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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Hardy’

It’s something of a remarkable week, as for the first time since March they have released two new movies which interested me enough to make the effort to see them (well, all right: a friend suggested seeing this second one, I’m not entirely sure I would have bothered otherwise). Both of them were partly financed by Ingenious Media – I’m not sure whether this was a coincidence or not – and, confirming my suspicion, both of them were preceded by virtually an identical set of trailers: Kenneth Branagh dusting off his moustache and Belgian accent, Colin Firth weepy, Blumhouse’s Craft remake and peculiar mash-up of Freaky Friday and Halloween, etc, etc. I forgot to mention – perhaps my subconscious was heroically trying to shield me – another movie on the way out, which looks like being a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy to do her usual schtick. I don’t have a problem with this per se, but it also seems to prominently feature James Corden as the voice of a super-computer. Friends, if we all get out of this year intact, one of the things I will take away from it is the sudden realisation that I don’t need to brutalise myself by going to see movies with James Corden in them, and I’m damned if I’ll watch another.

Not that I’m swearing off dodgy movies entirely, of course, or I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Barnaby Thompson’s Pixie. This is Thompson’s first movie as sole director, but as a producer he has a track record going all the way back to Wayne’s World, nearly thirty years ago. Since then he has had a hand in a bewildering variety of films, including Spice World, The Importance of Being Earnest, Fisherman’s Friends and a version of Lassie – of the few of these that I’ve seen, none particularly impressed me, if we’re honest, and some of them were honestly really poor. However, I knew none of that when actually going to see the new movie (which is probably just as well).

Pixie is set in Northern Ireland and mostly concerns the doings of the title character (played by Olivia Cooke) and the various men (young and old) who wind up in her orbit. One of these is her stepfather Dermot (Colm Meaney), who is the local gangster kingpin. The fact that this is going to be a knockabout crime thriller aspiring towards black comedy is established when two young men kill some drug dealers dressed as Catholic priests (despite the fact that two of them are supposedly Afghan) and steal a huge quantity of drugs from them.

After some rather convoluted plotting has unfurled itself, the drugs end up in the possession of two entirely different young men, Frank (Ben Hardy) and Harland (Daryl McCormack), who are not the sharpest or most self-aware tools in the shed. Luckily, they are acquaintances of Pixie, who blackmails them into cutting her in on the drug deal they are hoping to set up: her share will finance her going to art school in America, apparently.

However, the original owner of the drugs, one Father Hector McGrath (Alec Baldwin, giving a textbook demonstration of a phoned-in performance from an imported American star), would like them back, and in addition Dermot has also sent one of his people in pursuit of the trio, not realising one of them is his own stepdaughter…

Well, when the lights came up at the end of Pixie and we were sitting there watching the closing credits, I turned to my companion, feeling compelled to share my gut reaction. ‘People have got to get over wanting to be Quentin Tarantino sooner or later.’ My friend is perhaps a little too young to have lived through that era where every aspiring film-maker and their dog was trying to do a knock-off of Pulp Fiction – things like Two Days in the Valley, The 51st State and Killing Zoe – so it took him a moment so see what I meant, but the odd thing about Pixie is that it does feel very much like a script from the mid-to-late nineties that it’s taken them twenty years to find the financing for.

If this were actually the case, I might even suggest they could have usefully spent the intervening time polishing the thing up, because while films about laid-back Irish chancers out for a bit of craic are all very well, they still need to have reasonably sharp and cohesive screenplays. This one has one of the most fumbled opening acts I can remember seeing, with what feels like a lot of needless faffing about – or at least poor exposition – and characters being introduced in the wrong order. It does all settle down eventually, but it’s still a needless demand on the audience’s goodwill.

Even then, the film constantly feels like it’s on the verge of unravelling completely, with jokes not really connecting, significant bits of storytelling just not there and inconsistent characterisation being used to keep the plot going: Pixie herself is a cool, smart, plans-ten-steps-ahead kind of girl, except when it’s necessary that she isn’t. After meandering about amiably for over an hour, the film suddenly seems to realise it needs to have some kind of climax, and so one is rapidly contrived: though just what the principal characters’ plan is never quite becomes clear – the director seems much more interested in a slo-mo shot of a screaming nun firing a pump-action shotgun.

As I say, it is kind of amiable, and it does have some very able actors in it like Colm Meaney and Dylan Moran (who gets a very funny cameo). Front and centre all the way through, though, is Olivia Cooke, whose career I have followed, not without interest, since she appeared in the Nu-Hammer movie The Quiet Ones in 2014. She does her usual fine job, but this is not one of the better films on her CV. ‘What do men see in irritating free spirits?’ wondered Julia Roberts’ character in Larry Crowne; well, it’s clearly still a live question, as the film is named after Cooke’s character for a reason, and we are all clearly supposed to fall in love with her. She’s an odd mixture of butt-kicking feminist and Holly Golightly – streetwise, ambitious and determined, but also caring and not without her vulnerable side (with the faintest suggestion of a slightly kinky sexual availability too). I have to say the character didn’t really seem plausible to me, despite Cooke’s best efforts – and even if she had been, I would probably have found it difficult to warm to someone whose repertoire includes dealing in drugs, swindling her so-called friends and the odd cold-blooded murder.

Then again, none of the film really feels like it has any connection to the real world, even the real world we were expecting at the start of the year. It’s not the worst film of its genre that I’ve ever seen, but it has nothing like the genuine warmth and texture and really good jokes of a film like The Guard (another black comedy thriller set on the island of Ireland). Olivia Cooke, possibly not for the first time, passes the movie star test by being very watchable in a not very good movie, but this is still really a waste of potential in most ways that count.

 

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As you may or may not know, I recently got back from a brief but pleasantly bracing trip around some of the sights of the Kyrgyz Republic. One of the things about this trip that will be burned into my memory for years to come, probably, was the fact that our driver, Bakyt, was – in addition to being a keen advocate of transcendental meditation and a lover of boiled eggs – a huge fan of Queen, despite speaking minimal English. Five days spent on the road listening to the collected greatest hits would have got very wearing with many other artists, I suspect, but it just served to remind me that Queen are possessors of a tremendous back catalogue of  endlessly listenable hits – and there probably aren’t many other European bands with the same kind of penetration into the central Asian market.

Then again, I may be biased. I am of that generation who were just about to go to university when Freddie Mercury passed away at the end of 1991, and Queen – a major band for the previous few years – suddenly became inescapably massive. The nature of Mercury’s illness and death, and all that followed it, is so inextricably bound up with the way the band is perceived that it’s impossible to know if they would be quite so famous today had things gone differently.

But famous they remain, and I suppose we should be somewhat surprised that it has taken over a quarter of a century for a movie about the band to appear (not to mention grateful that it’s not a big-screen version of the jukebox musical We Will Rock You). The travails of this movie are fairly well-known, with various changes of personnel and (allegedly) focus along the way. Here it is, entitled Bohemian Rhapsody and directed by Bryan Singer (with uncredited contributions from Dexter Fletcher after Singer was sacked late on in production).

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It is, if nothing else, a remarkable story: Rami Malek plays Farrokh Bulsara, a Zanzibar-born Asian immigrant living in London and working as a baggage-handler at Heathrow Airport in 1970. A keen songwriter and fan of the local rock band Smile, he has the bad fortune to offer his work to them ten minutes after their lead singer quits – but then manages to land the role of vocalist for himself anyway, alongside uniquely-tonsured axe hero Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). Having recruited a bass player, John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and changed the names of the band to Queen and their lead singer to Freddie Mercury, the quartet set sail for rock and roll stardom…

I have to confess I turned up to Bohemian Rhapsody feeling rather cynical and not expecting to be particularly impressed: this had the feel of a hagiography in the making, just another brand extension for the band. Then there’s that title – is there any particular reason why it’s named after a song which no-one really understands?  Why not call it A Kind of Magic, or Princes of the Universe, or I Want It All, all of which would arguably be at least as thematically appropriate? No, they’ve just gone for the Queen song title which everybody knows. Then there were the various rumours in circulation following the early attempts to mount this movie – Sacha Baron Cohen was attached to play Mercury at one point, and claimed that the plan was for the singer to die halfway through the film, which would then go on to depict May and Taylor’s subsequent successes (the band members have denied this).

However, this is an extremely difficult film not to warm to – always assuming you have any fondness for Queen’s music, anyway. Proceedings get underway with an earsplitting rendition of the Fox fanfare by May, and the film kicks off with a shameless attempt to win the audience over by playing Somebody to Love over the opening sequence.  How can you resist a song like that? The earnest charm of the actors playing the young band members is a plus, too, and the film engages in some of the rock biopic clichés with gusto.

On the other hand, it is a bit cheesy, and a bit corny, and some of the dialogue is duff – ‘No musical ghetto can contain us!’ cries Roger Taylor at one point, rather improbably. There is also an excruciatingly knowing gag about Wayne’s World at one point, which only becomes worse when you realise that an unrecognisable Mike Myers is actually in the same scene. It also becomes very clear that this is a Freddie Mercury bio-pic rather than a Queen movie per se; his is the fullest characterisation by far, with the others reduced to a sort of caricature of their public image – May is a clever technician, Taylor a slightly stroppy ladies’ man, and Deacon – well, Deacon is initially the comic relief, but to be fair the film’s portrayal of him becomes more balanced as it continues.

The initial vague resemblance to Reeves and Mortimer’s Slade on Holiday sketches, or perhaps This is Spinal Tap, does recede, especially when the film focuses on Mercury’s complex relationship with his long-term companion Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his attempts to come to terms with his sexuality. This is woven in with lots of the kind of moments you might expect – the band in the studio putting together some of their biggest hits, shooting iconic videos, and so on.

There is, of course, an abundance of potential material here, but it’s always very clear that we are getting the family-friendly, Hollywood version of the Mercury story here. History is rewritten throughout, sometimes subtly, sometimes definitely not, to simplify things and provide a satisfying narrative arc for the movie – Mercury and Deacon join the band at the same time, not a year apart, while the singer’s diagnosis with AIDS comes a number of years earlier than was actually the case. (There’s no dwarf with a bowl of cocaine on his head, either.)

Whatever you think of this, a more problematic area is the film’s depiction of Mercury’s sexuality and lifestyle. Would Freddie Mercury really have been on board with a movie that appears to suggest that his gayness was the defining tragedy of his life? Was he really the lonely, isolated, tragic figure portrayed in the movie, driven to excess as a result? Certainly his partner and manager Paul Prenter (played by Allen Leech) is presented as the villain of the piece. The movie only seems willing to address in passing the notion that Mercury’s sexuality, rather than being a regrettable aspect of his life, was in fact central to his personality, his performance style, and the music that he made. (One is slightly surprised that Bryan Singer was on board for a movie with this kind of subtext, to be honest.)

As long as you bear in mind that this is a tidied-up, fictionalised version of Freddie Mercury’s life, then there is a huge amount here to enjoy – mainly the music, but also the performances. The film is structured to conclude with Queen’s set at Live Aid in 1985 – impressively recreated, and depicted as possibly the greatest moment in rock history as well as (somewhat absurdly) the defining day of Mercury’s life – and it is an exceptional sequence, thrilling and also surprisingly moving.

Always assuming – and I know I’ve said this before – you like Queen. Some people don’t; there’s no particular reason why anyone should. But a lot of people do, and unless they are fanatical purists where the band are concerned, I rather suspect this film will be just what they’re looking for. Bohemian Rhapsody‘s lack of concern with the details may not be very characteristic of the musicians it depicts, but its determination to give the audience a terrific, memorable time is absolutely in the spirit of Queen.

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