The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

2015 #112
100 Films in a Year #1000
Mark Cousins | 915 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 15

The Story of Film: An OdysseyWritten, directed, and narrated by film journalist/historian/fan Mark Cousins, The Story of Film: An Odyssey is an epic 15-hour account of innovation throughout the history of moviemaking, which began its premiere broadcast five years ago today. It’s an acclaimed work, to be sure, but one that also attracts its fair share of controversy — about films and filmmakers that Cousins chose to leave out, in some cases about those he chose to include, and about how the documentary itself was made: the oddly framed interviews, the artistic shots of baubles, Cousins’ accent and vocal inflections. (Also, in the context of counting it as part of 100 Films, you may think it’s a TV series. Well, I went over that here.)

In the booklet that accompanies the series’ film’s UK DVD release, Cousins explains how and why the project came about:

There have been histories of the movie genres before, star histories, continental histories, histories of popular cinema, Godard’s essayistic history, etc. But no-one had tried to do a history of innovation in the movies. […] I was angry, too, that movie history is often so parochial, so provincial. We remember Garbo but not the great Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, we worship Pixar but not the great Iranian kids’ films of Mohammed Ali-Talebi. This is blatantly unfair. The playing field is not level. The bullies with massive marketing budgets force their movies on us, whether they’re good or not, thus restricting our choice.

Part of the point of The Story of Film, then, is to widen Western audiences’ understanding of film and its history — a position also not without controversy, but I’ll come back to that.

The original concept was to tell this story over a handful of 90-minute episodes — “three chunky Saturday nights on BBC2 or C4”, as producer John Archer describes it in the DVD’s booklet. Unfortunately, the BBC declared the project was “too big”, which is ironic considering how it ended up. As Cousins describes in this making-of article, to help pitch the series they set out to produce a 10-minute test. When that clocked in at 50 minutes, they realised the final piece would have to be considerably longer than expected. By the time More4 got involved to buy the UK TV rights, the expected running time was 12 hours. It continued to grow, eventually looking like it would finish at 18 hours. Cousins decided this could be honed “to 15 hours but any less and — I told my producer and Tabitha Jackson our Exec Producer at More4 — we’d have to cut out Woody Allen, Robert Altman, people like that… So they gave me 15 hours.”

Those final 15 hours represent tens of thousands of hours of work. Cousins estimates the work needed to prepare and finish the clips from other films (of which there are about 1,000) totalled 20,000 man hours, most of it completed by just Cousins and Archer, working 90-hour weeks on four hours sleep a night, with festival and broadcast deadlines looming. Before that, they spent six years travelling the world — “across China and LA, to Tokyo and the streets of Mumbai, to the urban canyons of New York, the film schools of Paris, to Eisenstein’s Moscow and Bergman’s Sweden” — recording interviews and scene-setting footage. It’s an epic undertaking, whichever way you cut it. As film programmer Thom Powers described it in the TIFF catalogue, “by taking a DIY approach, Cousins preserves an editorial independence that normally gets lost with a bigger budget and committee decision-making. […] After experiencing this history from such a distinctive viewpoint, you may crave similar treatments for music, literature, politics or whatever compels you.”

The end result is indeed a magnificent viewing experience. Cousins’ chosen remit is so wide, and his knowledge so deep, that even the most seasoned cinephile is sure to learn something new at some point. It’s like attending a film course with an immensely well-read lecturer who’s keen to share his accumulated wisdom with you. Indeed, to quote from the man himself again, “in the era of DVD, Blu-ray, streaming and VOD, hundreds of thousands of movies are available, often a click away. At times of such plenitude, it’s easy to get bewildered — what should I watch next? The Story of Film: An Odyssey is […] our passionate suggestions of what to watch next.” Those suggestions encompass the whole history and world of cinema, in a very literal way. This manifestly isn’t just the story of Hollywood and European arthouse — Cousins is also keen to cover the emergent cinema of South America, Africa, and others. Including them isn’t a sop; a case of “everyone gets a prize!” It’s a case of films of genuine import or interest that have been overlooked, for various reasons, and Cousins makes a strong case not only for why these wrongs should be righted, but for why you’d want them to be, too.

Nonetheless, some have criticised the series for its lack of focus on American/Western cinema, which is to spectacularly miss (part of) the point. One of Cousins’ goals is to shake us out of our inward-looking learnt-by-rote Hollywood-centric history of the movies. He’s not seeking to ignore Hollywood, but to share what was going on elsewhere in the world — stuff that, sometimes, Hollywood later appropriated for its own. And besides, I don’t need him to tell me of the rise and fall of the studio system, of the arrival of the film school auteurs, of the birth and growth of the blockbuster, of the indie explosion and near-death, of the rise of a new studio system and the near-dominance of the blockbuster. Some people seem to want a documentary that tells the history of cinema as they already know it; a documentary that does so little to challenge their existing knowledge that they probably could’ve knocked it out themselves given an hour or two. Isn’t it better to have something challenging? Something that says, “you think you know the history of cinema, but are you sure?” Something that shows us something new.

Cousins specifically outlines pretty much all of this in his eight-minute introduction right at the start of the series. He outright says the accepted history of cinema is wrong and needs rewriting. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to accept that he’s right to say that — and whether or not you feel his story adequately makes the case for it will be the deciding factor in whether you should believe him or not — but to expect anything different is to not be paying attention. He also makes clear that it’s the story of innovation in film. Does that make it comprehensive? No, of course not — there are surely many films that aren’t innovative in and of themselves but that are significant and immensely influential. That doesn’t make Cousins wrong to omit them, because that’s not exactly the story he’s telling. But it also validates the argument that this is “a” story of film rather than a catch-all definitive telling of everything important.

The other main complaint about the series seems to concern Cousins’ voice, in particular citing a tendency towards AQI. This might sound like a witless niggle, but when you’re essentially listening to that voice talk for 15 hours, it isn’t a small issue. Personally, I find AQI intensely irritating and so think I’m quite sensitive to it, but I barely heard it at all. In fact, on the whole, I found Cousins’ narration to be uncommonly pleasant, especially as it so often comes with the benefit of some nice, crisp diction. Besides, that upward inflection “is also a feature of several UK dialects, especially in mid-Ulster and Belfast” — guess which city Mr Cousins hails from.

Although The Story of Film works as one (very long) film, it’s also possible to see where the divisions into 15 TV-friendly parts occurred. Here are some of my thoughts on each section, using the titles as found in the DVD booklet (because not everyone agrees on those).

Part One: Birth of the Cinema (1895-1920)

Beginning at the beginning, the opening hour is like a “basics of film” class — it covers all the innovations of framing (close-ups), editing (parallel cutting; the 180 rule), and more. It teaches how films are built to this day from how those rules were discovered and established. When it moves on to things like the birth of the movie star, of special effects, of Hollywood, you realise that so much of what still defines the world of movies was set out back in its very earliest days.

As an opening instalment, it also gives you a sense of Cousins’ stylistic goals for the series. For instance, although this is an artistic history of film (of its concepts, ideas, and meanings), it’s one that’s cognisant of how external real-world forces played a part in that — for example, the American studios being located in Hollywood because of people wanting to avoid the copyrights and patents placed on filmmaking on the East Coast. It also tells the story across the ages at all times. The broad sweep of the narrative structure moves chronologically, but Cousins is unafraid to make connections to films made many decades later to help illustrate a point or to show how ideas or techniques have endured. It’s more effective and informative than remaining slavishly chronological.

Part Two: The Hollywood Dream (1920s)

Sticking with the silent era (more on the significance of that in a minute), this hour covers grand fantasies and romances, like The Thief of Bagdad; the innovations and influence of silent comedians like Keaton, Lloyd and, primarily, Chaplin; and the birth of documentary, not as mere observed non-fiction, but as storytelling in its own right. Cousins asserts that documentary is seen by most as being plainly factual, but it is actually one of the most innovative of all genres. Certainly, there’s more to the construction of documentaries than some people realise.

Even this early in the series, there are so many films of which we get fascinating glimpses — it’s sure to leave you with a massive list of things you want to see. Similarly, it’s so dense with information and analysis that it feels wrong to watch too much at once. It’s like eating too much rich food: you still enjoy it, but you can’t separate it out in your mind, can’t appreciate or process it properly. But then binge watching is all the rage nowadays, so maybe that’s just me. (Or maybe people aren’t appreciating things fully, but that’s a debate for another time.)

Part Three: Expressionism, Impressionism, Surrealism (1920s)

The third hour explicitly concerns the people and movements Cousins sees as alternatives or rebels to ’20s and ’30s cinema, both what they did that was different and how it fed back into the mainstream. We’re talking the likes of impressionism (Abel Gance), expressionism (Caligari), surrealism (Buñuel), the Russians (Eisenstein), the Japanese (Ozu), the Chinese (Ruan Lingyu), and more. All innovated in different ways — ways that were either integrated into common filmmaking, or remain striking and boundary-pushing to this day, almost 100 years later.

Some people write off the silent era as “that funny little bit at the beginning before sound came along”, dismissing a 35-year chunk of culture in a single swipe. That’s like ignoring every film made between 1981 and today (which, in fairness, I suppose some people do). Naturally, Cousins is not so foolhardy: it’s over three hours before he reaches the arrival of sound. When he ends this hour by foreshadowing the coming of sound, it’s constructed like a cliffhanger; not only that, but the narration disappears and is replaced by intertitles, to emphasise the point. This isn’t classical documentary making, but playful, individualistic, and clearly iconoclastic. It’s a personal visual lecture, rather than a glossy, polished, manufactured ‘product’.

Part Four: The Arrival of Sound (1930s)

Sound is obviously an important aspect of movies nowadays, but at first it was almost more of a burden. Cousins argues that its arrival standardised American cinema into only six genres: horror, Western, gangster, comedy, musical, and animation. It’s an interesting contention — I suppose his broader point is that Hollywood atrophied, to an extent; its camerawork certainly did, at least at first — but it doesn’t sound quite extensive enough. I mean, surely they made romances?

Still, it’s easy to let such things slide when Cousins is busy drawing fascinating links elsewhere. Here, he discusses the contrast between the white light of Westerns (films about an idealistic age when laws were made) and the dirty light of gangster pictures (films about a dying world where lawbreakers are the heroes of a cynical age, when the making of the laws is long forgotten). These two genres co-exist, yet don’t consciously interact — except in the mind of the filmgoer, when we see both types of picture and can draw such links; links that none of the filmmakers involved ever intended, but which are unquestionably there. Cousins draws out these connections beautifully.

Finally, Cousins paints the ’30s as being about the American genres vs. innovation in European cinema, before taking us to London to meet a man who was both a great genre filmmaker and great innovator: Alfred Hitchcock. Britain bridging the gap between Europe and the US? Twas ever thus.

Part Five: Post-War Cinema (1940s)

Hitchcock said cinema is life with the boring bits cut out; the neo-realists said cinema is the boring bits. That probably explains why I’ve yet to enjoy anything neo-realist. Aside from that, Cousins gives us a nice big chunk on film noir and how it combined multiple influences, and covers the importance of Welles, Stagecoach, and The Third Man, which Cousins thinks encapsulates all of ’40s cinema. As you can see, this is not a documentary maker who’s ignoring established and well-known texts, but is perhaps more selective about which merit inclusion.

From a filmmaking perspective, between the film clips the series is what you might call “artistically shot” — there are very few talking heads; it’s all narrated by Cousins; and there’s lots of metaphorical imagery, some blatant (to represent the bauble of Hollywood we have… a bauble on a tree near Hollywood), others more ephemeral. However, at this point in the series we begin to see more taking heads, because we’re reaching eras where people (or people-who-knew-people) are still alive. It feels like a consequence of that is more close readings of specific films and/or filmmakers, with the series moving away from the “film theory” feel of earlier episodes a little bit, more into the territory of being the story of what occurred.

Part Six: Sex & Melodrama (1950s)

Talking of filmmaking technique, Cousins chooses to frame every interview differently. You might think it amateurism, not knowing how to frame interviewees consistently, but it was a conscious choice. He was, presumably, trying to convey something with how he framed them. Whether that was a worthwhile exercise or not is another matter. It certainly comes across as highly idiosyncratic at times.

At this point, the story of film is really increasingly global: there are great films in America, Britain, Europe, and Japan, as you might expect, but also Egypt, India, and Latin America. On the surface, the different films of these different countries are completely different. Underneath, Cousins demonstrates, they’re linked by trying to come to terms with a new, changing world, repressed emotions bursting forth, and sex. Lots of sex.

Part Seven: European New Wave (1960s)

Cousins begins by tackling the new waves led by four European directors: Bergman, Fellini, Bresson, Tati. There are a couple of significant directors missing from what one typically thinks of as “new wave” there, but this isn’t Cousins being deliberately controversial: after talking about the innovations of those four, he says the directors of the French New Wave came along and “carpet bombed” their revolutions, describing Godard as “the greatest movie terrorist”.

Here, Baz Luhrmann (believe it or not) makes a nice point about changing styles: the Nouvelle Vague wasn’t “real life”, it was an artifice, but an artifice that rejected the big costumes, pretty shots, vibrant colours, and romanticism of mainstream American cinema; and eventually that artifice came back in to fashion, and eventually it will be rejected again. Everything is cyclical, which is practically a philosophy for all life. Luhrmann compares it to language: the words change but the message remains the same; people always say “I love you” or “I want to kill you”, but how they say it is just fashion.

Part Eight: New Directors, New Form (1960s)

As the ’60s continue, new waves and revolutions are everywhere. There’s the Eastern Bloc and the cinema of protest (“rebels with a cause”, as Cousins puts it) and even more new, radical filmmakers in Japan, Africa, Iran, even the UK: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Kes, A Hard Day’s Night. It’s interesting to see very familiar films of British cinema put into this context — Ken Loach discusses the influence of Czech film on Kes, for instance.

Not even America is exempt. In a world where JFK, Malcolm X, and a million civilians in Vietnam protests were all murdered, and where cinema attendance was falling as people stayed home with TV, there were radical filmmakers Stateside too — including Hitchcock! Psycho, for instance, which eschews Hollywood gloss with its plain costumes, plain locations, and plain black & white photography, which Cousins aligns with documentary-influenced independent cinema. More obviously, there was Easy Rider. It was innovative, throwing all kinds of techniques at the screen, and appealed to young people who were fed up with conservative mainstream cinema and wanted something groundbreaking, forward-thinking, revolutionary — and it was a box office hit. The series gets you in the mindset to go beyond the connections Cousins draws and begin to make links yourself. Like, if this is how film as a medium, and society as a whole, seems always to have moved forward, then what thrilling revolutions can we see young people flocking to in the modern day? Disney superhero movies. Belated sequels to childhood favourites. Adaptations of socially conservative novels aimed at teenagers. Oh. Such contrast between then and now is a bit depressing, really.

Cousins concludes by saying this era of innovativeness wasn’t permanent — the ’70s would bring old-fashioned romantic entertaining cinema. As per Luhrmann’s theory, “what goes around comes around”, essentially. To be more positive about modern movies, I suppose this is an era we’re in now. I guess you could conflate the indie boom of the ’90s with the ’60s, or the auteur side of the ’70s; while the post-millennial special effects blockbusters are the latest incarnation of the Star Wars/Jaws/etc-driven ’80s. But then again, blockbusters also existed in the ’90s, and popular indie movies exist now — so how do you decide what’s the dominant form of an era? Is that purely the job of history — what gets remembered best. But what about when they all get remembered, as with the ’90s? I’ve diverged wildly into my own half-conceived theories here, but as if to back up my point about a time being more than one thing, the ’70s are about to get three whole episodes…

Part Nine: American Cinema of the 70s

In the first part on the ’70s, Cousins identifies three types of American auteurs/arthouse: mockery/satire (Buck Henry), dissident films that challenged conventional style (Charles Burnett), and assimilationist movies that told studio genre-style stories with new techniques (Robert Towne). Flying in the face of that criticism about Cousins ignoring US/Western films, in most eras he comes back to America, its story and innovations, after he’s done everywhere else. The exceptions are the birth of Hollywood in the ’20s and the radical ’70s, when he starts with America. Does Cousins want to get these famed and fêted eras in the US out of the way before he moves on to elsewhere, to avoid the nagging “but what about [major US film / director / movement]” question that many viewers would be troubled about otherwise? I doubt he’s so concerned with what you or I are pondering. Rather, these are the times when American cinema was most genuinely innovative (at least in Cousins’ opinion).

Part Ten: Movies to Change the World (1970s)

In the second part of the ’70s, Cousins has a particularly bold assertion: “Performance was not only the greatest ’70s film about identity. If any movie in the whole story of film should be compulsory viewing for filmmakers, maybe this is it.” I’ve not seen it, so I couldn’t say whether I agree or not, but it’s an unusual claim.

Cousins rattles round the globe here (Germany, Japan, Italy, Australia), but the most interesting part comes in Burkina Faso. Today, tens of thousands of people there attend the opening of a film festival. Local director Gaston Kaboré argues that consuming film from other countries is interesting, but if that’s all you do then your lose your uniqueness, your own way of seeing and thinking, your identity. This is exactly what continues to happen in countries that primarily consume American movies — they are increasingly Americanised. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to argue that Britain is one of the worst hit by this. Unlike other countries, we have governments with no serious interest in supporting a national cinema, and the lack of a language barrier between us and the US (only aided by the internet, both in terms of global conversation and media piracy) has created an ever-strengthening supply-and-demand culture across both TV and film. Of course, it can go both ways: look at all the British TV series that have had relatively large US success in the past few years. Somehow I think it’s had more of an impact on our little island, though.

Part Eleven: The Arrival of Multiplexes and Asian Mainstream (1970s)

As Cousins closes out his three-hour overview of the ’70s, we (or I) find ourselves in much more familiar territory: first Hong Kong, for the Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee, John Woo, Tsui Hark, A Better Tomorrow, Once Upon a Time in China, Dragon Inn, Iron Monkey… then India, for Bollywood and Sholay… then the Middle East, with films about Mohammad and recent events… and then, most recognisable of all to Western audiences, and most influential of all to the world, Hollywood — Jaws, The ExorcistStar Wars. In all instances, this is cinema that moved away from intellectual thought and hard-hitting realism, and more towards feeling, sensation, emotion, fantasy. These things come and go (Luhrmann’s point about the cyclical nature of it all being perhaps the most pertinent observation of the entire series), but it’s hard to argue against the developments of the ’70s still being an influence today.

Part Twelve: Fight the Power: Protest in Film (1980s)

Much of this series is about things that are important within the world of film, but here we find movies that literally changed the world — like A Short Film About Killing, which contributed to the abolition of the death penalty in Poland. Elsewhere, director John Sayles and his producer/partner Maggie Renzi give birth to the methodology of what we now know as American independent cinema. Renzi says that Hollywood doesn’t even do what Hollywood does very well anymore — that it takes nine writers to produce a screenplay no better than the first draft — and she’s probably right.

While the list of “films that look worth seeing” continues to grow, sometimes the speed at which they pass by makes it tricky to know how worth seeing they are. For example, in this hour Cousins discusses Yeelen, describing it as “one of cinema’s most complex works of art”. Based on a Malian legend, telling of a heroic quest featuring magic and precognition, it sounds interesting, but it’s also hard to infer if it’s complex in a good, interesting way or in a frustrating, pretentious way.

Part Thirteen: New Boundaries: World Cinema in Africa, Asia, Latin America (1990s)

With only a couple of hours left(!), Cousins reaches modern concerns — here, it’s the last hurrah of celluloid and realism, before digital and fakery took over. Part of Cousins’ thesis seems to be that world cinema filmmakers were reacting to fantasy cinema by trying to show the real world, but that became a last gasp before fantasy cinema took over. It’s almost like a battle for the fate of cinema, between realism and fantasy; and fantasy won. So we have Dogme 95 and La Haine, but also Iranian filmmakers who played with form and reality, like making fictional versions of true stories using the real people; or Abbas Kiarostami, who made a film, then made a film about searching for the actors from that film, then made a film about an incident from the making of the second film. And fantasy and reality collide in places, like Michael Haneke and Funny Games, where the evil youths wink at the camera and rewind life like we rewind videos. That was groundbreaking, and obviously only possible in the home video era when rewinding, y’know, existed.

Part Fourteen: New American Independents & The Digital Revolution (1990s)

As we get closer to today, you find more and more references to the past. Is film coming full circle? Or at least becoming more self-aware; referencing itself more often. We’re talking Tarantino’s post-modern screenplays, the Coen brother’s re-appropriation of classic genres and imagery, Gus Van Sant’s film-history-aware visuals, the satire of Paul Verhoeven, Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant romanticisation of real life, and so on. It makes you think: is this the absolutely perfect time to be making a major “history of film” documentary?

It also reminds you that style or genre do not have to negate substance. Starship Troopers was born out of Verhoeven’s desire to make a film about young men coming into the prime of their lives at an exciting time for their country when everything was developing — that time and country being Germany in 1935, and the men being excited by Nazism. No Hollywood studio would ever make that movie, of course, but take those themes and do them as science fiction…

Part Fifteen: Cinema Today and the Future (2000s)

Unsurprisingly, the concluding hour feels somewhat less clear about what was particularly innovative and what exactly was going on that was most significant — it’s coming up to the present day and looking to the future, which is too recent to get a proper handle on. Nonetheless, Cousins does find genuine innovation, like the single-take Russian Ark. It’s not a film I liked, and even the analysis here incidentally alludes to why: you need to know what you’re seeing, and the context of what came next (in history) to get the point. If your knowledge of Russian history isn’t on the money, if you don’t know what you’re seeing depicted and what came after it, the film offers you no succour, and feels aimless. But innovative? Yes. Indeed, it’s a filmmaking feat that has only recently been emulated.

Talking of emulation, it seems unlikely anyone else will make a documentary as comprehensive and insightful as what Cousins has achieved here. For anyone serious about a love of film, it is a must-see. That doesn’t mean you’ll always agree with it, or accept it as the definitive telling of the story of motion pictures, but it is nonetheless a wide-reaching and thoroughly educational overview of what is arguably modern times’ most significant artform.

5 out of 5

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

aka Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens

2015 #191
J.J. Abrams | 135 mins | cinema (3D) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
5 nominations

Nominated: Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects.




Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not the best film of 2015. Not according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, anyway, who didn’t see fit to nominate it for Best Picture at tomorrow’s Oscars. Many fans disagree, some vociferously, but was it really a surprise? The Force Awakens is a blockbuster entertainment of the kind the Academy rarely recognise. Okay, sci-fi actioner Mad Max: Fury Road is among this year’s nominees, but with its hyper-saturated cinematography and stylised editing, it is action-extravaganza as art-film, further evidenced by some people’s utter bafflement at how anyone can like a film so devoid of story or character. (It isn’t, of course — those people are wrong.)

I’m sure the makers of Star Wars can rest easy, though, what with it being the highest grossing film ever at the US box office (at $924m and counting, it’s the first movie to take over $800m, never mind $900m), and third-ever worldwide (behind only Titanic and Avatar, both of which had re-releases to compound their tallies). Its reception has been largely positive too, with many fans proclaiming it the third or fourth best Star Wars movie — which doesn’t sound so hot, but when two of those previous films are unimpeachable all-time favourites, being third is an achievement. There are many dissenting voices though, disappointed thanks to their perception that it’s just a rehash of A New Hope, and that it’s a movie short on original ideas but long on modern-blockbuster bluster and noise.

I think, at this point, one or two other people on the internet have written the odd word about The Force Awakens — you have to really go looking, but trust me, there are some articles out there. (Of course, by “one or two other people” I really mean “everybody else”, and by “the odd word” I mean “hundreds of thousands of millions of words”. And by “have” I mean “has”, for grammatical accuracy in this completely-revised sentence).

I too could talk about the likeable new heroes; the triumphant return of old favourites; the underuse of other old favourites; Daisy Ridley’s performance; John Boyega’s performance; the relationship between Rey and Finn; the relationship between Finn and Poe; the success of Kylo Ren and General Hux as villains (well, I thought they were good); the terrible CGI of Supreme Leader Snoke; the ridiculous overreaction to the alleged underuse of Captain Phasma; that awesome fight between the stormtrooper with that lightning stick thing and Finn with the lightsaber; the mystery of Rey’s parentage; the mystery of who Max von Sydow was meant to be (and if we’ll ever find out); some elaborate theory about why Ben wasn’t called Jacen (there must be one — elaborate theories that will never be canon are what fandoms are good for); the way it accurately emulates the classic trilogy’s tone; the way it’s basically a remake of A New Hope; the way it isn’t that much of a remake of A New Hope; why ring theory and parallelism makes all this OK anyway; all of its nods to the rest of the saga; that death scene; that ending; those voices in that vision; and the single greatest part of the entire movie: BB-8 giving a thumbs up.

But I won’t talk about any of that. Not now, anyway. Instead, for an angle of moderate uniqueness, I’ll talk about the five elements of the film that have been singled out for recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Editing
J.J. Abrams seems to have tricked some people into thinking he’s a great director with The Force Awakens (rather than just a helmer of workmanlike adequacy (when he’s not indulging his lens flare obsession, at which point he’s not workmanlike but is inadequate)), and I think that’s partly because it’s quite classically made. Yeah, it’s in 3D, but the style of shots used and — of most relevance right now — the pace of the editing help it feel in line with the previous Star Wars movies. Some of the more outrageous shots (often during action sequences) stand out precisely because they’re outside this norm. Perhaps we take for granted that Abrams delivered a movie in keeping with the rest of the series, because that’s The Right Thing To Do, but that doesn’t mean he had to do it. And the transitional wipes are there too, of course.

Score
Ah, John Williams — 83 years old and still going strong. Or still going, at any rate. I’m not the most musically-minded viewer, unless something really stands out to me. I don’t remember anything in Williams’ Force Awakens score standing out. Not that there’s anything wrong with it per se, but I didn’t notice anything new that has the impact of The Imperial March or Duel of the Fates (for all of the prequels’ faults, they at least gave us that). In Oscar terms, it’s apparently not looking so hot for Williams either: his return to a galaxy far, far away is being trumped by Ennio Morricone’s return to the West.

Sound Mixing & Sound Editing
No one knows what the difference is between these two categories. I’m not even sure that people who work in the industry know. As a layperson, it’s also the kind of thing you tend to only notice when it’s been done badly. The Force Awakens’ sound was not bad. It all sounded suitably Star Wars-y, as far as I could tell. That’s about all I could say for it. It feels like these are categories that get won either, a) on a sweep, or b) on a whim, so who knows who’ll take them on the night?

Visual Effects
CGI is everywhere nowadays, and at the top end of the game it seems like it’s much-for-muchness in the photorealism department. So what dictates the best of the best, the most award-worthy? Well, innovations are still being made, they’re just less apparent in the end product, it would seem: reportedly there are a load of workflow-type innovations behind the scenes on Star Wars, which improved consistency, as well as some better ways of achieving things that were already achievable.

Nonetheless, for a franchise with which they have a long, close history, it’s understandable that ILM pulled out all their tricks here — fairly literally: they even used forced perspective to extend some sets, rather than the now-standard digital set extension (green screen + CG background). Most notably, a lot of BB-8 was done with working models and puppetry. Of course that’s still computer aided, be it with wire and rod removal or some bits of animation, but it still lends the droid greater presence and physicality. That kind of grounded, make-it-real mindset pervades — the effects team exercised “restraint […] applying the basic filmmaking lessons of the first trilogy,” according to this article from Thompson on Hollywood. Effects supervisor Roger Guyett says that attitude was about being “very specific about what the shot was about. And making it feel like you were photographing something that was happening.”

In terms of whether it will win or not, well, take your pick of the predictors. Some say Fury Road will sweep the technical categories, presumably in lieu of it winning any of the big-ticket prizes. Star Wars was the big winner at the Visual Effects Society awards though, which have predicted the Oscar on nine of the past 13 occasions. The times it’s failed have generally been prestige films that happen to have effects kicking blockbusters off their pedestal, like Hugo beating Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, or Interstellar beating Rise of the Planet of the Apes (the Academy clearly hates those damned dirty apes). With The Revenant taking secondary honours at VES, perhaps that’ll be an unlikely Oscar victor.

In truth, I don’t think any of those are the best things about The Force Awakens. What really works for it are the characters, the relationships, the pace of the story (rehashed or not), the overall tone. It was never going to get major awards in the categories that recognise those achievements (acting, writing, directing), and, frankly, those elements aren’t gone about in an awards-grabbing fashion anyway. In the name of blockbuster entertainment, however, they’re all highly accomplished.

With the good ship Star Wars relaunched under a sure hand and with a surfeit of familiarity to help steady the ride, hopefully future Episodes can really push the boat out.

5 out of 5

Star Wars: The Force Awakens placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Paddington (2014)

2015 #182
Paul King | 95 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English | PG / PG

The signs weren’t good for Paddington as it geared up for release: its star voice actor, Colin Firth, pulled out late in production; on posters, the CGI lead character looked like the personification of the uncanny valley; and the BBFC rating that cited “sex references” made it sound like it had entirely the wrong tone for an adaptation of a beloved classic children’s book. But these portents were quickly consigned to history when the film received an adulatory response from critics and audiences alike.

The story follows young bear Paddington (in the end voiced by Ben Whishaw) as he leaves his native Peru in search of a new home in London. There he temporarily falls in with the Brown family: reluctant father Henry (Hugh Bonneville), hippyish mum Mary (Sally Hawkins), moody teenage daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris), keen son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), and their barmy housekeeper, Mrs Bird (Julie Walters). As they try to find Paddington a permanent home, he comes to the attention of museum taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman), who wants to add him to her permanent collection…

Paddington is a fine example of why you can’t judge a film by its marketing, because the critics were right: this is a joyous, funny movie; a delight for all ages. It also shows that sometimes euphemistic PR phrases like “creative differences” or “we agreed he wasn’t right for the part” aren’t actually euphemistic at all: Firth would’ve been all wrong for Paddington, at least as he’s realised here, and so his departure was a wise move for the sake of the character. Whishaw, on the other hand, nails it, his boyish tones being resolutely character-appropriate.

The rest of the cast are all very safe pairs of hands, meaning viewers can rest easy that, if there is a weak link, it won’t come from the performances. This is further cemented by supporting turns from the likes of (in order of appearance) Geoffrey Palmer, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon, Matt Lucas, Peter Capaldi, and Jim Broadbent, plus a host of faces viewers may recognise from British TV comedy.

Fortunately, the screenplay (by director Paul King) is no slouch either. The film mixes various styles of comedy, as verbal humour rubs shoulders with pure slapstick, sight gags sit alongside witty spoofery, and there’s even a spot of pantomime-esque cross-dressing. This isn’t a case of “throw everything at the screen and see what sticks”, though. There’s a resolutely good-natured tone that’s liable to keep a smile on your face, and perhaps even win over more sceptical audience members — just as the initially-grumpier members of the Brown clan are too.

Inevitably a sequel is in development, but King is reportedly being given as much time as he feels he needs to get it right — always a good thing. Whenever it rolls around, I suspect it will be met with considerably fewer doubts. Not pandering to the criticisms of its pre-release hype, Paddington emerges with a sure-handed approach and material that merits such confidence. A delightful movie for viewers of any age.

4 out of 5

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

2015 #198
Ernst Lubitsch | 108 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

My first experience of Lubitsch’s US output concerns a man who arrives on Hell’s doorstep and reflects on his life to explain why he’s there.

It starts brilliantly: the bookend scenes are excellent, and the early parts of the plot are buoyed by consistent wit and enjoyable characters, particularly Charles Coburn as a slyly raucous grandfather. As it heads into its second half, it loses momentum and focus, the most entertaining characters disappear, and it takes its time plodding to a finale.

An enjoyable film with a lot of amusement value, just a little too long for its own good.

4 out of 5

AfterDeath (2015)

2015 #197
Gez Medinger & Robin Schmidt | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18*

A woman wakes up on a beach in the middle of the night. Stumbling away, she comes across a beach house with three strangers inside. They establish that the last thing they remember was being in a nightclub when there was some kind of accident, and then they woke up here. Fortunately, they’re not stupid and quickly twig this place is some kind of afterlife, then begin to work out how to get out — not that they’re helped by the lighthouse beam which causes immense pain, or that if they run away from the house they end up back at the house, or the vicious smoke-monster that’s flying around…

A low-budget British single-location thriller with a mostly unknown cast (the lead is Miranda Raison, who you may recognise from Spooks, 24: Live Another Day, or even things that aren’t about spies), AfterDeath mainly trades on the mystery established by its situation. The characters are quickly sketched and somewhat archetypal, and the twists in their storylines aren’t all that surprising, but combined with the relatively brisk running time this means they crack on with trying to solve what’s going on. There are some familiar elements to this (the looping ‘world’), but also ideas fresh enough to keep it watchable.

Hampering that watchability is the ugly digital cinematography. There’s always the possibility this was affected by the fact I was watching via streaming, but I normally get next-best-thing-to-Blu-ray quality from Amazon Instant Video (where I watched this, obviously) so I’m inclined to think it’s just the shooting and grading choices of the filmmakers. The end result is frequently murky, making the film look like it was shot or finished on cheap equipment, exacerbating the low-budget feel in a negative way.

AfterDeath is billed in part as a horror, emphasised by the skull imagery used on the poster. It’s not particularly scary though, so if you’re after that kind of thrill then it’s one to miss. As single-location mysteries go, it’s not remarkably original or exceptionally engaging, but the story and its revelations are solidly executed and the whole is decently performed, providing you don’t strain your eyes trying to see what’s happening.

3 out of 5

* The film doesn’t actually have a BBFC certificate, but the trailer is rated 18. ^

Spectre (2015)

2015 #168
Sam Mendes | 148 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Regular readers will remember I shared my spoiler-free thoughts on Spectre when it came out. Consequently, this review contains major spoilers, of the “if you read this you will know every twist that happens in the movie” variety.

The 24th official James Bond movie had a funny old ride on its cinema release a few months ago. It started well, with near-universal praise from UK critics; audience reaction was more mixed but erred towards the positive; then US critics tore into it, and US audiences (as usual) followed suit. The latter seems to have become the more accepted view, with the consensus seemingly that it’s decent enough, but a definite step down from the high of Skyfall and a middle-of-the-road instalment in the context of the entire series.

Spectre sees Bond (Daniel Craig) charged by dead-M (a Judi Dench cameo) with tracking down an assassin, as a way in to a secretive organisation that Bond’s other recent nemeses seem to have been a part of. While new-M (Ralph Fiennes) is distracted in London dealing with MI5 upstart Denbigh (Andrew Scott) and his dubious information-sharing plan that will make MI6 obsolete, Bond follows a trail of breadcrumbs to Rome, Austria, and Africa as he attempts to track down the organisation’s leader (Christoph Waltz).

That’s the foreshortened version of the plot, because much of Spectre plays like a detective movie: Bond uncovers clues that send him in new directions moving closer and closer to his goal. Where this falls down is there’s no mystery for him to unearth, at least not to the audience. We (and he) know this secret organisation exists, and we also know who’s in charge — it’s pretty hard to have not heard that Christoph Waltz is playing a Bond villain. So what twist does the film wheel out to keep this worthwhile? Is Waltz actually a front for the real villain? No. Perhaps there will be an incredible reveal about who Waltz’s character really is? Well…

Spectre, to put it bluntly, pulls a Star Trek Into Darkness — and considering writer Damon Lindelof recently admitted they’d messed up the reveal that (spoiler!) Benedict Cumberbatch was actually Khan (and J.J. Abrams admitted they’d messed up the film more generally, but that’s another issue), it’s a shame Spectre tried to repeat the same trick. So yes, as everyone predicted since the day he was cast, Waltz is playing Blofeld. The problem is, the film plays this as a twist/reveal, but it’s not a revelation to the characters, only to the viewer. In this interview with Empire magazine, director Sam Mendes says that not revealing Blofeld’s identity to the viewing public in advance was important because it’s a detective story and Bond doesn’t know the identity of the ‘murderer’, and we shouldn’t know before Bond. Which is poppycock, frankly, because the name Blofeld means nothing to Bond — the revelation for him is that his deceased childhood acquaintance is, a) alive, b) has become a super-villain, and c) has spent the last few years deliberately toying with Bond because of some childhood grudge. That’s why it’s just like the Khan ‘twist’: it means absolutely bugger all to the characters, but it does mean something to the audience. I’m certain there were ways to handle it in-film to make it work both ways — to make it a twist that Oberhauser is also Blofeld — but they don’t pursue that option even a little bit. And of course we all knew anyway, so it feels even sillier. If they’d played the “someone else we’re keeping secret might be Blofeld” game — if there’d been some misdirection to make us thing Denbigh would be unmasked as the big man behind it all — maybe it would’ve worked. But they didn’t.

For me, this is the point where the whole film went off the boil. It occurs at the start of a torture scene, which I thought was an over-complicated wannabe-Casino Royale sequence that consequently doesn’t work, and provides the gateway to an underwhelming final section in London. It seems the film’s third act was always a problem — if you read about what was revealed by the Sony leaks (in this coverage, for example), it’s clear the film entered production with the climax still not nailed down, because no one could quite agree on it. From that article, it indeed sounds like most of the film remained the same (or at least near enough), but the third act has definitely been re-worked, albeit retaining the same general thrust. I still don’t think it works. There’s too much of M, Q and Moneypenny sat in an office trying to stop a man typing something into a computer (more on this in a minute), while Bond is busy running around a building and shooting at a helicopter. Personally, I’d’ve thrown it out and started again, but I guess they’d run out of time, and maybe it was better than the alternative.

The leaked draft also ended with Bond executing Blofeld, shooting him in the head at point blank range. The studio thought this callous. In the finished film, he spares him, the movie justifying this as Bond rejecting his former life as a government assassin to go off and be with the woman he’s fallen completely in love with in the last three days. Was it Sony’s note that changed Blofeld’s fate, or a desire to keep Bond’s Moriarty in play for future instalments? I guess we’ll find out once Bond 25 starts ramping up. I wouldn’t mind seeing a good deal more of Waltz in the role. In Spectre he’s almost entirely constrained to the third act, thanks to that attempt at a twist; now he’s been established, surely next time they can let him loose across the entire movie? Reports indicate the return or otherwise of Waltz will hinge on Craig’s decision about returning (despite ‘news’ to the contrary last week, this seems to still be up in the air), so we’ll have to wait and see on both fronts.

Back to the issue of M, Q and Moneypenny. I’ve seen critics of the film assert that it was a mistake to cast actors of the calibre of Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and Ben Whishaw only to give them so little to do. This tickles me a little, because if anything I thought they played too large a role. All three have their place within a Bond narrative, and that place may have changed somewhat over the years (particularly with regards to Moneypenny), but it feels like we spend as much time with them saving the day as with Bond. This isn’t Mission: Impossible — it isn’t a team effort. Is it realistic that a lone agent goes around saving the world? No, of course it isn’t, and it never was; but the point of Bond has never been realism. And besides, the reason you cast quality actors in minor roles is so they can pop in for a day or two and make their one scene exceptionally good. Bulk their part up if you’ve got a story to tell, by all means, but don’t shoehorn them in just because you’ve got them. For my money, Spectre is too much doing the latter.

I could go on and on about a Bond movie (as anyone who’s read my 5,000 words on Skyfall will know), and obviously there are whole swathes of the film I’ve not touched on (the girls, the gadgets, the titles, that bloody song, the action sequences, the emptiness of Rome’s streets), but for now I’ll finish off with some more thoughts on that Mendes interview. (If you’re interested in “why we did that” behind-the-scenes stuff, do read the whole thing — there’s more interesting stuff there than I’m going to mention.) For starters, he reveals that the memorable opening “single take” is actually four shots stitched together, and challenges you to spot the cuts. It’s a fantastic opener, but, to be frank, I don’t think the transitions are that hard to ascertain. (From memory: there’s definitely one as they enter the building, another before they enter the hotel room, and the third is somewhere around when Bond climbs out the window onto the rooftops).

Despite the Sony leaks, Mendes thinks Bond killing Blofeld was never an option. He says it’s “sewn into the fabric of the film” that the story takes a man who kills for a living (and states as much at one point) to a position where he chooses not to kill. See too: M saying a licence to kill is also a licence not to kill; and the idea that, to Blofeld, being exposed and incarcerated is worse than being killed. This is a thematic thread the film arguably gets right, though sending Bond off to a “happy ending” seems a risky strategy when it comes to luring back a leading man they hope to retain but who may prefer to leave. Or perhaps they’re just planning to go On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on us. Mendes also says the ending was deliberately written as a way for Craig to leave, intending it to be an in-film conclusion that would serve as an exit if he chose not to come back, but which was also open enough that he could return without it being implausible. Time will tell which it will be.

As I mentioned in my ‘initial thoughts’ piece, it takes time and repeated viewings to settle a film into a ranking among the Bond pantheon… but it’s no fun just waiting, so let’s have a crack now. The broadest way of categorising that is, “is Spectre top ten material?” As a widely divisive Bond film, everyone’s going to have a very different opinion (when don’t they?), but when I tried to list my top ten Bond films for the sake of comparison, I got easily into double digits before I began to consider Spectre. Maybe I’m being too harsh now — I did fundamentally like it for most of the running time, but there are niggles throughout and the last couple of reels left a sour taste. For a film that should build on the excellence of Casino Royale and Skyfall, as well as finally fulfil a decade-long promise to restore more “classic Bond” elements to the franchise, it wasn’t all it could’ve been.

4 out of 5

Spectre is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Extended Edition (2014/2015)

2015 #180a
Peter Jackson | 164 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & New Zealand / English | 15 / R

I just started shooting the movie with most of it not prepped at all. You’re going on to a set and you’re winging it. You’ve got these massively complicated scenes, no storyboards, and you’re making it up there and then on the spot […] I went to our producers and the studio and said […] ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing now.’

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - Extended EditionSo says Peter Jackson in the special features accompanying this extended cut of his trilogy-closing saga-ending sixth Middle-earth movie, as widely reported on the set’s release back in November. Similar comments are echoed repeatedly throughout the special features, like how on Lord of the Rings they had racks and racks of metal orc helmets finished a whole year before they were needed for filming, whereas on The Hobbit they were delivering such props to set on the morning they were required for the shoot.

Another revelation: by making the late-in-the-day decision to split the intended two Hobbit movies into three, Jackson gained a whole year to prep and shoot the gigantic (sub)titular battle scene that forms the climax to his telling of Tolkien’s story. Various reasons have been suggested for Jackson and/or the producers’ trilogy-making decision, from genuine artistic intent, to poorly managed storytelling, to pure greed. In the wake of those special features, this new one — that everyone was making it up as they went along, too deep in to see the bigger picture, and desperate for a way to gain some time to get a handle on what they were doing — seems the most plausible of them all.

In the end, The Hobbit films are what they are. What, if anything, does extending the last one by 19½ minutes bring to the table? Well, as with The Desolation of Smaug, the third film counterintuitively doesn’t feel as overlong (note: as overlong) in the extended cut as it did in the theatrical, but I’d attribute that more to the re-watch factor than the extra scenes and moments making it magically quicker. The new material isn’t scattered about as freely as it is in the Lord of the Rings extensions, but instead is largely confined to three or four wholly-new scenes and some short additions throughout the battle, plus largely-immaterial alterations to the effects in existing footage. Anyone interested in a six-page account of every little change can find those details here.

War, huh, what is it good for? Chariots.Most obvious, and most discussed, is the dwarves’ war chariot action scene, whose bloody decapitations saw the film earn an R in the US and 15 over here. A seven-minute action sequence in the middle of the battle, it’s by far the largest single addition, and is mainly notable for all that blood and its use of the word “jambags”. Somewhat ironically, the sequence was a last-minute addition (the physical chariot was the last thing built for the films), which even as they’re shooting it Jackson acknowledges is an indulgence, and then of course it got bumped to the extended edition for being just that.

Elsewhere: the brief funeral scene at the end is good; more Billy Connolly is more Billy Connolly; an extended fight at Dol Guldur proves you didn’t need the Smaug confrontation to provide some up-front adrenaline; some extra comedy is uncomfortably, inappropriately silly; I don’t think there’s more of Ryan Gage’s over-featured Alfrid, thank goodness, other than that he’s treated to a death scene — hurrah! Fans who had hoped for more of Beorn fighting in the final battle get their wish… for all of ten seconds (literally). No wonder they weren’t best pleased.

In the comments on my review of the extended second film, I assessed that film’s new scenes between Gandalf and Thorin’s mentally-fractured father Thrain should pay off in the third film when Gandalf re-encountered a gold-mad Thorin. And… they don’t. At all. Gandalf the warriorNot a sausage, unless I missed something. It didn’t bother me too much because, quite frankly, I can’t quite remember what it was all about; but when I inevitably watch the extended trilogy back to back one day, it may do then. That said, I can’t imagine it’s a major fault, but again highlights the built-on-the-fly, ill-thought-through state of expanding The Hobbit 2 into The Hobbit 2 and 3.

That The Battle of the Five Armies feels less overlong on a second viewing demonstrates how draggy films come about in the first place: sat in an edit suite for weeks or months, watching a film over and over (and over) again, the material must become so familiar that you lose any sense of perspective about its length or pace. Nonetheless, I still feel The Hobbit would’ve been best served in two films, or by allowing Parts 2 and 3 to run considerably shorter than your usual Middle-earth excursion. Fans have already cut together book-faithful edits of the entire trilogy, which I believe run something like four hours. Maybe that would’ve been best of all.

4 out of 5

In case you missed it, my review of the theatrical cut can be read here.

Dressed to Kill (1946)

aka Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code / Prelude to Murder

2015 #200
Roy William Neill | 69 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Dressed to KillIn the seven-and-a-bit years between 31st March 1939 and 7th June 1946, there were a total of 14 films released starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. By coincidence rather than design, I’ve spent nearly eight years viewing and reviewing them all for this blog — so yes, it’s taken me a little longer to watch them than it did to make them, which is ridiculous, but there you go.

This final film in the series sees Holmes in pursuit of a criminal gang who are on the trail of three music boxes, and are prepared to kill to acquire them. The boxes were all made by a prisoner and contain coded messages which, when combined and decoded, will reveal the location of stolen Bank of England printing plates — a literal licence to print money. Well, apart from the licence bit, because it would be illegal. But you get what I mean.

The Rathbone Holmes series was only sporadically adapted from the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but this entry takes loose inspiration from several tales. The use of secret codes is reminiscent of The Dancing Men (previously the basis for The Secret Weapon), while the plot device of having to track down multiple identical items that hide something comes from The Six Napoleons (previously the basis for The Pearl of Death). I don’t know if that suggests there are only a few Doyle tales actually worth adapting, or if the makers of the series were running out of fresh ideas by this point.

There are also elements of A Scandal in Bohemia, the story most famous for featuring Irene Adler, aka The Woman, but screenwriters Frank Gruber and Leonard Lee have an unusual method of including it: Dressed for the occasionthe story is explicitly referenced in the film, Watson having just had it published; then the film’s villainess turns up, played by Patricia Morison, functioning effectively as an Adler stand-in — and using some tricks she learnt from reading Watson’s story! The series hasn’t featured Adler before, so why not just name this character Irene Adler, have her devise those tricks from her own imagination, and be done with? Who knows.

Dressed to Kill is an ending to the Rathbone/Bruce films only in the sense that it’s the last one, this not being an era of “series finales” or what have you. It isn’t among the top tier of Holmes adventures starring the pair, but it’s still an entertaining mystery. In some respects that’s a good summation of the series, and why they’ve endured in popularity for over 75 years: even when not at their very best, they remain enjoyable.

3 out of 5

Morning Glory (2010)

2015 #194
Roger Michell | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Rachel McAdams takes a break from time-jumping rom-coms to lead a film where the romantic subplot is merely tacked on, presumably for marketing purposes. Really, it’s about a woman in love with her job.

McAdams plays the producer of TV’s worst-rated breakfast show, but her dream career faces ruin when it’s scheduled for cancellation. If only she can persuade her hero, investigative reporter turned disgruntled host Harrison Ford, to toe the line…

Overlong, predictable, and not the sharpest newsroom-based comedy, Morning Glory’s likeable cast nonetheless carry it to a level of entertaining amusement. Not the disaster it’s been painted as.

4 out of 5

Slow West (2015)

2015 #199
John Maclean | 84 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.66:1 | UK & New Zealand / English & French | 15 / R

The Coens and Wes Anderson are common reference points in reviews of this slightly quirky Western, which sees Michael Fassbender’s experienced outlaw-type help wet-behind-the-ears Scotsman Kodi Smit-McPhee track the girl he loves, who emigrated for mysterious reasons, also known by the bounty hunters on their trail.

The aforementioned comparisons aren’t wildly inaccurate, but are perhaps reductive. Writer-director Maclean has his own variation on that voice, bringing an occasional comically askew perspective to underscore tense confrontations and well-crafted shootouts. Vibrant photography by DP Robbie Ryan and a pleasantly brisk running time further the enjoyment.

A promising calling card and distinctive treat.

4 out of 5