The Boss Baby (2017)

2018 #12
Tom McGrath | 97 mins | download (HD+3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | U / PG

The Boss Baby

The Boss Baby was one of the top 20 highest grossing films of 2017, which earnt it a place on my ’50 Unseen’ list, thereby ensuring it would remain in my consciousness for as long as I referred to said list (i.e. for the rest of time). Then it went and got nominated for an Oscar too, displacing the likes of The LEGO Batman Movie and Ghibli heir Mary and the Witch’s Flower in the process. With those factors combined, I felt I had to witness it for myself. I chose to do so in 3D, to hopefully ameliorate at least some of the anticipated discomfort of watching the film itself. I needn’t have worried: despite what many people will tell you, I thought The Boss Baby was actually pretty good. Well, most of it.

It’s the story of Tim (voiced by Miles Bakshi and in narration by Tobey Maguire), a seven-year-old only child with a hyperactive imagination and two doting parents. But then a new baby arrives… As Tim’s parents’ affection shifts to their attention-demanding bundle of joy, he’s the only one who can see the truth: that the baby wears a suit, carries a briefcase, and is clearly a businessmanbaby on some kind of undercover mission. Obviously no one will listen to Tim, so he sets about exposing the truth.

Sibling rivalry

For all its daft humour, the reason The Boss Baby is so successful (for an adult viewer) is that it’s actually a really neat way of tackling the whole “sibling displaced by new baby” thing, from the kid’s point of view. That’s the thematic and subtextual meat that makes it more than just “wouldn’t it be funny if a baby was a businessman!” As part of this, it has a nice line in juxtaposing how an imaginative seven-year-old sees the world versus how it really is — showing us both Tim’s fantasies and the actual events they’ve launched off from. It allows the film to have exciting and kooky stuff (like talking business-babies and elaborate action scenes) while also remaining grounded. Watching in 3D heightens this further, incidentally: as with most computer-animated films, the 3D effect is generally pretty nice, but it really comes alive during the fantasy and action sequences.

If that all sounds oddly serious, it isn’t. Arguably best known nowadays for his Trump impersonations, Alec Baldwin is an obvious choice to voice an infantile businessman. This one’s actually competent, though, so Baldwin plays it straight and thus is dryly witty. There are also plenty of amusing visual gags, one-liners, and so on to fulfil the expected comedy remit. Okay, some don’t land or are a bit juvenile, but it is a kids’ movie after all.

Parents are so gullible

Unfortunately, what works in the early sections begins to go awry later on. By the third act it’s lost the connection to plausible reality that made Tim’s imagined versions such fun — it’s impossible to translate the OTT action we’re witnessing into what might be really happening. I know it sounds daft to talk about plausibility in a film about a baby who’s a businessman, but it’s the relationship between Tim’s fantasies (i.e. the business-baby stuff) and real-life (i.e. really he’s just a new baby) that makes the earlier parts work.

Arguably worst of all is the epilogue, which takes a very serious emotional issue (the loss of a baby) and tosses it aside to expedite the resolution the filmmakers want to reach. Maybe it’s a bit much to expect a kids’ movie to attempt to tackle the realities of losing a child, especially when it only introduces that element in its closing minutes, but then surely the solution is to not even go there; to find a better way to wrap up the story?

It’s this increasing lack of attentiveness that ultimately led me to give the film a 3 instead of a 4. If it had kept up the early quality through to the end, I likely would have looked more generously on it. Nonetheless, thanks to the bits that worked really well, I generally found the film to be a pleasant surprise.

3 out of 5

Spin-off TV series The Boss Baby: Back in Business is available on Netflix from today.

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The Silent Child (2017)

2018 #57a
Chris Overton | 20 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English & British Sign Language

The Silent Child

Oscar statue2018 Academy Awards
1 nomination — 1 win

Won: Best Live Action Short Film.


It’s not often you see short films screened in prime time slots on the nation’s biggest TV network — and by “not often” I mean “never” — but then it’s not often two former soap stars make a timely and affecting drama that wins an Oscar, either.

Such is the case with The Silent Child, which stars former Hollyoaks actress Rachel Shenton (who also wrote the screenplay) as social worker Joanne, who’s called in to help young deaf girl Libby (Maisie Sly) prepare to start school. Libby’s upper-middle-class parents (Rachel Fielding and Philip York) have clearly done nothing to help the child, too concerned with making her ‘normal’, and that’s left her obviously miserable. As Joanne begins to teach Libby sign language, she comes out of her skin and brightens up. But her mother remains unconvinced this is the right direction for her child, beginning to see Joanne as more of a threat than a help.

There’s a clear social-conscience motivation behind the creation of this film, highlighted by a downbeat ending that’s well calibrated to anger you into wanting change. It’s depressing that this isn’t set 50 years ago, but is the situation today. It seems hard to believe any parents would be so horrid and low-key abusive as Libby’s, but then I bet they voted Tory, so, y’know. Even then, the cold hard stats presented at the end are sobering. The cumulative effect is powerful and worthwhile.

Libby and Joanne

As a film, it’s well made. Director Chris Overton (Shenton’s partner, who also once appeared in Hollyoaks) and his DP Ali Farahani clearly have a good eye: despite the low budget, it’s often attractively shot, with a misty, cold beauty to its countryside locations. Overton has also managed to coax a charming, subtle, and surprisingly nuanced performance from young Maisie Sly. Shenton is also likeable as her well-meaning but hand-tied friend. Some of the supporting performances are a little ropier, but hey, when you’re making a short film for just £10,000, you get what you can. I’ve seen worse.

There are lots of little touches that suggest Shenton and Overton probably want to develop this into a feature film — hints at subplots, that kind of thing — and there’s definitely room for it to grow, too: while it does work as a piece in its own right, this doesn’t feel like the whole story. I’d be surprised if, after the Oscar success and chatter that’s followed (the film was among the top trends on Twitter for the entire night after its BBC One airing), that doesn’t happen. Certainly, it’d be nice to see things turn out a little more hopefully for little Libby.

4 out of 5

The Silent Child is available on BBC iPlayer until 29th April 2018.

The Past Month on TV #31

Murder abounds in this month’s reviews: Jessica Jones and Cormoran Strike are both on the trail of killers with a personal connection; Shetland’s top cop has deaths old and new on his hands; and Lucifer offers weekly homicide with a fantasy spin.

Meanwhile, the only thing getting murdered on Nailed It are the recipes.

Jessica Jones  Season 2
Jessica Jones season 2When the first season of Jessica Jones debuted 28 months ago it was practically a cultural phenomenon. Its fresh, unique take on the superhero genre marked it out as noteworthy even at a time when there are innumerable other films and series in that space. A large part of that was the intelligent and grounded way it engaged with some thorny issues, making it a critical darling and attracting audience admiration too. So I’ve been a little surprised that no one really seems to be talking about season two. Perhaps it’s just me and my little internet bubble, but since the flurry of pre-release reviews I’ve heard nary a whisper. I’m sure there must be reviews and recaps out there, which I wasn’t seeking out so as to avoid spoilers, but I didn’t stumble across any either.

Anyway, this season sees Jessica and co on the trail of the secretive medical organisation who gave her superpowers. I suppose saying any more than that might count as spoilers, depending on your point of view — they structure these seasons like novels, or long movies, meaning explaining the setup for the overall narrative can see you giving away things that don’t happen for three or four episodes. I mean, for example, in season one Kilgrave didn’t even appear until something like episode three or four, and wasn’t a major presence for another couple of episodes. A similar thing goes on this season. Some people criticise this form of storytelling on a fundamental level, wanting a more episodic approach, but it’s how these shows function — if you don’t approve of it, their very form will always offend you. You either give up on them, or take it at face value and roll with it. Sometimes it does make it feel like they’re moving too slowly, but there is a structure to the thing when viewed as a 13-hour whole.

It’s a worthwhile caveat to note that I watched the season in five multi-episode clumps over the course of five days. You definitely get a decent chunk of story when you watch several episodes back-to-back. It would play differently if spread more thinly, I’m certain, but whether that’s a negative (making everything feel slower) or a positive (allowing more time to process each beat of plot and character), I couldn’t say. Nonetheless, I would say that giving the pace a kick up the arse wouldn’t hurt.

This season's best thingAnd that’s not to say these series never work in episodic form. For instance, events at the start of episode five, AKA The Octopus, see Jessica begin to force herself to be a better person. It’s one of the season’s strongest episodes, in part because of this burst of character development. Okay, it’s a bit blunt, in that she’s told she needs to improve and we see her consciously trying, but it pays off in a scene where she has to be empathetic to question a mentally-impaired witness. It’s not only Jessica who benefits from development: supporting cast members like Malcolm, Trish, and Jeri get meaty subplots to tuck into. Jeri’s is the best — indeed, her storyline might be the strongest bit of the entire season. There’s a fantastic, nuanced performance from Carrie Anne Moss — it feels like they’ve really worked to make use of her in a storyline that’s far more emotional and nuanced than what she’s had previously in these shows.

Conversely, Trish’s storyline feels slapdash. She falls off the wagon… until she runs out of her new drug, after which she’s fine. Well, more or less, because then they make it all about how she’s envious of Jessica’s powers. That’s a fine thread to pull — it’s been there all along — but some of the steps she takes as a result… it feels a bit much. Fundamentally it’s a good idea for her subplot, but I’m not sure it’s been well enough executed.

As for the main story thread, although the season starts off in the mould of a superhero thriller (like most of these Netflix/Marvel shows), around the halfway mark it morphs into a family drama. A family drama where people have superpowers, and get shot, and debate the ethics of murder and running away to non-extradition countries, but, y’know, some families are unique. It also does the material the courtesy of digging into it. Several times the season reaches what looks like an ending, and in other shows would be, then pushes past it into what happens next; the psychological reality for these characters. That’s what the whole season is about, really: these characters as people, not as heroes or villains or whatever.

Heroes, villains, or just people?For me, it lost its way a bit again in the final pair of episodes — there are still really good bits, but others feel like a wearisome rehash of plot beats familiar from other superhero/thriller series. Eventually it comes to a good ending — there’s a surprising resolution to the plot, plus an epilogue that lays some intriguing hints for a third season (an inevitability, surely?) — but the faffery of episodes 12 and 13 to get us there… there were more streamlined ways to do this, I think. Or, considering the mandated episode count they have, more interesting ways to have spent the time. So it’s not perfect, but it’s still one of the best of the half-dozen Netflix/Marvel shows.

Strike  Career of Evil
Strike: Career of EvilThe latest Strike adaptation (and the last for at least a couple of years) was the best so far, I thought — a mysterious, reasonably complicated case, and plenty of character stuff for our likeable pair of heroes, too. The latter is certainly a big part of the series and its appeal, sometimes to the detriment of the actual investigation storyline, I suspect. By which I refer to the fact that some fans of the books have complained that the series isn’t devoting enough time to each adaptation, necessitating big cuts to the plot to fit into just two hours. I’ve not read them myself, and such editing didn’t feel noticeable during the first series, but Career of Evil did feel a little hurried at times. It’s hard to deny that the BBC have raced through their adaptations a little too fast. And now we have to wait goodness-knows-how-long to find out if Robin manages to stay married to her new husband. At the start I thought this would be a series that avoided the clichéd will-they-won’t-they between the male and female leads, but clearly it isn’t. Really, I don’t care too much if they get together or not, but her husband’s a bit of a dick and I look forward to her ditching him.

Shetland  Series 4
Shetland series 4In almost the polar opposite to Strike, Shetland is no longer based on the books that inspired it (even though I believe there are one or two they’ve not adapted), and it takes a whole six episodes to tell its story. Actually, I feel a bit daft calling Strike’s case “complicated” now, because it’s as nothing to this series of Shetland, which sees DI Perez and his team struggling with both a 23-year-old cold case, which has resurfaced because the convicted murderer has just been awarded a mistrial, and a new murder with clear echoes of the first. If that wasn’t enough, the investigation leads them to Norway, where both the suspicious activities of an oil drilling firm and the plotting of a far right nationalist group come into play. Shetland has always had a bit of Scandi Noir about it (must be something to do with the cold northern environs), but it strays even further into that territory by, you know, actually going there.

All this while dealing with the continued fallout of events from last series in a respectful, mature, understated, and relevant manner. It might look like “just a cop show”, but there’s some depth here; and when everything finally comes together and the truth is revealed in the final episode, there are some revelations and developments that really hit home — it’s sad and horrifying, without wallowing in it or going tonally overboard. Good news: a fifth series has already been commissioned.

Nailed It!  Season 1
Nailed It!Not a reality show about manicurists (that’s what it sounds like, doesn’t it? If I was making a reality show about manicurists I’d be annoyed this took my title), but rather Netflix’s answer to The Great British Bake Off (possibly literally: they were miffed they didn’t get a chance to bid for it when it went to Channel 4). It’s not about super-skilled amateur bakers, though, but rather normal folk who attempt the kind of grand bakes you sometimes see online… and fail miserably. It’s like that bit of An Extra Slice where they look at viewers’ photos, only turned into a whole programme. It’s also very American — brash, loud, fast, unnuanced… It’s also the way it’s shot and edited, very much more like American reality series than British ones, but I shan’t bore you with a Media Studies-esque explanation of that.

So, for all those kinds of reasons, the first episode nearly put me off, but I stuck with it and it turns out it’s quite fun once you get used to it. It’s not as nice as Bake Off, but they’re not mocking the contestants either. Sure, they want them to mess up (they’re given ludicrously tight deadlines and bloody hard bakes), but it’s in a spirit of fun. Another difference between the UK and US shows: on Bake Off taste and decoration are equally important, leaning towards the former; on Nailed It, they do taste the bakes, but all that really matters is how they look. I mean, if you could distill what the rest of us think of as Americanism into a baking show…

Lucifer  Season 1
LuciferHaving finally finished Castle last month, there was a gap in our viewing schedule for a light crime-of-the-week cop show. Lucifer seemed to fit the bill. For one thing, it’s been knocking around for a few years now, meaning there’s a nice backlog of episodes to get through. Loosely inspired by a DC comic, it’s about the actual Devil quitting Hell and setting up a life in Los Angeles, where — for one reason or another — he ends up helping the police investigate murders. Meanwhile, he enters therapy, and there’s an angel knocking around who wants to drag him back to Hell. The series nicely balances the bog-standard US-cop-show case-of-the-week stuff with the ongoing fantastical subplots, powered by a cast of engaging characters with conflicting motives. Best of all is the lead, Tom Ellis, giving a deliciously charming and slightly camp turn as the Prince of Darkness himself as he tries to become a better person. I’m not sure the series has really made any waves (especially on this side of the pond, what with it being an Amazon Prime exclusive here), but it’s really rather good. I mean, it’s not going to be challenging Quality TV for greatest-of-all-time status — it’s still a case-of-the-week buddy show when you boil it down — but it’s done well and a lot of fun.

Also watched…
  • The 90th Academy Awards — A solid but uneventful ceremony this year, I thought; a bit like everyone was playing it safe after last time.
  • Absentia Season 1 Episodes 7-10 — I was quite positive about this last month, but the second half of the series squandered my goodwill. It got a bit too daft, and the characters were too stupid (especially the husband). If it gets recommissioned I’m not sure I’ll bother.
  • The Great Stand Up To Cancer Bake Off Series 1 Episodes 1-3Bake Off’s channel change means it’s on its third charity, with its most unwieldy title yet. Watching celebrities fail at baking is still just as amusing though.
  • Not Going Out Series 9 Episodes 1-2 — Some people seem to write this sitcom off without a second thought, I guess because from the outside it looks a bit old-fashioned. Maybe it is. But it makes me laugh pretty consistently — what else do you want from a sitcom? Plus, this year’s second instalment, Escape Room, was a great bottle episode.

    Things to Catch Up On
    13 CommandmentsThis month, I have mostly been missing The X Files season 11, which finished earlier this week in the US (and comes to the same end here in the UK with a double-bill on Monday). I watched (and reviewed, natch) its first episode last month, but that was so uninspiring that I haven’t yet bothered to continue. I’m expecting the rest of the season to be an improvement (not that I’ve read any reviews — I’m just basing that on the show’s own form), but still, here we are. Other than that, I can’t think of anything new that I’ve missed; although I did happen to see an ad on Channel 4’s app for Belgian import 13 Commandments, which they reckon “makes Se7en look like Sesame Street”. As Se7en’s my favourite film, I feel I should give that a shot, but I don’t know when I’ll find time for its 13 episodes.

    Next month… Look away! Netflix’s vile family dramedy returns for a second series of Unfortunate Events.

  • La La Land (2016)

    2018 #10
    Damien Chazelle | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.55:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English | 12 / PG-13

    La La Land

    Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
    14 nominations — 6 wins

    Won: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Song (City of Stars), Best Production Design.
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Song (Audition (The Fools Who Dream)).

    Yes, I am very, very, exceptionally late to the party here. For example: whenever I watch a film I log it on Letterboxd, then have a scan through the ratings my ‘friends’ have given it, whether that’s just one other person or a few dozen. This had by far the highest number of ‘friends’ who’d already seen it that I’ve ever encountered. And it was on Letterboxd that I first encountered La La Land, in fact, when it started screening at festivals in the latter half of 2016 and everyone was raving about it. It was a must-see long before the Oscar buzz started to build, and obviously that only intensified the film’s reputation. It’s a lot of anticipation to heap upon one movie. Fortunately, La La Land can bear it.

    For anyone who’s even later to it than me, it’s the story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who encounter each other randomly, initially hate each other, but fall in love. Don’t worry, I haven’t spoilt the ending — there’s more story beyond that typical romance plotline. And much of it is told through the mediums of song and dance.

    Watching the best picture...

    La La Land isn’t “kind of a musical”, or “I suppose you could call it a musical”, or “a film with songs, a bit like a musical” — it is a Musical. And while the leads can’t really sing, that doesn’t stop there being some beltingly good numbers in it — though, for my money, the best either (a) don’t involve the leads at all, or (b) don’t involve singing. Coincidentally, two of those are the set pieces that bookend the film. The opener is a colourful stunner, a bright and breezy singalongathon on a gridlocked freeway, made even more enjoyable by being realised in a (faked) single-take. Related thought: I feel like we need to bring back done-for-real oners — people are faking them too easily and too often nowadays. Though, saying that, another particularly joyful sequence is the dance routine that adorns the poster. Its success lies in part with Gosling and Stone’s well-performed moves, but also, like the opening number, with how well shot it is. I assumed it was done on a set with some CGI’d backgrounds and probably some invisible cuts, but no, it was achieved on location, the shoot squeezed into the real ‘magic hour’ — actually a half-hour window — and is, I believe, a genuine single take.

    Now, the other bookend is (obviously) the ending. Well, I think they actually label it an epilogue, because its events occur after the main story; but an epilogue is an addendum, isn’t it?, and I reckon this final sequence is as vital as any other part of the film. It’s how the story really ends, and it’s an all-timer of a finale. That comes both from the tone it takes (no spoilers here, but see my Letterboxd comment) but also the sequence itself, a stunning marriage of visuals, soundtrack, and meaning — and I say this as someone who (for a pertinent example) disliked An American in Paris specifically because of its extended ballet bit at the end. Damien Chazelle well earned his Best Director Oscar.

    Finale

    Speaking of which, I must mention what went down at the Oscars. Well, not so much the snafu itself (though that made for great telly), but the ultimate result. I think there can be little doubt that Moonlight is a more significant film for our times, for all kinds of reasons, and it’s certainly a quality work of filmmaking in its own right, but La La Land is a more purely enjoyable cinematic experience, with just enough grit in the mix to stop it being too sappy. I don’t resent Moonlight its victory, but I’d’ve voted for this.

    5 out of 5

    The 2018 Academy Awards are handed out tonight from 1am GMT.

    Suicide Squad (2016)

    2016 #178
    David Ayer | 123 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Japanese & Spanish | 15 / PG-13

    Suicide Squad

    Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
    1 nomination — 1 win

    Won: Best Makeup and Hairstyling.


    The third movie in DC’s attempt at a shared cinematic universe always seemed like an odd choice — why adapt a minor title starring second- or third- (or even fourth-) string villains when you’ve yet to bring several of your better-known heroes to the screen? Then the trailers came out and the apparent darkly comical tone seemed to click with viewers. But apparently that wasn’t what the movie was like at all, so then the studio ordered reshoots and hired the trailer editing people to re-cut the whole movie.

    That did not end well.

    The final version of Suicide Squad definitely feels like a film that was messed around in post. I imagine the basic plot remains the same, however: sneaky government operative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) comes up with a Cunning Plan to use locked-up super-villains — including the likes of Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) — to undertake dangerous and/or secret missions, on the basis that these prisoners are totally expendable. Why would the villains agree? They don’t have a choice: little bombs in their head will go off if they don’t comply. Almost immediately after getting approval for her initiative, a crisis breaks out in Generic Skyscraper City that requires the Squad’s expertise — how handy! Meanwhile, the Joker (Jared Leto) is concocting a plan to free his girlfriend…

    Skwad!

    That there were editing tussles over Suicide Squad’s final cut becomes evident almost immediately: the way it introduces Deadshot and Harley before cutting to Waller pitching her plan is a little clunky, surely a re-ordering to get the big-name characters on screen ASAP, which becomes obvious when they’re later introduced again alongside the other candidates. However, it really goes awry when Waller’s pitch and introduction of the Enchantress is immediately followed by another meeting where Waller makes her pitch and introduces the Enchantress. Maybe the screenplay was that clunkingly constructed to begin with, or maybe they just made a ham-fisted job of the restructuring.

    On a shot-to-shot level the editing is fine, but various events aren’t allowed the necessary room to breathe, the endless character introductions are a jumble, the narrative is fitfully revealed, and the overall pace is a disaster. It’s easy to believe that it was cut by trailer editors because the pace and style with which it handles some sequences is reminiscent of the storytelling economy applied in trailers. Problem is, what works in a 120-second advertisement doesn’t in a 120-minute narrative. There are bits that are well put together — the occasional strong scene or impressive visual idea — but there’s a nagging awareness that someone felt the need to mess things around.

    And nobody messes with Amanda Waller

    Similarly, the use of songs on the soundtrack is scattershot. Some are eye-rollingly on the nose, while others seem chucked in at random, the apparent intent to be ‘quirky’ by throwing on discordant tracks. Parts of the film are the same, like Captain Boomerang’s pink unicorn: it’s a self-consciously Funny bit that’s deployed a couple of times early on and then completely disregarded. I mean, I’m not going to argue that the lack of reference to pink unicorns after the halfway point is Suicide Squad’s biggest flaw, but it’s indicative of its sloppy handling of material.

    Examples of this disjointedness are almost endless. Like, during the climax the squad have a specific plan to deal with Enchantress’ brother, who they are aware of thanks to earlier seeing him on a ‘spy boomerang’ (don’t ask). But when the big fella comes out, their reactions are all “who the hell is this?!” and “we’re in trouble now!” It’s not a major flaw, it just doesn’t quite make sense — and when that keeps happening, I’d say the cumulative effect is a problem.

    Suicide stars

    On the bright side, Margot Robbie and Will Smith work overtime to both make their characters function and bring some entertainment value to the film, and they largely succeed. Viola Davis makes for a great love-to-hate character as the endlessly cunning Waller. I don’t even dislike Jared Leto’s loony take on the Joker. The rest of the cast… well, okay, the less said about them the better. For one thing, there’s a lot of them, and some don’t even need to be there. Slipknot and Katana barely serve any function, for instance, and the film only emphasises this by giving them clumsily offhand introductions.

    There’s a definite sense that this version of Suicide Squad was created based on either audience feedback or the perception of what the audience wants, rather than what was actually designed to be the structure of the movie. It hasn’t worked. Scenes butt against each other in ways that surely wasn’t intended, and the longer it goes on the more it feels like bits and pieces have been dropped in or taken out all over the place. It is possible to restructure a film in post, especially when you have reshoots to smooth the joins, but Suicide Squad absolutely feels like the hash job it was reported to be. Its legacy will be the lesson of what happens when you attempt a last-minute chop-and-change re-cut.

    Theatrical Cut
    2 out of 5


    So, is the extended cut better?

    2016 #195a
    David Ayer | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English, Japanese & Spanish | 15

    Please sir, can I have some more?

    Well, firstly, this isn’t a Batman v Superman-esque situation, where the extended cut puts the film back together how it was originally meant to be and suddenly makes it work. This is exactly what it says on the tin: extended. It’s the same movie, with 13 extra minutes.

    I did enjoy it more on second viewing, but I’m not sure that was because of the new material. There’s extra stuff with Harley and the Joker, which feels like it’s been shoehorned in — but then, so did their scenes that were there before. The bar scene was one of the highlights of the theatrical cut and is improved by adding back some material that was only in the trailer. Otherwise, I suspect it’s just the rewatch factor, under which circumstances familiarity can allow the brain to make connections or invent explanations that the film may not contain, but through their existence (even if it’s just in your head) the film makes more sense. Even that doesn’t absolve all of Suicide Squad’s numerous faults, but it’s something.

    It’s still not a good movie, really, but at least second time round I (overall) enjoyed watching it.

    Extended Cut
    3 out of 5

    And finally, lest you ever forget…

    The Past Month on TV #15

    It’s been a busy old month in front of the TV here at 100 Films HQ, and I’m not even going to cover all of it (I find myself with nothing to say about the five episodes of Arrow and The Flash I watched this month). For some kind of semblance of order to what follows, it’s split into “new stuff” and “old stuff” (plus the usual “other stuff” and “missed stuff” at the end).

    24: Legacy (Season 1 Episodes 1-4)
    24: LegacyPreviously on Twenny-Four… There may be no Jack Bauer, the new font for the clock may be bizarrely wrong, and the on-screen text may have abandoned the familiar golden yellow for a soft blue, but everything else about Legacy is same old, same old. If you remember it from 24, it’s here: the suspicious bosses, the scheming associates, the moles, the people accused of doing something bad who are obviously going to be innocent, the heroes going rogue and having to sneak around under the noses of people who are probably good but can’t be trusted right now, the implausible use and abuse of real-time, the unrelated subplots that are obviously going to be related eventually… even CTU’s ringtone is the same. So too is how it’s directed: split screen is kind of baked into the format, but everything’s hand-held and shot as if people are being spied on. Once upon a time 24’s look was innovative, but that was over 15 years ago. It’s not quite dated looking yet, but it’s no longer slick and modern either. Much like the entire show, to be honest. It’s nothing new, and nor is it a return to form — it’s just more of the same, but without the old leading man. Personally I don’t miss Bauer all that much (for me the format was always the star), but I do lament the complete lack of any attempt at innovation.

    Broadchurch (Series 3 Episodes 1-3)
    Broadchurch series 3DI David Tennant and DS Olivia Colman (or whatever their characters are called) return after the much-criticised second series for a third run that represents a blazing return to form. Nearly every police drama on TV is always about murder, but here our committed coppers are faced with something that seems harder to prove, and all the more distressing and divisive for those involved: a sexual assault. The series was apparently put together with extensive advice from expert organisations, which means on occasion it almost tips a little too far into factual territory, like a “this is how it’s done in real life” dramatisation. Fortunately screenwriter Chris Chibnall is better than that, quickly focusing on how it affects the characters, and on building the mysteries that will fuel eight whole episodes. Suspicion abounds, but if Broadchurch’s first series proved anything it was that everyone can guess the culprit before the end without it undermining the effectiveness of the drama. I think we’re a ways from that point yet, though…

    The 89th Academy Awards
    The Oscars 2017Best. Oscars. Ever! Oh, I bet it was horrendous actually being there having to deal with that ending, but my goodness, as a viewer it was fantastic. It couldn’t’ve been more dramatic if you’d scripted it. Imagine how terrible it could have been, though — if Moonlight had been forced to cede the win to La La Land, for instance (that would’ve sent #OscarSoWhite into overdrive), or if it had been in a category with a sole winner, who in the middle of their no-doubt-tearful acceptance speech was informed they hadn’t won after all and had to embarrassedly hand the statuette over to someone else… But no, it turned out OK. Well, not so for the La La Land guys, but for everyone else, yeah. And the rest of the ceremony wasn’t half bad either. Jimmy Kimmel was the most confident and capable host for bloody ages (and I say that as someone who enjoyed the likes of Neil Patrick Harris and Hugh Jackman) — if the show’s producers know what’s good for them, he’ll be the new regular host.

    Luther (Series 4)
    Luther series 4The recent news that Fox have scrapped plans for a US remake of Luther (because they couldn’t find a lead actor good enough to replace Idris Elba) reminded me that I never got round to watching the original version’s last series, this two-parter that aired back in December 2015. I can see why feeling unable to cast anyone as engaging as Elba would lead them to abandon their remake, because there’s not all that much special about Luther outside of its lead. Some people talk about it as if it’s among the forefront of the Quality TV era that we’re currently blessed with, but that’s just a bit daft — much like the programme itself. It doesn’t know it’s daft — it’s all very serious — but it is daft, really. Sure it’s dark, and sometimes kinda scary, and certainly grim, but its realism quotient is way low. It has much more in common with the overblown heightened world of, say, Sherlock than it does with, say, Elba’s previous great TV drama, The Wire. Anyway, the fourth series (if you can call two episodes a series) continues in much the same vein, as Luther’s dragged away from a leave of absence to help track a cannibal serial killer, while also trying to ascertain who committed the supposed murder of his super-villain girlfriend. Yeah, what a grounded and gritty show this is. Still, if you can stomach its gory pessimism, it’s largely entertaining.

    Peaky Blinders (Series 1)
    Peaky BlindersI’ve been meaning to get round to this since it first aired back in 2013, and for whatever reason now was the time (partly it was brought to mind by writer Steven Knight’s new dark period drama, Taboo). For thems that don’t know, it’s the saga of the eponymous gang, who ruled the streets of Birmingham in 1919, and their plans for expansion into other forms of business, both legitimate and otherwise. There’s a compelling lead performance from Cillian Murphy as the gang’s feared war veteran leader, but he’s surrounded by a strong ensemble, including the likes of Helen McCrory as his formidable aunt, who ran the business while all the lads were off in the trenches, and Sam Neill as the Northern Irish copper sent to Brum to retrieve some stolen munitions. It functions by turns as both a gripping underworld thriller and character study of violent men, on both sides of the law. I hear future series are of even higher quality, which is something to look forward to indeed.

    Twin Peaks (Season 1)
    Twin Peaks season 1“She’s deadwrapped in plastic!” With those immortal words (not the first lines, but never mind) a TV phenomenon was born, and a whole new era of television slowly began. Buffy the Vampire Slayer turned 20 this month and the Guardian ran a piece on how it (not, say, The Sopranos or The Wire) was the birth of TV-as-art. I love Buffy, but c’mon — even if we limit ourselves to ongoing US network drama series, Twin Peaks definitely got there first. Leaving aside its place in TV history, it’s a mighty fine drama, with co-creator David Lynch operating at his most accessible, yet still undoubtedly odd, in a story of an ordinary-looking small town with innumerable dark secrets lurking just out of sight. It’s at times hilariously funny, nightmarishly scary, unashamedly trashy, and absolutely gripping. At least so far — season two is notoriously less-good. Well, I’ve never watched it before, so I’ll find out for myself next month.

    Also watched…
  • Death in Paradise Series 6 Episodes 7-8 — the first episodes with new lead Ardal O’Hanlon seemed divisive, but I like him. Hopefully next year they can come up with some fresh new plotting to match their fresh new star.
  • Elementary Season 5 Episodes 10-13 — by the end of this season there’ll be exactly twice as many episodes of Elementary as there are canonical Holmes stories.
  • Let’s Sing and Dance for Comic Relief Series 1 Episodes 1-2 — oh, no. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the format just isn’t as good as plain ol’ Let’s Dance for Comic Relief.

    Things to Catch Up On
    The Americans season 5This month, I have mostly been missing the penultimate season of The Americans, which is two episodes in Stateside (no idea if there’s still a UK broadcaster; at this point I’m not sure it matters). Long-time readers may recall I like to save up The Americans and watch it binge-ish-ly once the season ends, which is a very rewarding way to watch such an intricately-constructed programme. The downside is that means I’m still a couple of months away from getting to find out what happens this year in “the best drama on television”. I bet it’ll be good, though.

    66 days until new Twin Peaks

    Next month… the final Defender: Iron Fist is released tomorrow. I’ll review it next month (obviously — I mean, this is the “next month” section.) Also! The first episode of the new series of Doctor Who.

  • 100 Films @ 10: Best Picture Winners of the Past Decade

    It’s moviedom’s glitziest night of the year this evening, as the best and brightest of Hollywood and the wider movie world (well, some of it) gather in L.A. for the 89th Academy Awards — aka the Oscars! How many awards will La La Land win? How many anti-Trump speeches will there be? It’s all to play for!

    To mark the auspicious occasion, today’s celebratory top ten looks back over the last decade of Best Picture winners and asks, “which is the best Best Picture?” And ranks all the others too, because it wouldn’t be much of a top ten otherwise, would it?

    10
    No Country for Old Men

    I’ve long ago lost the source to cite it, but I once read a critic describe No Country as the only worthy Best Picture winner of that decade. Well, obviously I disagree. I have mixed feelings about the Coen brothers’ work most of the time, and this is no exception. I just find it a deeply unsatisfying film.
    What should have won? The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is better than either of the so-called Westerns that were nominated. But of the actual nominees? Maybe Atonement.

    9
    Birdman

    At least I found Birdman less expressly irritating than No Country, but it does frequently feel like it’s more concerned with showing off than… well, anything else. It’s obviously tailor-made to appeal to Oscar voters, particularly the dominant acting branch, so from that point of view it’s no surprise it won. Kind of sad the Oscars can be reduced to such observations, isn’t it?
    What should have won? A lot of people thought it should be Boyhood, which is a worthy pick, and Whiplash remains very popular, though my favourite of the nominees was The Grand Budapest Hotel.

    8
    The King’s Speech

    There’s an element of heritage drama to The King’s Speech that mean some will always find it inherently objectionable — generally cinephile types, while wider audiences love that kind of thing. I mean, how else to you explain Downton Abbey’s phenomenal success? King’s Speech works in spite of that thanks to its trio of lead performances, not least Colin Firth as the can-very-much-wait-to-be-King struggling with a stammer.
    What should have won? The Social Network. Fincher 4eva.

    7
    Slumdog Millionaire

    Maybe it’s rich of me to berate No Country for its reliance on fate and chance while elevating Slumdog up the list, but in the former it feels intrinsic while here it’s just a structural choice. I did object to its regular branding as “feel-good” though, because it’s a pretty grim film on the whole, but a strong cast of child actors and Danny Boyle’s lively direction keep it compelling.
    What should have won? Okay, I retract that “Fincher 4eva” — not Benjamin Button. I actually still haven’t seen any of the other nominees from 2008, so I guess Slumdog deserves it.

    6
    The Departed

    It must be almost ten whole years since I watched The Departed, and for most of that time I’ve been meaning to revisit it (and to see the original Hong Kong film that inspired it). I confess that my overriding memory isn’t really to do with the film itself and more to do with the fact I thought United 93 was better and more deserving of honours. But it was not to be — the stars had finally aligned for Scorsese. Anyway, The Departed should be my kind of movie, so maybe one day I’ll get round to re-watching it and it can escape that shadow. That’s why it’s only in the middle of this list.
    What should have won? United 93 wasn’t actually nominated for Picture, so… maybe Little Miss Sunshine?

    5
    Spotlight

    The most recent winner rejects filmmaking flash in favour of unfussy storytelling to relate the powerful tale of a group of journalists uncovering a huge cover-up and the wide-reaching conspiracy that maintained it — and it’s all true! Criticisms that Spotlight didn’t focus enough on the victims are probably misplaced: this isn’t a film about what the journalists uncovered, it’s about the act of the journalists uncovering it. In the era of so-called ‘fake news’, it’s more relevant than ever.
    What should have won? Either Mad Max: Fury Road or The Revenant would’ve been very worthy choices in my view.

    4
    Argo

    Ben Affleck’s spy thriller is an oddity in modern Oscar winners, what with it being an entertaining genre-ish movie rather than a worthy dramatic picture. It is a true story, though, so it ticks that box. Argo lacks the heft of most Great Movies, but makes up for it with some amusing Hollywood satire and tense undercover thrills.
    What should have won? From 2012’s nominees I’m torn between Django Unchained and Lincoln. The latter is more Oscar-y.

    3
    The Hurt Locker

    If we’re talking about tension, The Hurt Locker knocks Argo into a cocked hat. Well, what better situation to elicit nail-biting nervousness than a bomb disposal unit in a fraught war zone? What makes it more than just a series of exciting vignettes is the character throughline, where it meditates on the idea that some people can find war to be as addictive as a drug.
    What should have won? I was a big fan of Inglourious Basterds. This was the year District 9 was nominated, which I’ve still not seen, so maybe that?

    2
    The Artist

    A rare foreign winner at the Oscars… though it was backed by the Weinsteins and the brief bits of dialogue are in English, so it’s not that foreign (so that’s OK then!) The Artist is part tribute to the wonder of the silent era, part charming romantic comedy, and all an ode to the brilliance of Uggie the dog. I think it’s the most readily likeable winner of the last decade.
    What should have won? Well, I liked War Horse, but otherwise The Artist looks a pretty fair pick.

    1
    12 Years a Slave

    The powerful true story of an educated, respected, free black man who was abducted into slavery, 12 Years a Slave is obviously a tough movie in theme, but what makes it bearable is the quality of the filmmaking — particularly the great performances from the likes of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender, and the classical but effective direction of Steve McQueen. I don’t think it’s the best movie made in the last decade, but I think it’s probably the best one that won Best Picture.
    What should have won? 12 Years a Slave is great ‘n’ all, but, c’mon, Gravity.

    How many of those have found a spot on one of my year-end top tens?

    None.

    Tomorrow: great shorts.

    The Descendants (2011)

    2016 #57
    Alexander Payne | 110 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Comedy-drama starring George Clooney as a Hawaiian with family issues: his wife’s in a coma and may’ve been cheating; his daughters are unruly; and his extended family is considering a massive land sale that’s the talk of the islands.

    Though marred by heavy-handed voice-over exposition (it baffles me that it won a Best Screenplay Oscar), it’s lifted by strong performances from the daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) and Clooney, inverting his usual confident demeanour.

    I guess “wry observations of middle-aged men in crisis” are Payne’s stock-in-trade. This one’s amiable, though (writing with three months’ perspective) perhaps a tad forgettable.

    4 out of 5

    The Revenant (2015)

    2016 #103
    Alejandro G. Iñárritu | 156 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Hong Kong, Taiwan & Canada / English, Pawnee & French | 15 / R

    Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
    12 nominations — 3 wins

    Winner: Best Actor, Best Director, Best Cinematography.
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design.

    The Revenant is the Oscar-winning, acclaim-gathering story of Hugh Glass, the expert guide for a pelt-collecting group (is that what they are? Is that a thing?) in the Old West, who’s mauled by a bear to within an inch of his life. Eventually betrayed and left for dead by the members of the group who’d vowed to stay with him to the end, Glass somehow survives, and crawls across the wintery wilderness in search of his revenge! And it’s all the more remarkable for being based on a true story… though this retelling contains approximately as many “historical events that actually occurred” as does Game of Thrones.

    The main talking point of The Revenant has been Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, which finally bagged him an Oscar after four unsuccessful nominations (and I’m sure plenty of other roles that he thought might snag him some Academy recognition but didn’t). How much is it acting and how much was it just an endurance test that director Alejandro González Iñárritu subjected him to? Is there a difference? If you have to suffer for great art, Leo certainly did that. In some ways it’s testament to the Academy being able to look past delivery of dialogue as an indication of performance quality, because Glass doesn’t speak much — not when he’s in the company of others, and certainly not when he’s trying to get by on his lonesome, which he is for much of the film. Nonetheless, Leo conveys thoughts and emotions — which do go beyond, “I can’t believe Iñárritu is making me eat this raw liver” — effectively through expression and action.

    In some respects it’s a shame the rest of the cast were consequently overshadowed — Leo may spend a huge chunk of the film on his own, but there are frequent cutaways to what everyone else is up to. Tom Hardy is the obvious standout as selfish bastard Fitzgerald, a perfectly detestable but completely believable villain — I’m not saying we’d all sink to his depths, but I’m not convinced most of us are above some of the choices he makes, either. Will Poulter steps outside the comedy roles he’s mostly taken since his Son of Rambow debut to give an effective turn as the group’s youngest, most conflicted member, while Domhnall Gleeson is commanding as the group’s leader. Gleeson was something of a lucky charm last awards season, appearing in no fewer than four Oscar-nominated films, including two that were up for Best Picture. Not only that, but look at his turn here (as an honourable, disaster-struck Captain) alongside his appearances in those other films (a small town nice guy in Brooklyn; an inexperienced evil military commander in Star Wars; a naive, selfish, sort-of-moral, easily-led programmer in Ex Machina) and you can see the kid’s got range.

    Far from just an acting showcase, The Revenant is a film of thematic weight. In fact, it’s like an old-fashioned blockbuster — the kind of thing you’d’ve seen in the 1950s (epic revenge Western) or 1970s (bleak revenge Western) as among the year’s biggest movies — crossed with a slow-paced, scenery-loving, meditative arthouse piece. If it’s about anything (beyond, y’know, the plot), it’s surely about nature — both the amazing vastness of natural spaces, but also the brutality of survival. And not just humans, either, which is the go-to simplistic message (“isn’t nature good? aren’t humans bad?”) of such cod-thoughtful fare. Like the rest of nature, humanity is varied: there are some very harsh, cruel acts herein, but also acts of kindness — sometimes perpetrated by the same people.

    The avoidance of pat depictions extends to its portrayal of Native Americans, too. They’re neither simplistic Evil Foreigners, nor a “we’re so sorry for how we’ve treated them before, they’re great really” apologia. Instead, they’re just as brutal and as human as the rest of us, and made up of varied groups who behave differently, or even slaughter among themselves. The main band of Indians we see do serve as the film’s villains (as if Fitzgerald wasn’t bad enough), a hunting party acting out an inverted Searchers as they hunt for a kidnapped daughter. In The Searchers the group hunting and killing in search of a girl are the heroes; here, they’re the villains. Makes you think, don’t it? I’m not accusing Iñárritu of casual racism — I imagine that’s exactly their point.

    And speaking of Iñárritu, I wonder if this is his first genuine masterpiece. I didn’t care for 21 Grams or Babble, and Birdman was good but overrated. (In fairness, I’ve not seen Biutiful, which people seem to disregard nowadays, or Amores Perros, which is a rare foreign language film in the IMDb Top 250.) It seems like he was a nightmare during production — the budget was set at $60 million, but ultimately more than doubled to $135 million due to delays thanks to his production choices. In hindsight it looks like genius — “I knew it would be amazing so we kept going” — but if it had flopped, I’m sure an awful lot more would’ve been made of Inarritu’s excessively picky directorial style and fractious treatment of the crew, which apparently led Tom Hardy to try to strangle him…

    At the Oscars, I was pulling for Roger Deakins to make it 13th time lucky, or for Mad Max to do a technical sweep and take cinematography with it (not undeservedly); but having now actually seen Lubezki’s work on The Revenant, it’s hard to deny it’s an immensely deserving winner. His mastery of all elements of the form is on regular display: the use of light (all natural!), perspective, lenses, focus; the single-shot techniques he and Iñárritu learnt for Birdman are put to superior use here, creating some stunning sequences (rather than taking over the entire movie). It looks incredible on Blu-ray, too — so detailed, crisp, epic. If anything was going to convince me 4K was an idea worth investing in, it’s material like this. (The cost of a new TV, new Blu-ray player, re-buying films, and the real estate needed in the lounge for a screen big enough to appreciate it puts the other half me off again.)

    The film’s biggest flaw is that it goes on a bit too long in the middle. I’m not saying it needs to be a fast-paced thrill-ride, I just think it lingers a little longer than it needs to in places. Individual shots are beautiful, but the sheer volume of them stretches the centre part thin. There’s probably one too many action sequences where Indians attack and our hero has to escape, not least the one that ends in a too-obviously-CGI dive off a cliff. Equally, for every one of those there’s an incredible sequence, like the opening Indian attack. For a film that could easily be described as arthouse-y and thematically-driven, there are some truly stunning action scenes. The long middle means you couldn’t really call it “an action movie”, but focus on the first and last acts and it absolutely is.

    I slipped in the word “masterpiece” a few paragraphs back, and I’d wager that’s what The Revenant is. It’s not perfect, and I don’t know that I’d say it’s the best film of last year either; but it is magnificently made, telling its story in a way only cinema can truly manage.

    5 out of 5

    The Revenant is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK as of yesterday.

    It placed 4th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

    Of Human Bondage (1934)

    2016 #68
    John Cromwell | 83 mins | download (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

    W. Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage is, per Wikipedia, generally agreed to be his masterpiece, and regarded as one of the best English-language novels of the 20th Century. I’ve never read it, but I’m going to begin by recapping its plot (again courtesy of Wikipedia), the relevance of which will become clear after. Spoilers abound, should you be so concerned.

    So, Maugham’s novel tells the life story of Philip Carey, a boy with a club foot who is orphaned and sent to live with his aunt and uncle. They quickly dispatch him to boarding school, where he struggles to to fit in due to his disability. Although groomed for an Oxford education, Philip insists on travelling to Germany, where he eventually takes an apprenticeship. Again he fails to fit in, his co-workers resenting him for being a gentleman. On a business trip to Paris, he decides to quit his job and become an art student. A fellow student falls in love with him; he doesn’t realise, and she eventually commits suicide.

    (I know, you came here for a film review, not a plot summary, but bear with me.)

    Realising he’ll never make it as an artist, Philip returns to England, eventually deciding to enter medicine. While struggling as a student, he meets a waitress, Mildred, who he falls in love with. She leaves him heartbroken when she announces she’s marrying another man. Philip begins seeing an author, but when Mildred returns, pregnant and unmarried, he breaks off the relationship and begins to support Mildred. Despite his kindness, she falls for one of Philip’s friends and runs off with him. Later she returns, now a single mother, and Philip takes her in again. This time she makes advances on him, which he rejects, so she destroys his belongings and disappears. Eventually he meets her again, when she’s in search of his medical opinion. She has contracted syphilis from working as a prostitute, but rejects Philip’s advice to quit. Her ultimate fate remains unknown.

    (Nearly done…)

    Meanwhile, Philip is left penniless by poor investments, and unable to complete his education. He’s taken in by the family of a patient, who find him a job at a department store, which he hates, although his talent for art earns him a promotion. After his uncle dies, the inheritance Philip gains allows him to return to his medical tuition and finally become a doctor. He takes a temporary placement at a hospital, where a senior doctor takes a shine to him and offers a stake in his practice. Philip declines. On a summer holiday with the patient who took him in earlier, he meets one of the man’s daughters, Sally, who likes him. She winds up pregnant, so Philip abandons his plans to travel the world, deciding to marry her and accept the doctor’s partnership offer after all. It turns out the pregnancy was a false alarm, but he decides to settle down anyway.

    Phew! What a life.

    All of that plays out over 700 pages. How do you adapt it into an 80-minute movie? The answer, at least for RKO in the ’30s, is that you cut most of it out.

    The film begins in Paris, with Philip (Leslie Howard) being told he’ll never make it as an artist. He instantly decides to become a medical student, during which time he meets Mildred (Bette Davis). From there, the rest of the film follows the plot described in the second paragraph, albeit with some notable modifications (which I’ll come to later), with parts of the third paragraph (the patient, his daughter, abandoning travel for marriage) surfacing during the third act.

    As I said, I’ve never read the novel, but it strikes me this is less “an adaptation” and more “a partial adaptation”. I’m not sure how Maugham fans feel about that. Even more surprising, at least to me, is that it seems no one’s ever attempted a more faithful retelling. There were two more film adaptations, but the last of those was 52 years ago and, from a quick glance at some plot descriptions, it sounds more like they’re remakes of this film than fresh adaptations of the novel. Considering the book is so acclaimed, it’s a wonder someone like the BBC has never given it the miniseries treatment, especially considering it’s been so long since the last film.

    It would probably withstand a new treatment, too, because this version is not exactly highly acclaimed. Not that it’s a bad film, but there is only one real reason to watch it: Bette Davis, giving the performance that made her a star. She overcomes a terrible cockney accent (we’re talking Dick Van Dyke-level bad) to map out the sad decline of Mildred, starting out as a rude and dismissive waitress (it’s hard to see what Philip sees in her, but he’s a bit of a drip so we’re not exactly on his side), slipping to a struggling single mother desperately throwing herself at her one-time admirer, to a final terrible state: gaunt, dead-eyed, looking like she’s almost rotting away before our eyes. Maybe it’s not as gruesome as that sounds — this is a ’30s drama, not The Walking Dead — but it’s still striking.

    In the film it’s not syphilis that does for her, but tuberculosis, and prostitution is never mentioned, or even really alluded to. The changes were no doubt due to the infamous Production Code. (There are paintings of naked French women all over Philip’s apartment, though, but I guess that counts as Art. Sadly, there’s no meta-funny dialogue about painting anyone like one of his French girls.) Of Human Bondage is often labelled as a Pre-Code film — as coming from that narrow era between the Code being invented and anyone seriously bothering to apply it. The latter came about in 1934, when an amendment to the Code stated that any film released after July 1st 1934 had to receive a certificate of approval before it could be released. Of Human Bondage premiered on June 28th, which I guess is why it gets labelled a Pre-Code film, but it went on wide release from July 20th, so fell under the Code’s new remit after all. The print held by the Library of Congress (used for the US Blu-ray release) even has the Code certificate at the start (it’s #53, if you’re curious).

    Anyway, back to Mildred: her final degraded state is one of two parts that really mark Davis’ performance out. The other is a monologue delivered after Philip finally rejects her, a screaming force of nature that tears off the screen. Part of its effectiveness lies in the contrast to Davis’ work in the film up to that point, which has been calmer and emotionally reticent, her feelings concealed from Philip because, as it turns out, she has none for him. When she bursts forth with a tumult of fury, an explosive anger based in her lost ability to manipulate this weak man, it’s both a surprise and entirely expected of her selfish character.

    When Davis is off screen, it feels like the film is waiting for her to return. Her arc aside, it’s a take-it-or-leave-it damp squib of a drama — there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not all that engaging. Howard has definitely been better; his romance with Sally arrives too late to have much emotional weight, though it’s easy to believe he could fall in love with Frances Dee at first sight.

    More interesting than the plot of the film is the behind-the-scenes story, which brings us back round to Davis. At the time she was a contract player at Warner Bros, and feeling her career was going nowhere. Of Human Bondage had been rejected by some major actresses due to Mildred’s distinct unlikeability, but Davis saw it as an opportunity. She begged Jack L. Warner to lend her to RKO, which he resisted because he believed it would tarnish her image. However, he ultimately relented when Warners wanted an actress from RKO (Irene Dunne for Sweet Adeline, if you’re interested), and because he believed she would fail. Obviously that didn’t happen, much to the chagrin of Warner executives, who were embarrassed by one of their actresses having such success in a rival studio’s film. When there was talk of her winning an Oscar, Jack Warner began a campaign to discourage Academy members voting for her. At that time the vote counting was handled internally by the Academy itself, so Warner was able to get his way, successfully keeping her off the nominations. However, outrage by voters led to a write-in campaign. Davis ultimately placed third, but the effects were longer lasting: write-in votes were banned, and independent firm Price Waterhouse were hired to manage the voting next year — a job they still do today.

    That might make quite a good film, actually; the kind of thing that might win some Oscars…

    Award-winning or not, Davis’ performance is the main reason to watch Of Human Bondage. Maybe the novel is a great work, but the film is little more than adequate, with one exception. It may take a while to get past that accent, plus the addition of some dramatic fuel to allow Davis to catch light, but when she does it’s clear how this was a star-making turn.

    3 out of 5

    This review is part of the Bette Davis Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.