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Tuesday, 28 January 2014


Twelve years a slave, two hours of misery.

In fairness, if you go and see this film, you have been warned. The movie is exactly what it says in the title, an examination of the twelve years spent by free black man, Solomon Northrup, in slavery, after he was kidnapped from his home in New England in the 1850s and sold to traders in the South.

And so that is exactly what we get, a portrait of the violence, degradation and
brutality of the life of a slave. There is no let up for the length of the film, no respite from the misery. We see rapes, floggings, lynchings, torture, human beings being treated worse than animals, being treated like objects.

The evil and hatred of the white masters for their human property is pure and relentless, and the deprivations that they inflict on the slaves seem to have no end. Only Brad Pitt's character, an abolitionist originally from Canada but working in Georgia, shows the slightest bit of humanity when dealing with the black people there.

It is not an easy watch. The only aspect of the film that gives the viewer a break from the horror is the photography and camerawork, the shots of the southern countryside are composed like paintings, and look exotic and beautiful. It serves to contrast with the humiliation and violence that is the lot of the American slave.

Yet the misery is so relentless, it has to be wondered what the point is of this film. The message of the director seems to be that slavery is bad. But don't we know this already? If we have seen Roots, or even Django Unchained, from last year, surely we are aware that the life of a slave was no picnic.

For those people - if there are any out there - who still believe that slavery just wasn't that bad, that it was somehow a benevolent system where slaves' health was taken care of and their souls were saved, then certainly they need to see this movie. It is a true story and so gains more resonance from this fact. Yet beyond that, really only complete masochists (or sadists) need to see this brutal, stomach churning film. 

Saturday, 18 January 2014


The Wolf of Wall Street is the latest collaboration between Martin Scorcese and Leo Di Caprio. It is a lot of fun.

Di Caprio plays Jordan Belfort, who builds himself up from humble beginnings to a position as one of the most powerful men on Wall Street. He doesn't do it entirely legally, though, and soon comes under the spotlight of FBI agent, Patrick Denham.

Most of the movie is concerned with showing the decadent lifestyle of Belfort and his group of cronies that he accrues on his journey to the top.

We don't need either Belfort, who narrates, or Scorcese, who directs, to tell us how over the top, how obscene, the way of life of Wall Street traders was in the eighties and nineties.

There is no overt commentary on the amorality of the lifestyle, there doesn't need to be. We are simply shown the excess, the hookers, the mounds and mounds of drugs, the unending supply of cash and the bizarre, irresponsible behaviour, and allowed to make our own minds up.

The spirit of the times is captured perfectly, the "Greed is good" mantra of the bond traders of these unimaginable decades. We see the groupthink of the employees in the Stratton Oakmont offices, all united in their obsessive frenzy to get rich. Staff meetings are addressed by Belfort, and turn into a kind of Nuremberg rally, their leader in chief whipping his minions into a mania for selling and making cash.

Belfort's acolytes are the Keystone Cops, the biggest bunch of incompetent, drug addled, sex obsessed boors you can encounter in a Hollywood film. Despite this they make millions, through chutzpah, supreme confidence, greed and mountains of cocaine.

And it is a tremendous amount of fun. From the first frame it plays the situation for laughs. Jonah Hill, who plays Donny, Belfort's partner in crime, spends the whole movie with a set of comedy false teeth in. Donny, of course, is famed for being married to his cousin.

Jordan Belfort is basically a nineteen eighties/ nineties version of Leo Di Caprio's last role, as The Great Gatsby. He is a dreamer, like Gatsby, self-destructive, utterly self-absorbed, with a single-minded obsession to make piles and piles and piles of cash.

"Strattan Oakmont is America." This is Belfort's line in the middle of this movie, and it is not accidental. The name of the company is pulled out of the air by Belfort, it has no connection to him or anyone who works there, it is simply WASP-sounding enough to gain them the respect that they need to survive in the bond trading jungle.

It is the definition of self-invention. There is nothing real about either the profession, or Belfort's made up company, and yet precisely because of their lack of substance, they are a raging success.

The whole enterprise is built on sand. They start off by selling worthless penny stocks to Joe Schmos who don't know any better, and build up into insider trading and money laundering. It is the ugly side of American capitalism where anything goes as long as it makes money.

Like Goodfellas, there is a prominent voice-over, as Belfort narrates his rise and fall, with a certain wry cynicism. Di Caprio takes over the role, and gives us a real anti-hero. Belfort genuinely cares about the people around him, inasmuch as he is capable of doing, yet he constantly lets down his wives, partners and children in his mad obsession for making money, taking drugs and living life to the full.

The Wolf of Wall Street portrays a debauched, depraved period of recent American history. There is some affection here for its protagonists, they are shown as almost lovable oafish epicureans, devoted to enjoying life and getting rich. It is three hours long, but it moves at such a pace it feels like much less. It is relentless, energetic, frequently hilarious, and a boat load of fun. 

Saturday, 4 January 2014


American Hustle will appeal to anyone who sees a film set in the 1970s as a kind of costume drama.

The hair is big and ridiculous, the lapels are wide, the chests are hairy and adorned with medallions. The film follows on from Mad Men in attempting to get all of the period details correct, the cars, the garish wallpaper, the disco, the dodgy fashions.

The film exploits that old American tale of grifters and con artists. Christian Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, who has a number of scams on the go when he meets Sydney, (Amy Adams), who becomes both his business and romantic partner.

The pair get stung by Bradley Cooper's FBI agent and are forced to help him attempt to entrap public figures on corruption charges.

From there the story gets more complex, involving Irving's wife, played by Jennifer Lawrence, a local politician, senators, congressmen, a fake Arab Sheik, and Robert Di Niro as a mobster.

There is a touch of farce about the whole film, cartoon violence, Christian Bale's character gluing his toupee to his head, and Cooper's FBI agent with his hair in curlers. This sometimes pays off, and produces moments of humour, but overall it is an illustration that the film doesn't really know what it is.

There are comic elements, there is tension, a hint of danger with the mobsters, a sort of a love story between Irving and Sydney, and an attempt at a more serious examination of politics and the law.

Yet it is too disjointed, the movie doesn't seem to know where it's going most of the time. We have minor crises, small climaxes, and then the pace slows again. There is no real direction, no great building towards a denouement, the story kind of meanders.

This is not to say that there are not things to enjoy. Christian Bale is consistent in his portrayal of the central character, a slightly ineffective conman with a hangdog look and bad hair. Bradley Cooper is manic and driven as the FBI agent who is just after a bit of respect and success. There are some good jokes, and funny moments, including one with the first make of microwave to come out in the nineteen seventies.  

And Jennifer Lawrence - continuing the theme of pretty much every film she
has been in - takes over the screen when she is on it, playing Irving's feckless, manipulative, tipsy wife. Although she is again playing a role that is much older than her, she dominates the action even in the small part that she plays. 

American Hustle is likeable and gently humorous, but is lacking an edge. Worth a look for the great cast, but an opportunity lost.