The 100-Week Roundup XII

In the interests of catching up, this roundup combines two separate weeks.

The first contains two of the most acclaimed films of all time (both feature on numerous “greatest ever” lists, including those from IMDb, Letterboxd, TSPDT, and Empire), which happen to be my final reviews from September 2018.

The second is a pair of movies I watched back-to-back in October 2018 that share an obvious pregnancy theme — but, oh, they could hardly handle it more differently.

This week’s films are…

  • Network (1976)
  • Ran (1985)
  • Prevenge (2016)
  • Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016)


    Network
    (1976)

    2018 #201
    Sidney Lumet | 121 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Network

    no predictor of the future — not even Orwell — has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote Network.

    So wrote Aaron Sorkin, who has cited Network’s screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky as a major inspiration on his own writing; he even cited the man when accepting his Oscar for The Social Network; and Sorkin’s TV series The Newsroom feels like it could’ve been called Network: The Series.

    Well, maybe not. The first half-hour or so of Network feels like The Newsroom (which was a series very much aimed at being realistic, to the extent that it was set in the recent past and mostly used real news stories for its plots), whereas Network spirals off into its own level of satirical craziness, far beyond what Sorkin’s series attempted.

    But whereas The Newsroom looked to the recent past and real events, Network is as indicative of the future as Sorkin said in that opening quote. The film may be 44 years old, but I’m pretty sure you could Chayefsky’s this screenplay, change only a couple of minor specific words, and film it as being set today. It forecasts the future of TV news as angry men ranting as if they were prophets (this was 20 years before Fox News launched), as well as commentating on the place of terrorism in driving TV ratings.

    It’s cynical and ultimately bleak, but, worst of all, it’s entirely accurate.

    5 out of 5

    Network placed 21st on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Ran
    (1985)

    2018 #203
    Akira Kurosawa | 161 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Japan & France / Japanese | 12 / R

    Ran

    Akira Kurosawa returns to Shakespeare (after Throne of Blood quite closely adapted Macbeth and The Bad Sleep Well may or may not have been based on Hamlet) for an adaptation of King Lear, relocated to feudal Japan. At the time, it was speculated to be his final film. It wasn’t — he made three more — but this was his last large-scale work.

    The title translates roughly as “chaos”, “pandemonium”, or “turmoil” — I guess they didn’t bother retitling it for the West because the original is a nice, simple word we can understand. But the original meaning is clearly apt, because the film depicts the mayhem that ensues when a warlord abdicates and tries to divide his kingdom between his three sons.

    It’s testament to Kurosawa’s greatness that he can make a movie this magnificent and I wouldn’t even put it in his top five. That might be my failing, though — this is a longer and more complex work than, say, Throne of Blood or Sanjuro. I need to revisit all of Kurosawa’s movies, but none more so than this.

    5 out of 5

    Ran was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

    Prevenge
    (2016)

    2018 #208
    Alice Lowe | 88 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

    Prevenge

    Seven-months-pregnant Ruth (played by Alice Lowe, who also writes and directs) believes she can hear the voice of her unborn baby, and it’s telling her to kill people. Why is a mystery… unless you read the Wikipedia entry, which just tells you upfront. (Don’t read the Wikipedia entry.)

    The behind-the-scenes story of Prevenge is impressive: it was made while Lowe herself was pregnant; she wrote it in just four days, and shot it in just 11. Speed is no indicator of quality, either positively nor negatively, but Prevenge is very good. The premise is obviously absurd, but it leans into that by being darkly funny. As a horror movie, it’s not scary, more kind of creepy, although not even quite that — it’s not playing on those kind of thrills.

    Perhaps this means it fails to satisfy “horror fans”, thus explaining its fairly low score on IMDb, which I think is unwarranted. But it’s also not what people have started to call “elevated horror” (i.e. horror that is acceptable as a Quality Movie too), because it’s too transgressive for that. Perhaps it is best taken as an exceptionally black comedy.

    4 out of 5

    Bridget Jones’s Baby
    (2016)

    2018 #209
    Sharon Maguire | 123 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, USA, France & China / English | 15 / R

    Bridget Jones's Baby

    I first and last watched the original Bridget Jones’s Diary and its sequel, The Edge of Reason, many years ago (probably close to when they were originally released, in 2001 and 2004 respectively; certainly well before this blog existed). I didn’t dislike them, but all I can really remember about them is broad-sweep stuff, including barely anything from the second one. So I didn’t come to this belated third movie as an all-read-up fan; but, just like the first two, I didn’t dislike it… and, 100 weeks later, can barely remember any details about it. (I read the detailed plot description on Wikipedia and some of it came back to me.)

    The storyline is mostly pretty obvious — it’s a recycle of the previous films’ love triangle thing, now with the added complexity of a pregnancy — which means the over-two-hours running time feels somewhat excessive (I continue to believe all comedies should be about 90 minutes). In spite of that, it’s often pretty funny. Some of the riffs on modern media and whatnot are a bit tired (“those young people, just posting photos of their food on Instagram!”), but other gags land well enough.

    In the earlier movies, Renée Zellweger attracted praise for her ability to inhabit a British lass. It feels like she’s forgotten how to do the accent in the 12 year gap; or maybe it’s just thanks to the work she’s obviously had done on her face… At least she’s helped by a supporting cast so stuffed with quality performers from UK comedies that some literally just appear in the back of shot (presumably there were deleted scenes).

    Reasonably successful at what it sets out to do, then; enough so that there’s been talk of a fourth one.

    3 out of 5

  • Memories of Murder (2003)

    aka Salinui chueok

    2019 #15
    Bong Joon Ho | 131 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

    Memories of Murder

    South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has gradually risen in prominence over the past few years, culminating in Parasite’s history-making success at this year’s Oscars (yes, that was only earlier this year). Memories of Murder wasn’t his debut work, but it was what initially garnered him some attention outside Korea. It’s been surprisingly hard to come by for a while now, but a new 4K restoration is released in the UK via Curzon today (it’s coming to US cinemas for a limited run in October, and new Blu-ray releases (including one from Criterion) will follow).

    In 1986, two women are raped and murdered in provincial South Korea. The local detective, Park Doo-man (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), has never dealt with a case of this magnitude and relies on old-fashioned methods — his main one being to have his partner, Cho (Kim Roi-ha), beat confessions out of suspects. After a modern-minded big-city ‘tec, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), volunteers to help, the old and the new clash. As more crimes are committed, more clues are gathered, and more suspects are apprehended, but then cleared. Can the police ever get close to their man?

    Loosely based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders, and taking a procedural approach to the crime thriller genre, Memories of Murder invites comparison to David Fincher’s Zodiac for its methodical, realistic narrative style and plot that follows obsessed investigators chasing unsolved murders in the past. Zodiac is one of my favourite films (it placed 3rd in 100 Favourites II), so it’s a tall order to be pitched against it. Fortunately, Memories of Murder is strong enough to withstand the comparison.

    Investigators

    A lot of praise that applies to Zodiac could be copy-and-pasted here. In addition to the facets I’ve already mentioned, there are several fine performances (not least from Song, who’s clearly become a Bong regular for a reason); several striking set piece crimes and/or discoveries without indulging in glorification of real crimes; and a commentary on the methods and obsessions of investigators that goes beyond ‘doing the job’. It does none of this in the same way as Fincher would a couple of years later, but it’s a different perspective within the same genre headspace.

    Memories of Murder is already a well-regarded film (on top of a 91% Tomatometer score, it’s on the IMDb Top 250 and in the top 100 of Letterboxd’s version ) but, having been out of widespread circulation for a few years, and with renewed interest in Bong’s back catalogue, it’s ripe for wider (re)discovery.

    5 out of 5

    Memories of Murder is available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema from today.

    It placed 5th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019, after being viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

    The 100-Week Roundup IX

    I’ve not been doing too well with reviews lately — this is my first for over a fortnight, having missed self-imposed deadlines for the likes of Knives Out (on Amazon Prime), The Peanut Butter Falcon (on Netflix), Joker (on Sky Cinema), and Spaceship Earth (on DVD & Blu-ray). I’ve also slipped on these 100-week updates — this one should really have been at the end of July, and there should’ve already been another in August, with a third due soon. Oh dear.

    So, it’s catchup time, and it begins with my final reviews from August 2018

  • The Most Unknown (2018)
  • Zorro (1975)


    The Most Unknown
    (2018)

    2018 #185
    Ian Cheney | 92 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English

    The Most Unknown

    This film is an experiment. Nine scientists meet for the first time in a chain of encounters around the world. It begins under a mountain, and ends on a monkey island.

    In this documentary, nine scientists working on some of the hardest problems across all fields (the “most unknowns”) meet each other in a daisy chain of one-on-one interviews / lab tours. It not only touches on the basics of what the unknowns they’re investigating are, but also how they go about investigating or discovering these things — the day-to-day realities of actually “doing” Science. Alongside that, it reveals the scientific mindset; what motivates them. The nine individuals are very different people working on very different problems in very different fields, but the film draws out the similarities in their natures that drive them to explore the unknown.

    If you’re concerned it might be all a bit “inside baseball” if you’re not a science geek, don’t be. These people work in vastly different fields — to us laypeople they’re all “scientists”, but to each other their specialities make them as different from one another as we are from them. This, arguably, is an insight in itself. It feels kind of obvious — of course a physicist and a microbiologist are completely different types of scientist — but I do think we have a tendency to lump all scientists together. Think of news reports: it’s not “chemists have discovered” or “psychologists have discovered”, it’s “scientists have discovered”.

    Science, innit

    It also reminds you that scientists are humans too, via little incidental details. For example, the equipment that vibrates samples to sheer out the DNA is labelled, “My name is Bond, James Bond. I like things shaken, not stirred.” Or the woman who plays Pokémon Go on her remote research island, because the lack of visitors means you find really good Pokémon there.

    You might also learn something about movies. The last scientist, a cognitive psychologist, talks about how people assess the quality of movies. Turns out, rather than considering their overall experience, they tend to focus on two points: the peak of how good it was, and how it ended. Pleasantly, this kinda confirms my long-held theory that an awful lot of movies are judged primarily on the quality of their third act. (My exception to this “rule” has always been films that lose you early on and put themselves on a hiding to nothing. Well, science can’t explain everything, I guess.)

    Plus, as a film, it’s beautifully shot. A lot of this science is taking place in extreme locations, which bring with them a beauty and wonder of their own.

    4 out of 5

    The Most Unknown is currently available on YouTube from its production company, split into nine instalments. (It used to be on Netflix, but was removed just the other day. If I’d published this review on time…)

    Zorro
    (1975)

    2018 #186
    Duccio Tessari | 118 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy & France / English | PG / G

    Zorro

    This Italian-French version of the adventures of the famous masked vigilante (played by the great Alain Delon) is tonally similar to Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers: genuine swashbuckling (including some elaborate stunt-filled sequences) mixed with plenty of humour and daftness. Plus, being set in 19th century California but filmed in Spain, it also has more than a dash of the Spaghetti Western in its DNA. The whole mix makes it a lot of fun.

    Of particular note is the final sword fight, an epic duel for the ages. It sees Zorro and chief villain Colonel Huerta pursue each other around the castle, clashing blades at every turn, at first accompanied by a crowd of spectators but, as their fight moves higher and higher, ending atop the bell tower, each with a rapier in one hand and a flaming torch in the other, thrashing their weapons at each other with all the vigour and vitriol of men who really, really want to kill each other.

    Another highlight is, arguably, the cheesy main theme. On the one hand it’s slathered all over the film inappropriately; on the other, it underlines the light, silly, comic tone. Plus it’s sung by someone called Oliver Onions. Can’t beat that.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup VIII

    As I mentioned last time, these films are technically from the same week as that last bunch, but seven films seemed a lot for one post. Plus, although they were all watched in the same week, they were watched in different months: the last four were my final films from July 2018, whereas these three are some of my first from August 2018.

    In this roundup…

  • Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)
  • The Quiet Earth (1985)


    Beneath the Planet of the Apes
    (1970)

    2018 #174
    Ted Post | 95 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / G

    Beneath the Planet of the Apes

    Beneath the Planet of the Apes is the sequel no one wanted to make, including the studio — quite a different attitude to today, eh? But Fox were in financial troubles. For his part, Heston managed to negotiate a reduced role and suggested an ending that would kill off the potential for any more sequels. Well, that worked

    Picking up where the first film left off, it sees Heston’s character, Taylor, disappear mysteriously. After a second Earth spaceship crashes on the planet, its only survivor teams up with Taylor’s girl, Nova, to find him, which leads them to encounter a society hiding (you guessed it) beneath the planet of the apes.

    Overall, this feels like trashier sci-fi/adventure than the first one, with a certain B-movie aesthetic to the underground mutants, and a first half that’s just a bunch of running around. Yet, despite that, there are some powerful ideas and solid social commentary here, mainly about blind faith and the terror of military leadership. Plus, the mutants’ use of telepathy as a weapon is quite clever, and their unmasked designs are suitably eerie rather than just ugly. It also has one of the most brutal and bleakest endings ever seen in a Hollywood blockbuster — or probably outside of one, come to that.

    The violence in the final act was originally cut in the UK, and when it was finally released uncut on video some 17 years later, it earnt a 15, a rating its retained ever since. In the US, it’s always been rated G. Those Americans and their insouciant attitude to violence…

    Obviously I watched this two years ago, and at the time I assigned this three-star rating. But I will say that I remember it more fondly than that. As noted above, it takes a while to get going, and it doesn’t have the same classy aspirations as the first film, but its unrepentant fatalism is almost admirable.

    3 out of 5

    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
    (2016)

    2018 #175
    Burr Steers | 103 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

    Here’s another one I found more enjoyable than I feel I should have.

    For starters, it’s wild this ever actually got made. I mean, the title is an amusing idea — it’s basically a five-word gag, isn’t it? — but ponder for a moment how that’s going to play out as a full narrative. To live up to its title, it has to make an effort to follow the plot of the novel, and there lies the rub: no one wanting a zombie movie really wants to sit through a Regency romance, and no one wanting a Regency romance really wants it sullied by zombie-based action and gore. Well, inevitably someone will fall into that Venn diagram, but, as someone who’ll quite happily watch either of those genres in isolation, even I struggled to find the idea of such a mash-up too appealing. It needs a clever hand on the tiller to negotiate those treacherous waters, and I’m not sure the director of 17 Again and Charlie St. Cloud was that person.

    But, as I said at the start, I did find it surprisingly watchable. It does have a certain amount of wit and fun with the concept, like turning arguments about accomplishment into ones about fighting style. Sometimes the zombies and fights are tacked on to the existing story, but sometimes the narrative is neatly remixed to include the zombie threat. And like any true action movie, scenes of high emotion are settled not with words but with a good dust-up. There’s a solid cast too, including Lily James (always a bonus) and reliable stalwarts like Charles Dance, although, as Darcy, Sam Riley sounds like he’s battling a nasty throat infection. But Sally Phillips is basically a perfect Mrs Bennet for this or any other version, and the same could be said of Douglas Booth as Bingley, or Matt Smith, on fine comedic form as Mr Collins.

    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Knickers

    It does drop the ball sometimes. The climax doesn’t put enough effort into eliciting tension (it’s like they ran out of money or time or effort: “can the heroes make to the bridge in ti— oh, they just did”); at least one apparent subplot doesn’t go anywhere at all; and a mid-credits scene suggesting the story isn’t over feels lame. It definitely pulls some punches in aid of landing a PG-13 rating in the US, which is unfortunate — it’s a mad concept; it needs to do it properly, go all out and get an R. (I’d still say it’s perhaps a bit too gruesome for PG-13, which is why it landed a 15 over here.)

    I still think the director is the problem. A surer hand would’ve made more of the verbal sparring during the physical sparring; would’ve sold the tension of the action. Apparently David O. Russell was original set to direct, which is mad — can you imagine choosing to follow awards-winners like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle with this? Apparently other directors “considered” included Matt Reeves, Neil Marshall, and Lord & Miller. Presumably they turned it down rather than any producer thinking Burr Steers was a better pick — Lord & Miller, in particular, probably would’ve nailed the tone. But, all things considered, what we got could’ve been a lot worse.

    3 out of 5

    The Quiet Earth
    (1985)

    2018 #178
    Geoffrey Murphy | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | New Zealand / English | 15 / R

    The Quiet Earth

    Here we reach the first real hurdle in these two-year-old roundups, because it turns out I made no notes whatsoever after viewing The Quiet Earth. I did note down some quotes from the booklet essay accompanying Arrow’s Blu-ray release, but it seems a bit rich just to list those excerpts.

    What I can tell you is that The Quiet Earth is a science-fiction film about a scientist who wakes up one morning to find everyone else has disappeared — not fled, not died, just gone. What unfolds from there is a mix of mystery (what happened?) and a kind of existential character examination, both of this man and of ourselves — what would you do if you were the only person on Earth? Only, it doesn’t play quite as heavily as that makes it sound. There are more plot developments, but to say too much would spoil the discovery. And it is a film worth discovering. As Amy Simmons puts it in the aforementioned essay, it’s a “deeply relevant work which reflects darkly upon our age of estrangement and isolation. […] Shifting in tone from horror to comedy to pathos and back again, the film’s great strength is in the themes it explores and satirises — namely nuclear fears, technophobia, and cultural and geographical isolation — which are even more urgent now than when the film premiered in 1985.”

    I’m doing it a disservice with this pathetic little ‘review’, but hopefully someday I’ll revisit it and come up with something more insightful.

    4 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup VII

    If I were being slavishly accurate about weeks, there should be seven films in this roundup. But that seemed a bit much, so — as the next one of these wasn’t due until the end of the month — I’ve split it in two.

    In this roundup, the final films I watched in July 2018.…

  • The Garden of Words (2013)
  • The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
  • Paul (2011)
  • The Way of the Gun (2000)


    The Garden of Words
    (2013)

    aka Koto no ha no niwa

    2018 #170
    Makoto Shinkai | 46 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

    The Garden of Words

    If the only anime director’s name you know is Hayao Miyazaki, you could do worse than familiarise yourself with Makoto Shinkai, director of recent popular hits Your Name and Weathering with You. He’d already been gaining attention with the films he made before those, which include short feature The Garden of Words.

    It revolves around two individuals: a 15-year-old schoolboy who aspires to be a shoemaker, and a 27-year-old woman. They meet one day in a park during a rainstorm and develop a connection. According to Shinkai, the film is a love story between two people “who feel lonely or incomplete in their social relations, but who don’t feel that they need to fix this loneliness.” That’s an interesting perspective, because while there’s undoubtedly a significant element of loneliness in the film, it’s accompanied by an element of depression; that these two characters seem unfilled. Without wanting to spoil anything, it seems to be the connection between the two that ‘saves’ them and elevates their lives — i.e. they did need to fix their loneliness. Perhaps it’s a disconnect between intention and execution that led me note that “where it ends up going isn’t as good as where it begins”. Nonetheless, the characters are engaging, and their emotional turmoil and connection are affecting. It also leaves room for personal interpretation with an open ending — it does reach a conclusion of sorts, but there’s clearly space the viewer to imagine what comes next.

    The animation is simply stunning — both beautiful in itself, and in its technical accomplishment. For that reason, if given the choice, it might be tempting to opt for an English dub, but I’d advise to stick with the original Japanese. I’ve written before about how I’m regularly conflicted when watching anime about whether to go for the original Japanese or an English dub, and I do often I go for the latter — I must admit I’m swayed by the recognisable voice casts on Ghibli films, for example; and, generally speaking, it allows you to appreciate the visuals more when you’re not having to read a lot of subtitles. Nonetheless, this time I chose the Japanese audio, and I’m glad I did: it’s subtle and calm, like the film itself, and the quietness and gentle pace mean there’s not an overabundance of distracting reading (unlike in Your Name, for example). I popped on a bit of the American dub afterwards and it felt all wrong by comparison — somehow brash and decidedly inauthentic. On the bright side, either track sounds luscious in 5.1, with the rain falling all around you, which serves to really immerse the viewer in the situation alongside the characters.

    4 out of 5

    The Secret in Their Eyes
    (2009)

    aka El secreto de sus ojos

    2018 #171
    Juan José Campanella | 129 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | Argentina & Spain / Spanish | 18 / R

    The Secret in Their Eyes

    A surprise winner of the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2010 (it beat A Prophet and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon), Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes is a murder mystery, two very different love stories, and a musing on the nature of justice, especially within a corrupt system.

    Primarily, it’s a procedural thriller about a decades-old unsolved case that one of the original investigators is revisiting in the hopes of finding closure. As that, I thought the film was probably a bit too long — despite some solid thematic weight, the unnecessarily slow pace at times make it feel a smidge self-important for what is fundamentally a crime thriller. That said, those other facets that have been added to supplement the storyline — the romance side; the passage of time (how do people deal with such life-changing events over the ensuing decades?) — do bring something to the film, elevating it beyond standard police procedural fare.

    Even as ‘just’ that, it pulls off some spectacular feats: the famous single-take at the football match really is an all-timer, and the final twist is unexpected and a perfect capper. I was this close to giving it full marks, and maybe when I revisit it someday I will.

    4 out of 5

    Paul
    Extended Edition
    (2011)

    2018 #172
    Greg Mottle | 109 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & Klingon | 15

    Paul

    On a post-ComicCon road trip around the US’s UFO heartland, a pair of British geeks (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) bump into an actual alien, the eponymous Paul (Seth Rogen), who’s on the run from a government facility. Cue a kind of “E.T. for grownups” as the trio — and a widening assortment of supporting characters — endeavour to evade the authorities and get Paul home.

    Mistaken by some for the third part of the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (thanks to it starring Pegg and Frost, but it’s missing the vital ingredient of director Edgar Wright, who was committed to Scott Pilgrim), Paul lacks the sharpness of that trilogy at its best. However, it’s full of likeability — in the characters, and of course the humour — to the point where it actually manages to get a bit emotional at the end. It’s also chock full of references and quotes for fellow geeks to spot, some of which are incredibly well-timed to have fantastic impact.

    As for the extended cut, there’s a comparison here. As usual, the theatrical cut was R-rated in the US but the extended one is unrated there, but (also as usually) I don’t think there’s anything that wouldn’t pass at R. The running time difference is about five-and-a-half minutes, but there are 41 differences crammed into that time. It seems like some fairly memorable jokes were cut and others added back — nothing earth shattering, but enough to call the extended cut the preferable one.

    4 out of 5

    The Way of the Gun
    (2000)

    2018 #173
    Christopher McQuarrie | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    The Way of the Gun

    The debut directorial feature from screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (who made his name penning the likes of The Usual Suspects and more recently has found success as the regular writer-director of the Mission: Impossible movies), is one of those ’90s crime comedy-dramas — you know, the kind of thing we describe as “Tarantino-esque”, for good reason. It has its fans, but McQuarrie tends to refer to it disparagingly on social media, no doubt in part because it landed him in “director jail” for over a decade. Personally, I agree with McQuarrie (I usually do): it’s not a failure, but it’s not much of a success either.

    My main problem with it is that it’s over-long and over-complicated. Both of those are thanks to too many characters with too many motivations. It’s possible to get your head round it all in the end, but there’s a stretch in the middle where it feels like work. But rather than slow things down and spell it out, it might be better if it moved through them all quicker — at least then it would be pacy. It’s also rather dully shot by Dick Pope, who was later Oscar-nominated for the likes of The Illusionist and Mr. Turner, but has plied most of his trade in the grounded world of Mike Leigh movies, which perhaps explains that. There are still two or three good shots, plus a neat oner that indicates the direction McQ’s style would head.

    There are flashes of McQuarrie’s brilliance elsewhere too, including some nice bits of dialogue and a couple of good sequences. The action scenes, in particular, demonstrate he had a strong skill there from the start. They feel very grounded and real — just the way the characters move; that they’re constantly reloading; how it ends when everyone’s out of bullets. McQuarrie’s brother, a Navy SEAL, was the technical advisor for these scenes, which explains their accuracy. The final shoot-out, with all of that going on, is the best bit of the movie. Well, at least it ends on a high.

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup V

    Like last time, these five films are connected not only by when I watched them (July 2018), but also by a shared star rating.

    Incidentally, it’s about to be a busy time for these 100-week roundups — there should be one every week for the next few weeks to keep up with my backlog. (As time goes on, such frequency may become commonplace.)

    In this week’s roundup…

  • Muppet Treasure Island (1996)
  • Blade of the Immortal (2017)
  • Cash on Demand (1961)
  • Free Enterprise (1998)
  • Iron Monkey (1993)


    Muppet Treasure Island
    (1996)

    2018 #147
    Brian Henson | 96 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Muppet Treasure Island

    Following the success of The Muppet Christmas Carol, the little felt fellas turned their attention to another classic of Victorian English literature, Robert Louis Stevenson’s piratical adventure Treasure Island. For my money, the result is even better — it’s so good that it made me want to finally read the novel, or at least watch a ‘proper’ adaptation. (Two years later, I’ve done neither. Typical.)

    Why Muppet Treasure Island doesn’t attract the same level of love that’s reserved for their Christmas Carol is beyond me, because it’s really a lot of fun. I’m predisposed to enjoy piratical movies, for whatever reason, so perhaps it appeals to me more than average; but even allowing for such bias, I think this is one of the more enjoyable Muppet movies — if I were to rank them, it would be a toss up between this and the 2011 reboot for first place.

    The best bit is definitely the songs, which are properly good. It helps when you’ve got the likes of Tim Curry to sing them, of course. They’re not all the kind of outright comedy numbers you’d expect, either: the opener, Shiver Me Timbers, is quite dark, in fact. They’re supported by a score by Hans Zimmer, which with hindsight sounds like a dry run for Pirates of the Caribbean. There are seven songs in all, and only one that I didn’t really like, which I’d regard as a good hit rate for a musical.

    To top it off, the film ends with a Muppet sword fight. Really, what more could you want?

    4 out of 5

    Muppet Treasure Island placed 17th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2018.

    Blade of the Immortal
    (2017)

    aka Mugen no jûnin

    2018 #148
    Takashi Miike | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan, UK & South Korea / Japanese | 18 / R

    Blade of the Immortal

    Billed as the 100th film directed by Takashi Miike (which it isn’t, but hey), Blade of the Immortal is actually the first one I’ve seen by the (in)famous director. Based on a manga series, it’s about a samurai who’s rendered immortal to serve penance for his crimes, and the young woman who engages him as a bodyguard to avenge her murdered family.

    It’s a bit episodic at first, as our (anti)hero battles through the villains’ top swordsmen one by one, but that means there’s a regular feed of action sequences between the two bookends that are highlighted in the promotion: how he fights 100 men at the beginning, and 300 men for the climax. That last half-hour is an epic flurry of violence, by the end of which rivers of blood flow — literally.

    Aside from the combat, dramatically and thematically a lot of it is about the difference between good and bad, hero and villain; how, really, there’s not so much difference after all — sometimes it’s just a matter of perspective. It could’ve gone for a more streamlined, straightforward revenge narrative, but it throws many characters into the mix with attendant thematic points, which do lend more texture. Or, if you don’t fancy thinking about that stuff, there’s just a lot of really good fight scenes.

    4 out of 5

    Cash on Demand
    (1961)

    2018 #154
    Quentin Lawrence | 77 mins | TV | 4:3 | UK / English | PG

    Cash on Demand

    This Brit-noir came to my attention thanks to the ghost of 82’s review after Indicator included it in one of their Hammer sets (though I caught it on TV). It’s basically a real-time single location thriller (so right up my street) starring Peter Cushing as a bank manager faced with a clever robber — far from a showy heist, this is a calm, almost sedentary robbery… which ultimately gives way to a furious bevy of twists and counter-twists in the film’s closing minutes.

    It’s led by an excellent performance from Cushing, who convinces entirely as an uptight jobsworth brought low by the stress he must endure, which reveals his true character. The film’s focus is on the ringer he goes through thanks to the heist, rather than on clever details of the heist itself — certain plot points are never explained, but it doesn’t matter because this isn’t about the robbery, it’s about how the robbery affects Cushing. To that end, he’s also nicely contrasted with André Morell as the affable thief, particularly as the pair spend much of the film in extended two-handers. Quentin Lawrence’s direction is unflashy but effective, allowing their performances to shine. It’s almost televisual, though with more setups than anything studio-bound of that era would’ve allowed. No surprise, then, that he only directed a handful of films, mostly plying his trade in ’60s and ’70s TV series.

    I do wonder if we could have spent more time with the rest of the bank’s staff, who remain unaware a robbery is taking place. As it stands, they’re all established at the beginning, but then mostly pushed aside until near the end, when they conduct their own investigation for all of two scenes. What if that was expanded into a proper B-plot through the movie? I think it could make the film even better by adding the potential for even more tension. Perhaps it could withstand an expanded remake…

    4 out of 5

    Free Enterprise
    (1998)

    2018 #158
    Robert Meyer Burnett | 109 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Free Enterprise

    Relationship/sex comedy meets geek reference-athon in this ’90s indie that plays like Swingers meets Clerks (he says never having seen Clerks, so that’s just an assumption of what it’s like).

    It slots into what seems like a very ’90s subgenre: the “young film-loving people trying to break into Hollywood” thing. I’m sure there are lots of societal and industrial reasons why there were so many movies in that vein produced in the ’90s. It also comes with the era’s schtick of dialogue loaded to the nines with pop culture references. It’s perhaps an overfamiliar style now, but here it’s at least quite witty and well performed.

    Indeed, this is so a ’90s indie all-round — you know, like the early Tarantinos, and everyone who copied his dialogue’s voice, that kind of thing. If that’s not your bag, you’ll hate Free Enterprise. But if you enjoy that style of film, and if you love geek culture too, well, this was made for you. Literally, I should think. It certainly felt made for me, and I’m not even a Trekkie. To laypeople, it might just look like “Swingers with geek references”, or conversely (to use that old stereotype of geeks), “my life but with sex”.

    So, to give it a 4-star rating feels like a very personal reaction — I think you’ve got to hit the right confluence of interests to get the maximum enjoyment out of this movie. But if you do, it’s really rather good.

    4 out of 5

    Iron Monkey
    (1993)

    aka Siu nin Wong Fei Hung chi: Tit ma lau

    2018 #160
    Yuen Woo-ping | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Hong Kong / Cantonese | 12 / PG-13

    Iron Monkey

    Back around the time I was first getting interested in Asian action cinema — when the Hong Kong Legends DVD label was doing sterling work bringing so many titles to the UK market in extras-packed editions — Iron Monkey was fêted as an absolute modern classic. I think it was one of the first to get a two-disc special edition from HKL too, as if to emphasise its importance. But I never got round to watching it, and so now it perhaps came overburdened with expectation. I found it to be a mix of impressively choreographed action, goofy humour, and a rather slight plot.

    The fights are definitely the star; without those, it’s no great shakes. But then, what do you come to this kind of movie for? It’s definitely one I need to revisit and reassess. (And as it’s been two years now, maybe it’s about time I did…)

    4 out of 5

  • The Lunchbox (2013)

    2020 #94
    Ritesh Batra | 99 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | India, France, Germany & USA / Hindi & English | PG / PG

    The Lunchbox

    Yesterday the world heard the sad news that the actor Irrfan Khan had passed away aged just 53. An award-winning film star in India, Khan also had a noteworthy presence as a supporting actor in Western films — the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire; the owner of the eponymous park in Jurassic World; the adult version of the main character in Life of Pi; not to mention The Darjeeling Limited, The Amazing Spider-Man, Inferno, and more. I’d seen all of those films and noted Khan’s presence — he’s the kind of actor who turns up and elevates the film almost just by being there, bringing a depth and interest to even the smallest roles. But I’d never seen any of the many films (he has 151 acting credits on IMDb) in which he played the lead, so it seemed appropriate to turn to one of the most internationally acclaimed of his films, The Lunchbox, in tribute.

    Khan plays Saajan, an office worker who receives his lunch every day via the dabbawala service. It’s a remarkable network that delivers 200,000 lunches daily across Mumbai with unerring accuracy. Indeed, their precision is so famed that one of the major criticisms of this film in some quarters was that its premise is too far-fetched — that being that, due to a continued mixup, Saajan begins to receive the lunches Ila (Nimrat Kaur) has prepared for her husband, rather than the ones he ordered from a local restaurant. He’s so impressed with the quality of the food, when the lunchbox is returned Ila observes that it looks to have been licked clean. This is good news, because she was trying to up the quality of her lunches as a way to reignite her stagnant marriage; but when her husband returns home still disinterested, with only thin praise for something she hadn’t even included in his lunch, she realises the delivery mistake immediately. But politeness compels her to send lunch again, this time with a note explaining the mixup. After a rocky start, soon Saajan and Ila are in daily communication through short letters passed back and forth in the lunchbox.

    Saajan

    Both are characters desperately in need of that connection. Ila’s loveless marriage, and young daughter who spends most of the day at school, means her primary human contact comes in shouted conversations with her upstairs neighbour. Saajan, meanwhile, is taking early retirement, but first must train Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), the overeager new recruit appointed to replace him. He tries to duck even this level of interaction; at home, he tells off kids for playing in the road outside his house, refusing to return their ball. We could infer Saajan is a misanthrope, and the impression is given that his colleagues do (they share a story that he once kicked a cat in front of a bus then casually walked away), but the film affords us more insight than that, primarily through Khan’s performance. It’s the underlying sadness in his eyes that first give the clue to his true loneliness, and the way his demeanour begins to brighten as the relationship with Ila brings a spark back into his life.

    Lest you think this is all somewhat dour, the way it plays is uplifting. Saajan and Ila may be miserable at the start, and continue to confront problems in their lives throughout the film, but their connection injects a measure of happiness into both their lives, the mutual support helping them through. Plus there’s a strong vein of humour, at first from the faltering beginnings of our leads’ relationship, then from the antics of Siddiqui’s junior employee. This isn’t the kind of broad comedy you might expect from a Bollywood movie, but something more grounded and closer to reality. At first Shaikh seems as irritating to us as he is to Saajan, but soon the latter’s growing empathy leads him to become a father figure to the younger man, and we too begin to see the truth underneath his cheery facade.

    Ila

    While that subplot is a bonus, the film really comes down to Saajan and Ila, and consequently the performances of Khan and Kaur. That’s particularly important because so much of the story occurs in the form of letters, and so the characters’ true reactions come across in doleful expressions, or changes in posture or behaviour; subtle, human indicators that leave us in no doubt what they’re feeling, and only strengthen our own connection to and investment in these characters. This pair of deeply-felt performances carefully steer The Lunchbox into being a heartfelt, quietly affecting film.

    5 out of 5

    Zatoichi at Large (1972)

    aka Zatôichi goyôtabi

    2019 #118
    Kazuo Mori | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 15

    Zatoichi at Large

    I never thought doing a good deed for someone would end up making me a demon.

    The 23rd film in the Zatoichi series is also the worst according to Letterboxd users, who rate it below even the ’00s spinoff, Ichi. But as with all things in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours, there are those who disagree: The Digital Bits give it a B+, which puts it in the series’ top half (to be precise, it makes it =7th, but with seven other films). You can add me to that (very short) list. It’s not an exceptional Zatoichi film by any means, but it is a middle-of-the-range entry, and a long way from the worst the series has to offer.

    Between how reviled it is by Letterboxd users and the cartoonish art Criterion chose for it, I assumed this was going to be another woeful attempt at comedy like Doomed Man (which is, in my opinion, by far one of the series’ worst films). It’s quite the opposite: a tragic film, where good and bad alike are faced with impossible choices, or misinterpret evidence that leads them to make rash, fatal decisions. At one point Ichi is captured, tied up, teased and beaten until he’s bruised and bloody — it’s very unpleasant. If the unpleasantness was why it was so disliked then I could see where people were coming from, but criticism seems to hinge mainly on the familiarity of the plot.

    Well, it begins with Ichi stumbling across a dying pregnant woman. He delivers her baby, and her dying wish is that he takes the child to her husband in a nearby village. Naturally, Ichi complies, followed all the way by a young boy who won’t stop throwing stones at him. With the help of the village’s old but honourable constable, Tobei, he locates the baby’s aunt, Oyae. But then the yakuza arrive, demanding taxes from local performers and threatening to force Oyae into prostitution, and once again it’s up to Ichi to save the day.

    Saving the day

    Yes, anyone familiar with Ichi’s adventures can see how that’s a pretty standard storyline. The devil is in the detail, and At Large offers a few interesting characters and subplots. For starters, there’s Tobei — a non-corrupt official is a rarity in this series, but that doesn’t make him dull. He gains depth from both how he treats Ichi (when he finds out the truth about our hero’s past, he doesn’t arrest him) and his relationship with his wayward son, who’s a conman. Their relationship is quite poignant. It’s only when his father finally hits him that the son realises he cares, which makes him happy… but then things take a turn for the worse, leading the former good-for-nothing to set out as an avenger of honour.

    As the villain, yakuza boss Tetsugoro, there’s an interesting performance by Rentarô Mikuni (who previously appeared in Zatoichi the Outlaw, and is also great in the samurai classic Harakiri). He choose to play Tetsugoro as constantly bored, or world-weary, barely interested by or caring about what’s going. For example, he’s been paying everyone 1 ryo to kill Ichi, but when someone demands 50 ryo he does no more than hand-wave his approval. All of which might sound like a criticism, but it’s a surprisingly effective portrayal of disinterested everyday evil. Nothing he does brings him pleasure; nothing that happens causes frustration or surprise — he just exists, doing the only things he knows. Well, that is until he observes Ichi being tortured — then he smiles and laughs. And when he finally kills Tobei — the most moral man around — then he laughs again. Ooh, he’s a nasty piece of work and no mistake!

    Zatoichi tortured

    There are various other bits and pieces that work nicely. Ichi gets to show off, as usual, but it’s always fun. The filmmaking gets a bit of ’70s verve, with a score that is at times very contemporary-pop, and supplementing the series’ normal visual style with some handheld closeup stuff. And the final one-on-one duel is not the usual big showpiece: oddly exposed, almost silent, flash-edited, and over in seconds, with a hard cut to a “the end” card. Depending on your point of view, this is either “almost comically tacked on” (DVD Talk) or “one of the most badass final thirty seconds of any film in this series” (The Digital Bits). I don’t know if I’d go as far as the latter, but it’s certainly a change of pace.

    Zatoichi at Large may just be a remix of various plot bits we’ve seen before, but they’re done with a seriousness and darkness that works. There’s a bit of comedic stuff early on that’s a nonstarter, but once that’s out the way it’s a decent, if fundamentally unoriginal, adventure for Ichi. Indeed, it’s that lack of originality that hurts it most. In itself it’s a perfectly good Zatoichi movie, but we’ve seen almost all of it before. At Large (re)does it all solidly, but it doesn’t do much to improve on previous versions. If more people watched the films out of sequence and came to this earlier, perhaps it would be better liked.

    4 out of 5

    The 100-Week Roundup

    Regular readers may be aware that for a while now I’ve been struggling with what to do about my increasingly ludicrous review backlog. It continues to grow and grow — it’s now reached a whopping 215 unreviewed films! (And to think I started that page because I was 10 reviews behind…) Realistically, there’s no way I’m ever going to catch that up just by posting normal reviews, especially given the rate I get them out nowadays. But since this blog began I’ve reviewed every new film I watched — I don’t want to break that streak.

    So, I’ve come up with something of a solution — and kept it broadly within the theming of the blog, to boot.

    The 100-Week Roundup will cover films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Most of the time that’ll be in the form of quick thoughts, perhaps even copy-and-pasting the notes I made while viewing, rather than ‘proper’ reviews. Today’s are a bit more review-like, but relatively light on worthwhile analytical content, which I think is another reason films might end up here. Also, the posts won’t be slavishly precise in their 100-week-ness. Instead, I’ll ensure there are at least a couple of films covered in each roundup (it wouldn’t be a “roundup” otherwise). Mainly, the point is to give me a cutoff to get a review done — if I want to avoid a film being swept up into a roundup, I’ve got 100 weeks to review it. (Lest we forget, 100 weeks is almost two years. A more-than-generous allowance.)

    I think it’s going to start slow (this first edition covers everything I haven’t reviewed from April 2018, which totals just two films), but in years to come I wouldn’t be surprised if these roundups become more frequent and/or busier. But, for now, those two from almost two years ago…


    Das Boot
    The Director’s Cut
    (1981/1997)

    2018 #69
    Wolfgang Petersen | 208 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | Germany & USA / German & English | 15 / R

    Das Boot: The Director's Cut

    Writer-director Wolfgang Petersen’s story of a German submarine in World War 2 may have an intimate and confined setting, but in every other sense it is an epic — not least in length: The Director’s Cut version runs almost three-and-a-half hours. However, the pace is excellently managed. The length is mainly used for tension — quietly waiting to see if the enemy will get them this time. It’s also spent getting to know some of the crew, and the style of life aboard the sub. It means the film paints an all-round picture of both life and combat in that situation. The only time I felt it dragged was in an extended sequence towards the end. I guess the long, slow shots of nothing happening are meant to evoke time passing and an increasing sense of hopelessness, but I didn’t feel that, I just felt bored. Still, while I can conceive of cutting maybe 10 or 20 minutes and the film being just as effective, being a full hour shorter — as the theatrical cut is — must’ve lost a lot of great stuff.

    It’s incredibly shot by DP Jost Vacano. The sets are tiny, which feels realistic and claustrophobic, but nonetheless they pull off long takes with complex camera moves. Remarkable. Even more striking is the sound design. It has one of the most powerful and convincing surround sound mixes I’ve experienced, really placing you in the boat as it creaks and drips all around you. The music by composer Klaus Doldinger is also often effective. It does sound kinda dated at times — ’80s electronica — but mostly I liked it.

    Versions
    Das Boot exists in quite a few different cuts, although The Director’s Cut is the only one currently available on Blu-ray in the UK. If you’re interested in all the different versions, it’s quite a minefield — there are two different TV miniseries versions (a three-part BBC one and a six-part German one), in addition to what’s been released as “The Original Uncut Version”, as well as both of the movie edits. There’s a lengthy comparison of The Director’s Cut and the German TV version here, which lists 75 minutes of major differences and a further 8 minutes of just tightening up. Plus, the TV version also has Lt. Werner’s thoughts in voiceover, which are entirely missing from The Director’s Cut. That means this version “has a lack of information and atmosphere”, according to the author of the comparison.

    Das salute

    As to the creation of The Director’s Cut, the Blu-ray contains a whole featurette about it called The Perfect Boat. In it, Petersen explains that he thought the TV version was too long, but that there was a good version to be had between it and the theatrical cut. It was first mooted as early as 1990, but it was when DVD began to emerge that things got moving — Columbia (the studio, not the country) was aware of the format’s potential even from its earliest days, and so it was with an eye on that market that they agreed to fund the new cut. Not only was it all re-edited, but as for that soundtrack I was so praiseful of, the audio was basically entirely re-recorded to make it more effective as a modern movie. The only thing they kept was the original dialogue… which had all been dubbed anyway, because the on-set sound was unusable.

    In the end, the new cut was such a thorough re-envisioning that it took three times as long as anticipated, and led to a glitzy premiere and theatrical re-release. Petersen thinks the main difference between the theatrical and director’s cuts is the latter is more rich and has more gravitas because we spend more time with the individual characters.

    5 out of 5

    Das Boot: The Director’s Cut was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018 project.

    It placed 22nd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

    Identity
    (2003)

    2018 #78
    James Mangold | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Identity

    I bought Identity probably 15 or so years ago in one of those 3-for-£20 or 5-for-£30 sales that used to be all the rage at the height of DVD’s popularity, and no doubt contributed massively both to the format’s success and even regular folk having “DVD collections” (as opposed to just owning a handful of favourite films). As with dozens (ok, I’ll be honest: hundreds) of other titles that I purchased in a more-or-less similar fashion, it’s sat on a shelf gathering dust for all this time, its significance as a piece of art diminishing to the point I all but forgot I owned it.

    But I did finally watch it, not spurred by anything other than the whim of thinking, “yeah, I ought to finally watch that,” which just happens for me with random old DVDs now and then. But, like so many other older films that I own on DVD, I found it was available to stream in HD, so I watched it that way instead. The number of DVDs I’ve ended up doing that with, or could if I wanted… all that wasted money… it doesn’t bear thinking about.

    Whodunnit?

    Anyway, the film itself. On a dark and stormy night, a series of chance encounters strand ten disparate strangers at an isolated motel, where they realise they’re being murdered one by one. So far, so slasher movie. And, indeed, that’s more or less how it progresses. But there’s a twist or two in the final act that attempts to make it more than that. Without spoiling anything, I felt like it was an interesting concept for a thriller, but at the same time that it didn’t really work. There’s an aspect to the twist that is a cliché so damnable it’s rarely actually used (unlike most other clichés, which pop up all the time), and so the film attempts a last-minute explanation of why it’s better than that, but, I dunno, I feel like a cliché is a cliché.

    So maybe Identity is best considered as just a straight B-movie-ish slasher, and just overlook the final act’s attempts at being more interesting as just trying to be different. In fact, more interesting to me was the fact it was mostly shot on an enormous soundstage set, which is kinda cool given the scope of the location.

    3 out of 5

    Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

    aka Portrait de la jeune fille en feu

    2019 #137
    Céline Sciamma | 122 mins | cinema | 1.85:1 | France / French & Italian | 15 / R

    Portrait of a Lady on Fire

    Now, here’s a film I really need to see again. Not to affirm whether I liked it or not — in fact, I loved it; enough to rank it the #1 film I saw in 2019 — but to fully assess and analyse and process it. This admission is not the best way to begin a review — reviews are meant to be assessment and/or analysis, after all — but, nonetheless, it indicates the kind of effect I felt from the film.

    What is that effect? In my best-of-year piece I said it was “the kind of film that casts a spell”, by which I’m referring to how it sweeps you in; how it engages you in such a way that you’re just experiencing it, almost with analytical functions switched off; or if not “switched off”, turned down low enough so as not to be a distraction. Maybe this is how ‘normal people’ see all films, but as someone who actively studied cinema for six years and has spent nearly a decade-and-a-half reviewing every new thing he sees, it’s rare to find something so engrossing that the mental deconstruction while viewing stops almost entirely. That — in its own, somewhat ephemeral way — is as good a testament to the film’s power and quality as any.

    Of course, to say it turned off my analytical brain entirely is not completely truthful — this is a long way from a Michael Bay-esque “leave your brain at the door” kind of entertainment. What I mean, I suppose, is that I was engaged more purely by the characters and their story, rather than becoming distracted by pondering the filmmaking choices or structural decisions or acting ability or what have you. (The difference here is perhaps a fine line to quantify, I grant you. If you’ve ever studied film in an academic context, I hope you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, I’ve done my best to convey some of the difference.) In this instance, I’m thinking specifically of the film’s leanings towards a sense of Gothic. This element isn’t overt — as it is in, say, Crimson Peak — but it is there, and so my analytical brain was ‘on’ enough to spot that and think it through. while watching. I mean, I’m not claiming that I’m some genius for getting it — there’s a bloody great apparition that’s presented like a key to unlock this facet of the film — but, even with that pointer in hand, it’s not an out-and-out traditionally Gothic tale.

    Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

    Here I’m not talking about Hammer-like ‘Gothic horror’ but ‘Gothic Romance’ (see my Crimson Peak review if you need a refresher on the difference), and ‘romance’ is an even more operative word for Portrait of a Lady on Fire as it’s about two women who realise they’re in love. That realisation takes a while to manifest, so if you’re a total spoilerphobe then you might argue I’ve just ‘ruined’ the movie; but eh, it’s kind of the point (just look at all the publicity materials!) Much has been made of the fact that it’s a lesbian love story told with the female gaze, as writer-director Céline Sciamma is, indeed, a woman. This is not an insignificant factor, but also not one I feel massively qualified to discuss in depth. I do think the way the relationship is handled and depicted comes with a different perspective than you’d expect if there was a man in the director’s chair, though. It’s not so simplistic as the attitude to sex and nudity, though that is part of it (such scenes are not shot with the same lasciviousness you might expect from a male hand on the tiller) — it’s the overall attitude and focus. Plus subplots, including a significant one with a maid, the delve into Women’s Issues with a level of understanding that, again, might be different under a male director.

    The notes I made for myself when I saw the film back in November are frustratingly brief. They include “the music!” and “the sound!”, so let’s take a moment to acknowledge that they are clearly striking elements, while also damning my memory for embarrassing me by not remembering many specifics. That said, the film’s use of music is deliberately sparse, for reasons connected to the story, and so when it is used it’s all the more effective. For some reason my notes don’t mention the cinematography, but maybe I thought that went without saying. It looks gorgeous, with cinematographer Claire Mathon enacting a painterly regard for composition and colour that is wholly appropriate. The rest of my notes conclude with a request: “all the awards for Adèle Haenel please”. Which is to do no disservice to her co-star Noémie Merlant — the film is about their relationship, and so its quality rests on both their shoulders — but in some respects Haenel has the more obvious journey and change.

    This girl is on fire

    The story comes to a head in a moment near the end which made me well up inside. It’s a visual clue that I spotted just ahead of most of the audience I saw it with — I don’t wish to sound boastful here, because I certainly wasn’t the only one even just in that room to spot it ‘early’, but it meant I could also enjoy the audible gasps when the remainder saw it a moment later. My point being: it’s the kind of moment that can provoke an involuntary vocalisation of surprise and delight, and it’s not just me it worked for that way.

    I appreciate that this is another vague kind of appraisal. I feel like I want to abandon a lot of this review and just scream “see it, then you’ll know everything I want to say and everything I feel!” But, of course, art and criticism don’t work like that. You won’t experience the film the exact same way I did, even if I could tell you exactly what I experienced and thereby influence your own experience. And there are even people who dislike this movie, which couldn’t be more opposite to my experience (one of the specific criticisms I’ve seen is that it’s slow, and while it’s true that it moves at a very particular pace, I thought it was just right). But, in the end, that is what this review is for: to urge you to see it, because it is a beautiful, absorbing, moving piece of art.

    5 out of 5

    Portrait of a Lady on Fire is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from today.

    It placed 1st on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.