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.

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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

Film review – War Paint (Lesley Selander, 1953)

Lesley Selander was a veteran in directing western films by the time War Paint was released in 1953. From 1936 onwards he had directed at least three features a year, eventually reaching a grand total of 107 by the time he retired with Arizona Bushwackers in 1968.

War Paint is one of his later efforts, and Selander walks the line between showing himself to be a veteran of the genre and showing he has exhausted every foible available to make a film interesting.

It stars Robert Slack as Lt. Billings, who is put in charge of delivering a peace treaty to a powerful Native American chief. He sets off with a party of men, only to be tracked by Taslik (Keith Larsen) and Wanima (Joan Taylor), both Native Americans strongly against the treaty. Taslik joins the party, but leads them in a large circle whilst promising them he will lead them to water. Dehydrated and beginning to hallucinate, the party’s morale unravels as tensions rise.

It is a flawed film for several reasons. One of the more interesting characters is Wanima, portrayed by Joan Taylor. She is a dead-shot with the rifle, successfully killing American soldiers with her accurate aim. She is silent as she tracks the party for miles without being discovered. However, when she is eventually found she loses all of her character and becomes more of a damsel in distress, undoing about an hour of hard work from the script writers and from Taylor.

The stock footage used for the circling vultures appears several times and is clearly from a different reel, with nothing done to hide the cracks in the footage. It is a source of humour, but I suppose was quicker than replicating the shot from scratch.

It was filmed on location in Death Valley National Park, the first motion picture to have done so. It is clearly a wonderful and largely untouched location, and was (and is) home to many Native American tribes, adding an air of authenticity to the picture.

The war paint of the title refers primarily to the paint adorning the face of Taslik, which signifies his achievements in murdering settler soldiers. Unfortunately, the overall impression left by the film is more “War-Paint-by-numbers” than anything more sinister.

A decent film with an exciting climax, but nothing that makes it worth seeking out over anything else in the Western genre you might stumble upon.

Film review – Cross (2011)

The Wikipedia page for sci-fi action film Cross boasts that it was the 41st most popular film on the Internet Movie Database when it was released. This tells me one of two things. Either there were only 41 motion pictures in existence upon its release, or director Patrick Durham wrote the Wikipedia page.

It is truly an atrocious film, with the acting sinking to hitherto never-before-seen depths of dreadfulness. A miriad of accents are on display, but there’s no real reason for it; the actors are clearly struggling and embarrassed about attempting Scottish, Irish and English accents and wildly missing the mark.

The characters all have cool names like Backfire and Riot. Nobody portraying the characters has any kind of presence to make their scenes feel like they’re intimidating members of gangs, thus the only conclusion is that they assigned themselves their own names to help elevate their status amongst their fellow goons.

It’s clear that the shortcomings in acting is a fault of director Durham. Eventually the more renowned actors show up – an early scene between Michael Clarke Duncan and Vinnie Jones offers hope that things might pick up – but even that is undermined by shoddy camerawork, framing and lighting. It’s like a 101 in how not to shoot a movie on the cheap.

Indeed, cheap is the word that remained at the forefront of my mind throughout the film. The soundtrack is poor, with a bunch of soulless non-descript ska-punk-rock anthems filling in as background noise about ten years after the genre was last fashionable.

When the sex scenes arrived, with the lights and underwear very much left on, I just felt awkward for the actors. I think we all wanted it to be over.

The worst performance was from Robert Carradine as Dr Zyal. Totally over-the-top and mismatched to the rest of the film, but in a way that absolutely doesn’t work. Imagine the horror when I realised he turns out to be one of the key antagonists of the film.

It’s a poor action film that tries to cover its downfalls up with stylised comic book visuals and a few wacky deliveries. Unfortunately, the graphics are as cheap as the rest of it and the overall effect is a poor imitation of so many much better films.

Avoid it with a passion.

Film review – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, 2018)

A film about a family in mourning following the murder of one of the children really shouldn’t have as many laughs in it as Three Billboards. That’s not to say it’s a hilarious comedy romp, but Martin McDonagh’s smart script contains so much humour that its fictional setting is brought to a more realistic place.

Frances McDormand is Mildred, a mother determined to seek justice following the rape and murder of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton). Seven months have passed and the local police have still failed to unearth the killer, which means her mourning has changed to anger. The focal point of her frustration is the leader of the local police, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a sympathetic but headstrong man suffering from pancreatic cancer.

She decides to take out the rent of three disused but prominent billboards on the outside of town. The rent is to last for one year and contains a targeted message towards the police force: “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

Her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) wants to return to normality, whilst racist policeman Dixon (Sam Rockwell) takes every opportunity to prove right the townspeople’s suspicions that he’s incompetent.

As a whole the film is extremely powerful, not least because of Frances McDormand’s tour de force in the leading role. It’s a dream of a role for an actress like McDormand, who is given free reign to be as offensive and hostile as she likes. It’s easy to get immersively lost in her delivery. She does comedy extremely well so when she needs to turn it on the black comedy is as uplifting as the shocking reality is devastating. For those used to her playing softer roles, be prepared for a pleasantly shocking surprise.

There are a number of outstandingly powerful scenes in Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-worthy drama that stuck with me weeks after I viewed it. The one-shot of Rockwell that follows him from the police station, across the road, up to the billboard rental film’s offices and back again is a bold statement in filmmaking and is executed perfectly. A confrontational scene between Willougby and Mildred turns to intimacy in an instance when he coughs up some blood. The scene when Mildred finds the billboards on fire is devastating.

These are punctuated with moments of pure comedy gold. Right after Mildred drills a hole in a dentist’s thumb after he speaks out of line to her, she returns to her job with a face full of anaesthetic. Few scenes in cinema this year have been as funny has her flatly denying she was at the dentists despite being unable to speak.

Three Billboards has come under some backlash following its initial rave reviews and unanimous praise. As the dust has settled, a second wave of opinion has spread that aims criticism at the film for being overly sympathetic to the character Dixon. Some have noted that Dixon gets redemption by the end of the film, despite his character. In an article on Entertainment Weekly, McDonagh addressed the criticism. “I don’t think his character is redeemed at all – he starts off as a racist jerk,” he reasoned. “He’s the same pretty much at the end, but, by the end, he’s seen that he has to change. There is room for it, and he has, to a degree, seen the error of his ways, but in no way is he supposed to become some sort of redeemed hero of the piece.”

The current climate of filmmaking seems at times to work as a response to the social collective conscious that is so quickly opined online. If a film isn’t intended as such, then it is judged that way nonetheless. There has been a shift in the landscape for the better in recent times, with lead roles going more frequently to women, people of colour and  homosexuals. We are not at the end game for this – whilst one of the Power Rangers in 2017 was portrayed as a lesbian, a move to make Tessa Thompson’s Ragnarok character Valkyrie bisexual was quashed when the critical reveal scene was cut from the movie.

That said, not every film can tackle every angle of criticism every time. In the case of Three Billboards, we have a film centred around a woman seeking justice for the rape and murder of her daughter. She’s standing up for her rights and opinions and forcing a male-dominated police force to try harder. It features McDormand as the lead with every other character serving as a supporting device to her own progression.

In this instance, the focus is on the sexual assault of young women by men and the subsequent covering up by authorities, often with men at the top. It is about men hoping that a woman standing up for her beliefs will just go away quietly and forget about something that’s easier to sweep away than it is to pursue a solution to. It is a deliberately provocative film. That Sam Rockwell’s Dixon is a racist, in this instance, is relevant only to his character (a supporting character), but it is not centrally relevant to the plot itself. Dixon is an imbecile and being a racist bigot serves to support and enforce this in him.

As McDonagh concluded in his statement to EW, “It’s supposed to be a deliberately messy and difficult film. Because it’s a messy and difficult world.” Social commentary aside, he’s created his first real masterpiece and it’s a wonder to see it unfold for the first time. It is every bit deserving of the praise and accolades it has received and should not miss out on a fair run at the Oscars as a result of the backlash.

 

Film review – Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2018)

Following the completion of filming for Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis announced that he would be retiring from acting and that his role as 1950s London high-society dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock would be his final role. This can be considered both a figurative and literal bowing out in style. Oozing elegance and beauty in every aspect, it is an absolute triumph of a film.

The story centres around Woodcock, head of the House of Woodcock, a well-regarded craftsman who is seeing his popularity diminish by the beckoning of new fashion from around the world. He baulks at the word “chic”. He is a meticulous and silent worker, unforgiving of those who have the audacity to interrupt his genius in flow. His obsessive nature flows over to his personality, and those close to him are dictated to by his need for control. His closest ally is his sister Cyril (the brilliant Lesley Manville), who manages his business affairs and the staff and running of the house. Their world is flipped upside-down when a chance encounter leads Reynolds to fall into infatuation with a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who quickly moves into the house and thus begins her strange relationship with Reynolds.

In 2018, a cinematic year defined by an uprising of oppressed and attacked women finally being given a platform to voice their views on oppressive and controlling men in the film industry, it seems almost perverse that I enjoyed Day-Lewis’s performance so much. I felt at times like he was on the cusp of bursting into tears of laughter, such was the audacity of his character’s actions. In one of the best lines of the film, as shown below, he delivers the cutting “The tea is going out, but the interruption is staying right here with me.” Brilliant.

Jonny Greenwood, one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s most frequent and reliable collaborators, provides the score. It is mesmerising, fitting beautifully with the visuals. In a recent interview with Adam Buxton, Greenwood stated that he wrote it in order for it to be performed along with the film. “I wanted to do it with six or seven players and make it all playable and send out the scores to cinemas and say ‘get some local players to play it live’ and it be a really regular thing. I love the idea of the film arriving and then the book of music arriving and these are the two things you put together and make it quite easy, but Paul kept on asking for bigger and bigger string section sounds to build the romance.” Indeed, this decision was probably the correct one, with the enduring stay-ability of the film benefiting over what could have been simply a nice touch at release. I challenge anyone to find a more perfectly romantic piece of film music this year than ‘House of Woodcock’. [1]

A film that is centred around a celebrated dressmaker almost inevitably has a wonderful display of costumes on show. Mark Bridges is another frequent Anderson collaborator, having worked with him on The Master, Inherent Vice and There Will Be Blood. The costumes here are absolutely stunning, perfectly capturing the essence of 1950s London high society. It is a costumier’s dream of a film, with the intricate efforts of making such beautiful dresses captured in great detail.

The film culminates in a most unlikely ending that absolutely works with the film, underlining the nature of Alma and Reynolds’s relationship to one-another and their desire to stay together. Their dinner table stand-off with a mushroom omelette may not have the intensity of the “I drink your milkshake!” scene in There Will Be Blood, but it swaps intense for tense as the scene plays out. It’s just one of those scenes in cinema that hangs perfectly together. Script, acting, cinematography, lighting, score – everything is just right. A masterclass in filmmaking.

Whilst Day-Lewis may be unlikely to receive an Academy Award for this film, it certainly ranks up there with his most celebrated performances. He is one of this generation’s greatest actors and it is a real loss to the industry that he is walking away. However, it’s a noble decision to leave a profession whilst you’re at the top of your game. He could probably deliver a further three or four top performances, but his decision is clearly based on a balance between his enjoyment of his life as an artist and his enjoyment of his life outside of the industry. If Phantom Thread does prove to ultimately be his final role, then he is definitely leaving us on a high.

[1] Note: Jonny performed an exclusive version of this song on the Adam Buxton podcast (EP.63B, 9th February 2018) alongside a 30-minute interview backstage at the Royal Festival Hall prior to a live performance of the score on 30th January 2018. It’s well worth a listen and can be found here.

Film review – The Polka King (Maya Forbes, 2018)

Let me get this straight, right from the start. The Polka King is not a good film. It popped up on my Netflix feed as a recommended watch and I thought I’d give it a go. It didn’t look taxing and I’d had a long day. I had low expectations but still managed to be disappointed.

I now find myself in the embarrassing situation where I’ve never seen The Ten Commandments, Gone With The Wind, The Maltese Falcon, Boyhood, Crash, The Last of the Mohicans, The English Patient, Lawrence of Arabia, On The Waterfront, Unforgiven and Dr Zhivago but I have seen The Polka King.

For that, I should be entirely ashamed.

polkascreen

Jack Black plays Jan Lewan, a real-life polka music band leader from Austria trying to make a living in the USA. He was imprisoned in 2004 for running a Ponzi scheme (or pyramid scheme). That’s pretty much the story. There are some highs and lows.

Importantly, there are very few laughs. In fact, I didn’t laugh once. It is set up like a comedy. Everyone involved is a comedic actor (the supporting cast includes Jenny Slate, Jason Schwartzman and Jacki Weaver). The pacing of the script felt like it wanted to be a comedy.

Yet, as Black phoned in his performance and went through the motions of delivering on a part he was only vaguely interested in, I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to some of the great comedy releases from Red Hour Productions that include Tropic Thunder, Zoolander, Tenacious D in the Pick Of Destiny and DodgeBall, and wonder whether Ben Stiller simply wasn’t available to oversee this production.

There are some great Netflix Originals out there to be watched and enjoyed. This just isn’t one of them.