Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘sport’

We seem to be going through a period notable for an unusual number of a films supposedly based on true events, and also quite a few for which the paying customer certainly gets their money’s worth (and I’m not even talking about insanely long Argentinian art-house movies which no sane person would contemplate actually watching). These two trends come together for Emmerich’s Midway, and perhaps even more so for James Mangold’s Le Mans ’66 (also trading under the title Ford v Ferrari in some territories). These two films share something else, in that they both seem to be firmly aimed at an unreconstructedly male audience. Fighter pilots! Racing drivers! Can things get any more hetero-normative?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I hasten to add. I am guessing that Mangold has been allowed to indulge himself with a two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time more because his last film made over $600 million than on the strength of his track record as a director (which is generally pretty decent, albeit with the occasional significant wobble), but this is – for the most part – one of his more impressive movies.

It must be said that he takes his time setting up all the pieces, though. The film opens in the early 1960s, with the Ford Motor Company experiencing a significant drop in sales. Sales executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) has the idea of making the brand more sexy and alluring by orchestrating a merger with the legendary Italian manufacturer Ferrari, but the wily Italians outmanoeuvre the American company. In the end the decision is made to boost Ford’s profile by attempting to win the famous endurance race at Le Mans.

To run the new team they recruit Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a former racing driver and Le Mans winner forced to retire on health grounds. Shelby is a bit dubious about whether Ford fully understand just what it is they’re attempting to do, but this is nothing compared to the outright skepticism of the man Shelby brings onto the team as a driver and engineer: Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a fiercely individualistic and contrary British racer.

Development of the new car goes reasonably well, but soon tensions become apparent within the project: Miles views it solely as a racing endeavour, and is his usual uncompromising self, while the suits in the company retain their usual attitude of corporate groupthink and treat it solely as a marketing exercise (which to some extent it is). Shelby finds himself caught in the middle of these clashing worldviews, attempting to reconcile them. And this is before they even go to France…

As noted, this is a film pitching for a certain demographic, concerning as it does motor racing and male friendship (the relationship between Shelby and Miles is at the centre of the film). The only significant female character is Miles’ wife, played by Caitriona Balfe, who to be fair does a good job with the material she’s been given. On the whole the film is quite successful in hitting the targets it sets for itself – the racing sequences are often genuinely thrilling, and the warmth between the two men certainly rings true.

In a sense it kind of reminds me of The Fighter, from 2010 (I qualify this because that’s a film I’ve never actually seen) – Bale was widely acclaimed for the very bold and committed performance he gave in that film, for which he himself gave credit to Mark Wahlberg: without a solid performance at the centre of the movie, Bale wouldn’t have been able to push his own turn quite as far as he did. So it is here as well: Matt Damon, as the world has come to know well, has developed into a very reliable and capable leading man, with impressive chops as both an actor and a movie star. He is on his usual good form here. Bale is also doing his thing to great effect – on this occasion he is almost off the leash as Ken Miles. Never before have I heard the Brummie accent deployed quite so forthrightly in a major studio picture, and Bale finds humour and pathos in his depiction of an immensely talented man who just hasn’t got it in him to play the game in the way he would need to in order to achieve the success he deserves.

Here we come to the crux of the film. You might expect this to turn out to be a fairly grisly 152 minute commercial for Ford Motors – the focus is very much on them, with Ferrari only really touched on despite their prominence in the international title of the film. However, the central conflict isn’t so much Ford against Ferrari as the Ford suits against the drivers and mechanics running the company’s racing team. This is not a very flattering portrayal of Ford management, with the possible exception of Iacocca (that said, for all his prominence in the advertising, Jon Bernthal doesn’t get a lot to do a the film goes on): there’s a real sense in which Ford executives are the bad guys in this film. The message of the film is that individual genius and eccentricity is good, and focus-grouped management-speak group-think is bad.

Well, that would be fine, but I do find the film a little disingenuous on this front. Why is this film called one thing in the UK and another in the US? I am guessing it is because Ford vs Ferrari tested badly with British audiences and has been changed to something perceived to be a bit more appealing. It’s all very well for the film to present itself as being all anti-corporate, but this is just the same as in all those films where stressed out city slickers discover the secret of true happiness is living a quiet bucolic existence out in the countryside. I don’t see many Hollywood studio executives or movie stars chucking it all in to live on a farm, and I imagine we won’t see many Hollywood studios taking the kind of bold risks and employing unpredictable, temperamental talents the way this film suggests motor companies should. It’s just a pose, but I should say the film-makers have cracked how to fake sincerity very convincingly.

And it is, I should stress, very entertaining stuff, though it feels like many of the best bits have ended up in the various trailers. This is a big, meaty movie, with some good performances, a smart script, and a good sense of time and place. My only real issue with the movie itself is that after being knockabout comedy-drama stuff for the vast majority of its running time, there’s an attempt at a shift in tone right at the very end that feels like it’s trying to edge this film into quality drama territory and potentially turn it into an awards contender. I’m not sure it pulls it off quite well enough, but then I’m not sure it really needs to do something like that anyway. There’s no shame in being a crowd-pleaser, and I think that’s what this will prove to be.

Read Full Post »

One of the more ignoble moments of my teaching career came a few years ago when an interesting young woman attempted to strangle me in the middle of a spoken skills lesson. (Relax, I survived.) The casus belli for this particular outbreak of classroom strife was my decision to share with the students my belief that ice dancing is not, when you come down to it, really a proper sport, primarily because it is not objectively scored. (It turned out she had been a fairly serious competitor in this particular discipline in her younger years.) What can I say – never afraid to court controversies on the big issues of the day, that’s me.

I seem to find myself having the same discussion every four years during the world’s premier festival of gravity-dependent sport, a.k.a. the Winter Olympics. Now, it’s not like I’m a particular fan of even the aestival outbreak of this particular event – while the rest of the population of the UK was entranced by the opening ceremony of the London Games, I was locked away in a room by myself watching Gamera the Invincible over the internet – but I generally find myself particularly unmoved by the snowy version, partly due to the arbitrary oddness of many of the events, but also because so much of it is, let’s face it, subjectively scored.

Perhaps it is the very realisation of the dubious nature of their activities that has left so many winter sports athletes prone to outbreaks of sudden, savage violence. Or maybe not. Certainly concerning itself with an act of violence, not to mention figure skating, is Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, which is almost certainly the best Winter Olympics-related movie ever made.

Like many people I was vaguely aware of the scandal at the 1994 Winter Olympics concerning the rivalry between the skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan and startling way in which it developed: in the USA, however, Harding became hugely infamous, one of the most recognisable and widely-hated figures in the country. Gillespie’s film does not so much attempt to rehabilitate her reputation as tell her story with a minimum of bias.

Of course, this is quite difficult as relations between all the key players in the story are adversarial, to say the least, and their various accounts of what happens differ when it comes to some of the essential facts. The film cheerfully embraces this – this is a pretty cheerful film all round, when you consider it – and ploughs into the morass of trying to establish just who knew what and when, regardless.

Harding is mostly played by the Australian actress (and now, I note, film producer) Margot Robbie (Kerrigan, played by Caitlin Carver, is a fairly minor character). Robbie seems to have figured out that your best chance of winning an Oscar (and thus progressing to a properly lucrative role in a superhero franchise) is to take on a role which requires you to de-prettify yourself. This is certainly one of those – Harding is a girl from, as they say, the wrong side of the tracks, a self-described redneck, described by others as white trash. Her situation is only compounded by the less than maternal influence of her mother (a performance of hag-like monstrosity from Allison Janney), and later an allegedly abusive relationship with her boyfriend-then-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

Despite all this, Harding’s genuine ability as a skater, particularly her unique mastery of the apparently-quite-tricky triple-Axel, whatever one of those is, gets her near to the top of the tree in the world of US skating. This is despite the general contempt she received from the skating establishment because of her deportment, styling and background. The decision to bring the Winter Olympics forward to 1994 provides her with an unexpected second chance at a medal, which she embraces.

And here we come to what the film refers to as ‘the incident’ – an assault on Harding’s chief rival Kerrigan, when she was bashed on the kneecap during a training session by a goon in the employ of… well herein lies the tale. Who was responsible? Was this a premeditated attack ordered by members of the Harding camp (effectively Tonya and Jeff)? Or a bit of private initiative on the part of an enterprising associate?

The film ducks out of attempting a definitive answer, quite properly suggesting that we’ll never be completely certain on this one, until someone owns up anyway. Through a neat bit of cinematic ju-jitsu the film exploits the fact it has multiple, equally unreliable narrators to comic effect – ‘This never happened,’ Harding informs the camera during one scene, while we are told that ‘this next part is completely untrue’ by Gillooly shortly afterwards.

Weirdly, the fact that at least some of it must not actually have happened as presented here does not make the narrative of the film at all confused, and the way it manages to keep its feet on the ground as a drama as well as simply a grotesque, absurd black comedy is also quite impressive. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that Harding spent much of her early life in circumstances where domestic violence was a given, and these scenes are (mercifully) not played for laughs. There is even some implied criticism of the skating establishment for its snobbery towards Harding (although given the whole basis of the sport is subjective, it’s not a massive surprise, if you ask me).

Having said all that, events surrounding the attack on Kerrigan is the meat of the film – ‘the part you’ve been waiting for’, in Harding’s words – and this is very much presented as an absurd black comedy, particularly the role of Gillooly and his fantasist buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). In the end, though, the film remains compassionate towards Harding, and the scenes depicting the fall-out of the incident and its impact on her life are unexpectedly moving.

There is, of course, a degree of technical trickery involved in turning Margot Robbie into an Olympic ice skater – that software which digitally pastes one person’s face onto another person’s body may be banned in some contexts, but not movie theatres – but her performance is very strong throughout. Opposite her is Sebastian Stan, an actor who has appeared in many highly successful movies (principally the Marvel series), but not a genuine star in his own right yet – his performance here should do something to rectify that. Neither of them quite match the astonishing awfulness of Janney’s character, but this really is one of those stranger-than-fiction scenarios. Let’s just say the strength of the performances matches the outlandishness of the characters.

I, Tonya studiously avoids sports movie cliches, but then this is not quite your typical sports movie. It’s about sports, certainly, but the story concerns itself more with other things – it’s a character piece about Harding, but also a film which touches upon issues such as the modern media, American attitudes to class and background, and even – fleetingly – the nature of truth itself. It’s also thoroughly engaging and often very funny. I’m not sure it’s quite politically correct enough to really do well at the Oscars this year, but I enjoyed it a lot – always assuming my subjective opinion is worth anything, of course.

Read Full Post »

Normally, I would suggest that all that one really needs to say about Early Man is that it is the new movie from Nick Park and Aardman Animations, the award-laden creators of the Wallace and Gromit series, the Pirates! movie, the Shaun the Sheep movie, Chicken Run, and Flushed Away. Aardman are, I suppose, the closest thing to a British version of Pixar, routinely producing films which are, if nothing else, a showcase for the highest standards of creativity and craftsmanship, and Nick Park is their highest-profile creator (he has a habit of turning up to the Oscars in all-advised home-made bow ties).

Given it routinely takes years of work, comprising thousands of person-hours, to complete a movie, one wonders just how Park settles on one of his feature-length projects: I’d be terrified of getting bored halfway through or realising the idea just wasn’t as strong as I’d thought. No matter how his process works, the end result this time sees Park and his team venturing into new territory.

As the title suggests, Early Man is set in prehistoric times, and concerns Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) and his tribe of easy-going and generally inept cavemen (we should probably call them cavepeople, come to think of it). Catching even a rabbit is a push for this lot, and Dug’s ideas that they should branch out into mammoth hunting seem wildly optimistic.

Soon, however, they have bigger problems, for their verdant and peaceful valley is annexed by the forces of a much more advanced Bronze Age civilisation, overseen by the avaricious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, not that you can tell). Most of the tribe is driven into the hostile badlands where they are easy prey for predatory geese, but Dug finds his way to Lord Nooth’s city where he discovers the invaders have an unexpected Achilles’ heel – they are all mad about football (or soccer, depending on which variety of English you speak).

Dug hits upon a cunning plan – he challenges Lord Nooth’s team, Real Bronzino, to a match to determine the fate of the valley. Win, and the cave people get their home back and can live there peacefully. Lose, and they all go down the mine together. The gamble seems worthwhile, except for the fact that none of them have ever played football before…

Early Man opens with a tip of the hat from one master animator to another, as Nick Park lovingly spoofs one of Ray Harryhausen’s more famous films, the Hammer caveman picture One Million Years BC. Indeed, it initially looks like the whole thing is going to be a send-up of that kind of thing, with a few slightly Flintstones-esque jokes stirred into the mix. But then there are suddenly some jokes about football, and then the bad guys turn up, doing an array of outrageous European accents, and suddenly, it’s clear that… well, it’s clear that it’s very unclear what this film thinks it is, except on the most basic level.

Let us get the slightly problematic aspect of this film out of the way. Just as virtually every major American release these days is deconstructed to determine just what its attitude is to the Trumpclasm and the Unique Moment (etc, etc), so every significant British film is equally analysed to see if it is saying something about the probable British departure from the European project. Early Man is about a plucky bunch of cave people with British accents who come together to save their homeland from the depredations of a bunch of exploitative outsiders with French, German, and Italian accents. Togetherness and old-fashioned pluck is all it takes for them to win the day and reclaim their independence (if you doubt that this metaphor about the cave people representing the UK is intentional, the script is explicit about the fact that it was Dug’s lot who initially invented football and exported it to the rest of the world, who then learned to play it better than they did).

It’s not exactly scintillating stuff (unless you’re an op-ed chimp for the Daily Express or Daily Mail, anyway), but it least it suggests a level of depth to the film which just isn’t there most of the rest of the time: I suppose you could say Early Man is a kind of parody of sports movies (I found myself thinking particularly of Escape to Victory, but probably only because the two films are equally implausible), but a lot of the time it’s just a sports movie sprinkled with some rather variable gags, and hardly any of the little in-jokes and cinematic allusions one has come to expect from Aardman films. Quite apart from the sledgehammer satire, there are probably just a few too many gags about bodily functions for this to really qualify as a children’s film, strictly speaking, but on the other hand there’s not a great deal here for adults to enjoy on their level, either.

If you compare it to a film like Coco, which was at least as inventive and visually impressive, but also managed to be genuinely moving and included some lovely, resonant metaphors and a universal message, Early Man just comes across as rather shallow, knockabout stuff – unsophisticated slapstick backed up by a load of really bad puns. I’m not going to suggest that this isn’t a funny film, because I did laugh quite a lot, but it’s not exactly side-splitting, either, and some of the jokes earn their laughs solely because of their sheer perseverance.

There is the usual voice cast of distinguished actors, including Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall, Rob Brydon, Richard Ayoade, Miriam Margolyes, and so on, and the film’s technical achievements are genuinely impressive, as usual. The problem is that the script just isn’t up to the same level, and isn’t really built around a sufficiently strong central idea. This isn’t actually a bad film, and if it had been made by anyone else I expect it would be greeted as an impressive piece of work. But judged by the standards of other Aardman movies, Early Man can’t help but feel a little underpowered.

Read Full Post »

I know it’s not something to really be proud of, but I’m as prone to a touch of the old schadenfreude as the next person. Watching someone spectacularly torch their own career has a strange fascination to it, not to mention a peculiar and terrible beauty. Young movie stars are kept under pretty strict control these days, so they have to be quite determined to really do themselves some damage, career-wise – but someone who managed it was Shia LaBeouf, whose ill-chosen comments on the last Indiana Jones film, while admirably candid, apparently seriously ticked off Steven Spielberg. These days he’s not even allowed to be in the Transformers movies, a franchise so beyond the critical pale that not even I go to see them. A move into performance art has just been bemusing, more than anything else – last year he spent a whole weekend just going up and down in the lift in an office building round the corner from where I work, while a queue of admirers lined up to go up and down once with him. (He should have used the lift where I work: our building has twice as many floors, so everyone would have got a longer ride.)

And yet here he is, popping up in Janus Metz Pederson’s Borg vs McEnroe (the movie has a variety of other titles, depending on where you see it; we will return to this). This looks like being a bumper autumn for tennis-based historical drama, but apparently Borg vs McEnroe is struggling at the box office, rather: I can’t say I’m completely surprised. This movie reminds me very much of Ron Howard’s Rush (an account of a different sporting rivalry of yesterday), a rather fine film which did okay money-wise but was hardly a smash hit. This is a film much of which is in Swedish, without a really big star to carry it, or a big name director, and sheer quality just doesn’t guarantee success these days.

The film is set in 1980 and concerns the famous clash in the Wimbledon men’s final, between the Swedish player Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and the American John McEnroe (LaBeouf). Quite apart from the fact that the two men are both supremely gifted athletes, there is a clash of styles and personalities – Borg is renowned as an iceman, his game characterised by an almost robotic perfectionism, while McEnroe is a much more turbulent, provocative figure, famous for his explosive temper on court. Borg is loved by the crowds; McEnroe routinely booed.

Borg is campaigning for his fifth Wimbledon title on the spin; McEnroe is seeking to establish himself as a major figure in the sport. The pressures on both men are enormous – in private, Borg’s relationship with his coach (Stellan Skarsgard) and fiancee (Tuva Novotny) come under strain, while McEnroe’s fractious relationship with the media is another distraction. But as Wimbledon begins and the two men begin to battle their way through the draw, perhaps each of them sees a little of himself in the other…

I suspect that the one thing you really need to know in order to understand Borg vs McEnroe is the fact that this is a Scandinavian-financed film, known in Sweden simply as Borg. Bearing this in mind, it’s not exactly a surprise that the film is not completely even-handed in its treatment of its two principals. It’s not that McEnroe is smeared or disparaged in any way, more that the focus of the story is much more on the Swede than the American (the sense that this is the authorised biography of Borg only increases when you learn that playing the athlete as a youth is a lad by the name of Leo, ah, Borg – I wonder who his dad might be?).

The film has one of those slightly tricksy constructions where scenes from the ’present day’ of the film (i.e., 1980) are intercut with flashbacks to the youth of the characters – well, the extreme youth of the characters, given they are 24 and 21. There are many more of these for Borg than McEnroe, and – it seemed to me – more of an attempt at psychological insight and a fully-rounded characterisation. We see that McEnroe was clearly pushed to excel by extremely ambitious parents, but not really very much more – whereas in the case of Borg, we see in much more detail his troubled early years in the junior game, his discovery by Lennart Bergelin, and so on.

As a result, the film feels a bit unbalanced, and I have to say that the casting of LaBeouf is arguably a bit of a mistake that does not help matters much. We can skip over the fact he’s a decade older than McEnroe was at the time (the age disparity between Gudnason and Borg is even greater), but it still remains the case that there really isn’t much resemblance between the two of them. McEnroe was and remains a well-known public figure; at the time his various touchline rants at the umpire (’You cannot be serious,’ etc) were hugely famous, the raw material for dozens of jokes, cartoons, and even novelty pop songs. Everyone feels they already know John McEnroe already; bringing him successfully to life on screen would require a more nuanced and powerful performance than LaBeouf provides here. If nothing else, LaBeouf has the same problem that Tom Cruise suffers from these days – his peculiar behaviour away from the camera gets in the way of his work in front of it. He is known as a celebrity rather than an actor, and so when he appears he is only ever really Shia LaBeouf in a wig rather than any version of John McEnroe. (LaBeouf-watchers may be slightly alarmed to hear their man likening himself to the tennis player, saying he feels they are both ’misunderstood’. Hmmm.)

Anyway. I used to be very cool about sports-based movies, feeling that sport had no business muscling in on what’s supposed to be an art form. What I realise now, of course, is that both are in the business of storytelling, and the main appeal of sport is its potential to deliver a totally unpredictable narrative. The match at the end of Borg vs McEnroe is an unpredictable narrative to which the climax is already well-known, which presumably counts as a neatly-squared circle. Both the climax and the rest of the film are very competently assembled, even if the film’s ’inspired by true events’ style is hardly particularly innovative.

I’m just old enough to remember being vaguely aware of the events of this film when they happened, and I’m aware of the significance of the 1980 final. And the least you can say about Borg vs McEnroe is that it is a worthy, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful recreation of these events (it goes without saying, of course, that the 1981 encounter is dismissed in a single caption at the end). Not a perfect movie, but by no means a bad one, either: worth watching even if you’re only marginally a tennis fan.

Read Full Post »

There are doubtless many good reasons for choosing to be suspicious of major media and entertainment companies, especially ones which spend much of their time talking about social values and positivity and hardly ever mention how machine-tooled their operations are when it comes to separating money from small people and their hapless parents. (One friend of mine eschews the avuncular diminutive in favour of muttering balefully about ‘Walter Disney’ whenever the topic of his corporation comes up.)

Still, one should generally try to keep an open mind: I was about to suggest that I rarely go and see a Disney movie, but now that they own Marvel and are making their own franchise of stellar conflict related films, that’s obviously not true. Perhaps it’s better to say that I rarely see movies made by Disney under their own marque, but I made an exception to go and see Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, a co-production between the Mouse House and the sports network ESPN (which I am given to understand is yet another Disney subsidiary).

queen-of-katwe-poster-2

As the involvement of ESPN might suggest, this is a sports movie, which would normally be another reason for me not to go anywhere near it, but it’s a fairly unusual one, as the sport in question is chess. Now, I admire chess and its players very much, but this is more of one of those from-afar kinds of admiration, apart from a brief period when I played for my university’s team, with rather variable results (probably due to my devil-may-care decision to employ the Grob Attack and Orangutan Opening on a regular basis). My current record against my laptop is rather good, but this is mainly due to steady use of the ‘undo’ key after making an unwise move.

Queen of Katwe (NB: apparently the last word is not pronounced ‘cat wee’) concerns a player who probably doesn’t need to use the ‘undo’ key at all, Phiona Mutesi. Chess prodigies are, of course, incredibly rare, female ones even rarer, and for a chess prodigy to emerge from the ghettos of Kampala… well, perhaps you can see why someone decided there was a movie in Phiona Mutesi’s story.

The story begins in 2007, with Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings living in what I can only describe as conditions of extreme poverty in Katwe, a slum outside Kampala, Uganda. (Phiona’s father was a victim of the HIV epidemic, though the film doesn’t really go into this in detail.) As the film opens she is illiterate, can’t afford to go to school, and spends her days selling vegetables in the street simply in order for the family to survive.

Then she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an unemployed engineer who is running a number of sports outreach programmes for slum children. Some children are not allowed to play football, as their parents wouldn’t be able to pay the medical bills if they got injured, and so Katende is also overseeing a chess group, the Pioneers. And it is here that Phiona first encounters the magic of the sixty-four squares.

The film charts her rise to success and recognition over the next five years, and the effects of this on her, her family, and Katende. I would be lying if I said there was a great deal of originality in most of the narrative beats – Phiona’s mother initially disapproves, Katende’s team of slum players are initially disparaged and scorned by their wealthier opponents and the Ugandan chess establishment, success and failure both take their toll on Phiona, and so on – but the story is so well-told and the performances so engaging that this really isn’t an issue.

I suppose one might also suggest that a set formula has been established for how films set in sub-Saharan Africa are generally presented: anything about human rights or the Rwandan genocide has a dignified gravitas and most likely Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the soundtrack, while more mainstream, crowdpleasing fare has slightly livelier tunes, an exceedingly bright colour palette, and its credits in a font where the letters are multicoloured and jump around on the screen. And, sure enough, Queen of Katwe adheres to the latter set of tenets fairly closely – but, once again, it’s not actually a problem with the film, as it suits the tone and style of it rather well.

Much of the success of this film is down to its command of simple storytelling virtues – the script is strong, the direction extremely capable, and there are winning performances from the child actors and powerful ones from the adults. It’s not surprising that David Oyelowo is starting to draw regular attention from awards committees, for he is a gifted actor of considerable range, and his work here is no exception. Lupita Nyong’o is also good, although her part has somewhat less depth and room to manoeuver.

The film does have the issue that it is, ultimately, about chess, a game which is not necessarily always the most cinematic of pastimes. Probably sensibly, it doesn’t even attempt to teach the rules of the game to the uninitiated, beyond those which are absolutely essential to the plot, but I think it perhaps does grant a sense of how beautifully complex and at the same time brutally unforgiving the game can be. It is perhaps a bit too Hollywood in the way that it depicts supposedly good players looking visibly staggered when taken by surprise by an unexpected move from their opponent near the end of a game, but I suppose this is the nature of the beast; at least it doesn’t show every match being concluded with a surprise mate.

You could be forgiven for assuming that a based-on-a-true-story Disney film is not going to be especially hard-hitting, but I think it would be really stretching a point to suggest that Queen of Katye presents a rose-coloured or sentimental picture of life in the slums of Kampala: the film doesn’t openly grind an axe, but it doesn’t shy away from showing just how gruellingly horrible an existence this is. Some quite strong material is alluded to, and while the underlying question – how can we permit this to continue and call ourselves humane and civilised? – remains implicit, it is unmistakable.

In the end I found Queen of Katwe to be an unexpected treat – engaging, thought-provoking, surprisingly life-affirming, and in places very moving indeed. If you only go to see one film about women’s chess in Uganda this year, you should make it this one.

 

 

Read Full Post »

Just when I thought we’d broken free from the clinging embrace of fact-based film after fact-based film, and were now contending with dozens of slightly dubious remakes and sequels, along comes yet another: Eddie the Eagle, directed by Dexter Fletcher (I remember him as a child actor in the likes of Bugsy Malone, The Long Good Friday and The Elephant Man, and look at him now).

Eddie_the_Eagle_poster

I also remember the story of Eddie the Eagle when it was actually news, although at the time (February 1988) I suspect I was slightly more interested in the first episode of Red Dwarf, which was broadcast around then. The story is… well, Michael ‘Eddie’ Edwards went to the Calgary Olympics as the sole British ski-jumper, came a resounding last in both the 70m and 90m jump events, and yet somehow became a media celebrity and one of the biggest stories of the Games. This was the same Games that saw the even-more-unlikely appearance of a Jamaican bobsleigh team (Fletcher’s film alludes to this), who were the subject of a movie over 20 years ago, so once again you could argue that Eddie the Eagle has come a spectacular last.

The font of the movie’s title sequence is almost identical to that favoured by any number of cosy 70s British sitcoms, while the soundtrack comes as close as possible to copying that of Chariots of Fire without causing Vangelis to actually reach for his lawyer, and these two choices define the scope of the film’s ambition rather well. The credits inform us this is ‘based on the life of Eddie Edwards’, but I would argue this is pushing it a bit. Pushing it quite a lot, actually.

Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton, who to me sounds like a character from a badly-typed Terry Nation script, but I digress) grows up as an Olympics-obsessed lad somewhere in the UK (his parents have vaguely London-ish accents). Eventually becoming a fairly decent downhill skier, he is nevertheless not selected for the British Winter Olympic team, primarily (the film suggests) because he is not posh or handsome enough.

Never one to be easily deterred, Eddie yomps off to Germany to become the first British Olympic ski-jumper since the 1920s, although progress is limited and various arrogant Nordic types are unspeakably beastly to him about his efforts. He does, however, end up befriending the local groundskeeper, Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), whom he learns is actually a former champion ski-jumper who left the sport in disgrace some years earlier. Could it possibly be that together they will form a bond, that Eddie will rise to become a genuinely competent ski-jumper, and that he will go on to realise his dream of representing his country at the Olympics?

Well, like I say, based on a true story, although Edwards was actually born in Gloucestershire, failed to qualify for the downhill event in the 1984 Games based on his times not his background, learned to ski-jump in the US, not Germany, qualified after representing Britain in the 1987 World Championships… I could go on. You can almost hear the film creaking and grumbling as it is forced to include something factually true (Edwards’ successful career as a downhill skier), as it really cuts against its presentation of him as a loveable, well-meaning clown.

On the other hand, it makes up for this sole concession to reality by including Hugh Jackman’s character, who is as fictional as Puff the Magic Dragon, and it’s almost impossible not to conclude that both the character and Wolverine himself are both here in the hope it will help the film-makers get the film international distribution. Peary’s background and personality (I repeat: he is wholly made-up) comprise a significant chunk of the film’s storyline (a bemused-looking Christopher Walken plays his estranged mentor), which is kind of the final nail in the coffin of the idea that this film is in any way about the ‘real’ Eddie Edwards.

I mean, Egerton gives a committed and vanity-free performance, although it does seem to largely consist of his peering through coke-bottle glasses and sticking his chin out in a vaguely mournful fashion, but in terms of sheer presence and charisma he is effortlessly blown off the screen by Jackman, who spends most of the film in first gear. Say what you like about Jackman’s range as a performer (and I have in the past), but he is always very, very watchable, to the point where you want to see more of him and less of the putative star: the result is that Eddie Edwards seems rather like a supporting character in his own film.

And if you’re going to cast loose from the anchor of fact quite so enthusiastically as this film does, you’d better be doing it for a good reason – making it an all-out comedy, for instance. But the thing is that Eddie the Eagle is just not that funny, unless you find endless scenes of Egerton stuffing up his landings and cartwheeling down the slope to be comedy gold. It’s all just a bit too contrived, too broad, too obvious to work. Also, this film is a product of Matthew Vaughn’s company Marv. Last year Vaughn directed Kingsman, in which Taron Egerton played a working-class lad struggling to become a top spy, battling constantly against establishment prejudice, and the reverse snobbery of the film was astounding. Well, in this film, Taron Egerton plays a working-class lad struggling to become a top ski-jumper, battling constantly against establishment prejudice, and it’s exactly the same. It’s just too calculated and cartoonish to feel at all authentic – it’s simply manipulative.

Then again, this is a sports movie, and they’re all a bit the same, aren’t they? This one is mainly distinguished by the protagonist’s central challenge being not to triumph, but to simply not wind up killing himself – in the end, though, the structure of the movie is strong enough for it to function as a basic narrative. But that’s pretty much all it does. It barely qualifies as an actual bio-pic, so many liberties have been taken with the facts, but none of those changes actually help it work better as a comedy, or as a drama. In the end this film’s ambitions appear to be limited to just being a vaguely funny, allegedly heart-warming piece of quite simplistic entertainment, hanging off the hook of someone who retains a significant level of name-recognition some 28 years after his moment of glory. I would love to know what Eddie Edwards really thinks of the film with his name on it, but I suspect an NDA has been deployed. I only ended up watching this film through the wonders of my magic free-ticket card, which meant I basically didn’t feel like I was paying to watch it. In those circumstances, it seemed like an inoffensive, fairly competent film on its own terms. But I’m glad I didn’t spend money to see it.

 

Read Full Post »