Tag Archives: British

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 152 – Rocketman

A musical biopic that understands its own music, that uses its songs not necessarily when they’re chronologically appropriate but when they fit emotionally and thematically, Rocketman beautifully and energetically tells the story of Elton John’s rise to and struggles with fame. Taron Egerton is notable for his work in the Kingsman films, but here he is given a true star role, imbuing his Elton with attitude, presence, and a bolshy walk. And, for the two of us in particular, it does us the great favour of giving us a new appreciation for the music, helping us realise that each of us has always taken both it and Elton’s cultural importance for granted.

The film is produced by Elton, functioning as a sort of autobiography, and although this justifiably raises questions of authenticity, honesty, filtering and bias, the film and man are so likeable, and the way in which it depicts his lowest points so open, the film completely sells its story and depiction of Elton’s character and those around him. (Though, as José describes, the coda in which we’re shown a modern, married, parental Elton, who is nothing like the one whose story we’ve just been told, does suggest that for all the authenticity we feel during the film, the message we’re left with is a somewhat disappointing, “anyway, that was a different Elton, I’m not him any more”.) Similarly, certain tropes common to gay stories, such as pining for a straight friend, being isolated emotionally, and being preyed upon by another, more confident, gay character – something we criticised Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody for – are here rendered convincing and understandable.

We fall in love with its style and storytelling strategy, the risks it takes in building slightly cheesy set-pieces, set-pieces that indeed reflect a certain amount of cheesiness present in Elton himself. The film impressively and confidently narrativises its music, flowing into songs, turning emotionally-charged conversations smoothly into musical numbers, liberal new arrangements allowing Elton’s entire family to share their loneliness in I Want Love and making Elton’s decision to enter therapy a moment of trumpet-worthy triumph. José doesn’t go for the climactic moment with Elton’s childhood self, but Mike is with it completely, tearing up – before Elton could heal, before he could love, before he could fight all his addictions and fears and pain, he first needed to learn to love himself!

Rocketman is simply wonderful. It deeply understands its own music and freely reworks it to give it new life and teaches us to love and appreciate it all over again. It’s lively, funny, imaginative, bold and entirely engrossing. Don’t miss it.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 141 – The Passionate Friends

We visit 1949’s romantic drama The Passionate Friends, a favourite of previous podcast guest Celia, who describes it as “what would have happened if they’d had the affair in Brief Encounter“. It offers a complex story of love and relationships, characters who want different things from their relationships and a love triangle that gradually shifts and changes over many years. Mary (Ann Todd) loves Steven (Trevor Howard), but refuses to marry him, wanting to belong only to herself, as she puts it; instead, she marries Howard (Claude Rains), a successful banker who gives her security, stability, social status and affection. Dramatic irony, shifting affections and a sensitivity to the subtleties of love and relationships create a fascinating and beautiful film.

There’s a lot to discuss, including and especially the unconventional Howard – in any other film he would be an obstacle to the romantic couple’s true love, but here, although he has villainous aspects, he is revealed to be as three dimensional a character and as deserving of respect and a happy ending as anybody else. It’s the part he plays in the film’s conclusion that makes Mike cry. We also talk about David Lean’s direction, his use of visual layering, considered staging and occasional flourishes of editing emphasising the characters’ emotional states and calmly and smartly conveying to the audience the right information at the right time.

It’s not held in the esteem that Brief Encounter, a film with obvious parallels in many ways, is, and that’s unfortunate, as it is deeply felt and quite beautiful. It appears to only be available on Blu-Ray in France (that’s where Mike’s copy had to come from, at any rate), but its loving restoration is worth seeking out.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 140 – Fighting with My Family

A young girl from a tight-knit family in Norwich gets a shot at her dream, joining the WWE, the glamorous home of professional wrestling. Parental pride, sibling rivalry, and a lot of hard work ensues, as do great performances generating a lot of laughs. We’re not that keen on some of the clichés – very little happens that you wouldn’t expect, and some of the scenes take a long time to get there – but we like the male-female rivalry, the way Vince Vaughn and Nick Frost light up the screen, and of course, the fact that a big promotional corporate movie for Americans starts off in a tiny living room in Norwich.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

 

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 124 – The Favourite

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose off-kilter thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer divided and provoked us a year ago, brings us The Favourite, a wild dramatisation of the power games surrounding Queen Anne’s bedchamber in the early 18th century. It’s his first feature on which neither he nor his usual partner Efthymis Filippou is credited as a writer, and that might account for its liveliness compared to his previous work, which tends to offer significant downtime in which the audience can ponder what it’s seeing. The Favourite moves rapidly and fluidly, the shifting dynamics between Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne, Rachel Weisz’s Lady Marlborough, and Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill constantly exciting, with their plans always subject to change depending on who knows what about others. And on top of the intrigue, it’s really, really funny.

The Favourite offers us a brilliantly cast and even more brilliantly performing female trio, picking on a rare historical moment in which all the most important and influential people were women. (The men are all secondary, made physical jokes of, with their extravagant costumes and makeup outdoing the women’s.) Sex is always on the table and made to mean different things to different people: to Marlborough and Abigail it’s a tool to be used to manipulate and control the Queen, to whom it offers intimacy and emotional satisfaction she deeply craves and is allowed to feel she doesn’t deserve. The film doesn’t offer titillation, nor does it wish to shock or surprise with its depictions of sex or even the concept of the lesbian relationships. It’s actually quite remarkable how the film so casually avoids making it superficial and gratuitous.

We take our time to appreciate the cinematography, extraordinary wide-angle and occasionally fisheye shots that render characters, particularly the Queen, tiny playthings in a ludicrously ostentatious doll’s house. Mike remarks upon the way status is conferred by placing characters above and below each other and shooting at extreme angles to emphasise; José picks up on the costuming and its relationship to gender, mentioning in particular his admiration for Nicholas Hoult’s self-effacing, generous performance as Robert Harley, impressed by his willingness to make himself a feminised figure of fun.

There’s so much more we loved and we’re effusive throughout the podcast. And again. It’s a really, really, really, really, very very funny film indeed.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 119 – Disobedience

Rachels Weisz and McAdams soar in this delicate, passionate, complex drama of social pressures and forbidden love. Set in the North London Jewish community, Disobedience tells the story of two women whose love for each other is reignited when one returns home following her father’s death.

Everything is rendered complex, nothing is simple. Weisz’s anger at having been cast out of the community, McAdams’ subjugation and repression into a way of life she doesn’t desire, and Nivola’s denial and ambition are all expressed deeply and combine in intelligent and subtle ways. José is spellbound by the depth of feeling from the very beginning; Mike feels the lack of context early on is disappointing, seeing the film’s clichés rather than its originalities. And we share a certain reservation as to the film’s visual qualities, Mike suggesting the Jewishness of the story is reflected in its understatement, but again there is complexity present in its aesthetic and we appreciate its coherence.

We also like the seriousness with which the film treats its setting, the lack of condescension with which it depicts Jewish ceremonies and customs, Mike in particular finding it exciting to see authentically represented all manner of occasions and nuances of English Judaism. And the synagogue’s choir sings beautifully.

Though we don’t agree on everything, we are deeply moved and find it an enriching film. It’s very much worth your time.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 108 – Bohemian Rhapsody

The road to banal and disappointingly homophobic biopics of rock legends is, as they say, paved with good intentions. The Queen story/Freddie Mercury biopic has been in the works since 2010, with creative differences amongst the filmmakers made public and Brian May and Roger Taylor apparently exercising tight control over how the story would be told. What they apparently wanted was sanitised, bowdlerised, pasteurised, inoffensive to the delicate sensibilities of an audience that would rather not look too closely at the sexuality of a gay icon. Which sounds absurd, but considering the old man sat near us in the cinema who audibly said, “oh dear”, when Freddie was shown kissing a man… Jesus, they might have had a point.

José expresses his disappointment at seeing yet another gay story in which being gay leads to isolation and unhappiness: ‘the sad young man’ trope evolving into the ‘dead queer’ one. Freddie is lonely, surrounded by cats in a vast empty house, pining for a woman. His gay relationships are chaste and the one openly gay character, comfortable with who he is, is cast as a snake, a villain. Freddie’s sexual drive bursts out of his music; are we supposed to believe he experienced no joy in being gay? Brian May – the character – is depicted as a particularly annoying pest, clean, perfect, and forever commenting on Freddie’s lifestyle and behaviour as if to vet it; or perhaps as if to ensure the audience is comfortable. The more we think about it the more homophobic it is.

from ken

Our discussion of the film’s attitude to and portrayal of Freddie’s sexuality is central, but two other key aspects to his life also come under criticism – his music, and his death from AIDS. The latter is skated over almost entirely, sympathetically included right at the end to help you feel good about feeling bad for him. The music can’t be hurt, of course, and it’s a pleasure to hear banger after banger, but as Mike says, you may as well go home, read the Queen Wikipedia page and put on the Greatest Hits. What drives the band, what drives Freddie, aren’t things the film appears to have even considered might be interesting questions. Things just… happen. In chronological order. Mainly.

Ultimately we ask ourselves who this film is for. We watch it at a distance, wondering why it is the way it is, not really involved in it until that final act in which Live Aid provides Freddie with the opportunity to make the entire world his own for twenty glorious minutes. And once we get there, everything else becomes insignificant for a while, because it all comes together, the music, the character, and the best parts of Rami Malek’s performance – his physicality and stage presence – and we get to watch Queen for a while. (Or at least a very good tribute act.)

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 105 – They Shall Not Grow Old

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War, Peter Jackson was approached by 14-18 NOW and the Imperial War Museum to make use of their extensive archive of wartime footage. He responded to the call by performing significant alterations to it, including colourisation and conversion to 3D, hoping to present it afresh and help modern audiences feel closer to the war it documents. It’s been a controversial project, surrounded by much commentary on its ethics, but after all the hype and chin-stroking, They Shall Not Grow Old – even the title of which has been edited to suit modern syntax – is finally here.

Those ethical questions occupy a good deal of our attention, justifiably so, but we find there’s a good deal more to consider about the film too. Perhaps unusually for a First World War film, it eschews entirely any discussion of the political background to the war or criticism – even mention – of the top brass, instead focusing entirely on the experience, in quite general terms, of the British soldiers. Narrated entirely by some 114 different servicemen, their commentary drawn from BBC and IWM interviews, Jackson builds a portrait of a mindset of the salt-of-the-earth Tommy, keen to go to war at a tender age, open to new experience, happy to do as he’s told and get on with his job under terrible, and terrifying, circumstances. It’s a portrait that leaves out at least as much as it includes, and the question of how choices were made as to what footage and audio was included from the archives made available to Jackson is arguably more pressing, and certainly less clear, than that of why the footage was altered in the ways it was.

We grapple with all sort of these issues and touch on several more, particularly the traditional, unfair, untruthful, and insidious permission the film gives English audiences to believe we won the war without help – an issue that angers José, a Canadian, and rightly so. Mike also picks up on a couple of moments that struck him as of particular relevance in the age of Brexit, though that’s also because it’s a topic he can be relied upon to bring up at a moment’s notice.

As to those pesky ethics, we come away, despite some fair criticisms, a little milquetoast on the subject. Mike has a bigger issue with the quality of the alterations than the justification, finding them genuinely unpleasant to look at for the most part, but suggests that the modifications have been so extensive that the footage has been transformed into something qualitatively different, that to take the film seriously as a document would be an act of madness. José, rather more simply, sees value in the work, pointing out how it allows us to pick out aspects of scenes, and particularly faces, more easily, and allowing a more visceral closeness to the environments depicted than we might otherwise have.

All in all, as long as the original black and white film remains extant and publicly available, and provided that, when used as teaching material, the conceptualisation and production of They Shall Not Grow Old is included as a matter for classroom discussion, we’re not convinced that the film is a bad idea.

Below are links to a few blog entries and reviews we mentioned in the podcast, from Lawrence Napper and Pamela Hutchinson.

Lawrence Napper’s first blog entry: https://atthepictures.photo.blog/2018/10/05/they-shall-not-grow-old/

Lawrence’s second blog entry: https://atthepictures.photo.blog/2018/10/12/they-shall-not-grow-old-2-the-abject-archive-the-sacred-archive/

Lawrence’s review on Iamhist: http://iamhist.net/2018/10/they_shall_not_grow_old/

Pamela Hutchinson’s review on Silent London: https://silentlondon.co.uk/2018/10/16/lff-review-they-shall-not-grow-old-honours-veterans-but-not-the-archive/

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 95 – King of Thieves

A heist movie for the twinkly wrinklies, with a nostalgic and homophobic angle we disliked. Based on the true story of the 2015 Hatton Garden burglary, King of Thieves features an all-star British cast and one joke: they’re all old.

Mike is keen to give the film credit for its charm early on, as well as its sensitive depiction of the sense of loss felt by Michael Caine’s recent widower. But the film is uninspiringly shot, incompetently and unwisely edited – it’s absolute mayhem – and when it swaps its charm for aggression after the heist, it loses all interest. Ray Winstone comes in for particular criticism from José, and Mike explains why he found The Theory of Everything wanting.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.