The Hunt (2012)

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aka Jagten

2018 #195
Thomas Vinterberg | 111 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Denmark & Sweden / Danish, English & Polish | 15 / R

The Hunt

Mads Mikkelsen stars as Lucas, a preschool teacher falsely accused of sexually abusing a child in his class, in this hard-hitting drama directed and co-written by Thomas Vinterberg, one of the co-founders of Dogme 95. That filmmaking movement is pretty firmly relegated to the past at this point, but its goals — to focus on story, acting, and theme — live on somewhat in powerful films like this.

In this case, primarily, one of the film’s great strengths is how plausibly the matter is handled. There are no screaming histrionics and no raging against the world from Mikkelsen, as slowly the entire town turns against him based on a few misguided and poorly-understood words from a confused child. Instead, he mainly conveys a lot of quiet desperation — a man who knows he’s innocent but can’t work out how to prove it, and is increasingly hurt as people he called friends almost all turn against him. And that, I suspect, is how a real-life version of this would go down, despite what some of the film’s few critics would prefer to think: most people would hunker down and hope the law would come through to prove innocence, not go on some screaming rampage.

Nonetheless, it’s quite a damning film in its view of society. Most of what happens is due to adults getting carried away, misspeaking, and jumping to assumptions. It begins with a lie told by a child, but the intent is not truly malicious, but then things spiral out of her control. It’s also, naturally, even more pertinent now than it would’ve been when it came out, with allegations and denials of sexual abuse ever more often in the news. Fortunately, The Hunt is a mature and considered film, with something to say for audiences to consider, rather than hysterically coming down on one ‘side’ of an argument.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

That said, I’m not sure some viewers are mature enough to take the film in. I’ve come across more than a couple of reviews that didn’t like it just because it was a difficult film full of unlikeable people. Sorry, but that’s life — there are annoying, stupid people out there just like the ones depicted here. Yeah, it’d be better if these morons didn’t exist, but they do, and that’s how shit like this happens in real life. Just because dickheads are real, and many of the characters in this film are inspired by those dickheads, doesn’t make this a badly-made film for depicting them.

Obviously this is in the writing, by Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm, and the way the former has translated it to the screen, but also the performances. Mikkelsen is fantastic, of course, offering a restrained and unassuming performance characterised by inner desperation that only occasionally leaks out, which makes the injustices against him feel all the more hurtful — it is, in the most literal way, not his fault. Even more incredible, however, is Annika Wedderkopp as the little girl who first accuses Lucas. I mean, with a child that young it’s as much the skill of the direction as the actress, but they’ve given real depth and nuance to her character. You can actually see and feel the conflicting emotions she’s struggling with written across her face, most of all in an extended scene where she’s first interviewed about her accusations, as she’s visibly torn between wanting to back out of the lie but also not wanting to be thought a liar.

It's okay, that's his son

It all comes together to make a movie that is plausible, powerful, and pertinent — and kinda depressing for it, to be frank. I don’t want to spoil the ending (though I will say: dog lovers beware), but however it turns out legally for Lucas, the film suggests the reality of such situations: that some people will always follow the maxim “there’s no smoke without fire”. Once accusations have been made, is there ever really any going back?

5 out of 5

The Hunt is on BBC Two tonight at 12:25am, and will be available on iPlayer for a week afterwards.

It was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project, which you can read more about here.

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Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

2018 #230
Bryan Singer | 134 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Bohemian Rhapsody

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

So go the opening lines to the song Bohemian Rhapsody (Bo Rhap to its friends), Queen’s six-minute prog-rock suite that is one of the best-selling and most-acclaimed songs of all time. And those lines could hardly be more relevant to the film that’s borrowed its title, given that much of the discourse about the film has revolved around the issue of its truthfulness. This (in part) has led to a huge divide in the opinions of critics and audiences: whereas the former gave it a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 55% when it released (it’s since climbed up to 61%), audiences have driven it to be the #1 film at the worldwide box office and placed it on the IMDb Top 250, where it’s actually rising up the chart (it was at #136 after I saw it last Thursday, but is at #126 as of writing). Well, there’s a scene in the film where Bohemian Rhapsody debuts on the radio, and as it plays the screen gradually fills with quotes from contemporary reviews, all of them mercilessly slagging it off — the irony, obviously, being that we all know what a ginormous hit the song would become. Some things never change, eh?

Bohemian Rhapsody: The Movie is, of course, a biopic of performer extraordinaire Freddie Mercury and the band he fronted, Queen. The film begins in 1970, introducing us to Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek) — Heathrow baggage handler by day, wannabe party animal by night, who prefers to go by the name Freddie. He’s been following the fortunes of student band Smile, and when their lead singer quits he offers his services to the remaining members, guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy); and with the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello), the line-up is complete. As he begins a relationship with shopgirl Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), Freddie’s confidence as a performer grows: he changes his surname to Mercury and coerces the band into recording an album, where their unusual style gets them noticed by a record label and… well, you can imagine where it goes from there.

Killer Queen

And that’s another problem that critics have had with the movie: you can imagine where it goes from there not just because you know Queen are an incredibly popular and successful band, but because you’ve seen this story a dozen times before in any other music biopic you care to name. Many critics have favoured naming Walk Hard, a spoof of the genre, wondering how audiences can accept such familiar tricks after they’ve already been spoofed. Well, consider this: 2½-week-old Bo Rhap already has more IMDb ratings than 11-year-old Walk Hard.

Look, I’m trying not to gloat, but here’s a thing: I’ve been a fan of Queen’s music for as long as I can remember. I grew up listening to their first Greatest Hits album a lot. I’d wager a lot of British people have a similar affiliation, considering that’s the best-selling album of all time here. Heck, it’s only really Americans that should’ve been caught by surprise by the film’s success: it’s my understanding that Queen have always been something of a niche, cult group there, whereas in the rest of the world they’re pretty damn huge (some estimates put them among the top ten best-selling music artists of all time). As the aforementioned Bo Rhap reviews scene suggests, audiences have often been ahead of the critical curve when it comes to appreciating the band’s genius, and maybe it’s the same with their biopic.

That said, a lot of the film is made up of quite run-of-the-mill music biopic material. I don’t think it merits the level of vitriol some critics have hit, because it’s not executed badly, it’s just nothing particularly unusual either. But the film does have one big advantage: it’s about Queen. Some of their magic can’t help but rub off. We’re not watching any old band playing any old songs — it’s Freddie Mercury and Queen, creating Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You, Another One Bites the Dust; performing Killer Queen, Fat Bottomed Girls, Love of My Life, I Want to Break Free, Radio Ga Ga, We Are the Champions… The film itself may be not be a classic-in-waiting, but with these people, those songs, and the performances of both, fans of Queen’s music surely can’t help but be entertained. And when their fans number, well, most people, that’s when you get a crowd-pleasing #1-in-the-world box office hit.

We Will Rock You

Much of the film toddles along nicely, mixing some predictable plotting with other bits that really work. It does a good job of little things that make the band feel like a group of friends — the scenes where they’re conceiving songs, collaborating, teasing each other; just little touches that sell the atmosphere of mates working together. Any scene where they’re called on to perform on stage has all the strutting majesty of the real band (I’ll come to the biggest instance of that later). Inhabiting those roles, the actors playing Queen are superb. It’s never easy playing an icon, but Malek excels as Freddie, and an Oscar nomination may well be on the cards. In the less showy roles, Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy are both likeable as the thoroughly decent Brian and more hotheaded Roger, respectively, though Joe Mazzello has less to do as quiet John Deacon, often just pulling silly faces in the background.

I also think the film makes a fair fist of depicting Freddie’s love life. We’ve had a fair few high-profile gay movies recently (Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name, Love Simon), and compared to those Bo Rhap clearly didn’t foreground his homosexuality as much as some viewers would like. Each to their own, but I reckon the film splits itself about 50/50 between Freddie’s personal life and the band’s story, and I don’t think it shies away from his gayness (albeit in a PG-13 way — no beach stroking or peach abusing here).

Even more of an elephant in the room has been the film’s directorial situation: planned and part-directed by Bryan Singer, he was eventually fired from production, with the rest of the shoot (reported to be about a third) and post-production completed by Dexter Fletcher. Singer gets the sole credit because the Director’s Guild of America specifies that only one director may be credited (that’s a whole kettle of fish we’ll leave for another day) and there seems little doubt Singer contributed more on balance than Fletcher, especially as Fletcher has said his job was to complete the work that had already been started. Bearing this situation in mind, it’s particularly interesting that, while much of the film is shot quite matter-of-factly, there are occasional bold directorial flourishes that make you query: who was responsible? Did Fletcher tart things up? Were they Singer’s idea (and so should there have been more)? Unless we ever get a breakdown of who did what, I guess we’ll never know.

Love of My Life

One thing that did intrigue me slightly is that the film isn’t in 3D. That format’s mainly reserved for post-converted blockbusters now, sure, but both Singer and Queen guitarist (and a producer of the film) Brian May are fans of stereography: Singer actually shot his last two X-Mens in 3D (as opposed to just post-converting, as most do nowadays), while May is something of an authority on the subject, even having designed a viewer for 3D photos and published several books (including one of his 3D photos of Queen). So, basically, I’m passingly surprised they didn’t choose to shoot in 3D. Maybe they asked and the studio just wouldn’t pony up the cost. Who knows. It doesn’t really matter… though, actually, I think the finale could’ve looked fantastic in three dimensions.

Ah, the finale. Earlier, I said the film begins in 1970 — that’s not quite true. It actually begins with a flash-forward to Live Aid, the 1985 charity concert that included a famous set by Queen, and which the rest of the film eventually leads us back to. It’s a natural place to choose to conclude the movie: it was a huge triumph for the band, their set regarded by many as among the greatest rock concerts of all time, and certainly a happier endpoint than Freddie’s death a few years later — it seems more fitting to end with him on top of the world than sadly fading away. But even knowing all these facts doesn’t prepare you for the power of what’s actually on screen. It’s truly an incredible set piece, especially when experienced on a huge screen with a thumping surround sound setup. It literally made my hair stand on end and almost brought tears to my eyes. The version in the film isn’t actually the whole set that was played, but they did film it all and it’s being cut together as a Blu-ray extra. I can’t wait. Even as it stands, though, it’s a barnstorming conclusion to the movie; a sequence of such power it justifies the film’s very existence.

We Are the Champions

And so we come to the rub: the rating. Can you give a film full marks for pulling off one key 20-minute sequence so exceptionally? Well, that’s sort of what I was just saying: by itself, the Live Aid scene is enough to tempt me to give the whole film full marks, I thought it was that good. But the rest of the movie isn’t at the same level — it ticks along decently and I enjoyed it all, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t really transcend its genre or subject matter. So, it’s a 4… but Live Aid may yet earn the film a spot on my best-of-year list nonetheless.

4 out of 5

Outlaw King (2018)

2018 #232
David Mackenzie | 121 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Outlaw King

If Netflix’s latest original movie is known for one thing, it’s for featuring a shot of Chris Pine’s penis. It’s no slight on the chap to say its appearance has generated more column inches than he possesses, though admittedly it’s hard to be certain when (penis spoilers!) it only appears for a split second in a long shot as he rises from a lake — who knows how far beneath the surface it may continue?

If the film is known for two things, the second would probably be the muted reception its premiere screening received at TIFF back in September. Director David Mackenzie scurried back to the edit suite, motivated as much by personal displeasure with how the film was playing as by the critics’ reaction, and chopped out around 20 minutes ahead of its wide Netflix debut. By the account of people who’ve seen both cuts, this has definitely improved the film’s pacing.

If the film’s known for three things, the next might actually be what it’s about. Picking up more or less where Braveheart left off, it’s the story of Scotland’s (possible) rightful king, Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) — or, as the English king seems to keep calling him, Robert da Bruce (yo!) — and his attempt to unite the Scots and take back their land from the English (what else is new, eh?) Robert’s new English wife, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), must decide whose side she’s on as King Edward I (Stephen Dillane) and his petulant son, the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), employ any means necessary (with preference to brutally violent ones) to keep Scotland English.

Penis King. Er, I mean, Pine is King.

Outlaw King kicks off in style, with a superb eight-minute single-take that moves in and out of a candle-lit tent during daytime (a feat of camera operating to seamlessly handle the changing exposures required… assuming it wasn’t faked), during which we take in important scene-setting political discussions, a playful (but not really) sword fight, and the siege of a distant castle by a gigantic trebuchet. As opening salvos go, this is first rate. The whole movie is gorgeously shot by Barry Ackroyd, in particular some stunning aerial shots of wide-open scenery — all of it genuinely Scottish, too. In terms of individual sequences though, the opener is not challenged until the climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill, a bloody, muddy, sometimes confusing (deliberately, I think) scrap between the small Scottish forces and the huge English army. How can the Scots possibly win? Tactics. I love a good medieval-style battle with proper tactics (rather than just a free-for-all of troops running at each other), and I’d say this delivers.

In between these bookends, the film is almost a Robin Hood movie: after Robert has himself crowned King of the Scots, he’s declared an outlaw, and ends up on the run with a small band of followers, which leads them to use guerrilla tactics against occupied castles. There’s also a subplot about the relationship between Robert and Elizabeth, his second wife, forced upon him by the conquering English king at the start of the film. Apparently this is one thing that’s suffered from Mackenzie’s new cut, with less time given to seeing their relationship blossom early on. It didn’t feel fatally underdeveloped to me, but it might not’ve hurt to add an extra scene (one would probably do) to help connect the dots between their initial wariness and later trusting devotion.

The overall effect doesn’t feel rousing and celebratory in the way classical historic war epics (like, of course, Braveheart) normally do, but I also don’t think that’s Mackenzie’s goal. He’s talked about endeavouring to make it reasonably historically accurate, and real-life is seldom as clear-cut and triumphant as those movies would have us believe. That said, there’s no doubting who the heroes and villains are here, with the honourable Robert trying to regain his homeland and keep his people safe, while the ineffectual Prince of Wales flounders around, all bluster and no success, slaughtering people for kicks. Boo, nasty English!

Muddy; bloody

As that Robert, I thought Chris Pine made a more convincing Scotsman than Mel Gibson. I did praise the latter’s performance in my review of Braveheart, but nonetheless I never quite forgot that William Wallace was being played by American Movie Star Mel Gibson, whereas here Pine — and his (to my non-Scottish ears) perfectly passable accent — blends seamlessly with the rest of the cast. With supporting roles filled with quality performers like James Cosmo and Tony Curran, you can be assured there are no small parts. Stephan Dillane doesn’t grandstand as the villain, making him more genuinely threatening thanks to an air of calm menace, whereas Billy Howle as his son is a bit more outré, desperate to show his worthiness as heir to the throne, and failing.

Most memorable, however, is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James Douglas. Even when the other Scottish nobles are being allowed to surrender and have their lands returned, Edward remains so disgusted by Douglas’ father’s traitorousness that he refuses to grant him the same. That makes him keen to sign up to Robert’s cause, where he’s a screamingly effective fighter. Taylor-Johnson, caked in mud and blood, wild eyed and screaming at the top of his lungs as he slaughters the English, is a sight to behold. “What’s ma fuckin’ name?” he bellows. No one’s going to forget.

Finally, a lot of praise has been reserved by others for Florence Pugh. She’s certainly a rising star, having attracted great notices in Lady Macbeth last year and currently leading the cast of the BBC’s Little Drummer Girl, but something felt off here. I don’t think it’s her fault, though. This Elizabeth feels dropped in from another time, with a very modern confidence and headstrong attitude. If Pugh was playing a woman from a few hundred years later, I’d buy it entirely, but in this setting, I’m not sure. But this is perhaps less her fault and more that of the five(!) credited screenwriters.

“What’s ma fuckin’ name?”

Another thing those scribes haven’t really included are gags. Some have criticised the film for being too serious, lacking in levity, which… I mean, have you not noticed what it’s about? I’m the first person to argue that a film about serious things doesn’t have to be 100% serious — that it’s always okay to include a variety of tones, just like real life — but it’s also okay to, well, not; to create a different experience. I don’t think Outlaw King is shooting for portentousness, which I guess is what those critics mean, but it does aim for a certain kind of intensity. After all, it’s about a small band of men trying to stand up to the greatest army in the world, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. And if Pine referring to someone as “ye cheeky wee shite” doesn’t raise a smile, well, you don’t know the Scottish well enough.

Even in its new tightened form, Outlaw King is not the outright-success Oscar-hopeful Netflix once touted it as. It’s unlikely to attain the crowd-pleasing success of Braveheart, a film that remains an obvious point of comparison but not an unreasonable one, though on balance I’d struggle to say which of the two I preferred. What this lacks in its spiritual predecessor’s grandstanding, it makes up with grit and guts (literally), making an historical war movie that frequently thrills.

4 out of 5

Outlaw King is available on Netflix everywhere now.

Darkest Hour (2017)

2018 #182
Joe Wright | 125 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English & French | PG / PG-13

Darkest Hour

2017 was, for no readily apparent reason, a banner year for stories about Dunkirk making it to the big screen. In April there was Their Finest, a film about people making a film about Dunkirk (how apt). In July there was Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s high-profile telling of the evacuation itself. Finally, in January 2018 (because, when it comes to films, January and February are part of the previous year in the UK) there was this, the story of Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister of the UK in May 1940 and immediately having to deal with the situation in Dunkirk, alongside calls from within his own government to negotiate peace with Hitler — something Churchill was not inclined to do, despite the odds of winning the war not being in Britain’s favour.

The Dunkirk connection was certainly played up in the film’s marketing (the trailers made it look like Dunkirk 2), but while that situation does have a significant role to play (and both films climax with a recital of the same uber-famous speech), it’s only part of what this film’s actually about. Which does actually make it quite a neat companion piece to Nolan’s movie: it expands on the political backdrop surrounding Dunkirk, placing those events in a wider context. In doing that, it presents a different perspective on familiar events. Churchill is widely remembered as a great and beloved leader who saw us through the war, but here his own party treat him as something of a lame duck Prime Minister, and spend most of their time trying to convince him to take a different course of action.

In this respect, Darkest Hour seems dead set on removing the rose-tinted memory of World War 2 which says that “of course we stood up to those evil Nazis”. The film reminds us, and reminds us hard, that there were many people in positions of power who thought the best course was to acquiesce to Hitler — to give in and seek peace with him — and that, in many ways, their opinion was not irrational. Certainly, the film makes the case that it was the safer route in order to both secure the lives of our troops and hold off invasion of our shores. It’s relatively mature to both not hide from that reality and present the arguments as at least somewhat reasonable.

Never surrender

That said, the film fails to maintain the veneer of unvarnished historical reality for its entire running time. In the third act, Churchill boards a train and encounters members of the public in a sequence that is shamelessly, manipulatively, almost tweely patriotic and sentimental… and yet I kinda got suckered in by it anyway. I think that’s got something to do with these dark days we live in — wouldn’t it be nice to believe The General Public would want to stand up for what’s right in the face of overwhelming odds? Whether it’s historically accurate (maybe everyone was just better back then?) or whether it’s a nostalgic view of what people were prepared to stand for, I don’t know; but either way, it’s effectively aspirational.

A film like this is powered by it performances, and obviously Gary Oldman — subsumed in makeup to turn his slender frame into the famously rotund Churchill — is the stand-out. He thoroughly disappears into the role. Obviously the prosthetics help a good deal with that, but it’s also the voice, the gait, the mannerisms. Naturally he dominates the film, but there’s still some space for quality turns in the supporting roles. In particular, Stephen Dillane as the film’s de facto villain, Halifax, gives a performance that, in its own way, is just as mannered as Oldman’s (the lisping voice), but also just as subtly believable and well measured. Pretty much the same thing could be said about Ben Mendelsohn as King Colin Firth George VI.

But then there are other roles that are less well served. The women, mainly. Lily James’ secretary seems to be present merely to give a significant role to a female character, and to try to humanise Churchill by charting a very familiar “he’s tough to work with at first, but he’s got a heart of gold and is just super once you get to know him” arc. Similarly, Kristin Scott Thomas very nearly has an interesting part as Churchill’s wife, his long-time partner who’s been consistently overlooked in favour of his dedication to the public, but that’s an underdeveloped thread.

Supporting role

So, Darkest Hour is a strong movie in many ways — the male performances; Joe Wright’s classy direction; the way it manages to be simultaneously a more-realistic-than-most depiction of the “maybe we should surrender” debates in the early days of the war and a patriotic “we shall never surrender” entertainment — but it’s also let down by some of those lapses into cliché and sentiment. How susceptible you are to the almost-propagandist “this was our finest hour in the face of terrible odds, both at home and abroad” narrative may dictate how much you like the end result. For me, the aforementioned successes outweigh the faults on balance, but there’s no denying there are problems.

4 out of 5

Darkest Hour is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Persepolis (2007)

2018 #27
Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France & Iran / English | 12 / PG-13

Persepolis

Adapted from co-director Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis is the story of an Iranian girl coming of age in the ’70s and ’80s, during and after the Iranian Revolution. Such a broad description is probably the only way to succinctly summarise it, because it’s kind of a sprawling film, about many different things — just like a life, I suppose. As well as being part biography, it’s also part history lesson, with a normal-family’s eye-view of the revolution and what followed.

Some of the events we’re shown are crazy-specific to her life (Satrapi has certainly lived a life!), and some of it is very specific to her background (i.e. all the Iranian Revolution stuff), but some of it is also very universal. For example, a sequence where she falls in love with a guy sees him depicted as a perfect, angelic boyfriend that she spends many magical times with… until he sleeps with someone else, then when she reflects on their relationship he’s an ugly ogre, and all those wonderful memories have a rotten mirror. Plenty of us have been through something akin to that, right?

Such subjective depictions are one of the benefits of the film being animated. Drawn in a simple, cartoonish style and mostly presented in black-and-white, the visuals are striking and sometimes very effective, but can also have something of a distancing effect — the atrocities of the revolution don’t hit home in quite the same way when, say, they’re executing a black-and-white cartoon rather than a real girl. Conversely, it was Satrapi who insisted on adapting her novel in animated form, with the goal of keeping it universal — in her opinion, “with live-action, it would have turned into a story of people living in a distant land who don’t look like us. At best, it would have been an exotic story, and at worst, a ‘Third-World’ story.” I suppose there’s some truth to that.

Punk is probably ded in Iran

I believe the film was produced in French, but the copy I had access to only offered the English dub. Unfortunately, this is frequently quite poor — the actors sound like they’re reading out slabs of text as quickly as they possibly can, rather than really delivering the lines. I can only presume this was necessary to fit the animation, but the end result leaves the audio feeling like a bad school presentation. I don’t hold this against the film itself, but it’s a word of warning if you have a choice of audio.

Persepolis is only an hour-and-a-half, but it’s a long one thanks to the scope of what it covers. It’s a frequently dark and bleak film too, taking in not just a violent revolution but also things like depression and attempted suicide. Frankly, it’s the kind of film which I don’t know if I’ll ever bother to watch it again, but it’s also a fascinating and informative experience that I’m unquestionably glad I’ve seen.

4 out of 5

Phantom Thread (2017)

2018 #221
Paul Thomas Anderson | 130 mins | 1.85:1 | download (UHD) | USA & UK / English & French | 15 / R

Phantom Thread

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is perhaps the most sought-after fashion designer in 1950s London, with a clientele that includes heiresses, countesses, and even princesses. But like many (male) geniuses, he is often prickly, exacting, tempestuous, and cold, and seemingly the only person that can withstand him for any length of time is his equally fastidious business manager — and sister — Cyril (Lesley Manville). Then Reynolds encounters guesthouse waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) and is immediately smitten, a feeling which she reciprocates, and so she is quickly integrated into his life as his newest live-in muse/lover. Although she initially seems quiet and shy, Alma is actually headstrong and tenacious, and soon the three are locked in a love/hate battle of personalities.

If that sounds melodramatic, there is an element of that to the film; and if Reynolds and Cyril’s brother/sister relationship sounds a bit odd and Gothic, well, there’s an element of that too — and that’s without even mentioning Reynolds’ obsession with his dead mother, or what goes on with some mushrooms. But if there’s one thing writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is not, it’s histrionic. Its plot may be that of a Gothic melodrama, and if it were a novel perhaps we’d class it as one, but Anderson hasn’t taken on the skin of a Tim Burton or Guillermo del Toro here — in the quiet but forceful and precise way it plays out, Phantom Thread is as stringently produced as one of Reynolds’ gowns.

A happy household?

Similarly, at first glance the film may look as cold as its protagonist can be, taking place in the stark, plain-coloured corridors and rooms of his London home-cum-business, with central characters who seem pragmatic and aloof. It is primarily the arrival of Alma that reveals the truth, however, and while there are sometimes outbursts of emotion, a lot remains restrained, conveyed in glances or calmly-delivered threats. Although Day-Lewis received much of the attention and praise because, well, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis, this film truly derives its power from all three leads. It’s possible to point to scenes or moments where each shine, but the real effectiveness lies in how their characters are built up across the film.

Naturally, some credit for this lies with Anderson’s screenplay (which he reportedly wrote in collaboration with Day-Lewis, saying “he probably should have some kind of co-writing credit.”) There are many fantastic lines and dialogue exchanges — again, this might look like a staid, arty movie from the outside, but it’s alive and vibrant with wit and emotion, even if the former is all delivered very dryly and the latter is often simmering under the surface.

Anderson also deserves much credit for the look of the film. There’s no credited director of photography, because he didn’t hire one, but also because he didn’t claim to fulfil that role himself — according to IMDb, he stated that “he collaborated with and was advised by his camera operators and gaffers, since he does not have the technical expertise of a cinematographer.” The teamwork clearly paid off, because the photography is stunning. Not in a show-off, prettied-up kind of way (though there are still individual shots that are breathtaking, like this one), but just beautiful, crisp photography, which once again reminds us of the magnificence of shooting on 35mm (aided, no doubt, by the fact I watched it in UHD).

Dressmaking

All of that remains in service of the characters and their story. I’ve seen it said the film is a dual character study, and I think that’s true. Reynolds and Alma are two very particular individuals, the truth of whose characters is brought out in the way they eventually spark off each other. Their relationship and where it leads is certainly not typical, and may not be healthy, either — indeed, I think how you ultimately react to it may say as much about you and your attitude to relationships as it does the characters. I’ve certainly seen a spread of interpretations expressed online, and (without meaning to sound like I’m above it all) I can understand most of the different perspectives. Of course, being of two minds is a reaction in itself.

I’m more certain of my reaction to the film itself. Put simply, it’s the Paul Thomas Anderson film I’ve felt most engaged by since I saw my first, Magnolia, 15 or so years ago (a feeling which didn’t endure to a rewatch some years later, incidentally). Maybe I owe the rest of his filmography a second chance.

5 out of 5

Phantom Thread is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Hitchcock (2012)

2018 #20
Sacha Gervasi | 92 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Hitchcock

Arguably the most famous film director of all time, it was inevitable that one day there’d be an Alfred Hitchcock biopic. Indeed, as is so often the case in Hollywood with an obvious idea waiting to happen, two turned up at once (the other being BBC/HBO TV movie The Girl). Rather than taking an overview of the man’s life, however, both focus in on the making of a single film — in this case, arguably the one he’s most famous for today, Psycho.

That’s half of what the film’s about, anyway. It’s a mixed success. I’ve no idea how true it is, but the setup — the acclaimed Master of Suspense who’s so established that people are judging him over the hill, determined to do a striking new project no one else believes in to prove he’s still got it — is a good’un. It’s especially effective precisely because it’s about Hitchcock and Psycho: it’s the film that defines him for many people now; so, yes, we know the ending, but that lends dramatic irony — how do we get from that starting point to the acclaimed classic we all know? However, it all feels slightly hamstrung by the filmmakers failing to get the rights to directly recreate any shots from Psycho itself, making it feel like the film is having to constantly pull punches there.

Shooting Psycho

The other half of the film is about a blip in Hitch’s marriage — a storyline which is mostly fictional, unsurprisingly. That Hitch was a pervy old letch shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone anymore, but the way the film decides to draw links between the director and twisted murderer Ed Gein (the inspiration for Psycho) is a bit weird. It feels like the scenes of murder, etc, have been included for mere titillation rather than actually revealing anything about the titular moviemaker.

The latter storyline leads to a reconciliatory ending that is cheese personified. By the scene just before that wraps up the Psycho storyline in a much more effective manner, with Hitchcock listening to the film’s premiere screening from the lobby, ‘conducting’ the audience’s screams during the shower scene. It’s probably the highlight of the movie; the main insight into why Hitch ever did what he did, perhaps. (Well, that and all the lust.)

In the title role, Anthony Hopkins is completely submerged as the big man, helped by a pile of prosthetics. Sometimes I think Hopkins is a distinctly overrated actor, but he’s put the effort in here. As his under-appreciated wife, screenwriter Alma Reville, Helen Mirren is superb as ever. The cast is rounded out by a bunch of decently-served small roles, performed by the likes of Jessica Biel, James D’Arcy, Danny Huston, and, in particular, Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh. She seems to fit the era perfectly. Inexplicably drawing the short straw is Toni Collette, in a totally nothingy role as Hitch’s assistant.

Hitchcock blondes

With a running time that barely crossing 90 minutes before the credits roll, Hitchcock feels very slight. This is a small incident in the long and storied life of the great director; and while it may touch on various themes that concerned his whole career, thereby acting as an exemplification for all of them, it still feels more like a vignette than a full-blown biopic.

3 out of 5

Mary and Max (2009)

2018 #202
Adam Elliot | 92 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | Australia / English & Yiddish | 12

Mary and Max

I heard about Mary and Max around when it first came out. I can’t remember the context anymore, but it must’ve been positive because I’ve been meaning to watch it ever since; a desire only reiterated by its surprisingly firm placement on IMDb’s Top 250 (at time of writing, it’s ranked 176th). Nine years since said initial release (nine years?! Where does time go?!), I finally got round to, er, acquiring it, only for it to then pop up on Prime Video. C’est la vie, I guess.

Anyway, it’s about two very different and geographically distant, but similarly lonely, individuals who come into contact by the magic of mail. Mary Daisy Dinkle (voiced initially by Bethany Whitmore and later by Toni Collette) is a little girl living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, who randomly selects a name in an address book at the post office and sends that person a letter. That person turns out to be Max Horowitz (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, unrecognisably, at least to me), a middle-aged obese New Yorker with mental health problems. He replies, and an unlikely, long-lasting pen-pal relationship is born.

The film labels itself as being based on a true story, but writer-director Adam Elliot has said (according to IMDb) that Max was inspired by “a pen-friend in New York who I’ve been writing to for over twenty years.” So, less “based on a true story” and more “very loosely inspired by a true story” — I mean, at least half the narrative (all the shit Mary goes through) is completely fictional. Does that matter? Maybe not… but also, kinda. While the film presents a gloomy, issue-heavy take on life, it also has a whimsical side, and that “true story” claim feels like it’s trying to justify both how grim things get and how fantastical they sometimes are, too. The fact it isn’t true — that it is, at least in part, just the product of the director’s kooky imagination — therefore feels like a bit of a con, at least to me.

Crying on crayon

Still, that doesn’t mean Mary and Max is without merit. It has an empathy for people who are disadvantaged and troubled, and for the importance of finding some measure of happiness in life, however small or awkward, that is quite touching. The heavily stylised designs, desaturated colour scheme, and stop-motion animation method suit the material well — as I said, there’s a lot of bleakness here, as both Mary and Max are battered by life, which juxtaposes effectively with the “kids’ picture book” visual aesthetic. That also allows for some flights of fancy which just wouldn’t work if the film were live action. Plus, as with almost any stop-motion movie, it’s an impressive technical achievement (trivia time: there were 133 sets, 212 puppets, and 475 miniature props, including a fully-functional typewriter that took nine weeks to create!)

Mary and Max’s position on a viewer-rated list like the IMDb Top 250 surprises me, because it’s an oddball little film that would seem to appeal primarily to a certain kind of viewer, and probably alienate many others with its unique mix of quirkiness and spirit-crushing realism. It makes for a sometimes uncomfortable experience — perhaps deliberately so — but underneath that lies a fundamental humanity that is, in a way, quite moving.

4 out of 5

Mary and Max is available on Amazon Prime Video UK as of yesterday.

Zatoichi’s Vengeance (1966)

aka Zatôichi no uta ga kikoeru

2018 #199
Tokuzô Tanaka | 83 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese

Zatoichi's Vengeance

Not to be confused with the series’ similarly-titled tenth film, Zatoichi’s Revenge (not a problem with the original Japanese titles, where the former translates as something like Zatoichi’s Two-Stage Sword and this is something along the lines of Zatoichi Hears the Song — I’m just using online translators to guess at these, so those translations may well be too literal), Zatoichi’s Vengeance marks the exact halfway point of the series — both chronologically and, according to Letterboxd users, for quality, too.

After encountering a dying man whose last wish is for Ichi to deliver a moneybag to someone called Taichi, our blind hero bumps into an equally blind priest and accompanies him to the village of Ichinomiya for their “thunder drum” festival. Once a quiet, peaceful place (er, despite all that drumming), that very calm has led a nearby yakuza boss to move in and take advantage, setting up a brothel and demanding protection payments from local businesses. One of the last holdouts is, it turns out, the dying man’s mother, along with her young grandson — Taichi. Naturally, Ichi’s sense of justice compels him to stop the yakuza, but he’s mindful of being a negative influence on the boy’s impressionable young mind.

Vengeance starts out as a quieter, more dramatic Zatoichi film than many, at times marked by Ichi’s deliberate refusal to engage in combat… until he starts cutting everyone down in a flurry of second-half action sequences, anyway. There’s a couple of the requisite scenes of Ichi killing hordes of enemies, the best being an encounter on a bridge where the yakuza employ those thunder drums to frustrate Ichi’s hearing. It’s a beautifully staged sequence, shot in an almost-silhouetted manner.

Silhouette attack

But the action is the lesser element here, with some of it feeling almost perfunctory alongside the interesting ideas presented by the plot. It engages on multiple fronts. Firstly, there’s Taichi and Ichi’s potential influence on him. There’s a good explanation of the effect of this plot thread by Walter Biggins at Quiet Bubble. Biggins writes that “Taichi gets hope from the blind swordsman. He sees freedom through violence. He doesn’t see how conflicted, lonely, and desperate Zatoichi’s life is — the boy sees only the glamor, the swagger, the escape. [Zatoichi] allows the gang to beat him, allows Taichi to see him humiliated, so that he doesn’t get the wrong idea about this lifestyle. [Taichi’s story] ends the film on an ambiguous note — we don’t quite know how the poor kid will turn out, or if he’s learned the right lessons from Zatoichi. In this sense, Zatoichi’s Vengeance is an indictment of its very genre, and the boy is central to this critique.” (I’ve chopped that up somewhat from the original because I didn’t want to rip it off by quoting too extensively, but the full piece is even more insightful on this aspect of the film.)

Connected to this is the blind priest, a wise man who seems to see into Ichi’s very soul, and advises him on his interactions with the boy and, well, his lifestyle in general. This is one part of the film I wasn’t wholly convinced by, because I’m not sure how well the film pays it off. For one thing, he advises Ichi to be a good influence on Taichi, which leads Ichi to attempt to reason with the boss and get a beating for his trouble; but rather than pursue that diplomatic tack, it’s only a few minutes before he whips out his sword and gives them a good thrashing — once again setting a bad example. The priest reassures Ichi that sometimes violence is the only way. Um, you what? Well, the priest is presented as wise and insightful — almost too wise, because the film admits this advice seems contradictory, and Ichi can’t quite process that contradiction either. The priest also warns Ichi not to rely so much on his sword of he’ll die, which seems to pay off at the climax: when Ichi enters the yakuza’s lair, they’re all afraid of him, standing back to allow him to enter, take their money, and shut down their operation. But the reason they’re afraid of him is the awesome sword skills he demonstrated earlier, and when they attempt a last-minute stealth attack, he cuts them down.

Uh-oh, Ocho

While both of these characters and their associated views of Ichi’s methods provide food for thought, perhaps my favourite part of the film is the subplot about a prostitute, Ocho, who Ichi encounters at that recently-opened brothel. She’s a kindhearted woman — almost the stereotypical “whore with a heart of gold” — who’s revealed to have a tragic backstory when the samurai husband she ran away from arrives. He’s been searching for her for three years, but she doesn’t want him or his help, even as he’s desperate to win her back — so desperate that he agrees to take on Ichi for money, even though he’d had a good relationship with our hero. But the real success here is the beautiful portrayal of Ocho by Mayumi Ogawa, which makes her one of my favourite characters in the series: the way she’s so kind and generous at first, but then her personal tragedies are revealed, and her bleak ending… As the film goes on, Ogawa peels back the layers of who Ocho is and how she’s ended up this way, transcending any fears of a stereotypical character to instead reveal a sympathetic figure with a poignant ending.

Indeed, the whole film comes to a kinda melancholic, kinda bleak conclusion (spoilers here, naturally). Ichi ostensibly wins, of course — the boss is defeated, the town freed from his influence, no one (currently) out to kill him — but there are no real happy endings: Taichi’s father is still dead, the young boy in limbo about where his life will go; Ocho’s life has been ruined beyond repair (we last see her sprawled drunk on the floor, no longer caring that she finally has enough money to free herself from prostitution); and her samurai husband, the man who killed Taichi’s father and was only after Ichi because he was desperate for the money to free his lover, even though she didn’t love him, lies dead by Ichi’s reluctant hand, a fate he both deserved and didn’t. As Paghat the Ratgirl describes it, this is an “important element of Ichi’s most compelling adventures: the tragedy of victoriousness. He has won. He lives. But he has killed someone who was by no means a villain. […] Discovering himself to be a menace even to those he loves, he realizes he is undeserving even of little Taichi’s affection, and avoids the boy in order to flee the village toward his next horrific adventure”.

Ichi gets knocked down, but he'll get up again

My original conclusion to this review described it as a film of mixed success. It has some really nice ideas and spins on the usual Zatoichi formula, but I also felt like it didn’t carry some of them all the way to fruition. I wanted to love it, because I so liked some of what it did, but felt it didn’t all come together well enough. On reflection, and after reading some other reviews, like the ones I’ve quoted, I’m no longer sure it comes up so short. These Zatoichi films may just look like brief action flicks about an almost-supernaturally-gifted swordsman and righter-of-wrongs, but sometimes they leave you with a surprising amount to chew on.

4 out of 5

Criterion’s Blu-ray box set of the Zatoichi films is released in the UK next month.

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade (1999)

aka Jin-Rô

2018 #212
Hiroyuki Okiura | 102 mins | DVD | 1.85:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15 / R

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade

Jin-Roh has enough cool costumes and bursts of ultra-violence to cut together a trailer that looks like a kinda-typical anime action-fest, but that’s really hiding a thoughtful, complicated (oh so complicated) drama about an unlikely romance and military conspiracies.

If that sounds like a bizarre mix… well, it is. Jin-Roh is a film that likes to pull tricks on its audience (maybe those action-packed trailers were deliberate rather than marketers just doing their best to sell the thing!), and one of the tricks it plays is to constantly wrongfoot you about what kind of movie it’s meant to be. First it’s a kind of action thriller about terrorists vs. police; then it’s a subtle romance between two damaged individuals; then it’s a conspiracy thriller, and also an espionage drama; and finally it’s some kind of allegorical tragedy. As it moves through those various phases, the characters — and, by extension, us — are subjected to crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses. Good luck keeping up…

Set in an alternate history where Germany occupied Japan after World War 2 (I’m not sure that’s made clear enough in the film, but hey-ho — maybe it’s obvious to Japanese viewers), the film picks things up a couple of decades later, with Japan free from occupation but having to fight antagonistic forces from within. With many guerrilla cells having combined to form terrorist group The Sect, the security services consequently created Kerberos, a controversial police paramilitary unit, to combat them. When Kerberos corporal Kazuki Fuse fails to shoot a bomb-carrying girl and she blows herself up, he’s punished by being sent back to basic training. At the same, he meets the girl’s sister and begins to form a bond with her. Meanwhile, his failure has thrown the future of Kerberos into doubt, setting political machinations whirring every which way.

Little Red Riding Hood... and the Big Bad Wolf?

I’ll admit, I got pretty lost with all the various factions, who was plotting what and when and why, and which side everyone was supposed to be on. Perhaps I was lulled into not paying enough attention because, as I noted above, the film appears to be a tender, understated examination of the relationship between two scarred individuals struggling to cope with the same recent tragedy from different sides, before it abruptly takes a hard turn into an intricate conspiracy thriller. Reading a plot description afterwards, I managed to get my head around it, though it didn’t resolve one quandary I felt at the end of the film itself: that it’s hard to know who we’re meant to be rooting for. Did the good guys win? Did the bad guys win? Were there actually any good guys — was anyone right? Personally, I’m fine with a film where there are no heroes, where everyone’s a bad guy and one of those bad guys wins; my problem is that I was left feeling unclear about whether that was the case or not.

Mixed feelings, then. It’s a well-made film (even watching on a crummy window-boxed DVD), but all those whiplash-inducing turns and confusion-producing twists left me somewhat reeling and bewildered.

3 out of 5

The Korean live-action remake, Illang: The Wolf Brigade, is available on Netflix from today.

(As is Daredevil season 3, Making a Murderer season 2, a brand-new Derren Brown special, and over half-a-dozen other series and films I’ve not heard of — why dump so much on one day, Netflix?!)