A Million Eyes 2019 ****

a-million-eyesAfter some persuasion, this blog is starting to review the occasional, exceptional short film, and British film-maker Richard Raymond’s A Million Eyes seems like a good place to start. This blog has been dedicated to giving old, rare, independent and original work a place alongside multiplex blockbusters, and there’s every reason for including shorts under the broad church of cinema.

At 24 minutes long, A Million Eyes doesn’t feel like a short, in that it has a confident, gentle pace and a patient eye for character and setting; it doesn’t feel like a foot-in-the door show-reel, but a story hard won from experience of life. Written by Curt Zacharias Jr, it’s the story of Leroy (Elijah M Cooper), a young man who is struggling to balance his interest in photography with domestic responsibilities, specifically to his alcoholic mother Amber (Katie Lowes).

It’ll play well to a film-making audience that Leroy finds it easier to understand the world through a lens, and when an elderly neighbour (Joe Morton) provides advice on light and stock, there’s a nostalgia for older filming techniques that will strike a chord with many. Raymond has a light touch with scenes that might have seemed didactic in other hands; all the characters are easy to sympathise with and relate to, an uncommon gift in cinema circa 2019.

A Million Eyes is the kind of simple, effective short that’s easy to recommend; played by established actors who get the material, it makes a passionate plea for the next generation to be given a chance, and sets up the idea of older people as role models who have an important job to impart knowledge. For Raymond, early in his career, it’s a work of rare sensitivity that should attract awards, and more importantly, an audience.

Jumanji: The Next Level 2019 ***

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The fourth entry in the Jumanji franchise is pretty much a re-tread of the third; an overlong adventure with a vague video-game theme, with a few added guest-stars without which this would be fairly indistinguishable from the previous film. Aimed specifically as small kids, Jake Kasdan’s sequel manages to remove some of the crude sexism of the previous entry, but there’s little improvement in the overall package.

Like the first film, there’s a lugubrious intro to various young characters, hardly memorable for the first film; Spencer (Alex Wolff from Hereditary) is the only one who makes an impression. He’s chilling with his grand-father (Danny De Vito) when his dad’s old friend Milo (Danny Glover) comes to visit. All of them get sucked into the Jumanji video game, which leads to a confusing version of the laboured body-swap humour previously featured. If you can’t remember who Bethany, Martha and Fridge are, then it’s pretty hard to work out what’s happening when they get trapped in the bodies of their avatars. It’s all really just an excuse for googly-eyed schtick from Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black, who grab for their pay-check with both hands.

Gillan is introduced, legs akimbo, in tiny shorts, and with the camera zooming right into her crotch; one of the regrettable elements of the franchise is the leering emphasis on objectifying women in children’s entertainment. Fortunately, The Next Level doesn’t force her into quite such demeaning situations as the first, although locking lips for a snog with Johnson, who is old enough to be her dad, is particularly stomach churning. Awkwafina also turns up to self-sabotage her own Oscar campaign for The Farewell, looking somewhat embarrassed to ride a flying horse in the interest of exposure.

There’s a nice idea buried here; only Rhys Darby as the exposition-heavy host captures the right satirical tone for making fun of video-game clichés. Otherwise, there’s some elaborate set-pieces involving ostriches, monkeys, rope bridges and a climactic punch-up set to Baby I Love Your Way. Jumanji: The Next Level passes the time, but there’s nothing new or exciting about it. The first film was lucky to come up against an almost universally disliked Christmas blockbuster (The Last Jedi) which was overlong and not particularly suited to families. The Rise of Skywalker is still an unknown quantity at the time of writing, but it seems unlikely that Jumanji: the Next Level will be so lucky with throwing the double-sixes again.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire 2019 ****

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The spirit of Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse finds a specific echo in Céline Sciamma’s rapturous period drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which arrives box-fresh for awards season as a thoroughbred contender; this is art-house fare, but no worse for that, a sumptuous, haunting love story with moments of dynamism and an attitude that’s catnip to the chattering classes.

Rivette, of course, deconstructed the process of creating art in his celebrated four-hour study of sculptor and model; Sciamma takes a similar subject, although in this instance questions of the male gaze are subverted because men are barely seen. Instead, we have the love between two women; Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter on a secret mission, to capture the likeness of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in a remote location (Brittany). But the subject is reluctant; the portrait is to celebrate a prospective marriage, and that marriage is unwanted. Marianne artfully betrays and then gains the trust of her subject by stealing glances and looks to complete her portrait, and then destroying it when Héloïse complains. The relationship between the women blossoms into a lesbian affair, but society intrudes, and the big question is how their love might survive or endure these obstacles?

A subtitled film about portraiture might sound like hard tack, although the surprising presence of Valerie (Hot Shots!) Golinio offers some respite, and there is in fact a literal lady on fire to justify the film’s quirky title. This is a film driven by the luminous performances of the leads, who capture the intensity of a forbidden but natural relationship, and who evoke passion with the smallest movements. The landscapes also spark memories of Jane Campion’s The Piano, but without the sense of melodrama; Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not for sensation seekers, but a meditative, visually calculated piece that finds visual metaphors for the inner workings of the two women depicted.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been, alongside Parasite, a clear front runner in the Foreign Picture stakes  since Cannes 2019; despite the adulation of the highbrow critics, it’s a love story that could attract the romantic at heart, and those who have the patience for the genteel pace will be rewarded with a beautifully told story of verboten love.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire will be on wide release in the UK and US in 2020.

Motherless Brooklyn 2019 ****

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It’s a good twenty years since Jonathan Lethem’s novel was published; based on the public and critical reaction, writer/director Edward Norton needn’t have bothered adapting the text from prose to screen. And yet there’s plenty to enjoy in Motherless Brooklyn, which, like The Goldfinch, is far from the dud that the box office might suggest; certainly, films about urban planning are rarely big news, but although it’s 144 minutes long, Norton’s film is idiosyncratic and often engaging.

Bruce Willis gets near-top billing, but is pretty much out of the film before the credits go up. Willis plays Frank Minna, a local gangster with a penchant for rescuing children; it’s through this method that he’s a mentor to Lionel Essrog, a bright young man with Tourette’s syndrome. Essrog also has a perfect memory, and listens in on one of Minna’s meetings shortly before his father-figure is shot. Piecing together various abstract clues, Hamlet-style, Essrog starts to investigate Trump-ian property baron Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and also the businessman’s brother Paul (Willem Dafoe). Randolph has designs of the New York property market, but his methods are underhand, and Essrog is quickly out of his depth…

A film like this stands and falls on its villain, and Baldwin relishes the opportunity to play Randolph with saturnine charm. Whether he’s directly responsible for the violent killings that beset Essrog isn’t exactly clear, but it is obvious that Randolph has an evolved philosophy that penalises the poor. Motherless Brooklyn has a Chinatown-lite view of city corruption, and anyone interested in New York will enjoy the various allusions gathered here, as well as some eye-opening chat about Central Park

Norton is also an actor’s director, getting good work from his cast, and he also provides a happy centre as Essrog. Playing a character with a disability isn’t a great look in 2019, and yet there’s obvious reasons why it wouldn’t be easy to cast the role. Norton does well not to play Essrog’s verbal infelicities for laughs, and pulls off something rare and unexpected by having a disabled protagonist whose disability is not central to the narrative.

Motherless Brooklyn takes a few wrong turns; the background to Essrog’s detective agency is inadequately sketched in, and Minna leaves far too early to get a sense of who he was. But there’s a clear gap between the quality of Norton’s film and the public’s appreciation of what he’s done, and Motherless Brooklyn is worth recommending to the discerning viewer.

QT8: The First Eight 2019 ****

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Any critic worth their salt should always be asking; why this? And why now? A documentary about Quentin Tarantino is a great idea since there’s plenty to unpack on someone who has been a hugely significant film-maker for several decades now. But there’s also a backlash against Tarantino that’s partly due to his now-ended collaborations with publically-disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein; this latter issue is what Tara Wood’s documentary partly addresses, since it’s less that a complete picture of the subject. If you want to hear what Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Leonard DiCaprio and other stars feel about working with Tarantino, then look elsewhere, because none of them seem to have been prepared to go to get out of bed and go to bat for the great man here.

QT8: The First Eight amounts to special pleading on behalf of a film-maker whose body of work does not require apology. It may not be fashionable to say it, but Quentin Tarantino is probably the most exciting film-maker working today, and the eight films he’s made so far are unique in being consistently original, sparky, thoughtful and riddled with moments of kinetic magic. He’s also prone to over-writing, excessive-length, self-indulgence and casting himself in his own movies in a detrimental way, but it’s easy to forgive such idiosyncratic garnish when the main meals he provides are so substantial. Tarantino promised that anything could happen at any time in his movies, and he’s delivered on that promise. He’s the kind of film-maker who is envied by everyone in the industry, and there’s also plenty who would love to see him knocked off his perch, so it feels like he’s been given the chance get his bona-fide character-witnesses in before any accusations start flying.

Wood’s film features the likes of Zoe Bell, Diane Kruger and Jennifer Jason Leigh attesting to Tarantino’s genius with all aspects of film-making, while sounding the death-knell endorsement that’s spelled curtains for everyone from Luc Besson to Weinstein ; ‘he really loves women’. Loving women is no excuse for hurting women, but as far as this critic knows, there’s absolutely no case for Tarantino to refute aside from an on-set accident during the filming of Kill Bill, documented here by Uma Thurman’s own video of the incident. A quick consideration of the number of people killed making James Bond films might be a useful point of perspective here. In terms of MeToo, Wood’s film recognises that Tarantino knew of his producer’s crimes, but then again, every man and his dog in the street knew about Weinstein, and that kind of behaviour has been part of the industry since movies began. If every actor, writer, director or star who worked with Weinstein is going to have to lodge a special defence in documentary form, our cinema’s will be overrun with contrite apologists.

Wood also doesn’t address a more potent accusation; that Tarantino’s films have a disproportionate level of violence towards women. On balance, it’s probably more accurate to say that Tarantino is an equal opportunities maniac who sadistically turns the screw on both men and women in his narratives; it would take a deliberate mis-reading to suggest that he targets only one sex for his nastier demises. Without much reference to his most personal film, Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood, Wood’s film settles for cheery talking heads, well-chosen clips and the general warm-and-fuzzy feel of an enjoyable DVD extra. It’s compulsive and entertaining, but it’s anything but definitive; most directors have to pop their clogs before such a reverent obituary is offered up, and few directors are as alive as Tarantino is today.

Signature Entertainment presents QT8 in Cinemas, on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD from 13th December, 2019

Charlie’s Angels 2019 NA (no award)

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How hard can it be to make a Charlie’s Angels movie? This 2019 version ain’t your momma’s Charlie’s Angels, in fact, is really isn’t anyone’s Charlie’s Angels at all; Elizabeth Banks’ continuation of the benighted franchise has been the very definition of a dud, an expensive, heavily promoted comedy/thriller that no-one outside of Variety’s critic seems to want.

The industry trade-paper generally aims for some kind of salty accuracy in their reviews, but it’s hard to match up the movie under discussion with this description ; ‘written and directed, by Elizabeth Banks as if she’d been making cheeky renegade action films all her life. The movie is relentless, it’s pulpy and exciting, it’s unabashedly derivative…rousingly of-the-moment feministic…ace car-chase filmmaking — breathless and ultra-violent, with big mounted weapons…awesomely elaborate action sequence that unfolds in a quarry…’ Instead, Charlie’s Angels has all the breathless, awesome action of Pitch Perfect 3 or The Spy Who Dumped Me, generic, anonymous fodder with phoned-in performances, dull green-screen punch-ups and no discernable flavour. It wouldn’t seem possible to disrespect such vanilla source material, but somehow Banks manages it.

The problem starts from the packaging. As a tv show, Charlie’s Angels made stars of the girls in the central roles, and they became household names. The cinematic reboot brought Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu to the roles, an update if not necessarily an upgrade. But how would you feel about the Angels being played by someone like, pause to consult notes, Naomi Scott? She was in Aladdin, right? Or what about, he googles quickly, Ellen Balinska? What would an actress whose claim to fame is brief appearances on Casualty and Midsommar Murders bring to the party? No pop culture frisson whatsoever is the answer. Charlie’s Angels needs three stars, big, or fading, or upcoming, just recognisable names. Would you fancy The Magnificent Seven with a cast of unknowns? Ocean’s 11 with a semi-professional cast? The producers on this film had one job, and they don’t seem to have taken it that seriously. Almost anyone would be better than the girls chosen here.

Kristen Stewart is the only element here that’s on point; she’s a big star who has successfully shunned blockbuster roles since Twilight in favour of great performances in small movies, and seems to have chosen unwisely here. She’s introduced as a swaggering super-spy called Sabina, and bonds with the other girls while on a confusing assignment situated in drag Hamburg dockland, one that involves the death of contact/wrangler Bosley (Djimon Hounsou) and a memory stick landing in a river. From there, the action flips to Istanbul, another locations worn smooth by spy movies, where a racetrack meeting provides the Angels with a chance at revenge. Another Bosley (Banks) is feeding the girls instructions, but could a third Bosley (Patrick Stewart) be sabotaging their mission?

Whatever the actual DNA was of the tv show and movies so far, Banks screws around with it to mind-numbing effect. How many Charlies are there? How many Bosleys? How does it help for us to see one Bosley cheaply photoshopped into still photographs from the previous Angels films and tv shows? Meanwhile Sam Clafin plays an Elon Musk-type zillionaire who has invented a generic McGuffin energy source that provides the uninteresting stakes for muddled punch ups and chases. The result is a movie that sinks like a stone, with some nice costumes about the only thing that passes muster.

Charlie’s Angels was, in its prime, a lazy chauvinist show that invited men (and women) to gawp at weapons-grade models under the guise of a detective thriller; somewhere between Baywatch and The Rockford Files. Re-nose this property with some girl-power feminism and you have nothing at all, two over-riding philosophies in chauvinism and feminism that simply don’t gel. New wine is old bottles is one thing, but the 2019 version of Charlie’s Angels is the weakest of weak sauce.

Clive James

This blog is about celebrating, and occasionally eviscerating the world of cinema and television; it’s not the place for obituary notices. But for Clive James, the clown prince of critics, it’s worth making an exception. As a television critic, he was peerless, a genuine wit who watched the medium because he loved it.

In those days, critics didn’t wrestle access from PR companies, then write a review in the hope of a pull quote for a poster. James wrote what he saw, and then what happened  after he switched channels because the first show bored him. He wrote about sporting events like Eurovision or Wimbledon or the endless movable feasts that were David Coleman, ITV telethons or disco competitions or even Ski Sunday. He wrote about the continuity announcements, on drab current affairs like Nationwide; one festive column saw him switching between BBC films Where Eagles Dare and The Sound of Music, with the triumphant von Trapp family eventually invading Germany and accepting the surrender of General von Paulus.

James has a way with prose which captured the best possible kind of commentary, adding an idiosyncratic series of observations on whatever he reviewed. He was an intellectual who enjoyed mass entertainment. He would write passionately on Shakespeare or Jack Rosenthal, decry what he perceived as laziness in the work of Pinter and Lindsay Anderson, yet get sucked into the schlock of The Poseidon Adventure or Martin Sheen’s performance as a ‘drug-addicted, plague-carrying gigolo’ in The Cassandra Crossing. He was sensitive to the gift for individual detail he saw in the work of Victoria Wood, but also find the space for a boyish snigger at the eroticism he happened upon in the innuendos of hapless BBC sports commentators. ‘He’s pulling the big one out now,’ was a well-caught slip describing the athlete Brendan Foster.

And James did pull the big one out. Time and again, he captured moments in prose that endure. There was terse disapproval on observing Princess Anne at a rugby match, visible chatting away during the national anthem and offering up ‘an uninterrupted stream of chat.’ He aptly described the It’s A Knockout judge Eddie Waring’s rocking on-camera movements as ‘cogitations’, and accused the Germans of preparing for some ludicrous slippery-pole game ‘since the end of World War Two’. He fearlessly pilloried Rupert Murdoch, specifically because he percieved him to be a snob about he arts. He noted a worthy tv drama that finished with a sudden scream, then wearily confessed ‘It was mine.’ He banqueted on drama, from The Borgias to Dallas, making pithy observations about Sue Ellen’s mouth or the Poisoned Dwarf that made the tiresome programmes more fun to watch. He railed at variety shows, and domestic tv figures like Max Bygraves or Dick Emery, but was more than happy to launch into withering descriptions of the on-stage indulgences of big international stars like Liza Minnelli or Frank Sinatra.

James went on to interview Sinatra as part of his tv work; like Terry Wogan, his wit seemed to be gradually blunted by his proximity to his subjects, and absorbed into his understandable desire to be part of the continuing cultural soap-opera he wrote about. He was a tv natural, with a sing-song delivery and a genuine desire to amuse; the clip below comes from his Clive James At the Movies single show for ITV, in which he examined risible clips from old movies; his joy is evident, and the sound of his laughter will be missed.

(Some of the quotes above may be inaccurate, I didn’t check them, they are as I remember then forty years after reading them.)