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All the Money in the World

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

1973: J. P. “Paul” Getty III (Charlie Plummer), 16 year old grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), is snatched from the streets of Rome by a criminal gang. The kidnappers want 17 million dollars – money that Paul’s mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), estranged from his birth father, doesn’t have. The boy’s grandfather could pay, of course, but he refuses, saying that conceding to the kidnappers will open up his other grandchildren to similar attacks. He tasks former CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) with finding the missing boy and effecting his release.

The rich are different from you and me, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that axiom serves as the central thesis for All the Money in the World, adapted by David Scarpa (The Last Castle) from the non-fiction book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty by John Pearson. Structurally it’s a crime thriller, but thematically its concerns are the dehumanising, alienating effects of concentrated wealth.

It’s a theme embodied by Plummer’s turn as Getty Senior, stepping in to replace the now disgraced Kevin Spacey. We will likely never see what Spacey’s Getty is like, but Plummer’s is a fascinating creature: a man so caught up in the rituals of acquisition, the tidal pull of macro-economics, the wheeling and dealing of international finance, that his ability for human connection is utterly stunted. Oh, he tries to wear a convincing mask – a flashback scene has Getty, doing his own laundry in an opulent hotel room to save a few pennies, gift the young JPIII with an expensive antique statuette of the Minotaur – but when the chips are down, he will not put any chips of his own on the table. In a later key scene, Wahlberg’s bagman, his own cynicism temporarily short-circuited by Getty’s incredible avarice, asks the old plutocrat exactly how much money it would take to make him feel secure. “More,” the reptilian Getty replies.

It’s also worth noting that the Minotaur, only one of a number of recurring motifs from Classical mythology and history, fed on sacrificed youths and maidens. Make of that what you will.

Getty’s opposite number is Harris, whom Michelle Williams imbues with a kind of steely, pragmatic compassion. Caught in the glare of publicity around the case – much of the film takes place in Italy, birthplace of the paparazzi, and director Ridley Scott does not shy away from showing predatory packs of snap-happy photographers at every public event – Harris’ chief task is learning how to navigate this weird world of wealth and privilege, finding her own power and making incredible sacrifices along the way in order to rescue her son. Of course, the abyss also gazes, and it’s fascinating to see Williams’ character gradually harden as she earns her place at Getty’s table.

Only one character other than Harris treats young Paul as anything other than a commodity: Cinquanta, one of the kidnappers, played by veteran French actor Romain Duris (the Spanish Apartment trilogy), whose fundamental empathy puts him at odds with his cohorts, especially once Paul is sold to a more ruthless criminal organisation once his original captors realise that the whole thing is just too much like hard work. The old Stockholm syndrome bit is pretty familiar territory by this stage of the game, but Duris’ ruggedly humane turn carries it, and by extension lends some much needed colour to Charlie Plummer’s Paul, who is otherwise left with one note to play (that he admittedly plays well).

This being a Ridley Scott joint, the whole thing looks beautiful, and Scott’s keen eye for set design and background detail remains undimmed (Scott, lest we forget, is 80 years old). The recreation of ’70s Europe is on point, if occasionally given to overstatement rather than strict accuracy, and the sumptuous appointments of Getty’s world, filled with antiques and fine artworks, marble bust upon marble bust and leatherbound books by the yard, are all captured beautifully by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (The Crow, Pirates of the Caribbean), whose command of shadow and colour is a perfect match for Scott’s layered, detail oriented visual aesthetic.

Where the film falls down is as an actual drama – the events as depicted serve better as a framework through which we can explore these themes and this world. Scarpa and Scott conflate and alter events to suit their dramatic purposes, but the extended timeline of the case is such that tension is difficult to maintain, despite the suspense inherent in the premise. While All the Money in the World is far from inert, at times it feels rather sedate, but Scott’s precise worldbuilding and our fascination with the exotic and alien world of the super-rich carry us through.

Click here for nationwide movie times for All the Money in the World


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Transformers: The Last Knight

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And suddenly it all became clear: this was camp.

Transformers: The Last Knight is either one of the worst films ever produced by a major studio, or a future schlock classic that will stand alongside Plan 9 From Outer Space, Robot Monster, and The Room – the difference being that while those examples were made by lunatics who thought they were making great art, Michael Bay has here tipped his hand, and we can now be in on the joke. Our mistake all along was in taking these goddamn things seriously, it seems; measured against the standards of classical Hollywood filmmaking, the Transformers series – Revenge of the Fallen onwards, at least – are abominable wastes of time, money, and effort. Viewed as a knowing parody (not satire, mind you – if there’s any Starship Troopers-style political allegory here, it is remarkably elusive) of action movie excess, this latest addition to the franchise is kind of amazing.

It’s the only sane and charitable reason such a terrible piece of cinema got this far. The Last Knight leaves behind recent large-scale failures like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and The Mummy, like they were standing still, gasping in its dust, while it pops a wheelie and its horn plays a dubstep remix of “La Cucuracha”. It’s bad, not just in a pedantic or nitpicky way – although if you have any knowledge of history, art history, geography, nuclear physics, astrophysics, plain old everyday physics, archaeology, architecture, small unit tactics, hydrodynamics, and the basic nature of the human soul, you better strap the hell in – but as a narrative, leaping all over the place, compressing time and shaking up spatial relationships like it was filmed at the Event Horizon of a black hole. At one point Marky Mark makes a big deal out of leaving all his friends behind to jump on a plane to England by himself. When he gets there, Bumblebee is suddenly with him. Presumably he swam. Or teleported. It still doesn’t explain why the film’s version of Britain, where much of the action takes place, appears to be maybe five miles across, judging by travel time.

Teleportation is possible – characters exhibit new traits as the plot demands all the time. Hot Rod (a new Autobot voiced by Omar Sy) whips out a gun that can slow down time. Bumblee’s voicebox is still broken – right up until it suddenly isn’t. Marky has a magic disappearing sword. It’s incredible – there are times when you’ll swear you blacked out, because some new element will crop up and surely, surely, they’ve taken a second or so to explain it. God knows the film stops for long stretches of just risible dialogue at enough points.

Much of that dialogue is delivered by Academy Award winner Sir Anthony Hopkins and Academy Award watcher Mark Wahlberg, and they do okay. Hopkins is clearly having an absolute ball, having no illusions about the type of film he’s in and barking his lines with glee. Wahlberg is Wahlberg, the hero of the story – it’s now a longstanding tradition that Transformers movies aren’t about Transformers. Bay clearly has no affinity for the robots- but he also doesn’t care for people much, either. His ideal film would involve nothing but spinning tracking shots of non-talking vehicles filmed against a sunset, with a lot of particulate matter in the air. For three hours.

Here, though, he’s lumbered with a plot that he must at least pay lip service to, much to his clear disgruntlement. The story, credited to Akiva Goldsman, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway, and Ken Nolan, pushes in two directions. There’s the problem at hand, which sees Autobot leader Optimus Prime pull a Dominic Toretto and turn against his comrades – which would be quite a twist if that particular hero of a million childhoods hadn’t been portrayed as violent, arrogant, unpredictable and downright murderous for the last three movies. Prime returns to Earth (just go with it if you’ve blocked out the last movie) as the herald of robot goddess Quintessa (Gemma Chan), who wants to destroy the Earth for reasons that would be spoilers if such things mattered here, but we’ll defer to the delicate sensibilities poor, deluded Transformers fans, may Quintessa have mercy on their soul.

This leads into the other narrative thread, designed to expand the Transformers Cinematic Universe in a number of franchise-friendly ways. Essentially, the goofy change-o-bots have been here all along, participating in human history since the time of King Arthur (don’t even start) right through to at least World War II, and somehow the wider world never noticed, despite Tony Hopkins owning a room of artworks that basically look like this. He owns them because he’s a member of a secret society called the – wait for it – Witwiccans, who have worked alongside the Transformers for over a millennium, hiding their existence from the waking world. And let’s face it, that basic conceit – the Illuminati, but with giant robots – is kind of beautiful in its audacious stupidity, even if its only narrative payoff is a search for a MacGuffin that feels like what you’d get if you asked Koko the Gorilla to rewrite The Da Vinci Code. At least we get a sassy robot butler out of the deal in the form of Cogman, Tony’s mouthy manservant.

Previous elements are re-introduced without much rhyme or reason, including Josh Duhamel’s army dude, now working for an anti-robot task force called TRF. He’s just kind of there, flipping from protagonist to antagonist depending on how long it’s been since something blew up, but it’s interesting to note that, following Sector 7, N.E.S.T., and Cemetery Wind, that’s four different shadowy Transformer-hunting teams this series has seen over five movies. Also just kind of there is John Turturro’s Simmons, for no good reason except that Bay seems to be collecting cast members from The Big Lebowski; John Goodman reprises his voice role as Autobot soldier Hound, and Steve Buscemi crops up as a weird robot scavenger. Do not be surprised if Jeff Bridges turns up as a toaster or a waffle iron next movie.

We also get the Decepticons back, with Megatron (Frank Welker, not Hugo Weaving this time) and co. introduced into the plot because apparently it’s easier for the military to cut a deal with a team of towering metal sociopaths than engage in a dialogue with the Autobots. The plot moves as though the basic question the screenwriters kept asking themselves was “What actions, however implausible and unmotivated, will lead to the worst possible outcome for all concerned,” and this particular wrinkle is just one of many instances.

The whole thing winds up in a massive, FX-heavy, literally earth-shaking climax that would be impressive if it weren’t so patently ludicrous, and leaves the next film with almost nowhere to go in terms of scale except, say, blowing up the sun (don’t put it past ‘em). If you’re turned on by the best work the rendering farms of South Korea can provide, you’re in for a good time here, and a three headed robot dragon is always a good time, generally speaking.

But here’s the thing – The Last Knight is ridiculous, so obviously, unmistakably aware of its own crass and bombastic nature, that it’s rarely unenjoyable. It’s fascinating: the way almost every character is inhumanly mean to every other character until the time comes for them to pull at some heartstrings. The way Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager’s essential function is as a salve to the shattered machismo of American men – at one point Hopkins actually lays out that it doesn’t matter if he’s an unemployed, perpetually broke loser with a dead wife and an absent daughter, he can still be a hero – a bit of business so on the nose it simply cannot be anything but deliberate. The unmotivated camera moves, the golden hour light, the way explosions only hurt exactly one character out of the dozens who get blown up (Shockwave exists in this universe, but shockwaves don’t). The stentorian tones of Prime voice Peter Cullen mouthing the most awful, hackneyed lines about heroism and brotherhood, even though seconds earlier he’d been doing his level best to remove his best mate’s head. The sheer, money-sucking, egregious excess of the whole enterprise – in its own weird way, it’s admirable. And hilarious.

Unless you take it seriously for a second, which Bay and the boys certainly don’t. Transformers: The Last Knight is clearly Michael Bay seeing how far he can push his long-running, multi-billion dollar savage indictment of blockbuster cinema. Let’s hope it makes a trillion dollars, just to see what he does next.


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REVIEW: Patriots Day

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Bringing the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings to the screen was always going to be a difficult task, but also a popular one. At one point there were three separate film projects based on the attack in development, and it’s easy to understand why: the combination of tragedy, heroism, patriotism, and the emergent “Boston Strong” movement is a heady brew, particularly for American audiences. It’s Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon director, Peter Berg, who has managed to get his project over the line first, working once again with his regular star, Mark Wahlberg, and the results are powerfully affecting while still occasionally drifting into the problematic.

Starting in the wee hours before the marathon and subsequent bombing, we meet a number of disparate characters, most of them based on actual people, and one who, particularly, is not: Wahlberg’s hard-drinking Southie cop, Tommy Saunders. That’s a bit of an issue, because he’s our chief point of view character, and it’s through him that we mainly experience the attack, the investigation, and even the capture of bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff). Apparently Wahlberg is there to represent all law enforcement as a kind of gestalt character, but it does gall a little that our way into this event is through a man who patently doesn’t exist.

Walhberg is supported by a strong roster of talent portraying the various actual participants in the events, among them John Goodman as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis; JK Simmons as Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, who was instrumental in the judicial killing of bomber,  Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze); and Kevin Bacon as FBI SAC Richard DesLauriers. You don’t get an on-screen team like that together without getting good performances, and they all convey the drama, pathos and horror of the situation admirably.

The film also does extremely well in contextualising the lives of the people caught up in the event, letting us spend time with them before the crisis hits, including MIT Police Officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking), who was killed by the fleeing terrorists, and student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), who was kidnapped by them. We’re not allowed to think of these people as faceless victims, even in the scenes where the street is littered with the injured and maimed – Berg focuses in on a handful of the victims and forces us to connect with them, heightening the emotion considerably.

For all the filmmaking nous on display – and on a technical level Patriots Day is an extraordinarily well made work – there are serious tonal problems as Berg and his team struggle to reconcile the demands of the meticulous real-life drama the film really wants to be, the action thriller Berg is clearly more comfortable staging, and that particularly American brand of patriotism (or even jingoism, if you’re feeling uncharitable) that runs through all of the director’s recent output. There are a number of moments when the truth of the moment presented is punctured by an on-the-nose line, such as a uniformed cop shouting, “Welcome to Watertown, motherfucker!” during the climactic shoot out. At others, we get a shot of fluttering stars and bars that lingers a little too long, or a demonstration of intense patriotic pride that verges on the uncomfortable. To a non-American viewer these things are jarring; it’s interesting to speculate if they are so woven into the fabric of US society as to be invisible, or at least unremarkable, to an American viewer.

There are also numerous departures from the recorded facts of the case, but perhaps that’s allowable – this is not a documentary after all, and the broad strokes of what is depicted hold up. The emotional impact of what we see on the screen is unimpeachable, but still it’s hard to shake the feeling that there is a better, more nuanced, and graceful way to tell this story. Patriots Day‘s faults never sink it, but what we’ve got here is a very good film, when it should have been a great one.