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Posts Tagged ‘true story (?)’

Ralph Fiennes’ latest film as a director is entitled The White Crow, and it is exactly the kind of film you would expect, given that Fiennes’ image is that of a Serious Creative Person. I think it is pretty much a given that no-one is likely to turn up to The White Crow expecting a semi-remake of The Crow, as this new film is much more about ballet dancing and international politics in the mid-20th century than vengeful undead Goths, but I suppose it is just about possible – the new movie is produced by Liam Neeson, who tends to specialise in violent revenge movies. (Neeson’s involvement is not being publicised, possibly because of his recent unfortunate comments.) Any misconceptions along these lines would likely be rapidly dispelled by a quick glance at the typical audience for a screening of The White Crow, which would likely consist of older, well-heeled folk: I’m trying hard not to use the expression ‘ballet snobs’, but…  

Actually, I’m going to succumb to my less-charitable impulses and say that ballet snobs are, at least in part, the target audience for The White Crow: now, I don’t mind that many cinemas have taken to showing other kinds of cultural events as a way of making ends meet – theatre, opera, ballet, art exhibitions – you have to do what you have to do. I’m fine about them making movies about what I suppose we must call high culture, too. But being a ballet lover does not exempt you from common courtesy.

What am I on about? Well, all right: I turned up very close to start time for an early-evening showing of The White Crow and found that most of the better seats had gone; there was a very healthy crowd. I ended up near the front next to a couple who, from the look of things, were not regular visitors of the cinema, based on the fact they reacted with surprise and delight to all the adverts and trailers I’ve already seen a dozen times this year. This was somewhat endearing, but their running commentary on the pre-film material was, not to put too fine a point on it, snotty and patronising.

The crisis point arrived when the actual film got under way and I was still aware of the drone of these people discussing the events on-screen in what you could charitably describe as a stage whisper. You know me: I’m a fairly easy-going person. But I have my limits and it had been a wearing week.

‘Excuse me,’ I said, trying to keep my voice down, and addressing the one next to me, ‘is he going to keep talking all the way through the film?’

Acute social awkwardness flashed across the woman’s face and she did not respond. I asked again, and this time she said something I couldn’t hear (for once) to her partner. Finally she turned to me.

‘Perhaps if you go one seat to the right and we go one seat to the left, it won’t be a problem,’ she said.

‘If you just keep quiet, that won’t be a problem either,’ I said, probably quite bluntly. They cleared off down the row, and eventually they did shut up, which must have been a relief to everyone around them. As I say: give me common courtesy over cultured erudition any day of the week.

twc

Anyway, what of The White Crow itself? Well, the movie concerns itself with the early life of Rudolf Nureyev, who is still well-known as one of the greatest ballet dancers of the twentieth century (hence the fact that this film was able to secure financing). The actual telling of the tale is somewhat out of chronological order (the first scene depicts Nureyev’s mentor, played by Fiennes himself, being summoned to account for the dancer’s defection to the west, which occurs as the climax to the film), but it primarily covers two periods of Nureyev’s life: his initial training at a ballet institute in Leningrad, and the Kirov Ballet’s visit to Paris in 1961 (the trip that culminated in his claiming political asylum in France).

The central thesis of the film soon becomes quite apparent, as Nureyev (played by Oleg Ivenko) is depicted as a perennial outsider within the Soviet system of the period – talented, driven, with a self-belief that borders on arrogance. (The title of the film alludes to a Russian idiom used to describe misfits.) Naturally this leads to conflict with the authorities, especially when he is exposed to the bright lights and (supposedly) decadent culture of Paris…

I don’t know about you, but when I think of films about ballet I have a certain kind of expectation – they are going to be reserved, tasteful, comforting, polite – perhaps one of the reasons that Black Swan made such an impact was because it was a ballet movie that dared to be a bit more rock and roll. The White Crow is not another Black Swan; the whole thing is in meticulous good taste – I am aware it has drawn criticism for not really focusing on Nureyev’s homosexuality, being more concerned with his relationships with women – almost to the point where it becomes a bit stifling.

However, the film manages to stay vivid and very watchable; more than just watchable, in fact, for this is an engaging portrait of someone who was clearly exceptional. It doesn’t really attempt to explain where Nureyev’s extraordinary talent, self-belief and drive came from, but then that may not even be possible – it is the great good fortune of a tiny handful to be touched by divine madness in this way, and the greater good fortune of the rest of us to share the world with them.

Clearly the challenge for any film of this kind is how to put all the things that made its subject special up on the screen, although at least ballet is potentially cinematic in a way that writing, for example, isn’t. Oleg Ivenko has the unenviable task of dancing like the legend and, to my untrained eye at least, does a decent job of it – he may not quite be up to the standard of Nureyev, but he gets near enough. He’s also quite effective in the more dramatic scenes, acting in both English and Russian (I should have taken Olinka with me to this movie).

Ivenko is surrounded by a bunch of other very decent performances – Fiennes is good, if a touch mannered, as his ballet master (sadly, we never get to see his cabriole), while Chulpan Khamatova is his wife, Adele Exarchopoulos is Nureyev’s socialite girlfriend Clara Saint (the film-makers seems to be under the impression we should already know who she is), and Aleksey Morozov is his Soviet minder.

It has to be said that there is a slightly saggy section in the middle of this movie, where the various plotlines don’t seem to be going anywhere, but this is more than made up for by the sequence depicting Nureyev’s actual defection at a Paris airport. This is absolutely gripping stuff, and very interesting too: previously, I had no idea of how to go about defecting from the USSR to France, but now I feel I could make a pretty good job of it should circumstances make it necessary.   

There’s still an oddly muted, distant quality about much of The White Crow – no-one involved ever really seems to be surrendering fully to their emotions – but this is still a thoughtfully written and directed film that manages to be engaging even if you can’t tell an emboite from an echappe.

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  1. Cornwall, 2010. Possibly a Thursday. 

JIM (James Purefoy) and his crew of fellow lobster fishermen gather by their boat.

JIM: ‘Morning lads. Now, as you know, I am Jim Trevelyan. You probably vaguely recognise my face from various direct-to-DVD thrillers and character parts in prestige TV shows, but in this here film I am the stubborn, unsophisticated, but stalwart and principled patriarch of this fishing village, and I will be making it clear in all my dialogue just how Cornish and authentic I am.’

CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘Arrrrrr.’

JIM’s daughter ALWYN (Tuppence Middleton) joins them.

ALWYN: ‘Now, I am your daughter, Dad, and you probably know my face from off the telly and various low-budget British movies. I am a feisty single mum, as this allows me to show my grounded, maternal personality while still being available for a trite romance. My job is to talk almost entirely in platitudes and clumsily communicate the message of the film, about the importance of The Important Things in Life.’

JIM: ‘We had best be about our lobster fishing and singing, for we need to establish the tone of this film, while still providing the opportunity for some scenic footage of Cornwall.’

The boat sails about scenically while the FISHERMEN sing heartily.

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘We sing and fish the whole day long, from dawn until it goes dark / We’ve Cornish clichés by the ton, we’ve even more than Poldark.’

 

2. London: a phoney, shallow necropolis of the soul, apparently, although I bet the film producers are happy enough living there.

DANNY (Daniel Mays), a music business type, meets his boss TROY (Noel Clarke) and some other friends of little significance to the plot.

DANNY: ‘Hello lads! I am the go-getting, outwardly jaded city boy just crying out to be put back in touch with The Important Things In Life. You probably know my face from off the telly and various low-budget British films, although I was in the recent stellar conflict movie that everyone agreed was good, too. Shall we all go on a stag weekend in Cornwall?’

TROY: ‘Sounds good to me! I am your cynical, money-grubbing American boss. You probably know my face from off the telly and various low-budget British films, but I was in one of the Star Trek movies, too (although not one of the good ones). In this movie I have a beard and I’m having to do an American accent, and it seems to have destroyed my ability to act. It’s like I’m first-series Mickey Smith again.’

DANNY: ‘I’m sorry to hear that. Shall we go off with the intention of mocking the Cornish yokels, little realising one of us is in for a life-changing experience?’

TROY: ‘Yeah, all right.’

 

3. A harbour in Cornwall.

The FISHERMEN are preparing to give an outdoor concert.

JIM: ‘All right, we’ve established all the main characters in very broad strokes, it’s time for the inciting incident. Let’s get this plot underway.’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘I love my boat, I love my hat, I love my lobster pot / Let’s sing a bit more in this style, it’ll help to start the plot.’

DANNY and TROY are watching the concert.

TROY: ‘Danny! As a strange and elaborate practical joke, I order you to stay here and go to great lengths to get these singing fishermen to sign a record contract that I have no intention of honouring while I go off back to London with the others.’

DANNY: ‘Okay! Er – why are you doing this to me? I thought we were friends, and I’ve not really done anything to antagonise you.’

TROY: ‘Sorry, man. The plot demands it.’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘You’re born to be a fisherman, or born to be a farmer / You’ve no choice over what you do, when you’re in a melodrama.’

 

4. A pub in Cornwall.

JIM is talking to his MUM in the bar.

JIM’s MUM: ‘So that there outsider finds himself stuck amongst us, initially against his will, but slowly learning to appreciate the value of our authentic community-centred way of life?’

JIM: ‘Looks that way.’

JIM’s MUM: ‘So it’s basically another knock-off of Local Hero, only with less wit and charm and more folk music?’

JIM: ‘Aye.’

JIM’s MUM: ‘Don’t you just hate it when people hit on a successful formula, and then mindlessly repeat themselves.’

JIM: ‘Don’t you worry, Mum, I’m sure the reviews of new films will go back to normal soon enough.’

Outside the pub, DANNY is talking to ALWYN.

DANNY: ‘So, I was initially here against my will, but now I have decided to stay, either because I am falling in love with you or because your authentic community-centred way of life has shown me what The Important Things in Life are.’

ALWYN: ‘The Important Things in Life are very important, Danny.’

DANNY: ‘Thanks for making that absolutely clear to me.’

ALWYN: ‘Is this not a sudden and not especially well-handled transformation of your essential character, Danny?’

DANNY: ‘Sorry, the plot demands it.’

 

5. JIM and ALWYN’s house in Cornwall.

DANNY is talking to ALWYN.

DANNY: ‘So, now we have fallen in love, and after some rather meandering plot developments I have managed to secure a record deal for your Dad’s band against the wishes of my shallow money-grubbing boss. I have also come to appreciate The Important Things in Life.’

ALWYN: ‘The Important Things in Life are very important, Danny. How long has all this taken?’

DANNY: ‘The internal chronology has become a bit vague, I’m afraid. But everything else seems to be going well.’

JIM and the FISHERMEN enter.

JIM: ‘I’m sorry to say this, but we’re at the end of the second act and it’s time for Danny to have a dark night of the soul which will help him realise all he has learned.’

FISHERMEN: ‘Arrrrrr. And not before time.’

JIM: ‘Danny, you are nothing but another shallow outsider who doesn’t understand our authentic community-centric ways! Plus, someone lovable has died and we’re all very upset. Get out of Cornwall and never return!’

DANNY: ‘All right, I’ll be off then. See you all at the climax for a life-affirming resolution.’ 

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘It’s now the part with pathos so the film will seem less shallow / Just like the bit in Four Weddings, where they kill off Simon Callow.’

 

6. At the pub.

DANNY enters. Everyone else is there waiting.

DANNY: ‘I’m back for the climactic resolution, where I demonstrate my commitment to Alwyn and show just how much I have changed. I now fully understand the importance of your authentic community-centric way of life, and many other Important Things in Life.’

ALWYN: ‘The Important Things in Life are very important, Danny.’

JIM: ‘I will therefore have to grudgingly admit you into our community, although I do note the storyline about a folk group of singing fishermen proving unexpectedly successful has become somewhat eclipsed by a subplot about who owns the pub and its symbolic relevance to the issue of the survival of communities like this one.’

DANNY: ‘Shall we all live happily ever after while the credits show us photos of the real-life folk group?’

JIM: ‘Aye, may as well. I think we’ve time for one last sea shanty, too. Hit it lads!’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘The final verdict’s on its way, and it’s sure to be nasty / There’s less meat to this bloody film than in a Cornish pasty.’

Fisherman’s Friends (directed by Chris Foggin) is in cinemas now, and is sure to folk you up.

 

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(Yes, I know that’s a reference to a film by a different director. Stand down.)

I have to confess that I can perhaps be a bit oversensitive about some things: in other words, it occasionally doesn’t take much to put me off a movie, and this can even extend to (what looks like) excessively affected titling. I’ve never been a huge fan of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and I do wonder if that isn’t just because there’s a plus sign in the title where a more conventional conjunction would have done the job just as well.

I suppose the same may partly explain why I didn’t rush to see Spike Lee’s (deep breath, gritted teeth) BlacKkKlansman when it was originally released last autumn. (I think you can see where the issue lies.) Of course, I also had the (reasonably good) excuse of being in the Kyrgyz Republic during most of its UK run, but even so it wasn’t on the list of films I hoovered up as part of my catch-up regimen when I eventually returned.

In the end it turned out that this was the only film on this year’s Best Picture nomination list that I hadn’t actually seen, and this sat even less well with me than the weird styling in the title. So I was quite pleased when it popped up on the in-flight entertainment menu on my flight back from the States the other day. (There were a couple of other films I had meant to see but ended up missing, and so I abandoned my plan of trying to get some sleep on the overnight flight and buckled down to watching three movies back-to-back, which the schedule looked like it would just about accommodate assuming there were no pesky tail-winds or anything like that.)

Lee’s film opens by assuring the audience (using somewhat idiosyncratic language) that it really is based on a true story; ‘based’ being the operative word, of course – the implication throughout is that the film is set in the early 1970s, when the real life events took place some years later, and some elements of the story have been heavily fictionalised too.

John David Washington plays Ron Stallworth, the first African American to join the Colorado Springs Police Department after a diversity-based recruitment drive. (He is even allowed to keep his beard and Afro.) However, he initially finds himself consigned to the records department and exposed to the casual racism of various fellow cops.

Even when he is allowed out of the filing section, it is to go undercover at a rally being held by ex-Black Panther and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (who at this point in time has adopted the name Kwame Tura) and record any especially provocative or inflammatory rhetoric that he may hear. Perhaps inevitably, he finds himself torn between his duty and the way that Tura’s message of black liberation resonates with him.

Shortly afterwards Stallworth is reassigned again, and it is now that he embarks upon the deeply unlikely exploit at the heart of the film: he answers an ad placed by the head of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and declares himself to be an angry white racist, keen on joining the organisation. Obviously, there is one small barrier to the success of this operation, which is that he can’t actually meet up with his new associates face-to-face. Step forward fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), who will handle all the face-to-face contact with other KKK members, while Stallworth continues to talk on the phone to them. Soon enough they have managed to reach the upper echelons of the Klan leadership, particularly Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace), and come across worrying signs of serious plots being put into motion…

Most of the publicity for BlacKkKlansman has focused on the absurd comedy inherent in the premise of the film: various scenes of Washington on the phone, earnestly making profoundly racist declarations to his KKK contacts (there is, needless to say, a lot of strongly discriminatory language throughout this film). There is also a sense in which some of the KKK members are presented as comic stooges and played for laughs.

However, watching the film makes it clear that for Lee this is a very serious project, shining a light into an important and perhaps too-obscure area of American history and particularly the struggle for civil rights. Ultimately, the threat of the Klan is treated very seriously and the consequences of the philosophy they espouse are addressed head on – one sequence intercuts a clan ritual with personal testimony of a racist lynching (a cameo from Harry Belafonte) to disturbing effect. Questions of just how black Americans should respond to racist social institutions – through active resistance, or trying to change the system from within? – are articulated and seriously considered. It is, and this is not meant to denigrate this year’s Best Picture winner, all considerably more hard-edged and politically sophisticated than anything in Green Book.

That said, the film never completely loses touch with its identity as a thriller, and functions quite well as such – though you are never in doubt that these are just the bones of a different kind of film. It takes a while before the whole infiltrating-the-Klan element of the story gets going; at least as important is the section with Kwame Tura’s speech, which introduces a number of significant themes and characters (not least Laura Harrier as a young activist who becomes Stallworth’s love interest). And while the story seems about to conclude relatively straightforwardly, it – well, it doesn’t, Lee choosing to become openly political in the closing moments.

It is clear that this film is meant to be about America today as much as in the 1970s, and there are moments throughout which reinforce this – the first person on screen is Alec Baldwin, playing a cartoonish Klan mouthpiece, and most people will be aware of Baldwin’s most famous satirical performance of recent years and make the appropriate connection. It doesn’t even stay that subtle – Klan leader Duke speaks of ‘America first’ and ‘making America great again’, while the film concludes with footage from the Charlottesville riots and Donald Trump’s repugnant equivocal non-repudiation of the racist groups involved in them. Perhaps it’s the case that in its closing moments the film sacrifices finesse for raw power, but that doesn’t make this any less effective as an attack on its chosen targets. In the end it manages to be palpably angry and political while still remaining an engaging piece of entertainment, and that’s no small feat.

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There was a time when I used to complain on a fairly regular basis about films either using misleading titles or making insufficiently good use of promising ones. I was really thinking of movies like Tyrannosaur, Planet of Dinosaurs (a pattern develops), and Lesbian Vampire Killers. I haven’t done it for a bit, but I am almost minded to revive the tradition now that cinemas up and down the land are showing Mimi Leder’s new film On the Basis of Sex.

What is the passing punter supposed to make of a title like this? It suggests much, perhaps even promises much, but at the same time it is almost entirely obscure should you not actually be in the know. If you were to ask me I might suggest it was a film about bad reasons for getting married. Needless to say, it is not: it is the biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsberg which I believe I alluded to when discussing the documentary about the Notorious RBG.

You may think I’m dwelling at bit too much on the title thing – but it’s not as if the film can claim innocence on this front. There is a whole actual scene where someone observes that the word ‘sex’ comes with a load of baggage and it might really be better to use a less provocative synonym like ‘gender’. But are we in a theatre watching a film entitled On the Basis of Gender? We are not. It is Sex all the way (except in the film itself, that is).

The film gets underway at Harvard Law School in 1956, and the director loses no time in subtly trowelling in the subtext of the movie: martial music places, a male voice choir sings, and endless ranks of white dudes in suits stroll about, revelling in their entitlement. Marching through this scene, however, is Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones), one of only nine women in her year. It is dismayingly like the way that The Iron Lady tried to suggest Margaret Thatcher should be hailed as some kind of feminist icon, but the film does discover subtlety of a sort as it continues.

There’s not a great deal of Harvard stuff here, as it is mainly scene-setting and character-establishing material – Ruth and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer) are both students at Harvard, the place is horrendously sexist (there’s a scene where the Dean invites all the female students to dinner and then requires them to explain just what the hell they think they’re doing there), and Ruth is possessed of the sort of determination and resolve that would be unbelievable if you gave it to a fictional character: at one point she’s aceing her classes, raising their child effectively single-handed, and attending Marty’s classes too (he’s undergoing medical treatment).

Despite coming top of her year at both Harvard and Columbia, Ruth can’t land a job at an actual law firm, and ends up becoming a professor of law specialising in gender discrimination.  Ten years later, the world is showing signs of changing, with a rebellious new generation challenging the old assumptions and standards – even Ruth’s own daughter (Cailee Spaeny) gives her a hard time for being all talk and no action. But this changes when Marty’s tax work uncovers the case of a man being discriminated against for staying at home to care for his elderly mother (the law assuming that only women will do this). Could this be the opening they need to have legal gender discrimination declared unconstitutional?

One of the problems with On the Basis of Thingy, such as it is, is right there at the end of that paragraph – nothing wrong with a good courtroom drama, it’s a great framework for a narrative, providing the case is involving anyway. Now, while the principles involved in the main case here may be immensely important, and the historical context startling – this is 1970, and the US legal system is accepting that sexist legislation is constitutionally valid – but the actual case itself is honestly not that interesting or exciting. It’s about tax codes. Most of the drama is really peripheral to it – can Ruth persuade the ACLU to back them? Is participating in this going to damage Marty’s career as a top-flight tax attorney? Should they abandon a case in the state appeal court in case it sets a bad precedent for an upcoming federal supreme court appearance?

See, even here all the legal jargon starts creeping in. Now, respect is due to the movie for crediting the audience with intelligence, and I’m not adverse to a few intellectually chewy bits, but they need to be paired with genuine moments of narrative energy and excitement, and this film never honestly delivers enough of this.

Part of this is because it is always exactly the film you would expect it to be: men in ties conspire to preserve a society rigged in their favour, determined young women refuse to be dissuaded, Felicity Jones is told ‘You’ve been ready for this your whole life!’ and gets lines like ‘You don’t get to tell me when to quit!’; there is also the exchange where she declares that the word ‘freedom’ does not appear in the US Constitution (which is indeed true, if you ignore the amendments). Obviously the film is telling an important story, and its heart is in the right place, but do all the movies with this kind of theme have to be quite so po-faced? It’s like watching The Lives of the Saints more than an actual drama.

This certainly seems to be reflected in Felicity Jones’ performance, which carefully mixes steely earnestness with earnest steeliness: there’s not much sign of the mischievous sense of humour the real RBG displays in the documentary. At least the film reflects her love of opera and reportedly dreadful cooking abilities. To be honest, Jones isn’t that bad, considering the constrictions she’s operating under; Armie Hammer does very good work in a supporting role (in more senses than one). Some energy is provided by Justin Theroux (who, as regular readers will know, is not the Prime Minister of Canada but the Iron Man 2 guy) as an ACLU lawyer RBG teams up with, not entirely amicably; Cailee Spaeny’s turn as a younger Ginsberg will doubtless do her burgeoning career no harm.

I feel a bit like I’m kicking a dog by not praising On the Basis  of Thingy more fulsomely; a big toothy dog that could probably take my leg off at the knee, at that. This is a handsomely made film with decent performances, that manages to make some important ideas and events accessible. There are lots of people who would probably benefit a lot from watching it. I just wish it was a bit more interesting and exciting as an actual piece of entertainment.

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Apparently we are all becoming much more discriminating consumers of stuff, no longer so blindly loyal to particular brands, but making informed and intelligent choices. Well, that may be true for some people, but if I made intelligent, discriminating and selective choices I wouldn’t go to the cinema eighty times a year, and where would we all be then?

Certainly, there are some people whose new films I will turn up to almost without fail, regardless of the subject matter, mainly because I’ve consistently enjoyed their stuff in the past. Firmly ensconced on the list of those so favoured are genial Dwayne Johnson and (from a different kind of performance tradition) fabulous Florence Pugh. Get these two together and I will be there like a shot, even if the movie involved is a womens’-wrestling-themed comedy-drama biopic, not something I would necessarily want to go anywhere near.

Actually, don’t bother, for all of this has already occurred, in the form of Stephen ‘Goggle-eyed Freak’ Merchant’s Fighting with My Family. The pairing of Florence and Dwayne looks almost natural when set against the highly peculiar group financing this film, which includes MGM, the usually-credible British company Film 4, and a major wrestling-entertainment corporation. It all makes a certain form of sense when you consider the story.

Fabulous Florence plays Saraya Knight, part of a family of wrestlers – go with it – operating the ‘World Association of Wrestling’ in Norwich, England. Her father (Nick Frost) is an alcoholic former armed robber who credits his discovery of wrestling with giving him a positive outlet for his violent tendencies, but on the whole they are a positive and loving family (when they are not clobbering seven bells out of each other in the ring, anyway).

Opportunity knocks when Saraya and her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) are given the chance to try out for – let me check – something called ‘the WWE’, which is apparently a wrestling-entertainment company. There they meet gruff but wise coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) and passing superstar Dwayne Johnson (Dwayne Johnson).  Saraya, wrestling under the name of Paige, makes the cut and is signed for the youth wing of the WWE – but Zak is left totally despondent when he is not selected. Saraya flies off to Florida to train with the rest of the wannabes, leaving her brother in despair. Can she make it to the top of the pile in the WWE? Can her relationship with her family take the accompanying strain?

As you can perhaps discern, there is rather more of Florence than of Dwayne in this movie – a sizeable percentage of Johnson’s on-screen contribution (he also produced it) is in the trailer – but the big man’s scenes are as charismatic and funny as you might expect. For most of the rest of the movie the comic heavy lifting is done by Nick Frost, who fully deploys his always-impressive ability to steal scenes: he even has a good try at upstaging genial Dwayne, which is no mean feat.

The trailer for this movie certainly focuses on some of the more comedic scenes, and with a director like Merchant – still really best known as a comedian, despite more dramatic appearances in more recent films – you might certainly expect this to be light, (perhaps literally) knockabout stuff, playing up the general absurdity of entertainment-wrestling.

However, this expectation would fail to take into account the involvement of the real-life WWE in the making of this film: entertainment-wrestling is their meal ticket, and it is not to be mocked or satirised in the slightest. Instead, what we end up with is essentially a fairly formulaic sports movie with added funny bits here and there. As such it requires proper acting to really work – and fortunately, it gets it, from Pugh, Vaughn and Lowden. These are really actors playing stock characters in a formulaic story, but they do so with skill, and the more dramatic scenes of the film do have a surprising degree of heft to them.

Dramatic is not necessarily synonymous with truthful or authentic, of course, and even as I was watching this movie I found myself growing rather suspicious of the story it was telling me, simply because it fits rather too well into the underdog-makes-good narrative arc. Even the most cursory research indicates that the film’s connection with reality doesn’t extend very much further than the fact that there is indeed a wrestler from Norwich who used to fight under the nom de canvas Paige. 

On the other hand, the film is fairly honest about the sheer amount of hard work and dedication it takes to succeed in American entertainment-wrestling, and the ruthlessly competitive and unforgiving nature of the machine – it chews people up and spits them out, and there are always fresh volunteers to replace them.

Of course, the film doesn’t exactly state this in so many words, and its depiction of entertainment-wrestling in general and the WWE in particular is essentially benign. The main problem with Fighting with My Family as a sports movie comes from the fact it concerns something which is – I’m going to have to take shelter in the bunker again – not actually a real sport. Paige’s rise to success in the WWE is secured after her defeat of another fighter, which the film depicts as a tense struggle resulting in an against the odds victory. When, as even the film admits, there are few things in the world less in doubt than the result of a wrestling-entertainment bout. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that the WWE makes a lot of money out of treating its fans as idiots, but at this point it felt like the movie was doing so to me, and I do not find that easy to forgive.

Still, the contrast between Norwich (sweaty church halls, dingy gyms, an New Wave of British Heavy Metal) and Florida (much better hair and teeth) is fun, and it is solidly if predictably structured and generally well played – although Florence Pugh barely needs to get into third gear to ace her character; you can tell she has many more just waiting to be deployed when she gets to headline a film with a bit more nuance to it.

Wrestling fans will probably find Fighting with My Family rather more captivating than I did (there were quite a few, mostly old ladies, in the screening with me, all cheering and expressing sympathy in the right places), but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it a lot. Maybe there is a bit less Dwayne Johnson than I would have expected, but there are lots of other enjoyable elements, even if as a whole it doesn’t entirely ring true. But hey – that’s entertainment-wrestling.   

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Every producer hopes his film is going to at least make its money back, probably, but with some of them this is more of a priority than others. As I have suggested over the last few days, there are films which are funded (if not made) largely with a view to winning awards for their producers and financiers. When one of these films fails to cut through, then, should we automatically considerit a failure? I’m not sure. One of the things I like to believe, sentimental old thing though I may be, is that any good film will eventually find an audience for itself.

What got me thinking along these lines was Matthew Heineman’s A Private War, which is clearly the kind of film which wants to be taken seriously, but which doesn’t quite seem to be cutting through and reaching a mainstream audience like some others. This may be simply due to the subject matter, which largely consists of things which people don’t want to be reminded of, and may indeed be actively trying to forget.

I think I’ve mentioned in the past my occasional tendency to get the Prime Minister of Canada (Justin Trudeau) mixed up with the guy who wrote Iron Man 2 (Justin Theroux); well, I have a similar problem with Marie Helvin (American-born British-based fashionista) and Marie Colvin (American-born British-based war correspondent), too. A Private War should certainly help with the latter issue, being an account of the final years of Colvin’s life.

Rosamund Pike plays Colvin, who as the film starts has been a reporter for the London Sunday Times for about fifteen years. The thing that made Colvin instantly identifiable was the fact she wore an eye-patch, and the attentive viewer will note at once that Colvin’s eyes are both in full working order in the opening scenes. This occasioned a queasy feeling of tension in your correspondent, i.e. me, rather akin to the one I felt during All the Money in the World while waiting for the ear-removal scene: something grislyis inevitably coming.

One does not have to wait too long, as Colvin’s next mission – rather against the wishes of her editor (Tom Hollander) – is to visit rebel forces in Sri Lanka, in full knowledge of the reality that if she is caught by government forces she will be executed. In the course of her work she and her escort are ambushed and a grenade ends her days of stereoscopic vision. Her friends rally round and try to cheer her up by listing other famous people with only one eye: Sammy Davis Jr, Thom Yorke, Moshe Dayan, and so on (no-onementions Lt. Columbo, oddly enough). Soon enough the iconic eye-patch is in place.

Any sane person would have had enough of putting life and limb in peril at this point, but Colvin goes back to work, and the rest of the film intersperses scenes from her somewhat turbulent life in the UK with a succession of visits to places virtually comprising a record of recent real-world horror: Iraq during the American invasion, Afghanistan during the American occupation, Libya during the Arab Spring uprising, and finally Syria in the early stages of the civil war which is still ongoing. You probably know how the story ends; even if you don’t, it’s easy enough to find out.

With any film based on a true story that has an ending as downbeat as this one, it’s fairly obvious that simply entertaining the audience is not necessarily the object of the exercise. This is frequently quite an uncomfortable watch on many levels, for reasons both visceral and intellectual – the film dwells at length on the conflict in Syria, something which I think future generations will view as a cause of profound shame for western nations for so many reasons.

That the film stays watchable is largely down to the kind of central performance from Rosamund Pike which generally gets called vanity-free, whatever that is really code for. Colvin was reputedly a tough cookie and a difficult woman to get along with, a heavy drinker, a chain-smoker and at one time a sufferer from PTSD (as one character observes, she’s been through more wars than most soldiers), and Pike works hard to get all this up on the screen. The results are undeniably impressive.

(Maybe we should take a moment to reflect on the achievement of Rosamund Pike in establishing herself as a serious, credible actress entirely capable of carrying a movie like this one, especially since she first rose to prominence as Second Girl in a Bond movie – something which always used to be a career graveyard. No doubt it owes something to her willingness to take on roles which are, shall we say, less emollient than those that many American actresses seem entirely comfortable with.)

Pike’s main support comes from Jamie Dornan, playing her photographer Paul Conroy – Dornan seems to be an able actor, but one who’s been most visible (in the cinema, at least) doing projects which are perhaps more lucrative than credible. He is also very good here, as is Holland, even though the latter is saddled with some fairly ripe and portentous dialogue (he is basically given the job of putting across the film’s message concerning how important reporters like Colvin are). Probably also worth a mention is Raad Rawi, who has the ticklish job of portraying Colonel Gaddafi in a couple of scenes – he manages to deliver a convincing performance while still suggesting someone just a bit unhinged.

That said, despite all the fine acting, the film occasionally feels trite and excessively portentous, threatening to drown the audience in horror – laying it on a bit thick, in other words. The significance of the title is never completely made clear, either – what exactly was Marie Colvin’s private war? The woman’s life stands as a monument to dragging people by the collars and forcing them to confront the things they are complicit in: public, rather than private wars. Perhaps it is simply reflecting the fundamental struggle inside Colvin: genuine footage of the reporter appears, in which she speaks of the fear that accompanied her on all of her assignments (including the self-appointed ones), and yet there was also something in her compelling her to return again and again to places of tremendous danger and speak of what she saw there.

The film never really manages to get to the bottom of what it was that drove Marie Colvin to such lengths of extreme bravery, if bravery it indeed was. But it is very clear and persuasive in arguing that she and war correspondents like her serve a vital role in the modern world (something everyone is aware of – the film touches on this, both in terms of the US Army’s ’embedded reporters’ and insurgents deliberately targeting foreign journalists). The strength of the film’s message, the general quality of its storytelling, and Pike’s performance in particular combine to make this a fine film and one which it is well worth watching.

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Tommy Wiseau, perhaps infamously, paid for The Room to run in a Los Angeles cinema for two full weeks, simply (or so the story has it) so it would qualify as a potential nominee for the Academy Awards. Well, you can’t argue with optimism, can you; needless to say The Room did not overly trouble the Oscars that year. Other films also pitch their release with an eye on the awards season, perhaps with better reason, and yet still struggle to make an impact. This brings us to Kenneth Branagh’s All is True, starring – and this may not come as a surprise to you – Kenneth Branagh.

Branagh is known as one of the great cinematic interpreters of Shakespeare of our time (as well as the fellow in charge of the first Thor; the one with the crazy moustache in that film on the train; and the guy in charge of the giant mechanical tarantula in Wild Wild West – this is what you call an eclectic CV), but on this occasion he turns his attention to the man behind the plays. The film opens in 1613 with Shakespeare’s beloved Globe Theatre just having burned down when the special effects turned out to be a bit too special. Now he returns home to Stratford-upon-Avon and a wife (Judi Dench) and two daughters to whom he is essentially a stranger.

Shakespeare decides to create a garden in memory of the son who he still has such fond memories of, despite his dying of the plague nearly twenty years earlier. Elsewhere, scandal threatens to engulf the family on a couple of occasions, there is a brief visit from his former patron the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen), and scenes depicting Shakespeare’s continuing concerns about his legacy, both financially and artistically.

Perhaps the key thing you need to understand about All is True (NB: title is almost certainly not accurate) is that it is the work of Ben Elton, not a man especially associated with the traditional style of costume drama. Elton’s own place in posterity has long been assured simply by his work on the various iterations of Blackadder (and some musicals, if you insist); most recently, though, his highest-profile offering in the UK has been the sitcom Upstart Crow, a comedic take on the life of… William Shakespeare.

I haven’t been able to find much out about the origins of All is True (the film was virtually made in secret) but it’s impossible to believe that Elton’s research for the comedy show hasn’t informed and possibly inspired elements of this film. However, one does get a sense of the writer being hyper-alert to people drawing comparisons between the two, or perhaps with Shakespeare in Love (is it twenty years already? Mercy), and this being the reason why All is True seems to go out of its way to not be remotely funny practically all the way through.

This is the main problem with the film: almost totally bereft of lightness and largely shot in drab, naturalistic colours, with Branagh making much use of long, static shots, it feels like very hard work. Maybe the director was going for a theatrical feel – but instead it just feels inert and mannered, lacking in vibrancy or interest. This is really compounded by the material that Elton has to work with. We still know relatively little about Shakespeare the man – this is one of the reasons why the debates about the authorship of his plays have creaked on into their third century – and what we do know is relatively quotidian. The film makes the point of the fact that Shakespeare led a very ordinary life considering his status as one of the greatest artists in history – here, he is obsessed by his social standing, worried about money and his reputation, and so on. There’s only one really interesting part to the whole of Shakespeare’s life, namely the death of his son Hamnet (five years or so before the writing of Hamlet), and virtually every piece of fiction concerning his later life includes this as a key point; All is True is no exception. As usual, the film smoothly obfuscates the difference between the generally-established historical facts concerning Hamnet Shakespeare and his relationship with his father, and the dramatically fictionalised version of the story Ben Elton has dreamed up.

Oh well. The least you can say about the film is that it looks good (it’s a British costume drama, so no real surprises there) and there are certainly some good performances. There’s nothing wrong at all with Branagh as Shakespeare, even though he is saddled with some slightly iffy prosthetics so he more resembles our image of the great man. Judi Dench is solid in support, while contributing a typically classy cameo is Ian McKellen, who I have to say slightly resembles Vincent Price in Witchfinder General on this occasion. It does seem to me that the film is stretching a bit to cast big names in these supporting roles – Mrs Shakespeare was a bit older than her husband, it is true, but not by the twenty-plus years that separate Branagh and Dench – was there not a slightly younger actress with a bit of gravitas they could have employed? (I’m tempted to suggest Anne Hathaway might have been a good choice.) When it comes to McKellen as the Earl… well, the movie adopts the theory that there was indeed something going on between Shakespeare and Southampton, and that the nobleman was indeed the ‘fair youth’ mentioned in the sonnets. Fair enough, but on what planet would Kenneth Branagh ever refer to Ian McKellen as a youth of any kind? He’s old enough to be his father, whereas the historical Earl was nearly a decade younger. The film awkwardly tries to negotiate its way around this by having McKellen declare ‘I grew old’ but it really doesn’t fix this problem.

Still, at least Branagh’s scenes with McKellen serve to lift the film a bit – much of the rest of it is genuinely quite dull, not helped by the turgid directorial style Branagh has chosen to adopt and the lack of any real incident for long stretches – there’s a lot of gardening, and a slander case, and a scandal about one of Shakespeare’s sons-in-law, and some tensions about the fact that the other is a Puritan in favour of closing all the theatres – but if it was about anyone else but Shakespeare, this story would never have been filmed. I am not really surprised this film has failed to make much impression, either critically or with the wider audience, despite all the talent involved. The problem is that the reason we remember Shakespeare is not because he led a fabulously interesting life and did many interesting things, but because he lived a fairly quiet life sitting in a room writing brilliant stories. The best way to do a movie about Shakespeare is to tell one of those brilliant stories, not make up a distinctly so-so new one about the man himself. I still don’t believe the title of All is True is accurate, but even if it is, it just goes to illustrate why writers are sometimes better off making things up.

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