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Posts Tagged ‘true story (?)’

It is, as I have observed in the past, often difficult to ensure a new movie gets enough publicity to guarantee its success, even if you are a successful director and you have the resources of a major studio backing you up. It helps to have some kind of unique angle that jaded movie critics and other journalist can latch onto and discuss in their initial reviews of the film. Well, the good news for the makers of Outlaw King (presented on screen as Outlaw/King, which I’m not sure is necessarily a better title), an aspiring historical epic currently appearing at both a cinema and on a major streaming service near you, is that the forces of the media do seem to have found something in this film to get their teeth into. The bad news is that the item in question is star Chris Pine’s winky, which makes an appearance when the actor goes skinny-dipping at one point. The winky is ‘dazzling’, in the words of one usually reputable website, and ‘the belle of the ball’ according to Vanity Fair (a curious choice of metaphor to say the least).

I would imagine that all these winky-focused reviews are not what the makers of Outlaw King anticipated when they released their film into the world, for this shows every sign of being a seriously-intentioned costume drama, directed by David Mackenzie (who in the past has made films as diverse as the laboriously weird Perfect Sense and the rather good neo-western Hell or High Water). Things get underway and we find ourselves in Scotland in the early 14th century, where bad King Edward of England (Stephen Dillane) has seized control of the country after a lengthy struggle with the rebel leader William Wallace. Now all the local nobility are being forced to swear loyalty to Edward, amongst them dour, brooding, well-endowed claimant to the throne Robert the Bruce (Pine). Just to show there are no hard feelings, the King marries his god-daughter Elizabeth (the fabulous Florence Pugh) off to the Bruce.

An uneasy peace persists for a bit, but when Wallace is finally apprehended and bits of him are posted all over Scotland to deter other insurrectionists, the country is in uproar. Robert the Bruce decides that it is time for him, as an honourable Scotsman, to stand up and do the right thing. In this case the right thing is for him to break his promise to Edward, murder his rival claimant to the throne, and have himself declared King of Scots by the local church dignitaries. King Edward is as cross as two sticks at this act of treachery and dispatches an army under the command of his son (Billy Howle) to sort the situation out. Soon enough Robert the Bruce and his band of followers are forced into hiding, desperately trying to rally support for their dream of Scottish independence (hey, the more things change…), while the new king’s wife and daughter find themselves caught in the path of the advancing English army.

This, you would have thought, would be a good place for the scene where Robert the Bruce learns the value of persistence and determination from watching a spider trying to spin its web under difficult circumstances. I would hazard a guess that this is the one and only thing most people outside Scotland know about Robert the Bruce, and yet while the story is alluded to (very obliquely) it doesn’t make it into the film. This is not the only interesting omission from Outlaw King: filmed, but not included in the final version, was an encounter between Robert and William Wallace.

I find this rather significant, because Outlaw King is clearly pitching itself very much as a film in the vein of Braveheart (Bravewinky, perhaps), with some of the same historical figures appearing in it. I might even go so far to say that this is the work of people who liked Braveheart so much they decided to make their own version (which is what this is). Obviously comparisons are going to be made, and actually having Wallace show up in the movie would only add to this.

Nevertheless, Outlaw King‘s mixture of gritty mediaeval detail and gory battlefield violence (the ‘arterial splatter’ CGI function gets a lot of use) can’t help feeling a bit familiar, and there are a lot of faces in the supporting cast who are exactly the kind of actor you would expect to find in this kind of film – James Cosmo, Tony Curran, and Clive Russell. That said, some younger faces are more prominent – as well as Pugh and Howle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is second-billed as one of Robert the Bruce’s more homicidally zealous followers. Most of the performances are pretty solid, although the actors are somewhat hindered by the fact that they are essentially playing stock types – the ambitious young man chafing for recognition from his father, the young woman forced into an arranged marriage who slowly finds her feelings for her husband deepening, and so on.

It must be said that Florence Pugh is customarily excellent in this film: she is one major role away from global stardom, I would suggest. That said, she is excellent in a rather underwritten and unrewarding part. Her character’s role in the film feels rather like an afterthought – she’s there not because it’s particularly important to the plot (she isn’t), but because it seems to be received dogma that you can’t do a big movie like this one without at least one significant female character.

If we’re going to talk about the acting in this film, however, we should probably spend some time considering Chris Pine’s contribution. Now, regular readers may know that I am far from an unconditional fan of this particular actor – I believe in the past I may have said that on those occasions when I enjoyed a Pine movie, it’s been despite rather than because of his presence. So I may be a little biased. However, the problem here is that Robert the Bruce is a dour, internal sort of character, who spends a lot of the film brooding (he’s also arguably an ambiguous and compromised figure, although the script works hard to finesse the murder of John Comyn into an act of self-defence). Chris Pine is not a natural brooder. He is a smirker, a swaggerer, a schmoozer, and a wise-cracker. Rough-hewn Scottish monarchy is well outside his comfort zone and his performance is really only functional, which means there is an absence at the heart of the film.

Dedicated Pine watchers may feel there is an absence in other ways as well. Yes, I think the time has come when we must address the issue of Chris Pine’s winky (and those are words I never thought I’d type). Well, the first thing I must say is that the prominence of Pine’s masculine appendage seems to have been rather overstated by excitable hacks. The appearance of the winky definitely falls into the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it category, to say nothing of the fact it only appears in long shot. I would also suggest that this whole winky-related fuss only serves to highlight a rather quaint double standard in how we treat screen nudity. Florence Pugh’s exposed knockers get much more screen time than the Pine winky, but no-one’s talking about them at all – and, in the age of the Unique Moment, I imagine I would get flayed alive if I made the fact that they look superb a serious point in my review. Yet someone can go on about the ‘dazzling’ winky and the response only seems to be a mixture of amusement and bemusement.

With the Bruce himself not a particularly compelling character, and the plot being a fairly uninspired mixture of action sequences and political wrangling, the result is that Outlaw King is just not that gripping as a piece of drama. It looks great, with all the usual Scottish scenery, armies of extras, and some deft special effects. Mackenzie does a slightly showy-offy very long take at the start of the film, but on the whole he marshals the film very competently, and the climax – a recreation of the battle of Loudon Hill – is genuinely very good, really giving you something of the sense of what it was like to be a peasant infantryman facing a cavalry charge by armoured knights.

There are many good things about Outlaw King, and it passes the time fairly agreeably (I imagine many people may have issues with the violence and gore that punctuate the movie, however). I am also fully aware that many people like Chris Pine and this kind of mud-and-chainmail movie rather more than I do, so I expect the film will probably be quite successful. Nevertheless, I think it wears its influences a bit too openly, and is much more impressive in terms of its production values than its actual storytelling.

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I spent a brief interlude a few years ago travelling around the world, frequently to places slightly off the beaten track. This was in pre-Kindle days and I found myself becoming quite reliant on the local bookcases of anywhere I ended up for reading matter. I ended up reading all sorts of weird things – a book about Israeli nuclear weapons entitled The Samson Option, for instance – as well as a lot of what I would previously have described as ‘improving literature’. I read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Don Quixote, Middlemarch, The Grapes of Wrath, and Mansfield Park, amongst others, and what I discovered is that these books have endured not just because they will help you pass your exams, but because they are actually really good books.

Is there a movie equivalent to the ‘improving book’? If there is, then I would say that most of the Mike Leigh films I have seen would qualify. I am aware that Leigh makes his serious films and his not-quite-so-serious films, but I must confess that I find all the ones that I’ve seen to be pretty hard work, despite the fact that they are clearly made with conviction and with many of the most impressive actors currently working in the UK. Maybe it’s the Mike Leigh Renowned Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method that I just can’t get on with. And yet I persevere, because everyone else agrees that he is a major British director whose films deserve to be looked at.

Leigh has recently turned up with his second costume-drama film in a row, the latest one being Peterloo. Now, for a long time I thought that Peterloo was the name of a medium-sized railway station somewhere in the midlands, but of course it is not: it is the name given to a defining moment in British political history, the bicentennial of which will be on us next summer (I would have thought releasing Peterloo for the actual anniversary would have been the smart move, but then again this is hardly what you’d call a summer movie).

The film itself opens in 1815, with a cleverly economical depiction of the battle of Waterloo, followed by various tableaux of the red-coated survivors, damaged but victorious, limping back to Britain. This is intercut with scenes of Parliament acting very self-congratulatory, giving huge amounts of cash to the Duke of Wellington but totally ignoring his troops, and one of Wellington’s generals being put in charge of the army in the north of England, where an insidious ideology threatening insurrection and sedition has apparently established itself…

What’s all that about, then? Well, the film settles down to focus on a group of reformers, hoping to do something about the (to modern eyes) incredibly unfair and corrupt political system of the period. (A huge new industrial city like Manchester had no representation in parliament, while the vote itself was limited only to landowners. This basically allowed the toiling workers in the mills to be royally screwed over and worked halfway to death without their having much in the way of recourse.) The reformers are working to introduce a greater degree of democracy and to reduce the level of inequality between rich and poor. One of their ideas is to hold a huge public meeting at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, to be addressed by the gentleman and radical orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear).

The leading magistrates of the region (who are introduced in scenes where they are shown having old women flogged for having a sneaky drink from her employer’s stash, and men hanged for stealing coats) are less than delighted by this idea, seeing it as the potential beginning of a republican uprising and the overthrow of British society (this was less than thirty years after the French revolution, after all). Tension grows when someone throws a potato at the Prince Regent (Tim McInnerny). Leaders of the movement are arrested and the militia is placed on standby…

Caught up in all of this, and in many ways the chief point of audience identification, is a typical family of workers from Manchester, one of whose members returns from France at the start of the film. Led by matriarch Nellie (Maxine Peake), they go along with the reformist movement and decide to attend the huge meeting that takes place at the climax of the film. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, it’s the bit you’ve been waiting for: the Peterloo massacre!

Hmmm, I don’t often say this, but this is a really odd one. As ever with Mike Leigh, every frame of the film seems to sweat conviction and authenticity, and it almost goes without saying that the costume drama is one type of film that the British film industry does exceedingly well almost without trying particularly hard. And yet this is, inevitably, more than just another simple bonnet opera: the film isn’t quite the undiluted agitprop it could have been if, say, Ken Loach had been in charge of it, but it is certainly not uncoloured by political ideas about democracy and the representation of the will of the people. At times it almost resembles what Barry Lyndon would have been like, if that film had been written by Jeremy Corbyn.

Even I would normally shy away from a film with a description like that (and I should mention that the main critic of one right-wing newspaper has declared it to be ‘unwatchable’), but I should say that Peterloo remains engaging and curiously accessible throughout – although possibly not for reasons that Leigh and the other film-makers would be delighted about. This is clearly a very earnest, completely seriously-intentioned film, with many early scenes consisting almost entirely of characters making long-winded speeches to groups of other characters (this does become slightly hard work). But at the same time, it contains a large number of performances that are comically, almost self-parodically broad. It’s the fact that the film doesn’t seem to have much sense of humour that pushes some scenes towards comedy: the dialogue amongst the working-class characters kicks off with people saying things like ‘Ey, ah’ll sithee’ to each other and proceeds to include gems such as ‘I shall take my leave now, for I intend to go home and partake of a hot potato pie’. But is this a sign something weirdly deadpan is going on here after all? Near-Mystical Semi-Improvisatory Method or not, I refuse to believe you would put that line in your film without your tongue being at least partly in your cheek.

Once you start noticing these sort of moments it’s very hard to stop: there’s a hilarious, Monty Python-like scene in which the family of barely-literate factory labourers pause to discuss the history, nature, and consequence of the Corn Laws, all for the benefit of the audience. The wicked magistrates are a set of grotesques straight from Royston Vasey. Rory Kinnear is wearing a wig which makes him look rather like Terry Scott’s character in Carry On Up the Jungle. Perhaps they should have gone the whole hog and cast Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent, again – the choice of McInnerny just means everyone is going to be thinking of Blackadder anyway.

Oh, I suppose that I am just being silly and that Peterloo is meant to be the very serious film that it initially looks and sounds like. But someone has made some very odd creative choices along the way. The final third is difficult not to take seriously, anyway, even if subtlety has long since left the theatre – decent, progressive, generous working-class protestors turn up to the mass protest, while the forces of elitism and privilege gathered against them cackle and plot in top hats while they help themselves to claret.

The film’s big set piece is, obviously, the Peterloo massacre itself, and while Leigh is a great composer of a shot, in addition to being a talented director of actors, it initially looks like he’s fluffed the climax of the film – the camera is way up in the air away from the action as the cavalry and the soldiers advance into the panicking crowd. It’s competent but not cinematic. Later on, though, he does put the camera on the ground, in the middle of it all, and you do get a sense of the blood and panic and chaos of it all. Even so, the obvious anger of the film doesn’t necessarily translate into great cinema, and for a piece which is presumably at least partly meant to be educational, Leigh arguably fumbles the conclusion: I was expecting the traditional caption detailing the historical details of the massacre (a death toll is not provided), its consequences and political significance. None of this is given.

So in the end this is a rather odd film that sort of works, in that it does tell the story of the Peterloo massacre and provides some historical context for it – but on the other hand, it really doesn’t do quite enough in this respect, and too often the film seems to be on the verge of toppling over into some sort of gonzo comedy, just one without any actual jokes. Certainly a worthy and interesting piece of work, but largely devoid of subtlety and afflicted by a real inconsistency when it comes to its tone.

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(Yes, I know, I know: you wait years and years for reviews of NASA-themed films and then three come along in a row. Ridiculous, isn’t it?)

Ron Howard’s 1995 film Apollo 13 is not the usual stuff of the Sunday afternoon revivals which I am so often to be found enjoying at the Phoenix in Jericho. The Vintage Sundays strand normally limits itself to either classic or cult movies, with recent seasons focusing on films by Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Studio Ghibli. All solid stuff and more-or-less guaranteed to attract a crowd. They’ve chosen to follow this up, however, with a season of ‘Space’ films, possibly to connect with the release of First Man – and so the revival schedule has been filled with a fairly eclectic mix of titles including The Right Stuff, Moon, Alien, and the original Solaris, concluding with the year’s second showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Apollo 13 fits in rather nicely with the rest of that bunch, despite the fact it is rather more mainstream and modern than the typical Sunday classic. That said, it is one of those movies which is perhaps older than you think – 23 years, at the time of writing – and one which perhaps did not get quite the critical plaudits it deserved.

The film opens with a swift recap of the main beats of the Apollo programme prior to the Apollo 13 mission: specifically, what later became known as the Apollo 1 fire, in which three astronauts were killed, and the triumph of the successful Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. As the story gets going, Pete Conrad’s Apollo 12 has successfully completed its mission, and the onus is now on Apollo 13, to be commanded by Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks). Lovell and his team have been bumped up the schedule by an unforeseen medical problem, and he and fellow astronauts Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Ken Mattingley (Gary Sinise) are working against the clock to be ready.

Lovell is determined that the mission will go ahead, despite some inauspicious omens – the thirteenth Apollo, due to launch at thirteen minutes past the thirteenth hour, and enter lunar orbit on the thirteenth day of the month. But the bad luck just keep coming – Mattingley is exposed to measles only days before the mission is due to launch, and Lovell is forced to replace him with the back-up pilot, Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon).

Apollo 13 launches as planned, although there is a technical issue with one of the booster engines. ‘Looks like we’ve had our glitch for this mission,’ says someone in Ground Control. To say they are mistaken is an understatement: a routine procedure to stir the contents of one of the Command Module’s fuel tanks results in a significant explosion and the loss of electrical power in the spacecraft.

The mission almost immediately becomes one not of landing on the Moon, but somehow managing to get the astronauts back to Earth alive. Efforts on the ground are overseen by no-nonsense flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris), who is insistent that failure is not an option. But the list of challenges faced by NASA is immense…

(I would do the usual ‘Spoiler Alert: they get home safely’ gag here, but for one thing I used it with First Man just the other day, and for another Ron Howard recalls one member of a test audience being very unimpressed with the movie, complaining about the predictable Hollywood ending and saying it was unrealistic that the crew survived.)

I suppose you could look at the relative failure of Apollo 13 at the Oscars and argue that it’s just more evidence that the Academy simply doesn’t like space films (I wouldn’t really call Apollo 13 science fiction, despite the fact it was treated as such by some elements of the media at the time). The 1996 Oscars were a good year for costume dramas and gritty realism – Braveheart and Leaving Las Vegas were two of the higher-profile winners – and I suppose there was also the issue that Tom Hanks had won Best Actor twice on the trot just recently, and nobody could face the prospect of another of his rather idiosyncratic acceptance speeches.

Yet this is a notably good film, an example of the Hollywood machine working at its best. This is a film which is polished without being too glib or slick, and one which knows how to tell a story without becoming melodramatic. (I believe numerous small changes were made to the real course of events, but nothing too outrageous.)

Walking to the bus after watching the revival of Apollo 13, I asked the intern who had accompanied me why they thought it only took 25 years for a movie about the mission to be made, while Apollo 11 ended up waiting nearly half a century. They admitted it was a good question (well, naturally), and after some thought suggested it’s just a more interesting story.

Well, I would agree with that, of course. ‘The mission goes almost exactly as planned’ is not a thrilling hook for a movie, which may go some way to explaining a few of Damien Chazelle’s more unexpected creative decisions in his Armstrong movie. The Apollo 13 story, on the other hand, offers a gripping ‘brave men struggling to get home alive’ theme, plus many opportunities for showcasing the ingenuity and resourcefulness of NASA in overcoming the numerous problems faced by the crew (the sequence in which a gang of junior NASA staffers are given the job of working out how to build a functioning oxygen filtration system out of, basically, a pile of junk, apparently inspired the long-running TV game show Scrapheap Challenge).

And the tone is pretty much what you would expect, too – respectful, patriotic, carefully very mainstream. The film opens with voice-over from Walter Cronkite, for many years the most trusted man in America, and the subtext is clear: this is what really happened in this story, the definitive historical version. In this respect it’s quite different from the more artful approach taken by Chazelle, even though the subject matter is obviously similar – some characters appear in both movies, most notably Armstrong, Aldrin, and Lovell himself.

It was actually slightly startling to watch this movie again and see Tom Hanks looking so young (relatively speaking). This movie was made at the time he was cementing his image as the great everyman of American cinema, not to mention one of the great screen actors of his generation, and he leads a very good cast with considerable aplomb. While most of the film is focused on the fact that this was, in the end, a successful rescue effort, Hanks never quite lets you forget that this is, on one level at least, a rather bittersweet story – Lovell never got to go to the Moon in the way so many of his peers did.

In the end Apollo 13 is simply a very technically proficient film, driven along by excellent production values and performances, with a solid script at the heart of it all. It is certainly one of Ron Howard’s best films, but then my issue with Howard has always been that he is one of those safe-pair-of-hands guys, rather than someone with a distinctive artistic sensibility of his own. I was glad to see Apollo 13 again and happy to watch it on the big screen, but I would still say this is a very good piece of commercial film-making rather than a truly great movie.

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As I write, a human being has not walked on the Moon in my lifetime – which already constitutes rather more years than I am entirely comfortable with – and it seems to me that the longer that elapses, the greater the incomprehension of our descendants will be. As I’ve said before, I think the most remarkable achievement of our existence on this planet has been the fact that we have left it; I’ve also been known to wonder just why it is that decades have elapsed without the first Apollo landing being the subject of a movie. There have been movies about failed Apollo missions; there has even been a movie about an entirely fictitious Apollo mission. But nothing about the one that everyone knows and perhaps remembers.

We may return to the possible reasons for this later, but for the moment we can at least relax in the knowledge that someone has finally done an Apollo 11 movie – well, sort of. The director is Damien Chazelle, who after the success of La La Land could probably have written his own ticket and done anything he had a mind to. He has chosen to make First Man, reuniting with Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong.

The film opens in 1961, with Armstrong working as a civilian test pilot for NASA, although his attempts to cope with a family tragedy cause others to doubt his capacity to do the job. When the space programme advertises for astronauts, both Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) see it as a chance for a new start. Armstrong makes it onto the programme, his engineering background standing him in good stead, but the risks of both the Gemini and Apollo programmes prove greater than imagined and place an increasing strain on their relationship. (Various figures who will be familiar to space geeks appear – most prominently Jason Clarke as Ed White.) Eventually, however – and I’m pretty sure this doesn’t constitute a spoiler – the preparations have been made and Armstrong is selected to command the mission that will put a man on the moon – accompanying him will be fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Cory Stoll).

I make the joke about spoilers almost as a matter of course, but it is the case that everybody knows how this particular story turns out – for all the film’s inclusion of scenes in which Janet Armstrong insists her husband explain to his children that he may not return from the lunar surface, and NASA higher-ups sign off on the text that will be released should something unfortunate happen and Armstrong and Aldrin not make it back, there’s never any real doubt in the viewer’s mind that Apollo 11 is going to be a success. Of course, First Man isn’t alone in having this particular problem, as it exists for many true-life dramas based on famous historical events. One way to approach this issue is to play the hell out of the story as a conventional narrative and hope that the audience is swept along sufficiently to forget their existing knowledge – I did once hear about someone so caught up in the romance between Kate and Leo that they were genuinely shocked when the Titanic started sinking. Or, you can just treat the movie as an opportunity to do a grand retelling of famous events and hopefully inform the audience of a few interesting facts that they weren’t previously aware of.

Chazelle, coming off the back of the breezily crowd-pleasing La La Land, could easily have gone for either of those approaches, but instead he has chosen a different path – one that seems almost calculated to be at odds with audience expectations, both of him and this particular story. It’s not a grand, glossy drama, but more of an introspective character piece. This may have cost the film some business – not least because of the decision not to indulge in (literal) flag-waving jingoism, which drew a predictably petty response from the occupant of the White House – but it does seem to me to be justified. Every profile of Neil Armstrong that I’ve ever read emphasised that this was a man who wore his position at the heart of a truly epochal event extremely lightly – he was not a flamboyant or demonstrative man in any way. A film as resolutely ‘quiet’ and unglamourised as First Man is, for much of its duration at least, seems therefore to be entirely fitting.

There are scenes which do a fine job of capturing the essentially dry and pragmatic nature of the man, helped by an excellent performance from Gosling – the previously-mentioned one where he talks to his sons, but does so in a manner more suggestive of a man addressing a press conference than talking to his children. And another, at a genuine press conference, where Armstrong is asked what, if anything, he would like to take to the Moon with him. ‘More fuel,’ comes the response.

That said, however, my only real issue with the film is connected to this – and, what d’you know, it turns out it is possible to spoil First Man after all, so I must be careful. It seems that Chazelle can’t resist inserting some kind of emotional arc into his film, and he does so here. It put me rather in mind of Gravity, appropriately enough – just as that film worked so well because Sandra Bullock’s isolation in space was a metaphor for her emotional state, so First Man suggests that Armstrong’s whole demeanour, and indeed his career as an astronaut, was on some level  a coping mechanism for dealing with an emotional trauma he suffered some years earlier. Is there any basis to this, or is it just a convenient conceit about which to build the story? I’m not sure, but I suspect the latter.

In any case, this is still an evocative and extremely well-made film, very strong on the claustrophobic hazards of the early days of space flight. For the most part it eschews conventional ‘pretty’ special effects in favour of a more impressionistic approach, the astronauts’ view of what is happening around them – clanks and rattles and roars and judders. Chazelle’s main way of persuading the audience this is the 1960s is to film many of the scenes so they resemble – in picture quality at least – home movie footage from the period. He also evokes the world of the astronauts using many of the images and ideas we have seen in other films set in this milieu – barbecues on Floridian lawns, the men with crew-cuts in buttoned-down shirts, the wives constituting their own exclusive sorority (Claire Foy is very good, but still doesn’t get a huge amount to do). It is wholly convincing in its strange ordinariness, and then when the final mission is in progress, the sudden explosion of the image into pristine 75mm IMAX is breath-taking. The actual Moon landing sequence is exceptionally good (even if I have to report my concerns that I suspect the whole thing was faked in a studio – maybe Chazelle got his hands on Kubrick’s original notes, who knows).

The Apollo landings have become the stuff of popular culture, maybe even folklore, so it is a commendably unexpected choice for Chazelle to make a movie which isn’t just a by-the-numbers retelling of the story, but something with its own style and feel to it, something which perhaps does demand the audience work a little harder than they might expect to. It’s still a beautiful, impressive film, even if it doesn’t have the brilliant accessibility or energy to it which both his previous films possessed.  I suspect First Man is one of those movies which will look better and better as time goes by, even if it isn’t quite a hit on its initial release.

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As you may or may not know, I recently got back from a brief but pleasantly bracing trip around some of the sights of the Kyrgyz Republic. One of the things about this trip that will be burned into my memory for years to come, probably, was the fact that our driver, Bakyt, was – in addition to being a keen advocate of transcendental meditation and a lover of boiled eggs – a huge fan of Queen, despite speaking minimal English. Five days spent on the road listening to the collected greatest hits would have got very wearing with many other artists, I suspect, but it just served to remind me that Queen are possessors of a tremendous back catalogue of  endlessly listenable hits – and there probably aren’t many other European bands with the same kind of penetration into the central Asian market.

Then again, I may be biased. I am of that generation who were just about to go to university when Freddie Mercury passed away at the end of 1991, and Queen – a major band for the previous few years – suddenly became inescapably massive. The nature of Mercury’s illness and death, and all that followed it, is so inextricably bound up with the way the band is perceived that it’s impossible to know if they would be quite so famous today had things gone differently.

But famous they remain, and I suppose we should be somewhat surprised that it has taken over a quarter of a century for a movie about the band to appear (not to mention grateful that it’s not a big-screen version of the jukebox musical We Will Rock You). The travails of this movie are fairly well-known, with various changes of personnel and (allegedly) focus along the way. Here it is, entitled Bohemian Rhapsody and directed by Bryan Singer (with uncredited contributions from Dexter Fletcher after Singer was sacked late on in production).

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It is, if nothing else, a remarkable story: Rami Malek plays Farrokh Bulsara, a Zanzibar-born Asian immigrant living in London and working as a baggage-handler at Heathrow Airport in 1970. A keen songwriter and fan of the local rock band Smile, he has the bad fortune to offer his work to them ten minutes after their lead singer quits – but then manages to land the role of vocalist for himself anyway, alongside uniquely-tonsured axe hero Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). Having recruited a bass player, John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), and changed the names of the band to Queen and their lead singer to Freddie Mercury, the quartet set sail for rock and roll stardom…

I have to confess I turned up to Bohemian Rhapsody feeling rather cynical and not expecting to be particularly impressed: this had the feel of a hagiography in the making, just another brand extension for the band. Then there’s that title – is there any particular reason why it’s named after a song which no-one really understands?  Why not call it A Kind of Magic, or Princes of the Universe, or I Want It All, all of which would arguably be at least as thematically appropriate? No, they’ve just gone for the Queen song title which everybody knows. Then there were the various rumours in circulation following the early attempts to mount this movie – Sacha Baron Cohen was attached to play Mercury at one point, and claimed that the plan was for the singer to die halfway through the film, which would then go on to depict May and Taylor’s subsequent successes (the band members have denied this).

However, this is an extremely difficult film not to warm to – always assuming you have any fondness for Queen’s music, anyway. Proceedings get underway with an earsplitting rendition of the Fox fanfare by May, and the film kicks off with a shameless attempt to win the audience over by playing Somebody to Love over the opening sequence.  How can you resist a song like that? The earnest charm of the actors playing the young band members is a plus, too, and the film engages in some of the rock biopic clichés with gusto.

On the other hand, it is a bit cheesy, and a bit corny, and some of the dialogue is duff – ‘No musical ghetto can contain us!’ cries Roger Taylor at one point, rather improbably. There is also an excruciatingly knowing gag about Wayne’s World at one point, which only becomes worse when you realise that an unrecognisable Mike Myers is actually in the same scene. It also becomes very clear that this is a Freddie Mercury bio-pic rather than a Queen movie per se; his is the fullest characterisation by far, with the others reduced to a sort of caricature of their public image – May is a clever technician, Taylor a slightly stroppy ladies’ man, and Deacon – well, Deacon is initially the comic relief, but to be fair the film’s portrayal of him becomes more balanced as it continues.

The initial vague resemblance to Reeves and Mortimer’s Slade on Holiday sketches, or perhaps This is Spinal Tap, does recede, especially when the film focuses on Mercury’s complex relationship with his long-term companion Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his attempts to come to terms with his sexuality. This is woven in with lots of the kind of moments you might expect – the band in the studio putting together some of their biggest hits, shooting iconic videos, and so on.

There is, of course, an abundance of potential material here, but it’s always very clear that we are getting the family-friendly, Hollywood version of the Mercury story here. History is rewritten throughout, sometimes subtly, sometimes definitely not, to simplify things and provide a satisfying narrative arc for the movie – Mercury and Deacon join the band at the same time, not a year apart, while the singer’s diagnosis with AIDS comes a number of years earlier than was actually the case. (There’s no dwarf with a bowl of cocaine on his head, either.)

Whatever you think of this, a more problematic area is the film’s depiction of Mercury’s sexuality and lifestyle. Would Freddie Mercury really have been on board with a movie that appears to suggest that his gayness was the defining tragedy of his life? Was he really the lonely, isolated, tragic figure portrayed in the movie, driven to excess as a result? Certainly his partner and manager Paul Prenter (played by Allen Leech) is presented as the villain of the piece. The movie only seems willing to address in passing the notion that Mercury’s sexuality, rather than being a regrettable aspect of his life, was in fact central to his personality, his performance style, and the music that he made. (One is slightly surprised that Bryan Singer was on board for a movie with this kind of subtext, to be honest.)

As long as you bear in mind that this is a tidied-up, fictionalised version of Freddie Mercury’s life, then there is a huge amount here to enjoy – mainly the music, but also the performances. The film is structured to conclude with Queen’s set at Live Aid in 1985 – impressively recreated, and depicted as possibly the greatest moment in rock history as well as (somewhat absurdly) the defining day of Mercury’s life – and it is an exceptional sequence, thrilling and also surprisingly moving.

Always assuming – and I know I’ve said this before – you like Queen. Some people don’t; there’s no particular reason why anyone should. But a lot of people do, and unless they are fanatical purists where the band are concerned, I rather suspect this film will be just what they’re looking for. Bohemian Rhapsody‘s lack of concern with the details may not be very characteristic of the musicians it depicts, but its determination to give the audience a terrific, memorable time is absolutely in the spirit of Queen.

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You know, until I just looked it up, I would have said that Michael Caine had basically forsworn his once-notorious ‘I’ll do anything’ work ethic and had spent the last few years only doing cameo appearances in Christopher Nolan movies. But apparently not: twenty-one films in the last decade, more or less, which is not a bad average by anyone’s standards. Still, you don’t see the great man in really juicy leading roles very much any more, and the chance to see him in action in just this style was the main reason why I trundled along to see James Marsh’s King of Thieves.

Caine plays Brian Reader, a recently-widowed professional criminal (Francesca Annis, who plays his wife, manages to scrape a prominent billing despite carking it in the opening few minutes) who is feeling his age and perhaps looking for a purpose in life. Now, most people in his situation would probably think about taking up yoga or possibly bowls, but given his past and particular skill-set, Reader decides his last hurrah will be to knock off the vault underneath the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit building, stuffed with cash, gold, jewellry and diamonds.

He duly assembles a crack team, or – to be more strictly accurate – a crock team, consisting of Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone and Paul Whitehouse, in addition to the young security expert who is making the whole undertaking possible (a sop to the streaming generation in the form of Charlie Cox). Potentially employed as their fence is an incontinent fishmonger nicknamed named Billy the Fish (Michael Gambon).

Well, as you might expect, things do not go entirely to plan with a team of this calibre (and vintage) on the job, and the traditional heist-movie falling-out between the principals actually occurs before the robbery is even completed. Will the gang of crinkly crims get away with it? Will their clashing egos be their undoing? Or could the police prove to be rather more competent than anyone is giving them credit for?

You know you’ve made it as a British crook when they start making films about your exploits – this has been a flourishing subgenre of the Brit crime movie for many years now. And, before we consider King of Thieves as a piece of entertainment, we should remember that this is a film based on true events (and not even the first one purporting to retell this particular story – The Hatton Garden Job came out last year, and got rather unfavourable notices). All right, so it’s not quite on the same level as some of those jolly fantasies which seem to be just a bit too fascinated by Jack the Ripper and other serial killers, but still – stuff got nicked (most of which remains unrecovered as of the film’s being released). A company went bankrupt as a result. People lost their jobs. You know, just mentioning it.

The film really attempts to skate over this, and initially at least seems to be intent on making use of its cast’s undoubted credentials when it comes to comedy. It is a particularly black, deadpan kind of comedy, mostly revolving around the gang’s advanced ages and the inevitable impact on the execution of the robbery – the look-out keeps dozing off, they have to remember to pack enough of their various medicines and ointments for the duration of the job, and so on. It’s quite broad stuff, but with a cast of this quality it’s still very watchable and entertaining stuff. Even so, to begin with I found myself a little nonplussed: the plot seemed very linear and quite shallow. Would King of Thieves just prove to be another disposable piece of knockabout frivolity, elevated only by its performers?

Well, not quite, because as the film goes on it becomes rather more interesting. What starts off looking like a typical piece of romanticised nonsense glamorising loveable London gangsters actually acquires unexpected depth and grit, and has moments of genuine grit and drama. The gang fall out, in earnest – the cosy camaraderie which initially seems to exist between them is replaced by real tension, and the old saw about honour amongst thieves is shown to be a myth as they set about double-crossing each other with an enthusiasm that belies their years. And here the cast get a chance to show what they can really do: given some of his former roles, it’s hardly a surprise that Ray Winstone can be an effective heavy, but I find I am constantly surprised by Jim Broadbent’s range and ability as an actor. You always kind of expect him to be someone slightly vague and somewhat jolly, but here he turns out to be a genuinely menacing and nasty piece of work, quite capable of holding his own in a confrontation with Michael Caine.

Michael Caine is 85 and it is inevitably a little sad to see him somewhat diminished, physically, by the passage of time: he looks frailer, and it is noticeable that he doesn’t have quite the screen time one might expect; the film seems to have been sympathetically constructed to spread the burden amongst the whole ensemble. But he is still the indisputable guv’nor of this film, still one of the biggest names in British cinema, and he has lost none of his charisma or technical ability as an actor. This is a proper actor’s performance, finding the subtleties of the character and not afraid to be unsympathetic – as the film goes on there’s a suggestion that Reader isn’t just the loveable old burglar he’s initially presented as. This isn’t one of Caine’s best films, but this is still an excellent performance.

There’s nothing very original about King of Thieves, but it’s a pacy and engaging little film and a consistently entertaining one. The gear-change between droll black comedy and semi-serious crime drama is something it never quite manages to pull off as smoothly as it probably needs to, and as I say there is the whole true-crime-as-entertainment thing to consider. But it’s still worth seeing, if only for an excellent cast doing very good work, led by one of Britain’s greatest movie stars.

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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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