Victoria & Abdul (2017)

2018 #52
Stephen Frears | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English, Urdu & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

Victoria & Abdul

Returning to the role that earnt her first Oscar nomination, Dame Judi Dench stars as an even older Queen Victoria, who once again gets involved in a friendship with a foreign servant to the exasperation of those around her. If it wasn’t based on a true story, the similarities to Mrs Brown would make Victoria & Abdul look like a slipshod copycat sequel. Okay, this isn’t technically a sequel, but the similarities can’t be ignored.

Where the earlier film aimed for dramatic weight as a portrait of a grieving and isolated monarch finding human connection again, here the goal seems to be more comedic. Perhaps. I mean, if often shoots for funny, but it’s not funny enough to be an outright comedy. At other times it’s more straightforwardly dramatic, especially as it gets towards the end, but there’s a nagging sensation that the facts have been bent to fit the expected shape of the narrative. The film begins with a card that says it’s “based on real events… mostly”, which feels a little too comical for a heritage drama such as this, and was perhaps more intended it as a “get out of jail free” card for its historical accuracy. (I don’t know what the facts are, mind, so I can’t vouch for or condemn the film’s faithfulness to them.)

Turns out we are very much amused

Dench is very good, as you’d expect. The rest of the cast don’t get to deliver as much range, but they’re a quality bunch of performers and so are easily up to what they’re given. It’s also as pretty a production as you’d expect, with Oscar-nominated makeup and costumes, plus opulent production design and grand location choices, all shown off by Danny Cohen’s pleasant cinematography.

I read someone else assess that it’s not as good as its individual parts, and I think that’s fair. Most of the scenes, moments, and performances are strong — there are notably funny bits, dramatic bits, emotional bits; even unexpected complications in how it handles some of the characters — but when it’s all put together, it doesn’t quite coalesce. If you think you’re the kind of person who’d enjoy this movie, there’s every chance it will please you no end. Otherwise, while it does have definite qualities, it doesn’t do quite enough to transcend its trappings.

3 out of 5

Victoria & Abdul is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Steve Jobs (2015)

2016 #109
Danny Boyle | 122 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Steve JobsWritten by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, with a name cast and plenty of awards buzz, this biopic of the eponymous tech genius was an inexplicable box office flop on its release last year — proof if proof were needed that box office does not equal quality, because I thought it was thoroughly excellent.

Rather than taking the usual route of telling a whole life story, Sorkin’s screenplay drops in on Jobs (Michael Fassbender) at three key product launches: the original Apple Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. At each one he battles personal and professional issues while surrounded by the same group of people, including marketing exec and Jobs’ right-hand-woman Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet); sidelined Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen); Jobs’ mentor turned friend turned nemesis, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels); and the mother of Jobs’ alleged child, Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston).

First off, I don’t know how historically accurate it is. Some say it demonises Jobs; some say it lets Sculley off for his crimes. Whatever the truth, this presentation makes for a damn good story. It’s both inherently cinematic and easy to imagine as a stageplay — quite some feat! In the latter camp, it takes place in a handful of locations with a limited, recurring cast. A few costume and make-up changes and you feel most of it could be reconfigured for the stage relatively easily. However, in favour of the former camp, the way Boyle has mounted the production is filmic to the hilt. This is especially discernible in the montages that help guide us from one time period to the next, or the cleverly-edited flashback-strewn confrontation between Jobs and Sculley at the end of act two. Sequences like that help define Steve Jobs’ greatness — it is a hair-raisingly good scene, with the writing, acting, directing, editing, score, everything, coming to a magnificent crescendo of sheer cinema.

Boyle’s decision to use different film formats for each section — 16mm, then 35mm, then digital HD — helps delineate the eras and, in a way, reflect the products being launched (though I’ll instantly concede that last point may be a bit of a stretch). I imagine it’s too technical a concern to be noticed by your average filmgoer, but I’m sure it must have a subtle effect; and for those of us who are so minded to spot the change, it’s kinda fun and effective. Shot by Alwin H. Küchler, each section has its own charm, from the warm fuzziness of 16mm, to the gloss of 35mm, to the precision of digital. This is a mighty fine looking film, and while modern tech meant the 1080p Amazon Video stream I was watching looked darn near Blu-ray quality, I’m still miffed I didn’t just go straight for the disc, because now I’m going to have to pay for it again at some point.

Throughout, Sorkin’s writing is awe-inducing, especially to anyone who’s ever dabbled in or dreamed of being a writer. The construction of it all, at every level — from line to line, from scene to scene, from act to act, across the whole piece… And this is a particularly magnificent construction, so precisely structured, rife with mirroring and repetition, and yet done so well that it doesn’t feel locked in to or constrained by an unwavering structure. I’d wager some viewers might not even notice how precise it is — I’m thinking, for example, of the order Steve has his primary meeting with each major supporting character in each of the three acts. There is an order, but it doesn’t feel like the film is bending over backwards to slavishly adhere to it — as I said, I’d wager many wouldn’t even notice.

The dialogue they’re delivering is so Sorkin. Rearrange character names and you could drop this into The West Wing or The Newsroom without batting an eyelid. That’s not to say Sorkin’s writing is samey, but he has a very specific style. I guess if you don’t like it then it must make his works a chore, but if you do, it can help elevate things that are in other ways wobbly (by which I mean swathes of The Newsroom, not Steve Jobs). It requires a cast that are up to the task, too, and he certainly has that here. Fassbender is the obvious stand-out, and Winslet is too often overshadowed by her variable accent, but even Rogen holds his own against the heavyweights around him. Daniels and Waterston may seem to have comparatively small roles, but they help carry much of the true dramatic weight opposite Fassbender.

It did cross my mind that perhaps I liked the film more than average because I’m a little bit of an Apple fan. I mean, I’m not a proper hardcore Apple fanboy, although my household does have in regular usage an iMac, a Macbook Air, an iPhone, two iPads, and two iPods… but the iPads are hand-me-downs, and I discarded a similarly-acquired Apple TV in favour of an Amazon Fire stick, and I certainly don’t upgrade that iPhone every year (in the device’s entire lifespan I’ve owned two). My point is: yes, I like Apple stuff, but I concluded that had no bearing on my opinion of the film. It’s not good because it’s about The God Of Apple or something; it’s good because the people who made it made a good film. It could be about Jeeve Sobs, co-founder of Banana and inventor of the Banana Wellington and the iWelly, and it would be… well, it would be silly if it used those names, but hopefully you get my point.

In a similar vein, I suspect it would make a great companion piece to The Social Network. I guess that’s an obvious point — they’re both biographical dramas written by Aaron Sorkin about tech geniuses with social problems who end up in legal disputes with former friends about their companies — but sometimes obvious companion pieces are obvious for a reason. What deeper things do they say about each other, or the wider world, especially our modern tech-obsessed age, when paired up? I don’t know; watch them back to back and find out.

Steve Jobs may fit the Sorkin template of “people stood in rooms and walking down corridors talking to each other very quickly and cleverly”, but when he’s firing on all cylinders it doesn’t matter that you can pigeonhole it if you must. Besides, with Danny Boyle’s hand on the directorial tiller and a quality cast to bring out the dramatic arcs between the posturing, the whole may not have added up to box office gold, but it is worth even more than the considerable sum of its parts.

5 out of 5

Steve Jobs premieres on Sky Cinema tonight and is available on demand now.

It placed 3rd on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The Theory of Everything (2014)

2015 #114
James Marsh | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Biopic of genius cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his wife/caregiver Jane, on whose memoir the film is based.

Felicity Jones gives a first-class performance as Jane, building genuine poignancy by being impeccably understated. Eddie Redmayne contorts himself into the form of Hawking with uncanny accuracy, a truly remarkable performance of a truly remarkable man.

Unfortunately, it’s an unremarkably-made film — not bad, just clichéd biopic. Occasional moments of filmmaking flair rub shoulders with bizarre choices, like dousing random sequences in extreme colour.

But the focus remains on the characters, and with people as extraordinary as these — Stephen and Jane both — that’s warranted.

4 out of 5

Behind the Candelabra (2013)

2015 #68
Steven Soderbergh | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | 15

Behind the CandelabraSteven Soderbergh’s supposed last-ever film (or, if you’re American, Steven Soderbergh’s first project after he supposedly quit film) is the story of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a young bisexual man in the ’70s who encounters famed flamboyant pianist Liberace (Michael Douglas) and ends up becoming his lover, which is just the start of a strange, tempestuous relationship.

Leading us into the uniquely bizarre world of the outrageous musician, Soderbergh keeps a sure grasp on the resultant drama/humour balance. If anything, the entertaining and well-received trailer makes the film look more outrageous than it is, distilling most of the best laughs into a two-minute burst. Indeed, some of the jokes play better in that form, rendered funnier by the focus and even tighter editing. Seen in full, the film is definitely more of a drama, just one about people so beyond the realm of ‘normal’ that it sometimes becomes laughable… and sometimes, tragic.

The cast are excellent. It’s a transformative performance by Michael Douglas, a committed turn with surprising layers, which is nothing short of absolutely brilliant. Matt Damon is no slouch either. His is a less showy performance, but Scott is a character that really develops as the film goes along, and not necessarily in ways that keep him the likeable ‘hero’. Among the rest of the cast, Rob Lowe is ultra-memorable as the creepily frozen-faced plastic surgeon.

LiberaceIt looks great, too. The film, that is, not Rob Lowe’s face. The design teams have realised an excellent recreation of the period, which is then lensed with spot-on glossy cinematography by DP ‘Peter Andrews’. Occasionally the film moves outside that heightened, shiny world into places odder and grubbier, with one shot of Liberace peering over the door of a porn shop private video booth (really) that’s particularly striking.

Even if it isn’t quite as amusing as the trailer promised, Behind the Candelabra has a lot else to offer as a drama about unusual people leading unusual lives.

4 out of 5

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

aka La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc / Jeanne d’Arc’s lidelse og død

2015 #69
Carl Th. Dreyer | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | France / silent (Danish) | PG

The Passion of Joan of ArcWidely regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time (look at the lists!), Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s French-produced silent movie depicts the last hours in the life of Joan of Arc (Falconetti), a nineteen-year-old who is on trial by the Church for claiming God instructed her to fight to free France from British rule. You probably know it doesn’t turn out well for her.

Such a summary, while not inaccurate, is almost disingenuous. “This is by all odds the least religious and least political Joan ever made,” write Jean and Dale D. Drum (in a piece included in the booklet accompanying Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray release), because Dreyer was explicitly not interested in the political or theological issues of the trial, which he felt were no longer relevant by the 20th Century. As he wrote in 1950, “I have tried to show that people in the medieval tragedy were, behind their historical costumes, people just as you and I are, caught up in the web of political and religious opinions and prejudices of the time.” With those religious and political issues set aside, Dreyer was instead focused on the universality of Joan’s experience as a human being. He was attempting to relate the tale — and, more importantly, the emotions — of a young woman sure of her convictions but persecuted for them.

Jeanne d'ArcDreyer based his telling on the written records of Joan’s trial. Although that’s grand for claims of historical accuracy, it’s hard to deny that silent cinema is ill-suited to thoroughly portraying something dialogue-heavy. There are many things silent film can — and, in this case, does — do very well indeed, but representing extensive verbal debate isn’t one of them. Bits where the judges argue amongst themselves — in silence, as far as the viewer is concerned — leave you longing to know what it is they’re so het up about. Sometimes it becomes clear from how events transpire; other times, not so much.

Dreyer’s faithfulness was not in aid of precisely representing what happened, however. For instance, the film takes place over a day or two, at most, while in reality Joan’s imprisonment, trial and execution took most of a year. Events were condensed so as to provide “a kind of bird’s-eye view, where all the unnecessary elements disappear” (Dreyer, quoted by Drum & Drum). This was partly in aid of what Dreyer described as “psychological realism”: rather than slavish fidelity to the facts of the era, it was about accurately and universally conveying the human experience.

According to Chris Marker (also in Masters of Cinema’s booklet), the aesthetic element of achieving this goal is one reason the film has endured so. Dreyer’s efforts to make the events seem ‘present’, as opposed to historical, works to make the film eternally present; they help it to transcend not only the 15th Century, but also the more recognisable trappings of “a silent-era movie”. The actors wear no make-up, perform in sparsely-decorated setsneutral costumes on sparsely-decorated sets, and are almost entirely shot in close-ups — all elements that avoid the usual grandiosity of historical movies, both in the silent era and since. What we perceive as being ‘grand’ changes over time (things that were once “epic” can become small scale in the face of increasing budgets, for instance); pure simplicity, however, does not age much.

The near-constant use of close-ups, in particular, is one of the film’s most renowned elements. Dreyer was inspired by D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, feeling this was an area film could excel in a way theatre obviously couldn’t. For Dreyer’s goal of giving us access to Joan’s very soul, it’s arguably the perfect medium — eyes are the window, and all that. This hinges on Falconetti’s acting. In her only major screen appearance, she delivers a performance that is still considered one of the greatest ever. It’s hard to pinpoint what she’s doing, but her wide eyes and almost crazed expression convey more subtlety than that sketched summary might imply. She is Joan, you feel, which again was Dreyer’s goal: he wanted his cast to inhabit their characters; to be them. He insisted the words from the trial record were spoken accurately (even though they obviously couldn’t be heard by the audience) and he built a whole 15th Century city set so that the actors might feel they were really there. As the film is shot largely in close-ups, that feels like a stupendous waste of money; and it led to the crew having to drill holes in walls and dig pits in the floor in order to get the shots Dreyer desired. But hey, whatever works.

JudgesThe actors playing the judges may be less individually memorable than Joan, but it’s their conflict — the personal battle between Joan and these men, as Dreyer saw it — that drives the film. Dreyer believed the judges felt genuine sympathy for Joan; that they did what they did not because of politics (they represented England, and she had led several successful campaigns against the Brits) but because of their devout belief in religious dogma. Dreyer says he tried to show this in the film, though it strikes me the judges still aren’t portrayed too kindly: they regularly seem contemptuous of Joan, and are outright duplicitous at times. Maybe that’s just religion for you.

Despite being one of the film’s most famed elements, Joan isn’t entirely constructed of close-ups. When Dreyer breaks free of such constraints, the dynamic camerawork on display transcends many people’s view of silent cinema. A swinging pan as maces are dropped from a window was a personal highlight, but there are some great, dramatic push-ins during the trial. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s the editing as well: it’s surprisingly fast-cut at times, and the use of montage for some sequences (particularly in the torture chamber and the epic climax) makes for stunning visual cinema.

Reportedly Dreyer’s preferred soundtrack was complete silence, which makes sense given his other aims and views on depicting realism rather than interpretation. That sounds a little like an endurance test, however, and so of course the film is usually presented with a score. In the US, it’s now routinely accompanied by Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light. Clearly it’s a noteworthy soundtrack because it feels like the vast majority of reviews and comments online make reference to it. Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray doesn’t include it, What's at stake?however, so I have no opinion. Instead, they offer two alternatives. On the correct-speed 20fps version, there’s a piano score by silent film composer Mie Yanashita. Apparently this is the only existing score set to 20fps, and Masters of Cinema spent so much restoring the picture that there was no money left to commission an original score. Personally, I don’t think they needed to. Yanashita’s is classically styled, which works best for the style of the film, and it heightens the mood of some sequences without being overly intrusive, by and large. Compared to Dreyer’s preferred viewing method, of course it affects the viewing experience — how could it not, when it marks out scenes (with pauses or a change of tone) and emphasises the feel of sequences (with changes in tempo, for instance). That’s what film music is for, really, so obviously that’s what it does. Would the film be purer in silence? Maybe. Better? That’s a matter of taste. This particular score is very good, though.

The Masters of Cinema disc also includes the film in a 24fps version, which is how it used to be presented most of the time (what with that being the standard speed for so long; it’s also the version Einhorn’s score was written for). I watched just the climax at that speed, and I’d agree with the scholarly consensus that it’s clearly running too fast. If it was the only version you knew, you might not notice; but in direct comparison, people are clearly moving unnaturally fast and the pacing of camera moves and edits feels off, like there’s not quite long enough to appreciate what you’re being shown. At 24fps the Blu-ray includes an avant-garde score by Loren Connors. It feels apocalyptic and so, in its own way, is somewhat appropriate, but it’s far too dissonant for my taste. I can’t imagine enduring it for the entire film, even at the commensurately shorter running time. Silent London’s review describes it as “tedious and barbaric… insensitive and intrusive”, and advises first-time viewers to “steer well clear.” I concur.

Close-upSome viewers describe how they’ve found The Passion of Joan of Arc to be moving, affecting, or life-changing on a par with a religious experience. I wouldn’t go that far, but then I’m not religious so perhaps not so easily swayed. As a dramatic, emotional, film-viewing experience, however, it is highly effective. As Dreyer wrote in 1950, “my film on Joan of Arc has incorrectly been called an avant-garde film, and it absolutely is not. It is not a film just for theoreticians of film, but a film of general interest for everyone and with a message for every open-minded human being.” A feat of visual storytelling unique to cinema, it struck me as an incredible movie, surprisingly accessible, and, nearly 90 years after it was made, timeless.

5 out of 5

The Passion of Joan of Arc was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 14th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Also of note: this is the 1,000th feature film review I’ve published. (For what it’s worth, 2015 #112 will be 100 Films #1000. I’ll probably reach that in August.)

Capote (2005)

2007 #61
Bennett Miller | 110 mins | DVD | 15 / R

CapoteIt is, unsurprisingly, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-winning lead performance that dominates this movie. While the title might suggest a biopic, the film actually concentrates on the five year period in which Truman Capote researched and wrote his non-fiction novel In Cold Blood.

While this process forms the structure of the plot, the title gives away what the movie is actually ‘about’ — in and around the mechanics of the murder investigation and Capote’s work process, it’s the character of the man, and how it’s affected, that is really revealed to the viewer (in a subtler way than my blatant highlighting of it here would suggest).

4 out of 5

The ‘other’ Truman Capote movie from the mid-noughties, Infamous, is on BBC Two tonight, Friday 5th June 2015, at 11:50pm.

Ray (2004)

2007 #50
Taylor Hackford | 146 mins | TV | 15 / PG-13

RayIt’s easy to see why Walk the Line has been described as “Ray with white people”; but Ray has also been described as being an outstanding performance in an average film, and I’d pretty much agree with this too.

Jamie Foxx is indeed an amazingly accurate Ray Charles (based on the little I know of the man, anyway) and deserving of his Oscar. It would be unfair to say such a performance is wasted in this film, but it is true that no other element is quite up to the same level.

While Ray is good, I personally thought Walk the Line was a better film.

4 out of 5

Ray is on ITV3 tonight, Sunday 19th April 2015, at 11:10pm.