Category Archives: Reviews

On Netflix: Battle (2018)

There’s a quote in the brilliantly titled play “The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loves in the Former Soviet Union” that, to paraphrase, goes like this: There will come a time when every story known to us has been retold set in an American high school. When first performed we were in the middle of a run that reached its peak with Taming of the Shrew reset as Ten Things I Hate About You. Which is a long winded way of saying I’m a sucker for teen movies with an interest in saying something. And, completely, unrelated, I am a sucker for dance. And that brings us neatly to Norwegian-on-Netflix film, Battle.

Do I even need to say that Battle is about finding out who you are and being true to that? Amalie, is a rich girl in a group of rich kids who are dance together. Formal and stylised, they follow the rules and struggle not because they don’t know the moves but because they don’t know what they want to communicate. They are watched over by Birgitta who swears a lot and offers them the chance of a scholarship to the Netherlands. Amalie’s, and everyone’s, rival is Charlotte who, because this is a 90 minute film with lots of breaks for dancing, is just there to be that rival and not much else.

The plot, such as it is, is that Amalie’s cossetted life is torn apart thanks to her father getting into debt. Thus, they are turfed out of their lovely home and thrown into a crap flat on the bad side of town. There Amalie falls in with Mikael and his friends who dance from the heart. Our heroine falls head over heals for Mikael but can’t admit it to herself, or to her ridiculously patient posh boyfriend Aksel.

Will Amalie realise that she can be true to herself and achieve her dreams even if that means sacrificing superficial pleasures? What do you think?

My flippancy does Battle a disservice. Like a Raymond Carver short story, it’s hard to get this kind of simplicity right. And Battle gets everything right. It’s a really fun ride and, whilst it does nothing really new, is a compelling watch throughout.

Katarina Launing directs Maja Lunde’s script, bringing out the contrast between rich and poor, immigrant and settled, formal and free, for all its worth. Lisa Teige as Amalie is excellent and Fabian Svergaard Tapia as Mikael works well as her foil.

Sure, there will be deeper films and stories whose complexity requires a dozen fan sites to decode their meaning. Sometimes that’s not what you need. Sometimes, you just need to watch people dance and understand everything through their movement. Battle knows that and does its job well. If you have ninety minutes to kill and want to cheer at the end, watch it.

Film Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

‘They’ are calling Bohemian Rhapsody the critic-proof film. If not quite universally panned then certainly universally ‘meh’-d in critical circles, the film is, several weeks after release, still playing to big numbers at screens across the country. And so it was in darkest Hastings where, persuaded by my elder son, we took our seats in a well-attended mid afternoon showing. And how was Bohemian Rhapsody received? Well, that’s easy to answer. The ending was greeted with a round of applause and, as the lights went up, it became obvious that a sizeable portion of the audience were crying. Or to put it even more succinctly, as a young woman said to her friend: That was the best fucking film I’ve seen all year.

The disparity between critics and reception should surprise nobody and it almost certainly won’t surprise the remaining members of Queen. It’s an act of delayed revenge that sees the adoration that greets the release of Bohemian Rhapsody (the song) in Bohemian Rhapsody (the film) overlaid with damning critical comment from the time, the kindest of which calls the song ‘adequate’. Or ‘meh’ in today’s parlance.

Let’s talk about what this film isn’t. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an honest retelling of the life of Freddie Mercury and the musical development of his band, Queen. But if you’re the kind of person who wants such a thing you’re probably not likely to be a fan of Queen anyway. Not really. Queen, and obviously Mercury in particular, were always about the show. And that’s what you’re getting here. This is the life of Freddie Mercury and the musical development of the band Queen which, with a cursory regard for established facts and details that are already pretty well known, wants take you on the kind of ride that the best Queen songs do.

The culmination of the story is Live Aid. If you know, or remember, anything about Live Aid it can be summed up as: “Give us your fecking money”, the opening announcement, Phil Collins playing a wrong note … and Queen. Every other band or performer who was there will need to refer to a wikipedia page to convince anyone now. Not Queen. And they returned a year later with their triumphant Wembley shows which were captured in a rather legendary episode of The Tube. So, somewhat incredibly, the sight of a nation unified around the clapping section of Radio Gaga is not some fantasy moment, it actually bloody happened.

The rest of the film? A smarter man than me would already be going “is this the real life or is this just fantasy”? Let’s just say that it’s going to take the kind of drugs that Freddie is on during his brief foray into a solo career for me to believe that that’s how some of the most heard and loved songs of the late twentieth century came into being. But who gives a shit? It’s probably close enough, and it’s damn well how they should have come into being. Enjoy the ride.

And, if you love the music and you’re happy to go with it, Bohemian Rhapsody is a great ride. Rami Malek has taken all the plaudits and he more than deserves them. His Freddie Mercury isn’t a shallow impersonation, it’s a perfect study of the man. The other band members are harder to judge but the roles are nicely defined and simply done: Roger Taylor is a ladies’ man and wit, Brian May thinks about things and has feelings, and John Deacon is quirky but genuine. Lucy Boynton makes the most of her role as Mercury’s muse turned girlfriend turned rock. And the rest of the cast perform their parts as either heroes or villains with gusto. Shades of gray there are not.

After a troubled production history, Bohemian Rhapsody is surprisingly coherent and breathtakingly confident. And, if you’re swept along, the emotional turns towards the end are surprising and genuine. [Slight spoiler] I’m not remotely ashamed to say that when Mercury tells his bandmates that he has AIDS that my eyes started to glisten nor that by the end (it’s pretty much a straight line from that point to the Live Aid finale) I was one of the ones who the lights up revealed had been, maybe, crying just a tad. A tad? If I’d had mascara it’d have been all over my cheeks.

My expectations were low. I was unimpressed by the trailers and I nodded along with the reviews. And the thing is: those reviews are right. By any objective measure this is far from being a great film. But then, I guess, Queen were never about objective measures. Bohemian Rhapsody (the song) really is a six minute bewildering pile of nonsense. And yet, it’s also, emotionally honest and hits you right there. And so does the film.


On Netflix: Million Yen Women

One of the most interesting things about streaming recommendations is the rabbit holes the algorithms can send you down. I watched something in Japanese once so here are a dozen other Japanese language programmes. Flick, flick, oh this looks interesting … and so we have Million Yen Women.

Put on Netflix globally towards the end of 2017 following a run on mainstream Japanese television, Million Yen Women is adapted from a 2016 manga written by Shunjo Aono. The set-up is that five women have received invitations to live with unsuccessful novelist Shin Michima. He did not send the invitations but is quite happy to follow the rules: he waits on them, they all eat together, he can’t ask them any questions and he can’t go in their room. The million yen each woman must pay him (it’s about £7,000) no doubt eases the blow, as does the fact that none of the women are in any way unattractive.

Shin has a certain charisma. He’s being played by RADWIMPS lead singer Yojiro Noda so that’s bound to happen. But mostly he’s a bumbling type whose perpetual cloud is explained by the fact that his dad is a recent multiple murderer now on Death Row. The women, who range in age from 17-30 and who do (contrary to my initial Bechdel Test related fears) have very distinct personalities, motivations and story arcs, tease out his personality whilst also growing in their own way – all whilst a growing intrigue about who sent the invitations, why are things getting quite fatal, and why is that other novelist such a bell-end, play out.

It’s hard to categorise what Million Yen Women is. There are twelve 25 minute episodes so a binge won’t last long. It has melodrama, pathos, genuine shocks, gore, kinkiness, innocence and comedy rubbing shoulders, often in the same scene. And it is very compelling once you get into it. The false note for me was less about the context for the story than for how quickly books get published and promoted – but that shouldn’t be a deal killer for anyone. It also seems to have been well-translated in that the words and phrases we see gel nicely with the tone and action before us – not always the case with these streaming translations.

So, if you’re looking for a hole to fill, Million Yen Women is a pretty decent bet. And then you can look forward to the algorithm noticing you’ve watched something foreign so maybe you’ll like all these other things that are nothing like it … Oh well, a small price to pay.

Film Review: The Bar (El Bar)

How do you like your eggs in the morning? If you like yours with a sideshow of gunfire and biological terror then the bar in The Bar is a good place to start your day. Although the customers trapped inside may disagree as things don’t necessarily turn out so well for them. Variety called it the worst movie to show at that year’s Berlin film festival. Dullards.

Written, directed and produced by Álex de la Iglesia, whose first film is the now-quarter-century-old Accion MutanteEl Bar impressively combines observational humour at contemporary mores, flashes of grim horror, and neat character interplay. The story also rattles along nicely even if, at no point, is it remotely believable.

Variety had particular scorn for the fact that, yes, the attractive lead does wind up in her underwear. That’s Blanca Suarez as Elena, the outsider who was only in the bar because her phone charge was gone. She, and the rest of the cast, have to go through far more than just an underwear display. Carrying corpses, plunging into and out of sewers, grimly being doused in oil to fit through tiny manholes and so on. The action is grim and disturbing, the cinematography and look mostly could come straight out of a daytime soap. It’s a deliberate and amusing juxtaposition.

Residing only on Netflix, El Bar is clearly never going to find a massive audience in the UK now. Shame. It’s dark, disturbing, fun and funny. Not Citizen Kane but an enjoyable ride.

At the Ashmolean: America’s Cool Modernists

That’s cool as in icy and detached. Not just fashionable and filled with style. This is work, precisionist is the term used, that imposes an order and removes the people from the swirling chaos of early to mid twentieth century American cities. Through photography, painting and film, these artist focused on the shapes, structures and patterns of buildings and technology but, in the work on display here at least, had no need to show the people whose lives these new constructions controlled. Only Hopper, revealed at the end of this show, sees fit to include people: lone figures without motivation or connection ill at ease in a world not made for their comfort.

The earliest street photograph is filled with detail but lacking people. The long exposure means the buildings are incredibly detailed but nobody, save for one shoe polisher, is in the same place long enough to be captured. That clarity can be seen as a direct forerunner of this period. Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham are here as representatives of the f/64 group. Cunningham’s 1934 photograph Faegol Ventilators shows the move from studies of nature to putting that same, unmoderated, deep eye on industry. The chimneys stand proud in rows. Their simplicity echoed later by Ralston Crawford’s Buffalo Grain Elevators from 1937. The flattening vision of the painter has the same love of shape as that shown by the photographer.

The subtitle of the show is O’Keeffe to Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe even in three works is impressive in the diversity on display: Black Abstraction, Ranchos Church and East River from the Shelton Hotel. The former is notable for its precise use of form, shape and shadow; the latter is a remarkable compressed panorama in which New York’s industry is remodelled as squares and other geometric shapes from which puffs of smoke emerge. At first, I didn’t think Ranchos Church quite belonged in this exhibition but just because its different to most everything else doesn’t make it misplaced. What we have is a New Mexico desert church reduced to crooked blocks that rise up from, and are one with, the sand and the dust.

There are several other striking images. Gordon Coster’s dark grey photograph of a train curving into Pittsburgh, its steam mixing with the haze caused by the industry as stark pylons and chimneys mark its route is noteworthy. As are the paintings of George Ault, a new name to me. Utterly unpeopled they use light and shape to create a sense of an alien, unknown world: New York Night with its empty street and lights lost in the fog being the prime example. The work of Charles Sheeler covering drawing, painting and photography, perhaps draws the themes of the exhibition together more clearly than any other artist.

These things are never cheap. A gift aid ticket for America’s Cool Modernism will set you back £13.50 and the catalogue, which is very good, is £25. Plus whatever it costs to get you to Oxford. Let me just say that if you are able to cover all that then you definitely should. This is an exhibition that links thoughts, ideas, works and artists together in informed and informative ways and which does so through quality selections. It is, palpably, cool.

Film review: Ingrid Goes West

An alienated and mentally unstable young woman moves to Los Angeles on the back of an inheritance in order to become part of the life of an instagram star. Thus we have Ingrid Goes West. A film so knowing that it even has the characters reference Single White Female so you don’t have to. But also a film about as on the button with regards to the prevailing trends in social media and its impact on real life as it’s possible to be.

There are problems. Anyone wanting a fair assessment of mental health should look away now. This is a female environment – the main friendships are between women and the Instagram world is that sold and bought by women – but the writers, director and producers are men. If you end up with issues about the end product that may be where you wind up looking.

But, for me, those issues are outweighed by what is a compact, direct and brutal film. Aubrey Plaza is everything as Ingrid. Riding the rollercoaster from tender friend to stalker to lonely victim via so many points in between she is, ultimately, why Ingrid Goes West works. Elizabeth Olsen is Taylor Sloane, the object of the obsession. An instagram diva whose shallow enthusiasm for her seemingly perfect world is what captivates Ingrid. Needless to say the world is not perfect and it is not only Ingrid who is effectively held captive by it.  There are a few easy targets – the struggling artist who isn’t actually much good, for example – but there is also a strong mix of decent observations, wry laughs and moments of gasp. The script by director Matt Spicer and David Branson Smith is razor sharp.

At just over ninety minutes, Ingrid Goes West gets it all done pretty quickly without feeling rushed. More depth in parts and it would have been a different film, not necessarily a better one.

Film review: The Silent Child

It’s not a spoiler to say that The Silent Child keeps its most profound message until the end. The story has concluded and, on screen, come the words. If this were a documentary it would tell us how things panned out for the person we just saw walk off. The Silent Child isn’t a documentary but it delivers brutal, unflinching facts. Right now, millions of deaf children who could communicate through signing are growing up unsupported and without the voice the language enables them to have.  We should be angry; this has to change.

The Silent Child now comes with some extra baggage as being the Oscar winner for Best Short Film. It’s a straightforward story told simply. That’s not to damn it with any kind of faint praise. It works and it works bloody well. That statue was well deserved.

Rachel Shenton, who wrote the piece, is social worker Joanne who has been brought in by four year old Libby’s family to do something about the child’s moods and make her ready for school.  Libby, played beautifully by Maisie Sly, is clever, sharp, witty and caring. But no one knows that because she can’t communicate. The family casually assume she can lip read and have never even bothered to sign.

Not every deaf child will have a house as big as Libby’s or a social worker as dedicated as Joanne but we are left in doubt this is a normal situation. The Silent Child  is twenty minutes that will stay with you.