A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

2020 #195
Marielle Heller | 109 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 + 1.33:1 | USA & China / English | PG / PG

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Thanks to the ubiquity of their films and television programmes, American culture permeates the world. Even if something isn’t directly exported, there are enough references to it in other media that we all get to know it by osmosis. (If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s one example: there are many documented cases of people trying to “plead the fifth” when being interviewed by law enforcement in countries where the fifth amendment to their constitution has nothing to do with criminal procedure.) So, it’s all the more unusual that Mr Rogers is apparently an influential part of American childhoods, but he wasn’t (as far as I’m aware) widely known outside of the US until a couple of years ago. That was thanks to the acclaim garnered by documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? As these things often go, that was followed by a biopic — which is this.

However, rather than try to tell Mr Rogers’ whole life story, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (a reference to the fictional land in his TV series, which is presumably why the US spelling was retained even for the UK release (except on DVD covers, etc)) focuses on one man’s encounter with Rogers. That man is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist with familial problems aplenty. He’s assigned to write a puff piece on Rogers — a couple of hundred words for a magazine issue about “heroes”. The pair seem an ill fit, but that’s the point — it’s basically a punishment from his long-suffering, usually-indulgent editor. Lloyd is initially reluctant, then sceptical — surely the whole “Mr Rogers” thing is a persona; an act? But as he spends more time with the man, it begins to change his view on the world too.

Okay, it probably takes a while for the film to get to that point, exactly, but I’m not spoiling anything — you know that’s where it’s going. “I met this guy whose world view was so much more positive and optimistic than mine… and it didn’t affect me at all, I’m still a grumpy bastard.” That’s not a story Hollywood’s going to tell, is it? Heck, that’s not even a story. So, yeah, of course Mr Rogers’ fundamentally decent and kindly nature is going to have an impact on Lloyd.

A beautiful lunch in the neighbourhood

Despite Mr Rogers being the focal point, then, the film is really more about Lloyd’s personal journey. But that journey is instigated and facilitated by Mr Rogers, so his “supporting character” part is vital. And who better to portray the very embodiment of decency than Tom Hanks? Rogers’ widow has said that Hanks was the perfect actor to play her husband; for his part, he’s said taking the role was “terrifying” due to the cultural significance. Hanks is as accomplished in the role as you’d expect, and it deservedly earnt his sixth acting Oscar nomination (his first in almost 20 years, and long overdue, I think).

If it all sounds a bit predictable, director Marielle Heller dodges that with some indie-movie-esque flourishes. There’s a touch of Wes Anderson to how she uses Mr Rogers’ TV show, switching into Academy ratio to demarcate us entering a different ‘world’ — not just literally clips from the show, but bookend narration, dream sequences, location transitions, and so on. IMDb lists the 1.33:1 ratio as just being used for “TV scenes”, but I think that undersells its use and effectiveness, which is more comparable to (say) how Anderson used three different ratios in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Its those kind of inescapable but well-considered flourishes — plus the believable transition in Lloyd’s character, which is more grounded in reality than the “slightly unlikeable guy becomes super positive” cliché — that elevate A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood out of the predictable or twee, and into being a genuinely heartwarming kinda film.

4 out of 5

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Le Mans ’66 (2019)

aka Ford v Ferrari

2020 #177
James Mangold | 153 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Italian |
12 / PG-13

Le Mans '66

Did you know that Ford tried to buy Ferrari in the ’60s? I didn’t. As per this film, Ford were desperate to appeal to a younger market and an association with motor racing seemed the way to do that. Ferrari were the regular winners of the Le Mans 24-hour race but were struggling financially, so Ford made an offer; but Ferrari played them, merely using Ford’s interest to get a better deal from Fiat. Pissed off, Ford set about making a racing car by themselves to beat Ferrari at their own game. Enter former Le Mans-winning driver turned race-car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a smooth-talking American who’s as adept at charming higher-ups as he is at making fast cars; and his favoured mechanic and driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a quick-tempered Brit who rubs the Ford execs up the wrong way. With Ford’s money behind them, but also management watching over them, can Shelby and Miles engineer a car good enough to beat Ferrari at Le Mans?

That the film goes by one of two different titles depending where you live might seem like an incidental point of trivia — it’s not the first time this has happened (Avengers Assemble is probably the most famous recent example), and it wasn’t an artistic decision, nor even a marketing one, apparently, but instead legal necessity (according to director James Mangold, you can’t use brand names in a title in the UK and/or Europe) — but it’s also a lens through which we can consider the film’s focus. To wit, is it more about the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari (as in the original title) or winning the 1966 Le Mans race (as in the UK title)? The consensus seems to be that the original title sounds more dynamic, but I think the international one is more accurate. The head of Ford has it in for Ferrari, but our two heroes are more interested in winning the race, rivalry or not.

Winner!

To some extent the story has been streamlined in that direction. The original screenplay was an ensemble about the entire team building the Le Mans car — more historically accurate, I’m sure, but I’d wager less dramatic and personal. That’s what’s gained by focusing on Shelby and Miles, the two key figures. To the film’s credit, it still doesn’t pretend they did it alone. The role attributed to other mechanics may not be as large as it was in real life, but nor does the film try to pass it off as the achievement of just two men. What it primarily adds is relatable drama. This isn’t just a movie about building and/or racing a car, but about these two particular men — what motivates them; how their ego gets in the way, especially in Miles’s case.

The film plays to the lead actors’ strengths in this respect, with Damon turning on the easy charm and Bale, who famously stays in character throughout a shoot, embodying someone who is superb at their job but can be belligerent. The standout from a quality supporting cast is Caitriona Balfe. She may just have the typical Wife role, but she’s made to be a bit more badass than that usually allows… before getting relegated it to the sidelines for the finale, naturally.

Said finale is the eponymous Le Mans event, of course. It’s not the only race sequence in the film, but it’s by far the longest. Nonetheless, they’re all suitably thrilling in how they’re shot and edited. One of the film’s genres on IMDb is “Action”, and though it doesn’t really conform to my idea of what an Action movie is — not least in the fact that there are only three or four of these “action sequence” race scenes throughout the two-and-a-half-hour movie — I can see where they’re coming from.

We are golden

That runtime is quite long, but it doesn’t drag… once it gets going, anyway. The slowest part is early on, getting the story up and running, which I feel could have been streamlined. Ford’s attempt to buy Ferrari initially seems like an aside, but obviously it comes to frame the whole rivalry; but Miles’s woes with the IRS barely have anything to do with the rest of the movie, and, other than providing an extended introduction to the man, I don’t think you’d lose much by losing them. The film was clearly trimmed a fair bit, though, because there are loads of little bits you can spot in the making-of that aren’t in the finished film. Said making-of also highlights the choices behind the cinematography. The visuals are very golden — that kind of “wasn’t the past pretty” atmosphere — but the behind-the-scenes footage shows the shooting conditions to be much duller and greyer, revealing how much the orange/gold light comes from the camerawork and grading.

Le Mans ’66 might look like a film for car nuts, and I’m sure they’ll get a lot out of it — alongside the likes of Rush, I guess this kind of thing would be their favourite movie (both those films currently sit in the IMDb Top 250). But the rest of us are by no means left out, thanks to involving characters and exciting race scenes, even if some plot beats border on clichéd. Le Mans ’66 may not reinvent the wheel, but it works hard at refining it.

4 out of 5

Le Mans ’66 is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from midnight tonight.

Hamilton (2020)

2020 #157
Thomas Kail | 160 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hamilton on Disney+

Hamilton, the original musical, is one of the great works of art of the 21st century so far, and now we all get a chance to be in the room where it happened (provided you’re prepared to pony up some dough to Disney+) thanks to the makers having had the foresight to film a full production with the original Broadway cast back in 2016 (and then flogging that recording to Disney for $75 million).

The show is a genuine phenomenon, but if you’ve let it pass you by, allow me to explain the basics. This is the life story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA; an immigrant who fought in the War of Independence, became the first Secretary of the Treasury, and in between and around all that most assuredly lived a life — there’s friendship and rivalry; romance and infidelity; genuine triumph and heartbreaking tragedy. Here that story is told via music, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also portrays the title role), a fusion of hip-hop, R&B, and more traditional Broadway stylings, performed by a cast mostly made up of people of colour. It’s a tale of outsiders and immigrants and forward-thinkers who battled for the right to be recognised and respected — it’s a history lesson, but oh yeah, it’s timely.

It premiered back in 2015, so over the past five years the praises of the original show and its successful soundtrack album (the primary medium through which most people have been able to experience the work, given the scarcity and cost of tickets) have been thoroughly sung. To briefly offer my perspective, I came to it ‘late’ — sure, I heard about it (initially thanks to references to its ticket prices), but I overlooked it as just another bit of mass-popular culture that likely didn’t have any weight or staying power. My mistake. Long story short, I finally listened to it in full in 2019 and was blown away.

Aaron Burr, sir

Adjectives to describe its quality are endless. It’s densely and intelligently written, packed with historical information at every turn, abundant with sly references to other media. Its structure is sublime, laced with callbacks and nods forward from the very opening number; musical motifs repeat, as do lines and ideas, some cropping up before their real significance has been reached, like flash-forwards; elements of plot and character are echoed and mirrored. Many of these are observable first time through; others only reveal themselves with repeat visits. The characters are sharply and smartly drawn, revealing layers and nuances and different perspectives as the piece goes on — it may ostensibly be about Alexander Hamilton, but multiple other characters are at least as richly painted, if not more so. It engrosses like a thriller and packs the serious emotional punch of a finely-wrought drama, but it’s also very funny at times, with numbers as toe-tappingly addictive as a great pop song. It’s hard to think of a more complete all-round experience.

Well, complete but for visuals if (like me) you’d never seen it performed, only listened to the soundtrack. And, you know, the soundtrack’s not a bad way to experience it — it doesn’t feel notably incomplete. Normally when you listen to a musical’s album, you just get some nice songs from the production. With Hamilton, you get (very nearly almost) the entire soundtrack, and therefore the entire story — you can follow it and not feel like you’ve missed anything. (I do wonder if that’s part of why it’s been such a success.) The lyrics and music conjure up their own imagery in your mind — certainly for me, ever since I first listened to it I’ve pictured whole chunks of it as I’d realise them in a movie version. I’m sure they’ll do a ‘proper’ film of it someday (you really think they’re going to leave all that money on the table?), but I think it’s for the best that’s not the first way I’m seeing it, because I worry it won’t live up to what I’ve concocted in my version.

As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t a film reimagining like a normal movie musical, but rather a filmed record of the original production. It was shot over three days back in June 2016 (shortly before the original cast moved on), during a mix of live performances and in an audience-less auditorium for the sake of closeups, crane shots, etc. That’s one of the things that elevates this particular film above other recorded-theatre productions I’ve been watching recently (like One Man Two Guvnors, Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, or the RSC’s Macbeth): whereas they have clearly been filmed live during a single performance, with all the restrictions that implies (limited camera angles; making editing choices in real-time), Hamilton has some extra remove, which has allowed director Thomas Kail to be a bit more creative.

Looking for a film at work, work

The camerawork endeavours to add something no theatre performance could, allowing us to see details that would be missed from even the best seats in the house. Closeups let us appreciate the full spit-flecked contempt from Jonathan Groff’s George III in You’ll Be Back; the restrained emotional sacrifice injected into Angelica by Renée Elise Goldsberry during Satisfied; Eliza’s heartbroken defiance from Phillipa Soo in Burn; or the rare occasions Leslie Odom Jr. allows Aaron Burr’s true emotions to break through in the likes of Wait For It and The World Was Wide Enough. That’s not to mention the countless other moments and performers that benefit from us being able to see how much they’re giving their performances; all the subtleties they’re adding.

At other times the camera angles show off the choreography, for example with punch-ins to highlight specific elements during stage-wide ensemble showpieces, like the rewind at the start of Satisfied, or a bird’s eye view as paper flutters in the air during The Reynolds Pamphlet. Still other scenes are reframed for our convenience, such as an exchange between Burr and Hamilton during Non-Stop that takes place upstage off to one side, but is now centred through medium shots and closeups. If all that sounds like it might serve to undermine the staging, it most certainly does not. When called for, Kail and editor Jonah Moran frequently fall back on wide angles to ensure we see the scope of what’s occurring. Only once or twice during the whole two-and-a-half hours do you feel maybe they chose a less-than-ideal angle or over-edited a sequence.

Having said that listening to the soundtrack feels like a complete experience, watching it certainly shows what you were missing. There’s so much more to add, from little nuances of performance, to visual-only gags and callbacks, to impressive dance and staging — and if we’re already comparing this to the presumed ‘proper film’ version that will exist someday, I also presume some of that staging will be lost in the visual translation. But while there’s an undoubted “designed for the stage” aspect to the blocking or the way some things are realised, it still works on film.

Not throwing away their shot

You can’t ignore that this is a film of a Broadway production — even if you wanted to, an opening subtitle reminds us it’s June 2016 in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and the audience is frequently to be heard clapping, cheering, and laughing (mixed onto the rear speakers if you’re watching in surround sound, as you’d expect, along with a few other moments and effects that add to the experience if you can benefit from such a setup). But it’s so well staged and filmed that you can buy this as the intended experience. With those other filmed-theatre productions I mentioned, you’re often aware that what you’re watching has primarily been staged for those in the room, and that you getting to observe it from a few fixed camera positions is a nice bonus if you couldn’t be there. With Hamilton, it feels like nothing is missed; not only that, but that this is the way the story was meant to be told, complete with elements of theatrical artifice, like the stripped-back staging and actors playing multiple roles (which roles are shared by the same actors is not without significance). Whenever and whatever they do for that theoretical ‘proper film’, I feel like it won’t negate this version, not just as a record of the original show, but as a film in its own right.

That’s perhaps the most striking aspect of this particular version: it doesn’t feel like a mere stopgap until they film it ‘properly’, nor a “that’ll do” stand-in for a real theatrical performance, but instead like a legitimate experience in its own right. Hamilton is a masterpiece, and getting to see it performed by the original cast in its original staging via a film so carefully and lovingly crafted is an absolute thrill.

5 out of 5

Hamilton is available on Disney+ now.

The Elephant Man (1980)

2018 #187
David Lynch | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | PG / PG

The Elephant Man

This biopic of Joseph Merrick — better known as ‘the Elephant Man’, a Victorian circus sideshow ‘freak’ who became a star of London society during his stay at the London Hospital — is noteworthy not only for its documentation of a key figure in Victorian life, who perhaps transformed people’s views of what it meant to be human, but also because it’s a film directed by David Lynch.

The Elephant Man is sometimes placed alongside Dune and The Straight Story as anomalies in Lynch’s filmography, which is more often characterised for its horror-inducing oddness and sometimes-incomprehensible plotting. Of course, upon proper examination, all three of these movies exhibit Lynchian touches, perhaps none more so than The Elephant Man. It’s there in the avant-garde opening; the dream sequence; the sound design, for which he’s co-credited; the focus on industrial machinery. The film can certainly be read as a Victorian melodrama, but in execution it’s far from a Merchant Ivory movie.

It’s also a very human and humane film, perhaps more so than you might expect from Lynch. But then again, look to The Straight Story, which in my review I described as “understatedly human and kind of heartwarming”; or Fire Walk with Me, which is about exposing the tragic injustices inflicted upon Laura Palmer. He may not come at it from the most obvious angles, but I think Lynch is consistently a compassionate filmmaker. Indeed, some critics even accused the film of “excessive sentiment”, probably due to being partly based on the memoirs of Merrick’s friend and physician, Frederick Treves. I disagree because, even if it is pretty sentimental, I think it hits the sweet spot — the point is that we should care.

Treves and Merrick

A significant boost to our emotional connection is the absolutely superb performances from Anthony Hopkins as Treves and John Hurt as Merrick. The latter earnt a BAFTA win and an Oscar nomination (losing to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull) in what became a truly iconic performance, but it’s a wonder Hopkins wasn’t similarly recognised. One of the themes the film tackles is the dichotomy of Treves being Merrick’s friend but also, to an extent, exploiting him to further his career, and finding the truth in that balance is down to Hopkins. They also both contribute enormously to the graceful beauty found throughout the film, not least in close-ups where a single tear can convey so much complex emotion, or the understated but moving final scene.

So too the gorgeous black-and-white photography by Freddie Francis. As Tom Huddleston writes in his essay accompanying the film’s StudioCanal Blu-ray releases, “imagine the film in colour, how fleshy and grotesque the makeup would have appeared, how gaudy and nauseating the carnival sequences.” It doesn’t bear thinking about. Instead, the monochrome visuals mix “gothic horror with documentary realism, lush drawing-room drama with mist-shrouded flights of fantasy”, to create a film that feels realist and historical, but also timeless and fantastical.

5 out of 5

The Elephant Man is on BBC One tonight at 10:30pm (11pm in Scotland).

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

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.

BlacKkKlansman (2018)

2019 #86
Spike Lee | 135 mins | download (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

BlacKkKlansman

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 1 win

Won: Best Adapted Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver), Best Editing, Best Original Score.

“A black man infiltrates the KKK.” Sounds like the setup for a joke, doesn’t it? Or possibly some outrageous blaxploitation movie. But it’s something that actually happened, and here co-writer/director Spike Lee tells the story of the guy who did it.

Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police department. After seeing a small advert in the local paper for information on the Ku Klux Klan, Ron phones the number and pretends to be an angry white racist. The ruse works and he’s invited to meet them, which obviously he can’t, so the department agrees to send intelligence officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in his place. So begins an undercover operation where Zimmerman pretends to be Ron in person, and Ron pretends to be white on the phone.

Although the premise sounds comical, the fact it’s a true story concerning an organisation as inhumane and pernicious as the KKK made me worried the film would be serious, grim, and heavy-going. In actuality, it’s lively, funny, and fast-paced. Humour is woven throughout the story in a way that is neither incongruous nor forced, and it doesn’t undermine the stakes when things get serious. And there remain parts that remind you of the true horrors of racism in America, in particular a sequence that intercuts a Klan initiation with an old black man remembering the stomach-churning details of a lynching he witnessed in his youth. It’s horrific; it’s sad; it’s enraging.

Spot the black man

The same could be said of the film’s final few minutes, which powerfully connect these events from decades ago to what’s going on in the US right now. The effect is hair-raising. Some have accused this finale of being exploitative or disconnected to the rest of the movie, but I don’t hold with that. On a literal level, a certain real-life figure turns up in the news footage to provide a very concrete link to the film’s main narrative. Even without that, the whole content of the film is incredibly timely, which is depressing and terrifying, really. It doesn’t have to bash you round the head with echoes of the present state of things in the US, because those parallels are unavoidably there.

If I have a criticism, it’d be that there’s inadequate follow-up on the internal conflict of Driver’s character. Lee made him Jewish to raise the stakes (the real-life guy wasn’t Jewish; and, if you didn’t know, the Klan hates Jews too), and so we get a beginning and middle for his personal narrative: at first he’s just doing his job, and he doesn’t care about his heritage because it wasn’t part of his upbringing; but then, in one of the film’s most memorable lines, he says he never used to think about being Jewish but now he thinks about it all the time. It feels like some kind of reconciliation of that internal conflict is needed later on, but it doesn’t come. A counter argument is that that’s the point — that he’s been subsumed as just a “White American”, but he is a Jew, and having to handle that dichotomy is something he’s never grappled with before. Still, if that’s the point where his character arc was intended to end, maybe reaching it halfway through the film wasn’t the best idea.

Black power

I’d still say it’s a relatively minor concern in a film that does so much else right as to render it more or less trivial. The film’s real triumph lies in how it tackles a very serious, concerning, and timely issue: luring you in with a “too good to be true” premise, engaging you with the entertaining way it’s told, thrilling you with some tense undercover-cop sequences, and finally delivering some gut punches of truth. You’ll have a good time, but also leave incensed at the state of the world — or, perhaps, of one particular country. Not many filmmakers could naturally pull off both of those opposing emotional states within the same movie, but Lee’s cracked it.

5 out of 5

BlacKkKlansman is available on Sky Cinema from today.

It placed 8th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

Free Solo (2018)

2019 #36
Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi | 100 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Free Solo

Anyone can be happy and cosy. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cosy.

So says Alex Honnold, the subject of this documentary, when discussing the different approaches to life of his girlfriend, who he thinks wants to be “happy and cosy”, and himself, who seeks perfection in extreme endeavour. It’s as succinct a summation of his attitude to life as any in this Oscar-winning documentary.

Honnold is a climber with a particular interest in free soloing, which is climbing without ropes or harnesses — think Tom Cruise at the start of M:i-2. His feats have made him famous, as an opening montage demonstrates (though I’d certainly never heard of him before this). The film is ostensibly documenting his attempt to be the first person to free solo up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, an extraordinary feat due to its height and difficulty.

In fact, the film is as much a profile of Honnold as a person — how he got into this hobby, what motivates and drives him, how his mind works — as it is about the physical task of climbing. I knew there’d be some biographical detail and whatnot, but I thought most of the film would be about the headline climb — it’s what the film is promoted as being about, at least as far as I was aware, and (minor spoilers, if you don’t know that, yes, he managed it (almost two years ago now, so, like I say, not really spoilers)) it took him 3 hours 56 minutes, so it’s not like you’d have to show it in full to make a feature-length film. As it turns out, the climactic climb is afforded just 13 minutes of screen time.

Alex vs El Capitan

That’s not particularly a problem because Honnold is an interesting individual. He’s not just a normal bloke who likes to climb, but has a very particular mindset and focus, which seems to stem from his upbringing and has affected his relationship to society and other people. He’s clearly not incapable of forming friendships, or even romantic relationships, but they don’t affect him in the way they do the rest of us. Whether you find his attitude to life admirable or perverse is down to you. The film arguably celebrates it, which seems to have turned some viewers off, but Honnold’s philosophies (such as they are — he’s not consciously a deep thinker, I don’t think) are contrasted with the views of his friends, who like him but maybe in spite of his monomania.

Aside from what it exposes about Honnold, one of the revelations I gained from the film was how much planning goes into these kind of climbs. Like, spending months or years choosing routes, knowing all the little foot and hand holds, the body positions required, climbing it with ropes to test it out, and so on. It’s not just like, “that looks possible, let’s have a go,” which is I guess what I thought they did. With climbs of this difficulty, it’s rehearsed in the way you might Shakespeare — every little hold (and I do mean little: sometimes surface contact is as small as half a thumb) is pre-decided and memorised, then repeated on the day. The challenge of free soloing (at least at this level) is not “can I manage to find a way up this cliff face?”, it’s “can I scale this near-impossible route without a safety net?” It’s about doing something that’s at the limits of human capability and doing it perfectly, because the difference between 100% and 99% is, literally, death.

Whether you find Honnold’s commitment to it admirable or self-centred and self-aggrandising, it’s a fascinating mentality to have. And, at the very least, the scenery is breathtaking.

4 out of 5

Free Solo is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Green Book (2018)

2019 #26
Peter Farrelly | 130 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English, Italian & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Green Book

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 3 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Original Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Best Editing.

White people tell black people all about racism (again) in this year’s surprise Best Picture victor. Well, a surprise to some people — Roma was considered the frontrunner, but some of those with their finger on the pulse of Hollywood had already predicted Green Book’s success. One such pundit was Deadline’s Pete Hammond, a very pro-Green Book voice, although his post-show analysis seems to suggest it only won because of efforts by some Academy members to rig the vote against Netflix…

The reaction to Green Book has been an odd one. It was initially well received, winning the People’s Choice Award after its premiere at TIFF, and racking up acclaim from both critics (a Certified Fresh 79% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (8.3 on IMDb, which places it 128th on their Top 250 list). But the more widely it’s been seen and discussed, the more the tide has turned, especially as a more diverse audience has come to it. On its surface, the film is about overcoming racism — it’s the true story of a bigoted Italian American (Viggo Mortensen) serving as a driver for talented African American pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he goes on a concert tour of the Deep South during segregation — but it’s told entirely from the white guy’s perspective.

Coming at it from the perspective of a white guy also, I can see why people have liked the movie. It’s decently entertaining, with likeable performances from Mortensen and Ali, who have good chemistry. Their chalk-and-cheese relationship is funny without tipping over into outright comedy; and, naturally, the way they come to get along is Heartwarming. But it’s also a completely unchallenging movie. There’s just enough racism that you get to go “ooh, weren’t things unpleasant back then!” and be joyed when the characters overcome it in various ways, but not so much as to convey the actual outrage and horror of the era — or, indeed, the way it continues today. You’d think racism was more or less solved by this pair getting along back in ’62.

Admire the white guy

And that is a big part of the problem with the film. If you’d made this 20 or 30 years ago, that level of discussion might be alright — beginning to make old white men face up to what happened by softening it a little, by letting them see themselves in the white guy. Now, it all looks kinda naïve and simplistic. The more you dig into it, the more you realise Green Book has some casually racist elements of its own. I mean, the white guy even helps the black guy to become a better black guy! That’d be offensive in a fiction, but when these were real people it seems distasteful. I guess the counterargument might be that the black guy helps make the white guy better too, improving his ability to write love letters, as if that was some kind of mutual beneficial exchange. But it’s not equal, is it? Plus it’s again all from the white guy’s perspective: he’s fundamentally fine but, hey, a bit of a polish wouldn’t hurt, whereas the black guy needs a character overhaul that apparently only this straight-talking white guy can give him.

But hey, don’t just take it from this white guy. For instance, check out this piece by Justin Chang at the L.A. Times about the film and its reception in the wake of its big win. It digs into the film’s negatives and controversies better than I ever could.

A side note regarding the film’s title: it’s taken from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook to help African Americans travel in the segregated South by listing establishments that would accept them. They do use it in the film… briefly, about three times total. You feel like a movie depicting how and why the volume came into existence might’ve made for a more novel story.

Write this instead...

In the end, I find Green Book a little difficult to rate. Coming to it as a white viewer, it’s an enjoyably safe trip into history, with charming characters on enough of a personal journey to give it a story arc, but not so much of one as to ever make it challenging. Similarly, it has a simplistic but not fundamentally negative theme (“racism is bad, yo”). In that mindset, it’s a pleasant, feel-good two hours. But, considering it’s 2019 not 1989, I can certainly see why some are clamouring for more nuanced engagement with these issues. I wouldn’t call it a bad movie, but it is an old fashioned one, and certainly not the best of what 2018 had to offer.

3 out of 5

Christine (2016)

2018 #114
Antonio Campos | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Christine

The true, tragic story of newswoman Christine Chubbuck is told in this affecting drama. For those that don’t know, it’s the ending that is why her story is famous: Christine was the first person to commit suicide live on television. The film attempts to help us understand Christine’s life and mental state, and what led her to that moment.

The overwhelming impression I got was of Christine’s existence being quietly sad. She’s shown to have the kind of life that isn’t loudly and forcefully horrible, but just… disappointing. So terribly and thoroughly disappointing that “why bother?” becomes a legitimate question for the person having to live it. That made it a somewhat uncomfortable film to watch, but that could be a personal thing — I can relate to Christine’s social awkwardness, and could see some of the pitfalls she was headed towards. (That said, not everything goes exactly as one might expect, specifically her infatuation with Michael C. Hall’s handsome anchorman.) I’ve known people like Christine, too, who do all the right things and try to put good out in the world, but somehow the world spits it all back, like it doesn’t matter.

Performance anxiety

In part because of this psychological realism, the film feels respectful, but without being either neutered or over-explanatory. By the former I mean that it doesn’t present Christine as some perfect soul — she can be bolshy and trying even for people who like her. By the latter, that it doesn’t hype up how bad her life was to make sure you ‘get’ why she’d do it. For example, everyone around her cares so much. You’d expect a terrible home life, bullying or teasing colleagues, some kind of gross betrayal, but no: they’re mostly nice; they like her; they try to be her friends. And you feel like she sees that, too, even as she… doesn’t. I suppose it must be mostly speculative in what it reveals about her psychologically, but you feel like it understands the responsibility of taking that approach — that it must try to be truthful, rather than histrionic; but that it’s important it attempts to find that truth, not just be enigmatic and vague.

Rebecca Hall gives a fantastic performance in the title role, completely immersed in what must be a difficult part to play: the viewer has to understand, identify, and empathise with Christine, even as she’s a bit standoffish, awkward, and maybe doesn’t even understand herself all that well. Between Hall’s masterly performance and Antonio Campos’ understated direction, they’ve created a film that dodges the pitfall of being melodramatic, and managed to make you sympathise with Christine and why she would do what she did, even as you empathise with her enough to wish she wouldn’t.

4 out of 5

Christine is available on Netflix UK from today.

The Greatest Showman (2017)

2018 #237
Michael Gracey | 105 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The Greatest Showman

There’s nothing inherently festive about The Greatest Showman (if it has even one scene set around Christmas, I can’t immediately recall it), yet it was initially released on Boxing Day last year and now kicks off December’s premieres on Sky Cinema, and somehow the association feels entirely fitting. I guess it’s something to do with the tone and style of the film itself: a big, cheesy, schmaltzy, cheery musical — just the kind of thing many people like to wallow in during the big, cheesy, schmaltzy, cheery end-of-year festival. It’s almost a John Lewis advert in feature film form, only with upbeat original songs instead of whispery female covers of old hits.

Inspired very, very, very loosely by a true story, the eponymous gentleman is P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a man of low station in mid-19th century America who, via a cunning fraud, manages to buy a building that he turns into a museum of curiosities. With attendance poor, he adds a floor show featuring acrobatics and freaks. It’s slated by the critics, but curious audiences flock en masse. Barnum is suddenly a massive success — but at what cost to his personal life?

Well, virtually none, because there’s barely any jeopardy to be found here (apart from a little forced something to push it into a third act). But jeopardy is not the point of The Greatest Showman, which is all about being a crowd-pleasing a good time — like the show-within-the-show, it was poorly received by critics but a huge word-of-mouth success: it never made it to #1 at the US box office, but nonetheless stayed in the top ten for 11 weeks and earned $434 million worldwide; it’s soundtrack album was such a hit that they’ve already released another album of cover versions. It’s a phenomenon, basically, and I do think the lack of worry or tension in the story is a contributing factor, especially in these troubling times. That kind of lightweightness doesn’t please the critically-minded, but it doesn’t bother those simply after a good time. And why should it?

The greatest show

It’s a Musical through and through, the movie equivalent of a broad stage grin and jazz hands. The numbers are of a different ilk to traditional Broadway style, but not misplaced — it’s modern chart-pop style songs and music video choreography, wrapped up in a big showy old-school musical vibe. I know everyone’s latched onto This Is Me as the film’s anthem, and Rewrite the Stars earned a single release because it’s a pop love song sung by kid-friendly Zac Efron and Zendaya, but the one number that really works for me is opener/closer The Greatest Show (it’s even better on the soundtrack, because it isn’t awkwardly sliced in two with the rest of the movie shoved in between, as it is on screen). If that song doesn’t end up being co-opted for opening ceremonies and things like that, it’ll be kind of a shame. And if I was to point to a runner-up favourite, I’d go for The Other Side purely for how its staged: a barroom duet between Jackman and Efron with impressive drinkography. And talking of the songs, the Honest Trailer contains some excellent spoofs of them.

Still probably best known as surly superhero Wolverine, Jackman was an established musical theatre star before his big-screen breakthrough, so this stuff is very much within his skill set — indeed, as his recently-announced world tour could attest, this show of song and dance may be more in his comfort zone than the superhero shenanigans. Either way, that he’s so effortlessly consummate at both proves he’s a performer of underestimated range. Less remarkable as allrounders are former Disney brats Efron (as a bored rich kid roped into Barnum’s enterprise) and Zendaya (whose qualifier for a freakshow seems to be that she’s somewhat dark skinned), but they’re perfectly adequate for their poppy against-all-odds romantic subplot. Less at home is Michelle Williams — not that she’s bad, but seeing her smiling and happy is weird

Drinkography

Altogether, I can see why The Greatest Showman was unpopular with critics but a huge hit with audiences — it’s a proper crowd-pleaser; a big, cheesy, easy extravaganza, similar to its pop-style music. That’s not the sort of thing critics are enamoured of, but it is the kind of thing that tickles the fancy of the masses. On the whole, it didn’t appeal to me — there were things it could’ve done better without betraying what it was aiming for, I think, like that total lack of risk in the plot, but also things I was never going to like, such as the music style — but it did have its moments.

3 out of 5

The Greatest Showman will be available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight.