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

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

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

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

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

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

And a man in a hamster wheel

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

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

Lion of Love

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

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

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

3 out of 5

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

The 100-Week Roundup IV

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

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

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

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


    Doubt
    (2008)

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

    Doubt

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Gaslight
    (1944)

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

    Gaslight

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    The Florida Project
    (2017)

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

    The Florida Project

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

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Swingers
    (1996)

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

    Swingers

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Amadeus:
    Director’s Cut

    (1984/2002)

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

    Amadeus

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

    Becoming Bond
    (2017)

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

    Becoming Bond

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

  • Yesterday (2019)

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

    Yesterday

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

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

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

    She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah

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

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

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

    Hey Dude

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

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

    3 out of 5

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

    Rocketman (2019)

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

    Rocketman

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

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

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

    Piano man

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

    Rocketman is on Sky Cinema from today.

    Review Roundup

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

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

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


    O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    (2000)

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

    O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Allied
    (2016)

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

    Allied

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    American Made
    (2017)

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

    American Made

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

  • Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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

    Bohemian Rhapsody

    Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

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

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

    Killer Queen

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

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

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

    We Will Rock You

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

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

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

    Love of My Life

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

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

    We Are the Champions

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

    4 out of 5

    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 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 took 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 Whitesnake 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