Tag Archives: biopic

Back To Black (2024) Review

Back To Black is disappointingly off-key

BACK TO BLACK attempts to chronicle the turbulent life of Amy Winehouse, with a lens as clouded by smoke as her infamous Camden nights were. Much like a pub anecdote, it’s filled with laughter, tears, and a few too many embellishments. Marisa Abela’s performance as Amy Winehouse stands out, capturing the singer’s raw, unfiltered persona and vocal prowess. Her portrayal feels authentic and visceral, particularly in live performance scenes, such as the recreation of Winehouse at the 2008 Glastonbury Festival.

The direction, however, leaves much to be desired. The film narrows Winehouse’s life to personal tragedies, glossing over the complexities of her character and relationships. It focuses heavily on her tumultuous romance with Blake Fielder-Civil, portrayed with a romanticized lens that might feel reductive. This approach reduces her to a figure defined by her addictions and entanglements, missing the depth of her artistic genius.

BACK TO BLACK’s portrayal of other key figures, such as her father, Mitch, feels sanitized and selective, failing to capture the full scope of his influence on her life. Despite its flaws, the film’s production design and use of real London locations add authenticity. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis enhances the emotional resonance, supporting Abela’s performance and adding depth to the portrayal of Winehouse’s inner turmoil.

The supporting cast, particularly Lesley Manville as Winehouse’s grandmother Cynthia, adds warmth and support, providing brief moments of levity. Yet, the film falters in its storytelling, simplifying her story into a tale of doomed romance, and avoiding a deep dive into her musical genius. It’s a film that sings about a girl, but misses the woman and the artist beneath. Much like Winehouse herself once quipped, “I told you I was trouble,” this film heeds her warning a bit too literally.

The Iron Claw (2024) Review

The Iron Claw takes the soapy melodrama of professional wresting and elevates it to Shakespearean tragedy

Of all the various entertainment forms and franchises I embraced growing up (many of which remain with me to this day), the one thing I could never get into was professional wrestling. It just never clicked for me, especially the hyper-adrenal American incarnations. Sure, I may have watched the out bout between Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy back in the day as I was forced to endure WORLD OF SPORT while I had my lunch on Saturday but it never sank its (Iron?) claws into me the same way it did for some of my best friends. The hammy posturing, repetitive banter and archly camp machismo didn’t appeal and as for the labyrinthine so-called plotlines with vendettas, double-crosses and abrupt heel turns it seemed to me like a glam rock soap opera for those who would grow up (or more appositely fail to grow up) to hang on every word of the latest Joe Rogan podcast. As such, I approached THE IRON CLAW with some trepidation. A fictionalised movie about a real family involved in a fake sport? Where’s the appeal in that?

Charting the (abridged) rises and falls of the Von Erich family’s fortunes, Sean Durkin’s masterfully melancholy screenplay takes this tale of flamboyant capes and sweat soaked leotards and pushes through the risk of schlocky soap opera melodrama to find something more akin to a Shakesperean tragedy, albeit one with Frog Splashes and Double Underhook Suplexes. At tale of patriarchal determination to succeed at any and all costs, it unfolds against a backdrop of an inflection point for professional wrestling, a golden era for the purity of the sport (Sport? Circus? Art? Eh, whatever) just as the big money was starting to creep in as the corporations sensed the opportunity. And while money plays its part in the ruthless driving ambition, it’s glory and titles that propel events forward to their seemingly inevitable conclusion.

The strength of “The Iron Claw” lies not just in its storytelling – in fact there’s so much tragedy to explore in the lives of the Von Erichs that it’s abridged here to ensure the finish product is a workable cinematic length – but in the powerhouse performances that bring these larger-than-life figures and events to life. Holt McCallany’s Fritz Von Erich bestrides the movie like a colossus, part King Lear, part Dorian Grey – a man whose vicarious ambitions are destined to bring about the downfall of his “kingdom” while at the same time reflecting the terrible consequences of his single-minded pursuit of glory not into an attic-stashed portrait but in his own sons, who often end up paying the ultimate price for their father’s vanity and pride. McCallany manages to make Von Erich senior understandable if not exactly sympathetic but very, very human even at his most inhumane.

Of course, the attention grabbing, transformative performance is that of Zac Efron, who’s unfeasibly bulked out physique makes him look like he’s ready to play the Hulk version of High School Musical’s Troy Boulton’s Bruce Banner. Efron leads the ensemble of Von Erich children, who have a much more miserable time of it than their counterparts in the Von Trapp family, creating a real sense of brotherhood and fellowship (thanks to the era-accurate hairstyling the four of them do unfortunately at times resemble a ‘roided out version of Merry, Pippin, Sam and Frodo) both in resistance to and in pursuit of the favour of their father’s approval.

THE IRON CLAW then isn’t, thankfully, a movie about wrestling but a movie about wrestlers and there’s a lot to absorb in this tale of four men struggling to find their place in the shadow of a cruelly judgemental legacy.  All four performances capture the differing ordinal perspectives of sibling rivalry, camaraderie, and the unyielding pressure of living up to a self-aggrandized family name. The actors manage to convey the internal and external battles each of the Von Erich children face in balancing their own hopes and dreams with those of their father, making each victory and defeat feel deeply personal. Harris Dickinson and Jeremy Allen White may get the lion’s share of the juicy drama showcase moments but it’s in Efron that the film finds its anchor, keeping the audience rooted in the humanity of the unfolding story.

THE IRON CLAW’s story is told with a delicate finesse, Durkin’s screenplay balancing moments of high drama and action with emotional introspection and time for the characters – and the audience – to come to terms with the unfolding events. The judicious editing of real-life events to fit a reasonable runtime is largely invisible, especially to those like me who were almost entirely unaware of the real life Von Erichs and the visuals and cinematography add a layer of verisimilitude, paying respectful homage to the aesthetics and theatrics of the era and the sport.

An unconventional sports movie, THE IRON CLAW embraces none of the tropes and traditions of the genre. Here, there is no plucky underdog victory or last-minute hail mary turn of events. Each step forward on the path to glory comes at an increasingly terrible price and instead of the warm afterglow of triumph against the odds, you’ll be left feeling like you’re pinned to the mat, contemplating the terrible wastefulness of hubris.

Elvis (2022) Review

Elvis sees a legendary life all shook up

Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS is a dazzling, rhinestone-studded cinematic spectacle that takes audiences on a wild ride through the life of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Much like Presley’s own career, though, the film is a rollercoaster of highs and lows, glittering successes, and baffling missteps.

The film chronicles the rise and fall of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), from his humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi, to his meteoric rise to stardom and his complex relationship with his enigmatic manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks). Narrated by Parker, the film offers a unique, if somewhat skewed, perspective on the King’s journey through fame, excess, and eventual decline.

Austin Butler’s star-making turn as Presley is undeniably the film’s crowning achievement. Butler channels the essence of Elvis, capturing his charisma, energy, and vulnerability. His performance is a tour de force, embodying the pure essence of the King without descending into mere impersonation. Butler’s portrayal brings a sense of authenticity to a film that often veers into the fantastical as Luhrmann’s trademark directorial flourishes ensure the film is visually spectacular, blending old-school Hollywood glamour with modern cinematic techniques. The musical sequences burst with energy, capturing the raw power of Presley’s performances and going some way to explaining the artist’s mass appeal to an audience separated from events by nearly seven decades.

However, not all that glitters is gold and Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker is a significant misstep. Laden with heavy prosthetics and an awkward accent, Hanks’ performance feels more like a caricature than a nuanced portrayal, eroding the film’s emotional impact. Parker’s depiction as a cartoonishly evil figure undermines feels out of step with what Butler is trying to do, disrupting the story’s nuanced balance and making it harder to connect with the narrative on a deeper level.

Luhrmann’s trademark maximalism is both a strength and a weakness. The film’s frenetic pacing and overstuffed narrative leave little room for deeper exploration of Presley’s personal struggles and relationships. Important aspects of Elvis’ life, such as his relationship with his mother and the darker sides of his fame, are glossed over or handled superficially, making it feel more like a series of dazzling set pieces than a cohesive story and whether you’re a die-hard fan or just casually acquainted with the works of Mr Presley, you’re unlikely to come out of the movie with any greater understanding of the man, his life and music than you had when you went in.

While it shares the same sense of kinetic energy and opulent style as MOULIN ROUGE, ELVIS lacks the emotional depth and character development that gilded THE GREAT GATSBY. It’s undeniably entertaining, but it often feels like style over substance, a rhinestone-studded spectacle that dazzles but doesn’t fully satisfy.

While it makes a sincere effort to capture the truth of its titular character, it flirts at times with hagiography, avoiding some of the more lurid aspects of Presley’s later life, preferring to focus instead on his music and his influence on American culture. At its core, ELVIS is a film that, much like its subject, is larger than life, full of contradictions and occasionally bizarre choices and deep fried peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches. It’s a riotous, dazzling experience that celebrates the King’s legacy with all the subtlety of a neon-drenched Las Vegas marquee while also critiquing the forces that drove and ultimately exploited him.

Troubled, controversial and self-destructive, Nina (2016) hits all the wrong notes.

By 1988, Nina Simone’s once glittering career is crumbling under the combined effects of financial troubles and her increasingly erratic mental health and alcoholism. After threatening a lawyer at gunpoint, she finds herself committed to a psychiatric hospital for twenty-four hours where she meets and befriends orderly Clifton Henderson, whom she hires as an assistant upon her discharge. Her behaviour continues to deteriorate and her drinking and refusal to take her medication eventually drives a wedge between her and Clifton just as she receives some devastating news.

Zoe Saldana is acting her heart out but she’s lumbered with a none-too-subtle blackface to darken her skin in an attempt to address some of the pre-production criticism of losing Simone’s self-professed ‘essential blackness’ and, while she has a good singing voice, ‘good’ isn’t even in the same ballpark as Nina Simone.

Likewise, the script flits restlessly around the events of her later life, occasionally lapsing into poorly articulated flashbacks which ultimately confuse the narrative but also acts as something of a distraction from the complete lack of substance that plagues the entire movie. Add to that the liberties taken with other characters, including the erasure of long-term assistant Clifton Henderson’s homosexuality, and you wonder what the point of this biopic was in the first place.

We may never know, of course, because director Cynthia Mort was locked out of the editing suite by the producers, violating her contract and prompting a nasty lawsuit which was probably a fitting end for a motion picture which the Simone Estate not only refused to endorse but actively and vocally protested about.

The end result is a sub-90-minute scratch at the surface of a challenging, compelling and complex artist and civil rights campaigner who deserves something far, far better and substantive than this troubled, controversial and wrongheaded attempted biography which falls appallingly flat despite the best efforts of Saldana and David Oyelowo.

4/10

The Falcon And The Snowman (1985) Review

You have to wonder how many times this has been rented or streamed by mistake recently. Way, way back, in the bad old days of local video stores – even before the like of Blockbuster chain stores – THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN is exactly what your mum would bring back after you asked her to rent you THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER. And so, instead of bombastic Marvel badassery, you’d have ended up sitting through this introspective and quietly absorbing real-life cold war spy thriller. Based on a true story, it nevertheless feels like an Americanised version of the mundane matter-of-fact spycraft with which John le Carré occupied the life of George Smiley.

Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton), the son of a former FBI Special Agent, is working as a civilian defence contractor in the US Government’s ‘Black Vault’, a secure communications hub through which information on classified US activity around the world flows. As he grows increasingly disillusioned with America’s international duplicity, he receives a misrouted communiqué detailing a CIA plan to topple the Australian government and decides to punish the US Government by passing classified material to the Soviets. TO make the connection, he recruits his long-time friend Andrew Daulton Lee (Sean Penn), a small-time drug dealer and a bigger time drug user, nicknamed ‘The Snowman’, to contact and deal with the KGB.

THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN is a fascinating story of conflicting motivations, differing ambitions and, ultimately, two foolish and naive young men getting themselves in way over their heads. Boyce – whose Falcon alias comes from his love of falconry – is, at heart, a political idealist, dismayed at what he’s sees as his own country’s dishonesty. By leaking the classified material, he’s seeking to redress an imbalance and, at least, thwart some of America’s shadier designs. Lee, on the other hand, has no pretensions of idealism. He’s in it for the thrill of sticking it to the man and, especially, the money which he sees as his ticket to a new life in Costa Rica, out of the extraditionary reach of the United States Of America.

Unfortunately, Lee’s greed, ambition and increasing drug use ensure the situation spirals out of control and while Boyce realises his mistake, it’s far too late and before long the US security services are on their tail and their increasingly frustrated KGB handlers are looking to ‘burn’ them.

It’s not a spy thriller in the conventional sense. There are no big action sequences, world-threatening stakes or glamourous globetrotting. Instead, director John Schlesinger focusses on the human drama inherent in one of the most curious cases of treason in US history. His focus is rewarded by two fine performances from Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn who manage to bring authenticity to their roles which neither downplays nor lionises the individuals involved. With a supporting cast that boasts the likes of David Suchet, Lori Singer and Richard Dysart, THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN is a sober and serious look at a sober and serious subject.

7/10

The Comey Rule (2020) Review

The only thing that was necessary for the triumph of evil was for a good man to do the ‘right’ thing.

“The Comey Rule”, based on the memoirs of the ex-head of the FBI, James Comey, splits very clearly into two eras: BE, Before the Election – and AE. Detailing the events and investigations which occurred during the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential Election involving investigations into Hilary Clinton’s use of an unsecured email server and the potentially explosive allegations of the notorious Steele dossier.

Like its eponymous…well, ‘hero’ sticks in the throat, so let’s settle on character, the BE period is a little stiff and very dry. Like, really, really dry. A dramatic tinder box just waiting for a spark to ignite and burn everything to the ground. Gleeson is that spark and, in drama as in life, Trump is the catalyst that starts the fire that engulfs everything in flame.

But there’s a lot to get through before Trump – who looms large over everything – actually shows up at the midway point of this three-and-a-half-hour docudrama. It goes to great lengths to ground Comey as the by-the-book, apolitical man of principle, an unbending pillar of red-white-and-blue values whose only allegiance is to truth, justice and the American way. With the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge of the characters involved that it brings, it infuses everything with a pseudo-Shakespearian tragedy of inevitability as the unbendingly principled Comey is presented with an impossible choice regarding the unexpected reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton mere days before polling day. Damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t, his actions are laid bare without overt commendation or condemnation, forcing the audience to consider what they would have chosen to do in his stead.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s in the AE era that “The Comey Rule” slightly loses its way. Up until then Jeff Daniels has done a sterling job of embodying the paragon of professional integrity and there’s an undeniable frisson in seeing Comey encounter a man whose morality is diametrically opposed and whose relationship with the truth is estranged at best.

Brendan Gleeson’s Trump isn’t a caricature, like Alec Baldwin’s celebrated “Saturday Night Live” pantomime villain. Gleeson brings a meaner edge to the braggadocio and the intimidation and the obvious intellectual deficiency masked by a soundboard of well-worn adjectives and invectives. The only thing which lets the superb performance down, though, is the hair. Gleeson’s main is far too thick and lustrous to convince as the real thing although it’s expertly coiffured into that ridiculously intricate combover the man has.

It’s here, once the two men meet, that the realpolitik of what would become Trump’s Amerikkka begins and after the dusty formality of the run up to Trump’s surprise victory, you’re waiting for the drama to kick up a gear or two, exploring the post-election manoeuvring and manipulation with the energy, intrigue and elan of “House Of Cards” or even “The West Wing”.

Perhaps it’s the Sergeant Joe Friday-esque “just the facts, ma’am” recollections of Comey himself but where there should be vulgar and venal corruption running amok, the coordinated sycophancy and enabling of those surrounding Trump feels rote and tick-boxy and I’m not sure it ever articulates what “The Comey Rule” actually is.

Perhaps it needed a writer/ director more willing to indulge a little artistic licence and a little less keen to lionise its subject to bring this opening salvo of an astonishing and sustained degradation of the pillars of American civic life to more vivid, visceral life. At its very base, this is the story of an honourable and complacent system based on everyone playing by the rules being completely outfoxed and outmanoeuvred by a group of people playing an entirely different game. Who can tell what Edmund Burke would make of this scenario, where it seems that no matter what the good men and women did, evil triumphed anyway? There are no doubt countless more series and films to come on the tumultuous events of 2016-2020 but this is an underwhelmingly flat foundation for them to build from.

The One And Only Ivan (2020) tells a tale of gorillas and it’s bliss.

Arriving on Disney+ will perhaps less controversy than “Mulan” but no less deserving of heralding, “The One And Only Ivan” hearkens back to the golden age of Disney movies of the sixties and seventies which kept Dean Jones so gainfully employed.

The undisputed star of a shopping mall circus, Ivan the gorilla lives a reasonably contented life, well treated by his owner yet secretly yearns for the freedom of the wild. It’s only when Ivan gets his hands on some crayons and paints, though, that he’s able to express himself.

Based loosely on the children’s book by K A Applegate, which itself was based even more loosely on a real-life gorilla who was kept in a shopping mall for twenty-seven years before being adopted by Zoo Atlanta, the most striking thing about “The One And Only Ivan” is that it’s a story without an antagonist. The lack of a villain doesn’t mean a lack of drama though, but it does mean this is a gentle watch, perfect for cosying up on the sofa with the whole family and basking in its heartwarming lack of cynicism. It certainly kept the Craggus household spellbound on the sofa.

Mack (Bryan Cranston), the owner of the Big Top Mall, isn’t the callous, money-grabbing circus owner you may be expecting. Yes, he’s a struggling businessman looking to keep his enterprise afloat but he is kind to the animals in his care and always does the best he can for them and his workers. It’s so against expectations for this kind of story that it almost feels like a deliberate subversion. A wealth of voice talent help bring the animals to life, with Sam Rockwell as Ivan, Angelina Jolie (who also produces) as Stella the elephant, Helen Mirren as Snickers the poodle and Danny DeVito as Bob, a stray dog who becomes Ivan’s secret pet. If that list isn’t enough to impress you, the movie still has an ace up its sleeve: Chaka Khan as a performing Silkie Chicken.

Director Thea Sharrock fills her sophomore feature with warmth and humour, deftly handling her human and digital cast to deliver a seamless fantasy where everyone is kind and wants to do the right thing without the need for dramatic showdowns or manipulated epiphanies. The effects work here is great, with the animals looking photo-realistic without sacrificing the anthropomorphisation needed to allow the animals to emote, avoiding the mistake which blighted the reanimated “The Lion King” so recently.

Sentimental, soothing and utterly wholesome, it may disappoint some by not taking a more polemic stance on issues surrounding animal captivity and the ethics of animal performances but for those seeking a sweet escape from the doom and gloom of the world around them, “The One And Only Ivan” feels like a ninety-minute spirit-soothing safari.

8/10

Mrs America is a fascinating chronicle of the formation of the fault lines which continue to divide America today

Looking at the American body politic today, it’s easy to assume that the bitter divisions are something of a recent manifestation, a cancerous corrosion accelerated by the devastation of 9/11 and toxically perfected in the weaponised division of President Trump but “Mrs America” sheds a fascinating new light on how America’s supposedly broad bipartisan political church underwent a bitter divorce, citing irreconcilable differences and seeking to divide the country between them.

In late 1971 the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex, gained approval by the House of Representatives on by the US Senate in early 1972, kick-off a race to get the amendment ratified by a minimum of 38 states. But a jubilant women’s rights movement has reckoned without the opposition of arch-conservative hawk and failed Goldwater Republican congressional candidate Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), a woman who would mobilise and radicalise a hitherto untapped reservoir of political power.

I was familiar, of course, with some of the names involved in this enthralling drama. Gloria Steinam (Rose Byrne) is probably the biggest pop culture celebrity in the mix but she’s merely the very public face of an alliance of strong, intellectual women pushing for and campaigning to ratify the ERA. She and the other members of the pro-ERA movement (Shirley Chisolm (Uzo Aduba), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale)) are nominally cast as the heroes of the piece and notably, they’re the one side which retains a claim of being bipartisan, not just through the involvement of Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), a Republican feminist and co-founder of the National Organisation for Women but through the ongoing support of the Republican mainstream establishment.

On the other side is Phyllis Schlafly, a staunch conservative who opposed not only women’s rights but other civil rights movement as well and was prepared to ally herself with extremist fringe elements if it aided her primary objectives. She’s unquestionably the villain of the piece (depending, I suppose, on your own personal political perspective) but the masterstroke of this mini-series is that it portrays all of the players with blunt honesty, covering their triumphs and their follies, the egos and vanity which often snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for both sides and, most illuminating of all, it’s expertly crafted and performed to create empathy with every character, no matter how repugnant or offensive their position may be to you.

A beguiling mixture of “The West Wing”/ “House Of Cards” political manoeuvring, biographical drama and history lesson – with a kick-ass soundtrack, “Mrs America” provides an engrossing primer in the various factions who operate in the American political landscape and the cementing of the holy alliance between the Christian evangelicals and the Republican party which endures even now. It covers the first shots fired in the culture war which continues to rage today. It makes no effort to dumb down a complicated and messy era, provides no easy answers and is refreshingly open to the hypocrisy and flaws of the very human individuals involved. It also remains resolutely focussed on its feminist story despite the array of historical distractions which occur in the background such as Watergate.

“Mrs America” is a stunning, revelatory televisual achievement, making magnificent use of its nine episodes and has as many lessons for today as it has for history.

10/10

Bombshell (2020) Review

In a world of spin, propaganda and outright lies, Fox News may seem like a counter-intuitive choice for a fact-based drama but facts there are in “Bombshell”, a frustratingly superficial look under the rock of America’s foremost right-wing rhetoric factory.

“Bombshell” charts the eventual fall from…well, not grace exactly…in any event, it charts the fall from power of Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), the powerful and – as it turns out – predatory head of Rupert Murdoch’s cable news network, taking the fledgeling channel from the fringes to the bubbling centre of American envy and paranoia at the hands of scores of women scorned, led by Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman).  It begins, as nearly all contemporary farces do, with the 2016 Republican Primaries, just as Donald Trump starts the unexpected surge which blindsided the cosy Republican establishment and eventually installed him in the White House. Unexpected, that is, to all but Ailes who senses the turn to anger of the national mood that will eventually put a malignant narcissist in the White House and keep the Presidential televisions tuned to Fox News. Against the backdrop of this seismic shift in the bloated American body politic, Gretchen Carlson, having been demoted from Foz and Friends is fired for expressing less than complete enthusiasm for the right to bear assault weapons.

In turn, she files suit against Ailes personally for sexual harassment, threatening the network with a massive scandal if the allegations are corroborated. With all eyes on Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) – already under intense pressure for her perceived antipathy towards Trump – pressure grows for the network’s most popular personality to take sides in an increasingly bitter propaganda war. In amongst the real-life figures, the film weaves a fictional set of characters to act as a cautionary reinforcement of yet another generation of women being subjected to the lascivious whims of powerful men led by Margot Robbie’s Kayla Pospisil, a young intern whom Ailes starts to take a less-than-savoury interest in.

Thanks to some sterling performances and deceptively simple make-up, the film manages to bring its characters, deplorable and otherwise, to life without sliding into SNL-style parody. If anything, it underplays the hatchet-faced rictus-masked fury of the likes of Jeanine Pirro and strains its own credibility in its portrayal of Rudy Guliani (Richard Kind) as a somewhat competent lawyer averse to crazy conspiracy theories. It’s also oddly distracting and somewhat lazy, given how hard they’ve worked to make the talented and well-known cast look like their real-life counterparts, that the film uses actual archive footage instead of restaging the footage or digitally compositing it with movie footage.

It may be the keenness to avoid the inevitable comparisons with Saturday Night Live that makes “Bombshell” constantly pull its punches and while it doesn’t come close to condoning anything that happened, it presents it all with a curiously detached and disinterested air, with only the performances of Theron, Kidman, Robbie and Lithgow bringing any sense of life and drama. It all feels very sanitised – and safe – as it seeks not to alienate the movie-going audience who may be Fox News-watching folks at home. In the light of the #MeToo movement, the movie’s overall timidity feels like something of a disappointment.

7/10 

Gordon Gekko lied to us. Greed (2020) is not good.

Michael Winterbottom’s unfortunately unfocussed polemic takes a swipe at the lifestyles of the rich and the shameless, or maybe at the grotesque exploitation underpinning the ‘fast fashion’ industry or perhaps at the financial chicanery that underwrites those big blockbuster boardroom deals you read about in the Metro while on your commute or even the humanitarian crisis of Syrian refugees. It’s certainly quite angry indeed, and wants you to be incensed too – it’s just not sure what it wants you to concentrate your ire on, so it ends up being a sort of messy buffet of milquetoast outrage and beard-stroking tuts.

Shot in a pseudo-mockumentary style, we follow ‘self-made’ British billionaire Sir Phillip Green Sir Richard McReadie as he attempts to recover his crumbling retail empire’s reputation following some financial scandals and an ill-tempered public enquiry. To restore his reputation for success in excess, he commissions a lavishly extravagant Roman Empire-themed bacchanalia on the Greek island of Mykonos.

The uncertain focus of what point the film wants to make (although, in reality, all of its potential targets are important, worthy of attention and further scrutiny) is matched in its odd tonal shift and it’s not long before you start to wonder if any of the cast agree on what kind of film they’re in. Coogan sporadically shines as the ruthless, solid gold leaf self-made market trader made good but seems as confounded by the script as the audience might be, undercutting his normally peerless ability to bring out the pathos and inner weakness of his bluff and boastful characters but it’s in the casting of David Mitchell that the film stumbles the most. His slightly baffled journalist and biographer to McReadie who kind of bumbles his way through the film in a hapless, reactionary manner is at odds with everything and everyone else’s slightly over the top tone and although I adore him as a comedian and wit, he ended up being one of the most frustrating parts of the movie. Isla Fisher, Asa Butterfield and most of the rest of the cast are wasted in underdeveloped supporting roles and even notional audience surrogate Shanina Shaik gets fairly short shrift. Veering wildly from slapstick to satire to social commentary to moments of shocking violence and tragedy, it’s so aware of its own confusing messaging that it feels the need to hammer home its moral in a PowerPoint presentation inserted between the end of the movie and the closing credits.

It’s a shame, too, because all of the ingredients are here for a scorching satirical spin on King Lear as McReadie’s offspring vie for the throne as Sir Richard’s power wanes which could have exposed all of the secrets, lies and exploitation which built the empire but it’s crammed in to too small a runtime; a feature film which should have been a prestige mini-series. Nowhere near funny enough to be a comedy, but not serious or sharp enough to be a drama, “Greed” ends up biting off way more than it can chew.

4/10 

Netflix’s The Two Popes (2019) explores the fallibility of the infallible.

It would seem to be something of a contradiction in terms to deliver a warm and whimsical drama about the leadership of the Catholic Church during some of its most tumultuous years but that’s exactly what Fernando Meirelles’ gently absorbing chronicle of this archly ceremonial game of Papal thrones.

Essentially a biographical film tracing the ordination of Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his initial rival and eventual successor Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the meat of the movie takes place in the pivotal year of 2012, as Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) requests permission to retire from Pope Benedict who is, himself, wrestling with a dilemma of faith and duty.

Much of the story is told through (largely fictionalised) conversations between Bergoglio and Benedict at the pope’s summer home as they clash on matters theological, political and even international sports. To their mutual surprise, they find that despite their rivalry – coming from very different factions of the Church – they have more in common than either suspected.

While the film isn’t afraid to touch on the scandals and problems which have plagued the church in recent years, and pose hard questions about its two lead characters, it’s much more interested in the papal pair as individual human beings, taking a sensitive and often amusing look at the trials and tribulations of leadership and the spiritual toll it can take to serve an often silent and inscrutable God and works as a fascinating character study regardless of your own personal faith or beliefs.

It benefits enormously from two deceptively effortless, brilliant performances from Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins. In many ways, Pryce has the easier of the two roles, with Pope Francis’ innate likeability bringing the viewer onside from the off but it’s a credit to Hopkins’ wonderfully nuanced and impishly intelligent portrayal that manages to bring both humanity and humility to the more foreboding figure of Pope Benedict as the two warily circle each other in an ongoing, delicately choreographed verbal sparring match.

By turns touching, poignant, pugnacious and illuminating, it’s a remarkable exercise in exploring the power and politics at the highest levels of the Vatican through the lenses of the lives of two very different men.

8/10

Le Mans ’66 (2019) will get your motor running

Based on an incredible true story and bringing one of motor racing’s unsung heroes to due prominence, “Le Mans ‘66” (or, if you prefer – as many seem to – “Ford v Ferrari”) tells the fascinating story of how consumer motor giant Ford took on luxury carmaker Ferrari in a ruthless battle for dominance over the Le Mans 24-hour race.

In 1963, the Ford Motor Company eyes up an opportunity to buy the cash-strapped Ferrari as a way to inject some needed glamour into their brand but when Ford themselves get played by Ferrari in order to provoke a more lucrative and beneficial deal from Fiat, Henry Ford II vows revenge and instructs his racing team to build a car to defeat Ferrari in the prestigious 24 hour race at Le Mans. Ford look to Shelby American owner Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), the only American at that point to have won Le Mans and in turn, Shelby enlists the help of Ken Miles(Christian Bale), a hot-tempered British racer and struggling mechanic.

Although it has its roots in a clash of corporate hubris, James Mangold’s sunny and absorbing biopic actually eschews the Ford v Ferrari rivalry to explore under the hood of the Ford v Shelby and Miles drama where the real tactical and strategic game was played out. The tensions between the corporate suits of Ford and the pursuit of racing excellence from Shelby and Miles keep the film’s rev counter all the way to the redline and, despite its hefty two-and-a-half-hour runtime, it never feels the need to downshift.

The racing scenes are superbly realised, kinetic, thrilling and genuinely white-knuckle whether or not you know how this story plays out and thanks to a pair of great performances from Damon and Bale, there’s a lot to enjoy when we’re not in the driving seat too. Sports movies tend to succeed or fail based not on the actual sporting events but the personalities that were involved and both actors go big-hearted with their performances here, bringing the gifted racing drivers to vivid life. Bale especially, an actor I often find to be like the Lloyds of London building when it comes to his performances: all the internal choices are externalised and you’re never not aware of his performance or his active choices, is superb here. Authentic and understated, there’s hardly any of his usual obviousness in his craft and he disappears into the role of Miles superbly. There’s such a wonderfully warm and genuine rapport between Bale and Damon that at times the film comes perilously close to being a big-budget “Top Gear: The Movie” – and I mean that as a sincere compliment.

It’s a rousing, crowd-pleasing and expertly crafted piece of cinema, a perfectly engineered assemblage of a sharp script, explosive screen chemistry and seamless practical and digital effects that sees the finished product roar across the finish line.

8/10

Farcical fake news is put to the sword in FBI satire The Day Shall Come (2019)

Funny until it makes you sad, “The Day Shall Come” may lack the bitingly mundane bleakness of “Four Lions” thanks to its sunny Florida setting, but it’s no less depressing as it exposes the farcical side of false flag operations.

Moses Al Shabazz (Marchánt Davis) is a self-styled radical black preacher plotting to overthrow the white man and take on the forces of gentrification from his urban Miami stronghold. At least that’s how the US’ national security agencies are desperate to paint him. The only problem is, he has amassed a following of just three and struggles to make ends meet on his rundown city farm while preaching a strictly pacifist no weapons approach that instead puts faith in the power of avenging dinosaurs summoned by a trumpet call.

Faced with a wholly harmless opponent, the Feds start trying to tempt him into increasingly large scale criminal acts so they can swoop in, crush the vicious terrorists and continue to demand and justify the vast federal budgets allocated to counter-terrorism. Where the incompetence is evenly spread between the would-be revolutionaries and the federal government, the duplicity is not and its frighteningly credible in how it shows how far the authorities will compromise their so-called principles to achieve their arbitrary aims when Moses innocently thwarts their plans because his real objectives are very different from those they suspect.

Marchánt Davis is superb as the devoutly deluded Moses, giving him just the right balance of pathos and pluck to convince you he could have led a movement had his ideas not been quite so barmy (blame the advice he takes from the horse’s mouth) while on the other side of the equation, Anna Kendrick retains just the right amount of humanity to allow her ambitious FBI agent’s conscience to prickle just a little bit. And while the political satire and procedural farce may give “The Day Shall Come” its biggest laughs, it’s in the abundant, gloriously fallible humanity and domestic intimacy that the film shows its heart and elevates the comedy to tragedy.

6/10 

Hustlers (2019) shows the so-called wolves of Wall Street as the mangy mutts they really are.

Inspiringly based on a true story, “Hustlers” gives us a sobering glimpse into the hideously entitled world of the so-called masters of the universe whose unbridled greed crippled the global economy a decade ago and whose actions still reverberate to this day. Writer/ Director Lorene Scafaria adapts New York Magazine’s article ‘The Hustlers at Scores’ into a rousing tale of self-empowerment and redistributive redemption as previously objectified and overlooked women find strength in friendship and weakness in their exploiters.

Headed by Ramona (played with a to date only hinted at power and magnetism by Jennifer Lopez), the gang adjust to the new economic reality and the sleaziness cost-cutting of their strip club bosses by devising a freelancing scheme to target those with far more money than sense or morality. Lopez is ably supported by Constance Wu who charts a convincing through-line from wide-eyed innocent to hard-edged woman of the world as she struggles to support her grandmother and, later, her son.

Where “Hustlers” triumphs is in its putting the bond of friendship and sisterhood at the forefront of things. For a movie about strippers and the manipulative power of sex, it never once strays into exploitative territory nor unnecessarily or gratuitously sexualizes its characters. The arrogant and obtuse clients are likewise not demonised or excused, just shown for what they are. The film is content to present the audience with the events and players and let you draw your own conclusion to where the moral line lies. There’s an authenticity and credibility to the storytelling because it’s written and filmed from a female perspective. There are no lingering, leering camera shots and the strip clubs never feel like anything other than a workplace, and the work the women do is treated with dignity and respect.

There’s no titillation on offer hear and, outside of the leering letches that are karmically fleeced, men don’t really figure in the happenings of “Hustlers”. It’s not that it’s anti-men, it’s just not their story and it rightly doesn’t feel the need to somehow accommodate a ‘not all men’ character to reassure any insecure audience bros. Big on drama, warmth, humour and filled with great performances, “Hustlers” is what “Ocean’s 8” wants to be when it grows up.

8/10 

And it seems to be, he lived his life burning candles at both ends. Rocketman (2019) Review

The real genius of “Rocketman”, other than Elton John and Bernie Taupin themselves, is the wonderful narrative conceit of framing the story as a rehab confessional. It allows the makers or this musical fantasy to dive deep into the unreliable narration of a man who may be willing to air the dirty laundry of his past but still has a modern-day brand and reputation to protect.

Charting his humble beginnings in Pinner to the pinnacle of pop success, via The Royal Academy of Music, The Troubadour in Los Angeles to the depths of alcohol, sex and drug abuse, “Rocketman” gives us Elton’s view of his life and those who played a part in it for good and ill.

Taron Egerton plays a richly flamboyant, if somewhat flattering, Elton, bringing the celebrated celebrity to vivid and verisimilitudinous life, supported by an earnest and authentic turn from Jamie Bell as his long-time songwriting partner. The script, by Lee Hall, doesn’t shy away from Elton’s darker and more diva-ish tendencies and it’s far more graphic in its portrayal of his sexuality and drug use than the oft-criticised “Bohemian Rhapsody” although arguably it’s just as superficial. While it’s happy to acknowledge the damage and chaos caused by its star’s self-destructive behaviour, its also careful to avoid placing any of the blame for this at its subject’s door, instead distributing it evenly amongst his family and business associates. “Rocketman” is John’s way of explaining his early years of debauchery, not take responsibility for them.

Director Dexter Fletcher makes the most of the freedom the narrative structure affords him, deftly weaving in his star’s spectacular back catalogue of hits as expositional flourishes and marvellously keeps us in Elton’s head as the memories get more elaborate and fantastical as he disappears deeper down the rabbit hole of addiction. There’s a disappointing lack of celebrity ‘cameos’ – Neil Diamond, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan are all mentioned but never seen – but why on earth would Elton countenance sharing the spotlight with anyone else, no matter how briefly?

It’s a wonderfully well acted, heartfelt tribute to one of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest showmen, making great use of his music to weave an intoxicating and entertaining musical fantasy but its reluctance to stray too far from Elton’s solipsistic world view means that we’re never even close to getting a real insight into the man himself.

8/10

 

Two wasted hours about the author of The Two Towers: Tolkien (2019) Review

In a cinema in the dark there sat a Craggus. Not a nasty, dirty, fleapit cinema, filled with the ends of hotdogs and a sticky floor, nor yet a dry, threadbare cinema with lumpy seats to sit down on or only stale popcorn to eat; it was a multiplex, and that means comfort.

What is a Craggus? I suppose the Craggus needs some description nowadays, since they have become rather shy of posting to their blog with any regularity. He was (and is) a movie-loving monster, about twice the age he thinks he is and taller than the tallest bearded Dwarf. The Craggus has a beard, although he illustrates himself with stubble and on this day he had chosen to see, with his twelve-year-old son, the motion picture “Tolkien”.

“Tolkien” has little or no magic about it, except the ordinary everyday magic which helps almost two hours disappear slowly and drearily when large stupid folk like the Craggus buy their tickets. It is inclined to be dull in the middle (and also the beginning and the end); dress in drab colours (chiefly tweeds and mud browns); wear out your patience as it regales you with the edited vignettes of J R R Tolkien’s early life through his fever dream flashbacks in the trenches of World War I, the scenes of which are surprisingly, jarringly graphic and provide no deep fruity laughs at all.

Anodyne, entitled and utterly uninsightful, an earnest performance by Nicholas Hoult and the occasional impressively Jacksonian visual flourish can’t save this from being an unexpectedly wasted journey to the cinema.

4/10 

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile (2019) is extremely well acted but shockingly superficial

Heavily leaning into the tone of Netflix’s “Making A Murderer”, Joe Berlinger’s shallow but still absorbing biopic of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy places us firmly into the perspective of Bundy’s long-time girlfriend Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) by using all the tricks and tropes of the ‘innocent man accused’ documentary style to constantly confound the audience’s expectation.

Zac Efron as Bundy is superb, radiating the charm, charisma and magnetism which goes some way to explaining Bundy’s horrific, prolific litany of murders. His eyes become the window to Bundy’s black-hearted soul as they flash from smouldering sensuality to steely malevolence and back when the mask occasionally slips. He brings an exquisite, subtle physicality to the role giving Bundy mannerisms and actions which creep around the peripheral edge of your perception – in the way he holds a kitchen knife or the way his hand rests on someone’s neck in a position and for a moment longer than seems comfortable or normal – to remind us of the dark truth of the man and what he’s capable of while he beams that megawatt smile.

Of course, the price we pay for sharing the perspective of Kendall is that we’re never presented with a forensic examination of the case or how they linked Bundy to an ever-increasing number of murders and the muddled timeline at the start of the film may serve to keep us off balance but comes at the expense of clarity.

Sentences and convictions seem to just happen in a disjointed and unexplained manner and underdeveloped supporting characters drift in and out of the story as meticulously recreating actual events and contemporary news footage take precedence over embracing the drama of the facts. There’s no salacious revelling in Bundy’s crimes, though and the film doesn’t wallow or fetishize in his acts of violence in the way of, say, “American Psycho”. Most of the details of his crimes are left to the imagination of the viewer and, aside from a few shocking seconds here and there, left off-screen where they belong.

Lily Collins, though, does good work given the paucity of material she has to work with, as does Haley Joel Osment but Kaya Scodelario as Bundy’s wife Carole Ann Boone mostly finds herself trapped in simply recreating existing footage and dialogue.

The title of the movie is well chosen, taken directly from Judge Edward D Cowart (John Malkovich)’s bafflingly genial summing up of the case. The movie doesn’t really offer any real insights into the nature of Bundy the person and it definitely fails to live up to the promise of being the story ‘behind’ America’s most notorious serial killer but it is a chilling sketch of the plausibility of how a handsome, charming, clever and charismatic man could have continued his vicious reign of terror for so long and an eye-opening indictment of a justice system which, while in the throws of prosecuting his catalogue of atrocities, lamented the waste of his potential rather than the lives lost to his monstrous, murderous urges. It also serves as a retrospectively early warning of the coming dangers of social media as, by providing him with television cameras in court, he receives not condemnation but a platform.

7/10 

On The Basis Of Sex (2019) fails to make its case

Lightweight, superficial and oddly unfocused, this biopic of celebrated Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg might qualify as a legal brief but it fails to assemble a substantive case despite the abundance of available evidence.

The film charts her rise from freshman law student at Yale, through her professorship and advocacy up to her pivotal legal challenge Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue which paved the way for the systematic dismantling of legal discrimination on the basis of sex.

Although handsomely staged and well acted, the movie seems more interested in those around its title character than the woman herself. Well played by Felicity Jones, the script often portrays her as the product of the behaviour and actions of those around her, particularly her husband and daughter than necessarily having agency herself.

Armie Hammer may or may not be destined to answer the Batsignal, but never fear because he’s here to answer the virtue signal as the focus-stealing Martin Ginsburg, arguably the main character of a movie which sets out to repeatedly show him as the admirable, ahead-of-his-time supportive new man whose courageous struggle with testicular cancer and subsequent building of a lucrative tax career is told against the backdrop of the groundbreaking civil rights work of his wife.

When the film isn’t busy lionising Martin Ginsburg, it spends a lot of time focussing on the forces ranged against RGB’s ongoing crusade and I doubt that this movie will do very well in terms of measuring the gender split of dialogue that the recent Best Picture Oscar Winners have been subject to. All too often we’re told of Ruth’s intelligence, incisiveness and mastery of her subject – usually by the men – rather than shown it and it’s only in the last few minutes of the film do we really get to see the kind of wit, wisdom and legal acumen that will eventually propel her to the Supreme Court.

There seems to be a hesitance to get stuck into its subject or protagonist and as a result, it’s kind of dutifully procedural while lacking any real drama:  a courtroom drama that’s reluctant to have its day in court.

In a way, it’s kind of endearing that this RBG-endorsed biopic (she cameos as herself at the very end) is a hagiography of her late husband rather than providing any real insight into her life and feelings so if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re probably better off watching the Cohen/ West documentary “RBG”.

6/10 

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Accept no substitutes. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2019) is the real deal.

Powered by a heartfelt and deeply human central performance from Melissa McCarthy and enlivened by a gregariously louche turn from Richard E Grant, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME delivers a plaintive plea for clemency on behalf of the embittered, the flawed and the dismissed.

There’s not much to like about author Lee Israel (McCarthy). She’s stubborn, cantankerous and demanding, driven by increasing desperation for validation and acclaim that slips from her grasp the more she clutches at it. Snubbed by her agent and struggling to make ends meet, she stumbles across the opportunity to make some money by embellishing letters from famous literary figures. It’s a short step from embellishments to outright forgery but revelling in her newfound vicarious acclaim and with the encouragement of her erstwhile confidante and hanger-on Jack Hock (Grant), she begins to open up to life again just as the authorities start closing in.

There’s a deliberate lack of glamour to Israel’s life and McCarthy doesn’t shy away from portraying the more unpleasant and awkward aspects of her character and yet she retains a core of sympathetic verisimilitude that keeps you on her side. Her superficial callousness is a pre-emptive defence mechanism; she’s so bruised by life that she’s built a wall and is making everyone else pay for it. Her defences are breached by the vivaciously charming and eccentric Jack Hock, an itinerant gadabout in whom Lee finds a kindred spirit, scathingly derisive of the glitterati while simultaneously pressing their metaphorical noses against the windows, longing to join the crowd inside, played with intoxicating glee by Richard E Grant.

The film wisely avoids building a false sense of ticking clock tension, preferring instead to allow the story to unfold as an inevitable tragedy, each step taken by Lee inescapably bringer her closer to her comeuppance. In her ultimate downfall, though, there is a spark of hard-earned redemption and a bittersweet commendation of the human spirit.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME achieves the primary goal of any biopic handsomely, making the viewer want to learn more about the subject but any sense that the film had missed out significant details turns out to be erroneous as, with the exception of detailing each and every forgery created, it actually manages to faithfully recreate the actual events.

8/10 

The law may be an ass, but The Mule (2019) is a real donkey.

It’s someone disingenuous for something this uninspired to proclaim it’s ‘inspired by a true story’ but that doesn’t seem to discourage notorious empty chair haranguer Clint Eastwood from making a film for reactionary old men who like to yell at clouds. It’s a wannabe “Sicario – The Greatest Generation”, or the demographic antithesis of “Black Panther”: white fossil.

When career driven horticulturalist (yes, really) Earl Stone (Eastwood) falls on hard times, he finds himself homeless and estranged from his family. Offered a chance to make some easy money in return for just driving, he ends up acting as a drug courier for the cartel, moving narcotics across Illinois under the noses of the Feds. Soon he’s raking in the cash and buying his way back into his family’s affections – but can he stay one step ahead of the law?

There’s a frailty to the filmmaking on show here that goes far beyond its ageing star. It’s flat, unfocused and often seems to forget the story it’s trying to tell. Eastwood, looking so cadaverous he might break into a rendition of ‘God Is In His Holy Temple’ at any moment, never quite convinces as the kindly old coot who falls into step with the drug traffickers. In a way, it’s a weird kind of superhero movie as he uses the power of old white privilege to pootle around, above suspicion and reproach to become ‘Money Grandpa’, the kindly codger who can solve any problem with his suspiciously large rolls of banknotes. Like all good superheroes, though, Money Grandpa has his weakness. His Achilles heel is an inability to not criticise the younger generation (anyone under sixty) for their reliance on cell phones.

It’s when the movie goes beyond this superficial sitcom scenario and into absurd geriatric wish fulfilment as Stone uses his drug money to solve problems like a freewheeling fiscal “Cocoon” pod and finds time to indulge in not one, but two separate threesomes that the wheels really come off this stationary station wagon of a movie. A starry and talented supporting cast is wasted and while Eastwood retains some of his star power and screen presence, the script is lifeless and uneventful, leaving the movie flaccid and utterly devoid of tension or drama.

4/10 

Christian Bale piles on the pounds for Adam McKay’s The Waist Wing. Vice (2019) Review

In taking on the story of Dick Cheney, the apparently unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider turned Vice Presidential master of the universe, Adam McKay seeks to shed light on the breathtaking constitutional chicanery which saw the executive branch of the American government vastly increase its own power whilst at the same time enormously enriching those in power who hid behind the lightning rod figurehead of George W Bush.

There’s no denying there are some remarkable transformative performances on show in “Vice”, with Sam Rockwell and Amy Adams in particular on excellent form. However, for each pin-point portrayal, there are others which strike a more off-key note. Tyler Perry’s Colin Powell is atrocious while Steve Carrell occasionally struggles to keep Donald Rumsfeld’s inner Michael Scott under wraps. Bale, of course, has garnered most of the headlines but the truth is those forty or so pounds he’s piled on are doing most of the heavy lifting for him in a role that requires little more from him than to stare and breathe heavily through his nose. It’s a performance which shouldn’t merit consideration for an award save perhaps in the context of a state fair.

The magically light touch McKay brought to the high finance/ low profile scandal of “The Big Short” deserts him here as the movie comes across as smug and self-satisfied as its subject and lead actor’s performance. Jesse Plemon’s a poor substitute for Margot Robbie’s interstitial bathtub tutorials but he does what he can to bridge the gaps in the narrative.

There’s a gleefulness in how McKay heaps on the corruption and outrage with such abandon that it quickly becomes noise, blunting the horror of the cynical, black-hearted venality which has gripped Washington politics since the days of the Reagan administration. Although it does a better job of providing insight into its subject than “The Front Runner” did, “Vice” shares a similar lack of direct critique, preferring instead to revel in the pantomime amusement of seeing (in)famous figures recreated by the cast of well-known names and ticking off a select list of scandals and events which all took place within living memory.

For all its fancy footwork and big swings, it’s only in its closing moments that the film really manages to land a punch as Bale’s Cheney breaks the fourth wall and admonishes the audience for blaming him for having the courage to do what they wanted but were too cowardly to do and reminding us all that we get the leaders we deserve.

4/10 

Coogan & Reilly disappear into Laurel & Hardy in the gentle biopic Stan & Ollie (2019)

Focussing in on the twilight of their illustrious careers, “Stan & Ollie” pays tribute to the beloved entertainers by taking an affectionate and bittersweet look behind the scenes at their last great collaboration: a music hall tour of the UK while trying to pull together one last motion picture deal.

With the collective baggage of decades of the highs and lows of their artistic partnership and lingering concerns over Hardy’s health in tow, the film sets out the triumphs and tensions of one of comedy’s greatest ever double acts.

The film rests easily on the wonderfully immersive performances of its two leads: Coogan and Reilly disappear into their parts, so much so that you often forget you’re not watching the real people. Even the clip at the end of the real Laurel & Hardy’s “Way Out West” only serves to underline just how acutely observed the performances and physicality of both men are. Outside of those two bravura turns, though, the movie feels a little dull, although polished to a very high sheen. There’s a distinctly TV prestige drama feel to the cinematography and detailed recreation of a bygone era that calls to mind prime time Sunday evening TV. The extras seem oddly conspicuous and self-conscious and the supporting cast seem off-key because none of them seem to be operating on the same level as Coogan and Reilly.

It remains a poignant and affecting portrait of great artists approaching the end of their time in the spotlight, conscious of the next generation of comedians coming through the ranks, following in their footsteps, but it’s a little too diligent and reverent of its subjects to really give us more than a superficial insight.

6/10 

The Front Runner (2019) stumbles right out of the gate.

Jason Reitman’s dull but dutiful checkbox biopic rakes over the long-dead ashes of the run-up to the 1988 US Presidential election but fails to find anything to really say beyond a milquetoast critique of the current personality politics which dominates American public life.

Charting the rise and fall of charismatic Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), “The Front Runner” follows his run for the Democratic nomination for President, to face off against George H W Bush, showing how he captured the imagination of young voters and the general population only to see his ambitions come crashing down when allegations of an extra-marital affair brought tabloid journalism and political journalism crashing together in a moment which changed American political life forever.

Although the film lovingly, almost slavishly, recreates its late 1980s aesthetic, its preoccupation with the superficial extends further to its characters and plot. It plods through the sequence of events, restaging key moments and replicating the requisite sound bites but there’s a curious lack of drama to any of it and certainly no insight. If you’re not overly familiar with who Gary Hart is or what he stood for before seeing this film, you’ll not end up any wiser by the time the final on-screen caption informing you that Gary and Lee Hart (Vera Farmiga) remain married to this day (as if that’s what should be the important takeaway from the story). Indeed, it’s so keen to push its low-key portrayal as a white Obama some twenty years before a similar message of hope would galvanise the same demographic constituency to propel another young Democratic Senator to the White House that it almost entirely fails to hold Hart to account for his hubris and hypocritical sanctimony.

It may seem quaint, especially nowadays, for the mere suggestion of marital infidelity to be enough to derail Presidential ambitions and there’s certainly a story to be told about the [ultimately inevitable] unholy alliance of duplicitous tabloid puritanism and serious political reportage which crept into the mainstream with these events but Reitman seems disinterested in really exploring it.

Jackman does good work as the senator but the role doesn’t particularly stretch him because the script offers little to no insight into the man himself, often referring to his preference to avoid discussing personal matters as if it excuses the lack of personal insight in this kind of biopic. And if Hart is poorly served, the supporting cast – including pivotal figure Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) – are barely explored at all. The dialogue is often flat and uninteresting, with even veteran character actors like J K Simmons and Alfred Molina struggling to bring any life to proceedings.

Lacking the sharp political writing of the likes of Aaron Sorkin and seemingly completely uncertain as to what point it wants to make, “The Front Runner” might have had aspirations to be the next “The Post” or “All The President’s Men” or even “The American President” but, unfortunately, like its subject, its ambitions are undone by its own shortcomings.

5/10 

Colette (2019) sees Keira Knightly ghostwriting for Willy while enjoying fanny by gaslight.

Taking a few liberties with the Libertine life and times of celebrated French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, “Colette” is a sumptuous and sensual but occasionally aimless and indulgent biopic that’s perhaps a little too interested in signposting the contemporary resonances than in providing a wider historical context to its subject’s life.

After marrying the famous Parisian man of letters Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), known commonly as ‘Willy’, (Dominic West), Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) moves from her rural childhood home to the artistic and intellectual hotbed of Paris. Circumstances conspire to compel Colette ghost-write for Willy and she pens a semi-autobiographical novel which becomes a literary and cultural sensation. But success breeds jealousy and rivalry between Colette and Willy, as she seeks the recognition and freedom she deserves to explore her burgeoning interests in literature, fashion and sexuality.

Initially a little dry and stuffy, Knightley’s performance at first seems like nothing  more than a reprise of her by-the-numbers ‘period drama’ performance but as Colette begins to test her boundaries and expand her horizons, so Keira Knightley too, comes alive, in an increasingly vivacious and firey performance, particularly when she’s wielding dialogue fashioned from Colette’s acid-tongued and oh-so-19th-Century-unladylike wit. In amidst the lavish production design and glorious costumery, it would be easy for a performance to disappear into the visuals but Knightley never once loses your attention. West, on the other hand, opts for a deliberately grandiose theatricality, tiptoeing a line which occasionally teeters on the very edge of pantomime.

Thematically it has a lot to say to present-day audiences, with the curious juxtaposition of the expected social strait-lacedness of the times masking a much more relaxed attitude to sex and sexuality sometimes seems like an inversion of the struggles of today although Colette’s frequent appearances eating an apple to foreshadow her gradually increasing embrace of a more sybaritic lifestyle seem particularly on the nose, even for a film as unconcerned with subtlety as this one.

The indulgence seeps from the characters’ lives and into the production itself with a jumbled structure and an inconsistent tone which swings from trenchant insight to overblown melodrama which occasionally undercuts the film’s stronger moments. It plays with the chronology of its subject’s lives at least as much as “Bohemian Rhapsody” did, and for the same reasons, but for “Colette”, less could have been infinitely more and stripped of the bustles and corsetry of the self-indulgent screenplay, this story of authors and editors could have been set free to fly.

7/10 

Yorgos Lanthimos brings a sense of Blackadder to the big screen in sumptuous art house comedy The Favourite (2019)

Move over Bess (and, I suspect, pre-emptive apologies to Margot Robbie) there’s a new award-baiting Queen on the block: oft-overlooked 18th Century sovereign Queen Anne.

England, 1708. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) occupies the throne, disinterested in matters of state and instead consumed by her various ailments and an ongoing quest for distraction and entertainment. The job of ruling she leaves to her close friend, confidante lady-in-waiting Sarah Churchill, Duchess Of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). When Sarah’s impoverished cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) arrives at the palace looking for work, it sets in motion a ribald and ruthless power struggle as the two vie for the Queen’s favour and affections.

A bawdy, powerhouse period piece, “The Favourite” is Lanthimos’ most accessible work by far, a saucy, savage mash-up of “Blackadder”-esque machinations and archly on-point social commentary and luxuriously indulgent production values. Caustic and utterly compelling, the film belongs entirely to its devilishly profane and powerful trio of actresses, who play their own game of thrones as the manoeuvring around the Palace hierarchy turns chess into a blood sport. Coleman, Weisz and Stone each deliver astonishing work and as their characters plan their next moves and countermoves, the three actresses likewise combine to play their own game of one-upmanship,  not trying to upstage their co-stars but instead helping the others to even greater heights.

The wonderful camera work and general aesthetic owe a considerable debt to Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” but this is no mere homage or recreation. By turns glorious and grotesque, “The Favourite” retains enough of Lanthimos’ idiosyncratic strangeness and oddity to sate his existing fan base while undoubtedly winning him a whole new army of admirers. It’s a dizzying, dazzling triumph which leaves only one burning question unanswered: how much did Nike pay for the most unexpected and abstract product placement in the history of cinema?

10/10 

Zemeckis’ real life toy story lacks buzz. Welcome To Marwen (2018) Review

Inspired by the true story of Mark Hogancamp who, having suffered a horrific attack, finds solace and support in an elaborate fantasy art installation, Robert Zemeckis sets out to convey a poignant story of the healing power of art and the dangers of the artist becoming too enraptured by the art itself but never once realised that he’s fallen victim to the exact same thing as the protagonist of this always watchable if somewhat disjointed dramedy.

The gradual toyification of the opening sequence is tremendously effective but as with much of Zemeckis’ recent output, the longer it goes on, the more the technical wizardry becomes the foreground focus rather than the unobtrusive background to the compelling story. Not content with creating animated horrors from an eldritch uncanny valley in “The Polar Express” and “A Christmas Carol”, Zemeckis brings his technophilia to bear on live-action stars with varying degrees of success.

“Welcome To Marwen” is an odd sort of movie, never quite sure of what its meant to be from one moment to the next. While we eventually get to piece together what actually happened to Mark Hogancamp, there’s an attempt to nest the story in various layers of fantasy and flashback which isn’t entirely successful, leaving a muddled sort of viewing experience. As a result, the performances of the cast are likewise jumbled and uneven – even though Carell and the rest of the eclectic cast do some terrific work – adding to far less than the sum of its parts. Maudlin when it should be moving and unintentionally funny when it should be stirring, “Welcome To Marwen” feels like an esoteric companion piece to “Small Soldiers” rather than the whimsical and inspirational biopic it wants to be.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that Zemeckis’ only interest here was as a technical exercise in special effects and motion capture. You’re never not aware of the digital wizardry at work but it comes at the expense of verisimilitude, preventing the emotional core of the story from really hitting home. It’s a film about a man healing from trauma through art that’s all too interested in the art and barely concerned with the man at all.

6/10 

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) is a musical trooping of the colour in recognition of the majesty of Queen.

You may be expecting a story of the notorious Singer whose controversial behaviour and alleged sexual predilections and hedonistic bacchanalia have become the stuff of rumour and innuendo legend, but we’re not here to talk about the Director, we’re here to find out what the movie is like.

A rambunctious, mischievous and unexpectedly moving celebration of Queen, their music and, of course, their astonishing lead singer Freddie Mercury, “Bohemian Rhapsody” follows Freddie and the band from their very beginnings through their rise and gradual decline to their triumphant renaissance at Live Aid.

If you’re expecting a hard-hitting expose or a warts-and-all biographical confessional, this isn’t the film for you. Not that it’s a hagiography either; it doesn’t shy away from showing Mercury’s more troubled side, nor does it in any way attempt to erase his sexuality, it just doesn’t dwell on those aspects. But then it really doesn’t dwell on anything at all, strutting through the lifetime of the band like a greatest hits compilation that covers more than just the music. If anything, it’s expertly designed to reinforce and polish to a brilliant shine the existing public perception of Freddie and his bandmates.

It’s very much in keeping with the band’s music – inventive, playful and capable of moving from frivolous repartee to spinetingling emotion in just a few bars of melody. The whole thing is powered by a transcendent performance from Rami Malek, who gets so close to the real thing  – or at least how we perceived the real Freddie – that at times, especially during the Live Aid sequence which closes the movie – he becomes Freddie Mercury. In terms of plot, it allows itself some dramatic licence, from the dark Iago-like machinations of Mercury’s personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) to a slight muddling of the real-life timeline to combine Mercury’s HIV diagnosis with the band’s Live Aid performance.

It’s not just Malek who nails his character, with Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joseph Mazzello inhabiting Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon so completely you could almost believe you’re watching actual footage of the band. The rest of the supporting cast is superb too, with Lucy Boynton, as Freddie’s one-time fiancée and lifelong friend Mary Austin providing the stable emotional melody against which Freddie’s life soars and plummets like his vocal performances. Mike Myers makes a cameo appearance as EMI Executive Ray Foster, mainly it would seem to make an incredibly meta (and hilarious) joke about how unlikely “Bohemian Rhapsody” is to become a hit.

If you’re searching for a deeper truth behind the myth of the man and the band then you’re likely to be disappointed, but if, like me, you were looking for a celebration of everything you loved – and a reminder of just how good Queen were, then you’re in for a treat. I’m not prone to being especially choosy about formats but Mrs Craggus and I did choose to see this in IMAX not, for once, for the picture quality but for the sound and we were not disappointed. The songs explode into life on the big screen and by the time you get to that Live Aid moment, don’t be surprised if it moves you to tears. It did me.

Flamboyant, theatrical and driven by the sheer joy of making music, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a rock ‘n’ roll carnival, a celebration of every type of love and a musical trooping of the colour in recognition of the majesty of Queen.

10/10 

First Man (2018) Review

Opening with Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) test piloting an X-15 rocket ship so high you fear he may crash in to the orbiting Universal Logo which went past mere seconds before, Damien Chazelle’s quietly absorbing biopic is something of an antithesis to the usual stars ‘n’ stripes bombastic heroic portrayal the US space program usually receives. Instead, the focus here puts the man in the foreground while the mission is pushed to the back.

Covering the period from 1961 through to the summer of ’69, “First Man” follows Armstrong from his time as a test pilot, through the heartbreaking loss of his infant daughter to cancer, to his application to join the Gemini programme and ultimately the successful completion of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing mission.

Josh Singer’s screenplay carefully avoids romanticising or sentimentalising the events he’s chronicling and the film moves unhurriedly but never sluggishly through the years, touching on pivotal moments and key events in the ongoing cold war space race. The international diplomatic dick measuring contest between the United States and the Soviet Union is acknowledged and shown for what it was, but more in framing how the challenge of achieving the impossible tasks felt for the men and women involved (although this movie largely erases women’s contributions to the space programme outside of their role as wives to the astronauts) at the engineering and scientific frontier, far away from the conference rooms, debating chambers and seats of power.

As Neil Armstrong, Gosling delivers a strong, stoic performance, befitting a man as reserved as Armstrong’s reputation (contrasting strongly with Buzz Aldrin’s in-your-face attitude as played by a bafflingly bald Corey Stoll) while Claire Foy gets good mileage from fretting and smoking and thousand-yard staring.

Chazelle’s direction is a world away from the every-shot-is-a-hero-shot approach of “Apollo 13” and he keeps things intimate by keeping his hand-held shots tight in on the characters or constantly peering over their shoulders. There’s also a visceral commitment to showing the terrifying reality of space exploration in the 1960s. Far from the sanitised versions we’ve seen before, space travel is chaotic, frightening and cacophonous. Whether this ‘shoot for the Moon’ biopic has a chance of snagging any of the big Oscar categories remains to be seen but it’s surely a shoe-in for the sound mixing/ editing awards. The deceptively placid earth-bound scenes are interspersed with screeching, kinetic, white-knuckle sequences such as the unbearably tense Gemini 8 mission or the Apollo 11 Moon landing itself.

“First Man” serves to remind us not only how far we reached and how quickly (as Armstrong wryly points out in the face of an unimpressed Senator, we went from the first manned flight to aiming for the moon in just over sixty years) but how impressive, reckless, brave and costly it was to do so. It also pointedly reminds us of how we’re currently failing to apply the same spirit, effort and resolve to the similarly vast and seemingly intractable problems facing mankind now.

8/10 

Spike Lee uses black comedy to showcase white horror in all its grotesquerie. BlacKkKlansman (2018)

There’s a deep-rooted discomfort at the heart of “BlacKkKlansman” and it’s the fact that instead of being a historical, true story poking cautionary fun at the ignorance of the past, it instead feels like a howl of furious irony at the recidivism of modern-day America.

In 1979, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), Colorado Springs’ first African-American police officer successfully managed to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan, recruits his Jewish coworker, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to act as him in order to meet the Klan members in person.

“BlacKkKlansman” marks a searing return to form for Lee, as he leverages the absurdity of historic events into an all-too-revealing mirror for the current socio-political climate in America. Every laugh – and there are plenty because this is a funny film – is accompanied by a wince, not just at the brazen malice and hatred being displayed by the characters on screen but also because the echoes of their hateful acts and utterances are almost louder now than they were back then.

John David Washington and Adam Driver deliver superb performances and the supporting cast assay a veritable white rainbow of the spectrum of racism at the time from Police Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) and his tolerance of Frederick Weller’s loathsomely racist Patrolman Andy Landers through the hateful ignorance of Klan bumpkin ‘Ivanhoe’ (Paul Walter Hauser) to radicalized would-be terrorist Felix Kendrickson (Jasper Pääkkönen)

The screenplay is replete with replays of today’s slogans and dog-whistles and while it may indulge in some dramatic licence when it comes to the finale and even streamlines some of Stallworth’s undercover activity, it’s in service of an undeniably powerful message and a compelling narrative that walks a fine line between humour and horror.

The decision in the final few moments of the film to focus on the modern-day outrages of Charlottesville may seem somewhat heavy-handed to the choir to which the film may have been preaching but in including it, Lee feels like he’s seeking to hit those who are too obtuse, ignorant, jaded or obstinate to acknowledge the historic parallels without being slapped across the face with it.

Entertaining, powerful, provocative and timely, “BlacKkKlansman” is a searing indictment of a fearful nation under God, fractured and divided, with liberty and justice for some.

8/10 

Adrift (2018) Review

The lure of a life of freedom on the open ocean is an easy one to understand, at least when the sea is a beautiful blue expanse, stretching out to an endless horizon. But the romantic picture postcard ideal doesn’t last long for Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley) and Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) when their trans-Pacific voyage is interrupted by Hurricane Raymond with devastating results.

There’s no doubting how harrowing the ordeal that Tami Oldham Ashcraft went through was, but this bland Instagram melodrama barely manages to scratch the surface. Oh, sure, the macro-crisis is well articulated but the series of smaller challenges of day to day survival simply float past one after the other, resolved with little in the way of tension or difficulty.

Both leads try hard, Producer/ star Shailene Woodley especially giving a performance so earnestly recognition hungry Leonardo DiCaprio would be proud, but the chemistry just isn’t there and the intricately interwoven narrative structure of flashbacks and current predicament (which seems cynically designed to disguise the lack of actual incident) actively works against them developing a genuine rapport. The script is so flat and clumsily insipid, it feels like the writers who adapted the real-life memoire, secure in the knowledge that this was a true story and things actually happened this way, decided they didn’t need to do anything to make it ‘feel’ authentic on screen. Thus the fine performances and the impressive if repetitive visuals hang from the screenplay as lifeless as the sails of a schooner becalmed in the doldrums.

Baltasar Kormákur does a decent job, with the help of Cinematographer Robert Richardson, in capturing the tropical idyll of Tahiti and the vast desolation of the open Pacific but, once the storm has passed, the drifting vessel doesn’t offer much kinetic visual appeal and the frequent aerial shots of the tiny boat on the dark blue water get a bit tedious, even if he does try to keep things fresh moving it from Corner to corner like a DVD player screensaver. More impressive is the dedication to realism with much of the movie – including the ocean scenes – being filmed on location and only a couple of dodgy CGI moments during the height of the storm sequence (par for the course from the director of “Everest”) let the side down.

It sounds ludicrous to say it, but this traumatic true story plays out too easily on screen, robbing it of its rightful drama. I suspect the book was much better at showing the experience was much worse.

5/10