Hustlers (2019)

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2020 #39
Lorene Scafaria | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Hustlers

A struggling stripper (Constance Wu) is taken under the wing of an older pro (Jennifer Lopez) at a club frequented by super-rich Wall Street types. The going is good… until the 2008 financial crash happens, knocking out their clientele and, in turn, them. Of course, the Wall Street guys got away scot-free after that debacle, even as others floundered — including our stripper friends. That is, until J.Lo and co come up with a scheme to rip the bastards off.

Crime movies are sometimes criticised for glamourising the illegal acts of their characters. Sometimes that’s people misreading the film (in the case of many a Scorsese movie, for instance). Sometimes it’s true (the many rip-offs by people who misread Scorsese movies, for instance). Sometimes it’s unavoidable, because we’re going to be on the criminals’ side however you present it — and I think that’s the case here. Those fuckers had it coming, and these girls brought it to them. Not all heroes wear capes clothes.

Even more satisfyingly, it’s based on a true story. Director Lorene Scafaria leans into the story’s caper movie parallels just the right amount, giving the movie a great tone — funny without turning it into an outright comedy; heartfelt without getting schmaltzy; a crime drama without getting self-consciously Gritty. Her direction is fantastic, with exciting shot choices, editing tricks, sound design, and fitting needle drops. But among the razzmatazz she doesn’t lose sight of the point: it’s about these women and their relationships as much as it is about the scam they pulled.

Every day they're hustlin'

And so the film rests heavily on the shoulders of Wu and Lopez, but they’re both strong enough to carry it. Wu gets the bigger arc — from nervous newbie to confident co-conspirator to a frustrated “only adult in the room” position when others begin to push things too far. We also see her in framing flash forwards, where she’s in a different position again. Normally I hold little truck with this kind of framing device, because it’s often a lazy shortcut through the story or gives away too much of where thing are going. Here, though, it’s just tantalising enough to make you wonder where exactly she’s ended up, and therefore how exactly she got there. J.Lo’s performance has attracted plenty of praise (there was widespread disappointment when she didn’t get an Oscar nom), and she is wholly convincing as an outwardly glamorous and successful woman with a steely survivor’s core.

“Strippers rip off rich businessmen” sounds like the setup for an exploitation movie, and in other hands it probably would’ve been. But without a leering gaze, and with a true-story basis that remembers these women are human beings, there’s a dimension of reality that elevates proceedings — even as it’s still fun seeing the underdog pull a fast one on schmucks who deserved it.

4 out of 5

Hustlers is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from today.

The Self-Isolated Monthly Review of March 2020

I hope you’ve got time for a long read (I know you do — you’re stuck at home too, right?) because there’s a tonne of stuff to witter about in this month’s update.

So, settle down with some of the stuff you’ve stockpiled (well, okay, you shouldn’t really need pasta or loo roll to get through this post… I hope…) and while away your isolation with my self-centred lists and stats.


#31 The Karate Kid Part II (1986)
#32 Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)
#33 The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part 3D (2019)
#34 Harakiri (1962), aka Seppuku
#35 Showman: The Life of John Nathan-Turner (2019)
#36 Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
#37 The Invisible Guest (2016), aka Contratiempo
#38 Godzilla: King of the Monsters 3D (2019)
#39 Hustlers (2019)
#40 Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)
#41 Last Chance Harvey (2008)
#42 Red Joan (2018)
#43 Late Night (2019)
#44 Quartet (2012)
#45 The Lady Vanishes (1938)
#46 Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs 3D (2009)
#47 The Platform (2019), aka El hoyo
#48 The Battle of Algiers (1966), aka La battaglia di Algeri
#49 Spider-Man: Far from Home 3D (2019)
#49a Peter’s To-Do List (2019)
#50 The Mad Magician 3D (1954)
#50a Spooks! 3D (1953)
#50b Pardon My Backfire 3D (1953)
#51 A Man for All Seasons (1966)
#52 The Viking Queen (1967)
#53 Aladdin 3D (2019)
#54 One Cut of the Dead, aka Kamera wo tomeruna! (2017)
#55 Knives Out (2019)
#56 The Breakfast Club (1985)
#57 So Dark the Night (1946)
#58 Missing Link (2019)
Harakiri

The Invisible Guest

The Lady Vanishes

Knives Out

.


  • I watched 28 new feature films in March. Boy, does that give me a lot to talk about…

So, let’s break it up a bit. First, some stats…

  • That’s my biggest month since July 2018, which also had 28 films. They’re now tied as my 4th best months ever.
  • Talking of all-time numbers, it’s my best March ever, with a total that’s double the month’s previous average of 14.4. In fact, it single-handedly pulls that average up by over one whole film, to 15.5.
  • Talking of averages, it also surpasses and increases both my rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 12.75, now 13.3) and my average for 2020 to date (previously 15.0, now 19.3).
  • Talking of numbers that are almost 20, it’s my 20th month ever to have 20+ films, and my first 20+ month since last May.
  • Talking of months with 20+ films, March is the month where I have the greatest consistency at reaching a total of 20+. I’ve done it every year since 2016 — that’s five years in a row now. It means March makes up fully 25% of all months with 20+ films. For comparison, there’s no other month where I’ve done it for more than two years in a row.
  • Another milestone: I reached (and passed) #50, i.e. halfway. Except I’m aiming for at least 120 nowadays, so halfway is another couple of films away yet.
  • Nonetheless, this is the second-furthest I’ve ever reached by the end of March, just ahead of #57 in 2018, but reasonably far behind 2016’s #67. What does this tell us about how the rest of the year might pan out? Bugger all. In 2018 I ended up reaching #261, whereas in 2016 I ‘only’ got to #195. And for another point of reference, March 2015 ended at #44, over 20 behind 2016, but ended the year five ahead, at #200. So, y’know, it’s all meaningless.
  • I also had a really good month for my Rewatchathon (see further down this post for more about that). I really should go back and produce a full set of numbers for every month so I can include that in comparisons too…

Talking of my Rewatchathon, what of my other viewing challenges…

  • This month’s Blindspot films: influential guerrilla war movie The Battle of Algiers; plus, I watched the first of what I’m calling my ‘overflow’ films (unseen leftovers from previous Blindspot challenges), seminal ’80s teen comedy The Breakfast Club. Also Harakiri, which merited a mention in my Blindspot post this year about why it wasn’t included (I’d forgotten about that when I randomly chose to watch it anyway!)
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw, Hustlers, The Karate Kid Part II, and Late Night.

Finally, some observations about the other films…

  • It’s fundamentally meaningless, but this month I watched my first feature films of the years whose titles begin with nine letters of the alphabet: F, G, H, I, K, O, Q, V, and W. That’s 35% of the alphabet covered in one month — only slightly more than the seven / 27% in January and eight / 31% in February, but then this task gets harder as the year goes on (January has a massive advantage, for hopefully-obvious reasons, whereas the most any of the remaining nine months would now be able to manage is two / 8%).
  • Another first: The Viking Queen was the first film I’ve watched on DVD this year.
  • Talking of DVDs, I watched Judgment at Nuremberg on the BFI’s recent Blu-ray release, which I bought even though I’d only bought the DVD a little while ago. Well, when I fished out that DVD to put on my “to sell” pile, I found it still had the dispatch receipt inside, which showed I bought it in… 2010. A whole decade ago! Sometimes I worry about my sense of the passage of time…
  • As you can tell (as if you didn’t already know), picture quality is important to me. So I could probably write an entire post about the weirdness I’ve been experiencing with Netflix’s PQ of late. I started streaming The Platform, but after it maintained a speed of just 0.57 Mbps — and looked terrible because of it — I gave up and, er, sourced it elsewhere. I’ve tried it again several times since, at different times of the day and night, and it’s always 0.57 Mbps. The same thing happened with Missing Link, although that was 1.21 Mbps so was somewhat more watchable (I still went and got a better copy from somewhere else, though). That led me to try about a dozen more titles, all of which came through at completely different rates, some reasonable, some not. It doesn’t seem to be connected to them needing different amounts of data or needing some time to get up to speed, either — it appears to be totally random. And it doesn’t seem to waver. I had decided to just cancel my Netflix subscription until all this is over (because I presume it’s connected to the speed-limiting they’re reported to be doing in Europe) — after all, it’s not as if I don’t have enough else to watch… but there’s loads of stuff I really do want to see on Netflix, and some of it is still streaming at a reasonable quality. So, I’m undecided.
  • As you can tell from the lack of blue text in the listing above, I haven’t reviewed a single film from this month’s viewing. I thought this might be the first time that’s happened, so I trawled back through all 118 monthly updates to check, and I can confirm… it’s not. In fact, it last happened less than a year ago, in July 2019. You have to go back over five more years, to May 2014, to find the time it happened previous to that; but it happened once in 2013 and three times in 2012, too. So, yeah, not really news.
  • I feel like the only person in the world who hasn’t (re)watched Contagion this month. If you’re interested, my quickie review from when I did watch it is here.



The 58th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
I saw quite a few great films this month, and usually that would make this choice very hard, but I fell head over heels for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. I don’t think it comes up too often as one of his very best, but it’s definitely one of my favourites from his whole filmography.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
I know it’s an acclaimed classic, but the film I least enjoyed actually watching this month was The Battle of Algiers.

Best 3D of the Month
I watched six new feature films and two shorts in 3D this month (plus four more features in the Rewatchathon), which I expect is a personal best. Setting aside the quality of the film itself, the one with the very best 3D was The Mad Magician. It’s in black & white, which was a bit weird at first (not sure I’ve ever seen a black & white film in 3D before), but because it’s from the ’50s it was actually shot in 3D, not post-converted, and while post-conversions are often very good nowadays, there’s so much extra subtle detail you get when something’s been shot in stereo for real.

Best Twist of the Month
Who doesn’t enjoy a twist? Filmmakers certainly do, and so they abound this month — even The LEGO Movie 2 has one (kinda). Prime examples include Harakiri (which keeps you on your toes with constantly shifting information), Knives Out (which has more up its sleeve than simply whodunnit), and So Dark the Night (that is a whodunnit, but if you watch it, try to read as little as possible first). But the winner this month is The Invisible Guest, because it managed to get almost as far as the reveal before I guessed what was really going on, in part by peppering plenty of about-turns along the way. Nicely done.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
It’s a long-standing observations that TV-related posts do well in this category, especially when they’re given plenty of time to amass hits. So, as I posted my 56th TV column way back on the 8th, it’s no surprise to see it win out easily. (The highest film post was The Lion King.)



As I mentioned in this month’s viewing notes, I didn’t rewatch Contagion; but that aside, my Rewatchathon is going rather well this year, racing ahead of target. Mainly, I’ve been revisiting in 3D films I’d previously only seen in 2D.

#9 The LEGO Movie 3D (2014)
#10 The Lion King 3D (2019)
#11 Godzilla 3D (2014)
#12 Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)
#13 Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)
#14 Mission: Impossible – Fallout 3D (2018)

Starting with the 3D, then, that Fallout link takes you to my full review of it in 3D, so no need to repeat myself. My Lion King review isn’t expressly about the 3D, but, as I do discuss in the review, I was impressed by it, and it led me to even enjoy the film a little more. As with most computer animated films, The LEGO Movie looks awesome in 3D. Indeed, the skilful way the filmmakers emulated the scale of LEGO is only emphasised by the use of depth here. Despite the fact I already owned the (2D-only) Special Special Edition, I bought another copy in 3D on the strength of the 3D presentations of the LEGO Batman and Ninjago movies, and I wasn’t disappointed. (Now I just ought to watch some of the SSE-exclusive bonus features to justify that purchase…)

Godzilla‘s 3D didn’t generate much comment from me, which is a shame because you’d think the scale would lend itself. It’s not bad, just not special. The film itself is not perfect either, but it’s a darn sight better than most people give it credit for. One thing that’s often criticised is how sparingly Godzilla is actually in it, but I think writer-director Gareth Edwards paced it just right — when the big guy finally turns up, it’s an electric moment.

I totally forgot that I’d randomly rewatched Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon in December 2017, but colourised. This time was the original black & white version, as part of my rewatch of the whole Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series on Blu-ray. I more or less stand by my original review, which I also stood by in 2017 (though I’m back to being less keen on Lionel Atwill’s Moriarty again), so I guess my opinion on this one is fairly certain. However, I liked Sherlock Holmes in Washington more than I’d remembered; though my original review (linked above, obv) isn’t that damning, so clearly its poorness had self-inflated in my memory. That said, I do still think it’s one of the series’ weakest outings.


I normally begin this section by looking at the stuff I failed to see on the big screen last month, but, well, that’s dried up, hasn’t it? However, though it may feel like Coronavirus has been denying us social experiences for, like, ever, it’s actually only been a couple of weeks — before everything went completely self-isolating-tastic, cinemas were full of Onward, Military Wives, Misbehaviour, Bloodshot, Fantasy Island, and Dark Waters. Even My Spy actually came out over here (in the US it was pushed back into Bond’s vacated release slot. Presumably they’ll be abandoning that now too).

Now, of course, you have these “direct from the cinema” rentals popping up, including Emma (which I’ve seen), The Hunt, and The Invisible Man, plus Bloodshot and Military Wives from the previous list (no Onward this side of the pond). They mostly cost £15.99 for a 48-hour rental (though Bloodshot has gone straight to £13.99 to own, suggesting they don’t expect anyone will want to). At that price, it isn’t worth it to me. For comparison, a ticket at my local cinema is £5.75 — I’m interested in seeing most of those films, but not almost-three-times-what-it-would’ve-cost-me-at-the-cinema interested. I’ll wait ’til they drop to a sensible price and/or hit disc.

Some digital rentals have drawn me in, though — the cut-price ones Amazon offer as a perk of being a Prime member. For either 99p or £1.99 a pop I’ve got Aniara, End of the Century, It: Chapter Two, Rambo: Last Blood, and Ready or Not all ticking down to expiry dates throughout April.

I have less compunction about splurging money on disc purchases. Last month I mentioned that “I got a bit carried away with Blu-ray purchases”, with 16 films on disc among my failures. This month puts that in the shade, with a ridiculous 40 films added to my Blu-ray collection (and I actually watched some new stuff I bought, so the true total acquired this month is even higher). Specific splurges include an Arrow sale (mostly noirs, like The Big Clock, Nightfall, and Phantom Lady, plus the Sister Street Fighter collection); an Indicator sale (their seven-film Samuel Fuller box set, plus A Dandy in Aspic, Footsteps in the Fog, The Legacy, and No Orchids for Miss Blandish — none of which I’d even heard of before Indicator released them, but they do make things sound so good); and a bunch of 3D discs of films I’d already seen and enjoyed to some degree (Bolt, Tangled, Pan, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Noah, which is available from Germany in a well-reviewed 3D conversion). Talking of Germany, I also just discovered they’ve had Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris on Blu-ray for a couple of years, so I imported that too (for a very reasonable price, I must say, from Amazon UK). I also bought Criterion’s release of The Blob at an offer price from them, and Bong Joon Ho’s The Host at an offer price from HMV. While trying to fill out a different multi-buy offer I upgraded my old DVD of the X Files movie to Blu, which I knew would put me on track to upgrade the whole series eventually… and it did, just a week or two later, getting it for a good price secondhand on eBay… and then I upgraded I Want to Believe, just to complete the set. I also upgraded The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — yeah, I know, but I actually quite liked it back in the day, and I saw this article on Twitter that swayed me. And that’s not even everything, but dear God, it’ll do.

Back to streaming, then, and the big names have been trotting out plenty of content this month, only spurred on by everyone being stuck at home right now — and by the launch of a major new competitor in Disney+. I haven’t subscribed, nor taken the free trial (yet), so I don’t really know what’s on there besides what everyone’s been talking about, i.e. a months-late release of Star Wars TV series The Mandalorian (which they’re sticking to releasing weekly, even though it’s all been out in the US — and on piracy sites — for months), and the live-action remake of Lady and the Tramp.

Over at the usual suspects, Netflix had their second back of Studio Ghibli films, which for me means Arrietty (though I own it on Blu-ray), The Cat Returns, and My Neighbours the Yamadas. I also want to rewatch Spirited Away, and as I only own it on DVD, HD on Netflix is tempting. Most of their original additions this month seemed to be TV series, although there was Mark Wahlberg in Spenser Confidential, but it was so poorly reviewed that I don’t intend to bother. From the back catalogue, they just recently added The Death of Mr Lazarescu. I remember that getting recommended a lot back when it came out. I never really knew what it was about, but the Netflix blurb begins: “Amid a pandemic”, so I can see why they’ve acquired it now.

As for Amazon, they could offer up recent stuff like The Aeronauts (one of their own, so I think it even bypassed disc), Blinded by the Light, and Midsommar. Other additions catching my eye included sci-fi drama Marjorie Prime (I heard about this somewhere only recently, but I forget the context other than it was a recommendation); The Immigrant (Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner in a film from the director of Ad Astra); Antiviral (a sci-fi-horror-thriller written & directed by Brandon “son of David” Cronenberg); and Intacto (a film I’d completely forgotten all about, but the poster image struck a deep memory of something that had once been highly recommended and I really wanted to see, probably right back when it first came out, 18 years ago(!) Well, now it’s on my watchlist again).

Both of those added a lot more than I’m bothering to list here, so if you’re a subscriber to either, do be sure to keep an eye on sites like New on Netflix UK or this Amazon equivalent.

Finally, I went to cancel my Now TV Sky Cinema subscription at the start of the month, but they offered me a great deal: three monthscompletely free. You can’t turn that down, can you? Even if I only watched one film on there during those three months, the cost-benefit ratio would be fine. They add a new premiere every day, plus a handful of other titles now and then, but, despite that, only a couple of newcomers were worthy of note to me: The Goonies (yep, never seen that), Her Smell (people seem to keep recommending it), Robert the Bruce (the unofficial sort-of-sequel to Braveheart), and The Secret Life of Pets 2 (the first one was alright, so why not?)

(Whew, this section is getting damn long nowadays — and that’s without the further 50 films I had on my long-list but decided not to mention. Maybe I should start doing it as a standalone post — this month it’s over 1,000 words, which is about the same length as one of my longer film reviews!)


Right now who knows what next week will bring, never mind next month? Though if things carry on as they are (and it looks like the will for a good while yet), perhaps it’ll be a record-breaking month. Or perhaps not. Who knows!

Rocketman (2019)

2020 #3
Dexter Fletcher | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

Rocketman

The director and star of Eddie the Eagle reunite for another biopic of a bespectacled British icon… though I’m not sure how favourable global music megastar Elton John would consider that comparison.

Both films concern a regular lad from a working-class background who dreams of something bigger — in Eddie’s case, Olympic glory; in Elton’s, music stardom. But that’s more or less where the films diverge, because whereas Eddie’s ski jumping adventure was rendered as a family-friendly comedy, Elton’s seduction by sex and drugs and rock and roll is altogether more adult. But it’s also a world away from grim and gritty seriousness, because director Dexter Fletcher regularly injects flights of fancy and fantasy. Elton may end up in a very dark place (before inevitable salvation, natch), but it’s a helluva lot of fun getting there.

In my review of the year before’s big musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody — which Fletcher ended up guiding through a third of its shoot and post-production after credited helmsman Bryan Singer was fired — I wondered which director was responsible for that film’s “occasional bold directorial flourishes”. On the evidence of Rocketman, I’d guess they were Fletcher’s idea. His staging and camerawork are often highly imaginative here, really cutting loose during the musical numbers. (Fletcher’s next job is taking over the Sherlock Holmes films from Guy Ritchie, a task that certainly requires the kind of visual panache he’s demonstrated here.)

Piano man

Indeed, this isn’t just “a film about music”, but a proper musical. It isn’t just a simplistic jukebox musical either, nor a standard musician biopic where the character performs some of their hits. Well, it is both of those — it’s a jukebox musical because all the songs are from Elton’s back catalogue (plus one new one so it could vie for the Oscar, of course), and the character of Elton John does perform some of his hits in recording studios and on concert stages. But it’s also more than that in the way it’s executed. Other characters break into song from time to time too, and there are clever reimaginings of several recognisable tracks. This is a restlessly imaginative movie.

Egerton is superb in the lead role, crafting Elton as a much more nuanced figure than he’s sometimes regarded; a truly rounded individual with a considered interior life. One might argue the whole drugs storyline is somewhat predictable or even rote, with some surprising mirrors of the much-criticised Bo Rhap (“surprising” because where that film was roundly criticised for its clichés this has received a much more generous critical response)… but if that’s the true story, that’s the true story, right? Egerton certainly negotiates it with believability. Much praise for the film has focused on his performance, leading to significant awards nominations (like at BAFTA) and wins (a Golden Globe), but there are several great supporting players too, not least Jamie Bell as Elton’s lifelong songwriter and true friend, Bernie Taupin.

The cumulative effect is a movie that is highly enjoyable but not without depth; that offers toe-tapping entertainment and filmmaking thrills in its musical numbers, while also digging into its subject’s troubles and their causes. Like an eagle, or a rocket, it doesn’t just fly, it soars.

5 out of 5

Rocketman is on Sky Cinema from today.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout in 3D

Rewatchathon 2020 #14
Christopher McQuarrie | 147 mins | download | 2.39:1 + 1.90:1 | USA, China, France, Norway & UK / English & French | 12 / PG-13

Mission: Impossible - Fallout 3D

Despite Paramount’s best efforts to screw over 3D fans by not releasing it on Blu-ray anywhere in the world, there is a copy of Fallout in 3D out there if you know where to look (and you do have to hunt for it a bit, because it’s not on the best-known torrent sites).

Like so many modern blockbusters, Fallout was not shot in 3D but was converted during post-production, at the request of the filmmakers (including director Chris McQuarrie) to tap into the box office potential of that format in certain markets (I believe 3D remains very popular in Asia, primarily). Paramount agreed to that, but didn’t think there was enough market to bother releasing it on 3D Blu-ray (a view clearly not held by other studios, who continue to release 3D discs in some countries (although which countries varies by studio, strangely)). However, the 3D version was quietly released for streaming rentals in some places, which is the source of the copy I found.

Most streaming rental services don’t offer 3D, and those that do tend to be TV-based and stuck on older, lower quality standards. So the original source for this was probably 720p, which was then ripped, squashed (to what’s known as half side-by-side 3D), and recompressed. It’s wound up looking almost DVD-ish in resolution. But it’s better than literally nothing, which (given Paramount’s irritating refusal to release it on disc) is the only alternative. And it’s watchable, so long as your focus is on the 3D rather than the overall PQ. (The thing that really amazed me while watching this is that there are people who think such DVD-like levels of quality are perfectly acceptable on their 4K TVs, and they see no need to upgrade to Blu-ray / an HD Netflix subscription / etc. Those people really should’ve gone to Specsavers.)

It's even more vertiginous in three dimensions

As a 3D fan, it’s worth enduring the lower resolution, because the 3D itself is superb. It may be a post-conversion (and, at that, one the director not only didn’t supervise but has never even watched) but it’s really well done, in particular during the action sequences — which, in fairness, is most of the movie. The skydive; the Paris bike chase; the helicopter stuff; perhaps most of all the clifftop fight — they all gain something from the third dimension. In some it’s a sense of scale — Hunt and Walker suspended in space as they freefall; an almost similar sensation during their climactic fight on the cliff, which now feels so high up. Other times, it puts you right in the heart of the action — the low-angle shots and speeding camerawork during the car chases mean that surrounding traffic whooshes at and past you in 3D, like being on some sort of rollercoaster. There’s not much poking-out-of-the-screen action (though I rarely notice it in home 3D viewing even when others praise a film for it, so I won’t swear to there being none), but at appropriate times you can feel bullets or debris flying out of the screen at you. It’s a literally engrossing experience.

I’m thrilled I finally managed to find and watch it. Though that’s a mixed blessing, because while the 3D didn’t disappoint, the lack of disc release still does. If the 3D had been a bit rubbish, I could’ve written this viewing off to experience and been happy to never see the film in that format again. But as it’s great, I’m now even more disappointed by the lack of a 3D Blu-ray. I’m going to find it frustrating to go back to watching some of the action scenes in boring old 2D. Whenever I next watch Fallout it’ll be in 4K, and I’ll console myself with the fact that’s how it was actually shot, and I’m sure it’ll look great because it’s a very well-shot film… but the third dimension will be sorely missed.

5 out of 5

My full review of Mission: Impossible – Fallout is here.

The 100-Week Roundup

Regular readers may be aware that for a while now I’ve been struggling with what to do about my increasingly ludicrous review backlog. It continues to grow and grow — it’s now reached a whopping 215 unreviewed films! (And to think I started that page because I was 10 reviews behind…) Realistically, there’s no way I’m ever going to catch that up just by posting normal reviews, especially given the rate I get them out nowadays. But since this blog began I’ve reviewed every new film I watched — I don’t want to break that streak.

So, I’ve come up with something of a solution — and kept it broadly within the theming of the blog, to boot.

The 100-Week Roundup will cover films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Most of the time that’ll be in the form of quick thoughts, perhaps even copy-and-pasting the notes I made while viewing, rather than ‘proper’ reviews. Today’s are a bit more review-like, but relatively light on worthwhile analytical content, which I think is another reason films might end up here. Also, the posts won’t be slavishly precise in their 100-week-ness. Instead, I’ll ensure there are at least a couple of films covered in each roundup (it wouldn’t be a “roundup” otherwise). Mainly, the point is to give me a cutoff to get a review done — if I want to avoid a film being swept up into a roundup, I’ve got 100 weeks to review it. (Lest we forget, 100 weeks is almost two years. A more-than-generous allowance.)

I think it’s going to start slow (this first edition covers everything I haven’t reviewed from April 2018, which totals just two films), but in years to come I wouldn’t be surprised if these roundups become more frequent and/or busier. But, for now, those two from almost two years ago…


Das Boot
The Director’s Cut
(1981/1997)

2018 #69
Wolfgang Petersen | 208 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Germany & USA / German & English | 15 / R

Das Boot: The Director's Cut

Writer-director Wolfgang Petersen’s story of a German submarine in World War 2 may have an intimate and confined setting, but in every other sense it is an epic — not least in length: The Director’s Cut version runs almost three-and-a-half hours. However, the pace is excellently managed. The length is mainly used for tension — quietly waiting to see if the enemy will get them this time. It’s also spent getting to know some of the crew, and the style of life aboard the sub. It means the film paints an all-round picture of both life and combat in that situation. The only time I felt it dragged was in an extended sequence towards the end. I guess the long, slow shots of nothing happening are meant to evoke time passing and an increasing sense of hopelessness, but I didn’t feel that, I just felt bored. Still, while I can conceive of cutting maybe 10 or 20 minutes and the film being just as effective, being a full hour shorter — as the theatrical cut is — must’ve lost a lot of great stuff.

It’s incredibly shot by DP Jost Vacano. The sets are tiny, which feels realistic and claustrophobic, but nonetheless they pull off long takes with complex camera moves. Remarkable. Even more striking is the sound design. It has one of the most powerful and convincing surround sound mixes I’ve experienced, really placing you in the boat as it creaks and drips all around you. The music by composer Klaus Doldinger is also often effective. It does sound kinda dated at times — ’80s electronica — but mostly I liked it.

Versions
Das Boot exists in quite a few different cuts, although The Director’s Cut is the only one currently available on Blu-ray in the UK. If you’re interested in all the different versions, it’s quite a minefield — there are two different TV miniseries versions (a three-part BBC one and a six-part German one), in addition to what’s been released as “The Original Uncut Version”, as well as both of the movie edits. There’s a lengthy comparison of The Director’s Cut and the German TV version here, which lists 75 minutes of major differences and a further 8 minutes of just tightening up. Plus, the TV version also has Lt. Werner’s thoughts in voiceover, which are entirely missing from The Director’s Cut. That means this version “has a lack of information and atmosphere”, according to the author of the comparison.

Das salute

As to the creation of The Director’s Cut, the Blu-ray contains a whole featurette about it called The Perfect Boat. In it, Petersen explains that he thought the TV version was too long, but that there was a good version to be had between it and the theatrical cut. It was first mooted as early as 1990, but it was when DVD began to emerge that things got moving — Columbia (the studio, not the country) was aware of the format’s potential even from its earliest days, and so it was with an eye on that market that they agreed to fund the new cut. Not only was it all re-edited, but as for that soundtrack I was so praiseful of, the audio was basically entirely re-recorded to make it more effective as a modern movie. The only thing they kept was the original dialogue… which had all been dubbed anyway, because the on-set sound was unusable.

In the end, the new cut was such a thorough re-envisioning that it took three times as long as anticipated, and led to a glitzy premiere and theatrical re-release. Petersen thinks the main difference between the theatrical and director’s cuts is the latter is more rich and has more gravitas because we spend more time with the individual characters.

5 out of 5

Das Boot: The Director’s Cut was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

It placed 22nd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

Identity
(2003)

2018 #78
James Mangold | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Identity

I bought Identity probably 15 or so years ago in one of those 3-for-£20 or 5-for-£30 sales that used to be all the rage at the height of DVD’s popularity, and no doubt contributed massively both to the format’s success and even regular folk having “DVD collections” (as opposed to just owning a handful of favourite films). As with dozens (ok, I’ll be honest: hundreds) of other titles that I purchased in a more-or-less similar fashion, it’s sat on a shelf gathering dust for all this time, its significance as a piece of art diminishing to the point I all but forgot I owned it.

But I did finally watch it, not spurred by anything other than the whim of thinking, “yeah, I ought to finally watch that,” which just happens for me with random old DVDs now and then. But, like so many other older films that I own on DVD, I found it was available to stream in HD, so I watched it that way instead. The number of DVDs I’ve ended up doing that with, or could if I wanted… all that wasted money… it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Whodunnit?

Anyway, the film itself. On a dark and stormy night, a series of chance encounters strand ten disparate strangers at an isolated motel, where they realise they’re being murdered one by one. So far, so slasher movie. And, indeed, that’s more or less how it progresses. But there’s a twist or two in the final act that attempts to make it more than that. Without spoiling anything, I felt like it was an interesting concept for a thriller, but at the same time that it didn’t really work. There’s an aspect to the twist that is a cliché so damnable it’s rarely actually used (unlike most other clichés, which pop up all the time), and so the film attempts a last-minute explanation of why it’s better than that, but, I dunno, I feel like a cliché is a cliché.

So maybe Identity is best considered as just a straight B-movie-ish slasher, and just overlook the final act’s attempts at being more interesting as just trying to be different. In fact, more interesting to me was the fact it was mostly shot on an enormous soundstage set, which is kinda cool given the scope of the location.

3 out of 5

The Lion King (2019)

2019 #103
Jon Favreau | 118 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The Lion King

The Lion King might be the best Disney film. It’s that or Beauty and the Beast. (I’m sure many classicists would plump for something older, but sorry, I’m a ‘90s kid.) (Also, by “Disney film” I mean their animated output. Obviously Disney release tonnes of other stuff, and have for a long time, but by “Disney film” we really mean the animations, don’t we? Not “any film that happens to be released by Disney”. I do, anyway. Especially in this context.)

Sorry, let me start again: The Lion King might be the best Disney film. So when they started down this road of live-action remakes of their beloved classics, it was inevitable their attention would turn to it. Of course, you can’t really do a live-action version of a film whose characters are all lions and hyenas and warthogs and stuff — not without going down the puppetry/costumes route of the stage version, anyhow, which apparently is gangbusters in the flesh (I’ve never seen it; that’s changing in August, Coronavirus permitting) but I can’t envisage working for the mass moviegoing audience. So instead they did the obvious thing and went for photo-real. CGI. Heck, most “live-action” blockbusters nowadays are 50%+ CGI anyway, especially Disney ones (they didn’t even design the Avengers’ costumes for Endgame until post-production, ffs). But, at the end of the day, “photo-real CGI” is just another kind of animation. So what Disney have done is remake the animated Lion King in the totally different form of… animation.

Yeah, you probably knew all that already, and maybe had similar rants in your own mind / reviews / Twitter feeds / in Wendy’s / shouted at tea, Sue (delete as culturally appropriate). But it remains a relevant perspective on this film, because it indicates the essential question one keeps coming back to when watching it:

Why does this exist?

The cub who would be king

Obviously, the simple and true answer is “to make money”. These Disney live-action remakes have been financial successes, otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing them. The more popular the original animated movie, the more successful the remake. The Lion King is one of the most popular of them all, ergo it was a safe bet to be big hit. The biggest risk was that “why bother?” question — audiences might’ve felt it was pointless and stayed away — but that didn’t happen: it made $1.656 billion worldwide, making it the 7th highest-grossing film of all time. The original film is down at a lowly 47th. If you were the kind of person who thought box office numbers were the be-all and end-all, you might conclude that this film is even better than the already-classic original. It is not. That it did well at the box office is no surprise — I think there’s a massive curiosity factor involved in these remakes (how faithful will they be; what will they have added or taken away; how will this familiar tale look and feel in a new medium) — but that would only get it so far, and most of it would come from opening weekend. Something obviously worked for audiences, because they must’ve kept coming back.

Well, I can’t explain that one for you. On my first viewing, I didn’t think it was a particularly good film. I rewatched it last night, this time in 3D, and enjoyed it a little more second time round. In part that was because it has really good 3D. Indeed, the praise I’d read for that version was the only reason I was tempted to give the film a second look, and it didn’t disappoint in that department. Whatever you make of the rest of the movie, the photo-real CGI is undeniably a phenomenal technical achievement, and it’s only improved by the life-like dimensionality brought by 3D. With a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio, it really is like looking through a window. Beyond that, though, I liked the film itself a little more. That’s probably down to expectations — not that I was expecting great things on my first viewing, but knowing exactly what was coming, being fully aware of all the disappointments in store, mitigated them somewhat, and so I was able to enjoy the bits it did well.

Be prepared for disappointment

Nonetheless, I think the best way to sum up the experience is to say it’s like a cover song from a TV talent show: a reasonable approximation of the original, although clearly not as good, with unnecessarily added riffs and tricks as the cover artist struggles in vain to “make it their own” while not fundamentally deviating from what made the original so beloved. The trailers made it look like a shot-for-shot remake (possibly deliberately), but director Jon Favreau insisted it wasn’t. He’s right, but it might be better if he had been slavishly faithful, because when he strikes out in a different direction it undermines some of the best bits of the original. At least two songs are rendered as damp squibs by less-imaginative staging, while Can You Feel the Love Tonight is for some reason staged in the afternoon. But even more poorly handled is Be Prepared. It’s perhaps the greatest villain’s song in the Disney canon. You might’ve thought it was impossible to ruin a song so inherently fantastic. I certainly did. Sadly, Favreau has proven us wrong.

The voice cast are uniformly adequate, with a couple of standouts. The major one is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gives a suitably menacing and conniving performance as the treacherous Scar. It’s at least the equal of the original, which considering that was performed by villain par excellence Jeremy Irons is saying something. (Be Prepared is obviously a black mark against this interpretation, but it’s not Ejiofor’s fault he was lumbered with an underpowered rewrite.) James Earl Jones reprises his commanding performance as Mufasa from the original movie. Actually, I don’t know whether he performed it anew or they just recycled his original recordings. You assume the former, but the film is so faithful that the latter may have sufficed. Elsewise, it’s the comedy parts that are given room to shine, with a nice double act from Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa, and John Oliver nabbing the lion’s share of the best lines as Zazu (pun very much intended).

The box office king

This remake has enough residual quality leftover from the original film to tip the scales into the “didn’t hate it” category. More critical viewers may not be so kind — indeed, they haven’t been. Conversely, those who are less demanding may find the result reasonably likeable (I first saw it with my mum, who thought it was a pleasant couple of hours at the cinema). Still, even with all the technical prowess on show, it can’t replicate either the magic or the majesty of the original animation.

3 out of 5

The not-live-action live-action Lion King is on Sky Cinema from today.

The Past Month on TV #56

This TV column is over a week later than I intended it to be, meaning there’s loads to talk about — half a season of Doctor Who; two new ITV dramas; more Picard and Twilight Zone; I finally watched Good Omens, and got back to The Good Place; there’s even the Oscars; plus a bunch of other stuff. It’s an epic — over 5,500 words if you read the whole thing — so let’s crack on…

Doctor Who  Series 12 Episodes 6-10
PraxeusMost of the Doctor Who chatter of late revolves around what happened in the finale — no surprise there, given major revelations were teased in previous episodes this series. But before I natter about that, there’s a handful of other episodes to cover.

After a rocky opening to this 38th run of Doctor Who, with episodes varying wildly in quality, I think it settled down pretty well in the middle. That doesn’t mean it was a classic series by any means, though. Praxeus is a perfect case in point: it’s a solid episode, with a decent storyline, a few nice scenes, a handful of broadly well-drawn characters, and a reasonable amount of important-message delivery. As the second environmentally-themed plot in as many months, it suffers somewhat from the repetition, but how this handles its messaging about plastic pollution vs how Orphan 55 battered us around the head about climate change is a good example of how to do such things fairly well instead of very, very poorly. But there are also a handful of plot holes and character inconsistencies to niggle away at you. It’s as if they didn’t bother to employ script editors or continuity checkers this series — though the oversights are so glaring, anyone should’ve spotted them. So if all of this sounds like damning with faint praise… well, it is. In any other recent era of Who, this would be a middling-to-poor midseason filler; in the current era, it’s one of the better episodes.

There were more Issues on hand the next week in Can You Hear Me?, to the extent the BBC even put up their Action Line phone number at the end. It’s clear showrunner Chris Chibnall wants to Say Something with at least a couple of episodes every season, but he’s once again clashing with the past: Vincent and the Doctor already did mental health better. In itself, how Can You Hear Me handled the issues it raised was a mixed bag. Yaz’s backstory came out of the blue — it’s not even been vaguely alluded to before, and how it’s depicted in the episode left a lot up in the air. The consensus on social media is we were meant to think she was intending to commit suicide, but the episode soft-balls this in order to avoid triggering terms or visuals — a commendable aim, especially in a family drama, but it left the point entirely unclear. And the end of the episode, where the Doctor seems dismissive of Graham trying to open up about his cancer, drew actual complaints and the BBC having to issue a statement. If you have to explain the intent of your drama in a statement released afterwards… well. But ‘Issues’ aside, as a sci-fi adventure it was another solid attempt.

The Haunting of Villa DiodatiAll of which means that the series’ penultimate story, The Haunting of Villa Diodati, was on a whole ‘nother level. For me, this might be the first genuine classic of this era. (If you’ve not seen it, spoilers ahead.) The first half is like a proper horror movie, complete with jump scares and other creepy effects (the dead-eyed little girl behind the door, but only when the lightning flashes… brr!) Naturally there’s a sci-fi explanation for it all, but even that was thrilling and chilling in its own way. It was the best use of the Cybermen since… er, their last story, because that was really good too. But the Cybermen are sometimes underserved by Who, wheeled out and disregarded as second-tier baddies after the Daleks, so I delight in seeing them used so well more often. Throw in a well-researched and depicted historical atmosphere, some good comedic asides (I thought the butler was superb), and a genuine sense of jeopardy (the Doctor stuck between a rock and a hard place with the decisions she has to make, and the lone Cyberman a towering presence), and you’ve got an all-round great episode.

Which leads us to the two-part finale. The first half, Ascension of the Cybermen, went down well with many, but I thought it was no great shakes. Like most episodes this seasons, it was solid mid-range Who, which ticks certain boxes whilst never in any way excelling. As epic finales go, seven humans vs three Cybermen is hardly a grand setup. And why do three Cybermen require two (quite large) spaceships, anyway? Was one full of those Cyberdrones — which looked thoroughly daft, so maybe they should’ve left that ship at home. The rest of the plot is a lot of faffing about to get us to the real point: the cliffhanger. Only, it’s not much of a cliffhanger, because it’s just the Master popping back up (which was inevitable) to say “now I’m going to tell you that thing I wouldn’t tell you earlier!” Wow. J.J. Abrams, you have a lot to answer for.

The Timeless ChildrenSo the real point of it all comes in The Timeless Children, where the Masters finds some new sources to rewrite the Doctor’s Wikipedia entry, then reads that revised version to her. I’m only half joking. Chibnall has managed to rewrite Doctor Who mythology in a way that both angers fans with its radical changes, and fundamentally makes no difference whatsoever. The Doctor used to be a mysterious alien from another planet who travelled the universe helping people. Now, she’s a mystery alien from another dimension who travels the universe helping people. Instead of being “just another Time Lord” who rejected the rules of their society and ran away to interfere, the Doctor is now a Special / Chosen One — the originator of the Time Lords’ ability to regenerate; her DNA copied and pasted into every other Time Lord… and then her memory wiped, so she grew up as just another Time Lord who rejected the rules of their society and ran away to interfere… but, y’know, was secretly special. I feel I should hate it, but, honestly, it was so guessable and so fundamentally immaterial that I just can’t muster the energy to care enough to hate it. It may yet go the way of “half-human” anyway, i.e. we’ll all just ignore and/or rewrite it as soon as someone other than Chibnall gets in charge.

As for the story of the episode itself — because it did kind of have one, away from the Doctor getting that massive info dump — it was, predictably, an adequate middle-of-the-road knockabout, with an underwhelming finale. When someone on Twitter can knock up an infinitely better resolution in comic strip form within hours of the episode ending (which is exactly what this is), you’re once again left questioning he actual ability of the current showrunner. They can’t even do a very good copy of a Russell T Davies-style cliffhanger/Xmas special tease. The Judoon imprison the Doctor… as a tease for a special starring the Daleks? “What?!” indeed.

Star Trek: Picard  Season 1 Episodes 2-3
Picard: engagingI’m a good few episodes behind on Picard now (episode 7 arrived this week), which is not because I’ve given up on it, but because it hasn’t engaged me quite enough to especially make time for it. It seems to have garnered quite the mixed reaction: the critics’ scores on Rotten Tomatoes are very strong; the user ratings on IMDb aren’t bad at all; but every time I see someone write about the show, on Twitter or another blog or what have you, it seems to be in criticism. I fall in between all these stools. There are things the show is doing well, or at least passably, but other bits that are awful; that feel like the worst of cheap made-for-syndication ’90s sci-fi, rather than the peak TV ‘prestige series’ it clearly wants to be.

I read one of the execs or writers or someone say that they consider the first three episodes to be their pilot, and that’s indicative of one of the show’s major problems. It’s not unique in that regard — it’s an attitude that’s become ubiquitous in this “we’ve really made an X-hour movie” era of TV making. Netflix series get away with it a bit because of their all-at-once model — if the makers say “the first three episodes are the pilot”, you can find two or three hours to sit down and watch all three as your first chunk. But Picard is coming out the old fashioned way, i.e. weekly, and so it takes three weeks to get through what should be the first hour or so. Even within the episodes, it’s paced like treacle. I don’t necessarily expect them to get through all the necessary setup in just 45 minutes — because it does establish a fair bit across these three episodes — but the same material in a double-length opener, instead of spread thin across three weeks? I think that would’ve been fine. Plenty of shows before now have had double-length pilot episodes — including, pertinently, TNG.

I’m currently wondering if Patrick Stewart regrets signing up to this. It took a lot to lure him back, and presumably it was the general shape of what they were aiming to do (rather than the specific qualities of the individual scripts) that got him there. And he’s committed to multiple seasons too, with a second already commissioned and strong rumours of at least a third. Perhaps the grand plan will become clearer as things go on. Or perhaps it is just another paced-for-streaming modern TV show, which obviously works for some people.

Flesh and Blood  Series 1
Flesh and BloodBetween its short length (four parts), quality cast (Imelda Staunton, Stephen Rea, Russell Tovey), and condensed broadcast schedule (it was on four consecutive nights), this looked like a miniseries… until a last-second cliffhanger (plus some dangling plot threads) suggested there’ll be more to come. I watched it on that back of that cast and some strong reviews, which it only somewhat merited. It’s a decent family drama, about a 60-something widow getting into a relationship with a man her three grown-up children think might be conning her, with the added spice of a friendly/nosey next-door neighbour who might be a proper weirdo herself; but decent is about the extent of it — the cast elevate the material, which is fine but didn’t excite me otherwise. I expect I’ll keep watching if it comes back.

McDonald & Dodds  Series 1 Episode 1
McDonald & DoddsNormally I’d give a new ITV crime drama a miss, but this one is set and filmed in Bath (they got in my way one day by filming in the park I wanted to sit in for lunch, the bastards), so I had to see. It was… adequate. It’s about a hot-shot London detective who relocates to Bath, and lines like “that may be how things are done in London, but you’re in Bath now” were repeated to the point of absurdity. And don’t get me started on the accents (one local review derided the programme for thinking we all speak like Hobbits). Yet, inexplicably, it seems to have gone down quite well with viewers, which just goes to show you can’t trust the general public to judge anything. It’s only two episodes, so I’ll watch the second (if only to see what other recognisable locations they trot out — it makes a real point of showing off where it was filmed), but that might be my limit.

Good Omens
Good OmensThis six-part adaptation of the beloved fantasy novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman debuted on Amazon last May, and by rights I should’ve been all over it from day one — I read the book as a kid, and loved it enough that I used to cite it as my favourite novel (the only thing that changed that was the fact it’s been decades since I last read it). But, as regular readers will know, life has got in the way of my viewing choices over the past year or so, and it was in fact that level of attachment that stopped me watching it — it needed my full attention. Obviously, that time has come.

The downside of all the waiting is that I perhaps built up expectations the series couldn’t hope to match. To say it was a disappointment would be going too far, but it didn’t blow me away in the manner the book did when I was ten-ish. It couldn’t, shouldn’t have been expected to, really. But there’s an awful lot to like here. In the lead roles of an angel and demon, respectively, Michael Sheen and David Tennant are fantastic, both individually and as a double act. There is much quirkiness and craziness to revel in, and while it’s not often laugh-out-loud funny, it regularly tickles your amusement centres with its absurdity. There are some bravura touches as well, like the 30-minute pre-titles to episode three. On the downside, at six hours it seems a little long, and there’s way too much voiceover narration — Gaiman’s true calling as a novelist rather than screenwriter showing through, I feel.

Maybe it’s a case of “the book is better” (as I say, I haven’t read it for yonks), but there’s still an awful lot to like about the adaptation. Those without a preexisting attachment to the novel may get more out of it than I did thanks to not bringing baggage. Personally speaking, someday I’ll watch it again, and hopefully having watched it once will mean it’s less weighed down by my expectations and I’ll enjoy it even more.

The Good Place  Season 3
The Good Place season 3“Holy fork,” I said to myself when I saw that the series finale of this had aired at the end of January — I’d forgotten how much time had passed since I last watched it. If you’ve still not seen any of the show yourself, look away now — it’s the kind of series you want to experience knowing as little as possible, and if you read about later seasons before you’ve seen earlier ones it’s just gonna ruin stuff. (I know that sounds self-evident, but it applies to some shows more than others, and this is very much one it applies to.)

So, the third season picks up where the second left off (duh), with the gang back in their lives on Earth trying to prove they’re good people at heart. As I found with season two (which also started with a new status quo), these early episodes are okay — during this phase I like the show, but I don’t necessarily love it; I feel “it’s not as good as it used to be”, but it still entertains me, even while it seems to tread water a bit. But then, halfway-or-so through, the plot kicks into gear, and the season’s second half is a run to the finish line through an array of surprising and hilarious situations. The “back on Earth” premise robs something special from the show, I think — it’s only once they’re on course back into the afterlife that things pick up. Not that the early part of the seasons is a washout — like most of the best sitcoms, the joy is more in the characters than the exact situation they’re in, and the characters are still around — but something didn’t quite work for me (as I said, it’s not bad, just less good), and it’s only once they’re getting stuck back into the fantastical side of things that it really comes to life. It all builds to a finale that hits a surprisingly emotional note. And, knowing the next season is the final one, I’m looking forward to seeing where this crazy journey is going to end up.

Lucifer  Season 3 Episodes 16-24
Lucifer season 3So, I’ve finally caught up on the Fox years of Lucifer — it was here that its original network cancelled the show (Netflix picked it up for a fourth season, recommissioned it for a fifth and supposedly final season, added more episodes to that fifth season, and now are reportedly lining up a sixth season too). I can see why fans were particularly enraged — the season ends on a massive change of circumstance that would’ve been a terrible place to leave it forever. Indeed, the most intriguing thing here is where it will go next, especially given the network change: Lucifer is an old-fashioned network procedural, as much concerned with case-of-the-week crime stories as it is with arc plots and the supernatural goings-on of its angels-and-demons universe; and that was to be expected when it was on an old-fashioned network, but now that it’s on Netflix, the home of bingeing, will it shift its emphasis?

That’s a question for next season, anyway. As for season three, it suffered a different fault familiar from network series of old: struggling to pace an arc plot across a mammoth 24 episodes. It actually went rather well at first (even if certain revelations were glaringly obvious), but by this final stretch it’s spinning its wheels a bit, trying to delay the finale-sized events for, well, the finale. I mean, one minute Chloe and Pierce are on course to get married, then he’s calling it off, then it’s back on, then she’s calling it off… pinging back and forth, one episode to the next; swinging from one major-life-choice extreme to the other from week to week. That’s something else the more concentrated Netflix runs (season four is ten episodes, season five will be two halves of eight each) will hopefully improve upon.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Best Of’
The DummyJordan Peele’s new version of The Twilight Zone belatedly made it to UK screens a week or two back, almost 11 months after its US airing. I still haven’t watched any of it, but I am still going with cherrypicking the best of the original series.

I started my exploration of The Twilight Zone by watching the top ten episodes according to a couple of different websites. After that, I found more lists to create an average ranking (see last month), but I didn’t complete those new lists’ top tens — so that’s what I’ve done for this month’s selection. There were four new lists and, interestingly, all but one of their top tens contain episodes I hadn’t seen — you’d think that, between completing three top tens and a consensus ranking up to #16, I’d’ve seen every top-ten-worthy episode. That’s where personal preferences come in, of course, but it also shows how many great episodes of The Twilight Zone there are. Across the seven top tens there are 29 different episodes, and the only two that are included in every one are The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street and Time Enough at Last. 15 episodes appear on just one list, including all six I’m reviewing today.

Anyway, enough of my statistics preoccupation — some episodes! The highest ranked among these is The Dummy, which is #2 on Buzzfeed’s list. It’s about a ventriloquist who thinks his dummy is talking to him — is it, or is it his inner demons? A sentient ventriloquist’s dummy is a none-more-creepy idea, and the episode does an interesting line in “is it real or is it in his head?”, but it didn’t quite come together in a satisfying enough way for me. Sure, there’s a somewhat chilling final beat, but I didn’t feel like the rest of the story quite got there, more jumped to it. The second best episode of the entire show? Not even close. Though it does have one of host Rod Serling’s coolest on-screen intros.

Next up is also from Buzzfeed: their 6th place choice, Long Distance Call. Five-year-old Billy loves his grandma, and she loves him, somewhat to the chagrin of his mother. But then grandma dies, her parting wish that Billy could come with her. He starts to spend a lot of time playing with a toy telephone she gave him… and who’s he talking to? Grandma, of course. It seems like it’s just a child’s way of dealing with grief… until Billy runs in front of a car, saying someone told him to do it. It’s a strong idea for an episode, with some neat developments along the way, but it feels in need of a closing act — a final plot beat to resolve Billy and his telephone. We can extrapolate one from what happens (spoiler: by the end, grandma isn’t on the line any more), but it would be nice to see Billy realise this. And it would be effectively Twilight Zone-y as well, helping to underscore the magical realism with a final question: has Billy finished grieving and is ready to move on, or were the father’s pleas answered and grandma stopped calling? Add that final scene and this would probably be one of my most favourite episodes. As it is, it’s a very strong almost-but-not-quite.

The Big Tall WishMoving on to TV Guide’s 50 Essential Episodes now for three picks. First, their #4, The Big Tall Wish. It’s a significant episode in the history of television because it features a nearly all-black cast in a story that isn’t predicated on their race; consequently, it was awarded the Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations. Critics rank this one fairly well — it’s also 18th on Screen Crush, 32nd on Paste, and 33rd on Buzzfeed — but on audience-ranked lists it’s much lower: 127th on IMDb; 119th on Ranker. The racism of audience rankings, so regularly visible on new releases, truly knows no bounds. Anyway, it’s about a beat-up ageing boxer hoping for one last shot at glory, and the young kid who believes in him — and who also believes his wishes come true, so he uses one to help the boxer win his fight. I really liked the setup, which plays as thoughtful and groundedly dramatic, with the suggestion of magical realism as opposed to outright fantasy. It’s well directed by Ronald Winston (one of three contributions he made to the series, including The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street), from an interesting use of a mirror in the opening, which helps to enliven what would otherwise just be a scene of two people chatting, to a striking way of visualising the fight sequence. At first I was unimpressed about where the episode eventually goes story-wise, but after a bit of thought I’ve come round to it more. It is, of course, metaphorical, rather than merely following some made-up rules of magic, and therefore has something to say about belief.

Right after that in 5th is Deaths-Head Revisited, the story of a former Nazi captain going for a nice little holiday to Dachau, where a nostalgic wander around the old concentration camp turns into something he didn’t anticipate. It’s easy to forget nowadays, but this was made just 17 years after the end of the war. That sounds like quite a long time, but it isn’t really — it’s like something now relating to events from 2003. In fact, just look to a recent cinema release: that exact period of time gets you from Bad Boys II to Bad Boys for Life. I know that’s an insanely trivial comparison, but hopefully it makes my point: 17 years can be no time at all. Indeed, on the audio commentary by author and TZ expert Marc Scott Zicree and his mate Neil Gaiman (yes, that Neil Gaiman), they note how contemporary this issue was at the time: Judgment at Nuremberg had just been in cinemas; Eichmann had been tried but not yet sentenced. And this bit of trivia from IMDb: “due to religiously-inspired antisemitism that existed in the US at the time, none of the prisoners are shown wearing the yellow Star of David, which the Nazis made Jewish prisoners wear at Dachau.” Just 17 years after the Holocaust, and antisemitism was that present again. Chilling, isn’t it? And, today, we have our own problems with the resurgence of the Far Right, rendering these kinds of stories timely once again. This is as strong an example as any. As Gaiman says on the commentary, “it has real content. It’s something that leaves you with an emotion. It leaves you feeling something. It leaves you thinking.” Gaiman rationalises the events of the episode as being that “on some deep level he [the Nazi] had enough of a soul that he went back to the place of his crimes, realised what he’d done, and went mad.” Perhaps, but I think it’s more about the Nazis’ unending hubris: he thinks he can revisit the camp with impunity, to revel in the glorious memory of his deeds; but instead he is punished, and he’s not been hunted down for this punishment — it only happens because he has the gall to return.

Twenty TwoOn a lighter note, in 9th place at TV Guide is Twenty Two. I say “lighter” — the subject matter isn’t as heavy, but this is a creepy episode. It’s about a woman in hospital who has a recurring nightmare about visiting the morgue, but she’s convinced it’s not a nightmare, it’s happening. It’s the enactment of her nightmare that is genuinely creepy (just imagining having to ‘live’ it gives me chills), and the idea of not being sure what’s dreams and what’s reality is a very Twilight Zone concept. Unfortunately, some of the specifics are weak. Whether it’s a nightmare or not would be easy to disprove, considering it includes details like her breaking a glass every night, or that the morgue is room number 22 — if it is, how does she know that? (Her doctor does eventually realise this… after days of hearing about it.) And as there’s nothing else wrong with her, why not discharge her — the nightmare is so location-specific that it couldn’t happen at home. Eventually there’s a twist, and it’s a good’un, pushing the concept somewhere logical (within the bounds of paranormal ‘logic’, anyhow) and retaining the creepiness. (There’s also a question about whether it inspired a much later film series, with which it shares many notable similarities, but to say more would be a whopping spoiler.)

Another point about Twenty Two is that it’s one of a handful of episodes they shot on video to save money. Well, it may’ve saved some dough, but it looks like crap, even by the standards of video productions — it looks like it was transferred from a VHS copy. Maybe tape was really crummy back then (I swear other ’60s taped productions, like Doctor Who for example, don’t look this bad), or maybe it’s been poorly preserved, or maybe it’s just a shoddy transfer on the Blu-ray. In the end, only half-a-dozen episodes were made this way because they weren’t happy with the results — understandably! Sometimes money isn’t everything. But it’s interesting how much it’s shot like a video production. The shot choices aren’t like a normal film episode but on videotape; instead, it’s got all the kinds of camera moves and slight adjustments and whatnot you almost subconsciously recognise from live / minimally-edited TV. (Incidentally, Long Distance Call is another videotaped episode, but I watched that after this one so had fewer thoughts on the technical presentation.) And yet, the underlying episode is so good that it overcomes the technical limitations. No, the problem is the logic gaps. They may seem minor quibbles, but if they were ironed out it would improve the whole episode. For me, fixing them would make this a 10-out-of-10, but as-is it’s more of an 8.

A Game of PoolFinally for now, the one outstanding top-ten-er from Thrillist’s ranking — their 8th pick, A Game of Pool. It’s about a pool shark who thinks he’s better than the player everyone else considers to be the greatest, but that guy’s dead so he can’t prove it… except, of course, he’s in the Twilight Zone. Some episodes save their Twilight Zone-ness for midway or final-minute reveals, but others put it front and centre, and this is one of them: a game of pool with a dead man! But it still has one of the show’s trademark ironic twists at the end, to teach us a lesson. That said, I didn’t think it landed as well as some other episodes, because it’s a bit of a fantastical warning rather than a pure morality play. There’s an alternate ending (included on the Blu-ray as both a narrated screenplay and a clip from the ’80s remake, which used that ending instead), which was screenwriter George Clayton Johnson’s original and preferred conclusion, and it’s that alternative conclusion that’s stuck with me more. Of course, the advantage of things like special features is we kind of get to have both versions; we can pick our favourite, or even consider both, like alternate timelines — how very The Twilight Zone.

The 92nd Academy Awards  and
The British Academy Film Awards 2020
The 92nd Academy AwardsOn Twitter in the run-up to the ceremony itself, there was a general acceptance that (a) Parasite was the best picture of the year, and (b) Parasite was not going to win Best Picture. As far as I could see, there was a sort of genial acceptance of these facts, which made a nice change from Film Twitter’s usual condemnation of everything. But then, blow us all down, Parasite did actually win! It’s noteworthy for all sorts of reasons — primarily because it’s the first ever non-English-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars. It was also only the third time that the Palme d’Or and Oscar have gone to the same film. And director Bong Joon Ho became only the second individual to win four awards at one ceremony (after Walt Disney, and he did it across four different films). As for the rest of the ceremony, most of the other gongs went where expected, leaving 1917 the major victim of Parasite‘s surprise success. But it still took home three well-deserved technical trophies, whereas Netflix’s The Irishman (which had the same number of nominations, ten) was shut out entirely.

There were even fewer surprises at this year’s BAFTAs. Maybe Klaus winning Best Animated Film, but then the British Academy are always more resistant to the dominance of Disney/Pixar in this category than our American cousins (I think of Kubo deservedly winning a couple of years ago, for example). Of course 1917 won Best Picture — it was the favourite anyway, but it was also British, and that does sometimes sway the local vote. Not so in the acting categories, which went to the expected sources. I thought Graham Norton was a good host, too. He’s a natural fit for this kind of thing, and so while not every line quite landed, his hit rate was much higher than other recent hosts. I hope he returns next year.

Also watched…
  • Death in Paradise Series 9 Episode 3-8 — The back half of this run introduced a new lead detective (the show’s fourth), played by Ralf Little. His quirk is that the island’s heat / animals / etc cause him all sorts of irritations and rashes. I can relate. Other than that, it’s business as usual for the sunny, silly murder mystery.
  • The Goes Wrong Show Series 1 Episode 6 — A final recommendation for this most excellent comedy, which went out on a high with one of its best episodes: 90 Degrees, which refers to the heatwave occurring during the story, but was “misinterpreted by the set builders” so one of the main sets is on its side. Hilarity ensues. The whole magnificent series is still available on iPlayer, it’s also out on DVD, and a second series has been confirmed. Hurrah!
  • My Dad Wrote a Porno — A one-off HBO comedy special spun off from the popular podcast. I’d vaguely heard of said podcast (I don’t really do podcasts), and apparently it’s very funny, so this seemed worth a punt. And I did enjoy it, overall. I’ve read that it’s not as good as the real thing, though, so maybe I should get onto that.
  • The Rookie Season 1 Episodes 1-6 — I remember being interested in this when it was first announced, because it starred Nathan Fillion (so enjoyable in both Firefly and Castle) and had an interesting-enough premise (middle-aged man joins LAPD as their oldest ever rookie), but then I kind of forgot to keep an eye out for it — it’s on season two now and I’m just getting started. It’s an above average police drama, I’d say, and it’s a nice change that it’s not about detectives solving a murder of the week.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Noughts + CrossesThis month, I have mostly been missing Noughts + Crosses, the BBC’s high-profile adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s beloved alternate-world young adult novels. It seemed to go down very well on Twitter when the first episode aired, and the whole series is already available on iPlayer, so I’ve no excuse not to make time for it next month (other than all those Picards I have to catch up…)

    Next month… Disney+ finally comes to the UK on March 24th, and with it The Baby Yoda Show The Mandalorian. Plus, a different tack in my viewing of both The Twilight Zone and Doctor Who.

  • The So Metaphorical Monthly Review of February 2020

    A busy weekend means this post is later than normal. As for the title, yeah, I saw Parasite. (I highlight that just so you don’t go expecting any actual metaphors later in this post.)

    Also, as I write this I’ve realised Parasite is the first Best Picture winner I’ve actually seen at the cinema since, of all things, Crash. And the only other one is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. What an elite club to be a member of…


    #13 Booksmart (2019)
    #14 The Nightingale (2018)
    #15 Johnny English Strikes Again (2018)
    #16 Tag (2018)
    #17 Shoplifters (2018), aka Manbiki kazoku
    #18 A Star Is Born (2018)
    #19 Blockers (2018)
    #20 Emma. (2020)
    #21 Yesterday (2019)
    #21a The Crimson Permanent Assurance (1983)
    #22 Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)
    #23 Us (2019)
    #24 Escape Room (2019)
    #25 The Equalizer 2 (2018)
    #26 All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
    #27 Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
    #28 Parasite (2019), aka Gisaengchung
    #29 Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
    #30 Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)
    Monty Python's The Meaning of Life

    All Quiet on the Western Front

    Parasite

    .


    • So, I watched 18 new feature films in February.
    • That makes it the best month of 2020 so far. Okay, it only had one to beat, so, looking further afield, it’s the best month since last August.
    • It also surpasses February’s average (previously 12.83, now 13.2) and the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 12.75, now… 12.75, because I also watched 18 films last February. Fancy that).
    • Passing #25 means I’ve passed the quarter-way point already. But the last time I didn’t get there in February was 2014 (when it took until April), so it’s not that noteworthy an achievement. Especially as, since last year, I’m meant to be aiming for 120+ films in year.
    • But, good news, I’ve reached the quarter-way mark for 120, too! Ending February at #30 means so far I’m behind 2016 and 2018, but marginally ahead of 2015, 2017, and 2019.
    • Lots of 2018 films this month — to be precise, nine of them, or 50% of my viewing. That’s because I’m making use of my annual month of Now TV / Sky Cinema to catch up on some misses, and as they get a lot of recent stuff first, currently that means it’s mainly 2018 misses with a smattering from 2019 (overall, 61% of this month’s viewing was via Now TV).
    • Monty Python aficionados may have observed that I’ve chosen to list The Crimson Permanent Assurance separately from The Meaning of Life. It’s commonly presented as part of the film these days, but even then it’s still separated from the main feature. It was independently nominated for a BAFTA back in the day, too, so it sort of is part of the film and sort of isn’t. And anyway, while we can argue whether it counts as a standalone work or not, the fact it’s a short means I don’t give it a full number, so even if you do disapprove of listing it separately, at least it doesn’t affect my count for the year.
    • This month’s Blindspot film: anti-war WW1 classic, and early Best Picture Oscar winner (so an apt choice for this month), All Quiet on the Western Front.
    • As best I can tell, All Quiet on the Western Front is the only film I’ve ever seen from 1930. That’s noteworthy because the only other year since talkies came along for which this is true is 1932. Quite how I’ve ‘missed’ those two years, who knows. (If we go back into the silent era, there’s still only a few more years I’ve missed; but, as we’re talking about years with feature films, it gets a little more complicated for that period.)
    • From last month’s “failures” I watched Booksmart, The Nightingale, and Yesterday.



    The 57th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    This month’s viewing includes the most recent winner of the Palme d’Or, the first-ever non-English-language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and the movie Letterboxd users have rated the #1 of all time… all of which epithets describe the same film, of course: Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite. It’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a film the first time you watch it. I thought it was great, but how great I’m not sure. So a clearer pick here is All Quiet on the Western Front, another Best Picture winner that has stood the test of time — 90 years and counting.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    In contrast to such greatness, there was plenty of choice for the weakest movie this month. On balance, I think the dishonour belongs to Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again — even by the lowly standards set by the first movie, this follow-up is a mess.

    Big Name Star Popping In Near the End of a Crummy Musical for a Couple of Minutes to Sing Part of a Song or Two …of the Month
    By coincidence and the vagaries of fate, I saw Meryl Streep do this twice this month. Both were in films released in 2018, so this recognition only comes 14 months late.

    Best Musical Number of the Month
    They may’ve lavished A Star Is Born and Mary Poppins Returns and Mamma Mia 2 with money and star power and all the tricks of modern moviemaking, but the best song-and-dance number I saw this month remains Monty Python’s Every Sperm is Sacred.

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    No doubt bolstered by its BAFTA wins and predicted (but unmaterialising) Oscar glory, this month’s top new post was 1917.



    With an end goal of 50 in mind, my Rewatchathon stays on course this month…

    #6 Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)
    #7 Christopher Robin (2018)
    #8 The Karate Kid (1984)

    I still quite like Christopher Robin. Yeah, it’s just the plot of Mary Poppins remade with Winnie the Pooh, but I like Pooh bear a lot so that doesn’t bother me too much.

    Some thoughts on The Karate Kid on Letterboxd, and I intend to do a ‘Guide To’ post for it some day — mainly because I enjoyed it enough that I’m intending to watch the sequels, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, so I’ll number and review them as new films.


    Normally I start this section with all the films I missed on the big screen, but the big news nowadays is surely Netflix’s rollout of Studio Ghibli’s back catalogue (seven last month, seven today, the final seven on April 1st). The ones I hadn’t already seen, and still haven’t, from their February lot are Kiki’s Delivery Service (which I own on Blu-ray anyway), Ocean Waves, Only Yesterday, Porco Rosso, and Tales from Earthsea. Also new to Netflix and on my radar last month were Lady Bird, Hostiles, Proud Mary, and Year One (which I only notice because it was on my ‘50 unseen’ in 2009). One of their originals caught my eye, too: The Coldest Game. Sounded like a genre that’s up my street, but that’s literally all I know about it. Considering the variable quality of Netflix originals, the fact no one seems to be talking about it probably doesn’t bode well.

    Over on Amazon Prime, higher profile additions this month include Emma Thompson comedy Late Night and Luc Besson actioner Anna. Also drawing my attention was Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, returning to the streamer after five years away (that’s another from an old ‘50 unseen’ list); Super Size Me 2, the much-less-talked about sequel to the much-talked-about documentary; Anthony Hopkins / Ryan Gosling thriller Fracture (a film I was just about aware existed but had ignored; but, in the sea of mediocrity that’s added to Amazon, that recognition was enough to make me read the blurb and note the decent score it holds on IMDb); and Spy Game, which I’ve seen (it’s in my 100 Favourites, even), but only own on DVD, so here’s my chance to rewatch it in HD.

    And, as I mentioned, I’ve currently got Now TV for a little bit yet, so some of the stuff I’d particularly like to catch on there includes Burning, The Kid Who Would Be King, The Wedding Guest, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Crazy Rich Asians, and Mary Queen of Scots. Plus, all the Karate Kid sequels. And, drawing my attention away from that limited-time offering to something else I’ve paid for, I’ve got rentals of Hustlers and Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw that expire in March (both of those were on my most recent ‘50 unseen’, incidentally).

    Away from the internet, I got a bit carried away with Blu-ray purchases this month — there are 16 I could list here. Top of the pops is Joker. Also, Criterion’s release of Roma, which I got more for the special features than the film itself (because I can watch the latter on Netflix in UHD). Also on the rewatch list were Gods of Egypt in 3D (like I said would happen); one of my favourites from last year, Searching, which I got new for just a couple of quid; and Phantom Thread, which I also mentioned last month when it came to Netflix, but I finally got on UHD disc (in a two-for-one with Angel Heart). But the biggest single chunk belongs to 88 Films release of Jackie Chan titles, of which I picked up six this month, including four in a sale (Battle Creek Brawl, Dragon Fist, Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin, and To Kill with Intrigue) and two newer releases (Crime Story and The Protector).

    Finally, ending where I normally begin, the stuff I missed on the big screen. I nearly went to see Birds of Prey, but I’ll surely buy it for my disc collection eventually so I decided to save the money and wait. I’ve already pre-ordered The Lighthouse, which didn’t come to my local at all. I was never likely to bother with Dolittle or Sonic the Hedgehog, though I’m sure I’ll catch them on streaming sometime. I’m less sure about The Call of the Wild, thanks to that terrible looking CG dog. I’m all for using effects for stunts and stuff, but when it’s also in regular scenes interacting with humans, it just looks fake. Finally, The Invisible Man just came out to strong reviews. I don’t normally bother with horror on the big screen (I prefer to get scared in the secrecy of my own home, thanks), but I’m tempted to make an exception.


    More ticking off misses from 2018/19 courtesy of Sky Cinema. Cinema trips seem unlikely (maybe for Mulan), with my attention on the month after and the return of Britain’s best-known secret agent.

    Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

    aka Portrait de la jeune fille en feu

    2019 #137
    Céline Sciamma | 122 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | France / French & Italian | 15 / R

    Portrait of a Lady on Fire

    Now, here’s a film I really need to see again. Not to affirm whether I liked it or not — in fact, I loved it; enough to rank it the #1 film I saw in 2019 — but to fully assess and analyse and process it. This admission is not the best way to begin a review — reviews are meant to be assessment and/or analysis, after all — but, nonetheless, it indicates the kind of effect I felt from the film.

    What is that effect? In my best-of-year piece I said it was “the kind of film that casts a spell”, by which I’m referring to how it sweeps you in; how it engages you in such a way that you’re just experiencing it, almost with analytical functions switched off; or if not “switched off”, turned down low enough so as not to be a distraction. Maybe this is how ‘normal people’ see all films, but as someone who actively studied cinema for six years and has spent nearly a decade-and-a-half reviewing every new thing he sees, it’s rare to find something so engrossing that the mental deconstruction while viewing stops almost entirely. That — in its own, somewhat ephemeral way — is as good a testament to the film’s power and quality as any.

    Of course, to say it turned off my analytical brain entirely is not completely truthful — this is a long way from a Michael Bay-esque “leave your brain at the door” kind of entertainment. What I mean, I suppose, is that I was engaged more purely by the characters and their story, rather than becoming distracted by pondering the filmmaking choices or structural decisions or acting ability or what have you. (The difference here is perhaps a fine line to quantify, I grant you. If you’ve ever studied film in an academic context, I hope you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, I’ve done my best to convey some of the difference.) In this instance, I’m thinking specifically of the film’s leanings towards a sense of Gothic. This element isn’t overt — as it is in, say, Crimson Peak — but it is there, and so my analytical brain was ‘on’ enough to spot that and think it through. while watching. I mean, I’m not claiming that I’m some genius for getting it — there’s a bloody great apparition that’s presented like a key to unlock this facet of the film — but, even with that pointer in hand, it’s not an out-and-out traditionally Gothic tale.

    Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

    Here I’m not talking about Hammer-like ‘Gothic horror’ but ‘Gothic Romance’ (see my Crimson Peak review if you need a refresher on the difference), and ‘romance’ is an even more operative word for Portrait of a Lady on Fire as it’s about two women who realise they’re in love. That realisation takes a while to manifest, so if you’re a total spoilerphobe then you might argue I’ve just ‘ruined’ the movie; but eh, it’s kind of the point (just look at all the publicity materials!) Much has been made of the fact that it’s a lesbian love story told with the female gaze, as writer-director Céline Sciamma is, indeed, a woman. This is not an insignificant factor, but also not one I feel massively qualified to discuss in depth. I do think the way the relationship is handled and depicted comes with a different perspective than you’d expect if there was a man in the director’s chair, though. It’s not so simplistic as the attitude to sex and nudity, though that is part of it (such scenes are not shot with the same lasciviousness you might expect from a male hand on the tiller) — it’s the overall attitude and focus. Plus subplots, including a significant one with a maid, the delve into Women’s Issues with a level of understanding that, again, might be different under a male director.

    The notes I made for myself when I saw the film back in November are frustratingly brief. They include “the music!” and “the sound!”, so let’s take a moment to acknowledge that they are clearly striking elements, while also damning my memory for embarrassing me by not remembering many specifics. That said, the film’s use of music is deliberately sparse, for reasons connected to the story, and so when it is used it’s all the more effective. For some reason my notes don’t mention the cinematography, but maybe I thought that went without saying. It looks gorgeous, with cinematographer Claire Mathon enacting a painterly regard for composition and colour that is wholly appropriate. The rest of my notes conclude with a request: “all the awards for Adèle Haenel please”. Which is to do no disservice to her co-star Noémie Merlant — the film is about their relationship, and so its quality rests on both their shoulders — but in some respects Haenel has the more obvious journey and change.

    This girl is on fire

    The story comes to a head in a moment near the end which made me well up inside. It’s a visual clue that I spotted just ahead of most of the audience I saw it with — I don’t wish to sound boastful here, because I certainly wasn’t the only one even just in that room to spot it ‘early’, but it meant I could also enjoy the audible gasps when the remainder saw it a moment later. My point being: it’s the kind of moment that can provoke an involuntary vocalisation of surprise and delight, and it’s not just me it worked for that way.

    I appreciate that this is another vague kind of appraisal. I feel like I want to abandon a lot of this review and just scream “see it, then you’ll know everything I want to say and everything I feel!” But, of course, art and criticism don’t work like that. You won’t experience the film the exact same way I did, even if I could tell you exactly what I experienced and thereby influence your own experience. And there are even people who dislike this movie, which couldn’t be more opposite to my experience (one of the specific criticisms I’ve seen is that it’s slow, and while it’s true that it moves at a very particular pace, I thought it was just right). But, in the end, that is what this review is for: to urge you to see it, because it is a beautiful, absorbing, moving piece of art.

    5 out of 5

    Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from today.

    It placed 1st on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

    Emma. (2020)

    2020 #20
    Autumn de Wilde | 125 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / PG

    Emma.

    According to IMDb, Jane Austen’s Emma has only been adapted for the big screen twice before — and one of those was Clueless. There have been multiple TV movie and miniseries takes on the novel, though, but as the most recent was over a decade ago I guess someone felt it was about time to trot it out again (after all, every major Dickens and Austen must be adapted for the screen at least once a decade or so, right?)

    Following in the footsteps of the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Beckinsale, and Romola Garai — and, I guess, Alicia Silverstone — in the title role is Anya Taylor-Joy. With her wide eyes, blonde ringleted hair, and silent, still demeanour, Emma is the very vision of loveliness. But, like so many stereotypical outer appearances, her sweet visage masks a manipulative schemer, obsessed with her own matchmaking ability; and, in private, her opinions of others are often not so kind. She is, in short, a bit of a bitch. Taylor-Joy is perfect in the role, doing an awful lot with subtle changes of expression in reaction shots — her Emma may often be silent and still, but she still conveys so much. Some have labelled Taylor-Joy a “scream queen” after her breakthrough roles in the likes of The Witch and Split, but she’s got a lot more range than that label implies.

    Reader, I confess, I am jealous of that strawberry

    Around her is a cast mixed of well-known faces and up-and-comers. For the latter, the standout is Josh O’Connor, who you may recognise from The Durrells, or The Crown, or God’s Own Country, or one of several other roles — he’s been an up-and-comer for a while and is about due a full-on breakthrough, which I guess all of these things combined have or will provide. Anyway, here he’s an obsequious vicar whose manner changes entirely once his true intentions and character are exposed, and O’Connor tackles both sides with the right amount of humour and churlishness. Johnny Flynn brings a rugged edge to Mr Knightley, Emma’s neighbour and lifelong friend, who disapproves of her meddling ways even as he clearly approves of her. Mia Goth brings a convincing wide-eyed innocence to Harriet Smith, a young girl of unknown parentage who Emma takes under her wing with the real motive of once again showing off her matchmaking skills, which is quite at odds with her previous roles in the likes of Nymphomaniac and The Survivalist.

    As to the better-known cast members, Bill Nighy is reliably drily hilarious as Emma’s father, while Miranda Hart injects a lot of her familiar persona into the babbling Mrs Bates, before hitting you with an almost gut-punch of emotion (there were gasps at my screening, dear reader — gasps). Fans of the book / other adaptations will surely know which moment provokes such a response, so there’s the quality of Austen’s original’s storytelling at work there, and also that of the filmmakers and the rest of the cast — the reactions of the other characters; the way they hastily try to cover up the faux pas; and the exposure of Emma’s true character contrasting with the overall sugariness of the way this world has been presented.

    Confectionary

    This is director Autumn de Wilde’s most striking contribution to the story. The colour palette evokes confectionary; the manner of framing and camera moves is sometimes Wes Anderson-esque. If this Austen adaptation lacks the pure satirical bite of, say, Love & Friendship, it counterbalances with a contrast between the prettiness of the design work and the true thoughts, feelings, and schemes of the protagonist.

    Of course, at the end of the day, Emma is a romance, and all’s well that ends well, earned via a flurry of apologies and plotting that lands everyone just where they always ought to have been. I suppose such narrative tidiness is anathema to some, just as are the delightful visuals, the witty dialogue, or the fundamental triviality of a bunch of rich people fussing over each other’s love lives. Well, that’s Jane Austen, people. And, like the elaborate confectionary it so resembles, Emma may not be nutritional, but it is delicious.

    4 out of 5

    Emma. is released in the US today, and is in UK cinemas already.