Archive for the ‘At the cinema’ Category

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…

Oscars 2020: Parasite and predictions

Posted on February 7th, 2020 in At the cinema, Culture | No Comments »

Parasite was my final film of this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees, and it came with quite the hoopla. People better-versed than me in South Korean cinema tell me that in comparison this seems very very good as opposed to exceptional, but my only previous exposure to Bong Joon Ho had been his very Hollywood (and totally demented) Snowpiercer, so I sat down with high if rather vague expectations.

I’d also tried to keep myself spoiler-free, so I didn’t even know the premise of the film, and in many ways it was the early scenes which I found most engaging. The apparently feckless Kim family, living in a squalid sub-basement, always on the scrounge or on the make – but furious at the bad behaviour of others – turn out to have a more entrepreneurial side. Following an introduction from his cousin, the son becomes English tutor to the daughter of the very wealthy Park family, whose bonkers house resembles that in Mon Oncle (although they don’t quickly turn on the fountain whenever there are visitors).

Ki-woo passes his sister Ki-jeong off as an art teacher for the other child and pretty soon, Kim père and Kim mère have replaced the incumbent chauffeur and housekeeper. When the Parks go away for the weekend, the Kims revel in their borrowed luxury. But hiding in the basement is a terrible secret, and it’s this plot left turn which gave me a moment’s pause, because although there is thematic unity here (height equals wealth and status; depth equals degradation and poverty) nothing to this point has been quite so outré as the previous housekeeper hiding her unemployed husband in a secret basement for the past four years.

Once I swallowed that, I was on board all the way to the end. There’s one plot contrivance in the climax which I felt was a little too constructed to really resonate, but for the most part this sings. The story is expertly assembled, Bong shoots it with the eye of a master and the acting is absolutely superb throughout. I was particularly struck by the Kim family matriarch (Chang Hyae-jin) and son (Choi Woo-shik) both of whom manage to transform themselves in a way which is utterly convincing for the Park family and yet the deception is perfectly clear to the audience.

There’s loads going on here about capitalism, climate change, wealth inequality and the nature of trust and deceit. The point of the title (for me at any rate) is that both families are parasites. The Kims leech off the Parks’ good natures and the Parks can’t survive without the seemingly servile Kims. I can’t help thinking that I would have appreciated this parable even more if it had avoided the shift into the grand guinol but I can’t deny that I was completely enthralled for every minute it was on.

So, despite the fact that my track record is pretty pisspoor, if you’ll indulge me, I will embarrass myself once again with some predictions. Best Picture will go to 1917 and Sam Mendes will also take Best Director. As luck would have it, I also think this is the most deserving film of the year, with shoutouts to Little Women and Parasite, coming in a close second and third. While it’s just possible that Bong will pinch Best Director, no foreign language film has ever won Best Picture and if Roma can’t do it than I don’t see Parasite succeeding. 1917 seems to have all the momentum anyway.

I did not like Joker at all, but Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is exactly the kind of showboating so often rewarded by the Academy, and provided it doesn’t win either Picture or Director, I’ll allow it. Of those nominees, I’d probably give it to Adam Driver, but it’s a crime George McKay isn’t nominated. Best Actress can only go to Renée Zellweger who has no doubt been working on her speech since June.

Best Supporting Actor likewise has Brad Pitt pretty much nailed on, and fair enough I suppose. Best Supporting Actor is tougher to call. I’d love to see Scarlett Johansson lift the statuette on Sunday but Laura Dern seems to be a lock. Best Original Screenplay should go to Rian Johnson for his delightful and inventive Knives Out, but I suspect Tarantino will nick it. Best Adapted Screenplay must surely go to Greta Gerwig for her magnificent Little Women script or there’s no justice whatever in the world.

See you in a few days for a detailed explanation of how and why I got it all so wrong.

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.

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 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.