Film

The Personal History of David Copperfield

21/01/20

I arrive at the cinema expecting great things. The trailer for Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield promises a rollicking ride through one of Dickens’ best loved tales, and I’m excited to see how it unfolds.

The promise is kept: it is a rollicking ride. A bit too rollicking, if I’m honest, careening  through the 350,000 word novel at breakneck speed. Well, it’s a lot to fit into two hours. There’s nothing here I’d lose – no padding or filler required – but I’d be tempted to add an extra thirty minutes to the running time, just to give the story space to breathe.

Dev Patel is the eponymous hero of his own life, and very good he is too, all genial affability despite his social-climbing and urgent need to impress. Born a gentleman, he’s forced into poverty when his widowed mother remarries, and his stepfather (Darren Boyd) takes against the boy. Young David is not too worried at first: the poverty he’s witnessed so far – visiting Peggotty’s quirky, loving family in their upturned boat/house – has given him a romanticised impression of the working person’s lot. A back-breaking job in a bottle factory soon disabuses him of this worldview, and he determines to find a way to live a better life.

Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie form a show-stealing double-act as David’s aunt Betsey Trotwood and her cousin Mr Dick respectively; in fact, there are almost too many perfectly-captured vignettes featuring too many wonderful actors. There’s Anna Maxwell Martin playing school mistress Mrs Strong – whoosh! There’s Benedict Wong as the ever-thirsty Mr Wickfield, and Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter, Agnes – whoosh! Daisy May Cooper’s Peggotty is warmly, wittily portrayed; Morfydd Clark’s Dora Spenlow a frothy, silly delight. I do like the sense of breathless chaos: the lack of deference to period drama genre-norms; the diverse casting that proves it can (and should) be done. There’s just no time to focus in on anything before it’s gone.

In short, each scene is beautifully rendered; each character cleverly drawn. But the story feels a little superficial, with none of the darkness or political poignancy of Dickens’ semi-autobiographical novel.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Uncut Gems

19/01/20

Hold the front-page! Adam Sandler has made a good movie. Actually, he’s made an excellent one. That’s not something I get to say very often.

To give the man his due, those with long memories will recall his assured turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and, more recently, he was pretty decent in The Meyerowitz Stories, but these lapses into quality are few and far between. Most of his output can be filed under E for ‘Embarrassing.’ So his starring role in the Safdie Brothers Uncut Gems is something of a revelation. Not only does he nail the central character perfectly, it’s hard to imagine any other actor being such a perfect fit.

Howard Ratner (no relation) is the proprietor of a jewellery store, situated in New York’s infamous ‘diamond district.’ Our introduction to him is unusual to say the least, as it’s via his small intestine – he’s having a colonoscopy. Howard is a wheeler-dealer, a man with a perpetual grin on his face and a gaze fixed resolutely on his next big score. He’s married to the long-suffering Dinah (Idina Menzel), he has several kids and he lives in a nice house in the suburbs. He also owns a swish city apartment where he entertains his mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), who is also an employee at his store. Against all the odds, Julia clearly loves Howard, and he is thinking seriously about leaving Dinah, who really doesn’t like him at all and has no hesitation in telling him so.

Howard senses that the biggest deal of his career is about to pop when he acquires a chunk of African rock containing a vein of rare ‘black’ opals, which he plans to put up for auction. But a visit to the store by famous basketball player Keven Garnett (gamely playing himself) complicates matters, as Garnett takes a shine to the stone and asks if he can ‘hold on to it’ for a day or so. Howard is understandably reluctant but finally agrees when Garnet leaves his championship ring as surety. But the problem is, Howard is an inveterate gambler, in hock to some very dangerous people – and when Garnett puts off returning the stone, a hideously complicated chain of events ensues.

The resulting action feels somewhat akin to a two-hour panic attack as Howard lurches from one desperate scenario to the next, being punched, excoriated and at one point literally stripped naked as he races frantically around, attempting to head off potential disaster. The Safdies achieve the seemingly impossible here by making me root for the frankly odious Howard; indeed, I’m soon so invested in him that I spend most of the movie perched on the edge of my seat, chewing my fingernails and praying that things will turn out well for him. And I’m hooked right up to the film’s heart-stopping conclusion.

Those who can’t cope with stress may not want to watch this. At times it feels like a genuinely life-shortening experience. But that, in my book, is a recommendation.

Uncut Gems will be streaming on Netflix from the end of the month, though I suspect its considerable powers will be somewhat diminished through the filter of a small screen. If you get the chance to see it in the cinema, take my advice – get it booked, grab a seat and buckle in for a thrill-ride.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Waves

17/01/20

We’re barely a fortnight into 2020 and accomplished films continue to spill onto our cinema screens. Where are all the duds? There have to be some, right?

Waves is a powerful story, told in an unashamedly bravura style by writer/director Trey Edward Shults, whose last film was the underrated It Comes at Night. He focuses here on the lives of a middle-class black family living in Florida. The opening scenes set out Shults’ stall in no uncertain manner, as the camera swoops and spins giddily around the interior of a crowded vehicle, as exuberant as the laughing passengers.

We are looking in on scenes from the life of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jnr), a handsome  high school pupil preparing for a bright future at college. Driven by his ambitious father, Ronald (Sterling K Brown), and his more pragmatic stepmother, Catherine (Reneé Elise Goldsberry), Tyler is an active member of his school’s wrestling team and spends every spare moment he can training hard for an upcoming competition. 

But Tyler harbours a secret – he’s actually suffering from a serious muscle injury. Doctors have warned him to refrain from exercise, but he continues to push himself and regularly raids his father’s supply of powerful painkillers in order to make it through each bout. To add to his woes, his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Donie), has missed her period and, as the weeks pass, is unsure of what she wants to do about the situation. As the pressure steadily builds, Tyler finds himself spiralling, inevitably, out of control…

The film’s second half abruptly switches its attention to Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who has lived in her brother’s shadow for most of her life. When she meets up with shy, gawky Luke (Lucas Hedges), the ensuing romance helps her to blossom and she starts to discover her own identity. Then she finds out that Luke, one of her brother’s teammates, has his own demons to face…

While the story itself is not exactly undiscovered territory, the telling is extraordinary. Shults uses his cameras to reflect the different moods, employing vivid colours, eerie flashbacks, even sometimes changing the ratio of the screen to enhance the various emotions of the piece, aided by an evocative soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. 

Shults learned his craft as a cinematographer on the films of Terence Malick and some of the great director’s influences are apparent here but, in fairness, the film never strays into the glacial emptiness that typifies Malick’s recent output – and is all the better for that. 

Waves is an affecting meditation on love, loss and the process of healing. While Harrison Jnr has the showier role, it’s Russell who really impresses here, as her formerly repressed character gradually emerges from its cocoon and takes flight.

The film won’t be for everyone. Those who prefer a director who reigns in the visual tricks may find the impressionistic cinematography too intrusive. But, for those who admire the director’s art, Waves is a brilliant example of how it’s done.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Your Name

15/01/20

We missed this smash hit by Makoto Shinkai on its release in 2016, but tonight’s double bill at the Cameo – pairing Your Name with his latest release, Weathering With You – gives us the opportunity to find out what the fuss was all about.

And wow. Each critical superlative, every bit of box-office lucre, is completely merited. Shinkai is, indeed, a worthy successor to Hayao Miyazaki, recently retired head of Studio Ghibli. This is a beautiful animation.

Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) is a teenage girl, living in the remote rural village of Itomori. Mitsuha feels stifled by her strict father, and by the ancient rituals she is obliged to follow. She dreams of being ‘a boy in Tokyo,’ with the freedom to do what she wants in a bustling city.

And sometimes, it seems, dreams can come true, because Mitsuha wakes up one day in an unfamiliar room – and body. She’s switched places with Taki (Ryûnosuke Kamiki), and suddenly finds herself forced to negotiate the intricacies of a stranger’s life. Where is his school? Who are his friends? Mitsuha embraces the opportunity to hang out in café bars and flirt with Taki’s colleague, Ms Okudera (Masami Nagasawa), at his part-time restaurant job. She relishes the new experience.

Taki, meanwhile, is less enthusiastic about the change, although he can’t help enjoying playing with ‘his’ breasts, much to the outrage of Mitsuha’s younger sister, Yotsuha (Kanon Tani). Still, he goes along with it; what option does he have? And, before long, the teens have navigated a way through their intermittent body swaps, using their cell phones to log notes and reminders to keep things running (relatively) smoothly. I particularly like the way suspense is generated via a repeated motif where their lives almost collide.

So far, so seen-it-done-it-Freaky-Friday, but Shinkai’s movie has another layer, a deeper, more engaging heart, encompassing (without saying too much) fate, time travel and natural disaster. It’s compellingly told, with warmth and sincerity.

But it’s the animation that really makes this film. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous, with a clear delineation between the hard lines of the city and the sumptuous, lush countryside. At times photo-realistic, at others impressionistic, each frame is perfect, each hand-drawn image exquisitely realised.

A masterpiece.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Weathering With You

15/01/20

There’s a lot riding on Makoto Shinkai’s latest film. After the extraordinary success of Your Name (2016),  currently the highest earning anime of all time, many of his peers urged him to do something more ‘meaningful’ with his next feature. Perhaps that’s why the subject of climate change is what fuels Weathering With You. The problem is, it’s hard to know what the animator’s views on the subject actually are. Comments made by some of the older characters here feel suspiciously like climate change denial, while the actions of its younger ones come across as pure selfishness – and that’s a worry.

The story takes place in Tokyo where the seasons have been disrupted into one long bout of torrential rain. Hodaka (Kotaro Daigo), a teenage boy from the country, has run away from home and is eking out a precarious existence in the Shinjuku district of the city, where he struggles to find ways to support himself. He meets up with Hina (Nana Mori), a girl who claims to be a little older than him and who is living a similar hand-to-mouth existence. The two of them strike up a friendship.

Hodaka soon discovers that Hina is a ‘Sunshine Girl,’ able to influence the elements through prayer to create short spells of fine weather. He also realises that there are people out there who would be prepared to pay handsomely for her skills, so the two of them set up a business together, one that quickly begins to pay dividends. But a Japanese legend suggests that Hina must eventually pay a terrible price for possessing such powers – and, when the weather continues to worsen, the couple are presented with a difficult decision.

The first thing to say about Weathering With You is that it is every bit as jaw-droppingly beautiful as its predecessor. The depictions of the rain-ravaged city are extraordinary, finding a kind of ravishing beauty in the power and fury of nature. Some of the scenes here are almost photo-realistic, while Shinkai is also adept at focusing on tiny details that capture the essence of a scene. Furthermore, the story is peopled by a selection of fascinatingly flawed characters, who take the viewer into the kind of edgy territory where the likes of Disney would fear to tread. Throw in some exciting chase scenes and a long suspense-laden sequence where Hodaka attempts to reconnect with Hina and you’ve got an undeniably compelling slice of cinema.

So it’s a pity that the ending feels so fudged – the subject of climate change is vitally important and I’m left unsure about Shinkai’s position on it. Is he saying that humanity is too selfish to ever remedy the situation? Is he suggesting that the younger generation are so consumed with their own agenda they fail to see the problem? Or does he believe that climate change is simply a natural process, unaffected by the excesses of humanity? As presented here, all of these answers are possible – and none of them is satisfactory.

It’s this nebulous quality that denies Weathering With You the knock-it-out-of-the-park satisfaction of Your Name. That said, lovers of quality animation will have to look very hard indeed to find a more eye-popping example of the art.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Richard Jewell

14/01/19

We’re only two weeks into the new year, yet we’re already on our third excoriating movie exposé of a corrupt American justice system. Appalled? Yes. Saddened? Yes. Surprised? Not so much. Not any more.

Richard Jewell is the story of a hapless security guard, the focus of an intense FBI and media investigation. His crime? Discovering a bomb and alerting the authorities. But lazy  stereotyping (‘he’s a bit of an oddball and he lives with his mom’) is enough to convince the forces-that-be that Jewell is the perpetrator, responsible for two deaths and more than a hundred injuries, despite a lack of any evidence whatsoever. And, once that suspicion is leaked to the press, Jewell loses control of his life.

Paul Walter Hauser gives us a convincing portrayal of a decent man driven almost to despair. He portrays Jewell as utterly sincere – a naïve, mild-natured, over-zealous employee, a stickler for the rules. His mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), has always taught him to respect authority, and Jewell has absolute faith in law and order. He is devastated when it proves to be a phoney, a façade.

Sam Rockwell plays Watson Bryant, the real estate lawyer who comes to Jewell’s rescue (in real life, Bryant employed a team to help him; here – for the sake of a stronger storyline – he goes it alone). It’s a terrific performance, giving us a real sense of the man’s selfishness and impatience as well as his deep-rooted morality. Thank goodness for Bryant; I dread to think what might have happened to Jewell if he hadn’t once worked in the same building and earned the man’s respect. Without representation, who knows?

It’s so depressing. How can a so-called mature democracy have a justice system that is so blatantly unfair, where guilt or innocence is decided by how much money an individual has, or by the colour of their skin, or by how desperate the law enforcers are to meet their targets? And Eastwood’s film delivers this message well.

A shame, then, that the women’s roles are so reductive, and that real-life AJC news reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is depicted as having slept her way to success. It’s an evidence-free stereotype as offensive and pervasive as the one the movie exposes.

It’s not the film’s only fault. Billy Ray’s script is somewhat pedestrian – long-winded in places – and the cinematography a little murky but, nevertheless, taken in conjunction with Seberg and Just Mercy, this amounts to a searing condemnation of a broken institution.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Seberg

13/01/20

In the year 2020, who even remembers the name of Jean Seberg? Not many people judging by the meagre crowd gathered at tonight’s screening. 

But hers is a fascinating story of toxic stardom, of a young performer whose life was systematically destroyed by the FBI; of a reckless but well-intentioned young woman, who got embroiled in events she couldn’t hope to control – events that would eventually destroy her. 

Catapulted to stardom at the age of seventeen, Seberg starred in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan and suffered serious burns when her character’s onscreen immolation went horribly wrong. A few years later, she became the darling of the French New Wave when she starred in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless. But Seberg, directed by Benedict Andrews, examines her ill-fated trip to Hollywood in the late 60s, where she’d gone to film the Western musical Paint Your Wagon. (Or ‘Clint Eastwood Sings!’ as it’sfondly remembered my many.)

Seberg (Kristen Stewart) reluctantly leaves her husband Roman (Yvan Attal) at home with their young son. On the plane to America, she meets up with Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), an influential player in the burgeoning Black Power movement. She shows solidarity with his cause, contributing funds for the school he runs and, shortly afterwards, embarks on an affair with him. This brings her to the attention of the FBI, where operative Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) is directed to put her under intense surveillance. When Seberg starts to engage with more powerful members of the Black Panthers, the agency sets put to discredit her by making the details of her affair with Jamal public – and, in the increasingly poisonous atmosphere that ensues, Seberg’s sanity is pushed to the edge of the abyss…

Seberg is an interesting if somewhat flawed film. Stewart is an assured actor (and, given the invasive media coverage she herself has endured, it’s easy to see what attracted her to this role), but the fictional elements of this retelling of Seberg’s story are rather less successful. O’Connell’s tightly buttoned FBI man doesn’t really have enough to do, hanging around the edges of events, listening in on her via bugging devices and serving as the audience’s collective conscience. His exchanges with his hard nosed colleague Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughan) are nicely drawn but don’t add much to the telling.

The era is nicely evoked but I would have liked to have seen some recreations of the filming of Paint Your Wagon thrown into the mix. (This is, after all, a biopic.) Perhaps there simply wasn’t the budget for that approach or more likely the filmmakers couldn’t obtain the rights. There are a couple of tantalising glimpses from St Joan and Breathless, but its not enough.

In some ways, this could be seen as the tale of a luckless individual crushed by the corrupt might of American law enforcement. But really, as Seberg herself says, ‘I am not the victim here.’ There is a much bigger  story – a shocking demonstration of the depths that the American justice system will sink to in order to prevent black people from ever achieving any sort of equality.

There seem to be quite a few such stories around right now. Add Just Mercy and Richard Jewell to the mix and we’re beginning to see a familiar trope. All of these films offer the same narrative: America is a corrupt and unforgiving place and things aren’t getting any better for the poor and the dispossessed.

This is worth seeing for Stewart’s powerful performance in the title role, but I can’t help feeling it could have been more effective than it ultimately is.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney