Hustlers (2019)

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2020 #39
Lorene Scafaria | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Hustlers

A struggling stripper (Constance Wu) is taken under the wing of an older pro (Jennifer Lopez) at a club frequented by super-rich Wall Street types. The going is good… until the 2008 financial crash happens, knocking out their clientele and, in turn, them. Of course, the Wall Street guys got away scot-free after that debacle, even as others floundered — including our stripper friends. That is, until J.Lo and co come up with a scheme to rip the bastards off.

Crime movies are sometimes criticised for glamourising the illegal acts of their characters. Sometimes that’s people misreading the film (in the case of many a Scorsese movie, for instance). Sometimes it’s true (the many rip-offs by people who misread Scorsese movies, for instance). Sometimes it’s unavoidable, because we’re going to be on the criminals’ side however you present it — and I think that’s the case here. Those fuckers had it coming, and these girls brought it to them. Not all heroes wear capes clothes.

Even more satisfyingly, it’s based on a true story. Director Lorene Scafaria leans into the story’s caper movie parallels just the right amount, giving the movie a great tone — funny without turning it into an outright comedy; heartfelt without getting schmaltzy; a crime drama without getting self-consciously Gritty. Her direction is fantastic, with exciting shot choices, editing tricks, sound design, and fitting needle drops. But among the razzmatazz she doesn’t lose sight of the point: it’s about these women and their relationships as much as it is about the scam they pulled.

Every day they're hustlin'

And so the film rests heavily on the shoulders of Wu and Lopez, but they’re both strong enough to carry it. Wu gets the bigger arc — from nervous newbie to confident co-conspirator to a frustrated “only adult in the room” position when others begin to push things too far. We also see her in framing flash forwards, where she’s in a different position again. Normally I hold little truck with this kind of framing device, because it’s often a lazy shortcut through the story or gives away too much of where thing are going. Here, though, it’s just tantalising enough to make you wonder where exactly she’s ended up, and therefore how exactly she got there. J.Lo’s performance has attracted plenty of praise (there was widespread disappointment when she didn’t get an Oscar nom), and she is wholly convincing as an outwardly glamorous and successful woman with a steely survivor’s core.

“Strippers rip off rich businessmen” sounds like the setup for an exploitation movie, and in other hands it probably would’ve been. But without a leering gaze, and with a true-story basis that remembers these women are human beings, there’s a dimension of reality that elevates proceedings — even as it’s still fun seeing the underdog pull a fast one on schmucks who deserved it.

4 out of 5

Hustlers is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK 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.

Toy Story 4 (2019)

2019 #101
Josh Cooley | 100 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / G

Toy Story 4

Last weekend, with dull inevitability, Toy Story 4 won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Of course it did — in the last decade, the award has gone to a Disney or Pixar movie eight times out of ten. I’ve not seen any of the four other nominees, but I strongly suspect at least one of them deserved it more, because Toy Story 4 is… fine. Heck, it’s good, even. But when the three films that precede it are all-time classics that formed a perfectly complete trilogy, just being “good” is not enough.

Its first mistake is that it doesn’t need to exist. The filmmakers have self-mythologised that Woody’s story wasn’t complete and so needed this final chapter, or some such gumph, but anyone who’s actually seen Toy Story 3 knows that’s not true. No, this is someone at Disney or Pixar hoping they can mine one of their most popular franchises for more gold. Whether or not they also believed lightning could strike for a fourth time, or they didn’t care so long as it made bank, I’ll leave up to your own levels of cynicism.

So rather than feeling like an equal part of a four-film series, Toy Story 4 feels like an afterthought; an addendum; a “here’s another one because you liked the others”. And at times it delivers on that — we like these characters, so they’re fun to be with; some of their antics are amusing or exciting; there’s a positive moral message or two about acceptance and seeing worth in yourself. There are attempts at emotional resonance too, particularly when the film tries to feel like an ending and a farewell; but 3 already did that, and did it extremely well. 4 has an uphill climb trying to match that, and even if it did (which it doesn’t), why should we believe it? It’ll only last until someone decides there’s a narrative for Toy Story 5 that simply has to be told (see you for that c.2026, I guess).

In search of a new story

Of course, there’s no doubting the film is well made. It’s easy to disregard that as just Pixar being Pixar, but there’s an ever-impressive technical skill on display here. Maybe on that level it does deserve award wins — although, while Pixar are undoubtedly frontrunners in such a race, there are other animation houses who can and do produce work that’s just as beautiful. (Besides, the Best Animation category is a funny one in that regard — is it rewarding the artistic/technical accomplishment of the animation itself, or is it “best film that happens to be animated”? A debate for another time.)

Toy Story 4 is the kind of film I enjoyed well enough while it was on. Whenever I get round to rewatching the series, I’ll happily include it. But, while it doesn’t tarnish the series’ legacy, it does blight its unbroken record. If it had never existed, I’d’ve been fine with that.

4 out of 5

Toy Story 4 is available on Sky Cinema as of this weekend.

Ad Astra (2019)

2020 #10
James Gray | 123 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Ad Astra

This review contains spoilers (though most of them are in the trailer).

Rad Astra”, “Bad Astra”, “Sad Astra”, “Dad Astra”, “Mad Astra”, “Glad Astra”, “Brad Astra”, “Fad Astra”… the puns came thick and fast when Ad Astra hit cinemas back in September (and, as you may see in some of those links, ever since). I’d love to contribute to the game, but I’m four months late so I think all the puns have been had Astra.*

Resisting the urge to describe the film’s plot using some of those aforementioned puns (considering I already gave into that urge for the email notifications and social media posts promoting this review), I’ll instead do it in an equally pithy fashion: this is “Apocalypse Now in space”. Kinda. After unexplained energy waves from Neptune have disastrous consequences on Earth, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is informed that his believed-dead father may actually still be alive and be the one causing these waves, and NASA Starfleet his bosses want him to send a message into space in the hope his dad’s out there and it reaches him. But with Earth facilities damaged by the aforementioned energy waves, Roy must travel to Mars, via the Moon, to even send the message. Hence where Apocalypse Now comes into it: it’s about a man travelling ‘up river’ in search of a superior-gone-rogue.

Apocalypse Now is one of my favourite movies. Sci-fi is one of my favourite genres. “Apocalypse Now in space” sounds like a pitch aimed at me. Ad Astra doesn’t score a direct hit, but it gets pretty close. One thing is it’s not just an emulation of the previous film’s plot (which itself is, of course, rejigged from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness), but also adopts its meditative style. Roy is a man with emotional problems, struggling with the state of his relationship on Earth (with Liv Tyler) and with the comfort the isolation of space brings him. Is it comfort, or is it just escape? And is that healthy? These are the things the film has on its mind.

In space, no one can hear you ponder your own sense of isolation

While it does have something to say about them, I feel like it thinks it’s deeper than it actually is. The final act, in particular, gets a little muddled. Why did his father make the decisions he made? Thematically, what does Roy gain by learning the truth about his father? On a simplistic level, he sees what isolation taken to extremes does to you; but he and his father seem to have fundamentally different attitudes to disconnection anyway. I appreciate that the film dodged the easy blockbuster-y versions of things (it would’ve been a bit pat if his dad was either desperate to be rescued or outright insane and tried to stop the mission), but I’m not convinced what it did instead wholly hung together. Still, as third acts go, “not completely ruining the film” is better than some.

But it does seem like Ad Astra is at least a partially compromised movie. Co-writer/director James Gray has said that he had to make some changes to the ending to get a studio to finance it, and if you watch the trailers again after the film it’s clear that stuff was cut, including much of Liv Tyler’s character. How big an effect that had it’s impossible to say (unless someone inside the production speaks up), but it certainly implies some reworking in post-production. Another thing that makes me wonder this is the film’s use of religion. At times it seems fairly foregrounded — not in a heavy “this movie is about religion” way, but there are lots of references to it, people saying prayers for the dead, that kind of thing — but then the film doesn’t really seem to do anything with that. No one’s actions are different because they’ve found God, nor is caused to find God by the events of the movie, nor rejects God because of them, nor thinks they are God… Religion seems to be this underlying theme (it might be too kind to call it that, even) which ultimately disappears from the narrative just when it should, perhaps, be becoming more prominent.

On the flip side, perhaps it was meant to be this subtle. Ad Astra is certainly trying to say something about our place in the universe (are we alone? If we are, what does that mean? How does the vastness of space, the emptiness, the isolation, the distance from home, affect the mind?), and maybe that’s all implicitly tied to religion and our belief (or otherwise) in an all-powerful creator who made us in his image (and, by extension, no other ‘intelligent’ life). Or maybe the studio got cold feet about tackling religion and made Gray cut that, too.

Moon pirates!

Nonetheless, there’s still a lot more good than bad in Ad Astra. Its depiction of the future is interesting; a plausible extension of the present, where space travel has been at least partially commercialised, the Moon more like a concrete shopping mall than a place of genuine wonder. That groundedness extends to the ‘action’ scenes. I mean, you wouldn’t expect a movie that I’ve described as “meditative” to feature “a chase/shoot-out with moon pirates” — that sounds like the pulpiest thing imaginable — but it’s here, and it’s achieved with what feels like a large degree of plausibility and realism. Personally, I like the way the film mixes together contemplativeness with such spikes of adrenaline — again, it’s quite like Apocalypse Now. There’s also the bold choice not to present sound in space. This isn’t the first film to make that choice, certainly, but it remains a noteworthy decision, and it has a more tangible impact than you might expect. Indeed, that seemingly-simple choice goes a long way towards that feeling of reality, though it is just one of several connected choices that ground the film’s vision of the future and make it plausible.

Ad Astra is certainly a journey into darkness — of space; of mind. Whether it gets to the heart of it, I’m not convinced. But it’s still a trip worth taking.

4 out of 5

Ad Astra is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Blu-ray in the UK this week.

* I’m so proud of that gag I’ve already used it on three different social media posts, and now I’ve worked it in here for posterity. ^

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.

Judy & Punch (2019)

2019 #143
Mirrah Foulkes | 106 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | Australia / English | 15

Judy & Punch

Australian actress turned writer/director Mirrah Foulkes makes her feature debut with this live-action version of the famous Punch and Judy puppet show. I don’t know how famous the show is outside the UK (I guess it reached Australia, at least), but here it’s a staple of seaside children’s entertainment — although given its propensity for violence and misogyny, it’s suitability has been the subject of a small degree of controversy over the last couple of decades, and its prevalence is on the wane.

There’s no set version of Punch and Judy — each puppeteer has their own spin on the events of the tale and which characters show up — but there are certain elements that are, I suppose, considered standards and widely associated with the show. Here, Foulkes takes all of those familiar tropes and remixes them into a freshly imagined origin story. The real Punch and Judy comes out of the 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte, a fact which has very loosely inspired Foulkes’s take.

The setting is somewhere in Europe (never specified, and there’s a wide-ranging mix of accents to be heard), sometime in the past (it seems quite medieval, but there are buildings and notions that date from later), in a town called Seaside… which is nowhere near the sea. Judy & Punch comes with a hefty dose of absurdity and whimsy that calls to mind the work of Terry Gilliam as a reference point, and with dialogue and music choices that range from cod-medieval to very modern-sounding (especially in some of the references thrown up, which I won’t spoil), it’s clear Foulkes is taking a playful attitude to the material. Well, fair enough — “a live-action version of Punch and Judy” does sound a bit ridiculous, and so the film takes an appropriately irreverent tack. It won’t work for some people, for various reasons, but I was easily on board with the concept.

Punch and Judy

So, in this town we meet the self-proclaimed great puppeteer Mr Punch (Damon Herriman, most noticed for his small role as Charles Manson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and his wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska), who is of course at least equally responsible for the brilliance of their show. Now, it will come as no surprise to those familiar with the original that Punch beats his wife. One day he takes it too far and he leaves her for dead. But this being a modern telling with feminist inclinations, that’s not the end of her role. No spoilers, but some viewers will consider where this ends up to be too preachy — literally, considering there’s a grand speech given at the climax. It’s a shame Foulkes pushes it to such a blunt point; not because I disagree with what she and her characters have to say, but because it ends up a little heavy-handed. The rest of the film makes its point well enough and is entertaining with it, so do we really need it to end with a polemic? Personally, I can let that slide because I was enjoyed the rest enough that it barely mattered by that point, but I know some other viewers found it a bit much.

And really, that could be said about the entire film. Like much of Gilliam’s work, it’s an acquired taste, with a distinct oddness and tonal mix that some will find distasteful. In my screening, one particular key moment drew what seemed to be a 50/50 mix of genuinely shocked gasps and stifled guffaws. I think that’s the kind of reaction its meant to provoke — a mix of shock and laughter — although I imagine anyone who genuinely found it gasp-inducing might not take to the fact that, actually, it is played for the laugh. But then there’s some quite genuine emotional fallout. Anyone who struggles with a variable tone, or with visual signifiers that don’t match said tone (the production design is muted and realist, not bright and whimsical), might not get along with the way the film dances merrily back and forth.

Horse and Judy

For me, it nailed what I was expecting in that regard. This is a film that kinda wants to tell the Punch and Judy story seriously, but knows it’s kinda silly to take Punch and Judy seriously, and so it manages a balance between a grounded grit and a comical daftness. There’s a lot of inventiveness in how it incorporates the familiar elements of the original, but, unfortunately, not quite enough to sustain it all the way — if it were a bit shorter (or pacier in the middle), or had just a few more bright ideas to see it through to the finale, I would’ve loved it. As it is, it’s a bold effort that I liked a lot. That is, indeed, the way to do it.

4 out of 5

Judy & Punch is in UK cinemas from today.

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.

Colossal (2016)

2018 #117
Nacho Vigalondo | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Canada, USA, Spain & South Korea / English & Korean | 15 / R

Colossal

As it begins, you’d be forgiven for thinking Colossal is just another indie rom-com. Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria, an unemployed writer whose boyfriend (Dan Stevens) kicks her out of their New York apartment, forcing her to move back to her Nowheresville hometown. There she reconnects with childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) — romance is surely in the air, right? But Colossal has a couple of surprises up its sleeve. One is hard to miss, what with it being on all the posters (and, I presume, in the trailers): concurrent with Gloria’s return home, a giant monster begins to rampage around Seoul, and she comes to realise these two disconnected events are, in fact, connected. Meanwhile, the relationship storyline has a few twists in store too.

Unsurprisingly, given the uniqueness of the concept, the film’s marketing foregrounds the giant monster. But anyone expecting “a giant monster movie” will probably be disappointed, because this isn’t a Godzilla clone. However, anyone open to an indie comedy-drama that uses giant monsters as a giant metaphor (arguably an on-the-nose one, but it’s an effective one also) should find something of interest here. I’m being coy about the facts of that metaphor because I think one of the movie’s biggest strengths is its ability to surprise, and to wrong-foot and unnerve you with those surprises — there are some very uncomfortable scenes, deliberately so. Writer-director Nacho Vigalondo is looking to explore timely themes here, and if you were to be aware of them before viewing I think you’d be looking for signs too early, and that would undermine part of the film’s point, which lies in how events develop.

To put that aside, Colossal’s biggest weakness comes in its sci-fi/fantasy element, where the rules of the situation don’t quite hang together. I’m not saying it needs an explanation for why the ordinary-woman/giant-monster connection happens — it’s the same reason that, say, the time loop in Groundhog Day happens: it just does. The ‘why’ is immaterial to the film’s purpose. But the rules the film establishes for how it works don’t entirely add up. I could go into specifics but, again, that might spoil things. And, ultimately, my issues are no more than niggles — the way things pan out is about getting satisfaction from the storyline, not adhering to the ins and outs of how a fantasy works. That said, I feel like a couple of logic tweaks here and there would’ve made it faultless.

Who's the bigger monster?

Nonetheless, it’s worth letting those complaints slide, because there’s so much to like in spite of them. The performances, for one. Hathaway negotiates Gloria’s interesting, tricky character with aplomb. By ‘tricky’ I really mean that it’s somewhat hard to put your finger on what her arc is exactly, but I think that’s because her evolution is believably fuzzy, just like real life, rather than conforming to a slick “this is the lesson she learned and now she’s better” movie thing. Co-lead Sudeikis has, I’d wager, never been better. I’ve not seen him in much, but enough to buy other people’s opinion that he’s a bit smug, a bit try-hard, a bit… of a dick, really. But all of those qualities work here, where Oscar is a loser trying to seem cool.

With some polishing up, Colossal could’ve been nigh on perfect; though it’d likely still be a cult favourite rather than any major success. Well, it’s probably still good enough for cult status, though, as a caveat, it will most appeal to those viewers who are prepared to accept a bit of a genre/tone mashup. It’s got an indie-funny quality, but then throws the sci-fi stuff in, before unveiling a serious side too; and, although that does get very dark, it’s really effectively managed — indeed, it’s all the better for how the quirkier first part sets it up. Vigalondo has points he wants to make, and his film gets them across. Whatever else, it’s definitely original and unique, and those qualities go a long way.

4 out of 5

Colossal is available on Netflix UK as of this month.

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.

Battle at Big Rock (2019)

2019 #127a
Colin Trevorrow | 9 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English

Battle at Big Rock

Surprised-announced by co-writer/director Colin Trevorrow on Twitter just a week ago (although, reading about it after the fact, it seems dedicated fans were already aware something was coming thanks to that regular modern blockbuster spoiler source: action figures), Battle at Big Rock is a short film entry in the Jurassic Park/World franchise, which premiered on the US FX channel on Sunday night (early Monday morning for us Brits) and is now on YouTube.

Set one year on from the cliffhanger-ish ending to the last film, Fallen Kingdom, this short presents a vignette in the Jurassic world that will help bridge the gap between the previous feature and 2021’s third/sixth instalment. But aside from that large franchise-minded goal, it’s also a chance to see some different characters have a different kind of encounter within the films’ universe.

Well, I say “different” — dinosaurs fight dinosaurs until humans are caught in the crosshairs, then a big toothy dinosaur goes after said humans. The real difference is that this happens to just an ordinary family out on an ordinary camping trip in California, not people who’ve chosen to go to a remote island filled with giant prehistoric lizards. Of course, they’ve decided to go camping in a region where it’s known a bunch of the aforementioned giant prehistoric lizards escaped a year ago and might be roaming about, but whatcha gonna do? When you gotta go camping you gotta go camping, I guess. Also, they’re not white, which is a notable characteristic in this franchise, unfortunately. (That lack of representation across five feature-length movies is hardly rectified by one short, but I’m certain it was part of the intention.)

A family-sized snack

What Battle at Big Rock lacks in originality it makes up for with brevity. This is a concise hit of dino action, cramming many of the franchise’s familiar thrills into a sub-nine-minute package. It also looks great for a short film. Yeah, sure, it still has the backing of Universal Studios — this isn’t exactly an indie production — but it’s not got the full weight of a theatrically-released blockbuster behind it, either. Nonetheless, it manages to include two species of dinosaur, one achieved via a mixture of CGI and a genuine animatronic, and adventure-movie set-piece-level action. It all looks mighty pretty too, although the nighttime fire-lit photography is no doubt partially about hiding the budgetary limitations.

Indeed, the film’s production is possibly its most impressive aspect. It was actually shot back in 2018, so they’ve kept it hush-hush for the best part of a year. And it can’t be easy to keep quiet a film shot on location, and outside of moviemaking’s usual stomping grounds, in Ireland, where apparently there’s a grove of trees that look exactly like a North Californian national park. Presumably the real deal was a no-go because they’d’ve been spotted even more easily there; but, equally, you’d think a big American production team rocking up in Ireland would attract attention — especially when they had a giant animatronic dinosaur in tow. Maybe the locals just presumed it was Game of Thrones

Anyway, the end result is a success, both as a little burst of dinosaur action for those of us who enjoy such hijinks, and as a tease for events we’ll see in the franchise’s next major instalment. Rumour has it the short’s budget spiralled beyond the limits Universal originally set, but, considering the ill-will generated by the underwhelming Fallen Kingdom, I’m sure they’ll consider audience’s re-stoked interest (a sentiment I’ve seen expressed repeatedly across social media today) to have been a worthwhile investment.

4 out of 5

Battle at Big Rock is available on YouTube.