Downton Abbey (2019)

2019 #128
Michael Engler | 122 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

Downton Abbey

As the 2020s loom, with the world in a scary old place for a whole host of reasons, why not retreat to the safety of the 1920s, when posh toffs ran the country because their birthright had put them there rather than because the hoi polloi had actually chosen to vote for them in some act of retrograde nationalism. Downton Abbey does actually feature a subplot where a group of working-class servants secretly plot to overthrow the system… but the system in question is the one about who gets to serve the King and Queen their dinner. The working classes fighting amongst themselves about something fundamentally unimportant while the upper classes carry on serenely above them? It’s almost allegorical, although I suspect not on purpose.

No, like the TV show it’s a sequel to, Downton Abbey is much too busy being a comforting blanket of “it was better in the old days” jollity to bother with social commentary. Creator/screenwriter Julian Fellowes throws in the odd nod to more progressive concerns (republicanism, LGBT rights, the fading fortunes and relevance of the aristocracy), but they’re no more than hat-tips in the general direction of modernity. It’s as if he’s trying to say, “yes, I know this is all terribly outdated,” before adding, “but why don’t we just enjoy it for a bit, eh?” Well, we do all need an escape into fantasy sometimes, and not everyone likes it in the form of a bespandexed private army battling purple aliens.

Certainly, you’ll need to be prepared to engage with the concerns of this rarefied world if you want to find any drama here, where major points of jeopardy include whether there’s enough time to polish all the silver and if they can manage to put some chairs out while it’s raining. Sure, there are subplots including things like an assassination attempt and a police raid on a gay bar, but they’re not treated as being nearly so significant as who cooks dinner.

Polishing the silver. Not a euphemism.

So, yes, it’s mostly puff about pomp and pageantry — if you were after a film to perfectly encapsulate “heritage cinema”, you could hardly do better. But who would’ve expected anything else? Surely we’re all familiar with the TV series, even if you’ve never seen it, and naturally this big-screen version continues in a similar vein. At its core the series was really just a posh soap, and that style of melodrama is recreated here also: the engaged kitchen maid’s eye is caught by a hunky plumber; what’s behind the uncommonly close relationship between the Queen’s lady-in-waiting and her maid; will someone’s new royal appointment force them to miss the birth of their child; and so on.

If it’s beginning to sound like there are a lot of different storylines, well, there are. That’s another legacy of it originally being an ensemble TV show, of course: there’s a big, broad cast and every character must be given their due. Consequently, some reviews have accused the film of having no story, which I think is unfair. The primary plot is simple — literally just “the King and Queen visit Downton Abbey” — but it’s there. And the way the film chooses to depict this story — as a collage of subplots that, as a collective, show how the visit is prepared for and executed from the perspectives of a variety of roles at every level — is hardly an unheard of cinematic format for providing an overview of an event or situation. The reason for Downton taking this approach are rooted in its televisual origins, but if you wanted to consider it divorced from that context then you’d merely see a structural similarity to something like Nashville, for example.

Of course, the fact that Downton is a sequel to a six-season TV series is something most of us won’t ignore, whether because you’re a dedicated viewer coming to this as the 53rd episode, or you’re a neophyte with a background awareness that anything you don’t understand may be because it was explained in the TV show. I find myself in the slightly unusual position of someone who straddles both these stools: I stopped watching somewhere in the third series, so I know who most of the characters are and where their stories began, but I’m unaware of what went on for them in later years and who some of the later additions are. Fortunately, the highly structured class divide of the setting makes it easy to get a grasp on most things. Characters’ backgrounds are not as clearly explained as you’d expect to find in a truly standalone movie, but I think the fundamentals can be ascertained well enough. That said, I say that as someone who had a leg up from watching some of the series, so a total newcomer may find it more bewildering.

What's the deference?

One thing that’s interesting, returning to this world as someone who skipped a few years of it, is how much the emphasis has changed in places. By which I mean, some characters who once had a major are now given short shrift. For example, Hugh Bonneville has always been the de facto lead face of the programme, which makes sense as he’s Lord Grantham, head of the Downton household; and he’s still top billed in the opening credits, although I think that may be more a happy accident (I believe it listed the entire returning series cast in alphabetical order) than an indication of status. Either way, he has very little to do here, with other cast members taking centre stage. The real headliner in the series was always Maggie Smith’s acerbic Dowager Countess, and that continues to be the case here, as she snags both the lion’s share of the funny lines and the film’s most genuinely emotional scene. It feels like something of an ode to the venerable actress herself as much as it is a bit of in-universe business, and who could really begrudge such merited reverence? As to the rest of the cast, there are plenty of reviews out there that approach the film in more detail from either a fan or newbie perspective, so if you’re interested in specifics it may be worth seeking those out.

Some might argue this movie could’ve just as well turned up as a TV special, and, story-wise, it’s hard to disagree. Nonetheless, director Michael Engler and DP Ben Smithard have given proceedings a bit of big-screen pizzazz, using a 2.39:1 frame to accentuate grander shot choices and occasional cinematic flourishes, and much of the photography exhibits a warm-sunlight glow that makes you wonder if they somehow shot the whole thing during golden hour. And while too many big-screen re-dos ignore the emotive power of familiar music (see the Spooks movie for one where I specifically complained about it, for instance), here composer David Lunn’s familiar Downton theme is used to striking effect. I must admit that, even as someone who didn’t stick with the series and hasn’t watched it for years, the opening minutes gave me goosebumps.

Is the sun setting on this empire?

Truth be told, that’s not a terrible analogy for my reaction to the movie as a whole. Its near-fetishisation of regressive social modes should be distasteful, and some of its soapy scenes are accompanied by clunky dialogue and stiff acting that make it feel like you’re watching a period-dress episode of Coronation Street; but it can also unleash a sharp wit or well-constructed bit of farce (I laughed often), and there’s a certain majesty to the scenic, pretty-postcard photography that sweeps you up into its less complicated world. If you take it for what it is — a portrait of a time gone by — then it’s a likeable little jaunt.

4 out of 5

Downton Abbey is in cinemas now.

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. ^

Resident Evil (2002)

The 100 Films Guide to…

Resident Evil

Survive the horror

Also Known As: Biohazard (in Japan — the film uses the original title of the game it’s based on in the country it originated from, appropriately enough.)

Country: Germany, UK, France & USA*
Language: English
Runtime: 100 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R
* The end credits call it “a German/British co-production”. IMDb adds the other two.

Original Release: 15th March 2002 (USA)
UK Release: 12th July 2002
Budget: $33 million
Worldwide Gross: $102.98 million

Stars
Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element, Hellboy)
Michelle Rodriguez (The Fast and the Furious, Avatar)
Eric Mabius (Cruel Intentions, The Crow: Salvation)
James Purefoy (Mansfield Park, Solomon Kane)

Director
Paul W.S. Anderson (Event Horizon, AVP: Alien vs. Predator)

Screenwriter
Paul W.S. Anderson (Shopping, Death Race)

Based on
Resident Evil, a video game by Capcom, directed by Shinji Mikami.


The Story
After a virus kills all the employees at the underground research facility of Umbrella Corporation, a team of commandos are sent in to contain the outbreak. But to do that they’ll have to fight the facility’s megalomaniacal supercomputer, plus all the employees, who aren’t exactly dead after all…

Our Hero
Alice wakes up in her mansion with total amnesia… but soon a bunch of military operatives are whisking her along into a life-or-death situation, which it turns out she’s equally trained for herself.

Our Villains
The undead! Hordes of ’em, as always. Plus an evil supercomputer who controls the entire facility and speaks with the voice of a little girl, because why not. Oh, and we know someone deliberately released the virus — could they now be part of the team investigating the facility? Hmm, I wonder…

Best Supporting Character
Rain is just one of the commandos, but, as played by co-billed Michelle Rodriguez, she gets the lion’s share of the best lines. (I mean, the dialogue is hardly sparkling, but what good lines there are, she gets. Maybe it’s all in the delivery.)

Memorable Quote
Rain: “All the people that were working here are dead.”
Spence: “Well, that isn’t stopping them from walking around.”

Memorable Scene
With the team separated, Alice is exploring the facility alone and comes across some empty animal cages… and, shortly thereafter, the dogs that used to live in them… who are now zombie-dogs out to eat her, obviously. It’s mainly memorable for this bit:

Memorable Music
The score, co-credited to habitual genre composer Marco Beltrami and Goth rocker Marilyn Manson, was explicitly influenced by John Carpenter’s early electronic work, albeit given a very ’00s techno/rock spin by Manson.

Letting the Side Down
There’s so much stuff some would put in this category, but the main jarring point is some middling ’00s CGI. It’s not outright bad (like, say, the Rock-scorpion-thing in The Mummy Returns), but it definitely shows its age.

Previously on…
The first Resident Evil video game was released in 1996. The film is more “inspired by” than adapted from it. Multiple sequels to it came out before the movie finally hit the big screen, and even more have followed since, not to mention various spin-off novels, comics, animated films, and other stuff, like a themed restaurant in Tokyo.

Next time…
Five sequels followed over the next 14 years. Before the series-concluding final film had even made it to home media, a reboot was announced. That’s gotta be some kinda record, even for Hollywood.

Awards
2 Saturn Award nominations (Horror Film, Actress (Milla Jovovich))
3 Golden Schmoes nominations (Most Underrated Movie of the Year, Horror Movie of the Year, Best T&A of the Year — you might read that last category and think “only in the ’00s!”, but I checked and they still award it today)

Verdict

Writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson has managed to sustain a lasting career out of making movies no one seems to really like. With a CV full of video game movies (Mortal Kombat, multiple Resident Evils, the forthcoming Monster Hunter), and B-movie do-overs (Death Race) and emulations (AVP), he’s a bit like a bigger-budgeted, less-objectionable version of Uwe Boll (remember him?). Anyway, the first Resident Evil is actually one of his better efforts. I’ve never played any of the games so have no idea of its faithfulness (“not very” is my impression), but Anderson took inspiration from early John Carpenter movies to create a lean action/thriller/horror flick (again, leaning into those B-movies), which drives the viewer from set piece to set piece with quickly-sketched characterisation (or, in many cases, none at all) and a mysterious backstory to be uncovered. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a solid 90-minutes-and-change genre fix.

Cotton Wool (2017)

2019 #50a
Nicholas Connor | 38 mins | download (UHD) | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 12A

Cotton Wool

After single mum Rachel (Leanne Best) suffers a debilitating stroke, it marks a massive change for her two kids, stroppy teenager Jennifer (Katie Quinn) and sweet seven-year-old Sam (Max Vento): with no other family and minimal support from the authorities, it’s suddenly up to the kids to care for their mum.

As a closing title card informs us, there are around 243,000 carers under the age of 19 in England and Wales alone, with 22,000 of those under the age of nine. Writer-director Nicholas Connor’s short film seeks to highlight this issue — it’s quite shocking how many young lives are affected by the need to look after other family members because there’s no one else to do it. But the short is also “inspired by their courage”, and so it strikes an optimistic tone about the power of love and the value of family, rather than spending too much time in condemnation of a system that leaves these youngsters largely unsupported.

If you watch things like the BBC’s annual Children in Need telethon, these kind of facts and situations might be familiar — it’s the kind of thing they cover in short documentaries during the evening. Connor’s film differs thanks to the advantages of fictional storytelling: rather than just informing the viewer of facts and statistics, Cotton Wool connects us to the characters and explores the subject from different angles. The new life thrust unasked upon Rachel, Jennifer, and Sam affects them each differently, and Connor uses that to find generality in specificity: rather than tell us about all 243,000 young carers and the people they look after, here are three individuals who each struggle and cope in different ways.

Simply Leanne Best

In particular, the film presents a clear but not heavy-handed difference between the behaviour of the two kids: Jennifer professes that she helps around the house, but is really more concerned with escaping out with her mates, with maintaining her own life; Sam, meanwhile, does all that he can to look after his mum. It’s easy to see that Jennifer is ‘in the wrong’, but, again, the film doesn’t go out of its way to condemn her. She’s not a bad person, just conflicted. Her storyline culminates in a teary scene in bed where she talks about admiring everything her mum did for them, which is the nearest the film got to being too on-the-nose for me. Conversely, Sam’s storyline maintains a degree of understatement. Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment comes when he has a one-to-one chat with a care worker who notices the space paraphernalia around Sam’s room. Asked if he wants to be an astronaut when he grows up, Sam instead says he wants to care for his mum.

However, the best performance of the trio comes from Best (pun not intended!) With Rachel physically debilitated after her stroke, Best is stuck with a limited range of speech and movement, but still conveys a wealth of emotion while not at any point letting the effects of her condition slip. The film has won a variety of awards at film festivals around the world, including several of Best’s performance, and it’s well deserved.

It’s a handsomely mounted production all round. I don’t watch many shorts, really, so can’t make a fair comparison, but it doesn’t look cheap or limited in the way you might expect of a low-budget short. There are some very effectively staged moments, in particular the two strokes — the first a handheld, almost scary event seen from Sam’s eye level; the second a trippy, tense nightmare. Much of the film is shot with a sort of hazy beauty by DP Alan C. McLaughlin, and the wintery Yorkshire countryside locations help emphasise the isolation of the family.

Hazy shade of winter

As a calling card for the young writer-director, it could hardly be better. At the risk of making us all despair at the state of our lives, he made this when he was just 17, but it suggests a maturity of approach beyond that. There’s a certain lightness of touch in the storytelling that doesn’t ram home the hardship of the kids’ situation or the juxtaposition of their behaviour, and he refrains from the polemicising you might expect to find in an issue-driven short by a filmmaker of any age.

I’ve avoided mentioning it thus far, but it’s hard not to make comparisons to another recent British short film about a child coping with disability-related adversity in a chilly Northern setting, The Silent Child. That, of course, won an Oscar, and I’d say Cotton Wool is at least its equal.

4 out of 5

More information about Cotton Wool can be found on the director’s website, here.

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

2019 #45
Lynne Ramsay | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 15 / R

You Were Never Really Here

Writer-director Lynne Ramsay tackled serious dramatic subjects in her previous features (none of which I’ve seen, I’m ashamed to say, so I apologise if my “this is a change of direction” intro is off base), but here shifts into genre mode to adapt Jonathan Ames’ noir-ish crime-thriller novella, albeit while retaining a good deal of the arthouse idiosyncrasy you’d expect.

The film follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a middle-aged-or-so guy who lives with is elderly ailing mother (Judith Roberts), and seems even more tired of life than she is, plagued by memories of things he’s witnessed. That history has given Joe a (as Liam Neeson would put it) very particular set of skills, which nowadays he puts to use for private clients, via multiple middle men, primarily (or wholly — the film doesn’t clarify) to rescue abducted children. But when he’s hired to rescue a US senator’s wayward teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), things end up going sideways in unforeseen ways.

Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer. He uses it to take out multiple Very Bad Men in this film. But if the combination of “genre: thriller” and “using a hammer to take out bad men” makes you think You Were Never Really Here is about to unleash a low-budget action-fest upon your eyeballs, I refer you back to the writer-director being Lynne Ramsay and my mention of “arthouse idiosyncrasies”. I thought I’d mention this point upfront because I’ve seen others be disappointed by the lack of overt action in the film. Ramsay has instead chosen to keep most of the violence offscreen — we sometimes see the build-up or the aftermath, or both, or maybe neither, but only rarely the act itself. It’s not that kind of movie. And that’s not a problem, so long as you’re not expecting those kind of kicks.

Much to think about alone

Instead, the film becomes more of a character portrait, interrogating who Joe is and why. What kind of man does a job like that? What events in his life brought him here? What toll does it take on him? Or is there no toll because the damage has already been done? Explicitly writing these questions, which the film does seek to consider, causes me to question the worth of a serious-minded exploration of such a character’s psyche. It makes me wonder: are there real-life people like Joe? Does anyone actually do this job in the real world? Is the universe Joe moves in — a netherworld, parallel to our own but hiding from everyday view — a true one, or just the stuff that fills genre fiction? And if the answer to “is this real?” is a “no” — if these characters, situations, and environments are all just genre fodder — is there value in getting psychologically real about it?

Some would say “no”, because we don’t necessarily come to this kind of genre fiction for realism, even when it’s given a dark or gritty spin. I mean, take a slight genre sidestep into something like Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, for an example: they’re shot with a documentary-esque style, but no one thinks they’re plausible portraits of real life espionage activities. Stories like You Were Never Really Here have a greater reality claim than that, but I still question their actual adherence to our real world. But surely these extreme spins on reality are invented, at least in part, to justify simultaneously inventing heroes to put into them, who can then sort it all out by wielding some weaponry and special skills that we might not accept in a totally true-to-life story-world.

Much to think about together

Maybe I’m over-theorising this now. But You Were Never Really Here is the kind of movie that leaves gaps to invite you to think about it, to fill in your interpretations and personal notions. It’s a film with a lot of quiet space — literally, in the sense of its often minimal dialogue and, shorn of action scenes, little of the thudding and thumping you’d expect in the sound department; but also figuratively, with long scenes that make room for you to think about what you’re witnessing; scenes that don’t hand-feed you every piece of information, so you put it together yourself. (If you want an example: no one ever tells you where Joe got his skills, but flashbacks give you visual clues to put it together.) Maybe the film isn’t trying to say “guys like this exist outside of genre pieces, and they’re like this” — maybe it’s saying “if guys like this existed outside of genre pieces, what would they really be like?”

In the source novel, the title is explained via Joe’s methods: he uses fake identities, surgical gloves, and hides from cameras, all so that he was “never really there”. In the film he’s more low-tech and somewhat less scrupulous, meaning the same explanation doesn’t quite wash. I thought perhaps Ramsay meant it to have a new, arty meaning. Maybe it doesn’t — maybe it’s just the title of the book, so it stayed. Or maybe everything I’ve written is right, and people like Joe were never really here, in the real world… but if they were, they’d probably be like this.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of You Were Never Really Here is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

Black Narcissus (1947)

2018 #49
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | UK / English | U

Black Narcissus

It’s over a year since I watched Black Narcissus, but this review is only materialising now for two reasons: first, my overall tardiness at posting reviews nowadays (my backlog currently numbers north of 140); and second, but actually more relevant, I’ve struggled to make sense of what I thought of it.

On the surface a story about some nuns opening a convent in the Himalayas, there’s so much more going on beneath the film’s surface than just conflicts with locals and amongst the small group of nuns — that much is clear. But what else is going on? Critics often talk about the film’s eroticism, but (even allowing for the fact it was made in 1947 and so could hardly be overt about such things) I rarely felt that. In his video introduction on the Criterion Blu-ray, Bertrand Tavernier says it’s all about desire, specifically female desire, and the prohibition of said desire. Hm. I mean, I don’t disagree that’s in there somewhere, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what it’s “all about”. Writing in Criterion’s booklet (reproduced online here, critic Kent Jones says that “the reduction of Black Narcissus by admirers and detractors (and cocreators!) alike to the three Es — expressionist, exotic […] and erotic — has often deprived this bracing film of its many nuances and complexities.” So, I’m not alone in thinking there’s other stuff going on here… though I’d wager Mr Jones has a better handle on what that is exactly than I do.

I confess, I find this a bit frustrating — not the film itself, but my inability to ‘get’ it. I was never bored, so something kept me engaged, there’s something to it, but I can’t get at what this is. I felt a bit like there’s a germ of a good thing, but it’s not brought out. Like, the characters all being gradually driven mad or hysterical by the place — it’s an effect that’s almost there, but not quite; and it only affects, like, two-and-a-half of them anyway. But maybe I’m expecting the film to be too overt; maybe it was just too subtle for me. Whatever it is, it clearly disturbed the Christians: when the film was released in the US, Catholic weekly The Tidings reportedly asserted that “it is a long time since the American public has been handed such a perverted specimen of bad taste, vicious inaccuracies and ludicrous improbabilities.” Reason enough to like the film, there.

Nuns gone wild

Oh, but my overall confusion aside, there are many specifics that deserve concrete praise. The last 10 or 20 minutes, when it almost turns into a kind of horror movie, are fantastic. (Even the original trailer is largely composed of footage from the film’s final 25 minutes. It’s definitely the best bit.) It all looks ravishing, magnificently shot and designed. There’s the always-stunning work of DP Jack Cardiff (apparently a Technicolor executive claimed the film was the best example of the process), plus the work of production designer Alfred Junge and costumer Hein Heckroth. The luscious backdrops were blown-up black-and-white photos that the art department coloured with pastel chalks, which partly explains the film’s otherworldly beauty. Indeed, considering it was all shot in the UK, the location is very well evoked. That’s not least thanks to the constantly blowing wind, which ruffles clothing and hangings even during interior scenes — a detail that could’ve been easily overlooked during production, but whose presence certainly adds to the atmosphere.

It’s difficult to sum up and rate my reaction to Black Narcissus, because I feel like I missed something — not literally (I followed the plot ‘n’ that), but like I didn’t understand something about it. And yet I was engaged throughout, it’s gorgeous to look at, and the final 20 minutes are stunning on every level. One to revisit, for sure.

4 out of 5

Black Narcissus was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Coincidentally, it’s currently available on iPlayer, but only until tomorrow afternoon.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

2019 #30
David Yates | 134 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 12 / PG-13

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

The first Fantastic Beasts movie felt like a standalone adventure, even though it was promoted as a five-movie series from the get-go. Not everyone liked it, but I thought it was an enjoyable adventure that also served to expand the world of the Harry Potter universe — or the Wizarding World, as we’re now to call it. Unfortunately, this first sequel can’t keep that up. Here’s where the five-movie arc really kicks in, and the film suffers for it.

Normally I’d explain the plot round about now, but, frankly, I can’t be bothered. It entirely spins out of what transpired in the first movie; having not seen that since it was in cinemas over two years ago, I frequently struggled to keep up, scrounging around in my memory for the ins and outs of a story I didn’t realise I needed to thoroughly revise. That’s to say nothing of all the other stuff it dregs up from the depths of Harry Potter mythology. As a fan of that series, who’s seen the films multiple times and what have you, I have a fair idea what it’s all about, but even I was frequently left feeling confused. I pity casual viewers.

Further plot details and where to find them

Sometimes movies can gloss over this kind of stuff — the mythology and backstory enriches it, but there’s still an adventure to be going on with — but The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t seem to work that way. The adventure is tied up in the previous film and the overall backstory, and that generates a lot of tedious exposition to explain how things are connected. But that exposition is sometimes rushed over, apparently to allow time for some empty spectacle — there’s still plenty of CGI-fuelled magic action here, it just doesn’t seem to have any weight in the story, or what weight it should have is unclear.

It doesn’t help that the film feels jumpy, like loads of little bits and pieces have been chopped out. I’m not surprised there’s an extended cut, which hopefully will smooth some of that out. It probably stems from the film having so many characters and stories to juggle. The downside of making the previous film feel standalone is that most of its characters need to be reintroduced and reconnected to each other; at the same time, there are new characters and storylines being introduced and set in motion; all while also trying to deliver an action-adventure movie.

Wizard Hitler

There’s stuff to appreciate here nonetheless, including likeable returning characters, some appreciable additions (Jude Law is good as a young Dumbledore), and some impressive effects (the spectacle may be empty, but sometimes it’s still spectacular). Fans of the world J.K. Rowling has created will appreciate getting to see more of it, too — in this case, it’s wizarding Paris, albeit briefly — although there are also some additions to the mythology that are of questionable value. Well, there are three more films yet to come that may reveal that Rowling has somewhere to go with them.

Indeed, I wonder if Crimes of Grindelwald will ultimately play better once it’s placed in context with the following instalments. Or maybe it really is a bit of a mess, with too much going on and not enough time or space to do it, which sometimes makes it hard to understand the significance or value of what we’re watching. I hope that it’s at least put all the pieces in place now, so the next three films can move forward with fewer problems.

3 out of 5

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is released in the UK today on DVD, Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and as an extended cut.

Attack the Block (2011)

2018 #231
Joe Cornish | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

Attack the Block

The directorial debut of comedian Joe Cornish seemed to become an instant cult classic on its release back in 2011 — I distinctly remember US geek websites urging people to see it and even arranging screenings, leaning hard into the kind of word-of-mouth promotion that is often how these small but dedicated fan bases are born. It has the kind of online scores that back up that status: as much as everyone who talks about it seems to love it, it only rates 6.6 on IMDb. I guess you’re either in a cult or you’re not. While I did enjoy it on the whole, I couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about.

The film centres on a gang of teenage lads, led by John Boyega in what it turns out was a star-making performance. They roam their inner city London tower block and its surrounding streets, and we first meet them mugging a young nurse (Jodie Whittaker); and, when an alien creature falls from the sky, they savagely beat it to death. Hardly E.T., is it? Of course, murdering the little thing turns out to have been a bad idea, because soon more of the bastards are falling from the sky, and they seem to be particularly targeting our “heroes”.

I’ve bunged heroes in quotation marks there because this gaggle of protagonists are a right bunch of little so-and-sos (to be polite about it). The film sets itself a hurdle by making them so initially unlikeable, and then struggles to overcome it — frankly, I was cheering on the aliens to give the little chavs what for. You could certainly make a movie where the protagonists are unlikeable and the thrill comes from waiting for them to be slaughtered by the ostensible villains (I feel like someone has, probably something incredibly high-profile, but I can’t remember what it is right now), but I don’t think that was Cornish’s aim.

Thugs'r'us

On the brighter side, the boys eventually come across Whittaker’s nurse again, because she lives in the same block as them, and so we have her to root for. Her earlier experience makes her as non-disposed to the gang as I was, and it’s her connecting with them somewhat that comes to rehabilitate them. There’s also Luke Treadaway (that’s the one from Clash of the Titans and A Street Cat Named Bob and Ordeal by Innocence and so on, not to be confused with his brother Harry, who’s appeared in The Lone Ranger and Cockneys vs Zombies and Penny Dreadful and so on; although they’re twins, so, y’know, good luck) as a posh kid trying to score some drugs, and Nick Frost as the dealer he’s trying to get them off, to bring some comic relief. Not that the rest of the film is super serious (it’s about teenage chavs battling ferocious alien bears, c’mon), but their more direct humour is welcome too.

Despite my reservations about the characters, the film is a great calling card for writer-director Joe Cornish. Although tonal similarities between the movies invite comparisons to what Shaun of the Dead did for Edgar Wright (especially as he’s friends with Cornish and an executive producer here), I feel like Wright’s breakout film was even more assured. Instead I think of something like Guy Ritchie and Lock Stock: an imperfect film in itself, but which suggests a lot of potential from the man behind the camera. Quite why it’s taken eight years for Cornish’s second feature to come around is a mystery.

4 out of 5

Attack the Block was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Joe Cornish’s second feature, The Kid Who Would Be King, is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016)

2018 #96
Mandie Fletcher | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

“Most movies are a script in search of some money,” said Jon Plowman, producer of every episode of Ab Fab, “but this was more a case of some money in search of a script. From the minute the word got out that Jennifer was contemplating writing the film of Ab Fab, lots of financiers threw their hats in the ring.” A cruel critic might therefore be tempted to accuse the cast and crew of doing this poorly-received film continuation of the popular TV series “just for the money”, but I think that would be disingenuous — I think there was a real desire to put an appropriate capstone on the beloved sitcom. Whether that merited a 90-minute theatrical release, or would’ve been better served as a 60-minute TV special, is another matter…

Primarily, I think Ab Fab: The Movie is targeted at fans of the series, and isn’t really designed to stand on its own feet as an independent movie. I’ve only seen some of the TV show, and I think that was essential to understanding who all the characters were, how they were connected, and why they behaved in certain ways. Even then, I felt like there was stuff flying over my head because I haven’t seen all of the original episodes and/or because it’s been some years since I did watch any.

So, I’m no expert on Ab Fab, but it’s always been my impression that when it started it was satirising the fashion world of the era (i.e. the ’90s). However, as it’s gone on it seems to have become about itself, as it were — its own characters and in-jokes, rather than any commentary on the wider world. That’s what we get here, therefore: basically, a 25th anniversary special amped up to full-blown movie status. One of the selling points for it as a big-screen variant was that it’s Eddie and Patsy on the French Riviera, continuing the age-old tradition of big-screen outings for British sitcoms being just “send the characters abroad”. Despite that, the first half is still set in London, and it’s pretty funny. When they do finally head overseas, it doesn’t exactly drag, but it seems a bit desperate.

Wheels on fire, off screen

In terms of broader relevance, creator/writer/star Jennifer Saunders has spoken about how the film was supposed to be about ageing; about, apparently, the “reality” of these youth-obsessed characters getting old when they don’t know how to. Well, there’s not much reality in it it, given the typically outlandish situations the already-exaggerated characters find themselves in (for example, the emotional climax comes while Eddie and Patsy are trapped in a tiny van sinking in a swimming pool). That doesn’t mean such OTT antics aren’t amusing, but expecting an examination of the human condition from them is a bit… unlikely.

A more notable feature is the insane number of cameos — “around 60”, according to this list on IMDb. I guess the notoriety of Ab Fab attracts big names… though plenty of them, er, aren’t. Basically, if you’re not a Brit, assume everyone who pops up for only one scene and opens their mouth is some degree of famous here. There are some international (i.e. American) faces too, though, to remind you of the series’ worldwide cult appeal.

Overall, I enjoyed the film, but it definitely leans into being a fan-friendly exercise, which I’m not sure was appropriate for a belated big-screen debut. It’s not an ideal starting point for the uninitiated, then, but it’s not a terrible send-off for existing fans.

3 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is on BBC One tonight at 9pm, and will be available on iPlayer afterwards.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

2018 #261
David Slade | “90” mins | streaming (HD) | 2.20:1 | UK & USA / English | 15

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

The latest addition to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror universe is the kind of work that pushes at the boundaries of form and medium — and therefore is the kind of work that challenges how I count things here at 100 Films. Is it a film? An episode of TV? A video game? Or is it genuinely something new? Well, it’s not really a video game — it’s not interactive enough to qualify as that. So is it a TV episode, then? It carries the Black Mirror branding, and that is a TV series. Plus it’s not a theatrical release… but then, neither are most Netflix films. Indeed, Bandersnatch carries its own listing on Netflix (as a standalone title, not an instalment of the series), and is promoted by Netflix as an “interactive film”. So, taking them at their word, I’ve decided that means it counts as a film.

It’s also, I think, very accurate branding — they debated internally how it should be promoted, and I think they’ve landed on the right term for it. As I said before, it’s not really a video game — it’s not as interactive as a gamer would expect it to be. The debate between film vs. TV episode is tighter, but when isn’t it these days? Either way, it’s not just your regular passive Netflix-viewing experience, because it is interactive. In practice, it plays like a video version of Choose Your Own Adventure books — you know what those are, right? I’ve heard some Young People don’t, which saddens me in my apparently-old-now early 30s. If you don’t know, in a CYOA book you’d read a passage of story, then be asked to make a choice on behalf of the hero; for Option A, you’d turn to page X, and for Option B you’d turn to page Y, and so on from there, with your choices dictating your path through the story.

No reading required

Bandersnatch is similar, only without all the manual flicking back and forth: every so often (roughly every three to five minutes, determined as the optimal period of time by Netflix’s product testers) you’re presented with two choices on screen and have ten seconds to pick one. Which you choose decides what you see happen next. (If you don’t choose, Netflix decides for you. Make no choices whatsoever and you’re led on a predetermined route that gets you through a full story in the shortest time possible.) Sometimes these choices are small (which breakfast cereal to eat?), sometimes significant (accept a job offer?). Netflix remembers them all, even the minor ones, which have knock on effects later. They made a rod for their own back in this respect, because having to account for viewers’ early choices led to requiring alternate scenes later on that only vary in how they include the viewers’ fundamentally-meaningless earlier choice. But that’s Netflix’s behind-the-scenes problem, not ours as viewers. Suffice to say, they’ve put the work in, and those little touches help make for an even more immersive experience: the choices themselves may have no bearing on the plot, but the fact the film remembers them and then uses them again later is a kind of meaning in itself.

By this point you’re probably wondering what it’s actually all about, especially if you’re not merely wowed by the technology. (If you are wowed by the technology, check out this article at Wired which goes into more detail about what was required.) Set in 1984, we’re introduced to 19-year-old Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), who lives with his dad (Craig Parkinson) and wants to be a video game designer. He’s managed to wangle a meeting with the company who publish games by his idol, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). Stefan’s pitch is Bandersnatch, an adaptation of a classic Choose Your Own Adventure novel by Jerome F. Davies, who went mad. Stefan found the book among the possessions of his dead mother, an event which has left him seeing a therapist (Alice Lowe). As Stefan begins to write the program for Bandersnatch… well, what happens next is up to you.

Everybody play the game of life

You can already see how content is reflecting form (you’re playing a Choose Your Own Adventure game about a guy writing a Choose Your Own Adventure game, just in case you needed that spelling out for you), and, well, I don’t want to spoil anything (as much as you can spoil anything about a film where every viewer will have a different experience), but it goes further down the rabbit hole than that. Trust Brooker and the Black Mirror team to have taken a new, emerging technology and made a drama about it — I mean, that’s pretty much the series’ MO. You can rely on them to not make things as straightforward as they first appear, either. Most of the time the film offers two options, each leading you down a different path, but sometimes it mixes it up (to say how would be to spoil the experience, like attempting to relate a joke from a comedy). And if you’re curious about how alternate pathways play out, don’t worry, you won’t have to watch the film from the start every time: after certain “game over” points, Bandersnatch offers the chance to jump back to earlier decisions and choose differently. If you’re interested enough to continue, this is definitely worth doing: as I said earlier, Netflix remembers all your choices — there are sometimes advantages to choosing that ‘continue’ option instead of starting from scratch at a later date.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Bandersnatch, considering all the myriad choices and paths and possibilities it presents to the viewer, is that it all makes sense. That might sound like Filmmaking 101, but it’s a massive pitfall that would’ve been so, so easy for them to fall into. And they made it a more complicated job for themselves too, insisting the choices viewers make were genuinely meaningful and affected what happened and where the story went. It’s very cleverly written and constructed — it’s not designed to force you down a certain path, or give you a fake choice that doesn’t really change anything, but instead to do those things while still building to a cohesive whole. Yes, of course it’s not total free will to do whatever you fancy, and sometimes there’s no escaping a certain choice or development… but, with the way Brooker has married story and presentation medium, that’s all kinda part of the point.

Suspicious Stefan

If you think about how Bandersnatch was made — the challenge it presented to Brooker as writer, to director David Slade, and to the cast having to negotiate their characters’ various emotional arcs across different permutations of similar scenes — it becomes even more impressive on a technical level. And that’s partly because you don’t have to consider the behind-the-scenes logistics to find this an enjoyable experience. They’ve executed it so consummately that you can just watch it, play it, experience it without needing to perform mental gymnastics to make it fit together, because they’ve accounted for all that and filmed the necessary alternate stuff and been certain it all pieces together. So you can instead apply brain power to what the film has to say about choice and free will, and to working out which alternative options you could choose and which parts of the story you perhaps haven’t experienced yet.

Plus, to an extent, how much you get out of Bandersnatch is rewarded by how much you’re prepared to put in. As I mentioned earlier, at the simplest level you can just put your remote down and watch it play out a 40-minute-ish Black Mirror episode via its default choices (selected by Brooker), giving you the most basic version of the story (I haven’t done this, but I’m tempted to give it a go). Or you can play through until you reach one of the five endings that bring you to the choice of a credits scroll. (Netflix’s official line is that there are five endings. Depending how you count it, there are definitely more.) Or you can keep going and going, taking those “continue” options and seeing where different choices lead you. Sometimes, they lead you to entirely new places. And while there are multiple endings, there’s an “official” ending, too; one where the credits roll and you end up back at the Netflix menu screen (or, I guess, go to something else playing, if you’re one of those weirdos who hasn’t turned that feature off), rather than another continue option.

Play on

I played on until I came across that particular finale — partly because I’m a completist, partly because I was so engrossed in what I was watching. Did I experience every permutation the film has to offer? No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t; but I’m also pretty sure I experienced the bulk of the major ones. Did I get “lucky” that it took me so long to find that final-ending, meaning I saw a lot of the film before I got there? Put another way: is there a quicker path to that final-ending which would mean you saw less of the whole film than I did? Maybe there is. Or maybe there isn’t — maybe the only way to that ending is trial and error through multiple permutations. Or maybe there are multiple “final” endings, and when you’ve exhausted what the film feels it has to offer it throws you the appropriate one. Such are the secrets of Bandersnatch, which Reddit users will surely reveal in time. They’ve already made a start, although a thorough-looking flowchart doing the rounds on Twitter has already been proven to be missing at least a few possibilities.

However much time you choose to spend on it (Netflix say a thorough session would take two-and-a-half hours, although the BBFC certification reveals that there’s over five hours of footage required to make the whole thing function), Bandersnatch is a genuine experience, once again putting Netflix at the cutting edge crossroads of modern visual entertainment. Is it a film? A TV episode? A video game? All of those things? None of them — something else? Something new? Those who must experience such new things will need to try this out, of course — they probably already have. But it’s one for regular viewers, too, with a rewarding story to tell; one which could only have been adequately told with this newly-imagined technology. In my opinion, it’s a magnificent success, and a must-have experience.

5 out of 5

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is available to watch/play/whatever on Netflix now.

It placed 10th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.