Victoria & Abdul (2017)

2018 #52
Stephen Frears | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English, Urdu & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

Victoria & Abdul

Returning to the role that earnt her first Oscar nomination, Dame Judi Dench stars as an even older Queen Victoria, who once again gets involved in a friendship with a foreign servant to the exasperation of those around her. If it wasn’t based on a true story, the similarities to Mrs Brown would make Victoria & Abdul look like a slipshod copycat sequel. Okay, this isn’t technically a sequel, but the similarities can’t be ignored.

Where the earlier film aimed for dramatic weight as a portrait of a grieving and isolated monarch finding human connection again, here the goal seems to be more comedic. Perhaps. I mean, if often shoots for funny, but it’s not funny enough to be an outright comedy. At other times it’s more straightforwardly dramatic, especially as it gets towards the end, but there’s a nagging sensation that the facts have been bent to fit the expected shape of the narrative. The film begins with a card that says it’s “based on real events… mostly”, which feels a little too comical for a heritage drama such as this, and was perhaps more intended it as a “get out of jail free” card for its historical accuracy. (I don’t know what the facts are, mind, so I can’t vouch for or condemn the film’s faithfulness to them.)

Turns out we are very much amused

Dench is very good, as you’d expect. The rest of the cast don’t get to deliver as much range, but they’re a quality bunch of performers and so are easily up to what they’re given. It’s also as pretty a production as you’d expect, with Oscar-nominated makeup and costumes, plus opulent production design and grand location choices, all shown off by Danny Cohen’s pleasant cinematography.

I read someone else assess that it’s not as good as its individual parts, and I think that’s fair. Most of the scenes, moments, and performances are strong — there are notably funny bits, dramatic bits, emotional bits; even unexpected complications in how it handles some of the characters — but when it’s all put together, it doesn’t quite coalesce. If you think you’re the kind of person who’d enjoy this movie, there’s every chance it will please you no end. Otherwise, while it does have definite qualities, it doesn’t do quite enough to transcend its trappings.

3 out of 5

Victoria & Abdul is available on Sky Cinema from today.

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The Death of Stalin (2017)

2018 #85
Armando Iannucci | 107 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci, the writer-director-creator behind political comedies like Veep, The Thick of It, and the latter’s Oscar-nominated movie spin-off, In the Loop, here turns his attention away from fictional present-day politics to real-life historical ones — as the title suggests, the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and the power struggle that followed. Sounds like a laugh riot, don’t it? Dark comedies don’t get much darker than this!

It plays a bit like Horrible Histories for grown-ups, teaching you the facts of an interesting period of history, containing very serious events, while also sending up the objective ludicrousness of what went on. The flip side to that is one has to wonder about its accuracy. It’s officially adapted from some French comic books, rather than, say, an academic work, and various historians have commented on its veracity with regards to historical fact — some have said it’s littered with minor errors that can be excused as cinematic licence, others that it misses the mark entirely. For his part, Iannucci claims he actually “chose to tone down the real-life absurdity” because audience’s wouldn’t’ve found it believable.

Over Stalin's dead body!

The Death of Stalin probably isn’t the best text to cite in a history essay, then, nor a valuable piece of work for anyone interested in a proper understanding of what went on. As a comedy about the ridiculousness of dark times, however, it functions in a similar way to Iannucci’s other work. Functionally it’s very like The Thick of It, in that it’s about a group of semi-confident politicians trying to scheme against each other. Of course, the results of their machinations are a bit more serious and murderous than any of the problems Malcolm Tucker ever faced.

I’m sure some viewers must find the irreverence with which the film treats such matters to be a turn-off. Personally, I think its perspective is more profound: these are silly men playing silly power games, but the end results are often unthinkable and horrific. You only have to look at the recent news headlines — in which the gibbering orange blob who is the supposed “leader of the free world” has enacted a Hitlerian policy of tearing small children away from their parents and locking them up in cages at concentration camps, only to serve his own futile political ends — to see similar situations playing out to this day.

Perhaps, in this climate, The Death of Stalin is a reminder that we need to laugh at the preposterousness of monsters in power. It’s not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as the best of The Thick of It or In the Loop for me, but that point is, unfortunately, as relevant as ever.

4 out of 5

The Death of Stalin is available on Prime Video UK as of yesterday.

Almost Oscar-Worthy Review Roundup

Each of these films was nominated for multiple Oscars… but failed to win a single one.

In today’s roundup:

  • Big (1988) — nominated for Best Actor (Tom Hanks) and Best Original Screenplay.
  • Frost/Nixon (2008) — nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Frank Langella), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing.
  • Lion (2016) — nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Dev Patel), Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score.


    Big
    (1988)

    2017 #91
    Penny Marshall | 100 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG* / PG

    Big

    Big is one of those strange gaps in my viewing — the kind of film I feel I should’ve seen when I was a kid in the early ’90s but didn’t.

    Anyway, in case you’ve forgotten, it’s the one where a 12-year-old boy makes a wish and ends up as an adult, played by Tom Hanks. Rather than solve this problem in a day or two, he ends up moving to the city, getting a job, an apartment, a relationship, and all that grown-up stuff. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t expect that level of scale from a movie like this. Generally there’s some hijinks around “kid in an adult’s body” and it’s all solved in a day or two, but the length of time the kid’s predicament rolls on for allows the movie to tap into more than that. I mean, it’s still a funny movie, but it’s got a message about how it’s important to remember the childlike spirit, but also that it’s OK to be at whatever stage in life you’re at — don’t rush it.

    Plus the whole thing has a kind of sweet innocence that you rarely see in movies nowadays. We’re all too cynical, too concerned with realism (even in fantasy movies). If you made it today, it’d ether have to be sexed/toughened up for a PG-13, or kiddified (and likely animated) for a G. That said, that the 12-year-old boy in a man’s body is happy to sleep with the hot woman, apparently without it bothering his conscience one iota, is by far the most realistic thing about this movie.

    4 out of 5

    * The UK PG version is cut by two seconds to remove an F word. The cut is really obvious, too — was there not a TV version with an ADR’d non-swear? Anyway, it was classified uncut as a 12 in 2008, though that’s not the version they show on TV, clearly. ^

    Frost/Nixon
    (2008)

    2017 #136
    Ron Howard | 117 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA, UK & France / English | 15 / R

    Frost/Nixon

    Peter Morgan’s acclaimed play about the famous interviews between David Frost and President Richard Nixon (the ones where he said “when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal”) transfers to the big screen with its two lead cast members intact (Michael Sheen as Frost and Frank Langella as Nixon) and Ron Howard at the helm.

    As a film, it almost embodies every pro and con that’s ever been aimed at Howard’s directing: it’s classy and thoughtful, in the way you’d expect from a director who’s helmed eleven Oscar-nominated movies* and won two himself; but it also, for example, employs an odd framing device of having the supporting cast be interviewed as if for a documentary, which exists solely as an on-the-nose way of integrating direct-to-audience narration from the original play — my point being, it’s a bit straightforward and workmanlike.

    Still, when you’ve got actors of the calibre of Sheen and Langella giving first-rate performances (the latter got an Oscar nomination, the former didn’t, I reckon only because Americans aren’t as familiar with David Frost as us Brits are — his embodiment of the man is spot-on), and doing so in a story that’s inherently compelling (even if somewhat embellished from reality — but hey, that’s the movies!), what more do you need?

    4 out of 5

    * Many of those only in technical categories, but hey, an Oscar nom is an Oscar nom. ^

    Lion
    (2016)

    2017 #103
    Garth Davis | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Australia & USA / English, Hindi & Bengali | PG / PG-13

    Lion

    Slumdog Millionaire meets Google product placement in this film, which is remarkably based on a true story — or based on a remarkable true story, if you want to be kinder. It’s the story of Saroo Brierley, a young Indian boy (played by newcomer Sunny Pawar) who is separated from his family, ends up in an orphanage, and is adopted by Australian parents. As an adult (played by Dev Patel), he resolves to find his birthplace and family — using Google Earth.

    If it was fiction then it’d be too fantastic to believe, but because it’s true it packs a strong emotional weight, not least Saroo’s relationship with is adoptive parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. The star of the show, however, is Dev Patel. You may remember there was controversy about him being put up for Supporting Actor awards, deemed “category fraud” by some because Saroo is the lead role. Conversely, he shares it with young Sunny Pawar, and Patel doesn’t appear until almost halfway through the film. Well, the “category fraud” people are more on the money, and it’s testament to Patel’s performance that it doesn’t feel like he’s only in half the film. Pawar is great — both plausible and sweetly likeable — but while watching I didn’t realise the movie had a near 50/50 split between young and adult Saroo. Maybe this means the first half is pacier, but its not that the second part feels slow, more that Patel has to carry greater emotional weight.

    Mother and son

    Rooney Mara is also in the film, as adult Saroo’s girlfriend. Her character is in fact based on multiple real-life girlfriends, but it makes sense to consolidate them into one character for the sake of an emotional throughline. However, her storyline ultimately goes nowhere — it ends with Saroo asking her to “wait for me”. Did she? Did he go back to her? It’s not the point of the film — that’s about him finding his family, and after that emotional climax you don’t really want an epilogue about whether he gets back with his girlfriend or not — but it still feels like it’s left hanging. I suppose it isn’t — I guess we’re meant to presume she does wait for him and they get together when he returns and live happily ever after — but it doesn’t feel resolved. It shouldn’t matter — as I say, it’s not the point — but, because of that, it does.

    So it’s not a perfect movie, but it packs enough of an emotional punch to make up for it.

    4 out of 5

  • The Duellists (1977)

    2018 #26
    Ridley Scott | 96 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

    The Duellists

    It’s 40 years this month since Ridley Scott’s debut feature appeared in British cinemas, which perhaps makes now the most appropriate time to have awarded him the BAFTA Fellowship (as he was this past weekend, of course).

    Adapted from a short story by Joseph Conrad, which was itself inspired by a true story, The Duellists stars Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel as a pair of soldiers in Napoleon’s army who, for reasons only properly known to one of them, end up fighting a series of duels — or, really, one duel constantly reignited — over the better part of two decades. They become renowned for it (Conrad discovered the story through a newspaper article noting the death (by natural causes) of one of the real-life pair), to the chagrin of Carradine’s reluctant duellist. He dreads every potential encounter, aware of the fight’s futility and danger, but honour keeps drawing him back.

    Ultimately, honour and the futility of fighting are what The Duellists is most about, if it’s about anything — if you like, you can enjoy it as merely a series of well-staged combats between two men, each stubborn in their own different way. They also each have slightly different ideas of honour, it would seem, but they’re compatible enough that it keeps drawing them back to the fight. “Acting with honour is all well and good,” the film seems to be saying, “but look where it gets them.” It doesn’t completely ruin their lives, but it does take a serious toll. A bit of common sense goes a long way, and acting with so-called honour, which might seem to be the moral course, doesn’t actually involve a great deal of common sense.

    The bad duellist

    Scott also intended the pointless, never-ending fight to represent a microcosm of war. Speaking to Empire magazine, Scott described Conrad’s story as “a very nice pocket edition of the Napoleonic Wars” because it “somehow encapsulated the craziness of an argument and how at the end of a 20-year period one of them forgot the reason why they were fighting. Isn’t that familiar?” Fighting for fighting’s sake; not wanting to be the one to back down… it seems it’s human nature, just as much in a conflict between two men as in between two nations. A bit of common sense would go a long way…

    The other aspect of the film most worthy of comment is its photography. Reportedly Scott set out to imitate Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, released just a couple of years earlier. It’s an appropriate inspiration: both tales are set in the same era, and Lyndon looks incredible. Scott undoubtedly succeeds in his goals — both that of copying Kubirck’s visuals and that of such copying being a good idea: much of The Duellists looks gorgeous, particularly wide scenery shots. Although the cinematography is credited to Frank Tidy, Scott says he operated the camera himself for the entire shoot, so who’s to know where exactly the credit for that achievement lies.

    The good duellist

    Resemblances to Barry Lyndon extend beyond just the visuals, mind. As noted, it’s set in the same era, so various visual trappings are similar, from costumes to some of the locations — if not direct copies, they certainly evoke Kubrick’s film more than once. There’s also the story itself: a tale focused on just one or two characters but spanning decades, and during a particularly tumultuous and eventful period in history. As Tim Pelan puts it (in this piece at Cinephelia & Beyond), “while Barry Lyndon advances with the forward momentum of one of Napoleon’s columns in its telling of a fool’s misfortune and slow glide towards the destruction of all he worked for and holds dear, The Duellists dashes pell-mell between the very different clashes of the antagonists.” Scott’s film feels like it thinks it is, or wants to be, an epic, just like Lyndon, even though it only lasts a little over 90 minutes.

    Comparisons to such a lofty cinematic success would damn a lesser film, but The Duellists is a very fine work in its own right. Despite the similarities I’ve highlighted, it’s really a very different film: Barry Lyndon has a kind of leisurely elegance, whereas The Duellists is more economical and straightforward. It’s certainly not Scott’s greatest film (his next two immediately put paid to that), but it’s perhaps his most under-appreciated one.

    4 out of 5

    Eddie the Eagle (2016)

    2017 #116
    Dexter Fletcher | 106 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, Germany & USA / English, German & Norwegian | PG / PG-13

    Eddie the Eagle

    The unlikely hero of the 1988 Winter Olympics — ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards — gets the Cool Runnings treatment in this comedy-drama. I make the Cool Runnings connection because, firstly, they’re both about unlikely competitors in the Winter Olympics (from the same year, in fact — what was in the water in ’88?!); and, secondly, because in their transition to the big screen they were both heavily fictionalised.

    The story, at least as it goes in the film, sees young Eddie (played as an adult by Kingsman‘s Taron Egerton) keen to participate in any Olympic sport, eventually settling on ski jumping because no Brit has participated in it for six decades. Disavowed by the British officials, he heads off to Germany to train himself. Trials and tribulations ensue that are by turns hilarious and heartwarming, but which eventually see him qualify for the 1988 Olympics — that’s not a spoiler, it’s why he’s famous!

    Helping Eddie along his way is Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a washed-up former US ski jumper who begrudgingly becomes Eddie’s coach, transforming the Brit from a no-hoper to someone who’s… not entirely bad. This is probably the film’s biggest whopper, because Peary didn’t even exist. It’s kind of brazen to make your co-lead and major subplot 100% fictional in a ‘true story’ film, isn’t it?

    The Eagle has landed

    But, hey, this isn’t a documentary — it’s a feel-good underdog story, about having a can-do attitude and dedication to your dreams in the face of adversity. It’s also about how it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts, in a very literal sense. That probably makes the film sound more twee than it is, but it’s not a grittily realistic take either — it’s a colourful, light, entertainment-minded film. It’s a good pick for Egerton too, getting to stretch different performance muscles than in Kingsman as our naïvely optimistic hero. Jackman makes for an easygoing co-star, getting to mix his Wolverine loner gruffness with a dash of his chat-show charm.

    Eddie the Eagle is a thoroughly charming little film. Even if its tone and overall narrative may be familiar, it navigates them with a light touch and consistent good humour that — much like the eponymous Olympian — wins you over, even if it’s in spite of yourself.

    4 out of 5

    The 2018 Winter Olympics officially commence tomorrow, though some events have already started — including, appropriately enough, ski jumping.

    The Straight Story (1999)

    2017 #133
    David Lynch | 108 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | France, UK & USA / English | U / G

    The Straight Story

    “What would a G-rated Disney movie directed by David Lynch be like?” It sounds like a sketch show pitch, but in 1999, between Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, it happened for real.*

    And, talking of “happening for real”, this is a true story about an old fella, Alvin (Richard Farnsworth), who decides to visit his estranged brother after he suffers a stroke. Unable to get a driving licence, he sets off on his 30-year-old ride-on lawnmower, with a maximum speed of 5mph, to make the 240-mile trip. Yes, I said it’s a true story. Of course, it’s not just 100 minutes of Alvin riding a lawnmower along county roads — through the people he meets and the stories he tells, we learn he’s certainly lived a whole life.

    Such a simple, straightforward, grounded (well, relatively grounded) narrative seems so very un-Lynch-like at first, but its tale of quirky Americana, peopled by a ragtag selection of endearing oddballs, isn’t so far outside his wheelhouse. There’s a definite Lynch touch detectable in how its made — the shot choices, editing patterns, and so on. There’s even a shot of a grain silo with a background hum that feels straight out of Twin Peaks. Then there are pretty scenery shots which are less obviously him.

    Lawnmower man

    Lynch has called The Straight Story his “most experimental movie”, which, considering the rest of his oeuvre, probably says more about what he considers experimental than it does about the film itself. What it does demonstrate is that the director, normally known for producing movies that befuddle the mind and chill the blood, is capable of producing something understatedly human and kind of heartwarming.

    4 out of 5

    * In the US, anyway — other distributors released it elsewhere, including Film4 here in the UK. ^

    Hidden Figures (2016)

    2017 #170
    Theodore Melfi | 127 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Hidden Figures

    Based on a true story, Hidden Figures is about three black women working at NASA in the early ’60s, a time when segregation was still in force in the US.

    It’s a double whammy of timely issues, then: they struggle to prove they’re clever and have scientific know-how because they’re women, and they struggle to prove they’re worth treating with respect because they’re black. How depressing that these things are still relevant over 50 years later. That said, any right-minded person watching it will still be suitably appalled that this kind of thing went on at all — even when you know about it, seeing it played out is something else.

    Of course, it comes with a positive message attached: these people overcome their societally-imposed disadvantages to be awesome nonetheless, fighting everyday sexism and racism left, right and centre to eventually prove their worth. Hurrah! It’s a strong message, even more powerful thanks to it being a true story, and no doubt goes a long way to explaining the film’s success. As a movie in its own right, it’s nothing particularly special. There are good performances from a high-calibre cast, but everything else is pretty standard for a biopic — well done, but there’s a reason the film’s Oscar nominations were for acting and screenwriting.

    4 out of 5

    Hidden Figures is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    Napoleon (1927)

    aka Napoléon vu par Abel Gance

    2016 #184
    Abel Gance | 333 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 + 4:1 | France / silent (English) | PG / G

    Napoleon

    At one point in time, arguments over rights made it seem unlikely you’d ever be able to see Abel Gance’s epic biopic of French leader Napoléon Bonaparte if you were a regular person not prone to attending all-day cinema screenings with a live orchestra and multiple intermissions. But a year ago this week things panned out so that the BFI were finally able to release it on Blu-ray. While a theatrical marathon is probably still the best way to see the film (if only for the full effect of the famed triptych finale), this release is certainly more convenient and accessible. Apparently it sold better than expected, too — I guess that’s what happens when you combine years of anticipation with being a worldwide-exclusive release of a film of this stature. It’s also a daunting film to review — for the aforementioned reasons, plus its length and its artistic importance. Nonetheless, here are what thoughts I had.

    At 5½ hours, Napoleon is rather like a miniseries from the silent era — a comparison that feels more apt than ever in this age of binge-watching. It’s divided into four acts, each running anywhere from 49 to 114 minutes, but it could even be subdivided into further episodes: Napoleon’s schooldays; his observation of the French Revolution; his opposition to Corsica being sold to England; the siege of Toulon (which takes up all of Act 2 and is the best bit, in my opinion); the reign of terror (a half-hour section that barely features Napoleon); a chunk where he falls for and woos Josephine that plays like a rom-com; the invasion of Italy… Yet despite that length, the film doesn’t even reach the Napoleonic Wars. No wonder Gance wanted to do six movies — or six seasons, as we might interpret it today. (In the end, he went over-schedule and over-budget on this first film, covering just two-thirds of the story he’d intended and spending the budget for the entire series. I imagine I’d outrage some silent film fans/scholars if I called him the Peter Jackson of his day…)

    Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon

    Part of the fourth act is that triptych climax, a 21-minute sequence shot with three cameras side-by-side, and therefore designed to projected on three 1.33:1 screens side-by-side, to create a 4:1 widescreen image. It’s undeniably less powerful when rendered as a thin strip across a 16:9 television, suddenly shrinking the height of the image rather than suddenly tripling its width, but what other choice is there? (Well, if you’ve got three sets of equipment, the three-disc Blu-ray contains each screen full size, one per disc, so you could set it up yourself.) Even shrunk like that, the imagery in the sequence remains stunning. I bet the effect is marvellous when seen as intended. (There’s an alternate single-screen ending, which is quite different. It contains fundamentally the same ‘plot’, but there’s one whole new sequence, and the others are truncated or slightly rearranged. Worst of all, it loses the tricolour-inspired finale.)

    Widescreen properly arrived when CinemaScope was invented in 1953, so Gance was about 25 years ahead of his time with that technique. It’s Napoleon’s most striking innovation, but the whole film shows off a surfeit of cinematic techniques: a wide variety of shot lengths (close-ups, medium, long, wide, etc, etc); tracks and pans, many of them fast; handheld photography, including what we’d now call ShakyCam; swaying back and forth, in and out of focus, or swinging over a large crowd; mounted on fast-moving vehicles, including dipping under the waves on a boat; in the thick of the action rather than observing it from a distance; multiple exposures and superimposition; animated maps to indicate Napoleon’s strategising; split screen; split-second impressionistically-fast cutting… and most of that’s found in just the first hour! Some of this is stuff that would still feel revolutionary when filmmakers were doing it 20, 30, even 40 years later. The fast-cut pulse-racing action scenes, like a horseback chase on Corsica, are not what you commonly expect from a silent movie, especially an ‘artistic’ one rather than a swashbuckler, say.

    Epic

    Lest you think a film of this vintage must be in black and white, Napoleon features a lot of tinting and toning, which works very well at times to create striking and meaningful imagery: golden sunlight illuminating the debut of La Marseillaise; the burning red of revolution forged in a furnace; a tumultuous purple ocean… Similarly, Carl Davis’ original score is great, helping to emphasise the emotion and lend the images a storytelling shape. Again, the sequence with La Marseillaise is a good example; a particularly effective tour de force. Davis makes good use of other familiar tunes for shorthand — there are variations on Rule, Britannia whenever the British are involved, for instance.

    Making Abel Gance’s Napoleon was an epic undertaking, as was its decades-long reconstruction, as is the viewing experience (it is 5½ hours, after all). It may not be perfect for all of that immense running time (which does not merit adjectives like “indulgent” or “excessive” but is, nonetheless, long), but it is a monumental achievement in cinema that undoubtedly deserves full marks.

    5 out of 5

    That completes my reviews from 2016, finally.

    Awakenings (1990)

    2017 #154
    Penny Marshall | 116 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    Awakenings

    Based on a true story, Awakenings tells of Dr Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams), who stumbles across an element of responsiveness in previously catatonic patients on his hospital ward. Finding a condition that links them buried in their medical histories, he supposes that a newly-invented drug might help their condition, subsequently testing it on Leonard (Robert De Niro), who ‘wakes up’ for the first time in 30 years. As Sayer continues his work, the new treatment reinvigorates the lives of more people than just the patients.

    I hadn’t even heard of Awakenings until the untimely passing of Robin Williams, when it was brought to my attention by Mike of Films on the Box (er, I think — I can’t find where this occurred. Either it’s on someone else’s blog or I’ve entirely misremembered the circumstances). Frankly, I’m not sure why it isn’t better remembered. Okay, it’s a little schmaltzy towards the end, but there are plenty of films that are worse for that which are held in higher esteem by some. Perhaps it’s not schmaltzy enough for those people, but still too much for people who hate that kind of thing? Or maybe it’s something else — but I don’t know what, because the rest of the film is packed with quality and subtlety.

    Such qualities are to be found in its writing — a screenplay by Steven Zaillian that conveys not only the usual story, character, and emotion, but also relates medical facts and processes in a way that is expedient to the narrative but still seems genuine. Whether it is or not I couldn’t say, but I didn’t feel conned by movieland brevity. Such qualities are to be found in the directing — unshowy work by Penny Marshall which matches the screenplay for its attention to detail in a way that never makes it feel as if we’re being fed a lot of information (although we are); that finds moments of beauty and life in the humanity of the characters, their plights, their successes, and their connections.

    You waking up me? Well I'm the only one here...

    Such qualities are to be found in the acting — De Niro’s immersive performance as a teenager trapped in a 50-year-old’s body, bookended by a medical condition so extreme that in lesser hands it could easily have become a caricature. Also Williams, giving quite possibly the most restrained performance of his career, but fully relatable as the socially inept doctor who is slowly, almost imperceptibly, brought out of his shell. And also an array of supporting performers, who each get their moment to shine in one way or another — although “shine” feels like the wrong word because, again, it’s understated. One or two moments aside (the schmaltziness I mentioned), there’s no grandstanding here.

    Combine those successes with the knowledge that this is a true story (heck, you wouldn’t believe it if it weren’t) only makes the film’s events — and its messages about being attentive of others and embracing the life we’re given — all the more powerful.

    4 out of 5

    Musical Review Roundup

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

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


    Sing Street
    (2016)

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

    Sing Street

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

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

    Jersey Boys
    (2014)

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

    Jersey Boys

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

    Sing
    (2016)

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

    Sing

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

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

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

    3 out of 5

    Into the Woods
    (2014)

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

    Into the Woods

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

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

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

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

    3 out of 5