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.

Snowpiercer (2013)

2018 #251
Bong Joon Ho | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | South Korea & Czech Republic / English & Korean | 15 / R

Snowpiercer

Before we knew about Harvey Weinstein’s real, vile crimes, his offences against cinema were already widely discussed. From manipulating the Oscars to re-editing foreign films himself before distribution, he’d managed to become powerful often at the expense of films themselves. Snowpiercer was another example: having acquired distribution rights while the movie was in production, Weinstein later insisted on severe cuts (reportedly 20 minutes) and changes (adding opening and closing monologues), but co-writer/director Bong Joon Ho refused. It was eventually released in the US uncut, but only on a limited number of screens, and the planned worldwide distribution either didn’t happen or was curtailed — I don’t know about other countries where Weinstein had the rights, but there was no UK release at all. But the downfall of Weinstein has seen the rights to various films shopped to other distributors, and so Snowpiercer finally made it onto Amazon Video in the UK last November, and as of this week is available to Netflix subscribers. For my part, I heard the good reviews back on its US release and, with no sign of it coming to the UK, imported the US Blu-ray when it came out in 2014; but, me being me, I only actually got round to watching it last year.

Based on the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer is set in the far future, after an apocalyptic event has left the world an arctic wasteland. What survives of humanity all live on the titular train, which constantly circles the planet. The rich people live in luxury at the front; the poor people live in squalor at the back. Numerous attempted uprisings by the lower class have failed, but, with nothing to lose but their shitty lives, they’re going to try again.

The War Doctor, Captain America, and Billy Elliot step aboard a train...

Yeah, it’s a pretty out-there, not-at-all-plausible premise, but just go with it and the film has rewards aplenty. If you want to get intellectual, the train’s societal structure and how it’s maintained offers an allegorical commentary about class divides and the interdependence of the oppressed and the oppressors. But if that sounds a bit heavy, the film wraps it up in a pulse-pounding action thriller, dressed up further with mysterious backstories ripe for exposing and an array of memorable performances, not least Tilda Swinton as a toothy commandant. So, it’s by turns seriously thought-provoking, outrageously hysterical, and wondrously exciting — there are several superbly staged action sequences as our heroes literally battle their way up the train.

It may’ve taken an unconscionably long time to reach our shores — but hey, what could be more British than a mega-train only turning up after a mega-delay? Unlike our shoddy rail service, however, Snowpiercer proves worth the wait

5 out of 5

Snowpiercer is available on Netflix UK now.

It placed 3rd on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018. I watched it as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Young Adam (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #100

Everyone has a past.
Everyone has a secret.

Country: UK & France
Language: English
Runtime: 98 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: NC-17 (uncut) | R (cut)

Original Release: 4th September 2003 (Netherlands)
UK Release: 26th September 2003
First Seen: DVD, c.2005

Stars
Ewan McGregor (Shallow Grave, Big Fish)
Tilda Swinton (Orlando, We Need to Talk About Kevin)
Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, Tyrannosaur)
Emily Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing, Match Point)

Director
David Mackenzie (Starred Up, Hell or High Water)

Screenwriter
David Mackenzie (The Last Great Wilderness, Hallam Foe)

Based on
Young Adam, a novel by Alexander Trocchi.

The Story
Joe is earning his keep helping transport coal on a barge between Glasgow and Edinburgh, spending his free time lusting after his employer’s wife, when he spots a woman’s dead body floating in the canal — something Joe knows more about than he lets on…

Our Hero
Joe is a young drifter, who’s wound up working on a barge with Les and Ella Gault and their son. He’s a horny bugger, sex obsessed to the point of distraction, which will have an effect on everyone’s lives.

Our Villain
It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say the film is a murder mystery — especially as it’s not clear if the woman was indeed murdered. But how did she die? How was Joe involved? He’s the main character, which makes him the hero, but is he actually a bad’un?

Best Supporting Character
Harried barge wife Ella is not anyone’s typical image of desirability, but nonetheless becomes the object of Joe’s own brand of affections, which brings her some happiness… for a while. Mainly, it’s a brilliant, layered performance by Tilda Swinton.

Memorable Quote
Joe: “Are you sorry?”
Ella: “Fat lot of good that would do me.”

Memorable Scene
Cathie, another of Joe’s lovers, comes home soaking wet. As she undresses, she berates him for doing nothing useful with his time. He informs he has made custard, which he throws over her, followed by various other condiments. Then there is, shall we say, an act with (at best) debatable consent. I believe this is a version of something called “sploshing” (thanks, internet).

Memorable Music
David Byrne’s ambient score haunts the soundtrack, as essential to the film’s grey mood as the drizzly Scottish locations and overcast photography. My favourite part is the plaintive closing song, The Great Western Road.

Awards
4 BAFTA Scotland Awards (Film, Actor in a Scottish Film (Ewan McGregor), Actress in a Scottish Film (Tilda Swinton), Director)
4 British Independent Film Award nominations (British Independent Film, Actor (Ewan McGregor), Actress (Tilda Swinton), Director)
3 Empire Awards nominations (British Film, British Actor (Ewan McGregor), British Actress (Emily Mortimer))

What the Critics Said
“Joe is a hard case. Opaque. Not tender, not good with the small talk. Around women, he has a certain intensity that informs them he plans to have sex with them, and it is up to them to agree or go away. He is not a rapist, but he has only one purpose in his mind, and some women find that intensity of focus to be exciting. It’s as if, at the same time, he cares nothing for them and can think only of them. […] He is not a murderer but a man unwilling to intervene, a man so detached, so cold, so willing to sacrifice others to his own convenience, that perhaps in his mind it occurs that he would feel better about the young woman’s death if he had actually, actively, killed her. Then at least he would know what he had done and would not find such emptiness when he looks inside himself. This is an almost Dostoyevskian study of a man brooding upon evil until it paralyzes him. […] The death of the girl and the plot surrounding it are handled not as a crime or a mystery but as an event that jars characters out of their fixed orbits. When you have a policy of behavior, a pose toward the world, that has hardened like concrete into who you are, it takes more than guilt to break you loose.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Score: 62%

What the Public Say
“McGregor, putting his meat and two veg on show once again, is really good as the conflicted and sex addict, Swinton does almost steal the show as the sex-craving barge woman, who also gets naked, and Mortimer in the flashbacks is very good, with her clothes off too. The film is just stuffed with sexual scenes, and with the dead body premise it combines film noir and melodrama, all adding up to a well crafted and most watchable period drama.” — Jackson Booth-Millard @ IMDb

Verdict

Part murder mystery, part beat character study, part erotic drama, Young Adam is an enigmatic, moody, conflicted film — in a good way. It presents a grimily realistic view of life and sex, around which writhes a murder mystery that, as it turns out, doesn’t contain a murder and, relatively quickly, isn’t much of a mystery. Instead it’s something of an ethical dilemma, presented to a character who’s not exactly unethical but isn’t necessarily concerned about doing what’s right either, especially if it’s against his own interests. Not a cheery one, then, but a film of grey morals, grey imagery, and grey mood — in a good way.

Next time… looking back over my 100 favourites.

Doctor Strange (2016)

2016 #169
Scott Derrickson | 115 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Doctor StrangeThe latest from Marvel (or Marvel Studios, as they’re now branded, presumably in a bid to differentiate themselves from the properties owned by other studios that have been only too keen to use the Marvel logo and blur the line for the casual moviegoer) opens the door on a new facet of their shared cinematic universe, though does so in a movie whose plot follows the familiar “superhero origin story” rulebook. On the bright side, Doctor Strange has several other qualities to recommend it.

It’s the story of Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant but cocky New York neurosurgeon, whose hands are ruined in an accident, taking his career — the sole focus of his life — with them. In search of groundbreaking healing, he travels to Nepal, where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) — not a doctor, but a mystic, who introduces him to the world of magic. Which in this case is real and not just, like, some Derren Brown stuff, because that wouldn’t make a very good superhero movie. Then there’s some stuff about evil sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who wants to destroy the world, blah blah blah.

So yes, the story is familiar — but you can say that about most superhero movies, especially origin films. It’s only a problem if you think movies are entirely about their plot. What Strange offers to accompany this through-the-motions narrative is its visuals, and oh, what visuals they are. You’ve likely seen some of it in the trailers — the folding cities, which look like Inception run through a kaleidoscope. Certainly, their complicated detail and intricacy leaves Nolan’s movie in the shade. The old idea of “an effects movie” — Wowzerswhere the incredible effects are half the point — seemed dead in an era where every movie has CGI and every blockbuster has its share of once-impossible visuals. Strange demonstrates the form can be alive and well. The way the effects are created — with green screen and pixels — is the same as any other movie, but the designs and the visual imagination are exciting.

The action scenes that are choreographed around and through these effects are suitably imaginative also, making use of the concepts and ideas of the magic, rather than just having people punch each other in front of swirly backgrounds. To say too much would be to spoil the movie, but the Inception-y stuff is not the film’s climax — it has several other tricks up its sleeve. There’s one bit where time flows backwards, which I specifically mention because at that point the music does a bit too, which is primarily notable because the rest of the score is your typical bland, generic, forgettable Marvel music. On the other hand, I’ve read others praise the music for being more memorable than Marvel’s usual temp-tracked output, so maybe I’m wrong.

When the film isn’t tickling your adrenal glands, it at least has the courtesy to sweeten the pill of its Superhero 101 storyline. For one thing it’s very funny, though in a way that doesn’t steal from the drama. This lightness of touch has become Marvel’s forte, and Strange handles it as well as any, without going all-out like Guardians of the Galaxy or half of anything starring Tony Stark.

Practical magicThen there’s the cast. Obviously keen to avoid being typecast after playing an arrogant British genius in both Sherlock and The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch here plays an arrogant American genius. Strange doesn’t have the charm of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, nor of some of his Marvel stablemates, like Tony Stark or Peter Quill, but his character arc takes that arrogance and transforms it into a kind of caring aloofness that, with flashes of dry wit, makes him an appealing character — even if it may take further films for that appeal to be fully realised.

Mads Mikkelsen is somewhat wasted as Marvel’s typically lightweight villain, though his inherent skill as an actor allows him to flesh out the few speeches he is given. You could expand that assessment out to most of the cast: they’re all above this — four of them are Oscar nominees or winners (clearly Mikkelsen has been overlooked by the Academy) — but the fact that quality flows through their veins helps elevate some of the material. You could argue their talent is wasted with this stuff, but what do you expect? It’s an action-adventure blockbuster from a company known for their consistently light tone — that’s never going to dig into proper emotive character drama. Suffice to say that such top-tier actors effortlessly add resonance to their roles, however little they had to work with on the page.

More controversial was Tilda Swinton’s casting. You could see it as whitewashing, or you could see it as dodging a racial stereotype — there’s a visual gag to that effect, in fact. “Oscar winners get bigger parts than Oscar nominees, okay?”Besides, one of the film’s best characters is of Asian ethnicity, so it kinda balances out. That’s Benedict Wong as the sorcerers’ librarian, who’s likely to emerge as the film’s most popular character. It helps that viewers aren’t likely to expect much of him. Conversely, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Rachel McAdams are seriously underserved, perhaps hoping for more meat in the no-doubt-intended sequel(s).

Actually, that’s an understatement, isn’t it? This is a Marvel movie, and one that’s garnered positive reviews thus far to boot — it’s going to be a box office success, and sequels will inevitably follow. Nonetheless, some reviews have been bizarrely keen to frame Strange as “Marvel’s greatest risk yet” and “a radical departure for the studio”. That’s all empty hyperbole at this point and I don’t know why they do it. Guardians of the Galaxy already proved that no change of genre is a risk for the studio — and Guardians was a much bigger change of form for Marvel than Strange is. Plus, the way Strange handles magic is no more out-there than the way it handled gods ‘n’ that in two Thor films. Indeed, if anything Strange should look like a moderately safe bet: it’s following in Thor’s footsteps with the whole magic/other worlds/dimensions thing, but married to a fairly standard superhero origin arc. It’s no riskier a proposition for Marvel than any other new property. Nonetheless, it does open up some tantalising possibilities, especially when it comes to teaming Strange with the Avengers… though they’ll have to find a way to remove some of his abilities, otherwise he’ll be far too powerful.

To further those connections, there are two end credits scenes. I shan’t spoil their contents, of course, but in my opinion they’re the wrong way round. One is basically Magic toucha teaser for another Marvel film, the other relates to the plot of the movie we’ve just seen. The former is first (and about 10% of my screening walked out before it came on) and the latter is, obviously, second (by which time about 90% had left). Those percentages ‘matter’ because, a) how do people not know Marvel’s rep for these scenes by this point?, and b) I think the scene related to the film you’ve just watched is the one that should be more attached to it, with the ‘teaser trailer’ being a fun bonus for those dedicated to stick around to the bitter end. But maybe that’s just me.

Much earlier in the movie, shortly after encountering the Ancient One, Strange is offered tea. He drinks it, then something amazing happens, and he asks what was in the tea. The Ancient One answers, “Just tea. With honey.” That line struck me because it rather sums up Doctor Strange as a movie. In its well-rehearsed superhero-origin-story-ness, it’s just tea; but the quality cast, the genuine laughs, the imaginatively choreographed action, and, most of all, the mind-bending visuals add a very pleasurable sweetness.

4 out of 5

Doctor Strange is in UK cinemas now, and is released in the US next month.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

2015 #20
Wes Anderson | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.37:1 + 1.85:1 + 2.35:1 | USA, UK & Germany / English | 15 / R

The Grand Budapest HotelThe latest from cult auteur Wes Anderson, which managed that rare feat of enduring from a March release to being an awards season contender, sees the peerless concierge of a magnificent mid-European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) accused of murdering a rich elderly guest (Tilda Swinton, caked in Oscar-winning prosthetics) and attempting to flee across the country to clear his name. More or less, anyway, because this is a Wes Anderson film and so it takes in all kinds of amusing asides, tangents, and recognisable cameos.

The film has the feel of an artisan confection: candy-coloured, precisely designed and constructed, sweetly enjoyable, but with a hidden bite. Something like that, anyway. There are many praises to sing along these lines. The visuals are the most obvious. As is apparent even from the trailer, the shot composition is tightly controlled, squared-off but using that formalism to its advantage in various ways. I don’t know if this is always Anderson’s style (this is only the second of his films that I’ve seen, but it was similarly employed in the other), but here it works in ways almost indefinable.

The performances are just as mannered, and equally as fantastic for similar reasons: they exist within very specific constraints, but then push at their boundaries. Fiennes displays a perhaps-surprising flair for comedy in the lead role. Apparently Johnny Depp was Anderson’s initial choice — thank goodness that didn’t happen! You can completely see Depp in the part, bringing his rote whimsy to it, but how much more entertaining it is to have Serious Actor Ralph Fiennes going somewhat against type, and playing the role beautifully too. A host of familiar faces turn up in supporting roles that display various degrees of individualistic eccentricity, and there’s no weak link, but Fiennes is the stand-out.

Not suspicious at allI suppose the kooky idiosyncrasies of Anderson’s brand of storytelling and filmmaking will rub some viewers up the wrong way, looking on it all as vacuous affectations signifying nothing. To each their own, but, whatever the merits (or not) of Anderson’s style as a kind of one-man genre played out across his oeuvre, The Grand Budapest Hotel displays a synthesis of contributing elements that creates a movie that’s ceaselessly inventive, surprising, amusing, and entirely entertaining.

5 out of 5

The Grand Budapest Hotel placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Burn After Reading (2008)

2010 #42
Joel & Ethan Coen | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R

Ah, the Coen Brothers! Those indie-mainstream praise-magnets that I’ve never particularly got on with. But then, perhaps I was just too young and under-read (or, rather, under-viewed) to get The Man Who Wasn’t There when I watched it; and I did like Fargo, even if I awarded it ‘only’ four stars; and I had a similar perspective on No Country for Old Men, though leaving if off my end-of-year top ten list when some have claimed it’s the only worthy Best Picture winner of the last decade may be seen as filmic blasphemy. (On the other hand, those claimants are wrong. Not very wrong, maybe, but still wrong.) Nonetheless, the rest of the pair’s ’80s and ’90s output (bar, for no particular reason, Raising Arizona) sits in my DVD collection waiting to be got round to… but first, this: their star-studded follow-up to No Country that seemed to disappoint so many. Probably because it was a comedy.

Turns out Burn After Reading is another film I don’t have much to say about. I liked it. It’s nothing like No Country for Old Men, other than being occasionally obtuse, but that’s the Coen’s style. Still, I’m sure No Country is the better — or Better — film, but in the same way I prefer eating a bacon cheeseburger to a pile of vegetables, I think I enjoyed watching Burn After Reading more. Or maybe eating a Chinese would be a better analogy — in the same way you’re hungry again not long after, Burn After Reading is kind of unsatisfying.

You see, as two minor characters observe at the end, we’ve learnt nothing. There’s been a sporadically complex set of coincidences and accidents, some good laughs and some surprises too, but the end result is… what? But maybe that’s the point. For the characters in the film, it’s a confusing mess of a situation they find themselves embroiled in — no one has the full picture, and most don’t properly comprehend the bit they do see. For the viewer, it’s a fun bit of nothing. Things have changed by the end, certainly — most notably, several people are dead — but the events that got us there are pretty quickly forgotten.

Perhaps this is the Coens’ response to No Country for Old Men — not intellectually or artistically, but as people and filmmakers: a break from the existential seriousness of their Best Picture winner with a romp-ish bit-of-nothing, which entertains well enough for the 90-something minutes it occupies our vision but is all but forgotten before the credits have finished rolling.

3 out of 5