Rocketman (2019)

2020 #3
Dexter Fletcher | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

Rocketman

The director and star of Eddie the Eagle reunite for another biopic of a bespectacled British icon… though I’m not sure how favourable global music megastar Elton John would consider that comparison.

Both films concern a regular lad from a working-class background who dreams of something bigger — in Eddie’s case, Olympic glory; in Elton’s, music stardom. But that’s more or less where the films diverge, because whereas Eddie’s ski jumping adventure was rendered as a family-friendly comedy, Elton’s seduction by sex and drugs and rock and roll is altogether more adult. But it’s also a world away from grim and gritty seriousness, because director Dexter Fletcher regularly injects flights of fancy and fantasy. Elton may end up in a very dark place (before inevitable salvation, natch), but it’s a helluva lot of fun getting there.

In my review of the year before’s big musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody — which Fletcher ended up guiding through a third of its shoot and post-production after credited helmsman Bryan Singer was fired — I wondered which director was responsible for that film’s “occasional bold directorial flourishes”. On the evidence of Rocketman, I’d guess they were Fletcher’s idea. His staging and camerawork are often highly imaginative here, really cutting loose during the musical numbers. (Fletcher’s next job is taking over the Sherlock Holmes films from Guy Ritchie, a task that certainly requires the kind of visual panache he’s demonstrated here.)

Piano man

Indeed, this isn’t just “a film about music”, but a proper musical. It isn’t just a simplistic jukebox musical either, nor a standard musician biopic where the character performs some of their hits. Well, it is both of those — it’s a jukebox musical because all the songs are from Elton’s back catalogue (plus one new one so it could vie for the Oscar, of course), and the character of Elton John does perform some of his hits in recording studios and on concert stages. But it’s also more than that in the way it’s executed. Other characters break into song from time to time too, and there are clever reimaginings of several recognisable tracks. This is a restlessly imaginative movie.

Egerton is superb in the lead role, crafting Elton as a much more nuanced figure than he’s sometimes regarded; a truly rounded individual with a considered interior life. One might argue the whole drugs storyline is somewhat predictable or even rote, with some surprising mirrors of the much-criticised Bo Rhap (“surprising” because where that film was roundly criticised for its clichés this has received a much more generous critical response)… but if that’s the true story, that’s the true story, right? Egerton certainly negotiates it with believability. Much praise for the film has focused on his performance, leading to significant awards nominations (like at BAFTA) and wins (a Golden Globe), but there are several great supporting players too, not least Jamie Bell as Elton’s lifelong songwriter and true friend, Bernie Taupin.

The cumulative effect is a movie that is highly enjoyable but not without depth; that offers toe-tapping entertainment and filmmaking thrills in its musical numbers, while also digging into its subject’s troubles and their causes. Like an eagle, or a rocket, it doesn’t just fly, it soars.

5 out of 5

Rocketman is on Sky Cinema from today.

Emma. (2020)

2020 #20
Autumn de Wilde | 125 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | U / PG

Emma.

According to IMDb, Jane Austen’s Emma has only been adapted for the big screen twice before — and one of those was Clueless. There have been multiple TV movie and miniseries takes on the novel, though, but as the most recent was over a decade ago I guess someone felt it was about time to trot it out again (after all, every major Dickens and Austen must be adapted for the screen at least once a decade or so, right?)

Following in the footsteps of the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Beckinsale, and Romola Garai — and, I guess, Alicia Silverstone — in the title role is Anya Taylor-Joy. With her wide eyes, blonde ringleted hair, and silent, still demeanour, Emma is the very vision of loveliness. But, like so many stereotypical outer appearances, her sweet visage masks a manipulative schemer, obsessed with her own matchmaking ability; and, in private, her opinions of others are often not so kind. She is, in short, a bit of a bitch. Taylor-Joy is perfect in the role, doing an awful lot with subtle changes of expression in reaction shots — her Emma may often be silent and still, but she still conveys so much. Some have labelled Taylor-Joy a “scream queen” after her breakthrough roles in the likes of The Witch and Split, but she’s got a lot more range than that label implies.

Reader, I confess, I am jealous of that strawberry

Around her is a cast mixed of well-known faces and up-and-comers. For the latter, the standout is Josh O’Connor, who you may recognise from The Durrells, or The Crown, or God’s Own Country, or one of several other roles — he’s been an up-and-comer for a while and is about due a full-on breakthrough, which I guess all of these things combined have or will provide. Anyway, here he’s an obsequious vicar whose manner changes entirely once his true intentions and character are exposed, and O’Connor tackles both sides with the right amount of humour and churlishness. Johnny Flynn brings a rugged edge to Mr Knightley, Emma’s neighbour and lifelong friend, who disapproves of her meddling ways even as he clearly approves of her. Mia Goth brings a convincing wide-eyed innocence to Harriet Smith, a young girl of unknown parentage who Emma takes under her wing with the real motive of once again showing off her matchmaking skills, which is quite at odds with her previous roles in the likes of Nymphomaniac and The Survivalist.

As to the better-known cast members, Bill Nighy is reliably drily hilarious as Emma’s father, while Miranda Hart injects a lot of her familiar persona into the babbling Mrs Bates, before hitting you with an almost gut-punch of emotion (there were gasps at my screening, dear reader — gasps). Fans of the book / other adaptations will surely know which moment provokes such a response, so there’s the quality of Austen’s original’s storytelling at work there, and also that of the filmmakers and the rest of the cast — the reactions of the other characters; the way they hastily try to cover up the faux pas; and the exposure of Emma’s true character contrasting with the overall sugariness of the way this world has been presented.

Confectionary

This is director Autumn de Wilde’s most striking contribution to the story. The colour palette evokes confectionary; the manner of framing and camera moves is sometimes Wes Anderson-esque. If this Austen adaptation lacks the pure satirical bite of, say, Love & Friendship, it counterbalances with a contrast between the prettiness of the design work and the true thoughts, feelings, and schemes of the protagonist.

Of course, at the end of the day, Emma is a romance, and all’s well that ends well, earned via a flurry of apologies and plotting that lands everyone just where they always ought to have been. I suppose such narrative tidiness is anathema to some, just as are the delightful visuals, the witty dialogue, or the fundamental triviality of a bunch of rich people fussing over each other’s love lives. Well, that’s Jane Austen, people. And, like the elaborate confectionary it so resembles, Emma may not be nutritional, but it is delicious.

4 out of 5

Emma. is released in the US today, and is in UK cinemas already.

1917 (2019)

2020 #6
Sam Mendes | 119 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 15 / R

1917

BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2020
9 nominations

Nominated: Best Film; Outstanding British Film; Best Director; Best Cinematography; Original Music; Best Production Design; Best Make Up/Hair; Best Sound; Best Special Visual Effects.

I haven’t been following awards season too closely this year, but from the snippets I have picked up here and there it seems to be quite a variable race — every time a frontrunner emerges, something else wins some other award and suddenly the field is open again. 1917 was one of the early tips, and now has several wins under its belt to back that up. It may not be a lock at the Oscars, where the latest works by American auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino will give it a robust run for its money (plus the six other contenders, several in with a shot), but tonight it’s BAFTA’s turn. The British Academy may seem to be more focused on being counted among the major Oscar forerunners than anything else, but they do still have a penchant for rewarding British films — and 1917 isn’t just “a British film”, it’s a British film about a key event in British history with an all-star cast of cameos from great British actors. So, as it’s a season-wide contender anyhow, if 1917 doesn’t win the big prize this evening it’ll be a genuine surprise.

Does it deserve it? Take a sample of social media and you’ll get different answers. As with any big, much-discussed film nowadays the initial reception has been followed by waves of backlash — or maybe that’s too grand a term for it; maybe it’s just been different ‘sides’ expressing their opinion in turn. If it wins, there’ll be a vocal contingent about how it didn’t deserve it. As someone observed the other day, literally the only way to avoid such a negative reaction nowadays is to literally take the award out of the incorrectly-named winner’s hands. (If you think that’s facetious, think about it for a second: do you remember any significant backlash to Moonlight winning? I don’t. Every other winner in recent years? Yep. I’m not saying it should’ve had one — it’s a great film — but it is unique in avoiding it.)

Personally, having seen 60% of this year’s BAFTA Best Film nominees, 1917 would be my pick (the others I’ve seen are Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman; the remainder are Joker and Parasite, which is only out in UK cinemas next week so probably doesn’t stand a chance). My view may very well change once I’ve ticked all the boxes (Parasite is supposedly the greatest film ever made, after all), but that doesn’t lessen 1917 as an achievement.

War, huh? What is it good for? Winning BAFTAs, probably.

Famously, the film is a single take… sort of. That caveat comes for two reasons. First, because it isn’t a single take, because there’s a fade-to-black in the middle. It’s an effective, well-timed event — basic filmmaking technique as narrative twist, because this is so famous as “a single-take film” and, by that point (it comes fairly late in), we’re so embedded in the technique that the sudden blackness comes as quite a surprise. Second, because it isn’t a pair of single takes, because there’s no way you could shoot a film of this scale and complexity in a genuine single shot. Rumours abound of how many hidden cuts are in the movie. One said there were as many as five. Editor Lee Smith refuses to confirm the exact number, but makes a very sensible point: the film was shot over 65 days — you can’t put together 65 days’ worth of footage with only five cuts. But that shows how well it was achieved: people thought that, gasp, there could be as many as five, when actually there are far more.

“Wait, this film had an editor? That must’ve been a quick job!” Yeah, there’s been a lot of that on social media. People have been quick to dismiss it — people who should know better, quite frankly. As with so many things in life, just because it looks easy doesn’t mean that it was. There’s more to editing than just “sticking shots together”, and planning a film as complicated as this involved Smith’s input throughout shooting, not just in post-production. Plus, they didn’t just do one take that worked for each setup and call it quits — the job still involves choosing which take has the best performances, the right lighting, making sure it matches exactly enough for the transition to the next shot, and so on. The least number of takes for any individual shot was “five or six”, the most 39, so there’s plenty for an editor to do with choosing. I’m getting this info from an interview with Smith by Catherine Springer at AwardsWatch, which is worth a read if you’re interested in getting some insight into why there is actually a lot of difficult, impressive editing work going on here. One further titbit: some of the cuts were ‘improvised’, in that there are some cuts where a cut hadn’t been planned. You can’t do that kind of thing without a skilled editor, surely.

Deakins!

And it makes it all the more impressive that the end result is so seamless — you can buy that you’re watching a single take (okay, two single takes) rather than dozens strung together in pretend. Well, I say it’s seamless — yeah, sure, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can spot places where there are surely cuts (they walk through a dark doorway; someone/thing passes in front of the camera, blocking the view for a split second; etc). But unlike other faked single cuts I’ve seen, where the action doesn’t flow perfectly across a hidden cut, it’s at least conceivable that some of 1917’s hidden-cut-opportunities don’t actually mask a cut at all. Plus, as that interview suggests, there are actually dozens of cuts in the movie, and there aren’t that many glaring opportunities (which is probably how whoever it was arrived at their total of five).

The fact I’ve spent most of this review so far talking about the film’s single-take-ness is some people’s problem with 1917 — that it’s a filmmaking stunt and nothing more; that it’s a technical achievement at the sacrifice of character or narrative or anything but “look what we can do”. I don’t agree with that assessment. I think the single take serves a purpose beyond showing off. At the most basic level, it puts us on this mission with the characters, attaching us to them and their fate in a very intimate way. The camera rarely strays far from their side, choosing to remain at eye level and near to them when it could float off to give us a godly overview. Some have taken to describing it as “like watching a video game” for that reason, but I bet those people also refer to CG effects as “graphics” and, basically, spend too much time watching/thinking about computer games and conflating them with films (I’ll move on before I get distracted into a wholly different argument…) There are plenty of other ways for filmmakers to attach you to characters, of course, but that doesn’t invalidate this method.

The other thing it brings is a tangible sense of time. Our heroes are on a time-sensitive mission, and we’re with them every step of the way — they don’t get to jump from one side of a field to the other with the magic of editing, we must walk across it with them. (The film is certainly not as boring as “watching characters walk across a field” makes it sound — there’s plenty of action and incident.) Again, you don’t need a single take to create real-time — 24 proved that over ten seasons and a movie (not that all of those seasons take their real-time conceit wholly seriously, in my opinion) — but it does emphasise and enhance it.

Walking (running) across a field (a battlefield)

Regular readers will know I love a bit of real-time, so that was right up my street. I have similar feelings about single takes (fake or not), so I loved that aspect too. Plus I’ve got a long-standing interest in World War One, which I don’t feel is represented well enough on film (at least, not as well as its sequel), so getting a big-budget high-profile movie about it is something else I welcome. And I love the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is absolutely on fine form here (when isn’t he?) The long and the short of it is, 1917 was always a movie almost tailored to things that interest me. Fortunately, it lives up to them. Is it the very best picture of 2019? I dunno, I’ve not seen Parasite yet. Will it be a worthy winner nonetheless? I think so.

5 out of 5

The British Academy Film Awards are on BBC One tonight at 9pm.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

2019 #136
Armando Iannucci | 119 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

The Personal History of David Copperfield

A fresh perspective on Charles Dickens’s favourite of his own novels, from co-writer/director Armando Iannucci, best known for sitcom The Thick of It, its spinoff movie In the Loop, and The Death of Stalin.

Those are all political satires, of course, whereas David Copperfield is more of a shaggy dog story; though its attracted some degree of ‘political’ commentary thanks to its colourblind casting. So let’s get that out of the way first. Not every character here is played by a white actor. Is every character in Dickens’s novel white? I dunno, probably. Is it unrealistic to have people of colour in a story set in Victorian England? Well, considering England was at the heart of a worldwide empire with global trade links and had been through the slave trade, I would guess not everyone in the country was white by that point. I’m no expert on this, but I’ve certainly seen comments by experts that would agree with that.

Now, all of that said, David Copperfield’s attitude to casting is the most genuinely colourblind I’ve ever seen — it’s not concerned that related characters have ‘plausible’ similar skin tones, even. It seems Iannucci has just cast whichever actor he felt was right for the role. I guess that’s going to prove an insurmountable barrier to some people; too great an ask to accept the ‘reality’ of the story. Whereas a giant hand crashing through a ceiling to pluck little David from comfort, well, that’s just dandy. Anyway, I’m already getting bored with this debate and I’ve barely written about it. If it bothers you, I don’t think it should, but hey, you do you. For the rest of us, we can just get on with enjoying everything else the film has to offer.

Dev Patel IS David Copperfield

And that’s quite a bit. Dickens’s novel is a thick tome (768 pages, as per the film tie-in edition), and here it’s been condensed briskly into just under two hours, so there’s a lot more going on than the colour of people’s skin. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale, and Iannucci emphasises that side of it by framing it as David telling his own story at a staged reading. Such a framing device also allows for some flights of whimsy in the film’s treatment of certain things, especially scene transitions, but to say too much of those would destroy some delightful surprises. Trust that Iannucci is doing more than just showing off or messing around, however, instead establishing a style that allows for a neat twist or two later on.

I don’t know how thoroughly the film adapts those 768 pages, but it feels like it’s trying to cram in as much as possible. It rattles by at a whipcrack pace, which is both one of its greatest assets, because it moves like the clappers, and its biggest drawbacks, because it winds up feeling a bit too long. Every time you think it’s getting to the end, there’s another bit. (Maybe this is less of a problem if you’re familiar with the whole story, which I was not.) This is a minor complaint, though, because while those 119 minutes may be a few more than seems strictly necessary, what’s within them is frequently riotously funny. I saw the film with an almost-full house, and it was clear everyone was having a whale of a time.

The same appears to be true of the cast. I suppose Dev Patel is best known for heavier stuff, like Slumdog Millionaire (though that was 12 years ago now (jeez)) and Lion, but here reminds us he’s adept at lighter material too (which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s seen the Marigold Hotel films). Elsewise, the extensive and sublime supporting cast vie for attention in an array of standout performances. For my money the winner (if we must pick one) is Hugh Laurie as the flighty but unfailingly kind Mr Dick. Plus it’s quite nice (or you could say “nostalgic”) to see him back in bumbling toff mode after years of things like House and The Night Manager.

If he's Mr Dick, what's HER name likely to be?

Not that the others don’t get their moments to shine — when you’ve got the likes of Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, and Ben Whishaw involved, you’d expect nothing less. I could go on listing recognisable names, for there are plenty here, but you can always just read the cast list for yourself. One of the most noteworthy is Morfydd Clark in a dual role, one of which likes to mainly talk through her dog. I suspect this may be another stop on her path to stardom — she was recently seen in the BBC’s Dracula and a small-but-memorable role in His Dark Materials, and has been cast as Galadriel in Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series.

So there’s a lot of talent on screen, but it takes that degree of skill to negotiate the tone Iannucci has set: a narrative full with comedy, but that doesn’t lose sight of an underlying heart. Indeed, the degree of humour is a welcome counterpoint to the machinations of the plot, which contain an array of miseries when looked at objectively — death, loss of home, betrayal, and so on. This is again perhaps where that framing device comes into play, setting the story as a man finding the (sometimes dark) humour in the list of tragedies that have befallen him, as well as his friends and family. David’s predilection for storytelling is an important throughline, and the film’s affection for the emotional power of the act of writing is sure to make it a favourite for many authors (and wannabes).

4 out of 5

The Personal History of David Copperfield is in UK cinemas now. It’s released in the US on May 8th.

Shorts of FilmBath Festival 2019

Across the 2019 FilmBath Festival programme, 46 short films were screened — 23 attached to feature films, 17 at a dedicated ‘Shorts Showcase’, and six at the IMDb New Filmmaker Award ceremony (five in competition, one the film made from the winning screenplay of the IMDb Script to Screen Award). I saw 14 of these, one way or another, and have compiled my reviews into this (commensurately long) post.

First, the five films that competed for the IMDb New Filmmaker Award.

Gladiators on Wheels

The winner chosen by the judges was Gladiators on Wheels (2019, Souvid Datta, UK & India, Hindi, 6 mins, ★★★★☆), a documentary about the ‘Well of Death’ — an attraction at Indian circuses where daredevils ride motorbikes and drive cars around 60ft vertical walls, literally defying gravity. It’s both impressive and terrifying, especially considering they’re doing it without any kind of safety gear — no helmets or padded suits here, never mind nets or something. But the film isn’t just about the actual act, also touching on the way of life, and how its fading. It’s a well-shot bit of filmmaking, especially impressive when you learn it was all filmed in a single day. The script was compiled from interviews with the drivers, then voiced by actors, but if anything it’s a little cliché — lots of talk of “living on the edge” and how dangerous it is but how they wouldn’t have it any other way, etc. Still, like many of the best documentaries, it’s a fascinating glimpse at another world.

The audience at the ceremony also got a say, favouring Hey You (2019, Jared Watmuff, UK, English, 5 mins, ★★★★★), which is about gay men hooking up via text messaging. At first it feels like a lightly comedic bit of fun, possibly with some drama in that one of the men is closeted, but then it develops into something more serious. It’s a very well made short, in particular the shot choices and editing at the climax, which combine to produce some incredibly striking imagery. It’s tricky to say why it’s such an effective and vital film without spoiling where it goes in that finale, but it’s a meaningful piece that’s worth seeing if you can. It would’ve been a worthy winner.

Facing It

The three other finalists were … Tight Spot (2018, Kevin Haefelin, USA & Switzerland, English, 4 mins, ★★★★☆), a comedy bit about a shoe shiner and a suspicious customer, which was amusing albeit a little predictable; although it did, again, look nice … When Voices Unite (2017, Lewis Coates, UK, English, 4 mins, ★★★☆☆), a mini tech thriller that was suitably tense in places, but really needed some kind of twist or final development to give it a reason to exist … and Facing It (2018, Sam Gainsborough, UK, 8 mins, ★★★★★), which presented an imaginative visualisation of a relatable social difficulty. Rendered in a mix of live-action and stop-motion animation, it’s by far the most technically impressive short here, but all in service of telling its story and conveying the requisite emotion. Another one that would’ve been a more than worthy winner.

(You can watch Gladiators on Wheels and When Voices Unite on Vimeo. Sadly the others aren’t publicly available, although there is a short making-of for Facing It which I recommend for appreciating the filmmaking skill on display there.)

Of the other shorts I saw, my favourite was definitely Pleased to Eat You! (2019, Adrian Hedgecock, UK, English, 7 mins, ★★★★★). It’s a beautifully designed and hilariously funny musical comedy short… about cannibalism! Its colourful and clever staging evokes the handmade movie-reality worlds seen in films by the likes of Michel Gondry or Charlie Kaufman, while the full-blown song-and-dance number is like the best of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals, albeit twinned with a pun-filled cheekiness in its subject matter. An absolute delight from beginning to end.

Pleased to Eat You!

If I were to rank all the other shorts too, I’d probably put Woman in Stall (2018, Dusty Mancinelli & Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Canada & UK, English, 10 mins, ★★★★☆) in second place. A very timely thriller, it sees a woman innocently enter a public bathroom cubicle to get changed, only for a man to turn up outside and start chatting, her wariness of him trapping her inside. Is he a predator she’s right to fear? Or is she just being paranoid? Part of the short’s cleverness lies in the way it plays with our emotions and expectations, swinging us back and forth into where our trust should lie. Working with a limited setting, it’s neatly shot — never dull, but without going OTT to try to jazz things up — and gets edge-of-your-seat tense as it goes on. Regular readers will know how much I love a “single location thriller”, and this is a perfect mini example of the form.

Quince: Fifteen (2018, Peiman Zekavat, UK & Peru, Spanish, 10 mins, ★★★★☆) is a real-time single-shot drama about a 15-year-old Peruvian schoolgirl whose carefree PE lesson turns into a tumult of life-upending dismay in just a few minutes following an unexpected discovery on social media. It’s another timely issue, and this is mostly a well-made short — I do love a single take, and the real-time aspect puts you in her shoes quite effectively. Unfortunately, it’s a bit inconclusive — it just stops, with no hint of how she’s going to deal with her new problem longer term, or what’s going to happen to her beyond a handful of initial reactions. It’s not bad as it is, but there’s also more to be told here.

Quince: Fifteen

On a snowy winter’s day, a postie makes his rounds on a London estate. Meanwhile, one woman anxiously awaits his arrival… With its brief running time, Special Delivery (2018, Robert Hackett, UK, 4 mins, ★★★★☆) almost feels like an extended edit of one of those soppy commercials the big retailers always put out at Christmas — you know, the ones that have just started to pop up on the telly. Nicely shot in 2.35:1, it evokes a Christmassy feel without being overtly festive, and manages to avoid becoming quite as saccharine as those adverts, instead earning the story’s sentimentality. A sweet little slice of romance.

Coming just behind those frontrunners would be Spooning (2019, Rebecca Applebaum, Canada, English, 6 mins, ★★★★☆), a one-woman-show of a mockumentary about a theatre actress who specialises in playing spoons. Not “playing the spoons”, like a musical instrument, but anthropomorphised spoons, like in Beauty and the Beast. It’s basically a comedy sketch as a short film, but it was largely funny so I don’t begrudge it that.

I’m six films deep into this loose ranking now, but that’s not to discredit Allan + Waspy (2019, James Miller, UK, English, 8 mins, ★★★★☆). It’s about two working class schoolboys who hang out in the woods on their way to school each day, observing a bird’s nest full of chicks hatching and maturing — but one of the lads clearly has problems at home, and it all takes a very dark turn. Initially it’s a likeable slice-of-modern-life tale, managing to find an element of old-fashioned bucolic childhood even in a modern inner-city setting, and unfurling at a gentle pace by mixing shots of the surrounding world into the boys’ activities. But then there’s a thoroughly glum ending. It kinda ruined my day, but I liked it as a film nonetheless.

Cumulus

A young Welsh girl runs off from her dad and encounters a talking gull who’s worried about his kids leaving home in animation Cumulus (2018, Ioan Holland, UK, English, 9 mins, ★★★☆☆). Naturally, they both learn something from each other. It’s always nice to see 2D animation nowadays, especially when it’s as prettily designed as this, though it’s a shame that some of the movement is a little stilted and animatic-y. It’s also a bit longer/slower than it needs to be, but it’s still mostly charming.

Perhaps the most disappointing short was My Theatre (2019, Kazuya Ashizawa, Japan, 5 mins, ★★★☆☆), a documentary about an 81-year-old in Fukushima who closed his cinema 55 years ago but keeps it alive as a kind of museum. That’s mainly what I gathered from reading blurbs before viewing, though, because the short itself lacks any real context or conclusion, just presenting vignettes of life in this rundown old movie house. It’s perfectly pleasant, but ultimately unenlightening. My Theatre is listed on other festivals’ websites as running 20 minutes, so perhaps the five-minute version submitted to FilmBath is just an excerpt — that’s certainly what it felt like. A longer edit, with more of a sense of why this is a place and person worth observing, would’ve been better.

Finally, Terra (2019, Daniel Fickle, USA, English, 6 mins, ★★☆☆☆), which received some very negative feedback from a few audience members who didn’t feel it was appropriate for the film it was screened before, Honeyland. That’s a documentary about a traditional European way of beekeeping on the wane, whereas Terra is ostensibly about the tumultuous romantic relationship between two young Americans. The clue is in the title, though: it’s a metaphor for humankind’s relationship with Earth. Personally, I thought the analogy was a bit on the nose, but it seems others missed it entirely. The photography is quite pretty, in a no-budget-indie-drama kinda way, but other than that I didn’t think there was much to it. Other members of the FilmBath team were more impressed, so I think it’s fair to say it’s a divisive little number.

Terra

As I said at the start, there were 46 shorts screened at the festival, so this is just a small sampling of what was on offer (less than a third, to be precise). Although I didn’t love them all, I did enjoy most — and considering they would have entirely passed me by were it not for the festival, I’ll definitely take the handful of letdowns as part of the parcel for getting the good stuff.

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.