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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

Maybe I’m just a victim of my own self-imposed strictures, but the thin patch this summer seems to be dragging on forever, with the cinemas stuffed with remade regal cats, God-awful life-affirming quasi-musicals, and offerings from middle-aged wunderkind who’ve been pushing the same thing all their career. Seriously, you could have been reading another review looking at Hobbs & Shaw in more detail.

Instead, I found myself making a rare visit to Oxford’s plushest but most expensive cinema in search of something else: which turned out to be Christian Petzold’s Transit, a German film from last year now getting a limited cinema showing in addition to being available as view-on-demand. The film is based on Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel of the same name, which leads to some curious effects, as we shall see.

The protagonist is Georg (Franz Rogowski), a young German man who is in Paris as the film opens – but seriously considering his exit strategy, as the city is occupied and sealed, with many people living in desperate fear of their lives as paramilitary forces round up enemies of the new regime. The disconcerting thing is that we are not in 1940 – this looks very much like the present day, or perhaps the near future.

There is some close order plotting in the early stages of the film: in order to have a chance of escape, Georg agrees to deliver some letters to another refugee, a writer named Weidel. But Weidel has already surrendered to despair and committed suicide, and Georg keeps his personal effects. He seizes on another escape route, travelling in a goods train to Marseilles with an injured man, who dies on the way.

Once in Marseilles, he has to break the sad news to his former companion’s widow and son, and finds himself reluctantly drawn into their struggle for existence. He is also distracted by a mysterious woman (Paula Beer) who keeps approaching him, seeming to know him, only to withdraw. None of it seems to mean much, for there is no way out of the city, and whatever catastrophe is engulfing Europe will reach Marseilles soon as well. It is only when Georg visits the Mexican Consulate to return some of Weidel’s papers that there is a glimmer of hope – the authorities there assume that Georg himself is Weidel, who has already been offered a safe haven in Mexico, assuming he can secure the necessary transit visas from Spain and the USA.

Quite understandably, Georg instantly assumes Weidel’s identity and goes about getting the necessary paperwork to allow him onto the boat. But there is yet another wrinkle. Georg finally gets to know Marie, the mystery woman he keeps seeing, and a tentative sort of romance springs up between them, despite all the various hazards which surround them. She can accompany him on his fake Weidel-visa, but she refuses to contemplate leaving, insisting on waiting for her estranged husband to arrive. Which would be straightforward enough, but then she reveals to Georg her husband’s name…

The most obviously distinctive thing about Transit is that it is a novel about life in Nazi-occupied France which someone has updated to the present day. It’s a little difficult to tell whether Christian Petzold is doing this to make some kind of weighty allegorical point, or simply because the funding wasn’t there to do this as a full-blown costume drama. Certainly, this tale of migrants desperately fleeing Europe does feel uncomfortably topical, and perhaps the idea is to achieve the same kind of effect that Russell T Davies achieved in his TV drama Years and Years recently: compelling the viewer to identify with a refugee and come to understand why they do the desperate things that they do. Nevertheless, the conceit is a qualified success at best – the film has a slightly stylised quality, and awkward questions about why airlines are no longer operating and how Georg is able to pass himself off as an apparently quite famous writer are hand-waved away somewhat.

It’s not as if the film ever really escapes the shadow of its wartime origins – ‘Casablanca as written by Kafka’ is a quote on one of the posters for it, which is a not unreasonable description: there is a lot of fuss about visas and travel papers, riches-to-rags refugees living in fraught desperation, and a strange love triangle at the heart of the story. On the other hand, there are other resonances, too – it’s hard to watch this film and not think of Antonioni’s The Passenger, another tale of a man seeking to obliterate himself by swapping identities with a corpse.

It has to be said that while the film looks quite reserved and conventional, it is shot through with darkness and coloured by the gnawing anxiety felt by the characters as the unarticulated doom that is seemingly overtaking Europe closes in. In a sense, this is a film which is absolutely about the death of the self, whether that be figurative or literal: there is more than one suicide, and it could be argued that all the characters have been torn from their former lives and are existing in a state of limbo, awaiting their eventual fates.

Not the lightest of films, then (indeed, this is the main thing that sets it apart from Casablanca), but it remains a very watchable one, mainly due to a strong set of performances. Transit doesn’t work too hard at putting across a message or allegorical point, which gives some elements of the conclusion a slightly oblique quality – some elements of the story are left up to the viewer to interpret as they see fit. After functioning as a fairly conventional drama, almost a thriller, for most of its length, the ambiguous ending may not be for everyone, but it does suit the film. There is something very thoughtful about this film, and quietly very sad, too. It’s a strange thing to say, but I did find it very engrossing and almost enjoyable to watch, although whether it is a warning from history or a portent of the future is something we will have to find out in the fulness of time.

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You know, sometimes I take no pleasure in doing this. I hear the response, so why do you bother? Well, as I think I said, it’s pathological. Really, though, sometimes I turn up to a movie which is obviously gunning to touch upon some serious emotional issues, and take a stand against bigotry and prejudice, and leave the audience uplifted and positive, but as much as I’d like to say positive things about it, I just find myself bitterly regretting the fact that the re-release of Apocalypse Now was on too late for me to see it on a work night, and that one can only go and see Hobbs & Shaw so many times before it starts to look weird.

The film that has me thinking this way is Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, a bildungsroman with music, and a film which seems specifically designed to put you in mind of other films you may have enjoyed in the past. Viveik Kalra plays British Asian teenager Javed, living in Luton in 1987 (he is basically a fictionalised version of Sarfraz Manzoor, one of the co-writers). Many films have been made about the travails of growing up as a second-generation immigrant in a fiercely traditional, patriarchal family, and we are surely overdue for one which approaches this whole topic in a wholly fresh and innovative way. Unfortunately, Blinded by the Light is not that movie, and we just get all the usual bits and pieces, from the strict, conservative father (Kulvinder Ghir) on down.

Well, Javed goes off to Sixth Form College where his inspiring English lit teacher (Hayley Atwell) soon spots he is a frustrated poet, but one with little chance of ever properly expressing himself given the way everything is in his life. It just gets worse as his father loses his job and the National Front seem to be on the advance. It all comes to a head on the night of the Great Storm of 1987, when he finally gets around to playing some cassette tapes a friend has lent him – they are, of course, two Bruce Springsteen albums, and Javed’s life is utterly transformed. Well, a bit transformed. Eventually.

I could go into more detail but the film adheres to the standard script-writing structure with grim fidelity: there’s a succession of alternately sad and uplifting bits, building up the stakes, then a really downbeat bit at the end of the second act, followed by a life-affirming climax where the protagonist gets a chance to show everything that they’ve learned about The Important Things in Life. In this respect, like many others, it does sort of bear a close resemblance to Yesterday, another film looking to deliver a feel-good experience powered by some familiar tunes. Neither of them really had that effect on me, though, although I must say that Blinded by the Light manages to make Yesterday look much slicker and better assembled than it does in isolation.

There is just something very odd and not-quite-right about this film.  It’s supposed to be a paean to the power of the music of Bruce Springsteen… which is why the opening section is soundtracked by the Pet Shop Boys, a-Ha and Level 42. (I suppose the film-makers will say they’re holding back the Boss for the revelatory moment of Javed’s first hearing him.) But is it even that? (The paean, I mean.) At times the film resembles a bizarre mash-up of a jukebox musical using Springsteen songs and yet another comedy-drama about the Pakistani immigrant experience. This is an odd fit, to say the least: I know Bruce Springsteen has received many accolades, but I wasn’t aware he was acclaimed as the great interpreter of the British Asian experience in the late Eighties. Maybe the suggestion is supposed to be that his music has that kind of universal power and appeal – well, maybe so, but it still seems a very strangely specific take on this idea.

This is before we even get onto how the film handles its Springsteen tunes. When they do eventually arrive, they are initially accompanied by the words of the lyrics dancing around Javed’s head as he listens to his Walkman, which I suppose is just about acceptable. However, the writers soon decide they want to get some of the fun and energy of the non-diegetic musical into their film, so they break out a few big set-pieces. There are always choices with this sort of thing – you can keep the original Springsteen vocal and have the cast lip-synch to it. Or, you can re-record the song with the actors singing it (or attempting to sing it, if you’ve hired Pierce Brosnan) and use that. Or you can do what happens here, which is to play the original version and have the actors singing along over the top of it (not especially well).

If the singing is not exactly easy on the ear, it is at least better than the film’s attempts at dance routines. I would say these looked under-rehearsed, if I was certain they were rehearsed at all. The result has a sort of desperate earnestness to it which I tried hard to find charming, but I’m afraid I just couldn’t manage it. Something about the film’s biggest musical sequence (a version of ‘Born to Run’ performed in Luton High Street and just off the A505) not only managed to banish most of the vestigial goodwill I still retained for the movie, I’m also pretty sure I could feel it trying to suck out my soul and devour it. I’m not a particular Bruce Springsteen fan, but I can still appreciate the power and passion of his music – however, this film came alarmingly close to making me like his stuff a bit less. (A slightly bemused-looking Boss turns up during the closing credits, having his picture taken with various people involved with the production – one wonders if he was actually aware of who they were.)

That said, often enough they play Springsteen’s stuff without mucking it about or singing over the top of it, and this at least means you are listening to some great songs. This is better than the alternative, which is watching and listening to the scenes telling the story of the movie. These are – well, trite is one word that springs to mind. (‘Blinded by the Trite’ wouldn’t be a bad title for the movie.) None of the characters really behaves like a recognisable human being – they are all stock types living in a dress-up cartoon version of the 1980s, communicating largely in platitudes. Hayley Atwell plays the inspiring teacher, whose functions are to be inspiring and operate a few plot devices. Rob Brydon (wearing a truly shocking wig) plays a comedy relief old rocker, whose function is solely to be the comedy relief. It’s like the guts of the movie are on display throughout – it just doesn’t have the artifice or self-awareness to appear anything other than clumsily manipulative. (It could stand to lose about a quarter of an hour, as well.)

Of course, it does take a stand against racism, which of course is a good and laudable thing to do; and it does make some points about self-expression and being true to yourself and following your dreams, which are all perfectly good and admirable goals in life. Having good intentions doesn’t excuse the numerous narrative and artistic shortfalls of the movie, though. This just about functions as a story and as a musical, but it’s laboured and clumsy and trite throughout: all in all, rather more loss than Boss.

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Regular visitors will know that one of the few constant features to be found hereabouts is the succession of bad puns introducing and punctuating whatever bits of writing I see fit to unload onto t’internet. Often, especially during a particularly boring film, I will find myself thinking nearly as much about what bad pun I am going to put in the title as I am about whatever Keira Knightley (or whoever) is up to on screen. So to turn up to a film and discover that the makers have already been diligently milking their own work for its bad-pun potential is wrong-footing, to say the least. I feel as though someone has shot my fox, or stolen my clothes, or whatever the most appropriate idiom is. If the film makers are going to start doing the bad puns, where does that leave me? Do I have to start actually making the films?

Nevertheless, here we are with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, a film about the race between rival companies attempting to bring electrical power to the USA and thus, you can see, a film with a play on words as its title. It goes further: ‘Power changes everything!’ declares the poster. Demarcation, that’s the only answer, I tell you. Quite apart from this suspect promotional strategy, there does seem to be something slightly ‘off’ about this film – as a fact-based period drama with a first-rate cast, one would naturally expect to encounter it in a cinema around Christmas or early in the New Year, for it has clearly been made with one eye on the awards season. And yet here we are in the middle of summer and it is essentially serving as counter-programming to Disney’s regal cat and the latest Fast and Furious movie. What, as they say, gives?

Well, my understanding is that this one was actually finished a couple of years ago, and was in the process of having a few re-edits made to it when scandal engulfed one of its producers, Harvey Weinstein. Putting out a film with Weinstein’s name on it these days is such a bad business move that no-one even considers it, and so The Current War has been flogged on to another company and only now is seeing the light of day (if that’s an appropriate metaphor for something which is mainly going to be viewed in very dark rooms). I’m not sure at what point Kazakh producer-director Timur Bekmambetov got involved (Bekmambetov is the visionary responsible for the precognitive loom of Wanted and the general barking lunacy of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), but you can kind of sense his influence too, not least in the film’s tendency towards lavish CGI. (Much of this goes to cover up the fact that, for a film about American history, a significant chunk of it was filmed elsewhere.) As if that wasn’t a mixed enough bag, Martin Scorsese’s name is on it as well (although that has popped up in many unexpected places recently).

The film is mostly set in the 1880s and early 1890s. The script does a very good job of establishing that we are only really on the cusp of a recognisably modern world as the film opens: the night is lit mostly by firelight and candles, vehicles and machinery are operated by steam or sheer muscle-power. No wonder the early pioneers of electricity were regarded and referred to as wizards and magicians. Unfortunately, the film does a rather less impressive job of establishing one of the key tensions in the story. On the one hand, we have the famous inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison (Cumbersome Bandersnatch), who is determined to bring light to the masses through a combination of his own incandescent light bulbs and the judicious application of direct current (DC). Set against him is the engineer and businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who has a similar plan involving high-voltage alternating current (AC).

Now, you could argue, and I expect the film makers probably will, that the heart of the film is about the rivalry between the two men and the differences it reveals in their personalities – the fact it boils down to a difference in currents only really matters if you are trying to come up with a snappy, pun-some title for a movie on this topic. I don’t know. I would have liked to have understood the science a bit more, simply because it is so central to the story, and also because the film is partially about how scientific and engineering progress is made.

The film progresses anyway. Westinghouse is initially interested in a possible alliance with Edison, but the great inventor snubs him and the scene is set for a mighty clash of wills – Edison has developed a complete and safe system he can provide, at some expense; Westinghouse has a product which is cobbled-together from various sources, considerably cheaper but also potentially lethal due to the high voltages involved. Much of the film revolves around Edison’s attempts to smear Westinghouse by suggesting he is selling a dangerous product to the unsuspecting public. Edison also makes a big fuss about never using his considerable talents to invent something harmful to human life, which is of course setting up the irony of the fact he is largely responsible for the creation of the electric chair.

Lots of good material there for a story in and of itself, you might think: maybe even more than enough, given the film could probably use a little bit more scientific exposition about the technology involved. But the film goes even further: there is a subplot about Edison’s personal life, and the illness of his wife (Tuppence Middleton). There is another one about the contribution made to all this by the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).

For all that he makes a significant contribution to the story (an employee of Edison and later a partner of Westinghouse), and despite Hoult’s excellent performance, the inclusion of Tesla is probably the most glaring example of the film trying to do too much. We are probably overdue a proper Tesla bio-pic, given that he was a mythologised figure even in his own lifetime (he has been suggested as the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s short story ‘Nyarlathotep’, written back in 1920), and frequently depicted as an almost stereotypical mad scientist (see also David Bowie’s cameo as Tesla in The Prestige). There’s enough Tesla in The Current War for it to feel obtrusive, but not enough to really satisfy.

The same can be said for many elements of the film, if we’re honest. The story tries to cover so much that nothing is really treated with the depth and detail that it deserves, and the pace is seldom less than breathless – the film rattles along, rarely pausing for a reflective moment. This does mean it is never dull, but it also means it is a little exhausting to watch. After a while you just sit back and let the story whizz past in front of you.

This is quite disappointing, as in all other respects than the script and pacing, the film shows signs of excellence: it looks great, the direction is creative, and the performances are uniformly very strong. As noted, Hoult is on impressive, scene-stealing form, and there is a nice turn from Tom Holland (with a quite remarkably baroque hairstyle) as Edison’s secretary. Shannon also makes an impression in what’s not a particularly showy part. The film feels very much skewed in favour of Edison, though, which may or may not be connected to the fact that Bittythatch Chunderhound is one of the executive producers. He is, I should say, as good as usual, but on the other hand he is also playing pretty much the same character that he does in almost every film he makes:  acerbic, snarky, very very clever, not exactly gifted when it comes to showing affection to others… there’s no doubting his charisma, but he does seem in danger of becoming a movie star rather than the great actor he’s always been up to this point.

It is not a major issue, certainly when compared to the problems with The Current War‘s script and story. Even so, this is an interesting and engaging movie which we both enjoyed (Olinka needed some persuasion, but was glad she agreed to come along in the end). It’s by no means completely satisfying, but – quite appropriately – it does shed some light on an interesting period of history, and it’s nice to find a film with such aspirations to ambition and intelligence doing the rounds at this time of year.

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I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly keen Scrabble player, nor an expert on the game, but there was a point a few years ago when the unruly searchlight in my brain locked onto the game of bag and tiles and I found myself playing hundreds of games over the internet (not quite Scrabble itself, but a copyright-baiting near-clone). I recall one red wine-fuelled face-to-face session which eventually disintegrated into what I can only describe as Scrabugeddon (always agree in advance on what, if any, the time limits on play are going to be, and also how the seating arrangements will be decided), and also Boxing Day 2007, when Mama and I spent about seven hours solid playing in front of a Two Ronnies marathon (at one point I got three bingos on the trot and was nearly disinherited). So, obviously, the lack of genuine Scrabble-based cinema has occasionally been a source of just a tiny amount of angst for me.

And now just such a film has come along, in the form of Carl Hunter’s Sometimes Always Never. I get the impression that the film had the working title Triple Word Score, but I suspect they couldn’t justify the licensing expense, hence a title which is catchy but almost meaningless in this context (apparently it is an old dictum concerning the disposition of a well-dressed chap’s buttons).

In the film we are introduced to Alan (Bill Nighy), who we quickly learn is a slippery and devious fellow, albeit in the most benign and affable-seeming way. As the film opens Alan is meeting up with his son Peter (Sam Riley), as they depart on a rather grave family mission, and the atmosphere is not helped by the obvious tensions between the two men. Peter clearly thinks that Alan’s generally dry and idiosyncratic demeanour has not made him a good father, especially considering that he was a single parent following the death of Peter’s mother.

Their trip turns out to involve a night away, which is a surprise to Peter but not Alan, and their stay in a B&B takes an unexpected turn when Alan starts hustling the other guests at Scrabble for eye-watering sums (old favourites like Muzjiks, Griot and Esrom all make an appearance on the table).  (Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny play Alan’s victims in this very funny sequence.)

However, the father-and-son road trip proves fruitless, and Alan and Peter are left to contemplate their relationship, and the others within their family: Peter has a wife (Alice Lowe) and son (Louis Healy), all of whom have impressive Scrabble skills of their own. The irony, of course, proves to be that for all the massive vocabularies the family possess, their actual ability to communicate meaningfully is almost non-existent. Perhaps it was this that drove away Alan’s other son, Michael. But now Alan has found himself playing online Scrabble against someone with an eerily familiar approach to the game. Could it possibly be Michael, trying to get in touch?

The writer of Sometimes Always Never is Frank Cottrell Boyce, who has an eclectic and rather variable CV, if we’re honest: he started his career on the long-defunct soap opera Brookside, went on to various big-screen collaborations with respected directors like Danny Boyle and Michael Winterbottom, wrote a few novels, and won last Christmas’s celebrity University Challenge match between Keble College Oxford and Reading almost single-handed, Reading scoring no points whatsoever. Personally, I find that for every Goodbye Christopher Robin on the list, there is also a Butterfly Kiss; this film is probably towards the top of the pile, for it is amusing and engaging and only occasionally irritatingly mannered and affected.

That said, you are never in any doubt of the fact that you are watching a quirky British film which has clearly been made on a punitively tiny budget. There are various scenes of characters driving back and forth across the north of England, which are mostly realised using obvious back projection, while one plot development which was obviously beyond the reach of the financing is depicted using stop-frame animation. The director works hard to make this look like part of the film’s general quietly off-beat style, but I doubt anybody will be fooled.

I find myself wondering how much of the film’s general tone and identity is the result of an actual creative decision and how much is something necessitated by the lack of money. The setting is mostly suburban, with various scenes in pubs, cafes, kitchens and bedrooms; people sit in cars and caravans as they talk. But there is a lot of talk and not a great deal of the characters actually doing much, unless you include them playing Scrabble with each other. The film has a low-key, deadpan quality which is quite endearing but not especially cinematic – this is one of those films you could watch on the TV without really missing anything. There is nothing especially cinematic about it.

That said, it is still quite watchable, mainly as a result of Nighy’s contribution. To begin with I wasn’t sure about the rather Ringo-esque Scouse drawl he adopts for the role, but it works for the character and I did get used to it. And it is a very funny performance as a man whose apparently laid-back inscrutability masks an implacably ruthless knack for getting whatever he wants. You can tell that deep down Alan is a decent man whose heart is in the right place – but you’re also entirely sympathetic to Peter, who clearly considers him a nightmare to be around.

The problem with the film, if problem it is, is that even the various excavations of the two men’s difficult shared past are so low-key and off-hand that they don’t feel as though they’re carrying much dramatic weight. The film is much more obviously successful when it is trying to be funny than in its more serious moments, which only adds to the sense that this is ultimately something rather lightweight. You can certainly see why Bill Nighy would choose to get involved in this project (he exec produces as well as stars); the film is built around him and it is a brilliant showcase for his talent. And, as noted, the film is often very funny and never less than pleasant to watch. It’s a nice film. The problem is it never feels like it’s more than that, nor even as if it’s really trying to be.

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‘Many people lead lives of quiet desperation, but Elton John leads a life of loud desperation’ – if I had said that, I would be somewhat peeved, as it’s a quote that seems to have entered the public consciousness without anyone being able to remember who it was who actually thought it up in the first place. Still, it’s a good line, and that’s the most important thing. Whether or not he agrees with it, Elton himself (he has acquired that odd status of being one of those people recognisable from his first name alone, even though he has thoughtfully given himself three) clearly thinks his life has something to commend it, as he has apparently been trying to get his life-story filmed for nearly twenty years now. Now here it is, in the form of Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher.

One day it may be possible to write about Rocketman without comparing it to Bohemian Rhapsody, but clearly not today. Fletcher wasn’t the credited director on the bemusingly successful Queen bio-pic, but he did finish it off after Bryan Singer was canned, and the subject matter is obviously very similar, too – the life story of a troubled legend of popular music, liberally garnished with hits from the back catalogue. Of course, there are differences as well, the first obvious one being the tone of the film, which opens with Elton (Taron Egerton) arriving unannounced at what seems to be a group therapy session, dressed in an outfit that makes him look like a cross between Mephistopheles and a macaw. Some discussion of Elton’s youth, as Reggie Dwight in the London suburb of Pinner, leads into the first of many full-on musical numbers, staged with verve and imagination.

These continue as Elton/Reggie’s life story unfolds: a musical prodigy troubled by a strained relationship with a cold and distant father, he wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, starts playing keyboards in pubs at an improbably early age, and generally establishes himself as a jobbing musician by the late 1960s. The key moment comes when his natural facility with melody is put together with the lyrical talents of Bernie Taupin (a nicely-pitched performance from Jamie Bell, who fully understands his job is to support Egerton without upstaging him). Success comes quickly, with an early appearance in America leading to astronomical record sales, fuelled by a succession of belting tunes.

But is he really happy? With the fame and fortune come a troubled relationship with his lover and manager (Richard Madden), increasing dependence on drink and drugs, and a terrible sense of loneliness and isolation. This is a life story of extraordinary success (350 million records sold), hand in hand with desolating moments of heartbreak (Watford FC losing the 1984 FA Cup Final 2-0 to Everton).

(Funnily enough, Elton’s period of ownership at Watford is one of those interludes in his life that the film skips over entirely. Clearly, he was on board for a film depicting his struggles with addiction, loneliness, self-doubt, and betrayal, not to mention his failed marriage, but some things are clearly just too painful to revisit, even 35 years on.)

Another key difference between this film and that other one is that, of course, Elton John is still with us and has clearly taken a hands-on approach to the movie (he is credited as executive producer and his husband is one of the producers). To some extent this is no bad thing, as it was Elton himself who resisted attempts to overly-sanitise this film, insisting that his life would not get a PG-13 rating. On the other hand, one also kind of gets the sense that there has still been some smoothing over of rough edges – Elton is mostly presented entirely sympathetically, with no mention of the hair transplant, any of his well-known strops directed at fans or passers-by, or the surprising moment in the mid-80s when he phoned up a member of his staff and ordered him to make the weather outside less windy. Likewise, the film omits the 90th birthday party of his mother, which he didn’t go to as the pair had fallen out a few years previously – so his mum hired an impersonator to go and perform there anyway (I don’t know about you, but I think there’s masses of material for a great movie just in that one story).

I suppose much of this is understandable as the film concludes with Elton coming out of rehab at some unspecified point between 1983 (the film concludes with Egerton recreating the video for I’m Still Standing) and 1991 (the closing captions indicate that the star hasn’t had a drink in ’28 years’). One of the problems Rocketman has to contend with is that there isn’t really a moment in Elton’s career that corresponds with Queen’s legendary performance at Live Aid, and so it lacks a natural end point – the only possibility would have been his performance at the funeral in 1997, which would probably have entailed making a film with an entirely different tone. (An uncharitable observer might suggest that one of a number of things that Elton John and Freddie Mercury have in common is that neither of them have released any really noteworthy music since the 1990s, and Freddie has a better excuse for this.)

However, if the film comes pre-loaded with some flaws, it also has some in-built advantages, which it makes full use of, most obviously the Elton John back catalogue. Looking back, I remember always being aware of who Elton was, but not particularly familiar with his music in the way that I was with, say, the Beatles – I recall the first time I properly heard Crocodile Rock and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which was on a re-run of Elton’s appearance on The Muppet Show – the image of the singer, in a peacock outfit, conducting a chorus of foam-rubber crocs in the ‘la la la la la’ section of the former song is one burned into my memory, and I was sorry not to see it recreated here. However, most of the famous Elton songs turn up here, although the one about the candle is only alluded to, and the ones licensed to Disney are absent as well – but we do get the title song, Crocodile Rock, Tiny Dancer, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Your Song, and many others.

The film hedges its bets by staging some of these as simple recreations of Elton performing them (and it has to be said that Egerton often looks uncannily like the singer when doing so), but in other places opts to go for the full-on musical number approach. Like the opening number, these are mostly extremely well-done, slick and inventive, and because the film isn’t afraid to be a proper musical they can – for example – insert a song like 2001’s I Want Love (all right, maybe I was a bit harsh about Elton’s recent material) into a scene from the 1950s without it feeling too jarring. Egerton does all his own singing and is more than acceptable, just one aspect of a performance which really surprised me – I’ve always tended to think of Egerton as a rotten actor, but this may well be because I have only seen him in films which were a bit suspect (the Kingsman series) or actively rotten themselves (Eddie the Eagle and last year’s Robin Hood). Rocketman indicates there may yet be hope for him.

In the end we really enjoyed Rocketman. It handles the rags section rather better than riches, and loses focus towards the end, and it doesn’t deliver quite the feelgood emotional wallop of Bohemian Rhapsody, but it’s made with skill and creativity. Olinka, who in addition to being a former rock musician is also in training to become a psychotherapist, found it to be a particularly moving and insightful depiction of how none of us really find it easy to escape our origins, no matter how materially successful we may become. Viewed in those terms, the film has surprising depth and emotional heft, as well as delivering some slick and satisfying entertainment, and some really surprising clothes. In the end I would probably say that Elton has earned whatever indulgences the movie permits him, and I have no doubt he would agree with me.

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People complaining about not being able to make movies seem to have a diminishing stock of excuses at their disposal. It’s not as if you still need lots of expensive equipment or an army of support staff – there has been at least one fairly recent release shot entirely on a smartphone, not that you’d know that from looking at the film (Soderbergh’s Unsane). Film-making has been democratised along with many other forms of artistic expression in the internet age; the real challenge is getting past the gatekeepers so your film shows in cinemas (or at least on a big-name streaming site), not just on YouTube. Of course, it helps if you have form when it comes to making successful films, either commercially or critically.

Then again, some people have bigger barriers than others, such as the Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who made a career out of films which were quietly critical of the establishment of Iran. This eventually led to his arrest for producing propaganda against his own government, and a ban on making any films for twenty years. I will happily admit that I don’t know as much about Panahi’s case as I perhaps should, but somehow he has managed to carry on making films despite being unable to leave Iran, and they keep turning up in the west (one was apparently smuggled out on a USB stick hidden inside a cake). How is he allowed to do this? Why are there no repercussions? Constant reader, I don’t know: all I can say is that if his latest film (the first I have seen), 3 Faces, is representative of his output, I am not entirely sure what the Iranian government is quite so worried about.

Why is this film called 3 Faces? Good question. No idea. The first face we see is that of a teenage girl named Marziyeh (I should mention that virtually everyone in this film is playing a version of themselves, who lives in a remote village and is not very happy about it. She wants to be an actress, her family disagree, and in her desperation she is sending a message via smartphone to the well-known Iranian movie star (well-known in Iran, anyway) Behnaz Jafari in the hope she will come and help her. The film appears to conclude with Marziyeh doing something rather regrettable.

Well, Jafari receives the message, courtesy of Panahi himself, who is the person it’s actually been sent to. The two of them immediately stop what they’re doing and drive off to Marziyeh’s village to see what’s going on – was Marziyeh telling the truth? What has befallen her? – despite the increasingly irate phone calls coming from the director of a film which Jafari is supposed to be making. Jafari openly wonders – is this all a scam? Is Panahi in on it? Is the message genuine?

Well, I know what you’re probably thinking, I was thinking it myself to begin with: this sounds a bit like a metatextual Iranian odd-couple road movie take on The Wicker Man, updated for the 21st century. However, it is clearly not Jafar Panahi’s style to do something so obvious and hackneyed. Exactly what he did set out to achieve in this movie is a bit less easy to work out. I had originally planned to go and see 3 Faces a few weeks ago, not least because it would give me a chance to hang out socially with the blog’s Anglo-Iranian Affairs consultant but problems at the cinema led to the screening being cancelled. We were quite glad when it popped up again at the UPP, and Anglo-Iranian Affairs seemed delighted when it transpired the credits were in both English and Farsi. At the end of the film I sought his opinion, with uncharacteristic delicacy.

‘Was there some kind of subtle Iranian subtext to that film, that as an outside I’m just not picking up on? Because it just seemed like two people wandering about with not much happening.’

Anglo-Iranian Affairs looked at me, a gentle smile upon his face. ‘Subtext? No, not really. It’s really interesting to see a film like that one, it’s so unusual these days.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, one without much of an actual story. I kept waiting for something to happen, but…’

Well, if nothing else it looks like Jafar Panahi has made a film that crosses borders and cultural divides: whether you are the product of western civilisation or Iran itself, you can watch 3 Faces and come away convinced you’ve just seen a film about two people sitting in a car, with not much significance beyond that. I think I’m going to stress this again: very little actually happens in this film, in terms of story at least – Panahi and Jafari drive about, occasionally stopping to talk to someone or discuss what they’re doing. Sometimes he has to wait while Jafari signs autographs for the many adoring fans who materialise every time they stop somewhere. An old man tells a long story about his son’s circumcision. The closest thing to a plot twist arrives when their attempts to leave a village are stymied by the presence of the local prize stud bull – an animal with ‘miraculous testicles’ – lying injured in the road.

None of this is actually irksome to watch, but I did find myself becoming rather restive as the film entered its second hour with still only an ambient sense of plot about it. Every now and then it feels like the film is getting ready for something to happen, some grave reversal or development, but… nothing significant actually happens. They stop and have tea somewhere, maybe. It’s not even as if the film is that beautiful to behold – always a useful get-out for arty films without much story – as it looks like big chunks of it were made on Panahi’s phone (presumably a consequence of his ban, which the script itself alludes to). It may possibly be the case that he is trying to make some kind of point about cultural and generational divides in modern Iran – there is something ironic about the contrast between the hostility Marziyeh’s desire to become an actress is met with by her fellow villagers, and the adulation Jafari (herself a performer) encounters during their journey. But it’s all so obliquely done, with the lightest possible of touches, that the point of the film (if it has one) becomes almost imperceptible.

And yet 3 Faces still shared the award for best screenplay at Cannes: if I were the cynical type I would suggest this says more about Cannes’ desire to support a persecuted film-maker. Actually, I am the cynical type: this film winning a screenplay award says more about the bien-pensant folk of Cannes wanting to show solidarity with Panahi than it does about any quality the film actually possesses. I am beginning to see how Jafar Panahi is working around the ban on his making films, because while 3 Faces is not an outright objectionable way of spending 100 minutes, it barely qualifies as a piece of cinema.

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Twenty years on from his death, the world seems to be thinking of Stanley Kubrick more than ever: an exhibition is currently running in London of props and personal effects from the Kubrick archives, a few weeks ago A Clockwork Orange enjoyed a re-release, there was a mini-season of his films across various BBC channels… then again, it does seem that Kubrick casts a longer shadow than most, and his films are revived on a regular basis (and quite right too, you might say). This even includes the one major film over which Kubrick did not have complete creative control, with the result that he was so dissatisfied that he effectively disowned it.

I speak, of course, of 1960’s Spartacus, onto which he was brought after the original director, Anthony Mann, was fired after only a week’s filming had been completed. The making of this film seems to have been unusually colourful: the project was initiated by star Kirk Douglas after he failed to win the lead role in Ben-Hur, found itself in a race with a rival Spartacus project involving Yul Brynner, was instrumental in destroying the Hollywood blacklist by crediting screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Douglas recalls being rather disgusted by Kubrick’s eagerness to take the credit for the script), and so on.

This is entirely in keeping with a film which purports to be a retelling of one of the most intriguing stories of antiquity: the Third Servile War, also known as Spartacus’ rebellion against the Roman republic. Little is known of the actual history of these events, the Romans being characteristically reluctant to keep records of an incident they felt to be profoundly embarrassing. Given so little is known, I suppose it is quite impressive that the film manages to get the majority of the facts wrong.

Still, the story remains very roughly accurate in most respects: Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus, a man born into slavery but still possessed of a stubborn and rebellious streak: enough to get him into serious trouble in the mines where he has spent most of his life. He is saved from a death sentence by the gladiatorial entrepreneur Batiatus (Peter Ustinov), who brings him to his school in Capua where a brutal training regime begins. Pretty much the only solace he gets, other than the sense of brotherhood that inevitably develops between the gladiators, is a low-key romance with a slave-girl named Varinia (Jean Simmons).

But all the ends with the visit of the ruthless soldier and politician Marcus Licinius Crassus (Laurence Olivier), who takes a fancy to Varinia and purchases her from Batiatus. He also informs Batiatus that he expects to see gladiators fight to the death for his entertainment and that of his distinguished young companions. Spartacus narrowly avoids death in the ensuing combat, but resentment festers amongst the slaves, and when he learns he is never to see Varinia again, Spartacus snaps and launches a revolt against the masters of the school. Soon all the countryside around Capua is in uproar and the rulers of Rome must decide on their response to the gathering slave army in the countryside…

Over the last fifty or sixty years, Spartacus has become a hardy perennial of the TV schedules, and I have watched the initial hour or so of the movie many, many times. This is mainly because the first act of the movie barely puts a foot wrong in establishing the characters and tone of the movie. The sequence culminating in the arena fight between Douglas and Woody Strode, in particular, is an exemplary demonstration of how to build up to, stage, and choreograph this kind of action set-piece, and a genuine highlight of the film. Of course, it also introduces Olivier as Crassus, thus setting up the much longer middle section of the film.

Once the gladiators actually start revolting, we reach the point at which I usually change the channel, to be honest, because the film undergoes a strange and slightly jarring change of emphasis – Spartacus, previously a taciturn figure who mainly expresses himself through violence, suddenly becomes an idealistic and (relatively) eloquent leader of men, in charge of a multitude of people who are presented in rather trite and sentimental terms – there seem to be a disproportionate number of small moppets, sweet old couples, and amusing dwarves amongst the rebelling slaves. One of Kubrick’s issues with the script was that Spartacus is a dull character without quirks, and he kind of has a point – Douglas relies heavily on his innate charisma, together with a couple of very minor grace-note scenes where he is afflicted with mild self-doubt.

What keeps the film going, apart from its impressive scale, spectacle, and Alex North’s marvellous orchestral score (you can hear echoes of it in many subsequent soundtracks by much more famous composers), is the other strand of the plot at this point, which concerns the political shenanigans in Rome – the viewer is left to pick this up for him or herself, mostly, but basically a class (or caste) struggle is in progress, with the wily old Gracchus (Charles Laughton) on one side, backed up by the massed plebes, set against the more aristocratic (not to mention autocratic) Crassus. Which way Gracchus’ protege Julius Caesar (John Gavin) will jump is not immediately clear (Caesar is a relatively minor character in Spartacus, and not especially sympathetically portrayed). The ace card of this section of the film is the presence of so many great actors – Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov – all apparently intent on outdoing each other. Ustinov and Laughton seem to have worked out they can’t match Olivier for sheer power and presence, as he was pretty much in his prime at this point, but they both milk their roles for all the entertainment value possible, and it was Ustinov who took the Oscar home.

Olivier’s dominance of the film seems quite fitting as one of the things that marks Spartacus out from the majority of sword-and-sandal epics is that it has a genuinely downbeat trajectory and an honestly bleak ending. All of Spartacus’ bold statements about freedom and the right to live as one chooses come to nothing – the rebellion is crushed, with thousands slaughtered by the Roman legions, and all it has achieved is to allow Crassus to orchestrate his rise to unmatched power in what remains of the Republic. There is no choir standing by behind the camera, no hopeful message about the eventual victory of Christianity – this is a rare example of a big Hollywood movie where the bad guy wins. The film works horribly hard to try and give Spartacus the moral victory, and at least Crassus doesn’t get the girl, but neither does he end up dead, on a cross, committing suicide, or driven into exile, which is what happens to the sympathetic characters in this film. (There’s no mention of the grisly fate suffered by the historical Crassus.) The film’s grimness and cynicism do feel authentically Kubrickian.

Elsewhere, the great director handles the toybox of the Hollywood epic with all the skill and elan you might expect, and – perhaps – the lack of ability to generate sincere emotion you might also associate with his work. The climactic battle between the slaves and the legions is stirring stuff, to be sure, and the vista of corpses as far as the eye can see in the aftermath is an uncompromising image, but the defeat of the heroes and the death of all their dreams never quite hits you where you live; the battle is missing the moment where Spartacus realises his army has no chance of victory and we see his reaction to it. It is this and a few other missed beats that keep Spartacus from being a classic of the first rank. Nevertheless, for all of Kubrick’s antipathy towards it, this is a film which most other directors would and should have been very proud of.

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