A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

2020 #195
Marielle Heller | 109 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 + 1.33:1 | USA & China / English | PG / PG

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Thanks to the ubiquity of their films and television programmes, American culture permeates the world. Even if something isn’t directly exported, there are enough references to it in other media that we all get to know it by osmosis. (If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s one example: there are many documented cases of people trying to “plead the fifth” when being interviewed by law enforcement in countries where the fifth amendment to their constitution has nothing to do with criminal procedure.) So, it’s all the more unusual that Mr Rogers is apparently an influential part of American childhoods, but he wasn’t (as far as I’m aware) widely known outside of the US until a couple of years ago. That was thanks to the acclaim garnered by documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? As these things often go, that was followed by a biopic — which is this.

However, rather than try to tell Mr Rogers’ whole life story, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (a reference to the fictional land in his TV series, which is presumably why the US spelling was retained even for the UK release (except on DVD covers, etc)) focuses on one man’s encounter with Rogers. That man is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a cynical journalist with familial problems aplenty. He’s assigned to write a puff piece on Rogers — a couple of hundred words for a magazine issue about “heroes”. The pair seem an ill fit, but that’s the point — it’s basically a punishment from his long-suffering, usually-indulgent editor. Lloyd is initially reluctant, then sceptical — surely the whole “Mr Rogers” thing is a persona; an act? But as he spends more time with the man, it begins to change his view on the world too.

Okay, it probably takes a while for the film to get to that point, exactly, but I’m not spoiling anything — you know that’s where it’s going. “I met this guy whose world view was so much more positive and optimistic than mine… and it didn’t affect me at all, I’m still a grumpy bastard.” That’s not a story Hollywood’s going to tell, is it? Heck, that’s not even a story. So, yeah, of course Mr Rogers’ fundamentally decent and kindly nature is going to have an impact on Lloyd.

A beautiful lunch in the neighbourhood

Despite Mr Rogers being the focal point, then, the film is really more about Lloyd’s personal journey. But that journey is instigated and facilitated by Mr Rogers, so his “supporting character” part is vital. And who better to portray the very embodiment of decency than Tom Hanks? Rogers’ widow has said that Hanks was the perfect actor to play her husband; for his part, he’s said taking the role was “terrifying” due to the cultural significance. Hanks is as accomplished in the role as you’d expect, and it deservedly earnt his sixth acting Oscar nomination (his first in almost 20 years, and long overdue, I think).

If it all sounds a bit predictable, director Marielle Heller dodges that with some indie-movie-esque flourishes. There’s a touch of Wes Anderson to how she uses Mr Rogers’ TV show, switching into Academy ratio to demarcate us entering a different ‘world’ — not just literally clips from the show, but bookend narration, dream sequences, location transitions, and so on. IMDb lists the 1.33:1 ratio as just being used for “TV scenes”, but I think that undersells its use and effectiveness, which is more comparable to (say) how Anderson used three different ratios in The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Its those kind of inescapable but well-considered flourishes — plus the believable transition in Lloyd’s character, which is more grounded in reality than the “slightly unlikeable guy becomes super positive” cliché — that elevate A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood out of the predictable or twee, and into being a genuinely heartwarming kinda film.

4 out of 5

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Memories of Murder (2003)

aka Salinui chueok

2019 #15
Bong Joon Ho | 131 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | South Korea / Korean | 15

Memories of Murder

South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has gradually risen in prominence over the past few years, culminating in Parasite’s history-making success at this year’s Oscars (yes, that was only earlier this year). Memories of Murder wasn’t his debut work, but it was what initially garnered him some attention outside Korea. It’s been surprisingly hard to come by for a while now, but a new 4K restoration is released in the UK via Curzon today (it’s coming to US cinemas for a limited run in October, and new Blu-ray releases (including one from Criterion) will follow).

In 1986, two women are raped and murdered in provincial South Korea. The local detective, Park Doo-man (Bong regular Song Kang-ho), has never dealt with a case of this magnitude and relies on old-fashioned methods — his main one being to have his partner, Cho (Kim Roi-ha), beat confessions out of suspects. After a modern-minded big-city ‘tec, Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung), volunteers to help, the old and the new clash. As more crimes are committed, more clues are gathered, and more suspects are apprehended, but then cleared. Can the police ever get close to their man?

Loosely based on the true story of Korea’s first serial murders, and taking a procedural approach to the crime thriller genre, Memories of Murder invites comparison to David Fincher’s Zodiac for its methodical, realistic narrative style and plot that follows obsessed investigators chasing unsolved murders in the past. Zodiac is one of my favourite films (it placed 3rd in 100 Favourites II), so it’s a tall order to be pitched against it. Fortunately, Memories of Murder is strong enough to withstand the comparison.

Investigators

A lot of praise that applies to Zodiac could be copy-and-pasted here. In addition to the facets I’ve already mentioned, there are several fine performances (not least from Song, who’s clearly become a Bong regular for a reason); several striking set piece crimes and/or discoveries without indulging in glorification of real crimes; and a commentary on the methods and obsessions of investigators that goes beyond ‘doing the job’. It does none of this in the same way as Fincher would a couple of years later, but it’s a different perspective within the same genre headspace.

Memories of Murder is already a well-regarded film (on top of a 91% Tomatometer score, it’s on the IMDb Top 250 and in the top 100 of Letterboxd’s version ) but, having been out of widespread circulation for a few years, and with renewed interest in Bong’s back catalogue, it’s ripe for wider (re)discovery.

5 out of 5

Memories of Murder is available to rent on Curzon Home Cinema from today.

It placed 5th on my list of The Best Films I Saw in 2019, after being viewed as part of What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2019.

Le Mans ’66 (2019)

aka Ford v Ferrari

2020 #177
James Mangold | 153 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English & Italian |
12 / PG-13

Le Mans '66

Did you know that Ford tried to buy Ferrari in the ’60s? I didn’t. As per this film, Ford were desperate to appeal to a younger market and an association with motor racing seemed the way to do that. Ferrari were the regular winners of the Le Mans 24-hour race but were struggling financially, so Ford made an offer; but Ferrari played them, merely using Ford’s interest to get a better deal from Fiat. Pissed off, Ford set about making a racing car by themselves to beat Ferrari at their own game. Enter former Le Mans-winning driver turned race-car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a smooth-talking American who’s as adept at charming higher-ups as he is at making fast cars; and his favoured mechanic and driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a quick-tempered Brit who rubs the Ford execs up the wrong way. With Ford’s money behind them, but also management watching over them, can Shelby and Miles engineer a car good enough to beat Ferrari at Le Mans?

That the film goes by one of two different titles depending where you live might seem like an incidental point of trivia — it’s not the first time this has happened (Avengers Assemble is probably the most famous recent example), and it wasn’t an artistic decision, nor even a marketing one, apparently, but instead legal necessity (according to director James Mangold, you can’t use brand names in a title in the UK and/or Europe) — but it’s also a lens through which we can consider the film’s focus. To wit, is it more about the rivalry between Ford and Ferrari (as in the original title) or winning the 1966 Le Mans race (as in the UK title)? The consensus seems to be that the original title sounds more dynamic, but I think the international one is more accurate. The head of Ford has it in for Ferrari, but our two heroes are more interested in winning the race, rivalry or not.

Winner!

To some extent the story has been streamlined in that direction. The original screenplay was an ensemble about the entire team building the Le Mans car — more historically accurate, I’m sure, but I’d wager less dramatic and personal. That’s what’s gained by focusing on Shelby and Miles, the two key figures. To the film’s credit, it still doesn’t pretend they did it alone. The role attributed to other mechanics may not be as large as it was in real life, but nor does the film try to pass it off as the achievement of just two men. What it primarily adds is relatable drama. This isn’t just a movie about building and/or racing a car, but about these two particular men — what motivates them; how their ego gets in the way, especially in Miles’s case.

The film plays to the lead actors’ strengths in this respect, with Damon turning on the easy charm and Bale, who famously stays in character throughout a shoot, embodying someone who is superb at their job but can be belligerent. The standout from a quality supporting cast is Caitriona Balfe. She may just have the typical Wife role, but she’s made to be a bit more badass than that usually allows… before getting relegated it to the sidelines for the finale, naturally.

Said finale is the eponymous Le Mans event, of course. It’s not the only race sequence in the film, but it’s by far the longest. Nonetheless, they’re all suitably thrilling in how they’re shot and edited. One of the film’s genres on IMDb is “Action”, and though it doesn’t really conform to my idea of what an Action movie is — not least in the fact that there are only three or four of these “action sequence” race scenes throughout the two-and-a-half-hour movie — I can see where they’re coming from.

We are golden

That runtime is quite long, but it doesn’t drag… once it gets going, anyway. The slowest part is early on, getting the story up and running, which I feel could have been streamlined. Ford’s attempt to buy Ferrari initially seems like an aside, but obviously it comes to frame the whole rivalry; but Miles’s woes with the IRS barely have anything to do with the rest of the movie, and, other than providing an extended introduction to the man, I don’t think you’d lose much by losing them. The film was clearly trimmed a fair bit, though, because there are loads of little bits you can spot in the making-of that aren’t in the finished film. Said making-of also highlights the choices behind the cinematography. The visuals are very golden — that kind of “wasn’t the past pretty” atmosphere — but the behind-the-scenes footage shows the shooting conditions to be much duller and greyer, revealing how much the orange/gold light comes from the camerawork and grading.

Le Mans ’66 might look like a film for car nuts, and I’m sure they’ll get a lot out of it — alongside the likes of Rush, I guess this kind of thing would be their favourite movie (both those films currently sit in the IMDb Top 250). But the rest of us are by no means left out, thanks to involving characters and exciting race scenes, even if some plot beats border on clichéd. Le Mans ’66 may not reinvent the wheel, but it works hard at refining it.

4 out of 5

Le Mans ’66 is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from midnight tonight.

Hamilton (2020)

2020 #157
Thomas Kail | 160 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hamilton on Disney+

Hamilton, the original musical, is one of the great works of art of the 21st century so far, and now we all get a chance to be in the room where it happened (provided you’re prepared to pony up some dough to Disney+) thanks to the makers having had the foresight to film a full production with the original Broadway cast back in 2016 (and then flogging that recording to Disney for $75 million).

The show is a genuine phenomenon, but if you’ve let it pass you by, allow me to explain the basics. This is the life story of Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA; an immigrant who fought in the War of Independence, became the first Secretary of the Treasury, and in between and around all that most assuredly lived a life — there’s friendship and rivalry; romance and infidelity; genuine triumph and heartbreaking tragedy. Here that story is told via music, written and composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also portrays the title role), a fusion of hip-hop, R&B, and more traditional Broadway stylings, performed by a cast mostly made up of people of colour. It’s a tale of outsiders and immigrants and forward-thinkers who battled for the right to be recognised and respected — it’s a history lesson, but oh yeah, it’s timely.

It premiered back in 2015, so over the past five years the praises of the original show and its successful soundtrack album (the primary medium through which most people have been able to experience the work, given the scarcity and cost of tickets) have been thoroughly sung. To briefly offer my perspective, I came to it ‘late’ — sure, I heard about it (initially thanks to references to its ticket prices), but I overlooked it as just another bit of mass-popular culture that likely didn’t have any weight or staying power. My mistake. Long story short, I finally listened to it in full in 2019 and was blown away.

Aaron Burr, sir

Adjectives to describe its quality are endless. It’s densely and intelligently written, packed with historical information at every turn, abundant with sly references to other media. Its structure is sublime, laced with callbacks and nods forward from the very opening number; musical motifs repeat, as do lines and ideas, some cropping up before their real significance has been reached, like flash-forwards; elements of plot and character are echoed and mirrored. Many of these are observable first time through; others only reveal themselves with repeat visits. The characters are sharply and smartly drawn, revealing layers and nuances and different perspectives as the piece goes on — it may ostensibly be about Alexander Hamilton, but multiple other characters are at least as richly painted, if not more so. It engrosses like a thriller and packs the serious emotional punch of a finely-wrought drama, but it’s also very funny at times, with numbers as toe-tappingly addictive as a great pop song. It’s hard to think of a more complete all-round experience.

Well, complete but for visuals if (like me) you’d never seen it performed, only listened to the soundtrack. And, you know, the soundtrack’s not a bad way to experience it — it doesn’t feel notably incomplete. Normally when you listen to a musical’s album, you just get some nice songs from the production. With Hamilton, you get (very nearly almost) the entire soundtrack, and therefore the entire story — you can follow it and not feel like you’ve missed anything. (I do wonder if that’s part of why it’s been such a success.) The lyrics and music conjure up their own imagery in your mind — certainly for me, ever since I first listened to it I’ve pictured whole chunks of it as I’d realise them in a movie version. I’m sure they’ll do a ‘proper’ film of it someday (you really think they’re going to leave all that money on the table?), but I think it’s for the best that’s not the first way I’m seeing it, because I worry it won’t live up to what I’ve concocted in my version.

As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t a film reimagining like a normal movie musical, but rather a filmed record of the original production. It was shot over three days back in June 2016 (shortly before the original cast moved on), during a mix of live performances and in an audience-less auditorium for the sake of closeups, crane shots, etc. That’s one of the things that elevates this particular film above other recorded-theatre productions I’ve been watching recently (like One Man Two Guvnors, Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, or the RSC’s Macbeth): whereas they have clearly been filmed live during a single performance, with all the restrictions that implies (limited camera angles; making editing choices in real-time), Hamilton has some extra remove, which has allowed director Thomas Kail to be a bit more creative.

Looking for a film at work, work

The camerawork endeavours to add something no theatre performance could, allowing us to see details that would be missed from even the best seats in the house. Closeups let us appreciate the full spit-flecked contempt from Jonathan Groff’s George III in You’ll Be Back; the restrained emotional sacrifice injected into Angelica by Renée Elise Goldsberry during Satisfied; Eliza’s heartbroken defiance from Phillipa Soo in Burn; or the rare occasions Leslie Odom Jr. allows Aaron Burr’s true emotions to break through in the likes of Wait For It and The World Was Wide Enough. That’s not to mention the countless other moments and performers that benefit from us being able to see how much they’re giving their performances; all the subtleties they’re adding.

At other times the camera angles show off the choreography, for example with punch-ins to highlight specific elements during stage-wide ensemble showpieces, like the rewind at the start of Satisfied, or a bird’s eye view as paper flutters in the air during The Reynolds Pamphlet. Still other scenes are reframed for our convenience, such as an exchange between Burr and Hamilton during Non-Stop that takes place upstage off to one side, but is now centred through medium shots and closeups. If all that sounds like it might serve to undermine the staging, it most certainly does not. When called for, Kail and editor Jonah Moran frequently fall back on wide angles to ensure we see the scope of what’s occurring. Only once or twice during the whole two-and-a-half hours do you feel maybe they chose a less-than-ideal angle or over-edited a sequence.

Having said that listening to the soundtrack feels like a complete experience, watching it certainly shows what you were missing. There’s so much more to add, from little nuances of performance, to visual-only gags and callbacks, to impressive dance and staging — and if we’re already comparing this to the presumed ‘proper film’ version that will exist someday, I also presume some of that staging will be lost in the visual translation. But while there’s an undoubted “designed for the stage” aspect to the blocking or the way some things are realised, it still works on film.

Not throwing away their shot

You can’t ignore that this is a film of a Broadway production — even if you wanted to, an opening subtitle reminds us it’s June 2016 in the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and the audience is frequently to be heard clapping, cheering, and laughing (mixed onto the rear speakers if you’re watching in surround sound, as you’d expect, along with a few other moments and effects that add to the experience if you can benefit from such a setup). But it’s so well staged and filmed that you can buy this as the intended experience. With those other filmed-theatre productions I mentioned, you’re often aware that what you’re watching has primarily been staged for those in the room, and that you getting to observe it from a few fixed camera positions is a nice bonus if you couldn’t be there. With Hamilton, it feels like nothing is missed; not only that, but that this is the way the story was meant to be told, complete with elements of theatrical artifice, like the stripped-back staging and actors playing multiple roles (which roles are shared by the same actors is not without significance). Whenever and whatever they do for that theoretical ‘proper film’, I feel like it won’t negate this version, not just as a record of the original show, but as a film in its own right.

That’s perhaps the most striking aspect of this particular version: it doesn’t feel like a mere stopgap until they film it ‘properly’, nor a “that’ll do” stand-in for a real theatrical performance, but instead like a legitimate experience in its own right. Hamilton is a masterpiece, and getting to see it performed by the original cast in its original staging via a film so carefully and lovingly crafted is an absolute thrill.

5 out of 5

Hamilton is available on Disney+ now.

The 100-Week Roundup IV

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

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

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

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


    Doubt
    (2008)

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

    Doubt

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Gaslight
    (1944)

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

    Gaslight

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    The Florida Project
    (2017)

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

    The Florida Project

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

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Swingers
    (1996)

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

    Swingers

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Amadeus:
    Director’s Cut

    (1984/2002)

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

    Amadeus

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

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

    Becoming Bond
    (2017)

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

    Becoming Bond

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

  • The Elephant Man (1980)

    2018 #187
    David Lynch | 124 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | PG / PG

    The Elephant Man

    This biopic of Joseph Merrick — better known as ‘the Elephant Man’, a Victorian circus sideshow ‘freak’ who became a star of London society during his stay at the London Hospital — is noteworthy not only for its documentation of a key figure in Victorian life, who perhaps transformed people’s views of what it meant to be human, but also because it’s a film directed by David Lynch.

    The Elephant Man is sometimes placed alongside Dune and The Straight Story as anomalies in Lynch’s filmography, which is more often characterised for its horror-inducing oddness and sometimes-incomprehensible plotting. Of course, upon proper examination, all three of these movies exhibit Lynchian touches, perhaps none more so than The Elephant Man. It’s there in the avant-garde opening; the dream sequence; the sound design, for which he’s co-credited; the focus on industrial machinery. The film can certainly be read as a Victorian melodrama, but in execution it’s far from a Merchant Ivory movie.

    It’s also a very human and humane film, perhaps more so than you might expect from Lynch. But then again, look to The Straight Story, which in my review I described as “understatedly human and kind of heartwarming”; or Fire Walk with Me, which is about exposing the tragic injustices inflicted upon Laura Palmer. He may not come at it from the most obvious angles, but I think Lynch is consistently a compassionate filmmaker. Indeed, some critics even accused the film of “excessive sentiment”, probably due to being partly based on the memoirs of Merrick’s friend and physician, Frederick Treves. I disagree because, even if it is pretty sentimental, I think it hits the sweet spot — the point is that we should care.

    Treves and Merrick

    A significant boost to our emotional connection is the absolutely superb performances from Anthony Hopkins as Treves and John Hurt as Merrick. The latter earnt a BAFTA win and an Oscar nomination (losing to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull) in what became a truly iconic performance, but it’s a wonder Hopkins wasn’t similarly recognised. One of the themes the film tackles is the dichotomy of Treves being Merrick’s friend but also, to an extent, exploiting him to further his career, and finding the truth in that balance is down to Hopkins. They also both contribute enormously to the graceful beauty found throughout the film, not least in close-ups where a single tear can convey so much complex emotion, or the understated but moving final scene.

    So too the gorgeous black-and-white photography by Freddie Francis. As Tom Huddleston writes in his essay accompanying the film’s StudioCanal Blu-ray releases, “imagine the film in colour, how fleshy and grotesque the makeup would have appeared, how gaudy and nauseating the carnival sequences.” It doesn’t bear thinking about. Instead, the monochrome visuals mix “gothic horror with documentary realism, lush drawing-room drama with mist-shrouded flights of fantasy”, to create a film that feels realist and historical, but also timeless and fantastical.

    5 out of 5

    The Elephant Man is on BBC One tonight at 10:30pm (11pm in Scotland).

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

    Hustlers (2019)

    2020 #39
    Lorene Scafaria | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Hustlers

    A struggling stripper (Constance Wu) is taken under the wing of an older pro (Jennifer Lopez) at a club frequented by super-rich Wall Street types. The going is good… until the 2008 financial crash happens, knocking out their clientele and, in turn, them. Of course, the Wall Street guys got away scot-free after that debacle, even as others floundered — including our stripper friends. That is, until J.Lo and co come up with a scheme to rip the bastards off.

    Crime movies are sometimes criticised for glamourising the illegal acts of their characters. Sometimes that’s people misreading the film (in the case of many a Scorsese movie, for instance). Sometimes it’s true (the many rip-offs by people who misread Scorsese movies, for instance). Sometimes it’s unavoidable, because we’re going to be on the criminals’ side however you present it — and I think that’s the case here. Those fuckers had it coming, and these girls brought it to them. Not all heroes wear capes clothes.

    Even more satisfyingly, it’s based on a true story. Director Lorene Scafaria leans into the story’s caper movie parallels just the right amount, giving the movie a great tone — funny without turning it into an outright comedy; heartfelt without getting schmaltzy; a crime drama without getting self-consciously Gritty. Her direction is fantastic, with exciting shot choices, editing tricks, sound design, and fitting needle drops. But among the razzmatazz she doesn’t lose sight of the point: it’s about these women and their relationships as much as it is about the scam they pulled.

    Every day they're hustlin'

    And so the film rests heavily on the shoulders of Wu and Lopez, but they’re both strong enough to carry it. Wu gets the bigger arc — from nervous newbie to confident co-conspirator to a frustrated “only adult in the room” position when others begin to push things too far. We also see her in framing flash forwards, where she’s in a different position again. Normally I hold little truck with this kind of framing device, because it’s often a lazy shortcut through the story or gives away too much of where thing are going. Here, though, it’s just tantalising enough to make you wonder where exactly she’s ended up, and therefore how exactly she got there. J.Lo’s performance has attracted plenty of praise (there was widespread disappointment when she didn’t get an Oscar nom), and she is wholly convincing as an outwardly glamorous and successful woman with a steely survivor’s core.

    “Strippers rip off rich businessmen” sounds like the setup for an exploitation movie, and in other hands it probably would’ve been. But without a leering gaze, and with a true-story basis that remembers these women are human beings, there’s a dimension of reality that elevates proceedings — even as it’s still fun seeing the underdog pull a fast one on schmucks who deserved it.

    4 out of 5

    Hustlers is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK from today.

    Rocketman (2019)

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

    Rocketman

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

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

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

    Piano man

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

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

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

    5 out of 5

    Rocketman is on Sky Cinema from today.

    Review Roundup

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

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

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


    O Brother, Where Art Thou?
    (2000)

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

    O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    Allied
    (2016)

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

    Allied

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

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

    American Made
    (2017)

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

    American Made

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

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

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

    4 out of 5

  • BlacKkKlansman (2018)

    2019 #86
    Spike Lee | 135 mins | download (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    BlacKkKlansman

    Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
    6 nominations — 1 win

    Won: Best Adapted Screenplay.
    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Adam Driver), Best Editing, Best Original Score.

    “A black man infiltrates the KKK.” Sounds like the setup for a joke, doesn’t it? Or possibly some outrageous blaxploitation movie. But it’s something that actually happened, and here co-writer/director Spike Lee tells the story of the guy who did it.

    Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer in the Colorado Springs police department. After seeing a small advert in the local paper for information on the Ku Klux Klan, Ron phones the number and pretends to be an angry white racist. The ruse works and he’s invited to meet them, which obviously he can’t, so the department agrees to send intelligence officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) in his place. So begins an undercover operation where Zimmerman pretends to be Ron in person, and Ron pretends to be white on the phone.

    Although the premise sounds comical, the fact it’s a true story concerning an organisation as inhumane and pernicious as the KKK made me worried the film would be serious, grim, and heavy-going. In actuality, it’s lively, funny, and fast-paced. Humour is woven throughout the story in a way that is neither incongruous nor forced, and it doesn’t undermine the stakes when things get serious. And there remain parts that remind you of the true horrors of racism in America, in particular a sequence that intercuts a Klan initiation with an old black man remembering the stomach-churning details of a lynching he witnessed in his youth. It’s horrific; it’s sad; it’s enraging.

    Spot the black man

    The same could be said of the film’s final few minutes, which powerfully connect these events from decades ago to what’s going on in the US right now. The effect is hair-raising. Some have accused this finale of being exploitative or disconnected to the rest of the movie, but I don’t hold with that. On a literal level, a certain real-life figure turns up in the news footage to provide a very concrete link to the film’s main narrative. Even without that, the whole content of the film is incredibly timely, which is depressing and terrifying, really. It doesn’t have to bash you round the head with echoes of the present state of things in the US, because those parallels are unavoidably there.

    If I have a criticism, it’d be that there’s inadequate follow-up on the internal conflict of Driver’s character. Lee made him Jewish to raise the stakes (the real-life guy wasn’t Jewish; and, if you didn’t know, the Klan hates Jews too), and so we get a beginning and middle for his personal narrative: at first he’s just doing his job, and he doesn’t care about his heritage because it wasn’t part of his upbringing; but then, in one of the film’s most memorable lines, he says he never used to think about being Jewish but now he thinks about it all the time. It feels like some kind of reconciliation of that internal conflict is needed later on, but it doesn’t come. A counter argument is that that’s the point — that he’s been subsumed as just a “White American”, but he is a Jew, and having to handle that dichotomy is something he’s never grappled with before. Still, if that’s the point where his character arc was intended to end, maybe reaching it halfway through the film wasn’t the best idea.

    Black power

    I’d still say it’s a relatively minor concern in a film that does so much else right as to render it more or less trivial. The film’s real triumph lies in how it tackles a very serious, concerning, and timely issue: luring you in with a “too good to be true” premise, engaging you with the entertaining way it’s told, thrilling you with some tense undercover-cop sequences, and finally delivering some gut punches of truth. You’ll have a good time, but also leave incensed at the state of the world — or, perhaps, of one particular country. Not many filmmakers could naturally pull off both of those opposing emotional states within the same movie, but Lee’s cracked it.

    5 out of 5

    BlacKkKlansman is available on Sky Cinema from today.

    It placed 8th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.