The Post (2017)

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2018 #125
Steven Spielberg | 116 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

The Post

Perhaps the timeliest historical movie ever made, The Post is, in its plot, about the publication of the ‘Pentagon Papers’, a leaked report that examined decades of US government decisions about the Vietnam war; but, thematically, it’s about press oversight of a government lying to its people to cover up their own wrongdoing, including trying to forcibly stop the press from performing that role — sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Not to mention that it also concerns itself with matters like whether sources who leak classified information are whistleblowers or traitors, and attitudes towards women in positions of power in the workplace.

For various reasons related to these elements, it’s attracted a lot of comparisons and accusations. For example, some have criticised it for being about a case in the ’70s rather than one in the present day. I guess allegory is tricky for some people to understand… Or, alternatively, that any such parallels were accidental, as if experienced director Steven Spielberg wasn’t aware of them. I think the film went from script to screen in just nine months for a reason…

Then there’s the inevitable comparison to Spotlight, another recent newspaper journalism-themed true-story movie, and a Best Picture winner to boot. Those who thought Spotlight was exceptional tend to think The Post doesn’t measure up. Personally, I thought Spotlight was good, but I didn’t love it as much as some others. I would hesitate to say The Post is better than it, but I would be equally as hesitant to say it isn’t as good. Arguably Spotlight is a better movie about journalism, focusing as it does on the everyday legwork and procedure that go into putting together a major story, whereas The Post has more on its mind than just the facts of how reporting works. There are also many comparisons to All the President’s Men, but I’ve still not seen that so can’t comment fairly (there is this rather excellent trivia/connection, though).

Reading the papers

Relatedly, some people think this film should’ve been about the New York Times, as they were the paper that first broke the Pentagon Papers story and initiated the legal case it all led to (and, later, they were the only paper awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the publication). There’s certainly an argument for that being the real story, but, conversely, that would be to assume the focus of this movie is solely the publication of the Pentagon Papers. In fact, The Post is the story of Katharine Graham and the Washington Post, and how the Pentagon Papers changed them both. It’s the story of an underdog-like local paper making an (inter)national mark by doing something at odds with a legal ruling — the fact they chose to back-up the Times by publishing too (even if the action was instigated as much by friendly rivalry/jealousy as it was by “freedom of the press” ethics) is an important point in itself.

It’s also the story of a woman — a business owner at a time when women didn’t hold such roles; and not a woman who confidently elbowed her way in either, but one who found this position thrust upon her — going from meek and overpowered to confident in her own mind and running the show. I’ve read reviews that think this latter element is somehow forced on the film, as if the makers didn’t notice it until halfway through and only decided to draw it out when they reached a shot near the end where Streep walks past a crowd of other women with admiring expressions. That’s not the case, obviously — that’s simply not how movies are made — and that arc is clearly in mind from the very first scene where we meet Graham. Meryl Streep is excellent in the role, which is easily the film’s most fully-realised character. Everyone else is certain of themselves and what they believe is the right thing to do, but over the course of the film she goes from quiet, uncertain, and reliant on her trusted advisor, to believing in her own instincts and standing up for them. It’s a clearly-charted but believable journey.

A man's world

Nonetheless, it’s somewhat hard to divorce The Post from the context of when it was made — the way it reflects the current climate in American politics and the news coverage thereof. But then, is that a problem? Are works of art not as much about the time in which they were made as the time in which they’re set? I guess that’s a whole other debate. That said, it carries a message that would be important in any era, about the need for reasoned, responsible, independent oversight of those who govern us.

4 out of 5

The Post is available on Amazon Prime Video UK from today.

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All the Money in the World (2017)

2018 #121
Ridley Scott | 133 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Italy & UK / English, Italian & Arabic | 15 / R

All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World does not star Kevin Spacey. But I expect you knew that. Indeed, if you only know one thing about the film, I expect that is what you know. Spacey’s firing, and his speedy replacement by Christopher Plummer, was such a big news story that it instantly became what the movie was most famous for — and, I suspect, is what it will always be most famous for, because the film itself isn’t good enough to transcend its own reputation.

Before I get into that, let’s do the film the courtesy of describing what it’s actually about. Based on true events, it tells the story of the kidnapping of teenager John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) in 1973 thanks to his family ties: his grandfather, J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), was the richest man in the world. He was also a miserly old codger who refused to pay his grandson’s ransom, and the film follows his daughter-in-law Gail (Michelle Williams) as she desperately tries to arrange to get her son back, aided by the employee Getty assigns to investigate the case, former CIA operative Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg).

Even before the point of contention that drives the plot, various examples are given of what a piece of work Getty was. Whether these are based on true stories or not, I don’t know, but the film seems almost heavy-handed in creating this impression. For instance, although he’s the world’s first billionaire, he’ll do his own laundry in his hotel bath rather than pay the hotel $10 to do it for him; or he’ll spend an hour haggling a poor beggar down from $19 to $11 for an item that’s actually worth $1.2 million — although it later turns out there’s another side to that story… not that the it paints Getty in any better a light. Anyway, it’s to Plummer’s credit that he can take this kind of material and make it work, especially considering it was captured in just nine days of shooting with very little prep time.

Can you put a value on a child's life? J. Paul Getty can.

When those reshoots were first reported, it was said to be possible because Getty wasn’t actually in the film much, so it wouldn’t take long to remount just his scenes. Then the film started screening, and critics said he was in a lot of the movie and the amount they must’ve reshot was phenomenal in such a short space of time. Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in between: Getty pops up throughout the film, and his presence is huge, but I’d wager his actual screen time is smaller than you’d think — similar to Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, who notoriously won Best Actor from less than 25 minutes on screen, it feels like Plummer’s in it more than he actually is. That’s partly the film’s structure, but also the quality of his performance.

In discussing the reshoots, director Ridley Scott has commented on the differences between the two actors’ takes on the character (Plummer wasn’t shown any of Spacey’s performance before he filmed). According to IMDb, Scott felt Spacey portrayed Getty as “a more explicitly cold and unfeeling character”, while Plummer found “a warmer side to the billionaire, but the same unflinching refusal to simply pay off his son’s kidnappers.” I can’t help reading between the lines to infer that Scott felt Plummer’s performance was more nuanced, and therefore better. It beggars belief that Spacey was cast at all, really: Scott wanted Plummer, who was 88, to play the 80-year-old Getty, but the studio insisted on 58-year-old Spacey, who then had to be caked in prosthetics. Supposedly it’s because Spacey was a bigger name, but that much bigger? Really?

Anyway, it turned out for the best, because Plummer is probably the strongest element of the finished product. Although Michelle Williams is top-notch as ever, too. Mark Wahlberg has been worse than this, but he still seems slightly miscast. Ridley Scott, also, is not on top form, his direction merely unremarkable. Oh, it looks nice enough — it’s well done — but there’s little beyond glossy competence.

Negotiations

Arguably its biggest sin is that, for a movie about a high-stakes kidnapping, it’s remarkably free of tension. The closest is the climactic manhunt around a village at nighttime (an event which is an entirely fictional invention, incidentally), but even that doesn’t seem to ring all that’s possible out of proceedings. The blurb sells the film as a “race against time”, but it’s almost the opposite of that: the kidnappers hold the kid for literally months while the Gettys bicker. But maybe Scott wasn’t going for thrills? There’s definitely a thematic thing in there about wealth and power and what it does to people, and what that represents versus the importance of family or morals. But I’m not sure those issues are really brought out or explored either.

It leaves the film feeling not tense and on-edge enough to be a thriller, nor thoughtful and considered enough to be a message-driven drama. The real-life story behind the film is a compelling hook and definitely sounds like it’d make a great movie, but the conversion process has perhaps not done it justice. Maybe someone else should have a crack at it…

3 out of 5

Trust, a miniseries from Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy retelling the same events, begins its UK airing on BBC Two tonight at 10pm.

The Disaster Artist (2017)

2018 #82
James Franco | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Disaster Artist

James Franco’s 18th feature as director* is the story of the making of The Room, the cult favourite “Citizen Kane of bad movies”. Franco also stars as the bizarre Tommy Wiseau, a figure of mysterious background who one day decides to make a movie, funded out of his own inexplicably wealthy pocket. Along for the ride is Greg (Dave Franco), a wannabe actor who befriends Tommy at acting class before inspiring Wiseau’s divergence into auteurism. So unfurls a crazy tale of ultra-independent moviemaking by someone who doesn’t seem to know how to be human properly, never mind produce a movie. By which I mean Wiseau, not Franco.

Franco and friends (the lead cast includes his brother, his brother’s wife, and his best mate) seem to be having a jolly old time recreating their favourite bad movie, and they’re certainly not above patting themselves on the back for how well they’ve done it (there’s a self-congratulatory “look what a good job we did recreating the film!” montage at the end that lowered my opinion of the film somewhat. By all means put that as a Blu-ray special feature, but putting it in the film itself feels boastful). Of course, for aficionados of The Room such dedication pays off: there are lots of fun references — not just the obvious stuff (the recreation of actual scenes), but scattered lines and nods throughout the movie.

For those of us uninitiated, The Disaster Artist provides mixed results. For example, the sequence about the shooting of the famous “Oh hi Mark” line, which played so well as the teaser trailer, is more long-winded in the final film (unsurprisingly), but consequently it doesn’t work as well — it’s lacking the conciseness of the trailer, which emphasised the ludicrousness of the process and therefore made it funny. But, hey, if you haven’t seen the trailer…

Artists at work

Where the film manages to surprise is that it kind of has something serious to say. Obviously it’s funny — the premise, the very fact of Wiseau’s existence, inherently calls for that — but around the laughs it wants to comment on the worthiness of dedication to artistic endeavour. Wiseau may be a weird guy who made a terrible movie, but he still made that movie — when Hollywood rejected him, he had the dedication to write and produce his own film, following his own vision. His weird, terrible vision. It’s little surprise that Franco — the guy who’s somehow made 20 feature films (including another two since this came out less than a year ago, with three more beyond that completed or in post) — should be on board with that as a worthwhile achievement.

The trailers mismanaged my expectations for The Disaster Artist. They promised more hilarity than the film delivers — it’s played a little straighter than you might assume, especially given the people involved. But while it’s not consistently funny enough to land as a pure comedy, it’s also not quite heartfelt and meaningful enough to sing as a drama. It’s good, but I felt like it could’ve been better.

3 out of 5

The Disaster Artist is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* That’s not a typo — James Franco has directed 17 other movies that you’ve probably never heard about. And now you’re probably wondering, “how can someone as famous as James Franco have directed 17 movies without me ever hearing about it?” I know, because I’ve been there. ^

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

2018 #52
Stephen Frears | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English, Urdu & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

Victoria & Abdul

Returning to the role that earnt her first Oscar nomination, Dame Judi Dench stars as an even older Queen Victoria, who once again gets involved in a friendship with a foreign servant to the exasperation of those around her. If it wasn’t based on a true story, the similarities to Mrs Brown would make Victoria & Abdul look like a slipshod copycat sequel. Okay, this isn’t technically a sequel, but the similarities can’t be ignored.

Where the earlier film aimed for dramatic weight as a portrait of a grieving and isolated monarch finding human connection again, here the goal seems to be more comedic. Perhaps. I mean, if often shoots for funny, but it’s not funny enough to be an outright comedy. At other times it’s more straightforwardly dramatic, especially as it gets towards the end, but there’s a nagging sensation that the facts have been bent to fit the expected shape of the narrative. The film begins with a card that says it’s “based on real events… mostly”, which feels a little too comical for a heritage drama such as this, and was perhaps more intended it as a “get out of jail free” card for its historical accuracy. (I don’t know what the facts are, mind, so I can’t vouch for or condemn the film’s faithfulness to them.)

Turns out we are very much amused

Dench is very good, as you’d expect. The rest of the cast don’t get to deliver as much range, but they’re a quality bunch of performers and so are easily up to what they’re given. It’s also as pretty a production as you’d expect, with Oscar-nominated makeup and costumes, plus opulent production design and grand location choices, all shown off by Danny Cohen’s pleasant cinematography.

I read someone else assess that it’s not as good as its individual parts, and I think that’s fair. Most of the scenes, moments, and performances are strong — there are notably funny bits, dramatic bits, emotional bits; even unexpected complications in how it handles some of the characters — but when it’s all put together, it doesn’t quite coalesce. If you think you’re the kind of person who’d enjoy this movie, there’s every chance it will please you no end. Otherwise, while it does have definite qualities, it doesn’t do quite enough to transcend its trappings.

3 out of 5

Victoria & Abdul is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Almost Oscar-Worthy Review Roundup

Each of these films was nominated for multiple Oscars… but failed to win a single one.

In today’s roundup:

  • Big (1988) — nominated for Best Actor (Tom Hanks) and Best Original Screenplay.
  • Frost/Nixon (2008) — nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Frank Langella), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing.
  • Lion (2016) — nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Dev Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score.


    Big
    (1988)

    2017 #91
    Penny Marshall | 100 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG* / PG

    Big

    Big is one of those strange gaps in my viewing — the kind of film I feel I should’ve seen when I was a kid in the early ’90s but didn’t.

    Anyway, in case you’ve forgotten, it’s the one where a 12-year-old boy makes a wish and ends up as an adult, played by Tom Hanks. Rather than solve this problem in a day or two, he ends up moving to the city, getting a job, an apartment, a relationship, and all that grown-up stuff. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t expect that level of scale from a movie like this. Generally there’s some hijinks around “kid in an adult’s body” and it’s all solved in a day or two, but the length of time the kid’s predicament rolls on for allows the movie to tap into more than that. I mean, it’s still a funny movie, but it’s got a message about how it’s important to remember the childlike spirit, but also that it’s OK to be at whatever stage in life you’re at — don’t rush it.

    Plus the whole thing has a kind of sweet innocence that you rarely see in movies nowadays. We’re all too cynical, too concerned with realism (even in fantasy movies). If you made it today, it’d ether have to be sexed/toughened up for a PG-13, or kiddified (and likely animated) for a G. That said, that the 12-year-old boy in a man’s body is happy to sleep with the hot woman, apparently without it bothering his conscience one iota, is by far the most realistic thing about this movie.

    4 out of 5

    * The UK PG version is cut by two seconds to remove an F word. The cut is really obvious, too — was there not a TV version with an ADR’d non-swear? Anyway, it was classified uncut as a 12 in 2008, though that’s not the version they show on TV, clearly. ^

    Frost/Nixon
    (2008)

    2017 #136
    Ron Howard | 117 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & France / English | 15 / R

    Frost/Nixon

    Peter Morgan’s acclaimed play about the famous interviews between David Frost and President Richard Nixon (the ones where he said “when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal”) transfers to the big screen with its two lead cast members intact (Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon) and Ron Howard at the helm.

    As a film, it almost embodies every pro and con that’s ever been aimed at Howard’s directing: it’s classy and thoughtful, in the way you’d expect from a director who’s helmed eleven Oscar-nominated movies* and won two himself; but it also, for example, employs an odd framing device of having the supporting cast be interviewed as if for a documentary, which exists solely as an on-the-nose way of integrating direct-to-audience narration from the original play — my point being, it’s a bit straightforward and workmanlike.

    Still, when you’ve got actors of the calibre of Sheen and Langella giving first-rate performances (the latter got an Oscar nomination, the former didn’t, I reckon only because Americans aren’t as familiar with David Frost as us Brits are — his embodiment of the man is spot-on), and doing so in a story that’s inherently compelling (even if somewhat embellished from reality — but hey, that’s the movies!), what more do you need?

    4 out of 5

    * Many of those only in technical categories, but hey, an Oscar nom is an Oscar nom. ^

    Lion
    (2016)

    2017 #103
    Garth Davis | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Australia & USA / English, Hindi & Bengali | PG / PG-13

    Lion

    Slumdog Millionaire meets Google product placement in this film, which is remarkably based on a true story — or based on a remarkable true story, if you want to be kinder. It’s the story of Saroo Brierley, a young Indian boy (played by newcomer Sunny Pawar) who is separated from his family, ends up in an orphanage, and is adopted by Australian parents. As an adult (played by Dev Patel), he resolves to find his birthplace and family — using Google Earth.

    If it was fiction then it’d be too fantastic to believe, but because it’s true it packs a strong emotional weight, not least Saroo’s relationship with is adoptive parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. The star of the show, however, is Dev Patel. You may remember there was controversy about him being put up for Supporting Actor awards, deemed “category fraud” by some because Saroo is the lead role. Conversely, he shares it with young Sunny Pawar, and Patel doesn’t appear until almost halfway through the film. Well, the “category fraud” people are more on the money, and it’s testament to Patel’s performance that it doesn’t feel like he’s only in half the film. Pawar is great — both plausible and sweetly likeable — but while watching I didn’t realise the movie had a near 50/50 split between young and adult Saroo. Maybe this means the first half is pacier, but its not that the second part feels slow, more that Patel has to carry greater emotional weight.

    Mother and son

    Rooney Mara is also in the film, as adult Saroo’s girlfriend. Her character is in fact based on multiple real-life girlfriends, but it makes sense to consolidate them into one character for the sake of an emotional throughline. However, her storyline ultimately goes nowhere — it ends with Saroo asking her to “wait for me”. Did she? Did he go back to her? It’s not the point of the film — that’s about him finding his family, and after that emotional climax you don’t really want an epilogue about whether he gets back with his girlfriend or not — but it still feels like it’s left hanging. I suppose it isn’t — I guess we’re meant to presume she does wait for him and they get together when he returns and live happily ever after — but it doesn’t feel resolved. It shouldn’t matter — as I say, it’s not the point — but, because of that, it does.

    So it’s not a perfect movie, but it packs enough of an emotional punch to make up for it.

    4 out of 5

  • Eddie the Eagle (2016)

    2017 #116
    Dexter Fletcher | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Germany & USA / English, German & Norwegian | PG / PG-13

    Eddie the Eagle

    The unlikely hero of the 1988 Winter Olympics — ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards — gets the Cool Runnings treatment in this comedy-drama. I make the Cool Runnings connection because, firstly, they’re both about unlikely competitors in the Winter Olympics (from the same year, in fact — what was in the water in ’88?!); and, secondly, because in their transition to the big screen they were both heavily fictionalised.

    The story, at least as it goes in the film, sees young Eddie (played as an adult by Kingsman‘s Taron Egerton) keen to participate in any Olympic sport, eventually settling on ski jumping because no Brit has participated in it for six decades. Disavowed by the British officials, he heads off to Germany to train himself. Trials and tribulations ensue that are by turns hilarious and heartwarming, but which eventually see him qualify for the 1988 Olympics — that’s not a spoiler, it’s why he’s famous!

    Helping Eddie along his way is Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a washed-up former US ski jumper who begrudgingly becomes Eddie’s coach, transforming the Brit from a no-hoper to someone who’s… not entirely bad. This is probably the film’s biggest whopper, because Peary didn’t even exist. It’s kind of brazen to make your co-lead and major subplot 100% fictional in a ‘true story’ film, isn’t it?

    The Eagle has landed

    But, hey, this isn’t a documentary — it’s a feel-good underdog story, about having a can-do attitude and dedication to your dreams in the face of adversity. It’s also about how it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts, in a very literal sense. That probably makes the film sound more twee than it is, but it’s not a grittily realistic take either — it’s a colourful, light, entertainment-minded film. It’s a good pick for Egerton too, getting to stretch different performance muscles than in Kingsman as our naïvely optimistic hero. Jackman makes for an easygoing co-star, getting to mix his Wolverine loner gruffness with a dash of his chat-show charm.

    Eddie the Eagle is a thoroughly charming little film. Even if its tone and overall narrative may be familiar, it navigates them with a light touch and consistent good humour that — much like the eponymous Olympian — wins you over, even if it’s in spite of yourself.

    4 out of 5

    The 2018 Winter Olympics officially commence tomorrow, though some events have already started — including, appropriately enough, ski jumping.

    The Straight Story (1999)

    2017 #133
    David Lynch | 108 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | France, UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Straight Story

    “What would a G-rated Disney movie directed by David Lynch be like?” It sounds like a sketch show pitch, but in 1999, between Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, it happened for real.*

    And, talking of “happening for real”, this is a true story about an old fella, Alvin (Richard Farnsworth), who decides to visit his estranged brother after he suffers a stroke. Unable to get a driving licence, he sets off on his 30-year-old ride-on lawnmower, with a maximum speed of 5mph, to make the 240-mile trip. Yes, I said it’s a true story. Of course, it’s not just 100 minutes of Alvin riding a lawnmower along county roads — through the people he meets and the stories he tells, we learn he’s certainly lived a whole life.

    Such a simple, straightforward, grounded (well, relatively grounded) narrative seems so very un-Lynch-like at first, but its tale of quirky Americana, peopled by a ragtag selection of endearing oddballs, isn’t so far outside his wheelhouse. There’s a definite Lynch touch detectable in how its made — the shot choices, editing patterns, and so on. There’s even a shot of a grain silo with a background hum that feels straight out of Twin Peaks. Then there are pretty scenery shots which are less obviously him.

    Lawnmower man

    Lynch has called The Straight Story his “most experimental movie”, which, considering the rest of his oeuvre, probably says more about what he considers experimental than it does about the film itself. What it does demonstrate is that the director, normally known for producing movies that befuddle the mind and chill the blood, is capable of producing something understatedly human and kind of heartwarming.

    4 out of 5

    * In the US, anyway — other distributors released it elsewhere, including Film4 here in the UK. ^

    Hidden Figures (2016)

    2017 #170
    Theodore Melfi | 127 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Hidden Figures

    Based on a true story, Hidden Figures is about three black women working at NASA in the early ’60s, a time when segregation was still in force in the US.

    It’s a double whammy of timely issues, then: they struggle to prove they’re clever and have scientific know-how because they’re women, and they struggle to prove they’re worth treating with respect because they’re black. How depressing that these things are still relevant over 50 years later. That said, any right-minded person watching it will still be suitably appalled that this kind of thing went on at all — even when you know about it, seeing it played out is something else.

    Of course, it comes with a positive message attached: these people overcome their societally-imposed disadvantages to be awesome nonetheless, fighting everyday sexism and racism left, right and centre to eventually prove their worth. Hurrah! It’s a strong message, even more powerful thanks to it being a true story, and no doubt goes a long way to explaining the film’s success. As a movie in its own right, it’s nothing particularly special. There are good performances from a high-calibre cast, but everything else is pretty standard for a biopic — well done, but there’s a reason the film’s Oscar nominations were for acting and screenwriting.

    4 out of 5

    Hidden Figures is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Napoleon (1927)

    aka Napoléon vu par Abel Gance

    2016 #184
    Abel Gance | 333 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 + 4:1 | France / silent (English) | PG / G

    Napoleon

    At one point in time, arguments over rights made it seem unlikely you’d ever be able to see Abel Gance’s epic biopic of French leader Napoléon Bonaparte if you were a regular person not prone to attending all-day cinema screenings with a live orchestra and multiple intermissions. But a year ago this week things panned out so that the BFI were finally able to release it on Blu-ray. While a theatrical marathon is probably still the best way to see the film (if only for the full effect of the famed triptych finale), this release is certainly more convenient and accessible. Apparently it sold better than expected, too — I guess that’s what happens when you combine years of anticipation with being a worldwide-exclusive release of a film of this stature. It’s also a daunting film to review — for the aforementioned reasons, plus its length and its artistic importance. Nonetheless, here are what thoughts I had.

    At 5½ hours, Napoleon is rather like a miniseries from the silent era — a comparison that feels more apt than ever in this age of binge-watching. It’s divided into four acts, each running anywhere from 49 to 114 minutes, but it could even be subdivided into further episodes: Napoleon’s schooldays; his observation of the French Revolution; his opposition to Corsica being sold to England; the siege of Toulon (which takes up all of Act 2 and is the best bit, in my opinion); the reign of terror (a half-hour section that barely features Napoleon); a chunk where he falls for and woos Josephine that plays like a rom-com; the invasion of Italy… Yet despite that length, the film doesn’t even reach the Napoleonic Wars. No wonder Gance wanted to do six movies — or six seasons, as we might interpret it today. (In the end, he went over-schedule and over-budget on this first film, covering just two-thirds of the story he’d intended and spending the budget for the entire series. I imagine I’d outrage some silent film fans/scholars if I called him the Peter Jackson of his day…)

    Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon

    Part of the fourth act is that triptych climax, a 21-minute sequence shot with three cameras side-by-side, and therefore designed to projected on three 1.33:1 screens side-by-side, to create a 4:1 widescreen image. It’s undeniably less powerful when rendered as a thin strip across a 16:9 television, suddenly shrinking the height of the image rather than suddenly tripling its width, but what other choice is there? (Well, if you’ve got three sets of equipment, the three-disc Blu-ray contains each screen full size, one per disc, so you could set it up yourself.) Even shrunk like that, the imagery in the sequence remains stunning. I bet the effect is marvellous when seen as intended. (There’s an alternate single-screen ending, which is quite different. It contains fundamentally the same ‘plot’, but there’s one whole new sequence, and the others are truncated or slightly rearranged. Worst of all, it loses the tricolour-inspired finale.)

    Widescreen properly arrived when CinemaScope was invented in 1953, so Gance was about 25 years ahead of his time with that technique. It’s Napoleon’s most striking innovation, but the whole film shows off a surfeit of cinematic techniques: a wide variety of shot lengths (close-ups, medium, long, wide, etc, etc); tracks and pans, many of them fast; handheld photography, including what we’d now call ShakyCam; swaying back and forth, in and out of focus, or swinging over a large crowd; mounted on fast-moving vehicles, including dipping under the waves on a boat; in the thick of the action rather than observing it from a distance; multiple exposures and superimposition; animated maps to indicate Napoleon’s strategising; split screen; split-second impressionistically-fast cutting… and most of that’s found in just the first hour! Some of this is stuff that would still feel revolutionary when filmmakers were doing it 20, 30, even 40 years later. The fast-cut pulse-racing action scenes, like a horseback chase on Corsica, are not what you commonly expect from a silent movie, especially an ‘artistic’ one rather than a swashbuckler, say.

    Epic

    Lest you think a film of this vintage must be in black and white, Napoleon features a lot of tinting and toning, which works very well at times to create striking and meaningful imagery: golden sunlight illuminating the debut of La Marseillaise; the burning red of revolution forged in a furnace; a tumultuous purple ocean… Similarly, Carl Davis’ original score is great, helping to emphasise the emotion and lend the images a storytelling shape. Again, the sequence with La Marseillaise is a good example; a particularly effective tour de force. Davis makes good use of other familiar tunes for shorthand — there are variations on Rule, Britannia whenever the British are involved, for instance.

    Making Abel Gance’s Napoleon was an epic undertaking, as was its decades-long reconstruction, as is the viewing experience (it is 5½ hours, after all). It may not be perfect for all of that immense running time (which does not merit adjectives like “indulgent” or “excessive” but is, nonetheless, long), but it is a monumental achievement in cinema that undoubtedly deserves full marks.

    5 out of 5

    That completes my reviews from 2016, finally.

    Awakenings (1990)

    2017 #154
    Penny Marshall | 116 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Awakenings

    Based on a true story, Awakenings tells of Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams), who stumbles across an element of responsiveness in previously catatonic patients on his hospital ward. Finding a condition that links them buried in their medical histories, he supposes that a newly-invented drug might help their condition, subsequently testing it on Leonard (Robert De Niro), who ‘wakes up’ for the first time in 30 years. As Sayer continues his work, the new treatment reinvigorates the lives of more people than just the patients.

    I hadn’t even heard of Awakenings until the untimely passing of Robin Williams, when it was brought to my attention by Mike of Films on the Box (er, I think — I can’t find where this occurred. Either it’s on someone else’s blog or I’ve entirely misremembered the circumstances). Frankly, I’m not sure why it isn’t better remembered. Okay, it’s a little schmaltzy towards the end, but there are plenty of films that are worse for that which are held in higher esteem by some. Perhaps it’s not schmaltzy enough for those people, but still too much for people who hate that kind of thing? Or maybe it’s something else — but I don’t know what, because the rest of the film is packed with quality and subtlety.

    Such qualities are to be found in its writing — a screenplay by Steven Zaillian that conveys not only the usual story, character, and emotion, but also relates medical facts and processes in a way that is expedient to the narrative but still seems genuine. Whether it is or not I couldn’t say, but I didn’t feel conned by movieland brevity. Such qualities are to be found in the directing — unshowy work by Penny Marshall which matches the screenplay for its attention to detail in a way that never makes it feel as if we’re being fed a lot of information (although we are); that finds moments of beauty and life in the humanity of the characters, their plights, their successes, and their connections.

    You waking up me? Well I'm the only one here...

    Such qualities are to be found in the acting — De Niro’s immersive performance as a teenager trapped in a 50-year-old’s body, bookended by a medical condition so extreme that in lesser hands it could easily have become a caricature. Also Williams, giving quite possibly the most restrained performance of his career, but fully relatable as the socially inept doctor who is slowly, almost imperceptibly, brought out of his shell. And also an array of supporting performers, who each get their moment to shine in one way or another — although “shine” feels like the wrong word because, again, it’s understated. One or two moments aside (the schmaltziness I mentioned), there’s no grandstanding here.

    Combine those successes with the knowledge that this is a true story (heck, you wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t) only makes the film’s events — and its messages about being attentive of others and embracing the life we’re given — all the more powerful.

    4 out of 5