Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (2016)

2018 #96
Mandie Fletcher | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

“Most movies are a script in search of some money,” said Jon Plowman, producer of every episode of Ab Fab, “but this was more a case of some money in search of a script. From the minute the word got out that Jennifer was contemplating writing the film of Ab Fab, lots of financiers threw their hats in the ring.” A cruel critic might therefore be tempted to accuse the cast and crew of doing this poorly-received film continuation of the popular TV series “just for the money”, but I think that would be disingenuous — I think there was a real desire to put an appropriate capstone on the beloved sitcom. Whether that merited a 90-minute theatrical release, or would’ve been better served as a 60-minute TV special, is another matter…

Primarily, I think Ab Fab: The Movie is targeted at fans of the series, and isn’t really designed to stand on its own feet as an independent movie. I’ve only seen some of the TV show, and I think that was essential to understanding who all the characters were, how they were connected, and why they behaved in certain ways. Even then, I felt like there was stuff flying over my head because I haven’t seen all of the original episodes and/or because it’s been some years since I did watch any.

So, I’m no expert on Ab Fab, but it’s always been my impression that when it started it was satirising the fashion world of the era (i.e. the ’90s). However, as it’s gone on it seems to have become about itself, as it were — its own characters and in-jokes, rather than any commentary on the wider world. That’s what we get here, therefore: basically, a 25th anniversary special amped up to full-blown movie status. One of the selling points for it as a big-screen variant was that it’s Eddie and Patsy on the French Riviera, continuing the age-old tradition of big-screen outings for British sitcoms being just “send the characters abroad”. Despite that, the first half is still set in London, and it’s pretty funny. When they do finally head overseas, it doesn’t exactly drag, but it seems a bit desperate.

Wheels on fire, off screen

In terms of broader relevance, creator/writer/star Jennifer Saunders has spoken about how the film was supposed to be about ageing; about, apparently, the “reality” of these youth-obsessed characters getting old when they don’t know how to. Well, there’s not much reality in it it, given the typically outlandish situations the already-exaggerated characters find themselves in (for example, the emotional climax comes while Eddie and Patsy are trapped in a tiny van sinking in a swimming pool). That doesn’t mean such OTT antics aren’t amusing, but expecting an examination of the human condition from them is a bit… unlikely.

A more notable feature is the insane number of cameos — “around 60”, according to this list on IMDb. I guess the notoriety of Ab Fab attracts big names… though plenty of them, er, aren’t. Basically, if you’re not a Brit, assume everyone who pops up for only one scene and opens their mouth is some degree of famous here. There are some international (i.e. American) faces too, though, to remind you of the series’ worldwide cult appeal.

Overall, I enjoyed the film, but it definitely leans into being a fan-friendly exercise, which I’m not sure was appropriate for a belated big-screen debut. It’s not an ideal starting point for the uninitiated, then, but it’s not a terrible send-off for existing fans.

3 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is on BBC One tonight at 9pm, and will be available on iPlayer afterwards.

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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)

2018 #261
David Slade | “90” mins | TV (HD) | 2.20:1 | UK & USA / English | 15

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

The latest addition to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror universe is the kind of work that pushes at the boundaries of form and medium — and therefore is the kind of work that challenges how I count things here at 100 Films. Is it a film? An episode of TV? A video game? Or is it genuinely something new? Well, it’s not really a video game — it’s not interactive enough to qualify as that. So is it a TV episode, then? It carries the Black Mirror branding, and that is a TV series. Plus it’s not a theatrical release… but then, neither are most Netflix films. Indeed, Bandersnatch carries its own listing on Netflix (as a standalone title, not an instalment of the series), and is promoted by Netflix as an “interactive film”. So, taking them at their word, I’ve decided that means it counts as a film.

It’s also, I think, very accurate branding — they debated internally how it should be promoted, and I think they’ve landed on the right term for it. As I said before, it’s not really a video game — it’s not as interactive as a gamer would expect it to be. The debate between film vs. TV episode is tighter, but when isn’t it these days? Either way, it’s not just your regular passive Netflix-viewing experience, because it is interactive. In practice, it plays like a video version of Choose Your Own Adventure books — you know what those are, right? I’ve heard some Young People don’t, which saddens me in my apparently-old-now early 30s. If you don’t know, in a CYOA book you’d read a passage of story, then be asked to make a choice on behalf of the hero; for Option A, you’d turn to page X, and for Option B you’d turn to page Y, and so on from there, with your choices dictating your path through the story.

No reading required

Bandersnatch is similar, only without all the manual flicking back and forth: every so often (roughly every three to five minutes, determined as the optimal period of time by Netflix’s product testers) you’re presented with two choices on screen and have ten seconds to pick one. Which you choose decides what you see happen next. (If you don’t choose, Netflix decides for you. Make no choices whatsoever and you’re led on a predetermined route that gets you through a full story in the shortest time possible.) Sometimes these choices are small (which breakfast cereal to eat?), sometimes significant (accept a job offer?) Netflix remembers them all, even the minor ones, which have knock on effects later. They made a rod for their own back in this respect, because having to account for viewers’ early choices led to requiring alternate scenes later on that only vary in how they include the viewers’ fundamentally-meaningless earlier choice. But that’s Netflix’s behind-the-scenes problem, not ours as viewers. Suffice to say, they’ve put the work in, and those little touches help make for an even more immersive experience: the choices themselves may have no bearing on the plot, but the fact the film remembers them and then uses them again later is a kind of meaning in itself.

By this point you’re probably wondering what it’s actually all about, especially if you’re not merely wowed by the technology. (If you are wowed by the technology, check out this article at Wired which goes into more detail about what was required.) Set in 1984, we’re introduced to 19-year-old Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), who lives with his dad (Craig Parkinson) and wants to be a video game designer. He’s managed to wangle a meeting with the company who publish games by his idol, Colin Ritman (Will Poulter). Stefan’s pitch is Bandersnatch, an adaptation of a classic Choose Your Own Adventure novel by Jerome F. Davies, who went mad. Stefan found the book among the possessions of his dead mother, an event which has left him seeing a therapist (Alice Lowe). As Stefan begins to write the program for Bandersnatch… well, what happens next is up to you.

Everybody play the game of life

You can already see how content is reflecting form (you’re playing a Choose Your Own Adventure game about a guy writing a Choose Your Own Adventure game, just in case you needed that spelling out for you), and, well, I don’t want to spoil anything (as much as you can spoil anything about a film where every viewer will have a different experience), but it goes further down the rabbit hole than that. Trust Brooker and the Black Mirror team to have taken a new, emerging technology and made a drama about it — I mean, that’s pretty much the series’ MO. You can rely on them to not make things as straightforward as they first appear, either. Most of the time the film offers two options, each leading you down a different path, but sometimes it mixes it up (to say how would be to spoil the experience, like attempting to relate a joke from a comedy). And if you’re curious about how alternate pathways play out, don’t worry, you won’t have to watch the film from the start every time: after certain “game over” points, Bandersnatch offers the chance to jump back to earlier decisions and choose differently. If you’re interested enough to continue, this is definitely worth doing: as I said earlier, Netflix remembers all your choices — there are sometimes advantages to choosing that ‘continue’ option instead of starting from scratch at a later date.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Bandersnatch, considering all the myriad choices and paths and possibilities it presents to the viewer, is that it all makes sense. That might sound like Filmmaking 101, but it’s a massive pitfall that would’ve been so, so easy for them to fall into. And they made it a more complicated job for themselves too, insisting the choices viewers make were genuinely meaningful and affected what happened and where the story went. It’s very cleverly written and constructed — it’s not designed to force you down a certain path, or give you a fake choice that doesn’t really change anything, but instead to do those things while still building to a cohesive whole. Yes, of course it’s not total free will to do whatever you fancy, and sometimes there’s no escaping a certain choice or development… but, with the way Brooker has married story and presentation medium, that’s all kinda part of the point.

Suspicious Stefan

If you think about how Bandersnatch was made — the challenge it presented to Brooker as writer, to director David Slade, and to the cast having to negotiate their characters’ various emotional arcs across different permutations of similar scenes — it becomes even more impressive on a technical level. And that’s partly because you don’t have to consider the behind-the-scenes logistics to find this an enjoyable experience. They’ve executed it so consummately that you can just watch it, play it, experience it without needing to perform mental gymnastics to make it fit together, because they’ve accounted for all that and filmed the necessary alternate stuff and been certain it all pieces together. So you can instead apply brain power to what the film has to say about choice and free will, and to working out which alternative options you could choose and which parts of the story you perhaps haven’t experienced yet.

Plus, to an extent, how much you get out of Bandersnatch is rewarded by how much you’re prepared to put in. As I mentioned earlier, at the simplest level you can just put your remote down and watch it play out a 40-minute-ish Black Mirror episode via its default choices (selected by Brooker), giving you the most basic version of the story (I haven’t done this, but I’m tempted to give it a go). Or you can play through until you reach one of the five endings that bring you to the choice of a credits scroll. (Netflix’s official line is that there are five endings. Depending how you count it, there are definitely more.) Or you can keep going and going, taking those “continue” options and seeing where different choices lead you. Sometimes, they lead you to entirely new places. And while there are multiple endings, there’s an “official” ending, too; one where the credits roll and you end up back at the Netflix menu screen (or, I guess, go to something else playing, if you’re one of those weirdos who hasn’t turned that feature off), rather than another continue option.

Play on

I played on until I came across that particular finale — partly because I’m a completist, partly because I was so engrossed in what I was watching. Did I experience every permutation the film has to offer? No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t; but I’m also pretty sure I experienced the bulk of the major ones. Did I get “lucky” that it took me so long to find that final-ending, meaning I saw a lot of the film before I got there? Put another way: is there a quicker path to that final-ending which would mean you saw less of the whole film than I did? Maybe there is. Or maybe there isn’t — maybe the only way to that ending is trial and error through multiple permutations. Or maybe there are multiple “final” endings, and when you’ve exhausted what the film feels it has to offer it throws you the appropriate one. Such are the secrets of Bandersnatch, which Reddit users will surely reveal in time. They’ve already made a start, although a thorough-looking flowchart doing the rounds on Twitter has already been proven to be missing at least a few possibilities.

However much time you choose to spend on it (Netflix say a thorough session would take two-and-a-half hours, although the BBFC certification reveals that there’s over five hours of footage required to make the whole thing function), Bandersnatch is a genuine experience, once again putting Netflix at the cutting edge crossroads of modern visual entertainment. Is it a film? A TV episode? A video game? All of those things? None of them — something else? Something new? Those who must experience such new things will need to try this out, of course — they probably already have. But it’s one for regular viewers, too, with a rewarding story to tell; one which could only have been adequately told with this newly-imagined technology. In my opinion, it’s a magnificent success, and a must-have experience.

5 out of 5

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is available to watch/play/whatever on Netflix now.

It placed 10th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018.

A Monster Calls (2016)

2018 #129
J.A. Bayona | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Spain & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

A Monster Calls

Twelve-year-old Connor (Lewis MacDougall) is having a pretty shit time of it: his dad (Toby Kebbell) has buggered off and started a new life in America; his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is frustratingly strict; he’s being bullied at school; and, worst of all, his beloved mum (Felicity Jones) has terminal cancer. No wonder he has nightmares. Then, one night, he’s visited by a walking, talking yew tree — the eponymous Monster (Liam Neeson) — who will tell Connor three true stories, after which Connor must tell the Monster the truth behind his nightmares.

The most immediately striking element of A Monster Calls may be that it stars a giant tree monster with the grumbling voice of Liam Neeson, but this isn’t just a fantasy adventure, it’s a powerfully emotional drama about the pain of impending loss and grief. In this respect it’s not just a good movie, but potentially an important one — I can imagine it being of great help to children who find themselves in similar circumstances to Connor. The lessons the film imparts are considerably more palatable when they come in the form of a fantasy adventure, as opposed to a straight-up grim social drama.

But that doesn’t mean it’s without lessons for the rest of us, too. It might seem obvious where it’s all headed, especially to experienced viewers, but it still pulls out real emotional truths at the end; the kind of revelations that are so cut-to-your-core true that you can’t anticipate them.

All the feels

The journey to those is a success too, with screenwriter Patrick Ness (adapting his own novel) and director J.A. Bayona skilfully handling the potentially-awkward integration of depressing reality with fantasy. The film was made on what we’d call a fairly small budget nowadays ($43 million), but that hasn’t hindered its visual style. In particular, the three stories the Monster tells are told through animation, which look gorgeous. If I have one criticism it’s that the pace seemed a bit off, sometimes dragging its heels.

Talking of the budget, A Monster Calls was a box office disappointment, earning just over $47 million worldwide. A disappointment for the producers, certainly, but I feel like this is a film that is more likely to find its audience over time — it’s a truthful, moving drama (that happens to feature a prominent role for a giant walking, talking tree) that will surely affect anyone who watches it, and perhaps help them with their own problems too.

4 out of 5

A Monster Calls is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)

aka just Mowgli

2018 #252
Andy Serkis | 104 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle

Hollywood has a long history of different people coming up with the same idea resulting in competing films — asteroid-themed Armageddon and Deep Impact is perhaps the best-known example. But often when the ideas are too similar, one of the projects gets scrapped — Baz Luhrmann ditched plans for an Alexander the Great biopic once Oliver Stone’s got underway, for instance. When Disney and Warner Bros both announced CGI-driven live-action adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, I don’t know about anyone else, but I figured one studio would blink and we’d end up with just one film. That didn’t happen, and both movies entered production around the same time, and were even originally scheduled to come out the same year. In this respect it was Warner who blinked first, putting their version back to allow more time to finesse the motion-capture-driven animation, while Disney got theirs out on schedule. Unfortunately for Warner, it was a huge hit with critics and audiences alike, putting their version in a rather precarious position.

So when the news broke that Mowgli (as the film had been retitled to help distance it from Disney’s) was to be released direct to Netflix, well, I don’t think anyone was surprised: the streaming service has become a regular dumping ground for movies that studios have lost confidence in, seemingly happy to pay for any castoff a major studio throws their way. Apparently that’s not what went down this time, though: Mowgli had a theatrical release date set and the promotional campaign had begun, when Netflix approached Warner saying they loved the film and wanted to buy it. I guess the certainty of a large Netflix payday, vs. the gamble of box office success on a film that could be seen by the general public as a Johnny-come-lately cash-in rip-off, was an easy choice for Warner to make. And so here we are.

A legend in the jungle

Mowgli (as it’s always called in the film itself, the subtitle presumably being a Netflix marketing addition) has a story that will be broadly familiar to anyone who’s seen any other version of The Jungle Book, most especially that recent Disney one: the eponymous boy is orphaned when his parents are murdered by man-eating tiger Shere Khan, but he’s rescued by black panther Bagheera, who takes him to be raised by a pack of wolves. Shere Khan wants to kill the man-cub, however, and looks for an opportunity to separate him fro the wolves’ protection. The difference, then, lies in the details: where Disney’s version was PG-rated and family-friendly, director Andy Serkis has given this a darker, PG-13 spin. It’s not an Adult movie by any means, but it’s definitely suited to slightly older children. That said, there’s a revelation at the 80-minute mark which is horrendously misjudged, and is liable to upset children of all ages (i.e. including some adults too).

That moment aside, the film’s more realistic tone manifests in multiple ways. One is characterisation, most notably of the bear Baloo. As we know him from Disney’s takes, he’s decidedly laid-back and chummy, casually teaching Mowgli some ways of the jungle. Here, he’s more of a drill sergeant for the wolf pack, explicitly training Mowgli (and his wolf brothers) in the skills required to fully join the pack. He has a softer side — he definitely cares for the man-cub — but this never manifests in the Disney-ish way. Elsewhere, there’s a drive at some kind of psychological realism for our hero. With Mowgli driven out for his own safety (again, an example of the animal characters being somewhat harsher than in Disney), he ends up in a human village. There, he comes to realise he doesn’t truly belong in the world of animals… but nor does he truly belong in the world of men. This internal conflict about his place in the world comes to underpin the climax, and arguably makes it superior to the over-elaborate forest-fire spectacle of Disney’s film.

Not burning bright, but he is in a forest of the night

The realism extends to the overall visual style, too. Where Disney’s live-action version was all shot on L.A. sound stages, with the young actor playing Mowgli frequently the only real thing on screen, Serkis and co travelled overseas and actually built sets on location to shoot a significant portion of the film. Accompanied by cinematography that often goes for a muted colour palette, it seems clear the aim was to make a film that is perhaps not “darker” in the now-somewhat-clichéd sense, but more grounded and less cartoonish than certain other adaptations.

Unfortunately, Serkis made one design decision that threatens to scupper the entire endeavour: having motion-captured famous actors for most of the animal roles (including the likes of Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Tom Hollander, Peter Mullan, Eddie Marsan, Naomie Harris, and, of course, Serkis himself), someone thought it would be a good idea to try to integrate the actors’ features into the animal faces. The result is… disturbing. There’s so much realism in the overall design, but then they have these faces that are part realistic, part cartoon, part like some kind of grotesque prosthetic. It is so bad that it genuinely undermines the entire movie, for two reasons: one, it’s a distraction, making you constantly try to parse what you’re watching and how you feel about it; and two, a more serious take on the material asks for us to make a more serious connection to the characters, and that’s hard when they look so horrid. The section in the human village — which, by rights, should be “the boring bit” because it doesn’t involve fun animal action — is probably the film’s strongest thanks to its location photography and real actors making it so much more tangibly real. It suggests how much more likeable the entire film would be if they’d gone for real-world-ish animal designs — like, ironically, the Disney film did. (Now, that might’ve got away with cartoonish semi-human animals thanks to its lighter tone. Or it might not, because these are monstrous.)

Monstrosity!

It sounds petty to pick one highly specific element and say it ruins the film, but I really felt like it did. It’s a barrier to enjoying the bits that work (Rohan Chand is often superb as Mowgli; the always-brilliant Matthew Rhys is brilliant as always; there’s some welcome complexity and nuance to several characters and situations), and therefore it does nothing to help gloss over any other nits you want to pick (Serkis is miscast; Frieda Pinto is completely wasted; Cumberbatch is a little bit Smaug Mk.II; that revelation I mentioned back in paragraph three is brutal and I can’t believe it was okayed by the studio). Also, on a somewhat personal note, I felt there were times you could tell Serkis had made the film in 3D, but Netflix haven’t bothered to release it in that format (outside of some very limited theatrical screenings) — as someone who owns a 3D TV because, you know, I enjoy it, that miffed me.

On the whole, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle is a frustratingly imperfect experience. I believe it’s fundamentally a unique-enough variation on the material that it could’ve escaped the shadow of Disney’s film, but a few misguided creative decisions have dragged it down almost irreparably.

3 out of 5

Mowgli is available on Netflix worldwide now.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

2018 #234
Peter Jackson | 95 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK & New Zealand / English | 15

They Shall Not Grow Old

Commissioned by 14-18 NOW (the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary) and the Imperial War Museum to see what he could do to make their old World War One footage more engaging for a modern audience, director Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson’s initial tests at restoring the footage were so successful that the project was eventually worked up into this feature-length documentary. It tells the story of the Western Front from the point of view of ordinary Tommies living and fighting on the frontline, using only footage from the period (plus photos, posters, artwork, maps, and so on) and narration taken from interviews with men who were really there — no historians to provide context or analysis here.

This presents two distinct things to consider when looking at the film: not only its success as a documentary, but also the methods Jackson and co have undertaken to produce it. In terms of the latter, what Jackson and his computer wizards have done goes far beyond the normal realms of “restoration”. For starters, the original footage has been cleaned up (removing scratches and dirt, stabilising the image, etc) — so far, so normal. But that original footage was shot on hand-cranked cameras, giving it a frame rate of anywhere from 10 to 18fps (sometimes varying within one piece of film). So, computers have created additional frames to bring all the footage up to a standard, smoother 24fps. Then the footage has been painstakingly colourised, and also converted into 3D (if you see it at a 3D cinema screening, anyway. Maybe there’ll be a Blu-ray). The goal of all this is to make it seem more immediate and real; to try to connect modern viewers to these men in a more direct fashion, without the distancing effect of watching juddery, indistinct black & white film.

Before and after

Calling the work Jackson and co did to old footage “restoration” has been controversial in some circles, because it goes beyond mere “restoration” and into the realm of revisionism, like the colourisation of old movies that came to prominence in the ’80s and was widely criticised (though it still occasionally rears its head today — try buying a Blu-ray of It’s a Wonderful Life without both black & white and colour copies of the film). Jackson has a different and specific aim with his work here, however. He’s not saying this is a better way to view old film footage fullstop, but rather is looking for a way to bring these past events to life for a modern viewer; to try to erase the past 100 years and put us in their shoes, to make us see how much these people, though separated by so much time, were really very similar to us. The effectiveness of the end result in achieving this goal — of bringing that long-gone war vividly to life — is undeniable.

Indeed, anecdotally, a lot of people do find the addition of colour to be revelatory — after the film’s screening on BBC Two last night, I saw many tweets talking about the “extraordinary”, “breathtaking”, “jaw dropping”, “spine tingling”, “astounding” moment when colour faded in. Personally, however, it rarely seemed like more than a special-effects veneer painted over the original footage. Well, that’s exactly what it is, in fact. it’s not necessarily a criticism, either — it may be for the best, even, because this isn’t a kind of ‘restoration’ we want to see applied across the board to old films. Either way, I do agree that it added a new perspective to see the war presented in this way; but the idea that it’s a perfect, genuinely lifelike ‘restoration’ didn’t quite wash with me. In fact, I thought one of the film’s most striking, identifiable moments came early on, before it had made the transition to colour: as the narrators talk about how young they were when they signed up, we’re shown closeups of soldiers’ faces, and you can really see how young they were — many of them literally just boys. I think it’s pretty common knowledge that, although the age to sign up was 19, lads as young as 14 lied to get in, but seeing it so clearly is another matter.

Faces

Moments like that prove that They Shall Not Grow Old’s success as a documentary doesn’t just lie with its “restored” footage. The film’s worth lies as much in the way the story is told — the voiceover narration taken from genuine soldiers’ testimonies, recorded by the BBC and IWM in the ’60s and ’70s; the editing of certain sequences — as it does in the “modernising” of old footage. The added colour and clarity do bring some bits to life and make them feel closer to today, as per Jackson’s stated goal, but a lot of the time the smeary, blurry quality of the colourisation makes it feel as much like a painting come to life as it does real footage. Nonetheless, the truthfulness of what we’re being told burns through that, and it’s the combination of visuals and audio that aids our understanding of what life was like for those men in that place at that time.

It’s quite a dense film too, packed with information, constantly surging forward with the images, an imagined soundtrack to match them, and almost non-stop narration. At times it becomes like a tone collage, where you almost absorb it more than process it, getting an impression of life on the front more than specific experiences. In this interview, Jackson says the film uses about 120 narrators, edited together to sound almost like they’re telling one story — the “common story” of the experience of a soldier on the Western Front, with extreme or uncommon anecdotes having been edited out. It means a lot of the war isn’t touched on (other fronts, other experiences, like the Navy or Air Force), but there were budgetary reasons for that as much as anything (they originally offered Jackson enough money for a film about 30 minutes long).

Western Front

While those other stories are undoubtedly worth telling too, I think it was wise of Jackson to retain a degree of focus here. Rather than attempt to cram a wide-ranging account of a complex conflict into the brief running time of a single film, he’s instead painted a picture of what it was like to be an ordinary Tommy in the trenches of Europe. This is not the story of commanders and generals, of presidents and kings, but of ordinary blokes on the ground — the people most of us would’ve been, had we lived 100 years ago — and Jackson’s methods help make that story as real and relatable as it’s ever been.

5 out of 5

They Shall Not Grow Old is available on iPlayer until Sunday 18th November. A documentary about the making of the film airs on BBC Four tonight at 7:30pm.

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

Outlaw King (2018)

2018 #232
David Mackenzie | 121 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Outlaw King

If Netflix’s latest original movie is known for one thing, it’s for featuring a shot of Chris Pine’s penis. It’s no slight on the chap to say its appearance has generated more column inches than he possesses, though admittedly it’s hard to be certain when (penis spoilers!) it only appears for a split second in a long shot as he rises from a lake — who knows how far beneath the surface it may continue?

If the film is known for two things, the second would probably be the muted reception its premiere screening received at TIFF back in September. Director David Mackenzie scurried back to the edit suite, motivated as much by personal displeasure with how the film was playing as by the critics’ reaction, and chopped out around 20 minutes ahead of its wide Netflix debut. By the account of people who’ve seen both cuts, this has definitely improved the film’s pacing.

If the film’s known for three things, the next might actually be what it’s about. Picking up more or less where Braveheart left off, it’s the story of Scotland’s (possible) rightful king, Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) — or, as the English king seems to keep calling him, Robert da Bruce (yo!) — and his attempt to unite the Scots and take back their land from the English (what else is new, eh?) Robert’s new English wife, Elizabeth (Florence Pugh), must decide whose side she’s on as King Edward I (Stephen Dillane) and his petulant son, the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), employ any means necessary (with preference to brutally violent ones) to keep Scotland English.

Penis King. Er, I mean, Pine is King.

Outlaw King kicks off in style, with a superb eight-minute single-take that moves in and out of a candle-lit tent during daytime (a feat of camera operating to seamlessly handle the changing exposures required… assuming it wasn’t faked), during which we take in important scene-setting political discussions, a playful (but not really) sword fight, and the siege of a distant castle by a gigantic trebuchet. As opening salvos go, this is first rate. The whole movie is gorgeously shot by Barry Ackroyd, in particular some stunning aerial shots of wide-open scenery — all of it genuinely Scottish, too. In terms of individual sequences though, the opener is not challenged until the climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill, a bloody, muddy, sometimes confusing (deliberately, I think) scrap between the small Scottish forces and the huge English army. How can the Scots possibly win? Tactics. I love a good medieval-style battle with proper tactics (rather than just a free-for-all of troops running at each other), and I’d say this delivers.

In between these bookends, the film is almost a Robin Hood movie: after Robert has himself crowned King of the Scots, he’s declared an outlaw, and ends up on the run with a small band of followers, which leads them to use guerrilla tactics against occupied castles. There’s also a subplot about the relationship between Robert and Elizabeth, his second wife, forced upon him by the conquering English king at the start of the film. Apparently this is one thing that’s suffered from Mackenzie’s new cut, with less time given to seeing their relationship blossom early on. It didn’t feel fatally underdeveloped to me, but it might not’ve hurt to add an extra scene (one would probably do) to help connect the dots between their initial wariness and later trusting devotion.

The overall effect doesn’t feel rousing and celebratory in the way classical historic war epics (like, of course, Braveheart) normally do, but I also don’t think that’s Mackenzie’s goal. He’s talked about endeavouring to make it reasonably historically accurate, and real-life is seldom as clear-cut and triumphant as those movies would have us believe. That said, there’s no doubting who the heroes and villains are here, with the honourable Robert trying to regain his homeland and keep his people safe, while the ineffectual Prince of Wales flounders around, all bluster and no success, slaughtering people for kicks. Boo, nasty English!

Muddy; bloody

As that Robert, I thought Chris Pine made a more convincing Scotsman than Mel Gibson. I did praise the latter’s performance in my review of Braveheart, but nonetheless I never quite forgot that William Wallace was being played by American Movie Star Mel Gibson, whereas here Pine — and his (to my non-Scottish ears) perfectly passable accent — blends seamlessly with the rest of the cast. With supporting roles filled with quality performers like James Cosmo and Tony Curran, you can be assured there are no small parts. Stephan Dillane doesn’t grandstand as the villain, making him more genuinely threatening thanks to an air of calm menace, whereas Billy Howle as his son is a bit more outré, desperate to show his worthiness as heir to the throne, and failing.

Most memorable, however, is Aaron Taylor-Johnson as James Douglas. Even when the other Scottish nobles are being allowed to surrender and have their lands returned, Edward remains so disgusted by Douglas’ father’s traitorousness that he refuses to grant him the same. That makes him keen to sign up to Robert’s cause, where he’s a screamingly effective fighter. Taylor-Johnson, caked in mud and blood, wild eyed and screaming at the top of his lungs as he slaughters the English, is a sight to behold. “What’s ma fuckin’ name?” he bellows. No one’s going to forget.

Finally, a lot of praise has been reserved by others for Florence Pugh. She’s certainly a rising star, having attracted great notices in Lady Macbeth last year and currently leading the cast of the BBC’s Little Drummer Girl, but something felt off here. I don’t think it’s her fault, though. This Elizabeth feels dropped in from another time, with a very modern confidence and headstrong attitude. If Pugh was playing a woman from a few hundred years later, I’d buy it entirely, but in this setting, I’m not sure. But this is perhaps less her fault and more that of the five(!) credited screenwriters.

“What’s ma fuckin’ name?”

Another thing those scribes haven’t really included are gags. Some have criticised the film for being too serious, lacking in levity, which… I mean, have you not noticed what it’s about? I’m the first person to argue that a film about serious things doesn’t have to be 100% serious — that it’s always okay to include a variety of tones, just like real life — but it’s also okay to, well, not; to create a different experience. I don’t think Outlaw King is shooting for portentousness, which I guess is what those critics mean, but it does aim for a certain kind of intensity. After all, it’s about a small band of men trying to stand up to the greatest army in the world, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. And if Pine referring to someone as “ye cheeky wee shite” doesn’t raise a smile, well, you don’t know the Scottish well enough.

Even in its new tightened form, Outlaw King is not the outright-success Oscar-hopeful Netflix once touted it as. It’s unlikely to attain the crowd-pleasing success of Braveheart, a film that remains an obvious point of comparison but not an unreasonable one, though on balance I’d struggle to say which of the two I preferred. What this lacks in its spiritual predecessor’s grandstanding, it makes up with grit and guts (literally), making an historical war movie that frequently thrills.

4 out of 5

Outlaw King is available on Netflix everywhere now.

Darkest Hour (2017)

2018 #182
Joe Wright | 125 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English & French | PG / PG-13

Darkest Hour

2017 was, for no readily apparent reason, a banner year for stories about Dunkirk making it to the big screen. In April there was Their Finest, a film about people making a film about Dunkirk (how apt). In July there was Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s high-profile telling of the evacuation itself. Finally, in January 2018 (because, when it comes to films, January and February are part of the previous year in the UK) there was this, the story of Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister of the UK in May 1940 and immediately having to deal with the situation in Dunkirk, alongside calls from within his own government to negotiate peace with Hitler — something Churchill was not inclined to do, despite the odds of winning the war not being in Britain’s favour.

The Dunkirk connection was certainly played up in the film’s marketing (the trailers made it look like Dunkirk 2), but while that situation does have a significant role to play (and both films climax with a recital of the same uber-famous speech), it’s only part of what this film’s actually about. Which does actually make it quite a neat companion piece to Nolan’s movie: it expands on the political backdrop surrounding Dunkirk, placing those events in a wider context. In doing that, it presents a different perspective on familiar events. Churchill is widely remembered as a great and beloved leader who saw us through the war, but here his own party treat him as something of a lame duck Prime Minister, and spend most of their time trying to convince him to take a different course of action.

In this respect, Darkest Hour seems dead set on removing the rose-tinted memory of World War 2 which says that “of course we stood up to those evil Nazis”. The film reminds us, and reminds us hard, that there were many people in positions of power who thought the best course was to acquiesce to Hitler — to give in and seek peace with him — and that, in many ways, their opinion was not irrational. Certainly, the film makes the case that it was the safer route in order to both secure the lives of our troops and hold off invasion of our shores. It’s relatively mature to both not hide from that reality and present the arguments as at least somewhat reasonable.

Never surrender

That said, the film fails to maintain the veneer of unvarnished historical reality for its entire running time. In the third act, Churchill boards a train and encounters members of the public in a sequence that is shamelessly, manipulatively, almost tweely patriotic and sentimental… and yet I kinda got suckered in by it anyway. I think that’s got something to do with these dark days we live in — wouldn’t it be nice to believe The General Public would want to stand up for what’s right in the face of overwhelming odds? Whether it’s historically accurate (maybe everyone was just better back then?) or whether it’s a nostalgic view of what people were prepared to stand for, I don’t know; but either way, it’s effectively aspirational.

A film like this is powered by it performances, and obviously Gary Oldman — subsumed in makeup to turn his slender frame into the famously rotund Churchill — is the stand-out. He thoroughly disappears into the role. Obviously the prosthetics help a good deal with that, but it’s also the voice, the gait, the mannerisms. Naturally he dominates the film, but there’s still some space for quality turns in the supporting roles. In particular, Stephen Dillane as the film’s de facto villain, Halifax, gives a performance that, in its own way, is just as mannered as Oldman’s (the lisping voice), but also just as subtly believable and well measured. Pretty much the same thing could be said about Ben Mendelsohn as King Colin Firth George VI.

But then there are other roles that are less well served. The women, mainly. Lily James’ secretary seems to be present merely to give a significant role to a female character, and to try to humanise Churchill by charting a very familiar “he’s tough to work with at first, but he’s got a heart of gold and is just super once you get to know him” arc. Similarly, Kristin Scott Thomas very nearly has an interesting part as Churchill’s wife, his long-time partner who’s been consistently overlooked in favour of his dedication to the public, but that’s an underdeveloped thread.

Supporting role

So, Darkest Hour is a strong movie in many ways — the male performances; Joe Wright’s classy direction; the way it manages to be simultaneously a more-realistic-than-most depiction of the “maybe we should surrender” debates in the early days of the war and a patriotic “we shall never surrender” entertainment — but it’s also let down by some of those lapses into cliché and sentiment. How susceptible you are to the almost-propagandist “this was our finest hour in the face of terrible odds, both at home and abroad” narrative may dictate how much you like the end result. For me, the aforementioned successes outweigh the faults on balance, but there’s no denying there are problems.

4 out of 5

Darkest Hour is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Behind-the-Scenes Comedy Review Roundup

A lot of people seem to enjoy spending October watching and reviewing horror movies all month, just because of one day at the end. Well, fair enough, if that’s your bag. But for now, let’s lighten the mood with a handful of pretty good comedies, all of which are related to the making of film and television… in one way or another…

In today’s roundup:

  • Mindhorn (2016)
  • In & Out (1997)
  • Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008)


    Mindhorn
    (2016)

    2018 #34
    Sean Foley | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

    Mindhorn

    Back in the ’80s, actor Richard Thorncroft (Julian Barratt) starred in Mindhorn, a successful TV show about a detective on the Isle of Man who has a cybernetic eye that can see the truth — think Bergerac meets The Six Million Dollar Man. When an escaped lunatic insists he will only speak to Mindhorn, a washed-up Thorncroft sees an opportunity to revive his career by solving a real crime.

    Produced by and co-starring Steve Coogan, there’s definitely something a little bit Alan Partridge about Mindhorn — the blustering nobody who thinks he’s a star, rubbing people up the wrong way but carrying on regardless. It’s just one of several things Mindhorn is likely to vaguely remind you of. Even if it feels somewhat derivative, it’s still pretty funny, with some of the best bits coming from throwaway cameos. The whole supporting cast is very good indeed, actually, full of strong British actors having some fun. The film seems to derail a bit when it pretends to wrap the case up after half-an-hour, but it gets funny again once it has the common sense to restart it.

    So, not the greatest Brit-com ever — heck, it’s not even the greatest action-movie-spoofing Brit-com ever (*coughHotFuzzcough*) — but it’s mostly pretty amusing.

    3 out of 5

    In & Out
    (1997)

    2018 #39
    Frank Oz | 87 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    In & Out

    Inspired by Tom Hanks’ acceptance speech at the 1994 Oscars — when, after winning for Philadelphia, he thanked a gay teacher — In & Out is about a teacher whose former pupil wins an Oscar and, during his acceptance speech, outs the teacher as gay. The twist is, the teacher in question (Kevin Kline) didn’t know he was gay, and nor did anyone else — including his fiancée (Joan Cusack). As the media descends on the quiet little old-fashioned town and whips up a frenzy, the whole thing turns into a bit of a farce, albeit with a positive underlying message about sexuality and, ultimately, community. The premise barely sustains even this brief running time, but it’s all quite good-natured and likeable.

    3 out of 5

    Zack and Miri Make a Porno
    (2008)

    2018 #179
    Kevin Smith | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Zack and Miri Make a Porno

    It’s funny how some movies cause a stir on release and then get kinda forgotten. The very concept of Zack and Miri Make a Porno (it’s in the title) was enough to give some people palpitations a decade ago, and the poster that alluded to oral sex (less a visual double entendre, more a single one) did nothing to help. And yet, does anyone really talk about it now? It’s only stuck in my mind because it’s on my 50 Unseen list from 2008, and I’ve not been able to cross it off because for a very long time it was never available to watch anywhere (it finally popped up on Netflix a couple of months ago). Well, I’m glad it did, because I really enjoyed it.

    As I said, the pitch is in the title. Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) are two old friends and housemates struggling to make ends meet, and who (through various plot machinations) decide to make a porn film together. As you do. Despite that risqué theme, the main relationship follows all your typical romcom beats; but those work because they work, and the edgy subject matter covers them up somewhat. Most surprisingly, their romance turns out to be actually quite sweet — even if major turning points hinge on things like them fucking for the first time in front of an audience. Aside from that, the film is full of the rude, crude, gross-out style humour that you’d expect, but I found it very funny nonetheless.

    4 out of 5

  • Paddington 2 (2017)

    2018 #58
    Paul King | 103 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.35:1 | UK & France / English | PG / PG

    Paddington 2

    Famous for its untarnished 100% Rotten Tomatoes score after almost 200 reviews (the best critical record of any film ever), Paddington 2 consequently comes with an awful lot of hype attached — perhaps too much for a movie that is, at heart, just a kind-hearted bit of fun about a marmalade-loving bear. But then, in our current climate, such a film is less barely necessary (unlike many sequels) and more a bear necessity.

    Said bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw) wants to buy a unique, and consequently expensive, pop-up book for his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday. When the book is stolen by failed actor Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), he manages to frame Paddington, who is consequently sent to prison. His adoptive family (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, et al) set out to prove his innocence, while Paddington makes the most of his jail time by making friends and livening the place up.

    The film’s joy lies less in the facts of the storyline and more in the emotions it inspires. The whole thing has clearly been crafted with a lot of love, inventiveness, generosity, and a good-hearted outlook on life, which comes across from all the characters and their actions, making for a resolutely charming and feel-good film that’s beautifully made. Of course, the first one had a lot of those elements too, but they’ve managed that rare thing of striking gold twice. One thing the first movie didn’t have is Hugh Grant, who proves he’s more than just a stuttering romcom lead with a superbly witty turn as the film’s villain. HIs BAFTA nomination wasn’t as silly as it perhaps sounded.

    Friendly criminals

    But while there’s nothing bad about Paddington 2, and an awful lot to like, I feel like my expectations for its absolute perfectness were set too high. I feel like I should be giving it 5 stars just because of how lovely everyone else said it was — and it was lovely, but 5 stars lovely? I’m not sure. I did like it a lot — it’s funny, clever, sweet, and good-natured — but I wasn’t bowled over in the way I’d been led to believe I would be. Maybe I would’ve been if I’d seen it before all the hype? That element of almost-disappoint means I can’t give it full marks, but it’s still a film I’d definitely recommend, especially if you’re after something thoroughly nice, or that’s both suitable for and entertaining to the entire family. I look forward to watching it again sometime and refining my opinion. Maybe in a double-bill with the first film, which I’m currently tempted to say was slightly better.

    4 out of 5

    Paddington 2 is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video UK as of yesterday.