Archive for the ‘At the cinema’ Category

Oscars 2022: Belfast (and The Batman)

Posted on March 17th, 2022 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Here be spoilers – you have been warned.

Belfast is this year’s “small” film, and like previous such Best Picture nominees (think Brooklyn, Lady Bird, The Kids Are All Right) it doesn’t really have much of a chance when it comes to Best Picture. But it does have a bit more heft than some of those, firstly because it’s a Kenneth Branagh film and secondly because the background of The Troubles anchors it to something a bit more meaningful.

Branagh, serving as writer for only the second time after In the Bleak Midwinter, has crafted a story drawn from his own memories of growing up in Northern Ireland. As such it’s quite a personal film, but I often find him rather an anonymous director, capable of slinging the camera around if he feels like it, but rarely stamping much personality on the material. Here, he manages to create an intimate family portrait, with some occasional flashes of directorial inspiration, such as having the movies that the characters go and see film the frame with colour, whereas everything else is shot in crisp black-and-white

But it’s an actor’s film first and foremost and Branagh’s cast easily rise to the challenge. Catriona Balfe leads from the top, turning what could have been a mere obstacle into a complex and relatable character. Jamie Dornan’s straight-arrow dad has a little less to work with, but he’s always a compelling presence, and Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench somehow make a believable couple despite the almost twenty-year age gap between them.

Walking away with the picture though is ten-year-old Jude Hill as Buddy who is never less than completely convincing, with his wide earnest eyes taking in the delights and horrors that life presents him with. What the film isn’t is in any way subtle. The child’s eye view of adult concerns is often used to hint at deeper themes, but here everything is laid out as clear as can be, and if anything the need to always have Buddy in the frame eventually becomes a distraction. And it walks a perilous tightrope between heartfelt sincerity and mawkish sentimentality, tipping over into the latter as Dornan stares impassively out of the window of a departing bus to the syrupy strains of Van Morrison.

Belfast is a perfectly charming way to spend an evening, it’s impeccably made and it doesn’t outstay its welcome. But it doesn’t confront any deeper truths about life, love, family or politics along the way. Like its paternal hero, it won’t get involved and it won’t take sides.

I also took in The Batman, which should have been right up my street, and has been getting strong reviews. Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, but it didn’t work for me at all. Nothing seemed to gel from Robert Pattinson’s absurd Robert Smith-like emo Bruce Wayne to Zoe Kravitz’s ridiculous nosekini balaclava to Riddler’s secret plan to assemble a secret militia via the secret means of public YouTube video comments. The entire movie seemed to consist of people walking through shadows, reciting enormous paragraphs of complicated exposition at each other, and then sinking back into the gloom again, while a monotonous soundtrack continually thumped away.

The nadir was the near-death of Alfred, who seemed to be largely the architect of his own misfortune (although lucky for all concerned that the Riddler chose to try and knock off Bruce Wayne remotely rather than in person the way he did all his other targets). The explosion which takes out a wing of Stately Wayne Manor when Alfred blithely opens an extremely suspicious lookin package only renders him comatose, and Bruce is there when he finally wakes up – and immediately begins info-dumping again like nothing has happened. That’s also his last appearance in the film.

Quite why it’s had such good notices isn’t entirely clear to me. Maybe I missed something, maybe other people really hated Ben Affleck’s version, or maybe the critical consensus will move over time. Or maybe I’m just the outlier who doesn’t appreciate good Batmanning when I see it. Regardless, I’m not in a hurry to see the inevitable sequel.

Oscars 2022: Licorice Pizza and Drive My Car

Posted on February 27th, 2022 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Licorice Pizza

I blow hot-and-cold on Paul Thomas Anderson, with only Magnolia really ringing my bell (Boogie Nights is fine, Punch Drunk Love is fine, There Will Be Blood doesn’t seem to be aware of how silly much of it is, The Master is good but gets locked into a repetitive cycle, Inherent Vice is fun but insubstantial and Phantom Thread is reviewed here). I also can quickly tire of “hang-out” films where we just pass the time with some characters until it’s time for the closing credits, so this doesn’t exactly feel tailor-made to my preferences.

Reader, I loved it. There’s something so beguiling about Cooper Hoffman (in his film debut, but man, those Hoffman genes are strong) as whizz-kid entrepreneur and child star Gary Valentine pinballing from press tours to water beds to – well, pinball machines; while at the same time pursuing Alana Haim’s 25-year-old photographer’s assistant who has started to give up on her dreams. It’s such a fresh, novel, endlessly fascinating relationship that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen.

And lucky I didn’t, as there’s a delightful parade of cameos, many of them evoking or just playing real people from the period, whether it’s faux-Lucille Ball, actual Jon Peters or if-you-squint William Holden.

True, the ending is never in doubt, and if you told me you got restless waiting for it, then I would totally understand why, but if this were to win Best Picture (and I don’t think it stands much of a chance), then I would practically skip upstairs in order to sit down and watch it again. I don’t think it will change the world, and I don’t think it has anything very profound to say about Age, The Past, Men and Women or The Human Condition but it’s blazingly original, beautifully played, with an exceptional score and a faultless period feel.

Drive My Car

Drive My Car is a harder film to love. Featuring an emotionally closed-off central character which only adds to the barriers erected in front of an English-speaking audience watching a story told mainly in Japanese (plus some Korean and some sign language) about a Russian play written in 1899. If Licorice Pizza feels long at two hours and ten minutes, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film feels glacial at three hours, and if one was so minded, one could certainly make a case for axing most of the first hour, since all the key events depicted are later recounted by other characters, and often have more power the second time around.

I think I would have struggled with this far more if I hadn’t already seen Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy by the same director, which taught me something about his rhythms and his interests in a more digestible version – it’s three short films together running for less time than Licorice Pizza. And as I watched, gradually my restlessness began to subside as firstly the characters began to blossom and bloom and secondly, the architecture of the story began to reveal itself.

Of particular interest to me was the relationship between director Kafuku and his driver Misaki Watari, whose fierce stoicism is brilliantly evoked by Tōko Miura. In the end, this is a story about loss, set in – of all places – Hiroshima (although the bombing is scarcely mentioned). Loss of a loved one, loss of dignity, loss of autonomy and loss of control. The all-powerful director who is king of the rehearsal room but can no longer steer his own vehicle is just one potent image among many.

Again, I don’t think this stands a chance of winning Best Picture, but unlike Licorice Pizza, that’s not because it’s in any way flimsy or insubstantial. But The Power of the Dog feels just as daring while giving Academy voters a more familiar structure and setting to guide them through. I think I’d have to see both again to be absolutely sure, but possibly – just possibly – I might prefer the Russo-Japanese story over the New Zealand-American one.

Oscar Nominations 2022

Posted on February 11th, 2022 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It’s Oscar time again and the Academy has voted. We have a full roster of ten Best Picture nominees and a full five nominations in every other category. I don’t remember that happening before. Oscar’s favourite is Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog with 12 nominations – Campion also becoming the first woman to receive two nominations as Best Director. Behind that is Dune with ten and then Belfast and West Side Story with six. Here are some thoughts on Best Picture and some of the other interesting categories. Firstly, here are the ten Best Picture nominees.

Belfast. Pure hand-milled Oscar bait. Famous theatre-types. Black-and-white. Poverty porn. I haven’t seen it yet, but despite that snark I am keen to. Also in the running for Director, Screenplay and Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench in the acting categories.

CODA. Again, I haven’t seen it, but good on Apple for making more of an impact on this year’s race, even if this does feel just a smidge like The Sound of Metal 2: Sounds Metaller.

Don’t Look Up. Why is it only Adam McKay who gets to make goofy comedies and have them nominated for Oscars. After the near-brilliance of The Big Short and the intermittently amazing Vice, this was a major disappointment – the cinematic equivalent of a small child picking lots of low-hanging fruit and then screaming “Look at all the fruit I picked!” at top volume for two hours.

Drive My Car. I recently had the chance to see Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, another Ryusuke Hamaguchi joint, which I thought was marvellous and this apparently is even better. Hamaguchi is also nominated as Best Director, but that doesn’t (quite) mean that Best International Feature is a forgone conclusion.

Dune. Masterly evocation of half of a classic novel, which only occasionally falls into the trap of people in funny clothes standing in theatrical postures, declaiming space dialogue at each other. More frequently, it manages to combine the epic and the personal in a very engrossing fashion, but it clearly doesn’t stand a chance of winning Best Picture, not least because Part II is on the way.

King Richard. It’s an odd way to approach a biopic about the two top tennis players in the world. It’s rather as if the recent Stan and Ollie biopic focused on James Finlayson. But Will Smith is usually worth a look, even if this is mainly here to make up numbers.

Licorice Pizza is the “small” movie, this year’s Brooklyn, Lady Bird, Room or Manchester by the Sea. I like all of those, but I often find Paul Thomas Anderson’s stuff hard to swallow. I am keen to see it, but at the same time, I’m approaching with caution.

Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro is back for more gothic thrills and spills, with what is apparently an epic performance from Bradley Cooper, who missed out on a Best Actor nomination. With only four nominations total, none in major categories outside Best Picture, again I don’t think this one is a real contender.

The Power of the Dog. It’s entirely predictable that Jane Campion’s return to the big screen should be so completely surprising and beguiling. This fascinating movie never tips its hand, leaving you with plenty of questions even as the credits roll, but without denying you a cathartic resolution. Masterful stuff from a true artist.

West Side Story. Brilliant reworking of the 1957 play and 1961 movie, itself a Best Picture winner, this more than holds its own, even if not every choice worked for me. However, poor box office will have hurt its chances, and it didn’t get a nod for its screenplay, although it may do well in other categories.

Speaking of which – Best Director I think will likely go to Campion along with The Power of the Dog winning Best Picture. It’s about time the Academy made up for not giving The Piano its top prize. Likewise Benedict Cumberbatch must be in the running for Best Actor, but Andrew Garfield is magnificent in Tick Tick Boom and having Spider-Man out at the same time helps to demonstrate his versatility as well as keeping him front-of-mind.

None of the performers nominated for Best Actress are in films nominated for Best Picture, which is disappointing. Some people love Kristen Stewart’s performance as Princess Diana, and others hate it, but the Academy loves a biopic and this seems like a more realistic option than Nicole Kidman – although it’s always possible Jessica Chastain will pinch it.

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Jesse Plemons are head-to-head for Best Supporting Actor which probably hurts both their chances. Ciaran Hinds makes sense to me here, far more than Judi Dench for Best Supporting Actress which seems almost guaranteed to go to Ariana DeBose. Original Screenplay seems wide open to me, but Branagh probably has a good shot at it, whereas I think Adapted is between Dune and Dog.

I’ll put up reviews of more Best Picture nominees as my Star Trek schedule allows.

No Time to Die

Posted on October 6th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Warning – spoilers!

After the initial flurry of five films in six years, which exhausted Sean Connery, the Bond producers cranked out a new instalment every two years, pretty much without fail between 1967 and 1989. Not the loss of their star, the break-up of the partnership between Broccoli and Saltzman, rival movies exploiting rights that Eon didn’t control nor even the rise of AIDS and political correctness could halt the machine. And when the bandwagon stopped in 1989, it roared back into life six years later and Pierce Brosnan starred in four films over seven years which together earned nearly $2bn.

Daniel Craig’s tenure has been nothing like as smooth. The chaotic Quantum of Solace sprinted out of the traps just two years after the amazing critical and commercial success of Casino Royale. But Skyfall took four years and the uneven Spectre another three. After four films in nine years, Craig was exhausted and ready to retire. The news that he would be starring in a fifth film was surprising, and the Eon team reunited writer John Hodge and director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) to have the movie ready for November 2019.

Eventually, Hodge and Boyle moved on and long-time Bond scribes Purvis and Wade got their old job back, with Cary Fukunaga becoming the first American to direct a Bond film. The new release date was April 2020 and I bought tickets as soon as they went on sale. I eventually saw it in October 2021. Eon resisted various suggestions that the film go to streaming, and stubbornly sat on their prize cinematic asset until it could get a theatrical release. The gamble seems to have paid off, with box office records tumbling.

But is the film any good?

After the amazing reinvention of the series in Casino, the disappointment of Quantum, the lavish extravagance of Skyfall and the rather clumsy Spectre – not to mention the 18-month delay – my anticipation could hardly have been more fervent. Formulas are funny things. It can be reassuring to see a familiar sequence of events – why did it take four movies before we got a Daniel Craig gun barrel at the beginning? – but they can get stale very quickly. And yet it can be hard to attract and retain fans if you stop giving them what they want. That’s one of the thrilling things about Skyfall. It absolutely feels like a Bond move through-and-through, while constantly giving us things we’ve never seen in a Bond film before. But when Spectre’s at its worst, it’s straining to be Bond Chapter IV, despite that fact that none of the previous films have in any way prepared the ground for that.

Like Quantum before it, No Time to Die picks up pretty much exactly where Spectre left it (following a brilliantly eerie flashback sequence). For the first time, we see Bond continuing the relationship which ended the previous film. The stunning action scene which follows is a continuation of that storyline, rather than a standalone Bond-on-a-mission, and although the song is terrible and the titles a bit uninspired from the usually excellent Daniel Kleinman, I loved the evocation of the Dr No graphics in the transition from teaser to credits.

What follows is certainly unhurried – this is the longest Bond film by a considerable margin – and there is a sense of the plot doing a laborious three-point-turn in the middle of the film, but it feels purposeful, deliberate and carefully calibrated. As the various narrative elements converge – a terrifying bio-weapon, Blofeld’s revenge from captivity, a plot against SPECTRE itself, Bond and Madeleine’s relationship, Bond and MI6’s relationship and Madeleine’s history with Safin – the length feels justified and Fukunaga holds his nerve, letting moments breathe when they need to, giving us jokes when we want them (possibly thanks to script doctor Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and staging the action brilliantly.

Even more so than in Casino or Skyfall, Bond, Madeleine, Felix – even M and Q – feel like proper lived-in characters with agency, history and a sense of connectedness. Meanwhile, over-the-top elements like the bonkers science, the pockmarked Safin and a wonderful cameo from Ana de Armas mean that we are still allowed to have fun – lots of fun. What works slightly less well is the introduction of a new 007. Lashana Lynch is fine, but seems far more relaxed and charismatic giving interviews than she does as the surnameless “Nomi” and the business of them swapping the 007 moniker back and forth seems like a comedy bit searching aimlessly for a punchline.

After the hugely entertaining springing of Obruchev, the terrifying sight of Bond and Leiter trapped in the bowels of a doomed yacht, Bond’s reunion with his MI6 colleagues and an amazing chase / hunt / fight in a bafflingly misty Norwegian forest – the stage is set for the big finale at the Terrifying Villain’s Secret Lair. Bond is retired. Leiter is dead. 007 is a girl now. What can this film possibly do to ring the changes one last time?

Casino Royale, the 21st film in the series, was the first time we’d seen a first mission for Bond. Every other actor’s first film in the role has been just another chapter in the continuing saga. And now, for the first time, the 25th film shows us Bond’s last mission. Infected with a deadly pathogen which will kill the people he cares most about in the world, he sacrifices himself to ensure that the missile strike wipes out Safin’s nanobots. Wow.

It’s an extraordinary end to a finely-calibrated film that knows exactly when to be Bond part V, when to be Bond part XXV, when to be entirely its own thing and when to tip its hat to Fleming (the garden of death owes a lot to the novel You Only Live Twice, at the end of which Bond is presumed dead). Spectre is so clumsy in its attempts to retrofit earlier films into an overarching story that it nearly makes me like Skyfall less. No Time to Die is so well-constructed that it actually makes me like Spectre more. And it has the guts to stick to its convictions and take this incarnation of the character to the only logical end that he could ever have. And yet, the credits end with the familiar phrase: James Bond Will Return.

Will he? But how? Bringing Craig back from the dead (as Fleming did with The Man with the Golden Gun) seems like it would betray everything that this film set out to do. Having Henry Cavill stroll into Ralph Fiennes’s office and start bantering with Ben Wishaw and Naomie Harris would be weird. Yes, it worked with Moore and Dalton (and even Brosnan had Desmond Llewellyn connecting him to previous incarnations) but none of them got obliterated by Royal Navy missiles.

Another reboot? Yes, we’ve had – what is it now eight Spidermans in four years? – but surely there’s a limit. And in this post-Marvel, peak TV world, we’ve become accustomed to a consistent chronology, making perfect sense (if you squint) across years if not decades, and in various media.

So, what? I think the only sensible option now is to take Bond back to the 1950s. Ignore the Craig and pre-Craig stuff completely and tell stories more like Ian Fleming’s Moonraker (written in 1954, three years before Sputnik, let alone the Apollo programme) in which a crazed ex-Nazi is plotting to aim a nuclear missile at London. This has been pitched before – Tarantino wanted to do a period Casino Royale with Pierce Brosnan in the early 2000s – but now I think it’s the only way of carrying on the franchise.

For the time being though, Barbara and Michael should toast their success. It may have taken fifteen years (making Craig the longest-serving Bond) but these five films as a package overcome the weaknesses in the two lesser efforts and tell us, for the first time, The Bond Saga. It’s an amazing achievement and I can’t wait to watch this fantastic film again.

Oscars 2021: Sound of Metal and Another Round

Posted on April 22nd, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Last on my list of Best Picture nominees was Sound of Metal. And I might just have saved the best for last. Riz Ahmed does career-best work here as Ruben Stone, a drummer in a heavy metal duo who suffers suddenly and catastrophic hearing loss which causes him to spiral despite the best efforts of firm but fair Joe (Paul Raci) at whose retreat for the deaf the middle part of the film is set.

So, this is another small film. Small in the sense that Minari is small or Nomadland is small, in that it’s about a handful of people and the intimate group of people around them. But it’s also small in the way that The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah aren’t. This isn’t righting any societal wrongs, or commenting on a troubled part of recent history. What’s fascinating about Darius Marder’s film (with input into the screenplay from Derek Cianfrance and Marder’s brother Abraham) is both its window into deafness – and particularly sudden loss of hearing – and its fascinating depiction of a protagonist who consistently makes amazingly poor decisions but who never loses my sympathy.

The evocation of deafness is absolutely stunning. Both in the sound mixing and the editing. Because deafness is impossible to evoke simply on the soundtrack. Certain scenes play like a weird looking-glass version of the nightmare scene in The Artist wherein objects sudden create noises. It’s the contrast between the kinetic movement in the frame and the precisely judged presence or absence of accompanying sounds that give these moments their profound impact. And Riz Ahmed – almost never off the screen – anchors the film with a commanding performance, which would make me sorry that he doesn’t stand a chance as Best Actor this year, were it not for my now unshakeable faith that it’s only a matter of time.

Paul Raci (possibly controversially, a hearing Child Of Deaf Adults rather than a deaf actor) underplays beautifully and there’s not a trace of sentimentality in his relationship with Ruben. And it’s greatly to the film’s credit that when that relationship is sabotaged by Ruben, he leaves and we never see Raci again – but nor does this feel untidy, like a loose end that needs to be tied off.

Less successful is Ruben’s relationship with his girlfriend Lou. Olivia Cooke does fine work in the first third, but she’s Jennifered off to sleep on a porch while the boys have their drama. The way their relationship shifts in the final act feels true and poignant however and the final shot is completely devastating. Richer than Minari or Promising Young Woman, less purely entertaining than Chicago 7 but more grounded, just more interesting than Nomadland and far more cinematic than The Father, this barely noses ahead of Judas and the Black Messiah as my favourite of the nominees.

I also watched Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round, which for a while I thought would top the lot. It’s a marvelously dark, richly comic tale of middle aged angst, in which four schoolteachers use the (apparently real) writings of a crackpot psychiatrist to justify being permanently pissed at the job. Naturally, this can’t end well, but the sly way in which they egg each other on, and the sheer pleasure of seeing them almost lift out of the skins at home and at work is delightful. But this morbid tale demands a grim ending, and just as I was waiting for the final savage twist of the knife, the storm clouds lifted. I gather that a tragedy in Vinterberg’s life led him towards a more life-affirming ending for the tale, and while the final sequence is just that, it feels like the central conceit has been neither carried to climactic excess nor brutally undercut as reality seizes control and wrests the fantasy away from our heroes. A very near miss, then, but well worth investigating.

Oscars 2021: The Father and One Night in Miami

Posted on April 18th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

WARNING: Spoilers herein. Read at your own risk.

I’d vaguely heard that Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play (with a bit of help from Christopher Hampton) had arrived with rather poor reviews for all save Anthony Hopkins, but on closer reflection this does not seem at all to be the case. It’s got marvellous reviews pretty much across the board and it’s a wonderful showcase for Hopkins who manages to be charming, petty, exuberant, pathetic, manipulative and befuddled as Anthony, an elderly man whose daughter is concerned that he will shortly be unable to look after himself.

The set up – and weirdly the physical geography of the flat – calls to mind Michael Haneke’s devasting Amour but Zeller is playing a different game. Haneke’s approach was ruthlessly objective, never imposing anything on the material that wasn’t there already. The only exception to this is a sequence towards the end where a bird flies through the flat, which feels less than wholly literal to me and gives the whole piece a tiny extra spark of poetry.

Zeller’s approach would have played brilliantly on the stage – how I wish I’d seen this in the theatre – as after an initial scene between Anthony and his daughter (Olivia Colman, doing very fine work), Anthony is disturbed to find a stranger in his living room. He claims this is his flat, not Anthony’s and when his daughter comes home, she’s now played by Olivia Williams. From this point on, we are slave to Anthony’s encroaching dementia as people, faces, roles, ownership, time, geography and even personhood are constantly called into question by these simple devices. This might be a one-trick film, but by god it’s a wonderful trick and by god it works gangbusters.

And, as the human cost of living in this confused state finally becomes too much to bear, it becomes a deeply moving “trick” as well. What it never becomes, however, is cinematic. Zeller doesn’t do much wrong with the camera and – as noted – the cast are exemplary. What’s missing is any attempt to tell the story visually beyond what would have been observed by a theatre audience. There’s one moment which muddies the geography of the space more than usual which does hint at this, but it’s never developed.

This is a wonderful record of a fascinating play rather than a piece of fully-realised cinema then, but that shouldn’t take away just how fascinating a play it is, how beautifully acted it is by all concerned and how movingly it penetrates the quandaries faced by those with dementia and those who love them.

One Night in Miami

Also adapted from a play, and not nominated for Best Picture (although in the running for various other awards), this feels much more like a play in conception: four famous men sit in a room and talk. But Regina King is very at home on movie sets and constantly finds ways to make this feel like a movie – and crucially finds ways to tell the story that aren’t reliant on dialogue. The early section, prior to the four-way meeting, I imagine is new for the screen, and there did come a moment once all four were on screen that I detected what felt like slightly stagey rhythms as each man came in with his line precisely on the heels of the one before, but that moment passed and I was able to enjoy an equally absorbing play, this time playing out as cinema.

The four men are all excellent: Oscar nominated Leslie Odom Jr bides his time as smooth-as-silk Sam Cooke but his journey is probably the most profound; Aldis Hodge is powerful and striking as NFL player Jim Brown; Eli Goree summons up all of Cassius Clay’s bounce and swagger without making him a cartoon; and Kingsley Ben-Adir is a thoughtful, paternal, sometimes impatient Malcolm X. Although I something about Ben-Adir’s look is distractingly English in my eyes.

The conversation takes on many topics including colourism, parasitism, the Muslim faith and the need for solidarity. There isn’t much of a plot, but nor does their need to be one. The conversation is enough, and King expertly judges when to let that breathe and when to do more with the camera, the blocking or the mise-en-scene. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is her debut feature as director, although she has been directing for television since 2013.

Two slightly compromised films then, in terms of their form, but both of immensely high quality and featuring stand-out performances. I don’t know who will win the acting awards on Sunday night, but I do know that whatever the outcome, there will be people rightfully feeling they was robbed.

The Oscars 2021: Judas and the Black Messiah, Minari

Posted on April 15th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | 1 Comment »

Judas and the Black Messiah

This can’t help but call to mind Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman for me. Both stories are about the infiltration by law enforcement of an organisation concerned with race in America, and both attempt to walk the line between true life stories, social commentary and thriller movie clichés. BlackKlansman is hardly subtle, and the final act of the story does become a slightly ridiculous race-against-time trip to movieland – before the closing montage slams the real message home. Judas (written by Will Berson and Shaka King and directed by King) is a bit more subversive, a bit more sly, and I think I very slightly preferred it.

It’s blessed by some powerhouse performances. On the one hand, we have Daniel Kaluuya, cementing his reputation as one of our most gifted actors. In Get Out he seemed vulnerable, almost spindly. Here, his doughy physique gives him massive presence and power – he dominates every room he’s in, physically, vocally and emotionally. Opposite him, in a less showy but more complex part, is Lakeith Stanfield, fulfilling all the promise he showed in Sorry to Bother You. His nervy, twitchy Bill O’Neal is nabbed passing himself off as an FBI agent and made to pass on information about the Black Panthers, which Jesse Plemons’ agent laconically sells to Stanfield as as much of a threat to civil rights as the KKK.

And while much of this film is a straight Fred Hampton biopic and much else (as noted) is fairly familiar from films such as Donnie Brasco or The Departed or the aforementioned BlackKlansman, it’s all extremely well structured, shot, acted and assembled. Where it becomes at first queasily fascinating and then shockingly tragic, is in the interplay between Stanfield and Plemons and then Plemons and Martin Sheen – playing J Edgar Hoover like a cross between Nixon and The Penguin.

Telling the story of an extraordinary person through the eyes of an outsider is often a smart move. We can’t know what it was like to be Fred Hampton (or Gandhi, or Stephen Hawking or Charlie Chaplin) but when the narrative unfolds this way, we can know what it was like to be in their presence. And it helps that – as with Selma a few years ago – much of the true story was not known to me. However, I still rank this film as “very good” rather than “masterpiece”. It’s a smartly written and directed slice of highly relevant history, with an outstanding performance from Kaluuya, and contains many memorable moments. But it doesn’t quite contain that extra little innovation, flourish or profundity that would elevate it to the absolute top ranks.

And I’d say pretty much the same thing about Minari, a film which otherwise resembles Judas in almost no way at all. Taking inspiration from his own childhood, Lee Isaac Chung writes and directs this tale of the immigrant Yi family abandoning their life in California, where father Jacob has become a chicken-sexing savant, to instead farm a few acres of Arkansas in the hope of taking a bit more control over their lives.

Whereas Judas presents some fairly clearly defined evildoers, one of the fascinating things about Minari is that there are no bad actors. Things go well and things go poorly for the Yis, but there are no moustache-twirling villains threatening them with eviction, no racist thugs who beat them up. There aren’t even thoughtlessly cruel classmates who taunt the children. Things go well and things go poorly because that’s what life is like. The trick (and it’s a good one) is to put that simple truth on the screen and make it interesting, and not use “that’s what life is like” as a pretext for a story which doesn’t build, or move or have a reason to end. Without a trace of artifice, Minari has all of these. Like Nomadland, it’s a delicate film, built out of small human moments. Unlike Nomadland, none of those moments ever feels without purpose or meaning.

The cast is effortlessly convincing. Winsome Alan Kim as little David and elderly Youn Yuh-jung as grandma are mopping up most the awards love, and Steven Yeun is the only familiar face from English-language fare thanks to his years of service on The Walking Dead. But I was constantly drawn to Han Ye-ri as Monica, the mother of the family, who manages to create a version of the wife-who-opposes-her-husband’s-desire-for-adventure which never feels like a shrewish cliché. She’s the glue that holds this family together and this performance similarly binds the film together.

That only leaves me with The Father and Sound of Metal from the Best Picture nominees but I’m going to try and take in a few others like One Night in Miami, Wolfwalkers and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom if time allows.

The Oscars 2021: Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted on March 24th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It often seems to me as if the majority of modern American films fall into one of two types: self-actualisation through sudden wealth acquisition or self-actualisation through superior firepower. That’s not necessarily a criticism – some of my favourite films could be considered as belonging to one or other of those two categories – but it speaks to a lack of ambition that drags everything back towards the mainstream. Although criticised in some quarters for no longer representing the tastes of the average cinema-goer, the modern Oscars at least shines a light on films which pull in a different direction.

Part of the reason for all of this expiation is that… well, I didn’t love Nomadland the way I was supposed to. Poor Nomadland. It’s such a delicate, heartfelt, intimate little film, that for me to watch (and thoroughly dislike) Mank and then have Chloé Zhao’s film presented as the Mank-killer which is going to deprive Fincher and co of their armfuls of little gold men is hardly fair or appropriate.

And I did really like this film. I just can’t see it changing my life. That said, I do admire it intensely. While Fincher plays silly games with true stories, Zhao takes a non-fiction book and incorporates some of the real Americans who are living this lifestyle into her scripted drama. One of the many accomplishments of the piece is the way that lead actors Frances McDormand and David Strathairn so beautifully integrate themselves into the authentic “nomads” that it’s almost impossible to see the joins. And Zhao also creates some indelible images of the American landscape.

This is a story which needed telling and it’s thrilling that the most prestigious awards ceremony in the world is treating it so well. The US experiment in utterly unfettered capitalism is crushing huge swathes of the population under the oppressive weight of an American Dream which purports to create opportunity for all, and in fact does as little as possible to level the playing field. No wonder that some people just refuse to play the game at all.

So as a window into this lifestyle, this is fascinating stuff and McDormand’s Fern is an utterly winning protagonist. Nor does this fall into the trap of seeming like a series of self-contained short films which could have come in any order. Part of the interest lies in seeing how chance encounters pay off later down the (literal and metaphorical) road.

But – without ever wishing this to tip into melodrama – I couldn’t help wanting the stakes to feel a little higher, for me to be just a little more invested in the details of Fern’s life. I literally gasped out loud when David clumsily pulled a cardboard box out of Fern’s van, and I was happy that she was able to repair the damage with a handy tube of superglue, but the very fact that Fern was able to fix the problem so easily (barely an inconvenience!) made me just a bit less committed to wanting to know what happened next.

As noted – this is really a story of how not to watch a film rather than any real criticism of Nomadland as a piece of art. It’s clear that Zhao is a major talent and that she has made exactly the movie she set out to make. And I will be delighted if this film wins Best Picture on 25 April. But I fear I like the idea of this film winning Best Picture more than I actually enjoyed watching the film.

Of course, if it does win, I will have to watch it again for a future episode of Best Pick. And who knows – like both Moonlight and (to a lesser extent) Parasite, I might discover that what seemed to lack a bit of narrative punch on first viewing, turns out to have more rewarding depths second time around.

One thing you can’t accuse Promising Young Woman of is not having narrative punch. It’s a delirious, sweet-and-tart, fizzing cocktail of a movie, pulsing with energy, anger and black humour. The set up is wonderfully sick and yet horrifyingly just at the same time. Cassie feigns near-blackout drunkenness in bars and nightclubs, waiting for a “nice guy” to take her home. And then when he attempts to consummate the encounter, she terrifyingly reveals her sobriety and shames them for their horrible actions. While Cassie clearly has right on her side, these scenes are almost as scary putting yourself in her shoes as those of her victims. Any one of these “nice guys” could turn out to be more committed to adding another notch to the bedpost than she assumed and she could quickly find herself in very serious trouble. What could possibly drive someone to these extremes? Emerald Fennell has all the answers.

Not nominated for any Oscars is I Care A Lot which secured a Golden Globe for its promising young star Rosamund Pike. But whereas J Blakeson’s film is pure trash with an unremittingly morally bankrupt protagonist who ends up resembling the relentless Terminator in her ludicrous determination to succeed, Fennell’s is more nuanced, subtle and awkward. However, both films deliver final acts which are more interested in twisty thriller plotting than the moral questions they pose, and while this doesn’t make them any less enjoyable, it does make them both a little harder to take seriously.

I Care A Lot is best watched as a bonkers thriller with a satisfyingly sick concept as its premise. Promising Young Woman feels like it has considerably more to say and will live with me a lot longer, but the last twenty minutes or so have a straight-ahead quality that while not exactly betraying the complexity of the preceding hour and a half, doesn’t seem entirely in keeping with it either.

But these are minor criticisms really, when Fennell shoots everything so well, and assembles a remarkable supporting cast including GLOW alumni Chris Lowell and Alison Brie, Mclovin himself Chrisopher Mintz-Plasse, Connie Britton (whose one scene is a total stand-out), Laverne Cox, Jennifer Coolidge and Bo Burnham. But holding everything together is a radiant Carey Mulligan, who exudes resolve, vulnerability, loneliness, joy, desperation and clarity of purpose without ever turning Cassie into a chimera. It’s a stunning performance in a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable film.

I had already seen Promising Young Woman before the nominations were announced and the same is true of The Trial of the Chicago 7, but even longer ago, so forgive me if this review isn’t quite so detailed. If I had no idea what to expect of Promising Young Woman and was knocked out by the originality of the concept and the sureness of the execution, I had much clearer expectations of Aaron Sorkin’s latest, and while I wasn’t disappointed, I wasn’t thrilled in quite the same way.

Unlike Mank, Sorkin doesn’t appear to have taken quite so many liberties with the truth and – arguably more importantly – the story as presented does seem to make sense. Reality has furnished him with a number of extraordinary events and as screenwriter, he’s created a subtle but powerful structure which holds back some key information until very late in the day. As director, too, Sorkin continues to grow in confidence, and he brings a really authentic period feel to proceedings. He also parcels out exposition with his customary skill and knows when to play games, when to come in with the gags and when to slow down and make us take things seriously.

This is probably the most completely successful film of this batch so far – but also the least exciting. While it’s a powerful story that deserves to get a wider hearing, and while there’s another fantastic roster of American (and non-American) character actors having a blast with Sorkin’s machine-gun dialogue, there’s nothing here I haven’t seen before. I’d put this on the same shelf as previous Best Picture winners like Argo, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire or Shakespeare in Love – entertaining and well-made films which deserved their win but which probably wouldn’t have succeeded except in a relatively thin year.

And I’ve got a feeling this isn’t a thin year. I think this could be rather a special year.

Oscars 2021: Mank

Posted on March 21st, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

In 1925, Herman J Mankiewicz, newly employed Hollywood screenwriter, sent a famous telegram to fellow New Yorker Ben Hecht. “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

In David Fincher’s film Mank this notorious missive is paraphrased, relocated to 1930, the recipient switched to Herman’s brother Joe, its status is lowered to that of a tired old running gag and it is shorn of its punchline. That’s this film all over: flagrantly inaccurate, its inventions usually less interesting and more confusing than the truth it rejects, freely borrowing other people’s witty remarks, but heedless as to what made those quips funny in the first place. Elsewhere, Sam Goldwyn’s famous barb about sending messages by Western Union is put in the mouth of Louis B Mayer and Mankiewicz himself adopts John Houseman’s savagely funny nickname for Orson Welles: Maestro The Dog-Faced Boy.

Mank, now trailing ten Oscar nominations in its wake, is (sort-of) the story of the writing of Citizen Kane. That’s a big problem right there. The actual process of writing, the hard graft of trying to construct a screenplay, the endless finessing of dialogue and action lines, the painstaking editing and re-editing, is rarely dramatic, and almost never cinematic. But whereas there are fascinating stories to be told about how Welles got the contract of a lifetime at RKO, why he wanted to collaborate with Mank and how they settled on Hearst as a suitable subject – not to mention the nearly catastrophic fallout when the film was completed – none of this is of interest to Fincher who starts the action with a 90 day countdown to Mank finishing the first draft and ends the movie before Welles starts shooting his.

That it’s Mank doing the writing means that Fincher (and his late dad Jack who wrote the script – given an uncredited polish by Eric Roth, irony fans) has swallowed the Pauline Kael Kool-Aid and is repeating the easily-debunked lie that Mank deserved sole credit for the Oscar-winning screenplay. Like Kael, Fincher’s camera just doesn’t look at it any of the writing of Kane done by Welles and thus concludes that he did none. In interviews, Fincher has claimed that he had no interest in attributing credit. But he was interested in the story of a man who agreed not to accept credit and then changed his mind. The sum total screentime which this debate occupies is less than two minutes. A great deal of the rest of it is rather ho-hum life-in-1930s-Hollywood flashback, which eventually and laboriously drags itself towards a slightly hysterical and mildly revisionist take on radical novelist Upton Sinclair’s run for Governor of California in 1934, which is then presented as Mankiewicz’s motivation for writing a satire about Hearst.

The facts are that Sinclair’s bid was harmed by “fake news” propaganda films released by MGM, and by poisonous columns in Hearst papers – although other papers were even more violently anti-Sinclair. Mank gilds this slim story with Herman being the only Sinclair supporter amid hundreds of loyal Republican MGM staffers, his personal crusade via his friendship with Marion Davies to prevent the films from being released, and the suicide of the writer-turned-editor-turned-director who was somehow goaded into creating these monstrosities. In real life, the editor of the films (who was previously employed by MGM as… checks notes… an editor) was perfectly happy with his work and made more of the same.

Mankiewicz had no involvement with Upton Sinclair whatsoever, and would no doubt have been drawn to the legend of Hearst even if he hadn’t first been a frequent guest at San Simeon and then been humiliatingly uninvited. So this is somewhat of a made-up answer in search of a suitable question. And the movie shifts gears abruptly when Mank’s aloof cynicism suddenly turns into messianic zeal as he briefly battles to prevent the forces of darkness from winning. It’s true that by this point in the film I was getting very fed up of people walking in and out of rooms, making mordant wisecracks at each other, always in the same monotonous rhythms, smothered by the ever-present score, and I dearly longed for there to be something at stake, for someone to strive for something, for me to be hoping for one outcome or dreading another. But its hard to escape the conclusion that Gary Oldman’s Mank adopts this role of desperate defender of all that is good and holy because he’s the protagonist of the movie since this behaviour is totally at odds with everything else we know about him. And this is the problem with making shit up to try and turn your slice-of-true-life into a screenplay. You need to make sure the pieces fit together and that what you’ve added to reality coheres with what was there before. Better to make up almost everything (as in Argo) – or just give up and make a documentary – if the fiction fails to mesh with the fact to this extent.

Take Mank’s relationship with Marion Davies. Probably the best scene in the entire film is their conversation in the garden of San Simeon. The score dies down, people stop quipping over each other and we just get to explore who these people are, and what they mean to each other. It has little to do with Welles or Kane or Sinclair or anything else but it does explore deeper themes of fame, wealth, notoriety and the power of narratives to shape our understanding of the world.

However, this largely-invented relationship now has to do battle with what most viewers already know. The person who came off worst from Citizen Kane was probably that same Marion Davies. Welles in several interviews is rather shamefaced about her, describing their depiction of Kane’s second wife as a “dirty trick” which unfairly tarnished the reputation of a basically blameless and clearly talented young woman. Obviously, at the time, the enterprising young screenwriters didn’t fully understand the consequences of their actions.

But, watching Mank, you are forced to conclude that Herman J Mankiewicz establishes a deep friendship and trust with Davies. Then, given total autonomy to write whatever screenplay he wishes, he chooses to write a version of Hearst and a version of Davies which wildly defames them both, and then when the damage this will do to Davies is pointed out to him – on two separate occasions – despite no pressure whatsoever in any other direction, he calmly leaves the screenplay exactly as it is without his conscience bothering him for a moment. And remember – the lesson he has supposedly learned from the Sinclair debacle is: movies can alter how people think. At this point, it’s impossible to try and understand who Herman Mankiewicz is. He’s reduced to a series of checkboxes and catchphrases, assembled at random.

There are other problems besides. While taking almost no time at all to school younger viewers as to who Welles is, what Citizen Kane is and why it matters, the script makes sure we know who individual characters are by having people greet them by name and most notable feature: “Thalberg! The boy genius!” “Herman Mankiewicz? New York playwright and drama critic?” Neither Mankiewicz nor Welles would ever have stood for that. Elsewhere, LB Mayer is “poppa” and WR Hearst is “pops” just in case you were having trouble keeping all these old white wisecracking men straight. About halfway through the film, everybody starts calling Hearst “Willy” to avoid confusion. And the Frankenstein plotting continues right to the end, where Mayer’s offer to buy the Kane negative off RKO for a little more than the film cost to make is bizarrely made before the script is even finished. And, a colossal bet that Mankiewicz makes on the outcome of the election is given huge weight and then never referred to again.

Performances are largely fine. Oldman is several decades too old for Mankiewicz, but maybe that fits given that Herman J essentially drank himself to death over many years. Sam Troughton makes a suitably fussy and pedantic John Houseman, Amanda Seyfried is very winning as Davies and Tom Burke catches something of Welles’ voice, although little of his wry self-reflection and megawatt charisma, while Charles Dance chews the scenery with predictable relish as Hearst.

And it all looks magnificent of course. One can only wonder if Fincher considered shooting it in 4:3 ala Zach Synder, but he fills the widescreen frame with period detail, including reel change marks, fake splices and type-written captions which, after they’ve appeared, scroll jerkily down the screen – you know, the way that paper in a typewriter doesn’t. It’s cute at first, but wearying after a while, like a precious child constantly demanding your attention.

There is a fascinating story here, and there are glimpses of what might have been. But the brilliance of the Kane script is (in part) that it takes a vastly complicated narrative, boils it down to only the most interesting and dramatic sequences and then erects a framing device which not only gives the whole enterprise a second layer of meaning, but avoids the need for any clumsy exposition to be given in dialogue. For a film which keeps making silly visual puns with the 1941 masterpiece, it’s amazing to look at the script and see that almost the exact opposite has been done in every single case. A fairly simple story has been made to seem more complicated than it was, the main timeline zeroes in on the least dramatic sequence and the only framing device seemingly required is a few terse captions.

Which would all be fine – or at least tolerable – if the execution weren’t so grindingly tedious. The worst offenders are the lengthy scenes at the Hearst mansion where everybody rattles out historical exposition alternating with ersatz versions of famous bon mots, carefully timed so as to delicately overlap. But the cadence is relentless, monotonous, deadening. There are no actual people in this room. It’s like a ride at Disneyland – we glide smoothly past animatronic versions of Charlie Chaplin, Irving Thalberg et al, reciting their familiar catchphrases. And at the end, I feel I know Mankiewicz less well than before. A big disappointment from such a talented team.

Oscars 2021: Nominations

Posted on March 19th, 2021 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

It’s the Oscars! Just about. Finally. In some form. Probably.

Priyanka Chopra and Nick Jonas did the honours and read out the nominations and they’re quite an extraordinary bunch. First of all – ten nominations for Mank and no other film got more than six! That’s a big change from last year when four films got more than ten. But of course, the film which got the most nominations got no Oscars (The Irishman) and who’s to say that history won’t repeat itself?

And – in an outcome sure to get some members of the community foaming at the chops – this is a record-shatteringly diverse crop of nominees. Two whole women nominated as Best Director (the sixth and seventh ever female director nominees). Only one American man nominated as Best Director. Only one white American nominated as Best Actor, only one white American nominated as Best Actress. Two nominations for Borat including Best Supporting Actress for Maria Bakalova.

And Glenn Close has earned another nomination, bringing her total to 8. In 1985 Geraldine Page finally won an acting Oscar at her eighth attempt. Close already has the record for nominations without a win with seven. Can she duplicate Page’s feat?

Of course, it’s still the Academy so nothing for Delroy Lindo and in fact nothing at all for Da 5 Bloods except Best Original Score, which seems like even more of a kick in the nuts than just ignoring it completely. And there’s something slightly screwy going on in both Best Director and Best Editing. One of the five Best Director slots has gone to Thomas Vinterberg, whose film Another Round while it is nominated as Best International Feature is not nominated as Best Picture. And Best Editing – often a very good predictor of Best Picture – doesn’t include any mention of Mank. Which means the films which currently have the nominations trifecta of also being in the running for Director and Editing are Promising Young Woman and Nomadland. Make of that what you will.

Here’s my run-down of the Best Picture nominees…

The Father (w. Florian Zeller, Christopher Hampton; d. Zeller; Anthony Hopkins, Oliva Colman. Also nominated for Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, Production Design, Editing.)

For me this was the biggest surprise. Hopkins was widely touted as likely to get Best Actor but it wasn’t expected to get anything else. It got nothing at the Golden Globes, nor the Writers Guild, nor the Producers Guild, nor the Directors Guild. And yet here it is with six nominations. Rum.

Judas and the Black Messiah (w. Will Berson, Shaka King; d. King; Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield. Also nominated for Supporting Actor [Kaluuya, Stanfield], Screenplay, Cinematography, Song.)

Another one I didn’t see coming, but this time because I was barely aware of it. Kaluuya’s nomination as Best Supporting Actor is odd as the studio campaigned for him as Best Actor but the voting put him up against Stanfield in the supporting category. I don’t see this as a front-runner for Best Picture though, and I haven’t see it yet.

Mank (w. Jack Fincher; d. David Fincher; Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried. Also nominated for Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Production Design, Score, Costumes, Makeup, Sound.)

I honestly thought this was pretty poor. A longer review will follow but it’s trying to tell a true story in which nothing much happens, so it resorts to making a lot of shit up in order to try and manufacture some drama, and what we’re left with is impersonated celebrities walking in and out of rooms reciting their famous bon mots at each other. Did not got a nod for its screenplay but could still do very well in other categories, and must be seriously in the running for Best Picture.

Minari (wd. Lee Isaac Chung; Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn. Also nominated for Director, Actor [Yeun], Supporting Actress [Youn], Screenplay, Score.)

This has been getting sensational reviews and being a story about Asian immigrants, won’t suffer from the need to buy into another culture which you might have expected to hurt Parasite’s chances. Who’d have thought that Glen from off of The Walking Dead would be an Oscar nominee?

Nomadland (wd. Chloé Zhao; Frances McDormand, David Strathairn. Also nominated for Director, Actress, Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography.)

Definitely the one to beat if nothing comes up Fincher – and McDormand should get another speech ready too.

Promising Young Woman (wd. Emerald Fennell; Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie. Also nominated for Director, Actress, Screenplay, Editing.)

Only five noms – but they’re all in major categories. This is probably a shade too trashy to win big but could nick screenplay for Emerald Fennell and Mulligan has a slim chance. Review to follow.

Sound of Metal (w. Darius Marder, Abraham Marder, Derek Cianfrance; d. Marder; Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci. Also nominated for Actor, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Sound, Editing.)

This sounds terrific and I’m so pleased for Riz Ahmed, but it faces very stiff competition in practically every category.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (wd. Aaron Sorkin; Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella et al. Also nominated for Supporting Actor [Baron Cohen], Screenplay, Cinematography, Song, Editing)

Another Oscar film for Ali G! Who’d have thought it? Full review to follow but this is slickly entertaining stuff, on a level with Argo or The King’s Speech and in a year with so many detailed, personal films, that might not cut it in any category, not even screenplay where it has the best chance.

Reviews of the three I’ve seen and the five I haven’t (and possibly a few more besides) to follow in the next few days and weeks…