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

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  • 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 Drivers 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.

    Review Roundup

    In today’s round-up:

  • Partners in Crime… (2012)
  • Charlie Bartlett (2007)
  • Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)


    Partners in Crime…
    (2012)

    aka Associés contre le crime… “L’œuf d’Ambroise”

    2016 #189
    Pascal Thomas | 105 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France / French & Italian | 12

    Partners in Crime…

    André Dussollier and Catherine Frot star as Agatha Christie’s married investigators Tommy and Tuppence (here renamed Bélisaire and Prudence) in this third in a series of French adaptations of Christie stories (best I can tell, the first two aren’t readily available in English-friendly versions).

    Based on the short story The Case of the Missing Lady, it sees Tommy and Tuppence Bélisaire and Prudence investigating the disappearance of a Russian heiress at a suspicious health farm, while also quarrelling about their relationship. It’s very gentle comedy-drama, even by the standard of Christie adaptations, with a thin mystery, thin humour, and thin character drama, which all feels a little stretched over its not-that-long-but-too-long running time. I shan’t be seeking out its two antecedents.

    2 out of 5

    Charlie Bartlett
    (2007)

    2017 #9
    Jon Poll | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Charlie Bartlett

    Anton Yelchin is the eponymous rich kid trying to fit in at a regular high school, which he does by becoming an amateur psychiatrist to his classmates, in a comedy-drama that plays as the ’00s answer to Ferris Bueller. It starts out feeling rather formulaic and predictable, running on familiar high school movie characters and tropes, but later develops into something quite emotional. It’s powered by excellent performances from Yelchin and Robert Downey Jr, as the school’s unpopular and unprepared principal.

    4 out of 5

    Florence Foster Jenkins
    (2016)

    2017 #34
    Stephen Frears | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | PG / PG-13

    Florence Foster Jenkins

    Try to ignore the fact Meryl Streep nabbed an Oscar nomination away from someone more deserving (for example, Amy Adams. Well, no, definitely Amy Adams), and she gives a good turn as the titular society lady who couldn’t sing for toffee but thought she was fantastic, and used her wealth and influence to launch a concert career. She’s only enabled by her doting… assistant? Lover? Husband? You know, the film blurs that line (deliberately, I think) and I’ve forgotten what he was. Anyway, he’s played by Hugh Grant, who is also good.

    It’s a gently funny comedy, as you’d expect from the subject matter, but one that reveals a surprising amount of heart and depth through Florence’s attitude to life, as well as how her men (who also include The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg as the third lead; also good) attempt to care for her needs.

    4 out of 5

  • 100 Films @ 10: Most-Played Soundtracks

    For today’s top ten I’ve opened up iTunes, sorted all my songs by play count, and seen which are my most-listened-to cues from film & TV soundtracks. I’m not a great musical connoisseur, really, so because of that and this just being a statistical most-played list, expect lots of exciting action music — especially as this includes plays from when I wrote a blockbuster-style screenplay for one of my university dissertations, so I listened to an awful lot of that kinda stuff then.

    Couple of other points: These are all score cues rather than songs that are on soundtracks, because, well, that’s what I chose to do. However, I have included trailer music, but only when it was composed especially for the trailer — nothing from those generic “music for trailers”-type albums. Finally, I’ve ditched repeats from the same album, because I thought this would basically be the track list for Pirates of the Caribbean otherwise. Turns out that wouldn’t’ve been the case, and instead it removed a track from, of all things, Torchwood.

    10
    Suite from X2

    from X-Men 2

    I’ve written before of my fondness for John Ottman’s X-Men theme. As this was the only version of it for years, I listened to it plenty. I guess it’ll be supplanted by the version from X-Men: Apocalypse eventually, because the tracks on that album are less ‘cluttered’ with other bits of the score. (As the confusion about X2’s title continues, let me note this: the UK soundtrack album is called X-Men 2 and this track on it is called Suite from X2; the US soundtrack album is called X2 and this track on it is called Suite from X-Men 2.)

    9
    Wheel of Fortune

    from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

    From the second Pirates movie, this is the cue from the big sword fight climax — which, as you may remember, includes a runaway water wheel, hence the title. For all his production-line type methods, Hans Zimmer can deliver a very effective action cue.

    8
    Closing Credits: “Bolero”

    from Moulin Rouge

    As with much of the music in Baz Luhrmann’s musical, this is a track that suggests a lot of drama, even if it ‘only’ plays over the end credits. I can’t really explain why I like it so much, but I do. For whatever reason I listened to it every day on my way to work when I interned for a summer in New York, which (a) didn’t do its play count any harm, and (b) means I always associate it with riding the Subway, weirdly. As to who wrote it, I’ve got it down as being by the film’s composer, Craig Armstrong, but Wikipedia says Steve Sharples and Allmusic says Simon Standage, so I dunno.

    7
    This is Gallifrey: Our Childhood, Our Home

    from Doctor Who: Series 3

    Murray Gold has been composing all of Doctor Who’s music for over a decade now, which is quite an achievement, especially for a show that so regularly changes its style — week to week, in many respects. My favourite piece of his work is probably his theme for the 11th Doctor, created for series five, but I’ve most listened to this elegiac piece for the Doctor’s home planet from the series three finale.

    6
    Mind Heist

    from the Inception trailer

    Braaaam! Christopher Nolan’s film is perhaps most famous for defining trailer music for the next… well, it’s still kinda ongoing, isn’t it? Yet that recognisable cue used in the trailers isn’t actually from the film itself. Heck, it’s not even by the film’s composer, Hans Zimmer (him again!) The story behind it is a mite more complicated, but Zack Hemsey was one of the main people involved in the final trailer, and it was he who put out a track with his version of that work, so here it is.

    5
    The James Bond Theme

    from the Casino Royale trailer

    Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme has been re-worked countless times down the years, but this version struck me as soon as I first heard it for one key reason: voices. The final part of the track has the familiar tune accompanied by a choir, I believe for the first time, and it sounds fantastic. It was created by trailer music outfit Pfeifer Broz. Music specifically for the Casino Royale trailer, so you won’t find it on the soundtrack CD, but, of course, it’s still out there to be found…

    4
    Can You Dig It (Iron Man 3 Main Titles)

    from Iron Man 3

    Despite their continued success, there are criticisms regularly raised against Marvel’s shared universe movies. One is the weak villains. Another is the painfully generic music. That’s precisely why Brian Tyler’s title theme from the third Iron Man stands out so: it accompanies the ’70s-action-show-style credit sequence with a ’70s-action-show-style reworking of the film’s main theme (which I also quite like, but is much more standard “modern blockbuster music” in sound).

    3
    Drink Up Me Hearties

    from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

    More Zimmer Pirates. This is the final cue, accompanying the end credits of the film, and as such is something of a summation of the series’ music. It’s kind of the epitome of modern blockbuster scores, for good or ill.

    2
    The Chase

    from Torchwood

    More Murray Gold, here composing with his Doctor Who orchestrator, Ben Foster. This ticks many of the boxes I mentioned at the start: an action cue from my screenwriting playlist. Gold’s Whoniverse music has most often been in the style of modern blockbuster movies, because that’s the feel the show has gone for, but by distilling the essence of that style he has on occasion produced tracks that exceed its big-budget counterparts for effectiveness. This is one such occasion: as fast-paced action tracks go, this is often one of the fastest and actioniest.

    1
    He’s a Pirate

    from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

    The creation of Pirates of the Caribbean’s soundtrack is a notorious clusterfuck of composers literally competing against each other to produce something for the Disney movie. Reports vary on what exactly went on, but I believe the long and the short of it is Klaus Badelt wrote the most music that was actually used and so got the credit on the CD. Presumably Hans Zimmer didn’t think the film would be all that big and didn’t care — he certainly took the credit for the sequels’ scores, though. Anyway, this recognisable main theme actually has its roots in another Zimmer score, Drop Zone, as you can hear here. Shocking self-plagiarism, ain’t it? Still, this improved version is the one everyone knows now, and it’s wound up my most-played soundtrack track.

    Tomorrow: never-ending stories.

    The Riddle of the Monthly Update for January 2017

    How is it February already?!

    OK, how about we stave off the inevitable just a little longer and take a look back at January…


    #1 Green Room (2015)
    #2 Anomalisa (2015)
    #3 Ninja Scroll (1993), Jūbē Ninpūchō
    #4 Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
    #5 Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
    #6 Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie (2016)
    #7 Into the Wild (2007)
    #8 Eye in the Sky (2015)
    #9 Charlie Bartlett (2007)
    #10 The Conversation (1974)
    #11 iBoy (2017)
    #12 Under the Shadow (2016)
    #13 Sing Street (2016)
    #14 London Has Fallen (2016)
    #15 Another Earth (2011)
    Hunt for the Wilderpeople

    Kubo and the Two Strings

    .


    • 2017 gets underway with 15 new films. (I’ll talk about my Rewatchathon in a bit.)
    • That’s the 32nd consecutive month with ten or more films.
    • It’s just shy of the 2016 average (16.25), and makes the average for the last 12 months 15.83.
    • It does beat the January average of 11, though. However, it’s the lowest January since 2014; but it’s also the third largest January ever. Swings and roundabouts, eh?
    • This month’s Blindspot viewing: Francis Ford Coppola’s great ’70s paranoid surveillance thriller, The Conversation.
    • This month’s WDYMYHS viewing: getting the film I had least interest in out of the way, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. And I was right, it was a mess.



    The 20th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    Multiple films snagged full marks this month, and several I’d say are already hot favourites for my best-of-year list in 11 months’ time, which makes this a particularly tricky choice. On balance, however, I’m going to say charming Kiwi comedy is trumped (on this occasion) by the fantastical world conjured through the incredible artistry of Kubo and the Two Strings.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    For all its faults, London Has Fallen was pretty much what I expected it to be. Into the Wild, on the other hand, is misguided and overrated.

    Best Original Song of the Month
    I’m sure La La Land is great ‘n’ all, but the lack of Oscar recognition for Sing Street’s music is disappointing. My personal pick would be The Riddle of the Model, but there’s a lot to be said for Drive It Like You Stole It too — especially considering…

    Best Dance Routine of the Month
    You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Littlefinger do a steering wheel-inspired dance move to Drive It Like You Stole It.

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    As we know, statistics are The Best Thing Ever, which surely explains why my 2016: The Full List post was by far the most-read in January. Lists are almost as good, which surely explains why my Best & Worst of 2016 came second.



    My goal to rewatch 52 movies this year got off to a weak start, as you don’t have to scroll very far to see.

    #1 Enemy of the State (1998)

    Yeah, that’s it. I watched it after The Conversation, because of the theory about Gene Hackman’s characters being the same guy. I can see where the idea came from, but it does not hold up.

    Anyway, only rewatching one thing is OK — although my goal of 52 films was inspired by the principle of watching one per week, I never intended to stick to that slavishly; especially as I had Netflix this month, which led me to focus on newer stuff available there while I had it. I’ll make it up later.


    It’s about time for an update to my director’s page header image, which features the 20 directors who have the most films covered on this blog. My 100 Favourites series created a bit of a shake-up in this area, with the main beneficiary being Steven Spielberg. I also watched a fair few of his films that I hadn’t got round to in 2016, so all told he was catapulted from six films at the end of 2015, to 17 at the end of 2016. But he’d already made it onto the header last year, so his newfound abundance doesn’t actually affect that.

    As for what has changed, then, six directors drop out: Danny Boyle, Marc Forster, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Vincente Minnelli, and George A. Romero. In their place we have (in descending order of number of movies): Peter Jackson, Bryan Singer, John Carpenter, Tony Scott, Robert Zemeckis, and Michael Bay.

    Wait… Michael Bay? Yeah, I can’t stand for that. No Bay; Hitchcock stays.


    It’s the official 10th birthday of 100 Films at the end of February, for which I’m working on a whole host o’ posts.

    Josie and the Pussycats (2001)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #46

    Here kitty, kitty, kitty…

    Country: Canada & USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 98 minutes
    BBFC: PG
    MPAA: PG-13 | PG (“This Film Edited For Family Viewing”)

    Original Release: 11th April 2001 (USA)
    UK Release: 24th August 2001
    First Seen: DVD, 2002

    Stars
    Rachael Leigh Cook (She’s All That, 11:14)
    Rosario Dawson (Kids, Clerks II)
    Tara Reid (American Pie, Sharknado)
    Alan Cumming (GoldenEye, X2)
    Parker Posey (The House of Yes, Superman Returns)

    Directors
    Harry Elfont & Deborah Kaplan (Can’t Hardly Wait)

    Screenwriters
    Harry Elfont (A Very Brady Sequel, Made of Honour)
    Deborah Kaplan (The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas, Leap Year)

    Based on
    Josie and the Pussycats, a comic book created by Dan DeCarlo.

    Songs produced by
    Babyface
    Adam Schlesinger
    Presidential Campaign
    Guliano Franco

    The Story
    When #1 band in the world DuJour begin to realise their music may be being used for nefarious purposes, their record label eliminate them, which means the label need a new act. Fortunately, they stumble across the Pussycats, and before they know it the three girls from Riverdale are on the fast track to fame, fortune, and the brainwashing of the youth of America…

    Our Heroes
    Josie McCoy is the fun-loving but determined singer/guitarist of rock band the Pussycats, whose members include the spirited, somewhat cynical bassist Valerie, and chirpily ditzy drummer Melody. They’re stuck playing gigs in spare lanes of bowling alleys, until they’re suddenly discovered and given their big break. But all may not be as it seems…

    Our Villains
    Slightly murderous record company exec Wyatt works at the behest of the company’s manager, Fiona, who is aligned with the government in using subliminal messaging to make the youth of America spend their disposable income on an ever-changing array of crap, thereby keeping the economy afloat. It’s funny because you could almost believe it.

    Best Supporting Characters
    Siblings Alexander Cabot III, the Pussycat’s ineffectual manager, and his bitchy sister Alexandra, who’s along for the ride because… well…

    Memorable Quote
    Alexander Cabot: “You know what? I still don’t understand why you’re here.”
    Alexandra Cabot: “I’m here because I was in the comic book.”
    Alexander Cabot: “What?”
    Alexandra Cabot: “Nothing.”

    Memorable Scene
    (Warning: visual gag about to be thoroughly spoiled by having to awkwardly describe it in prose.) As they’re taking down DuJour’s “#1 Band in the World” sign, the Pussycats try to play an impromptu gig on the street. Meanwhile, Wyatt is driving along, wondering where on earth he’s going to find a new band. A shop owner scares Josie & co off, and they run away into the road. Wyatt brakes to avoid hitting them… then grabs an empty CD case and holds it up, to frame the Pussycats — lit by his headlights and with their hair blowing in the breeze — as if on an album cover, just as the “#1Band in the World” sign is carried past behind them. (See also: the header image of this post.)

    Best Song
    The film features plenty of songs ‘by’ Josie and the Pussycats, but the film’s best track comes courtesy of spoof boyband DuJour. Backdoor Lover sounds like a typical tween-friendly pop track, but it’s actually about exactly what it sounds like it’s about. Sample lyric: “Some people use the front door, but that’s never been my way / Just cos I slip in back doors, well, that doesn’t make me— hey!” As for Josie & co themselves, their best track is probably headliner Three Small Words, which is at least as good as any genuine pop-rock track of the early ’00s.

    Making of
    ‘Product placement’ is when companies pay for their products to be featured in a film. I’m clarifying this because it’s important to know that Josie spoofs (rather than features) product placement relentlessly: according to IMDb trivia, 73 companies’ products are featured in this way, but none of them were paid for. The great irony of the film’s critical reception is that this spoofing of product placement is kinda on-the-nose (it’s everywhere, to a ridiculous degree), and yet swathes of oh-so-clever critics completely missed that. Rotten Tomatoes even use half of their Critical Consensus summary to say that “the constant appearance of product placement seems rather hypocritical.” Point, missed.

    Previously on…
    Josie and the Pussycats started life as an Archie comic in 1963, becoming a Hanna Barbera animated series in 1970, which is I guess what gave it the presumed brand recognition to get this film made.

    Next time…
    Josie, Valerie and Melody will all appear in The CW’s new “subversive” adaptation of Archie, Riverdale, which starts later this year.

    Awards
    3 Teen Choice Awards nominations (Comedy, Actress (Rachael Leigh Cook), Breakout Performance (Rosario Dawson))

    What the Critics Said
    “This is one sharp pussycat. Sensationally exuberant, imaginatively crafted and intoxicatingly clever, Josie and the Pussycats shrewdly recycles a trifling curio of 1970s pop-culture kitsch as the linchpin for a freewheeling, candy-colored swirl of comicbook adventure, girl-power hijinks and prickly satirical barbs. Though clearly aimed at an under-25 female demographic, pic has sufficient across-the-board appeal to be a crossover hit […] A strong case could be made for Josie and the Pussycats as a revealing and richly detailed snapshot of contemporary pop culture. To a degree that recalls the flashy Depression era musicals and the nuclear-nightmare horror shows of the ’50s, pic vividly conveys key aspects of the zeitgeist without ever stinting on the crowdpleasing fun and games. It’s made for the megaplexes, but it’s also one for the time capsule.” — Joe Leydon, Variety

    Score: 53%

    What the Public Say
    “This made for a great double-feature with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Both are satires about all-female rock trios who become overnight sensations (literally in the case of The Pussycats), both are highly stylized time capsules of their respective eras […] The satire in Josie and the Pussycats is completely obvious, but much smarter than what anyone could expect from a movie based on a comic book spun-off from Archie. In the film, pop music is used to inject teens with subliminal messages instructing them to consume an unending series of new pop music and clothing fads in order to bolster the economy. Not really your typical teen movie plot. Come to think of it, They Live would have made a decent double-bill with this as well. Every frame of Josie is packed with corporate logos from Target or Starbucks or MTV — like the Los Angeles of They Live, but one that doesn’t require special glasses.” — Jeff @ Letterboxd

    Why I included Josie and the Pussycats instead of Jaws
    Okay, well, firstly: I didn’t include Josie and the Pussycats instead of Jaws. Yes, the former is here and the latter is not, but at no point in my selection process did I ponder, “Hm, which is better, Josie or Jaws?” Maybe I should have. But I didn’t. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jaws is one of the biggest omissions from my list, so now seemed as good a time as any to say a couple of words on my selection process that will, in a way, explain some of my more idiosyncratic picks. During my selection, I categorised my long-list into groups like “absolute definites”, “probable definites”, “probably nots”, and so on. Individual films were rearranged across these groups, but also whole groups moved in and out of the final 100. Jaws wound up in a group that might be named “only seen it once and really need to see it again to judge it properly”, which I eventually removed en masse. Other films (that I’ve alphabetically passed already) in that group include The Adventures of Robin Hood, Battle Royale, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Collateral, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. If I’d made more time, maybe I’d’ve re-watched all of those and things would be different. But I’d wager Josie would still be here. Why? Well, that’s what the next section is for…

    Verdict

    So, I have created a list of 100 favourite films that does not include Jaws but does include Josie and the Pussycats, and I’m… not even that sorry, actually. Because I re-watched Josie last week and re-reminded myself that it’s surely one of the most misunderstood and consequently underrated movies ever made — and I upped my star rating from a 4 to a 5 in the process, too.

    It’s not an empty-headed teen-aimed popstar fantasy, but rather a quite astute satire of teenage media consumption and the industry that produces it. Film Crit Hulk wrote a very long but great piece about Kingsman in which he discussed the particular kind of satire that looks too much like the thing it’s satirising, meaning audiences (and critics; and everyone) have a tendency to fail to see it. Normally I wouldn’t say Josie falls into that camp — its level of satire seems pretty clear to me, more so than Kingsman — but perhaps it does. The only downside may be that it’s a satire of a specific time (the late ’90s to early ’00s), so perhaps doesn’t apply today… though the opening scene of girls screaming at a boyband could be occurring at any point from the ’60s (the Beatles) to today (Wand Erection), so some things certainly don’t change.

    Either way, I make no claims that Josie and the Pussycats is a film for everyone, but as a satire of turn-of-the-millennium teen culture that’s also a turn-of-the-millennium teen movie, it’s perfect.

    Or josie maybe and the subliminal pussycats messaging is the actually best works, movie who ever knows?

    #47 will be… an adventure 65 million years in the making.