Wednesday, November 22, 2023


Ridley Scott's NAPOLEON gives us at least one stone-cold classic battle scene, one decent runner-up and an admirably concise tour through the iconic French General and soi-disant Emperor's career.  It's all wrapped in a pacy two and half hour historical epic complete with luscious costumes, lavish locations and emperors aplenty.  But the film as a whole does not coalesce - it is not as compelling a story as Scott's GLADIATOR - and this is because of screenwriter David Scarpa's fatal decision to balance fifty percent battles with fifty percent love story.

In Scarpa's retelling, the tragic story of Napoleon is not one a military genius brought low by his political egotism and tyrannical excess.  No, in Scarpa's view this is the tragedy of a man who succeeded when he was with Josephine and failed when he was not. The problem is we never actually see what Josephine does for him. Did she perchance give him confidence, or teach him etiquette, or inspire his victories, or make him happy? We see none of this on screen - at least in the theatrical cut. Rather, we get Joaquin Phoenix's childish, sex-obsessed, possessive boor acknowledge his wife is a "slut" but remain loyal to her regardless. And poor Vanessa Kirby is saddled with some laughable dialogue as Josephine, and precious little character development. It isn't clear why either of these characters like each other, let alone love each other.

The major crisis in their relationship is that she can't bear him a child and heir. In real life this was explained by the fact that she was older than him and fifteen years into the marriage, past her child-bearing years. But Scott has cast a woman visibly much younger than Phoenix so all the chat about fertility just feels bizarre. 

The casting is even more problematic when it comes to Phoenix, who is a fine actor, but just too old for the vast majority of this film. He works well as the weary, older, defeated, delusional egomaniac. But he does not work at all as the younger, charismatic, soldier who inspired not just a nation but a world of progressive liberal democrats.  We see nothing of his charisma - no explanation of why his coup d'etat succeeded, why the French accepted him as Emperor, or why soldiers returned to him in 1815 despite his having been responsible for so many deaths in Russia.

You can probably gather that I am not a fan of this film, although I will withhold final judgment until the contains one stone-called classic sequence: the recreation of the battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon's most famous tactical victory against the Russian-Austrian alliance is visually arresting, clearly delineated, and profoundly moving.  Moreover we see its political importance in bringing about a temporary peace in the European wars that would absorb the continent for the better part of twenty years. 

The rest of the battles are more or less fine. Toulon is depicted as Napoleon's early triumph.  Borodino is scarcely touched: wise, given that Sergei Bondarchuk's WAR AND PEACE will never be beaten in that regard. And Waterloo is compressed and flattened but basically does the job it needs to do.  I am not entirely sure why Ridley Scott cast Richard Everett, twenty years too old, to play Wellington. After all the British General was Napoleon's exact contemporary: they were born on the same day. I rather enjoyed Everett's robust performance as a no-nonsense British victor, but let's be honest, it bears nothing to do with the real Wellington.

But here we get into the realm of nitpicking. Of course Napoleon didn't see Marie-Antoinette beheaded, or bomb the pyramids, or ride into battle sabre in hand once a General. Ridley Scott says we should "get over it". I kind of agree. I don't require my historical fiction to hue to the facts. I love big historical dramatic films.  The problem with this one is that it gains nothing entertaining from its inaccuracies, and forces us to watch an altogether limp love affair when we might have seen more battles.

NAPOLEON is rated R and has a running time of 158 minutes. It was released in cinemas today and will be released later in a director's cut on Apple TV.

Saturday, November 18, 2023


Based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, AMERICAN FICTION is being sold as a scabrous take-down of modern politically correct sensibilities. It is that, but also so much more.  

Jeffrey Wright (Westworld) stars as Thelonius "Monk" Ellison, a tenured academic railing against the sensitivities of his Gen Z students, and the moronity of a publishing industry that wants to cage all black authors in the prison of poverty porn, rather than accepting that they can write a variety of stories.  

Monk returns home to Boston and realises his outwardly wealthy and successful family is in crisis. His sister (Tracee Ellis Ross, Blackish) is divorced and weary of caring for their mother, his brother (Sterling K Brown, This Is Us) is manically embracing his new gay identity, and his mother is declining into dementia.  Desperate for money and outraged at the commercial success of a nakedly exploitative book by his rival (Issa Rae, Insecure), Monk pens an equally trashy novel that predictably becomes a wild success. For the first time in his life, his alter-ego is selling well, optioned for a movie, and appeasing the consciences of rich white people.  Monk hates it, hates himself, and hates all those being duped by his ruse, including his new girlfriend. The question is how this will resolve.

There is much to admire in Cord Jefferson's first directorial feature. It is genuinely, brilliantly, hilariously funny it taking down the sensitivities of the progressive Left, but also Monk's own delusions. This is a movie whose pre-credits sequence contains more belly-laughs than most soi-disant comedies have in their whole running time.  But what I love about this film is that it moves beyond that to deliver what Monk seeks: whole stories about contemporary black lives that are more than simply ghetto or slave stories. The Ellisons are a successful middle class family - highly educated and refined. Their emotional problems are fully described and beautifully acted by a fine cast, among whom Sterling K Brown steals every scene he is in.

My only criticism is that the movie doesn't quite stick the landing. This is partly by design. Neither Monk, nor the director, nor maybe the novelist who wrote the source material, are interested in easy answers and pat endings. Indeed, with their movie director character played by Adam Brody (The OC) they satirise the very concept.  But I did want some consequences, if not a resolution. We all know of real life novelists exposed as lying about their real lives. I wanted to see the literary as well as the personal consequences. But this isn't that film, and as such, I was left wanting more.

AMERICAN FICTION is rated R and has a running time of 117 minutes. It played Toronto 2023 where it won the People's Choice Award for Best Film. It will be released in the USA on December 15th (cinemas) and December 22nd (streaming).


Matthew Heineman's documentary, AMERICAN SYMPHONY, is an earnest, intimate picture of professional success contrasted with private pain.  Its subjects are the incredibly talented musician Jon Batiste, and his equally talented wife, the musician, author and artist Suleika Jaouad. Heineman follows them in a monumental year, when Batiste wins multiple Grammys both for his pop album but also for scoring a movie, and when he is writing a symphony combining classical, jazz and folk music to be played at Carnegie Hall. But amidst all of this commercial success, his wife Suleika suffers a relapse from leukaemia, and has to endure a second risky bone marrow transplant, which involves great pain but also isolation. 

Heineman has incredible access: we are with Suleika as she receives her transplant, and in bed with Batiste as he wearily offloads to his therapist, head under a pillow, like a frightened child. We delight in their evident joyous love and incredible creativity. And we suffer their separation and pain, especially as Suleika confronts potentially having to be on chemo for the rest of her life.

The problem with the film is that once it establishes the initial set-up it doesn't really move.  The couple are in the statis of their respective success and suffering.  I felt the film lacked momentum or evolution. I also felt that where it might have become more gritty it flirted with but did not embrace controversy. At one point Batiste gives an interview where he discusses how black artists are constrained by a history of being expected to act a certain, garish, simplistic, way.  He uses a particular word, maybe as offensive as the N-word, to describe their activities of old and how that influences current perceptions. I wanted to explore that more. But this isn't that film, sadly.

AMERICAN SYMPHONY is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 104 minutes. It played Telluride 2023 and will be released on Netflix on November 29th.

Friday, November 03, 2023


We are trapped in a cycle of diminishing returns when it comes to Kenneth Branagh's Hercule Poirot films.  ORIENT EXPRESS was a beautifully done, subtly updated, but largely respectful adaptation of the Agatha Christie source material. NILE was also lavish and earnest in its attempts to update the material, but by changing an intricate plot, Branagh utterly ruined the story.  And now we have A HAUNTING IN VENICE, incredibly losely adapted from A Halloween Story. It works neither as detective fiction nor as a ghost story.

Branagh stars as Poirot, now retired and reclusive, in post World War Two Venice.  He is tempted out of his mansion by his old friend, detective author Ariadne Oliver, played by Tina Fey as if she's in a Screwball Comedy.  It's a great performance but one wonders which film it actually belongs to.  They are not trying to investigate a murder but to debunk a medium called Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who Oliver and Poirot feel is exploiting the grief of opera singer Rowena Drake (Yellowstone's Kelly Reilly). Rowena recently lost her daughter and gathers a motley crew in her spooky Venetian house to make contact with her. There's the daughter's fiancé Maxime, the family doctor and his precocious son, her housekeeper, and Joyce's assistant.  When a storm sets in, we find ourselves in a locked-house mystery.

Writer Michael Green does not have form in creating his own murder-mystery plot and this one barely hangs together. Worse still, he lazily uses the Holocaust as character short-hand device.  This seems crude, especially in a film where Tina Fey is then trying to be a wise-cracking broad.  Pick a lane! I also didn't find the jump scares and obscure angles particularly frightening or effective. What a waste of a great cast and location!

A HAUNTING IN VENICE was released in cinemas in September and is now available on Hulu or other PVOD streaming services. It is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 103 minutes.


Director Emma Seligman (SHIVA BABY) and writer-actor Rachel Sennott (THE IDOL) reimagine BOOKSMART as a tale of two high-school lesbian best friends who want to lose their virginity before college.  They get their chance when a rumour goes around the school that they served time in Juvenile Detention, giving them instant cool status. The girls exploit this by setting up a kind of FIGHT CLUB to teach their fellow girls how to defend themselves from sexual predation. Naturally they are delighted when the two hot popular cheerleaders turn up.

The landscape of this film is familiar to those of us raised on John Hughes movies and HEATHERS and Friday Night Lights. It's a culture that privileges the beautiful and the sports stars and is oppressively heteronormative. It's a culture that doesn't fund teachers or books but builds a new sports field. This film is  here to rip the piss out of all of that. Not just in hilariously blunt dialogue that has characters say exactly what they think no matter how politically incorrect. But also with visual gags around posters and text written on chalk boards and aural jokes on the school's PA system.  The result is a film that is laugh-out loud funny and that will absolutely repay repeated viewing.  It features a cracking largely all-female diverse cast. That said, particular props to ex sports star Marshawn Lynch who has some of the most darkly funny lines as the girls' No Fucks Given high school teacher. And Nicholas Galitzine, most recently seen in the Amazon Prime gay rom-com RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE, is hilariously funny as the camp jock superstar.

Behind the lens, this film is exceptionally well put together by director Emma Seligman.  The editing is sharp, the music choices stunningly good and the copious violence directed with real impact and flair.  Most of all, I loved the production design and costumes.  The team have created a kind of era-ambiguous contemporary but retro feeling, as in the TV show Sex Education. It could be any time between 1989 and now. It gives the film a timeless feeling but also acknowledges our shared love of the high school movie genre, adding layers of depth to the viewing experience.

BOTTOMS is rated R and has a running time of 91 minutes. It played SXSW 2023 and was released in the USA in August. It goes on release in the UK tomorrow, November 3rd.