Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

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Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998) (TVM)

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I want to be loved. 1940s New York City: Jacqueline Susann (Michele Lee) is a second-string theatre actress and well-known party girl who turns to journalism following her marriage to press agent turned producer Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though constantly surrounded by the glitterati of the theatre and social scene she doesn’t achieve celebrity status herself and has to endure the tragedy of a brain-damaged son who has to be institutionalised. Then when she’s 47,  she publishes the raunchy bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls. Outwardly committed to publicising her work and involved in regular cross-country media campaigns, she privately battles cancer and constantly questions her troubled relationship with her society portraitist father Robert (Kenneth Welsh) who never got around to finishing her picture …  Everything I do is for you. Everything I make is for you. Treading much straighter territory than Isn’t She Great (the Bette Midler version) this adaptation by Michele Gallery of Barbara Seaman’s biography Lovely Me ironically strays indirectly and presumably unintentionally into camp now and then, and it doesn’t really do justice to the genius of its subject but Lee is excellent as this spiky confrontational woman who did things her own way. For anyone interested in the backstage antics of NYC’s post-war theatre scene with big personalities like Ethel Merman (Gloria Slade), the evolution of publishing and the making of the notorious film of Susann’s most famous novel with Barbara Parkins (Annie Laurie Williams), Patty Duke (Melanie Peterson) and the lovely Sharon Tate (Leila Johnson), there are residual attractions, but the drivers of this biopic are the private tragedies of the woman who revolutionised modern publishing by establishing her own critic-proof brand of sex and sass. Directed by Bruce McDonald. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you never stay in. My life is never going to be dull

Cold War (2018)

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Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love.  In post-war Poland conductor and musicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are holding auditions for a state-sponsored folk music ensemble. Wiktor’s attention is immediately captured by Zula (Joanna Kulig), an ambitious and captivating young woman who is faking a peasant identity and is on probation after attacking her abusive father when he attempted to rape her. They commence a sexual relationship but Wiktor doesn’t want to incorporate more Stalinist propaganda in their productions and wants to escape to the West. Zula doesn’t join him when he escapes in Berlin but a couple of years later he finds her on tour in Yugoslavia where he is quickly removed back to his current base in Paris. Then Zula shows up and leaves her marriage and becomes a recording artist with his help. She can’t stand what he has become and flees to Poland the night her album is launched and Wiktor makes a tremendous sacrifice just to see her again … As far as we’re concerned you don’t exist. It starts with people singing folk songs, performed plaintively and sonorously against a mysterious monochrome backdrop which is rural Poland yet some images take a while to reveal themselves from abstraction. That’s all of a piece with the lives of these somewhat disembodied, disenfranchised individuals whose better existence is entwined with each other yet whose life together is messy, filled with bust-ups, disagreements, partings, border crossings, cultural preservation, propaganda and politics. Their identity – colonised, travelling, in denial – presents a kind of melancholy frankly incomprehensible to people who think they should be glad to be out of the hellhole of the Eastern Bloc.  Neither protagonist is especially likable and the underage relationship is at first shocking, even if she is sexually precocious. The gleaming black and white photography seems bleak at first but paradoxically heightens the romance because this is a film that rejoices in the possibilities of cities and how people can express themselves in one international language – music. Watching Zula finally let loose in the West to Rock Around the Clock is joyous, even if it further fractures her relationship. The architecture isn’t stressed but the common culture it expresses looms over the narrative – building styles, churches, bars, clubs, concert halls, the locations where this couple can find themselves and each other, over and over again. It’s sombre but passionate. Finally they wind up at a literal crossroads, decision made. Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski traverses these ideas like a high-wire artist, never stooping to the obvious even if some of the melodramatic curves seem inevitable. When Zula tosses her eponymous record in a fountain and then takes off back to Poland it seems unlikely they can ever meet again. But Viktor returns to his home country only to be imprisoned? Well. If it wasn’t true, would you believe it? Yet that is what Pawlikowski’s own background looks like – complex, difficult, liminal, like all stories about affiliations and borders and political ideologies and exile. It’s about his parents. And it’s true. And it took years and years for them to get together and their relationship covers a continent of musical styles and idioms. Remarkable. Let’s go to the other side.

In The Cut (2003)

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I wanna get married once… just for my mom. Frannie Avery (Meg Ryan), a middle-class lecturer in New York City, witnesses a sexual incident that could have been the prelude to a murder by a killer roaming the city. Detective Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) arrives to interview her following the murder of a young woman in her neighbourhood which he’s investigating with his partner Ritchie Rodriguez (Nick Damici) but their relationship soon moves from personal to passionate.  Soon she comes to suspect that he is the serial killer he claims to be hunting down so who can she really trust? …  You know what your problem is? You’re fucking exhausting. Fuck this, you know, I was doing just fine before I met you, just fine. Susanna Moore’s novel was a new take on the subject matter of that controversial exercise in female masochism Looking for Mr Goodbar and Nicole Kidman spent five years shepherding the adaptation by Moore and director Jane Campion (with co-writer Stavros Kazantzidis) only to bail on the lead role when her marriage to Tom Cruise ended abruptly. Thus it was that America’s romcom sweetheart Ryan stepped into the dark heart of this voyeuristic thriller in a performance that seemed to frighten critics even after her impressive turn in the earlier Courage Under Fire. This is a formally beautiful, graphic and stunningly shot (by Dion Beebe) analysis of female sexual desire and as such twists the usual misogynistic genre tropes even as the body count mounts. Some of Ruffalo’s scenes may grate but Jennifer Jason Leigh has a fantastic role as Ryan’s tragic, romantically obsessed sister and Kevin Bacon has a terrific (unbilled) part as a man with whom Ryan has had relations and he is now stalking her. Ryan is superb, not just technically, but emotionally, and this is intense on every level, an intelligent slasher film with things to say about what women really want and how dangerous that can prove. The final sequence, when she contemplates the scene of her intended death, is outstanding, a masterpiece of empathy. I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees

The Victors (1963)

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The whole world is full of love. A group of American soldiers manages to survive over the course of World War II, from the Battle of Britain, moving up through Sicily and France and Germany to the fall of the Third Reich and a station in occupied Berlin in the war’s aftermath. Along the way, a number of unfortunate incidents occur:  white soldiers violently abuse fellow black soldiers, a deserter is executed on New Year’s Eve and a sergeant takes advantage of a shell-shocked French woman. War is hell for the winners and the losers in this episodic meditation on the horrors that exist on and off the field of battle… Have a good time tonight? Find someone to rape? Irony is writ large in this film – starting with the title. These guys victors? God help us all. What they do to a little dog following Peter Fonda as he leaves camp doesn’t bear a second viewing. They are racist, vicious, narcissistic thugs. But hey, they’re ours! That’s really the point of this anti-war anti-blockbuster from auteur Carl Foreman, the formerly blacklisted screenwriter who gave us the joyous Guns of Navarone. So we see Vince Edwards make nice with young Italian mother Rosanna Schiaffino, Eli Wallach generously gives widowed Jeanne Moreau a break from the bombs in exchange for food, George Hamilton falls for the duplicitous musician Romy Schneider and George Peppard has an unpleasant encounter with Melina Mercouri. There is a bitter conclusion in the post-war experience as drunken Russian soldier Albert Finney in a very showy role exercises the ultimate droit de seigneur of the fatal variety. Interspersed with newsreels and taking us through the entire WW2 as a series of personal vignettes, we are oddly removed from any kind of empathy because these really are not nice guys. We get it:  nobody’s a winner. The snow field execution while Sinatra croons Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is duly horrifying. Adapted by Foreman from the novel The Human Kind by Alexander Baron who himself served in Sicily, Normandy and Belgium through D-Day.  Directed by Carl Foreman and shot by the great Christopher Challis.  I don’t think I can ever be frightened again

 

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

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I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.  New York City newspaper journalist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) has a considerable influence on public opinion with his Broadway column, but one thing that he can’t control is his younger sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), who is in a relationship with aspiring jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Marty Milner). Hunsecker strongly disproves of the romance and recruits publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to find a way to split the couple, no matter how ruthless the method.  Falco comes up with a scheme to convince another columnist who is Hunsecker’s bitter rival to run the smear item suggesting Steve is a commie and a junkie, so that Susan won’t suspect it comes from her brother’s camp but it affects her terribly and the men compete for her affections… I love this dirty town An astonishing portrait of venality and viciousness, Lancaster (who produced) and Curtis are simply unforgettable. Major stars at the time, they were steeped in the character psychology of to-the-death rivalry in a story widely assumed to be inspired by Walter Winchell, the feared real-life columnist.  Harrison is memorable as the young woman whose brother has an almost incestuous obsession with her but it’s the face off between the male villains that makes this one of the most rivetting studies of cruelty ever put on film.  They are the yin to the other’s yang, the flip side of the same bad penny. The best of everything is good enough for me. Those mean streets of Manhattan are photographed by James Wong Howe and they are slick with rain and glistening with fear. Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets wrote the screenplay from a story by Lehman (himself a press agent in another life) and Alexander Mackendrick was making his American directing debut after holding the fort at Britain’s Ealing Studios for many years. It’s a film that looks and sounds great (courtesy of a marvellous score by Elmer Bernstein incorporating the work of the Chico Hamilton Quintet), with that wonderful quality – the ring of truth. You’re dead son. Get yourself buried

Lured (1947)

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Would it be against Anglo-American tradition to tell a girl when the next audition is?Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball) is a London-based dancer who is distraught to learn that her friend Lucy Barnard (Tanis Chandler) from the nightclub where she’s working has disappeared. She’s approached by Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), a Scotland Yard investigator who believes her friend has been murdered by a serial killer who uses personal ads to find his victims. The lure is poetry along the lines of Charles Baudelaire. Temple hatches a plan to catch the killer using Sandra as bait, and Sandra agrees to help. But complications arise when the mystery appears to be solved and Sandra becomes engaged to a nightclub owner and man about town Robert Fleming (George Sanders) with whom she’s already become acquainted and who shares his home with his business and legal partner Julian Wilde (Sir Cedric Harwicke) …  I’m not interested in references as much as character/I can see that for myself. Director Douglas Sirk commands this gamy mystery with verve, making a total entertainment from Leo Rosten’s screenplay, peopled with performers right in their characterful element delivering edgy lines with great wit. From the opening titles – a torch shining on the names – the mystery is driven with pace and style with running jokes (including a crossword filled in by H.R. Barrett, played by George Zucco) and enormous style.  Boris Karloff has a great supporting role as a formerly successful fashion designer living in a fantasy world while Sanders is suave as you like and Ball is … ballsy! Annette Warren, who dubs blonde club singer Ethelreda Leopold here, would also provides Ball’s singing voice in Fancy Pants and Sorrowful Jones. Gorgeously shot by Billy Daniels, this is a remake of a 1939 French film (Pieges) directed by Robert Siodmak. She’s won her spurs, she deserves to be happy

120 BPM (2017)

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Les membres du groupe de sensibilisation ACT UP Paris demandent au gouvernement et aux sociétés pharmaceutiques de prendre des mesures pour lutter contre l’épidémie de sida au début des années 90. Nathan (Arnaud Valois), nouveau venu dans le groupe, voit son monde bouleversé par Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), militant radical et cofondateur de ACT UP, qui jette ses dernières forces dans la lutte alors qu’il fait face à Le diagnostic de ‘poz’ ayant été infecté par son professeur de maths marié quand il était au lycée lors de sa première rencontre sexuelle … À première vue, ce n’est pas une prémisse attrayante pour un film. Mais ce qui suit est un travail passionnant, impliquant un travail mêlant intimité et conscience sexuelle et action politique, interprété avec un réalisme de type naturalisme et documentaire qui dépeint avec vérité les problèmes de la participation d’activistes et la question de Big Pharma, contrastant tragédies personnelles et action Dans la rue, la poussière disco se mue en images du virus du SIDA dans le sang, réalisme magique rencontrant une honnêteté sans faille. Les réunions du groupe sont entrecoupées de marches, de visites non sollicitées à Melton Pharm, dont les produits sont toxiques et causent la mort, et de danses dans les clubs. Sean et Nathan partagent leurs histoires alors qu’ils s’impliquent dans l’amour et que leurs amis meurent. Le déclin de Nathan est dépeint avec sympathie et la présence sur son corps suscite une révérence et une humanité qui ont rarement été capturées au cinéma: littéralement, il s’agit du corps politique. Passionnant, enthousiasmant, émouvant, c’est une œuvre profonde du cinéma politique et de la réalisation de films de bravoure. Brillamment réalisé par Robin Campillo qui l’a co-écrit avec Philippe Mangeot. La photo aérienne de Paris la nuit divisée par une rivière qui coule du sang (teintée en rouge pour la Journée internationale du sida) n’est pas oubliée. Essentiel.

 

Berlin Express (1948)

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That’s right – the dove of peace was a pigeon. A dead pigeon. In Allied-occupied post-war Germany a group of passengers of various nationalities travels by train from France to Berlin. One of them, Dr. Bernhardt (Paul Lukas), is an influential peacemaker who wants to mend the war-torn continent. Nazi conspirators aboard the vehicle are determined to keep Bernhardt quiet – they set off an explosion on the train but it kills a man who turns out to have been Bernhardt’s decoy. Other passengers – Bernhardt’s assistant Lucienne (Merle Oberon), American agricultural expert Robert J. Lindley (Robert Ryan), Frenchman Perrot (Charles Korvin) and British teacher James Sterling (Robert Coote) seek the doctor for an explanation, but deception is all around and danger awaits Bernhardt at the next station when the train stops … I do sleight of hand. We’re supposed to make 1,500 calories look like an eight-course meal – and prevent things like plague and starvation. Curt Siodmak’s original story might have allegorical qualities but Harold Medford’s screenplay is an efficient genre work, a tense thriller with aspects of film noir and the procedural:  The German Vanishes, perhaps. Aside from the real-life echoes and the international cast, this is fascinating as a production shot on location in Europe right after the war, with all the spare psychology that Jacques Tourneur can bring to this atmospheric film, sorting out the wheat from the chaff in a briskly paced search through bomb-damaged Frankfurt.  The sharp dialogue really suits Ryan, who gives an excellent performance. It’s nice too to see Merle Oberon in a contemporary film which was shot documentary-style by her husband, Lucien Ballard:  producer Bert Granet spent 6 weeks in Germany in 1946 shooting 16mm film for reference. Friedrich Hollaender’s score is very effective for a story about the ongoing Nazi threat to peace in the aftermath of the war and the film is notable for not translating French and German dialogue, adding to the film’s frisson of danger in a landscape filled with the rubble of WW2 as the trans-Europe express speeds to Berlin. Due to currency fluctuations the interiors intended for France had to be shot in Culver City. We don’t have any more German enemies, do we?/  No authorised ones, anyway

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