Review: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)


It’s a kind of Malek (sorry): GK Films/New Regency Pictures

Well I’ve finally watched BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, and it’s fine. But doesn’t such an icon as Freddie Mercury deserve a little more than just fine?

Before they were legends of rock, Queen were experimental unknowns with a dentally challenged lead singer from Zanzibar. Freddie Mercury’s (Rami Malek) vocal gymnastics and the band’s sheer talent and memorability brought them success around the world, but not without a cost.

To be honest, after all the behind-the-scenes drama, I’m amazed the film has turned out as coherent as it has. It’s not a particularly revelatory take on the band’s formation, ups or downs, but it moves along briskly enough.

Malek absolutely nails Freddy’s physicality and he has presence even if the script doesn’t really allow for him to explore any hidden depths. It’s not all about the frontman, though his private life takes up a good amount of the screentime, and in fact the film works better as a biopic of Queen the band. The scenes in the recording studio and the unconventional techniques employed to produce their unique sound, particularly for their first mega-hit album “Night at the Opera” are a treat for any fans of the band.

The film’s best material is the obsessively detailed recreation of Queen’s live performances. The Live Aid set piece at the end crackles with energy and the dynamic cinematography is pleasing, though the effects used to recreate the stadium and crowds could have probably done with another pass, having not quite lost their CG-sheen.

Fear not, Mercury’s sexuality is not glossed over as was earlier rumoured. Whether this was changed in re-shoots after the damaging early press coverage is unclear, but what we see is an explicitly bisexual Freddie. What we actually see is pretty tame, but we will likely never get the warts and all exploration of his sexual excesses (that originally cast Sacha Baron Cohen reportedly wanted to get into) while his bandmates are still alive.

Having Queen keeping such a close eye on everything has sapped so much life out of this film. I get them wanting to protect their late friend’s legacy and wanting equal credit for the band’s success, but when you’re stopping your film dead to cut to May (Gwilym Lee) or Taylor (Ben Hardy) nodding encouragement (understandably lampooned already on Twitter) or reminding the audience for the fifth time that they were well-educated guys in addition to being rockstars, then you’ve got a problem.

Did they really put Mike Myers in this just to have an excuse for a cheap WAYNE’S WORLD joke? I think they did.

Thank goodness that Queen single-handedly saved Live Aid and ended hunger in Africa. Elton J-who? David Bo-why? Just in case you’re not swept up by the showmanship and the crowd’s roars weren’t clue enough that this was the best act of the day, the point is hammered home by charity types forlornly manning the silent phones until Queen take to the stage and open the public’s hearts. It’s this kind of hagiography that is so often the result of people making films about themselves and their mates.

I can’t get too worked up about much of this. What I struggle with is using Freddy Mercury’s HIV-positive diagnosis to give them all the impetus to take the gig. I think they actually took the job because not doing so when every other big name in British music was making an appearance would look bad. Never mind dramatic licence, that just feels a little bit icky.

I’d have preferred to feel stronger either way about Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s far from an insult to Freddie Mercury’s memory and it does celebrate Queen’s music in energetic fashion. But where’s the heart? Where’s the nuance? Where’s the storytelling beats not copied wholesale from Every Music Biopic Ever? SSP

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Review in Brief: A Star is Born (2018)

For his control over A STAR IS BORN’s live performance scenes alone, Bradley Cooper should have been nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. I guess he’ll have to be content with his directorial debut just getting nominations for Best Picture, cinematography, sound, music and three out of four of the acting categories. A repeated reference made is to “profiles” which works both for Cooper’s love of filming characters framed against a strong light source from the side and also the rise and fall of a pop star’s image. Ally’s persona as she hits the big time doesn’t quite go full Lady Gaga, but it gets close. Speaking of Gaga, she’s almost unrecognisable as pre-fame Ally, insecure and endearing, swept off her feat by a beguiling barely-functioning-alcoholic rockstar. It is the film’s pure and heartfelt first half that grabs you with the most force, as the rest of this story we’ve seen time and time again. SSP

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30s Review: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)


No, my tights are a more garish shade!: Warner Bros

Why do they keep trying to make Robin Hood gritty? Robin Hood is supposed to be fun! Folk heroes bring cultures together by passing on stories and teaching us lessons about ourselves. Trying to force a modern tone on them or making them fit into the hottest current filmmaking trend doesn’t work. THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is the classic take on the legend, the most fun take on the legend, the best take on the legend.

The heroic Saxon noble Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) begins a quest to free his kinsmen from the tyranny of Prince John (Claude Rains) and Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), rallying followers to his cause and redistributing the Norman conquerors’ ill-gotten wealth to the oppressed English population.

Admittedly we are given about five first acts in the film before a grand finale. It might be a little annoying for the overall rhythm of watching the thing, making the first half feel a bit episodic and inconsequential, but it’s appropriate for the telling of a serial-type story (these are the adventures plural of our emerald-tighted hero after all).

More than any other pre-existing film, this was heavily borrowed from to produce the Disney movie with anthropomorphic animals. Oh, who are we kidding? Forget borrowing, the Disney film is Adventures of Robin Hood with a fox in the lead. I was genuinely surprised that we don’t ever see Claude Rains sucking his thumb. When Disney inevitably get round to remaking their version, it’ll be even more obvious how blatantly they copied this.

What I love about large-scale films with ambitious action sequences from this period is that so much is done for real, because there really was no other way of achieving the desired effect. You had to get a couple of hundred extras in weapons and armour on a soundstage and get them to lay into each other convincingly enough to look real but not so convincingly anyone got hurt or destroyed the set. Yes, the expensive actors are sometimes swapped out for less expensive stunt performers, but the fight and chase scenes have a real jeopardy to them. Did you know that stuntmen received a bonus for each arrow they agreed to have fired into them? No tricks here, they were literally firing arrows into each other and hoping they were wearing enough padding!

There’s a reason why everyone who appreciates movie sword fights still bangs on about Flynn/Robin vs Rathbone/Gisbourne. The fight takes up the full frame with few cutaways to hide behind, the duelists clearly very adept with a blade for real. It’s the ultimate fight of good vs evil, right vs wrong, arrogance vs…more arrogance.

The cast are an extremely entertaining troupe. Errol Flynn may not have been a nice guy at all to work with, but he makes an excellent Robin, flitting between roguish charm and righteous determination to achieve justice for his fellow Englishmen. Basil Rathbone is steely and beard-strokingly evil as the ultimate scheming right-hand to the real villain, Claude Rains in a terrible ginger wig. Olivia de Havilland impressively even brings some sharpness to Maid Marian when the script allows (when).

Remember when historical action movies were colourful and a joy to watch? Ridley Scott wants you to forget so he can make more desaturated big battle scenes. Remember when swashbuckling adventures weren’t ego trips? Johnny Depp want you to forget so he can turn up in another wig with hidden earpiece. I’m sure many watching this today might giggle at The Adventures of Robin Hood, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I really don’t think we were meant to take the whole thing seriously; it’s just a bit of fun. It’s gleefully over-the-top in places (hands on hips, thigh-slapping laughter) but it’s all part of the charm. SSP

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Review in Brief: Paddleton (2019)

“An oncologist…that’s the cancer one?” Yes, PADDLETON is a “cancer movie”. It’s also an indie road movie involving two guys struggling to articulate their feelings. But I don’t think all that many of either look at both sides of terminal illness with such heart and intelligence. “I’m the dying guy!” / “I’m the other guy!”. Mark Duplass is an underrated and versatile actor; he can be tragic (SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED), terrifying (CREEP) or awkward (HUMPDAY) but he’s always compelling. Between this and THE BIG SICK, Ray Romano has had a good few years of nuanced supporting roles, and his chemistry with Duplass is at the core of why the film works. This is a great little film about men unable to say what they mean, what they must and not being able to admit that you’re not ready to say goodbye. Never before has intercut scenes of two guys microwaving pizza been more heartbreaking. SSP

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Review: Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)


Checking in?: Goddard Textiles/TSG Entertainment

Drew Goddard clearly loves genre storytelling, but in a sideways manner. His films aren’t really spoofs or pastiches, they’re twists and re-jigs. The essential elements that make a genre recognisable are all there, but arranged in a pattern you’ve never quite seen before. BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE continues in this vein.

Secrets, lies, a bi-state-straddling hotel long past its splendour and four strangers with agendas equals a very interesting night’s stay. What do a priest (Jeff Bridges), a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a salesman (John Hamm) and a rebel (Dakota Johnson) have to hide?

Much like in Goddard’s CABIN IN THE WOODS, the board is set, the rules established then board and rulebook are chucked into a woodchipper. It’s a bit less glib about what it’s doing with noir conventions than his horror deconstruction was, but it’s still very knowing. We’re given a long time to get to know the characters and the setting on a surface level, but concrete facts about people remain elusive. No one’s who they say they are, the question is to what extent are they not who they say they are? The film’s strongest initial stretch mostly comprises of the guests trying to work each other out while keeping their own secrets, the El Royale included as another enigmatic character. Sadly the first character to violently cop it ends up being less interesting than the others purely from their lack of screentime, but there isn’t a weak performance in the ensemble.

I think by this point people who are pretending to be priests to hide their ulterior motives outnumber actual priests by quite a bit in movies. Our “priest” here is Jeff Bridges, who continues his run of the most nuanced performances of his career, twisting our sympathies for him and vice versa this way and that. Each guest brings their own sub-genre with them to flavour the film, from crime to conspiracy and cult horror. Bad Times even veers off into full-blown musical territory with Cynthia Erivo’s blow-the-doors-off soul numbers.

Bad Times is a lot more stylistically interesting than Cabin in the Woods, playing with time and perspective to keep you on your toes. You immediately think of RESERVOIR DOGS with the opening quiet aftermath of a heist and the Tarantino comparisons keep coming as Goddard’s film relies heavily on the PULP FICTION/HATEFUL EIGHT retread the same scene from someone else’s POV trick, which is great for very gradually revealing key plot information.

Godard makes use of his mid-range budget (sadly these under $30-50 mil passion projects still don’t make money) and his talented cinematographer Seamus McGarvey to make this look seriously good. The lighting and framing are meticulous, capturing characters in parallel prisons and duplicitous dungeons of the physical location and their own psyches. Respect must be paid to the production design team for making the El Royale look credible and yet striking and otherworldly, a difficult balance.

I will say that the film’s last stretch (pretty much from Chris Hemsworth’s appearance onwards) doesn’t deliver on the potential of all the setup. At this point the story becomes all-too-convenient. For one thing, Hemsworth’s Billy Lee didn’t need to be revealed until he’s brought into the plot and might have been more effective as an enigmatic imminent threat. He’s also not a particularly memorable antagonist and his MO is basically like DIE HARD’s Hans Gruber hiding his insecurities, but instead of a thief pretending to be a terrorist with an ideology he’s a bully pretending to be spiritual leader.

Does Bad Times at the El Royale stick a tricky landing? Almost, but a faltering final act and a certain amount of self-indulgence gets in the way. But a few flaws aside, this is an interesting character study within a genre cocktail, with vibrant style to spare. SSP

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Review: Lucky (2017)


Walkin’ man: Superlative Films/Divide/Conquer

Some people really are just lucky. How was a man that had crossed the threshold into his 90s, that smoked and drank and liked cream and sugar in his coffee, still that sprightly? John Carroll Lynch’s film proclaims in the credits that “Harry Dean Stanton is LUCKY”. And Lucky is an unassuming poem on film.

Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) walks here and there around his town, takes it all in and talks about life, whatever is left of his 90+ years. This is his understated and yet remarkable story.

It’s an unglamorous final role for Stanton, not that any of his many roles in his fruitful career were all that glamorous. What his performances mostly tended to be was endearing, and Lucky is no different. The opening scene sees him wake up, cigarette already in hand, wash his armpits, exercise and get dressed. Then a lot of the film that follows has us watch Lucky walking slowly and purposefully around his small desert town. And then he walks, sits, talks, walks again and repeats. Everything about this story is pleasingly everyday, even when things go a bit dreamy and Lucky seems to look towards his impending afterlife. After all, what is more human than looking towards our end?

What better way for a film to comment on mortality than for its star to be making, and know that he’s making, the final film of his life? John Carroll Lynch is a solid character actor, but here in his directorial debut he shows a good eye for grounded beauty and along with co-writer Logan Sparks clearly developed a sturdy enough relationship with his star to tease the best out of his life and result in the most nuanced near-real performance. Stanton may have looked like he would go on forever, but he must’ve sensed his end was near and indeed he ended up passing away two weeks before the film went on general release.

If Big Tobacco ever want a bit of positive press for a change they’d be hard pressed to get a better retort than Stanton’s to some unwanted health advice: “Those things are gonna kill you” / “If they could’ve they would’ve”. It may be unfair, but sometimes it’s just down to genes.

Like in real life, David Lynch (unexpectedly good here) plays Lucky’s best friend. He’s bemoaning the loss of his pet tortoise that’s run away. “I want to find him, he’s outlived two of my wives”. The tortoise is an important symbol for the film, apart from reflecting the philosophy of this group of characters leisurely moving through life, it could very well be Lucky’s spirit guide, slowly walking into the desert sunset like him. “He’s not missing. He’s not here, he’s there, wherever that is”.

You want wisdom, real wisdom? Try Lucky’s catchphrase, his remaining-life mantra on for size: “Realism is a thing” / “Truth is a thing”. There’s nothing pretentious about Lucky – he’s straightforward and he prefers the company of similar individuals who take things for what they actually are. He doesn’t even like complicated TV: “[DEAL OR NO DEAL is] a convoluted piece of sh*t!”.

I think I knew from the start that this one would stay with me. I like low-key. I like films that take their time and don’t feel they need to end up anywhere in particular. I like films that look at life, the universe and everything but don’t look like they’re doing it. I liked Harry Dean Stanton and his lifelong not-giving-a-sh*t. He acted as he lived, without airs and graces. He was real, he was true. He’s not here now, he’s there, wherever that is. SSP

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Review: Roma (2018)


Happy families?: Esperanto Filmoj/Netflix

You’re probably going to decide whether ROMA is for you or not by its opening shot, a very long shot of soapy water washing up and down some flagstones. It certainly sets the mood and the pace of the piece, a reflective walk down memory lane for writer-director Alfonso Cuarón.

The story of a housekeeper (Yalitza Aparicio) to an upper middle-class family in Mexico City and a turbulent year in the 1970s that changes all of their lives.

Straight out of the gate Cleo is marked as different by her first language, the Mexican indigenous language of Mixtec, a difference emphasised by presenting this dialogue in a different format of subtitle to the Spanish her employers speak. It’s a question of class and ethnicity, but also a conscious choice exercised by the housekeepers for the sake of what little privacy they are allowed and to keep their unique identity intact while performing a menial job. We couldn’t be placed in closer proximity to Cleo and her experiences, Aparicio in her incredible screen debut imbuing everything she does with an earnest humanity.

Unusually, and helpfully for a non-Spanish speaking audience, the subtitles are lined up in frame with the action, or the focus of the shot, so you never find yourself scanning the screen to keep up and never miss telling little details in scenes, and these little details are many. Mischievous little running gags are peppered throughout too, often involving the family’s dogs’ endless pooing or the dad’s (Fernando Grediaga, all hairy wrists and bling) obsession with his shiny car not quite meshing with his lack of spacial awareness.

The family are not cruel to Cleo, but they’re unappreciative. She’s as much a given in their day-to-day lives as running water and only very occasionally in moments of extreme emotional and physical distress are they thankful for having her as part of the family unit. The mother (Marina de Tavira, permanently tightly coiled) especially seems to see Cleo more as a convenience than a person, but when she goes through her own troubles they form an unlikely but real bond. You could see Roma as Cuarón’s belated letter of apology to his real childhood housekeeper, only remembering how beloved she really was when looking back through the mists of time. Speaking of Cuarón, his story stand-in is of course the widest-eyed of the children and we see him in a formative scene watching, what else? A space movie (MAROONED). I wonder if that’ll have an influence on his career…

Shots go on forever both in terms of the director’s usual showy long-takes (used for both action scenes and extended dialogue) but also how far back into each scene you can see. Everything’s visually as well as emotionally deep. The languid pace of the storytelling and Cleo’s repetitive daily routine gives you plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and really feel for the characters grappling with their place in the world and their relationships with others, Cuarón’s cinematography keeping us intimately involved with domestic events and yet passive and helpless observers of the moments when lives are upended.

There’s been a lot of talk about whether it’s “right” to watch Roma on Netflix (“the way Alfonso Cuarón intended” is already a fairly amusing meme). Yes, it would have been nice to see these meticulous visuals on a big screen, but equally we’re talking about the democratisation of cinema here and the idea that a quick release to Netflix has resulted in many more seeing Roma than otherwise would have done.

Roma is unquestionably a hang-it-in-a-gallery-beautiful film, emotionally punchy and deeply personal to the director’s childhood experiences. You may find it too measured or drawn out, you may find Cuarón’s Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN more honest and immediate or CHILDREN OF MEN to be more visceral, but this is still pretty special. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Rider (2017/18)

THE RIDER is a story about overcoming trauma, much like JOURNEYMAN, but it pack the added punch of the real. What is a rider who can’t ride? “My mom and dad taught me everything I know, but I learned a lot on back looking down them ears”. It’s easy to forget how connected the brain is to everything physical we do, the body bucks like an unbroken horse when the wrong signals are sent. Brady (Brady Jandreau) gets aftershocks of his life-changing rodeo injury, most prominently his riding hand locking up at inopportune moments, but we also get the constant reminder that everything could have gone so much worse by the presence of Lane Scott. It is these scenes shared by Brady and Lane, two real-life friends with differing levels of brain injury that shake you on a profound level. The hefty emotions, writer-director Chloé Zhao’sno-nonsense storytelling and understated beauty makes this a film that completely floors you. SSP

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Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

can you ever forgive me

Peas in a pod: Fox Searchlight/Archer Gray

I’ve gone back to taking notes for this one with pen and paper – it seemed more…writerly. I have never used a typewriter. Marielle Heller’s CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? deftly tells a story that’s so bizarre it could only be true, with characters so unlikeable they’re strangely compelling.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) may be a published author, but her books aren’t selling and her publisher won’t pay her for writing any more unsexy, niche biographies. Lee’s abrasive personality and dislike of self-promotion turns people off personally and professionally, until fellow human-hating functioning alcoholic Jack Hock (Richard E Grant) befriends Lee, and Lee comes up with a lucrative scheme that’ll stick it to the snobbish writing establishment.

As entertaining as the escalating con job portion of the plot is, really this is a love story, a love story between two loners who need friendship, whether they want it or not (one does not). Lee and Jack are platonic soulmates, well, unless Lee’s cat is around. Lee is almost impossible to like, but easy enough to understand. She just doesn’t get people and doesn’t want to get people. As she herself states, she prefers cats, fittingly an animal that will generally leave you to it.

I’d say the film ends up being pro-writers and very anti-publishing. Lee may not be at all willing to help herself, living in an apartment littered with cat turds so old they’re practically fossilised, and drinking herself into a stupor daily, but her industry won’t cut her any slack either. Without said slack being given or financial security on her horizon, her creative well runs dry and she ends up either not writing at all or writing something that will never sell.

Much like politics, publishing is a culture of personality and self-promotion, and if you’re an author without the former and unwilling to do the latter then you won’t get far. The film is very unkind to Tom Clancy, but he was undeniably the best of the best at preserving a brand.

Lee is driven to do what she does, to forge correspondence in the guise of more famous writers out of sheer desperation, but like all good stories of amorality she soon becomes addicted to her wrongdoing, to getting her own work out there to be read by any means necessary. “I was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”. Israel clearly had a talent, to convincingly inhabit the voices of others. A great visual for this is seeing her row of vintage typewriters, all labelled with the “characters” she is to play. A laugh-out-loud coda to the film states that Israel’s letters as Noel Coward were published in a Noel Coward biography, a screw-up I’m sure pleased the real Israel greatly.

You don’t often find yourself thinking, “that cat’s a really good actor”, but here it’s true – Lee’s cat is biggest feline scene-stealer since that one Oscar Isaac had to carry around for much of LLEWYN DAVIS. McCarthy is my pick for Best Actress this year (she won’t win) because her performance as Lee is the most subtle and nuanced thing she’s ever done. Grant probably has a better chance in the Supporting Actor category as a “it’s about time” award. Yes, they both go through the classic Oscar-baity deglamorisation, but they’re such interesting, contradictory and hilarious figures and their every scene together is such gold that you don’t really mind.

This should have been nominated for Best Picture as well, but the Academy generally dislikes rewarding stories about terrible people outside the acting categories (see also THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET). There’s a pleasing irony to the fact that the film that’ll introduce the vast majority of audiences to Lee Israel’s story and life’s work hasn’t quite got the recognition it deserves. SSP

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Review in Brief: Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

After the sickly style and horrible humanity of NIGHTCRAWLER, I thought Dan Gilroy partnered with Jake Gyllenhaal could do no wrong. And yet, VELVET BUZZSAW turns out to be a load of pretentious cobblers. Art critics can be empty and overcompensating and up themselves, you don’t say? The film apes the work of Nicolas Winding Refn and Darren Aronofski without the punk aesthetic of the former or the new age emotionality of the latter. They also throw in a bit of THE RING at the end as well seemingly just to have something happen. The only amusing bit is Gyllenhaal casting shade on the colour of a fellow art critic’s coffin. The only memorable line is Rene Russo’s “We don’t sell durable goods, we peddle perception”, which sounds good but may not actually mean anything. It’s got a bit of style, but the horror elements aren’t disturbing, the mystery isn’t interesting and it’s just not worth your time in general. SSP

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