Their Finest (2016)

2018 #223
Lone Scherfig | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Sweden / English | 12 / R*

Their Finest

One of three Dunkirk-related movies released in 2017 (which is a bit random — it wasn’t a particular anniversary or anything), Their Finest is adapted from a novel by Lissa Evans called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which is a much better title. “Their Finest” is kinda bland and meaningless — slap it on any wartime film and it’d work just as well. The original title is a neat pun, though, mixing the famous saying (which comes from a 1940 Churchill speech, if you didn’t know) with the common running time of a movie, thereby indicating when the story is set (World War 2), what it’s about (the making of movies), and indicating a tone (it’s a pun, but not an outrageous one, suggesting lightness without going full-blown comedy). Maybe someone noticed this runs nearer two hours and didn’t want to give audiences the wrong idea…

Their Finest Hour and a Half stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, a young woman in wartime London who finds work writing female characters’ dialogue in movies — “the slop”, as it’s derisively called by her combative superior, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). When a news story about twin sisters who took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk is fast-tracked into production, with a cast that includes fading leading man Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), Catrin and Tom wind up on location with the film, hastily rewriting to include changes mandated by the War Office. Despite Tom’s standoffish attitude and Catrin’s marriage to a good-for-nothing war artist (Jack Huston), who’s jealous of her newfound status as the breadwinner, affection begins to blossom between the two writers…

Hooray for the writers!

Yeah, much of Their Finest follows the expected shape of a story like this (the love triangle; the woman coming to be respected by her initially dubious colleagues; etc). Two things work to stop it feeling too staid: an engaging lead cast, and some weightier developments and subplots. The latter includes at least one wholly unexpected twist, which helps make this a more powerful film than the potentially-light “people go on a jolly to make a movie during the war” premise initially seems. There’s a somewhat classical balance of comedy and tragedy there, which is reminiscent of movies from the era the film’s set. Frame it in 4:3, shoot in black & white, and give everyone RP accents, and parts of it could almost be a ’40s melodrama.

Talking of accents, why oh why did they lumber Gemma Arterton with a Welsh one? It isn’t bad, exactly, but I did find it constantly distracting. Presumably it’s because the story is loosely based on the life of Diana Morgan, a Welsh screenwriter whose wartime work for Ealing Studios mostly went uncredited (though she does have one on the famous propaganda film Went the Day Well?, amongst a handful of others), but, considering it’s not actually a biopic, surely there’s no need for the accent? Well, other than to attract funding from the Welsh Government’s Media Investment Budget, I suspect… Anyway, it’s a minor complaint (as I said, her accent isn’t bad), and even with it Arterton is typically charming, generating good chemistry with Claflin, who plays a Mr Darcy-esque role as the initially-unlikeable inevitable love interest. As usual, Nighy threatens to steal the show, hamming it up just the right amount as Ambrose. He gets a significant subplot about his hard-fought transition from leading man to character actor, which also brings in Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory — just two more high-quality actors helping round out a strong cast, which also includes Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, and Jeremy Irons, among others.

She's holding a pencil, she must be a writer

Ambrose is another man who initially misreads Catrin but eventually comes round to her. I suppose the “a woman proves her worth” element is another that’s been well-worn, but it seems fitting here, given that women in the film industry are still struggling to be treated equally. In this case, it’s using the “women suddenly in the workplace” reality of WW2 to make it both feel relevant to the present while remaining era-appropriate, unlike so many period movies that project present-day values onto eras where they don’t truly fit. It’s not as heavy-handed in its moralising as others can be, either.

Indeed, I’d say the entire film is very well pitched. It straddles the comedy-drama divide skilfully, entertaining as a jolly romance set in the world of moviemaking, but with enough grit from the reality of wartime to give it an edge. Everyone involved has, I’m sure, given it their finest hour-and-a-half(-and-a-half).

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Their Finest is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm.

* It’s rated R for “some language and a scene of sexuality” — there’s a couple of “fucking”s and a brief glimpse of one practically-silhouetted breast. God, the MPAA are daft. ^

Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon Roundup: Spy-Fi

I introduced the concept behind QT’s movie marathon in my previous roundup of films from it, but to quickly recap, these are all movies with a connection to Tarantino’s latest flick, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

While many of Tarantino’s selections speak to the setting of OUaTiH (in terms of depicting its time and place on screen, or the social landscape of its era), others have a bearing on it in quite a different way. These are movies his characters might’ve seen, or might’ve appeared in, or (in the case of Sharon Tate) did actually star in. Three of those also fall under the banner of espionage fiction. Two hail from the James Bond-inspired spy-fi craze of the ’60s, while one is a ’50s war movie about a secret mission. (Yeah, that last one is stretching the definition — it’s not really a spy movie at all — but it doesn’t pair up with anything else in Tarantino’s selection, so here it is.)

In today’s roundup:

  • Hammerhead (1968)
  • The Wrecking Crew (1968)
  • Battle of the Coral Sea (1958)


    Hammerhead
    (1968)

    2019 #112
    David Miller | 95 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English

    Hammerhead

    The success of the James Bond movies led to a whole raft of imitators throughout the rest of the ’60s, a spy-fi craze that kickstarted other long-running franchises like Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.CL.E. Of course, as well as the memorable and enduring successes, there were piles of cheaply-made, entirely-forgettable knockoffs. Hammerhead is one of the latter. Like Bond, it’s based on a series of espionage novels, these ones by James Mayo (pen name of English novelist Stephen Coulter) and starring the character Charles Hood. Coulter had been friends with Ian Fleming, and apparently (according to Quentin Tarantino) his Hood novels were popular with secret agent fans because they were written in a similar style to Fleming. Hood didn’t have the staying power of Bond, though, the series running to just five novels which (as far as I can tell) haven’t been in print for decades. On film, he fared even less well: this is the only Charles Hood movie.

    The film’s biggest problem is its desire to be a Bond movie, but without the money or panache to carry it off. As Hood, Vince Edwards has none of the easy charm of Sean Connery, instead seeming like a stick-in-the-mud who’d rather be anywhere else (preferably back in the ’50s, I suspect). And the film itself so wants to be like Bond that there’s even a pop song named after the titular villain… though rather than playing over the opening credits, it pops up two or three times mid-film, incongruously played dietetically. As a Letterboxd reviewer put it, “apparently in the late ’60s if you were a pornography-obsessed master criminal you could also be the subject of a pop song.”

    Oh yes, that’s right: the villain collects porn. Not just any old rags, though, but Art — paintings and sculptures by renowned masters, that kind of thing, just ones that feature boobies. Something about that does feel ever so ’60s. The film itself is as pervy as its villain’s obsession. Well, okay, maybe not that pervy, but there are certainly gratuitous shots of women in their underwear, etc. Perhaps the most egregious is the closeup of female co-lead Judy Geeson’s bouncing behind as she rides on the back of a motorbike up some steps, complete with boinging sound effect. That’s about as explicit as it gets, though: it may be firmly set in the Swinging Sixties, with up-to-the-minute fashions and scenes set at experimental art happenings, but it’s stuck in the past enough to not feature any actual sex or nudity, just plenty of cleavage, gyrating dance moves, and the odd bit of innuendo (don’t expect any Bond-quality puns, mind — it’s not that clever).

    Trying to swing

    I haven’t mentioned the plot, but it’s a frequently nonsensical bit of nonsense involving a report so top-secret its author has to have a highly public cover story for what he’s supposed to be doing while he actually sneaking off to present to international delegates who’ve arrived in the country unannounced. If anyone ever said what this report was actually about, or why the conference had to be kept a secret (or how something like 23 different countries, and their associated delegates and security staff and so on, all managed to keep it hush-hush), I missed it. The villain wants to intercept the report — not steal it, not stop the conference, just learn what’s in it — which requires an elaborate plan with an impressionist and various decoys. Why not just honeytrap one of those 23 delegated? I guess that’d be too easy. What’s the villain’s motivation for wanting the report? No idea — he’s defined by being a reclusive pornography connoisseur, not by whatever he does to make money to afford his expensive porn habit.

    Well, it’s all part of the film wanting to be like Bond, but not seeming to really understanding what makes the Bond films tick. On the bright side, it doesn’t take itself very seriously, which means it’s kooky fun in places (there’s a nice bit of farce in a hearse, for example). Not without entertainment value, then, but only hardened ’60s spy-fi fans need apply.

    2 out of 5

    The Wrecking Crew
    (1968)

    2019 #115
    Phil Karlson | 101 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Wrecking Crew

    Unlike Hammerhead, I’m not sure anyone should apply to watch The Wrecking Crew, the last in a series of four movies starring the Rat Pack’s Dean Martin as Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm. The character was a mite more successful than Charles Hood, then, but on screen and in his original literary form: the book series ultimately ran to 27 novels, the last published in 1993, with a 28th written but left unpublished after Hamilton’s death in 2006. The film series would’ve continued too — I guess not for that long, but for at least one more film. Reports vary on why a fifth instalment never happened, but one highly plausible version ties it to the murder of Sharon Tate. Tate co-stars in The Wrecking Crew and is quite the best thing about it. Martin loved working with her, and the plan was for her to return as Helm’s sidekick in the next film. But then what happened happened, and the followup was abandoned. (The alternate version is that poor reviews and poor box office for The Wrecking Crew just led the studio to scrap the series.) There are several tragedies about the murder of Sharon Tate, but I don’t think depriving us of more Matt Helm movies is one of them.

    As for the lead character, Helm is a secret agent cum fashion photographer — and that’s not the only thing here that’ll remind you of Austin Powers. The Bond movies are often cited as the sole inspiration for Powers, but it was really drawn from across the ’60s spy-fi spectrum, and it’s clear Matt Helm was part of the mix. Unfortunately, The Wrecking Crew plays like a low-rent Austin Powers movie with any humour value sucked out. In his discussion around the film, Tarantino recalls seeing it in the cinema on its original release, and how audiences found it hilarious at the time. That wasn’t a quality I observed, personally. It’s clearly all tongue-in-cheek, but it rarely achieves levels of genuine amusement.

    Enter Sharon Tate

    More tangible is the sensation that the film thinks it’s super cool and hip, but really isn’t. That might just be because of its lead. Dean Martin feels a bit like Roger Moore in his later Bond films: still behaving like he’s a young playboy while looking far too old for it. But even Moore, with his ageless class, felt more ‘with it’ than this. It really shows that the “effortless cool” of Bond does require some effort. The past-its-date feel is underscore (literally) by frequent random snippets of old-fashioned-sounding songs — presumably Dean Martin numbers, placed awkwardly to convey some of the hero’s thoughts (sample lyric: “If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her bed, you’d do better sleeping with your uncle Fred”). So much for the Swinging Sixties… and this was nearly 1970, too!

    There’s no respite in the actual storyline, which is at least broadly followable (the villain has stolen $1 billion in gold, because who doesn’t want to be rich?), but then drowns itself in a flood of little logic problems and implausibilities, shortcomings of research or insight into foreign cultures, casual racism, lazy casting (why does someone called Count Massimo Contini sound like an English public schoolboy, other than because he’s the bad guy?), and no consideration for where surveillance cameras might actually be placed. You despair of constructively criticising the film for its mistakes — it’s beyond help.

    The Wrecking Crew is another movie no doubt inspired by the desire to emulate the success of James Bond, but this is the kind of mediocre imitation that gives you a new appreciation for even the worst Bond movies. Hammerhead clearly struggled to compete due to the constraints of a tight budget, which it at least made up for somewhat with a vein of authentic Swinging Sixties antics. The Wrecking Crew, on the other hand, seems to have all the money it could need (it was produced by a major studio and had star names attached, remember), but nothing like enough charm or skill. It can’t even find benefit in fight choreography by the great Bruce Lee, with stunt performers incapable of convincing combat.

    2 out of 5

    Battle of the Coral Sea
    (1958)

    2019 #116
    Paul Wendkos | 83 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG

    Battle of the Coral Sea

    May, 1942, the South Pacific: a US submarine on a top-secret reconnaissance mission is captured by the Japanese fleet. Its crew are taken to remote island interrogation camp, where they just have to keep silent for a couple of days until what they know will no longer be of use to the enemy.

    Yes, far from the combat movie the title implies, this middle-of-the-road World War 2 movie is one part submarine adventure (the first act) to two parts POW thriller (the rest). The latter also includes an action-packed escape for the climax, which is almost a moderately exciting action sequence, but is marred by a litany of minor daft decisions. For example: the escapees start by killing a couple of guards, but only pick up one of their guns; then they use that gun to mow down more guards, but still don’t bother to grab any more weapons. When some of them get killed a minute or two later, you can’t help but feel it was their own damn fault.

    It picks up some points for making the camp’s commander a reasonable man — a human being, rather than an alien, vicious, evil torturer, which is the stereotype of Japanese WW2 prison camps. That said, considering how infamously brutal said camps were/could be, the niceness of the prisoners’ treatment makes the film feel somewhat neutered. It’s not like the captured seamen get to laze around all day — they’re put to work — but you feel like these guys aren’t really suffering, not compared to what others went through. It contributes to the feeling of the film being a something-or-nothing tale; just another story of the war, rather than an exceptionally compelling narrative.

    Under the Coral Sea

    Apparently the eponymous battle was rather important, though: a voice over informs us that “it was the greatest naval engagement in history”… before adding that “the victory laid the groundwork for the even greater sea victory at Midway.” So it was the greatest… except the next one was greater? Who wrote this screenplay, Donald Trump? We do actually get to see the battle, eventually, when it turns up as an epilogue, conveyed via a speedy stock-footage-filled montage. I wonder how much of that was fed into the trailer…

    Battle of the Coral Sea is the kind of film I would’ve completely overlooked if Quentin Tarantino hadn’t included it in his Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon (it represents the kind of thing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Rick Dalton would’ve appeared in early in his career, as one of the seamen with a couple of lines), and I don’t feel I’d’ve really missed anything. It’s not a poor film — anyone with a fondness for ’50s-style war movies will find something to enjoy in it — but it’s not a noteworthy one either.

    3 out of 5

    Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in cinemas now.

  • Review Roundup

    As foretold in my most recent progress report, June is off to a slow start here at 100 Films. Or a non-start, really, as I’ve yet to watch any films this month and this is my first post since the 1st. Hopefully it won’t stay that way all month (I’ve got my Blindspot and WDYMYHS tasks to get on with, if nothing else).

    For the time being, here a handful of reviews of things I watched over a year ago but have only just written up:

  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  • Allied (2016)
  • American Made (2017)


    O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    (2000)

    2018 #106
    Joel Coen | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    O Brother, Where Art Thou?

    The eighth movie from the Coen brothers (eighth, and yet they still weren’t being allowed a shared directing credit! No wonder that stupid DGA rule pisses people off) is one of their movies that I found less objectionable. Oh, sure, most of their stuff that I’ve reviewed I’ve given four stars (as well as a couple of threes), but that’s more out of admiration than affection — for whatever reason, their style, so popular with many cineastes, just doesn’t quite work for me; even when I like one of their films there’s often still something about it I find faintly irritating.

    Anyway, for this one they decided to adapt Homer’s Odyssey, but set in the American Deep South during the Great Depression. Apparently neither of the brothers had ever actually read The Odyssey, instead knowing it through cultural osmosis and film adaptations, which is perhaps why the film bears strikingly minimal resemblance to its supposed source text. Rather, this is a story about songs, hitchhiking, and casual animal cruelty, in which the KKK is defeated by the power of old-timey music. Hurrah!

    It’s mostly fairly amusing. If it was all meant to signify something, I don’t know what — it just seemed a pretty fun romp. I thought some of the music was okay. (Other people liked the latter more. Considerably more: the “soundtrack became an unlikely blockbuster, even surpassing the success of the film. By early 2001, it had sold five million copies, spawned a documentary film, three follow-up albums (O Sister and O Sister 2), two concert tours, and won Country Music Awards for Album of the Year and Single of the Year. It also won five Grammys, including Album of the Year, and hit #1 on the Billboard album charts the week of March 15 2002, 63 weeks after its release and over a year after the release of the film.” Jesus…)

    Anyway, that’s why it gets 4 stars. I liked it. Didn’t love it. Laughed a bit. Not a lot. Some of the music was alright. Not all of it. Naturally it’s well made (Roger Deakins!) without being exceptionally anything. Harsher critics might say that amounts to a 3, but I’m a nice guy.

    4 out of 5

    Allied
    (2016)

    2018 #116
    Robert Zemeckis | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & China / English & French | 15 / R

    Allied

    Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star as a pair of intelligence agents who fall in love in Mr. & Mrs. Smith: WW2 Edition. Settling down together in England, all is lovely for them… until one comes under suspicion of working for the enemy…

    Overall Allied is a very decent spy thriller, let down somewhat by a middle section that’s lacking in the requisite tension and a twee monologue coda. But the first 40 minutes, set in Morocco and depicting the mission where the lovers first meet, are pretty great; there’s plenty of neat little tradecraft touches scattered throughout; and there are some pretty visuals too. There are also some moments that are marred by more CGI than should be necessary for a WW2 drama, but hey-ho, it’s a Robert Zemeckis film.

    That said, Brad Pitt’s performance is a bit… off. He never really seems connected with the material. Perhaps he was trying to play old-fashioned stoic, but too often it comes across as bored. It also constantly looked like he’d been digitally de-aged, but maybe that’s because I was watching a 720p stream; or maybe he had been, though goodness knows why they’d bother.

    Anyway, these are niggles, so how much they bother you will affect your personal enjoyment. I still liked the film a lot nonetheless.

    4 out of 5

    American Made
    (2017)

    2018 #124
    Doug Liman | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Japan / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    American Made

    Described by director Doug Liman as “a fun lie based on a true story,” American Made is the obviously-not-that-truthful-then ‘true story’ of Barry Seal, a pilot who was recruited by the CIA to do some spying and ended up becoming a major cocaine smuggler in the ’80s.

    Starring ever-charismatic Tom Cruise as Seal, the film turns a potentially serious bit of history (as I understand it, the events underpinning this tale fed into the infamous Iran-Contra affair) into an entertaining romp. Indeed, the seriousness of the ending is a bit of a tonal jerk after all the lightness that came before, which I guess is the downside of having to stick to the facts.

    Still, it’s such a fun watch on the whole — a sliver long, perhaps, even though it’s comfortably under two hours, but it does have a lot of story to get through. Parts of that come via some spectacular montages, which convey chunks of story succinctly and are enjoyable in their own right. Liman doesn’t get a whole lot of attention nowadays, I think, but it seems he’s still got it where it counts.

    4 out of 5

  • They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

    2018 #234
    Peter Jackson | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & New Zealand / English | 15

    They Shall Not Grow Old

    Commissioned by 14-18 NOW (the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary) and the Imperial War Museum to see what he could do to make their old World War One footage more engaging for a modern audience, director Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson’s initial tests at restoring the footage were so successful that the project was eventually worked up into this feature-length documentary. It tells the story of the Western Front from the point of view of ordinary Tommies living and fighting on the frontline, using only footage from the period (plus photos, posters, artwork, maps, and so on) and narration taken from interviews with men who were really there — no historians to provide context or analysis here.

    This presents two distinct things to consider when looking at the film: not only its success as a documentary, but also the methods Jackson and co have undertaken to produce it. In terms of the latter, what Jackson and his computer wizards have done goes far beyond the normal realms of “restoration”. For starters, the original footage has been cleaned up (removing scratches and dirt, stabilising the image, etc) — so far, so normal. But that original footage was shot on hand-cranked cameras, giving it a frame rate of anywhere from 10 to 18fps (sometimes varying within one piece of film). So, computers have created additional frames to bring all the footage up to a standard, smoother 24fps. Then the footage has been painstakingly colourised, and also converted into 3D (if you see it at a 3D cinema screening, anyway. Maybe there’ll be a Blu-ray). The goal of all this is to make it seem more immediate and real; to try to connect modern viewers to these men in a more direct fashion, without the distancing effect of watching juddery, indistinct black & white film.

    Before and after

    Calling the work Jackson and co did to old footage “restoration” has been controversial in some circles, because it goes beyond mere “restoration” and into the realm of revisionism, like the colourisation of old movies that came to prominence in the ’80s and was widely criticised (though it still occasionally rears its head today — try buying a Blu-ray of It’s a Wonderful Life without both black & white and colour copies of the film). Jackson has a different and specific aim with his work here, however. He’s not saying this is a better way to view old film footage fullstop, but rather is looking for a way to bring these past events to life for a modern viewer; to try to erase the past 100 years and put us in their shoes, to make us see how much these people, though separated by so much time, were really very similar to us. The effectiveness of the end result in achieving this goal — of bringing that long-gone war vividly to life — is undeniable.

    Indeed, anecdotally, a lot of people do find the addition of colour to be revelatory — after the film’s screening on BBC Two last night, I saw many tweets talking about the “extraordinary”, “breathtaking”, “jaw dropping”, “spine tingling”, “astounding” moment when colour faded in. Personally, however, it rarely seemed like more than a special-effects veneer painted over the original footage. Well, that’s exactly what it is, in fact. it’s not necessarily a criticism, either — it may be for the best, even, because this isn’t a kind of ‘restoration’ we want to see applied across the board to old films. Either way, I do agree that it added a new perspective to see the war presented in this way; but the idea that it’s a perfect, genuinely lifelike ‘restoration’ didn’t quite wash with me. In fact, I thought one of the film’s most striking, identifiable moments came early on, before it had made the transition to colour: as the narrators talk about how young they were when they signed up, we’re shown closeups of soldiers’ faces, and you can really see how young they were — many of them literally just boys. I think it’s pretty common knowledge that, although the age to sign up was 19, lads as young as 14 lied to get in, but seeing it so clearly is another matter.

    Faces

    Moments like that prove that They Shall Not Grow Old’s success as a documentary doesn’t just lie with its “restored” footage. The film’s worth lies as much in the way the story is told — the voiceover narration taken from genuine soldiers’ testimonies, recorded by the BBC and IWM in the ’60s and ’70s; the editing of certain sequences — as it does in the “modernising” of old footage. The added colour and clarity do bring some bits to life and make them feel closer to today, as per Jackson’s stated goal, but a lot of the time the smeary, blurry quality of the colourisation makes it feel as much like a painting come to life as it does real footage. Nonetheless, the truthfulness of what we’re being told burns through that, and it’s the combination of visuals and audio that aids our understanding of what life was like for those men in that place at that time.

    It’s quite a dense film too, packed with information, constantly surging forward with the images, an imagined soundtrack to match them, and almost non-stop narration. At times it becomes like a tone collage, where you almost absorb it more than process it, getting an impression of life on the front more than specific experiences. In this interview, Jackson says the film uses about 120 narrators, edited together to sound almost like they’re telling one story — the “common story” of the experience of a soldier on the Western Front, with extreme or uncommon anecdotes having been edited out. It means a lot of the war isn’t touched on (other fronts, other experiences, like the Navy or Air Force), but there were budgetary reasons for that as much as anything (they originally offered Jackson enough money for a film about 30 minutes long).

    Western Front

    While those other stories are undoubtedly worth telling too, I think it was wise of Jackson to retain a degree of focus here. Rather than attempt to cram a wide-ranging account of a complex conflict into the brief running time of a single film, he’s instead painted a picture of what it was like to be an ordinary Tommy in the trenches of Europe. This is not the story of commanders and generals, of presidents and kings, but of ordinary blokes on the ground — the people most of us would’ve been, had we lived 100 years ago — and Jackson’s methods help make that story as real and relatable as it’s ever been.

    5 out of 5

    They Shall Not Grow Old is available on iPlayer until Sunday 18th November. A documentary about the making of the film airs on BBC Four tonight at 7:30pm.

    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

    Review Roundup

    Hello, dear readers! I’ve been away for most of the past week, hence the shortage of posts, but I’m back now, so here’s a random ragtag roundup of reviews to kick things off again.

    In today’s roundup:

  • That’s Entertainment! (1974)
  • ’71 (2014)
  • Guardians (2017)


    That’s Entertainment!
    (1974)

    2017 #80
    Jack Haley Jr. | 124 mins | TV | 1.33:1 + 1.78:1 + 2.35:1 + 2.55:1 | USA / English | U / G

    That's Entertainment!

    Greatest hits compilations always seem to be a popular product in the music biz, and that’s essentially what this is, but for movies. An array of famous faces appear on screen to help provide a scattershot history of the MGM musical, but really it’s an excuse to play some fantastic clips from old hits. This may be the kind of programming that TV has taken on and made its own in the decades since, but when the quality of the material is this high, it feels like more than just schedule filler.

    Thanks to many eras being covered it has more aspect ratio changes than a Christopher Nolan movie, though that’s actually quite effective at demarcating the old-school spectacle from the linking chatter. There’s also some “you wouldn’t get that today” commentary, like Frank Sinatra talking about a line of chubby chorus girls (who don’t even look that large!), or various bits and pieces criticising the studio’s history, like how all the films had the same plot.

    It was originally promoted with the tagline “boy, do we need it now”, a reaction to the gritty style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood at the time, as well as all the real-life problems of the era (it was released the same year as Nixon resigned because of Watergate). MGM needed it too: the studio was in decline, releasing just five films in 1974. The whole thing carries a somewhat bittersweet air, as ageing stars reflect on past glories from the decrepit environs of MGM’s rundown backlot.

    Nonetheless, it creates a marvellous tribute to a golden era. And I guess it must’ve done alright, because it spawned two sequels, a spin-off, and MGM are still going (more or less) today.

    4 out of 5

    ’71
    (2014)

    2017 #95
    Yann Demange | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    ’71

    Set in Belfast in (you guessed it) 1971, ’71 is a thriller that sees an Army recruit become separated from his unit during a riot at the height of the Troubles, leaving him trying to survive the night “behind enemy lines”.

    The film’s best stuff is early on: a brewing riot as police perform a door-to-door search; a tense foot chase through the backstreets; a single-take bombing and its aftermath. The immediacy of all this is well-conveyed, suitably tense and exciting, but also plausible. Then the film decides it needs some sort of plot to bring itself to a close, and so it kicks off some IRA infighting and British Army skullduggery. The added complications don’t exactly bring it off the rails — it’s still a fine and tense thriller — but it lacks that extra oomph that the hair-raising sequences of the first half deliver.

    Still, it’s a promising big screen debut for director Yann Demange, who was reportedly among the frontrunners to helm Bond 25 before that got diverted into Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s idea. His second feature, another period movie, this time a crime drama, White Boy Rick, is out later this year.

    4 out of 5

    Guardians
    (2017)

    aka Zashchitniki

    2017 #122
    Sarik Andreasyan | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Russia / Russian | 12

    Guardians

    You may remember this film from when its trailer went viral a couple of years ago: it’s the “Russian answer to The Avengers” that featured a machine-gun-wielding bear. Naturally, that kind of attention assured it got an international release eventually (I paid to rent it, then it later popped up on Prime Video. You never know how these things are going to go, do you?)

    It’s about a bunch of old Soviet superheroes being reactivated to stop a villain. If that sounds vague, well, I can’t remember the details. Frankly, they don’t matter — Guardians is the kind of film a 6-year-old would write after a diet of Saturday morning cartoons, with the same attention to character development and plot structure you’d expect from such an endeavour. The story is semi-nonsensical: the villain’s plan is never clear (beyond “rule the world”); it flits about between subplots; characters appear and disappear from locations… There’s a litany of “things that don’t quite make sense” — too many to remember without making obsessive notes while rewatching, which I have no intention of doing.

    But if you can ignore all that — or, even better, laugh at it — then it’s fairly watchable, in a brain-off entirely-undemanding so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. There’s some decent CGI (given its budget), some half-decent action, and it’s mercifully brief at under 90 minutes.

    2 out of 5

  • The Duellists (1977)

    2018 #26
    Ridley Scott | 96 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

    The Duellists

    It’s 40 years this month since Ridley Scott’s debut feature appeared in British cinemas, which perhaps makes now the most appropriate time to have awarded him the BAFTA Fellowship (as he was this past weekend, of course).

    Adapted from a short story by Joseph Conrad, which was itself inspired by a true story, The Duellists stars Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel as a pair of soldiers in Napoleon’s army who, for reasons only properly known to one of them, end up fighting a series of duels — or, really, one duel constantly reignited — over the better part of two decades. They become renowned for it (Conrad discovered the story through a newspaper article noting the death (by natural causes) of one of the real-life pair), to the chagrin of Carradine’s reluctant duellist. He dreads every potential encounter, aware of the fight’s futility and danger, but honour keeps drawing him back.

    Ultimately, honour and the futility of fighting are what The Duellists is most about, if it’s about anything — if you like, you can enjoy it as merely a series of well-staged combats between two men, each stubborn in their own different way. They also each have slightly different ideas of honour, it would seem, but they’re compatible enough that it keeps drawing them back to the fight. “Acting with honour is all well and good,” the film seems to be saying, “but look where it gets them.” It doesn’t completely ruin their lives, but it does take a serious toll. A bit of common sense goes a long way, and acting with so-called honour, which might seem to be the moral course, doesn’t actually involve a great deal of common sense.

    The bad duellist

    Scott also intended the pointless, never-ending fight to represent a microcosm of war. Speaking to Empire magazine, Scott described Conrad’s story as “a very nice pocket edition of the Napoleonic Wars” because it “somehow encapsulated the craziness of an argument and how at the end of a 20-year period one of them forgot the reason why they were fighting. Isn’t that familiar?” Fighting for fighting’s sake; not wanting to be the one to back down… it seems it’s human nature, just as much in a conflict between two men as in between two nations. A bit of common sense would go a long way…

    The other aspect of the film most worthy of comment is its photography. Reportedly Scott set out to imitate Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, released just a couple of years earlier. It’s an appropriate inspiration: both tales are set in the same era, and Lyndon looks incredible. Scott undoubtedly succeeds in his goals — both that of copying Kubirck’s visuals and that of such copying being a good idea: much of The Duellists looks gorgeous, particularly wide scenery shots. Although the cinematography is credited to Frank Tidy, Scott says he operated the camera himself for the entire shoot, so who’s to know where exactly the credit for that achievement lies.

    The good duellist

    Resemblances to Barry Lyndon extend beyond just the visuals, mind. As noted, it’s set in the same era, so various visual trappings are similar, from costumes to some of the locations — if not direct copies, they certainly evoke Kubrick’s film more than once. There’s also the story itself: a tale focused on just one or two characters but spanning decades, and during a particularly tumultuous and eventful period in history. As Tim Pelan puts it (in this piece at Cinephelia & Beyond), “while Barry Lyndon advances with the forward momentum of one of Napoleon’s columns in its telling of a fool’s misfortune and slow glide towards the destruction of all he worked for and holds dear, The Duellists dashes pell-mell between the very different clashes of the antagonists.” Scott’s film feels like it thinks it is, or wants to be, an epic, just like Lyndon, even though it only lasts a little over 90 minutes.

    Comparisons to such a lofty cinematic success would damn a lesser film, but The Duellists is a very fine work in its own right. Despite the similarities I’ve highlighted, it’s really a very different film: Barry Lyndon has a kind of leisurely elegance, whereas The Duellists is more economical and straightforward. It’s certainly not Scott’s greatest film (his next two immediately put paid to that), but it’s perhaps his most under-appreciated one.

    4 out of 5

    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.

    Wonder Woman (2017)

    2017 #81
    Patty Jenkins | 141 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, China & Hong Kong / English | 12A / PG-13

    Wonder Woman

    Following Wonder Woman’s introduction in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (her central role in that film’s final act surely being the inspiration for its terrible subtitle), here we flash back in time to learn her origin — of her childhood on a hidden island of warrior women; of the events that brought her into our world; and of what made her keep quietly to the sidelines for almost a century.

    The fourth film in DC’s shared cinematic universe, commonly dubbed the DCEU, is by far its best reviewed to date. It’s also the first superhero movie of the modern era (i.e. post Iron Man) to be based around a female character. I can’t help but think one has a lot to do with the other, because, in my estimation, Wonder Woman is not massively better than or different to the action-adventure blockbusters we get several of every year — the only exception being, of course, that it stars a woman. While that is undoubtedly important, and its meaningfulness can apparently not be understated, it doesn’t automatically elevate the quality of the rest of the movie. Or maybe it does for some people — maybe “the same, but with a woman” is enough to make it a genre classic.

    The film’s strongest feature (gender politics aside) is its cast. Gal Gadot is fantastic — it’s no wonder this role seems to have made her an instant star. Chris Pine also gives a likeable performance, while Lucy Davis nails the comedic support. Also of note are the strong Amazonian ladies who shape Diana’s childhood, Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright. On the other side of the fence, Danny Huston is pretty much wasted, while David Thewlis ultimately feels a little miscast.

    If anyone can take a sword to a gun fight...

    The action is very much from the Zack Snyder school — an inexplicable mix of slow-mo and almost-sped-up (or speed-ramped, as it is either known or people have become fond of calling it). Fortunately it doesn’t degenerate into this all the time — while it was a neat effect when it was new, now it feels derivative and overdone. The rest of the action is of mixed quality: some of it is exciting and well-staged, but at other times succumbs to the modern foibles of shooting it too close and cutting it too fast. The climax is a disappointingly bland CGI-athon, which goes on and on as if someone is stalling for time while they try to think how to end it.

    The third act as a whole is probably the film’s biggest problem. The opening stuff on Secret Lady Island is all great; the middle stuff in London is often fun; and there’s some dramatic stuff when Diana & co first arrive on the front lines. It does drag a little in places, mainly when we get the umpteenth go-round of Diana and Steve debating their relative morals; but it’s as the film tries to bring itself towards a conclusion that it really begins to flounder, forcibly manoeuvring our heroes into a position to actually face the villains (who we’ve been seeing on-and-off in scenes where the only purpose is to remind us those characters exist). For instance, there’s a party scene which serves very little purpose. It’s not a bad idea for a sequence (even if it is a well-worn one), but it doesn’t contribute much to justify its existence. You could cut it entirely and nothing would be lost.

    Undercover woman

    Even after the climactic battle, some things just aren’t rounded off. Like, how Secret Lady Island sort of just disappears from the story (does Diana want to get back there? Does she try? What’s happened to it now Ares is dead?) There’s no closure given to the supporting cast either; and, as the inevitable sequel is reportedly to be set in the present day, I doubt there ever will be. They may not be the greatest or deepest characters, but Davis at least feels like she needs a final moment (there’s one included on the Blu-ray, at least, though it feels like it was intended as a post-credits tease that someone thought better of).

    I don’t want to try to ‘mansplain’ (*shudder*) away the significance of either Wonder Woman as a character or this Wonder Woman movie to female audiences both young and old. It’s fantastic that there’s a strong, capable, independent, successful role model being presented in the blockbuster arena. It’s brilliant that it was also directed by a woman, something all too rare in movies as a whole, never mind big-budget ones (though note that none of the three credited screenwriters are female). It’s marvellous that it’s been such a big box office success, proving that these issues are important, and that Hollywood’s received wisdom that “female superhero movies don’t sell” is exactly as bullshit as it always has been. And, actually, all of that is good for men and boys too — to be exposed to such high-profile representations of women that are more than just objects of desire or support for their own endeavours. That’s part of how you begin to change thinking and status in the wider world.

    Climbing the ladder of progess, or something

    But, if you set societal significance aside, I don’t think this particular film is any better, nor any worse, than your averagely good male-led blockbuster. And that’s okay. I like those films. It’s important to have female leads in movies at the same level as their male counterparts. But I think some people have got carried away, hailing a film that’s averagely-good as being incredibly-great just because it has a female protagonist. In some respects, maybe they’re right, just to make the point (I won’t be surprised if the same thing happens next year with Black Panther and heroes of colour). But there’s been talk of Wonder Woman launching a Best Picture campaign, and I feel that’s just a little bit daft.

    Still, let’s not end on a down note. I enjoyed Wonder Woman a lot, even as it exhibited many of the flaws — and, equally, many of the successes — found in most blockbusters nowadays. It’s a good blockbuster, and its significance in terms of little girls (and boys) seeing a strong, capable female hero is immense.

    4 out of 5

    The latest DCEU movie, Justice League, is in cinemas now.