Hamilton (2020)

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2020 #157
Thomas Kail | 160 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hamilton on Disney+

Hamilton, the original musical, is one of the great works of art of the 21st century so far, and now we all get a chance to be in the room where it happened (provided you’re prepared to pony up some dough to Disney+) thanks to the makers having had the foresight to film a full production with the original Broadway cast back in 2016 (and then flogging that recording to Disney for $75 million).

The show is a genuine phenomenon, but if you’ve let it pass you by, allow me to explain the basics. This is the life story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA; an immigrant who fought in the War of Independence, became the first Secretary of the Treasury, and in between and around all that most assuredly lived a life — there’s friendship and rivalry; romance and infidelity; genuine triumph and heartbreaking tragedy. Here that story is told via music, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also portrays the title role), a fusion of hip-hop, R&B, and more traditional Broadway stylings, performed by a cast mostly made up of people of colour. It’s a tale of outsiders and immigrants and forward-thinkers who battled for the right to be recognised and respected — it’s a history lesson, but oh yeah, it’s timely.

It premiered back in 2015, so over the past five years the praises of the original show and its successful soundtrack album (the primary medium through which most people have been able to experience the work, given the scarcity and cost of tickets) have been thoroughly sung. To briefly offer my perspective, I came to it ‘late’ — sure, I heard about it (initially thanks to references to its ticket prices), but I overlooked it as just another bit of mass-popular culture that likely didn’t have any weight or staying power. My mistake. Long story short, I finally listened to it in full in 2019 and was blown away.

Aaron Burr, sir

Adjectives to describe its quality are endless. It’s densely and intelligently written, packed with historical information at every turn, abundant with sly references to other media. Its structure is sublime, laced with callbacks and nods forward from the very opening number; musical motifs repeat, as do lines and ideas, some cropping up before their real significance has been reached, like flash-forwards; elements of plot and character are echoed and mirrored. Many of these are observable first time through; others only reveal themselves with repeat visits. The characters are sharply and smartly drawn, revealing layers and nuances and different perspectives as the piece goes on — it may ostensibly be about Alexander Hamilton, but multiple other characters are at least as richly painted, if not more so. It engrosses like a thriller and packs the serious emotional punch of a finely-wrought drama, but it’s also very funny at times, with numbers as toe-tappingly addictive as a great pop song. It’s hard to think of a more complete all-round experience.

Well, complete but for visuals if (like me) you’d never seen it performed, only listened to the soundtrack. And, you know, the soundtrack’s not a bad way to experience it — it doesn’t feel notably incomplete. Normally when you listen to a musical’s album, you just get some nice songs from the production. With Hamilton, you get (very nearly almost) the entire soundtrack, and therefore the entire story — you can follow it and not feel like you’ve missed anything. (I do wonder if that’s part of why it’s been such a success.) The lyrics and music conjure up their own imagery in your mind — certainly for me, ever since I first listened to it I’ve pictured whole chunks of it as I’d realise them in a movie version. I’m sure they’ll do a ‘proper’ film of it someday (you really think they’re going to leave all that money on the table?), but I think it’s for the best that’s not the first way I’m seeing it, because I worry it won’t live up to what I’ve concocted in my version.

As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t a film reimagining like a normal movie musical, but rather a filmed record of the original production. It was shot over three days back in June 2016 (shortly before the original cast moved on), during a mix of live performances and in an audience-less auditorium for the sake of closeups, crane shots, etc. That’s one of the things that elevates this particular film above other recorded-theatre productions I’ve been watching recently (like One Man Two Guvnors, Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, or the RSC’s Macbeth): whereas they have clearly been filmed live during a single performance, with all the restrictions that implies (limited camera angles; making editing choices in real-time), Hamilton has some extra remove, which has allowed director Thomas Kail to be a bit more creative.

Looking for a film at work, work

The camerawork endeavours to add something no theatre performance could, allowing us to see details that would be missed from even the best seats in the house. Closeups let us appreciate the full spit-flecked contempt from Jonathan Groff’s George III in You’ll Be Back; the restrained emotional sacrifice injected into Angelica by Renée Elise Goldsberry during Satisfied; Eliza’s heartbroken defiance from Phillipa Soo in Burn; or the rare occasions Leslie Odom Jr. allows Aaron Burr’s true emotions to break through in the likes of Wait For It and The World Was Wide Enough. That’s not to mention the countless other moments and performers that benefit from us being able to see how much they’re giving their performances; all the subtleties they’re adding.

At other times the camera angles show off the choreography, for example with punch-ins to highlight specific elements during stage-wide ensemble showpieces, like the rewind at the start of Satisfied, or a bird’s eye view as paper flutters in the air during The Reynolds Pamphlet. Still other scenes are reframed for our convenience, such as an exchange between Burr and Hamilton during Non-Stop that takes place upstage off to one side, but is now centred through medium shots and closeups. If all that sounds like it might serve to undermine the staging, it most certainly does not. When called for, Kail and editor Jonah Moran frequently fall back on wide angles to ensure we see the scope of what’s occurring. Only once or twice during the whole two-and-a-half hours do you feel maybe they chose a less-than-ideal angle or over-edited a sequence.

Having said that listening to the soundtrack feels like a complete experience, watching it certainly shows what you were missing. There’s so much more to add, from little nuances of performance, to visual-only gags and callbacks, to impressive dance and staging — and if we’re already comparing this to the presumed ‘proper film’ version that will exist someday, I also presume some of that staging will be lost in the visual translation. But while there’s an undoubted “designed for the stage” aspect to the blocking or the way some things are realised, it still works on film.

Not throwing away their shot

You can’t ignore that this is a film of a Broadway production — even if you wanted to, an opening subtitle reminds us it’s June 2016 in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and the audience is frequently to be heard clapping, cheering, and laughing (mixed onto the rear speakers if you’re watching in surround sound, as you’d expect, along with a few other moments and effects that add to the experience if you can benefit from such a setup). But it’s so well staged and filmed that you can buy this as the intended experience. With those other filmed-theatre productions I mentioned, you’re often aware that what you’re watching has primarily been staged for those in the room, and that you getting to observe it from a few fixed camera positions is a nice bonus if you couldn’t be there. With Hamilton, it feels like nothing is missed; not only that, but that this is the way the story was meant to be told, complete with elements of theatrical artifice, like the stripped-back staging and actors playing multiple roles (which roles are shared by the same actors is not without significance). Whenever and whatever they do for that theoretical ‘proper film’, I feel like it won’t negate this version, not just as a record of the original show, but as a film in its own right.

That’s perhaps the most striking aspect of this particular version: it doesn’t feel like a mere stopgap until they film it ‘properly’, nor a “that’ll do” stand-in for a real theatrical performance, but instead like a legitimate experience in its own right. Hamilton is a masterpiece, and getting to see it performed by the original cast in its original staging via a film so carefully and lovingly crafted is an absolute thrill.

5 out of 5

Hamilton is available on Disney+ now.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020)

2020 #153
David Dobkin | 123 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Icelandic | 12 / PG-13

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

The Eurovision Song Contest: if you’re from Europe or Australia, or one of the other countries that competes but isn’t really in Europe, it needs no introduction. If you’re from somewhere that hasn’t been enjoying/subjected to it every year for the past seven decades… well, it’s hard to explain. Actually, the basics are easy: it’s a continent-wide song competition, where each participating country submits one artist performing one song, and everyone votes for the winner. But, oh, the cultural connotations and ramifications are so, so much more! For some countries, it’s deadly serious — it’s a way to get noticed on the world stage; it may even make the artist famous. For others, like us Brits, it’s a big campy silly joke… except we’re also rather fond of it (some of us), and we’re terribly annoyed that we don’t win it every year (or at least on a regular basis. Like, once a decade or so would probably keep us happy). And that’s just scratching the surface — it would probably take a book (or, at least, a reasonably long article) to fully explain every nuance.

Will Ferrell’s latest comedy attempts to distill all that history into a globally-friendly movie-length spoof. It’s a big ask, not just because there’s so much background information to assimilate, but because us Brits have been ripping the piss out of Eurovision for decades. And not just sometimes, but constantly: each country provides a local commentary over the live broadcast, and each year ours is basically a roast. (Notoriously so: some countries are not impressed by the sarcastic, piss-taking attitude being our ‘official’ stance on the contest.) We’re not alone, either: a few years ago when Sweden hosted the contest, they did a pitch-perfect sketch about creating the perfect Eurovision song. If you want to get a feel for the entire Eurovision experience in just six minutes, watch Love Love Peace Peace.

And so with all that in mind, Ferrell and co are on a hiding to nothing; especially as the film has been made with the cooperation and endorsement of Eurovision’s producer, the EBU (they even get a credit right up front), so it was never going to be able to truly get stuck in for fear of offending its subject. So I guess that’s why they barely even bothered. Oh, there are certainly references to and riffs on Eurovision-y things, so viewers in the know can pick up on them and not feel like it’s about Generic Foreign Singing Contest; but this isn’t really a comedy about Eurovision, it’s about a small-town music duo wanting to make it big. Their chosen method is Eurovision, but it could just as well be The X Factor or The Voice or, well, anything, and it wouldn’t change the core narrative.

And a man in a hamster wheel

Said narrative goes through all the motions you’d expect. About the only thing that could be described as a twist is that the smarmy “bad buy” isn’t actually up to anything evil after all, he’s genuinely quite nice. As he’s another contestant, you do wonder if that was an EBU stipulation… The man in question is the Russian entry, Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens, who’s excellent as usual), renowned as a “sex player” and the subject of an overlong bit about how he probably has a massive penis. “Overlong” is the watchword for most of the comedic routines in the movie. It’s a form of self indulgence that plagues many a comedy nowadays, and here it helps contribute to a running time that’s simply too long. I always feel like the best comedies are within sight of 90 minutes, but this runs a full two hours. Of course, a comedy made for a famously hands-off studio like Netflix is hardly likely to be exempt from indulgence. Maybe a more interfering one would’ve questioned the wisdom of letting Ferrell include a bit where his character criticises American tourists for coming to Europe and ruining it. Um… It could work in a meta way, but it feels like it’s lacking any kind of knowing wink, beyond it’s very existence.

One thing that does often work are the songs. You may well have heard Volcano Man when Netflix released it as the first promo for the film, but Fire Saga themselves get two or three more numbers, all of which are varying degrees of “surprisingly catchy”. The one they sing as the climax even made me feel a little emotional. I expect it’s the manipulation of the key changes or whatever (I’m no musician), because I didn’t really feel invested in the characters’ relationship before that point, but hey, if it works it works. Then there are the other contestants… where, unfortunately, the film drops the ball again. Lemtov’s number, Lion of Love, clearly had the most effort put into it — it’s quite fun and very Eurovisiony. But a montage of other acts is weird because it feels like it’s been edited to emphasise the jokes, only there aren’t any. I’m not even being clever, saying “there aren’t any” because I didn’t find them funny — the lyrics aren’t humorous, the staging isn’t particularly laughable… they’re just mediocre songs. It’s a wasted opportunity to provide some quick-fire riffs on Eurovision staples. The best it can do is the first of the montage, a rock song by guys in monster costumes — a reference to Lordi, who won in 2006. As far as I remember, no one has tried the same trick in the intervening 14 years.

Lion of Love

The weirdest musical number comes halfway through: at a party Lemtov is hosting for all the contestants, a “song-along” breaks out. Not a singalong, a “song-along”. Suddenly, a bunch of previous real Eurovision contestants show up (much to the bafflement of viewers who’ve never seen the real thing, I suspect) to sing a medley of… songs. Not Eurovision songs, just… songs. Well, Waterloo is in there, but I think that was the only one. It sort of almost works as a kind of mid-film celebration of the real Eurovision, but it’s all so random. Why isn’t it a medley of previous Eurovision tracks? Who even are some of the singers? (I recognised most but not all.) Do people who aren’t fans even get what’s going on during that sequence? It’s a cheesy but potentially fun idea, which I’d embrace wholeheartedly if I felt they’d nailed it. Or even if they’d just had them all cover Love Love Peace Peace.

Yet for all the film’s faults, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. By sticking to tried and tested plot beats and gags, it has an unchallenging comfortableness. There are laughs along the way — some are just echoes of better versions, yeah (most notably, a bit that’s almost jumping through hoops to avoid Rachel McAdams repeating her iconic line from Game Night. It would’ve been better if they’d just leaned into it and let it be a meta-gag), but there were a couple that caught me with a genuine chuckle.

Sporadically funny; often dated; with tired and rehashed routines; longer than Alexander Lemtov’s penis; and surprisingly emotional at the end… Actually, maybe The Story of Fire Saga is like Eurovision after all.

3 out of 5

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is available on Netflix now.

Extraction (2020)

2020 #88
Sam Hargrave | 116 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English, Hindi & Bengali | 18 / R

Extraction

Chris “Thor” Hemsworth stars in this action-thriller masterminded by the Russo brothers (directors of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame) and directed by Sam Hargrave, who has dozens of stunt coordinating credits to his name, including three Hunger Games, Atomic Blonde, and work on six Marvel Studios movies. But don’t take all those MCU connections to heart — this is not a Marvel-style PG-13 action-comedy. Oh no.

We first meet mercenary Tyler Rake (Hemsworth) engaged in a gunfight on a bridge. He’s covered in wounds, spitting up blood, looks like he’s about to die. Cut to two days earlier! No, really, it’s one of those openings. They just won’t bloody die. Never mind “skip titles” or “watch credits”, Netflix needs to add a “skip pointless in media res prologue” button. It would improve almost any film/TV episode where it was featured.

Anyway, two days earlier we’re introduced to Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal). Just an ordinary, well-to-do schoolboy in India… except his dad’s an imprisoned drug kingpin, and when Ovi slips out to a club one evening he’s kidnapped by goons from the competition, run by the thoroughly ruthless Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli). With daddy behind bars, it falls to Saju (Randeep Hooda) to get the kid back, for which he hires some organisation, I guess — the film is incredibly light on specifics here. Basically, it involves Nik (Golshifteh Farahani) sending in Mr Rake and a support team to extract the kid. Naturally the mission goes sideways, leaving it up to Rake alone to get Ovi and himself out of a city crawling with henchman and corrupt cops who are all out to get them.

School's out

Of course, Rake has issues in his backstory, and rescuing the kid becomes more than just a job, etc, etc. The “Man on Fire Lite” plot is as predictable as this sentence ending with a simile. When David Harbour turns up halfway through as an old mate of Rake’s who lives in the city and agrees to help him out, I’ll be surprised if you can’t guess what inevitably happens a couple of scenes later. Though it is amusingly bold of the film to try to make us believe David “dad bod” Harbour could hold his own in a fight against Chris “literally a Norse God” Hemsworth.

That minor brawl aside, the action sequences are great, more than making up for the lightweight plot mechanics. Letting stunt coordinators move into full-on directing has been the saviour of the action movie genre in recent years, working wonders for the John Wick series in particular, but also several other movies that have followed suit. Hargrave is the latest to suggest he might have a bright career ahead of him on the basis of his ability to stage electrifyingly choreographed combat scenes. The action is fast and hard-hitting; not unnecessarily horror-movie gory like it was in fellow Netflix actioner 6 Underground, but certainly not PG-13 material either. Clearly Netflix don’t force the makers of their expensive movies to hit that PG-13, presumably tied to not having to worry about box office takings. One advantage of going direct to streaming.

The highlight of the film is undoubtedly an already-much-discussed 11½-minute single-take action sequence. We’ve seen plenty of these trick shots in the past few years (Atomic Blonde and, obviously, 1917 particularly come to mind), but Extraction offers another belter. It starts as a full-blown car chase, which transitions into a game of cat-and-mouse around a warren-like apartment block, then tumbles into a mano-a-mano knife duel on a busy street, before ending in a second car chase. Obviously there are myriad hidden cuts in there, but that’s almost beside the point: it’s not physically doing it in one long shot that’s impressive, it’s the design and choreography and planning and execution to make it feel like one. It pays off handsomely.

Street fighter

You wonder if Netflix might look to turn Extraction into a franchise — in many non-English-speaking countries it’s been titled Tyler Rake, which might suggest that’s what they’re thinking. But then, they could’ve retitled it that in English if they wanted, so maybe not. It’s not the most sophisticated thriller ever made, and it doesn’t reach the giddy heights of John Wick in the action department, but it’s nonetheless entertaining at what it sets out to achieve. If they do decide to make more, I’ll definitely be there.

4 out of 5

Extraction is available on Netflix now.

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.