Bohemian Rhapsody

Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aiden Gillan, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Anthony McCarten


There’s a scene in the middle of Bohemian Rhapsody where the four members of Queen are pitching their latest album to a big-time music producer. They’ve all agreed that the lead single must be their poetic, operatic six-minute song entitled ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but this big record label cheese isn’t going for it. It’s “not possible”, he says. The radio stations won’t play anything over three minutes. The song has too many weird words and sounds in it. This isn’t the kind of song that teenagers can bang their heads to at top volume in the car. It’ll never work! He entreats them to stick to the rock anthem formula that’s already worked for them, but Queen isn’t interested in formulas. They want to push boundaries, defy labels, and make music nobody has ever heard before. The buffoonish bigwig (played by famed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ headbanger Mike Myers no less) refuses to budge and, as the bandmates storm out, he obnoxiously declares “Mark these words, no one will play Queen”.

While the scene itself is entirely fictional (the Ray Foster character that Myers plays was invented for the film), to dwell on that out is to miss the point. This is a dramatization of a true story and liberties have to be taken. The purpose of this scene is to emphasise Queen’s nonconformity and artistic integrity. They will not allow themselves to be constrained by the rules, formulas and standards set by musically illiterate hacks and moneygrubbing executives. They’re in it for the music and they want to offer the audience something new, dynamic and unique. It’s an admirable mission statement made by an innovative band fronted by one of the greatest, most ingenious singers who ever lived. It’s why I wish Bohemian Rhapsody had even one tenth of the originality, fearlessness and spirit of its main character and the music he and the rest of Queen created. For a movie that so eagerly champions the notion of subverting expectations, breaking all the rules, and challenging the norm, Bohemian Rhapsody is so painfully generic, formulaic and predictable. If you’ve seen the parodic take that Walk Hard offered on films of this exact kind, its derivativeness becomes almost laughable.

It pains me to write this because I had high expectations for this film, not least because Queen was probably the greatest sing-along band of my childhood (the only other two that come close are The Beatles and ABBA). Yet it sticks to the weathered musical biopic template so rigidly that you half expect the movie’s version of Freddie Mercury (played by Rami Malek) to lose his sense of sight, suffer a childhood trauma that haunts him throughout his career, or go through a meltdown that involves breaking a nearby sink. The prescribed beats are all there; we meet a young, naïve singer with enormous, untapped talent who finds success and fame despite the scepticism of his disapproving family and then rises to superstardom before losing themselves in a cesspit of sex and drugs. In the end the singer hits rock bottom but is then inspired to seek and find redemption in the form of a triumphant comeback. None of this is done in service of telling a specific story with something meaningful to say about the singer and the life he lived; the emphasis is on hitting as many major life moments as they can while cramming in as many songs as possible. What you get is thus a Wikipedia article with a soundtrack. It tells you the who, what, when and wheres of Freddie’s life, but you won’t learn anything about him.

The reason for this is that Bohemian Rhapsody has little, if any, interest in the humanity behind the story. The movie instead concerns itself with minor details of little consequence such as which band member wrote which song, as if the real Brian May and Roger Taylor (played by Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy respectively) feel that their roles in the story won’t be fully appreciated unless it’s made clear to the audience that it wasn’t Freddie who wrote ‘We Will Rock You’ or ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. While this movie does at least delve more into the musician’s creative process than other biopics tend to do, it still comes at the expense of any introspective explorations of character. Take Freddie Mercury’s ethnicity as an example. Freddie was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar to Parsi parents, yet part of the reason this did not prove to be a barrier in his pursuit of rock and roll stardom is because he could pass for white. This angle has the makings of a potentially fascinating and culturally relevant story. Was Freddie’s ethnicity one of the reasons he felt like an outcast growing up and was it partly what inspired him to make music for other outcasts? Did passing for white stir up complicated feelings about his family, culture and identity? Does Rami Malek, an American actor of Egyptian descent, identify with these feelings on some level? Any viewer hoping that Bohemian Rhapsody will address these questions on any meaningful level will be left disappointed.

Another side of Freddie’s character that the movie at least attempts to address on a thoughtful level is his sexual orientation and the result is… problematic. I don’t think this is because the film’s PG-13 rating necessitated a less explicit exploration of his sex life, in fact a part of me likes the idea of a mainstream Hollywood movie in which an LGBT icon is celebrated as a legend being readily accessible to teenagers and children. The problem is that the film’s depiction of his sexuality is so backwards it feels like it could have been made in the 90s. For one thing the movie doesn’t allow Freddie to express his sexuality on his own terms. When he comes out as bisexual to his fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), which is exactly what he declared himself to be in real life, she replies “Freddie, you’re gay”. Having an LGBT man’s sexuality dictated to him by a heterosexual woman is one thing, but then the movie proceeds to portray his homosexuality as an actively destructive force in his life even after he embraces it. His most prominent relationship with another man is shared with the band’s manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), the most unambiguously villainous character in the film. It is he who gets the blame for Freddie’s debauchery as he supplies him with booze, drugs and groupies. He also manipulates Freddie into leaving Queen in order to pursue a career as a soloist because the film is loath to give its lead any significant amount of autonomy.

That the film had a messy production did it no favours. Even after losing their original attached star, Bohemian Rhapsody went on to lose its director Bryan Singer, who remains credited in the final film, amid a scandal in which he was accused of being a sexual predator. The movie feels embarrassingly chopped together in its finished form and contains several scenes edited within an inch of their lives with no direction other than to give every member of Queen an equal amount of screen time. Even then, however, there may not have been very much that stand-in director Dexter Fletcher could have done to save the film with what he had been left by Singer to work with. Even putting aside his reprehensible actions, Singer is probably the blandest director they could have chosen out of all the openly gay directors working in Hollywood. There is little that is distinctive in the way Bohemian Rhapsody is shot, except for the actual ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ sequence which recreates the image of the band shrouded in darkness from the music video while passages from the original negative reviews of the song flash on-screen as it grows into a phenomenon, and many of the scenes feel so generic in their inclusion (including a scene that’s helpfully captioned “Midwest USA”) that it feels like they were doing a colour-by-numbers biopic from the start. I can only dream what somebody like Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Lee Daniels, Jodie Foster or Ryan Murphy might have done with Freddie Mercury’s story.

Still, Bohemian Rhapsody is not without its good points. Its best quality by a mile and a half is Rami Malek’s performance as the champion himself. In the years since his death Freddie Mercury has evolved to become more myth than man and that is a difficult persona for any actor to imitate, never mind embody. What Malek does is far more than mere lip-syncing and dancing on a stage; he captures this electrifying, larger-than-life essence with a wicked air of flamboyance and a swaggering stance and walk that make you believe he could have been one of the great, demonstrative, hypersexual stars of glam rock along with David Bowie, Elton John and Prince. That Malek manages all of this while still channelling the deeper humanity beneath it all shows what an inspired casting choice he was and hints at the Freddie Mercury biopic that could have been. You get a sense of the man who was living this self-made persona even before he had an audience to perform for and who shows himself capable of both tremendous arrogance and narcissism and heartfelt affection and sincerity. It is a truly extraordinary performance deserving of an extraordinary film.

The movie is usually at its most sensational and superficial during the musical performances and nowhere is this more evident than the 1985 Live Aid sequence where Freddie reforms with Queen and delivers a knockout concert for the ages as if his life depended on it (which, the way the movie tells it, it kind of did). If there’s one thing that Bohemian Rhapsody gets absolutely right apart from Malek, it’s that a stunning, breathtaking finale can make an audience feel like the whole effort was worth it. Even if it rings hollow to those who happen to know that Freddie’s HIV diagnosis, which the movie uses as the justification for bringing Queen back together (even though they never actually broke up) for the concert, actually happened two years later, it’s still hard not to be completely swept away by Malek’s magnetic presence, the pulsating energy, and the sheer awesomeness of Queen’s music. That doesn’t make it any less superficial though. It’s a glorious moment for Freddie, but it isn’t a humanising one. Bohemian Rhapsody is nothing more than a greatest hits compilation that doesn’t even have a story to tell, never mind a statement of actual substance. What we got instead is a two star biopic entirely unworthy of the man it depicts or the music he created (and, truth be told, that second star is mostly for Malek).

★★

Advertisements

Halloween

Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Virginia Gardner

Director: David Gordon Green

Writers: Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green


It’s been forty years since John Carpenter’s classic horror first took to the big screen and kickstarted the trend of teenage slashers that would lead to such fearful hits as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Since then the gory Hallow’s Eve saga has gone through so many sequels, spin-offs and reboots of such inconsistent quality that the continuity has long since lost all meaning and coherence. Thus Fradley, McBride and Green have gone the Jurassic World route by wiping the whole slate clean. Halloween is a direct sequel to Halloween (they probably could have gone with a slightly different title if only for the sake of practicality) and it picks up forty years after the events of the first film having retconned just about everything that happens in the successive titles. Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney) has been incarcerated in a mental institution ever since his killing spree in Haddonfield and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been preparing herself for the day that they’ll cross paths once again. As the 40th anniversary of that dreaded day approaches, Michael escapes his captivity and creeps his way to that same town to repeat the bloody cycle all over again.

One of the great debates surrounding the original Halloween film is the nature of Michael’s character; is he really this superhuman, innately evil bogeyman or is there a human being with thoughts and feelings somewhere deep inside? Is he nothing more than a bloodthirsty monster beyond any reason, conscience or understanding as Dr. Loomis said, or is there something beneath it all driving his compulsion to kill? Fans have tried to get to the heart of Michael’s humanity by searching for some kind of motivation behind his actions or some kind of link between him and the one character to survive his murderous rampage, Laurie Strode. The sequels shed some light on this with the reveal that Laurie is actually Michael’s younger sister and that she had been his target the whole time, a twist that Rob Zombie would then incorporate into his remake where he sought to provide the viewer with greater insight into who Michael was before he donned the William Shatner mask. However not only does this new film completely erase the continuity of the franchise, it even directly addresses this specific point and dismisses it on the outset. These incarnations of Michael and Laurie are not in any way blood relations, yet many of the characters are nonetheless determined to believe that there is an intrinsic bond between them.

Many of the reviews that I’ve read of this new film have billed it as essentially a revenge movie. Michael Myers has escaped once again! He’s going after Laurie to finish what he started! Except this time she’s waiting for him! That is how the movie was advertised and it’s certainly what I expected to see going in, but I’m not sure that’s the movie that Green and co. actually made. What I found most interesting about this film’s portrayal of Michael is how little bearing Laurie seems to have on his actions. When he and Laurie do inevitably face off at the end, it isn’t because he has sought her out but because factors beyond either of their control deliberately conspired to bring them together. Yet that doesn’t mean his actions are indiscriminate either. In the movie that first introduced us to Michael, there was a clear method behind his movements; he stalked his prey, which were specifically young women around the same age as the sister he brutally murdered in his very first scene, before moving in for the kill. When he returns to the town where it all began on that very same day, 31 October, the first place he visits is that same sister’s grave where a couple of the characters whom we’ve already met by this point have the misfortune of being when he catches sight of them. Afterwards he returns to his old pattern of hunting and murdering teenagers. There’s an enigma here but no plot twist to explain it all; it’s up to the viewer to find the answer for themselves.

From Laurie’s perspective there is no doubt in her mind that Michael is out for her and her loved ones. She already escaped him once and in the forty years since then she has been preparing for his return. “He’s waited for me” she says, “and I’ve waited for him”. This is personal for her, and what makes it all the more interesting for me is that she believes it’s personal for him as well in a way that it may not necessarily be. It’s strange but it might actually be more comforting for Laurie to believe that Michael has always had it out specifically for her than to consider that the bogeyman who killed her friends, traumatised her, and ruined her life did so for no other reason than because she was somebody of the wrong age and gender in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the great tragedies of life is to believe that you are special only to find out that you’re not and Laurie has already had a profoundly tragic life. She now lives as a recluse deep in the woods, twice divorced and estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), all because her PTSD has compelled her to devote her whole life, and that of her child, towards making preparations and honing the skills needed so that when Michael does return, he won’t find the same defenceless young girl waiting for him. “If the way I raised your mother means that she hates me but she’s prepared for the horrors of the world” she tells Allyson, “I can live with that”.

As far as the horror itself goes, Halloween takes most of its cues from its 1978 namesake. What made Carpenter’s original outing so effective was its simplicity; it’s long, drawn-out takes, its sparing use of sound and its ability to evoke brutal images without graphically depicting them (at least not as gratuitously as you might remember). Green takes a similar less-is-more approach and the result is quite good, even if he does tend to draw on moments from the first film a little too often. The problem there is that, while it makes perfectly logical sense to find inspiration in the techniques and imagery that made Halloween as successful as it was, those same methods and images have been so widely imitated in so many other films in the decades since that the 2018 Halloween too often feels like just another slasher film. The tension is there and Green shows enough restraint that his echoing of the preceding title never goes overboard, but he’s nonetheless still walking in the looming shadow cast by one of great, iconic titles in American horror cinema.

The moment when the film truly comes into its own is the third act where Laurie and Michael have their showdown. Laurie has gone through a totally remarkable transformation between the two films akin to Sarah Connor and Curtis nails it like the pro that she is. On its release it was noted by many that Halloween marks the largest opening for a film with a female lead above 55 years old and it is a strong and compelling one at that. Laurie is so much more than a tough heroine who shows up to kick arse and takes names; she is a fully formed character who after four decades is still trying to reckon with her trauma. When she comes face to face with Michael once again it isn’t some epic duel between old adversaries, it’s a fundamentally damaged person being confronted by the terrors of her past in the form of a ghost. By scrapping the familial bond between them, Laurie’s motivation becomes all the simpler and harsher as Michael’s becomes more inscrutable and tormenting. The most inspired images in this film are those where Laurie and Michael are framed as mirror images to one another and those were the moments that gave me the most unsettling chills.

I guess I didn’t find Halloween to be a particularly scary film, but I also think that dismissing it on that basis is kind of missing the point. I’ve never found the John Carpenter film to be especially scary either, in large part because I wasn’t even born until well over a decade after it was made, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the masterful way in which it crafts so much tension from such a simple concept in such an economical way. The new Halloween doesn’t get under my skin or shock me to my core the way that my favourite horror films tend to do, but I was still engrossed from beginning to end. Green proves himself to be a worthy disciple of Carpenter as he adeptly manages to construct that same eerie, uncanny air of disquieting suburban atmosphere (with a little bit of help from Carpenter’s signature score with that jarringly monotonous melody) to startling effect. It also understands that the ambiguous humanity of Michael Myers is a crucial part of what makes him scary; the more unknowable he is, the more we come to dread his deathly presence as the characters are faced with a force as intangible and pitiless as the Black Plague.

★★★★

First Man

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Josh Singer


It’s interesting that Neil Armstrong, one of the most celebrated names in modern history and the protagonist in the greatest feat of exploration and discovery the human race has ever achieved, had never received the cinematic treatment prior to this film. In NASA’s entire momentous campaign to put a man on the moon, the only two notable films to chronicle the astronauts’ stories are The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. The former thrived on the anxieties and uncertainties of the USA’s first steps in space exploration and the latter details the greatest disaster of their lunar expedition save only the Apollo 1 fire. This might say something about trepidation and calamity making for better drama than triumph or it might just have more to do with the famously private Armstrong not wanting his story to be dramatized during his lifetime. In either case, Chazelle and his team were faced with the same kind of dilemma James Cameron had when he made Titanic: how do you build drama and suspense out of a story to which the audience already knows the end?

For one thing, First Man sets its focus on depicting not how Armstrong got to the moon (which HBO already covered in their superb miniseries From the Earth to the Moon) but rather how it felt. Much of this accomplished through the use of the camera. Uncomfortable, shaky close-ups of people’s faces that drift in and out of focus have us feeling the palpable stress of each scene. Claustrophobic POV shots from within the crafts that our hero pilots have us feeling confined and disorientated as we, like David Bowie, experience the scary sensation of sitting in a tin can far above the world. Far from the grandiose Kubrickian wide shots that you normally get with space movies ranging from Star Wars to Gravity, First Man is made up of tight, turbulent sequences that all serve to provide the viewer with a first person perspective of space travel. When an astronaut goes to space, it isn’t the majestic, tranquil voyage we’ve been taught to expect; it is a chaotic, distressing and bloody dangerous affair (even if you know what you’re doing). To be an astronaut you must be either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. In fact, as far as this movie is concerned, there may not necessarily be that much of a difference.

That brings us to the star of the show, the handsome and stoic Neil Armstrong as portrayed by Ryan Gosling, perhaps the best actor in all of Hollywood when it comes to playing stoic, handsome men. He signs up for the Apollo programme not long after losing his two-year-old daughter to cancer, perhaps so that he might be distracted from his grief. It isn’t entirely clear because Neil is shown to be so withdrawn in his emotional expression that not even his wife Janet (Claire Foy) can tell what he’s really thinking. She is of course grieving as well and soon makes it abundantly clear that having an uncommunicative husband risking his life every day for a cagey organisation while she’s helplessly stuck at home does little to help. We also learn that she has good reason to be worried. The Apollo programme’s mission to get an American man onto the moon proves exhaustive in its rigorous training, the crushing failures as the Soviets maintain their lead in the space race, and the grave pressure hanging on their shoulders as the testing of NASA’s machinery leads to the deaths of many of their pilots.

Gosling delivers a powerfully introverted performance as Armstrong with what is perhaps the most intensely quiet piece of acting I’ve seen since Aden Young in Rectify. Some actors tend to think that being reserved means being inexpressive and soft-spoken, but that’s not what’s happening with Gosling. It isn’t that Neil is unfeeling, it’s that he bottles up his feelings so deeply that they barely get to see the light of day. This is a man who feels the pain of his tragic loss on a profoundly personal level but who lacks maybe the confidence, the ability or perhaps even the need to express himself outwardly to those who care about him. At first this might seem like a validation of the traditional Hollywood notion that the ideal male archetype is the strong, silent, emotionally suppressed type, especially as it becomes clear that his impassiveness is a part of what enables him to keep his cool in the pilot’s seat when all the red alarms are going off and catastrophe is imminent. However the film does also show that Neil’s emotional detachment is a serious weakness in his character when it comes to forming some basic human connection with his loved ones. Not only does his grief and stoicism make him incapable of frank, open displays of vulnerability and emotion, even when it comes to explaining to his son that he might not make it back home when they send him to the moon, but Neil is also shown to be downright resentful of those who seem happy with their lives.

This nuanced character study of such a reticent figure may come as a surprise to those who expected to see a celebratory, flag-waving epic. It’s clear that wasn’t quite the movie Chazelle and Singer were interested in making not only because of their acute focus on Armstrong’s personal grief and inner-conflict but also their willingness to acknowledge the human cost of the Apollo missions. Other key figures in NASA’s team include project chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and fellow astronauts Ed White (Jason Clarke), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and, if you know your history, you’ll know that not all of them lived to see Neil take that giant leap for mankind. Meanwhile, the movie shows us, other things were happening on the ground as some of the political and social upheavals of the 1960s are given their own occasional spotlights. One features a crowd of African-Americans gathered around singer and poet Gil Scott-Heron (Leon Bridges) as he recites ‘Whitey on the Moon’, an ode to the racial inequalities that continue to plague his people while the white man is busy looking at the stars. While certainly a tremendously effective scene, it is sadly undermined by the disconnect between the themes it raises and Armstrong’s personal story, which is after all what the movie is really about and where its heart truly lies.

While the civil rights protests and the war in Vietnam continue, none of it seems to even register with Armstrong, never mind affect his actions and emotions. He’s too busy focusing on the task at hand and so, I suppose, is Chazelle. When it comes down to it everything is ultimately about getting Armstrong to the moon and anything that isn’t directly related to that one goal feels like an afterthought. The real story is taking place in the flight sequences, the Armstrong family woes that happen in between, and the climatic re-enactment of Apollo 11’s historic landing and it is these moments which make clear that First Man is more than anything else a tragic portrait of strong, stoic masculinity that nevertheless ends in triumph, or at the very least relief. So much of this movie is about putting the viewer in Neil’s shoes and it does that by fixing the camera squarely on him at almost all times, whether he’s in the cockpit of a shuttle trying to think his way through a crisis, in NASA meetings taking in the mission details, at home arguing with his wife or at some uncomfortably fancy party inadequately trying to schmooze a senator so that congress doesn’t pull the plug on the Apollo missions. The movie stays with Neil for so long in such a constant way that by the end you do feel like you’ve lived his life and understand what it took for him to get to the moon and make that momentous first step.

Where First Man shines brightest is during those flight scenes where you almost instinctually find yourself clinging to your seat for dear life. Chazelle has a great eye for visceral filmmaking, as he proved in Whiplash where he showed that a drum solo could be an intense life or death struggle, and those scenes where Neil is piloting a craft feel like being trapped on a roller coaster designed by Willy Wonka. Through painfully prolonged and turbulently erratic takes and ingenious use of sound, this movie manages to orchestrate some truly spectacular, vertigo-inducing sequences that rival the scale and dynamism of what Cuarón did with Gravity. For all its faults when it comes to portraying the historic period and some of the characters (most of whom, including Janet Armstrong, are pretty underwritten) in a constructive way, the movie deserves to be praised all the same for Chazelle’s kinetic direction and Gosling’s layered performance. The way that movie is able to build such a powerful portrait of such an introverted man with minimal reliance of dialogue couple with the physical experience of actually watching the film is worth the price of admittance.

★★★★

A Star is Born

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott

Director: Bradley Cooper

Writers: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters


“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die” sings a bearded, gravel-voiced Bradley Cooper at various points in this film. It’s a line that speaks about one of the main conflicts that this movie explores and it also carries a tinge of meta, self-aware irony as he helms what is now the fourth retelling of this classic Hollywood story. Using a time-tested formula that’s been updated for a 21st century audience, A Star is Born is a love story that depicts the fall of an old, embittered music legend and the rise of a young, gifted singer. It’s one of the stories Hollywood loves to tell about itself; about how the spotlight can bring you love, fame, happiness and fulfilment, but it always comes at a price and it can also warp and destroy you. It is at once both a fantasy and a tragedy and it is a fable that gets retold with each generation as our attitudes on fame, addiction and gender change and evolve. This is the kind of movie Cinephiles talk about when they say “they don’t make them like this anymore” and it marks both a strong directorial debut for Bradley Cooper and a cinematic star-making turn for Lady Gaga.

The original 1937 film with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March told this story in the context of Hollywood itself with the former playing an aspiring actress who falls for the latter, an aging movie star in the declining years of his career. The 1954 movie with Judy Garland and James Mason, the most well-known and celebrated of the bunch, reprised the concept but added in a musical component as well. This subsequently led to the movie that this new version borrows most heavily from (at least in concept), the 1971 title that broke away from classic Hollywood and moved into a contemporary rock and pop setting. Barbra Streisand plays an up-and-coming singer and Kris Kristofferson is a washed-up, has-been rock star. This movie was panned on its release and was more or less forgotten about until this new movie brought it back into the public consciousness. In this 21st century rendition the star on his way out is Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a country-rock singer whose music feels very much of that 1970s Bruce Springsteen/Neil Young era. That style of music is so much a product of its time that there isn’t really a modern equivalent for Maine (although Cooper does cite Eddie Vedder as a key influence) and it’s one of the markers of the deep gulf that ultimately separates him from his protégé, played by one of the foremost titans of the modern pop era that we live in.

After playing a gig one night, Jackson stumbles his way into a local drag bar for a drink and happens upon Ally (Lady Gaga), whom he watches give a performance of ‘La Vie en Rose’. For the first time in what we can safely assume must be a long time, the boozed-up, drugged-out-of-his mind Jackson has a moment of sobriety. He is struck with awe by Ally’s show stopping number and believes he may have found something in her that he once had himself but has long since lost: an artist “with something to say and a way to say it”. Ally, as we’ve learnt by this point, is a waitress with musical aspirations but who has never once believed that she ever had what it takes to make it. Jackson couldn’t disagree more; he is overwhelmed by Ally’s brilliance and invites her to perform with him, confident that the rest of the world will embrace her as readily as he has. Despite her reservations Ally takes the plunge; she steps out on stage with Maine, sings her heart out, and just like that she’s an overnight sensation. The two start touring together and, for a while at least, everything is perfect. Ally is on the fast lane to the top with her beau’s unwavering support and Jackson is as passionate about his music as he’s ever been. As Sam Elliott, playing Jackson older brother and manager Bobby, says with his signature gruff voice that Cooper emulates in his own performance, “it’s been a long time since he played like that”. The two are on different paths however and before long their day in the sun together comes to an end.

Lady Gaga is no stranger to this acting game (she won a Golden Globe for her role in American Horror Story), but what’s so remarkable about her performance is how much it feels like an acting debut from a breakthrough talent. Despite being one of the biggest, most iconic superstars in the music world today, Gaga comes across as this unknown ingénue with a hidden gift for singing being discovered for the very first time. Her performance isn’t just a surprise; it’s a revelation. It shouldn’t be because one thing the preceding movies have always been good at is casting extraordinarily talented women at the absolute top of their fields as the female lead and there is no doubt whatsoever that Lady Gaga is a peer to Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. Yet she brings such raw passion and spontaneous energy to her singing, especially early on when it’s just her and a microphone, that it truly is astonishing to learn just how much natural talent this star really has. When she steps onstage to sing ‘Shallow’ in front of an audience for the first time, it genuinely feels like she’s been taken completely off guard by how great she sounds and how much the crowd adores her, as if she hasn’t ever stood on such a stage and received such an ovation a thousandfold.

It would be tempting to view this stripped-down, unfiltered version of Gaga as her true, authentic self, free from the artifice of make-up, costumes and techno-pop stylisation, but not only is that not true (she wouldn’t be Lady Gaga without the Lady Gaga-ness of it all), the movie itself doesn’t appear to think so either. Or it’s at least willing to entertain the idea that Jackson Maine’s country-rock singer-songwriter style isn’t the only valid form of honest musical expression. As Ally becomes more famous and successful, so does her image and style change. She signs up with a big-time music studio who proceed to mould her into a musical icon more recognisably Gaga. Her hair is dyed orange, she learns to dance and she has stylised publicity photos taken of her so that everyone can see her face on billboards. She also appears on Saturday Night Live to sing a song containing the lyrics “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” This is the moment where we’re supposed to understand that Ally has sold out, singing a garbage, studio-commissioned song without any shred of artistry or feeling behind it. Or that’s at least how the film frames it as we watch the scene from Jackson’s point of view far away in the sidelines in stark contrast to the close-up, intimate shots we got of Ally and Jackson earlier on during their performances together.

From Ally’s perspective, the corporate side of her success is simply part of the job and she doesn’t see it as any kind of force that compels her to compromise on her art. Unlike Jackson she doesn’t believe that art and celebrity are mutually exclusive. Jackson for his part is more contemptuous about his fame, preferring to simply leave his celebrity at the door of whatever bar happens to be open and drink himself into a stupor without anybody bothering him. Even he isn’t above that desire for recognition that fame often brings though as we see when he’s pissed off about having to play back-up to a couple of younger singers at the Grammys. The movie never quite makes its mind up about which side it agrees with (and that ambivalence makes for a somewhat confused second half) but it nevertheless respects its two leads enough that it’s able to show where they’re both coming from. When the movie does look down on the artificiality of Ally’s pop music, that may have less to do with how the movie sees her success than it does with how Jackson sees it and his inability to understand the kind of artist she’s grown into (but even then his appreciation of her talent is never in doubt). On some level the film is aware that Jackson’s vision of artistic integrity is a fantasy.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy about Jackson Maine is how early on he realises that the prodigy he has discovered is going to eclipse him someday and that at some point he’s going to end up standing in her way or dragging her down with him. This is because of his crippling alcoholism and substance abuse which are as much the result of a difficult upbringing as they are the trappings and pressures of stardom. The film is at its weakest when it tries to explain too much and there’s a confrontation between Jackson and Bobby that could’ve packed a greater punch had the movie been more willing to leave certain things unsaid. What Cooper does do incredibly well is taking what on paper appears to be nothing more than a pathetic, irredeemable drunk and giving him a soul. For all of Jackson’s moments of weakness, shamefulness and even cruelty, there is an undeniable sense of decency about the man. He has genuine affection for those he cares about, Ally above all, and Cooper makes it clear that nothing pains him more than to inflict his demons onto others. His performance is large but it’s also a grounded, natural one in the Jeff Bridges Crazy Heart way that never attempts to run away with the film. He and Lady Gaga work in perfect harmony with one another and their chemistry is electrifying.

Cooper is to be commended on more than his acting though. As the director, co-writer, and the music’s co-composer, it’s clear that A Star is Born was a passion project for Cooper and he gave it his all. He handles the story with utter sincerity and is never afraid to get up close and personal. The concert scenes with Jackson and Ally feel both intense and intimate, putting a spotlight on Ally’s breathtaking talent while still allowing us to appreciate the personal, affective connection they share. This retentive style of filmmaking is not only expressive of the sweeping yet deep romance that they share but also of the simultaneous awesomeness and delicacy of stardom as well. As they stand on the stage together before the blurry images of their adoring fans, we are acutely aware of how human they are even in those moments. While other scenes can sometimes go on longer than they need to and say more than needs to be stated, Cooper is also good at letting the actor’s face do the talking when it’s called for (as actor-turned-directors very often are). His best decision as a director though was casting Lady Gaga.

While the movie is unable to escape the romanticisation of male self-sacrifice for the woman’s good that it inherited from its predecessors, this version of A Star is Born does allow its couple to share their most reciprocal relationship yet. The film is just as interested in Ally’s evolution as an artist as it is in Jackson’s decline and, during the honeymoon years before the heartbreak that is to come, their relationship is built on mutual respect for each other’s talents and ambitions. And, while the theme of male seniority is still there (if somebody tried to make this film with the genders reversed, it would probably end up looking like Sunset Boulevard) Jackson and Ally also find that they make each other better people. He gives her the confidence to overcome her insecurities and she gives him the strength to battle his demons, at least for a while. Whatever shortcomings there are to find in terms of plot and character, it’s Cooper and Gaga who bring it all home with their affectionate, heartfelt performances. It’s the kind of romantic-fantasy movie you don’t see very often these days where they treat the emotions being conjured with such barefaced sincerity that they don’t care if it comes across as corny. This is a movie that wants to tell you a resonant story and that wants to make you feel; on both counts it is a success.

★★★★

Venom

Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott

Director: Ruben Flesicher

Writers: Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel


It is just mindblowing that a movie as ridiculous as Venom exists today, never mind that it was this successful. In an age where superhero movies rule the box office and 90% of them share a certain samey quality (even when they’re good), Ruben Fleischer and Tom Hardy have stormed onto the scene with the force of a bloodthirsty, parasitic alien to deliver a film unlike anything else in Hollywood right now. Part derivative superhero origin story, part David Cronenberg split-personality body horror movie, part human/alien buddy slapstick comedy, and part Darren Aronofsky fever dream; Venom is a volatile clash of several disparate elements concocted by an illiterate mad scientist. Nothing about it should work, and indeed very little of it does, yet it is nonetheless an incredibly fascinating and tremendously entertaining movie. Venom is silly, baffling and almost completely incoherent and the only thing stopping it from being one of the year’s unmissable movies is its unwillingness to fully embrace its own looney tunes compulsions. The film has been edited right down to the barebones and is about 30% tamer, duller and more mediocre than the movie it clearly wants to be.

One of the most remarkable things about this movie is how totally unremarkable the first hour is. Much like Fantastic Four, Venom is one of those films that takes forever to get started. Before Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) gets anywhere near the symbiote, there’s a lot of tedious set-up and painful banality to get through. First there’s the spaceship from the Life Foundation which we see crash somewhere in Malaysia where its black, gooey cargo escapes. Then we meet hotshot reporter Eddie Brock, a San Francisco journalist tasked with interviewing Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the ingenious, trailblazing CEO of the Life Foundation. Eddie finds a scoop while snooping through the emails of his fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) which reveal that Drake is testing some lethal new drug on the city’s homeless population. Eddie confronts the smug scientist, who then proceeds to utterly destroy his life and reputation. Gone are Eddie Brock’s budding career, his beautiful fiancé and his good name. Now he’s nothing more than a loser; a washed up bum languishing in a rundown apartment. And yet there’s still a ways to go before he becomes Venom.

The particulars of how Eddie is eventually attached to Venom and gets the ball rolling (like a turd in the wind) isn’t really important and the movie would have been better had they cut half of it out. All that matters is that once Eddie and Venom become one, that’s when the magic starts to happen. Venom is a scary, slimy, many-fanged creature who fuses his consciousness with Eddie’s and starts to take control of his life. He operates Eddie’s body like an animated puppet whenever danger strikes, he compels his host to rabidly scrounge for food (preferably a chompable human head) and he speaks to Eddie both from within and outside his head in the form of a ghostly profile, oftentimes just to remind his new friend what a hopeless loser he is. Venom is essentially a warped cross between a superpowered antihero, an unwanted houseguest, a ravenous beast and an off-putting wingman. He doesn’t just protect Eddie when their accidental symbiosis places them both in danger, he also takes an interest in his life and even goes so far as to offer him dating advice. It is a strange, complicated, toxic, homoerotic relationship that they share (Venom and Eddie even kiss in one scene) and it never ceases to be fascinating or enormously entertaining. Venom could have been a supernatural rom-com completely void of fight scenes or an action-based plot and I would have watched it happily.

Tying all the madness together is Tom Hardy who delivers what can only be described as an otherworldly performance. The commitment he brings to this unbelievably unhinged performance is absolute, channelling both the intensity that Health Ledger brought to The Dark Knight and the complete lack of self-awareness that Jesse Eisenberg brought to Batman v. Superman. Whether he’s sweating profusely through night terrors, rummaging voraciously for food in the bin, screaming and flailing around on the floor or frantically climbing into a fancy restaurant’s lobster tank, Hardy brings 100% to every scenario the movie throws at him no matter how silly or random. There were moments when I actually felt concerned for his wellbeing, so convinced was I that he really did have some kind of alien parasite inflicting him all kinds of physical and mental anguish (which with Hardy is not a possibility I’m ready to discount). His is the only performance worthy of note; everybody else plays typically bland, underwritten characters who aren’t given enough material to compliment whatever kind of movie Hardy thought he was in save one scene where Michelle Williams is allowed to let loose for a little while.

Despite the movie’s enjoyability, whether inadvertent or not, there are far too many wasted opportunities holding it back from greatness. While they seem to understand that they struck some kind of comedy gold mine with Hardy’s dual performance, Venom is unprepared to commit itself to a comedic format and keeps things serious and boring for those scenes where he’s not around. Some action scenes such as a night-time motorcycle chase through San Francisco was rife for the kind of creativity and inventiveness that an indestructible shape-shifting alien could easily fulfil, but the movie never takes advantage of it. This scene instead trudges along without any sense of momentum and it is absolutely laughable how often they reuse the same locations throughout. The same goes for the climatic fight where Venom faces off against a bigger, stronger symbiote; a confused, unintelligible skirmish of dark slime shot at night where it’s just as impossible to make out what’s happening as it is to understand what Carlton Drake’s ultimate plan even is. Venom is in the wider scheme of things a mostly dull, self-serious film that would have little to no impressions had it not been for Hardy and the hilariously crazy movie he thinks he’s in. I wish everybody else had been on the same page as him.

★★

A Simple Favour

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells

Director: Paul Feig

Writer: Jessica Sharzer


This movie was advertised with the tagline ‘From the darker side of Paul Feig’ and I’m still struggling to understand what that really means. A director who usually excels at female-centric comedies, Feig has taken more of a noirist turn with A Simple Favour except that it never feels like he ever figured out what this movie really is. Sometimes it’s a chilling, seductive neo-noir in the vein of Gone Girl. Sometimes it’s like a high-budget Lifetime movie with its trashy story and soapy acting. And sometimes it’s a female buddy-comedy with an occasionally twisted sense of humour. The movie is constantly jumping all over the place and I never quite managed to get a grip on it. A Simple Favour is so inscrutable, it’s never made clear where Feig’s comicality ended and his sincerity began. At times it feels like he’s making an honest attempt to draw us into this captivating story with this titillating mystery at its centre, at others it feels like he’s inviting us to laugh at the movie’s convolutedness and melodramatic silliness. The movie is all over the place and, while undoubtedly entertaining, it seldom manages to be compelling.

The saving graces are Kendrick and Lively who almost, almost manage to find the order beneath the chaos and make it work. Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a single mom whose entire existence is devoted towards being pitch perfect. With a skip in her step and a ‘can do’ smile she keeps an immaculate home, volunteers incessantly for school and community activities and systematically maintains a vlog for mothers where she regularly shares her many, many tips and secrets on food, arts and crafts, and homemaking. When her son Miles (Joshua Satine) asks for a play date with classmate Nicky (Ian Ho), Stephanie is introduced to Nicky’s mom, Lively’s beguiling, enigmatic, stylish Emily Nelson. Stephanie soon finds herself in Emily’s sleek, elaborate mansion and is blown away by big city fashion executive’s personality and lifestyle. Emily is everything that Stephanie is not; glamorous, uncouth and sexually confident. She drinks martinis during the day, curses in front of her kid, and keeps a nude painting of herself hanging in the living room for all to see. She’s also married to Sean Townsend (Henry Golding), the dashing author of a bestselling novel that Stephanie once read with her book club, with whom Emily shares an active and spicy sex life.

Despite being polar opposites, the two seem to hit it off. Stephanie is completely enthralled by Emily’s charm and mystique and gets a certain thrill out of the way she is able to so keenly disarm and surprise her. Stephanie soon finds that she can confide in Emily, sharing with her the kinds of intimate thoughts and taboo secrets that her new friend so casually discloses from her own life. On Emily’s part, it’s never made clear whether she actually feels the genuine, reciprocal attachment that Stephanie believes they share or whether she’s more amused by the doe-eyed, sexually naïve woman and keeps her around the way she would a pet. That’s certainly what the other parents at the school, as symbolised by a trio played by Andrew Rannells, Aparna Nancherla and Kelly McCormack (who might really be Siamese triplets, so attached by the hip are they) think, believing that Emily sees Stephanie as nothing more than a free nanny. Emily’s ‘simple favour’ comes into play when she calls Stephanie and asks her to pick Nicky up after school and watch him. Stephanie gamely does so of course, as she has so many times before, only this time she neither sees nor hears from Emily again.

Thus Stephanie stumbles her way into a tangled web of dark memories, secret identities, deceitful deeds, and a little bit of bloodshed and arson to boot. Far from the cool, proficient, hard-boiled, detectives that traditionally helm noir stories (including the female likes of Jane Tennison, Sarah Lund and Jessica Jones), our investigator into the disappearance of the movie’s femme fatale is the jumpy, awkward, hopelessly guileless mommy vlogger who soon learns that she is way out of her depth. The nightmarish, harshly black and white worlds of the postwar film noirs that sometimes get referenced (including one particularly funny gag about Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques) is substituted with a more cartoon-like colourful and plastic setting not unlike Desperate Housewives. Like the suburban comedy-drama of the 2000s, a Simple Favour tries to blend its mystery movie tone and story with the pulpy theatricality of a soap opera and the laugh-out-loud humour of a sitcom (there’s even a scene where Stephanie is caught by the detective trying on one of Emily’s dresses). However the overall result of this collision in tones and styles is a movie that too often feels like it’s at odds with itself.

This is most apparent in the third act where I can’t really go into details because spoilers. Without getting too much into it, there’s a confrontation near the end full of double crosses and sneaky reveals where the characters’ attitudes are in constant flux. One minute they’re treating each other seriously as if in a critical life-or-death situation, the next they’re exchanging quips and laughing along as if the whole thing were an elaborate joke. It’s not that films can’t be dark and funny at the same time, of course they can. It’s that A Simple Favour is so inconsistent in its tone that the progression never feels natural. When a character gets hit by a car in one scene, it happens in such a way that is clearly meant to be framed as comedic but is instead so jarring and cartoonish compared to what had taken place before that I was more bewildered than amused. There are certainly some who will be taken in by the movie’s haphazard style and they’ll have no trouble enjoying the ride all the way through. But for me the intrigue that was conjured by the film’s two captivating leads, the alluring imagery and the swinging French pop soundtrack was let down by this atonal clash.

★★★

The Predator

Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Sterling K. Brown

Director: Shane Black

Writers: Fred Dekker, Shane Black


There’s a moment in the third act of The Predator I keep returning to that aptly demonstrates the movie’s fatal flaw. It’s when the hulking Predator ambushes the rag-tag group of misfit heroes in the middle of a forest. One major character, played by one of the movie’s top-billed actors, attempts to use a repurposed alien weapon against the fiend, only to accidentally incinerate himself instead. The problem with this scene is that I had absolutely no idea it had even happened. It wasn’t until a later scene, as soon as I had noticed that the character in question was missing, that I realised he had been killed. Even then, I hadn’t a clue how it had happened. The scene was so shrouded in darkness and edited so awkwardly, it was all but impossible to make heads or tails of anything during that ambush. The only reason I now know the manner of this character’s death at all is because I read the movie’s synopsis on Wikipedia in preparation for writing this review. That’s what it all comes down to; the movie’s problem isn’t just that the story makes no sense or that the characters feel underdeveloped or that the tone is so inconsistent, it’s that filmmaking is so grossly incompetent for a director whom I know knows how to make a coherent, entertaining film.

Shane Black has made several choices in making this film that could be regarded as questionable, not least of which was casting a mate he knew to be a registered sex offender in a minor part and neglecting to tell his cast, and it baffles me that the director of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys could make a movie this inept. It feels like there was originally a four-hour cut of the movie that somebody attacked with a machete in the editing room, so haphazard are the action sequences. It certainly doesn’t help that most of the scenes are shot at night with a bland colour scheme that makes the mise-en-scéne look largely muddled to the viewer’s eye. The constant, aimless editing however is what makes it so difficult to keep track of the visual geography and the driving actions behind the individual shots to the point that an important development happened before my very eyes without me even noticing. This isn’t the only time this happens either. There are dozens of story gaps and optical blurs scattered throughout the story, most of which would not be in and of themselves detrimental to the film had they been isolated occurrences. That they are constantly happening throughout the film means that they add up and contribute towards creating a hectically chaotic viewing experience.

The plot is similarly disjointed with entire story beats that whiz by so quickly, you’ll wonder whether you dozed off for a few minutes and just woke up. Things kick off when a Predator spaceship crash-lands on Earth. Army sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) encounters the surviving Predator and his whole unit is wiped out. He escapes with some of the alien’s technology and, convinced he’ll need to keep the evidence out of the government’s hands lest they take him in and try to silence him, he mails the Predator’s mask and wrist cannon to his home in the suburbs. Only it’s not really his home these days. Quinn’s estranged wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) lives there with their autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay). Rory, a troubled kid who gets bullied at school but also a prodigy, discovers the content of his father’s package and is soon able to work out how the technology works. In the process however he accidentally summons a group of Predators, a scouting party in search of the equipment’s original owner, to his hometown where R-rated havoc is soon to ensue.

Quinn meanwhile is taken into custody by the government, whose plan is to lock him up with all the other undesirables and throw away the keys. Thus he ends up with a crew up of weirdoes and ne’er-do-wells who all have similar problems with rules and authority figures. There’s the insubordinate Nebraska (Tervante Rhodes), the verbal diarrhoeic Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), the foul-mouthed (because he has Tourrete syndrome) Baxley (Thomas Jane), the British Lynch (Alfie Allen) and the awkward conversationalist Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). As he’s being dealt with, famed biologist Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) comes to the facility to study the captured Predator under the direction of government agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown). The Predator breaks free and slaughters its way out of the lab. Quinn and the Loonies take advantage of the chaos to team up and make their own escape, picking up Dr. Bracket on the way, and make for Quinn’s family home so that they can collect the equipment and plan their next move. There they learn that Rory has gone out with the Predator’s armour and that the alien hunter is hot on his trail. R-rated havoc ensues.

The movie takes several leaps in getting us from Point A to Point B to Point C and such leaps are usually permissible in movies when they skimp over minor details without much bearing over the plot and allow room for the audience to catch up. Watching The Predator though is like trying to keep up with a runaway train blindfolded. While the movie does oftentimes leave out details that contribute nothing to the story and would otherwise serve to pad the runtime, there are other leaps that omit fundamental story and character details that are never made clear to us. The movie’s failure is its inability to distinguish between the two. For example, one inconsequential leap in the story takes place when most of the characters have fled to a barn and are planning their next move. A group is sent out to explore a little and the next time we see them is when they arrive in an RV to rescue everybody else from the danger that’s just caught up with them. Where did they get the RV? We never find out and, while slightly distracting, we honestly don’t really need to know; we can use our own imaginations to figure that one out. But then we later realise that two of the characters share a certain bromantic relationship that was never made clear and it feels like the movie skipped a scene or two somewhere along the way that would have established this point. These two characters are so poorly established that I wasn’t even sure if they were genuinely supposed to come across as a gay couple (which would have been awesome considering that gung-ho army renegades are never allowed to be gay) or as simply brothers in arms.

This is an issue that most of these characters suffer from. The movie operates under the impression that these are all fully fleshed-out characters whose fates we are supposed to be invested in yet never puts in the time for establishment and development, opting instead for dirty one-liners and banter. Olivia Munn’s Dr. Bracket more or less wanders into the film without any kind of introduction and simply goes straight down to business as if we’re supposed to already know what her personality and motivation is. I now know this to be the consequence of Shane Black cutting out her introduction as it took place in the scene that had Munn paired up with Steve Wilder Striegel, the friend who was convicted some years ago for making sexual advances at a 14-year-old girl. This part of the movie was quickly and indiscriminately cut out in response to Munn’s justified outrage and the backlash she inspired and the consequence is that her character gets the short shrift. Her story kicks off without the set-up it needs to get started and it is only through Munn’s talents that any semblance of character comes through in the end. That this edit, the consequence of Black’s poor judgement in his casting decision and the studio’s seeming ignorance, was done so hastily and carelessly and affects the overall story so fundamentally is symptomatic I think of just how slapdash the whole movie feels.

This is all a huge shame because on paper Shane Black would appear to be the perfect choice to direct a Predator movie (he even had a minor role in the 1987 movie) and there are instances where you see glimpses of the movie that could have been. When the action is actually intelligible, it’s pretty good, gory fun. As well as delivering some solid action, the movie also gets some pretty entertaining performances out of its actors, most notably Brown who plays the immature, obnoxious Traegar with the demented glee of a bloodthirsty, die-hard 80s action movie fanboy who couldn’t wait until the bullets started firing. His motivation is an unknown entity, as with most of these characters, but at least he’s a lot of fun to watch. Rhodes and Key also have some good moments and feel right at home playing these happy-go-lucky psychopaths delivering Black’s trademark zingers. I’m less convinced by Jane’s Baxley; the movie appears to making a sincere effort to be more inclusive by giving one of its character Tourettes, and yet all of the jokes that emerge from this trait are at his expense so I’m not sure what exactly they were going for. The movie runs into a similar problem with Rory and the apparent insinuation that his autism is some kind of evolutionary superpower. The weakest link though is Holbrook who, between this movie and Narcos, I’ve yet to be convinced by as a leading man. Here he’s playing your typically tough, bland, noble-hearted jerk without any of the charisma that Schwarzenegger and Glover brought back when they helmed this franchise.

The movie has plenty of cool ideas, as in one scene where Black pays tribute to E.T. by having Rory go out trick-or-treating wearing the Predator’s mask or the scene where Traegar explains to Dr. Bracket why they opted to call a murderous alien who hunts for sport a ‘Predator’, but they are few and far in between. The movie has far too many ideas that don’t work; there are sub-plots that don’t go anywhere, jokes that don’t land, motivations that never manifest, and elements that feel like they were added arbitrarily without any clarity or purpose. Black bungles what should have been a match made in heaven, making for a movie that neither excites, amuses nor moves. It’s tempting to suppose that much of what went wrong with this movie could be attributed to studio meddling and forced franchising (and, yes, there are certainly parts of the movie, including a stupid ending, that indicate the studio has every intention of franchising this property), but Black’s questionable judgement in the scandal that emerged around this picture suggests to me that the movie had plenty of problems of its own. The Predator is an ill-executed mess of a movie that never managed to figure out where it wanted to go or what it wanted to be.

★★

The Happytime Murders

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks

Director: Brian Henson

Writer: Todd Berger


There are some moments in your life when you have to take a moment to stop, take a step back, and think introspectively about the choices that led you to where you are. It could be one of matured recognition where you’ve realised that you’re not as young as you used to be and that you’ve either changed completely or haven’t changed at all. It could be a moment of sober clarity in which you’ve suddenly found yourself in a bad situation like financial insolvency or a toxic relationship and are not quite sure how you got there or how you’re going to get out. It could also be the kind of moment where you wake up on the street on a cold winter morning covered in bruises and your own vomit for the umpteenth time and are starting to finally understand that you have a serious problem. I had such an experience as I was watching The Happytime Murders; I even remember the exact moment it happened. It was a Muppet sex scene where a puppet man ejaculated silly string around the entire room for what felt like eons while a puppet woman screamed in nymphomanic ecstasy. That was the instance where I had to take a deep look at my own life and question the choices that led me to the cinema that day.

How foolish and naïve I must have been when I first heard about the film and thought that a gritty, raunchy noir-comedy about Muppets (directed, no less, by Brian Henson, director of The Muppet Christmas Carol) had promise. A proposed marriage between the creative ingenuity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the uproarious shock value of Team America: World Police, this movie has absolutely none of the satirical wit that made both of those movies so much greater than their gimmicks. Instead The Happytime Murders feels more like if Sesame Street hired the obnoxious, self-proclaimed ‘class clown’ from your primary school to pen a remake of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown using humour that Family Guy would describe as juvenile. Whatever points or insights the movie might have made with its depiction of an alternate Los Angeles where humans and puppets struggle to co-exist are quickly brushed aside in order to make room for puppet porn, sugar snorting and whatever the Muppet equivalent of blood and gore is (fluff and felt?). It’s one thing for a film to neglect exploring its own allegory in any kind of interesting or worthwhile way because it’s so much more focused on being one-dimensionally crude and naughty. What really makes The Happytime Murders so completely insufferable is how agonisingly unfunny it is.

The story mainly follows private eye Phil Philips, a De-Niro-inspired puppet who goes about his day with the kind of world-weariness and cynicism we except from this type of character. He used to be a cop way back when and was the first puppet to ever join the force. You see, puppets have historically been considered second-class citizens in this world and there were many who saw Phil’s career as a progressive step forward for his people at a time when puppets were finally starting to make inroads to society. Another shining example of progress was the popular TV show The Happytime Gang, the first show on any major network to feature a predominantly puppet cast (including Phil’s brother Larry). But then things went wrong. While out on the job Phil failed to shoot a fluffy criminal while a human police officer was in danger, convincing the world that puppets were incapable of policing their own kind. The disgraced Phil was sacked and now he spends his melancholic days tailing adulterous husbands and two-bit crooks. That is until somebody starts targeting and murdering the former cast of The Happytime Gang. That’s when Phil gets roped into a tale of death, deception, and demonstrably desperate and dreadful drollery that could not have ended soon enough.

Things soon escalate as the LAPD catches wind of the killing spree and they pair Phil up with his former partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy). Edwards, we learn, is the cop who was endangered by Phil’s inability to shoot a puppet criminal all those years ago and the foul-mouthed, hard-boiled police officer has not forgiven him. They reluctantly proceed with the investigation together and are led into the slums and back alleys of LA where R-rated puppet hijinks ensue. The movie operates under the notion that the mere subversion of the childhood tradition whereby we have these colourful animated characters engaging in activities we would normally associate with more mature genres will be enough to score the laughs they’re after. We therefore get treated to puppets swearing, puppets being mutilated or blown to bits, and puppets having sex; any deed that Kermit and his friends would never be allowed to perform on network television, it’s all enacted here and not a single gag scored as much as a titter out of me. It’s not that the humour is obscene or outrageous because I’ve laughed at plenty of outrageously obscene films before. It’s that the humour is so stupidly simple and groan-inducingly lame.

One thing that both Roger Rabbit and Team America did very well was building their humour around their stories and themes and using them to serve the larger points being made by their allegories. The Happytime Murders never gets that far because all of its humour amounts to puppets saying dirty things and performing dirty deeds. A puppet femme fatale introduces herself as a “sexual I’ma” as in “I’ma see it, I’ma fuck it”. Later there is an homage to Basic Instinct complete with puppet pubes. There’s even a scene where Phil wanders into the back room of a porno store to find a cow having eight of hear teats pleasured by an octopus. Each of these is a one-dimensional joke that serves no motivational or thematic purpose; they exist solely for the sake of making the movie as vulgar and graphic as possible. While Roger Rabbit had its share of throwaway gags and one-liners, it had just as many that were motivated in organic ways by theme and emotion, including and especially the palpable tension between the human characters and the Toons, and used them in smart and creative ways to add layers to the film, to draw you further into the world they had created and to provide the viewer with insights as well as laughs that served the movie’s overall allegory. The Happytime Murders never even attempts to dig deeper beneath the surface level tension that exists between humans and puppets, opting instead to try and distract us with tasteless joke after tasteless joke (oftentimes either sexist or homophobic) that serve no purpose other than to be tasteless. Even if the jokes were funny (which they aren’t), this movie still wouldn’t offer a fraction of the fulfilment one can get from the movies it’s trying to imitate.

What makes the movie feel more disappointing than merely disgusting and unpleasant is that the craft behind the scenes reveals that some genuine talent and creativity went into its making. In the film’s end-credits we are treated to some clips of the puppeteers at work, a sequence that is far more compelling and even humourous than anything that ended up in the finished product. The work that went into creating a world that these puppets could inhabit, achieving their most outlandish effects, and getting the puppets to interact with their human counterparts; these are all labours that deserve to be applied to a more worthy film. The same goes for the talented human actors whose performances are let down by the sheer absence of comedic material. McCarthy and her Bridesmaids co-star Maya Rudolph, playing Phil’s devoted secretary Bubbles, manage to salvage some semblance of comedy in one of their scenes together by simply interacting with one another, but that’s as close as the movie ever gets to being genuinely amusing. That Elizabeth Banks and Joel McHale were unable to do anything of note in the whole film should tell you how little they had to work with between them.

The film’s ultimate failing is that, despite how ‘edgy’ and ‘mature’ its content may seem, it is a fundamentally unimaginative and bland film. Because this movie aspires to be nothing more than a simplistic, one-note parody that builds the entirety of its humour around coarse language and gross imagery for their own fruitless sake, the movie is inherently self-defeating in its own banality. When compared to other films of greater ambition and depth that are infinitely better, funnier and more rewarding for their thought and complexity, the film is utterly astounding in its derivativeness. This film offers absolutely nothing even slightly new or original to the viewer nor does it have any contribution of worth to make that hasn’t already been made by the classics it so poorly copies except maybe as a barometer against which to measure their ingenuity. I don’t know exactly how many poor decisions and fundamental errors had to happen in order for me to end up in that cinema where I lost 90 minutes of my life to puppet BDSM and silly string ejaculation, but it was definitely one of the lowest points I have ever experienced as a moviegoer.

BlacKkKlansman

Cast: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace

Director: Spike Lee

Writers: Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee


Spike Lee pulls a very clever, very revealing trick on his viewers (the white ones at least) with BlacKkKlansman, his most celebrated and publicly discussed film in years. Taking the real life story of how the black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s with the help of fellow white officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), much of the film is played as a buddy cop action-comedy. We are invited to laugh at the white supremacists in their ignorance and absurdity, the fashions and trends of the 1970s in their datedness and the basic concept in its irony and unlikeliness. The movie leads us along the typical plot beats you would expect it to follow and there’s never any reason to doubt that Ron and Flip will learn to work together, triumph over the racist sons-of-bitches and put them away for good, and then end the movie on a satisfying note as they are congratulated and rewarded for their victory and live happily ever after in the brighter, more tolerant future that is sure to come.

And yet, while Lee is never subtle in his effort to draw parallels between the events of this film and the present (the obviousness of which is part of the point) and does depict some deeply and profoundly serious moments, that still doesn’t prepare you for the tragic punchline as the film jumps years ahead to the footage of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. It’s at that moment, as you behold former Grand Wizard of the Klan David Duke (a major character in this film) delivering the exact same racist rhetoric as his 1970s counterpart, the car crash that killed Heather Heyer, and then President Trump’s refusal to condemn the actions of the white supremacists, that the real point of the movie hits you like a ton of bricks. The aim isn’t to point out that racism still exists or that it’s bad; that’s a given when you’re watching a Spike Lee film. The point is that the hateful ideology of the KKK is still around today and is still as pervasive as it ever was precisely because so little has been done to challenge it. The film disparagingly condemns those, specifically white liberals, who so complacently dismissed the white cloaks and cross burnings as relics of the past that they never saw the rise of the alt-right for what it was even as it was happening before their very eyes. As a white liberal myself, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed for having been so contentedly thrilled and amused just minutes before.

I think that’s the reaction Lee was going for because BlacKkKlansman is indeed a funny and thrilling film. Based on, as the opening title puts it, “some fo’ real shit”, the movie follows Ron Stallworth as he instigates a plan to sneak a Trojan Horse into the ranks of the KKK. He does this by answering one of their newspaper ads on the phone and putting on his best generic white guy voice so that he might pose as a budding supremacist looking to join the Klan. He arranges a face-to-face meeting with president of the local chapter and recruits Flip to be his white avatar. Thus Flip meets with Walter (Ryan Eggold), the surprisingly affable head of the Colorado Springs branch of the KKK, and worms his way into his inner circle with the pathologically hostile Felix (Jasper Pääkönen) and the dim-witted Ivanhoe (Paul Walter Hauser) while Ron continues to handle their interactions over the phone. The meetings are often comical to an almost absurdist degree as the movie portrays these racist, misogynistic, xenophobic militants as the bunch of buffoons that they are (Felix at one point demands that Flip drop his trousers to prove that he isn’t Jewish). And yet, anytime we start to get the impression that these guys are harmless in their incompetence and idiocy, the film is quick to remind us that these buffoons have guns and bombs and pose a real danger to innocent people that needs to be thwarted.

The balance BlacKkKlansman walks between comedy and drama, fact and fiction (while the story itself is true, much of it is fictionalised), and past and present is fitting for a film that is so largely focused on dualities. Our main character Ron is one who finds himself split between two worlds; one as a cop who is loyal to the institution and system that he serves and one as a black man whose community views the police as part of the problem in a system that has continuously let them down. His first undercover assignment is to attend a lecture delivered by civil rights activist Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) who preaches vigorously about the need for black people to find pride, beauty and love in who they are. This is one of the most powerful sequences in the whole film as close-up images of black faces in the audience are conjured up in soft fades with warm lighting to give us a visual representation of beauty for black people. It is also here that Ron meets Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a student activist who is utterly devoted to the cause and who thinks all cops are pigs. Ron falls for her (keeping his occupation a secret of course) and is moved by her passion for pride and justice to become more assertive in his racial identity. Ron’s duality raises the question of whether it’s possible for him to remain loyal to an unjust system while trying to effect positive change to an enduring status quo from within and still stay true to the cause of social justice, cultural solidarity and Black Power. Ron’s crusade against the KKK is his attempt to reconcile that duality.

This duality doesn’t just apply to Ron or even to black people. BlacKkKlansman devotes a not insignificant amount of time towards exploring the duality of Flip, a white man of Jewish heritage but who has never thought of himself as Jewish, suddenly being forced to come to terms with his ethnicity. His vaguely Jewish appearance inspires Felix to try and bait him with anti-Semitic remarks, such as denying that the Holocaust ever happened, and it isn’t long before Flip realises that being subjected to such attacks is taking a toll on him. He starts to confront the idea that, as a Jewish-American who has been passing for ‘white’ all his life, he has as much at stake in this campaign as Ron does. Lee does a remarkable job of using the characters of Ron and Flip as symbols of the African-American and Jewish-American experiences and exploring them in parallel with one another in order to clarify both. The comparison is given even greater weight in Kwame’s speech where he likens black children watching the Tarzan movies and being taught to see the white protagonist living in Africa as the ideal of athleticism, heroism and beauty to Jewish children in Germany being shown propaganda films that taught them to root for the Nazis.

The comparison that Kwame makes is an example of the film’s fascination with cinema and its unique capacity to convey and spread ideas. The very first shot in the whole film belongs not to Lee or his crew; it belongs to Gone with the Wind, one of the greatest and most popular films ever made. The shot shows hundreds of wounded Southern soldiers spread around the grounds of a railway station while the camera is carried back to reveal the heroic image of the Confederate flag wavering on over them. It is an image that exemplifies everything that Gone with the Wind is and is about; it is a grand and iconic scene in cinema, almost peerless in its scale and magnificence, and it expresses this nostalgia for a mythologised Antebellum South, a time that the film portrays as a romantic summer of innocence where master and slave lived in harmony. Lee includes this image as an example of cinema’s power to shape attitudes and to keep alive such ideas as this sentimental tribute to an era of white supremacy. This lesson is given greater poignancy in the film’s greatest sequence where it contrasts a KKK screening of D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking, racist epic The Birth of a Nation with an elderly gentleman played by Harry Belafonte recounting an incident in 1916 where he witnessed the lynching of Jesse Washington (a true story) and detailing the role that the film from the preceding year played in rousing racist hatred and revitalising the Ku Klux Klan.

But Lee is also a strong believer in cinema’s power as an instrument for positive change. He wouldn’t be a filmmaker if he didn’t. He imbues such passion and raw intensity into BlacKkKlansman that it shouldn’t be a surprise that he ended up making one of the landmark films of 2018. Shot on 35mm by cinematographer Chayse Irvin (who shot Beyoncé’s Lemonade), the film constructs a splendid recreation of 1970s USA and evokes much of the cinema from that era, matching the tone and energy of such cop movies as The French Connection. The costumes, complete with vibrant colours and elaborate afros, the note-perfect production design and the musical score with its groovy guitar riffs and funky drum beats recall such Blaxploitation movies as Shaft and Super Fly, which are discussed at length by Ron and Patrice in one scene. The editing makes incredibly skilful use of juxtaposition in both the Birth of a Nation and Charlottesville sequences to convey a heartbreaking tragedy and cutting furiousness that moves the viewer into a state of breathless amazement and tearful fury. The film is so impassioned, so provocative and so masterfully crafted that it demands to be watched and be included in the public conversation. BlacKkKlansman is Lee’s most momentous film in years and he proves himself a superstar still at the top of his game.

★★★★★

Christopher Robin

Cast: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett

Director: Marc Forster

Writers: Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, Allison Schroeder


What I find most puzzling about Christopher Robin, Disney’s kinda/sorta live-action sequel to the animated films, is that I’m not sure who it was made for. The fact that the story was inspired by A.A. Milne’s stories for children and features its characters would suggest that this is a children’s film. However the story itself has less to do with the antics of Winnie the Pooh and company and more with the growing pains of the titular Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor). We first see Christopher as the young boy from the stories spending a final day with his imaginary (or are they?) friends before he’s due to start boarding school and embark on his journey into adulthood. Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eyore and the rest of the enchanted creatures of the Hundred Acres Wood throw a farewell party where Christopher makes a solemn promise to the absent-minded bear that he will never forget any of them.

We are then treated to a montage depicting the formative years of Christopher’s life. We see him conform to the Victorian values of his education, lose his father, fall in love, become a parent, go to war, and finally settle into a dull but secure job with a luggage company. It’s a wonderful montage in the vein of Up where, through the strong use of imagery with minimal dialogue, we are given a nuanced understanding of how the playful, imaginative boy whose best friend was a talking, yellow bear became this humourless, all-work-no-play grown up who spends his days performing mundane tasks in a stuffy office. It’s a sequence that splendidly captures the spirit of the wartime age that the real Christopher Robin, Milne’s son, grew up in. His was a generation that was always struggling and striving as they endured the Great Depression and the Second World War where every man and woman was expected to do their bit. The film takes place in the postwar landscape where the rebuilding process in England is still ongoing and former soldiers like Christopher have found solace from the battlefield in tediously boring but financially steady jobs.

While the protagonist serving as a symbol of lost childhood is not unheard of in kid’s films, Hook being a classic example, the solemn seriousness with which the film treated Christopher’s growth did have me wondering whether his story would be at all relatable to children. This is a major concern because the film devotes so much of its time towards exploring the particulars of his life as an adult before Pooh and his other childhood friends re-enter the picture. Amongst his daily struggles are his marriage to Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), which is being strained by his inability to make time for his family, his fatherhood of Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), whom he treats with such formality and discipline so as to be completely blind to her desire for childhood fantasies and adventures, and his job as an efficiency expert at Winslow Luggage where he answers to the smarmy Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss). When Giles demands that Christopher draft a plan to reduce the company’s expenditure by 20%, foiling his weekend plans for a countryside retreat with his family, Christopher becomes overwhelmed by the stress of protecting his staff from these cuts and the widening gulf between him and his wife and daughter. His salvation comes at this moment in the unexpected form of the Pooh Bear from his youth.

At this point you would probably expect the film to progress into a playful, enchanting family adventure and, to an extent, that is what happens. Christopher returns Pooh to the Hundred Acre Wood and is reunited with his friends. What we see however as we enter the magical realm is not an animated, technicolour fairy tale world like Oz; it’s a more naturalistic landscape with a muted colour palette. The lifelike imagery is similarly extended to Christopher’s friends. Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eyore, all of whom were based on the stuffed animals that had belonged to Milne’s son, are recreated here as the living toys that they are with the matted fur and faded colours that come from years of being played with and left out in the sun. These designs, as well as those of Owl and Rabbit who are portrayed as an actual owl and rabbit, are so wonderfully animated and finely textured, you almost feel like they could climb right out of the screen and enter our own world The film’s commitment to maintaining its sombre, tone, even in a land entirely divorced from gloomy, postwar London, reinforces the notion that Christopher Robin is less interested in being a bright, lively children’s escapade than it is a thoughtful, elegiac kind of experience like Where the Wild Things Are. There are certainly elements of Spike Jonze to be found here, as well as those of the introspective, evocative films of Terrence Malick.

The screenplay, penned by an unlikely trio for a children’s Disney film in indie writer Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy (Oscar winner for Spotlight) and Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures), is largely concerned with teaching Christopher (and the audience) the value of holding on to one’s childhood, living in the moment, and making time for what’s important. In his effort to reconcile with his family, resolve his workplace dilemma, and cling onto his sanity in his interactions with Pooh (“That’s a silly explanation” he remarks when inquiring how Pooh came to be in London, to which the clueless bear replies “Why thank you”), Christopher finds that he must rediscover a part of himself that was lost as he matured too quickly into adulthood. The film is very good at exploring his daily troubles but less so at solving them. Part of the conflict is that Christopher doesn’t have the luxury of reprioritisation between his personal and professional lives because too many people are depending on him to secure their continued employment. That is until Christopher comes up with a solution so simple, one could say that a child might have thought of it. Maybe that’s the point. But it also seems a little disingenuous to say that adult problems are easily fixable when the film seems so intent on treating its younger viewers as mature, thoughtful people.

Still, I do like that the film doesn’t talk down to children and that it adopted an approach to its story that we see so rarely in these kinds of films. If anything, I wish the film had committed to that approach more fully. For the most part it does a great job of maintaining the line between adult weightiness and childish whimsy with some light-hearted humour thrown in. Pooh, as affably played by veteran voice actor Jim Cummings, is a joy in every scene he’s in, whether he is completely oblivious to Christopher’s exasperation, innocently commenting on the strange sights of the modern world, or delivering profoundly nonsensical philosophical gobbets without the slightest hint of irony (“People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day” he muses in one instance). And yet the film does on occasion indulge itself in an attempt to generate some excitement that breaks up the predominating sense of calmness. One example of this is car chase scene that would not have been at all out of place in a Paddington film but here comes across as action for its own sake. For the mood they were going for, I think Christopher Robin would have benefitted enormously from following the example of My Neighbour Totoro, a film which needed neither a plot nor action to become a masterpiece in children’s animation.

The film is somewhat moving, often charming and admirably sophisticated, but it suffers from a clash in tone that I don’t think it’s ever able to fully reconcile. At times it’s too drab and melancholic for kids, at others it’s too fanciful for grown ups (I personally could have done without the animals being physically, literally real). I think there is room for the kind of movie that Christopher Robin is trying to be and I would point to Pete’s Dragon as a recent example that succeeded in being wondrous, joyful and enchanting while still being serious and restrained. The film is good at letting moments of calmness and stillness last and at finding joy and nuance in something as simple and trivial as holding a balloon or lying in the sun. If only it could have savoured just a little bit more of that quaintness, concentrated a little more on the experience than on the conflict and dug just a little bit deeper with its concepts and ideas. “Nothing comes from nothing”, the film often proclaims, and I wish that was a lesson it took to heart. If Christopher Robin were less inclined to guide its story along a formulaic, plot-driven line and allowed its themes and morals to develop more organically, the result could have been something great indeed.

★★★