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And the Oscar goes to … a movie by a streaming platform? | Film

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Usually at this time of year, thoughts are turning to awards season and an enticing winter of quality cinema ahead, but – and you’re probably utterly sick of hearing it – this year it’s different. Instead, we have got shuttered cinemas and no prestige dramas to put in them anyway. Hollywood is in hibernation.

But the awards show must go on. Next year’s Baftas and Academy Awards are delayed until April, rather than the usual February. Deadlines and eligibility rules have been loosened: usually a movie must have screened in a Los Angeles cinema for seven consecutive days to qualify for the Oscars, but this year an online release is enough. So, good news for Trolls World Tour but potentially disastrous for cinemas.

In the absence of Hollywood competition, this could be the first year the best picture award goes to a movie by a streaming platform, which could be something of a tipping point. The current frontrunner is David Fincher’s Mank, which goes out on Netflix this Friday. It ticks all the boxes: Hollywood mythology (Gary Oldman plays the writer of Citizen Kane); marquee names; technical brilliance; impersonations of real figures (awards juries love that); and unanimous critical acclaim.

Mank’s chief rivals might include Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (a posthumous best actor for Chadwick Boseman seems likely), Da 5 Bloods and The Trial of the Chicago 7 – also all from Netflix. Or Regina King’s One Night in Miami (Amazon Prime Video). There are non-streaming contenders – Nomadland, for example – and big releases such as Tom Hanks western News of the World, due in January. Others could slip in under the wire, although these movies may well also have to release online to qualify.

It would be a tragic irony if awards season killed off the very institutions it was designed to celebrate. Traditionally, Bafta, the Academy and others have been the champions of Cinema – with a capital C – as worthy of gongs and black-tie formality and reverent speeches as any other artform. But the type of “cinema” the awards bodies were geared to celebrate is disappearing from actual cinemas, which are now powered by big-budget franchise movies. Awards buzz was one of the few tools left to staunch the inexorable defection. If the buzz goes to a Netflix movie instead, it’s another reason to stay at home, and another nail in the coffin of the industry.

It would be a double irony if Mank was the movie that sealed this deal. It is a loving, lavish homage to Hollywood at its height, not only in its detailed industry lore and its digital recreation of 1930s cinematography, but also in its nostalgia for cinema as both an auteurist artform and a popular medium with the potential to topple giants. Will either of those ideas still hold true after this year? The jury’s out.


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The Rental review – predictable cabin-in-the-woods scares | Horror films

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Initial high hopes are dashed at the third-act stage of this disappointing cabin-in-the-woods horror-mystery in which actor Dave Franco (brother of James) makes his directorial debut, co-writing with mumblecore film-maker Joe Swanberg.

Two couples rent an ocean-front beach house for a luxury weekend getaway: tech entrepreneur Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his partner Michelle (Alison Brie), with Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), and Josh’s partner, Mina (Sheila Vand), who is also the co-owner of Charlie’s tech startup. When the foursome arrives, they are instantly nettled by the guy showing them around the property: Taylor (Toby Huss) makes casually racist comments about Mina. And it turns out their ultra-fancy rental has some very strange things about it. Are they being spied on?

The dynamic between the four characters is interesting at first, in part because there is already some difficult sexual and social tension between them; it isn’t just the weirdo place they find themselves in. But when the gory/scary stuff really starts happening, the film suddenly loses its dramatic charge. The focus is muddled and uncertain. When tough guy Josh (who we learn has already done jail time for violence) starts taking action against someone who might not actually have done anything wrong, the film starts becoming more of a suspense thriller in which our four hapless heroes have to cover up their own misdeeds. It almost seems as if they themselves are the bad guys, which undermines the potency and the dramatic point of the threat that emerges from the darkness.

It’s pretty basic boilerplate, scary-movie stuff, with tropes and tricks that have already been extensively satirised elsewhere.

• The Rental is available on Amazon Prime Video from 22 January.


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Why a Willy Wonka origins movie could be bad news for children – and Michael Aspel | Film

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It was announced this week that Warner Bros has greenlit what might arguably qualify as the most pointless film in cinema history: a Willy Wonka origin story.

The film called Wonka will be released in 2023, it has been in development for the last four years and there are plans to shoot in the UK in September. No casting decisions have been announced, although both Tom Holland and Timothée Chalamet have been linked to the lead role. That is currently all we know, apart from the fact that it will be terrible.

Actually, let me qualify that a little. In truth the Wonka prequel may well turn out to be very good indeed. After all, it will be directed by Paul King and co-written by Simon Farnaby; two men who know a thing or two about winning people over.

Remember the very first image released from their Paddington adaptation? It showed a CGI Paddington (which was sacrilege in itself at the time) looking creepy and bedraggled, like he’d just spent three hours dismembering schoolchildren in the woods. Everyone who saw that image immediately rushed to the conclusion that reboot would be an affront to everything they held dear. Then of course the films were released, and they were so relentlessly delightful that the same people collectively chose to fast-track them to national treasure status.

Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp (pictured) cheapened the character.
Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Johnny Depp (pictured) cheapened the character. Photograph: Ho/Reuters

Paddington has given Farnaby and King all the goodwill in the world. As things stand, they have an entirely unblemished record. They can do no wrong. They could have announced a sock puppet musical based on the life of Jeffrey Dahmer as their next project and people would have still clamoured to see it.

Despite this, Wonka may yet prove to be an overstretch. As a character, Willy Wonka is unusually brittle, only truly succeeding when he’s kept within the confines of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In Roald Dahl’s book, where he remains mysterious and opaque throughout, he’s a titan of children’s literature. When he was played by Gene Wilder in 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, his lack of backstory meant that he could get away with being a charmingly inconsistent sociopath.

The problems arise when creators start to take liberties with this great unknown figure. Tim Burton’s incoherent 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake lost its way the moment it opted to give Wonka a tangible motivation. In that film, the chocolate factory existed as a manifestation of generational revenge, a grand scheme to get one over on his dentist father who never let him eat sweets as a child. This belaboured explanation wasn’t just unnecessary; it also cheapened the character. It meant that he was no longer a figure of intrigue. It meant that he became, yuck, a mortal.

Even Dahl didn’t have much luck with Willy Wonka outside of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The book’s sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, was meandering and tedious and so inferior to the original that nobody has ever attempted to make it into a film. Worse yet, it didn’t have the first clue of what to do with Willy Wonka once he’d left the chocolate factory. Tellingly, a third book in the series – Charlie in the White House – was ditched by Dahl after just a single chapter was completed.

Timothée Chalamet (pictured in Dune) and Tom Holland have been linked to the lead role in Wonka.
Timothée Chalamet (pictured in Dune) and Tom Holland have been linked to the lead role in Wonka. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy Stock Photo

So the thought of an entire film that painstakingly describes what made Wonka has the potential to be punishingly dull. The worst case scenario is that it will grind out explanation after explanation for every little trinket that gets mentioned in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Do we need a sequence where he comes to acquire his top hat? Do we really need to see the formative inspiration that led to the creation of the chocolate river? Truly, we do not. People have tried to make this sort of over-explanatory film before, most notably with the Star Wars prequel Solo, and they tend to be greeted with nothing but shrugs.

So what, then, could the Wonka prequel be about? It can’t be about his parents, because Burton has already ruined that. It can’t be about how he came to employ the Oompa Loompas, because that would be a film about colonisation, which doesn’t seem like it would sit particularly well in the current climate. Could it be about the origins of Wonka’s cruel idealism, and how it came to manifest itself in a burning hatred for children? I mean, it could, but that probably wouldn’t get as many bums on seats as Warner Bros would like.

Or maybe it would. After all, Joker proved the popularity of oppressively bleak origin stories. Nobody needed to know the history of The Joker. The definitive Joker is still the one from The Dark Knight, who sharked in and out of the story without ever definitively explaining himself, so the thought of giving the same character a long dreary film where he could repeatedly describe the precise combination of mental illness and socioeconomic circumstances that led to his creation felt like an enormous act of narrative overkill. And yet the film made a billion dollars and won two Oscars. So who knows? Maybe Wonka will copy the Joker formula and end up with Willy Wonka shooting Michael Aspel in the chest and leading a violent citywide insurgency.

Oppressively bleak origin story ... Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Oppressively bleak origin story … Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/AP

Of course, Joker also proved that nothing sells like existing intellectual property and this might explain why Wonka came to be. The 10 biggest movies of 2019 included four films about comic book characters, two remakes of Disney cartoons, two Disney sequels, a Star Wars film and a sequel to a reboot of Jumanji. Even the biggest non-English movie of that year, Ne Zha, was based on a 16th-century Chinese novel. In fact, the top 28 films of the year were either sequels, reboots, adaptations of existing work or dramatisations of well-known historical events.

You need an icon to cut through a logjam like that and Willy Wonka is certainly an icon. He appears in books that have sold tens of millions of copies and films that have grossed almost half a billion dollars. He’s a known quantity with cross-generational appeal, and these days that is half the battle won. It’s still no guarantee of success, but it’s a much safer bet than sinking a blockbuster budget on an unproved idea.

Besides, it isn’t like Wonka has much competition if it wants to be beloved. The vast majority of origin story prequels are terrible. Nobody is rushing out to watch Dumb and Dumberer, Dracula Untold, The First Purge, Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, Van Wilder: Freshman Year or Psycho IV: The Beginning, because these films were made from a position of total creative poverty.

Sometimes, though, they can be made with love. Monsters University isn’t a classic but it’s a worthy addition to Monsters, Inc. And, if it’s late and you’re drunk, Kong: Skull Island is a lot of fun. Wonka doesn’t have many hurdles to clear if it wants to be the best origin story prequel ever made. After all, it has an astonishingly talented team behind it. Stranger things have happened.


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The Exception review – psycho-thriller foiled by lazy sexism | Thrillers

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Depressingly, this Danish psychological thriller resurrects some pretty outdated sexist stereotypes with a quartet of emotionally manipulative, unsisterly and two-timing female characters. It comes to us from a trio of men: director Jesper W Nielsen and a script by Christian Torpe, who adapts Christian Jungersen’s bestselling novel about four women working at a small NGO investigating genocide. When they begin to receive death threats, their suspicions turn on each other – and the film plays with the possibility that inside each of them may lurk a crazy psycho bitch.

Danica Curcic plays Iben, an earnest researcher who was recently held hostage in Kenya by terrorists. Back in Copenhagen she is experiencing PTSD, at night seeing the child soldier who guarded her, a gentle, soulful-looking boy. Iben works at the NGO with her best friend Malene (Amanda Collin), a beautiful, complicated woman who shows cruel disregard for other people’s feelings. With the team administrator Camilla (Lene Maria Christensen) they snidely gang up on the new librarian Anne-Lise (Sidse Babett Knudsen). It’s Iben who gets the first threatening email. Everyone assumes the sender is a Serbian war criminal – but might it be Anne-Lise?

There is nothing wrong with the performances. The best-friend dynamic of Iben and Malene feels nicely complex and plausible – which is more than can be said for the rest of the film. The two women have recently co-authored a book exploring the psychology of war criminals, and its thesis is that most people have something inside them ready to commit evil. And their pass-agg workplace bullying appears to be meant as a small-scale equivalent of that tendency, leading to some truly absurd plot twists as the characters turn on each other.

Throughout the film I had the niggling feeling that at the bottom of it is a deep dislike of women – or, at the very least, a total lack of understanding.

• The Exception is available on digital platforms from 25 January.


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