The Pitch: What? The Dickens?
The Review: Modern society is desperate to work out what kind of person you are. But beware, it has only a few descriptions with which to allow you to be labelled. Complexity be damned, on any issue of the day you’ll be lucky if more than two opinions are permissible. The United Kingdom is being inexorably drawn into a time when you must be in favour or opposed to everything. Never mind leaving the European Union, it doesn’t feel as if you can be ambivalent to Marmite these days. Love it or hate it? Them’s your choices, don’t darken this door again with mild admiration or moderate disgust.
Armando Iannucci arrives at his latest film bearing the label of ‘political satirist’, and while it’s a fair description to a point, it comes riding in on an unspoken implication that he’s incapable of anything else. Let’s dispel that label for a start; while it’s true he’s responsible for some of the most scathing, hilarious and unfortunately accurate commentary of the last couple of decades, at the heart of it teems a desire to understand people, to sympathise with the unfortunate and to stare disbelievingly at the grotesque characters that reflect the wider world.
On that basis, it should come as no surprise that Iannucci finds the works of Charles Dickens appealing. Dickens was to the social classes of his era what Iannucci is to the chattering politicians of ours, and their worlds are similarly populated by absurd, outlandish characters that repulse and delight in equal measure. Iannucci and his regular co-collaborator Simon Blackwell have plunged headfirst into Dickens’ world and come up with an adaptation of the writer’s most personal work that feels fresh and vibrant.
Let’s talk about another label that’s cropped up in coverage of this film: “colour-blind”. It’s an odd, almost derogatory term that suggests there is some issue in casting the best people, even if they don’t all conform to the standard casting call for a period picture. How about “meritocracy” instead? The film’s casting is generally applaudable and even the smaller roles are often filled out with faces such as Gwendoline Christie and Paul Whitehouse whose talents brighten even the slender amount of screen time they’re granted.
In being fairly faithful to Dickens’ plot structure and character roster, it also allows for a number of larger roles to make their mark. Chief among these are donkey-obsessed aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) and her Charles I-obsessed living companion Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie). Swinton gets to mix her initial brusqueness with a pleasing warmth as time passes, and Laurie’s initial fragility gives way to a mannered, boyish charm, both of whom prove ideal foils for Copperfield and the menagerie of other characters. Peter Capaldi’s Micawber also brightens every scene he appears in, and the comic timing of not only these three, but most of the cast, is so exemplary you could set your watch by it.
There are but two minor disappointments: Ben Whishaw’s obsequious Uriah Heep sneers from under his bowl haircut but never quite provides the foil to add great drama, which the film needs to balance the whimsy and otherwise excellent character work. The other is Copperfield himself, and that’s nothing to do with Dev Patel’s strong, evolving portrayal, more that Copperfield feels absent from the centre of his own story, despite being almost constantly on screen.
It’s structure where this adaptation struggles, with the social observation and coterie of contemptuous figures that flit in and out of David’s life present and correct, but never quite the sure footing of narrative to keep the audience fully invested. Iannucci and Blackwell have softened a few of Dickens’ sharper decisions, partly to allow Copperfield to comment on his own story as he develops as a writer. But devices like this don’t feel as if they carry a full commitment, and the visual trickery of hands reaching into drawings or the story projected on walls is forgotten about for a long stretch in the first half. The gimmicks don’t elevate or elucidate the story in any way, and a stage bound framing device might offer a further connection to Dickens but also feels oddly out of place.
The Personal History Of David Copperfield is very keen to work out what kind of person its hero is, but it’s slightly less sure as to how it’s going to go about it. If I were to offer a few labels to apply, they’d include “delightful”, “heart-warming” and “refreshing”. If the whole isn’t quite the sum of its parts, the parts are still worth parting with two hours to enjoy.
Why see it at the cinema: Glorious scenery, with Iannucci making the most of a variety of parts of the British countryside, and a film that does offer a lot of laughs, so is best enjoyed with as much company as possible.
What about the rating? Rated PG for mild violence, threat and brief bloody images. Absolutely fair and nothing to concern most ages.
My cinema experience: The first gala press screening of the 2019 London Film Festival, so I joined several hundred other critics and industry types for an early morning screening. After a year off while it was refurbished, the Odeon Leicester Square once again plays host to such screenings, and I took a reasonably comfortable reclining seat on the front row of the balcony. Also nice to see that the cinema had opened the coffee bar early so I took advantage of a latte and a decent chocolate muffin for breakfast.
The refurbishment has reduced the capacity from around 2,000 to just 800 but both the environment and the seating are significantly improved. The same cannot be said for the audio-visual experience: angles from wide seats are a little improved but the audio is still sometimes muffled by the cavernous space, with quiet dialogue being a particular issue. I passed an engineer on the way out with a Dolby laptop, so I’m hoping the later public screening may have been tweaked slightly.
The film itself represented a slightly odd experience: the stalls were full, and while the film got a number of big laughs from down below, there was an eerie silence from the assembled masses in the balcony. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I guess.
The Score: 7/10
Oh hai, readers. It’s that time again. Tuxedos are being rented, fashion designers are rubbing their hands together with glee and retailers of gold polish in Hollywood are experiencing their annual upturn in sales. In just a few short hours, two dozen individuals or groups of people will be in receipt of a bronze paperweight plated with gold, and will then forever be referred to as “Academy Award Winner” in any future publicity material. I’ve long since given up on sitting up for the Oscars while they’re on – this year I have further mitigation in the fact that I’m at paid work tomorrow, for the first time in nearly a year – but I can never manage the disappointment that comes with films that I’ve formed a personal attachment to coming away empty-handed.
This well-dressed parade of injustice used to cause me to dislike the Academy Awards and their ilk for quite a few years, but I’m rather more at peace with it now, not least because I see the benefits of a box office boost to a film’s time in cinemas. Since my reason for starting this blog was to encourage people to see more films in cinemas, anything that can achieve this end can’t be all bad in my book. But I can’t help but feel that, this year more than many in recent years, the best film is likely to miss out, despite being a favourite of many more lauded and respected critics than yours truly.
But we’ll get to that. First, a gentle reminder of how the biggest film prize of the year is whittled down. Any motion picture, of more than forty minutes in length, shown for seven consecutive days at least three times a day (including one evening showing) in Los Angeles County, and advertised to the public by normal processes, between January 1st and December 31st 2017 can be considered as the best film for 2017. This year that’s given us 341 motion pictures that have to fight it out for the title of Best, and those competing can be a little confusing to British cinema fans. Not just for the fact that films like Lady Bird have only just arrived in cinemas, but for the fact that Paddington 2 won’t be eligible until next year, and David Brent: Life On The Road is one of the eligible films, despite being in UK cinemas eighteen months ago.
Anyway, I’ve been through the list, and I can tell you that of that 341, I’ve managed to see over 140 of them, with a handful more due in British cinemas in the next couple of weeks. One year I’d love to be able to say I’d seen them all, and could pass a truly informed opinion on what the Best Picture is, but given that this year I’ve seen My Little Pony: The Movie (eligible), I’m prepared to take a pass on the other 200 and assume that the cream of the crop can be found in what I’ve managed to view already.
So, firstly here is the breakdown of the films that would have been on my longlist had I been putting together a Best Picture rundown:
Baby Driver; Call Me By Your Name; Coco; Dunkirk; Foxtrot; Lady Bird; Phantom Thread; The Killing Of A Sacred Deer; The Shape Of Water
Blade Runner 2049; Brawl In Cell Block 99; Chasing Coral; Dawson City: Frozen Time; A Fantastic Woman; Lady Macbeth; Loveless; Okja; Personal Shopper; Raw; Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Thelma; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Cast me away on a desert island with that lot and I’d be a happy man for quite a while. But we’re in the business of finding the top 1, not the top 22, so you need to know what would have made my list.
So if I’d had to make a nomination list of nine to match the Academy’s, then my 10/10 choices would have filled it out quite nicely. The personal disappointment starts here, in that the Academy and I could only agree on five out of the nine: of those that didn’t make it in, I can only presume that Coco was too animated, Foxtrot too obscure (Israel’s submission for Best Foreign Language got only to the top nine of that category, not to the final five), The Killing Of A Sacred Deer too wilfully odd and Baby Driver too general entertainment (and also too lacking in a major supporting role for Christopher Plummer, if you get my drift).
But five out of nine is not bad, and for me represents the strongest year since the 2010 awards, the last time I would have given five of the nominees a 10/10 rating. Here though, for the avoidance of any doubt, is my official ranking for this year’s awards in reverse order of appreciation.
The Least Best Picture is Darkest Hour
It might be about to give Gary Oldman a first Best Actor award – which, as so often, is richly deserved but probably not for this role – but this generic biopic is all bluster and little subtlety, and this comes from someone who’s a founder member of the Joe Wright Appreciation Society, for his work on the likes of Hanna and Anna Karenina which I am willing to bet money I liked more than you did. This, though, feels the most awards-baiting entry of the nine nominees available.
Which Is Not As Good As The Post
It’s good, solid, reliable Spielberg delivering yet another good, solid, reliable Oscar contender, but one that falls slightly short in the drama stakes compared to its journalistic relatives such as All The President’s Men and Spotlight. Nice to see Thanx and Meep (as I would hope she would sign herself on Twitter) sharing a screen though.
Which Is Not As Good As Get Out
Controversial opinion of the year: I think Get Out is a great film, I think it’s the most important film of the year in many ways, I would instantly list Jordan Peele as someone whose next film I would watch with no prior knowledge of content or talent involved – but, despite a satisfying ending that deviates from expectation, I did find that the film lost its way in the last half hour or so, and there’s just occasionally a lack of subtlety that I think will come in Peele’s next films.
Which Is Not As Good As Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Now that the go-to way to hammer home your message appears to have become renting three billboards, decking them out with similar posters, and driving them to the location of a tragedy, it’s no wonder that Three Billboards is at the top of public consciousness right now. Given that Martin McDonagh is still using Peter Dinklage to make short people jokes, nearly a decade after In Bruges, I’m still now quite sure how this walked off so easily with the Golden Globe and the BAFTA. I don’t think we need to have our film characters held to the same moral standard as the people who act in them or who hold political office, but I can also understand why that moral ambivalence has made a few people uncomfortable.
Which Is Not As Good As The Shape Of Water
It might just be Pan’s Labyrinth 2: Electric Merman Boogaloo, but that doesn’t stop The Shape Of Water being an utter delight. Sally Hawkins should immediately be given a damehood, the freedom of anywhere she likes and free ice cream for a year for her magnificent performance, and the cast around her are equally impressive. It’s just the occasional feeling that more could have been done with Michael Shannon’s grotesque baddie that keeps this further from my top spot.
Which Is Not As Good As Dunkirk
If I’m a Joe Wright fan, then I’m practically at the level of stalker for Christopher Nolan. Putting aside the disappointment of Interstellar, he eschews movie stars and manages an intimate focus on three different aspects of war. He’s also convincingly selling us a war film about a retreat and a relative defeat, but finding the spirit without being jingoistic. I do wish I hadn’t enjoyed watching the dogfight sequence in 4DX quite so much, though. (Wheeeee!)
Which Is Not As Good As Lady Bird
I believe that Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig’s partner, offered to direct this when Gerwig was developing it, but Gerwig decided to make it herself. Based on this, she should offer to direct his next ten films, as she’s much, MUCH better at it. Its greatest trick is the quick cut montages which offer all of the detail and emotion of major events in short bursts, but I wouldn’t want to sell short the performances or the magnificent script, where not a single word feels superfluous.
Which Is Not As Good As Phantom Thread
I keep a spreadsheet which records every film I’ve seen in the past ten years, and that also enables me to track the record of any director over that period. Paul Thomas Anderson has now become the first director in that decade to deliver four bona fide masterpieces (There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice being the preceding three). This might just be the best of all of them, and it’s as immaculately constructed and utterly beguiling as any of its lead character’s creations. Vicky Krieps was properly robbed of a Best Actress nomination, though – hurry up and retire, will you Meryl?
This, of course, means that…
The Best Picture Of 2017 is Call Me By Your Name
I don’t think this is going to win Best Picture. If I get up for work in eight hours to discover it has, it will be a moment as beautiful as a Michael Stuhlbarg monologue at the end of a gorgeous Italian summer. I’ve seen this twice in a cinema and found myself even more mesmerised by the film’s beauty the second time, and I do believe that Luca Guadagnino’s work as director is one of the film’s most underappreciated assets, Best Director nomination notwithstanding. (The blocking and placement in the fountain scene alone gives me goosebumps.) I just hope talk of a sequel is unfounded, some perfect moments can’t and shouldn’t be replicated.
So that’s it, my list of the nine nominees in order for another year. To finish, please find my increasingly squashed scorecard of the decade so far, since the nominations expanded, to see how this year’s ratings compare to years past. And if you’re watching the awards, just remember that it’s only an awards show. Have fun.
The Pitch: “One does a whole painting for one peach and people think just the opposite – that particular peach is but a detail.” — Pablo Picasso
The Review: I’ve been writing this blog for seven years now. I say writing, I used to churn out a thousand words of incisive wit every other day and now I spend most of my time talking about films on radio rather than writing on them here. Foolishly, because I’m clearly so good at committing to writing, I’d love to start a food blog at some point, having developed a love of cooking that finally matches my love of eating over the past twenty years. When I went to university twenty-five years ago my entire repertoire consisted of cottage pie with tinned mince, roast potatoes and a passable apple crumble. Now my love of cookery is almost as well travelled as my love of cinema: these days I’ll attempt food from almost as many cultures as those from which I sample films.
One particular fondness I’ve developed is for Italian cuisine. Forget sloppy spag bols with sauce out of a jar or last night’s reheated pizza, the best Italian food uses a handful of ingredients but makes sure they are of the highest quality. Clearly you can guess where I’m going with this food-based metaphor, but it’s a perfect fit for Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, an adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel. Originally due to be co-directed by James Ivory, famous for his British period dramas produced by Ismail Merchant, Ivory instead sold the script to Guadagnino to keep the financiers happy, and it’s allowed CALL ME BY YOUR NAME to retain a simple, pure focus.
The film is built around two central performances, both of which are revelatory in their own ways. Timothée Chalamet has so far had a career of small parts, including MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN and INTERSTELLAR, while Armie Hammer is best known for his literally two-faced role in THE SOCIAL NETWORK and for being the unfortunate sidekick in the lead role in the underrated THE LONE RANGER. Here, Chalamet is teenager Elio, spending the summer with his family at their Lombardy villa but displaced from his bedroom by Hammer’s visiting student Oliver. Elio is immediately in awe of the standoffish Oliver, but doesn’t know how to process his initial feelings and finds different outlets for his frustrations – including a stunted flirtation with local girl Marzia (Esther Garrel) – before his and Oliver’s facades gradually lower.
It’s difficult to know which of the two performances is better, but that’s a nice dilemma to have for any film. Chalamet is wiry and slippery, a buzz of teenage energy driven by a keen mind but with his musical talents the only outlet for his passion until Oliver’s arrival. Oliver, direct and abrupt almost to the point of insolence in Elio’s eyes, still has a magnetism that won’t let Elio’s gaze alone. It’s the beauty of the way that their relationship is developed, the occasional brush of human contact here, a knowing gaze there, every moment believable and compelling. The two unite over their common interests and their heritage, closeted Jews in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, and first their minds and then their bodies are drawn together. Oliver’s cautiousness is understandable; Elio is only seventeen, and while mature in many ways childish in others, but as his adolescence flowers it’s nurtured comfortingly by Oliver’s gradually revealed warmth.
The warmth isn’t just in the performances of the two leads, but in everything that Guadagnino’s brought together. While his previous films such as I AM LOVE and A BIGGER SPLASH have certainly had moments of warmth and tenderness, they’ve often been mixed slightly more with brusqueness and cynicism. Here, Ivory’s script is a masterclass in human emotion, slowly peeling away the layers of the two leads and drawing you into their intimacy. It’s backed up by Guadagnino’s direction, but also by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography, capturing the lushness of the Italian countryside and giving the film the feel of a faded memory of summers past, and by songs from Sufjan Stevens on the soundtrack. Even the Eighties setting of the film is layered on gracefully, with a Talking Heads T-shirt and a Walkman feeling redolent of the time but unobtrusive in the northern Italian landscape.
In a way, the film saves one of its greatest assets for last. Chekov’s Gun is a dramatic principle that you shouldn’t put a gun on the wall if you’re not going to fire it later, and it’s the parents (Amira Cassar and Michael Stuhlbarg) who observe for the majority of the film from the sidelines, occasionally giving dramatic impetus but mainly making us envious of summers in the countryside. But a climactic scene between Stuhlbarg and Chalamet raises the emotional intensity of the film to almost achingly beautiful levels, possibly giving us the first instance of Chekhov’s Stuhlbarg committed to film and hopefully not the last when he’s as good as he is here.
Even from our more enlightened 21st century position it feels strange that so few films still deal in non-heterosexual relationships without characters or the film ever sitting in judgement. For that alone CALL ME BY YOUR NAME should be applauded, but for the fact that it presents itself as one of the most realistic, tender and honest films about relationships and maturity ever made it should be cherished.
Why see it at the cinema: The best way to immerse yourself in the experience and to fully embrace the pleasures of Guadagnino’s stunning film are to sit in the largest, darkest room you can find, ideally one where the film is being projected onto the walls.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong sex, although there’s been much stronger on screen. Blue Is The Warmest Colour or 9 Songs this is not.
My cinema experience: The one particularly odd artistic choice made by Guadagnino was the sound of heavy drilling which he chose to add as a constant to the soundtrack. How did anyone ever relax in 1980’s Italy with all of that drilling going on? Took me a good ten minutes to realise that the drab, depressing surroundings of the Odeon Leicester Square had been supplemented by construction work elsewhere in Leicester Square. It didn’t seem to affect the general enjoyment of the assembled press and industry throng at the BFI press screening, as the film got a solid ovation at the end.
The Score: 10/10
The Pitch: Fifteen-love. (In other words, I’ll get fifteen grand, you get us a drink, love.)
The Review: Despite loving to watch all kinds of it – I’ve taken two weeks off work to watch the Olympics before now – I was terrible at sport at school. In seven years of grammar school I played rugby matches for my house’s C-team, one match for my house’s D-team at cricket before I was substituted at half time and never played again, and was so bad at athletics I once finished a race to discover the teacher had given up and gone in. We did have tennis courts but I never came close to picking up a racket, knowing that I would have comfortably been the worst in my year, or possibly any year. Serve and volley? I’d be happy to accomplish 50% of that. Once. Of course, I went to an all boy’s school, so maybe I’d have had a match at a mixed school.
Don’t worry, I’m not a raging chauvinist, clearly all of the girls would have beaten me as well. (A one-armed monkey with one arm tied behind its back could have given me a decent game, but let’s not go there.) But these were the attitudes prevalent in tennis back when I was born in the Seventies. It’s been an ongoing struggle for women since then to get to parity with their male equivalents. Take, for example, the view that “… our men’s tennis world, the ATP world, should fight for more, because the stats are showing we have more spectators” and that “…[Ladies’] bodies are much different than men’s bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through… You know, hormones and different stuff.” That would be depressing enough coming from the mouth of a misogynist Seventies tennis pro, but it was actually said by former world number one Novak Djokovic in 2016.
The new film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, RUBY SPARKS) takes us back to the dawn of a revolution in tennis. Billie Jean King was at the top of her game, five-time Grand Slam winner and world number one, but when her frustration at the gap in tournament pay became too great, she and eight other tennis professionals broke away to form their own tournament. When hearing of this, retired champion Bobby Riggs, now in his fifties and addicted to gambling, challenged King to a winner-takes-all match to prove even an older man could comfortably beat a top woman. When King refused, fellow professional Margaret Court stepped in but after being handed a thrashing by Riggs, King had no choice but to step up to defend the honour of all women on the court.
Whether you’re male or female, BATTLE OF THE SEXES represents excellent value for money as it’s three films rolled into one. The first of those is the gender inequality battle, pitching Emma Stone’s King against Steve Carell’s Riggs. This film is broadly comedic, playing to Carell’s strengths as hustler Riggs becomes emboldened by his seemingly effortless superiority. Stone has to butt heads with chauvinist-in-chief of the tennis tour Jack Kramer (a typically smarmy Bill Pullman) while supported by Gladys Heldman, who gets sponsorship for their new ladies’ tour and backs King’s activist impulses. The only real quibble is that Stone’s King feels oddly passive at times, undoubtedly committed to her cause but the fervour never really rising to the surface.
It’s the second of the three films mixed in here that’s the most compelling, where King explores feelings for her hairdresser Marilyn, despite being on the surface happily married. It’s a time when taboos of gender can easily be confronted, if not so easily broken down, but those of sexuality have to remain firmly in the closet in service of the greater cause. Andrea Riseborough plays Marilyn and hers and Stone’s relationship is tender and their moral dilemmas sketched out believably. The film makes the most of the Seventies setting, from costumes to cinematography, and the warm visual glow afforded to their more private moments justifies pushing the aesthetic as far as possible. Again, if there’s one quibble it’s that King’s husband Larry feels little more than a plot cipher.
The third and final film is the one where we have the biggest problems. For as much as BATTLE OF THE SEXES seems embarrassed by it, it’s a film about tennis, and it’s the sports elements that are by far the weakest. Don’t get me wrong, sports films can sometimes feel desperately predetermined in their dramatic arc, especially when many viewers will already know the result, but the best of them can still give you a thrill and the sporting elements have the feel of someone who’s only ever watched sport on TV and most likely under duress. There’s never any sense of the tactical nous King employed or seemingly any interest in making the tennis more than a distraction; at some points it’s not even readily apparent who’s winning, sucking any excitement from the spectacle served up.
So Dayton and Faris’ film ticks plenty of boxes, satisfying as a human drama, entertaining as a comedy but serving up a double fault when it comes to the actual sport. That said, it should still drive the point home about the continuing disparity in the pay in professional sport; despite the Grand Slam tournaments now paying women and men equally, the top women will still earn about half of their male equivalents, which means that this battle is one that still needs to be fought, and it can just about consider BATTLE OF THE SEXES a worthy ally in that struggle.
Why see it at the cinema: The comedic elements of the film undoubtedly work better with an audience for company, and seeing it on a large screen helps to follow the tennis because it’s all shot statically from above as if on TV.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent moderate sex. (Don’t worry, the only balls you see are on court.)
My cinema experience: The joys of press screenings at the London Film Festival mean that this film started at 8:15 a.m., for me, when it’s a two-hour journey into London, that’s an early start. Always nice to know that you have the leopard print seats and awkwardly angled screen of the Odeon Leicester Square to look forward to at the end of your epic trek. In particular, the sound can get very muffled at points; it’s a shame that London’s largest showcase for film (with over 1,600 seats) isn’t also its best.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: Choose life.
The Review: If you’re looking for a film to open Britain’s leading film festival then as soon as someone offers you more British acting talent than a bonnet full of Jane Austen adaptations, most of them with finely honed RP accents and with an opening scene culminating in a cricket ball smashing a tea cup, then you’d probably bite their hand off. You’d probably also expect that a hard-working British film would be stiff upper lips, struggles against adversity and as grim as Ken Loach’s kitchen sink. Breathe serves up two out of three in a reasonable debut for Andy Serkis, but suffers from never quite being sure what it wants to be.
With a list of British talent longer than your arm, some in blink-and-miss roles (Diana Rigg’s screen credit may get more time than she does), Serkis has certainly assembled a talented acting roster, but the only two who really have the opportunity to do more than reading their lines are Andrew Garfield as polio patient Robin Cavendish and Claire Foy as his supportive wife Diana. When stricken with the illness at a young age, Robin can’t face living a life staring at the hospital ceiling, but Diana takes on the medical profession and enlists the help of a creative friend or two to give Robin a new lease of life.
There’s plenty that works here, with Garfield and Foy putting in strong performances. The script also brings out British qualities you wouldn’t necessarily expect from such a film, with stoicism and determination supplemented by inventiveness and eccentricity. For large parts this is less a grim slogfest, more a vibrant celebration of life and its possibilities, with a handful of satisfyingly off-kilter moments thrown in. While Robin gradually escapes the confines of his hospital bed, the depictions of those less fortunate give the opportunity for some bizarre, discomfiting images, particularly at a clinical hospital that thinks it’s cutting edge.
Serkis has worked on this in down time of his Jungle Book adaptation, and his direction style could be damned with faint praise as fine. He does get chance for a little special effects wizardry with Tom Hollander portraying both of Diana’s twin brothers, but other than that he’s content never to stray from the confines of a chocolate box lid picture, and the film is sometimes as sweet when it desperately needs more courage in its convictions. Society still hasn’t found equality for disabled people in many areas and films highlighting this struggle are as important as those exploring divides of gender, race and orientation but Breathe calls attention to human frailty and meaningful questions of existence without ever suggesting it truly wants to engage with them.
This is particularly noticeable in the final stretch, when questions of Robin’s right to life become flipped on their heads. The last act aims to engage the heart and squeeze the tear ducts when a more confident director would have tapped at your mind and soul as well. It’s a shame, for while Breathe should play well to anyone in the the middle-aged art house crowd who prefers their films with the rough edges sanded off, the material had the potential for a truly great British film and the aftertaste here is one of squandered opportunity. Hopefully as Serkis hones his craft, he’ll be willing to encourage a degree more boldness in his screenwriting collaborators.
Why see it in the cinema: Enjoy the view, from sweeping Kenyan vistas to the rolling English countryside, and see if you can hold back the tears at the end when your neighbour is struggling.
What about the rating? This one’s a 12A for infrequent bloody images, mainly when Robin is struggling in later life (although the old age make up Garfield’s sporting is perhaps more horrific).
My cinema experience: After two weeks of pre-festival screenings at the well-appointed BFI Southbank, this was the first trip the Odeon Leicester Square (and my first visit there since seeing Armageddon over twenty years ago). The uncomfortable leopard print seats and terrible viewing angle from the stalls didn’t convince me I’d missed much. That was all forgiven when director Serkis appeared to give the film a five minute intro.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: Fears Of A Clown.
The Review: What is it about clowns? Thankfully I’ve never been a sufferer of coulrophobia, or a fear of clowns – I suffer from the much more rational mottephobia, the fear of moths, with their freakish, armless brown bodies and insanely quick, oversized flapping wings that bring you the tortuous death of a thousand butterfly kisses – but there are a few theories as to what causes people to be freaked out by them. (Clowns, that is, not moths.) The uncanny valley is one idea mentioned, that the faces of clowns are just far enough outside the realms of realism to disturb us. It’s also suggested that they push logic to breaking point, thus becoming associated with danger and fear, that their unpredictability or unusual physical characteristics give us the willies, or that the mask they wear hides their true emotions.
There could be a much more specific reason, particularly for people of my generation, given that coulrophobia seems to have first become a thing around the time of the mid-Eighties. It was, funnily enough, when professional clown / serial killer John Wayne Gacy had gained notoriety and when Stephen King dropped a thousand-page beast about a killer clown preying on the children of a town in Maine. So the latest adaptation of one of Stephen King’s most loved novels – and I use that term loosely, given its power to reduce grown adults to whimpering wrecks – has a lot to live up to in the scare stakes.
Andy Muschietti’s film adaptation certainly doesn’t hide its true emotions, wearing its pulsating heart on its ruffled sleeve right from the outset. It starts almost identically to the book that spawned it, with six-year-old George chasing a boat into a storm drain and coming face-to-terrifying-face with Pennywise The Dancing Clown. From there we move into scene setting and establishing, as we meet the seven children who make up The Losers Club, all destined to have run-ins with the local bully, to be tormented by manifestations of their worst fears and to come face to face with Pennywise.
Pennywise has a lot to live up to, with the previous embodiment (Tim Curry) having become something of a horror icon since his appearance in the 1990 TV miniseries. Bill Skarsgård is tasked with filling the oversized, floppy red shoes and does an admirable job, his appearance helped by a forehead the size of Devon and two red swishes of make-up that run past his eyes and draw your attention to it inexorably. Couple that with ruby red lips and buck teeth that make him look like the offspring of Jessica Rabbit and Bugs Bunny from the nose down, and it’s undoubtedly a disturbing appearance; thankfully Skarsgård has the mannerisms and delivery to back it up, too.
What helps him are the performances of the child actors, which are so grounded as to make Pennywise’s mere presence that much more skin-crawling. They are such perfect depictions of Eighties film children that you’d happily believe the film has been dredged up in film canisters from a storm drain where they’ve lain untouched for three decades. The film’s original writer and planned director, Cary Fukunaga, said he was aiming for a Goonies meets horror film vibe, and by stripping away the adult sections of King’s colossal opus the script achieves this brilliantly; you may be unprepared for quite how funny it is.
For it doesn’t just wear its heart on its sleeve, but on its bedroom walls, with posters for Gremlins, Beetlejuice and New Kids On The Block adorning the children’s rooms. They’re good reference points, for while IT succeeds in delivering a few effective jump scares and some nightmarish imagery, it’s the laughs which would be most likely to pull you back for a second viewing. As with Joe Dante and Tim Burton’s classics, it’s the laughs that bind you to the characters and make you care about their plight. (Even if, thanks to the setting pre-dating post-modern horrors such as Scream, the kids don’t have the common sense to avoided the dilapidated house that looks more haunted than the dreams of a dozen Ghostbusters.)
There are changes to the source material; the setting has been transplanted to the late Eighties, rather than the late Fifties, meaning the necessary sequel will bring us almost to the present day. But other changes have been necessitated by a lack of budget, and possibly a lack of confidence. Gary Dauberman, writer of the Annabelle movies, rewrote the Fukunaga script and by all accounts has steered it much closer to both the novel and conventionality. That will certainly give it a better shot at lasting mainstream success, but the lack of the novel’s more outré elements, for better and for worse, ground this adaptation in logic and predictability.
It’s a thrill ride that doesn’t skimp on the blood, reminiscent of bloody Eighties slashers such as A Nightmare On Elm Street in more ways than one, and it certainly ticks a number of horror movie boxes, but the real test will come when these kids grow up and humour can’t be the default fall-back position. For now, Muschietti has crafted an adventure, maybe lacking a true cutting edge or something radical or innovative but with just enough jump scares and buckets of humour, which does the first half of King’s work proud. At least there aren’t any moths in it.
Why see it at the cinema: Muschietti does conjure up some memorable imagery, and the laughs and the occasional scares will work better with a large audience.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong horror, violence, language. The Insight mentions that “scenes of horror include sustained threat from monsters, including a killer clown.” Well, duh.
My cinema experience: Watched it with a packed, younger, audience on opening night, and there were at least two satisfying occasions of half the audience leaping out of their skins, followed by the thirty seconds of nervous laughter as audience tries to recompose itself. It’s fairground ride scary, but it sure is effective.
The Score: 8/10
And one last thing…
As I write this, we’re just hours away from the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony, when once again the most hated people in the Divided States Of America (liberals) gather together to honour the great and the good of American film, including a much larger than usual number of actors of diversity and one French woman who’ll probably go home empty handed, but hey. We should all enjoy it before California is forced to secede from the union when Trump finally declares an orange fatwah on Meryl Streep. Next year’s Trump Oscars® will be hosted in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the main awards will see slight tweaks to Best Looking Actress / Supporting Actress and the obituary roll will feature a host of right wing actors who died in fake terrorist attacks.
Yes, there is a teeny tiny chance that the Oscars may become a smidge political this evening. That’s a real shame, because it’s actually been a pretty good year for film again, and if we’re going to try to celebrate the best that Western cinema has to offer, then that should at least get a look in. I don’t begrudge actors, producers or key grips the chance to use the forty seconds before the orchestra kicks in at fortissimo to make the point about press freedoms are being eroded or civil rights are being wound back about thirty presidencies, because we should all have focus on the world around us and quite how quickly it could go down the crapper if we’re not careful. Films give us a window into the world that can be escapist and uplifting or reflecting and deeply meaningful, so we shouldn’t lose sight of the goal of celebrating quite how good cinema can be at its best.
Maybe people feel that films don’t have anything to teach us about politics? But films aren’t just a window into the world, they can be a window directly into the most powerful political minds in the world. Bill Clinton once said that the greatest perk of being in the White House was the movie theater, which has around 40 seats and four comfy armchairs with footstools at the front. Jimmy Carter watched 480 films there in his four year terms and rumours abound that Nixon invaded Cambodia after he watched Patton twice in a week and couldn’t stop talking about it.
You probably haven’t missed, if you’ve been watching the news, that President 45 (yeah, I’m a liberal too, suck it up) has already had his first White House screening, a movie nominated this year for Best animation. I’m not sure what message the administration will have taken from Finding Dory – maybe they didn’t read too much into it – but as I go through the list of this year’s films, in keeping with the slightly more political leanings of the times, I’ll also pass a brief thought on the suitability (or not) of each of the candidates for another White House screening.
I’m also limiting my selections to the nine films nominated for Best Picture, so that you don’t have to put up with my usual grumbles around the flaws with a voting system that, once again, selected out of an extremely diverse list of 336 eligible films a collection of live action, English language films predominantly produced in America and featuring mainly American talent. Given that, even with my prolific cinema attendance record, I’ve only managed to see 148 of these 336 films so far – with many still to be released in this country – there may be even more injustices than I can list here.
Among the films that should have been in the mix are in a better, fairer system that doesn’t rely on large numbers of the voters having seen the films are American Honey (probably too long and rambling for the Academy to watch in large numbers), Captain America: Civil War (too blockbustery), The Edge Of Seventeen (too commercial looking), Everybody Wants Some!! (too testosteroney), The Handmaiden (too obscure – it didn’t even get South Korea’s nomination for Best Foreign Language), Hunt For The Wilderpeople (too much of an action sequence at the end), I, Daniel Blake (too worthily British), Jackie (too stylised), Kubo And The Two Strings (too animated), The Lobster (too old, it came out in 2015 here), The Neon Demon (too shallow), Paterson (too poetic), Silence (too late in getting released and Scorsese’s already had his career reward), Sing Street (too lightweight), Toni Erdmann (too foreign, particularly galling given how much of the film is in English), The Witch (too niche horror) and Zootopia (too cute). All of these are better than the first four films on this list and at least three of them should have been genuine contenders for the big prize.
Here, then, are the films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, given my definitive, binding and indisputable ranking of the nine films up for the biggest gong. (Warning: some of the Trump comments contain very mild spoilers.)
The Least Best Picture Is Hacksaw Ridge
Is it really a good idea to make a film about a pacifist who went to war and then to make war look so incredibly cool? The film treads water for the first hour with Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington playing pale imitations of the R Lee Ermey school of shouty military men, before Andrew Garfield finally makes his case for running into battle without a gun and the fun starts. For, while the film does a reasonable attempt at capturing the horrors of war, it also has men waving flamethrowers in slow motion and bullets ricocheting off helmets. It’s like a shinier, cheesier Saving 75 Private Ryans.
Why Trump should watch: It shows a shining example of a man putting his principle and his morals above violence and hatred.
Why Trump shouldn’t watch: It makes war look so cool that it’s a good job it didn’t feature a nuclear holocaust, otherwise we’d all be ****ed.
Which is not as good as Fences
Viola Davis would be a worthy winner of Best Actress, so maybe the Academy still has some diversity issues if she has to drop down to Best Supporting to get recognition. It takes a little patience to get through the first half hour, which is mainly Denzel refusing to let anyone else get a word in edge-ways, before it settles into stellar acting set pieces and gasp-inducing plot twists. However, watching Denzel Washington’s attempts to make yet another scene set in the back yard look visually interesting (camera pans slowly to the left; camera pans slightly more quickly to the right) can be excruciating at times, and if there was a vote to give this film a new name, the clear winner would be Stagey McStageface.
Why Trump should watch: To get an idea that it’s real people with real lives who live in the inner cities and working classes.
Why Trump shouldn’t watch: It sees a man who’s committed a variety of crimes in his past and who isn’t that pleasant in the present eulogised and forgiven in the future. Don’t get any ideas, Donald.
Which is not as good as Hidden Figures
There’ll be much made of the fact that this film does wonders for showing both women and black people as strong role models and in a positive light, but there’s a maligned group that this white man is also thankful to Hidden Figures for successfully bringing to the screen: mathematicians. Yes, not only do black women get portrayed in a deserved spotlight for their role in getting John Glenn into space, but this makes people who scribble complex equations on a blackboard or who program insane looking, room sized computers look amazing, and as a mathematics and computer science graduate that’s my wildest dream come true. As powerful as the story is, though, it’s telling remains fairly conventional.
Why Trump should watch: As a reminder that NASA do lots of really important stuff. Hopefully the sequel will focus on their vital work on global warming.
Why Trump shouldn’t watch: The Russians come out on top at the start of the film when they win the space race. But it would be cool to be friends with Russia, right?
Which is not as good as Lion
I am old enough that my first on-screen sight of Nicole Kidman was during a film night when on a school holiday at the age of eleven in BMX Bandits. Just a boat-based thriller with Billy Zane, a marriage to Tom Cruise, a dodgy Batman sequel, a Stanley Kubrick swansong, an Oscar-nominated musical, a duet with Robbie Williams, an Oscar, a BAFTA and a host more nominations later and seeing her up for her fourth Oscar nomination doesn’t feel like much of a surprise. Who’d have thought it? Looking forward to Sunny Pawar’s screen trajectory, which will presumably see him go the other way and after a tempestuous marriage to one of the Fanning sisters, he’ll end up in a cheesy Australian film about hoverboards. Anyway, Lion is a worthy, compelling true life tale that would have been a stronger contender had it not got slightly bogged down in the Dev Patel section.
Why Trump should watch: To see compassion, loyalty, humanity and stories of hope against the odds.
Why Trump shouldn’t watch: It may just reinforce the idea that all the information you need is on the internet. Don’t forget your intelligence briefings, Donnie…
Which is not as good as Hell Or High Water
This got shamefully overlooked on its release at the start of the awards period, probably because it hit cinemas in August in the States and September here. But somehow it managed to channel the small amount of momentum it had from its debut in Un Certain Regard at Cannes into nominations at the Oscars. While Jeff Bridges puts in the kind of solid, charismatic work we’ve come to expect from him, his other three co-stars (Gil Birmingham, Chis Pine and Ben Foster) are equally good in their own ways. Taylor Sheridan’s script mixes crisp dialogue with poignant reflection and David McKenzie’s direction brings it to thrilling life.
Why Trump should watch: It shows the desperate lengths modern Americans are driven to in a society which continues to channel wealth further and further to the rich.
Why Trump shouldn’t watch: The Native American comes off worst. Let’s hope that isn’t an omen for the pipelines.
Which is not as good as Manchester By The Sea
Have sexual harassment allegations against Casey Affleck scuppered not only his but the film’s chances? In a year when we seemingly can’t separate film from politics, maybe it’s no surprise that the slightest hint of impropriety, even deep in someone’s past, is enough to taint their candidacy as a leading actor. It would be a shame if it has, for while I can’t and won’t comment on Affleck’s private life, I do believe that he gives the best performance of any of the nominated actors this year. Michelle Williams also shows how it’s possible to command the screen with a bare minimum of screen time and we can but hope that this is just one of many beautifully nuanced character studies to come in the next few years from Kenneth Lonergan. Although I have to agree with Mark Kermode on one point: lose the Albioni Adagio next time.
Why Trump should watch: Misbehaving in the middle of the night can have devastating consqeuences which lead to bitterness and isolation, and these guys don’t even have Twitter.
Why Trump shouldn’t watch: Women just pop up occasionally in the background.
Which is not as good as La La Land
Did you hear about the woman who fell in the river in Paris? She was in-Seine! INSANE!! A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Anyway, I’ve had the soundtrack of this in the car on a loop since I saw it, so I pretty much knew all the words by the time the backlash kicked in. There are suggestions that La La Land isn’t revolutionary and relies too much on nostalgia for its thrills, among a thousand other complaints, but that overlooks Damien Chazelle’s laser-scalpel focus on his central characters and his ability to discard supporting characters the moment they’re not required. Let’s be clear: I’m not convinced that either Seb or Mia are great people – Seb in particular is a textbook definition of an arse – but it’s a modern couple that have both chemistry and realistic dancing and singing skills in a musical that mixes great tunes with a wistfulness about the passage of time and the small margins by which choices define our lives and separate beautiful dreams from bitter reality.
Why Trump should watch: A reminder that the arts are critically important, even if it is classic films that a film buff hasn’t watched or white man jazz.
Why Trump shouldn’t watch: Man is obnoxious, rude, self-absorbed, mansplains simple concepts badly and still ends up getting everything he wanted.
Which is not as good as Moonlight
I would be thrilled if this wins the main award, because it’s supremely beautiful and as quietly devastating as anything I’ve seen on screen in years. It’s difficult to know how Oscar will go sometimes: if the glamour and romance of La La Land triumph we probably shouldn’t be surprised, but if actors want to reward their peers for some magnificent performances (Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Ashton Sanders to name just three), gorgeous direction and cinematography and a script that delivers gut punches from the quietest of exchanges then they should have put their cross next to this one. There is a poetry in the scene construction and in the simpler moments that resonates long after the credits have rolled.
Why Trump should watch: Given the speed at which his presidency is rolling back the rights of minorities, a little understanding into how people explore their own nature and why it’s so important to value our differences could go a long way.
Why Trump shouldn’t watch: There’s a few black people here doing drugs and getting in trouble. It’s not *all* black people.
Which means that…
The Best Picture Of 2016 Is Arrival
While Moonlight is the most deserving film of the year, the one that had the most profound effect on me personally is Arrival. A commanding performance from Amy Adams that was shamefully overlooked in awards season, themes of communication that are achingly prescient in these times, sci-fi concepts that might not be completely original but that are extremely well handled and direction from Denis Villeneuve that should make everyone with a pulse excited about Blade Runner 2049. Rapidly becoming one of my favourite film makers, Villeneuve delivered one of my favourite films of the past ten years and for me, by just a tiny shade, the best film of the year. (Good luck Moonlight, though.)
Why Trump should watch: Above all, the themes of this film are rooted in making simple decisions which can have ramifications through our entire lives, the power of communication and the importance of getting your facts straight.
Why Trump shouldn’t watch: America manages to isolate itself from every other country in the world and white American people attack illegal aliens but that doesn’t stop things turning out generally OK.
Your bonus content: my annual list of how the films rank out of ten, including those I saw this year that scored a 10/10 that didn’t make the grade. See you next year, if we’ve not had a nuclear holocaust by then.