I saw this, not in Edinburgh or London, but in Barnsley at the Parkway Cinema. This is one of four Parkway Cinemas and it is sited right in the middle of town just opposite the Travel Hub. You can get there from Leeds in about 45 minutes [sometimes longer] by road and around the same amount of time by train and bus. The cinema was originally an Odeon outlet, and the interior architecture is recognisable. Now there are two screens. Screen 1 is the converted balcony. Screen 2 is the original auditorium and seats about 400. It is fairly spacious with comfortable seats and plenty of room.
The management, clearly possessing get up and go, arranged a booking with the Entertainment Distributors for the film and set about converting for 70mm. They even adjusted the masking to accommodate the 2.76:1 ratio of Ultra Panavision 70. In fact we had a short introduction before the feature explaining the conversion, lots of hard work. We also had a digital copy of an old Cinerama Trailer: nearly the same aspect ratio.
The 70mm print was in good condition with only a few scratches. It looked fabulous, especially the exterior shots. This really is the top end of cinema viewing with the highest resolution you can enjoy.
This is Quentin Tarantino’s eighth feature and it is the best since Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) or even Jackie Brown (1997). It is typical in many ways of Tarantino’s work. So it has a host of references to earlier westerns, but at the same time there is an overlap with Reservoir Dogs (1992). This is both in terms of some of the casting but also of the plot. There are secrets and revelations and characters soon turn out to be rather different from how they appear. There is an amount of blood and gore, but mainly in the second part.
Tarantino and his team have produced a good facsimile of the classic Road Show presentations. There is an overture, and intermission and something like 20 more minutes of film that in the digital release. The first part sets up the characters and stories and runs just on a hundred minutes. The twelve minute intermission is followed by the final eighty minutes. Here there is not only more gore, but more action and some tricky plotting. It might seem a little convoluted, though less so than the review of the film in Sight & Sound.
The greatest pleasure in the film is the cinematography by Robert Richardson: think of The Aviator (2004). From comments I had supposed that the film was predominately interiors. However, there are frequent and beautifully composed landscapes. The snowy setting rivals The Revenant (2015). One has to think back five decades for earlier Ultra 70mm features: say The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) or Khartoum (1966). It is a great format. Besides the quality of the image there is the width of the perspective. The opening shots as a coach ploughs through snow by a weather worn Crucifix looks great. But equally, interiors and close-ups, including one of Jennifer Jason Leigh, are terrific. At times it was a pleasure just watching the folds and hues of faces: the props and furnishings of the sets: and the wintry scapes.
The casting is good. I especially enjoyed Samuel Jackson’s ex-Major. The film is tricky with characters, as the plot progresses one has to revise one’s ideas of who are the key characters of the title. The whole production design and supporting crafts are excellent. And there is also the pleasures of a Morricone score: at times very familiar but also for certain sequences quite distinctive.
The film has been criticised for not being epic, and so not justifying the length or the format. I think this is a misnomer. It does not offer the gravitas of The Fall of the Roman Empire, but it has more character and more complexity than Khartoum. Black people and women do come off rather badly, especially on the receiving end of violence. But this is partly the period in which the story is set. I did think that the liberal use of ‘nigger’, [as in Django Unchained, 2012] was partly down to Tarantino’s delight in teasing/provoking the audience.
Anyway it is some time since I spent three hours in the cinema with so much pleasure. The good news is that The Parkway is providing additional screenings: on Sunday evening April 17th; then on Monday and Thursday evening and Wednesday afternoon. Worth the trip. Apparently they have had film buffs from as far afield as Bournemouth.
Following Keith’s advice, I watched Hail, Caesar! in Bradford’s Pictureville Cinema in 4K. It certainly looked good – but whether I would have noticed any difference if it was a 2K print is something I feel unable to judge. Anyway, the film proved an enjoyable distraction for a couple of hours. But, I’m not sure if it was a film that added up to more than its parts.
As the promotional material suggested, the Coen Brothers expertly create the Hollywood studio environment of the early 1950s in loving detail. Strangely, there are some basic mistakes if the setting is supposed to be 1951 as some publicity suggested. (The worst error concerns screen shapes and aspect ratios – a Western is shown in a cinema with a credit for VistaVision which Paramount didn’t use until 1954 and White Christmas.) On the whole, however, taken as an amalgam of Hollywood practices, ‘Capital Pictures’, the studio in the film, represents the period from roughly 1949 to 1953 very well. As several reviewers suggest, the Coens are not really interested in a plot as such, but more in the vignettes of production of different kinds of films and the way in which studio practices are changing – or not.
The two plotlines of note involve the studio ‘fixer’ based on the real Eddie Mannix who worked at MGM. We see him trying to repress gossip stories about the studio’s stars, grapple with his own family and work situation – and find a missing star played by George Clooney in ‘doofus’ mode. None of this adds up to much but does allow the Coens to play with ideas about the US Communist Party, religious sensitivity towards films and the ethics of the military-industrial complex. There are terrific set pieces including a Channing Tatum dance sequence riffing on Gene Kelly and Alden Ehrenreich as a Roy Rogers/Gene Autry ‘singing cowboy’ who for many viewers no doubt steals the picture. There are also two scenes featuring delicious Jewish jokes/characterisations. And yet . . . the film has not attracted huge audiences. It might be that fans will return for repeat viewings but somehow the Coens don’t quite get the excellent parts (performances, sets, cinematography, music etc.) to make something whole. For me, the last really funny Coen Brothers film was O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). I’d rate the ‘serious’ films as better value, with both Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and A Serious Man (2009) as effective recent titles.
This year Glasgow Film Festival has instituted a set of free screenings of classical Hollywood films under the heading of ‘The Dream Team’ with pairings such as Bogart and Bacall, Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Butch and Sundance etc. Tickets are only obtainable 30 minutes before the screening at 10.30 am. I rolled up to find a queue outside GFT but there was plenty of room in GFT1, the largest auditorium, and everyone was easily accommodated. The pairing was Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in their first film together, Woman of the Year. The screening was introduced (as all GFF screenings I’ve attended have been) but, unlike on most other occasions, co-director Allan Hunter said quite a lot about the film, offering us information about the production and the long loving relationship between Hepburn and the still married Tracy hat started on this film shoot. The intro was well received by an audience that wasn’t totally made up of pensioners. For younger members, Hunter’s insights were no doubt very useful.
Woman of the Year was an MGM production on which Hepburn had a considerable input since she sold the script package to the studio and chose both Tracy as her leading man and George Stevens as director. Hunter told us that she thought Stevens could talk to Tracy about sports. I was partly attracted to the film because of Stevens – who later directed Shane in a manner rather different to his pre-war films. I wondered if the film would have been different if George Cukor had been agreed by Hepburn (she had previously worked with both directors). Stevens had a good pedigree in comedy and Woman of the Year fairly zips along with great dialogue exchanges. Hepburn is Tess Harding – a character based on the leading American female journalist of the period –who is elected ‘Woman of the Year’. Tracy is Sam Craig, the leading sports columnist on the same paper. When they meet they fall for each other immediately and marry quickly despite their obvious differences in background and tastes.
I found the film refreshingly sharp and witty with two great players and a tight script by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. The two actors seem to feed off each other. The main interest in the film today is in the ending which legend has it was the result of studio bosses wanting to see the strong assertive woman cut down to size and ‘behaving herself in a man’s world’. The final sequence was not in the script that Hepburn brought to the studio and though its force was slightly ameliorated by the writers, even so it is seen as dating the film because it wouldn’t be acceptable post 1960s feminism etc. I’m not sure if that analysis makes sense (whatever the studio’s intention). Tess has behaved badly (in her treatment of a refugee child). This is mainly because she has lived the life of a wealthy and privileged woman and doesn’t understand a few basics. The final scene sees her trying to appease Sam by making him breakfast in the kitchen of the new apartment he has taken after leaving her. Since she knows nothing about cooking or kitchens, everything goes wrong in a glorious sequence of blunders with untameable food technology. Stevens began his career photographing Laurel and Hardy films for Hal Roach and he organises this well. Tess’ failure to cook is demeaning not because she is doing ‘women’s work’ but because she is a rich young woman who has never done menial work in the home. She isn’t being ‘punished because she is a woman but because she has no contact with the world of the everyday for most people. It’s also true that the costume Kate is wearing is immensely impractical and gets in the way of cooking. Personally I can never see Ms Hepburn as a submissive woman on screen – she always seems to be in charge. Having said that, Allan Hunter told us that the normally assertive Katharine Hepburn was remarkably subservient to Spencer Tracy in their personal relationship. So, ‘that’s acting’ as more than one female star has said.
Spotlight has stimulated debate among mainstream critics and also seems to have prompted a specific film distribution pattern. The film opened in the UK with good promotional material and awards buzz but was then met with a contradictory critical reception. In short this meant high praise for the cast, recognition of an exciting and solid story but also complaints that the film is stylistically dull and that it isn’t ‘cinematic’. The film’s defenders accept that the film is ‘old-fashioned’ but argue that it is doing what the best Hollywood storytelling used to do – namely take a good story and tell it well.
The response of the distributor eONE and the exhibitors has been to treat the film as a one-off, giving it a wide release but marketing it somewhere between a specialised film and the big prestige awards films – at least that’s how it feels up our way. When I watched it last week there was a healthy audience for a ‘Silver Screen’ spot in the afternoon but Picturehouses were only giving it one screening a day in Bradford (it wasn’t any longer showing at Cineworld across the road), despite the fact that it was still in the Top 10 after three weekends. Across the rest of the country it appeared to be on 345 screens. Have eONE targeted the largest Catholic communities? Od are they avoiding the Catholic market? It was on in just three other cinemas in Leeds/Bradford with a large Catholic population locally. I’m baffled.
Spotlight tells the ‘real’ story of the investigatory journalism team on the Boston Globe which in 2002 finally exposed the decades of child sexual abuse by parish priests in the city that had been covered up by church authorities since the 1960s. The ‘Spotlight’ team comprised just four reporters and they are the focus of the narrative plus news editor Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery) and new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). The team leader is played by Michael Keaton with Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James as the other reporters. Stanley Tucci rounds out the excellent investigatory side as a crusading lawyer. Billy Crudup is the only star name in the bad guys as a DA complicit in the cover-up (or is he?).
All the performances are excellent which suggests that director Tom McCarthy must be doing something right. He is himself an experienced actor and this is his fifth feature – but his first film on a large scale. The $20 million budget is twice what he has managed before and means that even with its current $50 million worldwide box office, Spotlight will have to keep attracting new audiences for a while yet to go into the black. I thoroughly enjoyed the film but later I had two thoughts. Though I hate the sloppy way people dismiss films that “could have been made for TV” I was surprised to remember that my best memories of newsroom drama came from the TV series Lou Grant (1977-82) with Ed Asner as the City Editor. That show made more of a melodrama about the lives of reporters and the subjects of their investigations (which often covered serious social issues) and I think that was partly why I enjoyed it (alongside enjoying anything leftist coming out of the US entertainment industries). Spotlight takes a more distanced sober approach. It claims to be ‘targeting the system’ – which I take to be the Catholic hierarchy and the lawyers who help them cover their tracks. I don’t think that the script at any time really questions why these things happened – or confronts Cardinal Law or other church figures, asking why they acted as they did. It also pulls back when it seems that interviewees might get too emotional. When I suggested this to others who had seen the film they said that the film would not have got a release – “they wouldn’t allow it”. Perhaps they are right, but this would confirm just how damaged the US has been by various religious groups. It’s very disturbing. Whatever you think of my analysis, however, do see the film. You won’t notice its lack of stylistic flourishes – you’ll be too busy following the story.