Jojo Rabbit (2019)

2019 #145
Taika Waititi | 108 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | USA, New Zealand & Czech Republic / English | 12A / PG-13

Jojo Rabbit

So much was said about Jojo Rabbit on its release (last October in the US; at the start of this year here in the UK) — and, indeed, before its release, thanks to it debuting on the festival circuit — that, coming to it now, it feels like there’s nothing fresh to add. Doubly so as it’s been through the usual cycle of backlash and backlash-to-the-backlash (rinsed and repeated several times over). That said, it does seem to have dropped out of the conversation and consciousness somewhat, which perhaps hints at its longer-term reception — in short, it’s no Parasite. (Maybe that’s an unfair comparison anyway, given Parasite is the kind of movie that’s already attracted “greatest of all time” status some places.)

And so, faced with nothing fresh to say, I will instead just explain and/or justify my own full-marks star rating. “Justify” feels like the right word, because some people (some critics, in particular) really took against the film. Others, less vitriolic, thought it didn’t measure up to writer-director Taika Waititi’s high standard. I don’t think it’s as good as Hunt for the Wilderpeople or What We Do in the Shadows (both modern classics, more or less), but I did like it a lot. When it hit the mark with its humour, it was very, very funny; but it balances this with emotional and hard-hitting bits. The balance it strikes between the two is uncommon but well managed. On a micro level, some parts are outstanding (like the title sequence cut to the Beatles), but I also felt it was a little long in places.

My friend Hitler

Before it came out, some were worried about the wider reaction to a comedy where the ‘heroes’ were Nazis. But, of course, Nazis aren’t the heroes, and it’s not difficult to understand that. Indeed, I can see why some critics were saying that, despite expectations, it’s not actually a particularly hard-hitting movie, because it’s not really shocking (unless you’re easily shocked by an imaginary-friend Hitler being a comedic character; and considering that humorous screen depictions of Hitler date back to at least The Great Dictator, so it’s hardly a revolutionary idea).

Despite some doubts, in the end I rounded my score up to a full 5 because, while it’s not perfect, it contains an awful lot that I enjoyed an awful lot. One to rewatch and reconsider, perhaps.

5 out of 5

Jojo Rabbit is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Memories of Murder (2003)

aka Salinui chueok

2019 #15
Bong Joon Ho | 131 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

Memories of Murder

South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has gradually risen in prominence over the past few years, culminating in Parasite’s history-making success at this year’s Oscars (yes, that was only earlier this year). Memories of Murder wasn’t his debut work, but it was what initially garnered him some attention outside Korea. It’s been surprisingly hard to come by for a while now, but a new 4K restoration is released in the UK via Curzon today (it’s coming to US cinemas for a limited run in October, and new Blu-ray releases (including one from Criterion) will follow).

In 1986, two women are raped and murdered in provincial South Korea. The local detective, Park Doo-man (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), has never dealt with a case of this magnitude and relies on old-fashioned methods — his main one being to have his partner, Cho (Kim Roi-ha), beat confessions out of suspects. After a modern-minded big-city ‘tec, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), volunteers to help, the old and the new clash. As more crimes are committed, more clues are gathered, and more suspects are apprehended, but then cleared. Can the police ever get close to their man?

Loosely based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders, and taking a procedural approach to the crime thriller genre, Memories of Murder invites comparison to David Fincher’s Zodiac for its methodical, realistic narrative style and plot that follows obsessed investigators chasing unsolved murders in the past. Zodiac is one of my favourite films (it placed 3rd in 100 Favourites II), so it’s a tall order to be pitched against it. Fortunately, Memories of Murder is strong enough to withstand the comparison.

Investigators

A lot of praise that applies to Zodiac could be copy-and-pasted here. In addition to the facets I’ve already mentioned, there are several fine performances (not least from Song, who’s clearly become a Bong regular for a reason); several striking set piece crimes and/or discoveries without indulging in glorification of real crimes; and a commentary on the methods and obsessions of investigators that goes beyond ‘doing the job’. It does none of this in the same way as Fincher would a couple of years later, but it’s a different perspective within the same genre headspace.

Memories of Murder is already a well-regarded film (on top of a 91% Tomatometer score, it’s on the IMDb Top 250 and in the top 100 of Letterboxd’s version ) but, having been out of widespread circulation for a few years, and with renewed interest in Bong’s back catalogue, it’s ripe for wider (re)discovery.

5 out of 5

Memories of Murder is available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema from today.

It placed 5th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019, after being viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

Searching (2018)

2019 #51
Aneesh Chaganty | 102 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Russia / English |
12 / PG-13

Searching

When his 16-year-old daughter Margot goes missing, David Kim (John Cho) does the most logical thing in this day and age: he turns to her computer and social media to try to work out where she’s gone. What Searching does to really sell this concept is place us inside the tech: everything we see takes place on the screen of computers, be it searching the internet, chasing leads via video chat, or compiling evidence in spreadsheets.

It’s a conceit that is clearly innovative, but also feels like it has the potential to grow old fast. After all, it’s inherently limiting, and if the filmmakers tried to coast on the novelty factor, you’d probably grow bored within the first half-hour. Fortunately, Searching has more to offer. Indeed, long before you’ve had a chance to become fed up with the unique storytelling method, you’re absorbed in the narrative.

It works on two fronts. There’s a degree of commentary on modern society and parent/child relationships, as David begins to discover all the things Margot has been hiding from him, realising he didn’t know his daughter as well as he thought he did. In some respects this is nothing new — we’ve had decades of films and TV dramas where parents discover their perfect little darling isn’t who they thought — but here it’s cannily updated for the social media era.

Searching the web

Secondly, it’s an engrossing mystery. Director Aneesh Chaganty uses the visual concept perfectly to help craft a storyline with compelling characters that keeps us thoroughly engaged. Pleasingly, the film never breaks its own rules, instead finding new ways to use the limitations to tell the story. The only possible misstep comes in the final act, when some developments begin to succumb to Movie Logic and get a bit grandiose for the previously-grounded film. But the array of twists here actually had me on the edge of my seat, and, really, what more do you want from a thriller than that?

Searching is the kind of film you come to thanks to its USP, your interest piqued by seeing how they can tell a story under such limitations; but what makes you stay, and want to come back, is how well it tells that story. It’s not unconventional for the sake of it, but a new and very timely way of viewing a narrative.

5 out of 5

Searching is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

It placed 6th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

2019 #120
Quentin Tarantino | 161 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & China / English | 18 / R

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

The 9th film by Quentin Tarantino follows the fortunes of struggling actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman and best mate Cliff Booth (an Oscar-winning Brad Pitt) over a couple of days in Los Angeles, 1969, when they were next-door neighbours to one Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)…

I haven’t reviewed Once Upon a Time until now because I didn’t have much to say about it (even my Letterboxd ‘review’ was just a comment on its variable title presentation). Even after reflecting on it, and reading other’s critical reactions, then reflecting on it some more (for over eight months at this point), I didn’t have much to contribute. Why was that? And I’ve kind of realised it’s because the film didn’t make me feel very much.

Sure, there are moments where it did. There are plenty of scenes that are amusing, to varying degrees. The tension as Cliff explores the house of an old friend that’s been occupied by a bunch of hippies. The catharsis and humour of the ultra-violent climax, and the attendant cognitive dissonance of whether we should be revelling so in this historically-revisionist execution of real people — not to mention the factors that further complicate that (you know what they are by now).

And overall I didn’t dislike the film. I wasn’t bored, despite the length; if anything, that helps suck you into the world of 1969. You can certainly feel Tarantino’s love for the era, his desire to recreate — and, indeed, improve — it. (It’s also clear that he really wants to make another Western. The excerpted scenes from Rick’s TV pilot go on for ages, ultimately contributing nothing to the overall story, other than getting to hang out in a ’60s TV Western.) The three main performances are all very good, DiCaprio and Pitt great both as a double act and in their own storylines, and Robbie off in her own little world in a role that arguably offers little on the page but she breathes so much life into.

“Don’t cry, man. It’s only one blogger's opinion.”

It’s all these successes that mean I do consider Once Upon a Time to be a very good film. But at the same time, I didn’t leave the cinema feeling moved or wowed. I expected the history-changing ending ever since the film’s plot was announced, that expectation only cemented further as I learnt of Tarantino’s love for Tate, so I certainly didn’t leave feeling surprised. It ended, and that was that, and I went home.

Tarantino has talked in the past about how Jackie Brown is a “hangout movie”, where the point is not the story but spending time with the characters, and getting to re-spend that time when you watch the movie again, so that you enjoy it more and more with each viewing. I didn’t really get that feeling from Jackie Brown (I didn’t dislike it, but I was underwhelmed and in no rush to revisit it), but I wonder if that’s how Once Upon a Time will work best. The way it wanders through its loose narrative, before arriving at a climax that is, really, only tangentially related to everything else we’ve been watching, does suggest that’s the goal Tarantino had in mind. I can certainly believe he would like to just hang out in the world of Hollywood, 1969. I suspect that’s the driving factor behind why he even made this movie — getting to imagine an alternate history and career for his characters (I’ve seen interviews where he fills in way more backstory than is actually in the film), and using his clout to literally recreate that time and place in real-life rather than through CGI fill-ins.

So, it’s a movie I’ll surely revisit at some point, which is more than can be said for many a film. Perhaps then I’ll have something to say about it.

5 out of 5

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from this weekend.

Zatoichi at Large (1972)

aka Zatôichi goyôtabi

2019 #118
Kazuo Mori | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

Zatoichi at Large

I never thought doing a good deed for someone would end up making me a demon.

The 23rd film in the Zatoichi series is also the worst according to Letterboxd users, who rate it below even the ’00s spinoff, Ichi. But as with all things in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours, there are those who disagree: The Digital Bits give it a B+, which puts it in the series’ top half (to be precise, it makes it =7th, but with seven other films). You can add me to that (very short) list. It’s not an exceptional Zatoichi film by any means, but it is a middle-of-the-range entry, and a long way from the worst the series has to offer.

Between how reviled it is by Letterboxd users and the cartoonish art Criterion chose for it, I assumed this was going to be another woeful attempt at comedy like Doomed Man (which is, in my opinion, by far one of the series’ worst films). It’s quite the opposite: a tragic film, where good and bad alike are faced with impossible choices, or misinterpret evidence that leads them to make rash, fatal decisions. At one point Ichi is captured, tied up, teased and beaten until he’s bruised and bloody — it’s very unpleasant. If the unpleasantness was why it was so disliked then I could see where people were coming from, but criticism seems to hinge mainly on the familiarity of the plot.

Well, it begins with Ichi stumbling across a dying pregnant woman. He delivers her baby, and her dying wish is that he takes the child to her husband in a nearby village. Naturally, Ichi complies, followed all the way by a young boy who won’t stop throwing stones at him. With the help of the village’s old but honourable constable, Tobei, he locates the baby’s aunt, Oyae. But then the yakuza arrive, demanding taxes from local performers and threatening to force Oyae into prostitution, and once again it’s up to Ichi to save the day.

Saving the day

Yes, anyone familiar with Ichi’s adventures can see how that’s a pretty standard storyline. The devil is in the detail, and At Large offers a few interesting characters and subplots. For starters, there’s Tobei — a non-corrupt official is a rarity in this series, but that doesn’t make him dull. He gains depth from both how he treats Ichi (when he finds out the truth about our hero’s past, he doesn’t arrest him) and his relationship with his wayward son, who’s a conman. Their relationship is quite poignant. It’s only when his father finally hits him that the son realises he cares, which makes him happy… but then things take a turn for the worse, leading the former good-for-nothing to set out as an avenger of honour.

As the villain, yakuza boss Tetsugoro, there’s an interesting performance by Rentarô Mikuni (who previously appeared in Zatoichi the Outlaw, and is also great in the samurai classic Harakiri). He choose to play Tetsugoro as constantly bored, or world-weary, barely interested by or caring about what’s going. For example, he’s been paying everyone 1 ryo to kill Ichi, but when someone demands 50 ryo he does no more than hand-wave his approval. All of which might sound like a criticism, but it’s a surprisingly effective portrayal of disinterested everyday evil. Nothing he does brings him pleasure; nothing that happens causes frustration or surprise — he just exists, doing the only things he knows. Well, that is until he observes Ichi being tortured — then he smiles and laughs. And when he finally kills Tobei — the most moral man around — then he laughs again. Ooh, he’s a nasty piece of work and no mistake!

Zatoichi tortured

There are various other bits and pieces that work nicely. Ichi gets to show off, as usual, but it’s always fun. The filmmaking gets a bit of ’70s verve, with a score that is at times very contemporary-pop, and supplementing the series’ normal visual style with some handheld closeup stuff. And the final one-on-one duel is not the usual big showpiece: oddly exposed, almost silent, flash-edited, and over in seconds, with a hard cut to a “the end” card. Depending on your point of view, this is either “almost comically tacked on” (DVD Talk) or “one of the most badass final thirty seconds of any film in this series” (The Digital Bits). I don’t know if I’d go as far as the latter, but it’s certainly a change of pace.

Zatoichi at Large may just be a remix of various plot bits we’ve seen before, but they’re done with a seriousness and darkness that works. There’s a bit of comedic stuff early on that’s a nonstarter, but once that’s out the way it’s a decent, if fundamentally unoriginal, adventure for Ichi. Indeed, it’s that lack of originality that hurts it most. In itself it’s a perfectly good Zatoichi movie, but we’ve seen almost all of it before. At Large (re)does it all solidly, but it doesn’t do much to improve on previous versions. If more people watched the films out of sequence and came to this earlier, perhaps it would be better liked.

4 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.

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.

Toy Story 4 (2019)

2019 #101
Josh Cooley | 100 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

Toy Story 4

Last weekend, with dull inevitability, Toy Story 4 won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Of course it did — in the last decade, the award has gone to a Disney or Pixar movie eight times out of ten. I’ve not seen any of the four other nominees, but I strongly suspect at least one of them deserved it more, because Toy Story 4 is… fine. Heck, it’s good, even. But when the three films that precede it are all-time classics that formed a perfectly complete trilogy, just being “good” is not enough.

Its first mistake is that it doesn’t need to exist. The filmmakers have self-mythologised that Woody’s story wasn’t complete and so needed this final chapter, or some such gumph, but anyone who’s actually seen Toy Story 3 knows that’s not true. No, this is someone at Disney or Pixar hoping they can mine one of their most popular franchises for more gold. Whether or not they also believed lightning could strike for a fourth time, or they didn’t care so long as it made bank, I’ll leave up to your own levels of cynicism.

So rather than feeling like an equal part of a four-film series, Toy Story 4 feels like an afterthought; an addendum; a “here’s another one because you liked the others”. And at times it delivers on that — we like these characters, so they’re fun to be with; some of their antics are amusing or exciting; there’s a positive moral message or two about acceptance and seeing worth in yourself. There are attempts at emotional resonance too, particularly when the film tries to feel like an ending and a farewell; but 3 already did that, and did it extremely well. 4 has an uphill climb trying to match that, and even if it did (which it doesn’t), why should we believe it? It’ll only last until someone decides there’s a narrative for Toy Story 5 that simply has to be told (see you for that c.2026, I guess).

In search of a new story

Of course, there’s no doubting the film is well made. It’s easy to disregard that as just Pixar being Pixar, but there’s an ever-impressive technical skill on display here. Maybe on that level it does deserve award wins — although, while Pixar are undoubtedly frontrunners in such a race, there are other animation houses who can and do produce work that’s just as beautiful. (Besides, the Best Animation category is a funny one in that regard — is it rewarding the artistic/technical accomplishment of the animation itself, or is it “best film that happens to be animated”? A debate for another time.)

Toy Story 4 is the kind of film I enjoyed well enough while it was on. Whenever I get round to rewatching the series, I’ll happily include it. But, while it doesn’t tarnish the series’ legacy, it does blight its unbroken record. If it had never existed, I’d’ve been fine with that.

4 out of 5

Toy Story 4 is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

2019 #136
Armando Iannucci | 119 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

The Personal History of David Copperfield

A fresh perspective on Charles Dickens’s favourite of his own novels, from co-writer/director Armando Iannucci, best known for sitcom The Thick of It, its spinoff movie In the Loop, and The Death of Stalin.

Those are all political satires, of course, whereas David Copperfield is more of a shaggy dog story; though its attracted some degree of ‘political’ commentary thanks to its colourblind casting. So let’s get that out of the way first. Not every character here is played by a white actor. Is every character in Dickens’s novel white? I dunno, probably. Is it unrealistic to have people of colour in a story set in Victorian England? Well, considering England was at the heart of a worldwide empire with global trade links and had been through the slave trade, I would guess not everyone in the country was white by that point. I’m no expert on this, but I’ve certainly seen comments by experts that would agree with that.

Now, all of that said, David Copperfield’s attitude to casting is the most genuinely colourblind I’ve ever seen — it’s not concerned that related characters have ‘plausible’ similar skin tones, even. It seems Iannucci has just cast whichever actor he felt was right for the role. I guess that’s going to prove an insurmountable barrier to some people; too great an ask to accept the ‘reality’ of the story. Whereas a giant hand crashing through a ceiling to pluck little David from comfort, well, that’s just dandy. Anyway, I’m already getting bored with this debate and I’ve barely written about it. If it bothers you, I don’t think it should, but hey, you do you. For the rest of us, we can just get on with enjoying everything else the film has to offer.

Dev Patel IS David Copperfield

And that’s quite a bit. Dickens’s novel is a thick tome (768 pages, as per the film tie-in edition), and here it’s been condensed briskly into just under two hours, so there’s a lot more going on than the colour of people’s skin. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale, and Iannucci emphasises that side of it by framing it as David telling his own story at a staged reading. Such a framing device also allows for some flights of whimsy in the film’s treatment of certain things, especially scene transitions, but to say too much of those would destroy some delightful surprises. Trust that Iannucci is doing more than just showing off or messing around, however, instead establishing a style that allows for a neat twist or two later on.

I don’t know how thoroughly the film adapts those 768 pages, but it feels like it’s trying to cram in as much as possible. It rattles by at a whipcrack pace, which is both one of its greatest assets, because it moves like the clappers, and its biggest drawbacks, because it winds up feeling a bit too long. Every time you think it’s getting to the end, there’s another bit. (Maybe this is less of a problem if you’re familiar with the whole story, which I was not.) This is a minor complaint, though, because while those 119 minutes may be a few more than seems strictly necessary, what’s within them is frequently riotously funny. I saw the film with an almost-full house, and it was clear everyone was having a whale of a time.

The same appears to be true of the cast. I suppose Dev Patel is best known for heavier stuff, like Slumdog Millionaire (though that was 12 years ago now (jeez)) and Lion, but here reminds us he’s adept at lighter material too (which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s seen the Marigold Hotel films). Elsewise, the extensive and sublime supporting cast vie for attention in an array of standout performances. For my money the winner (if we must pick one) is Hugh Laurie as the flighty but unfailingly kind Mr Dick. Plus it’s quite nice (or you could say “nostalgic”) to see him back in bumbling toff mode after years of things like House and The Night Manager.

If he's Mr Dick, what's HER name likely to be?

Not that the others don’t get their moments to shine — when you’ve got the likes of Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, and Ben Whishaw involved, you’d expect nothing less. I could go on listing recognisable names, for there are plenty here, but you can always just read the cast list for yourself. One of the most noteworthy is Morfydd Clark in a dual role, one of which likes to mainly talk through her dog. I suspect this may be another stop on her path to stardom — she was recently seen in the BBC’s Dracula and a small-but-memorable role in His Dark Materials, and has been cast as Galadriel in Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series.

So there’s a lot of talent on screen, but it takes that degree of skill to negotiate the tone Iannucci has set: a narrative full with comedy, but that doesn’t lose sight of an underlying heart. Indeed, the degree of humour is a welcome counterpoint to the machinations of the plot, which contain an array of miseries when looked at objectively — death, loss of home, betrayal, and so on. This is again perhaps where that framing device comes into play, setting the story as a man finding the (sometimes dark) humour in the list of tragedies that have befallen him, as well as his friends and family. David’s predilection for storytelling is an important throughline, and the film’s affection for the emotional power of the act of writing is sure to make it a favourite for many authors (and wannabes).

4 out of 5

The Personal History of David Copperfield is in UK cinemas now. It’s released in the US on May 8th.

The Past Christmas on TV

Continuing the spirit of publishing things about ten days late, here’s my Christmas TV review, about ten days after the season ended. (And if you’re thinking, “um, Christmas was 18 days ago,” well, the TV ‘Christmas’ season goes on until at least January 1st here, so there.)

Santa Goes Wrong
Here’s Santa to rekindle your festive spirit.
With alcohol.

This is now my fourth annual Christmas TV post, would you believe. I still feel like TV reviews are a fairly recent addition to this blog, but nope, it’s been four years. And this is, in a way, a vintage year, what with the Gavin & Stacey revival becoming the most-watched Christmas Day broadcast in something like 17 years; and, even more impressively, it was the only scripted programme to make the top ten TV broadcasts of the decade (the rest going to sporting events and one random episode of The X Factor).

As for whether it was any good, and what I thought of other stuff that was on… well, read on…

Doctor Who  Spyfall
Doctor Who: SpyfallFor the first time in 14 years, since the series returned, there was no Doctor Who Christmas/New Year special. Gasp! At least we got the first episodes of a new series, though — two slightly-longer-than-normal instalments (at 60 minutes each, which doesn’t feel that special when regular episodes are 50 minutes now). And a two-parter, too — the first of those since 2017. And a big two-parter at that, with big-name guest stars and big action sequences and big overseas locations.

Yep, this is Doctor Who with a bang — a marked contrast to last series, which mostly went for understated. Well, as understated as modern Doctor Who gets, anyway. But whereas series 11 had no two parters and no returning monsters and, as I say, a markedly calmer pace and tone, series 12 begins with the antithesis of all of that. In case you’ve not seen it I shan’t spoil the end-of-part-one reveal, which was a massive delight that I did not see coming (I guess someone learnt a lesson from last time that villain returned, when the production team basically spoiled it themselves before anyone else could). That was the highlight of an episode that moved at a mile a minute, not pausing to let you consider the logic of what was going on (which, yeah, was not faultless). But while it may not have been perfect, I’m glad to see a return for this fun, exciting version of the show. I didn’t find series 11 a total washout (I think my reviews as it was airing were mostly positive, even), but overall I felt like something wasn’t quite working.

Well, let’s be honest, what wasn’t working is showrunner Chris Chibnall. His episodes under previous showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat were never the very best (and I say that as someone who likes them more than most), but without their oversight to guide him, he seemed a bit lost. He’s a long-time fanboy of the show (somewhat famously, he appeared on a viewer feedback show in the ’80s to slag off the quality of the writing), and at times last series it felt like he was writing for the show as he’d loved it as a kid (that is to say, a bit slow-paced and old-fashioned). Now, possibly taking some of the criticism on board (or possibly just trying to mix it up), he’s attempting to emulate the whoosh-bang blockbuster-but-quirky style of RTD and Moffat. What he can’t grasp is their effortless-seeming slickness — when they rushed over something it was usually because “it makes sense if you think about it”, whereas Chibnall is trying to cover a logic gap; conversely, when there’s no gap to be hidden, he has characters mercilessly over-explain everything, I guess for the sake of anyone who’s just walked in.

So, not perfect, but I thought Part 1 was a blast nonetheless. Sadly, I was much less enamoured with Part 2 — a virtually nonsensical runaround through time, which didn’t seem to know what to do with everything that had been put in play, just throwing “more” at us until the Doctor basically said “time for the story to end now”, and so the baddies disappeared and that was that. Apart from an epilogue, which was quite intriguing — and dove head first into full-on mythology territory, something the series studiously avoided last year. Whether Chibnall’s got anywhere good to go with what he’s teasing, God only knows (I fear not, based on the evidence), but it’s a welcome bit of business that will hopefully jazz up the season to come.

Gavin & Stacey  A Special Christmas
Gavin & Stacey: A Special ChristmasI won’t recap Gavin & Stacey’s ratings success (what with already having mentioned it at the start), nor will I touch on the controversy around its use of Fairytale of New York (I kind of get why people complained, but also, the song is the song). As for the episode itself, well, I thought it was masterful. It may be nine years since the last episode, but it was like they hadn’t been away. Not that they tried to ignore the passage of time — clearly, the best part of a decade had passed in the characters’ lives, and naturally changes had come with that — but the characters and performances felt true to their old selves, as if they’d never stopped playing them, with the rhythms and comedic style of the show fully intact. Some decade-later revivals feel like new shows — the writers have forgotten how to write it properly; the cast have forgotten how to play it right — but not this one. This was bang on what it should be. Tidy.

Dracula
Dracula“From the makers of Sherlock”, declared the publicity for this new adaptation of the Victorian novel — so you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a present-day reimagining. But it wasn’t. Well, until it was.

This new Dracula is very much a tale of three parts, and not just because it was in three 90-minute episodes. While undoubtedly a serial, each episode was almost a standalone instalment, which was a structural trick I quite liked — it doesn’t feel like you’re watching one four-and-a-half-hour work broken into three by the necessities of the schedule, but rather three separate-but-connected works. And I really, really liked the first two.

The Rules of the Beast is what you most expect of Dracula: a spooky Transylvanian castle; “I don’t drink… wine”; mild little Englishman Jonathan Harker discovering terrible secrets… Of course, writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss didn’t shy away from bringing a few affectations and twists to the piece, but I thought they all worked well. Claes Bang makes for a fantastic Dracula (a comment that holds true throughout the series), the rest of the cast were very good as well, and there were some proper horror bits — this adaptation was not, ahem, toothless.

The second instalment, Blood Vessel, dealt with Dracula’s voyage to England aboard the Demeter — a part usually more or less glossed over in other adaptations, as far as I know. But here Moffat and Gatiss spin it out into a full 90-minutes, kind of like a slasher movie set in a confined location, albeit we know whodunnit — so, naturally, there are other twists to be found. Again, I liked this a lot — the way it felt respectful to the source while also expanding and refreshing it; the interesting supporting cast; some very impressive production work (they built the entire ship on a soundstage!)

Then we get to episode three, The Dark Compass. There’s no way to talk about what happens here without spoiling it, so if you haven’t watched the series yet and are intending to, look away now. If you have watched it, you’ll know this episode jumps the action forward 123 years to 2020. And you also probably hated it, because it seems almost everyone did. My feelings were slightly more nuanced. In my opinion, its biggest mistake is that it’s a completely different show. Sure, we still have Claes Bang playing Dracula (and he’s still excellent), and we still have Moffat and Gatiss’s recognisable stylings in the dialogue and whatnot, but the entire setup has shifted. Judged in isolation, as a present-day-set reworking of the Dracula story as told in the novel, I don’t think it’s that bad. Maybe it’s a tad too cheesy (the scenes in nightclubs and whatnot do have a feel of “how do you do, fellow kids”), but it’s workable as a modern-day adaptation of the character and plot. The problem, as I say, comes from placing it as part of a whole alongside the reenvisioned-but-fundamentally-faithful adaptation we got in the first two episodes. In doing so, Moffat and Gatiss undermine the whole enterprise — it robs the first two-thirds of a fitting finale; and, by being so radically different to the style we’ve spent three hours getting used to, it doesn’t give itself a fair shake either.

And so many have judged the overall result to be a failure. Personally, I enjoyed enough of it that I was still entertained, but if they’d given us a ‘proper’ third episode to round it out then I think I may’ve loved it.

The Goes Wrong Show  Series 1 Episodes 1-2
The Goes Wrong Show - The Pilot (Not the Pilot)Oh my, what a treat! Regular readers will remember how much I loved Peter Pan Goes Wrong at Christmas 2016 (“the best thing that was on TV during the festive season”) and its 2017 followup, A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. When the gang missed Christmas 2018 I feared we wouldn’t be getting any more, possibly thanks to the negative-nelly reception in some quarters. But oh no, for 2019 they’re back with a vengeance: not a one-off hour, but a whole series of half-hour Plays Gone Wrong. Reader, I am cock-a-hoop with delight!

The first episode was another Christmas special; the second a historically-inaccurate WW2 thriller (set in 1961); the third aired on Friday but I’m currently saving it. It’s a half-hour parade of utter silliness — slapstick, wordplay, entirely predictable tomfoolery… but sometimes the total predictability of what’s about to go wrong is part of the fun (episode one begins with a blatant setup for a joke that isn’t paid off until the very end of the episode). And it’s exactly the kind of thing the whole family can watch and enjoy, whether you’re 6 or 66. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I was driven to tears of laughter. Actually, I can — it was Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Long live the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society!

Also watched…

A mix of Christmas scheduling and non-Christmas stuff we just happened to catch up on.

  • Criminal: United Kingdom Season 1 — Netflix’s high-concept cop show wasn’t quite as classy as the publicity would have you believe (it still indulged in the old staples of office politics, breaking from the tension of the interrogation to faff around with romance subplots and whatnot), but the guest stars still gave it their all — I don’t think I’ve ever seen Hayley Atwell like that before, and David Tennant was superb as always. Good enough that I’ll check out some of the international versions.
  • In Search of Dracula with Mark Gatiss — This felt like it was planned as a promo for the BBC’s new Dracula, but aired after it. Weird. Anyway, Gatiss has fronted several great documentaries on horror before, and while this wasn’t quite in their league (the others are exceptionally good) it was still a solid and interesting look at the history of the Count. And it made me want to see a load of previous Dracula films, which I always think is the mark of a good movie documentary.
  • Miranda My Such Fun Celebration — I know the sitcom Miranda wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I loved it, as did lots of others, hence this one-off special to mark its tenth anniversary. It’s a bit of an oddity — a mix of cast reunions, sketches, clip montages, and song and dance. Yes, song and dance. It was well-meaning but, well, I found it a little strange. But for those people whose lives have been positively impacted by the series (and, genuinely, hurrah to it and them for that), I’m sure it was a delight.
  • Vienna Blood Series 1 — A new crime series from “that other guy who wrote some episodes of Sherlock”, this adaptation of a series of novels set in Vienna c.1907 did feel a bit like Sherlock Lite, with its Freud-influenced genius consulting detective and some stylish visuals. But it lacked the innovation that marked out Sherlock, especially in its early days. You can tell this has half an eye on being an easy sell to international markets, able to sit comfortably alongside all the other 90-minute crime dramas the UK TV industry churns out. So, it was a bit predictable and formulaic, but decently done and reasonably entertaining. This Guardian article echoes my feelings on it pretty well.

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Christmas CarolThis month, I have mostly been missing the BBC’s new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. I know it went down with some degree of controversy, but its revisionist, horror-tinged style looked right up my alley. Unfortunately, it was stripped over three nights, and because I knew I was going to be away for the third evening I didn’t start it. By the point I had enough time to make room for it, it was so long enough after Christmas that I wasn’t sure it was appropriate. Now, it’s January 12th and it’s definitely too late. Guess I’ll have to try to remember to watch it next year, then.

    Next month… it’s a new year, so I’m sure there must be plenty of new TV. Although I kind of hope not, because I’ve still got tonnes and tonnes from last year to catch up on.