Hustlers (2019)

Featured

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

Hustlers

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

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

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

Every day they're hustlin'

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

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

4 out of 5

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

Rocketman (2019)

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

Rocketman

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

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

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

Piano man

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

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

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

5 out of 5

Rocketman is on Sky Cinema from today.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout in 3D

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

Mission: Impossible - Fallout 3D

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

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

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

It's even more vertiginous in three dimensions

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

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

5 out of 5

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

The 100-Week Roundup

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

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

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

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


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

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

Das Boot: The Director's Cut

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

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

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

Das salute

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

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

5 out of 5

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

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

Identity
(2003)

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

Identity

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

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

Whodunnit?

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

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

3 out of 5

The Lion King (2019)

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

The Lion King

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

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

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

Why does this exist?

The cub who would be king

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

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

Be prepared for disappointment

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

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

The box office king

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

3 out of 5

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

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

aka Portrait de la jeune fille en feu

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

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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

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

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

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

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

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

This girl is on fire

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

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

5 out of 5

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

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

Emma. (2020)

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

Emma.

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

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

Reader, I confess, I am jealous of that strawberry

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

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

Confectionary

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

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

4 out of 5

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

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.

1917 (2019)

2020 #6
Sam Mendes | 119 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 15 / R

1917

BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2020
9 nominations

Nominated: Best Film; Outstanding British Film; Best Director; Best Cinematography; Original Music; Best Production Design; Best Make Up/Hair; Best Sound; Best Special Visual Effects.

I haven’t been following awards season too closely this year, but from the snippets I have picked up here and there it seems to be quite a variable race — every time a frontrunner emerges, something else wins some other award and suddenly the field is open again. 1917 was one of the early tips, and now has several wins under its belt to back that up. It may not be a lock at the Oscars, where the latest works by American auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino will give it a robust run for its money (plus the six other contenders, several in with a shot), but tonight it’s BAFTA’s turn. The British Academy may seem to be more focused on being counted among the major Oscar forerunners than anything else, but they do still have a penchant for rewarding British films — and 1917 isn’t just “a British film”, it’s a British film about a key event in British history with an all-star cast of cameos from great British actors. So, as it’s a season-wide contender anyhow, if 1917 doesn’t win the big prize this evening it’ll be a genuine surprise.

Does it deserve it? Take a sample of social media and you’ll get different answers. As with any big, much-discussed film nowadays the initial reception has been followed by waves of backlash — or maybe that’s too grand a term for it; maybe it’s just been different ‘sides’ expressing their opinion in turn. If it wins, there’ll be a vocal contingent about how it didn’t deserve it. As someone observed the other day, literally the only way to avoid such a negative reaction nowadays is to literally take the award out of the incorrectly-named winner’s hands. (If you think that’s facetious, think about it for a second: do you remember any significant backlash to Moonlight winning? I don’t. Every other winner in recent years? Yep. I’m not saying it should’ve had one — it’s a great film — but it is unique in avoiding it.)

Personally, having seen 60% of this year’s BAFTA Best Film nominees, 1917 would be my pick (the others I’ve seen are Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman; the remainder are Joker and Parasite, which is only out in UK cinemas next week so probably doesn’t stand a chance). My view may very well change once I’ve ticked all the boxes (Parasite is supposedly the greatest film ever made, after all), but that doesn’t lessen 1917 as an achievement.

War, huh? What is it good for? Winning BAFTAs, probably.

Famously, the film is a single take… sort of. That caveat comes for two reasons. First, because it isn’t a single take, because there’s a fade-to-black in the middle. It’s an effective, well-timed event — basic filmmaking technique as narrative twist, because this is so famous as “a single-take film” and, by that point (it comes fairly late in), we’re so embedded in the technique that the sudden blackness comes as quite a surprise. Second, because it isn’t a pair of single takes, because there’s no way you could shoot a film of this scale and complexity in a genuine single shot. Rumours abound of how many hidden cuts are in the movie. One said there were as many as five. Editor Lee Smith refuses to confirm the exact number, but makes a very sensible point: the film was shot over 65 days — you can’t put together 65 days’ worth of footage with only five cuts. But that shows how well it was achieved: people thought that, gasp, there could be as many as five, when actually there are far more.

“Wait, this film had an editor? That must’ve been a quick job!” Yeah, there’s been a lot of that on social media. People have been quick to dismiss it — people who should know better, quite frankly. As with so many things in life, just because it looks easy doesn’t mean that it was. There’s more to editing than just “sticking shots together”, and planning a film as complicated as this involved Smith’s input throughout shooting, not just in post-production. Plus, they didn’t just do one take that worked for each setup and call it quits — the job still involves choosing which take has the best performances, the right lighting, making sure it matches exactly enough for the transition to the next shot, and so on. The least number of takes for any individual shot was “five or six”, the most 39, so there’s plenty for an editor to do with choosing. I’m getting this info from an interview with Smith by Catherine Springer at AwardsWatch, which is worth a read if you’re interested in getting some insight into why there is actually a lot of difficult, impressive editing work going on here. One further titbit: some of the cuts were ‘improvised’, in that there are some cuts where a cut hadn’t been planned. You can’t do that kind of thing without a skilled editor, surely.

Deakins!

And it makes it all the more impressive that the end result is so seamless — you can buy that you’re watching a single take (okay, two single takes) rather than dozens strung together in pretend. Well, I say it’s seamless — yeah, sure, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can spot places where there are surely cuts (they walk through a dark doorway; someone/thing passes in front of the camera, blocking the view for a split second; etc). But unlike other faked single cuts I’ve seen, where the action doesn’t flow perfectly across a hidden cut, it’s at least conceivable that some of 1917’s hidden-cut-opportunities don’t actually mask a cut at all. Plus, as that interview suggests, there are actually dozens of cuts in the movie, and there aren’t that many glaring opportunities (which is probably how whoever it was arrived at their total of five).

The fact I’ve spent most of this review so far talking about the film’s single-take-ness is some people’s problem with 1917 — that it’s a filmmaking stunt and nothing more; that it’s a technical achievement at the sacrifice of character or narrative or anything but “look what we can do”. I don’t agree with that assessment. I think the single take serves a purpose beyond showing off. At the most basic level, it puts us on this mission with the characters, attaching us to them and their fate in a very intimate way. The camera rarely strays far from their side, choosing to remain at eye level and near to them when it could float off to give us a godly overview. Some have taken to describing it as “like watching a video game” for that reason, but I bet those people also refer to CG effects as “graphics” and, basically, spend too much time watching/thinking about computer games and conflating them with films (I’ll move on before I get distracted into a wholly different argument…) There are plenty of other ways for filmmakers to attach you to characters, of course, but that doesn’t invalidate this method.

The other thing it brings is a tangible sense of time. Our heroes are on a time-sensitive mission, and we’re with them every step of the way — they don’t get to jump from one side of a field to the other with the magic of editing, we must walk across it with them. (The film is certainly not as boring as “watching characters walk across a field” makes it sound — there’s plenty of action and incident.) Again, you don’t need a single take to create real-time — 24 proved that over ten seasons and a movie (not that all of those seasons take their real-time conceit wholly seriously, in my opinion) — but it does emphasise and enhance it.

Walking (running) across a field (a battlefield)

Regular readers will know I love a bit of real-time, so that was right up my street. I have similar feelings about single takes (fake or not), so I loved that aspect too. Plus I’ve got a long-standing interest in World War One, which I don’t feel is represented well enough on film (at least, not as well as its sequel), so getting a big-budget high-profile movie about it is something else I welcome. And I love the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is absolutely on fine form here (when isn’t he?) The long and the short of it is, 1917 was always a movie almost tailored to things that interest me. Fortunately, it lives up to them. Is it the very best picture of 2019? I dunno, I’ve not seen Parasite yet. Will it be a worthy winner nonetheless? I think so.

5 out of 5

The British Academy Film Awards are on BBC One tonight at 9pm.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

aka Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta

2020 #12
Hayao Miyazaki | 125 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan / English | PG / PG

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

The names Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli go hand-in-hand (I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if quite a few people think they’re synonymous, i.e. that all Ghibli films are directed by Miyazaki), but his first two features (The Castle of Cagliostro and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) were produced before Ghibli’s formation. So it’s Laputa, his third film, that is actually Ghibli’s first — which makes it appropriate to look at today, as it’s also one of the first titles being made available under Netflix’s new deal with Ghibli.* (Though if you search Netflix for “Laputa”, you won’t find it.)

Acclaimed as one of the first major works in the steampunk subgenre, Laputa takes place in a Mitteleuropean alternate past — the architecture is inspired by Welsh mining villages; the uniforms and hardware by historical German military; there are steam-powered automobiles and flying machines; but there’s also magic-like stuff, so it’s not just tech-based. In this world we meet Sheeta (voiced in Disney’s English dub by Anna Paquin, retaining her New Zealand accent), a young girl wanted by both the military and sky pirates for a necklace she wears. When she falls from an aircraft, the necklace glows and lowers her gently to the ground — and into the life of Pazu (James “Dawson’s Creek” Van Der Beek), a young orphan who immediately resolves to help her. And so off they go on an adventure to find out just what’s so desirable about Sheeta’s necklace, and what it has to do with the legendary flying city of Laputa.

If you watched Miyazaki’s first three movies ignorant of the knowledge they came from the same writer-director, I’m sure you’d work it out for yourself. It’s an action-packed adventure laced with humour and morally grey characters, like Cagliostro, with a well-imagined fantasy world populated by flying machines and brave young heroines, like Nausicaä. But it’s no act of self-plagiarism — Miyazaki is too inventive for that. His world-building is first rate, sketching in the details of this alternate reality in between character building scenes and thrilling action sequences. If this were live-action, it would make an exemplary action/adventure blockbuster, so well paced and structured is it.

The castle in the sky

That’s why it immediately clicked with me as an instant favourite among both Miyazaki’s and Ghibli’s oeuvre. It’s unquestionably an adventure movie, so it lacks the heartfelt depths of something like My Neighbour Totoro, but it’s at least the equal of Cagliostro in terms of how wildly exciting the set pieces are. And it’s not as if it’s totally empty headed, touching on longstanding universal themes like the corruption of power, and with a minor-key ecological message too (another Miyazaki staple).

I always feel like I should watch anime in Japanese, and I often do, but when the English voice cast includes Mark Hamill, well, that’s good enough for me. He’s the villain, channeling a certain amount of his Joker (but not too much) into a government secret agent in pursuit of Sheeta and in search of Laputa. He’s just one of a memorable cast of characters — I mean, did I mention there were sky pirates? They’re as awesome as they sound, bringing both broad humour and fuelling several action scenes (you’d expect nothing less of frickin’ sky pirates, right?) One of the most memorable characters transcends the language barrier: a giant speechless robot, questionably friend or foe, who leaves a mark almost as great as the Iron Giant’s but in considerably less screen time. (Considering how much Pixar are renowned fans of Miyazaki, and that Brad Bird made Iron Giant over a decade after Laputa’s debut, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was at least a little cross-pollination.)

Like any good blockbuster, Laputa has it all: thrills, humour, emotion, wonder… It’s the complete package. Plus, that level of broad familiarity (it wouldn’t take too many steps to imagine this remade as a Hollywood blockbuster, although they’d inevitably mess it up somehow) probably makes it the perfect starting point for any newbies to anime or Ghibli.

5 out of 5

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is available on Netflix from today.

* If the news passed you by: Netflix have acquired the rights to 21 Studio Ghibli films (that is, their whole back catalogue of features except Grave of the Fireflies, which has separate rights issues, plus Nausicaä) for most of the world (the USA, Canada, and Japan are excluded). They’re being released in three batches of seven — the first lot today, the next on March 1st, and the final ones on April 1st. As well as Laputa, today’s selection includes My Neighbour Totoro, which I reviewed here, plus Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, Porco Rosso, Ocean Waves, and Tales from Earthsea. ^