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Posts Tagged ‘Rami Malek’

We have, in the past, occasionally considered the truth or otherwise of the old saw that there is no such thing as bad publicity – most recently in relation to the rather troubled press tour for Don’t Worry Darling. When it comes to David O Russell’s Amsterdam, however, a slightly different situation seems to be in effect. Russell has had a notably successful career as a director, with his last few films in particular proving to be Oscar-bait of the highest order – I’m thinking particularly of Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy. Amsterdam is his first film in seven years, however, and much of the buzz around it concerns the fact that it is supposedly incomprehensible and looks likely to cost the studio that backed it the best part of $100 million (as the actual budget is only $80 million, it looks like some fancy accounting is involved in this estimate).

But this is only part of the story, as there also seems to be a lot of interest in stories about Russell himself not being the easiest person to work for or getting along with – fistfights with George Clooney, reducing Amy Adams to tears, attacking Christopher Nolan at a party, and so on. These things have been in circulation for a while, but only recently have they been attracting real attention. Is this due to Amsterdam being Russell’s first movie of the more socially-conscious post-Weinstein era, or just his first film that hasn’t been a critical and popular success? It sometimes feels like Hollywood will forgive anything except failure. It’s difficult to say, not least because the end of this story hasn’t been written yet: many big-name directors have shrugged off a big flop without too severe a set of consequences.

It would be a little unfair for Amsterdam to be dismissed as an outright failure, anyway, as there are some very successful elements in this film. Christian Bale plays Burt Berendsen, a one-time high-society doctor now fallen down the social ladder somewhat following his experiences in the Great War – these have left him with a glass eye and many scars, but also a strong friendship with Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), another veteran who is now a lawyer. Their friendship was partly forged in Amsterdam after the way, where they lived in a semi-platonic menage a troix with a nurse and artist named Valerie (Margot Robbie). But the film opens in the early 1930s, when Burt and Harold are hired to carry out a slightly unofficial autopsy on a dead general (Ed Begley Jr, who doesn’t have many lines) – his daughter (Taylor Swift) suspects his death was the result of foul play, but there are other parties taking an interest who would rather the general officially died of natural causes.

Well, soon enough the duo are being sought by the police for a suspected murder, desperately trying to clear their names by finding out what really happened to the general. Valerie resurfaces in the middle of all this, mainly because her sister (Anya Taylor-Joy) and brother-in-law (Rami Malek) are mixed up in whatever’s going on. Signs of a shadowy grouping known as the Council of Five appear, perhaps countered by two bird-watching-obsessed spymasters (Michael Shannon and Mike Myers), while a respected ex-army officer (Robert De Niro) also seems to be involved in whatever it is that’s going on.

Hmm, yes, the whole ‘whatever-it-is-that’s-going-on’ issue with respect to Amsterdam… well, I have to say that tales of the film’s supposed impenetrability seem to me to be somewhat exaggerated. This isn’t the kind of film you can coast through paying only the minimum of attention, to be sure, but neither do you need to consult a synopsis. Perhaps the problem is that the story is supposedly based on actual events, though it seems that some of the character names have been changed – apparently there really was an attempted authoritarian take-over of the USA in the 1930s (now known as the ‘Business Plot’). Threats to the integrity of the US constitution, and indeed US democracy itself, are certainly live issues at the moment, and there is something very much in tune with the spirit of the age about a movie where a collection of diverse underdogs come together in love and friendship in the name of the people of America. But these two elements of the film never really feel like they’re meshing together to produce a satisfying narrative. The movie isn’t quite the baffling double-Dutch it’s accused of being (given the title, single Dutch would be more appropriate, anyway), but neither does it really function or satisfy completely.

It almost feels like there’s a fundamental disconnect at the heart of the movie. It certainly has an appealing (and in some cases very attractive) central trio, who have good chemistry despite adopting rather different performance styles. Certainly, John David Washington is never caught acting, but this may be because Christian Bale – whose tendency to go big in certain roles has been commented on before – really launches himself bodily at his character. He is, after all, playing someone with a bad back, a glass eye and a painkiller habit, and the result is an assortment of tics and extravagant posturing which is up there with his most mannered performances of the past. Nevertheless, the freewheeling and somewhat screwball escapades of the trio are quite charming – it’s only when the story focuses on the denser details of the conspiracy plot that it seems to get bogged down.

There’s enough incidental entertainment to ensure that the movie never becomes an outright slog, though this is partly due to Russell’s success in casting a pretty big name in virtually every major part – to say nothing of giving Taylor Swift and Zoe Saldana what basically amount to extended cameos. (Matthias Schoenaerts and Alessandro Nivola turn up as a couple of cops who are basically good-hearted but still required to give the heroes a hard time.) You sense that the whole thing is supposed to be a lively, witty, flying-along kind of romp, albeit underpinned by serious themes about the kind of society we want to live in – but it never really achieves lift-off. The result is a collection of enjoyable performances and the occasional nice scene, studding a narrative which hasn’t been properly presented to the audience and is terribly lacking in clarity or accessibility as a result. There are parts of a really winning film here, but also some really bad scripting choices. Possibly worth seeing just for the cast and performances, but it’s a very close thing.

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The arrival of a new James Bond film has always been a very big deal, for as long as I can remember – but such is the breathless expectation awaiting Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time to Die that one half expects significant chunks of the population to turn purple and fall over. This is, let us recall, the production which saw Danny Boyle depart shortly before shooting began, due to script differences; various injuries besetting key cast members; and not one but two substantial postponements, the second of which was the catalyst which caused several major UK cinema chains to shut up shop last Autumn, well ahead of the second lockdown.

Now, of course, it seems that Bond is the latest movie to be hailed as the saviour of commercial cinema. So desperate, so certain is the company running the local multiplex where I’m living, that they scheduled forty-five screenings of the movie on its day of release alone (not counting the midnight showing – they started at nine in the morning and continued several times an hour until eleven at night). This is unprecedented, mad, and silly; it almost qualifies as a new level of hype and expectation. No film, not even a classic Bond, can match up to this kind of hype, surely?

Well. The film opens with the customary pre-credits sequence, but its first innovation is to shatter the record for time elapsed before the actual titles roll. Don’t hold your breath or you’ll be turning purple and falling over again. To be fair, this is a hugely confident and thrilling segment, opening with a vignette like something out of a horror movie, segueing into something unexpectedly moving, and then slamming into high gear as Bond’s trip to Italy with his girlfriend from the last movie (Lea Seydoux) hits a few wrinkles – suffice to say the famous Aston Martin DB5 gets one more glorious run-out.

Then we’re off into the plot, which starts with a resurgent SPECTRE (I know I’m the only one still capitalising the name of the organisation, but I’m a sentimental old thing) attacking a London bio-warfare lab, stealing a new weapon, and kidnapping its creator. Shadowy forces are at work inside the governments of the free world and a retired Bond is recruited by his old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to retrieve the boffin before SPECTRE persuades him to do something nefarious with it. However, he finds himself in competition with his old paymasters at MI6, who have sent a Double-O agent from the younger generation on exactly the same mission…

And it all takes off from here, more or less. The plot is convoluted, but not impenetrably so, although it does feel sometimes that all the double-crossings and personal angst and exposition of bleak back-story is rather taking the place of the action and grand set-pieces which have always been the Bond franchise’s bread and butter. Somewhere along the way, too, exactly what the agenda of the diabolical mastermind (Rami Malek) is seems to become rather unclear. Even so, the film finishes strongly, with all the requisite crash-bang-wallop (along with a few more surprising touches) and the getting-on-for-three-hours running time more or less floats by provided you haven’t ingested too many liquids before it starts.

This is lavish, highly entertaining stuff, less glum and introspective overall than some of the Craig Bond films have been in the past, and striking an interesting balance between honouring the series’ history and engaging in some startling acts of iconoclasm – the plot draws on elements from the original version of You Only Live Twice, while the film overall is informed by one previous entry in the series in particular. Daniel Craig himself carries a huge movie with aplomb, but he is very well supported – Rami Malek is an authentically creepy and twisted Bond villain, Jeffrey Wright manages to make Leiter so much more than just Bond’s sidekick, and there’s an eye-catching extended cameo from Ana de Armas (who I think everyone was expecting to be in the movie a bit more than she actually is).

However, there are a lot of things about this film which it’s very difficult to talk about without spoiling it completely – most of them ultimately boiling down to the question of just what place, if any, there is for a character like James Bond in the world today. The producers (one of whom is Craig) seem very aware of this, which is why a number of what can perhaps be called corrective measures have been put in place – Lashana Lynch plays one of Bond’s fellow agents and the script has been given a polish by the acclaimed Fridge Wallaby, writer and star of Fleabag. Even so, one gets a sense of the decks being swept quite clean and a line firmly being drawn under the Craig era, in preparation for…

Well, that’s the question. When you really get down to it, James Bond – Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007, as the credits still put it – is the personification of a white heterosexual male power fantasy, and I can’t think of anything more problematic in modern culture. Bond has always been a bit problematic, but never more so than today, when virtually every major remake or adaptation of an older story sees characters ostentatiously having their genders or ethnicities changed.

Looking at the Craig era now, it’s clear that throughout them there’s been an ongoing negotiation between Bond-as-power-fantasy-figure and Bond-as-an-actual-credible-character; what made Casino Royale such an astounding breath of fresh air was that it did treat Bond seriously as a character; the series’ occasional problems since then have largely arisen from the limitations of this approach within the confines of a traditionally big, brash, and slightly tongue-in-cheek blockbuster action movie series. The new film really pushes this approach to its uttermost limits: one of the things I predict will prove highly polarising and divisive about it is that it is the human, flawed Bond that is central to the (rather contrived) final sequence, rather than the comforting, infallible superhero. (Not that the pay-off to this isn’t unexpectedly moving.)

The old idea of James Bond as a white male wish-fulfilment figure likely has no future, the modern cultural landscape being as it is. The problem is that the subtler Bond the Craig movies have brought to the screen, a somewhat modulated and updated, more humanised version of the character from the novels, likely has little distance left to run either: for a new actor to continue with it now would only invite deadly comparisons with Daniel Craig. But there has to be something a Bond movie provides that you just don’t get from – say – a Fast & Furious movie; call it the quintessence of Bondishness. What the people at the top of Eon have to figure out now is just what that is and whether it still has a place in the culture of the future.

I must admit to not being particular optimistic on this front, having seen too much well-intentioned cultural vandalism over the last few years. Bond is really the last of the great masculine icons; it’s a wonder he’s lasted this long. If this twenty-fifth Bond film does prove to be the last hurrah of the series before it’s reconfigured into something fundamentally different, then that’s a shame – but No Time to Die is at least a worthy and entirely fitting piece of valediction.

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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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