Aladdin 2019 (no award)

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Disney no longer seem to be able to put their mitts on the £200 cash required to put on press shows in the country I live in; either that, or they have developed a fresh political desire to stifle any public interface outside of London other than the collection of cash from the rubes. From The Lion King to Star Wars, if it’s a Disney film, Scotland is no longer allowed to write or talk about their product; now that Aladdin has cleaned up at the worldwide box-office, the dust has settled enough to have a backward look at exactly what that product was.

Putting fond memories of the original films aside, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is over-long, poorly conceived and something of a strain to watch. Two colorless leads play the street-rat and his princess, while Will Smith takes on the iconic role of the blue-skinned genie. The plot follows the classic beats, with the resourceful Aladdin pressed into service to steal a magical lamp, but using the genies’ powers to restyle himself as a prince and win the heart of his true love.

Like a themed costume party, Ritchie’s Aladdin echoes the look of the original film without capturing any of the charm; Iago the parrot, the monkey Abu, even the tasselled carpet are side-lined, and when they do briefly get centre stage, disappoint with their dead-eyed appearance. The makers of the original animated version didn’t imagine they were creating a story-board for live action, so their hand-drawn conceits don’t work in live action; there’s no creativity here other than a wrong-headed desire to replicate the original, with a few groan-worthy additions, including a framing story and a general push for Will Smith.

Smith actually does well with the scenes in which he’s not painted blue; the actor has a bubbly irreverence that works well when plugged into a staid scene at the Sultan’s court. Robin Williams’ routines have been revised to fit Smith’s voice, but his genie seems snug rather than mapcap. Similarly the production numbers are big without being well-sung or choreographed; they boggle the eye without impressing, and have a tin-ear for melody, aside from a loose but jolly closing number set to Friend Like Me that bursts into life and makes you wish the whole film was made like this.

There are points of interest (and entertainment) in the 2020 Aladdin, but they’re few and far between. It’s easy to see why, with great songs and a beloved story, Disney might feel the property was worth a do-over, although every element here is a downgrade. Despite Aladdin being a well-loved tale for centuries, this 2020 version seems to limit imagination or fresh interpretations by mimicking the 1994 version so slavishly. It’s a financially lucrative but artistically bankrupt move that seems to go against the style and ethos of Walt Disney himself; an elitist power-play by a company seeking access to our homes as children’s entertainers while politically active to ignore local traditions and values.

Bombshell 2019 ****

bombAmerican politics looks different at home from abroad; European media has a liberal outlook, and tends to play up an unconscious bias that’s permanently pro Democrat and con Republican. Thus when Donald Trump talks about the world’s media being against him, he’s got a point. Every Republican president in recent memory has been hailed as the worst thing ever, whether Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr or Jr, they all get the same treatment, characterised as power-mad imbeciles.

Jay Roach’s Bombshell’s subject is Fox News, and the goal is to dramatise well-documented sexual harassment issues. These are comparatively recent history, so recent that two of the characters featured are Donald Trump and Rudi Guiliani, the former evoked using actual footage, the latter by an actor. Both are, at the time of writing, still active and involved in the American political scene, but are casually described here as a passing demagogue and his above-the-law fixer. With US politics in a somewhat explosive mode in 2020 election year, it feels like a shame that Roach didn’t feel the time was right to address the Trump-Giuliani axis in more detail, since their contribution to American life is still a hot issue.

Instead, we’re introduced to a selection of big tv names who are completely unknown outside of America; Host Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), departing matriarch Gretchen Karlson (Nicole Kidman) and composite ingénue Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie). Karlson is heading out the door, but willing to bring down the Fox News channel behind her; Kayla is the audience surrogate, a young woman being rapidly brought up to date on Fox News’s style, which is described in Charles Randolph’s script as pure sensation; news deliberately described in a way that would involve an aging parent. Kayla is also brought up to date on the way her boss Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) operates, and accepts that being a victim of sexual harassment may get her what she wants. But as Kayla and Gretchen begin to understand that their experiences are similar, it’s left to Megyn Kelly to confront her own past, connect the dots and uncover a systematic cover-up of loose morals and male domination.

Bombshell works as an expose of what happens when men call the shots; these women all look and sound like ball-breakers, but they’re denied anything but the illusion of agency by slavering men. Roach has a rep for this kind of work, with Recount and Game Change both managing a similar ripped-from-the-headlines approach. As an awards contender, Bombshell is pretty much hobbled by being a film written and directed by men about the importance of listening to women’s voices; one of the best lines mentions a Fox News harassment hotline, which is described as being as useful as a complaints-box in Nazi occupied France. But even if the punches are muted, there’s tonnes going on here and most of it is interesting, from Kate McKinnon’s suppressed lesbian to Malcolm MacDowell’s Rupert Murdoch, channelling late period Mick Travis as a journeyman who has travelled too far from his comfort zone.

Bombshell isn’t boring, but neither is it as explosive as yesterday’s news; the asides are more stimulating than the main plot, which is too schematic to fully land. A gross of nearly $30 million domestic proves that the public are interested, although whether minds are changes is a different matter. There will be better films about sexual-harassment, Fox News, Trump and Giuliani, but Bombshell is salacious enough to be going on with for now.

Flashback 1990 ****

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“Wait till you see the 90’s, they’re going to make the 70’s look like the 50’s!’ says hippie Huey Walker (Dennis Hopper) in Flashback, a comedy-thriller that’s refreshing in the way it puts politics centre-stage. Walker is an Abbie Hoffman-style prankster who has been missing since he decoupled Spiro Agnew’s train as an anti-war protest; when he resurfaces in 1990, he anticipates that social norms about to get a lot stricter, and in hindsight, he was right.

Walker has a strong piece of evidence in his nemesis, FBI agent John Buckner, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Buckner wears a suit, carries a gun, and couldn’t be further from the ideals Walker espouses; ‘I wanted to be the opposite of what my parents wanted’ Bucker explains, and he’s delivered on that promise. Buckner is deputised to take Walker on a long cross-country journey by train in order to stand trial, but his captive escapes, and the two men end up going on the run together as dark forces close in on Huey.

Flashback was directed by Franco Amurri, who directed the original version of Big, and there’s a body swap element here too, even if it’s played without the magic. Walker convinces Buckner than he’s spiked his drink with acid, gets him drunk, then steals his gun and clothes; clean shaven, he becomes a fun-house mirror-image of himself, with the exact opposite in political ideals. Walker is also able to put Buckner back in contact with his own idealistic youth, via an ex girlfriend Maggie (Carol Kane) who still carries a torch for Walker and the flower-power movement. While both men seem entrenched in their own political views, they manage to reverse their instant judgements of each other and form some kind of alliance.

The plotting gets a little murky in the final act of Flashback, with the chase elements overwhelming the sharper observations of the script, although the climax is pretty sharp. Hopper, discussing the impact of Easy Rider, makes a number of post-modern jokes about his own reputation, with Born to Be Wild part of the eclectic soundtrack choices. The perennially underrated Sutherland does a great job of suggesting the spectrum of opinions possible within one man; the scene where Buckner cries to see his childhood self in a home movie is brilliantly played.

It would be untrue to suggest Flachback has a bad reputation; it’s got no reputation at all, and surfaces on Amazon Prime like a Flashback to when a populist American film might seek to create political unity. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a good –humoured and knowing film that might just find a few new converts with a fresh new print and two great stars to pull them in.

Official Secrets 2019 ****

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In 2019, controversy is a famous actor pretending to have a brain injury, dancing to the music of convicted paedophile Gary Glitter. A thriller accusing British and American governments of blackmailing small countries into supporting an illegal war in which million die barely creates a ripple. Times change; the kind of covert behaviour that a film like Official Secrets attempts to uncover is now shouted to the press from the White House lawn.

The man and his dog in the street now know that the Iraq war was instigated under false pretences; Gavin Hood’s film is, at least, a timely reminder of that unhappy truth. Based on the lugubriously titled book The Spy Who Tried to Stop A War; Katharine Gunn and the Secret Plot to Sanction the Iraq Invasion, Official Secrets may be raking over material that is cold potatoes, but as a look at what the personal consequences might be for a whistle-blower, it’s prescient and timely. Gunn (Keira Knightley) works at GCHQ and happens on an email from the US attempting to blackmail small countries into supporting a war via their UN vote. She takes the story to an ex-employee who filters it to the press via The Observer’s Martin Bright (Matt Smith) and human rights lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes), but when her identity comes to light, it’s Gunn’s Muslim husband who faces deportation as a direct consequence of her actions.

Official Secrets has an important true story to tell, and Knightley is the ideal centre; after a couple of duds in the form of Colette and The Aftermath, Hood’s film makes good use of her national treasure quality; with lank hair, chunky knitwear and unflattering anoraks, she’s a dowdy figure ideal for these kind of down-beat shenanigans. There’s a decent support cast including the perennially underused Matthew Goode, but there’s also some shonky details that distracts; the newspaper office Bright works in doesn’t feel right at all, a cartoonish affair featuring shouty, sweary editors and sniping, pencil-pushing underlings.

Leaving such details aside, Official Secrets is a better-than-average spy story that never takes leave of its sense of outrage; watching the characters curse as Bush and Blair waltz across their tv screens, it’s a reminder of yesterday’s news, and how it might inform that radically different political problems of today. Gunn is lionised by this film; the point is that unless the public pay attention and act, the bad guys will always win the day.

The Day Shall Come 2019 ****

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Chris Morris is Britain’s most scabrous working satirist, and is probably best known as the creator of The Day Today, a parody of both news and news reporting that’s yet to be bettered. For his first feature, Four Lions, Morris attempted to make comedic hay from the idea of an incompetent terrorist cell, and it’s to his credit that he managed to make something that was much more than just a few gags on a topical theme. His follow-up, arriving almost a decade later, has a similar notion at its centre; outsiders in their Miami community, Moses (Marchant Davis) and his wife Venus (Danielle Brooks)struggle to make ends meet until an opportunity comes their way; to hide some guns…

Of course, guns are just the starts of Moses’s absurd journey, which brings him to the attention of Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick), and her FBI team, who are keen to nab prospective terrorists in the act by feeding them bogus information and equipment, then sending in the SWAT teams after the misguided participants press the nuclear button. This is, Morris’s film makes clear, entrapment, and what‘s being entrapped is not ideological terrorists, but the poor. The Day Shall Come has good fun with Moses’s weird beliefs, and his understanding that blowing a small horn might just conjure dinosaurs out of the earth; the point is that Moses is just a misguided individual, and has no idea that his own brand of idiocy might make him vulnerable to being a political dupe.

There’s a certain brand of modern satire, via In The Loop, Veep and The Death of Stalin, that relies on absurd swearing tropes, convoluted insults and all characters speaking thinly disguised locker-room talk to fill in between the actual jokes; The Day Shall Come is admirable in that it rarely stoops to crude gags. Instead, Morris mines a ridiculous situation to great effect, with vibrant central performances and a fun, prissy support-turn from Kendrick.

“Next thing you’ll know, the Statue of Liberty will be wearing a burkha and we’ll be beheading Bruce Springsteen,’ one of Glack’s team observe, but the stakes are carefully defined in Morris’s intelligent, trenchant comedy. America is not under attack from outside, but from within, by those who seek to profit and further themselves by creating enemies from outside. It’s a laudable, modern sentiment, and fully articulated by the Ace In The Hole finale that Morris creates with genuine cinematic verve.

Transit 2018 *****

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You are under arrest from the moment Transit begins; this critic literally had to restart Christian Petzold’s film to get his head round the film’s uniqueness. This is an adaptation of a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers, but the details are not in keeping with the book’s period; the sight and sound of modern ambulances and police vehicles interrupt the action, and the clothes seem deliberately chosen to not evoke any specific era. In this German/French co-production, set in a parallel universe, the dialogue and the situations are set out in much more detail, and they relate as much to 2019 as 1942. The building of walls and the re-enforcing of borders has led to an inevitable conclusion; almost everyone caught up in this story is a refugee of some kind. Georg (Franz Rogowski) leaves Paris for Marseilles carrying the writings of a recently deceased author and a letter from the author’s wife; it allows him to pass himself off as the writer, and potentially access to a precious opportunity to flee the fascist occupation of his country and head to Mexico. Georg is in transit, even if he’s temporarily stuck in the port while he works through various official channels. But his journey takes a diversion when he attempts to help a sick child, and becomes involved with the doctor who helps him, and a lover Marie (Paula Beer), who was previously married to the writer he’s impersonating. The situation is oppressive; there are, to paraphrase a line from Titanic, ‘too many people and not enough boats’; Georg must consider who will make it out of Marselles alive, and what role he will play in the escape. Transit is a brilliant and powerful film that blazes an original trail that puts most film-makers to shame; there’s a great throwaway line about a zombie movie where the undead congregate on a shopping mall; even the dead, one character comments, seem to have run out of ideas. Petzold’s distain for genre tropes is invigorating; he brings a classic text to life in a way that never puts it behind glass to admire. Instead he updates the text in a way that focuses on the timeless personal suffering of the dispossessed; Transit is essential viewing for anyone wondering where the political directions of 2019 might lead.

Transit is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Streaming Services from Aug 16th 2019.

The Candidate 2019 ****

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Accessing foreign language films in multiplexes and even arthouse venues looks like an uphill struggle in 2019; having said that, streaming potentially offers up a far wider audience that cinema ever could. A willingness to embrace subtitles, plus a working interest in Spanish politics might seem like a big ask in terms of finding an audience qualified to appreciate Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s tense thriller, previously known as The Realm. Manuel (Antonio de la Torre) is a politician with criminal links; when he flies too close to his political opponents, he’s indicted, and his whole world starts to fall apart. Of course, Manuel is more than just a dupe, and he quickly works out a series of internecine schemes to make sure that he’s not the only one to take the fall. The Candidate is rightly marketed as being by the producers of The Secret in Their Eyes, the excellent Argentinian thriller which offered a similar kind of tough, adult world. There’s not much action or violence, but there’s also not much melodrama or contrivance; the story is tight and realistic, and the carefully-shot drama brings to mind the 2010 version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in the way that ordinary settings take on an off-kilter poetry. A throbbing techno soundtrack helps engage the interest during a dizzying first hour, and things heat up further until a couple of brilliant, unexpected scenes wrap things up at the conclusion. This film might need a hard sell, but for anyone looking for smart, modern political cinema, The Candidate gets the job done.

The Candidate hits UK Cinemas and Digital HD on 2nd August 2019