Review: In 2001, director Ridley Scott laid siege to the Academy Awards with his bombastic sword and sandals epic Gladiator, winning five golden statuettes from 12 nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor for Russell Crowe and Best Visual Effects. A nuanced supporting performance from Joaquin Phoenix as a murderous Roman emperor hungry for power at any cost propelled the Puerto Rico-born actor into the ascendancy. Filmmaker and quixotic star reunite for a sweeping biopic written by David Scarpa, which charts the rise of Corsican-born military leader Napoleon Bonaparte following rebellion in the French capital and the inglorious end of Marie-Antoinette (Catherine Walker) to the plummeting blade of a guillotine.
Rigorous historical accuracy is trampled beneath hooves in breath-taking battle sequences, underpinned by Arthur Max’s arresting production design and copious costumes imagined by Janty Yates. Polish cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who first partnered with Scott on the 2012 sci-fi prequel Prometheus, captures the guts and glory of pulse-quickening skirmishes with trademark virtuosity, allowing us to get up close to weary legions locked in gruelling hand-to-hand combat. Few living directors could attempt practical filmmaking on this dizzying scale with multiple cameras and hundreds of extras, shunning digital effects wherever possible to mastermind large-scale carnage in windswept locations.
Scott is masterful under this intense pressure and he makes light work of a running time that exceeds two and a half hours but feels considerably shorter in a darkened cinema. Phoenix’s mesmerising embodiment of a brutish trailblazer is matched by Vanessa Kirby’s hypnotic portrayal of Josephine. “You are nothing without me,” she hisses at Napoleon. The self-confidence is well-placed – affirming the intoxicating power behind the French throne is a fallen noblewoman, who realises her reign as consort is always at the mercy of fickle public opinion.
Napoleon (Phoenix) operates initially as the blunt-force instrument of ambitious politician Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim). He wins the respect of his men by charging into battle against France’s sworn enemies including the Siege of Toulon, where he astutely turns hilltop cannons on the British fleet. Despite his tactical nous, Napoleon is unprepared for the greatest battle of all: to win the heart of fair Josephine (Kirby). With her at his side, Napoleon defies protocol to place the crown of France atop his own head and he bullishly clashes blades with the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett) at Waterloo.
Napoleon lavishly charts the tyrant’s rise and fall until his final exile on Saint Helena with an emphasis on full-blooded, thrilling spectacle, flecked with surprising yet welcome humour. Phoenix and Kirby are terrific as ambitious co-dependents, doomed by her inability to provide Napoleon (and by extension France) with a male heir. The flame of the central relationship burns bright through various bruising military campaigns until a master tactician is undone by hubris.
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Review: Wishing upon a star has been embedded in the creative DNA of The Walt Disney Company since 1940, when Cliff Edwards crooned as Jiminy Cricket in its second full-length animated feature, Pinocchio. Pointedly timed for release during Disney’s 100-year anniversary, Wish is an animated musical comedy that unabashedly harks back to hand-drawn fairy tales of bygone generations, reviving a widescreen ratio last used for Sleeping Beauty in 1959 and a water-coloured painterly aesthetic reminiscent of the earliest pictures.
Visual and verbal nods include a villain obsessed with mirrors (Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs), a cluster of expressive forest mushrooms (Fantasia), a foot-thumping rabbit (Bambi), a fallen star that sheds magical dust (Peter Pan) and a kind-hearted bear named John (Robin Hood). An acoustic guitar reprise after the end credits ties a neat bow on a lovingly gift-wrapped present to Disney purists. Nostalgia aside, directors Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn deliver a heart-warming ode to friendship and community spirit led by another spunky, independent heroine who does not require a dashing prince to validate her existence.
Oscar winner Ariana DeBose combines sweetness and steely resolve as an idealistic teenager who “cares too much” and defiantly opposes Chris Pine’s conventional villain corrupted by dark magic. He plays powerful sorcerer Magnifico, who colonises the island of Rosas in the Mediterranean Sea with wife Amaya (Angelique Cabral) to build an inclusive and diverse haven where families can flourish. As self-appointed king, Magnifico grants one subject’s heartfelt wish – stored as a wondrous glowing orb in his laboratory – at a public ceremony held every month in the castle courtyard.
Seventeen-year-old Asha (DeBose) applies to become Magnifico’s apprentice and, during the interview, learns that most of the wishes will never be fulfilled. “It is my responsibility to only grant the wishes I am sure are good for Rosas,” coolly explains Magnifico. Asha believes the denizens of Rosas, including her mother (Natasha Rothwell) and 100-year-old grandfather (Victor Garber), deserve better so she wishes on a star and an impish ball of light tumbles from the heavens. The star grants Asha’s pet goat Valentino (Alan Tudyk) the power of speech and they join forces with seven friends (with personality traits a la Snow White’s companions) to reunite unsuspecting citizens of Rosas with their stolen dreams.
Wish spends too long affectionately looking to the past to expand the horizons of 21st-century animation. Tudyk’s sassy three-week-old ruminant snags the best one-liners as the traditional comic relief. The cast soar on sweet but largely forgettable original songs composed by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice that crescendo with the tub-thumping call to arms, Knowing What I Know Now. I know now that Buck and Veerasunthorn’s film will give audiences a warm contented glow but nothing we have not seen before.
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