It’s late December, which means two things – improbably, it looks like we’re going to survive Space Hell Year 2018, and that it’s time to talk turkey about these cinematic presents: Creed II, Bohemian Rhapsody, Ralph Breaks The Internet, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Widows, Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse, Sorry to Bother You, and The Crimes of Grindelwald. Listening in is the least you could do! Well, the least you could do is not listen to it, I suppose. But we rather hope that you will choose to.
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As much a sequel to Rocky IV as it is to the first Creed, this provides another solid manpuncher outing in very much the style you’ve become accustomed to in the franchise, so presumably you’ve worked out by this point whether this sort of thing is your bag or not. It will not upset that apple cart.
I suppose in a lot of ways I’m the exact target audience that Bohemian Rhapsody is aiming for. I’m not a Queen fan, exactly, so I’ve next to no knowledge about the band or the personalities that made up the band, barring perhaps the tabloid sensationalism surrounding Freddie Mercury’s untimely death from AIDS complications. However, like, I think, most people, should one of their songs wander across my path I’ll happily nod along to it, the band having pulled off a remarkable trick of creating a broad appeal for some very weird songs.
I’d been turned off of this film from the general critical response of it being a rather neutered look at Queen and Mercury, allegedly also the reason Sasha Baron Cohen walked from the production some years back. And it’s true that in his place we have young Rami Malek, and a rather more PG oriented take on the characters and activities involved. Yet audiences loved this, raking in all the monies at the box office. Broad appeal, again.
You know what? Both groups are right. I’m not going to recount much of the film – it starts with a young, slightly unsure of himself Freddie on the cusp of remoulding himself as the entertainer he became meeting with Brian May and Roger Taylor, their band having just lost their lead singer, and joining up along with bassist John Deacon, to ultimately become the band we know, and quickly skipping forward to their initial success, their eventual tensions, Mercury’s estrangement and solo career, his tumultuous personal life in his later years, and their reconciliation and legendary Live Aid performance.
Warts and all documentary this in not, and I’d take pretty much everything here with a generous dose of salt. Everyone’s lovely in this film, barring one villain who may as well be twirling his moustache, and even the arguments are almost unreasonably polite. Well, it’s a British band, I suppose. Watching it with a critical eye, there’s many moments you will wish had been explored in more depth, and could sustain a film by themselves.
But if you can restrict yourself to the film that’s been made, as opposed to the one you can imagine, you’re left with a perhaps too-glossily presented, but very well crafted, hugely enjoyable anthem, and perhaps that sums up Queen as well as anything more in-depth ever could. There’s a number of very good performances in here, from the other members of Queen Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy and Joe Mazzello, to Aidan Gillen’s manager and Tom Hollander’s lawyer, but Rami Malek’s extraordinary turn as Mercury eclipses them all – again, not a bad summation of Queen. It perhaps goes on a touch too long, but again, not a bad summation of Queen.
It is not, by a number of metrics, a good biographical film. It is, however, a greatly entertaining one, and not every film needs to be a harrowing nightmare reflecting the harrowing nightmare of 2018’s reality. A visit to Freddie’s world is a very welcome respite in these troubled times, and while perhaps I’m not likely to ever revisit Bohemian Rhapsody, it’s one of the more enjoyable cinematic experiences I’ve had this year. I am most pleasantly surprised.
Following on from the resolutely okay Wreck-it Ralph, this follow-up outing continues the trend of okayiveness, despite ramping up the product placement to frankly obscene levels. This review brought to you in part by eBay. We award Ralph Breaks The Internet eBay/10.
The latest from the Coen brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs comes to you courtesy of Netflix, which in retrospect seems a good fit for this slightly less commercial endeavour, being an anthology sextet of short stories set among the American Old West.
Fronted by Tim Blake Nelson as the self-proclaimed “San Saba Songbird” himself, the first segment of Scruggs is by far and away the most engaging; the cautionary tale of an upbeat, archly pragmatic gunslinger with improbable aim and a penchant for song. Now, I must confess to being no great fan of Tim Blake Nelson’s dramatic stylings; indeed I consider him to have almost single-handedly ruined Syriana in his mere moments of screen time. With this in mind I was not particularly looking forward to the Coen’s latest, being as the scant marketing I had seen seemed to revolve entirely around his visage.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found this to be by some margin the most enjoyable twenty minutes on offer, at times rivalling the Coen’s best darkly comedic moments and setting a wonderful tone that I was eager to see sustained throughout the remaining five tales.
That I was eager to see sustained.
The second section, starring James Franco as a bank robber, shares some of the first segment’s dark humour and engaging character, albeit somewhat diluted. Any fears that this particular story might not have sufficient steam to carry the necessary momentum are alleviated by it being the most brief, and in the absence of any meaningful context or message it does at least have the good grace to exit the building at a brisk pace.
So far so interesting. At this point I was enjoying watching the Coen’s cut loose and having a bit of a play around.
Sadly, the remainder of the sections are of very variable quality, lack almost any sense of humour, and at least two of them could stand to lose 25% of their run time. Contrary to the opening tales, these segments offer little that is engaging beside some admittedly wonderful individual performances, and in one instance we watch Liam Neeson commit to film one of the most starkly cynical vignettes in human history.
In particular I found myself wishing I could spend more time with Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan in their incarnations from the fifth tale on offer, but again we are treated to a resolution of sorts that callously deprives us of any such hope. The more I’ve thought about it over the last 24 hours the odder this whole approach to the movie seems. In the absence of much traditional narrative (or, for the most part, levity), it feels at times as though the purpose here is to demonstrate just how well the Coens have mastered the art of character by callously disposing of them just as easily as they appear to conjure them.
Which is not to say there is nothing to enjoy here; again, as brief as the time we spend with them may be there are some wonderful characters embodied in wonderful performances, and the comic moments that come are often as inspired as one could hope for. I’m just kind of worried that the point of it all may be as downbeat as I fear it is, or that even worse there may be no point at all.
The trailer for Widows made it out to appear like one of the most generic heist plots imaginable, with the exception perhaps of the gender expectation. But when it goes on to say “Directed by Steve McQueen”, well, now it has my attention.
Viola Davis’ mild mannered teacher Veronica Rawlings’ life is flipped, turned upside down when her husband and career thief, Liam Neeson’s Harry and his crew are killed in a botched heist attempt, against what turns out to be a dangerous crimelord. This comes back to bite Veronica when said crimelord, Brian Tyree Henry’s Jamal Manning, and his disturbing enforcer brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya) decide that Veronica is on the hook for the $2 million that Harry robbed from them.
Seeking a way to raise the money before they collect on her life, she discovers Harry’s cache of heist plans, detailing one $5 million job that will strike at the heart of the city’s corrupt council members – although this is set in Chicago, so perhaps “corrupt” goes without saying – in particular the elections for alderman that Colin Farrell’s Jack Mulligan is fighting with Jamal Manning, with Mulligan somewhat unwillingly looking to continue the political dynasty from his father Tom (Robert Duvall)’s long running stint.
Needing a crew to carry out the plan, she approaches the widows of Harry’s crew, Michelle Rodriguez’s Linda Perelli, whose seemingly successful apparel shop was repossessed to pay for deadbeat husband’s gambling debts, and Elizabeth Debicki’s Alice Gunner, initially at least something of a trophy wife who has had to turn to escorting to support herself. They also draft in sometime babysitter/beautician Cynthia Erivo’s Belle to the scheme and go about planning and executing it, the details of which are best left to the watcher to discover.
If I had a complaint about this film, it’s perhaps that some of the b-plots, like the whole political corruption deal, felt like it could have done with more space to breathe, and would perhaps have been better suited to a mini-series. So, perhaps no surprise to see that this was, in fact, adapted from an 80’s mini-series, a British Lynda La Plante joint I’d never previously heard of, so no comment on that aspect, but thankfully this is a script and a cast that can pack quite a lot of meaning into a few nods and glances.
This could, perhaps open it up to being thought of as a slender plot skeleton with a lot hanging off it, and perhaps, strictly speaking that’s correct, but when it’s drowning in this much excellent character work it’s hard to be too upset about that. The leads are superb, with some real sense of character progression and many, many great small moments and deft touches that show the quality of the cast and indeed McQueen. Even Michelle Rodriguez, which may surprise Drew.
The supporting cast are just as effective, from Daniel Kaluuya’s menace, Farrell and Duvall’s interplay, or Garret Dillahunt’s sympathetic turn as the Rawlings’ driver cum bodyguard. There’s a lot of plot threads running through this, and while they don’t perhaps tie together entirely into a tapestry by the end it’s still a very attractive design that hangs together well enough to, I dunno, keep you warm with the character scarf? That metaphor got away from me a bit. I like it a lot, is what I’m getting at.
It won’t win any awards for overall originality of the plot, for sure – in particular there’s a twist that’s so obvious from the way a particular scene is shot that it might as well be written on your ticket, but overall this is a really satisfyingly dense, chewy, premium film nougat that mixes brilliant character work with genre fireworks better than any other film I’ve seen this year. It is one of the most enjoyable films of the year – not perhaps, in the artsy, pushing the boundaries of cinema sense, but in terms of being a really fun way to spend a couple of hours, and that’s more than enough for me.
Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse
I think it’s reasonably widely known that Marvel’s best character (fact, not opinion) is the one which has stayed the most outwith Disney’s grasp as they have attempted to bring all of their properties back under one roof after Marvel’s scattershot approach to licensing in the 1980s and 1990s. While Sony have inked some recent deals with the House of Mouse to allow the character to appear in the MCU, they don’t seem keen on relinquishing their hold on the webslinger any time soon.
A result of this has been three different actors portraying three different incarnations of Spider-Man on the big screen in the last dozen years, and while the excellent Tom Holland has put to bed the memory of the underwhelming Andrew Garfield films, it’s still a rather wearying number. So, naturally, Sony is countering this reboot ennui with… 7 more incarnations of Spider-Man. In the same film.
OK, so that’s deliberately disingenuous, but it’s not unreasonable to be slightly concerned by it. Fortunately, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not quite like unto the others. Firstly, it’s an animated feature and, secondly, it’s a sort of (loving) pastiche of the multiple Spider-Beings populating numerous alternate universes, timelines and time periods in the comics.
While Peter Parker is here (well, three of him, actually), our hero is Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a gifted teenager unwilling, or afraid, to fulfil his potential. While out one night with his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali), Miles stumbles upon a secret underground experiment being conducted by Liev Schreiber’s Kingpin, and witnesses the death of Spider-Man at his hands. Spidey charges Miles with shutting down Kingpin’s experiment, as it may end the universe. So no pressure, kid.
After the requisite spider bitey moment (and one of the funniest moments in a film full of them), Miles must come to terms with his new found powers just as he needs to save the world. Fortunately he’s aided in this by the timely appearance of no less than 5 other Spider-folk from alternate dimensions (and Lily Tomlin’s kick-ass Aunt May), Kingpin’s experiment having ripped a hole in the fabric of reality.
As for the rest of the story: it goes much as you would expect it to, and there’s nothing tremendously special about it. What is special, however, is just how funny and endearing it is: while there’s clearly some gentle poking of fun at Marvel’s seemingly endless alternate realities, it clearly comes from a place of affection and familiarity, and leans into the very different takes, including Peter Porker, or Spider-Ham (sadly not Spider-Pig) and the black and white Spider-Man Noir.
The unremarkable (for comic book material) story and a too long action set piece finale are the only slight knocks against an otherwise wholly entertaining film, and a wonderfully animated one at that. Indeed, I haven’t seen anything quite like it, with a mix of styles (including some almost photo-realistic city shots) working together far better than they have any right to. There’s also a really nice touch (seen sometimes in a shimmer across the screen, sometimes in close-ups) that looks like the Ben-Day dots/pointillism of classic comic book printing, but is not overused.
The voice talent is also really good, with New Girl’s Jake Johnson, Kathryn Hann and Hailee Steinfeld adding to the performances I mentioned earlier, though it’s the presence of Mr. Nicolas Cage, a) in a good comic book film and, b) giving a good performance and seemingly actually enjoying himself that’s the icing on the cake for me.
An unexpected treat, and very much worth checking out.
I realised recently that there is a huge blind spot in my knowledge of African American filmmakers. I discovered this thanks to Sorry to Bother You, the debut feature of writer-director Boots Riley which I did not realise was his debut because a) I was adamant I had seen another of his films even though I couldn’t name it and b) this is an incredibly individual and in many ways accomplished first feature.
StBY is a difficult film to surmise, so I’m going to cause myself no end of affront and default to IMDB’s stock synopsis: “In an alternate present-day version of Oakland, telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into a universe of greed.”
That is as good and succinct a summation as I or anyone else to my knowledge has provided, the problem being that it doesn’t explain the half of it.
Lakeith Stanfield, an actor I was adamant I had seen in other lead roles even though I couldn’t name them, is Cassius, a well-meaning young man with bills to pay and an aspiring artist girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson, who I can confirm I have seen in many other roles and can name them) who seems as though she may slip from his grasp lest he get his act together.
Starting his new job in telemarketing, Cassius is initially woefully unsuccessful, and seems destined to workplace anonymity until colleague Langston (Danny Glover) tells him the secret of success: using your “white voice,” which is to say quite literally adopting a Caucasian accent and mannerisms.
Soon the clients are eating out of Cassius’ hand, and he rises swiftly through the ranks as an office hero and, ultimately, a Power Seller. Power Sellers are the international telemarketers who broker inter-business, multi-million dollar deals, and while it certainly brings him financial gain and corporate kudos, Cassius soon finds himself distanced from his friends who, on the floors far below, are organising a revolt against the oppression of their workplace.
If that all sounds somewhat plausible then what you need to know about Sorry to Bother You is that it absolutely is, but at the same time absolutely is not. What we haven’t touched on yet is the surrealism, of which there is a great deal, and it is this which sets the movie apart from its peers. In tackling a well-worn message of…I presume broadly corporate oppression of the individual, StBY mixes elements of something like Office Space with visual and narrative cues that crib from the works of Michel Gondry and the ilk. The result is an undeniably unique take on a tale as old as capitalism, though that’s not to say I found it without flaw.
Taking the example of the “white voice” device, Riley takes the bold route of giving his characters an obvious over-dub, and the effect is both immediate and striking in how succinctly it speaks to a broad distrust of black voices in white Western society. Point well made. If I have any quarrel with this device it’s that eventually it outstays it’s welcome, transitioning from fresh to staid by the time the characters involved have cause to drop the veneer.
Likewise narratively Riley runs things into the ground somewhat in a final act that takes the surrealist principles so far deployed all the way up to eleven, and then onto twelve, at which point the wings fall off. I got really frustrated thinking about this movie over the following days, as there is 70% of an age-defining work of art here that feels like it squanders the remaining 30% in a daft, intentional slice into the rough.
Having said that, as I read through some of the deserved critical praise bestowed upon his efforts I also wondered whether or not the real purpose of Riley’s work was to demonstrate that, like Jordan Peele achieved with Get Out, a black filmmaker can appropriate a “white voice” through devices we have traditionally associated with non-black writers and directors. Caveat: I make that statement knowing full well I have, as previously stated, little to no frame of reference in terms of African American filmmakers.
If that is the case then again, it’s a point brilliantly made. Either way, while I am in no way in love with StBY I deeply admire it its ambitions, and I am genuinely excited to see what Riley does next.
I wouldn’t blame you if you’d forgotten how Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them ended a few years ago, but it shockingly revealed that evil wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) had been at large in Colin Farrell’s body, before being arrested, to the disinterested shrugs of all involved. The Crimes of Grindelwald wastes no time in breaking him out of chokey, releasing him to the pre-WW2 world to do… well, not all that much, as it turns out.
He’s fled to Paris and sets about attracting a cadre of like-minded wizard supremacists, couching their language in concerns for the non-magical folks’ increasing capacity for self-destruction, but behind closed doors seeking dominion. Who should face up to this threat? Jude Law’s Dumbledor? Probably, but he can’t, for reasons of no interest to all but the Potter lore obsessives. The appropriate authorities? Probably, but they can’t because mumble mumble look over there a shiny thing. A magical zookeeper? Yes! Fetch Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scoobydooby.
The flimsiness of the rationale for dispatching him to Paris is rivalled only by the reasons for having Alison Sudol’s Queenie Goldstein and Dan Fogler’s Jacob Kowalski showing back up. And if you think those were flimsy, just you wait until you get to the reasons they break apart, or indeed to the introduction of Voldemort’s snake, who is a Korean lady here, please – don’t ask.
My main issue with the first Fantastic Beasts film was that the story was barely more than a fag packet sketch that could be summed up as “Grindelwald exists”. My main issue with this outing is that exactly the same summation applies, and it’s very hard to see this as anything other than a lazy cash in, or at the most forgiving, a gratingly drawn out version of what should have been the first act of whatever the next film winds up being, assuming that one has a plot worth discussing.
It’s not fair to say that it’s entirely a repeat of the last film – Rowling’s taken some inspiration from the Star Wars Disneyverse by stuffing in pointless references to past works to gain some fuzzy nostalgic feels. Do you remember Nicholas Flammel? Have you craved an on-screen presence for him? Well, your long nightmare is finally over, you lone weirdo, but I can’t imagine most others caring in the slightest. I most certainly didn’t.
And the rest of it, well, it’s a thing that was in front of my eyeballs for somewhere north of two hours, at least a half hour too long, that’s put together well enough mechanically that it wasn’t a dull experience. David Yates and co have been at the wizarding grindstone often enough to know how this sort of thing goes, with decent enough CG and all that jazz. The actors, even the allegedly #metooey ones like Depp, do what’s asked of them well enough.
They’re let down by a script from Rowling that’s, well, barely present, and characters so unmemorable that I had an argument on the way out of the cinema with my wife on whether Ezra Miller’s character was actually in the first film. Which also underlines the unmemorability of the central premise of that film, which sadly continues into this one. It’s all gathering clouds with no release of a thunderstorm, and lots of Rowling stomping around saying “I am making a clever allegory here without actually having anything happen”. Again, all text, no subtext. I know authors that use subtext, and they’re cowards.
Eddie Redmayne’s Doctor Who knockoff is, by himself, alright – mainly, and perhaps only, because Redmayne is such a likable actor – but he’s bumbling around in situations of such grave import that it’s a weird, unsatisfying clash. A series that seems like it should be a mild mannered, socially awkward guy having whacky adventures with far-fetched magical animals is being hammered into the shape of an anti-fascist, rise of the Nazis analogy that’s forced to the point of shattering. It’s a bad idea, poorly observed, underwritten, and is a glowing weak spot in the film’s makeup.
There’s enough competence in other areas that I couldn’t call The Swindles of Grimble Bimble a bad film, but it’s so aggressively mediocre that it’s of no interest to anyone outside the hardcore Potter fans.
Of course, the most pressing question raised by this film is at exactly what point Dumbledore switched over from sharp three-piece suits to fabulously bejewelled bathrobes as acceptable daywear.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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