Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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Being human is a condition that requires a little anaesthesia. In 1970 college student and Heathrow Airport baggage handler Farrokh (Freddie) Bulsara (Rami Malek) goes to a nightclub to watch a local band called Smile where he meets guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) who’ve just lost their bassist/singer. He gives an impromptu display of his four octave range and offers to be the band’s new lead vocalist. The diva has arrived fully formed. With the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) the band – now known as Queen – plays at local gigs across Britain until they sell their van to produce their debut album which earns them a contract with EMI. At the same time, Farrokh legally changes his name to Freddie Mercury and becomes engaged to Biba store clerk Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) with whom he lives. During the band’s U.S. tour, Freddie begins to question his sexuality. In 1975, Queen record their fourth album, A Night at the Opera but leave EMI when executive Ray Foster (an unrecognisable Mike Myers) refuses to have the six-minute song Bohemian Rhapsody released as the album’s first single. Freddie has Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett (Dickie Beau) debut the song on the airwaves. Despite mixed reviews, it becomes a smash hit. Shortly after the band’s world tour, Freddie begins an affair with Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), his personal manager, and Mary breaks up with Freddie when he comes out to her as bisexual, although she assures him that he is gay. They reach unparalleled success, but in an unexpected turn Freddie shuns Queen in pursuit of his solo career after sacking manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen) in a sleight of hand engineered by Prenter who leads Freddie in an increasingly debauched way of life as he records his albums in Munich, drugged up and losing contact with the band and their new manager and former lawyer Jim ‘Miami’ Beach (Tom Hollander). Having suffered greatly without the collaboration of Queen, Freddie manages to reunite with them just in time for Live Aid, a concert which Prenter decided not to tell Freddie about. While facing a recent AIDS diagnosis which he discloses a week before the world’s biggest ever concert, Freddie leads the band in one of the greatest performances in the history of rock music. .. How many more Galileos do you want?! The dramatic peaks of this controversial and troubled production (is there any other kind?) are the composition of the legendary epic song that gives rise to the title; and the final twenty-minute set at Live Aid on 13th July 1985.  The writing of the songs is what underpins the film’s dramatic core – from the first words or notes or flashes of inspiration to the band’s individual contributions in studios intercut with live performance this might be one of the best expositions of composition certainly in terms of rock band biopics, demonstrating how something gets written, produced and performed. But it’s really all about Freddie the showman and the other guys are just sketches of perfectly reasonable young musicians, not fully formed characters who might have had reason to knock Freddie sideways even if Roger tries (it was produced by them with Jim Beach, so it was never going to go full fetish). There might be complaints about the telescoping of certain incidents (the AIDS diagnosis) for dramatic purpose but it serves the wider ambition, which is to delineate just how extraordinary the connection with the audience was from their very first performance. Mercury’s own lifestyle and how he became ill is then suggested rather than graphically explored (whew) but the seedy Prenter is assigned the role of villain in chief and Leech does what he can in the character role where his costuming becomes the model for Freddie’s gay Village People look (prompting an apposite line from Brian). Boynton is rather good in another underwritten role as the toothsome Mary whose friendship was the hinge for Freddie’s sanity and a reality check when he went over the edge.  The social and cultural backdrop of Zoroastrianism and being a Parsi immigrant in Britain is paid its due even if it’s a little perfunctory but works to explain Freddie’s exoticism and the originality which he gleefully exploits for presentation amid these middle class boys. It’s ironic that it’s Roger who wants to cross-dress for the I Want to Break Free video and Freddie who gets pilloried for it at a press conference. Roger, there’s only room in this band for one hysterical queen. It’s far from perfect but once you get accustomed to the wildly charismatic Malek (and his enormous teeth – extra incisors, folks!) it’s quite thrilling, taking us from the wet dull dank hinterland of England in the early 1970s when the apex of fame is an appearance on Top of the Pops, where the BBC man insists that they lip-sync; through the leather-clad descent into a druggy fug not giving a four x about what people thought until it was too late while the other guys got married and had families. Freddie’s efforts to find Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) years after their first encounter at his party are quite touching particularly because he’s the first man he takes home to meet the parents, on the morning of Live Aid, prompting a reconciliation that leads the folks to watch him on the telly. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay (from a story written with Peter Morgan) is flawed and rather kitsch but somehow the parts make up an entertainment that will have you stomping in the aisles. How these extraordinarily well-educated men heard music and put it through their own misfitted filter for a wider world is the whole show. Basically, this is Queen’s Greatest Hits. Oh, and Freddie’s cats are absolutely delightful. Directed for the most part by Bryan Singer who flung a hissy fit à la Freddie and had to be replaced by Dexter Fletcher. I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever

The Straight Story (1999)

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You don’t think about getting old when you’re young… you shouldn’t.  Retired farmer and widower in his 70s, WW2 veteran Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) learns one day that his distant brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has suffered a stroke and may not recover. Alvin is determined to make things right with Lyle while he still can, but his brother lives in Wisconsin, while Alvin is stuck in Iowa with no car and no driver’s license because of his frailties. His intellectually disabled daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) freaks out at the prospect of him taking off. Then he hits on the idea of making the trip on his old lawnmower, so beginning a picturesque and at times deeply spiritual odyssey across two states at a stately pace…  I can’t imagine anything good about being blind and lame at the same time but, still at my age I’ve seen about all that life has to dish out. I know to separate the wheat from the chaff, and let the small stuff fall away Written by director David Lynch’s collaborator and editor Mary Sweeney and John E. Roach, this is perhaps the most ironically straightforward entry in that filmmaker’s output.  He called it his most experimental movie and shot it chronologically along the route that the real Alvin took in 1994 (he died two years later). This is humane and simple, beautifully realised (DoP’d by Freddie Francis) with superb performances and a sympathetic score by Angelo Badalamenti. A lyrical tone poem to the American Midwest, the marvellous Farnsworth had terminal cancer during production and committed suicide the following year. His and Stanton’s scene is just swell, slow cinema at its apex.  The worst part of being old is rememberin’ when you was young

Badlands (1973)

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At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.  1959 South Dakota. Teenage girl Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) angers her father (Warren Oates) when she begins dating an older rebellious greaser, garbage man Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) who fancies he’s like James Dean. After a conflict between Holly and her father erupts, he kills her dog. Then Kit murders him, so the young lovers must flee. In the ensuing crime spree, they travel through the Midwest to the Badlands of Montana, eluding authorities along the way, killing as they go … Holly’s dreamlike and hilariously affectless magazine-like narration anchors this exquisite blend of drama and horror as the true-life 1950s killers Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate inspired script doctor Terrence Malick to strike out and make a film of his own. The distance between the form and content is bridged by the effects of technique – was there every such wonderful magic hour photography (by Tak Fujimoto, Steven Larner and Brian Probyn) to offset the horror of a serial killer in his element?  As Holly begins to realise Kit is psychotic the shots place him further and further away from her. This is an astounding work with beguiling performances by two adult actors who inhabit this fairytale of deluded teenage desire with strange conviction. The score based on work by Carl Orff, Erik Satie, James Taylor and George Tipton is classic. A remarkable, lyrical, transcendent film. Unforgettable.

American Honey (2016)

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I feel like fucking America! Whether you like this will depend on a) your tolerance for drug-addled amoral teenagers whose greatest ambition is to get knocked up and live in a trailer and if b) you don’t mind losing 157 minutes of your precious life to an almost pointless unendurable movie. Strange newcomer Sasha Lane is Star, a black girl from a dysfunctional and abusive background who falls for the spiel of magazine crew guy Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and joins this rag-tag band of scuzzy losers as they run around house to house in middle America, selling subscriptions and led by she-wolf leader Krystal (Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter). Star has sex with Jake after he steals a car owned by some well-heeled cowboys who rescue her from his abuse on the roadside – and this is after she sees him rubbing down Krystal’s shapely rear in a stars and stripes bikini. This being a movie, people act a lot like life – incoherently and inconsistently. When he takes the money she makes and drops her, she still wants him. She makes more money from giving an oil rig worker a handjob:  and he’s vile enough to criticise her. She still wants him. Krystal tells Star that she was handpicked by Jake and he fucks all the new girls – it’s his job. At the end, when there’s another apparently symbolic sequence with an animal – the only sign that there might be in this three-hour slog any indication of narrative rigour – you pray for her suicide:  or your own. What seems like artlessness is actually faux realist laziness. Were there NO editors available?? And for a movie that styles itself as a musical with all the group singalongs there’s extremely dodgy sound mixing.  I’m not arguing that the meth-taking underclass needs culling but they do exist and I’m hopeful that they don’t all listen to (c)rap. See Spring Breakers for a far more controlled (and much shorter) exposition of American youth. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who was inspired by a New York Times article.

Road House (1989)

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When I was teaching a class way back in the mists of, you know, a while, I had a really charming a-hole (these are the ones you sadly recall) who smirked at me one day and declared, I suppose Road House is your favourite movie. Well,  no, as it happens, but I’m partial to a barroom brawl as much as the next redneck and this is full of them. The beauteous Patrick Swayze is Dalton, an NYC cooler (bouncer-in-chief) with a philosophy degree lured to a bigger paycheck in a midwest saloon where things have gotten way out of control.  He finds himself at odds first with the staff then with the villain who runs things round those parts, Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara.) He falls for the doc who stitches him up, the beyond-beautiful Kelly Lynch, whose uncle is then targeted by Wesley (they have a history) and then Dalton’s mentor Wade (the great Sam Elliott) turns up to lend a hand. Dalton and Doc have some seriously hot sex scenes, Jeff Healey provides the in-house entertainment, there’s some very well choreographed fight stuff, businesses are set alight and Dalton’s past is used against him. Wesley tries to ruin everyone, and then pretty much everyone fights to the very well-staged finish in a trophy room in order to take back the town. If I didn’t live somewhere strikingly similar I’d say this was beyond belief but c’est la guerre. This fun outing was directed by Rowdy Herrington from a screenplay by David Lee Henry aka R. Lance Hill and Hilary Henkin. And that charmer I mentioned? Why, the last time we met he was waiting my table. Manners are more than a southern thang, y’all.

In the Line of Fire (1993)

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Frank Horrigan is the ageing Secret Service man being taunted by phonecalls from someone who knows way too much about him – including that he was on the detail for JFK in Dallas. Turns out the guy is a former CIA assassin who couldn’t get acclimatised to life after Nam. (I know!) The threat to the current incumbent who’s on the campaign trail is overwhelming and Frank wants to get with the present detail despite being on bad terms with the whole team. He’s accompanied by newbie Al D’Andrea (Dylan McDermott) but gets to know a woman secret agent, Lilly Raines, (‘window dressing’ as he puts it), the fabulous Rene Russo who’s probably been cast for her striking resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. The brilliance of this cat-and-mouse thriller is that it’s constructed between the poles of guilt and nostalgia – Frank’s guilt at not being able to save JFK, plus what might have been – and the desire not to let history get repeated. There’s also the joy of Clint playing versions of his previous law enforcing self with Dirty Harry references in abundance, verbal and visual. The byplay with Russo is extremely witty and their first (foiled) attempt to go to bed is great slapstick – look at all the weapons come off!  John Malkovich as the disguise-happy Mitch Leary is a great choice for the loopy assassin whose hero is Sirhan Sirhan and we know that this must end in a murder attempt replaying of RFK’s death at a venue similar to the Ambassador Hotel, this time in the midwest. This is a witty, fast-moving, clever, inventive, knowing, brutal and brilliantly written entertainment by Jeff Maguire (working from a story by producer Jeff Apple), superbly directed by Wolfgang Petersen.  The score by Ennio Morricone really works with the other jazz  soundtrack licks including Clint himself tinkling the ivories in all those hotel bars. With John Heard in a supporting role, Fred Dalton Thompson as White House Chief of Staff and Buddy Van Horn looking after the stunts, we are in great hands here as all those ideas about the Warren Commission, lone assassins and your ordinary everyday conspiracy theories are unpicked while an unstoppable romance between Clint and John unfolds in deadly fashion. Fantastic.

Arrowsmith (1931)

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Sinclair Lewis’ great 1925 novel deals with the temptations faced by doctors who could just go on the lecture circuit and pontificate rather than do good. And these days most of them go on vast junkets financed by Big Pharma and peddle their wares to gullible patients who gobble up anti-depressants and their brain functions are rewired  – a Simon Curtis doc would suggest this was a conspiracy with western governments to suppress protests against the fundaments of modern liberal democracies … looks like the meds finally wore off, eh?! Ronald Colman decides to tackle the plague head-on after missing out on a career-enhancing opportunity, making a fatal mistake with a child suffering from diphtheria and his wife, a nurse (Helen Hayes) loses their pregnancy. He takes off to the Caribbean to fight bubonic plague and meets the woman who will become his second wife (Myrna Loy) while all around him succumb. This vastly truncated adaptation by Sidney Howard was directed at warp speed by John Ford because he was kept off the bottle for the shoot. It’s good to see Hayes – some of us only really know this legendary actress from Disney and Agatha Christie in the 70s and 80s [if anyone knows where I can see The Snoop Sisters please let me know!]; and things liven up with Loy, but her part of the story barely happens. Strange pre-Code version of a work of cultural and scientific significance by a writer who seems to have been a seer in consideration of current events, but worth catching for the performances, Alfred Newman’s score and filling any gaps in your John Ford education.

Interstellar (2014)

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The conventional cinematic equation goes something like this:  Steven Spielberg x Stanley Kubrick + Ridley Scott (- CGI)   = le cinema de Christopher Nolan. Add a soupcon of Carl Sagan, Borges, Terrence Malick and a few blackholes, wormholes and plotholes and you get Interstellar, an ambitious blowhard about a west African crop failure in America’s Midwest in the near future and the need to find an alternative life in outerspace – which may be closer than we think but paradoxically a lifetime away, what with relativity, quantum physics, tesseracts and the human aging process and ghosts. There are inconsistencies, longeurs and a slick willy of a performance from Matthew McConaughey plus Matt Damon showing up to ruin everything. There is righteous awe at a tidal wave and acceptance of the Apollo landings being faked in this brave new world (having been to NASA and seen the tinfoil production, I get it.). Nolan’s is at least an optical option for cinema, not the digital fakery being slopped over the unwitting punter. Why ask for the moon?  We have the stars.