Musical biographies often make for pretty poor films, even when the musician themselves has happened to have lived an interesting life. The coincidence of personal drama and creativity is often a loose one; attempting to forge a narrative, a certain sort of movie almost always take refuge in a ludicrous cathartic scene where the protagonist writes their love song while hurting from a break-up etc. etc. etc. 'Bohemian Rhapsody', the story of Queen, struggles even more because as an authorized project, it attempts to give some credit to every band member, which dampens its attempts to show their squabbling. In addition, it chooses a positive narrative, focusing not on lead singer Freddie Mercury's tragically early death but rather on Queen's triumphant performance, when it might have been thought they were over the hill, at the legendary 'Live Aid' concert a few years earlier. Comedian Spike Milligan used to quip that his obituary would read "Wrote the Goon Show, then died". Whatever you think of Queen, the band had a long string of imaginative hits, but watching this film, you might feel you could sum up Mercury's life as "Played Live Aid, then died". While many have focused on Rami Malek's performance in bringing Mercury to life, I struggled to avoid being distracted by the frankly painful screenplay. The one redeeming feature here is Queen's music, used liberally throughout but welcome nonetheless.
A well-balanced guide to the highlights and lowlights of a continent
There's a certain template for a travel documentary: take a famous person, have them go somewhere, and film them in a mixture of dramatic tourist spots and places that tell a story of conflict and woe. Paralympian Ade Adepitan's 'Africa' shows little variation from the formula, nor is Ade necessarily the most informed of guides. But he's always amiable, and having an African-born (but British-raised) man, journeying to places where most people live very hard lives while in a wheelchair himself, adds something to the usual mix and helps establish a connection between the presenter and the presented. The continent, of course, has plenty to show us, and while I've seen deeper travelogues, I enjoyed this one.
'The Crimson Rivers' is a French detective series about a pair of police officers who specialize in investigating crimes with a religious, or occult, dimension. Little explanation is provided as to their mandate, while their methods involve disregarding correct procedure, being rude to their colleagues, explaining nothing to anyone, but, almost unfailingly, being right in the end. An accurate "police procedural" this is not, and neither is it filmed or written with particular artistry. And yet I liked the programme, as its gruff hero and heroine work their way through a succession of grim cases spread out over a grey-tinged France that feels rather different from the country in the tourist guides. They each have their own motivations for carrying out their mission; their behaviour at least partly explained by their view of their work as a necessary yet Sisyphean labour. In an age where we seem overwhelmed by clean Scandi-noir or gruesome serial killer stories, 'The Crimson Rivers' offers us a refreshingly different take.
Andre Young, a.k.a. Dr. Dre, is one of the most successful hiphop artists and producers ever. Jimmy Iovine, producer turned record-company executive, has been a close professional collaborator. Together, they conceived and marketed a headphone brand that has made them fortunes beyond the already substantial wealth they have generated by making music. Their story is this instrinsically interesting, even if you're not a fan of the music itself; and even if you're not a fan, it's hard to dispute that the story of hiphop, the people who made it and the reaction it has produced, better expresses the unique reality of contemporary American life in the last few decades than that of any other muscial form. And 'The Defiant Ones' is interesting; only, it would be more interesting if it wasn't so hagiographic. It's fine, letting Dre and Iovine tell their stories, although Iovine clearly likes talking about himself a little too much; but we also get a succession of other talking heads keen to assert the greatness of the dynamic duo, but less interested in explaining what exactly it is that makes them great. The result is a serviceable series; but arguably a trick has been missed.
Why is it so hard to operate the European Union? For sure, there are real problems: economic austerity, migration, and national conflicts of interest. But what this documentary, which has obtained an extensive set of interviews with most of the major politicians and bureaucrats shows, is that the real problem is that what everyone wants in negotiations is less any particular concrete outcome, but to be seen to win. Instead of agreeing, and selling, the best solutions for Europe, or even their own countries, the various national leaders care most about obtaining what their populace will consider to be a victory over their supposed allies. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the story of Britain's relationship with the E.U. My opinion of David Cameron has fallen after watching this, as it became clear that his major problem with Europe was arguably the absense of irreconcilable differences: that he went out of his way to find points of disagreement, for the sole purpose of being able to claim he had won the fight. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this cynical approach led not to preserving Britain's relationship with the E.U., but ending it. But in some ways, Britain's Conservatives are only the worst example of a widespread approach we see from leaders of every countrt throughput this series, which by contrast actually raises one's opinion of the Brussels bureaucrats so often painted as the villains of the piece. Of course national leaders have to fight for legitimate national interest; but the best deals are struck when you don't mind losing face to secure what's important. If face is all that matters, then the dream of Europe will die, although the problems the E.U. was created to address are as live and as pressing as ever.
David Jones, better known by his stage name David Bowie, is often considered the last word in cool, with his musical innovations, ambiguous sexuality, and varied constructed public personas. But an interesting feature of his early career was just how uncool it was. Bowie wanted to be a star, was interested in all forms of art, but as a performer, essentially made novelty records. Even his breakout hit, "Space Oddity", was really just one such novelty, albeit one he built upon (and even then not instantaneously) to provide the platform for his ultimate fame. This intriguing documentary gives us a glimpse of the young Bowie, ambitious but gauche, and scratching around as he tries to make a living on the outer fringes of the musical scene. It's interesting, even if you don't particularly appreciate his music: we often praise artists for being "authentic", and Bowie was authentic in the sense that he wanted to perform, but it's clear that we got from him were performances, and in the early cases, not very good ones. And in an age where stars are scouted, trained and marketed from earliest youth, it's intriguing to look back on a misfit's rather unlikely path to global fame.
David Ayer's film 'End of Watch' follows a similar template to the television series 'Southland', following ordinary L.A. cops as they go about their jobs. But that series was excellent, both showing the craziness that the police have to deal with on a daily basis, but also showing everyday stories and interactions in a low-key, believable fashion. 'End of Watch', however, has a different tone: its protagonists are relentlessly macho, and seem to spend the majority of their time engaged in automatic weapon fights. The U.S.A. has serious problems with armed criminals (and also with trigger-happy police forces), but the casualty rate we see here is more akin to that of a video game than of real life. There are places where the drama is viscerally gripping; but the film doesn't really tell us anything about the reality of life of on the street.
Thomas Vinterberg is an outstanding film-maker, whose first movie fulfilled the terms of the Dogme95 ultra-minimalist manifesto. There's something of the Dogme vibe about 'The Commune' as well, although it may be just that I'm reminded of Lars van Trier's Dogme effort, 'The Idiots', which was also set in a commune of sorts. That was a deliberately provocative film: this is a much more understated kind of movie, an account of a collection of disparate individuals trying to set up home together. The film is set in the 1970s when such efforts were more common than they are now, and in some senses, it tells a familliar story of the loss of privacy, the breakdown of one-to-one relationships, and conflicts of interest. But it's a better film than the summary would suggest, notably because its characters are not obviously hippies, but also because they are all highly flawed but in supremely normal ways - their world and its inhabitants might be unfamilliar in some respects, but in others, it's just the same as ours. In spite of dealing with highly emotional subjects, I found 'The Commune' a little less intense than Vinterberg's finest works, but the detail with which he renders everyday life is compelling nonetheless.
In his imaginative take on the life of Orson Welles, Mark Cousins looks at Welles's personal sketchbooks - he was an inveterate scribbler, though he rarely went as far as to produce what we might call finished artworks - and sees the connections to his films, and to his life. This is not just a novel but also an interesting approach: film is a visual medium, but the visual side of a movie is the hardest thing to talk about: the sketches provide a key to the way that Welles conceived his tableaux. The other part of the thesis is that Welles's choice of movies tell us something about his private character. This is more contentious: does someone choose to play Falstaff, say, or film Don Quixote, because the character fits their own self-image? Maybe not, but Cousins gives us a credible speculation of how Welles' own character manifested itself in the work he produced, of how his films reveal the man who made them. Instead of a conventional narrative, Cousins prefers to engage in one half of an imaginary dialogue with the auteur: at times this is less successful, as when Cousins seems to impute a connection of Welles with Ireland that seems more important to him than he manages to convince us it was to Welles. Overall, though, it's a worthwhile endeavor: Welles's story is well known, its arc usually presented as tragic; but Cousins succeeds in making us view it through fresh eyes.
Mary, Queen of Scots, plays a cameo role in most versions of English history, a naïve figure not completely unlike Emma Bovary, who fell in love with the wrong people while foolishly thinking she could outplay England's masterful Queen Elizabeth in the great "game of thrones". I don't know how the Scots tell the tale - maybe, as they threw her out, they judge her with no more sympathy. The nice thing about Josie Rourke's film is that it offers us an alternative and imaginative telling, one in which Mary is a strong character in a weak position, but certainly not stupid, while Elizabeth is weakened inside by the personal sacrifices she has to make to hold onto power. Mary does display an outrageous sense of regal entitlement - one, however, that would probably have passed unquestioned had she been born a man. It's not strictly concordant with every known fact, and those familiar with Scottish geography will note, that as in many other Scottish films, the road to everywhere appears to pass through Glencoe, but the story does keep to the broad outline of the historical record. In places, it's a little repetitive, and its portrayal of Knox is dull and obvious, but I enjoyed it for its original and thought-provoking interpretation.
A decent stab at one of LeCarre's more interesting books
The last BBC John LeCarre adaptation, 'The Night Manager', was frankly kind-of-boring: a tale of an ordinary ex-public schoolboy becoming an unlikely (but also somewhat classic) hero in the fight against organised crime. But some of the author's earlier works are more subversive, with seriously flawed protagonists caught up in stories that dare to question whether there is such a thing as a right and a wrong side. 'The Little Drummer Girl', written in the early 1980s (but set a little earlier), is one such novel, and focuses more than anything else of the psychology needed to work undercover for the intelligence agencies. Our heroine, who goes by the name of Charlie, is an actress; but while that's a useful skillset, what's also needed for success is some deep emotional involvement in the role. The method prefered by Charlie's handler is to first seduce her into developing sexual feelings for him, and then to encourage her to transfer them onto the terrorist she is being sent to track. While interesting, it's not a completely succesful story: in the beginning, it feels contrived and unnatural, and Charlie seems insufficiently motivated for what she chooses to do. In this adaptation, Florence Pugh plays the lead: at first, I thought she was a little too generic-drama-school-posh for the role, but as time progressed, she did manage to add depth to her character. And by the end, I did feel emotionally engaged with her, and yet disaffected with the "great game", which is exactly where I imagine LeCarre would have intended me to be.
Studio 54 was a famous nightclub in New York City, famed for its hedonism, drugs, music, and sexual freedom. It was also famous because it's owners manipulated the press and exploited the power of celebrity. That combination - of tabloid mainstay and serious cool - has perhaps not been possible since. Eventually its founders went to prison for tax evasion - when they came out, one reinvented himself as a hotel designer; the other died of A.I.D.S., which has led to some viewing his story as a form of moral parable. Not this documentary, though, which centres on the surviving partner, and is hagiographic at every turn; if there was anything about the club that wasn't just fantastic, we don't get told about it here. Even the fact that the owners' lawyer was Ray Cohn, a famously horrible man who was also lawyer to Donald Trump and half the mafia, goes without explicit comment. Given that it was just one club open for three years, one suspects the number of people who claim to have been regulars at Studio 54 far exceeds its actual capacity; but people, it seems, need myths to justify their lives, and this club has become the central myth of the disco era. This documentary is just a little too obvious in seeking to add to that.
Phil Spector, legendary record producer, became a very strange individual later in life. And when a woman was found shot in his house, he was ultimately convicted of murder. This drama, scripted by David Mamet, suggests there were grounds for reasonable doubt and that it could have been a suicide: the biggest problem for his lawyers was the self-evidently highly-questionable character of the suspect. Spector's legal team's attempt to build a defence for their client is at the heart of David Mamet's film, and it's a chance for Mamet, and some heavyweight actors (Pacino as Spector; Mirren and Tambor as his lawyers) to enjoy some highly peculiar material that might not seem believable if this wasn't a true story. In spite of the fact we know the ending that the courts found, and the drama itself can't tell us if they were right or not, I found a compelling watch.
We all hate it when we are treated according to a standardised procedure, with no discretion shown for our particular circumstances. Perhaps it's inevitable that a benefits system is impersonal; but perhaps it's rather a feature by design, to strip applicants of their dignity, either to deter scroungers or simply to drive down the bill by making it humiliating, and difficult, to get what you really need. In the U.K., it has for a long time been widely suspected that some people claim invalidity benefits when actually fit to work; but attempts to prevent this have led to cries of outrage that the sick are sometimes basically left to fend for themselves, forced to seek jobs they are not fit to take. Ken Loach's film 'I, Daniel Blake', is fictional, but it's grounded in many credible accounts of how the system works.
The film itself is minimalistic, without any soundtrack; it's low key, showing us the everyday reality of Daniel's life. But it makes one angry watching it, because one can easily believe that for many people, this is exactly how the system presents itself. You couldn't call the film fun to watch, but it's important: every time you hear politicians lambast scroungers, you need to consider what the counter measures mean for those without a support network. Sadly, this is a must see movie.
When an apocalyptic cult arms themselves with a huge stockpile of automatic weapons, things are never likely to end well. Nonetheless, the siege of Waco, which ended in a terrible fire resulting in the death of David Koresh and sixt followers, might have turned out better, if not for the gung-ho attitude of the law enforcement agencies. That's the take home message from 'Waco: Madman or Messiah', a documentary which reconstructs the events with the aid of testimony from witnesses and survivors. In places it's repetitive, and it would have benefitted from the participation of more senior members of the authorities to justify their decision making - it feels as if that part of the story is missing. One thing that's amazing is that several of the latter remain faithful to their former leader, even though he seems to have been a monster with no conventionally redeeming qualities, beyond, of course, his claim to be God. The broader message is the tragedy of a highly-armed society: the United States has no monopoly on lunactics, but there is something uniquely American about this story.
In theory, 'Killer by the Lake' has all the ingredients for a classic detective thriller: a complex plot, three-diemnsional police characters with intereting personal lives, decent acting, and a gorgeous Alpine backdrop. But somehow, as with its predecessor series 'Vanished by the Lake', it just feels a little too formulaic. Our screens are full of detective dramas, and it takes something special for one to stand out: in this case, all the elements are lined up, but there's no unique ingredient that brings it to life. You'll see many less professionally-made series, but there's a certain lack of inspiration here.
Give most actors the chance to play Agathe Christie's iconic detective, Hercule Poirot, and they take the chance to camp it up; but in this John Malkovich refreshingly inteprets him in a rather austere and distinctive manner. 'The ABC murders' is classic Christmas television, with it's ropey but atmospheric storytelling. It is, however, a little slow: Christie's novels are generally quite shallow, and two hours might have been better than three. My personal opinion is that the mysteries are never usually quite as clever as they promise, and I think that's also the case here - misdirection is one thing, but here the audience is very nearly told something is true that isn't. As you might tell, I'm not a massive fan of her oeuvre; but like Christmas pudding to lose oneself in her world is a comforting winter treat that's better for being consumed only once a year.
Popular musicians can pass from obscurity to worldwide fame in a very short period of time; and that's the focus of 'Oasis: Supersonic', a documentary which charts the rapid rise of the Gallagher brothers' band. It's a not uninteresting story: the group sprung from humble origins, its two leading figures were both combative in nature (especially with each other), but the basic narrative here is the story of sudden, overwhelming fame. There's a merciful absence of outside talking heads, which means we are spared solemn pontification abot their musical significance, but also there's no discussion of the general 'Britpop' phenomenon of which Oasis were just one part. But Noel and Liam are sufficiently frank that it doesn't feel like an airbrushed history either; we do get a sense of what it was actually like to be part of Oasis at this time. As with any music documentary, the music itself is part of it: personally I liked Oasis's their retro rock-and-roll sound even if it wasn't outstandingly innovative, so I enjoyed the soundtrack. The film ends with musing that, in the modern digital age, a similar story couldn't happen now. In general, I'm sceptical about theories about the end of history; even so, twenty-plus years since Oasis played Knebworth, it's hard to think of a band since that has, however briefly, seemed so totally to capture the national mood.
At last, after the unedining tedium of George Lucas's portentious prequels, J.J. Abrams gives us a new Star Wars film we can like, aided by Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter of 'The Empire Strikes Back'. 'The Force Awakens' is a fast-paced space-romp in the spirit of, and paying considerable homage to, the original movies, brining back many of our favourite characters while also introducing new ones (with a nod to modern political sensitivities). Perhaps its biggest problem is where it goes so far beyond simple homage so in places you could almost believe it was an alternative treatment for the script of 'A New Hope'. Of the new cast, I thought John Boyega seemed the most natural; the old cast do come across as old (but then, it was almost 40 years between the movies). The movies takes a bit of a while to find its rhythmn, and Kylo Ren, the conflicted villain, is interesting but not wholly convincing (although arguably Darth Vader had problems of his own). But it's fun, respectful, contains at least some new stuff and is arguably what the world was waiting to see when Lucas gave us 'The Phantom Menace' instead. Ah, well.
'The Sinner' is a strange drama, rather over-constructed. A woman commits an inexplicable crime, and has seemingly neither any understanding of what she has done, nor apparent interest in getting to the bottom of the case. But a detective, with relationship problems of his own, is interested, and eventually uncovers the story of her awful history and thereby explains the crime. But there's little feeling of urgency to the drama, little emotional connection to the characters and sadly little plausibility as well. It feels like someone was trying too hard to make a "psychological" thriller; but forgot that our psychological motivations are often most interesting when at their subtlest.
It's terrible that a woman could be effectively enslaved in a coutry as modern as contemporary Hungary; and somehow even more terrible that the slave's "owner" could be so blase about her privilege that she would even let someone,in exchange for sufficient payment, film the relationship. And let no-one consider the arrangement benign. In a photograph taken at the beginning of her indentiture, Marish looks like a normal forty-something; by the time this film was shot, ten years later, she's an old woman. Ultimately, 'A Woman Captured' is uplifting: Marish finds the nerve to run away, and is reunited with her family. It's never explained exactly why this could not have happened before, except possibly that she gained the confidence she needed through getting the chance to tell her story. But the underlying reality depicted is still a truly horific one; the fact that the police say they can do nothing surely part of the reason why such things still happen.
You would have hoped it was not possible for a young woman to be kidnapped on the streets of London and forced into slavery under threat to her family; but sadly this does happen, and 'Doing Money' dramatises one such real life story. It's an utterly horrific tale; the film is direct and un-fancy, but the sense that what we see is something close to pure evil is never far away, and the psychological hold that the perpetrators have over their victims is convincingly portrayed. In this case, the the pimps went to jail; but even to someone like me who normally favours a liberal approach to sentencing, their three-year sentences seem wholly inadequate. In telling this story, 'Doing Money' is truly shocking, but and essential viewing.
'Farang' is a crime thriller centred on Swedish expatriates in Thailand. It's quite entertaining, but also quite shallow. I'd have been more interested had it shown us a more detailed picture of expatriate life, or a more particular portrait of criminality in Thailand; instead, the outlines of the story feels somewhat generic, in spite of the exotic setting. The best character is Birdie, a drug-dealer but not a completely rotten man, caught in between all sides as his chickens come home to roost.Overall, 'Farang' isn't awful, but it doesn't quite capitalise on the opportunity of its intriguing premise.
In Andrzej Zulawski's film 'Cosmos', a pair of weird young men, one of them a writer, visit a boarding house full of even weirder characters; and after that, things just get weirder still. Some of the weirdness is apparently the story that the writer is imagining; but the boundary between reality and fantasy is loosely drawn, and the fact that scenes from the filming are shown over the credits but before the final "in movie" scene is at one with the deliberately incoherent feel of the piece as a whole. On one hand, the film is just daft, taking semi-random leaps wherever an opportunity presents itself; yet after a while it becomes oddly watchable, even if it doesn't make sense. I don't think you can call it a good film, or even an interesting one; but there's a beguiling quality to the craziness nonetheless.
Bernarod Bertolucci's final film feels more like the movie of a younger director: it's protagonists are youthful, the budget is low and there are few special effects or tricks, the story is simple and not overcooked. But I liked this tale of a shy teenager who camps out in a basement when supposed to be going ski-ing, and who gets a shock when his troubled sister turns up. Parts of what follows are a little cliched, but the basic feel of the film imparts a sense of honesty and genuineness. I liked it a lot, although it's a long way from 'The Last Emperor' or 'Last Tango in Paris'.