2022 | Weeks 16–17

Ooh, it was gonna be a classy one this week, with two recent Oscar winners — of Best Picture and Best Animated Feature, no less — and a highly-acclaimed Kurosawa classic — the 12th greatest film ever made, according to Letterboxd users. But then two of those reviews got so long I thought they better belonged in their own posts, and so we’re just left with two very different coming-of-age movies…

  • CODA (2021)
  • Cruella (2021)


    CODA

    (2021)

    Siân Heder | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA, France & Canada / English & American Sign Language | 12 / PG-13

    CODA

    When CODA became the Best Picture victor at this year’s Oscars, it wasn’t exactly unforeseen, but it certainly wasn’t what anyone had expected early on in the awards race. Indeed, the very reason it had became some people’s prediction hinged on the way the Best Picture votes are counted: a preferential ballot, which means that having a lot of second- and third-place votes is arguably even more important than first-place ones. The idea behind the system is to create a consensus around the winner, rather than the award going to the film with the largest minority of voters backing it. Certainly, pretty much everyone can agree that CODA is a nice film — but probably too “nice” to have won Best Picture, unfortunately.

    It’s not the kind of movie many will come away from feeling wowed. It’s a solid drama about a teenager coping with fairly typical teenage stuff, with the added twist that the rest of her family are deaf but she isn’t. Chalk up a mark in the ‘positives’ column for representation, then, in this case of the deaf community. It’s not one token character, either, but several major characters, who the film treats as real human beings who happen to be deaf, rather than as The Deaf Character. One reason it succeeds at this is because they’re not all perfect people just because they have a disability. Another is that the film doesn’t pretend their deafness isn’t a barrier — there are multiple obstacles it creates when engaging with the rest of their community. But CODA is a nice movie, remember, so everything turns out alright in the end; and it does so with enough effectively-managed (some might say “manipulated”) emotion that you may find yourself with a tear in your eye; or perhaps even bawling with tears flowing down your cheeks, depending on your susceptibility to such things.

    So, the best film of 2021? Almost certainly not. The one everyone is likely to agree they all liked? Most probably.

    4 out of 5


    Cruella

    (2021)

    Craig Gillespie | 134 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    CODA

    Disney’s wave of live-action remakes seem to fall into one of two camps: straightforward remakes of the original Animated Classics, sometimes to the level of feeling like shot-for-shot do-overs; or extensions and reimaginings that seek to fill in around the edges of the original work. Perhaps because they already did a live-action version of 101 Dalmatians back in 1996, Cruella takes the latter approach. It’s a prequel, naturally, showing how an ordinary(-ish) little girl grows up to be a wanton dog murderer.

    Except (non-specific pseudo-spoilers incoming!) not really, because the film ends in such a way it’s very hard to imagine this Cruella becoming the deranged villain of the original text. Indeed, I’ve seen some commenters refer to this as a reboot rather than a true prequel, which seems like a fair enough angle. I mean, this is a Cruella de Vil who has a dog for a best mate. Even with the “dalmatians killed my mother” backstory (which I think the film knows is a gag. Considering that such a plot point came up as a joke on social media as soon as the project was announced, you’d hope the filmmakers were aware how daft the audience would find it), it’s hard to imagine how this version of the character could go from how we see her here to being prepared to roundup and kill hundreds of animals.

    Setting aside the need for connectivity and looking to the film in its own right, I would describe it as delightfully stylised. It’s got a particular tone and style that will turn off some viewers (and, certainly, some critics), but — even if you don’t personally enjoy it — I think it’s something we should celebrate. We sometimes talk about big-budget movies being homogenised; focus-grouped to the point of blandness and similarity. Cruella isn’t that, instead hitting notes that are suitably camp and gloriously unhinged. It certainly isn’t the most radical variation in tone ever — it merits comparison with early Tim Burton, without ever being as genuinely out-there as his best work — but it’s more so than the average. It’s so much madder than it needed to be, and that’s why it’s fun and not the usual Disney live-action cookie-cutter money-spinner.

    To my mind, its only sins are an over-reliance on obvious needle drops and cheap green screen. The latter has been brought up online as a damning example of how poorly crafted big-budget movies are these days. They’re not wrong about the examples used: two key scenes that take place at a cliffside have clearly been shot day-for-night in a studio and lit very flatly. The nighttime (i.e. ultra-dark) colour grade helps to hide some of the sin by covering it in darkness, but whack up the brightness and it’s all too apparent how awful it looks. But I would counter that these are fairly isolated examples. Cruella is hardly a go-to example of the wonders of cinematography (and there are other weak shots, too), but most of the film looks pretty good.

    4 out of 5


  • 2022 | Weeks 14–15

    Only four reviews this time, taking us up to April 17th. It was going to be five, but then Spider-Man got far too long. So, we’re left with…

  • Withnail & I (1987)
  • Munich: The Edge of War (2021)
  • tick, tick… BOOM! (2021)
  • Move Over, Darling (1963)


    Withnail & I

    (1987)

    Bruce Robinson | 103 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 15 / R

    Withnail & I

    This may be a beloved cult comedy in its own right, but I can’t help but make comparison to a certain other British cult property. You see, each of the three primary cast members — Richard E. Grant (Withnail), Paul McGann (‘I’), and Richard Griffiths (Uncle Monty) have an atypical relationship to the lead role in Doctor Who. That has no bearing on the film itself, not least because their involvement (or non-involvement, in one case) took place years later, but it’s a correlation I can’t shake. I mean, what other work can claim to star the man who was simultaneously the shortest and longest serving Doctor; the man who was definitely, officially the new canonical Doctor, until he wasn’t; and a man who might well have been the Doctor if things had gone to plan? Nothing else that I can think of, that’s for sure.

    Setting all that aside, everything about Withnail & I screams “cult favourite”, and I guess that’s what it is — not a film that started out with a dedicated fanbase before being subsumed into the mainstream, but one that remains beloved of a relatively few devotees. Perhaps that explains why it’s one of those films I thought would’ve wound up on my Blindspot list by now, but never has: because it lacks that crossover appeal. (Maybe I need to factor in some lists of cult and/or British movies when compiling my Blindspot choices.) Coming to it afresh in 2022, aware of that rep it’s built up over the last 35 years, does it no favours. The characters aren’t likeable or interesting enough to truly enjoy hanging out with (even as they’re convincingly brought to life by the talented cast); the “gay panic” stuff that drives several sequences lands differently now than I suspect it did in 1987; and the supposedly never-ending quotable lines didn’t materialise (there are a small handful of memorable ones, at least). That said, there are quite a few lines that would be fun for a game of “did Paul McGann say this in Withnail or in Doctor Who?” (Oops, sorry to bring that up again.)

    The best bits of Withnail have been dulled by repetition out of context (variations on “we’ve gone on holiday by mistake” are a certifiable meme at this point), and I suspect I personally left it too long to see it, allowing it to build up too much of a reputation. I didn’t dislike it, I just wasn’t won over.

    3 out of 5


    Munich: The Edge of War

    (2021)

    Christian Schwochow | 129 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & German | 12 / PG-13

    Munich: The Edge of War

    Robert Harris has been a best-selling author for decades, but his works have had a rockier reception on the screen; perhaps not helped by the fact a couple have been helmed by director non grata Roman Polanski. Harris’s stock in trade is fictionalised tellings of historical events — the eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii; the politics behind the invasion of Iraq in The Ghost; and so on. His 2017 novel Munich is set around war-avoiding negotiations between Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain that took place in the titular city in 1938. This film adaptation gains a subtitle, presumably to differentiate it from Steven Spielberg’s Best Picture nominee, which retold entirely different historical events.

    The big names aren’t the main characters, however. Those would be a pair of low-ranking civil servants from the opposing sides: Brit Hugh Legat (1917‘s George MacKay) and German Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), former university chums who fell out when Hitler came to power. Now, von Hartmann is disillusioned with the Nazi regime and wishes to pass information to the British, but will only make contact with Legat, thus roping the inexperienced diplomat into the world of espionage, untrained. If the storyline is ringing bells, perhaps you too recently watched The Courier with Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s not an identical narrative — I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism here — but there are definite parallels. Legat even has a strained relationship with his wife, who he has to leave at home and not tell the truth.

    But where the story in The Courier was true, and thus lent an inherent fascination, the story of Legat and von Hartmann is fictionalised. That’s not necessarily a problem — most thrillers are entirely made-up, of course — but Munich is hampered by feeling kind of muddy. It’s not so bad as to be described as muddled, but does seem like it’s perhaps the victim of being badly truncated from the book, or possibly just in its own edit. It’s not always clear what the point is of what we’re watching, or where certain characters have disappeared off to. That makes the overall experience longer and, occasionally, more plodding than it needs to be.

    That said, though it takes time, it does eventually develop the tension it needs; and it has definite merit for depicting a bit of history that’s normally relegated to footnote status. Indeed, it makes an interesting argument for “what Chamberlain did was good, actually”, which is not the normal point of view on politicians’ pre-WW2 actions.

    3 out of 5

    Munich: The Edge of War is the 27th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    tick, tick… BOOM!

    (2021)

    Lin-Manuel Miranda | 120 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    tick, tick… BOOM!

    Rent was one of the definitive Broadway musicals of the ’90s, but its creator didn’t live to see its success: composer, lyricist, and author Jonathan Larson died, with poetic timing, the night before the show’s premiere. It came after years of Larson struggling trying to break into the industry, much of which was documented in his semi-autobiographical (almost-)one-man show, Tick, Tick… Boom! This film adaptation broadens out and adds additional detail to become a more direct biopic of Larson, albeit one with musical numbers.

    Struggling musical theatre people in Manhattan… Yes, some people are going to find this insufferable. Others will look upon it as a dream life, especially as any actual hardship (Larson’s apartment didn’t have heating, for example) is played down or romanticised. Even setting that side, it remains the kind of movie that will speak to anyone who’s dreamt of making art (especially if that art is musical theatre), but might leave others (primarily those without such ambitions) identifying more closely with some of Jonathan’s friends — “there are bigger things to worry about,” they say.

    In the centre of it all is a pitch perfect performance from Andrew Garfield. He throws himself into the role, transformatively so: his Larson seems to be powered by a restless enthusiasm that I don’t think I’ve seen the actor portray in anything else. In the musical numbers, he holds his own against much more experienced singers (Garfield couldn’t even sing before production began — he spent a year learning and practicing).

    This is more than just a ‘one good performance’ film, though. Although based on a stage show, the screen version certainly doesn’t feel stage-bound, coming to cinematic life through Alice Brooks’s photography and Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum’s editing as if it had always been meant for the screen. However, many people have been critical of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s direction. While I wouldn’t shout it out as anything amazingly special, I also don’t think it’s bad. You routinely see lesser work in Marvel movies, for example.

    4 out of 5


    Move Over, Darling

    (1963)

    Michael Gordon | 99 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U

    Move Over, Darling

    Doris Day and James Garner star in this remake of My Favourite Wife, one of the trio of screwball comedies Irene Dunne and Cary Grant made together, and which I watched back in May 2020. Two years ago?! Time flies. Despite which, I’ve not reviewed it yet.

    Well, Move Over, Darling is an incredibly close re-envisioning. If someone authoritative told me it used the same screenplay with only minor tweaks, I’d believe them. I’m sure it’s not that close, in actual fact, but it’s darn near it. Certainly, one bit is definitely new: a fun sequence that sees Day recount the plot of the earlier film. Very meta. Alongside the screenplay, the remake also carries the original’s primary flaw, which is that they both lack the pace and snap of the very best screwball comedies. Day does her best to enliven the material, being a consistent source of fun and clearly game for a laugh — a sequence where she goes through a car wash in a convertible is a highlight. Garner can’t manage to equal Cary Grant, but who can?

    Nonetheless, on balance, I slightly preferred this version. That might just be due to my lowered expectations — knowing it had the double drawback of being (1) a remake, and (2) of a film I hadn’t particularly loved the first time, it was able to overcome that by simply being not too bad.

    3 out of 5


  • Meat Loaf: In Search of Paradise (2007)

    Bruce David Klein | 88 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English

    Meat Loaf: In Search of Paradise

    The singer Meat Loaf was very protective of his creative process, and apparently this documentary was the first time he’d allowed cameras behind the scenes to document it. Certainly, he’s frequently uncomfortable with or begrudging of their presence, although he seems to get used to them over time, allowing us some rare insights.

    The film follows Meat and his band as they prepare for and commence a mammoth 18-month world tour following the release of Bat Out of Hell III. Despite the lengthy schedule, a DVD recording of the concert is scheduled for just a few gigs in. It’s never mentioned who was responsible for booking that, but it clearly causes added stress for everyone: rather than allowing the show to become refined and polished over a long series of gigs, it’s got to be good enough to be documented almost as soon as it starts. No one here is ever pretentious enough to refer to the recording as an “historical record”, but that’s what it will be. This is the first tour in which Meat will perform songs from the entire Bat Out of Hell trilogy, and the gig that’s recorded for DVD is the one that will endure as the record of this tour. It’s got to be right.

    Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the fact that Meat Loaf is never satisfied. At one point, Meat’s mate Dennis Quaid is in town and pops by to watch that evening’s gig. Afterwards, he describes it as “an incredible show”. “It wasn’t one of my favourites, but thank you,” replies Meat. So Dennis asks, “how many times are they your favourite?” “Never,” Meat answers, “I hate ’em all… I’m waiting for the perfect show.” Of course, the perfect show never comes, and so Meat never feels it’s gone as well as it could have; he’s always apologising to fans that it won’t live up to expectations. But it’s not that the tour is genuinely coming up short — the band are happy; the crowds are certainly entertained — it’s just something in Meat Loaf’s character. He pushes himself so hard — too hard, given how exhausted it makes him, to the point he physically collapses after most shows. Whether you like his music or not, this film leaves you in no doubt about his dedication to his craft; to trying to give his fans exactly what they want.

    Looks like paradise to me

    That desire comes to a particular head in one of the film’s major subplots: the show is generally well reviewed in the press, but every critic takes issue with the staging of Paradise by the Dashboard Light, a number about teenage sex in which 59-year-old Meat duets with 28-year-old Aspen Miller — who looks a lot younger, especially in her skimpy cheerleader outfit. Frankly, I reckon the critics were at least partly jealous that Aspen Miller wasn’t writhing all over them, but maybe that’s just giving away something about me… Anyway, the number should be one of the highlights (as guitarist Kasim Sulton says, he’s been touring with Meat for decades and they’ve never done a show without it), but the criticisms are a cause of irritation backstage. Importantly, Miller doesn’t share the critics’ concerns; indeed, she seems to find it frustrating that they’re dismissive of her part in the performance, writing her off as a victim of it, when she’s an adult involved in the planning of what is a fully-choreographed routine. But the criticisms get to Meat even more — it’s not meant to be a song about a handsy old man attempting to assault a young girl, after all — and so various fixes are attempted to improve the song’s reception. It’s like a case study in revising a work while it’s already in performance, and shows that these tours don’t go out on the road locked and unchangeable — or, at least, they don’t when Meat Loaf is involved.

    The film’s final line is given to Meat Loaf himself. As he walks away after that all-important gig filmed for the DVD, he repeats several times: “I tried.” That’s his attitude in summation: he never thought it was good enough, but he always gave it his all.

    4 out of 5

    Meat Loaf: In Search of Paradise is the 10th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

    Muse: Simulation Theory (2020)

    2021 #45
    Lance Drake | 90 mins | TV (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15

    Muse: Simulation Theory

    Often cited as one of the best live acts around, for their latest concert movie British rock band Muse have attempted something a bit different: rather than just footage of them performing songs in front of a massive audience, Simulation Theory attempts to tell a sci-fi narrative… driven by and/or interspersed with the band performing songs in front of a massive audience, natch.

    It begins with a slow track into a television set playing a news station where the presenter is talking about some kind of global events that have been traced back to the O2 Arena in London. Cut to a team of hazmat-suited scientists entering said arena, which they find deserted. Then, an arcade machine rises from the stage. One of the scientists approaches it, tries to play it, and is transported to another time/place/something, where the arena is full of screaming fans and a certain band begin their show. From there, the film cuts back and forth between Muse performances and a storyline about alternate simulated worlds, a highly infectious disease, and a few other bits and bobs. Frankly, it’s not the most coherent tale ever told.

    Combining a concert film with a sci-fi narrative is the kind of concept that immediately piques my interest, but I’m not sure how well Simulation Theory really pulls it off. Ultimately, it’s kind of just a few scenes sprinkled between the songs. Occasionally there’s a link between the music and the story, but not as often or as clearly as one might expect. This isn’t akin to, say, Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds, where the music is like a soundtrack just waiting for its visual accompaniment. Indeed, despite the title and ’80s-style retro theming being taken from Muse’s 2018 album, fewer than half the songs performed come from that EP. That’s not a criticism, just an observation that the album wasn’t exactly waiting for the movie treatment. If that’s what they wanted to do, previous albums — like 2009’s The Resistance or 2015’s Drones — are concept albums more ready to be converted into a narrative.

    They didn't do this bit live on stage

    Setting aside the narrative aspirations, judged as ‘just’ a concert film, Simulation Theory is still only a mixed success. Perhaps because of the desire to connect it up with that cinematic storyline, the actual concert footage, editing, and sound mix are all a little too slick, feeling more like a big music video than a replication of the “in the room” experience. In fairness, that doesn’t seem to be the goal at all, with the film mixing up the order of the set list and even ditching half-a-dozen songs (more on that later). Eventually, it can no longer half-ignore the crowd. That doesn’t come until the ninth track played, Uprising, but suddenly you can really feel that Matt Bellamy has a connection with the audience, which then resurfaces in later songs (not least Mercy, aided by Bellamy going for a little off-stage walkabout).

    For me, Muse were at their creative peak back in the ’00s, so it was often when those songs emerged that I felt their performance was at its most enjoyable, with the likes of Supermassive Black Hole, Starlight, and the aforementioned Uprising. That said, the film gave me a new appreciation for some of their more recent songs, like Mercy, Algorithm, Dig Down, and Madness (I say “recent” — Madness is from 2012), although others primarily work thanks to the theatrical staging — Propaganda, for example, looks impressive on stage, but I still think it’s an odd track.

    As noted, the film has dropped several tracks from the live show, meaning we miss out on some of their very best material, like Plug In Baby, Hysteria, Time is Running Out, and Knights of Cydonia (actually the closing number in real life). That’s a shame — I’d rather the film had given us the full track list than spent time on the interstitial narrative. But why not both? Surely there wasn’t a restriction on the film’s running time? (And if there was, why?)

    Sci-fi singer

    Despite all these nits I’ve picked, overall I enjoyed Simulation Theory. It’s not wholly a success as a narrative, and, in my estimation, it’s a long way from being any kind of “greatest hits” gig for Muse; but the ambition is admirable, and most of the music plays well in situ. Plus, the finale involves a giant evil puppet hovering over the stage, so that’s got to be worth some bonus points.

    4 out of 5

    Muse: Simulation Theory is available on BBC iPlayer for the next 11 months.

    Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020)

    2020 #153
    David Dobkin | 123 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Icelandic | 12 / PG-13

    Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

    The Eurovision Song Contest: if you’re from Europe or Australia, or one of the other countries that competes but isn’t really in Europe, it needs no introduction. If you’re from somewhere that hasn’t been enjoying/subjected to it every year for the past seven decades… well, it’s hard to explain. Actually, the basics are easy: it’s a continent-wide song competition, where each participating country submits one artist performing one song, and everyone votes for the winner. But, oh, the cultural connotations and ramifications are so, so much more! For some countries, it’s deadly serious — it’s a way to get noticed on the world stage; it may even make the artist famous. For others, like us Brits, it’s a big campy silly joke… except we’re also rather fond of it (some of us), and we’re terribly annoyed that we don’t win it every year (or at least on a regular basis. Like, once a decade or so would probably keep us happy). And that’s just scratching the surface — it would probably take a book (or, at least, a reasonably long article) to fully explain every nuance.

    Will Ferrell’s latest comedy attempts to distill all that history into a globally-friendly movie-length spoof. It’s a big ask, not just because there’s so much background information to assimilate, but because us Brits have been ripping the piss out of Eurovision for decades. And not just sometimes, but constantly: each country provides a local commentary over the live broadcast, and each year ours is basically a roast. (Notoriously so: some countries are not impressed by the sarcastic, piss-taking attitude being our ‘official’ stance on the contest.) We’re not alone, either: a few years ago when Sweden hosted the contest, they did a pitch-perfect sketch about creating the perfect Eurovision song. If you want to get a feel for the entire Eurovision experience in just six minutes, watch Love Love Peace Peace.

    And so with all that in mind, Ferrell and co are on a hiding to nothing; especially as the film has been made with the cooperation and endorsement of Eurovision’s producer, the EBU (they even get a credit right up front), so it was never going to be able to truly get stuck in for fear of offending its subject. So I guess that’s why they barely even bothered. Oh, there are certainly references to and riffs on Eurovision-y things, so viewers in the know can pick up on them and not feel like it’s about Generic Foreign Singing Contest; but this isn’t really a comedy about Eurovision, it’s about a small-town music duo wanting to make it big. Their chosen method is Eurovision, but it could just as well be The X Factor or The Voice or, well, anything, and it wouldn’t change the core narrative.

    And a man in a hamster wheel

    Said narrative goes through all the motions you’d expect. About the only thing that could be described as a twist is that the smarmy “bad buy” isn’t actually up to anything evil after all, he’s genuinely quite nice. As he’s another contestant, you do wonder if that was an EBU stipulation… The man in question is the Russian entry, Alexander Lemtov (Dan Stevens, who’s excellent as usual), renowned as a “sex player” and the subject of an overlong bit about how he probably has a massive penis. “Overlong” is the watchword for most of the comedic routines in the movie. It’s a form of self indulgence that plagues many a comedy nowadays, and here it helps contribute to a running time that’s simply too long. I always feel like the best comedies are within sight of 90 minutes, but this runs a full two hours. Of course, a comedy made for a famously hands-off studio like Netflix is hardly likely to be exempt from indulgence. Maybe a more interfering one would’ve questioned the wisdom of letting Ferrell include a bit where his character criticises American tourists for coming to Europe and ruining it. Um… It could work in a meta way, but it feels like it’s lacking any kind of knowing wink, beyond it’s very existence.

    One thing that does often work are the songs. You may well have heard Volcano Man when Netflix released it as the first promo for the film, but Fire Saga themselves get two or three more numbers, all of which are varying degrees of “surprisingly catchy”. The one they sing as the climax even made me feel a little emotional. I expect it’s the manipulation of the key changes or whatever (I’m no musician), because I didn’t really feel invested in the characters’ relationship before that point, but hey, if it works it works. Then there are the other contestants… where, unfortunately, the film drops the ball again. Lemtov’s number, Lion of Love, clearly had the most effort put into it — it’s quite fun and very Eurovisiony. But a montage of other acts is weird because it feels like it’s been edited to emphasise the jokes, only there aren’t any. I’m not even being clever, saying “there aren’t any” because I didn’t find them funny — the lyrics aren’t humorous, the staging isn’t particularly laughable… they’re just mediocre songs. It’s a wasted opportunity to provide some quick-fire riffs on Eurovision staples. The best it can do is the first of the montage, a rock song by guys in monster costumes — a reference to Lordi, who won in 2006. As far as I remember, no one has tried the same trick in the intervening 14 years.

    Lion of Love

    The weirdest musical number comes halfway through: at a party Lemtov is hosting for all the contestants, a “song-along” breaks out. Not a singalong, a “song-along”. Suddenly, a bunch of previous real Eurovision contestants show up (much to the bafflement of viewers who’ve never seen the real thing, I suspect) to sing a medley of… songs. Not Eurovision songs, just… songs. Well, Waterloo is in there, but I think that was the only one. It sort of almost works as a kind of mid-film celebration of the real Eurovision, but it’s all so random. Why isn’t it a medley of previous Eurovision tracks? Who even are some of the singers? (I recognised most but not all.) Do people who aren’t fans even get what’s going on during that sequence? It’s a cheesy but potentially fun idea, which I’d embrace wholeheartedly if I felt they’d nailed it. Or even if they’d just had them all cover Love Love Peace Peace.

    Yet for all the film’s faults, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. By sticking to tried and tested plot beats and gags, it has an unchallenging comfortableness. There are laughs along the way — some are just echoes of better versions, yeah (most notably, a bit that’s almost jumping through hoops to avoid Rachel McAdams repeating her iconic line from Game Night. It would’ve been better if they’d just leaned into it and let it be a meta-gag), but there were a couple that caught me with a genuine chuckle.

    Sporadically funny; often dated; with tired and rehashed routines; longer than Alexander Lemtov’s penis; and surprisingly emotional at the end… Actually, maybe The Story of Fire Saga is like Eurovision after all.

    3 out of 5

    Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is available on Netflix now.

    The 100-Week Roundup IV

    When I started my 100-Week Roundup project, I thought I’d be posting a lot of unedited notes and/or summary paragraphs skirting across multiple films (like I did in my FilmBath shorts roundup, for example). Instead, I’ve mostly still been writing full, albeit short, reviews. Well, that continues here, although these reviews often stop dead rather than being fully-formed pieces.

    Today’s roundup contains the remainder of my unreviewed films from June 2018, with one exception: A Thousand and One Nights, the first film in the Animerama trilogy, which I intend to review along with its two brethren. I watched the second of those in 2019 and the third just this month, so that’ll come up in due course.

    As for what’s still here, if these weren’t linked by the theme of when I watched them, maybe I’d’ve bundled them together for having the same star rating. They are…

  • Doubt (2008)
  • Gaslight (1944)
  • The Florida Project (2017)
  • Swingers (1996)
  • Amadeus: Director’s Cut (1984/2002)
  • Becoming Bond (2017)


    Doubt
    (2008)

    2018 #133
    John Patrick Shanley | 104 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    Doubt

    It’s funny how time can change perspective. For instance: Doubt is a drama starring three widely acclaimed powerhouse actors, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams… except Adams doesn’t get above-the-title billing, which, yeah, is a bit of an inside technicality for people who are aware of these kind of things, but does remind you that this came out just a year after Enchanted helped propel her to mainstream awareness. But at least she makes the poster, unlike Viola Davis.

    All four stars earnt Oscar nominations (Adams and Davis went up against each other for Supporting Actress, which was instead won by Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona), which only seems fair. The film may set itself up as a mystery (did this priest abuse a child?), but the film’s real qualities lie not in the investigation, but in the people involved — the confrontations, the act-offs, between these great players, all of whom give powerful, nuanced performances,

    This is a film that leans on ambiguity in almost every regard. I mean, we know what it’s about, and yet no one ever even outright says what they suspect the priest of, they just intimate it. It’s also there in the morality, which moves in shades of grey, something such emotive subject matter could easily lose in lesser hands. Writer-director John Patrick Shanley earnt the film’s fifth and final Oscar nomination for the screenplay he wrote based on his own play (losing to the ubiquitous Slumdog Millionaire), and that also seems well deserved.

    4 out of 5

    Gaslight
    (1944)

    2018 #134
    George Cukor | 109 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    Gaslight

    In modern parlance, “gaslighting” is when you manipulate someone into disbelieving something they (correctly) believed was true, which has come up an awful lot in the past few years thanks to the actions of politicians in particular. It’s a bit of a random term, but that’s because it stems back to the plot of this film (and/or the 1938 play it’s adapted from, or the 1940 British film that inspired MGM to buy the remake rights to produce this version, which was originally titled The Murder in Thornton Square in the UK to avoid confusion). The connection comes because it stars Ingrid Bergman in an an Oscar-winning turn as Paula, whose new husband messes with her sanity to cover up his criminal activities.

    Leaving aside its cultural importance, as a tale in its own right this version of Gaslight is well performed and directed, but Evil Husband’s scheming is so damned obvious from very early on (at least to modern eyes_ that it becomes a bit of a finger-tapping exercise in waiting for someone, anyone, to do anything about it. I guess part of the point is that it’s a long, slow game of convincing her she’s mad, but it still felt like it needed to get a wriggle on to me. We know what he’s doing and how he’s doing it — how it will be undone and saved is what we’re left waiting (and waiting) for.

    At least it’s worth the wait, with a helluva climactic scene where Paula turns all her husband’s lies back against him. What it lacks in suspense it makes up for with a fantastically committed performance from Bergman, which evolves gradually and believably over the course of the film, and gets some excellent showcase moments too, not least the aforementioned confrontation. As her husband, Charles Boyer makes for a suitably sneering villain — too suitable, in a way, in that it’s almost hard to believe Paula would ever fall for him.

    4 out of 5

    The Florida Project
    (2017)

    2018 #136
    Sean Baker | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Florida Project

    A story of life on the poverty line in modern America, about a young single mother and her six-year-old daughter struggling to make ends meet in Kissimmee, Florida. You’d be forgiven for not having heard of the city, unless you’ve visited its neighbouring tourist magnet: Walt Disney World.

    It’s a slice-of-life kind of film — relatively light on plot, more about showing the difficulties of the characters’ lives. Some viewers will (indeed, have) lose patience with it for that, and at times it does feel a little long in the tooth. It’s worth sticking with, but paring it back by 10 or even 20 minutes would help.

    It’s mostly shown from the kid’s point of view, but there’s enough there that, as adults, we can see the struggles and choices the adults are dealing with. That these kids’ hand-to-mouth make-your-own-fun lives exists in the shadow of expensive, hyper-consumerised Disney World would seem like a contrivance were it not a truth, and the film acknowledges the juxtaposition (it’s hard not to — Disney is everywhere over there) without leaning into it too heavily (although the film’s title is a reference to how Disney referred to the park while it was in development).

    It’s a portrait that’s sympathetic to these people and their lives. How objective is it? It doesn’t blame them for the situation, but also shows it isn’t right, especially in their (limited) interactions with the authorities — maybe if there was different, better help offered earlier, the actions they eventually have to take wouldn’t be necessary.

    The film’s final sequence sits weirdly with the rest of the movie, which provokes some to write if off. The contrast is clearly a deliberate choice, but I’m not sure how I feel about it — it smacks of not knowing how to end the movie, or wanting to put a more upbeat capstone on something that’s become too depressing. It’s certainly striking, at least.

    4 out of 5

    Swingers
    (1996)

    2018 #141
    Doug Liman | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Swingers

    To be honest, this is one I watched more out of box-ticking (of Doug Liman films) and vague curiosity (it’s sometimes (though decreasingly, I feel) mentioned as a key work of ’90s indie cinema), but I wound up genuinely enjoying it. It’s not what I expected from the posters and blurb — I thought it’d be all about slick operators and The Scene, but really it’s about some jobbing twentysomething mates just living and trying to have fun during the swing revival in ’90s Hollywood. In other words, it’s a lot less obnoxious than I’d feared. In fact, it has a kind of sweet positivity. That even extends to Vince Vaughn, who’s playing kind of a dick as usual, but he’s kinda likeable anyway. That said, if you cringe and squirm at people making fools of themselves in social situations (as I do), oh boy, this film has some examples that are more uncomfortable than any horror movie.

    It feels typically ’90s in so many ways, but then as it’s about the ’90s lifestyle, that’s wholly apt. One aspect of this is its cinematic literacy. For example, the characters debate whether Tarantino is copying or homaging Scorsese, and then later the film both homages (or copies) Reservoir Dogs and Goodfellas. And like Tarantino, the film came to be an influence on the ’90s itself, through catchphrases like “you’re so money” and “Vegas, baby!”, and popularising the term “wingman”. There’s probably a whole book to be written on the self-referential-ness of ’90s culture as an expression of angst at the forthcoming millennium, or something like that.

    4 out of 5

    Amadeus:
    Director’s Cut

    (1984/2002)

    2018 #142
    Miloš Forman | 180 mins | download | 2.40:1 | USA, France & Czechoslovakia / English | PG / R

    Amadeus

    The story of the one-sided rivalry between court composer Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and wunderkind Mozart, aka Wolfgang, aka Wolfy (to his wife) — who also had the middle name Amadeus, of course, which for some reason lends itself as the title. (As per IMDb Trivia, “an important theme of movie is the change of Salieri’s belief in God. That might have been the reason for the title Amadeus, which means ‘love of God’.”)

    Amadeus‘s reputation places it as a 10-out-of-10 absolute-classic kind of Great Movie, including ranking in the top 100 of IMDb’s Top 250, the top 200 of Letterboxd’s equivalent, and placing on various other lists, like the 1,000 Greatest Films. I wouldn’t go that far, personally, although I did think it was good. There are very strong performances (amusingly, Tom Hulce studied the temperamental behaviour of John McEnroe to help inform his interpretation of Mozart). There are great depictions of music and its creation. The production values are strikingly high, including sumptuous sets, locations, and costumes; nice camerawork (apparently the entire film was shot with natural light, which makes the cinematography even more impressive); and some spots of excellent editing.

    The version released theatrically in 1984 was cut down to 160 minutes because, according to Forman, it was the era of MTV: a long movie about classical music was already a risk, so it was decided to limit the running time. 2 hours 40 minutes is hardly shot, though, is it? Anyway, come 2002 and the DVD release, Forman felt they may as well recreate the film as written, leading to the longer cut, which has since become the standard version (it’s even the one shown on TV, which is by no means guaranteed with director’s cuts, I find). Forman says the shorter version was created by ditching every scene not directly related to the plot, though I’m not sure how much I buy that. Having read what was added back, I’m sure an awful lot more could’ve gone without impacting the story a great deal, if that was indeed their goal. One thing the longer cut did achieve was up its US certification from a PG to an R, thanks to a brief appearance by boobies. Oh, you prudish Americans!

    The film also inspired the song Rock Me Amadeus. Now that’s something I might give five stars.

    4 out of 5

    Amadeus was viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2018.

    Becoming Bond
    (2017)

    2018 #144
    Josh Greenbaum | 96 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

    Becoming Bond

    A documentary about the life of George Lazenby, most famous — or, rather, only famous — for replacing Sean Connery as James Bond for the sum total of one film. The blurb tries to spin it as “a unique documentary/narrative hybrid”, but it’s just a docudrama — i.e. a documentary with some scenes dramatised by actors. In fact, it’s basically just an interview with Lazenby that’s been dressed up with reenactments.

    Lazenby comes across as likeable and it’s a helluva story, and it doesn’t hurt that they’ve had a lot of tongue-in-cheek fun with how the recreations are done (swearing, sex, nudity, hanging boots off erections…) It’s mostly a “mad, true story” kinda thing, but it pulls out some surprisingly heartfelt, emotional stuff later on, including regret of opportunities missed (and not just Bond ones). The only significant downside comes from being a British viewer, because the dramatisations were all clearly shot in the US with American actors: most of the British and Australian accents are terrible; their idea of the exterior of a British pub is questionable; frankly, I’m amazed they even bothered to use right-hand drive cars (err, most of the time).

    (Bit of an aside, but just think: there’s an alternate universe somewhere in which Lazenby didn’t behave like an idiot and instead starred in Diamonds Are Forever, and therefore probably carried on into Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun, and maybe The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker too… And I guess in that universe Roger Moore never played Bond (because surely they wouldn’t’ve cast him for the first time when he was over 50, would they?) Funny to think about, isn’t it?)

    There’s an interview clip included where David Frost asks Lazenby if he carries on the James Bond thing in real life, and Lazenby says no, it’s just a movie, no one could carry on like that in real life — which is funny because we’ve just been hearing all about how Lazenby basically did lead Bond’s life (minus, you know, the spying and killing). Whether that’s actually a desirable way to lead an entire life… you be the judge.

    4 out of 5

  • Yesterday (2019)

    2020 #21
    Danny Boyle | 116 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, USA, China & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

    Yesterday

    Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is an aspiring — and failing — musician. He’s unlucky in love too, although that’s also his own fault, because he’s missed the blatant fact his friend-cum-manager Ellie (Lily James) has fancied him for the past couple of decades. One day there’s a weird blackout thing across the world, and (long story short) Jack is apparently the only person who remember the Beatles exist. Shocked that the world has been deprived of this amazing, culture-defining music, Jack begins to perform and record it… with zero success. Clearly, there’s more to it than just the music and lyrics. And he’s still none the wiser to Ellie’s obvious affections. Maybe Jack is just one of life’s losers?

    Ooh, that all sounds a bit depressing, doesn’t it? Don’t worry, this is a Richard Curtis movie — things pick up. Because of course someone notices the music Jack’s now playing is amazing, and of course that leads him to global success. Curtis is a massive Beatles fan — I believe that’s how the concept for the movie came about in the first place — so there’s no way he’s going to let what he believes is the wondrousness of their music go unnoticed. We know that as well, I think, so the bit where Jack still fails, despite now having good material, is a nice little plot red herring.

    It’s welcome, too, because the plot doesn’t have a whole lot else surprising going for it. (Well, there’s a subplot about the song Wonderwall that is such a plot structure red herring as to seem like a plot structure mistake, but I’m not sure it counts as a surprise when it’s only likely to be noticed by film buffs who incorrectly predict where it’s going.) It’s one of those films where the one-line premise is more interesting than what the film actually does with it. “What if only one man remembered the Beatles?” sounds like a neat idea for a story, but where is there to go with it? For the sake of there being any story at all, he has to be able to perform these songs that only he can remember. Then he either has to be a success or not, as discussed. It all feels inevitable, the only real question being what’s the ‘out’ — how does this end? Well, I shan’t spoil it.

    She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah

    To add more bulk, there’s a romance storyline. Of course there is, it’s a Richard Curtis movie. But a romcom is hardly more original, is it? No, this is a very comfortable movie — you’re rarely going to be surprised about where it chooses to go. That said, I liked this side of the film more. In fact, I feel like the film would actually have been better without the whole Beatles thing — just a movie about a struggling wannabe musician realising he doesn’t really love music, he loves Lily James. As it is, at one point he has to choose between his lifelong dream of pop music mega-stardom or being with Lily James, and he choose the dream, which is wholly implausible because Lily James.

    But for all its predictability, there are some really nice bits along the way. (Proper spoilers follow.) It turns out there are two other people who remember the Beatles, and they begin to stalk Jack as he has success… but it turns out they’re just glad this music is back in the world. Neat twist. The surprise-cameo John Lennon scene is another unexpected moment heavy with emotion. The closing montage not being to any ‘big’ Beatles song, but to Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (well, life does go on). Ed Sheeran ruining one of the greatest songs ever written. That one’s not so much nice as “funny because it’s true”, but I’ll take it. (If you thought Ed Sheeran was bad in his Game of Thrones cameo, just wait ’til you see him try to act as, er, himself. The role is very convincingly written, mind.)

    Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the film is that it’s not only the Beatles that have disappeared in this alternate world. Oasis have gone too, which, as Jack observes, “makes sense” — though the film doesn’t go very far in this regard. It’s based on the notion that the Beatles’ music was The Best Ever, but what has removing them from history actually changed about pop culture? As far as we can see, all it means is that Oasis don’t exist. Is that really the sum total of the Beatles’ influence? Anyway, my point was that other stuff has disappeared too, including Coca Cola, Harry Potter, Saturday Night Live (although that’s just become Thursday Night Live for some reason), and smoking. So this isn’t just “a reality without the Beatles”, it’s a subtly different world entirely. That’s an interesting creative choice. It’s basically just used as a source of humour — an easy go-to gag — but it still provokes the question: why has this random selection of things disappeared? What else has gone that Jack doesn’t notice?

    Hey Dude

    Ultimately it doesn’t matter, because this is a comedy like Groundhog Day or Sliding Doors in that the sci-fi/fantasy aspect is a means to an end, not a thing to be queried in itself. But in those films the change only affected our hero: in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is the only one in the time loop; in Sliding Doors, it’s only Gwyneth Paltrow’s life that’s significantly different (and none of the characters are even aware there are two versions of events). In Yesterday, Jack isn’t the only person this happened to, which emphasises the “what happened?” question. Why did it affect most people, but not these few? Why is so much of the world the same, but random things are missing? The film doesn’t care — it’s not about that — but, with the narrative choices the storytellers have made, it invites these kinds of wonderings.

    That is, unless you just switch off and let it be a pleasant bit of fluff about a guy becoming famous with borrowed music while finally realising that the girl who’s wasted her life waiting for him to realise she loves him, er, loves him (Jack doesn’t deserve Lily James). Yeah, it’s mostly predictable, but that’s part of the comfort factor. There’s some good music, some likeable performances, and a general amiability to its tone. Let it be, indeed.

    3 out of 5

    Yesterday is available on Sky Cinema from today. (Maybe I should’ve reviewed it tomorrow…)

    Rocketman (2019)

    2020 #3
    Dexter Fletcher | 121 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, USA & Canada / English | 15 / R

    Rocketman

    The director and star of Eddie the Eagle reunite for another biopic of a bespectacled British icon… though I’m not sure how favourable global music megastar Elton John would consider that comparison.

    Both films concern a regular lad from a working-class background who dreams of something bigger — in Eddie’s case, Olympic glory; in Elton’s, music stardom. But that’s more or less where the films diverge, because whereas Eddie’s ski jumping adventure was rendered as a family-friendly comedy, Elton’s seduction by sex and drugs and rock and roll is altogether more adult. But it’s also a world away from grim and gritty seriousness, because director Dexter Fletcher regularly injects flights of fancy and fantasy. Elton may end up in a very dark place (before inevitable salvation, natch), but it’s a helluva lot of fun getting there.

    In my review of the year before’s big musical biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody — which Fletcher ended up guiding through a third of its shoot and post-production after credited helmsman Bryan Singer was fired — I wondered which director was responsible for that film’s “occasional bold directorial flourishes”. On the evidence of Rocketman, I’d guess they were Fletcher’s idea. His staging and camerawork are often highly imaginative here, really cutting loose during the musical numbers. (Fletcher’s next job is taking over the Sherlock Holmes films from Guy Ritchie, a task that certainly requires the kind of visual panache he’s demonstrated here.)

    Piano man

    Indeed, this isn’t just “a film about music”, but a proper musical. It isn’t just a simplistic jukebox musical either, nor a standard musician biopic where the character performs some of their hits. Well, it is both of those — it’s a jukebox musical because all the songs are from Elton’s back catalogue (plus one new one so it could vie for the Oscar, of course), and the character of Elton John does perform some of his hits in recording studios and on concert stages. But it’s also more than that in the way it’s executed. Other characters break into song from time to time too, and there are clever reimaginings of several recognisable tracks. This is a restlessly imaginative movie.

    Egerton is superb in the lead role, crafting Elton as a much more nuanced figure than he’s sometimes regarded; a truly rounded individual with a considered interior life. One might argue the whole drugs storyline is somewhat predictable or even rote, with some surprising mirrors of the much-criticised Bo Rhap (“surprising” because where that film was roundly criticised for its clichés this has received a much more generous critical response)… but if that’s the true story, that’s the true story, right? Egerton certainly negotiates it with believability. Much praise for the film has focused on his performance, leading to significant awards nominations (like at BAFTA) and wins (a Golden Globe), but there are several great supporting players too, not least Jamie Bell as Elton’s lifelong songwriter and true friend, Bernie Taupin.

    The cumulative effect is a movie that is highly enjoyable but not without depth; that offers toe-tapping entertainment and filmmaking thrills in its musical numbers, while also digging into its subject’s troubles and their causes. Like an eagle, or a rocket, it doesn’t just fly, it soars.

    5 out of 5

    Rocketman is on Sky Cinema from today. It placed 10th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2020.

    Review Roundup

    As foretold in my most recent progress report, June is off to a slow start here at 100 Films. Or a non-start, really, as I’ve yet to watch any films this month and this is my first post since the 1st. Hopefully it won’t stay that way all month (I’ve got my Blindspot and WDYMYHS tasks to get on with, if nothing else).

    For the time being, here a handful of reviews of things I watched over a year ago but have only just written up:

  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  • Allied (2016)
  • American Made (2017)


    O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    (2000)

    2018 #106
    Joel Coen | 103 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    O Brother, Where Art Thou?

    The eighth movie from the Coen brothers (eighth, and yet they still weren’t being allowed a shared directing credit! No wonder that stupid DGA rule pisses people off) is one of their movies that I found less objectionable. Oh, sure, most of their stuff that I’ve reviewed I’ve given four stars (as well as a couple of threes), but that’s more out of admiration than affection — for whatever reason, their style, so popular with many cineastes, just doesn’t quite work for me; even when I like one of their films there’s often still something about it I find faintly irritating.

    Anyway, for this one they decided to adapt Homer’s Odyssey, but set in the American Deep South during the Great Depression. Apparently neither of the brothers had ever actually read The Odyssey, instead knowing it through cultural osmosis and film adaptations, which is perhaps why the film bears strikingly minimal resemblance to its supposed source text. Rather, this is a story about songs, hitchhiking, and casual animal cruelty, in which the KKK is defeated by the power of old-timey music. Hurrah!

    It’s mostly fairly amusing. If it was all meant to signify something, I don’t know what — it just seemed a pretty fun romp. I thought some of the music was okay. (Other people liked the latter more. Considerably more: the “soundtrack became an unlikely blockbuster, even surpassing the success of the film. By early 2001, it had sold five million copies, spawned a documentary film, three follow-up albums (O Sister and O Sister 2), two concert tours, and won Country Music Awards for Album of the Year and Single of the Year. It also won five Grammys, including Album of the Year, and hit #1 on the Billboard album charts the week of March 15 2002, 63 weeks after its release and over a year after the release of the film.” Jesus…)

    Anyway, that’s why it gets 4 stars. I liked it. Didn’t love it. Laughed a bit. Not a lot. Some of the music was alright. Not all of it. Naturally it’s well made (Roger Deakins!) without being exceptionally anything. Harsher critics might say that amounts to a 3, but I’m a nice guy.

    4 out of 5

    Allied
    (2016)

    2018 #116
    Robert Zemeckis | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & China / English & French | 15 / R

    Allied

    Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star as a pair of intelligence agents who fall in love in Mr. & Mrs. Smith: WW2 Edition. Settling down together in England, all is lovely for them… until one comes under suspicion of working for the enemy…

    Overall Allied is a very decent spy thriller, let down somewhat by a middle section that’s lacking in the requisite tension and a twee monologue coda. But the first 40 minutes, set in Morocco and depicting the mission where the lovers first meet, are pretty great; there’s plenty of neat little tradecraft touches scattered throughout; and there are some pretty visuals too. There are also some moments that are marred by more CGI than should be necessary for a WW2 drama, but hey-ho, it’s a Robert Zemeckis film.

    That said, Brad Pitt’s performance is a bit… off. He never really seems connected with the material. Perhaps he was trying to play old-fashioned stoic, but too often it comes across as bored. It also constantly looked like he’d been digitally de-aged, but maybe that’s because I was watching a 720p stream; or maybe he had been, though goodness knows why they’d bother.

    Anyway, these are niggles, so how much they bother you will affect your personal enjoyment. I still liked the film a lot nonetheless.

    4 out of 5

    American Made
    (2017)

    2018 #124
    Doug Liman | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Japan / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    American Made

    Described by director Doug Liman as “a fun lie based on a true story,” American Made is the obviously-not-that-truthful-then ‘true story’ of Barry Seal, a pilot who was recruited by the CIA to do some spying and ended up becoming a major cocaine smuggler in the ’80s.

    Starring ever-charismatic Tom Cruise as Seal, the film turns a potentially serious bit of history (as I understand it, the events underpinning this tale fed into the infamous Iran-Contra affair) into an entertaining romp. Indeed, the seriousness of the ending is a bit of a tonal jerk after all the lightness that came before, which I guess is the downside of having to stick to the facts.

    Still, it’s such a fun watch on the whole — a sliver long, perhaps, even though it’s comfortably under two hours, but it does have a lot of story to get through. Parts of that come via some spectacular montages, which convey chunks of story succinctly and are enjoyable in their own right. Liman doesn’t get a whole lot of attention nowadays, I think, but it seems he’s still got it where it counts.

    4 out of 5

  • Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

    2018 #230
    Bryan Singer | 134 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 12A / PG-13

    Bohemian Rhapsody

    Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

    So go the opening lines to the song Bohemian Rhapsody (Bo Rhap to its friends), Queen’s six-minute prog-rock suite that is one of the best-selling and most-acclaimed songs of all time. And those lines could hardly be more relevant to the film that’s borrowed its title, given that much of the discourse about the film has revolved around the issue of its truthfulness. This (in part) has led to a huge divide in the opinions of critics and audiences: whereas the former gave it a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 55% when it released (it’s since climbed up to 61%), audiences have driven it to be the #1 film at the worldwide box office and placed it on the IMDb Top 250, where it’s actually rising up the chart (it was at #136 after I saw it last Thursday, but is at #126 as of writing). Well, there’s a scene in the film where Bohemian Rhapsody debuts on the radio, and as it plays the screen gradually fills with quotes from contemporary reviews, all of them mercilessly slagging it off — the irony, obviously, being that we all know what a ginormous hit the song would become. Some things never change, eh?

    Bohemian Rhapsody: The Movie is, of course, a biopic of performer extraordinaire Freddie Mercury and the band he fronted, Queen. The film begins in 1970, introducing us to Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek) — Heathrow baggage handler by day, wannabe party animal by night, who prefers to go by the name Freddie. He’s been following the fortunes of student band Smile, and when their lead singer quits he offers his services to the remaining members, guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy); and with the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello), the line-up is complete. As he begins a relationship with shopgirl Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), Freddie’s confidence as a performer grows: he changes his surname to Mercury and coerces the band into recording an album, where their unusual style gets them noticed by a record label and… well, you can imagine where it goes from there.

    Killer Queen

    And that’s another problem that critics have had with the movie: you can imagine where it goes from there not just because you know Queen are an incredibly popular and successful band, but because you’ve seen this story a dozen times before in any other music biopic you care to name. Many critics have favoured naming Walk Hard, a spoof of the genre, wondering how audiences can accept such familiar tricks after they’ve already been spoofed. Well, consider this: 2½-week-old Bo Rhap already has more IMDb ratings than 11-year-old Walk Hard.

    Look, I’m trying not to gloat, but here’s a thing: I’ve been a fan of Queen’s music for as long as I can remember. I grew up listening to their first Greatest Hits album a lot. I’d wager a lot of British people have a similar affiliation, considering that’s the best-selling album of all time here. Heck, it’s only really Americans that should’ve been caught by surprise by the film’s success: it’s my understanding that Queen have always been something of a niche, cult group there, whereas in the rest of the world they’re pretty damn huge (some estimates put them among the top ten best-selling music artists of all time). As the aforementioned Bo Rhap reviews scene suggests, audiences have often been ahead of the critical curve when it comes to appreciating the band’s genius, and maybe it’s the same with their biopic.

    That said, a lot of the film is made up of quite run-of-the-mill music biopic material. I don’t think it merits the level of vitriol some critics have hit, because it’s not executed badly, it’s just nothing particularly unusual either. But the film does have one big advantage: it’s about Queen. Some of their magic can’t help but rub off. We’re not watching any old band playing any old songs — it’s Freddie Mercury and Queen, creating Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You, Another One Bites the Dust; performing Killer Queen, Fat Bottomed Girls, Love of My Life, I Want to Break Free, Radio Ga Ga, We Are the Champions… The film itself may be not be a classic-in-waiting, but with these people, those songs, and the performances of both, fans of Queen’s music surely can’t help but be entertained. And when their fans number, well, most people, that’s when you get a crowd-pleasing #1-in-the-world box office hit.

    We Will Rock You

    Much of the film toddles along nicely, mixing some predictable plotting with other bits that really work. It does a good job of little things that make the band feel like a group of friends — the scenes where they’re conceiving songs, collaborating, teasing each other; just little touches that sell the atmosphere of mates working together. Any scene where they’re called on to perform on stage has all the strutting majesty of the real band (I’ll come to the biggest instance of that later). Inhabiting those roles, the actors playing Queen are superb. It’s never easy playing an icon, but Malek excels as Freddie, and an Oscar nomination may well be on the cards. In the less showy roles, Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy are both likeable as the thoroughly decent Brian and more hotheaded Roger, respectively, though Joe Mazzello has less to do as quiet John Deacon, often just pulling silly faces in the background.

    I also think the film makes a fair fist of depicting Freddie’s love life. We’ve had a fair few high-profile gay movies recently (Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name, Love Simon), and compared to those Bo Rhap clearly didn’t foreground his homosexuality as much as some viewers would like. Each to their own, but I reckon the film splits itself about 50/50 between Freddie’s personal life and the band’s story, and I don’t think it shies away from his gayness (albeit in a PG-13 way — no beach stroking or peach abusing here).

    Even more of an elephant in the room has been the film’s directorial situation: planned and part-directed by Bryan Singer, he was eventually fired from production, with the rest of the shoot (reported to be about a third) and post-production completed by Dexter Fletcher. Singer gets the sole credit because the Director’s Guild of America specifies that only one director may be credited (that’s a whole kettle of fish we’ll leave for another day) and there seems little doubt Singer contributed more on balance than Fletcher, especially as Fletcher has said his job was to complete the work that had already been started. Bearing this situation in mind, it’s particularly interesting that, while much of the film is shot quite matter-of-factly, there are occasional bold directorial flourishes that make you query: who was responsible? Did Fletcher tart things up? Were they Singer’s idea (and so should there have been more)? Unless we ever get a breakdown of who did what, I guess we’ll never know.

    Love of My Life

    One thing that did intrigue me slightly is that the film isn’t in 3D. That format’s mainly reserved for post-converted blockbusters now, sure, but both Singer and Queen guitarist (and a producer of the film) Brian May are fans of stereography: Singer actually shot his last two X-Mens in 3D (as opposed to just post-converting, as most do nowadays), while May is something of an authority on the subject, even having designed a viewer for 3D photos and published several books (including one of his 3D photos of Queen). So, basically, I’m passingly surprised they didn’t choose to shoot in 3D. Maybe they asked and the studio just wouldn’t pony up the cost. Who knows. It doesn’t really matter… though, actually, I think the finale could’ve looked fantastic in three dimensions.

    Ah, the finale. Earlier, I said the film begins in 1970 — that’s not quite true. It actually begins with a flash-forward to Live Aid, the 1985 charity concert that included a famous set by Queen, and which the rest of the film eventually leads us back to. It’s a natural place to choose to conclude the movie: it was a huge triumph for the band, their set regarded by many as among the greatest rock concerts of all time, and certainly a happier endpoint than Freddie’s death a few years later — it seems more fitting to end with him on top of the world than sadly fading away. But even knowing all these facts doesn’t prepare you for the power of what’s actually on screen. It’s truly an incredible set piece, especially when experienced on a huge screen with a thumping surround sound setup. It literally made my hair stand on end and almost brought tears to my eyes. The version in the film isn’t actually the whole set that was played, but they did film it all and it’s being cut together as a Blu-ray extra. I can’t wait. Even as it stands, though, it’s a barnstorming conclusion to the movie; a sequence of such power it justifies the film’s very existence.

    We Are the Champions

    And so we come to the rub: the rating. Can you give a film full marks for pulling off one key 20-minute sequence so exceptionally? Well, that’s sort of what I was just saying: by itself, the Live Aid scene is enough to tempt me to give the whole film full marks, I thought it was that good. But the rest of the movie isn’t at the same level — it ticks along decently and I enjoyed it all, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t really transcend its genre or subject matter. So, it’s a 4… but Live Aid may yet earn the film a spot on my best-of-year list nonetheless.

    4 out of 5