Yet More Films To Look Out For!


This is the time of the year when I have to see 100+ films to vote in the British Academy. These mini-reviews are merely pointers for viewing purposes and don’t necessarily represent my choices.

A Lot of Lustre

At the end of the last film column I suggested we have better stories to tell than Tammy Faye’s. Well, here’s one; a tale of lust, greed and betrayal. It’s been four years since Guillermo Del Toro’s wonderful fantasy ‘The Shape of Water’, and now here he is with his remake of the 1940s’ ‘Nightmare Alley’, with Bradley Cooper taking the place of Tyrone Power.

Stanton gets work in a carnival no questions asked, where he’s horrified by the carnie geek who bites the heads off live chickens for a living. Stanton has no scruples about performing his mentalism act on trusting rubes until an encounter with Cate Blanchett’s dazzling femme fatale sets him on a route to riches, which in turn lead to higher stakes, bad people and a nightmarish fate.

Even if you don’t know the original you’ll guess what that fate entails, but what matters here – largely at the expense of tension – is the sheer gorgeous fetishism of the neon-noir filmmaking. Del Toro knows how to create the perfect period atmosphere, and if it’s a film of surfaces what a lustrous sheen those surfaces have.

Does the beautiful photography get in the way of the drama? While I was studying the patina on an inlaid wall safe I missed some crucial dialogue from Cate Blanchett, so yes. And it’s only in the final few minutes that we get any sense of real danger.

This would have been all the more real to viewers of the original. The threat of poverty had not long retreated and the memory of the Great Depression was still vivid. Today it becomes a period drama but still an enjoyable one, even though the mid-section should have been truncated. Twenty minutes out and it would be perfect.

The Backroom Boys Move to the Front

Another good story arrives in ‘Operation Mincemeat’, the true tale of the undercover operation that changed the future of the Second World War. I first read my father’s copy of this book as a child. Although well-known, it had never reached the scale of say, the beloved ‘The Dam Busters’ because it’s a backroom story, not an action film.

Churchill’s boffins handcuffed a briefcase of misleading secret documents to a corpse and sent him off to be washed up on the coast of Spain. The assorted papers (complete with love letter and carefully planted eyelash) were convincing enough for Hitler to send enormous numbers of soldiers to Sardinia and Greece, allowing the Allies to swoop in and take Sicily. The story of the backroom boys and girls of Whitehall have been the subject of at least two books and a brilliant musical (back this January at the Southwark Playhouse!).

How did Churchill’s saboteurs get the Germans to believe? The answer, eccentric and fantastical, plays out like a mad farce on stage, but here it’s played straight and adapted from Ben Macintyre’s excellent book. Colin Firth, never the most forthcoming of actors, here adopts a single facial expression that suggests melancholia or possibly trapped wind, while Matthew McFadyen (both former Darcys, funnily enough) plays his by-the-book co-conspirator beautifully, and Kelly Macdonald and Penelope Wilton add female smarts to the team.

The result is data-dense, fascinating stuff, not least for showing where the young Ian Fleming got his inspiration from, because M and Q are already working in his world of espionage. John Madden’s direction can best be described as solid – I’d opt for ‘plodding’ – but he’s a safe enough pair of hands delivering a great tale of deception that many in the Admiralty considered to be ‘not cricket’.

Not Going Silently

When the UK makes films for Christmas they often have a bleak edge (cf. Anna and the Apocalypse) as if to counteract ghastly Richard Curtis sobfests, so here comes the bleakest one yet. Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode are hosting a Christmas gathering for their bestest friends and children – what could go wrong in this lovely middle-class household?

Well, the end of the world for a start. Poisonous gases this time (the cause is a bit fudged) but it’s real enough for the government to issue everyone with suicide pills. One lad doesn’t buy it, but as the others go full Jonestown, drinking, dancing and arguing their way to eternity, he’s overlooked. The wit is poisonous, the children are fantastically sweary and as the moment arrives some home truths come out.

It’s a very odd idea, marrying the rom-com to apocalypse films, but it works, somehow managing to be very dark without sex or violence, and has a healthy unsentimentality about children. ‘Will I die, Mummy?’ asks a little boy after cutting his finger. ‘Yes, probably,’ says Keira absently. Great stuff.

Making Short Work of Cyrano

‘Cyrano’ takes Molière’s much-told tale and gives it the twist it always needed; Instead of a silly rubber nose, a very real challenge is provided by the casting of Peter Dinklage in the role. This time love cannot be overcome with a few witty remarks between a dwarf and a very tall lady. It makes sense that this is a musical, although far from a traditional one. The songs are by The National and defy all showbiz traditions by avoiding chorus and refrain, opting for a rolling Nymanesque repetition that enhances the dram, even though the clunky lyrics would have Stephen Sondheim turning in his grave.

A cast of relatively unknown faces brings real freshness, and colour is provided by the spectacular backdrops of Sicily. On stage after the screening, Dinklage said how sick he was of green screen and how refreshing it had been to film in a real place – the difference is there to see. Director Joe Wright has opted for a fantasy version of Southern Europe, French in dress, Italian in scenery, English in wit. Wright’s background in theatre informs all of his films, and this is up there with the best of them.





14 comments on “Yet More Films To Look Out For!”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    To your point about ‘Nightmare Alley.’ I sometimes find elements of a film meant to support or enhance the plot/narrative — e.g. cinematography, location, sound/music — often do just the opposite. And especially in the hands of an ‘auteur,’ who apparently thinks the strength of their vision can overcome egocentric cinematic dalliances or asides which distract rather than enhance. Depending on their history, I may grudgingly allow a few, but more becomes irritating self-indulgence. Apparently the ever gracious Bette Davis felt something similar about Max Steiner’s soaring, Oscar-winning score for her biggest box office ‘weepie,’ the 1942 ‘Now Voyager’ — complaining that it intruded on her performance.

    And btw — there are no cinema-like distractions in the same-titled book on which ‘Nightmare Alley’ is based. It’s an unadorned, well-written but harrowing read and not, I would say, for the faint of heart.

  2. Paul+C says:

    Can we join the British Academy too ? All those free films !

    Agree that Ben Macintyre’s book Operation Mincemeat is excellent – all of his books are written in a very pleasurable style. Especially recommend The Napoleon of Crime (about a Victorian master criminal) and Agent Zigzag which cries out for filming.

    Like your sharp description of Colin Firth who always reminds me of Dana Andrews – they’re both so bland…..

  3. Roger says:

    “Molière’s much-told tale… ”
    Rostand’s in fact.

    I’ve admired Dinklage since I first saw him years ago in Living in Oblivion, so I’ll head for this as soon as it comes out.

  4. Helen+Martin says:

    I wouldn’t normally bother with another Cyrano (my forever love, even if silly, is Steve Martin’s – filmed in Nelson, B.C. and I’ll remember the title as soon as I hit send) but this sounds like a believable one.

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    I have to wonder exactly how ‘plodding’ and ‘data-dense’ the backroom story of ‘Operation Mincemeat’ will be on the screen this time around. In the original ‘The Man Who Never Was’ 1956 version, based on the same-titled book by Ewen Montagu, the naval intelligence officer who helped execute the deception scheme — screenwriter Nigel Balchin (who won a BAFTA for his effort), wisely realised that the meticulous process of implementing the scheme could quickly become tedious to viewers. He added dramatic action in the form of a fictitious and well done sequence where a German spy masquerading as a young Irishman comes to England to confirm the identity of ‘Major William Martin,’ the man who never was, and the documents found on him.

  6. Helen+Martin says:

    I can tolerate a lot of “plodding” data-dense story telling if I know the film is telling me about something which actually happened. Oh, pardon, that is actually a documentary, isn’t it? That’s where a separation has to be made and is a problem when you are dealing with the details of actual events. Perhaps two films are required; a detailed re enactment of the events and a fictionalised more “exciting” version with added tension and sub plots. You’d satisfy either both audiences or neither that way.

  7. Ed+DesCamp says:

    Helen – it’s “Roxanne”. I agree- it’s a great romp.

  8. Peter T says:

    I enjoyed the Cyrano film with Depardieu. With wax additions, his nose was quite a dust extractor.

    Helen, you must have better documentaries in Canada. Ours seem to target the brainless. After an hour, I often think couldn’t they have said all that in two minutes?

  9. Roger says:

    Depardieu did a very good Cyrano – it’s obvious that he’s the man obsessed with his nose. I’ve always tought that just as playing Othello as a man racially indistinguishable from the people around him has some interesting effects, playing Cyrano with what you might call an imaginary nose would be worth watching.
    Surely the whole appeal to readers and viewers of Le Carre’s boks and the films based on them is . the meticulous process of implementing the scheme, Stu-I-am.

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Roger Le Carré’s books are far more sophisticated and richer with characters, plot points and compelling diversions. With ‘Operation Mincemeat’ or ‘The Man Who Never Was,’ once the premise (deceive the Germans) is established and the means decided (the corpse of a fictitious Royal Marines officer with bogus official looking documents), the rest is largely ‘housekeeping’ and character exposition, with dollops of romance and humour to keep the machinations from becoming tedious. And as I mention above, the original film purposely added an entire fictitious sequence to keep interest from flagging. With le Carré,’ you were pretty much kept on your toes, often never knowing what was ‘around the corner’ (or on the next page, in fact).

  11. Helen+Martin says:

    Thank you, Ed. I could only get as far as “R” (Rosemary? ummm?) and romp is definitely the correct word. By the way, Nelson actually looks the way the town in Roxanne does.
    Would you remove the whole point of the story if Cyrano was the only one who thought he had a prominent feature? Does obsession require other people’s concurrence and can you create that concurrence by drawing attention to what would otherwise go unnoticed?

    Peter T, perhaps we’ve decided that we’re so far behind that we’ll watch/read anything to move our knowledge level along. Did you see the mini series in which a totally mad woman made technically complex things from scratch? She did a toothbrush, trainers, ear pods etc. and ended up with clunky things which nevertheless worked. I watched that and parts of it twice.

    Nick, if it was you who recommended the Haitian book, thank you. Its format is similar to Birds Without Wings and has pulled me in quite nicely. The author has a strong Canadian connection, bonus!
    Anyone who might watch a good documentary would likely enjoy reading a book on which I just put a library hold: Swamplands: Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs, and the Improbable World of Peat by Edward Struzik. He kayaked on the Mackenzie, and discusses peat in Britain, China, and the Soviet Union as well as Canada and the U.S. Did you know that peat is vital to the world and not just as a soil improver? Part of our recent flood was probably due to the effects of draining the Sumas Lake.

  12. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen+Martin Helen: For one thing, maintaining peatlands is one important step in curbing carbon dioxide emissions. They control more than an estimated quarter of the earth’s soil carbon — storing 10 times more CO2 than than any other ecosystem — while covering  only about 3% of its land and freshwater surface. A UN study found they are capable capable of storing some two trillion tons of CO2—equivalent to about 100 years worth of fossil fuel emissions.Their damage or destruction is estimated to hurl at least 2 billion tonnes of CO2 annually into the atmosphere. Canada, Russia and Indonesia contain the largest tracts of peatland, but currently it is Scotland which has taken a leadership role in both conservation and restoration of these valuable wetlands.

  13. Peter+T says:

    Stu-I-Am, That’s very Vaclav Smil and, depending on the context and interpretation, is seen very negatively or positively by green politicians.

  14. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter+T Peter: Yes, I know. Not surprising, of course. Whether restrictions and restoration efforts should have happened sooner (or go far enough), a possible negative economic impact in poorer countries or invest elsewhere for a better return on mitigating climate change. Where there is a demonstrable economic impact, then certainly responsible stewardship should be the first line of defense — if that’s not a pipe dream altogether. Unfortunately, as some would have it with the known consequences of climate change in general — simply use ever larger and more expensive ‘plasters.’

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