Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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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

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Review Roundup

Hello, dear readers! I’ve been away for most of the past week, hence the shortage of posts, but I’m back now, so here’s a random ragtag roundup of reviews to kick things off again.

In today’s roundup:

  • That’s Entertainment! (1974)
  • ’71 (2014)
  • Guardians (2017)


    That’s Entertainment!
    (1974)

    2017 #80
    Jack Haley Jr. | 124 mins | TV | 1.33:1 + 1.78:1 + 2.35:1 + 2.55:1 | USA / English | U / G

    That's Entertainment!

    Greatest hits compilations always seem to be a popular product in the music biz, and that’s essentially what this is, but for movies. An array of famous faces appear on screen to help provide a scattershot history of the MGM musical, but really it’s an excuse to play some fantastic clips from old hits. This may be the kind of programming that TV has taken on and made its own in the decades since, but when the quality of the material is this high, it feels like more than just schedule filler.

    Thanks to many eras being covered it has more aspect ratio changes than a Christopher Nolan movie, though that’s actually quite effective at demarcating the old-school spectacle from the linking chatter. There’s also some “you wouldn’t get that today” commentary, like Frank Sinatra talking about a line of chubby chorus girls (who don’t even look that large!), or various bits and pieces criticising the studio’s history, like how all the films had the same plot.

    It was originally promoted with the tagline “boy, do we need it now”, a reaction to the gritty style of filmmaking that was popular in Hollywood at the time, as well as all the real-life problems of the era (it was released the same year as Nixon resigned because of Watergate). MGM needed it too: the studio was in decline, releasing just five films in 1974. The whole thing carries a somewhat bittersweet air, as ageing stars reflect on past glories from the decrepit environs of MGM’s rundown backlot.

    Nonetheless, it creates a marvellous tribute to a golden era. And I guess it must’ve done alright, because it spawned two sequels, a spin-off, and MGM are still going (more or less) today.

    4 out of 5

    ’71
    (2014)

    2017 #95
    Yann Demange | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    ’71

    Set in Belfast in (you guessed it) 1971, ’71 is a thriller that sees an Army recruit become separated from his unit during a riot at the height of the Troubles, leaving him trying to survive the night “behind enemy lines”.

    The film’s best stuff is early on: a brewing riot as police perform a door-to-door search; a tense foot chase through the backstreets; a single-take bombing and its aftermath. The immediacy of all this is well-conveyed, suitably tense and exciting, but also plausible. Then the film decides it needs some sort of plot to bring itself to a close, and so it kicks off some IRA infighting and British Army skullduggery. The added complications don’t exactly bring it off the rails — it’s still a fine and tense thriller — but it lacks that extra oomph that the hair-raising sequences of the first half deliver.

    Still, it’s a promising big screen debut for director Yann Demange, who was reportedly among the frontrunners to helm Bond 25 before that got diverted into Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s idea. His second feature, another period movie, this time a crime drama, White Boy Rick, is out later this year.

    4 out of 5

    Guardians
    (2017)

    aka Zashchitniki

    2017 #122
    Sarik Andreasyan | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Russia / Russian | 12

    Guardians

    You may remember this film from when its trailer went viral a couple of years ago: it’s the “Russian answer to The Avengers” that featured a machine-gun-wielding bear. Naturally, that kind of attention assured it got an international release eventually (I paid to rent it, then it later popped up on Prime Video. You never know how these things are going to go, do you?)

    It’s about a bunch of old Soviet superheroes being reactivated to stop a villain. If that sounds vague, well, I can’t remember the details. Frankly, they don’t matter — Guardians is the kind of film a 6-year-old would write after a diet of Saturday morning cartoons, with the same attention to character development and plot structure you’d expect from such an endeavour. The story is semi-nonsensical: the villain’s plan is never clear (beyond “rule the world”); it flits about between subplots; characters appear and disappear from locations… There’s a litany of “things that don’t quite make sense” — too many to remember without making obsessive notes while rewatching, which I have no intention of doing.

    But if you can ignore all that — or, even better, laugh at it — then it’s fairly watchable, in a brain-off entirely-undemanding so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. There’s some decent CGI (given its budget), some half-decent action, and it’s mercifully brief at under 90 minutes.

    2 out of 5

  • Coco (2017)

    2018 #109
    Lee Unkrich | 105 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Coco

    Pixar’s 19th feature is an American-produced animated fantasy movie that co-opts a foreign culture to tell a story about a guitar-playing kid remembering his dead family — wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? Yes, in broad strokes, Coco is Kubo and the Two Strings Pixar-style. But, instead of Japan, this is Mexico, based around the famed Day of the Dead festival — which has also already been the subject of an American animated movie, The Book of Life. But that didn’t get the best notices, and Kubo didn’t get the respect it deserves, and this is Pixar in non-sequel mode, and so Coco has been praised to the high heavens. And it is good. But I didn’t think it was that good.

    So, to start again: Coco is the story of Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a kid who desperately wants to be a musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Unfortunately for Miguel, all music is banned in his family, due to his great-great-grandfather abandoning his wife and young daughter to pursue it as a career. On the Day of the Dead, a convoluted and overlong first act eventually gets us to a point where Miguel finds himself actually in the Land of the Dead, surrounded by the skeletal form of everyone who’s passed away. To get back to the land of the living he must go on a quest, accompanied by downtrodden Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who’s being forgotten by the living and needs Miguel to reestablish his memory in the real world. More or less. I mean, the rules get more fiddly and complicated than that.

    The magic of music

    Frankly, the rambling length was my biggest problem with Coco. It’s not badly flabby, but it’s not as taut as I’d’ve liked it to be either, especially during stretches where you’re waiting for it to get to an inevitable plot twist or development. That’s not to say it’s without surprises — it pulls quite a dark plot twist about an hour in — and surprise isn’t the only virtue a story can have, of course, but it did reach a point where I was virtually shouting at the screen for them to finally get on with what was inevitably going to happen. Surely that’s a sign of something not working.

    Maybe that was the music — quite a central part of the storyline, as you may’ve inferred, but I can’t say I was a fan. Mostly it’s fine, but there’s the occasional musical number that just slowed things down. It’s not a musical in the strictest sense either, so the film does stop a bit in order to get each song underway (at least it usually then tries to progress the narrative while the song continues). The big number is the Oscar-winning Remember Me, which has grown on me slightly since I first heard it but, again, I’m not particularly a fan. I don’t know what it is, really, because when I’ve come across mariachi-style music in movies before I’ve often quite liked it. I guess it’s this particular set of tunes, then.

    Naturally it looks great — it’s Pixar, would you expect anything less? The colourful Land of the Dead stuff is the best visually, wide shots creating epic vistas, with stunning architecture that suggests quite a world… not that we get to explore it very thoroughly, even though the quest narrative takes us to a few different locations. We certainly don’t get any indication how it functions for the other 364 days of the year. Zootropolis showed us a glimpse of a well-imagined full-scale world, teasing enough that I wanted to explore it comprehensively in further stories. Coco’s just looks pretty.

    Colourful vistas

    Maybe I’m being too picky? Maybe I’m just trying to work out what it was everyone else loved so much, when I saw a pretty standard Pixar buddy quest story with new surface flourishes. Or perhaps I’m right, and other people were blinded by the emotional ending? The final few minutes are certainly effective at tugging at the heartstrings — even though I hadn’t fully invested in the rest of the film, even I felt a pang… albeit slightly undercut by once again having to yell at the characters to get on with what they were inevitably going to do. Not everything should move at a mile a minute, but c’mon, sometimes you’re just being languorous.

    Reportedly Coco had the longest active production of any Pixar movie, with work beginning in 2011 and (obviously) being completed in 2017. There are quite a few deleted scenes included on the Blu-ray which (from a brief flick through) seem to suggest the story once went in quite a different direction. I saw one person say those scenes suggest a much worse movie, too. I guess they kept tweaking the plot, then, maybe until it eventually resembled that familiar broad Pixar shape that dates right back to the original Toy Story.

    Coco is a good, but I certainly wouldn’t say it’s perfect. And I think I might go watch Kubo again now, actually.

    4 out of 5

    The UK becomes probably the last major market to get Coco on disc with its release on DVD, Blu-ray, and 3D Blu-ray today.

    Review Roundup: 3 Long Films That I Didn’t Enjoy Directed by Martin Scorsese

    The title’s pretty self-explanatory, isn’t it?

    Those films were:

  • Silence (2016)
  • Casino (1995)
  • New York, New York (1977)


    Silence
    (2016)

    2017 #141
    Martin Scorsese | 161 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA, Taiwan & Mexico / English, Japanese & Latin | 15 / R

    Silence

    A re-adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s novel (previously filmed in 1971), Silence is gorgeously produced but torturously dull Christian propaganda. The plot is about two priests travelling to anti-Christian Japan to find their mentor, who’s rumoured to have renounced the Church, but really it’s about faith and the testing of it.

    The foremost of the two priests is Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), the kind of Christian who lets others die for his faith even as he doubts it. Like many a preacher before him, Rodrigues’ sin is pride — too proud of his faith, his culture, his rightness, his superiority, to consider another point of view; to bend to help others. Conversely, his accusers and persecutors lack compassion or fairness, torturing and killing from exactly the same position as Rodrigues: that their beliefs are correct, all others be damned. Well, of such things are all religious wars made, I guess. At least the Horrible Japanese are better than the Christians’ own Inquisition was: if people renounce Christianity the Japanese sometimes set them free; the Inquisition just used it as another reason to murder them. God, religious people can be shits.

    There are no good people here. The Christians are colonialists with a monomaniacal belief in their own faith. The Japanese are so set against it that they’ll torture and murder their own people just to get back at the Christians. It’s a world full of hatred. So much for the love of God. All this intolerance is as pointless then as it ever was before or has been since. If we just let others go on how they want to go on — live and let live — then the world would be such a nicer place.

    Rodrigues in prison

    For all the violent torture depicted on screen, the hardest thing to take is the film’s slow, slow, slow pace. It does have some theological points to make, but they’re thin gruel for the time it takes to make them — or, rather, the time it wastes before it really starts to consider them. If the first hour was a lot shorter it would improve the whole film; indeed, it would’ve made me better disposed to the rest. It does improve, but by the time it improved I was already bored and annoyed with it. Its best qualities by far are visual: as well as stunning cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, the whole production is beautifully mounted — the locations, sets, costumes, make-up, and so on, are all very well realised.

    To say Silence was not a box office success is an understatement: off a budget of $46 million, it too just $23.7 million worldwide, and only $7.1 million of that in America. I think it must’ve been promoted badly — I’m sure it’d appeal to the Bible Belt crowds who flock to that niche Christian shit that’s always turning up nowadays. And if you’re in any doubt that it’s meant to be a pro-Christian film: the premiere was held at the Vatican and it was screened early for 400 priests.

    2 out of 5

    Casino
    (1995)

    2018 #19
    Martin Scorsese | 178 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 18 / R

    Casino

    “A fictional story with fictional characters adapted from a true story,” as the film’s own credits describe it, Casino tells of the rise of Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro, of course) in Mob-controlled Las Vegas, whose life is made awkward by his loose-cannon Mob-enforcer best friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci, of course) and his tumultuous marriage to hustler Ginger (Sharon Stone).

    “There’s no plot at all”, says Martin Scorsese in an interview included on Casino’s Blu-ray (per IMDb). “It’s three hours, no plot. […] There’s a lot of action, a lot of story, but no plot.” Well, er, he’s not wrong. Casino seems to skip around at random, devoid of a throughline to guide its narrative. It flies off on so many different tangents, it takes a while to get a handle on what it’s about — if it’s about anything. Or possibly it’s about too much. For example, there’s a lot of “how the casino business works” stuff early on, which is quite interesting in itself but only some of it has any relevance later on; and eventually the film gets sidetracked wholesale into De Niro and Stone’s marriage woes, which are at best a subplot earlier on. Whatever it was supposed to be, I was never hooked and never engaged.

    De Niro blows

    Part of this is the film’s storytelling style — I didn’t know Scorsese was in the business of making visuals to accompany audiobooks. Well, that’s what Casino felt like. Naturally there’s skill on display (they’re very, very good visuals to accompany an audiobook), but the voiceover-driven style really alienated me. It makes the characters feel at arm’s length: despite De Niro and Pesci constantly taking directly to us, I didn’t feel like I was getting to know or connect with them, I was just being told about them. The endless narration constantly skims through events too, making it feel like a summary rather than an actual story. You might think that would give it pace, but it does the opposite: the first hour drags and drags, and then drags some more, and eventually this three-hour film feels every minute of it.

    I read one review of Casino that concluded, “I don’t feel like watching it again, but it certainly made me want to watch Goodfellas again.” I know the feeling.

    3 out of 5

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

    New York, New York
    (1977)

    2018 #88
    Martin Scorsese | 156 mins | DVD | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    New York, New York

    Once again, this is a lengthy Martin Scorsese movie that seemed terribly unfocused for so long that it lost me ages before it found what it wanted to be about. (Well, it predates the other two, but whichever order you put them in it’s looking like a definite pattern.)

    Starting on VJ Day in New York, it stars Robert De Niro as a wannabe musician and Liza Minnelli as a wannabe singer who wind up in a romance and co-dependent career, until one outshines the other. De Niro is playing an angry young man who has talent but whose temperamental nature may well get in the way of success — yes, it’s Any Robert De Niro Movie. But, wow, his character is annoying, and I imagine his actions are only getting more distasteful with time — the way he badgers and cajoles Liza into going out with him (something she eventually agrees to) is the kind of behaviour that gets regularly criticised nowadays (rightly). Well, I don’t think he’s meant to be a nice guy — the film seems to be about their tempestuous relationship and how that helps and hinders their careers — but I wasn’t sure the film knew how unlikeable he was.

    I wasn’t sure the film knew much of anything, really. Apparently much of the dialogue was improvised, which in turn made it a nightmare to edit into a coherent narrative, which would explain the messiness — everything feels overlong, unfocused, and increasingly dull. Consequently there have been several cuts of the film, with this being the longest “director’s cut” released in 1981. It has some good bits, foremost being the extended Happy Endings musical interlude, which at one point was ditched to create one of the shorter versions. I like the idea of this film being less long, but don’t lose the only really good bit!

    So good they named it irrelevantly

    Just to wind me up further, the content has fundamentally nothing to do with the title. I mean, it begins in New York, and when the characters go on tour they’d like to get back there, and eventually they do and so some more of it’s set there, and occasionally they’re writing the titular song (which, I confess, I was unaware hailed from this film — I assumed the movie was named after the famous standard, not that it spawned it), and in the epilogue Liza performs said song (post-2016 observation: said epilogue is gosh-darn similar to La La Land’s!) Anyway, my point is: this film could’ve been set almost anywhere and not affected anything much, so why the title?

    2 out of 5

  • Review Roundup: Comedy Documentaries About Music

    In today’s does-what-it-says-on-the-tin roundup:

  • Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)
  • Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)


    Anvil:
    The Story of Anvil

    (2008)

    2017 #117
    Sacha Gervasi | 77 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Canada / English | 15

    Anvil: The Story of Anvil

    This is the real Spinal Tap: a rockumentary about heavy metal group Anvil, who once headlined alongside Whitensake and Bon Jovi, and are cited as an influence on groups like Megadeth and Metallica, but who haven’t enjoyed the same success as any of them. The film follows the group as they attempt to relaunch with a tour and new album.

    Truth is stranger than fiction, as they say, and, thanks to This is Spinal Tap, Anvil at first feels like fiction, with broad characters and a humorous tone. But it isn’t a blatant rip-off of Rob Reiner’s influential mockumentary, it’s a true story.

    That knowledge gives the whole thing a different air. It’s not so much tinged with sadness as endlessly sad — hopes and dreams that have come to nothing, even though they’re still pursued; how those continued pursuits falter and fail. And, perhaps worst of all, is the esteem other bands hold them in — the influence they admit to have taken from Anvil — and yet Anvil themselves languish in crummy jobs with no wide recognition, while the people who ripped them off (as one of them even admits) are famous and successful.

    A lot of comedy would actually be quite sad if it wasn’t fiction. Anvil proves that.

    4 out of 5

    Popstar:
    Never Stop Never Stopping

    (2016)

    2018 #41
    Akiva Schaffer & Jorma Taccone | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

    This is Spinal Rap: comedy trio The Lonely Island star as the Style Boyz, a popular pop-rap boy band who disbanded after their frontman, Conner4Real (Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Andy Samberg), decided to go solo. The mockumentary follows Conner as he goes on tour to launch his second album.

    Popstar is every inch a modern do-over of This is Spinal Tap. That’s not to say it’s a straight-up remake, but it’s certainly a spiritual sequel, with many similar building blocks: not very bright musicians; unsuccessful musical endeavours; and lots of fully-realised spoof songs. Where Spinal Tap satirised the metal scene of the ’80s, Popstar turns its sights on the world of present-day mainstream music. In both cases, the base funniness is enough that you don’t need much familiarity with reality to get the gags.

    It only bears so much comparison to its forebear (there’s nothing as iconic as “it goes up to 11” to be found here), but as a modern take on the same genre, it has merit. And, most importantly, I thought it was consistently very amusing.

    4 out of 5

  • La La Land (2016)

    2018 #10
    Damien Chazelle | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.55:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English | 12 / PG-13

    La La Land

    Oscar statue2017 Academy Awards
    14 nominations — 6 wins

    Won: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Song (City of Stars), Best Production Design.
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Song (Audition (The Fools Who Dream)).

    Yes, I am very, very, exceptionally late to the party here. For example: whenever I watch a film I log it on Letterboxd, then have a scan through the ratings my ‘friends’ have given it, whether that’s just one other person or a few dozen. This had by far the highest number of ‘friends’ who’d already seen it that I’ve ever encountered. And it was on Letterboxd that I first encountered La La Land, in fact, when it started screening at festivals in the latter half of 2016 and everyone was raving about it. It was a must-see long before the Oscar buzz started to build, and obviously that only intensified the film’s reputation. It’s a lot of anticipation to heap upon one movie. Fortunately, La La Land can bear it.

    For anyone who’s even later to it than me, it’s the story of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who encounter each other randomly, initially hate each other, but fall in love. Don’t worry, I haven’t spoilt the ending — there’s more story beyond that typical romance plotline. And much of it is told through the mediums of song and dance.

    Watching the best picture...

    La La Land isn’t “kind of a musical”, or “I suppose you could call it a musical”, or “a film with songs, a bit like a musical” — it is a Musical. And while the leads can’t really sing, that doesn’t stop there being some beltingly good numbers in it — though, for my money, the best either (a) don’t involve the leads at all, or (b) don’t involve singing. Coincidentally, two of those are the set pieces that bookend the film. The opener is a colourful stunner, a bright and breezy singalongathon on a gridlocked freeway, made even more enjoyable by being realised in a (faked) single-take. Related thought: I feel like we need to bring back done-for-real oners — people are faking them too easily and too often nowadays. Though, saying that, another particularly joyful sequence is the dance routine that adorns the poster. Its success lies in part with Gosling and Stone’s well-performed moves, but also, like the opening number, with how well shot it is. I assumed it was done on a set with some CGI’d backgrounds and probably some invisible cuts, but no, it was achieved on location, the shoot squeezed into the real ‘magic hour’ — actually a half-hour window — and is, I believe, a genuine single take.

    Now, the other bookend is (obviously) the ending. Well, I think they actually label it an epilogue, because its events occur after the main story; but an epilogue is an addendum, isn’t it?, and I reckon this final sequence is as vital as any other part of the film. It’s how the story really ends, and it’s an all-timer of a finale. That comes both from the tone it takes (no spoilers here, but see my Letterboxd comment) but also the sequence itself, a stunning marriage of visuals, soundtrack, and meaning — and I say this as someone who (for a pertinent example) disliked An American in Paris specifically because of its extended ballet bit at the end. Damien Chazelle well earned his Best Director Oscar.

    Finale

    Speaking of which, I must mention what went down at the Oscars. Well, not so much the snafu itself (though that made for great telly), but the ultimate result. I think there can be little doubt that Moonlight is a more significant film for our times, for all kinds of reasons, and it’s certainly a quality work of filmmaking in its own right, but La La Land is a more purely enjoyable cinematic experience, with just enough grit in the mix to stop it being too sappy. I don’t resent Moonlight its victory, but I’d’ve voted for this.

    5 out of 5

    The 2018 Academy Awards are handed out tonight from 1am GMT.

    Saludos Amigos (1942)

    2017 #161
    Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Ham Luske & Bill Roberts | 40 mins | download | 4:3 | USA / Portuguese & English | U / PG

    Saludos Amigos

    The sixth film in Disney’s official animated canon was the first in a run of cheap “package films” that span the gap from 1942’s Bambi to 1950’s Cinderella. Frankly, if Disney hadn’t decided to make it part of their animated canon whenever that list was first settled upon, I very much doubt it would be remembered today.

    It’s called a “package film” because it bundled together a handful of animated shorts, linked by live-action footage of Disney’s team on location researching the films, to form a feature-length movie (though in the case of Saludos Amigos it barely qualifies as feature-length). This particular set depict various aspects of South America, apparently in an attempt by Disney to improve US relations with its neighbouring continent during World War II. According to this item of trivia on IMDb, it worked — but thanks to the linking documentaries, not the animation: by “featuring footage of modern Latin American cities with skyscrapers and fashionably dressed residents [it] went against the then-current perception of the American audience that Latin America was a culturally backwards area, predominately rural, and mostly inhabited by poorly-dressed peasants. The film is credited with helping change the American perception of Latin America and its inhabitants.”

    No stereotypes here

    Viewed today, it’s largely fine — one or two parts are likeable, even — but there’s not a great deal to it. The live-action linking segments are meant to show what inspired the short animations, but sometimes that goes a little too far and they seem to convey the same Educational info twice over. And unless you’re looking into, say, North American perceptions of South America in the 1940s, there’s not a great deal of value left in it as a factual piece.

    So my score errs on the harsh side, because it’s not a bad film per se, but I think it has very little to offer the modern viewer, either in terms of entertainment or education.

    2 out of 5

    Another Blindspot Review Roundup

    Following on from the roundup of four of my Blindspot and “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” reviews the other day, here’s another quartet.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Gran Torino (2008)
  • Planet of the Apes (1968)
  • Nashville (1975)
  • A Matter of Life and Death (1946)


    Gran Torino
    (2008)

    2017 #78
    Clint Eastwood | 116 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA & Germany / English & Hmong | 15 / R

    Gran Torino

    Clint Eastwood’s modern Western (thematically speaking), about a grumpy old loner who overcomes his inherent racism to bond with the immigrants who now dominate his neighbourhood and eventually come to their defence, is a well-liked film, generally regarded as a late career highlight for the director-star. I imagine it would play very nicely as a companion piece and/or counterpoint to his earlier Oscar-winner, Unforgiven — both are stories about old men in one final fight, essentially. Here, that comes with a subtext about the price that’s paid for standing up for yourself. It may be the right thing to do, and maybe it ends up with the right result, but the good guys really suffer to get to that point.

    While that aspect of the film is ultimately powerful, I was less won over by the actual filmmaking. It feels like it’s been jiggered around in the edit, with some odd bits where it just jumps into a new scene. Even before that, Nick Schenk’s screenplay occasionally features very heavy-handed dialogue, of the “explain what the character is feeling right now” variety. It’s especially bad when Eastwood just talks to himself in order to vocalise these points for the sake of the audience.

    Still, if you’re immune to such niggles then it remains a potent — and timely — tale of doing what’s right for the defenceless. Such themes never die, I suppose.

    4 out of 5

    Planet of the Apes
    (1968)

    2017 #96
    Franklin J. Schaffner | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / G

    Planet of the Apes

    The original instalment in the long-running franchise (it’s up to nine films across three go-rounds now, plus a couple of TV series) sees astronaut Charlton Heston land on a mysterious planet where apes have evolved to have human-like intelligence, while men are mute wild creatures dominated by their simian betters. And eventually there’s a twist that everyone knows, which is a shame because I bet it was pretty darn surprising before that.

    Coming to Planet of the Apes for the first time almost 50 years after its release, there’s an unavoidable quaintness to some of it, mainly the monkey makeup. It was for a long time iconic, but it’s been abandoned in favour of hyper-realistic CGI in the new movies and therefore shows its age. That said, while the apes may not be as plausible as those produced by modern technology, the performances underlying them are still strong. It contributes to what is really a parable about dominance and oppression; colonialism inverted onto a white man, that kind of thing. All wrapped up in a sci-fi adventure narrative, of course.

    Honestly, it’s not just the effects that have improved — as a piece of speculative fiction, I think it’s now been outclassed by the recent trilogy. It’s still a cracking adventure, but a bit “of its time”.

    4 out of 5

    Nashville
    (1975)

    2017 #111
    Robert Altman | 160 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Nashville

    Robert Altman’s low-key epic about 24 characters and how their stories interact, overlap, and collide across five days in the city of Nashville, Tennessee.

    The sheer scope of that makes it a tricky film to interpret. There’s a lot going on, much of it in snatched conversations and moments that leave it up to the audience to piece together what matters and why. Collision must be a theme: within the first hour there are three car crashes or near misses, and the climax is certainly a collision in its own way. I’ll be honest, this isn’t a fully-developed thought, so I’m not sure what the point of it might be. It’s a small element of the film, really — something like all the music being performed is much more obvious and therefore maybe more relevant.

    I guess I’m searching for meaning because the film in general is just casually observational of a bunch of characters meandering through a few days. Maybe there doesn’t need to be meaning — maybe that is the meaning. It’s certainly one way to interpret the finale. So, I kind of liked it — or, rather, admired it, perhaps — even if I didn’t necessarily ‘get it’.

    4 out of 5

    A Matter of Life and Death
    (1946)

    2017 #74
    Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger | 100 mins | DVD | 4:3 | UK / English | U / PG

    A Matter of Life and Death

    I finally get round to watching this on a ropey old DVD, and then they announce a new 4K restoration (which was released in UK cinemas earlier this month). Hopefully a Blu-ray will follow. It will be very welcome, because I imagine this film will look magnificent in properly restored HD.

    It begins with an incredible opening scene, in which an entire relationship is founded and ended over the radio in about five minutes. From there it’s the story of a World War Two pilot (David Niven) who avoids death by a fluke, then properly falls in love with the voice from the other end of that radio call (Kim Hunter) before the afterlife comes a-callin’ to take him where he was meant to be. Or maybe that’s all just a vision induced by the injury he sustained. Either way, he must argue his case to remain on Earth.

    It’s a grandly romantic film — it is all about the triumph of love over everything else, after all — but with a particular fantastical bent that I think remains unique. It has the wit to present a mildly irreverent stance on the afterlife, not taking the whole “life and death” thing too seriously. While the final result of the airman’s trial is never in doubt, the delight is in the journey there.

    5 out of 5

    Planet of the Apes, Nashville, and A Matter of Life and Death were viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Gran Torino was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

  • Musical Review Roundup

    My blog is alive with the sound of music, courtesy of…

  • Sing Street (2016)
  • Jersey Boys (2014)
  • Sing (2016)
  • Into the Woods (2014)


    Sing Street
    (2016)

    2017 #13
    John Carney | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland, UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Sing Street

    A struggling busker — sorry, a failing record exec — no, sorry, a misfit teenage boy… sets out to impress a beautiful fellow busker — sorry, a promising singer-songwriter — no, sorry, a cool girl… by helping her record a record — sorry, by coercing her to record a record — no, sorry, by persuading her to star in the music video for the record he’s recorded. Except he hasn’t actually recorded that record yet. In fact, he doesn’t even have a band.

    Yes, the writer-director of Once and Begin Again has, in some respects, made the same film again. Yet somehow the formula keeps working. Here there’s extra charm by it being school kids dealing with first love and finding their place in the world. It’s something we all go through, so there’s a universality and nostalgia to it that perhaps isn’t present in the story of twenty/thirty-somethings who are still floundering around (especially Begin Again, which made them cool twenty/thirty-somethings living in cool New York).

    It’s fuelled by endearing performances, particularly from young leads Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton, and a soundtrack of era-aping toe-tappers — in an alternate (better) universe, The Riddle of the Model and Drive It Like You Stole It competed for the Best Original Song Oscar, and one of them won it too. And those are just the highlights — the rest of the soundtrack is fab as well. I imagine if you were a music-loving teenager in the ’80s, this movie is your childhood fantasy.

    5 out of 5

    Sing Street placed 7th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    Jersey Boys
    (2014)

    2017 #97
    Clint Eastwood | 134 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Jersey Boys

    A musical biopic about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doesn’t seem like a very Clint Eastwood film at first glance, but when it turns out to be kind of Goodfellas but with the music industry, it becomes at least a little more understandable.

    Based on the hit Broadway musical, it retains a staginess of structure — the four band members take turns narrating the story by speaking to camera — while also opening out the settings so it feels less “jukebox musical” and more “biopic with songs”. It takes some liberties with the chronology of events for dramatic effect, but that’s the movies for you.

    The shape of the story feels familiar and it feels leisurely in the time it takes to tell it, but the songs are good and most of it is perfectly likeable. It’s by no means a bad movie, just not one that’s likely to alight any passion.

    3 out of 5

    Sing
    (2016)

    2017 #107
    Garth Jennings | 108 mins | download (HD+3D) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    Sing

    The seventh feature from Illumination (aka the Minions people) comes across like a cut-price Zootopia: in a world where animals live side-by-side in cities like humans, a struggling theatre owner launches an X Factor-esque singing competition to revive his fortunes. Naturally there’s a motley cast of participants, all with celebrity voices, and hijinks ensue.

    Apparently the film features 65 pop songs, the rights to which cost 15% of the budget — if true, that’s over $11 million just in music rights. The big musical numbers (all covers, obviously) are fine, with the best bit ironically being the new Stevie Wonder song on the end credits, which is accompanied by Busby Berkeley-ing squid. Elsewhere, there are some moments of inventiveness, but it doesn’t feel as fully realised as Zootropolis. Perhaps that’s part and parcel of Illumination’s ethos: to make films that translate internationally, presumably by being quite homogeneous. And to make them cheaply (their budgets are typically half of a Pixar movie), which has its own pros and cons.

    Anyway, the end result is fine. Much like Jersey Boys, Sing is perfectly watchable without ever transcending into anything exceptional.

    3 out of 5

    Into the Woods
    (2014)

    2017 #118
    Rob Marshall | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Canada / English | PG / PG

    Into the Woods

    Fairytales are combined and rejigged in Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway musical, here brought to the screen by the director of Chicago. The original is a work that definitely has its fans, but doesn’t seem to have crossed over in the way of, say, Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis — I confess, I’m not sure I’d even heard of it before the film was announced.

    The film adaptation readily suggests why that might be. For one, it’s light on hummable tunes. It’s almost sung through, with only a few bits seeming to stand out as discrete songs in their own right. For example, it takes the opening number a full 15 minutes to reach its culmination, having been diverted into a few asides. Said song culminates with most of the main characters going into the woods while singing about how they’re going into the woods, and yet the film doesn’t put its title card there. The placement of a title card is a dying art, I tell you.

    Performances are a mixed bag. Everyone can sing, at least (by no means guaranteed in a modern Hollywood musical adaptation), and the likes of Emily Blunt, James Corden, and Anna Kendrick are largely engaging, but then you’ve got Little Red Riding Hood and her incredibly irritating accent. Fortunately, she gets eaten. Unfortunately, she gets rescued. On the bright side there’s Chris Pine, his performance well judged to send up the romantic hero role. You may remember Meryl Streep got a few supporting actress nominations for this, which is ludicrous. It’s not that she’s bad, but she’s in no way of deserving of an Oscar.

    There are witty and clever bits, both of story and music, but in between these flashes it feels kind of nothingy. It’s also overlong — the plot wraps up at the halfway point, with the second half (presumably what comes after an interval on stage) feeling like a weak sequel to the decent first half. All in all, another one for the “fine, but could do better” pile.

    3 out of 5

  • Baby Driver (2017)

    2017 #89
    Edgar Wright | 113 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English & American Sign Language | 15 / R

    Baby Driver

    It felt like half (at least) of the film-loving internet had somehow had a chance to see Baby Driver before its release on Wednesday, but I’m going to throw my two cents into the ring anyhow. Not that it makes a great deal of difference because, like most other folks, I bloody loved it.

    Written and directed by Edgar Wright, director of the Cornetto trilogy and not of Ant-Man, the story focuses on getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort), a fundamentally good kid who has ended up suckered into a life of crime, working for robbery kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey) and a rotating array of criminal compadres. An accident as a kid left Baby with “a hum in the drum” — tinnitus, if you want to get medical about it — meaning he listens to music all the time to drown it out, and also choreographs his daring drives (not to mention his walks down the street, etc) to the music he hears. One day he bumps into Debbie (Lily James) and falls in love, which happily coincides with his “one last job” for Doc. But once you’re in it’s hard to get out, and Baby again finds himself doing one more “one last job”, with a particularly volatile crew…

    Baby Driver is a movie about three things: driving, music, and love. As Guillermo del Toro put it, it’s a kind of fable, or fairytale, with Baby as the prince and Debbie as the princess. In this respect it’s a change of pace for Wright, ditching the almost-spoof comedy of his previous successful movies for something more emotionally earnest. Not in a bad way, but in a kind of pure way, like a fairytale. This fairytale world isn’t all castles and dragons, of course — instead it’s full of violent criminals and fast cars; but it’s also a world where you can synchronise your getaway driving to the music on your iPod, so it’s hardly mired in gritty realism.

    No little green bags here

    There’s a definite edge of Wright’s buddy Quentin Tarantino to this world: a cast of crooks delivering snappy, quotable dialogue to a near-constant soundtrack of deep cuts selected from the director’s music collection (plus a few familiar tunes for good measure) — the style of QT comes to mind more than once while watching. Fortunately Baby Driver’s style is more than homage or copycatting. Although it’s not a straight-up comedy, Wright does bring his own comedic touch (there are several big laughs), and the purity of emotion — that fairytaleness again — isn’t from Tarantino’s wheelhouse either. Plus, visually it presents a brighter and more colourful space than Tarantino normally inhabits. Most of the action takes place in the golden daylight of Atlanta and is filled with popping primary colours. There’s much great work by DP Bill Pope.

    Though the soundtrack may have a Tarantino feel in its construction, that’s less prevalent in its usage. Characters communicate through song — not by singing them (most of the time — Baby first notices Debbie because she’s singing “B-A-B-Y”), but by connecting through them (that singing is followed by a discussion of songs featuring her name — both of them). The songs Baby chooses for boogieing around his small apartment, or for dancing down the street on a coffee run (in a title sequence that is marvellously choreographed, with dozens of small details timed perfectly to the track), help illuminate his true character — sweet and romantic — which is hidden by the sullen silence he adopts whenever around criminals.

    B-A-B-Y Baby

    Some have criticised the film for a lack of character, reckoning Baby’s silence distances him from the viewer so we never build a connection and don’t root for him. Frankly, I’m not sure what film they were watching. No spoilers, but Baby first opens up with something endearing and ingratiating in scene one. Right at the start. It could barely be any closer to the studio logos (and it kinda wouldn’t work if it were). I’m not arguing he’s the most charismatic lead ever to grace the silver screen, but Elgort makes fine fist of selling Baby as both a quiet, focused driver and a sweet, likeable, cheer-on-able hero.

    And if you want character in general, the rest of the cast has it in spades, with an array of supporting roles that are as colourful as the cinematography. Recognisable faces like Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and John Bernthal get to cut loose as crooks who each have their own kooks, while lesser-known names like CJ Jones (as Baby’s foster father) and Eiza González (as the Bonnie to Hamm’s Clyde) make a mark too. Lily James may be placed in a dream-figure damsel role, but that doesn’t mean she can’t hold her own at times too. She’s not Wonder Woman, but she’s not a Manic Pixie Whatever That Phrase Was either.

    Mozart in a go-kart

    So, the one major thing I’ve only touched on fleetingly thus far is the main thing the film has attracted attention for: the driving. Done for real by stunt drivers with not a lick of CGI, that knowledge means it packs a viscerally real punch. But it’s not just snobbery: this is genuinely breathtaking action, slickly planned, masterfully performed, magnificently shot and edited. It’s this year’s Fury Road — a kinetic action spectacle made with skill rather than hand-waiving fast-cuts. Even more impressively, it’s been choreographed to music, but not in a draw-attention-to-itself dance-routine-y way. Perhaps saying it’s been synced to the music would be more accurate. Either way, it only heightens the effect. This extends beyond the car chases, too, including one marvellously musical shootout, the gunfire serving as percussion. The sound design throughout is exemplary. This is a movie that deserves to be remembered come awards season. Perhaps, again like Fury Road, some love will extend beyond the technical categories, too. Wright seems deserving of Best Director recognition, just like George Miller was.

    But such back-patting is for much later in the year. For now, just revel in the gleeful moviemaking verve of a flick that already seems destined to be remembered as one of the greatest car chase movies ever produced.

    5 out of 5

    Baby Driver is in cinemas many places right now, but not everywhere. It’ll be worth the wait, guys.

    It placed 2nd on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.