Film Posts 41 – The Big Short

It’s taken so long to get round to writing this post that I’d almost forgotten seeing The Big Short. The film deals with the financial crash of 2008, and particularly with three groups who saw it coming and set up to make money when the crash happened.

Though entertainingly and wittily told, this is an uncomfortable story. On the one hand, in true cinematic fashion, these are our protagonists, the “heroes” of the story, and we root for them to succeed – they’re mavericks, swimming against the tide of the corporate mindset and perceived wisdom, and who doesn’t like that kind of story? But that success is measured in their personal gains of millions of dollars as a result of the collapse of the housing market, the real-life impact of which is on the real lives of the homeowners whose houses were repossessed when they couldn’t keep up interest payments on mortgages which shouldn’t have been given in the first place.

Big short Gosling

Men shout at Ryan Gosling, who doesn’t care. Steve Carrell ponders.

The film does make this point at one stage, through Brad Pitt’s character, but that feels like a bolted on slice of morality. We are cheering for the outsiders in the movie, the “little guys”, but that’s relative –  we’re not being encouraged to think about the real “little guy” who doesn’t figure in the story but who has no chance of coming out on top.

It’s an interesting film, though, which has a good stab at explaining the complexities of the financial instruments created by the industry and why they were bound to fail, and makes that point in a more engaging way than a documentary would have done. This is partly down to the characteristic style of Michael Lewis’s original book – Lewis tells stories of individuals to illustrate the larger picture, and though I’ve never come out of one of his finance books feeling like I fully understood the subject, I always feel better informed than when I started.

The performances are engaging, particularly  from Steve Carrell and Christian Bale, and (so far as I can remember) I came out thinking it was a couple of hours well spent.


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BBC Folk Awards – The Unthanks and Rhiannon Giddens

Just had to post this quickly – wins at the BBC Folk Awards last night for The Unthanks (Best Album) and Rhiannon Giddens (Best Folk Singer). Two of my favourite artists, who I’ve posted about here before in the “How I Got Into….” series.

Also worth checking out The Young’uns (Best Group) who brilliantly supported The Unthanks when I saw them at Warwick last year.

And of course, lifetime achievement for Joan Armatrading.

Now I need to check out all the other winners – if the awards ceremony got all of these right, I’m guessing the others will be pretty good too.




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Film Posts 40 – The Revenant

the revenant poster

Who will like this film:

  • Fans of Leonardo di Caprio
  • Fans of suffering acting
  • Fans of Leonardo di Caprio doing suffering acting for two hours, where every scene screams “give me an Oscar!”
  • People who like trees
  • People who like scenery
  • People who like scenery with lots of trees. And snow.

the revenant leo

Who’s less likely to like this film:

  • Animal lovers
  • Vegetarians
  • The French
  • The squemish


Me? Meh.


There are a lot of impressive sequences, particularly the opening attack by the Arikara, and the bear scene, and the sense of “man against nature” as well as “man against man” is visceral.

But too much of the film feels like scenery porn: “Phwoar, look at those mountains, eh? How about that for a vista!” Like the lingering shots of lines of dwarves and hobbits framed against the New Zealand skyline in the Lord Of The Rings films, only here it’s all rivers and mountains and trees and snow and “look how spectacular it all is”.

the revenant scenary

River, snow, mountain, trees, sky,clouds – yep, it’s got all of them, I’ll use that picture.     Phwoar!

And there’s a sense that the writers got lost in a brainstorming session somewhere and forgot to filter the results: “What else can we get Leo to do? He’s fought a (CGI) bear, watched his son killed, been frozen, been starved, swum in an icy river…. now let’s have him ride off a cliff, then climb inside a horse, eat raw meat….and then in the fight at the end we could (redacted for spoiler reasons).” It’s relentless, and slightly laughable – it may be based on a Hugh Glass’s memoir (which I haven’t read), but the way the film lays out the sequence of pitfalls and disasters feels more inspired by video games – “OK, you survived that, now on to the next level.”

The good scenes are very good, and there’s a sense of danger and threat through much of the film, but it felt like a long couple of hours and a less rewarding experience than I’d hoped for.

leo oscar

Mission accomplished


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How I Got Into….Rhiannon Giddens

I’ve been out of the routine of writing these posts, so this one took longer than it should, and I’ve written and re-written sections of it repeatedly. Because I’m trying to convey a message….

Rhiannon Giddens is awesome.

carolina chocolate drops

Carolina Chocolate Drops

I first got into Rhiannon Giddens when I saw Carolina Chocolate Drops on the TV broadcast of the Cambridge Folk Festival a few years ago. I’m not the world’s biggest folk fan, but The Unthanks (subject of the very first “How I Got Into….” post) were on so I tuned in for that and stayed for the rest. It was the performance from Carolina Chocolate Drops, playing Hit ’em Up Style, that had me reaching for the remote and rewinding several times. And it was the lead singer and violinist, Rhiannon Giddens, who was the focus of attention, driving the song with energy and wit, mixing the violin breaks into a raunchy, rangy and downright fun performance. Listen to their album, Genuine Negro Jig – it’s really good.

She’s now solo, and appeared on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny (Hootenanny! – one for the UK readers) on New Year’s Eve and (for me) stole the show with performances of Waterboy and Up Above My Head,  as well as an impressive duet with Tom Jones on St James Infirmary Blues.  Waterboy in particular is a great showcase for her voice’s power, control and range (that opera training, I guess).

So I was already a fan, and then I had the chance to see her at a Transatlantic Sessions gig in Birmingham Symphony Hall. Transatlantic Sesssions is a 10-piece collection of veteran folk musicians from Britain, Ireland and America playing a blend of music from both sides of the Atlantic. For the tour they invite a number of guests, also representing both traditions,  and one of those guests was Rhiannon Giddens.

Rhiannon Giddens red dress

Red dress

The band played an impressive selection of tunes, mostly jigs and reels, and the other guests took their turns are were all excellent and accomplished. Then the last act before the interval was Giddens. Even before her turn she was catching the eye – the guests remain on-stage throughout the concert, on a sofa behind the band, and when the rest of the stage is filled with (mostly) middle-aged, (exclusively) white, (mostly) men, all dressed in folk-music-drab or plain black/white, this young barefoot African-American woman in the bright red dress stands out.

She performed Julie and Waterboy, and we went into the interval happy. But, as the saying goes, the best was yet to come.

Back for the second half, more Celtic/American tunes expertly played, more from each of the guests (all very good in their different styles), then it was Giddens’ turn again. First She’s Got You (originally recorded by Patsy Cline), already shifting from folk into Country, which was impressive enough.

But then she did something very unusual. She took the microphone off its stand.

The audience all sat up a little straighter. What was going on? Folk singers don’t hold the microphone. Either their hands of full of an instrument, or tucked behind or in front, or kept clear for a bit of clapping or tapping the beat or (to adopt the stereotype) so they can stick a finger in an ear. So now we knew we were in for something different. This woman was going to move.

Black Is The Colour opens with minimal accompaniment, Giddens’ voice establishing a rhythmic bounce which is then picked up by the full band at the end of the first verse. And now she starts to build the song, gradually releasing the power, spinning and dancing in the instrumental breaks as the 10-piece folk band – fiddles, pipes, accordian, guitars, Dobro, and the rest – have a rare old time rocking out behind her.

It’s a funky, rocking, dancing, gospel-charged performance – and it took the roof off. There may have been people in that audience who’d never seen anything like it – this was not folk music as usual, and not the Celtic/Americana that Transatlantic Sessions usually provides – but after those five or so minutes of energy, everyone in the audience was a fan.

As Jerry Douglas said, introducing the next act, “And tonight’s lucky loser, who has to follow that….”

Rhiannon Giddens transatlantic sessions

Rhiannon Giddens, Karen Matheson, Joe Newberry, Cara Dillon, Rhiannon Giddens and The Milk Carton Kids performing their David Bowie tribute “It Ain’t Easy” at a Transatlantic Sessions gig

This excellent review from of the Glasgow show sums it up well – “her sheer dynamic, energetic presence”.

I’ve not been able to find film of Black Is The Colour from Transatlantic Sessions, so if you weren’t there you’ll have to take my word for it: quite simply, one of the best live performances of a song I’ve ever witnessed. It was a thrill.

Rhiannon Giddens tomorrow is my turnDo go and check out Rhiannon Giddens’ first solo album, Tomorrow is my Turn (produced by the mighty legend T-Bone Burnett) – it’s a great showcase for her range of skills and vocal styles, and her musicianship. But judging by the evidence of that night in Birmingham, I’ll be queuing for tickets next time she’s performing live.

Here are a few links, but do look at others too – Rhiannon Giddens’ breadth of material is extraordinary:

Hit ‘Em Up Style – Carolina Chocolate Drops. This isn’t that performance from the Cambridge Folk Festival – the only video of that I can find is something filmed on a phone by someone in the crowd and long-time followers of this blog will know my opinion on that. But this version has the same dynamism and drive that hooked me the first time.

Waterboy  – the power and control in that voice (though I’m a bit worried about hyper-extension of that left elbow).

Up Above My Head – from Jools Holland’s Hootenanny. Some indication of the energy Rhiannon Giddens can generate, this time showing her gospel side.

Black Is The Colour – no video of the Transatlantic Sessions performance, but this one gives a an idea of the song.

And this short documentary film showcases several performance clips (like a brief snippet of Gaelic Song near the start) and some interesting background about Rhiannon Giddens.

Finally, do have a look at the videos on the Transatlantic Sessions facebook page for a few examples of what they do in more conventional situations.






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Film Posts 39 – Hail, Caesar!

I went in to this disposed to like it – I’ve loved most of the Coen Brothers’ films – and I got what I wanted.

Hail Caesar poster

Hail, Caesar! is funny and crazy and affectionate for its subject of 1950s Hollywood,

Hail Caesar Brolin and Swinton

Maddix making sure a story gets out the right way

where stars have to be seen to be stars and to conform to what a start “ought to be”, according to the standards of the day. And Josh Brolin’s character, Eddie Mannix, is the man with the job of making sure that Capitol Pictures’ stars do what the studio expects, and that any scandals are hushed up.

It also gives the Coen Brothers a chance to play with some old Hollywood tropes that need a movie like this to provide a platform – where else could you get an Esther Williams water ballet, a barroom dance routine with sailors, and a biblical epic all on the same screen? And they all work.

If I have one criticism it’s that some of the storylines don’t really go anywhere – the Scarlett Johansen one seems primarily there to justify the water ballet which otherwise wouldn’t have a place – but I was more than happy to go along with the ride.

Hail Caesar George Clooney

Brad Whitlock – awestruck

George Clooney does a solid turn as goofy megastar Baird Whitlock (what a perfect name for that character – how long did they take to come up with something that sounds so right?) and Channing Tatum gets another chance to show his versatility as the lead dancing sailor. On top of all that is Tilda Swinton, perfectly cast as twin gossip columnists.

Two standout scenes, one involving a multi-faith discussion on the appropriate depiction of God in a movie, and the best scene which consists of little more dialogue than the words “Would that it were so simple”, boucing back and forth between Ralph Fiennes’ director Laurence Lawrentz (another character name that triggers a joke) and Alden Ehrenreich as cowboy star Hobie Doyle, suddenly thrust into a tuxedo for a role in a melodrama. It’s funny in itself, and provides a good illustration of how a great actor like Fiennes speaks words in a way the rest of us simply can’t.

Hail Caesar Channing Tatum

Channing Tatum, Song and Dance man

This film about film was so much fun, another welcome addition to the list of Coen Brothers entertainments.

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Film Posts 38 – Room

Room spent little time in our local multiplex, hurriedly shouldered aside for 15 showings a day of the latest teen crowd-pleaser, so we saw this in the lovely Old Market Hall in Shrewsbury.

The problem with writing about Room is that it’s almost impossible to do without major spoilers, and I don’t want to give anything away so I won’t write about the plot.

The film creates a great deal of tension, and some real heart-in-the-mouth moments. The final section feels like a very different film, although it flows directly and naturally from what has gone before, and takes you to a different place from where you would have expected.


'Room' is a journey out of darkness, director says

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay star in “Room.” (Ruth Hurl/Element Pictures)

Man, this is difficult to write. Look, it’s a very good film, with a couple of outstanding performances (Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are both brilliant). Go and see it – though it’s taken so long for me to get round to writing this post, if you haven’t seen it already  you’re probably going to watch it at home.




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Film Posts 37 – Deadpool

Not a lot to say about Deadpool, since it’s weeks since I saw it, other than it was a fun couple of hours. It’s violent, profane, witty, knowing and spectacular in places. Ryan Reynolds has a lot of fun, including making jokes about his own Green Lantern movie and various other Marvel jokes that break the fourth wall repeatedly (a joke that the script itself makes).

Good fun, and expecting a sequel.



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