Legalise It

YOU REALLY WOULD THINK that in 2016 we’d be long past weed legalisation opinion pieces. The financial, social and medical benefits of cannabis legalisation have been exhaustively documented, and a host of other liberal democracies are either legalising or decriminalising weed or at the very least discussing its legalisation or decriminalisation.

And yet, the marijuana legalisation argument really gets scant attention here in Britain. Why so? It as if the public have lost the will to stamp their feet.

The now largely impotent Liberal Democrats have become the first political party to officially state their support for the legalisation of weed, but I doubt that is enough to effect real change. What would be far more productive is for the ordinary people in favour of legalisation––and there are many, many of them––to take just a short relief of their British notions surrounding fuss-making and make their displeasure at the status quo clear as crystal so those with real power sit up and listen.

The whole weed legalisation thing can be a tedious back-and-forth, principally because so many of the arguments against the legalisation of marijuana are so mind-numbingly stupid that they make you want to smash your head against a very, very solid wall. There are many of them, almost all of which are riddled with holes, ranging from “weed is a gateway drug” to something along the lines of “weed turns you into Gollum”.

I could spend all day writing rebuttals to all these arguments, but that’s beyond the scope of this article, and in any case, there are people with strings of letters after their names that can refute those points with far more precision than I can, like Professor David Nutt, or Dr. Sanjay Gupta. I would rather frame, in simple terms, the argument for why weed should be legal.

The Financial

A recent report commissioned by the Liberal Democrats found that the U.K. could potentially raise in excess of £1billion a year from the taxation of weed sold in specialist dispensaries, and if we take a look across the pond we see that the American states which have legalised marijuana are booming. Colorado, for instance, is now the fastest-growing economy in the U.S. and unemployment is at a six-year low. Do you remember that scene from Duck Tales in which Scrooge McDuck dives into a pool of gold coins? That’s Colorado, and the authorities have invested much of this cash in the hiring of mental health and social workers to treat anyone who does turn out to like the herb just a little too much, and to educate children on drug use. Moreover, they’re saving boatloads by not having America’s Finest drive around the state arresting college kids and artists for having a henry in their jeans.

The Social

It is almost impossible to maintain a black market for a good once it becomes legal, so it is no surprise that the crime in those that have recently legalised weed is falling fast. What is more interesting is that it isn’t just marijuana-related crime which is plummeting: violent crime of all stripes, as well as burglaries and relatively minor criminal acts are down too. And there’s another pleasant surprise for Colorado: traffic fatalities are down and continuing to fall, which contradicts directly the predictions made by the killjoys before legalisation.

The anti-legalisation brigade pointed to the presence of marijuana in the blood of some drivers involved in fatalities, but failed to appreciate that the marijuana metabolites these drivers were tested for at the roadside stay in the system for a long time after actual use of the drug. THC in the blood, a more reliable test of sobriety, is tested for too after the incident, but prohibitionists have tended to combine both sets of data when forming their argument.

It has also been suggested that now people in American states where weed is legal substitute weed for alcohol when driving. Driving under the influence of either is obviously not advisable (and illegal) but the suggestion is that weed causes less impairment than booze.

The Medical

Various reputable studies have shown that weed could be used to treat a range of conditions including glaucoma, epilepsy, anxiety, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, IBS, arthritis, Lupus, Parkinson’s and P.T.S.D. to name just a few. The argument that weed causes schizophrenia is a weak one at best, and it can only be said even by the most pessimistic of people that if you are genetically prone to schizophrenia or are prone to other schizotypal symptoms then weed can exacerbate those symptoms, and this is true of any number of substances.

So to recap, this is what could (and probably would) happen if we legalised marijuana in the United Kingdom: (1) the Government would make a killing in taxes, (2) crime would drop, and swathes of society needlessly criminalised for doing something that makes you feel relaxed, creative and really, really hungry wouldn’t have to shiver by the side of the road in the middle of the night so they can hand their pay cheques to hooded strangers through the window of a sound-system banger.

Everyone, in other words, wins.

In the frankly ridiculous Britain of today, it is socially acceptable for a toddler to choose their gender but not acceptable for an adult to choose whether to smoke a plant that makes them feel a bit silly. I’m not the only one who recognises a shortcoming here.

I’ve never really got to grips with the idea that a collection of people in Westminster can dictate what you, or I, or kindly Mrs. So-and-So down the street, do when that action does not harm anyone else. It bridles me, yet we’ve become accustomed to accepting all sorts of gross impositions on our civil liberties.

But we must start small. The advantages of the legalisation of weed are underpinned by such a hefty weight of evidence, and the downsides supported by such penetrable idiocies, that change must come soon.

So if you’re reading this Mr. Cameron and co. (which of course you won’t be), we’d rather like our freedom back now, please. Or at the very least, why not light yourself a joint and mull it over?


THE ANTIDOTE TO A string of truly awful superhero films is the hilarious, ridiculous Deadpool, and if you, like me, have been left frustrated by X Men: Apocalypse, Batman v Superman and other recent efforts, I suggest you uncork the bottle and take a good swig.

The film opens on a busy motorway flyover after a credit sequence which uses its titles (“Produced by Asshats… Written by the Real Heroes Here”) to lampoon superhero-film stereotypes while, at the same time, conceding the film will include these stereotypes anyway. Deadpool‘s eponymous fast-talking antihero, played with glee by Ryan Reynolds, gets out of a taxi and begins to get to work with violent abandon on a group of armed goons.

How Deadpool–Wade Wilson–came to be in this situation is told through a series of flashbacks. Wilson was a Special Forces operative-turned-mercenary (“I’m a bad guy who is paid to fuck up worse guys,” he says) who met the equally self-destructive Vanessa (Morena Baccarin)—their opening dialogue is one of the best exchanges of the film—in the sort of bad-guy dive bar Marv liked to skulk around in in Sin City, and they begin a love affair. Everything is going swimmingly until Wade contracts inoperable late-stage cancer, but he is offered survival–and superhuman abilities–at the hands of Ajax (Ed Skrein). His superhero makeover comes at the expense of his all-American good looks, and, fearing that his beloved will reject him, he sets out to find Ajax (who also goes, comically, by “Francis”) and put things right.

Reynolds is well-fitted for the role of the motormouth Wade/Deadpool, who is just the right balance of likeable and annoying, and dispenses bloody violence with the same speed and facility that he dispenses off-colour one-liners. When he isn’t quipping in-story or breaking bones he’s breaking the fourth wall—or rather, smashing it to bits with a wrecking ball—to make in-jokes about the bloated Marvel universe or production costs.

Deadpool is refreshingly irreverent towards its heritage, but equally self-referential. In the spirit of its bad-boy antihero, it extends a middle finger to the films which made it possible, yet satirises itself as much as it does the other films of its genre. It is to the credit of writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick that Deadpool never strays into the territory of parody or cynicism, and the plot is interesting enough, if not particularly inventive or complex. Though it is a smirking deconstruction of all the excesses and tropes of the genre, it is also in its own right an ultra-violent, sweary romp, buoyed by ironic upbeat pop music and excellent visual effects (director Tim Miller is a visual effects artist with a background in video games.)

The film is most effective when the plot zips along at the speed of Wade’s dialogue. The scenes involving Ajax and his sidekick, Angel Dust––played by MMA royalty Gina Carano––are alternately hammy and boring, and the less said about CGI X-Man Colossus, who is so jarringly fake it is hard to tell whether the creators intended him to appear that way on purpose, the better.

The final act descends into the usual scenery-smashing mayhem required by the genre, which shows that even Deadpool can’t out-manoeuvre certain comic-book tropes. Therein lies the irony of Deadpool: it is still very much a superhero flick, if an unconventional one. And its success is unlikely to change the genre significantly. The studios will always put commercial success before artistic success, and superhero films are still written to appeal to a young audience. In other words, studios won’t do away with PG-13 films simply because the R-rated Deadpool was a success.

Deadpool achieves indisputably what it sets out to achieve. It’s riotously funny and it’s well-put-together. On the one level, it’s a superhero film for people who don’t really like superhero films, but on the other, it’s a wink-wink, nudge-nudge to dedicated fans of the genre.

‘Hail, Caesar!’

WHEN YOUR GLASS OF red wine fails to lull you to sleep after a long day, boot up the latest effort from the Coen Brothers, a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood and a tiresome slog of a film. Take the directors of No Country for Old Men and The Big Lebowski, add a fine ensemble cast that includes Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes and Scarlett Johansson, and royally balls it all up.

A typically shambolic plot begins in a church, where Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer, reveals in the confessional that he has sneaked three cigarettes (cue the ominous sound of thunder) despite telling his wife he has given up. At three o’clock in the morning, Mannix turns up at the house of a young Hollywood starlet to save her from a “possible French postcard situation” before heading over to Capitol Pictures, where filming of the biblical epic Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ is underway.

The narrative then jumps, chaotically, between Mannix, who liaises with religious leaders to make sure the titular film-within-a-film, Hail, Caesar! doesn’t offend anyone, leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), who is drugged and kidnapped during filming by a group calling themselves “The Future”, and British director Lawrence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes), who tries out cowboy newcomer Holbie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) as the leading man for his sophisticated drama, Merrily We Dance. Meanwhile Scarlett Johansson’s DeeAnna Moran needs to find a husband, and fast.

The directors interweave scenes of synchronised swimming with tap-dancing sailors and toga-wearing actors against a backdrop of Soviet sympathising and jaded screenwriters, bomb tests and celebrity scandal. Clearly, Ethan and Joel Coen have lavished heaps of affection on their homage to the Hollywood of the 1950s, but that fails to make Hail, Caesar! anything resembling a good film.

There is a scene, for instance, in which Laurentz has Doyle try to say–repeatedly–“would it that it were so” that was so inane that I could not believe that there was anyone over the age of three that could find it amusing–and the comedy doesn’t get much better from there. The best scene of the film–a dance routine involving Channing Tatum and a group of sailors filmed in a single, long take–fails to save the film from sinking into its own excess. Jonah Hill, who was given top billing but whose character, Joseph Silverton, appears in just one scene and Tilda Swinton, who plays the twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, may as well not have appeared in the film at all.

Hail, Caesar! is the sort of movie that plenty of film fans will pretend to like (think of those who refer to Quentin Tarantino simply as “Quentin”) because they think that it implies a degree of cinematic sophistication. For the contemporary poseurs, to like Hail, Caesar! suggests to anyone bothered enough to listen that they have an in-depth knowledge of the showbiz scene of a bygone screen age. But simply because dedicated film-lovers have that knowledge, or pick up on the references to Singing’ in the Rain and Ben-Hur, or recognise the homages to Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston, Carmen Miranda and Esther Williams, isn’t to make this overindulgent nostalgia-fest remotely entertaining, and it is a condescending sneer to suggest that those who didn’t enjoy the film “didn’t get it”.

Hail, Caesar!, then, is, at best, a gentle and affectionate parody of the golden age of Hollywood by a pair of directors who, after a string of more serious screenwriting credits–UnbrokenBridge of Spies–may have felt entitled to a little recreational filmmaking. But it’s nevertheless intolerably boring, and a waste of a very fine cast.

What is most disappointing is that the Coen Brothers have been behind some of the most entertaining comedies of the past decade, and might, in Hail, Caesar!, have passed on a few of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge, knowing-chuckle sort of gags in favour of something broader, and less ramshackle. That, and not introduced a promising cast of characters only to let them languish, half-used.

‘The Big Short’

IT SEEMS CURIOUS THAT there are not more films concerning the events leading up to the financial crash of ’07, given that it was, well, one of the most cataclysmic events of modern history. But then, does economics ever make good cinema? That’s where the The Big Short comes in.

Anchorman director Adam McKay’s film, which is based on the hugely successful Michael Lewis book of the same name, concerns the build-up of the housing bubble in the United States during the 2000s and the people who predicted it (and made a fortune doing so.) Not, you might think, a likely source of comedy, and yet The Big Short is funny almost all the way through, thanks to an excellent script and an ensemble cast that includes Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Steve Carrell. What is refreshing about the film’s subjects is that they are not the Jordan-Belfort, Gordon-Gekko, Master-of-the-Universe-types, but slightly odd mathematical whizzes and assorted brainiacs, all with their own lengthy list of peculiarities. Even Ryan Gosling’s slick, confident Jared Vennett is no Wall Street walk-on, but a vaguely ridiculous figure: in one exchange at a securities conference he boasts to Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) that “I’ve already been to the gym, I had two poached eggs, and I played Blackjack with Harry Dean Stanton,” to which Baum deadpans, “Thank you for your diary.” The few on-screen characters who are fully aware of the immorality of their actions, notably the two mortgage brokers who boast of giving “NINJA (no income, no job) loans” to desperate wannabe homeowners are slimy and crass, which disgusts Baum and his colleagues.

A review I read of The Big Short shortly after its release argued that the film “squeezes comedy from tragedy”, which is true enough, but simplistic. The Big Short is such a strange mélange of genres it is quite difficult to define. It is certainly part-comedy, part-tragedy, but a large part of the film––the investigation of Mark Baum and his colleagues into whether The Bubble exists, for instance––is reminiscent of a police procedural. What’s more, the impending crash of the housing market and subsequent economic crisis looms over the horizon with as much menace as any Cloverfield-style monster, and when the market does collapse, the comedy vanishes. But The Big Short is a morality tale, too, the principal medium for which is Baum but also the t-shirt-and-shorts-wearing Dr. Michael Burry (Bale). The effect of the crash and the role of the characters in it is made clear in the actions of the characters in the wake of the economic crisis, which is displayed on screen at the end of the film. And then there’s the reveal at the end of the film that the banks were greedy because they knew that the government would bail them out. This is, to the characters and, I suspect, some of the audience, a thriller-level twist.

Though the film is nominally about the events leading up to the bursting of the housing bubble, it is equally––if not more––about the characters who displayed extraordinary intellectual confidence to go against the prevailing industry view and bet against the market, eventually taking home hundreds of millions of dollars in profit as the financial sector collapsed around them. The film makes excellent work of conveying just how impossible it seemed to financial experts that the housing market would collapse. When Burry does the rounds of the banks in an effort to buy insurance on sub-prime mortgage bonds, they cannot believe their luck. Later, when he tells investors that he has suspended their ability to withdraw their money, he is flooded with phone calls and emails, one of which reads, “I’m suing”. The audience may find it hard to have any sympathy for The Big Short‘s protagonists, who employed their financial know-how to make eye-watering sums of money for themselves but, with the exception of investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), not to warn the government or the public that they were about to lose all their savings (if they did indeed do this, it is not shown in the film). However it stills bears noting that they risked an awful lot themselves and angered a great deal of people counting on them during their endeavour.

The film slows for periods, notably during the scenes involving Cornwall Capital investors Geller and Shipley, who team up with retired investor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to try and get their hands on a slice of the credit default swap pie. That said, Rickert is incredibly funny in his eccentricity, and slams home a major moral point when he expresses his disgust at Geller and Shipley’s wild celebrations at the impending economic collapse: for every 1% rise in unemployment, Rickert says, 40,000 lives are lost.

The film is notable for the unconventional technique of using celebrities (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and others) and a fourth-wall-breaking Ryan Gosling to explain financial instruments to the audience, but one that, despite being very funny, works only some of the time. Even for those who easily grasp these concepts their interconnectivity in the context of the wider financial industry and the economic crisis might leave viewers scratching their heads. It’s for this reason that The Big Short makes a good follow-up film to Charles H. Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, which explains the relationship between collateralised debt obligations, credit default swaps and other financial instruments highly effectively.

The Big Short is a smart and fun film let down only by a handful of sluggish scenes and its failure to articulate more clearly the financial concepts which are integral to its full enjoying. Most of all it’s an excellent character-driven story about the people who dared to go against the grain and take a wild risk, knowing that to win was for everyone else to lose.

‘The Revenant’

IT IS DIFFICULT TO leave a showing of Alejandro Iñárritu’s savage film, The Revenant, without having the feeling that you’ve personally undergone some sort of violent assault.

Of course, that’s nothing compared to the battering frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) endures as he tries to find civilisation in the 800s9th century American wilderness. Man is pitched against nature in this epic revenge tale based on Michael Punke’s embellished take on the legend of the American explorer, in which Glass survives a bloody mauling by a mother grizzly bear only to see his son (Forest Goodluck) murdered and then be left for dead himself by Tom Hardy’s racist, sociopathic trapper John Fitzgerald.

What follows is a ceaseless, 180-minute macho art film in which the ironically-named Glass risks scalping and shooting and starvation in the name of white-hot revenge against the backdrop of an unspoiled Great Plains and a haunting orchestral score by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

It is, in effect, a double-chase: a roaming group of Native Americans hunt the white man who kidnapped a woman, Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o), and because Glass is travelling alone in the wild, he is the most likely to be found; Glass, grieving and angry, hunts Fitzgerald. The wounded Glass, both hunter and hunted, reliant on nature, yet in constant danger from it, moving awkwardly in bear skin, tearing greedily at raw fish and flesh, regresses to an animal state, driven by the very basest of emotions: revenge and the instinct to survive.

The brutality of Glass’s world is juxtaposed with the gorgeous, glorious, snow-covered Great Plains, courtesy of three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki: the landscape, filmed in Alberta, Canada and Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, is as arresting as any gory shot of Glass stuffing gunpowder into a wound in his neck. But to call The Revenant a purely cinematographic triumph, or to reduce it to a standard revenge tale, is to do it a gross injustice: it is equally a suffocating story of the physical difficulties of mere survival at the dawn of the Wild West, in which frostbite or hypothermia may end your life long before a human or animal gets the chance, and a symbolic story about man and nature, civilisation and savagery, death and rebirth.

Iñárritu’s brutal odyssey is riddled with allegory and reference to the spiritual, at times clumsily expressed, which betray his sympathy for the myriad indigenous tribes who struggled to survive French and American occupation in the 1800s. If The Revenant fails at times, it is in this area. The hunter-gatherers of the Pawnee and Ree tribes take on an otherworldly character which borders on the noble savage cliché; the imagery is, at times, almost laughably opaque––memorably during the dream sequence in which Glass sees his murdered son.

DiCaprio remarked following the release of the film that it had included thirty or forty of the toughest sequences of his career. It shows: it is an imperious performance by DiCaprio, whose bloodied Glass looks perpetually to be on the very brink of death as he tries to survive the beautiful and savage landscape of Montana and South Dakota. Meanwhile the impressive Will Poulter, as the young and naive trapper Jim Bridger, quietly steals the scenes he shares with Tom Hardy.

The symbology in The Revenant is at times heavy-handed, and the ideological hand of director Iñárritu oscillates between elevating the narrative and overwhelming it. But in spite of this it is truly a thrilling film, beautifully told, beautifully shot and beautifully acted––in  relation to the latter it is no surprise that the real-life suffering of DiCaprio for the artistic vision of his director was rewarded with an Academy Award.

What’s more, and put simply, The Revenant is the best film I have seen in quite some time.

‘The Hateful Eight’

THERE ARE VERY FEW films that come to mind that justify a running time of more than three hours, so I suppose I must have expected something truly spectacular when I sat down to watch Quentin Tarantino’s latest effort, The Hateful Eight. The Godfather II or Schindler’s List it was not. Instead, I and the rest of the audience were treated to a plodding, bloated film that cried out desperately for some good editing.

The Hateful Eight has an Agatha Christie-meets-Reservoir-Dogs sort of plot involving eight “hateful” people who find themselves stuck together in a haberdashery during a blizzard in post-Civil War Wyoming. It takes, however, at least half an hour before we get to the haberdashery on account of lengthy, clumsy expository dialogue primarily between between Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Warren and Kurt Russell’s “The Hangman” John Ruth, and when we do finally meet the other characters we are treated to more of the same.

The dialogue is some of the flattest I have heard in a Tarantino film. It has none of the humour or memorability of the dialogue in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and the better lines which punctuate the film are delivered with excruciating hamminess.

I suppose The Hateful Eight isn’t a very bad film. During the interval––yes, I was surprised too––I prayed that something would happen in the second act, and when the film restarted I did think to myself for a few minutes, now we’re cooking. But that feeling was short-lived and when we did finally get to the Big Reveal it was a lazy deus ex machina that did nothing to alleviate my irritation at the protracted build-up.

The Hateful Eight is a film comprising Tarantino’s worst excesses: it’s bloody long, it lacks a good plot and it is abundant in gore. It’s worth noting of course that Tarantino has misfired in the past and pulled himself back: after a lukewarm reception to the not-very-violent Jackie Brown, he returned with the ultra-violent Kill Bill films, which, unapologetically plotless gore-fests but also a demonstration of his skill behind the camera. Then came the O.K. Death Proof, which was followed up by Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, both of which I think are fun films.

I left the cinema with the very distinct feeling that Quentin Tarantino has joined Terence Malick and others in that list of directors who need a good reigning-in. We all know just how brilliant he can be provided there is someone around to say, just occasionally, “No”. I think in the hands of a less self-indulgent director, The Hateful Eight could have been a fun ninety-minute flick. As it is, I don’t believe it merits your time nor your cash.

“The Lobster”

EVERYONE WILL, AT SOME point in their life, have woken up with a bemused expression on their face, and turned to their other half, and described a particularly bizarre dream. Few of those people, however, will have felt the urge to turn whatever peculiar happenings their subconscious has conjured up into a feature film.

I suppose that is to pay tribute to the creative confidence of Yorgis Lanthimos, whose charming comedy-romance The Lobster is, to employ that overused and badly-used word, as dreamlike as you can get.

The film is set in a dystopian future in which all people must find a husband or wife or be turned into an animal of their choosing. After his wife leaves him for another man, the bespectacled, overweight David (Colin Farrell) arrives at a hotel for singletons, where Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) tells him that he has forty-five days to find a romantic partner, and asks him, should he fail to do this, if he has thought about what animal he would like to be transformed into. “Yes. A lobster,” David replies, without hesitation.

In the world of The Lobster, everyone talks unsmilingly in a staccato monotone, and romantic relationships are built exclusively on minor commonalities such as short-sightedness or a propensity to bleed from the nose, rather than genuine connection. The sheer strangeness of Lanthimos’s world is funny in and of itself, and made more funny by the interactions of its eccentric characters, played by a fine cast which includes Olivia Colman, Ben Whishaw, Rachel Weiss and Léa Seydoux.

But how much you enjoy The Lobster depends to a great extent on your sense of humour. It has that unique and ridiculous quality you might find in an episode of Monty Python or The Mighty Boosh rather than, say, Yes, Minister.

But it doesn’t always work. In The Lobster’s funniest moments, such as when Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) describes climbing into the wolf enclosure at the zoo (his mother having been turned into one) and being savaged by all but two, and then speculating that his mother was probably one of the two, it is really very funny. But there are other times––and a great deal of them––when the attempts at humour fail miserably, and the random behaviour of the characters is dull, rather than quirky. This tends to happen towards the latter end of the film, when the randomness that made so much of the first half so entertaining starts to become quite predictable, and the need to bring the narrative to a conclusive and satisfying end limits the potential for comedy.The Lobster

There are genuinely tender moments in The Lobster, made more tender by the coldness of the interactions, romantic or otherwise, of other characters, and the social clumsiness of the participants. In this world of forced affection, it is real affection that is palpably absent, so Lanthimos has something to say on the nebulous nature of genuine connection and on the equal loneliness of single life and finding yourself in a passionless relationship (the former, he suggests, still being preferable to the latter.)

Lanthimos must be praised for the sheer ambition of The Lobster if nothing else, but he also succeeds in making a film that, underneath all its strangeness, is funny and genuinely endearing, even if it fades towards the end.

“Black Mass”

ANY GOOD GANGSTER FLICK dares, if not exhorts, the audience to find something to admire in its subjects.

The characters may be charismatic, larger-than-life figures, or working-class overachievers who defy the disadvantages of their birth to accumulate staggering wealth and rise to positions of power they could never come to occupy through legal means. Or they’re Robin Hood types: class-war heroes who steal from the rich and powerful so they can fill the pockets of those in their communities (or at least appear to.) But while Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, about the Irish-American crime lord Whitey Bulger, is at times absorbing, it doesn’t quite convince anyone to care about its villainous protagonist.

In south Boston in the 1970s and 1980s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), the leader of the Winter Hill Gang, gathers power, courtesy of an unholy alliance with the FBI and the political disregard of his brother, the Massachusetts State Senator Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), with whom the Bulger boys grew up, has given Whitey virtual immunity from prosecution in return for “intel” on the Italian mafia operating in the northern part of the city, a deal which permits him to operate unencumbered by the forces of the law. This, Whitey claims, does not mean he is an informant–“there’s informing and there’s informing,” he tells an associate–but what it does mean is that the bonds forged on the unforgiving streets of south Boston disregard obvious contradictions, such as those found in a triumvirate that includes a government agent, a politician and a trigger-happy gangster. It is these delicate relationships–in particular, the relationship between Whitey and Connolly–around which the film revolves. Intimacy, in fact, is a running theme. Closeness might suggest trust, but it also suggests danger–especially if you happen to be part of Whitey’s crew.

Of course, nothing is more befitting a gangster film than a tense exchange over a dinner table and Black Mass reworks Joe Pesci’s “Funny how?” scene from Goodfellas with some success. Black Mass borrows openly from other films in the genre and in this reuse of tried-and-tested tropes, scenes and settings–from The Godfather and The Departed among others–it at times becomes formulaic. But the principal failure of Black Mass is not that it is formulaic: it is that it takes no time at all either to develop Whitey’s inner world. It is frustrating that the writers do not even try to explain why Whitey is the way he is, and how it can be that two brothers can grow up to live such different lives. Consequently Whitey at times seems to be little more that a horror movie villain, an effect aggravated by Cooper’s tendency to luxuriate in the assorted stranglings and shootings conducted by the Winter Hill boys. Scant screen time is paid to creating the psychological complexity that makes gangsters such compelling characters, and for the better part of the film, Whitey does little except prowl around Southie with his thin hair combed back against his scalp and the collar of his leather jacket turned up against the wind. Interestingly, one of the best scenes of the film comes when Whitey dotes on his family in an early scene. Whitey, over dinner, marries the values of the gangster and the family man when he tells his young son, Douglas that “if nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”

Much of what you think of Black Mass will depend on what you make of its high priest, the blue-eyed, thin-lipped Johnny Depp, but the film really belongs to Joel Edgerton, who turns in a first-rate performance as a man in denial that there is any conflict between his work for the FBI and his friendship with Whitey Bulger.

There are absorbing moments of drama in Black Mass, but they’re sporadic, and the result is an unsatisfying and episodic depiction of an interesting story.


IT HAS BEEN THE enduring mission of man to try to conquer nature, and though the war, as it were, has been won, battles may still be lost.

Such was the case of the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy, which is the subject of Baltasar Kormakur’s film. Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and rival guided climb operator Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) lead a group which includes veteran climbers, adrenaline junkies, a former mailman and a journalist to the summit of the highest mountain on Earth. Needless to say, it doesn’t quite go according to plan.

The signs, as they say, were all there. First, Hall’s colleague at Adventure Consultants gives a lengthy speech on the horrendous potential effects of climbing, including hallucinations and pulmonary edema (no prizes for guessing what happens later in the film). Then, the wife of experienced climber Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) tells her daughter, “I think he’s scared.” Anatoli Boukreev, the film’s token gruff Russian, tells Fischer that “the last word belongs to the mountain.” Hall voices concern at the large number of people with the intention of climbing the mountain at the same time. And if of all that did not persuade you that the venture was doomed from the start, Weathers nearly falls off a makeshift bridge made out of a ladder early on in the ascent.

Naturally, the Himalayan vistas are gorgeous and the quasi-supernatural character of the mountain (“the mountain has its own weather”) is omnipresent. The main force in the story, however, is ego. It drives the refusal of the competing groups to ascend at different times and the conflict between Hall and Fischer; it’s the reason climbers insist on getting to the summit when the odds are stacked against them so heavily. You are hesitant to label those who lost their lives in ’96 as arrogant––and, of course, that does not make their untimely deaths any less tragic––but that is the most fitting description for a person who insists on continuing on to the summit when not only are they are not in a fit state to do so, but their stubbornness will put others in danger, too. It is this which to most people is the most interesting element of climbing: the psychology of the climber. What sort of person puts themselves through hell and risks life and limb to take on the world’s highest peaks? And what sort of person leaves their loved ones at home while they pursue ever more dangerous climbs?

Regrettably, Everest fails miserably in this area. That isn’t to say it doesn’t try––but it tries half-heartedly. Early on in the film the journalist Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) asks his fellow climbers why, exactly, they climb, but the responses are superficial, and that’s the last we hear of the matter. If you wish to take a closer look into the psyche of these high-risk climbers, look no further than Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s excellent documentary, Meru.

Everest is, unfortunately, standard disaster movie fare. Despite an excellent cast and setting, it fails to hold your interest. It was a misstep not to take more time to explore the motivations and backgrounds of its principal characters, which might have elevated a solid but unremarkable film into something very good indeed.

“Winter on Fire”

FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS of Jehane Noujaim’s documentary on the Egyptian Crisis, The Square, comes Evgeny Afineevsky’s Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, a documentary on the 93 days of civil unrest in Kiev which began as peaceful student protests and became a violent revolution.

What struck me most about Winter on Fire was the way in which it captured the ability of ordinary people to mobilise and organise spontaneously and to fill the roles that best fit their skills. We see almost overnight the young people of Kiev erecting food trucks and clothes stalls and places from which to distribute flyers and pamphlets, and later we see the cab drivers form a sort of cavalry, the bravest (or most reckless) demonstrators go to the front line to spar with police and the most articulate and charismatic make speeches on microphones.

Winter on Fire didn’t quite hold my attention in the way The Square did, despite their similarities, and I suppose this might be because I knew what followed the Euromaidan (the Russian annexation of Crimea) and that diluted one of the film’s most powerful messages concerning the power of the people to force out a Government that no longer serves their interests. Winter on Fire fails to address this, relegating any information on the subsequent Crimea crisis and the thousands of lives lost to a line of text on a black screen at the very end. Compare this again with The Square, in which the Egyptian “revolution” also fails in the sense that the Muslim Brotherhood allies with its former enemies and installs Mohamed Morsi–who later went on to proclaim himself “pharoah”–as president. Unlike Winter on Fire, however, The Square ends on a positive note, with the intensely likeable Ahmed Hassan saying, with a smile, that he and his fellow revolutionaries will simply continue to remove leaders from power until the right one comes along. I appreciate that timing and other factors may not have permitted the inclusion of more footage in Winter on Fire, but to end the film in the way it was does leave you with the distinct impression that the 93 days of Euromaidan was all for nothing, or worse–that it inadvertently set the wheels in motion for a bloodier conflict and a new form of oppression far more brutal than the one against which the young people of Kiev were railing.

Where it is superior to The Square is in its depiction of its antagonists, the forces of the Government and particularly the thuggish agents provocateurs, the Tutushkiy. As the protesters rapidly mobilise, the forces of Yanukovych become increasingly more brutal, and become increasingly reliant on the Tutushkiy– mercenary members of the public–to do the things they, by law, cannot. And then there are the individuals within the police and military who seem to recognise the immorality of their actions and their common cause with the demonstrators but feel bound either by loyalty or sense of duty or lack of options to continue to beat and brutalise those on the other side, and Afineevsky portrays these people with some sympathy.

It seems a trivial point but I would rather those interviewed in the film explained the circumstances that led to Euromaidan than a monotone voiceover and computer graphics, computer graphics which, I think unnecessarily, also crop up several times throughout the film to illustrate the location of various places in central Kiev.

I enjoyed the film in any case, but if you want to see one film about revolution by the people on the ground then watch The Square.