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Spotlight: Ben Whishaw

February 21, 2020

 

Over at One Room With a View, I’ve done an overview of one of my favourite actors, Ben Whishaw, ahead of the release of his latest film, Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe.

To read it, follow the link here: https://oneroomwithaview.com/2020/02/19/spotlight-ben-whishaw/

 

Emma.

February 16, 2020

Emma. (2020)
Director: Autumn de Wilde
Actors: Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth

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Synopsis: Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) attempts to manufacture love matches from the small group of people orbiting around her world of Highbury.

Review: I was wondering when the film industry might deem it appropriate to get another round of those bankable Jane Austen adaptations going again. Seeing as we’re around the 25th anniversary of that spate of popular and well-received Austen variants – the iconic 1994 BBC TV series of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Ang Lee’s Oscar winning Sense and Sensibility (1995), the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring Emma (1996), and the US high school spin-off, Clueless (1994) – it’s no surprise that the time is rife for a new generation of actors, producers, directors, and, indeed, film-goers, to revisit these stories which amount to the sweetest of cinematic comfort food for period genre devotees.

This Emma is competent enough. It’s probably as much down to the inherently colourful raw materials of the source text, but, credit where credit’s due, debut director Autumn de Wilde and her cast do a decent enough job of bringing it to life. In particular, De Wilde accentuates the opulence of the milieu and scenario, almost to the point where it is ever-so-slightly expressionistic. In the chromatic colours, punchy edits, and almost comedic feel to the framing and choreography, it feels loosely styled on Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, without any of that film’s swoon, outré stylistics and anachronisms.

One of the film’s most interesting casting choices and/or performances is Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley. It’s a remove from the usual casting of Mr Knightley, as Flynn’s blond locks and marginal air of the scoundrel about him (he would more normally have been cast as the cad Frank Churchill) is a change from the darker, older, patrician feel for the character as essayed by Jeremy Northam and Jonny Lee Miller in the most recent adaptations. Bill Nighy is predictably funny as Mr Woodhouse, though it’s a shame that his character’s fearful obsession with cakes is omitted here.

Mia Goth as Harriet Smith threatens to steal the show though. Harriet is usually caricatured as this naïve but winsome young girl at the prey of Emma’s whims, but Goth makes her characterisation naturalistic, three-dimensional and more complex. It accentuates one of the questions I’ve had with the text dating back to when I studied it at A-Level. I always wondered whether Austen wasn’t offering a sly critique of the conventions of romantic comedies and the class moral of her story, with the way all the romantic subplots are resolved at the end. Harriet finds her patronisingly rightful place alongside Mr Martin, while the seeming centre of the plot – Emma and Mr Knightley’s slowburn romance – could actually be the merging of the two most insufferable and supercilious characters in the novel? Just a thought… (February 2020)

Little Women

February 9, 2020

Little Women (2019)
Director: Greta Gerwig
Actors: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson

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Synopsis: The more youthful days of the March sisters who grow up in Concord, Massachusetts, juxtaposed to seven years on, when each of them has more challenging personal circumstances.

Review: It’s hard to really quibble with Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of ‘Little Women’. Arguably the most distinctive elements of it are the proto-feminist touches that will resonate with today’s audience. Gerwig lands a handful of tub-thumping monologues in the mouths of her protagonists, and there is the meta-focus on Jo’s need to add a romantic twist to the novel she has sent to the patriarchal publishers regarding her own (loosely disguised) travails with men. These flourishes do not overly burden the film, and the novel was, after all, a paean to familial female solidarity, and an adaptation can and should reflect the ideologies and tastes of the time.

Gerwig’s main directorial success is the structural shifts she has made, having both timeframes of the novel a continuous, dovetailing conceit. There are the halcyonic, sun-dappled days of the girls’ youth culminating in Meg’s wedding, juxtaposed to the sombre present day threads as each of the four girls battle more challenging circumstances and dilemmas.

Other than that, it’s a bit of period drama comfort food, with no expense spared in the A-list cast and budget. Some of the characters even suspiciously look like they stepped out of a Chanel advert. I’ve no qualms with that, though I can’t quite side with the pre-determined readings pushing the film into more exalted territory. Is it some fans and commentators’ desire to make an auteur out of Gerwig, or to pin some of the lack of female representation debate onto this film? Either way, those commentators would be better advised to expand their cinephilia and focus on the wider reaches of the film industry rather than the millionaires and Hollywood elite who make a nice life out of current structures, thank you very much! (February 2020)

The Student and Mister Henri

February 9, 2020

The Student and Mister Henri (2015)
Director: Ivan Calbérac
Actors: Noémie Schmidt, Claude Brasseur, Guillaume de Tonquédec

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Synopsis: Irascible widower, Henri (Claude Brasseur), is forced to take on a lodger by his concerned son, Paul (Guillaume de Tonquédec). That lodger turns out to be young student, Constance (Noémie Schmidt), and Henri soon conceives of Constance as an opportunity to drive a wedge between Paul and Paul’s neurotic wife.

Review: The French comedy of manners is a genre so hard to get right on the big screen. It’s inherently anti-cinematic, and, if poorly written, plays out as little more than a mediocre soap opera. The Student and Mister Henri is one such example: ‘a meeting of opposites’ scenario that sees chaotic twentysomething student, Constance, rent a room off a misanthropic septuagenarian widower, Henri.

Naturally, the film stands or falls on Constance and Henri’s odd pairing blossoming into an unlikely friendship, but the pathos never comes. Henri is such a fundamentally unattractive character – even beyond what the film intends him to be – and the fact he attempts to essentially pimp out Constance to upset his bourgeois son’s sterile marriage seems overlooked in the syrupy climax (particularly as he bribes Constance with being kicked out if she doesn’t comply). The montage at the end, detailing Henri mentoring Constance on her piano compositions comes far too late to redeem the film or its conceit as the previous 95 minutes have prioritised Henri’s unattractive machinations and the limited comedic conceit of his son Paul and neurotic wife Valérie getting some unintentional spark from the unlikely catalytic effect of Henri and Constance. It’s an unlikeable film about an unlikeable group of people. (February 2020)

1917

February 1, 2020

1917 (2019)
Director: Sam Mendes
Actors: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong

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Synopsis: Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked with ferrying a message across dangerous territory to a British battalion which is about to be ambushed by a seemingly retreating, but actually fortifying, mass of German troops.

Review: 1917 might bring it with the veneer of immediacy and verisimilitude – perhaps as a result of its largely continuous single-take stunt – but it actually owes more to a very received notion of recreated warfare: passed down through popular culture (in particular, other war movies) and the increasingly politicised and deified reverence around which the First and Second World War is engaged with in Britain.

Perversely, 1917 ends up becoming the opposite of its authentic intent. It transmits, at times, as actually quite phoney and hackneyed. The depictions of war appear very stage-managed, airbrushed and curated; we are reminded that war is, at every step, bad and that the men made unimaginable sacrifices. The film however is more interested in mythologising one side’s efforts and sacrifice, while the Germans are predominantly othered and villainised. That was the fundamental difference between Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Spielberg was still playing the partisan game, while Malick had totally transcended it and transcendentalised it. Basically, if you’ve seen those two seminal Second World War movies from 1998, plus A Very Long Engagement, Atonement, and Joyeux Noël to name but a few referents – then you’ve seen this. There are the faded photographs of loved ones, the doctrinaire generals and captains, the plucky privates and lance corporals, the poignant anecdote idealising the British motherland, the troops momentarily quietened by one of their brethren singing a nostalgic ditty, the piled up carcasses, and there’s even that classic trope of an abandoned young woman and child in a shelled French town.

Perhaps the piece de resistance of naffness is the dialogue given to Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake while they navigate their mission. It sounds how we’ve come to expect young officers in war movies to speak, rather than how callow teenagers in 1917 actually might. And (huge spoiler alert), when one of them dies, it has to be one of the most poorly acted, scripted and unrealistic death scenes – even by Hollywood war movie standards – that I have seen.

Ironically, this feels like a very appropriate movie to have seen on #brexitday, judging by the reams of punters stumbling out of my provincial multiplex, brow-beaten into solemnly fawning at the profundity of what they had seen. He may not have intended to, but Sam Mendes has fashioned a very conservative film – one which will, no doubt, play well to the meagre cinematic imaginations of Oscar and BAFTA voters and fans in the coming days and weeks. (February 2020)

Uncut Gems

February 1, 2020

Uncut Gems (2019)
Director: Josh and Benny Safdie
Actors: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel

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Synopsis: Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) embarks on a long day’s journey into night as he attempts to avoid creditors while leveraging uncut opal diamonds that came from an Ethiopian mine.

Review: In another of their tour de forces of nocturnal contingency, the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems may have even surpassed their previous minor masterpiece Good Time as some sort of cinematic parable on the sheer nauseous toxicity of a life lived on the edge in New York City.

It’s very much in the lineage of Good Time: the narrative built around unfurling contingencies, the de facto real time feel, and the distinctive stylisation (roving cinematography that approximates the unfolding mess, the fractured synth score, and the lurid neons and chromes of nocturnal NYC). As with Good Time, it’s largely a thrilling, breathless journey – the Safdies suck you almost viscerally into Howard Ratner (a stellar turn by Adam Sandler) and the conveyor belt of crises he’s forced to manage and/or evade. And much like Good Time, my only marginal, perhaps even churlish, criticism is that the Sadfies almost try to oversell this manic, stressful world view once or twice, especially through the sinister and jagged synthesiser chords that almost play too much as a literal manifestation of the on-screen chaos.

Better is the fact that the Safdies’ concentricity of style and universe building has seen them a create a world as lived in as any narrative that’s taken dozens of episodes in a television format to construct. And, although I think Uncut Gems to some extent refutes the attempt to infer a clean-cut moral (it’s more about the experiential than the dramaturgical), I do think the framing scene of mayhem at the Ethiopian diamond mine acting as an informant to the predominant part of the narrative that takes place in that little strip of capitalism’s end game (Manhattan, NYC), lends the idea of man’s disconnect with the natural and eternal. It’s a riff on the diamond and silver motifs of Arthur Miller’s seminal play ‘Death of a Salesman’ where Willy Loman, chronically toxified by the materialist rat race, conjures an obsession with the superficial ephemera of glittering facades, and this leads him on an unholy descent into the “junkyard” as he calls it – much like Howard Ratner’s fraught protagonist here. (February 2020)

The Death of Stalin

January 31, 2020

The Death of Stalin (2017)
Director: Armando Iannucci
Actors: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor

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Synopsis: The build up to, and the aftermath of, Joseph Stalin’s death in March 1953.

Review: Though it may flit between registers both heavy-handed and brilliantly droll, Armando Iannucci’s farcical re-imagining of the events surrounding the death of Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, is a pretty good attempt at satirising the absurdities of end-game totalitarianism.

Much like with his current comedic revisionist piece, The Private History of David Copperfield, Iannucci makes no bones about casting whoever he wants in the roles – irrespective of nationality. No one speaks with cod Russian accents, and we have a range of intriguingly cast Anglo-American actors, such as Steve Buscemi bringing slimy hustle as Nikita Khrushchev, to Simon Russell Beale providing some Machiavellian theatrical grind as Lavrentiy Beria, and Jeffrey Tambor making a typically wry, mordant impression as the puppet interim leader post-Stalin, Georgy Malenkov. Getting Adrian McLoughlin in gruff cockney mode to parlay Stalin in the opening scenes is a canny move too.

The film is generally funnier and of more merit in its second half, after Stalin has died. It delights at showing the unfurling chaos, as 30 years of autocratic leadership end abruptly, leaving a vacuum that the various snakes and incompetents of Stalin’s politburo squabble to fill. There’s a clever moment where the doctors who fought to save Stalin’s life at his dacha are lined up outside the compound expecting to be honoured, only to get the ‘welcome’ they would least expect from Soviet officers. This is an ironic mirror of an earlier scene when doctors and conductors are rounded up in Moscow to, what they presume is, one of Stalin’s latest purges, only to find they’re merely required to perform as functionaries in a concert hall so the theatre director can send a recording to Stalin himself.

At times, the film’s unending scattergun of satire can fire awry, such as in the opening concerto scene, and when Stalin’s acolytes have to sit through laborious westerns with Stalin at night, so as to not risk offending him. Also, Iannucci’s never been a great visual director, and the film almost plays like what might have been a more interesting and expanded TV series. Still, his gift for dialogue and humour is to the fore; never more so than when Stalin’s crazy and frenzied son (a lovely performance by Rupert Friend) demands a reading at his father’s funeral. The politicos know this would be a PR disaster, but inept interim leader Malenkov blurts out “no problem”, before, after dirty looks from Beria and Khrushchev, he recants with a bit of punctuation to explain, “No. Problem.” It’s a delectable bit of wordplay in this amusing, if ultimately fairly slight, impression of the absurdities that may well have unfolded in the wake of the sudden death of one of the world’s most notorious dictators. (January 2020)