Ignoring the printed world of Marvel, the MCU has come a long way since Iron Man kick-started it all in 2008. Looking back to its retrospectively humble beginnings, the franchise has gone on to monopolise cinema-screens with its intricate tapestry of stories and timelines. Personally, I enjoyed the novelty of the franchise early on, but found myself wearied and disconnected as the series unfolded. And so you can imagine my mixed emotions when Captain Marvel comes along and kicks some serious ass. Just when I thought I was on the outskirts of this cinematic movement, they pull me back in. Dammit… MCU21 is a belter and I cannot deny it due credit.
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You would be forgiven for losing interest at the mention of wrestling, because despite being a multi-billion dollar sport and industry, it remains niche and foolish to most people. Of course it is naïve to brush it off as foolish, childish or mindless... but that's an understandable position to take nevertheless. I would, however, implore you to stick around for FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY because it is a fantastic story of family ties, determination and overcoming all odds. It is delivered sincerely, hilariously, and skilfully. Knowledge of competitive sport is not a prerequisite when watching this movie, just as knowledge for espionage bares little relevance to enjoying James Bond. So forget about FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY being a wrestling film and approach it as a story about family... you wont regret it.
Written and directed by Stephen Merchant (tall, lanky guy from The Office UK) and produced by Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock), the film tells the story of Paige, a girl from a rough and underprivileged family, who defies all odds to climb to the top of professional wrestling, a sport that her family has devoted their entire lives to performing locally. It is a comedic true account of her real-life story, which in turn follows a trajectory of so many familiar stories. Like countless underdog movies before it, Paige's story is unremarkable from a distance, but extraordinary from her family's perspective.
Florence Pugh (Lady MacBeth, The Commuter) stars as Paige, the “weirdo” from Norwich, England, whose outsider persona became a beacon of hope to girls all over the world. She has a captivating presence on screen, which is at times rough-as-guts while at other times vulnerable and tender. She certainly holds her own and commands the screen with authority. Jack Lowden (Dunkirk, Denial) co-stars as her brother Zack, whose own dreams are shattered when he gets rejected at the WWE trials. He is also excellent and offers a counterbalance to Pugh with a performance that brings a lot of weight to their story. The sincerity from these two performers is undeniable and together they elevate the film above being a simple run-of-the-mill hero's journey.
Nick Frost, Lena Headey and Vince Vaughn serve as important support players, depicting Paige's parents and WWE trainer respectively. Frost and Headey are, at first, presented as a typically cliched underclass couple whose lives are lived on the fringes of crime, but as their relationship and dynamics are explored, they soon become rather endearing... albeit crass. They provide the majority of the movie's humour without overstepping their mark or undermining the overall sentiment. Vaughn is great, as always, and sticks to a serious and stern trajectory. He represents the ugly truth of the wrestling industry, giving unflinching guidance and ruthless advice. And then there's Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who plays himself (there's just something damn likeable about the guy, don't you think?).
If you know the work of Stephen Merchant, which includes most of Ricky Gervais's stuff, then you would know how unexpected FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is from him. He would have to be the last person you would consider for telling this particular story, and yet he drives it with absolute authority. He masterfully balances the humour with the drama and plays to the tropes without succumbing to kitsch or mockery. His production design and style of storytelling presents a perfect blending of British sensibility with all of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood - the home soil stuff is gritty and grimy, while the American stuff sparkles and shines.
If you're a fan of Paige, or wrestling in general, then you will have a vested interest in her story. You will be keen to see your beloved institution presented on the big screen and may scrutinise the details. But if you're not a fan of the sport then you might get even more out of it. Not only will you be introduced to a cultural icon and a feverishly beloved institution for so many, but you might also come away with a greater appreciation for the skill and craftsmanship that goes into it. And as far as I'm concerned FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY is superb.
My favourite comedy scripts manage to use both the dialogue and situations as effective sources of comedy, a balance which ROLLING INTO YOU exemplifies. I’ll readily admit that the film’s premise sounds flimsy (a ladies’ man pretending to be paraplegic to score a date), though in practice Dubosc’s years of experience with the genre allow him to stick the landing of this tricky setup. For instance, although his character, Jocelyn’s, penchant for deception is obvious from the opening sequence, his latest ruse thankfully comes together by accident rather than deliberate plotting: as Jocelyn sits in his (recently deceased) mother’s wheelchair, an attractive new neighbour starts a conversation and, quite reasonably, assumes he’s handicapped. The scene not only delighted me with its sheer absurdity, but gives Dubosc free reign to show off his mastery of comedic facial expressions and slapstick timing. Meanwhile, whether Jocelyn is being chastised by one of the film’s many voices of reason (pretty much anyone who knows what he’s up to) or out on a date trying to impress, the witty banter and awkwardly-timed remarks are on par with any big-budget Hollywood comedy if not better; his best friend Max is a proctologist, just for some idea of how wonderfully crass things get.
ROLLING INTO YOU is also remarkably successful at dealing with a common rom-com issue: it’s bad to base relationships on a lie. Jocelyn’s love interest ultimately isn’t the hot neighbour mentioned earlier, but her sister Florence (Alexandra Lamy), who is actually paraplegic. Subsequently, his deceit is never pushed into the background or seen as justified for the sake of a budding romance; in fact, I can’t remember another rom-com that constantly forced a protagonist to consider the morals of their actions in such a realistic way. Dubosc’s effortless charm naturally helps viewers understand his personal and professional successes, yet I became most invested in his character when watching
Jocelyn process the latest way he’d let Florence down. The script likewise deserves recognition for the pitch-perfect pace of Florence’s development, leaving just enough mystery with each new interest or piece of wisdom revealed to make us look forward to seeing her again. It’s once again standard rom- com procedure for one half of a couple to be extroverted and contrast the other’s subtler charm, yet Dubosc and Lamy’s performances are so emblematic of why this approach works well that it simply doesn’t matter. Watching their sparks fly doesn’t just look pretty, it feels warm and fuzzy like the best romances should.
Thus, ROLLING INTO YOU is the rare rom-com that excels at both halves of its genre. With a perfect pair of leading performances and a nuanced take on admittedly tricky subject matter, this film above all signals the arrival of a bona fide auteur in Franck Dubosc, and I can’t wait to see what he delivers next.
He has also taken cues from Hellraiser and Saw, and stolen the opening title reveal from Panic Room, but aside from those obvious indulgences, I'll cut the guy some slack, because as contrived and familiar as ESCAPE ROOM is, it is also a lot of fun.
A man crashes through the ceiling and lands in a strange room. It is an old fashioned office library with a large puzzle fixed to the wall. With a ticking clock the room closes in on itself and the guy must solve the problem before he ends up being crushed to death. We then rewind to three days earlier to find six strangers (including the aforementioned feller) trapped in a different room. A trigger is set and the walls reveal heat coils. They realise they are inside a giant fan forced oven and scramble to solve a riddle to unlock a door to an adjacent room. That room is also booby-trapped, as is the next, and the next and so on.
If this sounds familiar that's because the synopsis is a shameless rehash of Cube... as in, identical to Cube. The only point of difference is the sophistication of each room, such as one appearing as an outdoor winter lake, and another as an inverted sports bar. Each passing room has its own set-piece, with its own perils, however the tropes and resolutions are incredibly contrived. Nevertheless thanks to an appealing set-design and relatively good performances, the flagrancy of ESCAPE ROOM's influences are easy to digest.
Robitel's direction is solid and he handles the tropes with confidence. He's under no illusion that his audience is aware of the influencing sources, and with that he piles on a creative flair that subdues resistance and grants him leniency. Surprisingly, though, he holds back on the gore and relies on the quirkiness of the story to carry him over the line. I'm sure this will rub gore-hound genre fans the wrong way, but the lack of violence has given him an entry-point into the PG-13 market, granting him more exposure to a wider audience. Smart.
The film's biggest weakness is its final act and resolution. Far be it from me to reveal the end-game, suffice to say it relies heavily on those aforementioned influences. The film would have benefited from losing the finale entirely and giving the audience a more ambiguous finish. But alas, the potential for a franchise is all too tempting and even though ESCAPE ROOM probably isn't strong enough to sustain more instalments, I have no doubt they'll try.
With all of that said, for me personally, ESCAPE ROOM is worth seeing at the cinema. Not because it's a big-screen extravaganza (far from it), but because we rarely get theatrical releases for movies like this anymore. We need to embrace these little ones so that exhibitors understand the want for more. Sure, Netflix is great... but the silver screen is better. This isn't a great film but it's a fun movie and will suit a young teen audience just fine.
Horror fans will find lots to love about THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD’s protagonist Sam (Anders Danielsen Lie), one of the smartest and most resourceful characters the genre has seen in a long time. Given he’s trapped alone in an apartment building crawling with the undead, Sam is essentially required to carry the film, which feels effortless thanks to smart characterisation and a charismatic performance from Lie. Firstly, he’s a lot more methodical about exploring the building and rationing supplies than I imagine many viewers would be in the same situation; I was honestly impressed by him simply thinking to make a calendar to track his food consumption. Once these early preparations are over, Sam lets loose and starts to have fun with his unique predicament: he uses the zombies outside for paintball target practice and pisses them off by loudly practicing the drums on a balcony just out of reach. Such a quirky turn might sound strange in a film that doesn’t otherwise bill itself as a zom-com, yet the time we spend becoming attached to Sam is worthwhile as it reveals the script’s hidden depths.
Before whatever cataclysmic event set this zombie plague on humanity, Sam was seemingly a regular guy. He had hobbies and formed relationships, the latter of which we see glimpses of in the film’s opening as he attends a party at his ex’s apartment. The confusion, isolation and desperation he feels the next morning upon discovering the chaotic developments are equally valid reactions to a messy breakup, allowing THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD to serve as a bittersweet and shockingly effective allegory for coping with loneliness, and survival on one’s own. In fact, despite the extensive canon of zombie titles I mentioned earlier, the most obvious parallel for me throughout most of this film was Cast Away; Sam even strikes up a Wilson-esque friendship with a trapped zombie named Alfred (Denis Lavant). Much like in reality, Sam’s path towar s progress is hardly straightforward, yet with this interpretation in mind THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD’s final shots of the city sprawled out before him once again surprised me with its poignancy.
However, the one shortcoming of THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD is that its layers hinder its attempts at full-blown horror. Apart from Sam’s initial search of the building, the only times he genuinely seems to be in danger are the result of uncharacteristically stupid choices which I simply didn’t believe. In particular, the action-heavy penultimate sequence of Sam being chased by zombies feels forced and limits the time for viewers to consider a preceding twist. Although I won’t spoil the latter, suffice it to say it could’ve easily been the catalyst for the film’s finale that the chase so clearly wanted to be. Therefore, it’s perhaps best to think of THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD as a character study about loneliness set during a zombie apocalypse. It may have bitten off more than it chew when it comes to balancing horror with its themes, but there’s still plenty to enjoy.
THE NIGHT EATS THE WORLD has its Australian premier at the French Film Festival
If it wasn't for this basic rundown I would have had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on in this new Australian film, which serves as a provocative and confusing allegory for violence against women. And how do I know this? Because the film's official website states: “REFLECTIONS IN THE DUST is a powerful allegory for the epidemic of violence against women in Australia and is dedicated to the countless women who continue to lose their lives on a weekly basis at the hands of a male.”
Now don't get me wrong. I enjoy provocative abstract cinema, and I welcome the challenge of confusion. But when it comes to this particular exercise in subversion I throw my hands in the air and give up. I shouldn't have to consult the production's website to find answers, and were it not for their explanation the film would have simply been a document of a deranged clown and his mentally handicapped daughter wading through swamplands. There is no context, nor is there depth. It is simply an ongoing, often abusive, interaction between two troubled souls.
The website also states: “The Australian government deemed the film was too extreme for audiences and strongly suggested it not be completed during production, however director Luke Sullivan pushed on with the film, asserting that such an extreme story needs to be told in an era where ‘we are losing grandmothers, mothers, sisters and friends to senseless acts of violence perpetrated by men”.
Hang on, WHAT? This needs further explanation, of which I am unable to find any. The government's classification board granted it an MA15+ rating, with mostly moderate themes. How or why the government would possibly intervene over such a small and ambiguous micro-budgeted project is beyond me and it feels an awful lot like a publicity ploy. Of course I will retract that statement should I find compelling evidence to support their claim... doubt I will.
As implied, the film is set mostly in a boggish swampland where the father and daughter appear to reside. They share various tones of interactions, from affectionate and nurturing, to manipulative and abusive. It is, aesthetically, a grim and upsetting story, and it is performed remarkably by its two leads; Robin Royce Queree (Burns Point) and Sarah Houbolt (Cirque du Solei). Their performances are obviously courageous and from the moment they hit the screen they project sincerity and raw emotion, and yet there is no cohesive theme to bind their rapport. And as the aimless narrative unfolds we are given front row seat to what is essentially an actor's workshop. Were it not presented in black & white, the film's textural impact would be nil. Thank goodness they've at least given us something interesting to look at. The film also presents a fragmented interview component interwoven throughout, with the actors answering personal questions about their own lives.
With the website's mission statement in mind, and the prominence of women's rights in the foreground of global issues, wouldn't it be all the more powerful to address these themes head on, rather than being ambiguous, pretentious and confusing? A film like this should be an open door to further discussion on the issue, rather than a side-gate leading to a brick wall. You can argue that I am ironically talking about violence against women by writing this review, but I can assure you I am not. I am expressing confusion, frustration and anger towards a very disappointing film. If you want a genuine focal point on the issue then watch the new Lorena Bobbitt documentary on Amazon Prime, or perhaps go all the way back to the 90s and watch films like Once Were Warriors and Nil My Mouth instead.
And on a final note, director Luke Sullivan has spoken about walk-outs at the film's Karlovy Very International Film Festival screening, citing the heavy subject matter as the reason. Or could it be that they reacted exactly like I did?
Set entirely in an emergency call-center office, The Guilty spends 100% of its time focused on Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren, Arn: The Knight Templar), a weary police officer who has been positioned in the call room while an investigation into his conduct takes place. On the night before his court hearing, nearing the end of a long shift, he takes a call from a woman in distress. She has been abducted and is in the passenger seat of a vehicle with her captor at the wheel. Being only able to answer yes or no to his questions, Asger deducts that the woman has two young children left home alone and he races against time to save the woman from her kidnapper while trying to get information from her 6-year-old daughter on the other line.
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For those who haven’t seen the original movie, it was essentially a slasher version of Groundhog Day. The story had a girl (Jessica Rothe) waking up every morning only to relive her final day before being brutally murdered by a masked killer. She must relive the same day on loop until she is able to disqualify all suspects on her college campus.
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Generations have been raised on their comedy and to this day their image famously brands all kinds of merchandise and trinkets. I grew up with a porcelain statue of them in my house (used to hang hats ‘n things) and knew who they were long before I ever saw their films. In today’s age of fast-streamed media and video-hosting platforms it’s hard to comprehend the genius of their particular brand of comedy, and yet it is so ingrained into modern comedy that proof of their legacy is abundantly clear when you scratch beneath the surface of contemporary pop-culture.
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Horror and comedy have been a winning combination for countless previous films, yet here Gilroy’s lack of experience with either genre is painfully obvious. The satire of contemporary art culture comprising most of VELVET BUZZSAW’s first act is not only limited to recycled jokes (we get it, critics are shallow and pretentious), but also surprisingly tame: when the stock standard bitchy critic character (Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morf) is harsher than the script, it should be a clear indication that the film’s edge needs sharpening. Morf and his fellow art snobs uncover a treasure trove of paintings by a recently deceased, unknown artist named Vetril Dease, who quickly becomes the latest sensation. However, this newfound fame is contrary to Dease’s instructions for his work to be destroyed, leading to anyone who profits from it suffering a grim fate at the hands of vengeful art. If that sounds vague, it’s only because Gilroy never actually provides any explanation for these supernatural occurrences. Viewers are left with no clue as to how Dease ostensibly placed a curse on his work, nor how the spirit can control any art, not just his paintings. Due to this sheer lack of internal logic, the ensuing plot is impossible to care about; indeed, almost every death scene becomes ludicrous, and funnier than the intended moments of comedy.
Meanwhile, the impressive cast Gilroy has assembled largely feels underutilised, particularly in light of his previous work. From Gyllenhaal’s career-best turn in Nightcrawler to the pleasant surprise of Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq., Gilroy has shown a talent for crafting roles which subvert our expectations of well-known performers. By contrast, VELVET BUZZSAW’s shallow approach leaves its characters treading water; that is, half-heartedly exchanging snarky comments until the horror takes centre stage, at which point they are given nothing to do but react.
The exception to this is John Malkovich’s Piers, who instead vanishes from the film for its entire second half. Although Piers is hardly the lead role prior to his sudden absence, the flimsy explanation offered is unsatisfying and was yet another obstacle to my investment in the plot. Very MILD Spoiler alert: there is one final scene featuring Piers that plays during the credits, though it’s completely disconnected from previous events, an inexplicable decision which is arguably perfect for such a baffling film. VELVET BUZZSAW is a perfect example of biting off more than you can chew. Despite everything I’ve said here, I think it could’ve worked with a greater willingness to embrace the genres it claims to blend. Unfortunately, much like the art at its centre, it’s pretty but unlikely to be remembered. Watch (or rewatch) Nightcrawler instead.
Unlike last years's brilliant documentary RBG, which chronicled her entire career, ON THE BASIS OF SEX hones its focus on one particular integral moment when she faced the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to argue a case of gender-based discrimination against a middle aged man who was denied government assistance to care for his ailing mother. Ginsburg used this case of discrimination to establish a new prescient, which would lead to the repeal of hundreds of similarly outdated laws based on sex.
Given the magnitude of Ruth Ginsburg's story and her influence on an entire social movement, there was never a snowflake's chance in hell that a feature length film would be able to articulate her story sincerely, and so the decision to highlight just one fundamental moment was a wise one, with the impact being being enhanced for it. I recall walking away from the documentary feeing energised and motivated by what I had seen, and for most women who saw it I can imagine they felt empowered. Those are the emotional responses of the documentary format, with testimonials and first hand accounts of her trials and tribulations reenforcing the truth of her story.
The response to ON THE BASIS OF SEX is different; it's manufactured and manipulated with less restraint... as it should be of course, and as the opening credits played and director Mimi Leder's name adorned the screen, I was caught off guard. As with many films I walk into the cinema with little knowledge of their production, as not to form a pre-conceived bias, and Leder's name is one that I associate with melodrama and schmaltz. I immediately suspected that the following two-hours might be heavy-handed and contrived, worried that I was about to experience the Mrs Holland's Opus-effect.
And true enough the film is very heavy-handed and adheres to a very strict formula. As it is with most legal dramas, the legal system is – well... systematic. It's a robust setting with little room to spread, and so ON THE BASIS OF SEX plays out like most legal films before it. But rather than tell Ginsburg's story tonally, the way – for example – that North Country did, it's given that classic Hollywood flavour with a vibrant production design and graceless music, that almost throws back to cinema of the 1950s. Mycheal Dann's score is a whimsical extravagance, which upsets the film's attitude and detracts from the unfolding drama. Ginsburg's successes and failures are accompanied by this misjudged musical score that seems obliged to react with her every move. This is, in my mind, the film's crux.
With all of that said, there is no denying the strength of the cast with Felicity Jones handing over a consummate performance as the young and idealistic law graduate. Where she lacks a physical resemblance to Ruth Ginsburg she makes up for with a tenacious attitude that is true to the character we know from our daily newsfeeds and the preceding documentary. Her supporting cast is a brilliant ensemble including Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey and Kathy Bates. They all bring gravitas to the otherwise sugary depiction, with the men playing to the era superbly. A notable mention to Jack Reynor, a fantastic actor who previously impressed me in Glasshouse and Sing Street. His place in this film suggests an impending push on Hollywood, which is most welcome.
And so despite its foibles ON THE BASIS OF SEX is, nevertheless, an entertaining addition to the growing list of socially driven bio-pics. It might fail to resonate the way it should – like the similarly themed Eric Brockovich - but it will speak to a generation of women who are part of the fight. It plays for an emotional response, which is fine, but never attempts to scratch beneath the surface of the women's rights movement. In that sense the film slots in nicely with other recent feminist titles like Miss Sloane, The Divine Order and Hidden Figures. All safe but never challenging or provocative.
Set in New York in the 1970s, the film tells the story of two lovers, Tish Rivers (19) and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (22), who have been inseparable since childhood. Not long after they move out of home together for the first time, Fonny is wrongfully accused of a violent rape and is thrown into prison, awaiting trial. With a baby on the way, the couple and their families must band together to overcome their adversity while struggling with the ever-prevalent racial divide.
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Director Lynne Ramsay follows up her critically acclaimed film We Need To Talk About Kevin with this equally provocative story that, again, tackles a sensitive subject head-on and refuses to shy away from its ugliness. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a tormented former FBI agent who now works as a gun-for-hire rescuing children from sex-traffickers. He employs a no-holds-barred brutality to his work and pursues his targets ruthlessly, stopping at nothing to save their victims. When he takes on a new high profile client his identity is compromised and he finds himself caught up in a merciless campaign of violence with a pedophile ring.
With a young girl's life at stake, Joe contends with horrific flashbacks to his own tragic youth, as well as nightmares from his work in the FBI and his time served in the military. It is a relentless narrative that takes the audience to hellish depths while delivering a mesmerising sensory overload.
Lynne Ramsay has outdone herself and achieved what so few have been able. She has followed up what so many pundits considered to be her masterpiece with a film that connects instantly and leaves no room for objectivity. Her previous film dealt with the aftermath of a mass-school shooting and it explored themes of guilt by association, forcing the viewer to contextualise the situation with a suggested sense of empathy. Whereas YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE has no grey areas whatsoever. The bad guys are vile and there's never any doubt about lines that need to be crossed to bring them down.
When I love a film as much as I love this one I am reluctant to draw comparisons with other titles. To do so might imply that I'm questioning its authority, but in this instance I feel obliged to highlight several points of reference, all of which influence Ramsay's direction and motivation. As implied in my opening comments, there is an immediate familiarity with the early work of Jim Jarmusch. A jarring soundtrack pummels the screen as opening titles brand the meandering introduction of Joe. It's beautiful stuff and sets a perfect tone for what's to follow. My mind also reflected on the early work of Martin Scorsese and Luc Besson with the city landscape providing a sinister backdrop to a world short on innocence. Echoes of David Cronenberg's film-noir rang true, as did the seedy undercurrents of Nicholas Wending Refn's mastery and cheeky nods to Oldboy. And with so many catalytic flecks throughout the story, Ramsay has used their counsel to maximum effect.
Joaquin Phoenix hands over a remarkable performance, leaving no disciplined stone unturned. Assuming a dishevelled appearance with a defeated demeanour, he navigates the material with precision. With very little dialogue he relies on his emotional bearing to articulate his motive. Flashbacks to his past are fleeting and sporadic, providing just enough suggestion of his mental state and allowing his actions to inform the rest. It's a tour-de-force performance, which I would regard amongst his best. Fourteen year old Ekaterina Samsonov co-stars as Nina, the girl who Joe snatches from the hands of rapists, and she is also excellent. Her traumatised persona is emphasises perfectly through her likeminded performance, which owes much dept to the power of suggestion.
And finally, the music by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is his seventh score and arguably his best. His disjointed and experimental tropes provide a powerful and strident accompaniment to Ramsay's grim and violent landscape. His sounds and her visuals make for a strong atmosphere, which allows the audience to venture down such a grim rabbit hole without shame. We're along for the ride as Joe faces his demons and smashes scumbag heads. It is as equally thrilling as it is upsetting, and Lynne Ramsey has her work cut out for her if she intends to raise the stakes for her next venture.
I saw the film prior to its release and despite my knowledge of McKay’s work with Will Ferrell (The Other Guys, Anchorman, Step Brothers), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I guess I had half-hoped for a savvy biopic film in line with his previous title The Big Short, which was inspired by the global financial crisis, and what I got was more-or-less a lampoon of Dick Cheney’s career, served with mockery and caricature.
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