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Posts Tagged ‘romance’

The thing about a movie like A Star is Born is that, when it comes to doing a properly pithy review, all the best lines have probably been taken already. The new version (directed by Bradley Cooper) is, after all, the fourth iteration of this particular story, which has a strong claim to be the most remade film in history – I know there have been 27 versions of The Three Musketeers, or whatever, but here we are talking about something originated for the screen, not an adaptation of a novel or a play. I will be honest and admit I have not been able to come up with anything as good as the Village Voice‘s verdict on the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand, ‘A bore is starred.’

The long gap between the most recent A Star is Borns does not preclude a tiny bit of behind-the-scenes continuity between the two – presumably for obscure contractual reasons, hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters is credited for both despite having no career worth mentioning these days – but otherwise the new film is its own thing – or at least as much of its own thing as one can reasonably expect, given that it credits both the Streisand and Judy Garland versions as contributing to the story.

Cooper plays hard-living country rocker Jackson Maine, a successful musician who is beginning to have serious trouble with various personal demons. One night, after a gig in New York, he drops into a drag bar while desperately searching for something to drink (hey, we’ve all been there). His mind is taken off the booze when he sees a performance by an unknown singer named Ally (played by Lady Gaga, who is played by Stefani Germanotta as usual). He is much taken by her incredible vocal stylings, and soon after the rest of her, even the nose which she claims has been such a brake on her career: shallow and worthless music industry professionals are only interested in superficial appearance, not real talent.

Well, they have a lovely evening together and then part, and Ally assumes that’s the end of it. But what’s this? Jackson sends a car to whisk her off to his next gig, which she of course ends up going to. He drags her on stage for an unplanned duet, and the rest is, well, not quite history, but certainly very late-stage prehistory. (Well, this is one way of picking up girls, I suppose.) Stardom soon beckons for Ally (as you might have anticipated if you were paying attention to the title of the film) – but will Jackson be able to deal with his girlfriend’s fame and talent threatening to eclipse his own?

As I say, all the best lines about A Star is Born have already been taken, and it was Mark Kermode who observed with typical sagacity that the film has two main challenges as a piece of drama: it has to convince you that Bradley Cooper is a famous rock star and Lady Gaga isn’t. Well, I would say it manages to pull this off – Cooper has a decent voice (not sure if he’s doing his own guitar-playing though) and does the business when his character is on stage, while – and I didn’t know this – apparently Germanotta spent ten years taking method acting lessons at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there is really nothing much wrong with her performance at all.

That said, it’s when Cooper is acting and Germanotta is singing that the film feels like it’s operating at full power. Cooper as director seems fully aware that, as a musical (even a diegetic one, which is strictly speaking what this is), having a singer of her range and technical ability in the lead role is the film’s trump card. Where most trailers for forthcoming attractions build up to a big dramatic moment or special-effects money shot, the one for A Star is Born is based around the moment when Gaga lets rip with a (let me just check with a popular lyric-transcribing website) ‘Oooooaahaaaooouoooouooooohaaaa’ and practically lifts the roof off any cinema where it is showing. It is a properly spine-tingling moment and I expect the musical number it accompanies to be inescapably ubiquitous from now until next year’s awards season concludes.

It’s a bit which comes fairly early on in the film, which until this point has been skimming along almost irresistibly, with a very well-judged mixture of grit, warmth, and romance. The opening section is certainly the film’s best – not because the rest of it is actually bad as such, but it’s just not quite to the same standard.

There’s just a bit too much of it, for one thing – the movie feels like it could comfortably absorb ten or fifteen minutes of cuts from its middle section – as it is, it occasionally feels like it’s laying everything on a bit thick. Then again, this is a chunky, crowd-pleasing, manipulative musical melodrama, so maybe that’s kind of the point.

Even so, I did find myself wondering what this story is supposed to be about – is it trying to make a point about the brutal nature of the fame game, or is it really just about the stresses and strains on this particular relationship? The story is obviously trying to tick all the bases, by showing Ally’s rise to stardom while depicting Jackson’s decline and fall, but it almost feels as if these things are happening in isolation from each other – the film makes it clear from its opening moments that Maine is a man with serious issues, which only get worse as the story continues. It’s not difficult to imagine his story following a vaguely similar trajectory even had he never met Ally – as a result, they almost feel like ships passing one another, the ups and downs of their actual relationship incidental, and this inevitably impacts on how affecting and moving the drama of the film is.

Nevertheless, this is the kind of big, sentimental movie that audiences often take to their hearts in a very big way, and I can imagine A Star is Born becoming a major success, both critically and commercially. Is it too soon to talk about next year’s awards? Possibly, but the Academy in particular has a distinct weakness for this kind of new-take-on-an-old-favourite offering. And while I don’t think this is a particularly great film, it’s a substantial one with some wonderful individual moments.

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The unwary might find it a bit of a coin-toss as to what kind of crowd they could reasonably expect when turning up to a foreign language preview screening at the Phoenix – sometimes you can have the place to yourself, at others it can be busting at the seams. But perhaps it’s not quite that random: it’s not really surprising that a Franco-Belgian film should struggle to attract a crowd on the night that France and Belgium are playing each other in the World Cup semi-final (the auditorium was at about 3% of capacity for Racer and the Jailbird) while the size of the potential Polish audience in the UK is so well-known that even the big multiplexes are routinely showing commercial films from that part of the world. So maybe it’s not such a surprise that the advance screening of Pawel Pawlikowski’s new film, Cold War, should have been quite so popular. Honestly, I was lucky to get a seat – I hadn’t seen so many Poles in one place since the last time I watched the giant slalom on TV.

Pawlikowski is a film-maker whose parents moved with him to the UK when he was still a teenager. He rose to prominence in the early years of this century with English-language films like Last Resort and My Summer of Love, but his recent work has concerned itself with a more specifically Polish sensibility.

Filmed in pristine black and white, the film opens in the war-ravaged Poland of 1949, where a young people’s choir is being established to preserve and celebrate the traditional music of the peasantry. In charge of proceedings is distinguished musician Wiktor (Tomazs Kot), and one of the singers he selects for the project is Zula (Joanna Kulig), a girl whose slightly suspect personal background is more than made up for by her remarkable vocal talent.

The choir is initially successful, but things inevitably become more complicated: Wiktor and Zula begin a relationship, which one would have to describe as illicit on a number of levels, while the ethnographic idealism of the project gradually becomes tainted by the demands of its government sponsors – as well as performing the old folk tunes of the Polish mountains, they find themselves obliged to include a few numbers about the inevitable triumph of World Communism and zippy tunes about how wonderful Stalin is.

Becoming thoroughly disillusioned with it all, Wiktor sees a trip to Berlin as a great opportunity to make a bit of a change in both their lives and suggests to Zula that they escape to the west (this is still pre-Berlin Wall). But Zula is unsure about this, and the decisions that they both make will end up shaping the rest of their lives…

If you’re anything like me, the first thing you think when you hear about a film called Cold War is that it will be some kind of thriller with a mid-20th century setting. And it is true that the political situation across Europe inevitable casts a long shadow over the events of the story here. However, what Pawlikowski has created here mainly combines elements of drama and romance, in a film which is almost to some extent a diegetic musical.

I get told off for using big words on this blog sometimes, so permit me to explain what I’m on about: this isn’t one of those ‘invisible orchestra’ musicals where someone wandering down the street suddenly bursts into song with the accompaniment of a full string section. All of the songs in this film, and there are quite a few, arise naturally from the doings of the choirs, singers, and musicians it concerns. The music is strikingly beautiful and one of the things you remember most strongly from the film (I should point out that it’s all in either Polish or French, like the rest of the movie); the brief dance segments are also impressively choreographed and filmed.

Doing most of the heavy lifting in the vocal department is Joanna Kulig, for whom this film is an exceptional showcase. Not only does she get to show just what a fine pair of lungs she possesses, but the character arc of the film is also demanding and she executes it extremely well. I should also point out the almost uncanny way in which Kulig, an actor in her mid thirties, convincingly portrays someone who begins the film in (one presumes) her late teens and then proceeds to age a decade and a half in the course of the story. Kot has less singing to do, but also delivers an assured and convincing performance; the pair make for an authentic, affecting couple.

As you might expect, though, this is no chocolate box romance: Wiktor and Zula are apart for years at a time, and even when they are together things are turbulent, troubled, torrid, and possibly other adjectives also beginning with T. The narrative covers decades and takes place in many countries; this is possibly why some commentators are describing Cold War as an epic masterpiece of cinema. Well, maybe: it’s certainly a very fine film, but on the other hand it seems very odd to be describing a film as an epic when it is well shy of ninety minutes in length. It is an exceptional miniature more than anything else – in fact, I would say that it almost feels like a proof-of-concept for a much longer, more expansive and reflective film, where the characters are given more time to grow and there is more space to enjoy the settings and emotions that Pawlikoski is obliged to sketch in only quite briefly here.

This is particularly apparent as the film approaches its conclusion. It’s very difficult not to interpret this as the director’s admission that, when it really comes down to it, you can never completely sever your connection with your homeland: characters return to Poland and the Polish language in both a literal and metaphorical sense. But in strictly narrative terms, I found the conclusion of this film to be a little wanting – events and decisions taking place too abruptly to completely satisfy. The final line of the film, about the view from the other side being much more beautiful – no real spoiler out of context – is loaded with multiple meanings, and will stay with me. But I still wanted more. This is a very good film in every respect, but one which feels unnaturally curtailed in almost every respect. A more expansive and lavish treatment of this story, done with the same style and skill, could have produced something truly exceptional.

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You have to feel a bit sorry for the proprietors of Oxford’s premier art-house cinema, working hard to bring international movies to film-lovers in and around the city. I imagine that their hope with non-English language presentations is to lure in anyone from the same country as the film being shown, together with casual viewers who happen to be passing. And so it is quite simply the worst possible luck for their preview showing of Michael R Roskam’s Franco-Belgian thriller Racer and the Jailbird to coincide almost exactly with another, rather higher-profile Franco-Belgian get-together, of considerable local interest to boot. So it was that about three of us turned up to watch Roskam’s film while everyone else was glued to the football semi-final.

(I suppose one should be grateful the film was showing at all; the entire schedule in Screen One had been cancelled for the following evening so yet another venue could show the other semi-final match. And don’t get me started on the fact that the UK release of Ant-Man and the Wasp has been postponed until six weeks after its American debut, once again because of the bloomin’ World Cup.)

But hey ho. There we were for Racer and the Jailbird (a title which we will return to), which initially looks like it will be a familiar sort of tale in tone, if not in detail. It opens with a fragment from the youth of Gigi, a young man with a clearly troubled family background, before we meet him in adulthood. He has grown up to be that very capable Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, and has apparently become a charming and smooth businessman, even if exactly how he makes his money is a little unclear. He and his friends are visiting a racetrack when he makes the acquaintance of Bibi (Adele Exarchopoulos, probably best known for Blue is the Warmest Colour), a promising young racing driver.

Well, Gigi makes a move, rather directly, Bibi is not unwelcoming to his overtures; the film in general doesn’t hang about and cuts straight from them meeting for their first proper date to the pair of them in a fairly graphic delicto-type situation. They get to know each other as people, too: would you follow me anywhere, they ask each other, do you trust me? What’s your biggest secret, Bibi asks Gigi. I’m a gangster and rob banks for a living, ha ha, he replies.

But, of course, he’s not really joking, which sets up rest of the plot, one way or another. The lovers grow closer, and realise that something serious has begun between them. But Bibi is no fool and is aware that there are parts of Gigi’s life to which she is not privy; her father (Eric De Staercke) can tell Gigi is serious about his daughter, and gives his blessing provided he either comes clean or stops doing whatever it is that’s forcing him to lie. One last big job looms, after which they can be together…

So, yes, that title. In the original French this film is called Le Fidele, which basically translates as The Faithful – something which gives you a pretty good pointer as to the general tenor of the movie. But, for reasons which I cannot begin to fathom, for its English release it has been given (as noted) the title Racer and the Jailbird, which is a horrible, totally inappropriate name for this kind of film, sounding as it does like some kind of wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper from the 1970s.

This is not a wacky, high-spirited comedy-thriller caper in a 70s kind of style. The first half of the film is admittedly a very slick and entertaining crime drama, in what seems to be a highly-commercial style intended to appeal to international audiences (I have heard it compared to Heat). I found myself idly wondering how long it would be before the inevitably inferior American remake came out, who would be cast in the two lead roles, and just how much they would tweak the story and style (the sex scenes in this film are just a tad more explicit than you tend to find in a mainstream American film, but hey, there are French people involved). In short: thoroughly enjoyed the first half.

But then the film undergoes an abrupt and profound volta, signified by the switch of main characters from Schoenaerts to Exarchopoulos, and a huge change in tone. This is much more the kind of thing you would expect to see in Franco-Belgian art-house releases, i.e., it all becomes a bit heavy and depressing. The list of tribulations visited upon Bibi and Gigi as they struggle to sustain their love is so comprehensive and extreme it might even move Job to complain providence was laying it on a bit thick. Melodrama beckons, and the film doesn’t really manage to resist its siren song.

This is a shame, not least because the second half of the film is really Adele Exarchopoulos’ opportunity to shine after playing what’s initially something of a supporting role. She’s still very good, but she has to contend with some rather suspect material in a way that Schoenaerts simply doesn’t in the first half. But the two actors are good together, have chemistry, and you do kind of want to see them end up with some kind of happiness, even if the film never quite hits you with the massive rush of emotion you get from a film like (to choose another Schoenaerts-starring romance) Rust and Bone. In the end what you get is a curious ending, rather carefully ambiguous while still definitely quite downbeat. And you come away feeling mildly disappointed, both by the lack of closure and the way in which all the promise of the first part of the film was left to fizzle away.

I find it hard to be really negative about Le Fidele (or, if you really insist, Racer and the Jailbird), simply because the first half is just so strong, and even the second half is lifted by the two lead performances. But the fact remains that this resembles a peculiar welded-together hybrid of two films with wildly different styles and sensibilities, one of them much more accomplished and rewarding than the other. Worth seeing, I think, but keep your expectations under control.

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Look, if you really must know, my position on the whole royal family thing has modulated somewhat to the point where I feel that on some level they do an important service for our nation, and do it fairly well. (I think the best argument for abolishing the monarchy is that the existence of the institution is simply not fair on the poor sods trapped in it.) On the other hand, the boiler in my house also makes a decent fist of an important job, and I don’t expect to have that splashed all over the papers and 24 hour news channels, either. So the paroxysm of monarchist psychosis which afflicts the nation on days like today is somewhat gruelling. As with the last time all this nuptial absurdity kicked off back in 2011, I find the best way of escaping from it all is to engage with it on the level it deserves, i.e. in the form of a mind-bogglingly horrific American TV movie re-telling of the events in question. Last time around it was William & Kate: the Movie, this time it is Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance, directed (if that’s not too strong a word for it) by Menhaj Huda.

Harry is the one on the right, if you were wondering.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the movie gets underway with a sequence set in Botswana in 1997, where Prince Charles (Steve Coulter, an uncanny lookalike, at least in the sense that he has the correct number of limbs) has brought his young sons to get over the recent death of their mother (who thankfully only appears in one brief flashback). ‘My darling boys, I have brought you here to the cradle of mankind,’ announces HRH, but before he can get any further Prince Wills expresses his doubts about the whole idea. ‘You’re not going to start quoting The Lion King again,’ he complains. Sadly, Prince Charles does not.

(At this point I thought, well, at least they’ve got the least credible dialogue out of the way in the first scene. Excitingly, I was wrong: later scenes feature such cherishable dialogue as (from Kate) ‘Meghan makes Wallis Simpson look like Judi Dench’, (from Camilla) ‘I love a dirty martini’, and (from Charles) ‘I suppose moving to Canada’s all right – Mother’s on the currency.’)

Well, anyway, soon it is established that Prince Harry (Murray Fraser) is growing up to be a troubled young loose-cannon of a royal, leading a wild life and desperately searching for someone to give meaning to his existence. Meanwhile, over in Uncle US of Stateside, Meghan Markle (Parisa Fitz-Henley) is growing up to be a feisty empowered modern woman with a mind of her own. (Rather to my surprise, it turned out I had actually seen Fitz-Henley somewhere else, as she plays Mrs Luke Cage  in the Netflix Marvel series.) When these two finally get together, it’s murder!

Not actually murder, though I was tempted to violence by some of what happens in the movie. I do wonder if the royals actually get together and watch the various movies and TV shows made about them – in this movie, there is actually a moment where the Queen complains about The Crown. (It’s a bit difficult to be sure – the people responsible may actually be hiding from MI6 – but it seems Her Maj is portrayed by someone named Maggie Sullivan. This is quite a noteworthy performance as it manages to be almost totally inaccurate to a breath-taking degree, reminiscent more of a particularly twinkly version of Mollie Sugden than our own dear head of state.) If the House of Windsor do get together and enjoy A Royal Romance – I use the word ‘enjoy’ in a sense so broad it is essentially meaningless – I think it may prove to be something a record-breaker in every department.

You can tell that all their Christmases came at once for the people who perpetrated this movie, as not only does it present the same kind of opportunities for royal-related soap opera as William & Kate, guaranteed to thrill the heart of a certain type of person with a limited grip on reality, but this time around not only is one of the principals American, thus increasing audience identification, but they are African-American, thus giving some real oomph to the subtext, which as before is about a brave young woman coming into the orbit of the Windsors and saving a previously-helpless young princeling from a crippling life in an outdated institution. The writers are so thrilled by this that Kate, who was the feisty, spunky heroine of the last movie, is initially a bit of a mumsy thicko in this one, although she is presented somewhat more flatteringly as it goes on.

Yes, of course Meghan Markle is the protagonist: this is a romance, after all. That’s understandable enough, but what I really found quite difficult to cope with is the sheer simple-mindedness of the film. Subtlety does not exist in the world of a Menhaj Huda movie, apparently – we just get an interminable succession of scenes where the same basic character points are laboriously stressed again and again – Harry is troubled, but has a good heart. Meghan is plucky and adorable, and Her Own Woman: the scene depicting their first date opens with her giving him a protracted hard time for turning up a bit late, beyond the point of credibility. All this is done via the miracle of dialogue which is basically a mixture of people stating facts about themselves and apparently-unfiltered interior dialogue, uttered out loud.

Of course, this is not to say that there are not many other things in Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance which are difficult to cope with. This is a based-on-true-events movie in the sense of most-of-it-is-entirely-made-up, but personally I would have drawn the line at the scene where Meghan finds herself essentially chasing Harry’s private jet down the runway on foot in order to win him back after an overly-precipitate chucking. Most eye-opening of all is a subplot about Harry being stalked by his mother’s spirit, which has apparently been reincarnated in the form of an African lion. I don’t remember seeing that mentioned on the Six O’Clock News.

Implicit throughout, of course, is a peculiar kind of double-think: the depredations of the horrid media come in for some stick, especially when the awful paps pitch up around Meghan’s house in a scene not unlike something from a George Romero zombie movie, only with more flashbulbs. Yes, this couple should not be pestered by the media but left to lead their lives without being intruded upon. How you square this with then going on to make a bloody awful TV movie speculating wildly about the intimate details of their relationship I am not sure (the rumoured scene depicting Harry and Meghan actually in the act does not appear – or at least not in the version Channel 5 showed mid-afternoon). In same way, there’s an odd cognitive dissonance between the film’s implication that the royal family is a hidebound, conservative anachronism, and the fact that if one of the people involved wasn’t a prince this movie would never have been made at all. Can’t beat a bit of doublethink, I guess.

So in the end it was all pretty much as I expected, a mixture of unintended comedy, brain-paralysing weirdness, and emetic schmaltz. I ended up watching it with my young niece, somewhat against my better judgement, and in the end her opinion was that it was ‘a good film’. I can only hope that her judgement improves as the years go by, but at least we have some evidence that the film should succeed with its target audience – not necessarily just the under-tens, but people who are comfortable thinking around that level.

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I suppose we shouldn’t make the distinction between an artist’s process, product, and productivity, but I can’t help it I’m afraid. I accept that spending twenty years on a brilliant, perfect novel is a worthwhile pursuit – how could it not be? – but my personal admiration really goes to people who crank out two or three pretty good books or films every year. Perhaps it’s just because my own creative impulse tends towards a long, drawn-out process, deeply influenced by my massive innate laziness. Hey ho. Perhaps as a result of this, I’ve never been a fully paid-up member of the Daniel Day-Lewis fan club, largely because he seems to me to take a rather precious attitude to his job. Give me someone like Michael Caine, who in the Eighties would turn up in any old rubbish just because he liked to keep working, any day.

Oh well. My days of being chased down the street by outraged mobs for daring to criticise Day-Lewis for being so pernickety about his roles may be coming to an end, anyway, as the great man has apparently announced his retirement from acting, following the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. (So much for my hopes of one day seeing him play Dr Doom in the proverbial good Fantastic Four movie.) If this indeed marks the last we see of him, he is at least departing the stage in some style and with a degree of appropriacy.

In Phantom Thread Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a high-society dressmaker in the London of the 1950s. He is the creative spirit at the heart of the House of Woodcock (is Anderson aware this sounds vaguely and inappropriately amusing? Hmmm), with his intimidating sister (Lesley Manville) handling the business and organisational aspects of the business.

Following the successful completion of an important commission, Woodcock goes on a short break in the country, where he encounters and instantly smitten by Alma (Vicky Krieps), who when he meets her is working as a waitress. She is captivated by the attentions of such a wealthy, distinguished and creative man, and soon moves to London to be a part of his life.

However, we are already aware that Woodcock is something of a serial monogamist, having seen him getting his sister to expedite the departure of a previous flame at the start of the film. Once his initial ardour cools somewhat, however, Alma finds living with Woodcock to be increasingly difficult – he is demanding, discourteous, given to black moods, and strongly objects to any disruption to the routines with which he has surrounded himself. It seems inevitable that their relationship is doomed – but perhaps Alma has strong feelings of her own about this, not to mention plans of her own…

Well, as I have mentioned here in the past, I became a lifetime member of the Paul Thomas Anderson fan club the first time I watched Magnolia, an almost-inconceivable 18 years ago, and with Phantom Thread it is a pleasant surprise to come across a film of his which is (after a couple of impressive but challenging-to-watch offerings) genuinely accessible and satisfying. The story is relatively simple, but the film nevertheless raises some complex issues: Woodcock’s talent is undeniable, but does this justify him being quite so callous towards everyone around him? Isn’t this just another story about a privileged man being enabled in his pampered lifestyle by the women around him? At first it seems so, but then things become more ambiguous. The third act of the story sees events take a deeply surprising, and indeed rather twisted turn, but there’s no sense of the film taking a particular moral stand, and it’s never completely dour or heavy – there are regular moments of black comedy, usually courtesy of Woodcock’s acid tongue. Anderson evokes the period setting with his usual skill, and there is a memorable and effective score from Jonny Greenwood, too.

It is, of course, driven along by Day-Lewis, who brings all his intensity and charisma to the role. One can see why he has been nominated for so many awards for this performance; then again, he could wander by in the background of a scene and probably still get an Oscar nod. I find it a little surprising he even took this part, to be honest, given he’s to some extent playing a version of himself – an intensely driven artistic talent, who gives himself over completely to his work, uncompromising with those around him. There’s even a sequence where Woodcock hallucinates the presence of his dead mother, which can’t help but recall the fact that Day-Lewis retired from theatre work after seeing a vision of his dead father while appearing on stage.

That said, it’s not surprising that Lesley Manville has also been picking up nominations for her work as Woodcock’s sister, for she is also extremely good. The thing which is somewhat baffling is that Vicky Krieps has not likewise been showing up on awards shortlists, for the film is largely a two-hander between her and Day-Lewis and she is every bit as convincing and memorable, giving a rather less mannered performance as well. It may just be that she’s effectively a newcomer as far as Anglophone audiences are concerned, and awards are to some extent decided by your body of work as much as any single performance. (Filling out the mostly-British supporting cast are quite a few familiar and somewhat unexpected faces – people like Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson and Julia Davis all make appearances.)

This is a quiet, rather intense film, which does venture into quite dark and peculiar territory as it continues, and this may be why it doesn’t seem to have set the box office on fire – it’s only lasted about a week in the cinemas where I live, which is usually a sign of a movie which is essentially tanking. This was obviously intended as Oscar-bait rather than a prospective blockbuster, but it’s still a bit of a shame to see such a thoughtful and accomplished film failing to find an audience. Well worth seeking out, if you get the chance.

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‘Why are you going to see The Greatest Showman? You’re going to hate it,’ said Next Desk Colleague, looking genuinely baffled. Well, a number of reasons, to be perfectly honest – things are quiet at work at the moment, giving me plenty of afternoons to spend catching up on the current crop of movies, and there’s also the fact that a friend whose judgement I respect had already informed me that it was (not to put too fine a point on it) ‘atrocious’, and if there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s the promise of a genuinely duff film. And, as frequent visitors will recall, lurking at the back of my mind was the spectral figure of the mysterious individual who went to see The Greatest Showman eight times at the same local cinema in the first few days of its release. I’ve only ever seen The Empire Strikes Back four times at the cinema, for heaven’s sake, and if memory serves the all-time record is held by The Two Towers, on six – and that was over the course of twelve months. So I couldn’t help but be a bit curious about Michael Gracey’s movie.

Depending on how you look at it, this is a feel-good family-friendly musical extravaganza, a carefully-positioned tilt at the awards season from 20th Century Fox, or the first step in Hugh Jackman’s post-Wolverine movie career. Or it might just be a biopic of the famous American entrepreneur and impressario Phineas T Barnum, albeit one with an especially shaky grip on historicity.

Well, anyway: Phineas Barnum (Jackman, mostly) grows up in abject poverty as a pauper on the streets of New York, but makes enough of a fortune (the film is vague about exactly how) to be able to marry his much-better-off childhood sweetheart (Michelle Williams), even though they and their inevitable children end up living in fairly limited circumstances. Barnum eventually cons a bank into lending him the money to buy a museum, which is far from a runaway success (the film is characteristically cheery about the fact its protagonist is what is technically known as a massive fraudster).

Barnum refuses to let this get him down, and – acting on advice from his daughters – decides to convert the museum into first a freak show and then a circus, personally headhunting his troupe of midgets, bearded ladies, conjoined twins, morbidly obese gentlemen, and giants. Naturally, this turns Barnum into a roaring success, and allows him to take on a junior partner (Zac Efron). Soon he is rubbing shoulders with the well-off and well-bred, and taking the Swedish opera star Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, not doing her own singing) on a tour of the States. But is Barnum’s desire to better himself socially in danger of making him forget the really important things in his life?

Counterpointing this, in the sense that it basically hits pretty much an identical set of notes but with different actors, is a subplot about Efron’s character having a bit of a romance with the circus’ trapeze artist (Zendaya Coleman, in a Mollie Sugden wig). He comes from wealth and privilege, and she is African American, which is obviously a problematic combination given the period in which the film is set. Can true love win through?

Well, it may be that some people will be surprised by the manner in which the story of The Greatest Showman eventually resolves itself, but I cannot imagine who they are: members of remote tribes of Papua New Guinea on their first visit to civilisation, perhaps. Then again, it’s not actually a crime for a film to be a touch predictable, and it’s not as if this is the film’s biggest problem.

It may be that you don’t live near a cinema or are otherwise unable to sample what The Greatest Showman has on offer. In this case I offer the following guide to having a broadly similar experience: carve yourself a heroic chunk of the ripest cheese you can lay your hands on, sprinkle it more than liberally with sugar, and then feast away to your heart’s content. The Greatest Showman has no truck with things like subtlety or nuance, it just ploughs through the story with a big happy grin on its face. Barnum’s early life is dealt with so summarily that he starts singing the first big number of the film as a pre-adolescent boy and finishes it as Hugh Jackman, who is rather older (sadly, the song is not a rewrite of one from The Sound of Music entitled ‘I Am Thirteen Going On Fifty’).

The film clearly wants to give the audience a joyous, life-affirming experience so much it hurts, but it makes the fairly elementary mistake of assuming that in order to do so the mood has to be relentlessly up all the time. If you look at the truly great musicals, they all contain a strong element of real pain and darkness, and some quite heavy subject matter. The Greatest Showman makes a vague gesture in this direction but it never really feels as though its heart is in it, to be perfectly honest.

The film’s big theme, to the extent that it actually has one, is the currently-ubiquitous one of inclusion and diversity. Fair enough: it is, as I say, inescapable at the moment. It is, however, surely a slightly odd choice to try and couple this to a story about a man running a freak show, even leaving aside the fact that this diversity-friendly, inclusive movie is one where the two lead characters are a couple of heterosexual white dudes. The mauling that historical fact takes in the process of being adjusted to suit the film’s agenda might be sufficiently brutal to make some viewers call the emergency services.

But now we come to the volta, because I haven’t really touched on The Greatest Showman‘s songs and other musical routines yet. The songs are courtesy of Pasek and Paul, who also did the ones in La La Land, and on paper they seem like a fairly anodyne collection, all with messages about being yourself, following your dreams, choosing your own destiny, and so on. Some of the choreography is a long way sub-Bob Fosse, too. However, I’m beginning to suspect that Hugh Jackman’s own mutant superpower is the ability to sell musical theatre to an audience, because the very least you can say about the songs is that they are pleasant to actually listen to. It’s not quite Hamilton, but this is still contemporary stuff: this only occasionally becomes intrusive and silly, as in the moment when renowned opera singer Jenny Lind commences a concert with a 21st century power ballad.

However, many of the musical numbers are good enough to lift the spirit in the same way as the best moments of classic musicals of the past. I was humming the first big number, ‘A Million Dreams’, all the way home on the bus, for instance. The staging also helps – Jackman and Efron swagger through a duet entitled ‘The Other Side’, and a very decent song is lifted by some brilliant choreography. The songs are really the main reason to even consider watching this movie.

Whether or not the songs are enough to lift The Greatest Showman from the realm of well-meaning cheesiness and give it some credibility is, I suspect, a question everyone will have to answer for themselves. I don’t think this comes anywhere close to the great musicals of the past, but for me the musical numbers were good enough to make the weakness and cheesiness of the rest of the movie excusable. Your mileage may differ, of course, and even I would say that The Greatest Showman is probably more enjoyable as a soundtrack album than an actual movie.

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A moment’s investigation and thought would reveal that James Bond films, like white Christmases, are not as common as they once were. Back in the sixties and very early seventies, when Sean Connery (and, briefly, George Lazenby) held the post, your average wait for a new Bond movie was 1.3 years. This drifted up to 2 years throughout the time that Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton were making the films. Since then, however, with Pierce Brosnan and most recently Daniel Craig, this has shot up to an average gap between films of 3.7 years.

What this means for the quality and standing of the franchise I am not entirely sure, but what it means for the folks at Eon Productions, makers of the official Bond series for 55 years now, is that they have a lot more time on their hands than has sometimes been the case in the past. So what are they going to do with themselves while not arguing with Daniel Craig’s agent over the size of his fee and coming up with damn silly ideas about Bond and Blofeld being long-lost brothers? Well, apparently they have decided to branch out and do other things, with the first fruits of this diversification being Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool. (Eon’s last non-Bond film starred Bob Hope and was entitled Call Me Bwana – a poster for it appears in From Russia With Love – which should tell you how long they’ve been ploughing their very particular furrow.)

The vaguely Drop The Dead Donkey-esque title probably suggests something more offbeat and spiky than is actually the case, for this is one of those supposedly true stories based on a memoir of the same name by an actor named Peter Turner, detailing his relationship with Gloria Grahame, a noted actress of the 1940s and 50s. Jamie Bell plays Peter, and Annette Bening plays the star.

The film opens in 1981, with Grahame being taken ill while preparing to appear on stage in the north of England. Rather to their surprise, the various members of the Turner family (Peter’s parents are played by Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) find themselves caring for the clearly ailing star, who has fond memories of them from her prior romance with Peter. But how did the two of them even get together, given the difference in their status and age (she is, not to be indelicate about it, rather older than he is)?

Well, the movie jumps back and forth between 1979 and 1981 to fill in the details of the story: Peter and Gloria meet while staying in the same lodgings, bond through a shared love of disco dancing, go and see Alien together on its first release, and so on. She takes him to Los Angeles to meet her family (who are all surprisingly British – Vanessa Redgrave and especially Frances Barber make the most of their single scene), and so on. (However, and this is rather odd given that Gloria’s affection for Julie Walters’ character is crucial to the plot, we don’t see their first meeting.) But then her suddenly-erratic behaviour leads to a breakup. Can her time with the Turners at least bring about some kind of reconciliation between them?

On paper this looks a little like one of those films about ostensibly ordinary people coming face to face with the magic and artifice of the movie business – I’ve heard it compared to My Week with Marilyn – filtered through the lens of it being a somewhat nostalgic period piece, looking back to the late 70s and early 80s (there is the predictably banging soundtrack of songs from the time, and some utterly horrid wallpaper). However, it never quite works this way, not least because Gloria Grahame is not really that well remembered as an actress nowadays – I couldn’t have identified her from a picture, nor named any of her films, even the one she won an Oscar for (The Bad and the Beautiful, apparently), and my knowledge of old movies is not bad.

As a result, she almost becomes the stock figure of the Fading Movie Star rather than a recognisable person. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because the story works just as well as a simple relationship drama – it’s pushing it to call this a conventional romance – between two characters who are well-drawn and exceedingly well-played. Most of the attention seems to be going to Annette Bening, who is indeed very good (it’s the kind of role which gets called ‘unflattering’ and wins the actress involved plaudits for ‘bravery’), but Jamie Bell is equally effective in what’s arguably a slightly more challenging role. As mentioned, the supporting cast is impressive, too.

It probably goes without saying that this is a very atypical Eon movie, with no exploding crocodiles or satellite death rays to be seen, and you do gradually realise that despite the cleverness of the production in working around and disguising the fact, this appears to be quite a low-budget movie. Could they have a future in this sort of thing? Well, maybe. (One suspects Eon may have used some of their clout to secure the use of footage from Alien, amongst a few other bits and pieces, which I’m guessing wouldn’t usually come cheap.)

However, the question remains of what this film is actually, really, truly about. Gloria Grahame’s former status as a movie star is rather peripheral to the plot, and it doesn’t really seem to be making any specific point about this kind of age-gap relationship. The emphasis is always on the personal and the particular, rather than anything with universal resonance and applicability, with the result that the film always feels quite low-key and introspective. The fact that the arc of the movie is essentially predictable from very early on isn’t really a positive, either.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a cleverly-made and well-constructed movie, driven by a gaggle of extremely good performances which may well attract attention during awards season next year. However, for all of its quality – and there are certainly some extremely moving moments in the course of the film – given the calibre of the stars involved, not to mention the pedigree of the Eon marque, it can’t help feeling just a little bit small-time. Still, perhaps the start of a productive new direction for one of the great British movie companies, so you have to wish it well.

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