Criterion Sunday 214: The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka All That Money Can Buy, 1941)

I was not enthused upon the prospect of watching this Criterion release, but its merits grew on me. It’s a moral fable, taken from the story of Faust, and like other tales of wealth coming to the wrong people (I’m thinking of Barry Lyndon myself), its central character is in some ways the weakest, with Jabez Stone being an insufferable weed of a man who sells his soul to the devil (consarn it!) and finds himself the recipient of untold wealth. It’s interesting though in the way it moralises about the responsibilities of wealth, siding it seems against capitalist exploitation (surely the natural mode of the American industrialist), this perhaps one of the surprising ways in which the wartime mood shifted people’s interests towards the common good. It all has the sheen of a fine picture, with some nice supporting performances, but it’s the film’s strong moral convictions that carries it through.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director William Dieterle; Writer Dan Totheroh and Stephen Vincent Benét (based on the short story by Benét); Cinematographer Joseph H. August; Starring James Craig, Anne Shirley, Edward Arnold, Walter Huston; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 15 April 2018.

君の名は。 Kimi no na wa. (Your Name., 2016)

I feel like I’ve seen live action versions of this mystical, supernatural, body-swapping elegiac romance but animating it somehow makes the sentimentality more palatable. Also, let’s be fair, it makes it gorgeous to look at. There’s a lot going on here under its slightly twee premise — an attempt perhaps to grapple with a troubled 20th century — and the storytelling is quite dense (a lot of play on language means subtitles at the top and bottom of the screen at times), but it creates a wonderful atmosphere.

(PS Also, yes, the full stop is part of the film’s title.)

Your Name film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Makoto Shinkai 新海誠 (based on his novel); Starring Ryunosuke Kamiki 神木隆之介, Mone Kamishiraishi 上白石萌音; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Monday 2 January 2017.

Zootopia (aka Zootropolis, 2016)

Another solid Disney animated film after Frozen and Big Hero 6, this deals with a world of anthropomorphised animals where the big threat is the reversion by the predator animals to ‘savagery’ (i.e. their ‘natural’ animal state). Our hero is Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny rabbit from a country carrot farm with dreams of serving on the metropolitan police force (called “Zootropolis” in the UK version, but “Zootopia” everywhere else), yet despite her ambition, she seems thwarted by the unfeeling old timers on the police force, led by their buffalo captain (Idris Elba). However, after falling into the ambit of small-time grifter fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), they team up to help solve a series of kidnappings. When you look at the character list, it all does seem very silly, but into this buddy-coppy fantasy adventure format, the film is trying to push some pretty serious ideas about civic corruption (Jenny Slate voices the assistant mayor, a sheep if not always sheepish), not to mention racial intolerance and understanding — all enfolded up into the big mystery of the savage animals which Judy and Nick are tracking down. Even aside from the thematics — and I have no idea how they’d play to children, as some of the ideas are pretty complex — the animation is gorgeously detailed and replete with all the expected blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual puns in the backgrounds, not to mention sly hommages to various films (few of which would be known to kids, unless The Godfather and Chinatown are considered typical viewing for that generation these days).

Zootopia film posterCREDITS
Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore; Writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnston; Starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 21 April 2016.

Descendants (2015)

I don’t intend to make a strong case for High School Musical auteur Kenny Ortega’s latest film, but it is brightly coloured and likeable in a fairly anodyne way, as befits a made-for-TV Disney Channel movie. The premise is that Disney’s famous villains, having been sent away to live on the Isle of the Lost, far from the good guys, have grown up and a number of them now have children who are to be reintegrated into the mainstream world of Auradon, where their parents hope they will continue to spread their legacy of evil-doing. As ever, the hierarchical society is premised on benign royalty (Beauty and the Beast in this case) ruling justly over a fluffily-updated mediaevalesque world populated by bland white prep kids. It’s up the bad guys to inject some colour (not to mention people of colour, for that matter) and they are all so clearly far more interesting than the ‘heroes’ that this amounts to its own form of critique. Certainly brief book-end appearances by musical veterans Kristin Chenoweth (as Maleficent) and Kathy Najimy (as the Evil Queen) lend a bit of Broadway pizazz to the older generation (which also includes a Black Cruella de Vil and an Iranian-American Jafar), though generally the film could do with more music and dance numbers — I understand these were only added at the late arrival of Ortega to the project, so at least there are some I suppose. The kids are all pleasant to watch, with Maleficent’s daughter Mal (Dove Cameron) being the purple-haired highlight. There’s not a whole lot more to say, and for what it sets out to achieve it feels like it’s generally a success.

Descendants film posterCREDITS
Director Kenny Ortega; Writers Josann McGibbon and Sara Parriott; Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn; Starring Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson, Kristin Chenoweth, Kathy Najimy; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 27 January 2016.

Criterion Sunday 51: Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam’s films feel like a lot of work sometimes. It’s not that they’re complicated or pretentious, just that they’re filled with lots and lots of stuff. The set design is claustrophobic and packed with detail, there are gags happening in multiple parts of the frame, little visual jokes or passing fancies, the performances are hectic and filled with excess: he just constructs really very busy worlds. It was evident in Jabberwocky and Time Bandits and it’s even more so here, the film which in many ways defines his visual and directorial style. Brazil is an anarchic experience that sprawls over two-and-a-half hours, as low-level bureaucrat Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) starts to discover the state-imposed limits to his freedom. The film’s interest seems not to be in that he falls in love (though he does, to the mysterious Jill, played by Kim Greist), but that his dream world unlocks a vision of a reality that has been systematically shut down by the government for whom he works. Its functionaries are buried in a mountain of papers and filing, from under which Lowry can only slowly and with great effort crawl. This Kafkaesque quality of struggle is what gives the film its style, as obstacles both technological (the cranky mechanical systems that spill across every set like human viscera) and bureaucratic (blue-collar workers like Bob Hoskins, or white-collar mandarins like Ian Holm and Michael Palin are particularly memorable) get in his way. This all should make the film-viewing experience heavygoing (and later films like The Zero Theorem return to the same milieu to lesser effect), yet there’s an underlying lightness of touch. His world is a dystopia, certainly, but it isn’t the brooding chiaroscuro of, say, 1982’s Blade Runner. Instead, it’s dystopia as comedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam; Writers Gilliam, Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown; Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Ian Holm, Robert De Niro, Katherine Helmond; Length 143 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 August 2015.

Criterion Sunday 37: Time Bandits (1981)

If this is considered a family film classic, then it’s a dark and strange one. In many ways, it feels like something of a template for Terry Gilliam’s later filmmaking after the previous decade spent subsumed into the Monty Python comedy collective. It’s a story that comes from a place of imagination and wonder, so it’s suitably focused on a young boy, Kevin (Craig Warnock in his only film role), who’s led by a group of dwarves from his bedroom through a portal into another dimension of fantasy and Gilliamesque weirdness. I’m not sure I’m always a fan of Gilliam’s skewed take on the world, though it’s impossible to deny the anarchic energy he brings to every element of filming and set design, the latter of which seems to be entirely based around the toys littering Kevin’s bedroom. The film takes a child/dwarf’s-eye view of the world, with plenty of close-to-the-ground framings of various dastardly creatures (giants, swordsmen, God and Evil, and the very tall John Cleese as a condescending aristocratic Robin Hood). Gilliam keeps the film focused on the merry little band, with strong roles for David Rappaport as their self-appointed leader Randall and Kenny Baker as lovably dim sidekick Fidgit in particular, though given their bandit nature, all of them remain largely selfish and nasty up to the end. Time Bandits has that delight in upsetting the adult world of order that you see in, for example, Roald Dahl’s kids’ books, so it’s certainly not devoid of gruesome little jokes scattered around the madcap capering through this literalised dreamscape. Quite what it all amounts to, I’m not always sure, but it’s certainly diverting.

Criterion Extras: There’s a long filmed interview with Terry Gilliam from on stage at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, around the time of the release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which he speaks volubly and at length about his career, with only brief prompting from his on-stage interviewer. He only briefly touches on Time Bandits, but it’s an interesting piece. There are shorter pieces about the creation of the film’s look, as well as archival footage of Shelley Duvall talking about her (very small) role in the film. The commentary track merges a number of interviews, primarily with Gilliam talking about the making of various scenes, but with brief interpolations from some of the actors like Craig Warnock, Cleese and Michael Palin, who was also a co-screenwriter, and is all very informative.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam; Writers Gilliam and Michael Palin; Cinematographer Peter Biziou; Starring Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, David Warner, Ralph Richardson; Length 116 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 May 2015.

かぐや姫の物語 Kaguyahime no monogatari (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, 2013)

I’d never actually seen a Studio Ghibli film before, which seems like quite an oversight, especially given that this film by one of the studio’s founders, Isao Takahata, is so delightful. It uses a traditional folk tale about a bamboo cutter who chances across a mystical baby (and huge wealth) while out at work. The baby grows at a rapid rate, eventually being hailed as a princess and relocated by her now-avaricious father to the city. The film itself, for all its narrative incident, unfolds at a relaxed pace that allows for lengthy sequences such as the Princess choosing from her suitors. However, just as it has plenty of openness to its narrative structure, so the visual style has a beautifully balanced sense of space, with impressionistic use of watercolours and charcoal shading, which at times (such as a scene of the Princess running across the countryside) is pushed into an almost abstract dimension. There’s little attempt to restrain the story’s mythical qualities, such that the ending is surprisingly similar to that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but as the expansive running time should suggest, this film is less about how the story is concluded as about the telling, which is immersive and yet meandering.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya film posterCREDITS
Director Isao Takahata 高畑勲; Writers Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi 坂口理子 (based on the folk tale 竹取物語 Taketori Monogatari “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”); Length 137 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 25 March 2015.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

The Wachowskis are filmmakers with a strong directorial vision, who’ve put some pretty good films together (also, admittedly, some bad ones; I do not intend to make a case for any of the Matrix sequels), so when you see the kind of critical mauling that Jupiter Ascending has been getting from some quarters, well I think that’s as good a recommendation as any to get oneself along to the film in question. Sure, it’s a big confusing mess, but there’s nothing in it that seems to invite the derision it’s been getting, though this may in fact be down to a lot of similar factors to Inherent Vice‘s reception — that the plot is so elaborate that it’s turned some viewers off. But, weirdly, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, this is a much an exercise in evoking the fabric of a lost world (or, here, an imagined universe), which should always be something worth celebrating. It’s no mean feat to try and visualise the textures of such a vast system of planets (think Star Wars) and power factions (think Dune), so if there’s a bit of recycling involved, well that’s to be expected — in fact, one sequence has such an indebtedness to Brazil that Terry Gilliam himself turns up. There’s plenty enough that’s unfamiliar — new experiences and imagery, created jargon for new technology — that as a viewer you feel sympathy for Mila Kunis’s titular heroine Jupiter when, like Vice‘s Doc, she is called on to continually express confusion at what’s happening. It’s refreshing too to see a woman playing the central character for such a big film — she is a lowly Russian cleaner who turns out to be (via some method) the owner of Earth — though Channing Tatum (with quite the silliest facial hair of the season) provides plenty of valuable support as the ‘spliced’ mercenary (think Guardians of the Galaxy, perhaps) who has her back. The acting star here though is Eddie Redmayne, who chews up the scenery with such a hammy performance that it goes through badness to being sheer genius, and perfectly matches the tone of the film. Other performers can be uneven, and taken as a whole it doesn’t always hold together perfectly, but as an experience it’s every bit the equal in imagination and scope as any other big budget blockbuster, and as a “space opera” it’s more interesting than any nonsense from 1977.


Jupiter Ascending film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski; Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at Vue Croydon Grant’s, London, Saturday 14 February 2015.

Maleficent (2014)

Disney’s output of late has focused on the way that bonds of family and friendship can be stronger and more meaningful than those between lovers, which is just as well for the Sleeping Beauty myth because it has always relied so heavily on non-consensual kissing that nowadays it sort of seems a bit creepy really (that scene is still here, but it’s played quite reasonably all things considered). Frozen dealt with Elsa and her sister the ice princess, while Maleficent instead focuses on Princess Aurora (our Beauty) and her relationship to the malevolent (or magnificent?) fairy of the film’s title, the one who curses her to eternal sleep on her 16th birthday at the outset.

In the way of such characters, Anjelina Jolie’s conflicted Maleficent runs away with the film; the blandly beaming Aurora (Elle Fanning) never stands a chance. The film’s turn, too, away from its twinkling, twee fairy-world vision of the start cannot come too soon — there’s only so much pastel-coloured paradisiacal nonsense that any viewer (well, this one, anyway) can take. As with Frozen, though, it’s just a pity that our eventual heroine, saviour of all our hearts, to whom all must pay obeisance, is so startlingly, blindlingly Aryan; there’s no questioning of beauty standards here, as even such silly frippery as Shrek managed years ago (a film series that very quickly outstayed its welcome, incidentally).

The central conflict in the film, expressed at the level of this relationship, is the division between the human and fairy worlds. (I might propose that, as the bearded bad guys are all Scottish while the elven fairies are English, this film is in fact a coded allegory about the dangers of a partition between Scotland and England, but then again maybe I’m just reading too much into it.) Certainly this central conflict between the autocratic humans and the ungoverned fairies isn’t really fully worked-through and seems to find benign aristocracy an acceptable compromise (perhaps the Scots just need to put more faith in the royal family?). It’s perplexing ideologically, and it’s perplexing tonally, but there’s enough here that’s enjoyable, particularly in Jolie’s star turn.

Maleficent film posterCREDITS
Director Robert Stromberg; Writer Linda Woolverton (based on the Disney film Sleeping Beauty); Cinematographer Dean Semler; Starring Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at UGC Ciné Cité Les Halles, Paris, Sunday 6 July 2014.

The Zero Theorem (2013)

Apologies for the intermission. I was away on holiday for the last week, and though I’d intended to put a few posts up, in the end I didn’t get around to it. Have sort of found myself spending rather more time proscratinating than writing, so I’m a bit behind. Just need to get back into the writing habit…


There was a point, back when I started going to the movies, when a new film by Terry Gilliam was something that got people properly excited, and more to the point, got me quite excited. But that was the mid-1990s and a lot of time and projects (filmed and unfilmed) have passed through his career since then. Now, maybe it’s just because I’m not at university anymore that I’ve missed the frenetic and excited discussion about this new film, or maybe it’s that Gilliam’s peculiar vision is no longer aligned with the zeitgeist, but when a friend suggested going to see The Zero Theorem, I had to look up just what it was. So just to recap: it’s the new Terry Gilliam film.

Once it begins, though, there’s certainly no doubting the singular auterist vision at work here. The frenzied, stylised set design, bright colours, and repurposed junk aesthetic are all quintessential Gilliam. In many ways, this film visually recalls 12 Monkeys (1995) most of all, with its bald-headed holy fool protagonist (here Christoph Waltz where once it was Bruce Willis). His sleeping mask recalls that worn to travel through time in the earlier film, although the impenetrable bureaucracy brings to mind Brazil (1985) too, so it’s no surprise to see these films quoted in reviews. Even if this new film isn’t explicitly a sequel, it is intended to be grouped with them, from what I understand, and that makes sense.

Waltz’s Qohen Leth is a programmer of sorts, working a Kafkaesque desk job within a confounding hierarchy to achieve nothing particularly tangible. He is pestered by his boss Joby (David Thewlis) and catches glimpses of the chief, known as “Management” (Matt Damon). They want him to work on the titular theorem, a task which has been helpfully gamified with chunks of flying equations in a virtual reality world, and Management’s son Bob (Lucas Hedges) is drafted in to help. Leth is obsessed with taking a phonecall which seems to promise some hope to him of explaining that his life has some purpose, while the implication for solving the theorem is that it will prove the ultimate futility of life — though I concede too that I am easily confused.

There’s a whirl of colourful incident, at Leth’s work, at his home (a converted church), at parties and on the street, which chiefly serve to further Gilliam’s carnivalesque vision of life in the city (presumably London, though the film was made in Romania). The actors bounce around gamely, particularly Thewlis, an on-screen psychiatrist played by a daffy Tilda Swinton, and Mélanie Thierry as Bainsley, a sort-of-love-interest for Leth. There’s a slightly troubling undercurrent of objectification in Bainsley’s characterisation as essentially the prostitute with a heart of gold archetype, though of course the company Leth works for is called Mancom, and this is a deeply patriarchal world.

It’s undoubtedly all very exhausting to watch, though that’s very much in keeping with Gilliam’s filmography. There are some nice ideas somewhere in here, and the set design is as fabulously detailed and packed with all kinds of witty puns as ever, but it has the feeling of something a bit hurried and unstructured. In some ways the title hints at that: this is like an idea of a film more than something neatly finished off, but it’s at least good to see a film that has plenty of ideas, even if they don’t always seem to bear fruit.

The Zero Theorem film posterCREDITS
Director Terry Gilliam; Writer Pat Rushin; Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini; Starring Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, David Thewlis, Lucas Hedges; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 17 March 2014.