Posts by hutchwp

Sole writer at http://cinemaetc.co.uk

Haiku film review #080 – Ace Venture: Pet Detective

Wacky pet D.I.
Confirms Einhorn is Finkle
Saves Snowflake and Dan

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Film review – Mrs Lowry & Son (Adrian Noble, 2019)

L. S. Lowry once claimed he only ever used five colours: vermilion, ivory black, Prussian blue, yellow ochre and flake white. Mrs Lowry and Son puts Timothy Spall and Vanessa Redgrave together in a film as flatly coloured as any of Lowry’s paintings, with a plot to match. This isn’t to bismirch the overall effect – a film with a different tone would feel like a mis-step.

These are astonishing performances from the two leads.

Spall plays the titular son, famed Lancashire artist Laurence Stephen Lowry. He brings Lowry to life, as he struggles against his own mother’s opinion of his work and allows that to permeate his confidence. It’s a heartbreaking thing to watch play out.

Of course, without Redgrave giving an equally wonderful performance as Elizabeth Lowry, the whole thing would fall flat. It’s well written and delivered perfectly. Redgrave has seldom felt so dislikeable. She has a dedicated son that she completely takes for granted. All she offers is a relentless undermining that only serves to stifle his genius.

The naming of the film tells you all you need to know about how important Redgrave is to the plot. It is arguably more her story than it is his, with her character as overbearing to the story as she was in real life to Lowry’s paintings.

It feels dreary, but this is a portrait of an artist living in Pendlebury in the 1930s. It was a dreary time to live, as families were built around the financial gains of working in the local coal mines.

The film soars when Adrian Noble works some of the more familiar of Lowry’s works into the visuals of the film. As a child who grew up in nearby Burnley, Lowry was revisited many times during art lessons at school. I’m not an expert, but it is a joy to see the masterpieces brought to life.

The joys of this film shouldn’t be limited to those from northern England, nor just to fans of his art. It’s very well executed and is well worth your viewing time.

Is Ben-Hur really all that it’s cracked up to be?

Ben-Hur is one of the most celebrated and successful pieces of cinema in the history of the art. It had been on my bucket list for a long time, which feels like it’s getting longer rather than shorter. I’m 34-years-old now and this is a good age to be looking back beyond my 1984 birth year.

I make no apologies for the spoilers. It’s over half a century old, for Christ’s sake.*

The film follows Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a prince living in Roman Empire-occupied Jerusalem under the watchful eye of guards working for Julius Caesar. His long-time best friend Massala has returned following extensive guard training and is now a fully-fledged devotee to the Roman Empire. However, when a guard’s march walks through the city and a tile falls from a roof and hits a guard, Ben-Hur is blamed and banished to slavery, whilst his mother and sister are sent to prison, all at the hands of a Massala keen to impress his superiors. This begins Ben-Hur’s plight to avenge this wrongdoing and seek justice.

Now, there are a couple of things that may have been prevalent in the marketing of Ben-Hur back in 1959, but 60 years on all we hear about is the chariot race scene and as such we’re left with a few surprises.

Firstly, this film is extremely religious. Indeed, the story is, at heart, a tale of how one man’s beliefs are tested and torn to shreds before eventually being restored to a place stronger than ever. Jesus Christ is an important character, even though he is never mentioned by name, nor is his face ever seen. The story uses Judah Ben-Hur as an allegory for Jesus, and it is an adaptation of a novel titles ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’. It is effective in doing so, albeit through the medium of a fairly slow-paced cinematic epic.

Secondly, whilst we’re on the topic of the slow pace, this film is almost four hours long! It is split across two Blu-ray discs.** This is a crazy amount of time, and it was proved to be far too long when the film was remade a few years ago in around half the running time. Admittedly, this version was far less successful than its most popular predecessor (itself a remake). Realistically, the only way to get through it is to watch it in installments.

Indeed, manually splitting it into a four-part mini series will make it more manageable to modern audiences. I hate myself for recommending doing that, but this film is no easy nut to crack based on what modern audiences are used to.

It’s typical of the blockbuster films of the time to be over-long and of epic proportions. The Ten Commandments. Gone With The Wind. Looking back, it seems the longer the film, the more likely it is to have stood the test of time.

It is no wonder that fans of the film concentrate so heavily on the brilliant chariot race and that horrific rowing slaves scene. True, when this film is good, it’s great. The scene where he discovers his sister and mother are still living in The Valley of the Lepers is truly heartbreaking. Watching him confront Massala on the operation table is as satisfying as it is horrific.

Of course, the chariot scene is rightly celebrated. Watching that in isolation, in all its grandeur, is something to behold. If you have the setup, I highly recommend you watch it at home in brilliant HD and surround sound. It is absolutely majestic.

It is wholly unfair to judge it by today’s standards, of course. Is Murnau’s Sunrise as entertaining as Jenkins’s Moonlight? Probably not. But it operates on a different plane. Both are excellent, judged by whatever standards, but modern audiences are more likely to enjoy a film made in modern times.

The same holds true for Ben-Hur. It’s of its time. It is definitely hard work, without a doubt. But if you can’t dedicate four hours to it in one sitting, then you’ll still get a lot out of it by splitting it up into bite-sized chunks.

* You see what I did here? Of course, this is a religious joke. And the film is religious. I’m a classy reviewer…

** Probably not a concern at the time.

Is Porco Rosso the best introduction to Studio Ghibli?

In an ongoing quest to indoctrinate my child with good cinema and expose her subconscious brain to variety of languages, we sat down and watched a Ghibli feature film for the first time. Well, okay, she didn’t watch it. She was only six-and-half weeks old at the time. I’m hoping the audio filtered through her ears and into her dreams as it played out with her asleep in my arms. At least her bath time music was definitely familiar,

As I watched it, I thought to myself how surprising it is that Porco Rosso isn’t better known and better appreciated. It’s one of only eleven feature-length animated films that Hiyao Miyazaki has directed, and sits directly in the middle of the timeline of releases. It is also, surely, one of his greatest works of art.

The plot revolves around a World War I Italian ex-fighter pilot, who now makes his money as a bounty hunter chasing air pirates. This allows Miyazaki to show off two of his greatest loves. The first is the beautifully-realistic European setting.  His version of early 1900s Italy is so authentic you can almost taste the pomodoro. It’s set firmly in the real-world events of the aftermath of the war, with the references to the Great Depression putting it in the 1930s.

Secondly, the over-arching aeronautical theme is again on display. Hayao Miyazaki’s father Katsuji Miyazaki was the director of Miyazaki Airplane, a company responsible for manufacturing aircraft parts during World War II. As you explore his work, time and time again the skies are visited and form a central part of the stories. Never is this more the case than in Porco Rosso.

Indeed, as an entry-level Ghibli film, it’s one of the best places to start. It has a focused, robust plot with a clear start, middle and end. It has elements of fantasy included. It has a wonderful Joe Hisaishi score. Everything you’d expect of a Studio Ghibli feature.

It’s interesting that it still feels very much like a film aimed at children. But what are the themes here? The war? Depression? Lost love? Fascism? The early years of aviation? Somehow these are tied together with such grace and love and packaged in a way that feels perfectly fitting for any child.

Basically, if you’re at all interested in Japanese animation, you need to work out a way to watch this film.

As for my daughter… She didn’t wake up but I’ll be making sure she revisits this one when she’s old enough to understand it a bit more. She’ll certainly recognise the score.

Note: If you want to read more about the fantasy portrayal of Europe by Miyazaki in Porco Rosso, Chris Wood’s article ‘The European Fantasy Space and Identity Construction in Porco Rosso‘ is a brilliant read.

Note: I wrote this article in December but never got around to publishing it. My daughter is now nine months old and still listens to the same music in the bath. She’s yet to watch any television, but she does love her plush Totoro.

Film review – Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley, 2019)

It’s lovely to see the gang back again. After three 5* films, this is the first one that, for me, drops the standard a little.

Woody, Buzz and Jessie have never looked so good. What a difference 24 years makes. In the opening scene there’s a rescue mission that involves Woody leaving the playroom and being exposed to rain. It is nothing short of stunning. You feel every drop off water hitting him, soaking into the materials of his clothes, bouncing off his hat and face. One can only wonder what Ralph Eggleston and John Lasseter would have made of this all those years ago.

Whilst the visuals are as close to perfection as 2019 will allow, I couldn’t help but get distracted by the voice acting. Of course, each of the actors have aged with the fans of the movies, but I could definitely hear that in their acting performances. If there’s another nine years until they decide to make a 5th installment, Tom Hanks will by then be 72 years old. I honestly just don’t want to hear Woody in his eighth decade.

The storyline lacks the oomph and coherence expected of other Pixar films. Whilst it’s somewhat predictable, it also has the feeling of a team trying to add in about 25 minutes to a film they’d crafted but realised didn’t run long enough. It just went around in circles for a little too long when the end was in sight, with an antagonist in the form of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) that was played too softly throughout to ever leave us worried that she’d be a genuine threat.

It’s not a bad film and doesn’t ruin the series, but I think they need to draw a line under it now. It’s an addendum to the perfect ending of Toy Story 3, and it only just gets away with it.