In Soviet Russia, secrets keep you

The Courier is a very talky film, I suspect you could mostly follow it with sound turned off.

This commitment to visual storytelling is a product of its storytelling and setting. The film takes place in the early sixties and follows Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch), a middle-class, middle aged, British machine parts salesman. A combination of his regular business trips to the Eastern Bloc and generally unassuming nature draw the attention of the CIA and MI6. They have a prized source: high-ranking Soviet military intelligence office, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), who is offering them invaluable information on Khrushchev’s nuclear strategy. To protect Penkovsky, rather than using one of their own officers to contact him, the British and American spies turn to Wynne, a self-described “amateur” at espionage and a reluctant one at that. He uses his work trips to Moscow to inconspicuously meet with Penkovsky and bring back troves of secret files.

The social media ads for the Courier have branded it “a slice of James Bond action”. This is borderline false advertising. It lacks any fighting or shooting, is mostly sombre and is decidedly unglamorous. It may be from the same era as Connery’s early outing. However, it is set in the spartan surrounds of Soviet Moscow and a London of beige business suits, white bread sandwiches, gold courses and Powell-Pressburger pronunciations. The focus on human drama and the psychic toll of spying more obviously recalls Le Carré (RIP, legend). However, to my surprise the contemporary writer it most reminded me of was Terence Rattigan: the supreme playwright of stifled emotions and uncomfortable silences.

Part of why this comparison occurred is likely that chunks of the Courier are basically family dramas. Yet the comparison still holds for the scenes set in the Soviet capital. Indeed, especially in them. The emphasis on things unsaid only heightens, when the pressure to avoid speaking openly not only comes from social convention or character flaws, but also the KGB’s listening devices and lip readers. Hence, even though there is plenty of exposition, the more salient a story point is the more likely it is to be shown visually.

We literally see that Penkovsky is deeply enmeshed within the Soviet system. The film opens with him fulsomely applauding a speech celebrating the USSR’s strides in missile technology. We see that amidst the sea of faces in the audience for the Bolshoi, it is Penkovsky’s that Khruschev recognises and with whom he exchanges a nod of recognition. Yet when we see him alone, we witness small signs of his contempt for the system he serves surfacing. Crucially, we can also see how repressive that system is in the incredible caution he shows about before allowing even these subtle lowerings of his mask as a loyal apparatchik. Whilst, this is all eventually conveyed in dialogue between Penkovsky and Wytte, these conversations do not take place until about halfway through the film. By this point, it has already been communicated to the audience much earlier by things we see on screen.

This is a smart approach, which makes use of the excellent cast, that includes not only Cumberbatch and Ninidze, but also Jesse Buckley, Rachel Brosnahan, Zeljko Ivanek, and Anton Lester. It takes skilled actors to strike the balance between sufficiently minimising the expressions and movements which reveal what their character really thinks and feels to the point they are hidden from the other characters in the scene, yet are still distinctive enough to be what their characters reveal, such that visible to an audience seeing their expressions and movements and gestures in close-up on a 250 m2 screen.

[As an aside on the topic of casting: it was refreshing to see the Soviet characters played by actors from the former Soviet states speaking to each other in Russian, rather than by Anglophone actors delivering English dialogue, whilst affecting somewhat Slavic accents.]

[Yes, I have seen Black Widow. Why do you ask?]

However, for all that I think emphasising visual storytelling was the right decision for the Courier, its execution definitely could have been better. The camera work can lack subtlety and originality. For example, in a scene where Wytte is a passenger in the back of a car being driven from Moscow Airport, his sense of being under oppressive surveillance depicted by him seeing his driver studying him in the rear-view mirror.

There are other weaknesses too. The tension tends to dissipate whenever the plot returns to this side of the Iron Curtain. Hence, it probably would have been a better film if it had centred Penkovsky rather than Wytte. It is also not done any favours by the obvious comparisons in terms of setting and subject to films Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the Lives of Others. This company makes the Courier’s otherwise respectable thematic depth, feel underwhelming.

That said it is still an engaging film about an important piece of history performed by a talented cast. The emphasis on letting us see events play out gives it a cinematic edge. Indeed, I would suggest that if you have a story like this one that could be told in a podcast or a book, then making full use of the visuals is a major – perhaps the major – reason to still put it on the big screen.

Nolan Time to Die

In Tenet, celebrated director Christopher Nolan adapts for the big screen a previously unknown novel co-authored by Ian Fleming and Rod Serling. Or at least you could be forgiven for thinking that.

After an unnamed American special services agent (John David Washington) is almost killed during a mission by a bullet that appears to fire out of a wall and back into a gun, he is pulled into a conspiracy centring on “inversion” – the ability to make objects travel against the flow of time.

This set-up allows Nolan to de facto realise his aspiration to direct a Bond film. This is a tale of espionage that shoots between glamorous locations on different sides of the world, whilst going long on smart suits, gadgets and, most of all, action.

That said whilst it is obviously a pastiche, it is never just one. We may be watching tropes which have been deployed many times before, but by hurling high-concept sci-fi at them, Nolan shatters any sense of familiarity they might engender. You may be able to trace the influences on the fight sequences, gun battles and the truly astonishing car chase through Tallinn. However, none of those feature participants moving opposite ways through time. That is something genuinely novel and, given Nolan’s technical mastery, spectacular.

Indeed, they may be the best action set pieces he’s ever produced including “the bat bike” sequence in the Dark Knight.

I am not sure if it has the thematic richness of some of his other work, precisely because it often takes multiple viewings – and hearing about other’s interpretations of the film – for that richness to reveal itself. However, even if it does not, I will hardly be disappointed. I think we all deserve a bracing blast of premium popcorn cinema about now.

The king is dead, long live the king!

Boseman’s version of T’Challa is so powerful that it will endure undiminished, even despite his death

 A colleague responded to the news that the actor Chadwick Boseman had died of cancer aged just 43 by posting to Instagram of her son – who’s maybe eight or nine and white British – in costume as the Black Panther giving a crossed-armed Wakandan salute. This is one of many reminders, that the role of T’Challa had not merely made Boseman famous: it had turned him into an icon.

His face, his character and his costume are recognisable the world over. Of the five highest ever grossing films at the US box-office, 3 featured Boseman playing T’Challa. There was a time when Black Panther was the only film ever to have a cinematic release in Saudi Arabia. One of its central action set piece was filmed in Korea whilst I was still living there. In the run up to the film’s release it seemed like the country was plastered with the image of Boseman in the Black Panther armour astride Busan’s Diamond Bridge.

That an African-American actor playing an African character, drawing inspiration from comics authored by the most influential African-American intellectual in decades, amongst an overwhelmingly black cast, brought to the screen by a mostly black crew became such a global phenomenon shattered Hollywood’s assumption that whiteness was uniquely universal. Therefore, T’Challa will have had a special resonance for black audiences seeing someone like them not only take centre stage, but do so in our culture’s mightiest epic. However, that’s not my experience to explain but I want to note that it’s there and that it matters – a lot.

That said, as I’ve already discussed this portrayal had abundant appeal to non-black audiences as well. I hesitate to speak for all white people, but I doubt many of us spent much of Black Panther wishing Martin Freeman’s Agent Ross and his dodgy American accent had been given more screentime. The film – and Boseman starring role in it – demonstrated that blackness and Africaness  were only a barrier to mainstream appeal if studios made it one.

Boseman was crucial to making this possible. Marvel’s original plan had been to have the Wakandans speak with British or American accents, until Boseman – perceiving that this would rather uncut the idea of the kingdom as a part of Africa that had been allowed to develop free of the stain of colonialism – told the studio this was a “dealbreaker” for him.

Indeed, Boseman played an unusually decisive role in shaping his character. T’Challa made his first appearance in the MCU in Captain America: Civil War which was shot before Ryan Coogler was chosen to write and direct Black Panther. The Russo brothers, Civil War’s directors, were reluctant to impose their vision on the central character of someone else’s film. Therefore, they asked Boseman to read some of the comics and then relied on his interpretation of T’Challa. It is, therefore, to Boseman’s considerable credit that T’Challa not only immediately felt like a fully rounded character but that his evolution across three further films felt perfectly natural.

(*Spoilers begin*)

That evolution is interesting and unusual because it is as much ethical as it is emotional. The young king is reliably noble, but his sense of this demands of him shifts. In Civil War, he goes from seeking retribution for the murder of his father, to seeing a parallel between this motivation and that which has propelled the film’s villain to commit his atrocities. In his stand-alone film, he is initially guided by the inherited assumption that as king his role is to ensure Wakanda stays isolated from the violent world around it. This is very directly challenged by the return to the kingdom of a cousin who the previous king and Black Panther – T’Challa’s father – had abandoned in the US as child to experience the cruelty and injustice that American society visits on people with dark skin. T’Challa rejects his cousin’s demand that Wakanda conquer the rest of the world, but accepts his charge that its isolationism has been an act of moral cowardice. He responds by opening the kingdom up to the world and sharing the fruits of its technological and social progress.

(*spoilers end*)

A different actor might have depicted T’Challa with an effortless suave or swagger. Boseman was more subtle than this. He always injects a note of unease into T’Challa’s interactions. The earnest young king feels the weight of his kingdom upon him and is reluctant to relax lest he let it slip.

Paradoxically, this makes it easier for us in the audience to imagine him commanding the authority necessary to see off a dangerous demagogue, rallying people for an apparently hopeless fight against an alien invasion and undoing millennia of aloofness from the outside world. There’s a whole sub-genre of management advice devoted to the benefits of leaders showing vulnerability. And Boseman’s T’Challa is a perfect fictional representation of this. He is nervous because he wants to do the right thing, hence it functions as a visible sign of his moral convictions. Similarly, his guardedness is a sign of his honesty. We instinctively know that character like Robert Downey Junior’s Tony Stark deply glib, frenetic, oversharing as a defence mechanism, grabbing attention away from unacknowledged feelings and unsavoury motives. Boseman thereby uses dignified reserve to convey trustworthiness.

This not only adds credibility to his character, but makes their dramatic arc work. If a character’s evolution is primarily about shifting ethical values, then for the audience to feel this has dramatic weight, they must sense that morals are crucial to the character.

*Spoilers begin*

Hence when having been almost killed by his cousin, T’Challa finds himself on the ancestral plane and confronts his father about abandoning a child, we are not only getting the personal drama of a man whose spent his life fearing that he will fail his father, realising that in fact his father has failed him, but Boseman shows us the drama of a statesman making the historic decision to embrace a shift of moral paradigms.

*Spoilers end*

I submit that it is no coincidence, that the two films in which Boseman’s T’Challa plays the largest role – Civil War and Black Panther – are also the smartest and most thematically rich entries in the MCU canon.

The subtlety, humanity and gravitas of his acting, combined with an inherently interesting character to create a magnificent performance. His death will inevitably mean it is viewed with a twinge of sadness. However, none of its power will be diminished. If anything it is likely that Boseman will now become even more emblematic: the James Dean of generation that feels some of the weight of responsibility that T’Challa does and rebels with cause.

Thanks to Boseman, T’Challa will be a name to conjure with across the globe and down the generations.

All your friends are right about how amazing Hamilton is

A hit

In 1789, Alexander Hamilton became America’s first Treasury Secretary. That presented him with the immense challenge of enabling the new republic to repay the immense debts it had wracked up winning the Revolutionary War against Britain. These came to the enormous sum of $75 million. In order to avoid a default, he not only raised a huge range of taxes, but introduced policy innovations which some credit as laying the foundation for America’s Federal Government, banking system and industrial economy.

In 2020, Disney struck a deal with Lin-Manuel Miranda for the right to put a live filming of his hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton on their streaming service. It cost the House of Mouse the enormous sum of $75 million.  

This equivalence between an entire nation’s debt and the royalties for a play speaks to two things: 1) inflation and 2) what an enormous success Hamilton has been. Even though its premise sounds like the basis for a Producers style fraud, it won 11 Tony Awards, endorsements from world leaders and runs in Broadway and the West End which only coronavirus could break. However, this hype had perversely made it rather inaccessible. Demand for tickets to the stage shows was so great that you had to book them months in advance at a price one could only afford via financial engineering worthy of the show’s protagonist. However, its arrival on Disney + brings it to an even larger audience.

As part of that latter group, I am immensely grateful. Yes, there is certainly a loss of intensity and immediacy relative to seeing the show live, but even on the TV screen it is still entrancing. I’m not musically literate enough to tell you how Miranda manages to deliver banger after banger, but he absolutely does.

Hip-hop history

However, if I may engage in some ill-informed speculation, Miranda’s counter-intuitive decision to tell Alexander Hamilton’s story using hip-hop, an art form which didn’t emerge until almost two centuries after his death, gives Miranda’s work a range of advantages.

Some of these are practical. To see one of them, compare Hamilton with Les Miserables. Both plays regularly require characters to deliver exposition about history and politics through lyrics. However, in Les Mis this sounds cringeworthily out of place. Hamilton can almost entirely avoid this distracting dissonance between form and function because the gap between rap and regular speech is narrower than that between speech and song.

Rap is also an apt vehicle for depicting the more combative side of politics. Public debate in eighteenth century America was at once more refined and nastier than it is today. Yes, it was an era when politicians were often classically trained rhetoricians who communicated through erudite essays and pamphlets. However, as the historian Alan Taylor observes: ‘We often hear pundits declare that our politics have never been more polarized. In fact, politics were even more divided and violent in the era of the founders, when one minister worried that the “parties hate each other as much as the French and English hate” each other in time of war. In one town, when a Republican neighbor died, a Federalist declared, “Another God Damned Democrat has gone to Hell, and I wish they were all there.”’ Taylor tops this point off by noting contemporary reports that three-quarters of duels arose from political disputes. 

Rap is of course also rich in poetic pugilism. A denunciation and a diss track, or a debate and a rap battle, are fundamentally pretty similar. In fact, two of Hamilton’s best tracks depict meetings of George Washington’s Cabinet as rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

However, the greatest advantage of having eighteenth century characters rapping and singing hip-hop is that it is so anachronistic. It immediately and totally disabuses the audience of our preconceptions about what a period piece will be like. Freed from these constraining expectations, Miranda can create a musical of astonishing brio and bravado. It is defined by its big dramatic moments but is also wickedly funny. This latter quality is perhaps best depicted by a set of tracks which depict King George III (played by Jonathan Groff AKA Special Agent Ford from Mindhunter) as America’s psychotically entitled ex delivering lines like: “And when push comes to shove // I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!”

It is also a wonderfully multi-layered. Take just one line. “I am not throwin’ away my shot”, which first appears as the chorus line for the third song and then recurs multiple times throughout the show. At different points ‘the shot’ represents: a single bullet in a dueller’s pistol, a shot of spirit, Hamilton’s ambition, the narrowness of the new nation’s path to survival and a nod to “Lose Yourself” by Eminem.

The room where it happens

Obviously, for all its richness and complexity, it cannot possibly convey the same historical detail as the 800-page book it is based on. Plus, it is historical fiction rather than history. And even when it is dealing with historical facts, its representation of them is frequently abstract rather than literal; as we have already mentioned no one in the 18th century rapped. There does seem to be a bit of a dispute about the interpretation of history it presents. I have not really studied this period in any detail, so mostly avoid that discussion. That said, I do want to say two things in its favour on that score.

First of all, it is commendably sophisticated in the way it thinks about history. Indeed, at points it manages to deal with historiography as well as history. As it recounts past events it also comments on how they are remembered. Indeed, there are two tracks built around gaps in the documentary record. Both serve not only to acknowledge this uncertainty to the audience, but also illustrate important moments for characters.

 In addition, having worked in politics for a while – admittedly at a rather less elevated level than the characters in Hamilton – the depictions of politicians ring true. For example, Jefferson and Maddison gleefully throwing copies of the Reynolds Pamphlet into the audience, captures well the unsightly joy of a team of politicos realising their opponent has screwed up. I suspect this feeling of authenticity is why it seems to resonate so much with politicians.

There is also a substantive question underlying all the theatrics: Hamilton is a musical meditation on the place of personal ambition in politics. Miranda’s version of Alexander Hamilton is a pathological striver. This serves to make him into a great man but also a tragic figure.

The drive to distance himself from a childhood in St Kitts and Neves marinated in bereavement, humiliation and disaster propels him not only to travel all the way to New York, but to rise socially; it also imbues him with the desperate energy which makes him so charismatic; and ultimately it is what leads him to become a Founding Father: in a new nation, to command the ship of state, he first had to build it.

Yet Hamilton’s own sister-in-law explicitly likens him to Icarus: a figure whose non-stop ascent destroys him. Growing up amidst constant death and loss leaves him haunted and conditioned to expect not to survive. This fatalism in turn feeds into recklessness. He is wracked by survivors’ guilt and crushed by the weight of his own and others’ expectations; too harassed to ever be comfortable or content. His opponents are able to exploit these doubts and drive him to catastrophically bad decisions. These repeatedly put him in conflict with Aaron Burr – who is depicted as sharing Hamilton’s hunger for power but not his ideals – with disastrous results for them both.

The eye of the hurricane

In a celebrated lecture delivered in Munich in 1919, the great sociologist Max Weber, addressed an audience of students. He spoke to the backdrop of a world overturned by the First World War. People were rising up, empires were falling, and young, scrappy and hungry countries were being born. Like Hamilton and his drinking buddies singing “My Shot”, these students could be forgiven for thinking: “Don’t be shocked when your history book mentions me”. Therefore, Weber turned to poetry to instil realism in them:

I wish I could see what has become of those of you who now feel yourselves to be genuinely ‘principled’ politicians and who share in the intoxication signified by this revolution.

It would be nice if matters turned out in such a way that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 102 should hold true:

Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays;
As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing,
And stops her pipe in growth of riper days.

But such is not the case. Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness

What Miranda manages in Hamilton is to somehow turn Weber’s dictum that “politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards” into a musical romp where the hope for the growth of riper days and the polar night of icy darkness and hardness both get their dues.

Bonus:

This version of Hamilton as sung by the Muppets is a pure joy

My ranking of the 2020 Best Picture Nominees

9. Joker

Comic book films are often accused of being ‘dumb fun’. Joker avoids that risk by jettisoning the fun and cranking up the dumbness. The core problem with it was skewered years ago by The Lego Movie, which had its version of the Caped Crusader performing a heavy metal “Untitled Self Portrait”. This song begins with Batman very solemnly declaring “Yes, this is real music. Dark, brooding. Important, ground breaking” and its chorus line is just him yelling “DARKNESS!”

Joker takes this gormless equation of bleakness with profundity as its credo. Then pursues it with wearying determination. The result is a one note parade of suffering and sadism devoid of depth, wit or intelligence. That writer/director Todd Phillips clearly believes he’s preaching empathy for those suffering with mental illness, whilst perpetuating nearly every negative stereotype about them suggests a staggering lack of insight on his part.

Joker is ultimately as unpleasant, narcissistic and miserable as its protagonist. It should be a shoo-in for the Razzies not a contender for the Oscars.

8. Irishman

The key thing you need to know about the Irishman is that it’s 3hr 30 mins long. That’s almost an hour longer than any of the other nominees. That runtime is a monument to self-defeating self-indulgence on Martin Scorsese’s part.

The ambling storytelling it arises from undercuts any way this film might work. It is much too slow to possibly be meant to be an effective thriller. Yet if the idea is that it is instead a character drama, why does are the audience subjected to an encyclopaedic recounting of the interplay between the mob and the truckers union in 60s/70s America? This could be a study of the hollowing effect of violence on its perpetrators, but that thread is picked up so sporadically and haphazardly that it never pulled me along. But hey at least I now know who the accountant who oversaw the Teamster’s pension fund was, so that’s some repayment for the investment of 210 mins!

Before leaving this film, can we talk about the extensive use of digital de-ageing. What exactly is its point in a film like this? Would the Godfather trilogy have been improved if the the young Vito Corleone had been played by a digitally de-aged Marlon Brando rather than Robert De Niro? Did some section of the audience for the Two Popes find it impossible to imagine that both Jonathan Pryce and a younger actor who looks a bit like him were playing Pope Francis at different stages of his life? It doesn’t even work that well. It just about holds up when the actors are reasonably static, but they still move like guys in their seventies and in one fight scene it makes suspending disbelief completely impossible.

7. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

If the key to making a good film was assaulting the audience with a relentless stream of 60s pop culture references then this would be a masterpiece. As it’s not, it is insufferable.

It’s also a mess. Less of a coherent film than a scrapbook of ‘things that make Quentin Tarantino feel nostalgic’ haphazardly bolted together. That said some of the individual segments are quite entertaining, so for me it just pips the Irishman.

6. Le Mans ’66 (AKA Ford v Ferrari)

At this point, we cross the line between good and bad films. Not good enough to merit a nomination mind you. However, I’ve already done a full blog post on why this is a competent and diverting but ultimately uninspired film, so I will avoid repeating myself.

5. Jojo Rabbit

Making a broad comedy about two young people (one German and one Jewish) struggling to survive the final and most violent spasms of the Third Reich is such an implausible endeavour that Jojo Rabbit arguably deserves a nomination just for pulling it off.

Farce is a counterintuitive medium through which to examine a period of history marked by such brutality. However, it provides a way to focus in on the madness which arises at the nexus of totalitarianism and total war.

That said blending comedy, tragedy, history, polemic and a coming of age story is not an easy feat. And whilst Taika Waititi mostly pulls it off, there are also a fair number of moments where Jojo Rabbit misfires, especially when its weirdness overwhelms it, hence why it is not higher up this list.

4. Marriage Story

This is probably the nominee I have the least to say about. It is an impeccable piece of filmmaking, so there are no flaws for me to lay into. However, it is also not as bracingly original as some of the other nominees. It absolutely deserves to be nominated but probably not to win.

3. 1917

It is obviously impossible to fully evoke on screen, what it must be like for soldiers to contend with the constant fear of death on the battlefield. However, in this film, Sam Mendes probably gets as close as one possibly can. In the process he creates perhaps the most intense two hours of film ever. Shooting the whole film as if in a single shot might sound like a gimmick – and in many films might be – but in 1917 it serves to drill us ever deeper into the awful situations the protagonists face.

I’d give a particular shout out to the production design, which not only always looks totally convincing but conveys the oscillating mix of filth, desolation and horror the soldiers of WWI had to contend with.

This seems to be the bookmaker’s favourite to win, which would be a choice I’d respect. You might then ask why I have not put it higher. Well, for all it overwhelmed me in the moment, its impact lingered with me less than the two films at the top of this list. But that is to praise them, not to depreciate 1917 which is a nigh on perfect film.

2. Little Women

Greta Gerwig’s filmmaking is a bit of a mystery to me. I was utterly charmed by Ladybird two years ago and this reduced me to tears several times. However, I cannot explain why. I don’t really understand the craft she is deploying to so utterly draw me into films in genres that usually don’t resonate with me.

A particularly commendable element of Little Women is how lightly it wears its depth. The question is posed in the film itself of whether chronicling mere ‘domestic drama’ can be a worthy artistic endeavour. It also answers it, not only creating compelling relationships between characters, but also examines the role of women and the impact of war on children, whilst also offering a meta-commentary on the process of storytelling. But it doesn’t feel the need to weigh down its storytelling by telegraphing its importance or worthiness. It is content to just be those things.

1. Parasite

Parasite has the uncanny ability to succeed at what every other nominee is attempting:

  • There are moments of black humour funnier than anything in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
  • It satirises social inequalities with the kind of wit and nuance Joker so lacked.
  • It creates families you believe in as much as those in Marriage Story and Little Women.
  • There is a scene where characters have to sneak out of a house, which is as tense as soldiers crossing no-man’s land in 1917.
  • As you might have gathered from the points above it blends genres like Jojo, working as a black comedy, a thriller, a family drama and a social commentary.

It is one of those marvellous films which not only works at multiple levels but gets them all working in perfect harmony. It is also a masterpiece of execution: The rhythm of every scene is perfect, any of the central cast would have deserved acting nominations and the writing is a marvel of economy.

I urge you all to see it. Not least because I want as many people as possible I can discuss it with!

Could the Academy really not find 10 films that were better than Le Mans ’66?

I have not got to the cinema as much this year as I have in previous years. So, I have not seen most of the nominees or potential nominees for this years Oscars, so will be staying out of arguments about whether Joker’s nominations are ‘a joke, if Greta Gerwig was snubbed in the Best Director category or if the whole thing is just too pale, male and stale.

Nonetheless, I do want to gripe about one anomalous inclusion. Why on earth is Le Mans ‘66 (or if you are in the States Ford v Ferrari) in the running for Best Picture?

It is not that I think it’s a bad film. I actually rather liked it. Had I done a top ten films of 2019, it would have been one of them. However, that reflects the fact I have not seen many more than ten films. I am incredulous that the Academy, whose membership must between them have seen thousands of eligible films to pick it as one of its ten nominees for Best Picture.

The film tells the real-life story of how in a few months, the Ford motor company went from a standing start to having a racing team able to break Ferrari’s hegemony over the sport. And – to reiterate – it does this well. It has a strong cast headed by Matt Damon and Christian Bale, who director James Mangold gets good performances out of. He also delivers some genuinely exciting race sequences, aided by solid work from the films VFX and sound teams, who fully earn their nominations in technical categories.

And yet, it is hard to see, how it is a special enough film to truly merit Best Picture nomination. A wrongheaded narrative has developed in some corners of the internet that its financial and critical success represents a blow against formulaic blockbusters. Granted, there are no superheroes in it and its not part of a franchise. However, that just means it is a blockbuster made with a somewhat out of fashion formula. It is a by-the-book sports movie, saturated with the clichés of that genre and reliant on its stock characters. It does not subvert, reassemble or play with those elements, the way Knives Out does with the components of a murder mystery. It is hardly original and honestly feels like it could have been made in 1989 rather than 2019.

It would be cheap of me to belabour this point by noting that Le Mans ‘66 has essentially the same story as Cool Runnings. Nonetheless, it does undeniably feature a team from the New World making an unexpected entrance into a high-profile race, where under the guidance of a former top-flight racer forced to stop competing prematurely, they achieve a moral victory, which earns them the respect of snooty European rivals who initially scorned them.

Granted, inventiveness is not necessarily essential quality in films that deserve to be nominated. I would argue Spotlight earned its win in 2016, not by upending the conventions of films about reporters, but by producing a superlative example of one.

However, Le Mans ’66 is not in that category either. For all the things it gets right, there are a number of reasons it falls well short of master crafts status:

  • Precisely because the story almost always does exactly what you expect it to, it is not as exciting as it could be. Which is a real drawback because being exciting is the real test of a racing film.
  • The one real twist it does deliver, is taken from the actual events of the 1966 race at Le Mans, so if you know that history yo will not have had even that solitary surprise.
  • The first half drags.
  • Chunks of it are quite corny and sentimental. For example, Bale’s character’s interactions with his son.
  • While the cast are good and well used, I’d defy anyone to say they are delivering anything approaching career-best performances
  • Its attempt to sell us on the idea there is something almost spiritual about racing are thin and come across as silly rather than profound.
  • Even if you buy that, then it creates a contradiction at the heart of the film. The Ford team is presented as a tool of the marketing department of a large and unappealing conglomerate, who sees them as a gimmick to sell cars. By contrast, Ferrari are shown as motoring purists, who treat racing as an art form. Therefore, if we accept the supposed philosophy of the film, shouldn’t we be rooting for Ferrari?
  • It foreshadows the tragic elements of its story in the more ebullient sections. However, it doesn’t really integrate them into an arc, which is satisfying even in terms of character development or tone. All that seems to connect the death of Ken Miles (Christian Bale) with his moral victory at Le Mans is the fact that they both involve driving fast. As a result, it comes across not as the emotional culmination of the film, but as a discordantly dark note tacked onto the end of what is mostly a quite breezy film.

These limitations are hardly inherent to the sports or racing genre. Compare Le Man ’66 with Ron Howards’ Rush. It not only has more visually and sonically spectacular racing scenes, but spreads them more evenly throughout the film, creating a better pace. It also counterpoises moments of triumph and tragedy, so that they build on each other, and create an emotionally compelling journey for the characters, leading up to a more poignant ending. Naturally, in its wisdom, the Academy not only did not nominate Rush for best picture, they did not nominate it for anything at all.

That is just one reason that the recognition Le Mans ’66 has received today feels strange. Are the Academy really telling us it deserved that nomination more than the deliciously devious Knives Out, the heart-breaking Farewell, or the genuinely profound Two Popes? What special qualities are they claiming elevate it above 14 of 15 films nominated in the best documentary, animated feature and foreign language categories which will not get to compete for Best Picture? By nominating a film, which includes a scene where a motor exec directly advocates pandering to baby boomers, is the Academy attempting to satirise its own hidebound conception of what films might be deemed Best Picture?

If the point of increasing the number of Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10 was to give recognition to a broader range of films, then Le Mans ’66’sinclusion seems like a clear admission of failure. It undoubtedly took a huge amount of talent to make and its qualities far outweigh its vices. However, it is hard to see a case that it was nominated because it was exceptional, rather than because it makes the median Academy voter feel comfortable.

Two Popes are better than one?

* I don’t think this is a film where spoilers matter, but in case you disagree full spoilers ahead *

Habemus Papam*2

According to the fictional version of Pope Benedict XVI who appears in the Two Popes: “there is an old saying – ‘God always corrects one pope with another’.” This idea of Benedict and his successor as thesis and antithesis animates The Two Popes. However, not in the way you might expect.

When then Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) travels to Rome in 2012 to appeal directly to the Pope (Anthony Hopkins) for permission to retire as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he is surprised to discover the Supreme Pontiff is also considering stepping aside. Neither man is initially sympathetic to the other’s intentions and not only a battle of ideas, but a clash of temperaments ensues. The cerebral traditionalist Pope initially regards everything about the down-to-earth, reform-minded Cardinal as a challenge.

In many films, the two popes would function more as stand-ins for schools of thought than actual characters. However, The Two Popes prioritises, not only, understanding, its central characters as men, but also imagining how despite their differences, they could develop a friendship and reach a mutual understanding.

The film’s Benedict is initially in a sort of spiritual funk, sensing that he is not meant to be Pope anymore, but fearful about the direction the Church will take if he relinquishes his office. However, encountering Cardinal Bergoglio, and realising he can hear God speaking through someone he considers so heterodox, gives Benedict faith that there is a path forward for the Church without “God’s Rottweiler” at its helm.

At the same time, Benedict is able to challenge the Cardinal’s guilt over his ambiguous role during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’. Using his relentlessly scholarly mind to deconstruct the illogicality of the future Pope Francis’ unwillingness to extend to himself the forgiveness, he preaches for others.

This very intense focus on just two characters, only works because both Hopkins and Pryce are superlative. Henceforth, I expect to have the same difficulty mentally disentangling the Pope Francis and Jonathan Pryce, that I do separating Mark Zuckerberg and Jesse Eisenberg.

While scriptwriter Anthony McCarten is clearly more sympathetic to Francis’ worldview than Benedict’s, the marriage of his writing and Hopkins’ performance creates a portrayal of Benedict which is no less empathetic than that of Francis.

And crucially given the subject matter and central characters, both the writing and acting of the Two Popes, finds a way of depicting personal faith which reflects that as inexpressible as it is, for Benedict and Francis there is no force more powerful.

Two notes

Before finishing this review, duty compels me to note two things. The first is my one substantive criticism of the film. I do wish relatively more had been made of Benedict’s pre-clerical past. At one point, he says to Cardinal Bergoglio: “we both know that part of what dictatorships do is take away this choice”. Despite this, and the fact that incidental characters twice refer to Benedict as a “Nazi”, his upbringing under the Third Reich, and whatever parallels it might have with Francis’ experiences under Argentina’s Juanta, go mostly unexplored.

Secondly I absolutely, most flag up how legitimately funny the Two Popes is, especially when it depicts the stand-offishly modest Bergoglio confounding the grandiose world of the Vatican. As that world is often personified by Benedict, that means large sections of the film function as an odd-couple comedy.

Understanding

However, this humour is always affectionate, as befits a generous film that promotes understanding rather than conflict. But that is not understanding as some intellectual exercise, rather it is as a lived experience involving other people, who are inevitably replete with nuances and frustrations.

It is also understanding with teeth. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his book Cosmopolitanism that: “People often recommend relativism because they think it will lead to tolerance. But if we cannot learn from one another what it is right to think and feel and do, then conversation between us will be pointless. Relativism of that sort isn’t a way to encourage conversation; it’s just a reason to fall silent.”

Both Benedict and Francis are men of faith who believe in moral truth. That is what gives the fictional conversations across an ideological divide in the Two Popes such weight and urgency: they are between people who think that words can alter beliefs and that the right beliefs can change everything.

However, McCarten’s script avoids positing anything as simple as one man successfully proselytising the other. Rather, like two marbles travelling in opposite directions, which collide; after their encounter both his popes are put on an altered course, neither of which matches the trajectory either was on before.

That kind of change in one’s understanding might seem weaker than brute persuasion. However, as the Two Popes shows, under the right circumstances, it can be powerful enough to vault someone from the throne of St Peter.

Why ‘Knives Out’ is my favourite film of 2019

If you have not seen Knives Out yet; then whatever you are expecting it to be; expect something different. I intend to keep that surprise intact. Therefore, I will avoid saying anything too specific beyond noting that it is homage to the Agatha Christie style ‘stately home homicide’ whodunnit.

The best – and truest – complement I can pay it, is that it is an ideal use of cinema. By that, I mean it deserves to be seen in a bespoke place, specifically reserved for watching films. It works on myriad levels and no detail in it is incidental. Therefore, it rewards complete concentration. However, because of the effort that has gone into crafting the witty script, elegant editing and pitch-perfect performances; intense attention comes effortlessly to the audience.

Indeed, the quality of the filmmaking is something that can be savoured in and of itself. It is a pleasure to behold, even above and beyond the enjoyment of the film itself.

Knives Out absolutely merits a second viewing. Partly because there are more jokes than anyone can take in on a single viewing. However, it is also because, watching it again allows you to observe how writer/director Rian Johnson seeds information, creates and then subverts expectations, and finetunes the characterisations to make everything first fizz and then explode.

However, it is the joy of my first viewing that will stay with me. I confess, I was pretty unhappy when I went in to see it. I found the final stretch of 2019 quite a slog, more marked by doubts and fears than anything else. One film can’t change that. But one as engrossing and immersive as Knives Out stopped me dwelling on all the things that had been bothering me, for a few hours at least. It allowed me to follow a trail intriguing clues leading me on a humorous trail involving compelling characters, and forget about everything else for a while.

Clearly, escaping into fantasy long-term is unhealthy, but I’d argue that short breaks from an often-difficult reality are not only ok but actually vital for our wellbeing. That’s why I am so grateful films as good as Knives Out exist. Now and again we all need to kill time.

5 other films I loved this year:
The Farewell
Avengers: Endgame
If Beale Street Could Talk
Can you Ever Forgive Me
Ad Astra

The Siren Call of Safety: My Rise of Skywalker review

I have avoided revealing anything in this post that is not in the trailers or other pre-release publicity

A fan’s lament

I noticed myself noticing something whilst watching the Rise of Skywalker. Perhaps because it was mostly shot in the UK, a lot of minor roles are filled by actors who have played major parts in British TV shows. So, my brain would regularly be like “wasn’t that X-wing pilot a detective in Sherlock. Even in one of the film’s most emotionally charged moment, I was distracted by the realisation that a small but pivotal role was played by someone strongly associated with playing a very distinctive character, very different from the one they were depicting in the Rise of Skywalker.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I’m enthusiastic about the direction the saga has taken in the Disney/Kathleen Kennedy era. I would have been so enraptured watching The Force Awakens and the Last Jedi, that something small like this wouldn’t really have registered to me. That I was taken out of the film by it, illustrates that the new film did not cast the same spell on me.

Sure, it was still entertaining: the cast of characters remains hugely likable, John Williams remains a genius and ILM continue to deliver a mic drop visual after mic drop visual. However, it is impossible not to be disappointed that the trilogy has ended this way.

The criticism I’ve seen made most frequently is that the pacing is rushed. Which it undoubtedly is. In fact, it feels like two films have been edited into one. If films are often praised for their ‘lean’ storytelling, then the Rise of Skywalker is emaciated. It has been cut back so viciously that the bones of the plot are largely stripped of character development, thematic depth or anything else that might put flesh on them. The relentless gallop through the narrative also robs the audience of slower moments where tension can build. The effect of this pace is alienating rather than invigorating.

These writing and editing issues are exasperated in the first act of the film by the filmmakers trying to incorporate unused footage of Carrie Fisher shot for the Force Awakens. I appreciate why giving one of the saga’s truly great characters (and the fantastic actor who played her) a proper send-off seemed important. However, taking dialogue from one film and trying to jam it into another is the wrong way to do it. It feels out of place in the film it’s now in. And the editing doesn’t cover the joints in a smooth way.

The perils of playing it safe

However, I want to suggest a more fundamental flaw with the Rise of Skywalker: Lucasfilm was too cautious.

In his book Messy, Tim Harford cites numerous incidents where measures intended as a safety feature actually become dangerous. For example, part of a safety valve in a nuclear reactor breaks loose and causes a blockage which leads to a meltdown. Or more mundanely an anxious public speaker is so anxious about not knowing what to say, that they cling to a carefully pre-prepared script rather than reading the room and wind up saying exactly the wrong thing.

I fear Lucasfilm took a risky precaution by deciding to go back to a trusted director. It is understandable why they did this: the studio has been repeatedly burned by taking risks on directors – including parting ways with the Rise of Skywalker’s original director, Colin Trevorrow. In that context, rehiring JJ Abrams, the man who successfully delivered the saga’s relaunch in Force Awakens, must have seemed like a way to almost guarantee they would get a decent film.

However, that created a problematic dynamic. In contrast to their Disney compatriots at Marvel, Lucasfilm do not have a masterplan for how the story will unfold film-to-film. Instead, the writer/director of each entry in the saga improvises. Now, as anyone who improvises on stage or screen can tell you, it only works if you are prepared to accept and develop others’ contributions, the so-called “yes and…” principle. Rejecting them breaks the flow of the process.

Just such a break is created, by bringing back the director of the episode VII to direct episode IX. Abrams clearly had ideas about how the rest of the trilogy would pan out. Judging from the Rise of Skywalker those ideas seem to have differed substantially from what Rian Johnson actually did in episode VIII.

Rather than developing the story Johnson bequeathed him, Abrams instead seems to have tried to pull the saga back in the direction he initially intended: Characters introduced in the Last Jedi are ignored; whilst characters from Force Awakens often act in a way that seems at odds with what we learned about them in the previous film; and the previous film’s big reveal is retconned away. This isn’t even done in an intelligent way. Instead a character simply goes (to paraphase slightly): “When I said X (in the Last Jedi) that was actually sophistry. I really meant Y, which is the literal opposite”!

It also feels like Abrams drives forward with ideas, like the return of Palpatine as an antagonist, which because they were not seeded in Episode VIII seem to emerge from nowhere.

I also couldn’t escape the sense that Abrams had used up a lot of his ideas for action sequences in Force Awakens. So in the Rise of Skywalker, he resorts to making things bigger in a way that doesn’t turn out better. The combination of this drive for scale and the rushed editing, mean that a lot of the battles sequences become an uninteresting blur.

Let the past die – Kill it if you have to

Thus the very thing that probably most recommend Abrams to Lucasfilm, having successfully directed the Force Awakens, was actually the thing that made him the wrong director for the Rise of Skywalker. He did not have enough fresh ideas to contribute. Plus, his preconceived ideas about the saga’s direction clashed with the direction it actually took. This makes for a film that whilst not bad is jarring and uninspiring. It also points to a real danger for Lucasfilm or anyone else handling a long-running franchise. If you don’t take risks and tweak your formula, audiences will tire of seeing the same film repeated. For a franchise, too much caution is path which leads, sooner or later, to certain death.

My favourite films of 2018

Eligibility = Films with a UK release date in 2018

Honourable mentions

Spiderman: Into the Spider verse, Three Identical Strangers, Crazy Rich Asians, Black Klansman, Shape of Water, Thoroughbreds, Unsane.

Notable Absence

Solo – I love Star Wars. For two of the past three years, Star Wars films would have topped this list. Yet whilst I thought Solo was fine. The acting was notably good. However, it didn’t excite me or make the mythology feel notably richer.

Biggest disappointment

Avengers: Infinity War – Never has so much movie, felt like so little. Thanos was a (surprisingly) excellent villain but the heroes were fighting for screentime with the result that no one got enough. Plus, the big shocking ending felt like it had no stakes whatsoever as it will clearly be reversed in Endgame.

5. Widows

When we praise a film for its moral complexity, we often say it recognises ‘grey areas’. Widows certainly does that. However, it also inhabits an even deeper level of ambiguity. Many of its characters are doing bad things for good reasons.

Also, adeptly treads the line between arthouse and genre filmmaking.

4. Black Panther

A devastating riposte to anyone who thought either the superhero genre or the MCU had nothing left to offer. Takes the reliably entertaining Marvel formula and supplements it with bold new elements like Afro-futurism and thematic depth. It is the first film in the MCU you can have a meaningful debate about the meaning of.

Drifts a little towards the generic in its final act but prior to that it barely puts a foot wrong.

3. Mission Impossible: Fallout

The citizens of Ancient Rome simultaneously entertained themselves and sated their bloodlust by watching Gladiators fight to the death with wild animals and each other. In our more enlightened times, we replicate that experience by having Tom Cruise thrown off buildings, out of planes and into fires for our amusement.

Don’t allow the fact that this is pure popcorn cinema to blind you to its brilliance. It may not have deep character development, a story that makes sense nor any subtext. But Casablanca doesn’t have an epical final action sequence involving nuclear bombs, helicopters, martial arts, ropes, wires and the Himalayas. It is the perfect version of what it is. That takes incredible craftsmanship from very talented filmmakers. Don’t underestimate that.

2. Ladybird

I don’t really know why I adored this film so much but I can tell you that by the end I wanted to give every character a hug.

1. A Quiet Place

I fear this film may not have the cult afterlife it deserves. It is not really a film for DVD, let along a phone or tablet. It demands a proper cinema, where you have no ability to pause it and there’s strong social pressure to stay as silent as the tormented protagonists.

Not suitable for those of a sensitive disposition, but for everyone else it’s an extraordinary demonstration of how a simple premise can be developed into an extraordinary work of art.