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.

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.

Film review – Photograph (Ritesh Batra, 2019)

Photograph is a sweet film that has the feel of being a western take on what Indian cinema is. It’s doesn’t have any large set pieces or emotional pyrotechnics, the character development is sparse and the ending is fairly predictable, but despite these the overall effect is largely positive.

Director Ritesh Batra has returned to ground familiar to anyone who saw his soaring debut The Lunchbox, which brought him to prominence in 2013. The concept of an unlikely friendship blossoming into an even unlikelier romance is revisited here, with a beautifully-shot Mumbai serving as the backdrop for both. Fans of his debut expecting another uplifting romance will feel a little shortchanged, so it’s best to appreciate with a fresh palate.

With Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Rafi and Sanya Malhotra as Miloni Shah, the film is in great hands. These are two complex characters and they’ve clearly thought through every move under the guidance of director Batra. Rafi has an underlying anger that is fully realised without he need to clumsily explore his past through flashbacks irrelevant to the main plot. He plays it perfectly – a man frustrated by the pressures of arranged marriages that are being compounded by the arrival of his meddling but well-meaning grandma (Dadi).

Equally, Sanya Malhotra negotiates her role delicately. Hers is a character who goes a long way to keep those around her happy, so starting a relationship with someone unknown to her family is a huge step. It’s a role relevant to so many global movements to ensure better rights for women, though some may question if her stance is a little too understated. Or perhaps it’s just more realistic in her situation than if she’d openly displayed anger.

The ending is effective, even though it was signposted from about ten minutes in. Yes, it’s a poor man and a rich girl falling in love, which is tried and tested ground for so many films – a fact they mention in the climactic scene – but it’s certainly not handled clumsily. Just because we’ve seen it before doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable.

It isn’t a groundbreaking film, but not every piece of cinema has to be to leave a lasting effect.

Film review: The Big Melt (Martin Wallace, 2013)

For National Yorkshire Day, I opted to watch this documentary I impulse bought about half a decade ago in FOPP. It has been sat on my shelf since then, with a brief period inside a box, probably wondering if it would ever be unwrapped and why it was bought in the first place.

I was doubtless attracted to it due to Jarvis Cocker’s involvement, which to be honest was the rewarding side of it. I’ve been a fan of his music since my formative years – I was 11 when the seminal Different Class was released – and appreciate his intelligent take on life.

The Big Melt is essentially 70 minutes of carefully-selected archive footage of Sheffield, mainly involving the steel industry, backed by music performed live by a number of Sheffield-related musicians (and some of their friends).

It has the ability to impress but the overall impact is one you have to concentrate on and commit to if you want to get anything out of it. The music keeps on playing but there’s no narrative, so it’s easy to let your mind slip out of focus.

Often I realised I’d been watching the screen and listening to the music, but not actually absorbing what was going on. It had a meditative effect. Maybe that’s what they were going for.

There are interesting segments, including a young woman working in a bomb factory and a short animated film imagining a world without steel, but I’m struggling to deploy an alternative adjective to interesting, despite my misgivings of its use.

For a special occasion is was perfect, and it gave me the impetus to get my surround sound system fixed to enjoy the music properly.

It’s not without merit but only for people who have a genuine interest in the city.

Film review – The Great Hack (Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, 2019)

Unless you’re 100% informed about Cambridge Analytica, you really need to watch this film. It covers a lot of what is already known to those who followed the Facebook-Cambridge-Analytica scandal at the time, as covered in The Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr in her whistle-blowing article “The Great British Brexit Robbery”.

Cadwalladr is interviewed here, along with Cambridge Analytica’s ex-director Brittany Kaiser and ex-employee of Cambridge Analytica Christopher Wylie. Kaiser does her best to paint a sympathetic picture of herself, though I struggled to forget that she was at the heart of everything that happened (thanks to the reminders in the film). As a source, Wylie’s credibility is questioned, though he features lightly. It is an example of how well the film does at keeping the viewpoint as balanced as possible.

Importantly, the film doesn’t end trying to imply that the earth-shattering revelations brought about by the Cambridge Analytica scandal have been resolved. The implications of this scandal and the continued work that seems to be going on at so many of the large technology companies feels like it’s getting worse by the day.

It’s a slightly disjointed film that, at times, doesn’t know what it wants to do with the subject matter. It may have been better-served as a four-part series, focusing on each of the subjects for an hour. The story of the New York media professor David Carroll and his hunt for his own personal information is probably the most interesting but isn’t mentioned for a long portion of the film.

I’d also like to see more prodding of current or ex-Facebook employees, who are clearly implicated in the accusations but continue to avoid the spotlight.

Regardless of its shortcomings, this is an important film to watch. It’s also one you might need to see quickly in case it unexpectedly disappears from Netflix. It might well be the most disturbing horror film of the year.

 

Why Deborah Davis’s The Favourite should give courage to all aspiring writers

The plot of The Favourite doesn’t sound like a laugh-a-minute comedy. Just look at it:

In 18th century England, the close relationship between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) is threatened by the arrival of Sarah’s cousin, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). The resulting bitter rivalry between the two cousins impacts their lives and their relationship to the Queen, who is manipulated by both in the midst of a turbulent time in England’s political landscape.

It may not sound promising, but it doesn’t take long to realise that this isn’t your standard period drama. It’s a sharp script and a twisting plot, delivered to perfection by the three lead women. That this is Deborah Davis’s first ever script makes it even more remarkable.

Davis gave some insight into the writing process when she spoke to Awards Daily in November 2018. “I wrote the first draft in 1998 and I had no experience in scriptwriting. I took myself to night school to learn. I was accepted into the University of East Anglia to do a scriptwriting course and I was helped and influenced by my tutor who was really interested in The Balance of Power as it was then called. [Ceci Dempsey (of Scarlett Films) has] never ever wavered in her support and passion for this project.”

The phenomenal journey should be an inspiration to all aspiring writers around the world. Sure, it’s a twenty year process in this case, but Davis believed in her own capabilities and surrounded herself with others who were equally supportive of her work.

The success of the film is unquestionable. It continues to bring in audiences across the globe, building momentum through word of mouth and positive press responses. Now a Golden Globe winner (Olivia Colman for Best Actress), it has also been nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the BAFTAs. The team will undoubtedly be hoping for yet more success at the Academy Awards when the nominations are announced next week.

Of course, it isn’t all Davis’s work. Yorgos Lanthimos is well known for quirky comedy dramas that find hard to stay away from the surreal, which certainly shines through in a bizarre dance sequence that couldn’t possibly have been scripted. Equally, Colman’s hysterics when a young doorman may or may not have looked at her is played to perfection by both actors. That it’s all set in a traditional English country house (Hatfield House in Hertfordshire) with the expected pompous outfits just adds to the unnerving effect.

But it’s all hung on this brilliant script that mixes the most bizarre of comedies with a power struggle akin to a game of chess. Indeed, the women’s costumes, created especially for the film by Sandy Powell, were designed exclusively in blacks and whites to emanate the pieces of a chess board.

One of the most effective results of the writing is the subtle way the audience is drawn in to care for Abigail (Stone). We go on an emotional journey with her, seeing her at rock bottom as she rises through the ranks within the palace. The moment she gains power by marrying Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn), her character completely changes and we realise that she’s as horrible as we feared. It’s a tough pill to swallow for an audience who think they’ve found a character to root for, but the best film-makers know just when to pull the rug from under the feet of its viewers. Emma Stone said of the script: “It feels amazing when the script is right and the director is right and you are like, ‘Now I can go and have fun and trust the process.'” And it shows. All the actors on screen look like they’re completely at ease with what they’re doing and saying.

It’s just a great piece of cinema.

For anyone out there sat on the next homemade cinematic masterpiece script, The Favourite is the perfect catalyst for you to get it finished and get it out there.

Film review – Shirkers (Sandi Tan, 2017)

‘Shirkers’ is a quite remarkable documentary film. Written and directed by Sandi Tan, it tells the story of a potentially groundbreaking film created in 1992 by a group of three teenage girls in Singapore, the reels of which went missing shortly after filming wrapped, disappearing along with the enigmatic director.

Tan was one of the three young aspiring filmmakers behind the film. Her interviews with fellow creators Jasmine Ng and Sophie Siddique, both interviewed here and clearly heartbroken over their loss, reveal a truly enthralling mystery surrounding the film.

The director, Georges Cardona, is a name unfamiliar to most. It is unlikely that he was the man that inspired James Spader’s character in ‘Sex, Lies and Videotapes’, but Cardona wouldn’t let that get in the way of a good story. The picture painted of him here is one of a man full of lies. It’s a man desperate to succeed himself and not let anyone else around him get anywhere without him. There’s also a hint of inappropriate behaviour here – why was a married 40-something-year-old man going on a road trip across the USA with an 18-year-old girl?

As it all unfolds, it’s obvious how frustrating it is for all those involved. This was an exciting passion project that was already picking up a bit of buzz around the industry, which never saw the light of day. Had it been released, it could have had a huge impact on the Singapore film industry and the lives of those behind it.

Sadly, all we can see is the soundless footage and a remorseful memory of three young friends that lost a part of their youth, along with their friendship itself (in a recent interview with Vulture, Tan stated that the Sundance premiere was the first time her, Jasmine and Sophie were all in the same room together in over twenty years).

‘Shirkers’ is a must-see for any young aspiring filmmakers. Actually, it’s a must-see for everyone at all interested in films.

Film review – They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson, 2018)

Peter Jackson’s World War One documentary ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ does a great job in telling the story of some of the front-line soldiers, from the outbreak, through training and joining the war effort and finally returning home. This is achieved partly through archive audio from the BBC, which is interesting in its own light, but not really what this film will be remembered for.

The really mesmerizing and memorable part of this film is the visual footage, which Jackson has sourced from the Imperial War Museum as part of their 14-18 Now initiative. The team working on this film have taken whatever was available and worked wonders. It now looks vibrant and sharp and immediate, with no signs of what was probably very grainy footage used as the source material. The claim that it would look like it was filmed last week rather than 100 years ago is perhaps a little too far-fetched, but it isn’t far off.

In most places, the footage is accompanied by audio dubbing from actors, reading lines as determined by expert lip readers and matched to the visuals. It is, literally, The Great War as you’ve never seen it before.

It only falls short near the end where it feels like they were running out of source material and needed to re-use some video footage – one shot appears four or five times in a short period. It doesn’t spoil anything; indeed it serves in part to underline how precious what little footage that remains is to the project and how lucky we are to see anything so beautifully restored. Whether that effect could have been achieved with fifteen minutes cut out of it is another question.

It’s not the best documentary I’ve seen recently, but it is technically one of the best restoration jobs I’ve ever seen. There will undoubtedly be a debate about whether he went too far – detractors will say he could have simply restored the footage rather than also enhancing it – but the detail and beauty it has revealed is more than worth the risk.

You can do much worse than allowing yourself to be absorbed into this masterpiece of restoration.

The story behind Studio Ghibli’s The Cat Returns

The Cat Returns was released in 2002, hot on the heels of the globally-acclaimed Spirited Away. Hiroyuki Morita’s feature debut was destined to be one of Studio Ghibli’s less-acclaimed releases, but still holds a place in the heart of its many fans. So how did it come about and how does it hold up 16 years after its original release?

The journey to ‘The Cat Returns’ began some fourteen years earlier, when Aoi Hiiragi released her manga ‘Mimi o Sumaseba’. Serialised in the magazine Ribon between August and November 1989, this short release was a huge hit and caught the imagination of a young Yoshifumi Kondô, who at the time had just finished as supervising animator on Studio Ghibli’s ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’.

Soon the studio had acquired the rights to produce a feature film based on the manga, and Kondô was being lined up to make his directorial debut.

In 1995, the film was released. Known in English-speaking countries as ‘Whisper of the Heart’, it hit the big screens in Japan to unanimous acclaim. It was also the highest-grossing film in its native country in 1995. [1]

Equally beautiful and mesmerising, the film focuses on Shizuku, a 14-year-old girl living in Tokyo with a head full of ideas.

Early in the film, Shizuku becomes intrigued by a chance meeting with a stray cat on a train. This cat, Muta, leads her to a mysterious antiques shop. Inside the shop is a curious statue of a cat called The Baron. Inspired, Shizuku spends a significant time in the film attempting to write a novel inspired by these elements.

Four years later, Studio Ghibli received a request from a theme park to create a 20-minute animated short. Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki, two of the founders of the company, explored a concept based around these key elements of the girl’s story, enlisting Aoi Hiiragi to write the plot to a spiritual successor to her smash hit.

Her starting point was to assume that her lead character Shizuka was writing the story herself, a period after the end of ‘Whisper of the Heart’. Though the theme park project was cancelled, this story later materialised in the form of a manga. That manga was the basis of a feature length film called ‘The Cat Returns’.

Miyazaki and Suzuki may have been showing faith in other directors, but it was with restrictions. ‘The Cat Returns’ was ostensibly intended as a testing ground for new director Hiroyuki Morita, who had been an animator on several Ghibli features, and was slated for a direct-to-video release. The strength of Morita’s storyboards led to a change of direction and the film was instead destined to be released in cinemas.

Morita was at the top of the team, leading everyone working on the production. In an interview at the time, Miyazaki was excited about the new generation of animators. “If they see Ghibli as a brand, the production team won’t be able to bear the pressure,” he said. “But at the same time, if they don’t try to overcome the pressure they won’t succeed.”

Whilst this film is seen as a success, his position as a successor to the founding members of Ghibli eventually did not come to fruition. He worked as a key animator on later film ‘Tales From Earthsea’, which was directed by Miyazaki’s son Goro, but that is where the buck stops. Indeed, he has not been involved with any animation projects since 2011.

This lack of output is a real shame, because ‘The Cat Returns’ is a real triumph. It never feels like a lacklustre release that you’d typically expect of a direct-to-video film and it’s clear that the choice to take it to theatres was the correct one.

An interview with Morita from the time of release shows what he was trying to achieve with the lead character Haru. His reading of her is that she is natural, spontaneous and uncalculating. He was clearly passionate about the character and the project, and it was an honour for him to be the third director other than Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to direct a feature for Ghibli.

Coming immediately after Spirited Away and therefore garnering much more focus than the studio would have expected when the project started, it does enough to hold its own against what has become regarded as Miyazaki’s magnum opus. The magical elements are muted – a talking cat is a surprise to Haru initially but she comes around to the idea very quickly. It deals with the character’s concerns whimsically rather than with a suggestion of any danger, making it a more child-friendly entry point to the gamut. Perhaps more so than the more recognised Ghibli releases, it feels rooted in the real world – no easy achievement for a film about a girl kidnapped and turned into a cat by The Cat King.

If you’re reading this then chances are you’re from an English-speaking country. If that’s the case then it’s likely you watched the English dub of the film. I usually prefer the original audio, but opted for English on this occasion. I admit I was pleasantly surprised.

Anne Hathaway portrays the lead role of Haru, yelping and screaming her way through the film in the same way original actress Chizuru Ikewaki had. It feels fun and fitting. Cary Elwes provides a traditional aristocratic British voice for The Baron. He has stated it was a combination of David Niven and Alec Guinness, which gives him real dignity and poise. Both are spot on in their leading roles, with both relied heavily on their original Japanese counterparts to give a real sense of energy.

Clearly, as with most animated films translated to a second language, there is an issue with matching the beats to the original acting. It doesn’t always work. It’s similar to ADR (automated dialogue replacement) and replaces emotional delivery with technical accuracy. Peter Boyle’s Mutu is arguably the biggest culprit of this, with a mismatch to the character that feels significantly out of place. Conversely, Andy Richter is wonderful as the king’s assistant Natoru, despite this role originally being portrayed by female voice actor Mari Hamada. Most bizarrely, The Cat King actually looks like Tim Curry, despite his involvement coming long after the animation had finished.

‘The Cat Returns’ will never be considered as one of the greats of the Studio Ghibli features. But it’s in great company and certainly holds its own as a fitting side-story to a better original. It offers more of an appeal to children and could be a good entry point for parents wanting a safe start to their child’s anime interest. To see it restored in wonderful high-definition means there’s never been a better way to enjoy it.

[1] http://www.eiren.org/toukei/1995.html