Oscars 2020: 1917

Posted on January 18th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

Sam Mendes’ one-take wonder arrives in cinemas with less fanfare than some Best Picture contenders, but it is a superb piece of immersive filmmaking which unites its some-might-say gimmick and its narrative into a single indivisible whole. On the surface, there’s little here that’s new. The whole movie in one take idea has been seen before in versions both genuine (Russian Ark, Lost in London) and faux (Birdman) but arguably never before has it been deployed so ingeniously and so effectively. And, while no-one needs Sam Mendes or anyone else to tell us again that war is hell, it’s rarely been so realistically hellish as it is here. The banality of the pointlessly slaughtered cows in the French countryside is somewhat the point.

The set-up is perfect in its simplicity. Our heroes (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, both totally committed and convincing) have to cross no man’s land and get a message to the Devonshire regiment that they are waking into a trap. That’s it. Early on, I wondered just where the drama was going to come from. Either the information our two have about the German withdrawal is correct, in which case they will meet no resistance; or it’s wrong, in which case they will be diced by machine gun fire in two minutes. Either way, there isn’t a story. But Mendes and fellow screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns have devised a remorselessly incremental series of obstacles which range from the purely natural, to collateral damage, to enemy action, to friendly fire.

And far from being a show-off-y gimmick, the supposed single shot presentation is vital. It means that there can be no cheating. As MacKay and Chapman set out, we’re going to watch every step they take, every breath they draw, every trap they blunder into, every adversity they triumph over. And when we desperately yearn to cut away, we can’t. There’s nothing to cut to.

In The Revenant, shot largely in long takes but including obvious cuts, several times I felt the style chafing against the story. As Iñárritu’s camera tracked along the length of a rifle barrel to move from one side of a conversation to another, I couldn’t help thinking – mate, you could just have cut there. Here, despite the overwhelming complexity of many of the set pieces, Mendes’ camera always seems to be in exactly the right place, and when something does move out of frame that in a conventionally-shot film, we would cut back to – the fact that it is out of frame becomes the point.

It’s also I think important to note that I never – and I use this word as precisely as I can – found the film exciting. Don’t misunderstand me. It’s never boring. It’s absorbing, terrifying, gut-wrenching, horrifying and suspenseful. But it never feels like a thrill ride. This is not James Bond. This is not Bourne. This feels real – even the parade of one-scene cameos can’t quite break the spell, although Benedict Cumberbatch comes close. Also, take a bow Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Mark Strong, Adrian Scarborough and Daniel Mays.

And there are moments of quiet beauty too. Hope, among the pain, and one moment which echoes the end of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. And if this film isn’t quite as cynical as that one, then maybe that’s for the good too.

If there’s any justice, this will win Best Picture. It’s more personal and more epic than its closest rival in my eyes, The Irishman, although the bookies currently have it tailing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and I haven’t seen Parasite yet. But if I had to vote tomorrow, this is what I’d pick.

So… what did I think of Orphan 55?

Posted on January 14th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

I’m writing these reviews out of a sense of obligation I think more than anything. Maybe Doctor Who under Chris Chibnall just isn’t for me. That’s fine, I suppose, if disappointing personally. But can there really be people who prefer this middle-of-the-road, joke-free, characterisation-deficient, third hand version of the show to the carefully crafted scripts and charismatic leads we got from 2005 to 2017?

Listen, under RTD and Steven Moffat, the show wasn’t consistently wonderful, but both showrunners worked like dogs to try and get every script as good as it could be. And if I thought that Moffat’s attempts at multi-season arcs weren’t always successful, then at least he was trying something new. And, sure we got drivel like Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS every so often, but we also got wonders like The Girl Who Waited, The Doctor’s Wife, Heaven Sent and The Zygon Inversion. And the run-of-the-mill stories were all good, entertaining, well-made sci-fi yarns.

But in a recent interview with DWM, the new showrunner describes the most exciting part of his job as hiring good people and getting out of their way. Not for him, rewriting and rewriting other people’s scripts, cannibalising ideas he was saving for himself if necessary to make sure that a script with someone else’s name on it would work. No. Write a few scripts, let other people write theirs. Knock off for an early lunch. Hence the only half-decent scripts last year were the ones without Chinball’s name on them.

Best of these was probably It Takes You Away by Ed Hime, one of only two stories last year (along with The Witchfinders) to present anything remotely resembling an actual character dealing with a genuine dilemma, as opposed to a lot of hard-to-pronounce names and endless walking. So, I was excited to see his name on the credits of Orphan 55, but sadly, this is square in the middle of Chibnall Who with all of its faults and none of the virtues of last year’s effort.

So – briefly – Graham, who over the last few months has been taken on a life-changing tour of the universe is bafflingly thrilled to have won a free holiday. The holiday camp is rigorously ordinary, with no hint of a larger universe, and nothing you wouldn’t find at Center Parcs, save for a ludicrous and embarrassing “hopper virus”. Customer host Hyph3n (who looks like she is performing in a community theatre version of Cats but had to make her own costume from a leftover Spaceballs outfit) delivers some exposition and everyone starts dying at the hands of monsters who are only ever shot in close-up shaky-cam because the costumes are shit.

As uninteresting and thinly-drawn guests start milling about, wandering in and out of danger, it eventually transpires that this holiday camp is in the middle of a dead planet. One of the guests has been taken by the monsters, so the surviving cast all troop outside to get slaughtered. They have to wear a stick-on piece of technology because this is Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who. And because it’s Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who, this piece of technology never impacts the plot in any way at all.

The missing guest everyone is looking for gets killed off-screen. Then it turns out – buh, buh buum – that this is actually Earth and the monsters are the remnants of humanity. This has approximately one tenth the emotional impact of Peri walking around Marble Arch tube (a place she almost certainly has never visited before) in the story The Trial of a Time Lord which a teenage Chibnall famously went on TV to slag off.

The compassionate Doctor has no interest in protecting the once-human monsters, but carries on cheerfully murdering them and getting other humans killed. A man who never listened to his smart-arse son starts listening to his smart-arse son, because that’s a little bit like character development if you squint. Somebody turns out to be somebody else’s daughter and blows everything up. Then the Doctor and friends suddenly appear back in the TARDIS because although the plot hasn’t resolved yet, the time is about to run out. Moral of the story – you should probably avoid single-use plastics.

I mean, Jesus.

I suppose this is worth two stars. I mean, things did actually happen which is a change from Rosa and Demons of the Punjab but if anything they’ve wildly over-corrected, stuffing this episode with so much “action” that it all becomes a meaningless blur. And again, nothing for the regulars to do; again, no supporting characters make any impact at all; again, all of the science fiction concepts are third hand; again, nothing really makes any sense. Even Jodie Whittaker looks like she’s going through the motions.

2 out of 5 stars

Oscars 2020: Nominations, Little Women

Posted on January 13th, 2020 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

So, we’ve barely finished singing Auld Lang Syne and already the Oscar nominations are here. Depressingly, Todd Philips’ empty Joker leads the way, with eleven nominations, but in a sign that the trend towards spreading the awards out evenly may continue, three other films earned ten nominations each (1917, The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and a further four earned six nominations.

Here’s a run-down of the nine Best Picture nominees – seven of which I have already seen at the time of writing!

Ford v Ferrari. Workmanlike and engaging, but definitely here to make up numbers. Will likely win nothing at all. Review here.

The Irishman. A huge achievement, if not quite Scorsese at his very best, then certainly enthralling and beautifully acted. Review here.

Joker. As noted, I didn’t like it. Review here.

Jojo Rabbit. Flawed both in concept and execution and yet frustratingly winning when it’s actually on. Scarlett Johansson is luminous. Review here.

Little Women. A remarkable adaptation of a literary classic. Review below. It’s a crime Greta Gerwig wasn’t included in Best Director.

Marriage Story. A somewhat slight affair that flirts with something darker and stranger, but remains resolutely real, for good or for ill. Review here. Has no real shot at Best Picture though. Review here.

1917. Seeing it soon, will report back.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Loose assembly of short films pretending to be a feature. Some of those short films are awfully good though. Apparently I neglected to review this when I saw it, for which apologies.

Parasite. Opens in the UK on 7 February.

As to predictions – my hunch is that Best Picture and Best Director will be split. Best Director seems likely to go Sam Mendes way, since 1917 is the film for which it is easiest to identify the director’s contribution. If we assume that eliminates 1917 from Best Picture, and we can also eliminated no-hopers like Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, Little Women, Marriage Story and Parasite (sorry) then that leaves us with just three. If we further assume that a Joker backlash is coming (surely!?) then that leaves Once Upon a Time and The Irishman, and I think Scorsese’s feels like the more substantial work.

Best Actor, tiresomely, will likely go to Joaquin Phoenix however – backlash or no backlash – and Best Actress I still think will go to Renee Zellweger, although the competition is far fiercer than I imagined when I first saw the film. Best Supporting Actor seems likely to go to Brad Pitt (Jonathan Pryce surely doesn’t have a chance and the others all have Oscars already). Best Supporting Actress is harder to call, with pretty much everyone in with a shout, but Johansson deserves it.

And we’ll do screenplays while we’re here. Original Screenplay will go to Parasite which will also pick up Best International Feature, obvs, while Adapted Screenplay should go to Little Women but will actually go to The Irishman.

So, let’s talk about Little Women. Louisa May Alcott’s novel was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. As written, it is purely chronological, beginning with sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy in adolescence and following them through to young adulthood (or the grave in Beth’s case). The book is fairly episodic and Jo’s marriage to the middle-aged Professor Bhaer is a curious development for the character.

According to the estimable YouTube channel BeKindRewind, which I cannot recommend highly enough, following the publication of the first volume, Alcott was besieged with correspondence from fans of the book, all eagerly shipping Jo and neighbour Laurie. Alcott, who had already paired oldest sister Meg up with her love match John Brooke, had no interest in marrying the strikingly independent Jo off to Laurie or anyone else, but she eventually bowed to pressure from her publisher and provided her with a husband. As cheeky snub to her fans, however, she devised the seemingly most inappropriate husband she could and ended the second volume with Jo and the Prof setting up a school together.

The previous film versions of the book have all rendered it fairly faithfully and have tackled the Bhaer problem in various ways. The 1933 version which made a star of Katharine Hepburn renders the book accurately if tersely and just goes ahead and has Professor Bhaer as an older German man who inexplicably falls in love with Jo and she with him. The 1949 version is an MGM chocolate box of a movie with a much softer June Allyson as Jo (although she still cries “Christopher Columbus!”) at every opportunity. This Bhaer is younger and sexier, but the structural problems remain.

When Winona Ryder took on Jo in 1994, the whole story became a little more grounded. This Jo isn’t anything like as stylised as her predecessors, but she’s also the most feminine of the three – Hepburn’s is an early but very obvious example of queer coding – and she gets to choose between Christian Bale’s Laurie and Gabriel Byrne’s Bhaer – hubbah hubbah. So, we have historical screwball, chocolate box, sophisticated soap opera. What can Greta Gerwig do in 2019?

Plenty.

First of all, she’s completely reinvented the book’s structure. Now, we start with Jo and Bhaer in New York, creating a connection between them from the very beginning. However, unlike in the book – and previous film versions – Bhaer is not the one to suggest that Jo writes stories from her own life instead of her preposterous tales of damsels in distress. Jo takes ownership of her own creativity. From here, the film darts nimbly back and forth through time, often finding little echoes of later and earlier scenes. In the book, Beth cares for a local family even more poverty stricken than her own, and catches scarlet fever from the dying baby. The Marches fear her death is imminent but she recovers, although permanently weakened. Later, she succumbs. This double-beat feels needlessly episodic and threatens to rob the whole subplot of its tragic power. Gerwig plays the two scenes of Jo awaking in Beth’s room and finding her bed empty and running downstairs back to back. Once with a joyous outcome, and once with a ghastly one. It unifies this narrative thread, taking what worked in the novel and making it a complete cinema experience.

This incredibly fluid, nimble, lucid script is brilliantly handled by an exceptional cast. Meryl Streep makes an enormous amount of hardly anything, Tracy Letts is great value as Jo’s publisher, Timothée Chalamet takes Laurie on a thrilling journey from trusted friend, to asshole to member of the family, and Laura Dern is warmth personified as Marmee. And the four March sisters are all perfectly cast, Eliza Scanlen as fragile Beth, Florence Pugh as proud Amy, Emma Watson as romantic Meg and at the centre of this delicate epic – fierce, funny, gawky, independent, heroic Saoirse Ronan as Jo.

Again and again, Gerwig the screenwriter finds ways to deepen and strengthen what Alcott gave her, as well as streamlining and focusing the action. Characters manage to give each other long proto-feminist speeches, and they all sound exactly in keeping and of the period, because they are delivered so sincerely and written so thoughtfully. And Gerwig the director manages to make keeping all of these characters in focus, keeping track of multiple time periods, juggling huge variations in tone, look effortless, which it absolutely isn’t.

While not perhaps as daring as Joker would like to think it is, or as technically formidable as 1917 undoubtedly is, this is a truly magical evocation of a much-loved classic which manages to totally reinvent it, while not losing sight of what made it so beloved in the first place. I can’t wait to see what Gerwig does next.

Pre-Oscars 2020: Jojo Rabbit and Ford v Ferrari

Posted on January 10th, 2020 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Two films this week which have been part of the Oscar conversation but which won’t necessarily clean up or even get Best Picture nominations. Both came out strong, but reviews haven’t been uniformly praiseworthy – Jojo Rabbit has proved to be divisive and Ford v Ferrari (released here as Le Mans 66) has left many lukewarm.

When I first heard about Ford v Ferrari, with Christian Bale and Matt Damon starring all I knew was that it was about some kind of car race. I vaguely assumed that it would be the two of them squaring off – one working for the Americans and one working for the Italians. Actually this is the two of them teaming up to take on the greasy Ities and win one for Ford, mom and Apple Pie.

James Mangold is an old pro and knows just how to marshal the material, balancing the corporate jockeying, pulse-pounding driving and mano-a-mano face-offs. He gives us just enough details about the intricacies of race rules, regulations and tactics without bogging us down, and Daman and especially Bale go to town with their characters. There’s a laudable attempt made to give Mrs Bale (Caitriona Balfe) more of a stake in the narrative, but apart from one loopy over-the-top scene about half way through, this is a boys film about boys who do boy things.

The true facts give Mangold and his screenwriters (including playwright Jez Butterworth) quite a lot to work with, and don’t require them to invite lots of new nonsense to juice up the story. But the demands of sports movies eventually take hold and this settles into a reassuringly familiar shape. So, this is well-made intelligent storytelling rather than anything truly innovative or authored.

The same can’t be said for Taika Waititi’s sixth film as director. Jojo Rabbit tells the story of ten-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, growing up in Nazi Germany practically friendless, save for an imaginary Adolf Hitler who dines on unicorns, keeps him company and encourages him to do more with his life. Over the course of the film, he tries and fails to make a name for himself in the Hitler youth and then has to confront the fact that his mother is harbouring a Jewish girl in the attic.

The first thing to say about this film is that it is tremendously charming and funny. Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo is very strong and he is ably supported by Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa and Archie Yates as Yorki. Sam Rockwell is as good as ever as the gone-to-seed Army officer in charge of the Hitler Youth camp and even broad performers like Stephen Merchant and Rebel Wilson don’t overbalance the whole thing. Waititi is great value too as Jojo’s imaginary Hitler, and even the Schindler’s List ploy of having German characters speak English with a German accent works most of the time.

There are two potential problems with this story. One is structural. Is it really necessary for Jojo to have two secret friends (or three, or even four, depending on how you count)? And it is striking that the film occasionally struggles to find room for Imaginary Hitler. Waititi’s version of the Fuhrer is such a prominent figure in the trailers, but he disappears from the film for large stretches and almost never affects the outcome of the narrative. What he does contribute is a whimsical tone which is supported by Jojo’s fascination with the true facts about Jews (all of which are grand guignol fantasies about their vile habits, evil powers and bizarre biology) and his mother’s playful attitude to bringing up her son.

The other problem is that the same whimsical tone is going to collide with the true facts of the Second World War. This is a version of the rise and defeat of the Nazis which never even mentions concentration camps, let alone depicts the fate of Jews who, unlike Elsa, did not have obliging mothers to conceal them in handy eaves. What exactly is Waititi hoping to say in this story that hasn’t been said before? World War II from a child’s point of view is hardly a new idea – see for example, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Hope and Glory, Empire of the Sun (all from 1987), Forbidden Games, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and no doubt many others. Is Waititi just borrowing the potent imagery of the Nazis to give his fantasy a bit more grit? And if so, is that a worthwhile endeavour?

It’s perhaps a testament to the quality of the filmmaking that I didn’t let many of these thoughts bother me at the time. The first half is hugely enjoyable and when, as it inevitably must, the story takes a darker turn, Waititi manages the shift in tone smoothly and compellingly. And I haven’t yet mentioned the film’s true secret weapon – luminous, incandescent Scarlett Johansson as Jojo’s mother. With this and Marriage Story, Johansson proves conclusively that there’s far more to her than Black Widow. Here she’s spectacular – dancing, inventing, playacting and filling Jojo’s life with love, compassion and imagination, and then she pulls back to a more internalised style for her conversations with Elsa. Far more than Waititi’s cartoonish Hitler, she gives this story its heart and its meaning.

Again this is an interesting film rather than a great one. It isn’t a crass fable which has no understanding of the horrors of the holocaust, but it also needs to soft-pedal a lot of the consequences of the Nazi regime in order to avoid breaking the spell, which means that it can only ever be a compromise. As compromises go, however, this one is highly entertaining and it does hang together.

More news on Monday after the nominations are officially announced.

So… what did I think of Spyfall, part two?

Posted on January 6th, 2020 in Culture | No Comments »

Okay, to begin with, this wasn’t a case of an epic build-up followed by a damp squib of a resolution. Part two continued to learn the lessons of Resolution with proper jeopardy, real stakes, and it actually made the Doctor a proactive problem-solver, all of which is good. But a lot of the same criticisms still apply. Characterisation is largely non-existent, the regulars are wasted and none of the bits of the story connect to each other in meaningful ways.

To begin with, in the whirl and dash of the episode, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the companions, who usually stand around parcelling out one character’s worth of dialogue between the three of them, have been shunted off into their own story for the entirety of the episode. From the moment we see them in that plane hanger (and just how did they get there?) to their reunion with the Doctor, nothing that they do impacts the main plot in the slightest. And much of what they are doing is fairly stupid. I pity poor Bradley Walsh having to hop up and down pretending that lasers are shooting out of his shoes. Christ almighty. And lucky for the three of them that when they do deliberately call attention to themselves, Lenny Henry, who wants nothing more than the three of them eliminated, sends the very feeblest force at this disposal to intercept them.

One of Chris Chibnall’s most frustrating faults is his habit of introducing potentially thrilling ideas and then forgetting about them instantly. Early in the episode, Lenny Henry’s mastery of all world communication is used to make Yas, Graham and the other one wanted by the police. How will their friends, their families, react to this? What repercussions will this have on the rest of their lives? For me, the new series of Doctor Who came alive when the Doctor brought Rose home a year later than intended. Her family were grieving. Mickey Smith was accused of her murder. This felt real. For Chris Chibnall, it’s a brief adrenalin rush and then it’s forgotten – despite the fact that we spent five boring minutes in part one establishing all of their families!!

And what was Lenny Henry’s plan exactly? First of all, judging by that interaction at the airport, he’s obviously trying to keep his nefarious plots as secret as possible. Crashing one of his private planes into the Essex countryside is hardly likely to do that. But also, massive emphasis is given to harvesting people’s private data. Yet, the Voord’s plan only requires that people use the devices. It doesn’t matter whether Lenny is harvesting their data or not. And if alien menaces using personal communications devices that have become ubiquitous to take over people’s brains sounds familiar, it’s because you saw it in 2006 in Rise of the Cybermen – in the era of MySpace and Napster.

Of course the Voord’s plan doesn’t make any sense either. Humans are not the only things on planet Earth with DNA. The Voord could use DNA in trees for their data back-up. And just where is this data coming from anyway? Have the filled up some other planet’s biostorage already? And what’s in it for Lenny, whose only desire is to control people’s data, be rich and famous, and show off to his mum. Turning the majority of humans into flash drives prevents him from doing any of these things.

The Doctor meanwhile is off playing Overlooked Women of History Top Trumps and while it’s a pleasure to see Ada Lovelace and Noor Khan, again they aren’t really given anything much to do – certainly nothing which requires their unique talents. As with part one, it’s Sacha Dhawan who is the saving grace of the episode. The set piece in the 1834 tech fair is genuinely gripping, brutal and exciting. Shame that later on, we get one of those dreary Chibnall parlay scenes, where the Master seemingly forgets that top of his to-do list for the day was to kill the Doctor.

And speaking of forgetting, I did not like the Doctor mind-raping her allies once their usefulness was at an end. Has she never heard of consent? Ada was actually saying “No, I don’t want this.” Jesus.

When everyone is reunited, it turns out that the Doctor’s plan to save her fam was – again – to bribe the architect first. When he isn’t half-remembering better RTD stories from 2006, Chibnall is half-remembering ideas that Steven Moffat thought were so played-out as to be worth spoofing in 1999. And then we get the dreary notion that Gallifrey, once lost, then found, has been lost again. When, at the end of Gridlock, the Doctor tells Martha about his home for the first time, it’s because meeting a new companion had meant that for a moment he could pretend to himself that Gallifrey was still there, that the Time War had never happened. Even though the vocabulary is made up science fiction words, the emotions are real. When Jodie Whittaker plays the same scene at the end of Spyfall, there’s no context for it, there’s nothing to hang on to. We’re just expected to punch the air because Chibnall remembered “Kasterborous” from The Pyramids of Mars and the Timeless Child from his own The Ghost Monument.

Of course, if the Doctor did have access to Lenny Henry’s plane whenever she wished, then it might have been more straightforward to disable the bomb the same way that she disabled the Voord’s back-up system. And what the hell was the Master doing for all that time? Having a nap? Why??? It’s also a shame that the Doctor’s new togs are two sizes too big for her, which again makes this feel like a fan-made Youtube video starring a precocious child wearing her dad’s clothes.

I guess this is worth another three stars – for Jodie Whittaker and Bradley Walsh, definitely for Sacha Dhawan (even if this is just the John Simm master again), for the energy and punch of the direction (this time from Lee Haven Jones instead of Jamie Magnus Stone, odd) and the scene in the exhibition. But I fear it’s going to be a long old season…

3 out of 5 stars

So… what did I think of Spyfall, Part One?

Posted on January 5th, 2020 in Culture | 1 Comment »

3 out of 5 stars

As regular readers may know, I wasn’t hugely impressed with Series 11. With only a handful of exceptions, this was a huge step back from the last Capaldi season, suffering from thin characterisation, jeopardy-free plotting, very few novel or exciting concepts, three poorly-defined regulars who stand around doing nothing and a general sense of “Will this do?”. Given the low episode count and lengthy wait, this was crushingly disappointing.

The New Year special managed to address some of these problems. The regulars remained poorly-defined and generally still stood around doing nothing, and the plotting was still relentlessly ordinary, but the reinvention of the Dalek was fun and exciting and there was at least some jeopardy. With another entire year off to get ready for the new season of again only ten episodes, Chibnall and co seemed primed for success.

What we got was… kind of a mess.

I think the biggest problem with the Chibnall era so far, of which much of the foregoing is symptomatic, is an inability to understand how Doctor Who stories typically work and an unwillingness to reinvent them. So, without a solid version of what has worked in the past and without a brand new methodology, what we’re left with is “isn’t that the kind of thing they used to do on Doctor Who?” But the pieces are assembled clumsily, without thought as to how they are meant to fit together.

So, here we have the Doctor working in cahoots with secret government organisations, facing death at the hands of familiar devices gone rogue, working to uncover the secrets of mysterious slayings and the return of an old foe but – with one notable exception – it comes across like teenage fan fiction, rather than the expert storytelling of a master craftsman.

The gulf in approach (and frankly ability) is nowhere better illustrated than in the trio of “where have you been” scenes early in the episode, re-establishing Yas, Graham and the other one. All three have one piece of information to impart and deliver it in the most straightforward, unambitious, mediocre way possible. There’s no twist, there’s no flair, there’s no surprise. There aren’t even any good jokes (in the whole episode). Can you imagine either of Chris Chibnall’s predecessors letting three whole scenes like that trundle tediously by?

And when the story proper starts, it’s more a series of largely unrelated action beats than anything resembling a narrative. The British government kidnaps the Doctor and her companions – more exciting than just phoning her up I suppose – but then it’s those very cars which are themselves (rather feebly) sabotaged by the alien menace. Why? Why doesn’t it attack when they’re out in the open? Why have two different unrelated forces both trying to overpower our heroes, and then put them together in the same vehicle? Why wait for Fancy Guest Star Number One to dole out pages of exposition before offing him also? What does any of it mean?

The alien menace which can execute anyone at anytime then takes most of the rest of the episode off, while the Doctor and co potter about meeting Fancy Guest Star Number Two and Waris Hussein (of whom more later) and the old familiar Chibnall aimless wandering takes over. There are some shreds of interest as the, let’s call them the Voord, circle the house in the Australian outback, but I struggled to find anything of interest in the by-the-numbers tech millionaire’s HQ. And once again, most of the companions stand around doing nothing. Rewrite this episode with Yas talking to Fancy Guest Star Number Two and the Doctor on her own in Australia. Same story isn’t it? And what’s the point of the magic death ray which doesn’t kill you, it just transports you to another place and then when that environment becomes too overwhelming, it transports you to yet another different place? The major threat in this story seems to be less a deadly threat, more a handy short-cut.

When the promised James Bond spoof starts, again it’s the clothes (literally) of the rival franchise which get appropriated rather than any understanding of its appeal and the bullet-spraying bike chase is more absurd than fun. Lost in the whirl of all of this was Jodie Whittaker, who is capable of far more than she was given to work with here. Chibnall writes her largely as generic hero, and occasionally as idiot comic relief. It’s not hugely inspiring.

Just when I was about to write this off as another two-star clunker however, something happened. I’ve rarely seen a supporting character with quite so big a bright neon “I am secretly evil” sign flashing above his head as Waris Hussein has here. But I almost forgot about that in the ridiculous ambition of the plane chase. By this stage, I’d long given up on the story actually making sense or being about anything, but I did appreciate the lengths the production team were going to.

But the reveal that Waris was actually the Master took me completely by surprise, and it’s a testament to the writing (I suppose) and the PR management that I was unspoilered by this. Waris – sorry Sacha Dhawan – is a marvellous actor and his loopy giggling was quite a treat. For that, and that alone, I’ll bump this episode up to three, but I’m still pretty glum about what’s happening to my favourite show. Come at me, haters.

Maybe tonight’s episode will redeem the story. But in general, part ones are easier to write than part twos so…

Pre-Oscars round-up: The Irishman, Marriage Story, Star Wars, Cats

Posted on December 23rd, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

WARNING: Spoilers

It’s that time of year again, when little boys and girls’ heads are filled with visions of sugar plums, stockings and awards. The Oscar nominations are being announced shockingly early this year – 13 January – so I need to get a move on if I want to maintain my record. Here are some films I’ve seen at the cinema over the last couple of weeks which may or may not be included in that announcement.

The Irishman

Scorsese’s long-awaited epic, reteaming him with DeNiro, putting Pacino under his tutelage for the first time and featuring an equally long-awaited return to the screen for Joe Pesci. Much of the advance word on this movie surrounded the (moderately) ground-breaking digital effects used to allow 70-something actors to play 30-something characters. By and large, this works, although there are a few shots in which those old bones can’t quite move with the vitality and grace which we’ve seen in earlier films.

Scorsese’s lengthy story with its complicated flashback-intercut-with-flashback structure follows the life of one Frank Sheeran, upon whose memoir I Heard You Paint Houses the movie is largely based. The film clocks in at 209 minutes which, given its Netflix pedigree, has led some commentators to suggest ways in which it could be sliced up into episodic chunks. Strange that we will binge countless episodes but baulk at a single long movie. I saw it at the Curzon in a single unbroken sitting and I was glad I did, because whereas some Scorsese films – notably The Wolf of Wall Street – succeed because they gather you up in whirlwind of cinematic energy, this one succeeds because it gradually draws you in. My overall feeling today is that I’m keen to see it again, because this is a film which doesn’t let on what it’s really about until very near the end – whereupon that complicated double flashback structure makes a lot more sense.

First time through, there’s much to admire but also much which feels samey. DeNiro kicking some poor bastard’s head in, in a fit of paternal rage feels achingly familiar, which is one reason why it’s so gratifying to see Pesci underplaying so effectively. When Pacino enters as Jimmy Hoffa, the film begins to spread its wings a little more, and the relationship between him and the remarkable Stephen Graham as Tony Pro is one of the highlights of the middle of the movie.

It’s the final half hour or so which lingers with me though, where – unlike, say the ending of Goodfellas – the true cost of Sheeran’s lifestyle is seen with bleak pathos. It’s a sombre (although there are some good laughs), meditative film which is at once a Scorsese greatest hits package and at the same time, quite unlike anything he’s made before.

Marriage Story

I think I know Noah Baumbach best as Mr Greta Gerwig. I remember really enjoying Frances Ha which Baumbach directed and they wrote together. I think I saw Margot at the Wedding as part of a New Year’s Eve staycation movie marathon. I can’t remember much about it. I didn’t like Fantastic Mr Fox. I haven’t seen The Squid and the Whale.

But, just as Gerwig is having her moment with Lady Bird and now Little Women, Mr Gerwig isn’t content to rest on his laurels and has assembled a truly heavyweight pairing to lend Oscar buzz and indie-pro credibility to his latest tragi-comedy, this time about divorce. I sat down to watch this with very high expectations (weirdly, higher than for The Irishman, I think) and left with rather mixed feelings. Let’s begin with a few things I didn’t like.

“Write what you know,” isn’t bad advice but it can lead to novels like those by John Irving which all feature novelists as their principal characters. Likewise, it slightly annoyed me that New York based movie writer-director Baumbach has chosen to make his New York based protagonists a theatre director and a movie/TV actor. It all feels a bit inside-baseball at times. The choice of professions, while it doesn’t help an awful lot (and it will hinder – see later), does set up the neat dichotomy which faces them when their marriage starts to fall apart just when Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is returning to LA to take a job on a new TV show. As far as she is concerned, they are an LA based family who have completed a stint in New York. As far as husband Charlie (Adam Driver) is concerned, they are a New York based family who met in LA, and Nicole will be back home soon. Thus, the stage is set for a divorce which only gets more complicated, painful and expensive as the process continues.

Having agreed not to use lawyers, the couple end up with the good, the bad, and the ugly of the legal profession, played with relish but never extravagance by an amazing trio of Hollywood’s finest – Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta. It probably goes without saying, although it probably shouldn’t, that the acting from all the leads is exemplary. Driver and Johansson take the long dialogue scenes, full of agony and contradiction and black humour, and wring everything they can out of them with generosity and pinpoint accuracy. It’s a masterclass. And further down the credits, there are additional pleasures, notably Julie Haggerty (Airplane!) as Nicole’s mother and Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie) as Nicole’s sister.

What’s slightly frustrating is that the film keeps threatening to become something darker, weirder, colder, odder, but never quite goes there. Baumbach’s commitment to naturalism gives us a story which feels very authentic as far as it goes, but ultimately doesn’t quite seem to mean anything. Charlie and Nicole were married. Now they aren’t. Life goes on.

The other thing which drove me crazy was the inclusion, virtually back-to-back of two songs from Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical Company. Now, I adore this show and would happily be upstairs watching my Blu-ray copy of the production starring Neil Patrick Harris right now if I didn’t have this review to write. Watching Nicole and her family sing “You Could Drive A Person Crazy” at a family party is a) too cutesy, b) too on-the-nose and c) waaaay too long, but it’s bearable. What’s appalling is Adam Driver singing the climactic number “Being Alive” in a nightclub, complete with side-of-the-mouth asides from off-stage characters. At first, I wondered if this was going to be the last scene of the movie. Was Baumbach really going to help himself to a crescendo from another barely-related story as he struggled to end his own? But although it isn’t and he hasn’t, it still feels like he’s helping himself to someone else’s emotional catharsis and worse – in this era of Trump and Bannon – it comes across as a sort of ghastly unwitting parody of everything that’s wrong with peak hipster East Coast cultural snobs.

Now all that sounds way too harsh for a film I really enjoyed and would recommend, so let me end with a shout out to Azhy Robertson as Charlie and Nicole’s son who does everything asked of him, is never cutesy or mannered, and who consistently reminds us that children often suffer most when families break apart, but they won’t always be as angelic as we would want them to be.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Okay, on now to a couple of movies which will both be cultural landmarks for years to come but which are unlikely to feature very heavily in the top half of the Oscar ballot this year. It’s impossible to understand The Rise of Skywalker without understanding the story of its creation, for which we have to go back to 2012 and the sale of the Star Wars properties to Disney. Lucas’s own ideas for the third trilogy were rapidly abandoned, and the studio announced that the three films would be overseen by three different directors – JJ Abrams, Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow. While there was some talk of collaboration between these three, in practice it seemed like once one film was finished, the next team would take over, like a billion-dollar game of “Consequences”, with no overall plan in place.

People who enjoyed the first film in this cycle, 2015’s The Force Awakens, I think did so because it felt reassuringly familiar. After so much of the second cycle had felt so “off”, despite (or maybe because of) George Lucas’s singular vision guiding every aspect, here was a new film that had the texture of the old films. And while it wasn’t completely afraid to add new wrinkles (mutinous Storm Troopers, teenage-angst villains, a slightly different sense of humour) it followed the New Hope playbook pretty closely, with its Starkiller Base trying and failing to one-up the original Death Star.

Where it did succeed was in cutting ties to the original trilogy – the genuinely shocking death of Han, murdered by his own son – and in setting up tantalising plot threads for the rest of the cycle – Rey’s parentage, the role of Snoke, where Finn can find a role for himself, and the missing Luke Skywalker.

Perhaps, inevitably, when Rian Johnson took over, he had his own ideas about what he found interesting, and what he didn’t. His version of the saga feels very different – which is what some fans found so exciting about it and which turned others against it. I’m not as emotionally invested in Star Wars as I am in science fiction franchises, but for what it’s worth I found that the very slow chase across the galaxy stuff made zero sense, and you can delete everything that Finn and Rose do on Canto Bight without it affecting the story in the slightest – but I loved the stuff between Rey and Kylo Ren (Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver might be the best actors ever employed by the series – after Alec Guinness) and I think the final showdown outside the Resistance’s fortress might be my favourite sequence in the trilogy.

But in the meantime, Colin Trevorrow had been told that his services were no longer required and The Last Jedi had proved so controversial that – especially after the critical mauling dealt out to Solo – Disney wanted a safe pair of hands. JJ Abrams was rehired and put in an interesting position. Given that Film Two was almost certainly not the continuation of Film One that he would have made, casually disposing of unwanted plot threads in a rather cavalier manner, would Abrams do to Johnson what Johnson had done to him, and jettison any of Johnson’s ideas which didn’t fit with his vision of the Lucas-verse? Or would he, and screenwriter Chris Terrio, attempt to gather up all the story ideas from both previous films and try and stitch them together into one coherent narrative?

Have a guess.

At times, the JJ Abrams vision of the Skywalker saga pings back into place after the Johnson film so hard that it leaves viewers’ minds smarting. At the end of The Last Jedi, the resistance is beaten, no more than a ragtag collection of likeminded folk with no resources, no weapons, only their hopes for a better life. At the start of The Rise of Skywalker, the resistance is just as well-equipped as it was at the end of The Force Awakens. In Force, Kylo Ren is kept in line by a guttural voiced father-figure. In Jedi, Kylo Ren disposes of such an encumbrance. And in Skywalker, he’s replaced by a new guttural voiced father figure. Rian Johnson doesn’t know what to do with Finn, so he invents a new character, Rose, to try and give him someone to relate to. Abrams pointedly leaves Rose out of the adventure (even though it turns out he doesn’t know what to do with Finn either). And, most egregiously of all, in Jedi, after all that build-up in Force, it turns out that Rey’s ancestry is of no importance, because the Force can be in anyone – whereas in Skywalker, once again ancestry is of critical importance but the genes just skipped a generation.

So, does this film, which is far more a sequel to the 2015 film than the 2017 film, work on its own merits? A lot of the time, yes. It’s certainly pacey, almost ADHD in its zeal to leap from planet-to-planet, idea-to-idea – John Williams’ score can barely keep up. But the plot construction is clunky to say the least. Find the thing and take it to the place in order to pinpoint the location of the thing which will take us to the place where the actual thing is. Jesus. But it’s all played with tremendous energy and wit and charm and Oscar Isaac, Joonas Suotamo (as Chewbacca), John Boyega and Daisy Ridley manage to summon up a feeling of “the old gang back together again” even though that is patently false.

What’s also disappointing about the way this trilogy has turned out is that it seems likely that the first film was intended as focusing on Han, the second as focusing on Luke and the third as focusing on Leia, the only survivor of the original trio. However, poor Carrie Fisher’s untimely death put paid to that notion, so we get off-cuts from the previous two films, integrated into new scenes – fairly seamlessly from a visual standpoint, slightly awkwardly from a storytelling standpoint.

And, so to fill the void, we have more old faces from the first three films, starting with Billy Dee Williams who doesn’t accomplish much but it’s nice to see him. What’s less successful is the inclusion – in almost consecutive scenes – of surprise appearances by Force Ghost versions of first Han and then Luke. Han’s reunion with his son works far better than Luke’s reunion with Rey, especially as he basically shows up to tell her the opposite of what he told her in the last film, but it’s violently obvious fan-service to include both.

The film also has a nasty case of “didn’t really mean it” particularly when it comes to character deaths. Leia dies and stays dead – for grimly obvious reasons. Possibly because of that, almost nobody else does. Chewbacca is killed, seemingly partly at Rey’s hands, but it turns out he was (somehow?) on another transport. A shocking moment is thrown away almost as soon as it happens. Ren is killed by Rey, but then brought back to life by Rey. Rey is killed by Palpatine but brought back to life by Ren. Even C3P0’s literal reset switch is itself reset.

But what gives the film life is the relationship between Ren and Rey. With visual flair, excellent writing and truly committed performances from both actors, this single thread pulled me through all the other nonsense. These characters and these performers I think are the real legacy of this new cycle of movies.

Cats

There was no similar golden thread to pull on when it came to Cats, Tom Hooper’s epic folly, doomed to become a punchline, uttered in the same breath as Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate or Wild Wild West.

Let’s start with the theatre show. It seems to me that an excessive amount of historical revisionism has taken place regarding Lloyd-Weber’s hit show setting winsome TS Eliot poems to music which set box office records when it first opened in London in 1981. I’m fairly sure I was at one of those first performances, an eager-eyed nine-year-old, beaming with delight at the catchy songs, amazing set design, charismatic performances and witty lyrics. “Always on the wrong side of every door!” Just like our cat!

However, in the last half-dozen years, maybe with Hamilton giving the Broadway musical a bit of street cred that it hasn’t had in a long time, the conclusion has been reached by the hive mind of YouTube and the podosphere that Cats was and is and always will be a bit shit. It’s got no story. It’s just a load of drama school kids in tights going “Meow”. “Memory” is an okay song, but I’m not sitting through two hours plus of semi-feline prancing to hear one good song. Down with it! Kill it with fire!

Well, I still like the tunes and I don’t have a problem with a musical which unashamedly presents itself as a succession of songs. If you want a complex plot, then the problem lies with your expectations, not the material. But director Tom Hooper was determined to fix all these problems, whether he needed to or not.

There had been talk of an animated version for years, but post all those live action Disney remakes chewing up the box office, Hooper decided to cut out the middle-man and do the live action remake first. He’d hire the most stellar cast of actors he could lay his hands on and then replace those leotards and wigs with the finest digital fur and whiskers for a seamless CG costume. The best of all possible worlds.

As anyone who’s seen the trailer knows, this was a disastrous decision, from which flows many of the film’s problems. Whereas an actor in a mask and make-up invites you to suspend your disbelief, the fully-integrated visual movie experience invites you to treat what you are witnessing as unvarnished reality, and it just looks weird. Victoria, a minor character from the show is suddenly given star status, the rationale being that on the stage, the cats are mainly introducing themselves to us, the audience, but you can’t have actors singing down the lens, so they need someone to sing to. Thus Victoria.

This ignores the fact that the show itself has created a thin but serviceable rationale – that the cats are in effect auditioning to see who will be chosen by Old Deuteronomy to ascend to the Heaviside Layer. The film gives this much more attention, but only actually shows the audition process in its last third, which means that effectively Bustopher Jones, Jenny Anydots and co have never had the chance to sing for their shot at reincarnation. It also means that Victoria, seemingly the central character, is actually just a bystander most of the time. Constantly cutting to her reaction shots (generally the same glassy wonderment) adds nothing to the overall spectacle.

Much has also been made of the fact that the scale of the weird human-cat hybrids constantly changes, but although I think Hooper and co have been careless with this (there about three different sizes of cat flap for example) what I haven’t seen discussed so far is the fact that this doesn’t work because it couldn’t possibly have worked. Humans have much smaller heads proportional to their body size, and much longer limbs than cats do. So, a scale which looks right when a human-feline chimera is shot in close-up will look completely wrong when the same ghastly concatenation is filmed in long shot. Whatever scale you pick, it will always look wrong part of the time at least. But Hooper piles bad choices on top of bad choices. Having some of the cats wearing fur coats on top of their fur is bizarre. Having Rebel Wilson’s Jenny Anydots strip off her fur to reveal that underneath that is a skimpy nightclub costume and more fur is demented. Making her ability to do that a plot point in the final act is ill-judged beyond all belief.

And where are all the humans? Many of Eliot’s lines reference the people with whom the cats share their lives, but although we see houses, theatres, railway tracks and the like, the cafes are named things like Milk Bar which suggest that this is a Cars like universe in which horrid moggymen and women occupy the space which humans take up in our world. It’s another inconsistent and poorly-thought-through choice in a film which is littered with them.

The unnecessary over-plotting (the work of Hooper and Lee Hall) extends to making Macavity (Idris Elba, constipated) not just the villain of the piece from the get-go but also possessed of magical powers which enable him to transport not just himself but any other cat (or presumably object) anywhere in space without effort. With this total mastery of time, space and matter at his claws, one wonders what he possibly needs the Heaviside Layer for. And the resolution to this nonsense is equally at odds with the source material, as Mister Mistoffelees’ boastful (but probably bogus) ditty is repurposed as a believe-in-yourself, triumph-over-low-self-esteem piece of hand-me-down Hollywood piffle. Among a cast, many of whom struggle, Laurie Davidson is so awkward and pathetic – even for this awkward and pathetic version of the character – that, not having heard of him before, I assumed he’d won a raffle to be in the film.

In fact, wherever Hall and Hooper have added to the text, they’ve done so without apparently having listened to the songs. Whereas the stage show has no dialogue at all, the film includes snippets here and there, which usually serve merely to repeat information already given in the lyrics, or sometimes just flatly contradict them. “You know I’m sensitive about my weight,” whines James Corden charmlessly, heedless of the fact that moments earlier he had been enthusiastically warbling “I’m a twenty-five pounder, or I am a bounder, and I’m putting on weight every day.”

The songs I still think are good, by and large. They’re well sung by most of the cast. The 1980s style synth arrangements are pleasingly retro, and they’ve even kept the original melody for “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer” and not the inferior replacement. And what’s really frustrating is that, around twenty minutes before the end, the film does actually burst into life, when Taylor Swift sings “Macavity”. It doesn’t hurt that it’s probably the best song in the show, but she also sings it straight into the camera, which helps us to connect with her and the material, and distracts us from the weird fur effects. Hooper also gives this segment a bit of visual flair, which is rather lacking for most of the second half of the film.

On stage, the junkyard set was immense and hugely impressive. If the director had wanted to take the Jellicle Ball literally and make the whole film each cat in turn auditioning for Old Deuteronomy, (which is what they do from Gus the Theatre Cat onwards, but not before) then with $100m to play with, we could have had a gigantic, amphitheatrical junkyard of incredible proportions. But – as he did with the blockade in Les Miserables – Hooper takes an impressive stage set and turns it into an unremarkable film experience.

We’re spared the jingoism of “Growltiger’s Last Stand” (the longest number in the show, but also not part of the main “plot”) so the running time is not too excessive. Victoria, who had been a silent observer of the preceding hijinks, is pushed to the fore to get Grizabella the suicide/rebirth/jaunt in a hot air Macguffin that she presumably deserves, and then – since the final song is unequivocally addressed to humans and wouldn’t make sense sung to even guileless Victoria, Judi Dench delivers the last number straight down the camera lens, as if we could have been doing that all along.

So – this is ill-conceived, poorly executed, with childish humour and a plot which is simultaneously far more than is needed and virtually non-existent. Is it the worst film ever made? Hardly. There are bright spot, once you get over the whole skin-crawling weirdness of the aesthetic. Although she has little to do, Francesca Hayward is a winning enough presence, Jason Derulo is fun as The Rum Tum Tugger, Jennifer Hudson emotes the shit out of “Memory” (but each time they play it, they put the new shit song directly after it which hardly seems fair) and Ian McKellen scrapes up some vestiges of dignity and class for Gus The Theatre Cat. Will it make an awful lot of money as people flock to see for themselves one of the worst reviewed films from a major studio in ten years? I doubt it. There weren’t more than ten people in the cinema when I saw it.

Joker

Posted on October 29th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It seems everyone has to have an opinion about the new movie Joker, and so here’s mine.

I didn’t like it.

To begin with, I didn’t like the idea of it. I don’t really like the idea of Todd Phillips, whose recent comments about his move away from comedy smear a patina of cynical self-interest over what is already a pretty lazy and cynical piece of filmmaking.

I don’t really like the idea of Joaquin Phoenix either, who often reminds me of those tortured Hoffman performances of the 1970s, full of effort but lacking in charm. He’s fun in Gladiator (opting simply not to be in the same film as Russell Crowe but to join Oliver Reed’s team instead – and quite right too) and he’s a fine match for Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master even if that film ultimately doesn’t find anywhere interesting to go. But I had deep misgivings about his ability to portray the clown prince of crime as anything other than an introverted sociopath.

And I don’t really like origin stories, particularly not for well-established characters. Why do we have to laboriously build up who this person once was when the reason we like them (or at least are interested in them) is because of who they became? And when one filmmaker has scored such a huge success creating a version of The Joker whose origins are obscure, it seems downright perverse to spend two hours providing a definitive one.

And I don’t really like the idea of a Joker movie without Batman. The Joker is defined as the mirror-image of the Dark Knight Detective – chaotic and improvisational where Batman is ordered and methodical, venal and selfish where Batman is noble, and yet both hide their true identities behind elaborate costumes and exhibit signs of mental distress.

This idea is made pretty much explicit in the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, one of many obvious antecedents which feed into this magpie’s trove of a movie. While drawing on yet earlier origin stories (The Joker’s first appearance is in 1940, just one year after Batman himself) Alan Moore’s story is pretty much patient zero for the modern conception of the character. The plot is brilliantly simple. The Joker’s thesis is that the only difference between him and Batman is one bad day. As we flash back to the bad day which turned a struggling stand-up comedian into a crime lord, we watch him inflict the worst of all possible days on Commissioner Gordon, including crippling his daughter Barbara – a nasty piece of sadism which was retained in the main comic continuity.

This story, elevated by wondrous art from Brian Bolland, was a big influence on Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman where Jack Nicholson was essentially asked to reprise his performance from The Witches of Eastwick while wearing a rather limited prosthetic that makes him look like he has a nut allergy when he tries to relax his face. Heath Ledger’s version is many people’s favourite, his facial scars alluding to the “Glasgow Smile” which may have been the original inspiration for the character, and as noted he has no need of a coherent origin story.

So what can Todd Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver add to this rich legacy? Their version of the character has a rather muddled career as a party clown / sign-twirler / stand-up comedian. He’s also afflicted with a neurological condition which makes him laugh inappropriately and a number of other ill-defined mental illnesses which do little other than perpetuate the myth that mental illness = violence. So here’s problem number one with the construction of this movie. Rather than taking an earnest sad-sack with whom it’s possible to feel some sympathy and turning him into a supervillain (as in The Killing Joke) or taking an ambitious career criminal and releasing a flamboyant theatricality as in the Tim Burton film, here we take a dangerous mental patient and make them a bit more unstable. It’s just not that interesting.

The universe rains trouble down upon Arthur Fleck. He gets beaten up; he loses his job; he’s humiliated on TV by his idol, chat-show host Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro, essentially playing a 70 year old Rupert Pupkin); his mother is lying to him about his paternity. But quickly it becomes apparent that the transformation from Arthur to Joker is going to take the full running time of the movie. This is not a half hour origin story and then a ninety minute Joker movie. We’re just going to watch a sick man suffer until finally he snaps.

Now, that’s a structure that could work. It instantly calls to mind another far superior movie, Taxi Driver, not just because of the presence of de Niro but because of the journey of the central character. But it’s noteworthy that Travis Bickle’s explosion of violence occurs at the very end of the film, whereas Arthur Fleck shoots three improbable musical-theatre fans to death about a third of the way in, and it turns out not to be a defining moment in his transformation, but a mere detail along the way.

I have other grumbles about the structure. There’s a hint at the end of the movie that possibly an incarcerated Fleck imagined the whole thing, but the fact that he appears to have fantasised his relationship with his next-door neighbour (Zazie Beetz) muddies those waters pretty fatally. And I desperately couldn’t give a shit about Penny Fleck and Thomas Wayne, nor do I have any interest in seeing Bruce Wayne’s parents shot yet again (and the meeting of a 45 year old Joker and a 10 year old Bruce Wayne creates some fairly unmanageable problems for the wider DC Universe).

But it’s the spirit of the thing which finally ground me down. Firstly, the movie has no interest in any of the victims of Fleck’s crimes. As noted, the three chorus boys on the subway are essentially never mourned and their execution is treated as an amuse-bouche when surely it should have been the main course. Neither Fleck nor anyone else misses his mother after he smothers her and although Fleck’s colleague Gary has the good grace to look shocked and scared after Fleck plunges scissors into another clown’s eye, again there’s no sense of loss, grief or anything other beyond the orgiastic excitement of seeing the blood flow.

And so there’s a queasy sense – totally unlike Taxi Driver – that the city and his misfortune is not so much corrupting and degrading Arthur Fleck, but that he is self-actualising through this process. Phoenix’s part-awkward part-graceful cavorting on those now-famous steps is probably the highlight of the movie as far as performances go – that theatricality which the character rests on is finally becoming visible – but there is no moral context given to this transformation. And at the end, when he becomes almost a messiah for an angry and violent populace, this ascension to greatness is made to seem all the more noble because it is clear that Fleck never wanted it. My hero.

Unimaginably dull for much of its running time, frequently chasing its own narrative tale and shot through with a sadistic and cynical worldview, this is a one-note film whose occasional bright spots can’t save it from its own self-loathing.

I didn’t like it.

Oscars 2019 – the aftermath

Posted on February 25th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Well. That didn’t go according to plan at all.

Of course, some of it did. Congratulations Rami Malek, Regina King, Alfonso Cuarón (twice) and Spider-Man. Well-deserved if predictable wins. Mahershali Ali was my pick for Best Supporting Actor, not just because Green Book is such a lavishly crowd-pleasing film, but also because Ali’s performance is the best thing about it, intricately peeling back the layers of the character as the story progresses.

So, while I’m disappointed for Richard E Grant, I was whooping with delight when Olivia Colman nicked Best Actress off of seven-time nominee Glenn Close. That’s the real feel-good story of the night. What a win. What a part! What a film!

But for Yorgos Lanthimos’s ironically-named movie, ten nominations only turned into a single award. And Roma, which also started the night with ten nominations, and did well to get Cinematography, Directing and Best Foreign Language Film, couldn’t quite get over the line for Best Picture. Maybe asking the Academy to give its highest honour to a black-and-white, non English language film about poverty and pain was too much to ask.

So, Green Book winning the big prize (but only three awards overall) was a surprise at first, but with the benefit of hindsight, the win looks if not just then at least explicable. It made a lot of money, it is anchored by two powerhouse performances and it’s serious enough in its intent not to seem frivolous, while not actually challenging anyone’s beliefs. See also Argo, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire, Spotlight and other recent comforting fare.

What’s frustrating about this is that it was up against the afore-mentioned Roma, which tells us that social mobility is impossible; BlacKkKlansman, which tells us that racism is certainly not a thing of the past; and Vice, which tells us that the entire political system is fucked beyond repair. While it’s not so surprising that the Academy picked the film which tells us that racism is a) history and b) can be solved by eating fried chicken, it is disappointing after recent wins for such fare as Moonlight and The Shape of Water.

What is absolutely inexplicable is that the dogs-dinner of a film which is Bohemian Rhapsody would emerge as the most-awarded film of 2018, with its win for editing being the most ridiculous, as the biggest single problem with the movie is the lack of plot momentum from scene to scene. Almost as if the director wasn’t paying attention. Ah. Oh. Er.

Also frustrating was If Beale Street Could Talk losing out on Best Score. It was bad enough that this beautiful film didn’t get a Best Picture nomination, nor its enormously talented director a nod, but the score was surely in with a chance. I can only assume more people saw Black Panther. The one thing that Beale Street did wrong was not to make a lot of money.

And the ceremony itself was gratifyingly short, but brutally efficient. Yes, we lost thirty minutes of hosty self-indulgence, but with that bathwater of excess minutes went the baby of personality. This ceremony had no identity, or spark of individuality. It was just a conveyor belt of nominations, presentations, speeches and on with the next one. They couldn’t even find room for Stanley Donen in the In Memoriam section.

Oscars 2019: BlackKklansman

Posted on February 20th, 2019 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

And finally to BlackKklansman.

I haven’t seen very much of Spike Lee’s work. I think I’ve been in the room when either She’s Gotta Have It or Do The Right Thing was on, but I suppose aged about 16, I didn’t really think that the issues he was documenting had anything to do with me. I do remember seeing and enjoying Mo’ Better Blues, but that’s a pretty small and fairly unrepresentative sampling. Today, I see his work as being far more relevant.

Even without the urgent social commentary, there’s a pretty juicy set-up here. It’s the mid-1970s and rookie black cop Ron Stallworth gets it into his head to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan division. In furtherance of this goal, he will need to team up with a white cop who can play Ron Stallworth in person. All based on a true story of course – this is Oscar season after all.

After a bonkers opening in which Alec Baldwin has too much fun as a mouth-foaming white supremacist I guess motivational speaker, Lee and his fellow writers sketch in Stallworth’s entry into the Colorado Springs Police Department, interregnum in the records room and graduation to intelligence work with admirable economy. Stallworth meets and begins a relationship with student civil rights activist and teams up with Flip Zimmerman who will become his pale-skinned alter-ego.

A lot of this looks pretty cliched on the page. Zimmerman must think quickly to protect his cover from the probing of the dumb but instinctive red neck when he asks too many questions of the more intellectual, but more trusting leader. And towards the end, when Stallworth is working as David Duke’s security detail, at the same time as Zimmerman’s cover is falling apart, and while simultaneously Stallworth’s girlfriend is the intended victim of a bomb attack, it becomes near-ludicrous. Remarkably, the subplot about Stallworth having to protect Duke does seem to be true, even though most of the rest is exaggerated, rearranged or just made-up from whole cloth.

However, after that demented opening, Lee and the actors keep it grounded and play it for a great deal of verisimilitude. John David (son-of Denzel) Washington is quietly compelling as Stallworth, but it’s the addition of a Jewish heritage to Adam Driver’s Zimmerman that gives real depth to the white side of the story. At the end, it’s all smiles and air-punching as Duke is humiliated and ally white cops drag racist white cops away to jail. But Lee is too smart and too political a filmmaker to leave us on that, instead cutting in horrifying footage from protests and riots in 2017.

Again, on the page this seems clumsy, even crass, but the progression is so perfectly calculated and the clips chosen so shockingly confronting that it can’t help but be effective – more effective I thought than the seemingly far more elegant and complex machinations of Vice. To be successful, BlackKklansman needed to do a great many things at once. It needed to tell the story of these people in this situation. It needed to be an exciting and suspenseful thriller. And it needed to connect the experiences of America 45 years ago to the realities of America today. It’s hugely to the film’s credit that it largely achieved all three of these. I think I would have preferred it to feel a little less like a suspense thriller in the middle, but I can’t deny the powerful work done by both leads and the effectiveness of that hammer-blow ending.