Steve Carell

Beautiful Boy

21/01/19

The people emerging from the afternoon screening of Beautiful Boy, still mopping at their eyes, pay testament to the fact that this film is what used to be termed a ‘four handkerchief weepie.’ My tears are undoubtedly flowing as abundantly as many others in the audience, because this is a heartrending story about a father’s desperate attempts to deal with his beloved son’s drug addiction. Be warned, it does not exactly make for a side-splitting trip to the cinema.

Freelance journalist David Sheff (Steve Carell, who seems to be in so many films lately it’s a wonder he didn’t land the title role in Mary Queen of Scots) has always had a close relationship with his son, Nic (Timothée Chalamet), a handsome and talented young lad who appears to have the brightest possible future ahead of him – until crystal meth addiction gets in the way and turns him into a deceitful, self-destructive shadow of what he once was. David can only watch in abject misery as all his hopes for his son’s future go headfirst down the nearest toilet – and we share his pain. It’s like watching helplessly as an out of control vehicle hurtles headlong to destruction, knowing that we are powerless to change anything.

Based on two books – one by the father and the other by the son – Beautiful Boy attempts to give us both sides of the story, though it must be said that I am occasionally left wanting more detail – and there is the conviction that some of the less salubrious elements of the tale have been lightly glossed over, perhaps because they may not show the protagonists in the best light. For instance, at one point David says that he has made mistakes in parenting Nic, but we don’t see any – indeed, he emerges as an almost saintly figure, working tirelessly to offer help and financial support.

The film belongs to the two leads and Chalomet, building on the superb work he did in Call Me By Your Name, manages to make us care about Nic, even as he does the most heinous things to the people who love him, even stealing money from the younger brother who clearly idolises him. Maura Tierney as David’s second wife, Karen, doesn’t have an awful lot to do here and, for that matter, neither does Amy Ryan as his first wife, Vicki. The story skips nimbly back and forth in time, using earlier scenes to emphasise the implicit trust that father and son once enjoyed and there are some clever uses of music to help tie things together – any film that features Neil Young’s Heart of Gold gets brownie points from me, even if its appearance precedes one of the story’s most distressing scenes.

The film ends with a plea for addicts everywhere to seek help and reminds us that, in America, drug addiction is the primary cause of death for young men under the age of fifty, which is sobering news, and underlines how the massive profits enjoyed by both drug suppliers and treatment centres are shameful and obscene.

Beautiful Boy is a heartfelt film with an important message and it deserves to be seen, but be prepared, take a hanky. You’ll probably need it.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Vice

16/01/19

Those people who look at the current political landscape in America and despairingly ask themselves, ‘How could this ever have come to pass?’ should pop along to a showing of Vice at their earliest opportunity, where all will be explained. This is the story of how a taciturn bit-player in American politics cleverly advanced himself into a position of unprecedented authority, becoming the power behind the throne in the administration of George W Bush, and ushering in the kind of rampant corruption that would reach its apotheosis under the tiny thumb of one Mr Trump.

When we first meet Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), he’s a hopeless case: a University dropout with a drink problem, taking menial work to make ends meet. After a confrontation with his long-suffering wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), he vows to straighten himself out and enrols in a political internship, where he finds himself assigned to Republican congressman, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell in his by-now-habitual good form). Largely by nodding his head a lot and saying very little, Cheney’s career progresses in leaps and bounds – and, when he finally has the chance to play Vice President to the very naive George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), he spots an opportunity to seize the kind of power normally reserved for the President himself.

Adam McKay’s film certainly has the potential to be yet another dull political biopic in the mould of The Front Runner, but it’s lifted way above this level by the playful nature of the storytelling. Whenever there’s any danger of events beginning to drag, McKay has a way of enervating proceedings – a Shakespearian parody here, a sly aside to the camera there – and the repeated analogy of Cheney’s skills as a fisherman are brilliantly exploited as we watch him quietly reeling the next sucker into his control. (When the sucker in question is the President of the USA, it’s particularly chilling.)

There’s also an inspired device where everyman narrator Kurt (Jessie Plemons) keeps popping up to offer his insights into what’s happening, informing us that he and Cheney are somehow ‘related,’ a mystery that’s finally explained in a moment so shocking it nearly has me leaping out of my cinema seat.

Of course, I can’t review this film without mentioning Bale’s Oscar-nominated performance in the lead role. We may be a little jaded by his insistence on physically occupying his chosen subjects, but theres no doubting the fact that he has once again achieved a stunning transformation, as shocking in its own way as what he did to his body in The Machinist. But it’s more than just the look. Bale conveys the character’s traits in every shrug, every grimace, every sly glance – and remember, he’s impersonating a character who’s so impassive there’s very little to work with. It’s a superb central performance in a very assured film.

Make sure you don’t leave the cinema too early – there’s an amusing post-credits sequence that brings matters bang up to date. I emerge feeling as though my eyes have been well and truly opened – and uncomfortably aware that the double meaning of the film’s title is all too apparent.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Battle of the Sexes

 

20/11/17

It’s the early 1970s and rising tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is fighting to establish equal pay for female players. Why is it, she reasonably asks, that the men are being paid eight times as much as the women? American Lawn Tennis president Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), tells her that it’s simply because the men are just ‘more interesting to watch.’ King’s answer is to pull all women players out of Kramer’s organisation and to help them to form their own, seeking sponsorship wherever they can find it. It’s mostly because of her unprecedented efforts that such appalling sexism in the sport was challenged and soundly defeated, even though it meant getting involved with some strange partners. A scene where Billie Jean’s agent, Gladys (Sarah Silverman) urges the players to smoke cigarettes because they are being sponsored by Philip Morris is a particular delight.

This fascinating film, scripted by The Full Monty’s Simon Beaufoy, is based around a real event in 1973, when King was goaded into playing a match against ex-champion player, Bobby Riggs (engagingly played here by Steve Carell), whose vociferous claim that no woman could ever beat a man at tennis, still resonates today – people are forever trying to push Andy Murray and Serena Williams into playing against each other. Beaufoy’s script cleverly displays the levels of inherent sexism that existed at the time – most of the remarks and attitudes of the commentators of the period now seem positively prehistoric. The film is aided by the fact that Stone and Carell look so convincing as their characters that genuine footage of the original match is used in long shot with the actors effortlessly spliced in for close-ups. Weirdly, although I already know the outcome of the game, the footage still somehow manages to generate considerable levels of suspense. For my money, this is perhaps the best attempt thus far to put my favourite sport up on the big screen.

The film is about more than just tennis, though. Riggs is struggling with personal demons – a powerful addiction to gambling is pushing his marriage to his socialite wife, Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) onto the rocks – while King, married to the incredibly supportive Larry (Austin Stowells), finds herself irresistibly drawn to hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Their burgeoning romance is sensitively handled by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who never fall into the trap of sensationalising it.

But perhaps what the film does best of all is to display the unbelievable levels of all-American razzmatazz that accompanied the contest, right down to Riggs being sponsored by a lollipop company called… wait for it… ‘Sugar Daddy.’ (And if you think the filmmakers have exaggerated for comic effect, you only need to glance at footage of the real event  to see that it has been reproduced with extraordinary attention to detail.)

It would be all too easy to paint Riggs as the villain of this piece, but he actually emerges as a likeable clown, whose outrageous comments are mostly done to generate interest (and large amounts of money) for the match. It’s the everyday, ingrained sexism of characters like Jack Kramer where the real problem lies – and it’s particularly satisfying to watch him get his comeuppance.

Do you need to be a tennis fan to enjoy this film? Well it certainly helps, but I don’t think it’s essential. Its powerful message about equal rights for everyone, regardless of their sexuality, rings out loud and clear. In tennis terms, this one serves an ace.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

The Big Short

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31/01/15

Another day, another Oscar nominated film. The Big Short appears to be a lot of people’s favourite to lift the best movie gong this year and it’s certainly accomplished. It takes a long hard look at one of the most shameful periods of recent American history – the years leading up to the American housing crisis and the subsequent crash of Wall Street’s biggest banks. More specifically, it homes in those individuals who saw the crash coming and made millions by betting that it would happen.

The first person to spot the looming bubble is Michael Burry (Christian Bale) an autistic Capital Hedge Fund Manager, who invests heavily on what he believes is a certainty. Others soon follow suit, including Mark Baum (Steve Carell) whose own self-loathing makes it difficult for him to exploit the opportunity, but he does it anyway, mostly at the behest of wheeler-dealer Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling). There’s even a couple of enterprising kids who want to have a punt and who call on ex-trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get them into the game. The witty script does a great job of explaining complicated (and it must be said, quite boring) financial manoeuvres in a way that everyone can understand and I liked the way that characters often break off in mid conversation, in order to talk directly to the camera. But if there’s a major problem with the film, it’s this – it’s very hard to root for characters who are self-serving assholes looking to make their fortunes from the misfortunes of ordinary people. OK, I appreciate these are the nearest to ‘good guys’ we’ll find in this story, but they only seem reasonable because the bankers they’re up against are so utterly and irredeemably despicable. And if that concept rankles, then this may not be the film for you.

When the crash eventually comes, the fallout is terrible, but even worse is the fact that the guilty parties don’t go to gaol, as they clearly should, but instead pay themselves massive bonuses and then look for other ways to exploit their customers. The Big Short is doubtless an important film and one that hits its intended targets with ease, but it’s also a hard film to like. For the big prize, I’d love to see Mad Max: Fury Road (unlikely) or The Revenant take the best movie gong. Could The Big Short be the one to win it? Get your bets in now, before the odds begin to shorten.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Foxcatcher

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11/1/15

Like director Bennet Miller’s previous effort, Moneyball, Foxcatcher is a sports movie for people who really aren’t that keen on sports. It arrives in cinemas already garlanded with praise and with much talk of upcoming Oscar nominations for its lead actors. It’s undeniable that both Steve Carell and Channing Tatum have transformed themselves physically (in Carell’s case he’s barely recognisable thanks to the addition of a false nose and false teeth) and they both excel in their respective roles but it’s also true to say that great performances alone can not guarantee a great movie experience. There remains the distinct feeling that Foxcatcher has been somewhat overpraised.

Mark Shultz (Channing Tatum) is a gold medal winning wrestler, who under the guidance of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo) ekes out a grim existence in a trailer, eating poor quality food and training constantly for the upcoming 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Dave too is a gold medal winner but a much more gregarious person than his younger brother who has been living in his shadow for quite some time. But Mark’s life takes a sudden upward surge when out of the blue he is contacted by a representative of John du Pont, a member of America’s richest family and a wrestling enthusiast. Mark goes to his estate in Valley Forge where du Pont explains that he is putting together a team for Seoul and he wants Mark and Dave to join up with him, under his coaching. In exchange for a handsome pay check the two will also have all their accommodation and training costs paid for. Mark needs no second bidding but Dave, a happily married family man, is not so easy to coax onboard, so Mark, sensing an opportunity to prove himself, goers without him. As he settles in with Team Foxcatcher it soon becomes apparent that du Pont is an unstable person, shallow, self-aggrandising and totally in thrall to his domineering mother (Vanessa Redgrave.) And when du Pont introduces Mark to the pleasures of cocaine, things begin to go seriously awry. As this is a true story, viewers will know not to expect any happy endings…

So yes, as I said, superb performances from the three leads… but Bennet’s slow-burning style tells the story at a funereal pace and perhaps more fatally, he absolutely fails to inject any excitement whatsoever into the wrestling sequences, which basically come down to a couple of men in spandex cuddling each other on a mat. Consider Warrior (a film with which this has been compared) and think about the blistering fight sequences in that. Foxcatcher is frankly not in the same league. Coupled with this, Tatum’s character is a monosyllabic mumbler while du Pont isn’t exactly Mr Motormouth either, preferring instead to stare at people for minutes at a time and the result is… dare I say it? A bit lumbering, a bit dull. Which is a shame, because there’s a fascinating story locked up here and it needed a different kind of director to set it free. As it stands, the film makes a worthy attempt at greatness but is not entirely successful.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney