselves, is encouraging us to look at a particular side of the argument. Cementing this is the end of the film which, despite caveats, has a “mission accomplished” feeling – it may not be flag waving, but it does want us to feel the professionalism of a job well done, reinforced by the tearful release of 12 years of tension from Maya. We are not being encouraged to question the attitudes or assumptions of the characters in front of us; we are being steered towards a particular view of these characters and events. Without an explicit endorsement, but implicit suggestions that ends may well have justified means.

Of course, 9/11 was an abomination – but setting the deck the way the film does means it makes it easier to condone the terrible things that the CIA do in this film to get the results it got. That’s the problem with the film’s “stanceless stance” – its patting itself on the back for not taking sides means it doesn’t acknowledge any depths to its facts, it gives no context. There are many, many issues and motivations, from both sides, behind the events we see here – but we don’t learn anything about any of them. Instead the film is like a Wikipedia page with brilliant photography and editing: a skilfully presented PPT deck that shows us what happens, but doesn’t feel like it tells us anything about why or how it happened.

Torture is of course the main issue here. The film opens with a gruelling extended torture sequence of almost 25 minutes. The information it yields directly is questionable, but it does eventually lead to a crucial name, which is backed up later by Maya watching videos of others undergoing “extreme interrogation” and saying the same name. Now, torture in something like 24 feels different: there at least (a) the whole world was a cartoon, (b) the danger was immediate (“a nuclear bomb will go off in thirty minutes dammit!”) and (c) there was a sense of conflict in its perpetrators. Neither is the case here.

That’s not a defence of 24, but here it’s full on psychological and physical assault over a sustained period of time with no identified imminent threat and no real sense that the torturers feel they are doing anything wrong (I guess the film is suggesting they have become deadened to it, but still would it hurt to say something along those lines?). And it actually happened, and not just to bombers and terrorist kingpins, but (in this film) to couriers and bankers. Surely that demands some sort of acknowledgement in the film that it was wrong? Instead the film fudges this and the torture of suspects is shown to contribute in some way to the successful delivery of Bin Laden; there is no real questioning of whether the value of the information it directly obtained justified its use.

Part of the problem of the film is that it was originally commissioned as a film about the hunt for Bin Laden – the US actually finding him rather screwed up the narrative. There are elements of that original film in there: a hunt for a chimera, an obsession with one man that blinds us all to the bigger picture: “You’re chasing a ghost while the whole fucking network grows all around you” Kyle Chandler’s character cries out with frustration at one point. Maya (and the film) slaps him down – it never questions whether Bin Laden was worth the focus and expense. But it hints at the repurposed nature of the film, which would have had to tackle this question head on before Bin Laden was found. Was this the best use of their efforts? Was there a benefit to the war on terror outside of the satisfaction of punishing Bin Laden? How in control was Bin Laden of the jihad by then?

It feels to me that this film is two films uneasily mixed together. One film wants to explore the nature of obsession, and wants to question if it’s worth catching one man at the cost of diverting attention from hundreds of others. The other film is a triumphant story of patience and dedication rewarded. You can’t help but feel that a film released prior to Bin Laden’s killing might have been a more interesting and profound piece of work, which could have looked at the nature and cost of obsession. Instead, history itself pushes the film into saying “well it had ups and downs but the ends justified the means eventually”.

None of this doubt about the final film is of course an apology for the appalling crimes of Bin Laden and his followers. And Zero Dark Thirty is, however you cut it, a very well made film and Bigelow is an extremely good director. Jessica Chastain invests a character almost devoid of personality, about whom we learn almost nothing, with an emblematic depth that makes her feel like a profound embodiment of American determination and will, like some sort of morally conflicted female Gary Cooper. The film also does feel like it has something to tell us about an America under siege – although again, by shying away from editorialising, it loses the chance to present a specific commentary on how 9/11 affected the country, and its sudden sense of vulnerability and unease in the world.

It’s a troubling film, a film that seems to be dodging taking a moral stand on areas. It could still have said “some of things that were done were bad but the end result was good”: that would have been fine. But by not making any statement at all, it feels like it’s dodging the issue, not challenging us.