Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon


Walking into our auditorium for Ridley Scott's Napoleon and not entirely looking forward to the experience, I half-jokingly told my brother and sister-in-law that we were at least catching the two-hour-40-minute version, and not the promised four-hour director's cut that will at some point stream on Apple+. But while I had more than my fill of turkey over Thanksgiving weekend, I'm happy to now eat a little crow, because Scott's historical epic is utterly sensational – bold, thrilling, unusual, and frequently very, very funny. Not only am I no longer dreading the prospect of this 160-minute opus eventually clocking in at 240; I'm eager to see if this wonderfully confident, winningly strange entertainment winds up better still.

If nothing else, Scott's forthcoming director's cut is sure to fill in a few narrative holes, given that this current presentation leaves the unmistakable impression that numerous scenes went mysteriously missing. Yet that's roughly where my criticisms end. (Were I a strict historian or French, I'd no doubt have a few more.) Following Bonaparte's life and military career from 1793's Siege of Toulon to his 1821 death while exiled on the island of Saint Helena, Napoleon follows two distinct tracks. The first concerns the future Emperor of France's swift rise to power following a series of battlefield victories, and then his eventual, crushing defeats in Russia and at Waterloo. The second track is the Napoleon-and-Josephine love story, which plays out as a perverse game of power dynamics underscored by, it would seem, genuine ardor and affection. As great a director as Scott can be, the previews for his latest suggested another blandly sprawling slog in the manner of his 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Kingdom of Heaven, and Exodus: Gods & Kings. And as great as stars Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby can be, the movie looked to die a slow, monotonous death every time Napoleon and Josephine were in a room together. So much for trusting trailers: I was blessedly wrong on both counts.

Although the film does feel oddly rushed despite its formidable length, there is a huge perk to Scott's and screenwriter David Scarpa's highlight-reel approach, because you never find yourself waiting long for bits of juicy political machination or massively scaled combat sequences. With Scarpa keeping the exposition lucid and smartly verbalized throughout, a first-rate assemblage of character actors (Tahar Rahim, Ben Miles, Paul Rhys, John Hollingworth), all speaking in their natural dialects, lend fierceness and flavor to their associations with Napoleon whether or not their historic figures even meet the dictator; Rupert Everett, as the Duke of Wellington, registers his disdain merely through a perfectly curled lip. Yet as enjoyable as the back-room maneuvering and seizures of control prove to be, they're nothing compared to Scott's battle scenes, which have to rank with the finest ever committed to the screen.

Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby in Napoleon

Dedicated researchers can take, and certainly have taken, offense at Napoleon's tinkering with widely accepted history, arguing that the commander never fired cannons at the Great Sphinx of Giza or drowned his enemies in frozen lakes during the Battle of Austerlitz. Personally, though, I'm fine with the sacrificing of verisimilitude in service to the horrific, mesmerizing grandeur delivered here. Beginning with the Siege of Toulon, where we witness Napoleon's horse taking a cannonball to the flank in gory detail, Scott's warfare is both sickening and stunning, boasting incalculably populated vistas of the sort we maybe haven't seen since the third Lord of the Rings. (So many soldiers! So many horses!) Yet this isn't empty spectacle. Motivations and geography, particularly in terms of troop placement, are kept consistently clear, and the audacious brutality routinely makes you gasp. That aforementioned assault on the ice is as jaw-dropping a military set piece as I've ever seen, and Napoleon's devastating loss at Waterloo is so thunderously well-staged – with the building of the human fortresses an extraordinary piece of choreography – that I wanted to applaud.

Were Napoleon strictly concerned with its ruler's war record, it would already stand as a pretty astounding achievement. What makes Scott's movie truly unforgettable, and truly surprising, is its tendency to repeatedly cut the already diminutive Little Corporal down to size, which is does most effectively in scenes between Napoleon and Josephine. We're given plenty of opportunities to laugh at Bonaparte's early cowardice, hyperventilating before attacks and sticking his fingers in his ears in preparation for cannon booms; at his damaged ego, forlornly slumped as he is in a Russian throne while bird droppings land on the armrests; at his hilariously anachronistic temper tantrums (“You think you're so great because you have boats!”); even at his height, with the commander pathetically standing on tip toes, and eventually securing a box, to stare into the eye holes of an Egyptian corpse. But the adulterous Josephine, who has no patience for her equally unfaithful husband's pettiness and pomposity, routinely makes this small man look and behave even smaller, their ritual of cutting remarks and embarrassingly blunt make-up sex implying that these codependent weirdos very much deserved each other – and somehow, against all reason, very much loved each other.

Perhaps Scott's director's cut will provide more insight into this pair's alternately fractious and harmonious union. (Hopefully we'll at least find out what happened to Josephine's children from a previous union, who disappear from the film the instant their mother remarries.) Maybe there'll be a few scenes detailing, you know, some of its title character's less-odious history – no mention is made of the Louisiana Purchase, or, to my memory, the United States at all – or even some additionally sterling combat sequences; one of the trailers shows hints of a maritime battle that's nowhere on-site. Regardless, though, with Phoenix and Kirby in tremendous form, Scott at the peak of his compositional powers, and Scarpa's shrewd script wholly decimating the traditional Great Man Bio-Pic template, the Napoleon we currently have is a total kick. That's not at all what I anticipated. But it's impossible to not be tickled silly when, as opposed to a lengthy speech about mastering his fate or whatnot, this Napoleon argues his importance by grabbing his food in a fist and bellowing across a dining-room table: “Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!

Barry Keoghan in Saltburn


When he played a grieving, sociopathic blackmailer in 2017's The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which remains the only Yorgos Lanthimos movie I actively detest, Barry Keoghan was so convincingly skeevy, dead-eyed, and charisma-challenged that he immediately shot to the top of my short list of actors I never wanted to watch again under any circumstances. My instinctive dislike continued through The Green Knight and Eternals before his punchy cameo in The Batman suggested that Keoghan's Joker just might, one day, prove the perfect foil for Robert Pattinson's moody Dark Knight. Then, a year ago this month, the Irish performer completely stole my heart as the village nincompoop in Martin McDonagh's The Banshees of Inisherin – so much so that the film is practically unimaginable without Keoghan's generous helpings of tragicomic melancholy. (“Well, there goes that dream.”) Written and directed by Promising Young Woman breakout Emerald Fennell, the new, determinedly icky class comedy Saltburn gives Keoghan his heftiest screen role to date, essentially casting him as a Tom Ripley-esque social climber who causes mischief and worse in a 21st-century Downton Abbey. If possible, Keoghan is even more repellent here than he was in Sacred Deer. The difference, however, is that now, I can't get enough of him.

Whether you view Fennell's sophomore feature as a stinging indictment of the über-wealthy or just a goofy, impeccably stylish lark will likely depend on how seriously you accept its tale of Oliver Quick (Keoghan), a seemingly poor Irish lad who becomes creepily obsessed with a fellow Oxford University student: the gorgeous, carefree Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi). For my part, I gave up on taking the film seriously the minute it showed Felix's family, in the late-spring of 2007, huddled together to watch Superbad on DVD, given that Superbad wasn't even released in theaters, and certainly not in England, until August of that year. (Such are the perils of movie-geekdom – your smarty-pants knowledge can ruin anything.) But for at least the first hour of Saltburn, I had a fantastic time. Wormy little Oliver Quick – such an inspired Dickensian name! – was such a pathetic wallflower, and Felix was such a charming rapscallion, that everything about their odd-couple bonding felt deliciously inevitable and dangerous; it was easy to see why Oliver was mistaking his unlikely friend's brotherly affection for romantic interest. And the possibilities for cringe comedy and legitimate horror seemed endless after Felix invited Oliver to spend the summer with his family at their lavish Saltburn estate, where Oliver finds iimmediate allies in Felix's dotty parents (Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant) and potential adversaries in Felix's sister (Alison Oliver) and cousin (Archie Madekwe), the latter another Oxford attendee who isn't buying Oliver's increasingly obvious attempts to join the Catton clan.

I've subsequently told friends that I find Saltburn three-quarters stupendous and one-quarter terrible, and nearly everything leading up to, and including, what might be film's most queasily notorious scene ranks among the stupendous. But then the aforementioned scene ends, and in deference to sensibilities more delicate than mine, all I'll say is that Felix's dirty bathwater proves to have the same effect on Oliver that spinach has on Popeye. After our slurping antihero effectively drains the tub, it's as if he undergoes a complete character switch – blatantly hitting on Felix's sister and mother (in one case successfully), initiating a scary seduction of Felix's cousin, and earning the understandable ire of Saltburn's head butler (Napoleon co-star Paul Rhys), who gets weirdly, unfairly dropped from the film right when he starts to become an enticingly troublesome obstacle. Considering how effective Fennell's script had been regarding Oliver's quiet, “harmless” deviousness, his shift into brazen-psycho mode didn't make a lick of sense, and left the eminently watchable Keoghan with too many layers of monstrousness to believably play. Saltburn manages to stay fun, but it's merely surface fun, and matters aren't helped by Fennell's unwise decision, toward the climax, to show the full extent of Oliver's treachery. It would've been a richer experience had she trusted the enigmatic nature of her tale (the way Justine Triet did in Anatomy of a Fall) and left us with a few plot points to argue about on the way home.

Jacob Elordi in Saltburn

That being said, I'm already antsy to watch Fennell's movie again, partly to luxuriate in the transcendent, dramatically hued beauty of cinematographer Linus Sandgren's images and contemporary perfection of Sophie Canale's costuming, and mostly to relish the contributions of its cast. Like Keoghan, Grant is saddled with an ultimately unfocused role, his initial cartoonishness not-entirely-persuasively morphing into genuine pain and panic. But everyone else is divine, with Pike a supercilious hoot, Oliver a sardonic debutante who turns tragically angry, Madekwe a wizard at offhanded sarcastic decimation, and Fennell's Promising Young Woman lead Carey Mulligan providing a mordantly funny turn as the insufferable family friend accurately listed in the credits as “Poor Dear Pamela.” (In the New York Times, Wesley Morris summarized Mulligan's performance as “Helena Bonham Carter karaoke,” which it is, but argued that the portrayal was also comically essential, which it is.)

Yet the best reason to see Saltburn is Jacob Elordi, who follows his affecting work as Priscilla's Elvis – plus two seasons of handsomely vicious teen cruelty on Euphoria – with his finest performance to date. Felix may appear as breezy as his casually untucked linen shirts and saucy silver eyebrow stud, but he's a deceptively rich figure, and Elordi hits previously uncharted depths of emotion when discovering the full extent of Oliver's deception – an extreme closeup of Felix's wide, crushing grin as he makes small talk while secretly wanting to flee. Much of the entertainingly unsettling, frequently maddening Saltburn doesn't add up. But Oliver's obsession with Felix sure does – it's an obsession you might find yourself sharing, even if you'd never consider stooping to the level of the guy's bathtub drain.



No one needs to be reminded that Disney has delivered myriad big-screen miracles over its 100 years of existence. Yet the only one I registered during the new animated musical Wish was my personal miracle of not bolting the auditorium before the end credits rolled. I can't begin to tell you how much I loathed this thing, which is purportedly a celebration of a century's worth of cinematic magic, but which is actually a stale, insulting, unfailingly nonsensical attempt at shoehorning every conceivable Disney trope – wish-fulfillment, talking animals, power ballads – into one 90-minute package of unconvincing, studio-mandated uplift. Disney has produced some bum titles over the decades but nothing, to my memory, as bland and grossly cynical as this – you'd almost think its creators were in a contest over who could fashion the most meaningless, unflattering pastiche possible. Congrats, Team Wish: You won.

You know you're in trouble at any movie when you can't even grant its central premise, which in this case concerns the egomaniacal despot King Magnifico (voiced by Chris Pine), who collects the “one true wish” from each of his citizens and only agrees to grant one per month, leaving the others – the ones that would conceivably be detrimental to the kingdom – to rot. In this script attributed to Jennifer Lee, Allison Moore, and co-directors Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, the wish-makers also conveniently forget their wishes the moment they give them to the king, which doesn't sit well with the de rigueur belting ingénue Asha (belter extraordinaire Ariana DeBose). She makes a wish upon a star for everyone's wishes to be granted, and then a puckish little star descends and begins giving voices to all the kingdom's flora and fauna, and then there are songs about self-actualization and Scooby-Doo shenanigans involving Asha's eccentric pals and madcap attempts to break into the castle to free the imprisoned wishes and … .

Ugh. I just can't. I'm happy to leave aside the kajillion unanswered narrative questions, among them: Why does everyone in the kingdom have only one wish? Where's the tragedy in them not being granted wishes they've forgotten about? Considering that we see one woman's wish as the wish to fly, why should everyone's wish be granted? Would we feel so noble about the granting of wishes for eternal riches or eternal life? But Buck's and Veerasunthorn's outing isn't interested in logic; it's only interested in pandering. That's how we get the depressingly requisite scene of Asha crooning to the heavens while the “camera” circles her windswept hair, and her faithful goat companion (Alan Tudyk) spouting unfunny wisecracks in a hearty baritone, and a dreadful bit of community empowerment in the “I'm a Star!” number that would have been mercilessly mocked had the movie opened a year or so before Theater Camp got its mitts on it. Boasting resoundingly dull characters, deathly banal tunes, an achingly protracted and formulaic storyline, and an uncomfortable lack of generosity on Disney's part – apparently, if you dabble in black magic even once, you're beyond any hope of salvation – Wish somehow manages to be even lousier than last year's Thanksgiving-weekend Disney turkey Strange World. And that was a release during which I briefly fell asleep. No such luck this time.

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